Review: Maxine Peake as Hamlet, at the Royal Exchange Manchester

Maxine Peake as Hamlet

Maxine Peake as Hamlet. Photo Jonathan Keenan

It’s the holy grail, Hamlet made fresh and distinct and specific and alive. You read it on every interview and every programme. Except how do you do that? Director Sarah Frankcom and company at the Royal Exchange Manchester found the way to a version of the play that – while it doesn’t do everything the play can do – is fearless, personal and closer to the heart than possibly any other Hamlet I have seen. It shakes the play’s heaviness and with immense confidence creates a world where ideas have an exhilarating quality and a whole layer of skin and grime has been scraped.

Maxine Peake’s Hamlet is a cross between a warrior angel (one of the beautiful lovelorn angels Philip Pullman writes) and the Little Prince. Unselfconsciously wise, relentless in gouging the truth out of everything, occasionally scary, earthy and alien, warm and mischievous and never more himself than when he laughs. While his insanity is not entirely an act, he is unperturbed by it. He knows something beyond the obvious. He is trapped at the beginning of the play, he finds a mission and a way out when he meets the Ghost, and goes home at the end of it. Peake is scorchingly good, above all in her ability to connect and hold the world at the palm of her hand: this Hamlet could raise an army if he wanted, and we are it. Continue reading

Photo of the week: Frances de la Tour as Hamlet (1979)

Frances de la Tour as Hamlet. Photo Donald Cooper

Frances de la Tour as Hamlet. Photo Donald Cooper

Tonight it’s the first performance of Maxine Peake’s Hamlet at the Royal Exchange Manchester, undoubtedly one of the most exciting theatrical propositions of recent months, and definitely the Hamlet I most look forward to.

The last notable female Hamlet produced in the UK was in 1979 at the Half Moon theatre, with Frances de la Tour in the title role. It’s alarming to think that’s 35 years ago, which means no one at my age could be reasonably expected to have seen a woman play the part.

This is what Plays and Players wrote about the Frances de la Tour production:

“In a square room flanked by props and scenery around the walls the audience is ushered to stand or sit wherever they can. It was soon realised once the production had got under way that there was nowhere safe to sit. The steps leading to a raised platform were the way to the castle battlements where the ghost of the late King Hamlet walks and where silver reflectors pick up the eerie light thrown from his shroud. A stage to the left of it becomes the room in Polonius’s house, a corridor in the castle, the stage where the Players enact the murder of the King, the Queen’s apartment and where it dips and rises on a slant, a panel is removed to disclose the grave where Ophelia will lie. At the corner is another part of Polonius’s house and along the wall from that an enormous throne, like a carved seated skeleton of a man.” Continue reading

Review: Titus Andronicus at the Bold Tendencies Peckham multi-storey car park

Christine Entwisle as Tamora and Adam Burton as Titus. Photo Hala Mufieh

Christine Entwisle as Tamora and Adam Burton as Titus. Photo Hala Mufieh

The play is the thing and the location is the play. As you enter the disused car park at the side of the Peckham cinema multiplex (past the dumpsters, down the alley, through a narrow metal door), you are greeted with posters (“Don’t miss this one-of-a-kind immersive experience!”) and signs guiding you to levels seven and eight. Titus Andronicus produced by The Theory of Everything and Restless Buddha makes a firm promise, with the writing – literally – on the wall. Does it deliver? It does when it counts and in its own terms.

Sprawled in the car parking space of level seven, the production – directed by Pia Furtado – is notable for its energy, atmosphere and the marriage of setting and text. Its world – turf wars with a touch of sixties car culture – is immediately recognisable as a place where human life has little value. In that context, the text sits comfortably but not passively. It hurls and jumps as much as the actors do. Words are lithe and the production’s physicality has its own brutal poetry: men crawl and hang from the ceiling, bodies disappear through metal doors, threat drips everywhere. Blinding car lights flood the long strip of concrete and suddenly it’s car races at the edge of a cliff. Continue reading

Photo of the week: Eve Best throws a rose to the audience (Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare’s Globe)

Yesterday, it was the last performance of Antony and Cleopatra at Shakespeare’s Globe and Duncan (Shakespeare aficionado extraordinaire) captured this beautiful photo at the curtain call: Eve Best throws a rose to the audience, while Clive Wood kneels at the background and the rest of the cast looks on.

The composition is perfect and the post performance energy – especially the exuberance of the last performance – is sharply  distilled.

Duncan’s other photos (most of them around Shakespearean performance) are beautiful too, and he writes a mean Shakespearean blog (mean as in excellent, not as in unkind!)

Review: The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Royal Shakespeare Company, RST – Stratford upon Avon

RSC The Two Gentlemen of Verona posterI was to start the review a different way and then I thought “screw it, let’s not faff about”: what I really liked about The Two Gentlemen of Verona – a Shakespeare play I hadn’t seen before and knew little about – was its unexpected feminist angle. Nominally, it’s a comedy about the vagaries of romantic love but it’s the other kinds of love that are well and truly tested: friendship, loyalty, and the love of one man for his dog. And the girls stand their ground much better than the boys. In the new RSC production directed by Simon Godwin, these qualities sparkle bright.

Valentine and Proteus grew up together in Verona and, although still close, have different aspirations: Proteus – his soul filled with romance – wants to woo Julia. Valentine – his soul filled with adventure – denounces romantic love and wants to travel. And so he goes to Milan where, as so often in life, his plans go awry, he meets Sylvia and falls madly in love. When Proteus is made to leave Verona and go to Milan, he promises Julia eternal love. But when he is reunited with Valentine and introduced to Sylvia, he himself falls infatuated, forgetting promises of love and friendship.

It feels like a young person’s play in the best possible way. All characters fumble with choices and unfamiliar feelings and the play’s pleasures come from seeing them gasp at new discoveries, in themselves and in others. Simon Godwin gives the story a modern – vaguely italian – setting but without gimmicks. He works the young angle by focusing on his four leads, who work exceptionally well together: they are all cut from the same cloth, a fresh-faced honesty and immediacy that colours each character differently but bounds them together. Whenever the four interact, there is friction of something real at stake, whether it’s the comic stumbles of love or the agony of a betrayed friendship. Continue reading

Review: Richard III (starring Martin Freeman), at Trafalgar Transformed (aka Trafalgar studios)

Martin Freeman as Richard, Lauren O'Neill as Anne. Photo Marc Brenner

Martin Freeman as Richard, Lauren O’Neil as Anne. Photo Marc Brenner

There is much to like about Richard III. He is an one-man slaughter house, although he is more the senior executive than the cleaver. He is manipulative but he confides in us. In that respect, he is a bit like Hannibal. We spent so much time in his head we might as well like him. Or even trust him. And here is the great truth about Richard III: everyone knows he is the villain so he doesn’t have to be played as one.

Martin Freeman made his name playing “good guys” but this is an oversimplification (as most things in the media are). His performances brim with intelligence and occasional frustration. As Richard III, he starts tentatively but quickly hits his stride. In the scene where Richard does the impossible and woos Anne over her husband’s dead body, the openness of his approach is both alluring and frightening. If his good guys are frustrated by their virtue, his bad guy is frustrated by the absence of ambition. That’s why he kills, because no one is as ambitious as he is. It seems fair. At least to him. He makes a pretty good case for it.

His performance is a rich combination of contempt, impatience, a sense of the ridiculous and a sweaty kind of wit, no more so than when he faces his nightmares. His final monologue is brilliant, his final moments – with a sly nod to Indiana Jones – worthy of a vile but seductive king.

Continue reading

Review: Much Ado About Nothing at the Royal Exchange Manchester

Ellie Piercy as Beatrice, Paul Ready as Benedick. Photo Jonathan Keenan

Ellie Piercy as Beatrice, Paul Ready as Benedick. Photo Jonathan Keenan

Maria Aberg’s As You Like It, performed in Stratford for the Royal Shakespeare Company last summer, was as beautiful and joyous as a Shakespearean production (or any theatre) can be. Her current production of Much Ado About Nothing for the Royal Exchange Manchester almost scales the same heights – indeed it does in most aspects but for minor reservations.

This is the second Much Ado in recent months set in the second world war. It captures a time of common purpose but also uncertainty, exhilaration and scarcity of means. Away from the battlefields, the men are weary and out of place, the women are in charge in a way previously unthinkable. With the character of Leonato changing sex – and played beautifully by Marty Cruickshank – there is a clear vision of women taking control and changing the world. In that sense, the lies targeted at Hero aren’t a random conspiracy but an ugly throwback threatening a better future.

The spectre of war is subtly present, no more so than when Benedick reasons “When I said I would die a bachelor, I did not think I should live till I were married”. Continue reading

Cross gender casting in theatre: the facts (as I made them up)

Forbes Masson as Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew. Photo Simon Annand

Forbes Masson as Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew. Photo Simon Annand

There has been media discussion lately about cross gender casting, mainly because high profile actresses talked about their desire to play male roles. This is surprising to me. The fact this kind of statement generates headlines that is, not the desire itself. Why would you be an actor and not want to play everything? And equally, why is suspension of disbelief perceived as problematic when it involves gender?

So I decided to think through some of the joys and challenges of cross gender casting. I did almost no research, so feel free to dispute any of my statements and I am sure everyone’s examples will be richer than mine.

1) Some of the discussion is tied with gender inequality and the small number of female roles in classical theatre. While this is true (and inequality isn’t always addressed in modern theatre either), is that poor justification for what is an artistic decision? Truth is, cross gender casting is far more exciting than that and can jolt the imagination in interesting directions, including – but not limited to – plays where gender politics have a central role. The recent The Taming of the Shrew at the Royal Shakespeare Company – with men playing women and women playing men – and The Shed’s Blurred Lines – with its all female cast playing all roles – are good examples. Continue reading

Review: King Lear (starring Simon Russell Beale) at the National Theatre, Olivier stage

Anna Maxwell Martin (Regan), Simon Russell Beale (Lear). Photo Mark Douet

Anna Maxwell Martin (Regan), Simon Russell Beale (Lear). Photo Mark Douet

There are three things you should know about Sam Mendes’ production of King Lear: it’s modern dress (more about it later), it achieves quite a few revelatory moments in the interpretation of the text (more about them later) and has a brilliant Lear in Simon Russell Beale. Maybe it’s true of King Lear what is true of Hamlet: it’s easier to have a brilliant central performance than having a brilliant production. If Sam Mendes’ King Lear falls short of true greatness, that’s more of an observation than criticism. The experience is rich and the rewards many, and any shortcomings become part of an intensely rich dialogue with the audience.

Simon Russell Beale’s Lear (short, with his head sunk in his body and quite reminiscent of Stalin in Collaborators) starts to show signs of deterioration early on. In the first scene, he has everyone under his thumb, unpleasant, mean, revengeful but his unstable mood picks through already. Did I miss the power of the king? I don’t think so. His bileful behaviour with Goneril in Act I, Scene IV is relentless and stomach-churning but underpinned with the abyss looking back. The moment he catches on – “O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven. Keep me in temper: I would not be mad!” – feels like an explosion, it creates a vacuum around him. Continue reading

Thomas of Woodstock rehearsed reading, Royal Shakespeare Company, Barbican

Thomas of Woodstock rehearsed reading photo2Even before it started, the Thomas of Woodstock rehearsed reading, performed by the RSC Richard II company at the Barbican on December 20th, looked to be remarkable on at least two counts: with about 700 people in attendance, this was the largest crowd in a rehearsed reading I have ever seen. And looking at the notes, I discovered original music had been written for it, an early sign – if nothing else – of how polished the performance was going to be.

Not to repeat what you can read in Wikipedia (and I would strongly urge you to read the entry), Thomas of Woodstock is a play by an anonymous author written between 1590 and 1595 that survives unfinished and without its original title.  It covers events in the reign of Richard II leading up to the murder of Richard’s uncle, Thomas of Woodstock. As this murder is the inciting incident in Shakespeare’s play, Thomas of Woodstock is often referred to as Richard II Part 1 as if the two plays can be seen as the same story. (This is not altogether possible: at the end of Thomas of Woodstock, Green is killed in battle, while at the beginning of Richard II he is still alive). Continue reading