Much Ado About Nothing @ Shakespeare’s Globe, seen August 27 2017

Thanks to Twitter conversation with Hailey Bachrach and this post by Holger Syme for helping me clarify thinking about CONCEPT

The best production I’ve ever seen of The Two Gentlemen of Verona was set in Amish country (Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 2006, dir. Bill Rauch). Verona was a Mennonite community, Milan was a swish Stepford-in-Brooks-Brothers villa, and in Act 5 a rave full of Goths popped up. It was the most ludicrous thing. It sounds like what happens when a director loses a bet with a sadistic dramaturg. But it really did work, and it made the play work.

Two Gents is not a great play, okay. It’s about a love quadrangle among Proteus and Valentine (best friends from Verona), and Julia and Sylvia (women from Verona and Milan respectively). Proteus starts out interested in Julia, then he and Valentine travel to Milan and both fall in love with Sylvia, who has fallen in love with Valentine. Julia disguises herself as a boy (drink!) and travels to Milan to be near Proteus, there’s a bit with a dog, at the end everyone runs off to the woods and Proteus tries to rape Sylvia, and everyone who has lines afterwards seems basically okay with that (nb who doesn’t have lines: Sylvia). It is, as they say, problematic. What the Amish setting did was suggest how Julia – who otherwise seems clever, sensible and observant – could have reasonably fallen in love with Proteus – who takes all of five seconds after leaving home to betray his friend, his fiancée and do a bunch of stupid, malicious things – without Julia just being a giant gooey idiot. Maybe Proteus is a sheltered guy newly out in a world he’s been told is dangerous and immoral, and he doesn’t have the toolbox to participate in it ethically. (It doesn’t at all excuse Proteus from behaving horribly – but it explains why Julia missed the signs.) Now if I remember correctly my 2006 play programme, the idea behind the CONCEPT was that the director was having trouble differentiating between “Verona” and “Milan” in the play. He decided to make them as radically different as possible: Verona insular and superficially strange, but deeply supportive and loving; and Milan welcoming and attractive, but with underlying danger if strangers don’t conform. In the woods, a bunch of “outlaws” terrify Valentine, then befriend and help him; these became the Goths, who seem terrifying to upper-middle-class dads but are actually laid-back and benevolent. It made so many of the characters’ odd reactions and quick turnarounds plausible. Read more...

“Hamlet”, Almeida Theatre (Andrew Scott/dir. Robert Icke)

We had tickets to Hamlet for the evening of 20 March, and early on 18 March my father died, after a heart attack six days before that he never woke up from. So I’m not really sure how much of the show felt raw and fresh because it was a really good production, although everyone says it is, so it must be at least partially that, and how much of it is because, you know, my dad had died forty hours before, pretty suddenly, and Hamlet isn’t exactly a show lacking in “sudden dead dad” emotions.

A surprisingly helpful thing about grieving in my tradition is how prescribed the activities and times are. There is an extensive framework that walks you through things: what you do (and don’t do) the first week, the first month, the first year. Each period of grieving eases you into the next one, and they don’t exactly taper off but there’s a feeling of being able to let each emotion inhabit fully in the space, giving you room to breathe it in and experience it properly, and knowing that it’s okay to do it fully because it has an end time and it’s not going to be this big forever.

Hamlet hasn’t had a proper mourning space: he’s barely processed the fact of it before his mother’s wedding celebration breaks into the space of family grief, and suddenly everyone’s going “cheer up Hamlet!” and “get over it!” and “come on, it’s only natural, everything dies! get a move on and grab a glass of champagne already!” Read more...

“The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses” (BBC Two, 2016)

Note: I wrote a first draft of this last summer with the idea of shopping it to an American outlet before the new Hollow Crown series aired there in December 2016, but whenever I tried to revise it for publication, I kept getting madder and adding more wordcount, and, well, here it is.   

BBC Two’s The Hollow Crown (2012), a starry adaption of Shakespeare’s history plays Richard II, Henry IV Part One and Part Two, and Henry V, was successful enough to easily justify a second series, adapting the next four history plays: the Henry VI trilogy and Richard III. But the announcement and production were a long time coming, and the second series, The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses only aired in 2016. I suspect the problem was hesitation over the source material, specifically the three parts of Henry VI.

The Henry VI plays, according to common wisdom, are just not very good. Shakespeare’s earliest work, and not even all by him, a tangled mess that needs trimming and rewriting for audiences to understand. In the 20th century, major British theatres usually cut the trilogy down to two plays, most famously as The Wars of the Roses at the RSC in 1963, extensively rewritten by John Barton. The cuts usually fall heavily on Henry VI Part One, which was written as a standalone prequel, after the other two: while Part Two and Part Three focus on the civil war between York and Lancaster in England, Part One tracks the rise and fall of Joan of Arc and the English wars in France. In most of the 20th-century British productions, the abbreviated pair of Henry VI plays were followed by a Richard III – a more popular history play that is considered good enough to stand by itself. This is the tack The Hollow Crown: Wars of the Roses took, cutting most of Part One and rewriting the other two parts heavily, much more than any of the other plays in The Hollow Crown series. Read more...

Hamlet: “the Devil made them do it” version

Ten years ago, my flatmates and I had an ongoing conversation about doing a horror production of Hamlet where the Ghost really was a devil. In Act Two, Hamlet wonders if the Ghost is an evil spirit preying on his depression:

The spirit that I have seen
May be a devil: and the devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape: yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me.

and we thought it could be fun to see what would happen if he was right to wonder that. Read more...

All the theatre I saw in 2016, ranked

(nb: most of this was written on the train on New Year’s Eve, so “last night” = Dec 30th.)

In 2016 I saw 41 plays (and three staged readings, which were interesting but it feels unfair to put in with the rest because they’re not supposed to be fully realised pieces of theatre). Drunk Theatre stalwart Louisa and I tried to clear out the bottle-ends in the booze cabinet before the New Year, and carried out the immense task of force-ranking all our 2016 plays with Post-It notes. (for the record if you are also looking to clear out your drinks bottles, the “Monkey Gland”, a 1920s? cocktail involving grenadine and absinthe, was surprisingly all right.)

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“Margaret of Anjou”, By Jove Theatre

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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. Read more...