“Margaret of Anjou: A ‘new’ play by Shakespeare” – By Jove Theatre, the Gallery on the Corner

maggiebanner

Oh my goodness I have been missing this kind of theatre, and I didn’t even realise until I went. A small white-painted wood-floored gallery under a railway arch in south London with one toilet and the “bar” a table run by an artistic director selling crisps and plastic cups of bag-in-a-box wine, and a collaborative poem about the project hanging on the wall, and gosh when I walked in I just felt a wave of artistic comfort and joy.

“Margaret of Anjou: a new play by Shakespeare” is taken from four of Shakespeare’s plays: Henry VI parts 1, 2, and 3, and Richard III. Prof. Liz Schafer and dramaturg Philippa Kelly created a ‘new’ play about the character Margaret of Anjou – who is in all four plays, and is the character with the most lines in Shakespeare – out of Shakespeare’s text.

I first saw this play in a staged reading at Royal Holloway University of London, where Schafer works and most of the company seems to come from. I liked the reading (especially the free wine, <3 university theatre), but the play felt fragmented: at the time, I thought the problem with sticking together unchanged text like this is that, unfortunately, Shakespeare’s so good at dramaturgy that you can really feel the missing parts. EG – in Margaret’s first scene, she is captured by the earl of Suffolk, who immediately falls in love with her and flirts in rhyme. It’s quite silly. The thing is that in Shakespeare’s play, we have just seen another English lord capture a French woman – the duke of York taking Joan of Arc prisoner, and leading her off to be burned alive. Without that echo of danger and death, the Margaret-Suffolk scene felt like a weightless romcom. And her next few scenes mostly involve other people talking, while she pipes up occasionally: her character doesn’t really get cracking until well into Henry VI Part Two. Constructing a coherent play, instead of a “best of Margaret” anthology, out of her scenes seemed difficult and I didn’t think the text used at the RHUL readthrough succeeded (although the acting was all-round very solid, I’m particularly remembering Robert Heard as York and SJ Brady as Eleanor Gloucester and Richard III).

By Jove’s opening scene was very much not a romcom! Suffolk (Ella Garland) forcibly captured Margaret (Adi Lev), tying her wrists tightly with a red cord and physically preventing her from leaving even when he said he’d let her go. Margaret’s rhyming responses to Suffolk’s come-ons were more defensive parrying than flirtatious banter, and when he asked if she would “consent” to marry Henry VI and move to England, she agreed out of self-preservation, not ambition. We saw him prepping her for travel to London, outfitting her in a floaty white veil, and she entered the English court pacing to “Zadok the Priest”, backlit and framed in gauze. There was great intentional comedy moment when Suffolk unveiled her just as the choir kicked in, the lights went up on her face and Henry (Siân Mayhall-Purvis) goggled. In Margaret’s first speech to Henry she had obviously been coached by Suffolk, who was prompting her; she was learning the rules of her new world.

There were just four actors, which led to some really illuminating doubling: Suffolk, usually played as Margaret’s genuine love interest and ally, was doubled with her great enemy the duke of York, which tilted reading Suffolk as a minor antagonist for Margaret to overcome and step up over, not her supportive accomplice. Their private scene where Margaret complains to Suffolk about her husband, and Suffolk makes clear his real devotion to her, was cut; I can’t remember their parting scene, which is usually tragic-romantic but I don’t think was here.

The other key doublings were Richard Gloucester with Young Clifford (SJ Brady again, hooray!), the violently vengeful sons of murdered fathers: Clifford’s line explaining why he’s murdering little baby Rutland – “Thy father killed my father, that’s enough” – could be the motto of both characters. And Henry VI with Elizabeth Woodville (Siân Mayhall-Purvis), both righteous in an almost otherworldly way – her line readings in the last scene, as Elizabeth stared off into space as if she were already somewhere else, were particularly good. (Oh, and all four the actors were women. It was great.)

Sometimes doubled characters (major or minor) would be in the same scene, and to show which character they were playing, they’d have a signifier – a red handkerchief, a white rose – in each hand, and switch which arm they were holding in front of them. I mention this only because it was simple, clear, and seamless to follow: I think having to talk to yourself onstage must be one of the most terrifying things for an actor because the risk of looking goofy is so high. No one looked goofy.

Margaret’s trajectory went from learning to cope, to learning to succeed, and her line after Suffolk’s death when she tells Henry “I should not mourn, but die for thee” was PERF: chilling and determined, the moment when she flips from just trying to stay steady on her feet to icily vowing, “if you fuck me over I am going to fuck you over twice as hard”. By Jove added movements to music (movement director Susanna Dye), and narration before each scene, to clarify the story, which also helped make it into a coherent piece of theatre.

To show the escalating battles between York and Lancaster, York and Henry glared at each other and slapped roses on the ground, and gosh, when you hit them hard, roses pop. Petals exploding everywhere, and headless stem carcasses. I know Propeller’s adaptation of the Henry VIs, Rose Rage, sliced up red cabbage heads to show deaths, and Michael Boyd’s trilogy for the RSC used floaty sad rose petals, but this was the first time I’ve seen the physical forms of real red and white roses used so violently, and it was grim. After the battle of Wakefield, Margaret tore down the banner of the house of York to release torn-up red and white roses, which scattered on the floor, and they really did feel like mangled bodies.

At the interval, the bar was covered in English flags, and a fantastically ironic set list was playing, including “Jerusalem” and Holst’s Planets (the Jupiter movement was used as the tune of “I Vow To Thee, My Country”, the insipid hymn that was Diana’s favourite and played at Winston Churchill’s funeral). It was a bit mean and a lot great.

‘New material’ is credited to Wendy Haines and Alexander Woodward, and aside from the narration, the main new text I noticed was a speech for York to give his soldiers, to parallel the one Margaret has in Shakespeare. The new speech drew on the ‘she-wolf’ image York uses later in the play, and on familiar anti-immigrant white nationalist rhetoric of foreign animals threatening the security of English families at home. (It sounded like it might have been from Richard or Richmond’s speeches in Richard III, but I don’t think it was?) And when Margaret captures York and he gives Shakespeare’s big-money “she-wolf” speech, I realised how much that tirade – where usually I’m just distracted by the misogyny – is also full of anti-foreigner sentiment: he calls Margaret a “blood-bespotted Neapolitan”, “an Amazonian trull”, “as opposite to every good as the Antipodes are unto us”, “more inhuman…than tigers of Hyrcania”: Margaret is not only the opposite of a woman, she is foreign, and I’d never really heard how much York rings that bell.

Lev’s Margaret never lost her light French accent. But it didn’t feel like this was telling us something from the English perspective, marking her as a foreign individual; because the play was framed as Margaret’s story, the signifier read from her perspective, marking England as a foreign space. All the women in the first 5/6th of the play were cut, meaning that the ‘England’ Margaret entered was a world inhabited exclusively by men.

The last scene, where Margaret bickers and mourns with her enemy York’s wife and daughter-in-law before leaving for France, was triumphalist in a way I had never thought of before. In the RHUL readthrough, the play felt like it petered out: I wanted more of Richard III, and thought this was just an inherent flaw with cherrypicking scenes out of such a strong play. The resonant line at that readthrough was Margaret’s hope “that [she] may live to say, ‘The dog is dead'” – which made the play feel unfinished, without the hoped-for catharsis of Richard’s death on stage.

But in the By Jove staging, the line that felt like coming full circle was unexpectedly Margaret’s last, the final words of the play: “Farewell, York’s wife, and queen of sad mischance / These English woes will make me smile in France.” Margaret walked to the light switch, looked back on England, turned the lights off with an audible clunk and walked out. You’ve had your try, look: I didn’t choose to come here, I did my best, and now you’re all fucked and I’m leaving. You made your bed. Bye. Don’t call.

It flips Shakespeare’s association of France with the female, and the unnaturally dangerous, on its head: for Margaret, and possibly all women (- and maybe just everyone? It’s not like the men in England are doing so great), the witchy feminine ‘France’ is a healthy place, and the masculine combative ‘England’ is deadly broken.

Being able to triumphantly walk out on a toxic structure is in part from having nothing left to lose, but also depends on having a France to go to: Elizabeth and the duchess of York don’t have one, for example. (I’m also just now remembering how McKellen’s film of Richard III, for example, had the Duchess of York – who is conflated with Margaret – getting into a plane and flying off – to where?) But the question of what kind of possibilities exist outside broken patriarchy doesn’t need to be answered in the play; it’s raised so well I hardly noticed it happening until the punch line, which was killer. It might be suggested by the small steel tiara of marguerites that Margaret wears, that she took with her from France to England and back: a hint that another life could be not only strong, but blossoming.

It’s on at Battersea’s Gallery on the Corner until tomorrow, though it’s sold out (I have heard rumours of returns). I hope they’ll bring it back – a week-long run is much too short for a production this precise and interesting.

“What has the EU ever done for us?”: Public communication in Hauts-de-France

These advertisements were in every train station I passed through last week in Nord-pas-de-Calais, the area of Hauts-de-France (Upper France) known for Agincourt, the Somme battlefields, and the Calais refugee camp. The ads are paid for by the Hauts-de-France regional government, and tell you exactly what the European Union has contributed to the area: €219 million for science and research, €100 million for business, €59 million for youth training. Even on the train departure board at Arras, the regional capital, there was a little sticker explaining “Europe engages [or ‘commits to’] Nord-pas-de-Calais”. I looked up the slogan later and the ads are part of an EU awareness campaign, “Mon Europe, Mon Quotidien” (“My Europe, My Everyday”), that the Hauts-de-France region launched today, 29 October: every Saturday, the campaign will go to a different town or city in the region, set up a stand and tell people about what the EU has done for their area.

I have been fantasising about how the EU referendum in the UK might have gone if local governments in England and Wales had run campaigns like this. I’m not even fantasising about a magically different result (j/k of course I am), but just about what it would have been like to have this kind of conversation, actually talking about the pros and cons of the EU, instead of vague gesturing about the NHS and business, and racist incitement about immigration.

Sometimes in the UK you’ll see a small EU flag on something that has received European funding. But I have never seen signs like this, and during the referendum, the Remain campaign never gave a clear, loud statement about the benefits of the EU instead of the risk of leaving it. The Remain message that I heard most was “It will be bad for businesses and London banks” – because post-austerity that’s really the message that resonates with people – and “Immigrants: sometimes not that bad really? (although obviously we all want less of them)”. Seeing the “Mon Europe, Mon Quotidien” campaign made me realise how frightened and small-c conservative the Remain campaign came across, and how far the conversation in England has gone away from talking about reality, instead of wishes: I have heard nothing from the Westminster government either before or since the referendum about EU science funding, community development funding, social funding… (I say England and Westminster because the Scottish government has been much more on top of this, and I’m not aware enough of the conversation in Wales and Northern Ireland to be able to say.)

I suspect the Hauts-de-France campaign is in part a response to the Brexit vote – that someone in the local government went “oh merde, we need to talk to people” – but I still think it’s a really solid piece of public communication. The activity and benefits of a big international government body like the EU are hard to visualise clearly, but “Mon Europe, Mon Quotidien” gives clear demonstrations of exactly what the EU has done to improve people’s lives in the region. This was almost completely missing, and is still missing, from the way England is talking about the EU now. In fact I was a bit shocked when I first saw the ad in Arras train station, because it was just so jarring to see a public government sign with a warm and optimistic answer to the question, what has the EU ever done for us?

Now I definitely agree with criticisms of some ways the EU works – like the violent enforcement of external borders to protect Schengen, which led MSF to break off with them because it is killing so many refugees; and, of course, that goofy attempt to ban olive oil jugs. But our government isn’t talking about these issues when it talks about EU membership (to be honest I’ve kind of lost track of what the government is talking about re: the EU, except that “Brexit means Brexit”).

The UK is seeing a few legal cases right now over whether we need to have a debate and vote in Parliament before officially leaving the EU, and I am desperately hoping that happens, because a Parliamentary debate could be the chance for England to learn how to have this kind of conversation – better late than never.

Update November 3, 2016: The High Court has ruled that the government can’t trigger Article 50, which is understood to be the first step in the process to leave the EU, on its own. This would mean a Parliamentary debate and vote on the UK leaving the EU. The government is appealing, which will be heard probably on December 7 or 8.

Book proposal: it’s out!

Book proposal

I’m excited to say my book proposal is now out on submission! This means it’s in as good shape as I (and, crucially, my agent Lydia, who knows What Book People Like) could get it, and now she’s sent it out to editors to see if any of them want to buy it. Some of them might be reading this RIGHT NOW which is quite nerve-wracking!

The book is about Shakespeare and the settings of his plays: what they’re like today, what Shakespeare would have known about them, and how stories can change the meaning and even the physical shape of places, and vice versa. Book lengths being what they are, instead of trying to write a very small bit about all 36(ish) plays, we went through and narrowed it down to the 12 plays and places where I felt there was a lot to say, and which make sense together. It includes the obvious biggies like Verona and Elsinore castle, but also some surprisingly rewarding ones like Navarre (Love’s Labour’s Lost) and Inverness and Cawdor Castle (Macbeth). I’m excited to be exploring all of them. People in publishing say that early book titles are very likely to change, but I really like our draft title: Kingdoms for Stages, named after the Chorus in Henry V’s wish for “a muse of fire…A kingdom for a stage, princes to act”.

Something frustrating I found while writing the proposal is that it takes me a long time to write something I like. I used to think of myself as a fast writer, because working in journalism I got great at banging out solid copy on deadline. But IT TURNS OUT there’s a big difference between writing 250 words in seven minutes about eg a bomb attack, and going “Yeah, that’ll do!” and sending it off, and writing eight thousand words about stories and places I know well and really love, that flows well and keeps interest, and is – hopefully – a bit sparkling and re-readable. To get my Shakespeare/travel writing to a place I like, it’s taken three or four rounds of really hard edits – printing everything out, taking a pen and going over it line by excruciating line. It does make the writing much better, but oh my god it’s awful to do!

This month I’m working on the Macbeth chapter, which has been a perfect mood for autumn, and the research led me to the description of the best party I have ever, ever heard about. In 1606 King James VI/I threw a banquet for his visiting brother-in-law, Christian IV of Denmark. The thing is that the Danes had more of a drinking tradition than the English hosts, and by the time the official party kicked off, everyone was totally shitfaced. During the masque, the King of Denmark wanted to dance with the lady playing the Queen of Sheba, but she was so pissed she tripped on the steps to his seat and dropped her tray of “wine, cream, jelly, beverage, cakes, spices, and other good matters” all down his front. (He didn’t mind, but then he also fell asleep face-down on the floor a few seconds later.) Faith, Hope and Charity had to stop their act and run out of the room to vom. And Peace got so angry with people interrupting her speech that she ran down and started whacking them on the head with her olive branch. It basically sounds like the best night ever. I wish I’d known about it before my birthday, so I could have insisted on a recreation for, um, research.

Tinyletter

I’m starting to write a monthly Tinyletter (simple email newsletter) about the research and travel I’m doing for the book. Obviously I’ll write about the major stuff on this blog, but there will be a little more book-specific information there (ooh, exclusive*). I’m trying to stick to a research and writing schedule of a different play and place each month. You can subscribe here!

I love autumn because the season feels like new projects have an engine. This isn’t a new project – I’ve been thinking about it and working on it on and off for a few years – but it’s the first time it’s starting to come together as A Real Thing, and I’m incredibly excited about working on it properly for the next year.

*not actually very exclusive

The British Library

One of the most pleasurable parts of writing my book proposal has been spending an evening or two a week propping up a desk in the British Library, which is surprising, because when I was an undergrad, I HATED it here. I spent a horrific spring term at the BL nine years ago researching my dissertation, which for some reason I’d decided to write about accents and ‘corrupted’ language in 18th-century northern Irish theatre (attn 20-year-old me: what?). Most of the plays I was looking at haven’t been republished since they were first printed, for the outstanding reason that they are not very good, so I had to go to up to Euston to read them in first editions.

And the building was just horrible then – there was no natural light, the air was weirdly still, the cloakroom queue took forever, the chairs were too big, the tea in the cafe was so expensive, and everyone seemed to know what they were doing except me. (Had the physical building become a kind of focus point for all my dissertation-related stress, including about how I’d literally be kicked out of the country if I didn’t do well enough? Surely not.)

So I was surprised when I came back last year, renewed my card (“Er,  I’m writing a book-” “You poor sod. There’s a bar on the ground floor.”) and started a weekly date in Humanities 2, and it was lovely!

The foyer is massive, vertical and airy! There are easy coin-operated lockers in the basement! The desks are clean and solid, the chairs are cosy green leather, the light inside is pleasant and warm! Almost every time I leave – especially now that the days are starting to get shorter – I wish I could stay all night.

The steady, calming artificial light means that inside the library it feels a little out of time, or maybe that time there runs more seasonal than hourly, because the rhythm of the academic calendar is hard to miss. When I renewed my reader card, it was a few weeks before the end of term: most of the rooms were full (I eventually found some space in the Newsroom) and a few students were placidly napping in the hall outside Manuscripts.

This weekend I had a conversation with a friend, who just graduated with her PhD, about our favourite reading rooms, and especially tactics during exam week. The big question is whether to order your books to one of the nice Humanities rooms and gamble on getting a seat there, or take a punt and order them to the Newsroom or Rare Books – where it’s easier to get a seat, but the desk layouts are a bit more awkward. (Books take about 30-60 minutes to arrive, and you have to order them to a specific room. If you order books before setting out, but find the room is full when you get there, you have to go find a seat in another room, and ask for your books to be transferred there, which takes about an hour. It’s very annoying.)

The tea is still pretty expensive but it’s wonderful being here to work on something I actually enjoy. I keep running into people I haven’t seen in years. And I love the locker room at eight o’clock, when everyone’s just been kicked out of the reading rooms and we’re pulling our jackets and bags on, and everyone else looks a bit dazed with what we were thinking about upstairs, not really ready for the slight shock of stepping back out into the King’s Cross night.

Back to school

Berowne: What is the end of study, let me know?
King: Why, that to know which else we would not know.

I just finished a weekend at the Open Talmud Project, an annual community-run weekend aimed at Talmud study for everybody. It was a bit of a shock as I haven’t done Talmud properly for a few years, since my hardcore phase just after university when I was missing academia.

What I like best about Talmud study is that it’s very difficult lifelong learning that doesn’t have a point.

My current job is in the public sector, which is greatly in favour of lifelong learning – as long as the benefits are known and established, and spelled out. Even if work isn’t paying for it, we’re encouraged to make a note of any study we do, and of how it will help become a better all-round public employee: this holiday French course will help me communicate better with international colleagues! this archival research day will help me be better at filing!  etc.

Talmud is quite difficult. It involves unpicking not one but two fairly knotty ancient languages (Hebrew and Aramaic), learning a set of dense rhetorical conventions in both those languages, understanding the social context – which usually involves understanding the religious-textual context (why exactly is Yalta so ticked off when Ulla quotes Deuteronomy at her?), and using all that to work out the details of discussions of everything from weirdly specific petty property disputes (if an injured, one-legged bird lands on one side of a boundary, but then keels over and dies onto the other side, who is responsible for clearing it up?) to how to deal with great trauma and joy. And there is no end goal – not a Talmud C1 certification or graduating with a specific skill – just the pleasure of learning.

The structure of Talmud study is also sort of the opposite of the way some education is going, towards a MOOC format, where knowledge is transmitted in one direction from a single knowledge-haver to a group of relatively passive knowledge-receivers. Instead the model for Talmud study is chavruta, two people with roughly equal skills and experience working through the text slowly together. You are expected to challenge and disagree with the text, and probably your partner, as you go along, and what happens at the end is not a nicely completed tick-box of Knowledge Achieved, All Done!, but just (‘just’) that you’ve worked out something you didn’t know before. Which might be a new word, or a new way to argue, or a new way of thinking about friendship or public infrastructure or grief.

(I was sort of joking by quoting Berowne at the top of this post, who is mainly arguing about the point[lessness] of studying because he wants to have lunch and chat to ladies instead. But having thought about it, actually a production of Love’s Labour’s Lost set in a yeshiva would be amazing. Love’s Labour’s and Talmud study are basically about how there is no separation between truthful study and living life, so don’t waste your energy pretending.)

The huge impression the weekend left on me was how casual and accessible this kind of intense obscure pointless learning is in my London Jewish community, and how lucky I am to be here. I had really forgotten how pleasurable it can be to get stuck into detailed study that isn’t For Something.

Drunk Theatre: June-July 2016

I’ve been seeing so many plays and not writing about them! Here are a few.

Shitfaced Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice @ Southbank Udderbelly: I was so looking forward to this that I got massively shitfaced myself ahead of time, at my friend Ken’s birthday drinks, at a wine bar in the City, where another friend Jo and I had to – had to, for a tenuous reason I don’t remember very well – buy wine by the bottle instead of the glass. Anyway, I knocked back a litre+ of rosé and lost to Ken at pool several times, then tottered over the river to the South Bank Udderbelly and bought a double rum and tonic (“YES, WITH TONIC“) for £7.40, and waved it in front of the Shitfaced Shakespeare MC, who is responsible for keeping the show relatively on the rails. He also hands out gongs to the audience to ring if we feel the drunk actor is sobering up. I got a gong!

The interesting thing about “Shitfaced Merchant of Venice” was going to be how to do a weird tragedy with the structure of a comedy, which historically has been very hard to do without accidentally or intentionally being terrible about gay people, or Jewish people, or women, or black people, or…, in the style of Shitfaced Shakespeare, which is basically ‘loosely controlled anarchy, and booze’. It failed much less than I was dreading! (PR guys, you can use that on the posters if you like.)

Because of the small cast (six? people), the relationships were simplified, so Jessica had Nerissa’s role working for Portia, and the Christian man she fancied and planned to run away with was Antonio. The whiff of a sexual relationship between Antonio and Bassanio was absent (they were #LADZLADZLADZ) and Jessica’s relative assimilation working in Portia’s household made her wanting to convert to marry Antonio basically only about Christianity, instead of wanting to get out of her dad’s oppressive house.

The drunk actor was Bassanio, which is the opposite of my favourite ever, Hero (HERO OF MY HEART), in that Bassanio’s already kind of a drunk bro. What was great is that the actor playing Bassanio was Jewish and the actor playing Shylock was not, which meant Bassanio-actor spent a bit of time heckling Shylock-actor for being anti-Semitic, which turned out to be brilliant. He corrected Shylock’s pronunciation of “Shabbat shalom” (it was a Friday), and they had a brief discussion about the time of sundown in summertime (which is very late), and then Bassanio spent a bit of time arguing about what you can and can’t do on Shabbat (I think there was a proposal for a booze eruv?).

I do not remember most of the rest of the play (the last note I can make out before illegible drunkscribbling reads, “A’s comebacks too polished! NO THANKS”), and apparently I took too long to ring the gong because the MC made fun of me, which was probably deserved.

At the end I made a grab for the onstage booze trolley but the MC batted me away, so I found a half-pint of abandoned Fosters on the sink in the loos, which I put into a plastic bag (nb self: where did the plastic bag come from?) and then upright into my handbag to get past the Udderbelly door checkers, then had a nice long stroll across Embankment Bridge looking at the lights and drinking my stolen beer, then I fell asleep on the wrong branch of the Northern Line and woke up at Belsize Park and missed the last southbound train and had to get a £17 cab home. A £17 cab! Now tell me Shakespeare isn’t anti-Semitic.

Richard III @ the Almeida: The night I went was Patrons’ Night, which meant I got off the bus and walked to the box office and went “holy crap, Indira Varma”, and then at the interval I was standing in the loo queue and a totally gorgeous short-ish man with curly hair bumped me and said “excuse me” and I went “holy shit, Oscar Isaac“, and was especially delighted because I happened to have really good hair and a great necklace on that day. Oh, and there was free wine for patrons (annual donation £1,250 and up), but although they’d roped the wine zone off before the show, they weren’t really checking during the interval, so I grabbed a glass of white from the fold-up table in the lobby and necked it while staring glassily at said Oscar Isaac, then grabbed my pre-ordered interval drink to take in for the second half. Art!

Ralph Fiennes was…all right? The production was a bit similar to The Hollow Crown, if you saw that, in that it really explicitly tied Shakespeare’s story to the physical real history (the Almeida show opened with scientists finding Richard’s body in the Leicester car park), and also ironed out all the jokes. I think this is a terrible way to do Shakespeare’s histories, which I love because they’re high bonkers as well as high tragedy; and I hate it when productions agree with people who say Shakespeare is boring and needs lots of historical context. I don’t know if this mini-trend is because white male British institutional theatremakers are feeling anxious about Britishness and feel like they need to tie our great cultural creator to our physical land and history, but it’s not resulting in great art. (I’ve also just remembered that Ben Power, the adapter of the Henry VI/Richard III Hollow Crown, worked at the Almeida last season, and Rupert Goold did the Hollow Crown Richard II, so maybe this is just an Almeida-Shakespeare-Histories thing and we just have to put up with it to get Robert Icke’s productions?) (I did really like the Hollow Crown Richard II.)

The only actor who was given enough lead to have fun with was James Garnon, as Hastings, who was constantly texting on his phone and only half paying attention to everything around him. This included exchanging sleepless texts at 3am with Stanley – Hastings found out about Stanley’s nightmare of a boar via Whatsapp, rather than a human messenger – and a delightful reading of the line “Woe, woe for England” where he whistled a “Whoooooooooooaaaa. …Woe for England”, etc. His Pericles at the Globe last season was great and it was fun to watch him having a good time. (Er, until the murder part.)

Vanessa Redgrave is a lovely verse speaker but took so much time with Margaret’s curses that they defused the tension instead of increasing it. Nicely creepy though.

Aislín McGuckin’s Elizabeth Woodville had solid posture and was a bit selfish through the first act, which I loved, but, okay. The Almeida consistently does some of my favourite work in London, and I generally like Rupert Goold’s shows, but a bad and bizarre thing happened in this show, which is that towards the end of Richard and Elizabeth’s last scene together, he suddenly grabbed her and threw her on the ground and raped her. It doesn’t come from anywhere in the scene, and it doesn’t come from anywhere in the production – it’s like a silent invisible “whoops, sexual assault!” bell dinged somewhere onstage, and off they went. Has “‘out-of-the-blue sexual assault as a lazy code for Evil Guy’ is both bad and boring” not been covered when we talked about Game of Thrones in, like, 2013? If not can we revisit that, please. It’s especially odd because dramaturgically Elizabeth is the winner of that scene and Richard is the loser, but that’s not the effect we’re left with, and also DEAR MEN PLEASE STOP RANDOMLY ADDING RAPE TO ART TO MAKE IT EDGY, IT IS NOT EDGY. So I’m really pleased I was quite drunk by that scene.

Afterwards I hover-stalked Oscar Isaac up Upper Street for about two and a half minutes, until I realised he was not about to go into a bar where I could also go and bump into him all, oh hi, gosh hey, huh didn’t I see you at the Almeida just now? do you want some opinions about Anne Neville because I have those and then he would go wow, that’s really insightful and also your hair looks fantastic, and he would end up taking me as his friend-date to all the big London Shakespeares and we would talk loudly at them in the bar afterwards and the Mirror would pap snap me and quote my thoughts at length. Oh well. Instead I got on the bus home and texted Ewan to put on some oven chips. They were nice.

Romeo and Juliet @ the Garrick: The bar closed a full FIVE MINUTES before curtain. FIVE. MINUTES. I’d even grabbed an aisle seat specifically for getting in a last-minute bar run (and obvs a seconds-after-the-blackout loo run), but alas. The reason the bar closed early is that the play was being streamed live from the theatre that night, so if you watched the NT Live broadcast and heard someone in seat G1 guffawing at Juliet’s champagne-swigging on the balcony, that was me.

We got some bonus Kenneth Branagh, who came out before the show to announce that Richard Madden had dicked up his ankle, but had been doing physical therapy and painkillers and so was going on, to the massive audible relief of the audience. I can’t remember if we heard how it happened, but I wouldn’t lay money against Branagh having pushed him off the stage so he could make an appearance on the international livestream night. Madden very slightly favoured his left leg, and some of the fighting felt like it was probably intended to be a bit more frenetic, but it was a pretty solid, grounded warm-maple performance, and Romeo is about the fifth most interesting part in the show so anything good you can do with him is a pleasant bonus. Lily James was the one who surprised me – I haven’t been wowed by her in movies, but she was aces in the balcony scene, which she played as Juliet having nicked a bottle of champagne from her parents’ party and going off to her room to burble about names. And she pulled off the nightmare speech about waking up early next to dead Tybalt, which is the hardest one in the show to keep the audience with you, I think.

Kenneth Branagh Presents The Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company in Romeo and Juliet, Directed By Kenneth Branagh: A Kenneth Branagh Production meant that a bunch of K-Bran’s famous friends were in to do small parts, and Meera Syal, Derek Jacobi and Marisa Berenson (I KNOW!!) were all total champs. I was much less impressed by how the only named character played by a black actor (Ansu Kabia, laser-focused) was Tybalt, the violent impetuous irrational young man who’s one of the first ones to die. (Broadcast watchers may also have heard seat G1 sucking in air when Tybalt calls other characters “boy”, “minstrel”, and “slave” – eeesh those lines rang badly.) It’s a great part and Kabia crushed it, but aaaah Kenneth Branagh you really need to cast other characters black, not just that part. (I mean that’s true in general but especially with Tybalt.)

I don’t remember anything particularly innovative about the production, but it was fun, pacey and competent, the funny parts were funny and the sad parts were sad. The next day a work friend asked me what I’d thought, because his son is about to study it at school and he wanted to know if he should take him to see it, and I think I often forget how lovely it is to be in a city where you can see well-done Shakespeare knocked out by pros for £17.50.

Great frocks.

The Seagull @ NT: I think maybe I just don’t get along with The Seagull? I am never sure how much we are hoped to empathise with Konstantin angrily stammering about releasing theatre into new forms, or exactly how rubbish his play is supposed to be, or what exactly is the thing with Nina. I do always love the part when all the characters run around brandishing a dead prop bird, yelling at each other about how it’s a metaphor. “DOESN’T THIS REMIND YOU OF THAT DAY THE SEAGULL WAS KILLED, REMEMBER THAT DAY?” “SOMETIMES I FEEL LIKE A SEAGULL, DO YOU THINK I’M LIKE A SEAGULL?” “HEY, IS THAT A DEAD SEAGULL OR LOST INNOCENCE, IT’S HARD TO TELL FROM HERE.”

The set had an onstage lake and creek for the actors to splash around in, which was fun and looked expensive. Everyone had posh voices, which felt unnecessary. (I don’t mean that they were putting it on, just there were a bunch of Stage Actors up there speaking RP Theatre.)

The last time I saw Geoffrey Streatfeild, he was roofie-ing Princess Margaret in A Royal Night Out (which was GREAT FUN, and I say that as a small-r republican). He does an very good line in being slightly baffled that women are upset that he’s treated them badly, of which Trigorin is king.

I don’t know, I think The Cherry Orchard is more lovely every time I see it, but young people having earnest opinions about the theatre and then being shocked and appalled when older people are horrible isn’t for me. Maybe This Is Because I’m Getting Old. (I turned thirty on Sunday, guys! THIRTY.)

Anna Chancellor was a cracking Arkadina.