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.
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 and I’m pleased I saw her do it.