Measure for Measure

I’ll be blunt: I nearly didn’t go to see Measure for Measure, Josie Rourke’s penultimate show before leaving the Donmar. I was tired and didn’t really fancy a three-hour Shakespeare. But I forced myself into the auditorium, and it was a good thing I did, because this was one of the most fascinating, daring, thought-provoking Shakespeares I’ve seen.

Rourke presents here two cut-down versions of the play, one set in its original year of performance in 1604, one in the modern day. Hayley Atwell and Jack Lowden, as Isabella and Angelo, alternate the roles of victim and predator in the two complimentary yet contrasting productions.

“Who will believe thee, Isabel?” In the modern age of #MeToo, and particularly given Dr Christine Blasey Ford’s recent revelations about would-be senator Brett Kavanaugh, Measure for Measure has never seemed so timely or modern. It explores the balance of power, its corrupting force, and it’s differing impact on men and women.

In the first play, following the more traditional route, Hayley Atwell is the novice who pleads with strict stand-in ruler Angelo for her brother’s life (Claudio has been condemned to death for fornication). He refuses, unless she agrees to give up her chastity to him. Thanks to a plot hatched by the watching Duke (a confident Nicholas Burns in both versions), Angelo’s former betrothed sleeps with him in Isabella’s stead, and Angelo is eventually brought to justice. The Duke, who has been observing all along, pulling strings behind the scenes like a master of manipulation, decides to claim Isabella as his own, at which point she lets out a glorious, angry scream.

The set goes dark; when the metaphorical curtain lifts a few minutes later the stage and its actors are transformed. They wear modern dress, and Atwell plays the official to whom the Duke is handing over power. Interestingly, Lowden and Atwell still play ‘Angelo’ and ‘Isabella’, each taking on the other character’s lines. It is as if this version of the play is a natural successor to the previous one, as though Isabella, angry at her treatment, wants to turn the tables on her accuser.

After the interval, the play runs through once again, and it’s fascinating to see how performances – and the audience’s reaction – change. Where Angelo in the first play seemed to rejoice in his new power, Isabella in this one seems surprised, nervous, almost reluctant – you get the sense that she has worked hard to get where she is and lacks the natural confidence possessed by the men surrounding her. Her abuse of power is just as reprehensible and her attempted seduction of Angelo (here a born-again Christian) just as wrong, but her punishment at the end of the play is far greater. In the first play Angelo was humbled; here Isabella is humiliated, as her night-time encounter with her former fiance in the guise of Angelo is replayed as a video forwarded to everyone in the room. In both plays, she is a woman in a man’s world; little wonder then that in the final scene, transformed back into Elizabethan costume, she resigns herself to the Duke’s will.

Naturally, the focus is on Atwell and Lowden, who are both excellent, but a number of the supporting characters are worth a mention. Sule Rimi as Claudio is a sheepish prisoner in the first play, but swaggers rebelliously in the second, unable to understand why his brother won’t just sleep with Isabella and save his life. Matt Bardock plays a memorable Lucio in both plays, while Adam McNamara is a constant, increasingly frustrated presence as the Provost. Peter McKintosh’s simple set works well as both a backdrop for the earlier setting, and a contemporary frame for the modern-day stage.

The more I think about this production – and I’ve been thinking about it a lot since I saw it – the more I admire and respect it. It has been extended to 1 December, and I definitely recommend trying to grab a ticket.

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The Merry Wives of Windsor

Oddly, The Merry Wives of Windsor is one of the few plays I’ve seen twice at the RSC – once back in 2012, and once now in 2018. This production, directed by RSC newcomer Fiona Laird, stars David Troughton as Falstaff and is set in an era that mixes traditional Elizabethan with contemporary Essex.

Tradition has it that Queen Elizabeth I asked for this play, owing to her fondness for the character of Falstaff; the production runs with this theory in a humorous Prologue which imagines Shakespeare receiving his orders from Her Majesty. Unlike most of Shakespeare’s other plays, Merry Wives features no royalty or nobility, just ordinary middle-class folks – doctors, tradesmen, tavern owners – and shows the women of the title getting their revenge on their would-be seducer, Falstaff.

This is a modern spin on the play: Mistresses Page and Quickly talk over their plots in a beauty salon, and the Fords’ back garden boasts a golden barbecue and a swimming pool. Falstaff is forced to hide in a wheelie bin, instead of the usual laundry basket, wheeled away by a pair of bemused Polish binmen. Yet the cast wear costumes and live in houses inspired by the sixteenth century, and they still evoke the legend of Herne the Hunter at the play’s end.

Merry Wives has got to be one of the funniest Shakespeare comedies, and the cast make the most of it. David Troughton is a superbly entertaining Falstaff, and Rebecca Lacey and Beth Cordingly as Mistresses Page and Ford are a match for him. The supporting characters provide great entertainment – Jonathan Cullen as Dr Caius, David Acton as the Welsh Parson, and Charlotte Josephine as Bardolph, as well as Ishia Bennison as Mistress Quickly.

I loved this production – it was hugely entertaining and great fun, and should appeal to those who are unsure about Shakespeare as well as those who love his work.

Sonnet Sunday

Sonnet Sunday poster

The Globe hosted its first ever Sonnet Sunday recently, and I went along, excited about experiencing something new. There were two options available – Sonnet Lover, which allowed the ticket holder entrance to two hours of sonnets in the Globe itself, and Sonnet Completist, which also included two hours of sonnets prior to that around the building. Obviously I had to go for the Completist!

The first couple of hours was so much fun, wandering around the entire building (including the exhibition space), hoping that an actor would come up and recite a sonnet to you, after which you would be given a special ribbon. I managed to amass quite a few of these, although I’m sure there were plenty more. The experience was oddly intimate and took some getting used to but in the end you just had to go with it… the fact that everyone else there was so enthusiastic about it really helped.

Ribbons I collected

Ribbons I collected

The second half involved more sonnets spoken on the stage of the Globe itself. This was fun too, with sonnets spoken in various inventive ways and in different contexts. It was nice to see the staff of the Globe getting involved too, although I do think perhaps they should have been told to project more, as sometimes it was hard to hear what people were saying – especially with the sound of helicopters overhead.
Still, overall I did have a really good time!

Othello

The chance to see Mark Rylance at the Globe is always a treat. This summer, he is starring as Iago and, as usual, brings a completely different take to the character.

This production of Othello is directed by Claire van Kampen, and judging by the costumes seems to be set in the early 1800s, a period which evokes memories of slavery that add another dimension to Othello. Yet as a play so driven by lies and deceit, it seems particularly appropriate for the modern ‘fake news’ era. Iago’s blatant lies and trickery – we first meet him as he informs Brabantio (William Chubb) that his daughter has run off with Othello, disparaging the general with racist and other unpleasant language, before acting like Othello’s best friend to his face – are shocking, even as he tries to get the audience on side.

I confess I was so excited about Mark Rylance I didn’t bother to check who else was in the production. Othello himself is played by André Holland, urbane, charming and polished, speaking in (his own) Deep South accent. His portrayal of a man driven mad by jealousy is heartfelt and strong. Jessica Warbeck as Desdemona does as much as she can with what is a really underwritten role, and is thoroughly convincing.

The character of Emilia runs through many of this summer’s plays, culminating in a new play of that name to premier at the end of August. This Emilia, played by Sheila Atim, is the strongest female character in the play, and Atim does full justice to her storming speech at the end. Another supporting character I loved was Roderigo (Steffan Donnelly), here portrayed as a nineteenth-century dandy, while Aaron Pierre lent a confident swagger to Cassio.

This production of Othello is unconventional but it really works. It’s probably my favourite Globe production of the season so far.

Macbeth

After Romeo and Juliet I went to see the contrasting Macbeth: a production starring Christopher Eccleston and Niamh Cusack and directed by Polly Findlay.  After the fairly dire National Theatre version, I had high hopes for this one and I wasn’t disappointed.

The tale of the Scottish thane tempted by a prophecy into murdering his king to indulge his ambition is a well-known one. This production of Macbeth brings out the darker aspects of the play – it is presented as a psychological horror. I don’t know whose idea it was to have the three witches played by three little girls in pyjamas clutching dolls, but it was a stroke of genius. They are super creepy and very impressive, considering they are so young. Another good move is suggesting that the Porter is in fact the Devil, watching over Macbeth’s every move. Played superbly by Michael Hodgson, his very presence is sinister, even when calmly vacuuming the floor. Sound and lighting reminiscent of horror movies further reinforces this impression.

Christopher Eccleston is a strong Macbeth, but Niamh Cusack is even better as his ambitious wife, sensual and calulating. There is the interesting suggestion that what pushes her over the edge is the news that Macduff’s children have been murdered – a nod to her presumed own lost child. I was also glad to see Edward Bennett again – his performance as Macduff as he hears the news of his family’s murder is heartbreaking.

Fly Davis’ set is used effectively, with a higher stage level used to emphasise the difference between the characters playing a role, on their best behaviour following the rules of court, while the ‘real’ stuff happens on the ground.

One of the most memorable and exciting Macbeths I’ve seen, this production is superbly well done and well worth seeing.

Romeo and Juliet

Of all Shakespeare’s plays, Romeo and Juliet is probably the one I’ve changed my mind about most during my lifetime. The new RSC production is certainly helping to change any perception of the play as a soppy romance.

Directed by Erica Whyman, this production emphasises the role of knife crime in the play, relating it to modern knife crime concerns, and plays with gender and sexuality in a highly contemporary manner, with several characters played as women, including Beth Cordingly as the ‘Prince’ of Verona, clearly a title designed for men.

What struck me immediately about the production was the youth of the cast, which is as it should be. Teenagers from schools and colleges across the country have been recruited to speak the Prologue, another way to emphasise the relationship between the RSC and the community. The production has an energy and vitality entirely in keeping with the spirit of the play.

Bally Gill and Karen Fishwick as the titular couple give strong performances, Gill appealing as the slightly awkward Romeo and Fishwick emphasising Juliet’s strength. My one criticism is that I didn’t find their chemistry all that convincing – I couldn’t quite bring myself to believe that this pair would risk life and limb to be together.

The supporting cast is where the greatest interest really lies: Josh Finan as Benvolio, who in this production is shown to be in love with Romeo, and Charlotte Josephine as Mercutio, a woman in a man’s world, are particularly strong. Katy Brittain plays Sister John and the Apothecary in two other gender-switched roles. Tom Piper’s simple set, with a rotating cube on stage, is one I forgot about pretty much straight away on leaving the theatre, but it’s entirely serviceable and no bad thing to let the play speak for itself.

I thought this was a superb production of one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, and it’s certainly helped to change my perspective of the play.

The Winter’s Tale

The Winter’s Tale has become one of my favourite Shakespeare plays, though I haven’t seen all that many productions. This new Globe production is directed by Blanche McIntyre.

The King and Queen of Sicilia seem to have the perfect relationship, but in a fit of jealousy, King Leontes accuses his wife of having an affair with his best friend Polixenes, maintaining that Polixenes is the father of the child she’s carrying. Too late, he discovers that she is innocent: she and her young son are dead, and the baby, Perdita, banished. What follows is a tale of redemption that is improbable, but in a good production, believable.

There are good performances from all involved, including Will Keen as an intense Leontes, Priyanga Burford as a queenly Hermione and Sirine Saba as a powerful, scene-stealing Paulina. I admit to being rather disappointed by the presentation of the famous ‘bear’ scene, and for me the play lacked some of its power: I found myself comparing it with the Kenneth Branagh version and the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse version from a few years back.

There were some amusing moments, particularly in the Bohemian scene in which Becci Gemmell’s Autolycus sells T-shirts as if it’s a music festival, but on the whole the production fell a bit flat for me.