A stripped-back Winter’s Tale from Northern Broadsides

A stripped-back Winter’s Tale from Northern Broadsides

Conrad Nelson’s production of The Winter’s Tale for Northern Broadsides is the most stripped-back production I’ve seen. We saw it performed in the round at the New Victoria Theatre in Stoke where the stage was bare, but for an occasional  bench or something similar.

The result is to focus attention on Shakespeare’s words and symbolism – and on the quality of the acting which, as always with Northern Broadsides, was very high indeed with notable performances by Conrad Nelson himself in the role of Leontes, Ruth Alexander as Paulina, Mike Hugo as Autolycus, and Jessica Dyas and Lauryn Redding as the sparring peasant girls Mopsa and Dorcas. Continue reading “A stripped-back Winter’s Tale from Northern Broadsides”

Headlong’s The Glass Menagerie: ‘how beautiful, and how easily broken’

Headlong’s <em>The Glass Menagerie</em>: ‘how beautiful, and how easily broken’

The production at Liverpool Playhouse of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie that my daughter took me to see on Saturday was slated in the Observer. In her review Clare Brennan wrote that ‘Ellen McDougall’s direction constrains 3D actors in a 2D concept’. She went on:

Context matters. In this new co-production by Headlong, Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse, and West Yorkshire Playhouse, it has been eradicated. We are left with a tight focus on individuals separated from the indicators of the circumstances that mould them.

I could not disagree more. Continue reading “Headlong’s The Glass Menagerie: ‘how beautiful, and how easily broken’”

Lampedusa: ‘Fucking hell. Why are people kind?’

<em>Lampedusa</em>: ‘Fucking hell. Why are people kind?’

‘This will never stop,’ writes playwright Anders Lustgarten in the  introduction to his critically-acclaimed drama Lampedusa which, unflinchingly and without a trace of sentimentality, deals with the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean. I saw it last night at Liverpool’s Unity Theatre, co-producer of the play with the Soho Theatre, where it was first performed. Continue reading Lampedusa: ‘Fucking hell. Why are people kind?’”

The Merry Wives of Windsor in Chester’s Grosvenor Park: a touch of the 1970s

<em>The Merry Wives of Windsor</em> in Chester’s Grosvenor Park: a touch of the 1970s

Watching The Merry Wives of Windsor at Grosvenor Park open air theatre in Chester the other evening, I wondered why this Shakespeare comedy is so rarely performed. As always, the Grosvenor company put on a terrific show – fast-paced, multi-sensory, and packed with music and comedy. We couldn’t have asked for a more entertaining three hours of theatre – and on one of the warmest evenings of this dreary summer. Continue reading The Merry Wives of Windsor in Chester’s Grosvenor Park: a touch of the 1970s”

Romeo and Juliet in Calderstones Park: teenage hysteria

<em>Romeo and Juliet</em> in Calderstones Park: teenage hysteria

The drizzle, it seemed, was determined to droppeth as the rain from heaven for some time, but heaven’s mercy prevailed to allow for a mainly dry performance of Romeo and Juliet by a wandering troupe from the Globe Theatre in Calderstones Park.

Still, nothing – least of all a bit of rain – comes in the way of Britons determined to enjoy a bit of Shakespeare. People were togged up in  hooded anoraks, waterproof rugs and warming flasks of something or other as the travelling players wandered around, joking with the audience before the performance started with a song and dance – just as it would in Shakespeare’s time. Continue reading Romeo and Juliet in Calderstones Park: teenage hysteria”

The Skriker: A midsummer nightmare

<em>The Skriker</em>: A midsummer nightmare

I have never longed so much for the moment I could leave the theatre as when watching the Royal Exchange production of Caryl Churchill’s 1994 drama, The Skriker, that really should have been left un-revived rather than being the centrepiece of the 2015 Manchester International Festival.

The production has attracted uniformly adulatory reviews, and it has to be said that the staging by Lizzie Clachan and Maxine Peake’s central performance are superlative. It’s the play that’s the problem. Continue reading The Skriker: A midsummer nightmare”

Northern accents in Jonathan Miller’s King Lear

Northern accents in Jonathan Miller’s King Lear

The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

Jonathan Miller’s touring production of King Lear for Northern Broadsides arrived at the Playhouse this week. It’s a stark, pared-down staging of Shakespeare’s starkest play, in which the weight of suffering at times feels almost as unendurable for the audience as it is for its characters.

The stage is bare, with only the hint of a proscenium arch sketched in by a curtain rail supported by two poles.  It looks very like a production might have when the play was first performed with the actors kitted out in Elizabethan costumes. The only concessions to modernity come with sparely-deployed sound effects and lighting: peals of thunder and lightning flashes during the storm scene, and Gloucester’s blinding conducted to the rear of the stage in blinding white light.

In his review of the production when it first opened in Halifax, Michael Billington of the Guardian commented:

Miller sets the action at the time when the play was written, in the early 17th century: an astute move since it was a period of moral questioning about both paternal and kingly authority. But what is striking is Miller’s avoidance of anything over-demonstrative in the staging. Lear’s division of his kingdom is an intimate, family affair rather than a gaudy public spectacle. There is no hint of his riotous train of travelling knights, and Gloucester’s blinding takes place out of view of the audience. […] That last is a great relief, sparing us both the extreme cruelty and desperate contrivance that normally accompanies the moment.

The text is stripped back, too in a production that consists of two 70-minute acts in which Miller maintains the pace with simultaneous exits and entrances, equivalent to jump cuts in the cinema. All of this, plus clear enunciation of their lines by the actors, brings a sharp clarity to what can sometimes seem a convoluted story.

Also striking in this production is the way in which everyone speaks with a northern accent. As Clare Brennan commented in her review for the Observer:

The everydayness of the tones lends an almost soap opera feel to the family conflicts that drive the action of the play. We recognise these people!

This was particularly apparent in the performances of Lear’s daughters, Goneril and Regan, their grasping selfishness reinforced by the broad accents of Helen Sheals and Nicola Sanderson.

Dividing the kingdom
Dividing the kingdom

Despite recent familiarity with the play (I’ve seen three productions in the last few years), there are always things which strike afresh in each new staging.  This time it was notes: for the first time I became aware of how often notes are passed by messenger from one character to another, invariably with fatal consequences. I noted, too, how rapidly Shakespeare plunges the audience into the meat of the drama: after the brief opening encounter between Kent, Gloucester and his illegitimate son Edmund, we’re there as Lear sets about dividing his kingdom and demanding public declarations of affection from his three daughters. Five minutes and the madness begins.

Jonathan Miller at Lear rehearsal
Jonathan Miller at Lear rehearsal

Nothing will come of nothing: speak again.

Jonathan Miller gave his view of Lear in an interview with the Northern Echo:

What’s extraordinary is the strange realism of the behaviour of a person who in fact is an incompetent monarch. In the case of Lear we have someone who, as his daughter says when he goes out of the room, “he has ever but slenderly known himself” and that he was actually a foolish old man and probably a foolish young one. It may well be the fact that many people who inherit monarchy are not in fact qualified to exercise monarchy.

Or, as Dominic Cavendish put it when reviewing the production for the Telegraph, ‘Lear throws his toys out of the pram in fury’:

‘Which of you shall we say doth love us most?’ As he utters these words, Barrie Rutter’s Lear settles himself into his throne with a heave and an expectant air. The tone is indulgent, non-threatening. It’s an odd thing to ask, a non-sequitur almost, but the implication is clear. This is a formality. His three daughters just have to woo him with words of devotion, and their bit of the kingdom is assured.

Only, of course, Cordelia has to speak plain and point out the obvious: children can’t love parents unconditionally and exclusively, or they can’t marry and move on. Having banked on love being returned to him in old-age like a matured investment, Lear throws his toys out of the pram in fury. Everything we see in the play flows from this upheaval. The ‘nothing’ that father alights on favoured daughter is soon revisited on his head: he’s left with less than nothing, not even his wits.

Barry Rutter as King Lear
Barrie Rutter as King Lear

Who is it that can tell me who I am?

An old man losing his mind, demented. This was a production led by two men also advanced in years: Jonathan Miller is 80, while Barrie Rutter is a relatively youthful 68. Rutter gave a superb performance under the masterful direction of Miller. Rutter’s portrayal was matched by excellent performances from the rest of the cast.

With a week to go before we learn who ‘who loses and who wins’ in the election, my attention focussed on these lines, spoken by Lear as he and his devoted daughter Cordelia are led away to prison:

Come, let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies: and we’ll wear out,
In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by the moon.

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