Posts Tagged ‘shakespeare’

Review – Brian Blessed’s King Lear – Guildford Shakespeare Company at Guildford Holy Trinity Church

January 23, 2015

It was impossible to resist the draw of one of my favorite British actors starring in one of the best of the Shakespeares – Brian Blessed in King Lear – even though it meant I was going to have to trek to Guildford to do it and watch an amateur theater company attack (possibly literally) the play. And God knew what it meant that it was going to be performed in a church – bad sightlines? The horror of three hours in pews? Or … worst of all … that I was going to spend the money and time travelling outside of London only to discover that my entire reason for going had collapsed on stage and was no longer to be seen in the production?

After this truly bad bit of news flashed through the wires Tuesday, I was relieved to hear no further news of illness on Blessed’s part. I was excited about being a part of his Lear, but I didn’t want to be a part of some horrible tragic history. The front of house confirmed on my arrival that all was well and there had been no sign of any illness on his part Wednesday night – whew! My companion and I dropped our rented cushions on our chair (I was in the fifth row and sightlines were good), and I ducked out to the Sainsbury’s to grab a quick sandwich – while they did have drinks and crisps, there was no cafe in the church, and even though I’d gone straight after work, I’d only actually made it to Guildford at 7 PM, meaning no sit down dinner was possible. (In case you’re wondering, it’s only a ten minute walk to the church from the main Guildford station, so there’s no need for a cab.)

At last the lights darkened and the cast gathered on stage – the opening lines were spoken – and Brian Blessed walked on stage! I wanted to shout “Blessed’s alive!” but restrained myself, as did the rest of the audience who avoided a tacky welcome ovation in favor of breathless silence. At last, it begins!

Thus started the loudest and most comic version of a Shakespearean tragedy I had ever witnessed. Blessed bellowed, he capered, he chortled, he took every turn to display his fantastic voice but never once relaxed into a quiet moment. No, this was Lear the war hero, Lear the man of action, Lear who was loud and noisy and fully capable of tossing ay of the other actors through the scenery. Every transition was signaled by some of the most horrifying organ music ever to grace the stage, lending the entire affair the air of a Hammer Horror, or possibly Carry On Ranting. The effect was greatly aided by the church setting, as all of the trappings were in place – you could easily imagine that behind the curtains someone was positively gouting fake blood while the cameras rolled and we got ready for the reveal that there had been a murder in the cathedral.

But, no, what was really going on was a performance of King Lear that was bleeding dry through a lack of subtlety, so much so that when one character walked on stage and spoke I briefly thought we were getting a guest visit from Baldric. To be honest, I was actually very pleased with the performances of Edmund (the “evil bastard”), who was deliciously bad at a level that almost matched Lear; and the nuanced performance of Gloucester. But all such things were washed away in the tide of crayon colored Bard that gushed from nearly every level of this production. I did feel a bit of a twinge of tragedy about the whole thing, a brief fear as Blessed grasped his heart in a moment which, as it turned out, was thankfully in the script: it reminded me of another Lear, one who was truly undone and nearly unmade by his health, as documented in the play My Perfect Mind. Lear is an old man’s tale and it’s one that many actors perform at the end of their careers. I’m glad this was not the final show for Brian Blessed, and that I got to see him on stage in his own, full, roaring glory; but some tiny bit of me wished I was seeing a better Lear and a little less Blessed. Ah well. If nothing else, I saw enough to not feel obligated to wait through to the end of the second half, and I did manage to get home right about eleven. It was certainly an event and worth £25, but your joy levels may be different from mine.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, January 22, 2015. It continues through February 14th.)

Mini-review – Henry IV (parts I and II) – Phyllida Lloyd at Donmar Warehouse

November 7, 2014

What happens when a New Year’s resolution clashes with an overwhelming desire to, well, break it so as to get an outstanding artistic experience? This was the conundrum I faced when I realized the Donmar had brought back Phyllida Lloyd to do another Shakespeare – I’d turned down so many shows based on my resolution to see no plays I’d already seen this year, was I going to break it just because I liked the director? It hadn’t been enough for Enemy of the People or the supposedly outstanding View from the Bridge or even the Simon Russell Beale King Lear. But then a solution presented itself: it appeared I had not actually seen this play before, at least not on a stage. Ha HAH! And with a £10 seat happily secured, I made my way to the Donmar guilt free.

Now be warned: you won’t be allowed in the Donmar at the typical entrance until 15 minutes before show time; ticket collection and general milling pre-show all happens across the street. We’re all sent over en masse as if we’re being transported between prisons: or so I assume because I showed up about 5 minutes beforehand so missed most of the sturm und drang and just followed the blue or yellow line to my appropriate seating area, only I stopped paying attention to what the “guard” said as I was looking for the toilet and promptly went into the wrong seating area. So much for us being under lock and key. Frankly, after 7 years of getting the “immigrant special” treatment from UKBA, I found this all very soft touch. It was interesting seeing the inside of the Donmar all lit up with fluorescents and, yes, it did look very industrial, but this really wasn’t hitting the immersive theater level of experience for me.

And … on with the play. Although I hadn’t seen it before, I had very recently read John Julius Norwich’s Shakespeare’s Kings, so I was on top of the plot as well as the historical truth underneath the story (or occasionally warring with the play): the genuine problem Henry IV (Harriet Walter) was having with rebellions, the fictitious nature of Falstaff, the gross exaggerations of “Hal’s” behavior. The core of the story was a section of comedy, about Prince Hal and Falstaff getting up to tricks, and the ongoing murderous soon to be civil war, with Shakespeare’s overarching narrative of the illegality of Henry IV’s assumption of the throne (nicely told in Richard II).

This time, however, Phyllida Lloyd’s treatment did not hit the kind of emotional heights her Julius Caesar did. The “we’re really in a jail, look, see?” bits seemed forced (the greatest one being when Falstaff tells off the female barkeep), the emotional underpinnings of both the relationship between Hal and Falstaff and the relationship between Hal and his father – these things should have moved me, but they didn’t. I was watching actors playing inmates, but mostly playing characters in a Shakespearean play. The most effective elements were the battle prep and then battle scenes, done as appropriate for women in a prison – a lot of weightlifting, some very effective chin ups, and then for the battle between Hotspur and Harry, a nice boxing ring smash-up that seemed entirely perfect and much more potent in a jail setting.

But, well, that really just makes it a gimmick, don’t you think? Caesar hurt because the actresses were women struggling to make something of their lives behind bars and finding refuge in the bigness of this story; Henry IV was just a play set in a prison. Ah well. It was a fine show and a very good value for £10 but not earthshattering; but at least I’ve finally seen this play.

(This review is for a performance that took place on November 3, 2014. It continues through November 29th.)

Review – Henry VI (Harry the Sixth, The Houses of York & Lancaster and The True Tragedy of the Duke of York) – Globe Theater on original battlefields

August 21, 2013

While some people might consider casting elderly American actors as romantic leads the height of novelty for Shakespearean productions, I was far more convinced by the idea of not just seeing three related plays in the same day but ON THE VERY SITES where the events mentioned in the plays took place. Tewkesbury, Towton, Saint Albans, Barnet – these towns are written into the fabric of English history like Gettysburg and Shiloh are for American. Thus the Globe’s “Henvry VI Battlefield performances” caught my eye (and at 45 quid for three plays, they seemed quite affordable). St. Alban’s was close enough to not be too expensive to visit from London. But could I stomach 10 hours of plays in one day? HELL YEAH.

Thus it was, with picnic packed, my husband, housemate and I descended upon the lawn surrounding St. Alban’s church (formerly cathedral, please talk to Henry VIII if you have a problem with this) … only to discover the first thirty feet or so from the stage was ALREADY TAKEN with people in HIGH BACKED CHAIRS. Our location (sitting on a blanket) meant we were nearly fully blocked from seeing the actors, if standing, from below the waist; while I had hopes that the two towers on each side of the stage might get a lot of use, they were almost exclusively occupied during battle scenes. While we were still able to hear 80-90% of the dialogue, this was reduced to about 60% after the sun set, when the noise from the generators started to cancel out the actors’ voices. This was further complicated by an excess of deathbed speeches during The True Tragedy of the Duke of York – as the actors were prone (if dying) or kneeling (if talking to the nearly, or newly, dead), the wall of heads and chairs between their mouths and our ears meant, well, Henry’s “Oh pity, pity, gentle heaven, pity!/The red rose and the white are on his face/The fatal colours of our striving houses”speech was lost. And thus, in this review, I am not really able to provide a recap of the three shows and the acting, but I shall do my best to relate the experience of seeing these plays in this environment.

With three plays in one day, I thought I would be wise to get a program, and it was, actually, very helpful, having both family trees (let’s just say Shakespeare apparently took liberties but there are still about three people named Richard to sort out) and plot summaries, not to mention some very helpful background information about the publication of the play, actual history, and other good things. I would have been really lost without it as, in addition to the scene in which everyone is named Bruce* (and then dies), there were a limited selection of actors to work with, even during a single play. I was really only able to focus on Henry VI (the mopey guy in all three plays: Graham Butler), Humphrey (Duke of Gloucester and Henry VI’s protector: Garry Cooper), and the two main women, the ass-kicking Joan of Arc (Beatriz Romilly) and the also ass-kicking Margaret of Anjou (Mary Doherty).
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Joan of Arc featured heavily in the first play (and, well, was burned at the stake at the end, so not much chance of coming back later); she was responsible for the ONE AND ONLY instance of sword wielding female Shakespearean character I’ve ever seen, which was great! Now, I know these plays were really working hard to whip up anti-French sentiment (it was about like listening to modern politicians blame immigrants for Britain’s woes), but I could not really find room in my heart to do anything other than love Joan of Arc just as wholeheartedly as I fell for the cowgirl in Toy Story. Not only did she fight AND WIN with her sword, she was an inspiring leader and a killer strategist to boot. So for me, the high point of Harry the Sixth were the scenes with Joan of Arc – though I really just couldn’t buy into for the witchcraft scene at the end, it was so out of character – pure anti-French propaganda.

In summary, play one of the day was fairly action packed with lots of sword fighting and not too many speeches. When it finished, we ate our lunch and then had a fair amount of time to walk around; I went inside the church and saw the actual grave of Humphrey. That was very exciting, really full circle for the historical reality and the iambic fictionalization! I also learned that the reason the building was still standing was that the people of the town had bought it from the state for 400 quid after the dissolution of the monasteries to keep as a town church; thank you for your foresight, St Albanians! (Note: there was plenty of time to go out and get food, which was good as there were no snack or drinking facilities on site, though nearly enough bathrooms.)

Some 60 or so minutes later, it was on to play two. The program warned that The Houses of York and Lancaster (the first written of all of these plays, created early in Shakespeare’s career and apparently only as co-author) consisted of “domestic broils,” and I found this one hard work to track. Aside from Margaret, her (supposed) lover Suffolk (Roger Evans), Henry, and Humphrey, the characters became a blur; Suffolk transitioned into rabble-rouser Jack Cade, there are two Richards, two Clarences, and a second Goucester; somebody named Somerset shows up. What stuck was 1) Good guy Gloucester dead (sad!) 2) bad guy Suffolk dead (no tears) 3) queen getting uppity 4) Henry not in control 5) “kill all the lawyers” (and anyone else who can write) 6) several different people say they are king. Many, many deaths, and the only reason Jack Cade’s was memorable was because it brought to mind Kage Baker’s fabulous first novel, In the Garden of Iden. IT WAS ALL JUST TOO MUCH. And there were no dragons so I wasn’t seeing the similarity between this and Game of Thrones (rumor: original title “Game of Thorns”). Yet, still, king on the run; where was this going to go? Per the family tree, he had a son; yet also it’s clear that his “successor” was an Edward, followed by a Richard! So where did the “two princes in the tower” come in, and what about all of the other people Richard was going to bump off? I’d just have to wait until after supper to find out.

And here the crisis of the day occurred. Not only had we neglected to pack a bottle of wine, but the roast chicken we’d prepared the day before had not made it into the hamper. Fortunately the cafe at the cathedral had stayed open late, so we were able to remedy our failings.

So, full of sausage roll and cheap white wine, we prepared for the end of our day of theater. The True Tragedy of the Duke of York (interestingly after watching the play I don’t actually know what the tragedy was) for me was extra fun because of the role of Queen Margaret. Shakespeare may have have dubbed her a she-wolf, but she was simply a tornado, filling the breach of power created when her husband failed to step up. She was roundly abused (possibly by York?) as being unwomanly, but, in my eyes, she was 100% queen. It was hard for me to see her actions as selfish or cruel; to me, she was fighting for stability and the rule of law. In contrast, Edward is the one who woos one wife while marrying another; no surprise, really, that he’d send his brother to do his dirty work in killing the lawful (if useless) monarch. And this scene, in which Henry upbraids Richard for being twisted in spirit as well as body, was a highlight of the play, not to mention a great setup for the “fourth” play: look at that wonderful final tableau, with uncle Richie cuddling his little baby nephew. Peace in our times, eh? Maybe not yet.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Sunday, August 11th, 2013. The final battlefield performance of these three plays will take place at 12:30 Sunday, August 24th, in Barnet: expect the show to run until about 10 PM.)

Review – Midsummer Night’s Dream – Tooting Arts Club

August 17, 2013

What a week! I’ve been to see A Chorus Line and the Globe’s all-day Henry VI-athon, but what I want to write about is the Tooting Arts Club’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. Theater in the non-ritzy, southern end of zone three is hard to come by, and it was Tara Arts only until Tooting Arts Club came on the scene. Their Barbarians blew me out of the water, and I was excited to see they were doing A Midsummer Night’s Dream this year. I was promised (somewhere!) it would be set in modern Tooting, and I was curious how they would handle it – it’s a very exciting neighborhood but hardly a Grecian glen in the making.

As it turns out, this Midsummer was very traditional in terms of the dialogue, but took wild liberties with the sets and costumes. We were supposedly at Tooting Common (actually a darned shame there is no outdoor Shakespeare festival there!), as indicated by Astroturf, a “Lido” sign, and some helpfully scattered garbage; but, as crammed into the auto repair shop that is the main theater at the Tooting Arts Club, Titania’s bower wound up being a redecorated sink/handwashing area (a later version of the bower is hidden behind a rolling garage door – a nice touch). The costumes were fully outrageous, both clearly done on a budget and yet highly inventive. Both Peaseblossom and Mustardseed had indicative elements strapped on a la codpiece (never seen a sack of frozen peas used that way before!), while the Athenian lovers wore school uniforms.

What was really great about the costume design (aside from the toy electric guitar) was the way the clear cut differences between each of the groups meant we had no problems distinguishing between player, royalty, Athenian, and fairy; in fact, it took me some time before I realized that the whole show was being done with about seven actors in total. This is made a joke at the very end, when King Theseus has to shed his robes in order to join the players; but really, it was all done very well. Hard to believe the same person played both sweaty ol’ Bottom and the noble Egeus!

While I had been expecting more references to modern Tooting life, what I did NOT expect (and appreciated more) was a fully realized directing approach that showed ingenuity, imagination, and a real understanding of what makes a play move along well. This found reached its apogee in the Helena/Hermia fight scene (the one with the insults about Hermia’s height), which had Lysander and Demetrius grappling in real mud. Yes, the chicken dance at the very end of the show was amusing, but seeing Hermia fling the men around as if she was in a martial arts flick broke my funnybone. It was like The Matrix as done by the Three Stooges. I have never in my life laughed so hard while watching Shakespeare – even the Rude Mechanicals (who normally bore me) got the giggles going. (Oh, when Robin Starveling told off Hippolyta, that was SO perfect!)

Overall, while Tooting Arts’ Club’s Midsummer was not what I expected, it was even better than I had hoped, showing not just how flexible Shakespeare can be, but how less can regularly be more. And at £14 a ticket (£9 if you’re a local like me), it’s a screaming deal. Hurray for the summer of Shakespeare! Hurray for the Tooting Arts Club! Hurray for awesome, affordable theater!

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, August 14th, 2013. It continues through September 7th. The theater is accessed via a nearly unnoticeable driveway entrance between two buildings – give yourself extra time to reconnoiter on your way from the Tooting Broadway tube stop.)

Review – Twelfth Night – Propeller at Hampstead Theater

July 14, 2013

As mentioned in my review for Taming of the Shrew, I will book for anything that Propellor puts on, because I think they are the best Shakespearean theater company in Great Britain. The combination of original staging, impeccable acting, and transfiguration of the gender expectations puts me into an entirely more receptive state of mind than the “let’s do it all in the most authentic/detailed fashion possible” style I feel is very popular.

And … well, once again I booked for a play I don’t enjoy because of the company. The Twelfth Night subplot of the humiliation of Malvolio doesn’t sit well with me and goes on far too long. The scenes with Viola all sit well with me – I love watching her discomfort both at Olivia’s flirtations and Duke Orsinio’s too-well-received affections – but there’s too much in this play that feels like padding. Maybe a version in which all scenes with Sir Toby Belch were cut out would suit me better; but this is the third time I’ve seen this play in three years and really, it gets boring. If neither Simon Russell-Beale or Mark Rylance can make this show work for me, it just isn’t going to happen.

Except, well, Mark Rylance did make the show work for me: his Olivia was like cut glass, so full of self-importance and yet dragged down by mourning that her sudden change into chickenhawk worked for me. And the Olivia of Propellor’s production wasn’t able to get to that level of comedy, which meant we were reduced to looking to Sir Andrew Auguecheek for laughs (not that he wasn’t very well played but the character frustrates me).

For original staging, we had the duel between Viola and Auguecheek staged in a boxing ring, and the truly lovely shipwreck sequence, done with a ship in the bottle (I love how Propeller really makes less count for more). And Malvolio was truly pathetic and broken, and it was great to see the heavily abused Katherine (of Shrew) returned as a rather swaggering, sexy Sebastian … but … I probably could have passed on this one. I’d just seen in in November and its shortcomings were too fresh for me to overcome my dislike for them, and it’s not like anyone is going to do a version of this in which all of the things I don’t enjoy are cut. So: a good production, a very good Twelfth Night, but on a lovely summer evening I’d probably just as soon have sat outside and had a nice picnic with the actors instead.

(This review is for a performance that took place on July 10th, 2013. It continues through July 20th at the Hampstead Theater. They’ll be back next year for Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Comedy of Errors, so keep it in mind and remember to book early.)

Mini-review – Crookback – Tim Welham at Etcetera Theater

July 13, 2013

“Woe betide the reviewer who goes to three Shakespearean plays in a week, for she shall be tired by the last one, and peevish.”

Some weeks ago I received an invitation to see a one man version of Richard III – called “Crookback” – performed at a pub theater in Camden (the Etcetera, over the Oxford Arms). It’s a really great script, one of my favorite Shakespeares thanks to Propeller’s excellent version of two summers ago, and I thought, given the great success of Alan Cumming’s Macbeth, this could easily make the transition to a great one man show.

Little did I account for the collective powers of two previous nights of Shakespeare and the heat of a London summer as experienced in the poorly ventilated top floor of a pub.

Tim Welham’s performance was fantastically physical (he ended practically dripping in sweat) – while his hand was nearly always clamped to his body in a sort of bionic vise, with just one other arm and his voice (and a few hats) he conjured a series of other characters, from Margaret (her arm spiralling and grasping like a crone’s) to Buckingham (with his odd American accent). He managed to keep a generally clear delineation between all of the various mains (which almost entirely consisted of “people Richard kills”), and rollicked us along from one merry murder to the next, assisted by a chalkboard (where names were crossed off when appropriate) and a tape recorder.

To be honest, this approach was not what I was expecting. I thought this show would be far more focused on Richard and his thoughts and not be working so hard to drag the other characters in. And the plethora of other characters finally wound up overwhelming me at the point of the death of the boy prince. By the time the swirl of voices came out of the tape recorder (as if to imitate Richard’s fracturing conscience), we were on Bosworth field and I had, genuinely, lost the plot. I was too damned hot and really just ready to be out of the room and cooling down somewhere, but I recognized “my kingdom for a horse” was my freedom bell and soon, we were out.

While Welham was a deliciously convincing Richard, the script itself needed further reworking to reduce the noise and distraction and center more on the key characters. I refuse to entirely blame the heat for my impatience; more could be done to make this work in this format. However, for Shakespeare fans, Crookback is a good stab at the format, though perhaps better enjoyed in open air.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, July 11th, 2013. It continues through July 13th (tonight). Be sure to dress lightly i.e. sleeveless shirt and shorts, and take advantage of the water they offer as you go in.)

Mini-review – Julius Caesar – Donmar Warehouse

December 6, 2012

This has been the year for Shakespearean double vision. Not content to see Henry V, Winter’s Tale, and Julius Caesar once this year, I’ve been forced by outstanding casting, adventurous producing companies, or unusual interpretations (a musical?) to see them all twice. But none of these rewind shows has excited me as much as the all-female Caesar presented by the Donmar this winter. Though I love Propeller Theater and the Globe’s Twelfth Night pleased, I was mesmerized by the idea of women driving this most masculine of Shakespearean dramas. And what a counterbalance to all of the “traditional” all-male shows. Phyllida Lloyd, bring it!

In practice, the show delivered. The setting, a prison, prepared us with a sentiment of why the show was happening as performed; but quickly the novelty of women kissing and being brutal to each other disappeared into the solidity of the text, with only the occasional clumping of the guards overhead to remind us of where we really were: a place ruled by honor, violence, and power. Caesar convinced with both arrogance and superstition; Marc Antony was righteously wrong and a deliciously duplicitous self-claimed non-orator; Brutus was noble, heartbreaking and heart broken.

Small, apt touches punctuated the fiercesome tide of the text: the sad, weak seer, with her babydoll and pig tails; the inmates gathering to watch TV; the single snare drum pop with which Caesar, her ghost miraculously appearing amidst a percussion kit, marks the death of Brutus. And then towering above it all, the amazing battle scene as loud rock breaks out and the band is wheeled across the field (er, the floor of the prison), all pain and noise and flickering light and chaos, like War Pigs in the theater. It’s not glory, boys, it’s death and destruction, and it may just be we chose the wrong side.

And then it’s time to go back in our cells, and the night’s over, and I thought, “Fuck yeah, Shakespeare meets Black Sabbath,” and, “Why aren’t there some better plays out there about what life is really like in prison,” and, finally, “Yep, it rocked.” And I realized that I totally forgot who was playing what a long time ago. That, to me, is a sign of some damned good theater.

(This review is for the performance that took place the night of December 6th, 2012. It continues through February 9th.)

Review – Henry V – Southwark Playhouse

March 13, 2010

Henry V in 90 minutes!” Is it really possible? Well, it’s what the ad for the Henry V at the Southwark Playhouse promised. I’m pretty suspicious in general of the history plays as being rather dry, and Shakespeare on a weeknight is something I avoid now that I’m having to get up so early. But Henry V in 90 minutes? Not only did that mean that I could get through a play that I might normally avoid without fear of losing the will to live mid-show, it also meant I could squeeze in a play on a weeknight and not lose my precious (and continued-employment-enabling) beauty sleep. I signed up immediately.

To be honest, I actually have a soft spot for Henry V, since I enjoyed the Kenneth Branagh film, but I’d seen it so long ago I’d pretty much forgotten most of it. And I’m no student of English history. It had all been muddled in my mind as “young English guy invades France, marries cute French girl.” I’d even seen an article on Agincourt in the New York Times in the last year that had talked about how it was British longbow power that had made the victory possible, aided by some truly amazing mud and a wee bit of fudging number-wise in terms of the balance of forces on each side, but it hadn’t registered that this had anything to do with Henry V “a play by Shakespeare.” But it came back to me in the theater. We’d been given passes as we collected our tickets, designating us as English (red, my favorite color) or French (blue), but I didn’t realize that this was going to be anything other than Ourn versus Yourn until I walked into the theater. Two long walls and one short one had seats with blue cushions demarcating them as French; one short wall at the back was us, red, “The English.” We were not just going to be cheering and jeering at each other from across a playing field (er, Channel); we were going to be huddling in our tininess while the mass of the French stared us down. My goodness. Henry wanted US to invade THAT?

The trope of this show (if you haven’t picked it up already) is of a sporting match. The “chorus” (a girl in a yellow jersey with “chorus” on the back – Anna McSweeney) starts out rolling the dice and moving games pieces on a board in the middle of the stage; the English (Gloucester – Eric MacLennan, Exeter – Simon Tierney, and Henry – Tom Greaves)* show up in red jerseys (with their names on the back) over white rugby-type shirts, white shorts, white knee socks, and white court shoes. This white uniform was standard for all of the characters in the show, and changes were effected by switching jerseys; the presence of the names on the back making it easy to tell who was who. The French, of course, are in blue, but the actors (except for Henry, who doesn’t change) went fairly fluidly between sides as necessary.

The movement of this show is actually quite important to how it works; with the teams facing off against each other, marching around “the field” as if they were walking onto the grounds of a stadium to thumping techno. Shots are fired with water pistols; golden balls (echoing both the tennis balls the Dauphin insultingly gives Henry in the first act, but also somehow the Snitch in a Quidditch match) bounce around, knocking down fortresses; the English paddle over the Channel (painted on the floor) in plastic crates. The whole thing is really a lot of fun, and I have to say, as Henry exhorted us to be of good heart on St Crispin’s day, as we poor few English huddled against the back wall with the might of the French staring back at us, I really couldn’t help but feel the power of his words – the powers of the Bard, but also the magic of a really good speaker encouraging his men – his team – to stand together against impossible odds. Suddenly, Agincourt meant something to me, and I felt like I understood a little bit of what it meant to be proud to be English, and what this battle must have meant to them in those days, and maybe even now: an amazing accomplishment made possible not just by the person who dreamed it, but by the people he called upon to do it with him. I was utterly shocked when, after the battle scene, with so much red and blue dead on the floor, the French messenger (Fiona Watson, uniformly good) came to pronounce that England had won the day; but I can only imagine it was just as much as a shock, and a thrill, for the people there to know they did not have to fight anymore.

Now, the acting really wasn’t as sharp as it could have been, and for any purists the amount of cut script had to be sacrilege, but all in all, I found this an enjoyable show. It actually made me feel something new and different, and succeeded in its silliness in bringing the play to life (though the bar stool I sat in put my leg to sleep; avoid them if possible). With tickets running a mere £13 if you bought them early (up to £18 now) and the whole evening done by 9:30, this show is decidedly worth the effort – and I found it far more engaging than the RSC show I’d seen just a week before (Dunsinane) and (in retrospect) more memorable than the much sharper Measure for Measure I saw the next night at the Almeida. I chalk this one up as a win.

* I’m not entirely sure which actors were in this scene as so much of it was cut and I didn’t write down the names on the back of the jerseys, but I think that’s who was there.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, March 11th, 2010. Henry V continues through March 20th. For a host of other reviews, see UpTheWestEnd.com.)

Review – Macbeth (the Patrick Stewart one) – Gielgud Theatre

October 19, 2007

After spending the night thinking about what I’ve just seen, I have to say … it’s worth paying full price for this show. This isn’t “Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth,” it’s a fantastic, top-quality production of Macbeth that was so good at one point I heard the entire audience holding its collective breath for three minutes. I had goosebumps several times – never has the element of the supernatural in this play read more clearly. And this was also a play about evil, and it was very dark, even all the way up in the £20 seats.

The whole conceit of having the “weird sisters” played as nun-nurses was especially cutting, given the recent trial here of a male nurse who “chose when people would die,” as well as another story about NHS hospitals where the nursing staff told sick patients to lie in their shit because the hospital was more concerned about saving money than providing good care; it seemed very topical and extremely believable.

And the production values of this show were REALLY good. No silly “we need to make this hip for the young’uns” or “hey, let’s be cutting edge and use video:” instead, it was a single, static set that increased the claustrophobia (and yet performed as well as a dining room, a music hall, a train, a kitchen, and a hospital), lighting that served the show instead of itself, and use of (shock!) video that enhanced the story instead of calling attention to itself. Macbeth talking to a guard through an intercom and watching him on a security television? Totally believable. The … video of blood dripping across the walls? Ooh, baby, a white tiled set has never made me feel so creeped out before – it was like The Shining.

And the cast was good – the WHOLE cast (well, maybe not the ten year old girl), so this wasn’t Patrick Stewart’s “Macbeth” at all, like a lot of pathetic, celebrity-driven shows here. (Jessica Lange’s The Glass Menagerie proved you could ruin an excellenet script with weak casting.) The minor characters all had life – I mean, I saw them doing things on stage that made me think about them, and then they’d blossom to life later and be just as real as if the show had been about them. I remember seeing this done by a “Shakespeare in the park” group back home and it was all muddled who was who – but this was not the case last night.

Anyway, if you’ve been reading about how this is “the greatest Macbeth ever” or “the Macbeth of a generation” or some such overenthusiastic twaddle … I can’t say whether or not it was true, but I can say this is a truly great show. (I also enjoyed the company of , , , Mr. Mel, and – especially because now we can enthuse together and use it as a touchpoint for discussing how good or not other shows we see are.)

Four stars, baby. Go get your tickets now or join the people who said, “Yeah, I could have seen it, but …”

(This review is for a performance that took place on October 18th, 2007.)