December 22, 2010, by Peter Kirwan
End of Year review
It’s been a relatively quiet year on the Shakespeare front, though still enough to justify a quick round-up of the year’s high- and low-lights.
There have been a few too many routine productions this year for my liking. Specifically, the National Theatre’s Hamlet and the Bridge Project As You Like It typified the safe, conservative approach that I personally find most unrewarding. While yes, these productions would doubtless have been great for those coming to the play fresh, and were perfectly well done, the part of me which takes a broader perspective on theatre history is concerned that the weight of tradition encourages artistic stagnation, which in turn will render the plays irrelevant on the contemporary stage. Both were fine, well-acted and just a little bit dull.
Happily, the RSC chose this year to push the boat out a little bit further. Rupert Goold’s Romeo and Juliet, apparently going from strength to strength in London at the moment, was a flawed but genuinely exciting production which took bold risks. Accompanied by a fascinating Antony and Cleopatra and a servicable King Lear (with the excellent Greg Hicks in the title role), this was the year that the RSC’s current ensemble began to show what they were really capable of.
Elsewhere, there were other pleasures to be had. The Almeida’s Measure for Measure finally delivered the first production of that difficult play that I’ve ever been able to genuinely enjoy (and restored my faith after an abysmal student production at Warwick). I missed, to my eternal regret, the Globe’s Henry IV plays, but did get to the richly characterised Henry VIII and the over-fussy, but theoretically interesting, Macbeth. If Lucy Bailey can resist the urge to throw in bells and whistles that distract (literally – I couldn’t hear actors speak over her bloody whirring curtains), she’s going to return to giving us some fantastic Shakespeare. Almost simultaneously, Cheek by Jowl brought their deconstructed version of the Scottish play to the Barbican. While consummately acted, it left me cold; this overly self-conscious production felt to me to veer too far towards using Macbeth as mere material for theatrical tricks, rather than interpreting the play in any meaningful way.
Far more exciting was the other Barbican Macbeth by Song of the Goat theatre, a Polish company who also deconstructed the play, but wove the text into an intricate verbal tapestry of song and words accompanied by frenetic and energetic physical theatre. This was my production of the year, by some considerable way, and was accompanied by some other marvellous international theatre. Two Gents Productions gave us 2010’s most inspired Hamlet in a two-man Zimbabwean take influenced by Shona tradition, while America’s Tiny Ninja Theater reimagined Romeo and Juliet for tiny plastic figures, providing an amusing yet surprisingly moving rendition of the play.
Shakespeare for children has really been in the spotlight, with several major companies presenting large-scale productions for young people. The RSC’s superlative Hamlet led the way, showcasing some of the younger actors in the ensemble and taking risks that the adult productions had been reluctant to. The National produced Prince of Denmark, a surprisingly sophisticated new play that provided a useful and enlightening prologue to Hamlet. The same theatre’s touring Twelfth Night, however, was hideous – dull, dumbed-down and with some appalling subliminal messages for young children (casual sexual abuse in the workplace is funny, kiddies).
There has been less Shakespeare than usual in the line-up because I’ve been pursuing productions of more obscure plays in line with my doctoral work. The year’s crop of apocryphal productions yielded a dull and frustratingly limited Yorkshire Tragedy at the White Bear, and two excellent productions of Arden of Faversham at the Rose Bankside and Theatr Clwyd Cymru that proved the play’s efficacy as a comedy. The publication of Double Falsehood in the Arden Shakespeare inspired a number of performances, including a rehearsed reading at Warwick that I assisted with, another at Nottingham Playhouse, and a full amateur production at the Union Theatre, Southwark, which has inspired plenty of fodder for an article I’m currently working on. Flawed but fascinating, Double Falsehood is now back in the repertory on its own terms, and there’ll be more chances to see it in the new year.
The Rose Bankside played host to Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy (too funny for my taste) and Soliman and Perseda (fantastically engaging, a real triumph for a young company), both making a strong case for academics to be paying attention to the Globe’s younger cousin. Dekker was represented in Stratford in the form of The Shoemaker’s Holiday, in an entertaining performance that perhaps didn’t work hard enough to grab its open-air audience. On a much larger scale, the National’s Women Beware Women was the year’s big Middleton in a production with lots of ambition, but let down by a concern for style over substance. Marlowe’s Faustus played at Manchester’s Royal Exchange in an over-long but spectacular version, while a stripped-down, modern-dress version of Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore played at Liverpool Everyman, finding a surprisingly successful kitchen-sink drama at the heart of the play. Finally, two very obscure revenge dramas got strong academic rehearsed readings: the Globe’s Alphonsus, Emperor of Germany was too long but proved to be thoroughly entertaining, while the Marlowe Society’s stab at Hoffman was a resounding and inspiring success, supported by a following conference.
I’d like to say I’ll be seeing much more in the new year, but thesis deadlines and a tight budget may prevent me catching everything I want to see. Look out, though, for the RSC’s Macbeth and Cardenio; the Globe’s All’s Well, Cheek by Jowl’s Tempest, Propeller’s Comedy of Errors and Richard III, the Bridge Project Richard III, the Tobacco Factory’s Richard II and Comedy of Errors and the Mumbai National Theatre’s Clown Hamlet. There’s plenty more to look forward to, but those are my priorities for the year.
What have been your favourites?
Dear Peter, thank you so much for writing this blog. For those of us living and working in remote parts of the world, where productions of Shakespeare are infrequent and atrocious, it is wonderful to have such a thoughtful summary of what’s happening at the cutting edge in London. Heartfelt thanks.
You’ve covered all the excellent stuff there. I’d only add a brief mention of the BBC Four broadcast of the Patrick Stewart Macbeth which wins my prize for the year’s best Shakespeare on television.
David, it annoys me when people diss small town productions. There are many amateur dramatic productions that are of excellent quality. You don’t have to go to the metropolis to find drama at it’s best. The local church hall is often buzzing with talent.