Education Education Education

Early May 1997 was a big deal in the world of education, though not because of anything that was actually happening in schools but rather because of what was occurring in Westminster. John Major’s Tory government had been swept away after 18 years of power by the landslide victory of Tony Blair’s New Labour and a sense of optimism and a bright new future pervaded staffrooms up and down the land. I can well recall the feeling that in David Blunkett (new Education Secretary) there was someone who would fight schools’ corners and Tony Blair himself had promised us the earth, hadn’t he … so what could go wrong? A devised piece of theatre I saw last night attempts to provide some perspective on events.

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As someone who spent rather more years at the “chalkface” than he perhaps cares to remember I was fascinated to see what a production which looked back to the state of education in the late 1990s would make of this particular time’s contribution to the way we are today. The Wardrobe Ensemble’s Education Education Education premiered last year at the Edinburgh Festival and won awards as well as good reviews from the critics. It has now moved to Shoreditch Town Hall for a short residency.

Titled after what was, perhaps, Tony Blair’s most famous sound bite (“She was the people’s princess”, aside) this short sharp 80 minute play treats us to a very special day in the life of Wordsworth, a bog standard comprehensive just about avoiding special measures and saying goodbye to its Year 11s as they go on study leave and rampage around the school on muck up day. It is also the day following the landslide election victory which saw the Labour Party end 18 years of Conservative rule; the teachers are jubilant as they anticipate a much improved professional future. Our narrator figure is Tobias, the young newly appointed German language assistant; he thinks Britain is the coolest place on earth to be but finds just one day in his new job rather taints his optimistic view. For the pupils are evidently out of hand and the teachers are possibly more childish than their charges. Then there is misunderstood and rebellious Emily, a Year 10 girl with “isshues” who starts a protest in the canteen and eventually physically harms a member of the staff. It is Tobias’ first day in the school; it will prove to be Emily’s last.

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The actors are extremely energetic flinging themselves around the stage to the point where I felt tired on their behalf. The seven strong ensemble play all the characters, both adults and children using broad brushstrokes to delineate characters quickly and efficiently. Some of these are somewhat stereotyped – the weak head, the gorgon deputy, the well-meaning but ineffectual English teacher, the somewhat dense PE teacher. Having said that I certainly met those type of people myself and in this fast paced and short piece there is little room for subtle development of character. I was strongly reminded of the John Godber play Teechers which, coincidentally, also started life in Edinburgh. 

Staging is extremely minimal, though none the less ingenious, and the various locations – including the school roof – are cleverly depicted aided by appropriate lighting and a highly effective soundscape. The music soundtrack is very important to the action and the nostalgia laden classic late 90s pop drew murmurs of recognition from the audience. This and the extreme precision of the inventive choreography helped the piece move seamlessly from scene to scene. I don’t know whether it was the acoustics of the venue or some of the soundtrack being too loud but there were some parts of the dialogue that passed me by; however, I don’t think I missed anything too important.

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My main criticism is that the first 15 minutes or so failed to give the audience a central plot on which to concentrate.  Rather it was a series of comic sketches which painted a collage of school life. Amusing and droll as these undoubtedly were I began to fear that the whole piece was going to be little more than an excuse for the performers to demonstrate their abilities as comedians.  Then as we began to focus on Emily’s troubles and Tobias’ reactions the piece gained in strength and purpose. I think this can be a problem with devised pieces when there is no central writer with a clear idea of where the narrative is heading.  A rather heavy handed trope about King Arthur and the golden age of Camelot also did not add much to the experience in my opinion.

An undoubted strength, though, was a reminder of just how silly the late 90s could be. Cool Britannia, shag bands, Britpop, Tamagotchis, cheese strings, the Macarena, the UK’s last Eurovision win (yes, it was that long ago – Katrina and the Waves, since you ask). All the above and many more drew nostalgic beams of delight from the audience – the majority of whom would, I estimate, have been in school themselves at the time; as indeed was I, albeit on the other side of the staffroom door.

Does the play paint an accurate picture of May 2nd 1997 in comprehensive schools and their hopes for a new dawn? I’d say it does and it manages to do so in a way that is both entertaining and thought provoking. The secondary meaning of “education” is an enlightening experience – for Tobias, Emily and the Shoreditch audience it certainly was.*

The song “Things Can Only Get Better” brought the play’s proceedings to a close. An anthem of hope ironically used to highlight what has happened since. If hope has declined in the intervening years (and I think most people in standard education would say that it has) this play is a timely reminder of how things were when things had reached crisis point and how they might have been… if only.

*This review first appeared on the website of Sardines Magazine.

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Divide? It Certainly Did!

Have you ever read reviews after watching a show? And have you ever felt: “Did they see the same show, I did?” Or “Have they even seen the same show as each other?” Such were my feelings after going online to see what others thought of The Divide – “a narrative for voices” by the prolific Alan Ayckbourn currently at the The Old Vic.

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Some context first. As the astute among you will have seen this is not designated as a play and is not even listed as such amongst the official canon of works on Ayckbourn’s website. Even so it has now been presented on stage in both Edinburgh and London but it is more in the nature of a novel/graphic novel running originally to some 80,000 words.  Set in a bleak dystopian future where men and women are segregated, the narrative consists chiefly of the diary extracts of the two main protagonists, sister and brother (Soween and Elihu), supplemented by council minutes, court transcripts, emails and letters, etc. In keeping with the wide ranging freedom afforded by a full length work of prose, the piece ranges across a multitude of settings and contains a host of characters. The first rehearsed reading took 8½ hours. At Edinburgh the piece was divided (how apposite) into two parts which ran for a total of 6 hours. Its present incarnation at the Old Vic stops just shy of 4 hours. But then that’s what happens when a piece of prose is dramatized – the RSC’s famous production of Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby ran for nearly 9 hours and this was seen as one of its strengths.

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Not so here for many critics. Edinburgh reviewers were consistent in condemning the piece as too long and this seems to have informed the decision to make the Old Vic version leaner. Yet there is still dissatisfaction. Trade magazine The Stage brands it “four hours long, and devoid of drama”. The Evening Standard opines that “it warrants further trimming”. Both reviewers award two stars. On the other side of the critical divide (!) both The Times and The Telegraph opt for four stars with the former stating “I’d say the time flies “and the latter claiming that “a lumbering dud has become a spry delight”. Plus ça change!

Of course length is not the only consideration. There are also comments that there is far too much exposition (sorry, but that IS the nature of the piece) that characters do not develop (true, some do not but that is by no means universal) and there is a lack of conflict (patently not the case). The problem here is that some critics are trying to impose the structure and tropes of a play onto something which is not a play and was never intended to be.

I wrote it under very extraordinary circumstances because I just wanted to write something I couldn’t even see myself directing. I just let my mind go into free fall – in the sense that I threw my constructional kit away – and I just wrote something that went on and on and which still hopefully obeyed the rules of narrative and character, but that was probably unstageable. It was like nothing I had ever written before. (AA)

The critics are pretty unanimous though when it comes to the staging, the design and the acting all of which come in for considerable praise.

download soweenSo where do I stand in all this? Difficult. I don’t think it’s any secret that I’m an Ayckbourn fan and I see this piece as the culmination of a long strand of dystopian fiction in his work – plays such as Henceforward…, Comic Potential and Surprises among others are all set in future imperfect worlds. However, they are still primarily about personal relationships and I don’t think there has been an attempt to picture a whole community in this way before – though the early 1960s piece Standing Room Only is set in a world where a family are living on a double decker bus with the whole country being in permanent gridlock. So it’s very wide in scope and there are a lot of characters and concepts to introduce. I think the current production actually does this with some verve and even wit. Whatever the feelings about overall length there is no doubt that the piece is pacy, energetically staged and beautifully lit. The use of video projections on curtains to suggest a waterfall and to display the various diary entries and Soween’s school essays are masterfully done. The small orchestra and choir provide empathetic underscoring at key moments and the monochromatic colour scheme of the costumes and settings enhance the key idea of the division between the genders. In all, director Annabel Bolton has done a remarkable job in pulling together something which even the author admits is basically unstageable.

divide1Nor do the performances disappoint. As Soween, Erin Doherty is utterly convincing as the young heroine who grows in both age and understanding. She is delightfully gauche in her dealings with others and convincingly bewildered about the changes that are staring to take place both to herself and the society she lives in. The rest of the predominantly female cast is universally excellent with the stand outs being Weruche Opia and Finty Williams. I was, perhaps, less convinced by the male characters – possibly because there were relatively fewer opportunities to observe their side of The Divide (a result of the editing?).

My only real gripe was the extended coda in the last twenty minutes when things were allowed to wind down far too slowly. While this gave a sense of what happened after the further shifts in this society, the tension evident earlier had gone and it all seemed a bit too cosy for comfort. In the main (though I wouldn’t go as far as this five star review which seems to have no criticisms at all) I’d say it was an interesting experiment, even a bold attempt to do something entirely different and, if forced to put a rating on it, opt for something like 3.5 stars. Personally I look forward to the mooted 2019 publication of the project in book form – far closer to its original intention and something which can be pored over at leisure. Whatever else it is heartening to see Ayckbourn still pushing back the boundaries of the dramatically possible – one thing on which, perhaps, we can all be united.

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Peeping Tom encounters

PTA museum where the pictures keep mysteriously changing until they are all identical; a printed diagram of a heart which spouts real blood; a young woman whose birth screams segue straight into a blues rock song called “Cry Baby”; a desultory seventh birthday party for a girl who has spent her entire life in an incubator; a woman singing a torch song to a recalcitrant coffee vending machine which then electrocutes her. These are some of the highlights of Moeder (Mother) with which I found myself involved last week at the Barbican.

Anyone who followed my previous blog (https://bottomdream16.wordpress.com/) will know that this is not the first time I have found myself onstage at this prestigious venue. However when I went through the stage door for the last time twenty months previously I assumed that that would be it as far as my professional stage career went (that’s the stage being professional – I would never make such exaggerated claims!). And then a couple of months ago a call went out for some stage extras “of a certain age” to take part in a production by the renowned – they won an Olivier Award in 2015 – Belgian physical theatre company, Peeping Tom (Sorry if you’ve read this far expecting something more racy based on the title!). This was to be part of the London International Mime Festival in early 2018. Well I thought about it for about three seconds but the lure of going back to an old haunt to relieve some cherished memories proved irresistible and I applied.

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A couple of weeks ago my participation was confirmed along with that of my theatrical colleague David Taylor. David had been our local director for the Midsummer Night’s Dream project with the Royal Shakespeare Company  and I had always felt just a little guilty that the rest of the team and I had the joy of getting on stage while David had not had that pleasure. So it was good to know that this situation would finally be remedied and that he could get to feel what it was like to be facing an audience in such a vast arena.

I wasn’t really sure what I was letting myself in for and the notion of physical theatre and mime were somewhat scary. But if I had learned anything from the RSC project it was to step up to a challenge and face it head on. I thought some research might prove enlightening; however, the Barbican’s own description of the piece on its website probably raised more questions than it gave answers:

Peeping Tom evoke a dreamlike universe, at once disturbing and oddly humorous. A production of astonishing physicality that defies characterisation. This non-narrative work draws on the memories of director Gabriela Carrizo and her performers to trigger disquieting reflections about motherhood. Suffering, desire, fear, life and death are unexpectedly intertwined. The soundscape has a cinematic quality, sometimes amplified to disconcerting effect. It is matched by surreal visual imagery and choreography of rare imagination where bodies bend, flip, isolate and contort.

As I was to discover, they sure got that right! Snippets and extracts of the company’s work on You Tube and pictures on their own website (www.peepingtom.be/en/) confirmed the enigmatic nature of their work. I did discover that Moeder is the middle part of a planned trilogy, that the company had already devised and performed Varder (Father) and that the final instalment, scheduled to be premiered, in 2019 will be Kind (Child). Beyond that I was pretty much in the dark about the work and what would be expected of us extras – or as we were rather more ostentatiously being called, supernumeraries.

 

So it was that last Wednesday afternoon I found myself once more signing in at the stage door of the Barbican. This unleashed a flood of happy memories of my time there in 2016; in a sense it was a bit like going home. As well as David there were three other mature participants equally unsure of what was to come as well as young Chloe and her chaperone. Eliza from the Barbican production team and Lulu, Peeping Tom’s tour manager, greeted us and took us up to the dressing rooms – a very familiar location-  and then we went onstage (another lump in the throat moment) and met director/choreographer Gabriela Carrizo who gave us a bit more information about our appearances in the show. We were first to follow the funeral cortege of the mother figure (the piece starts with her demise) and then become visitors to the museum where the majority of the action takes place. Costumes were then selected – these were quite plain and neutral – and after some sound check work a run through began.

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The supernumeraries – a new breed of superhero

Given that the first performance was scheduled that evening it was a steep learning curve but Lulu was constantly present to give us cues and remind us of what to do and when and so it flowed reasonably smoothly. Actually a lot of it was about maintaining a blank expression and keeping very still – in marked contrast to the eight main company members who couldn’t have been more animated if they tried. They were, of course, very well seasoned in what they were doing; it transpired that they had already performed the piece 83 times in their native Belgium and elsewhere globally. And they certainly needed to be slick, coping with multiple costume changes,  timing moves to a constantly changing soundtrack which was enhanced by Foley techniques (named after sound-effects artist Jack Foley, this is the reproduction of everyday sound effects that are added to enhance audio quality), and adding some incredible vocal contributions of their own. In one particularly harrowing sequence the mother appears carrying the supine body of a child and ululating (sorry, it’s the only word that will do) like a thing possessed. I didn’t know a human being was capable of such a sound and even now I’m haunted by it. If that makes the piece seem like a doom laden tragedy throughout then that is far from the truth. The actors had a fine line in deadpan delivery that was, at times, truly hilarious and the more surreal aspects wouldn’t have been out of place in a sketch by Spike Milligan crossed with a painting by Rene Magritte – I presume the repeated appearance of a tuba onstage was an homage to the Belgian master of the absurd.

 

In fact the varied nature of the work – intense, raw and savage one moment and playful, whimsical and quirky the next all added to the rich texture which was created. It was the sort of piece which revealed more of itself every time we watched as we extras supernumeraries did from the wings each performance. My admiration for the performers grew with repeat viewings not least for the almost extraordinary physical contortions that they were able to deploy to twist themselves into unworldly shapes. That said I’d still be hard pressed to say what it all finally meant. Perhaps you can decide for yourself by watching this video which seeks to give a flavour of what certainly ranks as one of the most extraordinary experiences of my acting life.

A National Institution

1a24832ccc71a06e4f4672c5145d153a--theater-posters-anonymousI’ve been going to the National Theatre now since the year it opened in 1976. The first production I saw was Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers (about time that was revived) and since then there have been many dramatic highlights along with one or two stinkers (Victor Hugo’s The Prince’s Play anyone?). I was reminded of the sheer breadth of the work done in the building when prior to seeing  a production I found myself browsing round their current National Theatre Posters exhibition. If you’re going to a production there anytime soon I’d certainly recommend getting there early to have a quick game of “How many have I seen?” But the real reason I was there was to see Amadeus. This was a play I’d first seen in 1979 (1979!) and was definitely one of the aforementioned highlights so I was looking forward to this revival with some anticipation. To me the National has recently gone through a bit of a downturn. Partly in its desperation to attract new audiences it has tended to alienate its core – at least that’s how I see it. So it was with high hopes that I once again took my seat in the Olivier auditorium to revisit a play I’d first seen all those years ago.

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Posters of original and current productions

It can’t be often that I have been called upon to review a production that has already been granted a slew of four/five star ratings; it really does suggest that you are going to have a great evening. And so it was when I sat down in the Olivier auditorium last night for Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus. First performed at the National Theatre in 1979 this production is a revival of a revival which appeared between late 2016 and early 2017. It was a complete sell out at the time and so, astutely, the National have brought back Michael Longhurst’s scintillating production for a glorious reprise.

As I am sure readers will be aware, the plot consists of the rivalry between court composer Salieri and the upstart crow Mozart. The former conceives an innate hatred of the latter and engineers his fall from grace and eventually his death – or does he? For this is, among other things, a memory play and we all know just how notorious that faculty can be. By making these claims is Salieri aggrandizing his own part in history as he struggles with being the mediocrity that he privately acknowledges himself to be?

 

The cast is universally excellent and of the less “senior roles” I particularly enjoyed Matthew Spencer’s Emperor and Christopher Godwin’s turn as the misanthropic Baron Van Swieten. A special mention also for Adelle Leonce as Mrs Mozart – Constanze. The scene in which she visits Salieri and he suggests “recompense” for advancing her husband’s career has real resonance in these post Weinstein times and I suppose that’s the point – thus it ever was! However, any production of this play stands or falls by the casting of the two central roles and, in both cases the 2016/17 production actors return to parts that now fit them like a pair of gloves.

Lucian Msamati is Salieri, at war with his fellow composer and with the God he feels has let him down. Well bedded into the role by now Msamati is a charismatic central figure and as an actor is certainly not the mediocrity which his character claims himself to be. He addresses the audience with a clarity of thought and diction that kept us hanging on his every word and is thoroughly convincing as both the old man in his wheelchair and his much younger past self.

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Adam Gillen reprises the role of Mozart, a shambolic man child with a potty mouth and a tendency to throw tantrums when he can’t have his own way. Nevertheless he is the musical genius who has survived the march of time and, especially towards the end, Gillen makes him a sympathetic figure who dies tragically young  and who could perhaps have gone on to even greater things. Some critics have pronounced Gillen’s characterisation to be too infantile and accused him of over egging the pudding but I would humbly suggest that they are missing the point. As well as being the central figure of the play, Salieri is also the (unreliable) narrator of proceedings. And so we see Mozart entirely mediated through Salieri’s point of view. Just as he is in awe of Mozart’s music, Salieri is appalled by the young man’s behaviour and demeanour. So it is entirely right and proper, in my view, that Gillen plays Mozart to excess.

The real coup of the production is the use made of the twenty strong Southbank Sinfonia playing all the music live. Nor do they sit quietly in an orchestra pit or, as is more customary, find themselves relegated to a corner of the stage. They are front and centre throughout, often playing on the move and interacting with the cast – indeed they are part of the cast functioning as an orchestral Greek chorus and adding a real edge to the proceedings. The whole is topped off with half a dozen actor/opera singers who perform snippets of Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute, et al. I’m no opera buff but the gentleman sitting next to me clearly was and at the interval declared himself “entranced” by these elements.

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Magnificent use is made of the Olivier stage and for once there are enough performers to fill it; the recent production of Sondheim’s Follies took a similar tack and perhaps heralds a return to serious theatre as spectacle. Heaven alone knows what the wages bill for these two productions alone must have been! Lighting was suitably atmospheric and used to shrink the vast expanse of the stage when more intimate scenes were taking place. Costumes ranged from period (the actors) to modern (the musicians); particularly striking were Salieri’s golden outfit and Mozart’s pink Doctor Marten boots cleverly suggesting at the same time both the delicate and thuggish aspects of the character.

Shaffer’s play is rightly acknowledged as one of the masterpieces of 20th century theatre. I was lucky enough to see the original production with Paul Scofield, Simon Callow and Felicity Kendall and Longhurst’s production certainly gives that a run for its money; indeed the thrilling use of the live musicians might even give it the edge. Salieri may repeatedly claim his mediocrity and as a narrator be questionably unreliable; I am very happy to say that this returning production is definitely neither.*

After a bit of a sluggish period it looks like the National is returning to its former glory days. The last two productions I have seen there have both been of exceptional quality and really made use of the space available. Here’s to its continued revival.

*This review first appeared on the website of Sardines Magazine.

Pigs Do Fly

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Pink Floyd have always had an enigmatic unknowable edge. As Guardian critic Alexis Petrides observes: “Few bands in rock history have ever been as creative in their attempts to distract attention from themselves”. I managed to see the group live on three occasions in the 1970s/80s on tours promoting their albums Wish You Were Here, Animals and The Wall. Not so much concerts as multimedia spectaculars, these performances were notable for their (then) innovative use of sound systems, light shows, pyrotechnics, video, inflatables and gigantic props. In The Wall concerts the group took alienation to extremes, hiding itself behind a gigantic wall for much of the second half of the show. Plenty of interesting fuel then for the retrospective exhibition Their Mortal Remains at the V & A Museum.

Museum going can be as dull as the proverbial ditchwater and leave you feeling that you have attended out of some sort of cultural duty. Not a bit of it with this extravaganza though. Carefully curated, fascinatingly presented, comprehensive and often moving, this exhibition is a feast for the senses and if you are of a certain age (as I am) it will undoubtedly bring back many memories of adolescence/young adulthood.

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Gateway to a mind blowing experience

You know you’re in for something a bit different when you start by entering through an oversized replica of the band’s tour van to find yourself firmly back in the mid 1960s – all Bridget Riley walls covered with trippy posters and flower power clothing; you can almost smell the joss sticks. Alice must have felt like this when she fell down that rabbit hole. The early days are dominated by the presence of Syd Barrett and there is a particularly sweet letter to a girlfriend of the time. But, of course, his personal troubles meant an early departure and David Gilmour’s recruitment to become part of the classic line up.

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The famous flying pig outside the V & A

From here the exhibition is largely chronological with some brief diversions into themed elements (film music, sound recording techniques, etc.) and this means that things get progressively grander and larger than life. At the midpoint of the exhibition (late 70s/early 80s) you find yourself in a room dominated by an enormous flying pig – as well as a flying fridge exploding with worms, a flying Spitfire and flying Gerald Scarfe designed characters from The Wall. This is Floyd and their collaborators at the height of their creativity (or their most ludicrous depending on your personal point of view). From here it is a slightly more genteel decline in bombast towards the new millennium but the spectacle and surprises are never far away. I was particularly taken with a full size reproduction of the album cover for A Momentary Lapse Of Reason. Constructed by resident Floyd designers Hipgnosis it features seven hundred hospital beds in a river formation stretching off into infinity. No Photoshop manipulation in those days – this was seven hundred actual beds; apparently the whole thing had to be reset the day after the original photoshoot as bad weather had ruined the picture!

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The final room of the exhibition is a tour de force and a reminder of what the band did best – playing music; obvious really but a timely reminder of why they got as big as they did. Footage of their first single Arnold Layne gives way to the band’s brief reunion at Live 8 in 2005, the whole immersive experience relayed through state of the art AMBEO 3D Audio Technology (me neither). More shivers down the spine! I don’t think I’ve ever before been to an exhibition which received a standing ovation from those attending but then that was just one more unique aspect to finish a unique experience.

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The “Wish You Were Here” room

One caveat – having spent two and a half hours (unquestionable value then) immersing myself in artistic achievement and rich memories, I could have done without the rank commercialism which presented itself in the form of a huge souvenir shop into which we were thrust on leaving. Haven’t the V & A ever listened to the lyrics to “Money”?

Although the whole kit and caboodle is apparently going on tour (how very rock and roll) there’s not long left to get yourself to Kensington; but if you don’t you’ll miss a huge treat. What a sensational event.

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What a site!

I went to the theatre last night. Nothing odd/interesting in that you may be thinking but this was a theatre in a different vein – an operating theatre. To be precise it was the Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret near Guy’s Hospital. I was there to see a performance of a new play Rebel Angel (more of which below) which gave me pause to reflect on the rise of site specific theatre over the last ten years or so. As you are probably aware this is when a play is designed to be performed at a unique, specially adapted location other than a standard theatre. I can’t say I’ve seen that many productions in such a location and have always been slightly wary of it being a gimmick used to turn attention away from the fact that the production itself isn’t that good. However, there is no doubt that such locations lend a certain frisson – I loved the recent idea of setting Sweeney Todd in a pop up pie and mash shop for instance. And there is no doubt that the Old Operating Theatre certainly fitted what I was about to see. What follows is my review of the piece.

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2017-08-10_103814_rebelangelBeauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. So run the closing lines of John Keats’ Ode On A Grecian Urn. And it is with this, at the time, half formed realisation that the young poet is struggling during the course of Angus Graham-Campbell’s play Rebel Angel. The young Keats (though he never really lived long enough to be anything but young) is a promising medical student learning to be a surgeon in the days before hygiene was de rigueur and operations were performed without benefit of anaesthetic. But he is also an admirer of Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron and the other Romantic poets and longs to emulate his literary heroes. So he turns his back on the prospects of immediate success in medical science which he is beginning to find ugly and frustrating and places his faith in the shining possibilities of the arts and creativity. It is this dynamic which forms the tension at the heart of the play.

Appropriately the site specific setting of this piece of drama is still in a theatre but of the surgical variety being The Old Operating Theatre Museum (near London Bridge). Indeed the play begins with the traumatic amputation of a 14 year old’s leg and it is this that proves the beginning of the end for the promising young surgeon. The set for the recent BBC2 comedy Quacks was clearly based on this location and both before and after the show it is interesting to see the “chamber of horrors” in which contemporary surgical equipment is displayed. Do not expect comfortable seating but with the piece running to just 75 minutes that is not a major issue.

2979_1506069412The piece, although short, is quite wordy and dense (much like a Keats poem?). In this it betrays its origins as a radio play and although the arguments put forward are interesting there are few moments of real tension. After all, we already know the path Keats will eventually choose. Along the way, though, there are some interesting scenes. In an early flashback we see the even younger Keats with his mother already caught between the worlds of the imagination and practicality. In another the protagonist becomes Antonio in The Merchant of Venice about to suffer the ravages of Shylock’s surgery/butchery.

As John Keats, Jonny P Taylor dominates proceedings with an assured performance. He radiates a quiet intensity which gradually builds throughout the piece and clearly demonstrates the budding poet’s disillusion with the life he will lead if he chooses to continue as a medic. Avoiding the cliché of the pining poet, Taylor gives a steady account of the writer’s struggle with his own conscience and the stated wishes of others. That said I think, physically, this actor might have been better suited to playing Lord Byron; there was little suggestion of the consumption/TB that was to finish Keats off just a few years later.

2979_1506069428All the other characters were played by an ensemble of six actors. These included Keats’ fellow surgical students, his mother and his guardian, various friends, a pair of shady grave robbers and the great early 19th century actor Edmund Kean with whom Keats seems to have been a little obsessed. None of these roles are particularly showy and with a small cast playing multiple parts it is sometimes difficult to keep up with who is who. There was perhaps a need for more differentiation both in the script and in the production design; I felt particularly for Polly Edsell who takes on all the female roles.

Keats, of course, eventually chooses the aesthetic pleasures of poetry over the brutal reality of surgery. In doing so he is likened to the “rebel angel” in Milton’s Paradise Lost and the last moments of the play see him about to depart from London clutching a copy of this poem given to him as a parting gift from a friend. Keats has made his decision and turned his back on his old life to embrace literature and posthumous fame: Better to reign in hell, than serve in heav’n.*

So a site specific convert? Not quite but it did help this particular piece ring true and it did give an edge to exploring the different types of theatre (operating, dramatic and of the imagination) so pertinent to the central character’s life. Perhaps I’ll try and mount a site specific production of Alan Ayckbourn’s Way Upstream set on a real cabin cruiser on an actual river. Should be interesting; just need to decide how to accommodate an audience!

*This review first appeared on the website of Sardines Magazine.

The next big (Canadian) thing?

DMCA Torontonian relative of ours tells me that the coming man in Canadian dramatic circles is the playwright Jordan Tannahill…. and she’s an agent so I guess she’d know. Variously described in the press as ‘the future of Canadian theatre’ (NOW Magazine), ‘the hottest name in Canadian theatre’ (Montreal Gazette), and ‘the posterchild of a new generation for whom “interdisciplinary” is not a buzzword but a way of life’ (The Globe and Mail), Mr Tannahill looks set to reinvent the art form. For instance his piece Draw Me Close: A Memoir  has its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival…but it isn’t actually a film. It combines live performance, virtual reality and animation and has been created in partnership with our own National Theatre. If the trailer is anything to go by it would seem to be an intriguingly bold piece and a step further in boundary pushing than even the RSC’s recent production of The Tempest.

For now though access in Britain to the playwright’s work takes a more conventional form in a production of his 2013 chamber piece Late Company. Here’s what I thought when I saw it last week.

LCFor the first few minutes of Jordan Tannahill’s highly recommended play Late Company at Trafalgar Studios 2 it seems that the title is going to refer to some tardy guests delayed appearance at an evening meal. However, it soon becomes apparent that it actually refers to the hosts’ son, Joel, who is never going to show up because he has died in tragic circumstances. Even so his mother Debora has pointedly still set a place for him at the dinner table and she and husband Michael are clearly having “grief issues”. It transpires that the Dermot family (mother Tamara, father Bill and son Curtis) have been invited round to pick over the bones of what has happened and particularly to examine the part that the latter has played in classmate Joel’s untimely death.

What starts off as a civilized attempt (at least outwardly) to confront issues and share grief soon degenerates into blame apportioning, mudslinging and recriminations. Tannahill takes a surgeon’s knife to the five characters suggesting that they all, in their own ways, have played a part in the tragedy; even Joel himself is not sanctimoniously portrayed as an out and out victim. Thus all are to blame while, at the same time, no one person is.

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The five actors in this short and pacy piece are universally good. As the two mothers Lucy Robinson and Lisa Stevenson are shown as the driving forces behind the meeting (though each has her own distinct agenda) and when it comes to it are prepared to defend their sons against all comers. Robinson is particularly heart breaking as the bereaved Debora whose early metallic exterior is emphasised by a clever choice of costume and the displayed (somewhat phallic) steel sculptures which she has created. As we suspect this is all a front and she is, in fact, the first to crack; the actress handles this superbly. Stevenson as Tamara is at first eager (over eager?) to please but reveals hidden depths as the piece progresses and is every bit as protective as her counterpart. In the less showy roles of the two fathers, Todd Boyce and Alex Lowe are able to explore some of the political and class conflicts examined in the play. Thus they reveal their own prejudices which led to Joel and Curtis being the young men that they are/were. As Curtis, David Leopold, has perhaps the most interesting journey to make. Starting as a somewhat stereotypical monosyllabic teen embarrassed by his parents and more interested in his mobile phone than anything else it would be easy to see him as a one dimensional bully. But the cleverness of the writing means that he is ultimately seen as the most tragic figure – both he and Joel are equal victims recalling the lines of one of Philip Larkin’s most famous poems.

Direction by Michael Yale is taut and fluid though (and this was probably just from my seat) there were one or two unfortunate blocking decisions which meant that a major speech became less effective as I gazed at another character’s back for far too long. I also felt the one (key) moment of physical violence failed to work. The cast had clearly done their homework in providing authentic Canadian (rather than generic North American) accents though perhaps words like “out” and “about” were a little over emphasised. These minor quibbles aside though I was kept engaged throughout as this dinner party from hell proceeded along inevitable lines. The set floor, cleverly extended into the audience, made those of us watching feel both part of the action and, at the same time, voyeurs into some uncomfortable moments of truth.

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The play raises many interesting questions about parenting, class, gender, sexuality, relationships and the Internet and if, in the end, there are no actual answers provided then this is how it should be. Tannahill has set out to raise issues not provide solutions and in doing so to hold a mirror up to his characters’ actions and mind sets. That said, I had a nagging feeling all through the evening that I’d seen this play before. Plotwise it most closely resembles Yazmina Reza’s God of Carnage where again two families meet up to discuss their offspring’s hostile reactions to each other in an ostensibly civilized manner before descending into recriminations. But ultimately I was reminded more of J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls which concludes that while no one person is responsible for the suicide of another, all are partially and collectively culpable…. and perhaps that includes we silent onlookers too*.

So an interesting, if a somewhat more recognisably conventional, introduction to this new(ish) writer’s work. Unlike novels and poetry (cf Margaret Atwood and Leonard Cohen, for instance) I confess to finding it hard to name another Canadian playwright of note. Perhaps that’s all about to change, eh?

*This review first appeared on the website of Sardines Magazine.

Mr Peake & Mr Pye

 

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So begins one of the quaintest and unusual short novels of the 20th century, Mervyn Peake’s Mr Pye. Harold Pye boards the Guernsey to Sark ferry in St Peter Port and in mid August I found myself following in his footsteps. This was part of a brief hop to the Channel Islands and one I was looking forward to especially as the author of the said book had spent a not inconsiderable amount of time on Sark himself during which he planned out and wrote what I regard as one of the greatest sustained flights of imagination in literature – the Gormenghast trilogy (Titus Groan, Gormenghast and Titus Alone).

Sark (left) and Brecqhou

During the 50  minute crossing to Sark (itself just 3 miles long by 1.5 miles wide) I continued to remind myself of Pye’s pilgrimage as he brings a message of love, peace and mutual co-operation to the unsuspecting islanders such as his aggressive landlady Miss Dredger, the insecure artist Thorpe and the island’s resident sexpot Tintagieu. It’s not often that the chance to follow a novel in situ happens but this added an extra twist to my rereading as various other smaller islands such as Herm and Jethou slid by. Right next to Sark itself is Brecqhou which today is the home of the billionaire Barclay brothers and the source of much local controversy.

The local transport system

Soon we (along with Pye himself) were disembarking onto on island most probably renowned as a place where the car – or indeed any other motor vehicles with the exception of farming tractors, lawn mowers and mobility scooters – are prohibited. [For any US readers please think Mackinac Island in Michigan – ironically not all that far from Detroit the home of the American auto industry]. Harbour Hill is a steep climb and the easy way up is via the tractor bus, known locally as the “toast rack”. Once at the top it was time to have a quick wander and coffee before taking the round island tour provided by horse and cart. The shoreline views from Sark are highly picturesque and the tranquil pace at which one proceeds along the cart tracks (no paved roads here) is a reminder of how much simpler life can be without the constant roar and buzz of vehicles not to mention the consequent significant drop in pollution levels. The choice not to have street lighting apparently also makes it a perfect location from which to star gaze.

Highlight of the island scenery is the narrow (3 metres in width) causeway that joins Big Sark and Little Sark together and known as La Coupée. This high ridge 80 metres above the sea was reconstructed straight after World War 2 by German prisoners after the Channel Islands liberation and provides dizzying views. My main reason for wanting to see it was that the climax of Mr Pye takes place there; not that I had got that far yet in my rereading. I won’t spoil the ending by revealing what happens – please read the book and find out or if that’s too onerous take a look at the delightful Channel 4 serial from the mid 1980s which featured Derek Jacobi in the title role.

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Mervyn Peake self portrait

While our very friendly cart driver had given us lots of information about Sark, of Mervyn Peake there had been no mention. So I took the plunge and asked if she knew what house he had lived in while there. I was surprised that the information wasn’t readily available – obviously he wasn’t such a big noise on the island as I might have supposed. I mean I know he doesn’t have the international reputation of a J.K.Rowling or even a Jeffrey Archer but I had supposed that as a well known artistic figure in the area he might have come in for some “bigging up”. I’m assuming you, dear reader, are much more knowledgeable….but just in case you’re also going “Mervyn who?” you should know that he was a fiction writer, poet, playwright, war artist (he visited German death camps shortly after their liberation), painter and an exceptional illustrator – particularly of children’s books. His life was tragically cut short by Parkinson’s Disease but fortunately not before his crowning glory the Gormenghast trilogy was completed (actually he had it in his head to write a whole series of these novels before his rapid decline and demise).

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Me dealing with one of the judges on Masterchef

Gormenghast is quite simply unique in literature and if you’ve yet to discover it I urge you to read it. Fantasy fiction aficionados will love it (though it’s not really fantasy fiction); lovers of Dickens will relish the characterisation and use of language, fans of Gothic literature will recognise that genre’s influence. In 2013 I got to realise an ambition when I was cast in a stage adaptation of Gormenghast as the homicidally unhinged castle chef Abiatha Swelter.

 

 

Not the local conveniences but the Sark nick

Anyway, I digress*… really digress! Fortunately the very nice lady at the Sark Information Centre (next to the two person Sark prison!) could and did tell me more about Peake’s time there. Peake and his family actually came to Sark on more than one occasion and rented a large house quite near to the highest point of the island (the Old Windmill). It’s now a private residence so no going round it unfortunately; there wasn’t even any hint of a blue plaque….I can feel a campaign coming on! And so I had to make do with visiting what used to be the island gallery which had once displayed Peake’s work but was now one of several nick nack shops along The Avenue – the nearest thing Sark hads to a High Street. Amongst the usual (slightly disappointing) tourist paraphernalia there, at last, were copies of some of Peake’s books. So maybe there is a small section of the local community that can and does recognise Peake’s achievements.

Following a very tasty try of the local Sark scallops cooked in someone’s kitchen and served on their front lawn (and, OK, the obligatory Channel Islands ice cream) it was time to head back down to the harbour – unlike Mr Pye I was due to return to Guernsey. I buried myself in my book on the way back and with this in one hand and a tourist map in the other I was able to pinpoint where all the action of the novel was occurring and have very fresh memories of several of the places featured in the story. Fortunately the novel is quite short so with a concentrated effort I was able to get all the way through it on that same day. As I sat in bed that evening Mr Pye was headed for La Coupée in a desperate bid…..ah but hang on, I’m not telling you that bit, am I?

To finish here’s some of Mr Peakes’s fabulous art work –

Clockwise: Illustration from Mr Pye, Hitler, The Ancient Mariner, The Avenue on Sark, Long John Silver
*The writer of this blog would be happy to take this author as one of his specialist subjects should he ever find himself on TV’s Mastermind.

Keeping Up With The Dreamers

One of the ongoing joys of being part of last year’s Dream2016 players is keeping up with the subsequent appearances of the various professionals from the show. Thus only the other day while channel hopping I came across Ayesha (Titania) as part of the regular Holby City team. I know from reading recent reviews that Chu (Oberon) is still with the RSC playing the Duke of Marlborough in Queen Anne and Jack (Lysander) has found himself in one of the hits of the moment Ink which is scheduled to transfer to the West End in the autumn. It’s also been fun going to see some of the most supportive people I’ve ever met in action. Thus I’ve enjoyed Alex (our Bottom understudy) in Made In Dagenham, Mari (Peaseblossom) in a touring production of Pride and Prejudice and Lucy (Puck) twice in her solo outing in Grounded and as part of the company in Arturo Ui at the Donmar.

 

 

Most recently, though, I attended a performance of a new play Mrs Orwell at the Old Red Lion fringe theatre, Islington where I was delighted to see Peter Hamilton Dyer (our Egeus) in the lead role of the celebrated author. Here’s my thoughts on this production.

It is late 1949 and renowned author George Orwell is lying in his own personal Room 101; for him “the worst thing in the world” is that he may not be able to continue to write. For he is in a hospital bed suffering from recurrent tuberculosis which has left him weak and forbidden to work even though he feels he has at least three more novels in him. Salvation, of sorts, arrives in the form of Sonia Brownell, an assistant magazine editor sixteen years his junior, to whom Orwell proposes a platonic marriage. Despite finding a degree of happiness Orwell survives only another three months leaving Sonia a widow and the fearsome protector of his literary estate.

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The beating heart of Tony Cox’s Mrs Orwell is the relationship between Orwell and Sonia. What were the latter’s motives – genuine affection, mercenary money grabbing, pity? What did Orwell really hope to get out of it (“a mistress, housekeeper, nurse, literary executor and mother for Richard”?) We are never really told and this makes the piece all that more intriguing. Proud Haddock’s production of this new play at The Old Red Lion Theatre in Islington proves to be a strong one with two excellent central performances.

Despite being called Mrs Orwell the play’s key figure is undoubtedly the writer himself. As played by uncanny look alike Peter Hamilton Dyer, Orwell starts as an irascible curmudgeon with very fixed views on, among other things, how to make the perfect cup of tea; he is also fiercely defensive of his literary work. Hamilton Dyer’s performance is captivating and rewarding making us care for this deeply principled yet inflexible man who sees a last chance for inner peace. As Orwell’s health briefly improves at the start of Act 2, so Hamilton Dyer’s performance grows in stature as the writer plans a return to his beloved Isle of Jura and reflects on his past experiences in the Burma police and the Spanish Civil War. Cressida Bonas gives an assured performance as Sonia. She is both enigmatic and haughty and conveys a clear sense of inner turmoil as she struggles to do the right thing by herself and her dying friend.

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Peter Hamilton Dyer as George Orwell and Cressida Bonas as Sonia

A suitably and believably louche performance by Edmund Digby Jones as artist Lucian Freud adds a note of conflict to proceedings and a solid turn by Robert Stocks as publisher Fred Warburg helps to place the Orwells’ dilemmas in a wider context… though the potted history of Orwell’s career by the latter seems to come far too late in proceedings to make much difference and might have been better confined to the programme.

Director Jimmy Walters keeps a tight hand on proceedings and ensures that the action flows seamlessly across the play’s episodic structure. The set, by designer Rebecca Brower, is little short of a miracle given the amount of space at the production’s disposal. It even includes a soulless corridor (reminiscent of one of the Ministries in 1984) where much of the secretive conversations between Orwell’s visitors take place. I’m not sure if miking these scenes is an absolute necessity but I have to say I found this somewhat distracting for what were supposed to be whispered exchanges.

However, this is a minor gripe and in the end it did not detract from the overall strong nature of the production. The play gives a fascinating glimpse into the last days of a great author and I hope it will continue to have a life beyond the fringe. It would make an excellent TV drama on BBC 4 but wherever it ends up it should certainly take Hamilton Dyer and Bonas with it. To quote Orwell himself the production is definitely plusgood.*

So that’s my latest foray into the world of the ex-Dreamers. And what’s on the horizon? Well our wonderful assistant director Kim Sykes is tackling Marlowe’s Dido Queen of Carthage at Stratford upon Avon and our very own Ben Goffe (Mustardseed) is in the cast. Chris Nayak (Demetrius) is just about to appear in the cast of King Lear at the Globe. And for those of you not in town Tarek Merchant, our talented MD and mastermind of so many Dream warm up sessions, is in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town at the Royal Exchange in Manchester. Sam Redford (Theseus) is set to appear in the second series of hit TV drama Dr. Foster. I’m sure there’s plenty of the others up to stuff so please forgive me if I’ve not mentioned them – without becoming a full time stalker it’s hard to keep up with such a talented bunch.

*This review first appeared on the website of Sardines Magazine.

Shakespeare…from last to first

I admit that I am probably rather biased when it comes to productions mounted by the Royal Shakespeare Company. After spending 18 months working with them on A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation I think it would be strange if I could view their work entirely dispassionately but in the interests of a truthful blog that’s what I intend to try and do. Although I had been to see their production of Cymbeline some months ago, that was more in the interests of completion (see below) than anything else so it had been some while since I had seen any of their work. I was, therefore, looking forward to the two productions I saw more recently with a sense of expectation.

TempestFirst up was The Tempest at the Barbican. This was a rerun of the much anticipated production which premiered in Stratford upon Avon in 2016 and brought to an end the year long celebrations of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Not only had the RSC secured Simon Russell Beale as Prospero but they had decided to push technological boundaries by working with Intel and the Imaginarium Studios to create never before seen on stage special effects. Rather as the RSC had chosen Dream specifically to work to incorporate amateur actors, so this play was the clear choice to produce a stage picture which owed much to the masques of the Jacobean era with their use of visual spectacle and “magic.” The play opened with a huge storm at sea and some interesting projection made the carcass of the ship (the production’s setting) sway from side to side. Food appeared and as suddenly disappeared on a banqueting table. Highly coloured moving backdrops gave depth to the song of the goddesses. Central to all this visual splendour was the character of Ariel portrayed this time by an actor (Mark Quartley) working in a motion capture suit and then having the images projected onto the stage – the same technique used to create Gollum in the Lord Of The Rings films. Thus Ariel could be seen to fly, appear in multiple locations very rapidly, turn into a winged harpy and genuinely float unseen among other unaware characters.

Ariel

So did it all work? Well yes and no. The visual effects were, as advertised, different and arresting. The first time Ariel appeared and the actor’s image was projected there was a definite moment of tingle but I’m afraid after that I found it somewhat distracting. I was never quite certain whether to watch the image or Quartley (often at different points on the stage) and found myself focusing on the latter from where the words were clearly issuing. I thought some of the projections (e.g. Prospero’s “hounds” which chase Caliban and his co-conspirators) worked rather better. It had struck me by the interval that what we were essentially watching was quite a traditional take on the play overlaid with innovative technology and I think it was the rather more basic take on the play which I felt let things down. That and the fact that over the years I’ve probably seen The Tempest more often than any other Shakespeare play which lent it an air of over familiarity – it was often on the A Level syllabus and so there were plenty of school outings. The worst was Vanessa Redgrave mangling it as Prospero at The Globe and the best being another RSC production back in 1983 directed by a then relatively unknown Sam Mendes with Alec McCowan as Prospero and a much younger Simon Russell Beale as Ariel (yes, you didn’t misread that!)

Talking of SRB, how was he in the central role? As mesmerising as ever with a fine sense of character and such clear diction – he could read the proverbial telephone directory and make it sound interesting in my view. Would that some of the rest of the cast had come up to his extremely high standard rather than, seemingly, going through the motions – Jenny Rainsford as Miranda an honourable exception. The comic characters I found tedious and the various lords uninteresting; actually there’s nothing new there because basically they are uninteresting.

So I left the Barbican with mixed feelings. I was glad to have caught up with the production to see what technological marvels could be achieved onstage nowadays but if I don’t see another Tempest for a while I don’t think I’ll be sorry.

The Tempest is often cited as Shakespeare’s final play – at least the one that is solely by his hand – and contains his great farewell to the stage. My second RSC visit in a week was to one of his first Titus Andronicus. Shakespeare’s plays (particularly the early ones) are notoriously hard to date but let’s go with the RSC’s own timeline which has it as number 5. This time I found myself back in Stratford upon Avon for the first time in a year (my last blog post explains the context for this) and sitting in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

TAFrankly I wasn’t expecting that much of this production; early Shakespeare/a random plot/clunky poetry/lots of blood and gore – but how wrong I was. The play was thoroughly gripping with very clear direction (Blanche McIntyre) and some excellent performances. David Troughton as Titus himself was superb and all the other actors were equally engaging. A special mention goes to Patrick Drury as Titus’ brother Marcus who really invested his character with a high degree of believability in one of the less showy parts (though to be fair he does get one of the best speeches in the play). Saturninus, played by Martin Hutson was reminiscent of far too many conniving figures in modern day media based politics and Nia Gwynne excelled as a slinky Tamora, the Goth Queen.

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What bloody man is that? (Wrong play!)

And so to the blood. Yes there was plenty of it as limbs, heads and a tongue are hacked off, stabbings and shootings take place and Tamora’s sons are ritually butchered – even an ill-fated fly meets a grisly end. But there was a macabre tone of black humour underpinning it all which kept most of the audience rapt, though two members of my party confessed to watching the most graphic bits through one eye behind their fingers! I’ve heard more than one critic say that this is Shakespeare doing a Tarantino and indeed the bloodshed and playfulness with language was entirely reminiscent of said film director: the closing banquet scene and mass killing were straight out of Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction. Given that Shakespeare predates Tarantino by several millennia though, perhaps the influences are rather more the other way round.

The thing that was really telling was the element of surprise. Even though I had an idea of the story outline this is one of the few Shakespeare’s I have never seen on stage before so it had the power to keep me hooked simply because I didn’t know what was coming next – unlike The Tempest. Whatever else, that Shakespeare bloke certainly knew how to tell a compelling story. Anyway that’s one more of Shakespeare’s plays ticked off the list. I’m not doing badly though it’s taken a number of years and I now have just five more plays of his left unseen on stage. Anyone care to take a guess which ones? Please post guesses below. (One clue: I’ve seen all the comedies)

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