December 20, 2009, by Peter Kirwan
Review of the Year
Rather than do a ‘Top Ten’ this year, I thought I’d be less reductive and do a month-by-month breakdown of my year’s early modern theatre-going. It’s been an interesting year, with some real ups and downs and productions which I still feel conflicted about. Still, here goes!
Propeller’s The Merchant of Venice at Liverpool Playhouse started the year on a fantastic note. Elaborate re-settings can be either curse or blessing on a production, but here the relocation to an all-male prison which turned the play into a story of masculine power struggles, illicit bribes and sexual cruelty worked wonderfully well.
Production of the month was the Tobacco Factory’s Julius Caesar, which used its intimate space to turn the play into one of subterfuge, shadow-games and boardroom politics. The Donmar’s Twelfth Night was a classic production in the worst sense: entirely obvious and with no real creative spark or interest for me, despite solid performances. Less dull was the Baxter Theatre/RSC The Tempest, a lively and colourful piece of theatre though still surprisingly conventional. More interesting were Propeller’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, an utterly magical evening, and the RSC’s touring Othello. With the focus too solidly on one (okay) central performance, the production remained unbalanced but with occasional flashes of imaginative brilliance.
My personal highlight in March was the chance to see the boys of King Edward VI School in Stratford perform two rarely-played pieces: Lyly’s Endymion and Middleton’s A Mad World, My Masters, both entertaining, hugely enlightening and a real pleasure. It was a good month for non-Shakespeare, with Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage getting a long-overdue airing at the National. Solid, if a little dull, but strong central performances justified the production. WUDS took Much Ado about Nothingto the Belgrade, while the first As You Like It I’ve ever enjoyed allowed me to see Leicester’s new Curve. With an immigration agenda, Dash Arts found beauty and intelligence in the play that created a thoroughly fascinating production. Finally, the Royal Exchange’s no-holds-barred Macbeth forced its audience to confront a barrage of brutal imagery, to great effect.
Back to the Tobacco Factory for Antony and Cleopatra, a fine and well-performed reading of the play. When considered in conjunction with February’s Julius Caesar, though, the two productions became parts one and two of a larger-scale piece that dramatically altered the focus of the story around Octavius and Antony. Northern Broadsides toured a high-profile Othello which was, in places, extremely good, and the CAPITAL Centre indulged in a bit of grave-robbing by resurrecting an early 20th century version of Hamlet.
Television brought us Compulsion, a reworking of The Changeling which was an interesting watch, and it was a good month for student theatre with an academic re-imagining of themes surrounding The Tempest and an enthralling ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore at Warwick Arts Centre. The RSC’s new season kicked off with a good Winter’s Tale, design-heavy and with several strong performances,and a less good As You Like It which I found smug, artificial and not particularly funny, despite a stunning Oliver Martext. Both featured the new long-term ensemble, giving some sense of what to expect over the next three years. Shakespeare’s Globe started their year with a surprisingly decent Romeo and Juliet: I didn’t like the Juliet, but a strong Mercutio and some good fight scenes left me entertained.
WUDS continued an early-modern-heavy year with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a heavily-directed and physical piece, full of energy. The best production of the year was at the National, with All’s Well that Ends Well re-imagined as a fairy tale. With stellar performances, intelligent chopping and, among other things, a Parolles that allowed the character sympathy as well as mockery, this was one I would have happily revisited several times. Shakespeare’s Globe produced the best As You Like It I’ve ever seen: genuinely funny, moving and engaging. The Bridge Project’s The Winter’s Tale completed my London excursions with a play of two halves: a wonderful Leontes and compelling Sicily scenes matched by a pretty silly and not very lively second half, though still a great production overall. In Stratford, Julius Caesar didn’t turn out as well, with an over-fussy design and too many ideas- though several of those were great.
Hamlet in the West End was the celebrity performance of the year, with Jude Law excelling in the title role, though weakly supported by a production that just didn’t push itself, and featured the horrendous sight of understudies trooping on stage and standing in lines when court scenes needed extras. The RSC’s Comedy of Errors, meanwhile, was their best of the year: I’ve never seen a cast appear to have such a good time, and I hope the kids on the school tour loved it.
Just one, in a quiet summer. Troilus and Cressida at Shakespeare’s Globe was an overall triumph, with a couple of reservations. A strong ensemble company brought the play to life, and Laura Pyper’s Cressida was, to my mind, one of the most important performances of the year.
was my month off!
I’m not quite sure how I managed to have such a quiet Autumn, but a chance to see All’s Well that Ends Well on screen via the National’s NT Live Project was welcome. It’s still nowhere near as good as seeing it in the flesh, but this screening persuaded me that there is some merit to seeing the play up-close: subtleties, particularly in the character of Parolles, came across very well.
A children’s version of The Tempest, designed with the hard-of-hearing in mind, made sign language a beautiful part of a physical performance. It’s a difficult one to judge, but I found it entertaining enough. At the complete opposite end of the spectrum was Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s marathon Roman Tragedies, grouping together Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra into a six-hour promenade performance in Dutch. A near-indescribable event, with invigorating performances, incisive commentary on the mediation of news and history, and a set-up that allowed me to eat, drink and check my e-mails while watching theatre, which is an approach I would heartily encourage as many theatres as possible to embrace. The RSC’s Twelfth Night featured a ludicrously obscure setting (Byronic Albania?!) but was a hugely enjoyable night out, with good comic performances. It was slight, though, compared to the improved Days of Significance which toured the country. Still with plenty of intelligent things to say about both Much Ado about Nothing AND UK foreign policy, it remained as powerful a piece of theatre as when I first saw it two years ago.
Aside from Warwick’s Shakespeare Society giving a low-key All’s Well that Ends Well, there was only one production this month, but a good ‘un. Two Gents Productions gave a township-influenced The Two Gentlemen of Verona; or, Vakomana Vaviri ve Zimbabwe which remade the play in its own image. Very, very funny, but ending on a dark note of pain and humiliation that resounded far more powerfully than any other image I’ve seen in the theatre this year. It’s a great way to end 2009, and I can only hope that the coming months bring more moments like it.