Cry God for Harry, England and Saint George (theSpace @ Surgeons’ Hall: 3-11 Aug: 16:35: 45 mins)

“Sings with the integrity of a story that comes from the heart”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

“Cry God for Harry, England and Saint George” – those immortal lines from Shakespeare’s Henry V – where the title character rouses his troops into the defence of what they hold dear. And what an apt title for this play – which sees a group of eight British Muslim school girls in East London attempt to mount a production of the bard’s classic saga, while defending their right to do so. Yes, this is a politically charged play.

In the opening scenes the group struggle with normal teenage girl problems of agreeing with each other and putting aside their petty quibbles to get the show performance-ready – all of which comes with the irreverent comedy young people so unashamedly excel at. The glimpses of ego and creative differences begin to tease out the individual characters in the company, though it’s a shame these aren’t developed further.

Then the bombshell drops. Letters are distributed to Muslim households in the neighbourhood, informing them all to prepare for the vicious ‘Punish a Muslim Day’. With the content of these letters taken directly from the abusive vitriol spewed during that fateful event just a few months ago, it’s a poignant and sobering moment to hear the threats read aloud and immediately responded to.

Naturally, the tension within the performance goes up several notches, as families start to keep the girls home from rehearsal, their personal safety is put at risk, and, of course, the performance date draws closer. What follows is a touching display of leadership and courage where the girls somehow find the strength to continue despite all the barriers. Not only is this production an example of a disenfranchised group of people overcoming a huge danger to stand up for who they are and their basic human right to exist, but also of young women banding together and putting aside their differences to achieve that end – so on both counts it is heartening and uplifting. It’s also performed with all the confidence and pride one would expect from the company who devised this show themselves, and it sings with the integrity of a story that comes from the heart.

Yes, the script is a little fudged and, at times, twee – the ending in particular lacks the killer punch to make it truly outstanding – and yes, subtlety and depth of acting is sometimes lacking, but considering the oldest of these girls is just 17, what they present is an impressive feat. This is a vital and urgent production that deserves to be developed further and toured widely. I sincerely hope this isn’t the last we see of it.

 

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 9 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

“I’m not keen on speculation.” – Author James Shapiro discusses The Year of Lear

“I’m of two minds about OP. Yes, from a narrowly academic perspective, OP offers a fresh way of hearing the plays. But why stop with pronunciation?”

Was Shakespeare an Elizabethan English or an early British Jacobean playwright? Was he a fully fledged European, forged in the classical, moulded in the renaissance? Was he a proto-American laying the groundwork for the intellectual and political revolutions fermenting across the pond? Rhetorical questions will tend to take centre stage in Shakespearean studies, while concrete answers will sink the over-confident scholar beneath a tide of uncertainty and lack of material evidence.

James Shapiro is the preeminent walker of those fine lines between what we know, what we think we know, what we are yet to know, and what we would like to know about the inscrutable Swan of Avon. Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Shapiro has degrees from Columbia and Chicago. He has strutted his professorial stuff in the US and abroad, serving as the Samuel Wanamaker Fellow at the restored Globe Theatre, London. Shapiro is the recipient of more laurels, prizes and plaudits than Katharine Hepburn got Oscars. His critical treatment of the Oxfordian Theory (that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare) has been described as “decisive.”

1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear was published in October 2015 by Faber & Faber. To find out more click here.


Why 1606?

Why not 1606? It was a year in which Shakespeare was working on three extraordinary tragedies –Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra – in the immediate aftermath of a failed terrorist attack (the Gunpowder Plot), during an outbreak of plague that reached Shakespeare’s doorstep.

Shakespeare wrote many of his most famous plays after James VI and I came to the English throne. Why do we tend to think of him as an Elizabethan playwright?

I am as guilty as the next person for speaking of Shakespeare as an Elizabethan, but after 1603 he was
Jacobean – and English subjects (as far as King James was concerned) now British ones. Shakespeare’s career (from now on as a King’s Man), and the political and religious concerns of his audience certainly shifted once a Scottish King succeeded the last of the Tudors, Queen Elizabeth.

As a ruler (and as a man) did James VI and I confirm, alter, or refute his English subjects in their anti-Scottish prejudices?

That depended on which subjects you asked. The Gunpowder plotters might have offered one answer; those who profited by James’s reign another; English courtier displaced by new Scottish favorites yet another. There were very few Scots living in London under Elizabeth, so I’m not even sure how deep anti-Scottish sentiment ran.

Shakespeare used his history plays (on both British and classical themes) to reflect the concerns of the paying punter. Your work unpacks the social, cultural, and political content subtly packaged by Shakespeare. Did the early Stuart establishment share your sense of Shakespeare’s value as a political weathervane?

I’m not quite sure there was a Scottish establishment in the modern sense you suggest. I’m not entirely sure that King James and those in his immediate circle – who saw many of Shakespeare’s plays staged at court – fully grasped their full range of historical and political concerns. I’m not sure I do either, for that matter. So I don’t quite know with confidence, nor did they, which way that weathervane pointed.

Original pronunciation is helping to clear a fresh path in performances between texts and audiences. Has OP any academic value to scholars?

I’m of two minds about OP. Yes, from a narrowly academic perspective, OP offers a fresh way of hearing the plays. But why stop with pronunciation? Why not other aspects of original staging – natural light performances in the afternoons, bear-baiting next door, nobody showers for weeks before entering the theater, urinating in the corner of the theatre, paying a penny for admission, real weapons used in stage combat, sumptuary laws in place concerning what playgoers could wear, etc. Why privilege pronunciation over other aspects of original performance?

Most scholars agree that Shakespeare wrote his plays, but is there anything to suggest that he took an active role in editing them for print? Could Shakespeare have had any role preparing the First Folio, eventually published 7 years after his death?

There is no evidence whatsoever that Shakespeare was involved in preparing his plays for publication in the 1623 Folio. But that hasn’t stopped speculation. I’m not keen on speculation. I tend to put myself in the camp that believes that Shakespeare wrote primarily for the stage (from which he earned a living) rather than the page (from which he earned little besides our infinite gratitude centuries later).

If you could ask Shakespeare one question, what would it be?

Why are some of your plays – like The Comedy of Errors – so short, and others, like Lear and Hamlet, so much longer, impossible to stage in two or even three hours?

If you could take credit for having written one line of Shakespeare’s (and get away with it) which would it be?

One line is not much to brag about. But I’d take any of them.

You’re working on a new book. What can we look forward to?

I’m writing about Shakespeare in a divided America. The history of Shakespeare in America is markedly different from that in England, Ireland, Germany, etc. As Shakespeareans increasingly turn to a global perspective I thought it a good time to focus on the local. The book should be out before the next presidential elections here.


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Julius Caesar (Augustine United Church 1 – 5 March ’16)

Antony (Tom Birch), Caesar (Adam Butler) and Calpurnia (Heather Daniel)

“The kind of unbridled creativity I often only see in student productions”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

Reimagining Shakespeare’s classic tale in the modern day world of professional football may seem like lunacy to some, but with themes like loyalty, pride in one’s city, questions over physical fitness and a bit of back-stabbing, the parallels between ancient Rome and football today aren’t as dissimilar as might be first assumed – it certainly piqued my interest. However, as can happen in football, I think there was perhaps too much theorising behind this production, which didn’t quite convert to success on the pitch.

Much like when reading a Hilary Mantel novel, I worry when I find myself constantly having to flick back to the character list to be reminded who everyone is and what side they’re on. And with this interpretation assigning each character a footballing role (for one or more teams) as well, it’s certainly not the easiest to follow for someone unfamiliar with the play.

Adam Butler as Caesar is every inch the star player in this outing, commanding attention and respect from all around him, and it is easy to build rapport with him as the fans’ favourite. He is confident, charismatic and handles Shakespeare’s text very well. Charlie Angelo is also enjoyable and convincing as Casca, bringing an air of comedy into what is otherwise quite an intense evening’s entertainment.

Various women are cast in male roles in this production, the most interesting of these being Alice Markey as Decius, who holds her own with strength and precision. However, in arguably the most important scene of the play, where Calpurnia convinces Caesar not to go out, only for Decius to then persuade him otherwise, I would have really liked to have seen the female Decius use a more sexual approach to her argument, heightening the tension in the scene which unfortunately seemed rather rushed.

Indeed, missed opportunities seemed the name of the game throughout, with many great ideas going unfulfilled or veering off-target. With almost all characters being football players, it is surprising how much standing around there is in group scenes, whereas seeing some football in action and the interactions that come naturally within that could add more depth and integrity to the performance. Given the interpretation of this piece I was also disappointed the fight scenes are not reimagined as football matches between the rival factions, and that stabbing is so faithfully used as the murder method of choice. With interesting references to performance-enhancing and other kinds of drugs throughout, maybe “dagger” could have had a whole new meaning?

However, what I particularly enjoyed about this production was the inventiveness of the projected films throughout, showing characters as models, celebrities and footballers on the pitch. These sections work very well to give background and depth to the characters, and to cover any edits from the original script. Additionally, when all characters are on stage reacting to Antony’s speech after Caesar’s death the atmosphere is very powerful and sustained, while the fight scenes show great energy and control. The use of hoodies instead of cloaks, paparazzi and mobile phones were all nice modern touches showing the kind of unbridled creativity I often only see in student productions.

Overall, I admire the headstrong strategy and imagination of the squad in this play, but for me the formation didn’t allow it to achieve a resounding victory.

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 2 March)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Macbeth: Without Words (Traverse, 2nd Feb ’16) – part of the Manipulate visual theatre festival

Sandra Franco photo. Ludens Ensemble

Sandra Franco photo.
Ludens Ensemble

“A compelling, highly intelligent and creative retelling of the famous story”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

Macbeth: Without Words is one of those shows you see from time to time where you can’t quite decide if you love or hate it. It’s gutsy, original, and a full-on hour long assault of the senses that I couldn’t take my eyes off.

The piece starts with one actor, in a corset and clown make-up, leaping around the stage acrobatically before picking up a microphone and making a range of strange noises. Those with a more traditional perspective on Shakespearian theatre might baulk at the very interpretative style, which I’ll admit took some getting used to, but what unfolded was a compelling, highly intelligent and creative retelling of the famous story.

It is a very physical performance, as it needs to be to convey the monstrous action. There is no spoken dialogue. The dexterity of performers was sensational, as the cast of three managed to create almost every character from the play – all identifiable through their physicality and token elements of props and costume. Stand out moments included the initial stabbing of the king silhouetted through a plastic sheet, and Lady Macbeth appearing through that same plastic sheet towards the end, in all her ghostly presence.

Although without speech, it was not without noise; and many of the sounds were created by the performers live – either vocalised into microphones or using various banging, rubbing and scraping of props and instruments. The layering and looping of these created fantastic tension and atmosphere, with a real sense of baleful magic and connection between the performers and the action. Given how powerful this technique was, especially at the beginning where a complex soundscape was created very simply, it was a shame that for some scenes the company relied on pre-recorded sound, leaving me feeling a little bit cheated. At one point a recording of bagpipes was played, and I felt the company – in Edinburgh of all places – missed a trick.

It was also disappointing that for a show pertaining to be “without words”, that short excerpts from the script were occasionally projected onto a screen to clarify the action on stage. I admit that the task to portray every nuance of Shakepeare’s work without any words at all is nigh-on impossible, but in some scenes it was done so well – the incantations of the witches, the murders, the washing of the hands, the breaking of the news – all performed using physicality, silhouette and props,  that it was such a shame that the company “copped out” in those rare moments. It seemed that with a little bit more work or development the company will have created a piece truly “without words” and fit for any European Capital of Culture.

This could have been one of those mind-blowing, life-changing performances that I’ll never forget, but unfortunately, those few flaws held it back somewhat. Still, ‘tis far from a sorry sight and overall the battle was far more won than lost.

outstanding

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 2 February)

Go to Macbeth: Without Words at Manipulate

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King Charles III (Festival Theatre: 16 – 21 Nov ’15)

Photographs from the West End Production of 'Charles III' by Johan Persson

Photographs by Johan Persson from the West End Production of ‘King Charles III’

“The best of Shakespeare, bang up to date”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

Given how topical this production is, I still can’t quite get my head around why someone hasn’t thought of doing a play like this before. Yes, it’s daring and bound to spark discussion on either side of the Royalist debate, but perhaps that’s what makes it utterly ingenious.

Mike Bartlett’s script really is the star of the show – conceiving an idea both dangerous and compelling, that’s also utterly believable. That’s a mean enough feat for many a playwright, but then consider it is also written in Shakespearean style blank verse (with nods to more of his works than I could keep track of), bang up to date, witty, funny and gripping to the very last stage direction.

It’s cleverly structured to allow for scenes and opinions to unfold between all characters, and pacey enough to keep the action flowing, without ever cheating the audience of any details. I would have preferred more ensemble scenes to break up the endless soliloquies and duologues (again, very Will’), while a more contrasting sense of status between the Royals and others would have gone some way to create even more tension.

The style of the performance took some getting used to early on: interpretations of well-known people seemed over-theatricalised, while showing a distinct lack of respect to each other and occasion. This made it hard to engage with immediately, as I was expecting a subtler and more faithful approach to character. For this reason, for me it was the “made-up” characters of Mr Stevens (Giles Taylor) and Jess (Lucy Phelps) who rang most true, and achieved the optimum balance between the theatrical style of the script and connection with the audience.

Charles III 2

In saying that, the very beauty and intelligence of this piece is the subtle level of detachment from presenting something real and expected, to an exploration of imagination and possibility. Once this performance was in full swing, and I could appreciate the characters as part of an intriguing story (as opposed to what I would expect to see in real life), I was all but blown away by its power and craft. Ben Righton’s William was bang on the money in terms of character development throughout, progressing from stable wallflower to dominant leader, while the descent of Charles (Robert Powell) into public ridicule was nothing short of masterful.

If the King could grant me one wish, it would be to fast forward 100 years, when the population know comparatively little of our current royal family, and see how well it is received then. My money would be on it being viewed in the same way we lap up the best of Shakespeare today.

outstanding

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 16 November)

Go to King Charles III at the Festival Theatre

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The Rape of Lucrece (Assembly Hall : 10 – 31 Aug : 16:30 : 1hr)

https://i1.wp.com/dulwichonview.org.uk/assets/uploads/2012/01/Rape_of_Lucrece.jpg

“Nothing short of breathtaking”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars Nae Bad

Watching actors tackle Shakespeare can usually be categorised into one of two columns: boring, or brilliant. The latter is much harder to find, which is why watching Gerard Logan’s performance of Shakespeare’s “The Rape of Lucrece” impressed me so thoroughly.

Throughout the narrative poem, which details one of the principal and ghastly acts which led to the founding of the Roman Republic, Logan’s time-honed professionalism shines. His dynamism is nothing short of breathtaking, filling each of the character roles in the work with almost uncanny shifts in energy; grief stricken one moment, and then furious the next without it ever feeling sporadic. This is a piece which has obviously been rehearsed and tweaked to the nth degree, and it shows.

And perhaps the most impressive facet of Logan’s performance was his verbal skill. His speed and dexterity meant that not only did Shakespeare’s Elizabethan writing lose none of it’s meaning, it lost none of it’s original intended impact. Even to someone who has never encountered Shakespeare before, this performance would be easily understandable and immensely enjoyable – at least, in a dramatic sense, given that the subject matter doesn’t easily lend itself to a happy mood.

However, Logan’s seemingly infinite stores of energy sometimes worked against him: certain flourishes in his physical performances, and the feverish speed of some movements, threatened to push select lines over the boundary from compelling to overwrought. And whilst these moments were few and far between in an otherwise well restrained performance, they were nevertheless noticeable.

But despite these small complaints, it was clear from the chatter after the show that the one-man performance was a clear hit – and I cannot say I disagree. Though it may not have made me into a lover of Shakespearean poetry yet, it’s nevertheless an artistic and directorial triumph.

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Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 9 August)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED