James McAvoy does pop up Shakespeare at Trafalgar studios (and smashes it out of the park)

James McAvoy Rehearsed Reading Trafalgar studiosYou have to forgive me for what I am about to do. I don’t do it often and I don’t do it lightly. I have been going to the theatre long enough to know the unknown actor who has three lines will dazzle you and the big name headlining the production might leave you cold (or more likely, crack under the pressure). Then again, some big names are big names for a reason. On my way to Trafalgar studios for the one off event titled “The Moment Before I am Powerful” (a series of Shakespearean monologues riffing on power), I discovered James McAvoy was in the cast. This was excellent news: a baby-faced actor with a mischievous disposition, McAvoy has a knack for reluctant superheroes and Shakespearean generals and junkie cops in meltdown and nerds and gambling addicts. And I loved his Macbeth. To put it mildly and with some restraint, I was excited.

Even so, I was quite unprepared for what happened next: this is a rehearsed reading, actors are relaxed and don’t go about it at full whack (they hardly had any rehearsal after all). Lauren O’Neil did the “Speak the speech, I pray you” from Hamlet, and Deborah Findlay was a sharply moving Volumnia, even more so than I remembered from the full production of Coriolanus last year. Paapa Essiedu materialised from under a desk (was he there the whole time?) to be a playful Mark Antony and Cynthia Erivo was beautiful as his Cleopatra.

And then, James McAvoy did Mark Antony from Julius Caesar, Act III Scene II, all the speeches from “Friends, Romans, countrymen” onwards. Off book. Continue reading

My Night With Reg at the Donmar: additional thoughts, undiluted worship and an ill-thought crossover with The Pride

Julian Ovenden as John, Geoffrey Streatfeild as Daniel. Photo Johan Persson

Julian Ovenden as John, Geoffrey Streatfeild as Daniel. Photo Johan Persson

This blog has always been intended as a diary, and it’s only fair I write about what’s on my mind the most. Putting it this way, a second post about My Night With Reg is long overdue. To use a phrase John uses, Kevin Elyot’s play knocked me for six and I have spent a good deal of my time thinking about it, not least because I can’t bear to let it go. The ramblings that follow are the result.

Ten ways I love My Night With Reg (SPOILERS ahoy, I talk about the plot. A lot. Also sexual references. So we are clear). You can find my original, spoiler-free, review here:

1) The first time the play takes a sharp turn, and we realise we aren’t at a dinner party but at someone’s funeral, a remarkable – even hopeful – moment goes unnoticed under the weight of the situation (and our 21st century gaze): Daniel is anxious to get back to his dead lover’s mother. Suddenly we have the image of two men living together as a couple, not only in the eyes of their friends but in the eyes of their families (or at least one family). It’s tender and heartbreaking in the context of the funeral and, in the mid eighties, much less the norm than it is now. By comparison, in The Pride, Alexi Kaye Campbell has one (heterosexual) man remembering his uncle dying of AIDS 20 years back, the implication being the uncle’s partner was kept at arm’s length and away from the family circle.

2) The play is poignant in exquisitely delicate ways: At the early hours of the morning after Guy’s funeral, Daniel notices the dressing gown John wears and asks “Isn’t that Guy’s?” to which John replies: “Is it?”. It’s not discussed further but suddenly the intimacy of the fabric on skin carries all of Guy’s unrequited desires.

3) Does Daniel believe John when the latter denies an affair with Reg? I don’t think he does. For one thing John vacillates so long, his denial seems unconvincing. At the back of this, the next scene is extraordinarily moving: the two of them constantly reassess what friendship means and time and again, they come up with the same answer: as Daniel says lightly, casually earlier in the play “I ‘ve never believed a word you ‘ve said, but I still adore you”.

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Second trip to Birdland at the Royal Court, post-show Q&A, and You ‘re Not as Tall As You Look by Chris Thorpe

Andrew Scott and Alex Price during the Q&A. Photo courtesy of @cumberbatchweb

Andrew Scott and Alex Price during the Q&A. Photo courtesy of @cumberbatchweb

Wednesday evening saw my return trip to Simon Stephens’ Birdland, Every few months, I have a play or production that ignites the imagination and thus repeat viewings are inevitable. Furthermore, this is the only way to fully experience theatre: once is often a necessity but it’s not a preference. Productions are living things, if it’s impractical to be there every night, it doesn’t mean they stay still without our presence (professional critics often seem to forget that).

It’s fun trying to decipher what changed with time (There will be SPOILERS for the rest of the post, so please don’t read if you don’t want to be spoiled): Paul felt more deliberately cruel than in the previous performance. Louis – the superfan – is now holding a magnifying glass when he is meeting Paul. At one point David (the manager) puts drops to Paul’s eyes. At the same time, one of the actresses is at the roof and dropping marbles on a metal bowl held by another actress standing below, thus mimicking the eye-dropping action (and creating a loud clanking sound). On Wednesday night, the actress missed the bowl and the marble rolled all the way to the front of the stage and sank in the water. Some things are the same but now I am able to focus on them differently: I love how the set exposes the backstage area all the way to the exterior wall. When Johnny leaves through the fire escape, he exits directly into the street.

The post show talk was lovely and intimate: Continue reading

RSC’s Richard II and Jez Butterworth’s Mojo: last performances and theatre as pop culture

Ben Whishaw, Rupert Grint, Colin Morgan, Daniel Mays, Brendan Coyle. Photo Nigel Norrington

Ben Whishaw, Rupert Grint, Colin Morgan, Daniel Mays, Brendan Coyle. Photo Nigel Norrington

Last night was an important night in the calendar. It was the last performance of Mojo at the Harold Pinter theatre, and that would have been significant enough, but for me it was also the official end of theatrical 2013, a vintage year by all accounts. Others are articulate in analysing cutting edge trends, but what I loved about 2013 was the abundance of productions that generated feverish excitement. In the last few months of the year, London theatres were full of people bouncing from Richard II to Coriolanus, Americhan Psycho to Mojo, but also productions without major stars: The Light Princess at the National, or The Pride at Trafalgar studios. Earlier in the year, Edward II (again at the National), Macbeth at Trafalgar and the Cripple of Inishmaan at Noel Coward had similar audiences.

Not all productions had been sold out successes and some of the enthusiasm was instigated and channelled through the presence of a famous actor, but what I loved was the absence of austere and po-faced reactions. Some people took these productions to their (fannish) heart and tumblr exploded with the sublime and the ridiculous. Continue reading

Five reasons to love Shakespeare (the lowbrow way)

Sometimes I wonder how I got here. I certainly didn’t have the aptitude, the background or the education for it. And I don’t believe it was inevitable or necessary. But what’s not necessary can be vital, and once you breath it, you can’t give it up. And when it comes to Shakespeare, who is neither my job, my livelihood or my educational background, someone has to make the case for the lowbrow, unscholarly pleasures of his plays.

So here are my five reasons for loving Shakespeare.

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“Sad stories of the death of kings”: Richard II at the RSC and Edward II at the National Theatre

John Heffernan as Edward, Kyle Soller as Gaveston. Photo Johan Persson

John Heffernan as Edward, Kyle Soller as Gaveston. Photo Johan Persson

From announcement it seemed great timing that Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II and Shakespeare’s Richard II were going to be performed so close together, at the National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company respectively. The stories of two kings forced to abdicate the throne on the way to a violent death, the similarities between the plays make comparing and contrasting tempting. Even more so now that I have seen the productions and they are both in my “I am so in love I want to talk about them all the time” list. In other words, any excuse will do.

Spoiler warning and context: I normally try to avoid spoilers but this is a different kind of post, with plenty of spoilers for the plays and the two aforementioned productions. If you so wish, you can read my (mostly) non  spoilery reviews for Richard II and Edward II. Also I am not a scholar and my understanding of the text comes almost exclusively from performance. My observations relate to these particular productions as seen through my eyes.

Edward and Richard: One would be hard pressed to describe either as good rulers (at least at the time we meet them), but similarities stop there. Edward, as played by John Heffernan, is the rebel barefoot king, defined by his need to love and be loved. It makes him vulnerable, often weak, but opens the soul and makes it easy to be on his side. Richard is far more elusive. His divine right to rule is his default understanding of himself, but at the same time there is an ever present – if well hidden – hollowness to his conviction. It’s the trojan horse that opens the door to his salvation. Richard is not easy to like, and in David Tennant’s performance he never quite surrenders that last scrap of regal entitlement, but there is hope in a man who looks at his downfall in the same uncompromising way he reigned supreme. Continue reading

Old Vic’s Much Ado About Nothing or the nature of early word of mouth

old vic much ado about nothing posterIt’s a rare pleasure when I can enjoy advance word of mouth without first hand experience of a production. When I am without a ticket and uninterested enough not to be avoiding spoilers, but intrigued by what I hear and read. This is the case with the Old Vic production of Much Ado About Nothing, with its big name cast (Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones) and its larger than life director (Mark Rylance). Press night is tonight but the word of mouth has been interesting (to use a word that, if it had an expression, it would be a poker face).

“This Much Ado About Nothing is bolder than one might have expected” writes Ian (Ought to be clowns) . Another blog (Cream of Vampire Soup) disagrees: “All Old Vic productions are the same (…) No mess. No fuss. And definitely no risk.” Webcowgirl (in a blog post that has generated 46 comments so far) isn’t impressed: “Rarely has a title for a Shakespearean show proven so prophetic.” Westendwhingers give it two out of five. Huffington Post raves about it: “This wonderful production has so much innovation, spirit and humour that I loved every minute.”

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Secret theatre: To Be or Not To Be (thoughts on the Lyric Hammersmith project – but no spoilers)

The company in rehearsal

The company in rehearsal

And so, somewhat unexpectedly, we have a debate in our hands. Last night the first play of Lyric Hammersmith’s Secret Theatre initiative started performances (it’s the first play to start performances but it’s Secret Show no 2, stay with me) and Mark Shenton took to twitter to reveal the title. A certain amount of outrage followed – with Jake Orr writing a blog and several tweets expressing displeasure (we have to accept a theatre outrage is a very contained affair. I live for the day when arguments about theatre will spill over to the streets).

There is no question, spoiling it for people who want to play the game makes you a party pooper, no matter how you look at it. But other questions also spring to mind. Continue reading

A Curious Night at the Theatre – Part Two, when Christopher meets Ben Whishaw and Andrew Scott

Chris Martin at the Curious Night at the Theatre. Photo Luke Treadaway, hope he doesn't mind I am using it

Chris Martin at the Curious Night at the Theatre. Photo Luke Treadaway, hope he doesn’t mind I am using it

Continued from Part One

Christopher met Q at a secret location in the South Bank (if you don’t go to the theatre, it looked like a secret location. Otherwise, it looked like the National). They talked about viruses, and integrating the lines of radiant and whether you can dig someone if they are not a garden. Q rememebered Moriarty from the time they were together in Mike Bartlett’s Cock and sent Christopher on his way with a flirty “any time, cowboy”.

And back to school where Christopher said goodbye to Jude, heartbroken and disheartened not to have a future with Siobhan. And coming home one day, just like that, Christopher found Moriarty in his living room, cocky (not just because of Mike Bartlett’s Cock) and arrogant and a little bit sexy. Moriarty agreed to let Christopher mess with his computer on one condition: that Christopher can get hundreds of people to sit in one room and switch off their phones in order to engage in a metaphor (which is really a story). A little bit like a play. And here we are. Continue reading

A Curious Night at the Theatre starring Christopher, the Doctor, Q, the Queen & Moriarty (& a guy called Jude Law)

Parental guidance: I don’t intend to take a measured approach with this post. Be warned of breathless and shameless enthusiasm. I am told it’s called squee. I wouldn’t know.

Jude Law and Christopher (Luke Treadaway) on stage at A Curious Night at the Theatre. Photo Ellie Kurttz

Jude Law and Christopher (Luke Treadaway) on stage at A Curious Night at the Theatre. Photo Ellie Kurttz

When a show overruns by 75 minutes, it finishes at close to three hours without interval and no one complains, you know it’s a rare experience. A Curious Night at the Theatre was always destined to be, well, curious: part theatre, part live concert, part charity event, it could all have gone very wrong. In the end, it delivered on all counts: A funny play, party atmosphere, surprises, confetti and £100,000 raised. The curious night was something of a special night.

First things first, it’s theatre after all and there is a new play by Mark Haddon and Simon Stephens: a detective story for Christopher, where he is contacted by the Doctor and entrusted with an important mission: Moriarty – who, as the Doctor admits, looks suspiciously like Andrew Scott – has developed a computer virus and all people coming in contact with it will lose the ability to understand metaphors. “You, and only you Christopher, can rescue the metaphor.” Christopher is hesitant: “Why me?”. “No, no, no” says the Doctor, “the virus started working already”. Christopher doesn’t trust metaphors, which are lies after all, but is convinced to help. The Doctor calls the Queen and, amid some giggling and old fashioned flirting, gets Christopher an invitation to the Buckingham palace. The Queen has, after all, the best contacts.

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