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”

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”

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.

See also

A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Everyman: darkness on the edge of town

A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Everyman: darkness on the edge of town

There’s a darkness on the edge of town. A place of misrule and disruptive magic that in Shakespeare’s day incited dark fears and dreams of wild abandon. The Everyman production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, seen on the penultimate night of its successful run, helped me appreciate for the first time the darker side of Shakespeare’s timeless comedy.

Cynthia Erivo as Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream
Cynthia Erivo as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Nick Bagnall’s first production as the Everyman’s new associate director set aside midsummer frolics, romantic woodland glades and fairy dells in order to explores the play’s darker inner spirit. Of course, it’s impossible, such is Shakespeare’s genius, to ignore the light and the laughter, and this production had the audience laughing ’till the tears flowed.

And we fairies, that do run
By the triple Hecate’s team
From the presence of the sun,
Following darkness like a dream,
Now are frolic.

A Midsummer Night's Dream. Directed by Nick Bagnall. Liverpool Everyman Theatre
Puck descends in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Nick Bagnall

From the moment that Cynthia Erivo’s Puck descends in top hat and tails, dangling upside down on a trapeze in an echo of the famous Peter Brook production, I was gripped.  But there the parallels end: instead of a brilliant white stage and psychedelic-coloured feathers and wind pipes, designer Ashley Martin-Davis turns the Everyman stage into a darkened space in which a wall of mirrors reflects mounds of scrunched-up sheets of white paper, virtually the only props in the entire show.  Peter Mumford’s lighting is gloomy and at times bathed in red.

A Midsummer Nights Dream
A Midsummer Nights Dream: the audience reflected

In a brilliant move, Nick Bagnall – emphasises the fact that two young couples tangled up in forest enchantment are young teenagers by kitting them out in school uniforms, and bringing in two brilliant young actors –  Emma Curtis as Helena and Charlotte Hope as Hermia – who make their stage debut in bravura performances that perfectly capture the mannerisms and body language of teenage girls.

Emma Curtis Helena Charlotte Hope Hermia
Emma Curtis as Helena and Charlotte Hope as Hermia

There is more standout acting from Garry Cooper (doubling up as Theseus and Oberon), Sharon Duncan-Brewster (doubling as Hippolita and Titania),  and Cynthia Erivo as Puck.  And then there is Andrew Schofield’s brilliant gang of Mechanicals, clad in high-vis jackets, with especially physical, rumbustious performances from heavy-weight, bearded Dean Nolan as Bottom and Lewis Bray as Thisbe.

Dean Nolan as Bottom, with Emma Curtis as Helena
Dean Nolan as Bottom, with Emma Curtis as Helena

We tend to think of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a comic and high-spirited romp full of fairy magic, but this production brought more clearly into view Shakespeare’s less than sentimental, edgy portrayal of love.  The forest is dark and the fairies are covered from head to toe in black. Cynthia Erivo’s Puck is a master of ceremonies who guides the action with an wave of her silver-topped cane, causing chaos with love potions and mistaken identities, and exclaims: ‘Lord,what fools these mortals be!’.

Magic in this reading of the play represents something sinister, unpredictable and irrational. Instructed by his master Oberon, Puck’s mistakes in his use of magic creates conflict and animosity among the four young lovers. I noticed, too, how frequently the word ‘hate’ recurs and how each of the four romances depicted by Shakespeare is darkened by moments of betrayal, cruelty, deception – and even threats of rape and death.

With all the poetry and comedy that follows, it’s easy to forget that in the play opening scene, with Athens’ ruling couple, Theseus and Hippolyta, preparing for their marriage feast, Theseus recalls bluntly, ‘Hippolyta, I wooed thee with my sword, and won thy love doing thee injuries.’ Moments later, Theseus threatens the young Hermia with death, unless she obeys her father and abandons her love for Lysander in order to marry Demetrius.

Next, we encounter the fairy king, Oberon arguing with his queen, Titania, over a boy that she has adopted. We soon realise that Oberon is plotting revenge against Titania, suspecting her of cheating on him. The means by which he exacts revenge and punishes Titania – bewitching her into making love to an ass – is perverse and humiliating (albeit, of course, very funny).

Once Puck’s misplaced magic begins its work further humiliation is endured by Hermia and Helena, who pleads to Demetrius, ‘Use me but as your spaniel – spurn me, strike me.’ He responds by threatening her with rape, ‘For I am sick when I do look on thee’:

If thou follow me, do not believe
But I shall do thee mischief in the wood.

You do impeach your modesty too much,
To leave the city and commit yourself
Into the hands of one that loves you not;
To trust the opportunity of night
And the ill counsel of a desert place
With the rich worth of your virginity.

With both Lysander and Demetrius, under the influence of the juice of the flower love-in-idleness, both suddenly switch their amorous desires from Hermia to Helena, who treats their proclamations of love as cruel jokes: ‘Can you not hate me, as I know you do,’ she wails, ‘but you must join in souls to mock me, too?’

Of course, Shakespeare complicates matters by presenting the venom of the young men as being the result of a magic potion. And, in this production, successful casting of Charlotte Hope (Hermia) and Emma Curtis (Helena) dissipates the pain in the young girls’ lines. Dressed in modern school uniforms, they both deliver their lines in convincing representations of modern teenagers that defuse the words and make them comic.

At the same time, however, you leave the theatre with the lasting memory of Demitrius (played by Matt Whitchurch), revealed to be an complete chauvinist, his threats of rape and assault crossing the line from petulance to something much worse. I have certainly never noticed these bits before.

Up and down, up and down
I will lead them up and down:
I am fear’d in field and town;
Goblin, lead them up and down.

Dream Titania and Bottom
Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Titania and Dean Nolan as Bottom

But central to the darkness is the figure of Puck or Robin Goodfellow who would have been a popular and well-known character to Shakespeare’s fellow-countrymen and women when he wrote the play. In English and Celtic folklore, Puck was a faerie or goblin, and by medieval times had come to be an alternative term for the devil. Puck was a shape-shifter, and in popular mythology used his many guises to make mischief. Robin Goodfellow was another medieval nickname for the devil, a hobgoblin also famous for shape-shifting and leading travellers astray:

Either I mistake your shape and making quite,
Or else you are that shrewd and knavish sprite
Called Robin Goodfellow. Are not you he
That frights the maidens of the villagery,
Skim milk, and sometimes labour in the quern,
And bootless make the breathless housewife churn,
And sometime make the drink to bear no barm,
Mislead night-wanders, laughing at their harm?
Those that Hobgoblin call you, and sweet Puck,
You do their work, and they shall have good luck.
Are you not he?

Shakespeare was also picking up on popular customs that counterposed the rationality and order of daily life and work with misrule and the rejection of social constraints. In 1583, the sour, puritanical Philip Stubbes wrote in his The Anatomie of Abuses:

Against May, Whitsunday, or othertime all the young men and maids, old men and wives run gadding over night to the woods, groves, hills, and mountains, where they spend all the night in pleasant pastimes…. And no marvel, for there is a great Lord present among them, as superintendent and Lord over their pastimes and sports, namely, Satan, prince of Hell.

Thus the concept of ‘a midsummer night’s dream’ would have been instantly recognisable and understood by the audiences who attended his play: a dream both lasciviously desirable, but also fearful in its irrationality and breaking of social codes.

Midsummer Nights Dream at the Everyman. Actors L-R Michael Hawkins, Dean Nolan, Alan Stocks, Drew Schofield
The Mechanicals:  Michael Hawkins, Dean Nolan, Alan Stocks, Andrew Schofield

Of course, in any production it’s the Rude Mechanicals who steal the show, as they did in the Everyman’s production – in spades. As Bottom, Dean Nolan – amazingly athletic and nimble for such a well-built man – cavorts, somersaults, and generally over-acts his way around the stageas if he owned it. Several reviews have mentioned how he seems to be channelling an inner Brian Blessed. All of the Mechanicals’ performances are hugely entertaining. Andrew Schofield Plays the group’s leader, Peter Quince, with a mischievous twinkle, while Lewis Bray as Francis Flute, allocated the female role of Thisbe in their play, is as outrageous as Dean Nolan.

The Mechanicals: Andrew Schofield and Lewis Bray

I still have a vivid memory of seeing Peter Brook’s historic production of this play when it arrived at the Royal Court during a world tour in 1972-3 that followed its acclaimed appearance at the RSC in Stratford. The set consisted of a brilliantly-lit white box which replaced traditional designs with a pretty forest and a classical Athenian court. Most memorably, the actors wore brightly-coloured garments and performed like acrobats, employing skills such as plate-spinning and trapeze-flying .

Brook’s production amazed because he staged it with no reference to the past, no reverence for tradition. He stripped the play down to a central core, a magic playground of lost innocence and hidden fears.

Now the hungry lion roars,
And the wolf behowls the moon;
Whilst the heavy ploughman snores,
All with weary task fordone.
Now the wasted brands do glow,
Whilst the screech-owl, screeching loud,
Puts the wretch that lies in woe
In remembrance of a shroud.
Now it is the time of night
That the graves all gaping wide,
Every one lets forth his sprite,
In the church-way paths to glide:
And we fairies, that do run
By the triple Hecate’s team,
From the presence of the sun,
Following darkness like a dream,
Now are frolic: not a mouse
Shall disturb this hallow’d house:
I am sent with broom before,
To sweep the dust behind the door.

Brook was one of the first to double up the roles of Oberon and Theseus with those of Titania and Hippolyta (as in this Everyman production) to emphasise how the fairy King and Queen were the alter egos of the Athenian rulers, and to suggest that the conflicts and erotic adventures in the darkness of the nocturnal wood represented the eruption of irrational, subconscious fears and desires: the darkness on the edge of town.

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.

Filtered Macbeth at the Everyman

Filtered Macbeth at the Everyman

I have done the deed. Didst thou not hear a noise?

On Saturday afternoon we were at the Everyman to see the Filter Theatre production of Macbeth that was passing through, on tour.  Filter have gained a reputation for innovative and exciting theatre since 2003, and this was certainly no routine presentation of what is one of the most familiar of Shakespeare’s plays. I learnt the play as an O-level text, and have seen it performed two or three times since, including Trevor Nunn’s 1974 production at Stratford, a sort of Jacobean black Mass with Nicol Williamson and Helen Mirren as the murderous couple. Filter’s is a cut-down 75-minute version that might be difficult to follow if you are unfamiliar with the play. Continue reading “Filtered Macbeth at the Everyman”

The Comedy of Errors in Chester’s Grosvenor Park

The Comedy of Errors in Chester’s Grosvenor Park

Comedy of Errors interval

Picnics before the show

Am I in earth, in heaven, or in hell?
Sleeping or waking, mad or well-advised?

I had no idea what to expect, setting out for Chester with my daughter to see Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors at the Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre. What we got was a rambunctious, athletic and immensely enjoyable take on Shakespeare’s joyous and deliriously madcap farce.

We were lucky with the weather, too.  Although we had covered seats, we would have got wet had it rained, which had seemed a real possibility during downpours that morning.  This week’s rain and cooler temperatures have left the warm, sunny days of June and July a memory: in his Country Diary in the Guardian, Paul Evans wrote that ‘the swifts had left, switching summer off behind them’.  But, on Tuesday evening, the skies cleared and left us dry.

I now know that the Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre is the only full-time professional open air theatre company outside London – and that, since being founded in 2010, it has garnered critical acclaim, being described as the ‘the northern alternative to Shakespeare’s Globe and Regent’s Park’ by the Guardian.  The company’s director, Alex Clifton, is gaining a reputation for imaginative productions, too.

One of the great things about open-air theatre is the picnic.  At Grosvenor Park you can bring your picnic to consume before the show – or during it. We settled down to our comestibles, fortified by Prosecco and red wine from the hospitality tent which also serves home-made cakes, tea and coffee.  At first, I mistakenly took the wooden structure, seen to the right of the main performance space in the photo above, to be the cafe – menus were displayed, there were red check tablecloths and a big sign offered TEA. Oddly, though, this turned out to be a stage prop, representing the house of Antipholus of Ephesus, from which he is barred, seemingly by his own servant.

Comedy of Errors 1

The wife of Antipholus of Ephesus with one or other of the Dromios

The Comedy of Errors is one of William Shakespeare’s early plays, a farcical comedy, drenched in slapstick, mistaken identities, puns and word play. Alex Clifton emphasises the slapstick, in a wild and athletic production which feels like watching an animated cartoon.  Like gymnasts, the cast are constantly running, jumping, skipping and falling, even at one stage suffering the indignities of a very messy food fight.

Clifton isn’t the first to incorporate anachronistic music into a Shakespearian production: the story is constantly interrupted by players with saxophones, guitars and a big bass drum careering around the stage doing karaoke versions of songs by Destiny’s Child, Britney Spears and others. Curiously, however, when the play begins, it is with older sing-a-long classics like ‘Roll Out the Barrel’, ‘Maybe It’s Because I’m a Londoner’ and ‘My Old Man’s a Dustman’.  This was not a promising start, and went on a bit too long for my taste.

Comedy of Errors 3

Egeon’s sad story animated

However, we were soon hurled pell-mell into Shakespeare’s improbable story.  The lengthy explanation by elderly Syracusian trader Egeon as to how he comes to be in Ephesus, and now faces execution, is conveyed in very clever staging. As Egeon tells his sad story – of the loss by shipwreck of his own twin sons (both named Antipholus: why?) and the twin boy slaves (the two Dromios), the actors  amusingly animate his account, cartoon-style, atop the set.

Comedy of Errors 2

Syracusan merchant doomed to die!

From that point on, the pace was relentless – a succession of wildly enjoyable, laugh-out-loud set pieces.  As Michael Green wrote in his review for the Chester Chronicle:

It is no exaggeration to say that every single member of the cast is absolutely magnificent but I can’t resist drawing attention … to the incredible talents of identical twin sisters Danielle and Nichole Bird who play the two Dromios. Not only is their comic timing bordering on the supernatural, they are real forces of nature, demonstrating an energy that leaves you feeling exhausted just watching them. There were a number of times when they were having to pull off scenes of difficult physical comedy while continuing to spout some pretty complex dialogue and heaven only knows how much ground they had covered by the end of the show.

The cast were all excellent. Thomas Richardson was good as Antipholus of Syracuse, offering a convincing balance of comedy and innocence in his character. However, those Bird twins really stole the show with such energetic performances that we in the audience were left gasping (by the end, the pair themselves must have been knackered).

Comedy of Errors 4

Not one, but two Antipholuses – reunited with Mum

There was one particularly mad moment when all the characters were running manically from one side of the performance area to the other, joined in the melee by completely incongruous characters.  Michael Green’s review explains:

The lengthiest example of this process could possibly be my own personal highlight of the entire summer in the park as the director has the audacity to throw characters from Macbeth and The Secret Garden into a crazy chase scene of which the Keystone Cops would have been proud!  This lovely in-joke was a charming reward for anyone in the audience who had been loyal enough to catch up with all three productions in what has been another triumphant year for the Chester Performs-led project.

We both enjoyed Shakespeare’s punning in the scene where Dromio of Syracuse describes the kitchen-maid in the household of Antipholus of Ephesus:

No longer from head to foot than from hip to hip; she is spherical, like a globe; I could find out countries in her.

Ireland is in her buttocks: ‘I found it out by the bogs’. America and the Indies he found ‘upon her nose all o’er embellished with rubies, carbuncles’.‘ And where stood Belgium, the Netherlands?  ‘Oh, sir, I did not look so low.

The play concludes in one of Shakespeare’s most feel-good endings with Dromio of Ephesus indicating to his brother that now they have been freed from servitude, they no longer need to be one step behind another:

Let’s go hand in hand, not one before another.