The thing about this lockdown reviewing is that I can pretty much go where I want in the world. Over last weekend I found myself in theatres in London, Northampton and Edinburgh (all virtually of course). Today, I might visit New York and I’ve also got my eye on theatre productions in Sydney, Paris and Moscow. Last night though I was in the north west of England for I’m happy to say I hit upon Northern Comedy Theatre’s live Zoomed production of Doing Shakespeare. This is my 100th online review since starting out in March and I thought it would be too obvious to go for one of the big boys and watch another National Theatre At Home production or the RSC on BBC iPlayer. Instead I fancied a proper live performance even if I couldn’t see the rest of the audience. And that’s the thing about a live Zoomed play; you can, if you want to, imagine it is happening solely for your benefit. From the description I thought this play was bound to hit a chord as most Tuesdays I’m heading up a play reading group that puts on Zoom performances. Indeed, our virtual show tonight is actually a selection of Shakespeare’s finest moments – so absolutely perfect then.
Doing Shakespeare is a meta and of the moment comedy play about doing a Zoomed play production of a play on Zoom – with me so far? It has all the usual technological pitfalls, drawbacks and knotty moments on display…it’s funny when it’s someone else it’s happening to but not so funny when you’re in the midst of it. Indeed, so well-integrated is the content into the world of video conferencing that I couldn’t decide whether the occasional glitches were coincidental or cleverly planted into the fabric. Either way it works when the technology almost doesn’t – if you take my meaning. So, what of the actual content?
The six people who appear before us are all apparently from the Felching Players who are attempting an online digital Shakespeare festival (any similarity to Rob Myles’s actual The Show Must Go Online project – which I had a great time being part of six weeks ago – is, I’m sure, coincidental). This is all fine and good but, unfortunately, following earlier misunderstandings they have all been concentrating on different plays and they all want to stick with the one they’ve gone away and prepared. The group leader (or as he styles himself artistic di – rec -torrr) Tom (Connor Simkins) apparently listens to the others’ suggestions and then still does what he wants to do, which in this case is cast himself as King Lear. Ebon (Kieran Maleedy) wants to give his Hamlet, Rebecca (Vikki Earle) is up for doing Shrew and Jason (Rob Hardie) fancies himself as Romeo…and as Juliet…and as the Prologue and… Late comer to the meeting Terri (Kathryn Chambers) is convinced they decided on Macbeth and appears in full Witch outfit. Judith (Lauren Molyneux) would rather be watching cat videos or making cupcakes but has prepared the one Shakespeare play she knows and the one she always uses whatever play the group are actually doing – unfortunately, it’s the one least known by the greatest number of people. From this disparate group and situation, David Spicer draws a currently recognisable world where actors meet up virtually but still try to impose their own egos across the ether (c.f. David Tennant and Michael Sheen in Staged), where the frustrations of being an actor unable to perform in any other way mean that tempers soon flare and where if only people stopped talking for a moment and actually listened they might get something done.
The young cast of Northern Comedy, brings a great deal of energy to what they are doing. It’s difficult to judge just how good they might be as, in this, they are pretty much playing a bunch of incompetents. Given that, generally, you need to be pretty good in order to do that convincingly, I’m going to assume they were actually knocking it out of the park. I was particularly drawn to Kathryn Chambers who, with the standard videoed background of the northern lights, made a splendid witch and we also got to see flashes of her Lady Macbeth and the Porter. I also enjoyed Kieran Maleedy’s reactions to the running gag perpetrated on his character Ebon as the others kept tricking him into saying “Macbeth”. Actually, that raises a really interesting and fundamental question – just what is the etiquette surrounding the Scottish play and actorly superstition in this “new normal”?
The play is only 45 minutes but it would have been stretching the material a bit too thin for it to have gone on any longer; even so I did wonder whether the piece might have benefitted from a trim (wouldn’t we all at the moment?) The overlapping of the various Shakespearean pieces when the players decide to do a mash up was cleverly done and there were some interesting costume choices presumably cobbled together from whatever the Felching Players could find at home. Shaun Chambers’ direction kept things bubbling along nicely.
I’m glad I happened upon an ad for this production as watching the show suddenly made me realise what a great leveller this pandemic is turning out to be. Under normal circumstances, and I mean no disrespect, I would never have dreamed of attending this play from an unknown (to me) author performed by an unknown (to me) group. I also didn’t have to travel the length of England to get there – Dominic Cummings, eat your heart out!
Doing Shakespeare is available via the Northern Comedy Theatre website for the rest of this week. Click here for dates, times and ticket purchase
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