Shakespeare Schools Festival

I love Shakespeare, and I normally like to see professional productions, but every year up and down the country schoolchildren of all ages perform abridged versions of Shakespeare plays on ‘proper’ theatre stages, and I thought this might be interesting. I attended the performance at the Broadway Theatre in Catford (also admittedly because I wanted to see inside this theatre, as I’d only ever visited the studio before).

The plays performed were Julius Caesar, The Tempest and Macbeth, with slightly older children performing the latter. The plays were abridged in such a way that it was still easy to follow the story, and the youngsters had clearly worked hard on their productions. The actors in the lead roles were particularly strong. Overall an enjoyable evening.

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Coriolanus

Shakespeare’s rarely-performed 1608 play Coriolanus here forms part of the Roman season, directed by Angus Jackson. I do wonder why it comes right at the end of the season, as it is actually set well before Julius Caesar, but here we are.

The story is of a Roman general, Caius Martius, who wins glory in battle, is given the name ‘Coriolanus,’ and is subsequently asked to play a part in public life. However, he is unused to public speaking and cannot hide his personality or his contempt for ordinary people. Exiled from Rome, he seeks his revenge.

The production stars Sope Dirisu in the title role, a newcomer who is excellent in the part: considered, believable as a fearless warrior and suitably awkward as a politician. Haydn Gwynne is superb as his mother Volumnia, while Hannah Morrish also shines as his wife, Virgilia. James Corrigan ably portrays the Volscian Tullus Aufidius who is Coriolanus’ biggest rival, and there is more than a hint of eroticism in the way the pair react to one another.

The set is modern and minimalist, with an imposing grille to separate the turbulent mob from the ruling class, and sharp lighting to complement the dramatic battle scenes.

It’s not the easiest play to follow, but, as befits the RSC they have done their best to make it as clear as possible, and Coriolanus leaves the audience with lots to think about.

Titus Andronicus

Next in the RSC’s summer Roman season is Titus Andronicus, one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, although it is set after the previous two Shakespeare plays of the season, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. It uses the same set as those plays, but unlike them it is set in the modern day. At first I was unsure about this, wondering if it would have made more sense to have set the play during its original time period in keeping with the rest of the season. However, setting it in the present does emphasise that the events in it are taking place years after those in Caesar and Cleopatra, and it also draws parallels between the events of the play and contemporary politics.

Titus, it must be said, is not one of Shakespeare’s best plays. It’s unsubtle and overblown, and is most famous for its violence, which is not played down in this production. Indeed, the infamous pie scene is probably the most grotesque I’ve ever seen it. However, it certainly shouldn’t be dismissed. It has some compelling characters, foreshadows the themes of some of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, and has a genuine interest of its own. The characters in the play are fictional, but the events which occur are loosely based on real events. It’s interesting that while Roman civilisation and Gothic barbarism are initially contrasted, the Romans are shown to be every bit as brutal as the Goths.

Performing this play as part of the Roman season led me to see parallels between this and the other plays in the season. The triumphant entrance of the General Titus reminded me of the return of Julius Caesar at the beginning of that play, and Antony’s ultimately destructive infatuation with Cleopatra foreshadows emperor Saturninus’ obsession with Tamora.

The play could be described as a bloody revenge tragedy, but to be fair there is more to it., with plenty of political scheming, secret plotting and musings on fate. There are some strong performances from David Troughton as Titus, Hannah Morrish as Lavinia and Nia Gwynne as Tamora. An enjoyable production, superbly directed by Blanche McIntyre, and a must-watch for anyone interested in the whole of the Roman season.

Venus and Adonis

As you might expect from a collaboration between the Little Angel Theatre and The Royal Shakespeare Company, Venus and Adonis is simply superb. This puppet show for adults tells the story of this classical pair in an approachable, accessible way.

Shakespeare fan as I am, I’ve found his longer poetry quite challenging, but here it’s brought to life. The poem is narrated by Suzanne Burden as it is acted out by puppets against the backdrop of a miniature proscenium arch.

The puppeteers manipulate the puppets perfectly: Venus’ coquettish nature and Adonis’ shy refusal are perfectly portrayed. There are occasional appearances from animals, including a pair of horses, a hare that bounds among the audience, and a fearsome boar. The show is simply a delight, and I kind of wish it hadn’t ended.

Antony and Cleopatra

From Julius Caesar to Antony and Cleopatra. This second play takes place several years after Caesar but is very different in tone. The link between them both is Mark Antony, far removed from the cunning soldier and politician of the earlier play, an ageing warrior now more concerned with drinking himself into oblivion in Egypt in the company of its queen Cleopatra than in keeping order in the Roman Empire.

Iqbal Khan’s production uses the same set as Julius Caesar, with gorgeous props and costumes conveying the splendid nature of the Egyptian court. His productions always seem to use good music, too: here it’s composed by Laura Mvula.

Antony Byrne did a good job as Antony. At first I was unsure about Josette Simon’s Cleopatra. She seemed far too over the top, petulant and childish. Thinking about it, though, I realised that this portrayal is entirely supported by the text. By the end I had warmed to her and her final scenes were very moving.

Whereas Egypt is often contrasted with dour and serious Rome, this production made clear that Rome was every bit as drunken and full of revelry as Egypt, an interpretation which I found interesting. What also fascinated me was how the play, often seen as a tragedy, combined the two in a way I normally associate with the nineteenth century works of Chekhov. The scene in which Cleopatra pulls up a dying Antony to her mausoleum, causing him untold agonies, manages to be both hilarious and moving.

This production complemented Julius Caesar well and will stick in my mind for a while. Antony and Cleopatra was the first Shakespeare play I ever saw by the Royal Shakespeare Company, the 2002 production starring Sinead Cusack that was performed in Newcastle. This one restored my love for the play, which is one of my favourites, and is definitely worth seeing.

Julius Caesar

I’ve been eagerly anticipating the RSC’s Roman season, consisting of two of my favourite Shakespeare plays and two plays that I would like to get to know better. I headed up to Stratford this summer in order to experience the first couple of these plays, beginning with Julius Caesar.

Julius Caesar is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays, perhaps because I studied it at school and therefore have a bit more understanding of it (I hope). Based on the real-life assassination of the first Roman Emperor, Shakespeare’s tale is a timely one that raises questions about power, democracy, the voice of the mob and the role of rhetoric.

Angus Jackson’s production is set firmly in the original Roman era; having already seen a very different RSC production in recent years, set in Africa, I thought this provided a nice contrast. I thought the setting brought home the significance of the feast of Lupercal at the beginning of the play, and made me think about how an original audience might have responded to this play, which even then was set in a time many years before.

There was no one particular actor who stood out for me, with the exception perhaps of Martin Hutson’s memorable Cassius. Having said that, I thought they were all strong: James Corrigan in particular made Antony’s famous ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen’ speech sound fresh. This production really emphasised how Antony is a soldier, not a politician, and how unexpected his speech would have been. I wasn’t convinced by Alex Waldmann’s Brutus at first, but his understated performance grew on me. In a very male-dominated play, Hannah Morrish shone as Brutus’ wife Portia, the first time I’ve actually wished the character had more to do.

This was a solid production of a fascinating play that explored the themes with clarity and was highly enjoyable.

Richard III

Not another production of Richard III, I hear you cry? Yes, another production of Richard III, this time at the Arcola Theatre, directed by the theatre’s artistic director Mehmet Ergen and starring Greg Hicks as the king himself.

The play here has a North African setting, something I’ve not seen before. The setting works well but the most important thing is the performances of the actors, who all did a great job. Hicks was excellent in the title role, his disability emphasised by a strong metal chain which held his body together. Georgina Rich as Lady Anne and Peter Guinness as Buckingham were also very good.

I originally went to see this production in order to distract myself from the election results, and it certainly succeeded. There are no gimmicks or intrusive directorial concepts, just strong performances in one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays.