December 31, 2011, by Peter Kirwan
2011 round up
It’s been a transitional year for The Bardathon. In August, I submitted my PhD at the University of Warwick (our kind host here), and two weeks later I began a new job at the University of Nottingham. These two changes have impacted significantly on my ability to get to the theatre this year, which means that unfortunately I’ve been able to review much less than usual. Added to this, the year’s major Shakespeare has been dominated by big, very expensive West End productions which were prohibitively priced for this humble student. So, apologies to regular readers that it’s been a leaner year than usual. However, there was still plenty of quality on show, and this year happily took in not just the usual Shakespeare but several rarely played pieces, as well as plays by Marlowe, Middleton, Chapman, Field, Fletcher, Massinger, Rowley, Heywood and Marston, and several pieces of new writing.
January saw me attend Discords, a devised piece by Fail Better featuring University of Warwick students. While a little abstract for my tastes, it played fascinatingly with the sounds of key Shakespeare scenes and offered some striking images.
A busy month this, and rich enough for an entire year. First to London, for yet another Double Falsehood. This one was fast and entertaining, with strong directorial intervention making theatrical capital of Theobald’s text. I have a review of this production coming out in a book in 2012. Twice to the cinema, for the thoroughly entertaining Gnomeo and Juliet and for a live broadcast of the Donmar’s King Lear. The two couldn’t have been more different, but both worked tremendously: Gnomeo was colourful, funny, and had a postmodern twist in its tale that saw a character confront Shakespeare (in statue form) directly to change his own fate. Derek Jacobi, meanwhile, did wonders as Lear, while Michael Grandage directed an intimate and heartwrenching production that even survived the temporary breakdown of the satellite transmission. In the live theatre, Propeller offered an unusual double-bill. The Comedy of Errors was the highlight, anarchic and energetic without sacrificing a syllable of the verbal wordplay. The foyer entertainment was even better than the show. Richard III, meanwhile, drew on grand guignol for a production that cast Richard as one cog in a relentless butchering machine, and in which the true terror was a gloved butler with a pocket watch. More straightforward, but no less rivetting, was the always wonderful John Heffernan as Richard II in Andrew Hilton’s production. The key was the ceremony and the calm delight Richard took in his own authority. And there was the first in a double-bill of student-written two-handers at Warwick, To Will, appropriate in a year obsessed with Shakespearean biography.
Another rich month, this time with adaptations and student theatre. The Shakespeare Institute Players presented King John in a fluid and surprisingly funny production, and Warwick University Drama Society offered a courageous but badly flawed experiment by presenting Antony and Cleopatra as a playground skit. At King Edward VI school in Stratford-upon-Avon, meanwhile, Perry Mills’s boys presented John Marston’s Antonio’s Revenge, an attempt to move beyond comedy that did the boys full credit, but was less entertaining than previous outings. At Warwick Arts Centre, the Company Theatre of Mumbai brought the extraordinary Hamlet, The Clown Prince, for which I can only direct you to my full review. The year’s finest piece of theatre, however, was Cheek by Jowl’s phenomenal return to form with the Russian ensemble performing The Tempest. Original in its reading of characters (especially Miranda), provocative in the collapse of the entire theatrical artifice and visually stunning in its various images, this was my highlight of 2011. At the RSC, the Little Angel Theatre presented a fun but very conservative alternative with its own Tempest, and I returned to Bristol to see the Richard II company assay The Comedy of Errors in a much slower version than Propeller’s, but one effective in its relative restraint and gesture towards comedy of manners.
April saw the beginnings of a comedown after two wonderful months of theatregoing. Many of my peers loved it, but I disliked Bond, a Chinese operatic version of The Merchant of Venice. Perhaps it was the jetlag on my second night in the US, but while the performances were phenomenal, the conventions of the form left me bored. I enjoyed the other "event" piece of the month, though: Camille O’Sullivan’s audacious reading/singing of The Rape of Lucrece. A cinematic disappointment was served up in Julie Taymor’s The Tempest. Despite the trumpeting surrounding the casting of Helen Mirren as Prospera, this was a deeply conservative version of the play, tedious to watch on screen, and even the CGI was poorly done. At the RSC, Michael Boyd’s Macbeth was another disappointment, despite a stunning set. Gimmicks couldn’t mask the weak performances and a generally flat evening. However, Gregory Doran’s Cardenio was a triumph. While I had some fundamental issues with the production, particularly its treatment of the rape scene, Doran and his team of actors made fine work of turning it into an enjoyable entertainment, with plenty of fireworks (literal and metaphorical) and some wonderful acting.
A second visit to Cardenio qualified some of my thoughts about that production, but this was a month of rarities and new experiences. In London, I caught a rare outing for 1 Henry VI, which used the whole space of the Rose Theatre to tremendous visual effect, but suffered from messy editing and a lack of attention to acting standards. An entertaining version of the first quarto of Hamlet was performed at the White Bear Theatre Pub, which would have been even better had the production fully committed to the concept rather than also trying to crowbar in the characterisation offered by the more familiar texts and stage history. I took part in a staged reading of Field and Fletcher’s The Honest Man’s Fortune in Canterbury, and the Institute Players presented Chapman’s The Memorable Masque in Stratford. Both events offered fun insights into pieces almost never staged. An odd, cabaret-style evening of snippets was offered at the Globe, but of far more interest was a rare outing for All’s Well that Ends Well. John Dove wasn’t afraid to allow the play to be funny, and there was a great deal of heart even in Bertram and Helena’s relationship. The month peaked, however, with two stunning productions at the RSC. Jo Stone-Fewings headed a tremendous cast in Massinger’s The City Madam, combining humour with genuine malice. The cast seemed to thoroughly enjoy the Caroline camp, and the play offered a surprisingly prescient message for these troubled times. Better, though, was Rupert Goold’s marmite The Merchant of Venice. This split audiences, but I wept at Susannah Fielding’s fragile, conflicted, difficult reading of Portia.
Just two plays this month: the sequel to To Will at Warwick, With Will, imagined a conversation between Shakespeare and Middleton, continuing this year’s trend for imaginative biography. At the RSC, the National Theatre of Scotland revived David Grieg’s Dunsinane, a provocative piece of new writing set after Macbeth that drew uneasy parallels with the coalition presence in Iraq. How does an occupying army consolidate its position in a culture it fundamentally does not understand?
The best I could say about a student production in Prague of The Winter’s Tale was that the cast had done extraordinarily to learn a practically full text in a second language; but as a performance, it wasn’t great. The biography strand continued with Jonathan Bate’s play Being Shakespeare. Simon Callow owned the stage, but I have to say that Jonathan’s book Soul of the Age did the job of the play far more satisfactorily. A spectacular Doctor Faustus at the Globe offered some great images, but dragged a bit in delivery. Finally, I expressed a certain amount of anger about Aporia Theatre’s presentation of Cardenio in Stratford – not just because it’s not that play at all, but also because it denies Thomas Middleton public credit for his wonderful Second Maiden’s Tragedy. The production did a good job, apart from a crass ending. Not the finest month.
The Bardathon went medieval this month, with the Globe’s fantastic Mysteries and an evocative student production of Everyman in Stratford. I also got the chance to finally cross off two big items on the to-do list: my first full production of The Two Noble Kinsmen (rather dull), and my first English-language Titus Andronicus, which also happened to be my first experience of the Edinburgh Fringe (predictably "edgy"). On a larger scale, Nancy Meckler delivered the biannual Midsummer Night’s Dream for the RSC in a production which I found rather uninventive, but was widely loved. I was fascinated, however, by my first Heywood play – Katie Mitchell’s A Woman Killed with Kindness at the National. The split set and Ibsenite trappings were intriguing, but too much was lost in the translation to a faux 19th-century melodrama, not least the complexities of the relationship between Anne and Frankford.
Just two indifferent productions this month. The Tempest at Middle Temple Hall boasted a beautiful setting and a simple beauty, but no real interpretation of the play. Othello at Sheffield Crucible, meanwhile, boasted two wonderful actors in Clarke Peters and Dominic West, but the production itself was slow, unimaginative and entirely straightforward. By now in my new job, I found myself craving some Shakespeare that took on the text in a far more interesting way.
Just two productions again, but far better. In Stratford, a new company called Ketterer’s Men put on Hamlet in tribute to their (and my) late friend Lizz Ketterer, who passed away far too young earlier this year. Cripplingly long, the players nonetheless offered an intimate and textually astute version of the play that reminded me that Hamlet can still be entertaining in and of itself, rather than in gimmicky or heavily cut versions. In Manchester, meanwhile, I was pleased to catch an intelligent updating of Edward II that borrowed the aesthetic of Elizabeth II’s coronation and turned the relationship between Lightborn and Edward into something compelling and dark.
The year in Shakespeare Studies was unfortunately dominated by the Authorship Controversy, and in November I finally got to see Anonymous, the film which had become a rallying point for the naysayers. I actually enjoyed it, despite its many flaws – and the idea it posed any threat to serious scholarship is laughable. I finally experience Nottingham student theatre with a modern update of Macbeth, and returned to Stratford once more to see the Institute Players perform The Changeling in an unfortunately cut but still interesting version. Yet another riff on Cardenio was offered at the Globe, this time in the form of a rehearsed reading of Gary Taylor’s reconstruction, which boldly created a Don Quixote mainplot which was a resounding success, even if I didn’t particularly like the play’s ending. My continuing exploration of theatres local to Nottingham met with disappointment at Lakeside Arts Centre with Mappa Mundi’s rather lame version of Much Ado about Nothing (particularly disappointing in a year when I apparently missed two very good productions at the Globe and the Wyndham’s Theatre). However, the always-reliable Filter provided a rousing climax to a mixed year with a raucous, irreverent and outstanding Dream that took audience interaction to a new level, particularly in an uncomfortable but undeniably fun foodfight.
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That’s it for 2011. I don’t know yet what 2012 is going to bring, apart from looking forward to Propeller’s upcoming Henry V and Winter’s Tale, Cheek by Jowl’s take on John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, Headlong Theatre’s Romeo and Juliet and the RSC’s promising versions of The Taming of the Shrew and Measure for Measure. It’ll be a good year for Shakespeare on screen too, with Ralph Fiennes’s Coriolanus, the BBC’s new versions of the second tetralogy of history plays and a live screening of the National’s Comedy of Errors.
I also don’t know yet where the blog’s going to go this year. As my Warwick accounts expire, I may take advantage of the opportunity to migrate to a new platform. In the meantime, thank you for reading, and I hope to see you here in the new year. Happy holidays!