The Two Noble Kinsmen

Co-written with John Fletcher, The Two Noble Kinsmen is one of Shakespeare’s last plays, and is something of a curiosity, not seeming to fit in to any particular type or style. This production at the Globe is the first by director Barrie Rutter since he stepped down from his role at Northern Broadsides, and Rutter brings his unique style to this rather odd play.

Palamon (Paul Stocker) and Arcite (Bryan Dick) are two cousins captured in battle; swearing undying devotion, they soon develop a rivalry for the affections of their captor King Theseus’ sister-in-law Emilia (Ellora Torchia). One is banished and one escapes, but they contrive to meet again and end up literally fighting for Emilia’s affections.

The play works well as a commentary on toxic masculinity: Emilia is seen as a prize to be won, sighing as she is informed that whoever loses the fight will die for love of her. Meanwhile the closeness between the two kinsmen is destroyed by their desire for the same woman.

Francesca Mills steals every scene she’s in as the jailer’s daughter who helps Palamon to escape, having fallen in love with him only to be ignored. A fine display of Morris dancing, choreographed by Ewan Wardrop, closes the first half.

It’s certainly a strange play but this production is well worth seeing.

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Read Not Dead: Sir Thomas More

Sir Thomas More is famous primarily because of the well-known speech in defence of refugees, set during the May Day Riots of 1517, written in Shakespeare’s hand; this play is actually the work of several writers: Anthony Munday, Henry Chettle, Thomas Heywood, Thomas Dekker and, of course, Shakespeare. I’d love to see a full production of it, but in the meantime this Read Not Dead staged reading in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse was an excellent showcase. At times it reminded me of A Man For All Seasons, but it was interesting.

Macbeth

When both the National Theatre and the RSC announced that they were doing Macbeth this year, I was both excited and bewildered. Don’t theatres ever talk to each other? Still, I was determined to see both productions and compare and contrast. Last night it was the turn of the NT’s version.

Directed by Rufus Norris, this Macbeth is set in a vaguely apocalyptic world where darkness abounds and characters cower in concrete buildings. Yet somehow I wasn’t gripped; I couldn’t muster up any sparks of excitement. For me it fell flat.

Rory Kinnear as Macbeth was unconvincing, and I also struggled to understand his speech at times; I thought he needed to work on his diction. Anne-Marie Duff, Lady Macbeth, was better: I found her conviction believable, her ambition loaded with an undercurrent of sorrow. Stephen Boxer made an impression during his short appearance as Duncan, and I also liked Kevin Harvey’s Banquo, as well as Trevor Fox’s Geordie Porter.

At times the setting was atmospheric and frightening, with the witches’ cackling echoing around the theatre. Sometimes, however, the production seemed to get lost inside the cavernous Olivier space. Rae Smith’s set design is ominous, but lacks interest: too many scenes inside small boxes, and an ugly moving walkway.

Sadly, this production was a disappointment to me: Shakespeare at the National usually leaves a much more powerful impression. I hope the RSC’s Macbeth is better…

As You Like It

Honestly, I don’t even like As You Like It. I’ve long been aware that it’s one of my least favourite Shakespeare plays. However, knowing that the Globe Ensemble were performing this alongside Hamlet, I couldn’t resist going along to see what they made of it.

The Ensemble, which rehearse, as they would have done in Shakespearean times, without a director, have taken the same approach here as they did with Hamlet: minimal set, gender-blind casting, and a focus on the text.

Here we have a fierce Orlando played by Bettrys Jones, so good as Laertes in Hamlet; we also have a Rosalind played by Jack Laskey, leading to the delightful conceit, when Rosalind disguises herself as Ganymede, of having a man playing a woman playing a man (of course, this is the way it would have been in Shakespeare’s time, too). Nadia Nadarajah plays Rosalind’s cousin Celia, and is a revelation: once again, as in Hamlet, speaking only via sign language, she nevertheless makes herself comprehensible to the entire audience.

Pearce Quigley takes on the role of Jaques, bringing his unique brand of physical comedy to the ‘All the world’s a stage’ speech. James Garnon, who played Jaques the last time I saw this play at the Globe, has a number of smaller roles including that of Audrey, which he makes the most of.

The lack of a set does not prove a hindrance: for instance, the cast demonstrate the switch from the Forest of Arden to the Duke’s court by the simple method of switching cloaks, a highly amusing move.

Michelle Terry proves herself an unselfish artistic director: she might be playing Hamlet, but in As You Like It she contents herself with small roles, which she does full justice to. Most fascinating is her role as the messenger who interrupts the nuptial celebrations at the end of the play to bring the good news of Duke Frederick’s retirement to a monastery – she enters clad in black, suspiciously resembling Hamlet, thus forging an unexpected link between the two plays.

As You Like It will never be one of my favourite Shakespeare plays, but I did still enjoy this production, which has a lot to offer.

Hamlet

Michelle Terry begins her stint as the Globe’s Artistic Director with a production of Hamlet in which she plays the title role. I have to admit to being one of those people who wasn’t keen on Emma Rice and was happy when it was announced that she was leaving; even happier when Terry was announced as her successor. Therefore I was favourably disposed towards this production before I even saw it.

Gone are the lights, pop music and other gimmicks. There are few props, and no set to speak of. Instead, there are just the actors, and Shakespeare’s words. This is a back-to-basics production, with the cast more or less in traditional dress (except for Terry’s rather wonderful clown costume and the clothes of the players, which are, intriguingly, modern-day). It’s truly gender-blind, too. Terry of course plays Hamlet, angry and compelling, commanding the stage whenever she is on it. But we also have a man as Ophelia: a brave choice that drew initial sniggers from the audience but soon became accepted thanks to Shubham Saraf’s wholehearted and sympathetic performance. In contrast, Laertes is played by the fiery Bettrys Jones.

It’s great to see some of the old Globe regulars back, including James Garnon, a thoughtful Claudius, and Pearce Quigley, an excellent Rosencrantz opposite Nadia Nadarajah’s Guildenstern – an inspired choice as all of her speeches are performed in sign language, with Rozencrantz speaking them for the benefit of the audience, and other characters signing back to her. What I loved the most, however, was the confidence in Shakespeare’s language that was missing from the previous regime. The audience were swept along with the plot and it was simply joyous.

Hamlet is performed by the new ‘Globe Ensemble’ which gives me confidence that further productions will follow a similar pattern. For the first time in a while, I feel confident about the future of the Globe.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

I’ve seen Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream many times, but never Benjamin Britten’s opera, until now. Students at the Royal College of Music have staged a new and original production of this work.

The opera is very similar to the play in many respects, making use of Shakespeare’s words. The music is atmospheric and often quite unsettling, reflecting the eerie magical atmosphere of the original work. The character of Puck particularly stands out in this version, being the only one who doesn’t sing.

The best thing about this production was the setting: Wiemar Germany, a Cabaret-themed underworld with glitter and sparkle, into which the two couples, Hermia and Lysander, Helena and Demetrius, unwittingly wander. In addition to this, the character of Bottom sports a Hitler moustache, giving the character’s traditional arrogance a more chilling aspect. I wish this had been explored further in the Players’ performance at the end, which, however, was very funny.

Seeing the operatic version gave me a new way of looking at this play, and the setting was just brilliant. The performers did a great job, too. Definitely recommended.

Julius Caesar

The Bridge Theatre, a brand new theatre next to Tower Bridge run by former National Theatre artistic director Nicholas Hytner, announced its inaugural Shakespeare production several months ago. A promenade production of Julius Caesar was planned, with tickets available as part of the mob, at the heart of the action, a bit like the Globe’s pit. I take issue with the ‘promenade’ description – to me, that implies moving from location to location. ‘Immersive’, to me, would be a better term, and immersive it certainly is.

Get there early to fully experience the atmosphere. Ushers walk around the pit, selling refreshments, badges and red baseball caps suspiciously similar to those seen on Donald Trump. On a raised platform, a band plays: The White Stripes’ ‘Seven Nation Army’, a rock version of Katy Perry’s ‘Roar’. The performance slides seamlessly into the beginning of the play.

This is a modern Caesar, exhilarating and immediate. The immersive aspect is not a gimmick, but an integral part of the play. Raised platforms change the shape of the stage while ushers (actors?) herd the mob away from the rising shapes. The immensely populist Caesar (a superb David Calder) walks among the people, shaking hands. (Contrast this with Brutus, who only stoops to sign a copy of one of his books for a fan). At Caesar’s assassination, the crowd is told to get down, against the possibility of further gunfire; as the action descends into war, the mob is herded aside as casualties are rushed past and the sound of explosives is heard overhead. Being part of the changeable mob makes Mark Antony’s famous speech (performed powerfully by David Morrissey) even more impactful. Holding up a black and white picture of Caesar, it’s easy to get caught up in the moment.

All this and I haven’t even mentioned the conspirators yet. I’m convinced that Ben Wishaw is one of our greatest actors and his performance as Brutus only cemented my opinion. I wouldn’t immediately have imagined him as Brutus but he is superb: intelligent, an intellectual, genuinely concerned for the state of Rome but susceptible to flattery, and happier writing political theory than acting out revolutions. Michelle Fairley is an excellent Cassius, angry and determined to end tyranny, while Adjoa Andoh is a memorable Casca. More than in any other production I’ve seen, the conspirators – who too often become a faceless mass – are individually drawn. As Octavius Caesar, Kit Young makes an impact as the young leader, his triumph showing how the cycle of populism goes on and on.

This is without a doubt one of the best Julius Caesars I have ever seen – one of the best Shakespeares I have ever seen. I’m sure I will still be thinking about it for months to come.