Category Archives: reviews

[REVIEW] Much Ado About Nothing, Wyrd Sisters Theatre, Drayton Arms, London

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It’s increasingly clear that, for the new generation of Shakespearean actresses, the world of girls is not enough. Whether it’s Jade Anouka’s Hotspur at the Donmar, Pippa Nixon’s Bastard at the RSC, or Maxine Peake’s electrifying Hamlet at the Royal Exchange, women are building their careers by reinventing Shakespeare’s heroes. This is also the case for Wyrd Sisters, an emerging theatre company who, pleasingly, take their cross-casting policy in both directions. Thus, their production of Much Ado About Nothing, currently running at the Drayton Arms’ studio theatre (Old Brompton Road, SW5), we have a steely Leonata, played by Christina Balmer; a pugnacious Dogberry (Wendy Morgan), a skittish Ursule (Stuart Murray), and, most strikingly, a Claudia whose flowing hair and maroon beret make her look like she’s stepped straight out of Our Girl (Freya Alderson).

This contemporary, Anglicised Messina is somewhere between stately home and pub garden, where the returning soldiers booze on Somerset cider, strum guitars and plan the odd lesbian wedding. Leonata is a middle-aged hippie, poshly relaxed about her daughter’s sexuality, and then all nails and teeth when her wedding-day shames the family. Don Pedro, Claudia, Benedick, Don John and co. remain in fatigues, boots and berets for much of the play: the programme stresses that they are just back from Iraq. This is perhaps a poor fit for this cheerful gang of youths, who are prone to skinny playfighting and seem more like teammates than scarred veterans. The military background to Much Ado has, after all, never born too much scrutiny (the soldiers seem more Austenesque militia than Band of Brothers, and the emphasis on Operation Telic casts a chilly shadow over Balthasar’s carefree announcement that the combat has killed ‘But few of any sort, and none of name’ – Iraq or not, the subtext remains ‘So that’s all right, then’.

Charlie Ryall’s Beatrice, with her short, ruffled hair, baggy t-shirts and uncompromising stance, seems more like a soldier than Claudia: which is just as well, because of the two, it’s clear which woman lives in a state of constant warfare. This is a scornful, angry Beatrice, simultaneously world-weary and dramatically childish. But she wheels from attention-seeking brat to kind woman, especially when Nicholas Oliver’s Don Pedro claims her hand.

She is ably matched by David Paisley’s Benedick, a sweet-faced teddy bear of a soldier, whose cruelty is cheek and whose doting affection is very readily summoned by the gulling scene. Ryall and Paisley head the cast very effectively; Paisley, in particular, pushes the story on through his soliloquies, and got the biggest laugh of the night in his muffled ‘Fuck off’ to the Boy who returns to expose his hiding place as he eavesdrops on Claudia, Leonata and the Prince.

But the show’s great surprise is Hero. A conventional Hero switches from happy dolly to sad dolly and back again: an inevitable step on the dismal downwards path to Desdemona. She has more to say than Mariana, but less to do than Celia; she is married off worthlessly without having the opportunities of a Helena or an Isabella first, and in all of the Shakespearean canon, there can be nothing less appetising than playing second billing to Beatrice, who is worth a play on her own. Lucy Green transforms a thankless role, giving Hero all the wit, pugnacity and intellect you’d expect of Beatrice’s cosseted cousin. Hers is the great succession of the church scene, when Hero’s long and difficult silences are filled with the emotion of a young woman who’s seeing hell before her eyes. As each new blow falls, Green’s distress grows, as we realise with her what this betrayal of love, loss of family, and wretched humiliation means.

When removed from Renaissance dress, it’s harder to believe that Hero could really be seen ‘dying […] Upon the instant that she was accused’, but Green’s alternately white and flushing face, and step-by-step panic, make the possibility horribly real. Hers was the only convincing collapse I have seen. Leonata, the doting mother who rejects her daughter, is nastier than any father could be, reminding the audience why Lady Capulet’s rejection of her daughter is, in a few words, always more devastating than Lord Capulet’s long harangue. Beatrice’s response also accentuates the horror. Rather than ranting, shouting, or forcibly dragging Hero away from her tormentors, Ryall huddles down beside her cousin in silence. Leonata’s savagery can’t be stopped. Beatrice and Hero bow their heads, curl together, and, like children under violence, wait for it to be over.

Ryall also gives the scene one further moment of tragicomedy. Benedick’s sudden declaration of love once the pair are left alone in the chapel can be played with joyful effervescence, the revelations pealing out in relief after the agony of the preceding moments. This is not like that. After witnessing Claudia’s cruelty and experiencing Leonata’s brutality, when love seems the most poisonous thing in the world to Beatrice, Benedick thinks it’s choice and appropriate to present her with his heart. A deadened, exhausted Beatrice stares across the stage, learning in her dissociated mind two things: first, that the person she loves most in the world loves her back, and second, that he doesn’t understand her at all. This is the loneliest Beatrice I have ever seen, and thanks to Ryall, it will be impossible to forget that quality in the character.

That chilling revelation aside, this is not an especially dark Much Ado. The physical comedy is sometimes very sharp, with spilt drinks, spit-takes and pratfalls underpinning the wittiness of the words. Stuart Murray, doubling Ursule and Friar Francis, justifies his existence a thousand times by turning the Friar (outside the history plays, Shakespeare did not excel at writing clerics) into a pitch-perfect imitation of Blessed Miles Jupp. Biased as I am, writing this admidst the flower crowns, Corinthians, and Natural Tan hosiery that comes from being twenty-eight and permanently on the wedding circuit, but dear Lord, that was funny. As Murray’s excellence suggests, this production has a stunning supporting cast. One disconcertingly good performance comes from Louise Goodfield, who, in the best cross-casting of the night, has made the startlingly turned Don John’s lackey Conrad from a standard stooge to a fully-fledged Lady Macbeth. Hers is a stunningly evil little Machiavel, in sexual thrall to Don John, but equally happy to make mischief for Claudia long after Borachio’s conscience cracks.

Some pacing issues hamper the speed of the piece, particularly in the notoriously difficult sequences with the Watch, and the instrumental music occasionally prolongs the scene changes, rather than covering them. But the final scrap between Beatrice and Benedick, respectively nauseated and gooey over each other’s poems, is tremendously satisfying, and the final rendition of ‘Sigh no more’ as sunny and bittersweet as one could wish. This is a company worth watching, in one of London’s best studio theatres. You don’t need to be in Edinburgh to see excellent theatre this summer – catch Much Ado About Nothing at the Drayton Arms, on stage now until 4th September.

[REVIEW] The Great Gatsby, May 2013.

Baz Luhrmann has taken the aesthetic he used for Moulin Rouge, the least French film ever made about Paris, and transplanted it to 1920s New York. The CGI is worse than a Doctor Who werewolf, but the costumes are stunning and I’ve spent much of today fashion-googling ‘great gatsby clothes’ with a sense of moral disgust, and that, I suppose, is the sign of a good Fitzgerald adaptation.

Carey Mulligan as Daisy.

The central performances are reasonably faithful to the book. Tobey Maguire is constipatedly uninteresting – which is right for Nick Carraway, even if the elimination of queer subtext in his interactions with McKee and Gatsby is a predictable disappointment (but then, this is Luhrmann, who de-gayed Decadent Paris). Carey Mulligan is beautiful, wispy and infuriating – just right for Daisy. Elizabeth Debicki is understated and underused as Jordan, which is annoying for the cinemagoer but actually an improvement on the book. Joel Edgerton’s Tom Buchanan looks like Benedict Cumberbatch’s hardboiled, horsewhipping older brother. Isla Fisher’s Myrtle is a spectacular improvement on the book’s two-dimensional whore. And Leonardo di Caprio? Well, he’s still a great actor, but now his face has gone orange and odd.

Di Caprio’s face is one of a triumvirate of masculine tragedies I’ve endured this week. First, I found out that Noel Fielding is forty. Then I started googling and discovered that Johnny Depp was fifty. I dealt with that a little better, having accepted that Hugh Grant and Colin Firth (for example) are in their mid-fifties by now – and that, God’s honest truth, there are UK citizens of legal voting age who weren’t born at the time of the BBC Pride and Prejudice. Depp’s slightly purple hair, tinted spectacles and twentysomething girlfriend already signalled a slow crawl towards decrepitude. And then I saw what’s happened to di Caprio’s face.

If you’ve seen Moulin Rouge, or indeed any Luhrmann film, you’ve already seen 25% of The Great Gatsby. There are moments where Tobey Maguire looks exactly like Ewan McGregor and entire sequences where Carey Mulligan sounds like Nicole Kidman. There’s a great deal of on-screen typing which, apart from a clever dissolve into snowflakes, gives me the feeling that cinema would be a better place if Luhrmann could get over his font fetish.

For all this, I really enjoyed myself. The anxious speedathons of the driving sequences left me feeling motion-sick, and Oxford’s Magdalen Street Odeon had done something infuriating with the sound levels; nevertheless, I’d watch it again tomorrow, and I’m not sure why. People are going to call this film romantic, and it isn’t; regardless of Nick’s celebration of Gatsby’s capacity for hope, it’s a story about a monomaniac’s near-psychotic love for a debutante who struggles to choose between her two abusers. All the characters in this film push capitalism to its logical conclusion: a disposable culture which disposes of its victims, as portrayed by Myrtle, Wilson, Gatsby’s servants and Gatsby himself.

I have read – and this is a weird story in itself – the third of the Fifty Shades trilogy. It’s immensely boring (see also: misogynist, degrading), cataloguing not only sex I don’t want to have but a range of consumer durables I don’t want to buy. It’s like pages of an in-flight magazine pasted between stills from a porn film. Amidst the sex, the characters eat some very nice meals and do some very extensive shopping.

Gatsby and E. L. James are not so very far apart; they both assume, rightly, that as well as the sex, they’re going to need a lot of food, drink, and conspicuous capitalism, if they’re going to get (their version of) the (money-minded, shallow, easily distracted) girl. Both Christian Gray and Jay Gatsby set the bar very low when it comes to female agency, intuition and discernment. Perhaps I’m doing Daisy a disservice; she got ludicrously turned on by Gatsby’s Disneyland Hotel playhouse, but then, so did Elizabeth Bennet in the shades of Pemberley. And in the last instance, Daisy does have the wit to realise that Gatsby’s dictatorial fantasy of their life together (although a partial product of her betrayal) is every bit as dangerous as her known misery with Tom.

The Great Gatsby is full of toxic colour, gratuitous bling, and over-saturated fireworks. It doesn’t travesty the culture of its setting in the same way as Moulin Rouge, because if austerity’s taught us anything, it’s that the capitalist boom before a financial crash (in this case, Wall Street 1928) deserves all the desecration it can get. Morning-after vignettes – of a man dredging the swimming pool for tinsel, and a servant emptying martinis into a bucket – give the party sequences more depth – sequences, incidentally, which make Frears’s Bright Young Things (2003) seem like it wasn’t really trying. Di Caprio’s comic timing and emotional commitment come as close as anything can to giving The Great Gatsby heart and soul, and if I’m tired of Luhrmann’s cinematic tics (great though it is when an artist wears his id on his sleeve), I’m glad he’s still a fan of the grandiose close-up and that, in his first reunion with Mulligan’s Daisy, di Caprio, as Gatsby remains star enough to sustain one.

I would also, admittedly, like to do my eye make-up like Casey Mulligan’s, and have a head small enough to wear cloche hats. Someone throw a disgustingly vast party, please, and in the meantime, make mine a Highball.

Weekend Miscellany

(This is a type of post stolen entirely from the lovely Simon at Stuck In A Book. Simon and I first met when we were the only two Masters students who wanted to do nineteenth- and twentieth-century drama. Simon now has a job that I don’t really understand, but which seems to involve him using MS Paint for money, at OUP. Over the years, Simon has introduced me to many things, including the Magdalen salad bar, Irene Vamburgh, and middlebrow interwar women’s fiction. Kirstie Allsopp once replied to him on Twitter).

  • This weekend, I have been reading How To Live Alone And Like It [1936] and Diary of a Provincial Lady for the first time. The first is a bible for the ‘extra woman’ and a fabulous guide to having a really nice life in one’s London flat. My flat is in Oxford, and I don’t have a maid, so by the book’s standards, I am already failing. I do wholeheartedly concur that one should have manicures and delicious food and splendid clothes whenever possible. I don’t think Margaret Hillis would approve of me eating yoghurt in my pyjamas while I proofread. I would like to read this book forty-five times and then travel back to 1936 and live the book while dressed entirely as Harriet Vane. Diary of a Provincial Lady is also wonderful. Mademoiselle and Vicky are my favourites. What I love most is how they all sit around fretting about pawning great-aunt’s diamond ring and/or the general proximity to penury, but never consider dismissing the servants.
  • I also reviewed Bitch Boxer, now playing at the Soho Theatre – read the review here.
  • An American photography and fashion blogger, Melissa Aquino, uploaded scans of the late-90s US catalogue dELiA*s, with its fashion for pre-teen girls. I have been howling in recognition. Whilst I always lived in & bought clothes in the UK, visceral memories of Tammy, Red Herring and the equivalent publications – Girl Talk, Shout, Mizz, Sugar, and the highly unsuitable More – came flooding back. I had Kangaroo platform trainers with a bit of a platform. And things with stripes down the side. What can I say? I was 11, it was 1998, and I think my parents were mostly relieved I’d come out of the Black Clothes Phase that had started when I was seven. In the spirit of the 90s, I’d like a Body Shop lip balm, some gel pens, a chain letter and a nice blue hair mascara.
  • I am currently designing my first ever term-length Shakespearean syllabus (I’ve taught Shakespeare quite a bit in the past, but not designed a course myself). This is hugely exciting. Those of you who’ve course-built yourselves, how do you prefer to structure it?
  • Other things I like: the University of Leicester and Dickens Journals‘ collaborative project to read Wilkie Collins’s No Name online; the utterly fabulous Spanish Les Mis rendition of One Day More, “Sal el Sol” (Geronimo Rauch is the current West End Valjean. The Spanish Enjolras is just pretty); and, crucially, this gin brooch (which was in the Modern Art Oxford shop for £5 more, chuh).

I will now carry on imbibing Radio 4 and trying to rewrite my latest chapter. I have pages and pages of proper theatrical history to get through before I’m allowed to talk about vampires.

[REVIEW] Bitch Boxer at the Soho Theatre

On Wednesday, I saw Bitch Boxer at the Soho Theatre; a one-hour, one-woman play written and performed by Charlotte Josephine. Having seen Josephine in Julius Caesar earlier this year, I was excited to see her own work – and, to be honest, I’m a bit in love with the Soho Theatre and their apparent directorial policy of ‘stage work that Sophie wants to see, and don’t charge her more than a tenner for doing so’. For me, Bitch Boxer was an incredibly inspiring, salutary and encouraging piece of theatre. Alongside my fascination with the play’s story and characters, I was delighted to see such a young writer and performer performing with such skill and immediacy – and being so warmly received.

Bitch Boxer is the story of Chloe, a young working-class boxer from Leytonstone, East London, who is gearing up for her final qualifying fight before the London Olympics; the first Olympics in which women could box. I am a bespectacled, myopic, borderline-dyspraxic, undersized and severely uncoordinated scrap of laziness, and I came out of Bitch Boxer wanting to box. The play’s exposition of the sport’s technical side is unexpectedly fascinating. I also found Bitch Boxer a more complex and nuanced exploration of boxing than On It, Tony Pitts’s recent Afternoon Play about the late Liam Jones, a young drug addict who attempted to conquer his addictions via boxing. Both plays tell powerful stories of pain and loss, but Bitch Boxer gets far further beyond the predictable narrative of boxing-as-emotional-salvation. Not only does Chloe use boxing to express and control her adolescent anger, but training and fighting give her an identity that reorders and reorients the rest of her life. Bitch Boxer‘s most emotionally articulate scene is Chloe’s recognition that her opponent in the ring is as determined, excited, frightened and committed as herself. This gives the boxer a compassion and respect for the process of fighting that makes the final confrontation moving, but not mawkish.

I said that Josephine was warmly received by her audience, and the vast majority of the reviews have also been excellent. However, one critic has objected in misogynist – and also misspelt – terms that Charlotte Josephine’s body is not plausibly that of a boxer, and that this physical dissonance damages the integrity and believability of the piece. That is an extremely polite paraphrase of what this lone lunatic actually came out with, and I’m not going to link to the review, because, well, don’t feed the trolls.

Firstly, Charlotte Josephine’s body is very plausibly that of a boxer. Secondly, and not to position myself as the tiny Cassandra of critical misogyny, but after watching Bitch Boxer, I was expecting to find that this kind of play would draw this kind of criticism. Women cannot put their bodies out in public looking like Charlotte Josephine looks, without attractive derisive male comment. Josephine looks fit and strong, in a way that’s toned but which connotes substance, strength and stamina, rather than the ultra-tiny LA yoga bod that’s the  mainstream default and pinnacle of the sporty female body. She looks admirably powerful. It’s not really surprising that a woman daring to be visibly sporty, healthy and herself causes controversy: for God’s sake, look at what happened to Rebecca Adlington and Jessica Ennis.

I sat there watching Josephine and I thought how brave she was not to be in Sweaty Betty pinkified sports gear, but instead to look like a boxer, in Lonsdale shorts, black ankle socks and an ordinary vest; all of them sweat-soaked, as the intensely physical piece progressed. And then I wondered what the hell had happened to society, and to my brain, that I found it brave for a young woman to dress as her character without concessions to sexiness, and that I couldn’t ever remember seeing an actress visibly sweat. In order to bring out the troll in one theatrical critic, all Charlotte Josephine had to do was be visible as a professional and as an artist. Quite often, that is all we have to do, as women, to infuriate misogynists: just show up. I encourage you to show up at Bitch Boxer, as soon as you can.

A Snuff Box Theatre production, Bitch Boxer runs at about 65 minutes, includes Eminem karaoke, bereavement, a confrontation with a savage dog, and a controversial pair of Nikes. With Julius Caesar only last month, I’m suddenly incredibly hopeful about the future of feminist theatre.

 

[not really a REVIEW]: Julius Caesar, Harriet Walter and all-female Shakespeare

The cast of Julius Caesar. Copyright: Helen Maybanks.

Long-time readers will know that Harriet Walter is not irrelevant to my interests. I have purchased a certain number of theatre tickets in order to see her perform. I have a certain degree of familiarity with her first book, Other People’s Shoes. She was central to Clamorous Voices, the book after which this blog was named, and she appears in my thesis more than is seemly or subtle for a work that’s supposedly about the nineteenth century. I think she’s the most perfect actress of her generation, I hope to God I’m never called upon to be articulate in her presence, and I have still not forgiven the Queen for making Helen Mirren a Dame first.

(c) Helen Maybanks

For these reasons, I knew I probably wouldn’t be able to review Julius Caesar. Not in a balanced way, or even a way that manages to eschew capital letters and superlatives. Harriet Walter plays Brutus, which automatically precludes all chance of a review that doesn’t devolve into my myriad feelings and/or an anecdote about the time my friend Charlie and I (both then aged sixteen) spent half an hour in a biting wind outside the old RST, so that Walter could sign our programmes for (I think) The Hollow Crown.*

Frances Barber plays Julius Caesar. This is also bad news for my sang-froid. Walter may have played Fanny Dashwood, Lady Macbeth, and Harriet Vane, but Barber played the Bolter and the first Shakespearean heroine I ever saw. She was an Edwardian Viola in the snowy Twelfth Night that may not be as good as I remember it, but the fact is that my six-year-old self fell simultaneously in love with her and Anton Lesser. As Feste, Lesser had ringlets and eyeliner; Barber had a waistcoat. I didn’t know which one I more wanted to be.

So, then, when I found myself in the front row of Julius Caesar at the Donmar Warehouse, watching Barber, Walter, and a monstrous regiment of miraculous women turn Julius Caesar into a mashup of Shakespeare, Sarah Kane, Bad Girls, Chicago and Our Country’s Good, I asked myself a question. Am I going to review this production in a careful, analytical, balanced manner, soberly locating the play in its aesthetic, historical and dramaturgical contexts? Shall I make solemn interrogation of the directorial choices, and cast a cool eye over the production’s lasting influence, and longevity? If you should never meet your idols, you probably shouldn’t review them, either.

This is not a production to be solemn or cautious about. This is a production which demands you enter its world; a women’s prison wing, where the inmates are performing – and in some cases living – Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Until now, Julius Caesar is a play I’ve actually preferred to read rather than see, which is a) anathema to everything else I feel about Shakespeare, and b) a direct result of the play having almost no women, and going on about war for too long.

This production’s play-within-a-play conceit interrupts Shakespeare’s action with the inevitabilities of the prison day. Med checks and lockdowns tear up the script, daring to put modern-day swearing next to Roman rhetoric. But deliberately breaking this suspension of disbelief only makes the Shakespeare more real, as the play becomes increasingly important to the prisoners, racing to complete their performance before they’re returned to their cells.

Jenny Jules as Cassius. Copyright: Helen Maybanks.

At its quietest – as when Brutus, played with ravaged elegance by Walter, tells Jenny Jules (a highly flammable young Cassius, all-consuming as the military leader) of Portia’s death – the Donmar production is tender, understated and mesmeric. In exhilarating contrast, the play’s battles become a cross between a riot and a 90s video nasty, with chaotic sequences of lights, drums, and drugged-out dancing.

It’s so rare to see a show that feels so dynamic and experimental, headed by actors who also speak verse with virtuosic ease. Walter and Barber are, as expected, marvellous. Barber, in particular, can slide from sublime poetry to sounding like the Missing Mitchell Sister without missing a single Shakespearian beat. Two of the supporting cast, Carrie Rock (Soothsayer) and Jen Joseph (Trebonius) are alumnae of Clean Break theatre company. Clean Break exists both to stage the experiences of imprisoned women (via award-winning plays), and empower women who are at risk of offending, or who already have experience of the criminal justice system, via theatre-based educational courses.

Frances Barber with Carrie Rock. Copyright: Helen Maybanks.

Both Rock and Joseph gave excellent performances; Rock’s disturbed, too-knowing child has stayed in my mind ever since. Both Rock and Joseph speak blank verse as though it’s not only instinctive, but imperative; that their characters cannot and must not be expressed in any other way. The total absence of anything unnatural – stagey hangups, theatrical tics – meant that they never seemed to be acting. Ironically, Joseph’s overwhelmingly warm stage presence (tell me the name of Trebonius in any production you’ve ever seen) also meant that I assumed I was watching someone who was already very famous, as opposed to someone who merely deserved to be.

Cush Jumbo as Mark Antony. Copyright: Helen Maybanks.

The joy of single-sex Shakespeare lies in creating amazing and unanticipated combinations of actors and roles. Without cross-casting, Cush Jumbo’s performance as Mark Antony would never have existed; Jen Joseph would have been no more likely to play Trebonius than Mark Rylance was to play Olivia.

But one of the most challenging and unsettling things about all-female Shakespeare is that it tips the audience into a world where femininity, not masculinity is the default setting. All-male Shakespeare has the simultaneous advantages of historical justification and novelty. Notions of authenticity and original practice legitimise all-male productions, offering us a glimpse of a history that’s sufficiently distant to make the all-male theatrical event unusual. All-male Shakespeare is affirmed and celebrated where other aspects of “original” performance – the cavalier addition of togas to Elizabethan dress, for example – are largely discarded; nor has the modern Globe begun casting pre-pubescent Juliets. I’m not disparaging any of this; productions like Mark Rylance’s Richard II make theatre far richer. Sometimes the consequences veer towards pantomime, as when the (sorely-missed) Peter Shorey’s Duchess of York harangued Liam Brennan’s Henry IV in the BBC’s 2003 broadcast of Rylance’s Globe show. But that merely shows how Shakespeare thrives on the broadest comedy – else why send Falstaff into a laundry basket, then change him to the Fat Woman of Brentford?

Copyright: Helen Maybanks.

The history of all-female Shakespeare, meanwhile, is the histories of girls’ schools and women’s colleges; organisations like the Mothers’ Union and the Women’s Institute; women’s prisons, and private reading circles from the eighteenth- to the twenty-first century. These may not be traditional arenas for academic attention, but they are – I hope – attracting more and more work from scholars. I’d love to know about Shakespeare as read and performed by all kinds of female groups: Shakespeare by and for landgirls, Shakespeare by nuns (did he make it into convents, or only convent schools?), Shakespeare in nursing schools (back when nursing was a female profession). The final chapter of my thesis is about Shakespeare and the suffragettes – the chapter of my thesis that most excited me, and one which (happily) other people seem to find exciting as well – but I’d love to know more about different, all-female groups. Tangentially, I really regret not seeing the RSC’s partially cross-cast King John last year, because it might have addressed my unease regarding partially cross-cast Shakespeares; I’ve yet to see one that seemed truly successful.

On Monday, the Donmar will release its last Barclays Front Row tickets for the run. While wary of schemes that force people to jump through hoops to get affordable tickets, Barclays Front Row is infinitely better than day-tickets, London-only tickets, or ostensibly benevolent schemes that use young theatregoers to fill unsellable seats. I hope everyone reading this gets a ticket. I hope I’m successful for a second time. If we’re there together, say hello. I really loved this production; I hope you get a chance to do so.**

*Charlie and I could also give a deeply moving rendition of the final seconds of Greg Doran’s The Taming of the Shrew, with both of us simultaneously playing both Alexandra Gilbreath and Jasper Britton at the moment of “My hand is ready; may it do him ease”. I want you to really imagine two schoolgirls, each one of whom is trying to be two Shakespearean actors at once (while providing very loud commentary on how brilliant they were). Charlie is now a professional actress (in fact she’s Charlie Ryall), but sticks to being one person at a time.

**Film version, anyone?

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Advent Calendar Day 9: Hamlet!

Marcellus:
[…]Some say that ever, ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad,
The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.

Horatio:
So have I heard and do in part believe it.
[…]

Hamlet, I.1.181-188.

2009 filmed version of the RSC production of Hamlet dir. Greg Doran; I.1. Peter de Jersey as Horatio; Keith Osborn as Marcellus; Ewen Cummins as Barnardo; Robert Curtis as Francisco.

Copyright RSC / Illuminations / BBC.

(when I worked in FOH for the stage version of this production, Keith Osborn and Peter de Jersey’s delivery of these lines were one of my favourite moments in the play – it was the mixture of chill and comfort)

n.b. I am not suggesting anyone should have A Very Hamlet Christmas. It would not end well.

[REVIEW] Shakespeare’s Shrine: The Bard’s Birthplace and the Invention of Stratford-upon-Avon

https://i2.wp.com/www.oxonianreview.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/shakespeareshrine-e1353084043362.jpgMy review of Jane Thomas’s Shakespeare’s Shrine: The Bard’s Birthplace and the Invention of Stratford-upon-Avon was published in the 18 November issue of the Oxonian Review. You can read it online here.

Apart from the legitimate book-reviewing part, there’s a healthy dollop about the time your own correspondent was a guide in the aforementioned Birthplace (2010). Let’s just say that my mother cannot recall the sight of me in costume without hysterical laughter. I talk about that too. I also go on a bit about Oscar Wilde and French nudity. As ever, any excuse.

Sarah Daniels: Plays 1

Ages ago, the nice people at methuen drama very kindly offered to send me a free book (I forget why, but thank you very much and please, more of the same).

In an excess of irresponsibility, I decided NOT to choose anything vaguely useful to my course, and to instead pick, at random, the work of a female playwright with whom I was unfamiliar. Sarah Daniels’s Plays: 1 duly arrived at Brasenose the other day, and since the Orlando Project tells me she’s “the only radical lesbian feminist to have made it into the mainstream”, I think I chose rather well.

Sarah Daniels was born in 1956, in London. Her Orlando profile describes how, as a secondary school student, she

“hated school” and made a habit of sitting at the back of the class, not listening. She left at eighteen for work. Bibliographic Citation link At school she “didn’t even like drama.” Bibliographic Citation link Studying Shakespeare‘s Henry V for O level English was dominated by reading the play aloud and therefore, for her, anxiety about pronouncing the words right. She was astonished to discover that she enjoyed the play when she saw it in the theatre. Bibliographic Citation link

She was lastingly impressed by an incident at her school when a boy raped a girl at knife-point. The boy was removed to a borstal or school for young offenders, but the headmaster then addressed the whole school to tell them that in cases of rape the blame was shared equally by both parties. Bibliographic Citation link

Daniels’s playwriting career took off after she was able to spend a year as the writer-in-residence of Sheffield University’s English department. Her plays have been performed at theatres including the Royal Court and the National Theatre, and Daniels is also on the board of directors for Clean Break Theatre (trans: she is awesome beyond words). Her partner of many years, and civil partner, was the activist and schools inspector Claire Walton, who died in 2009.

Plays 1 comprises Sarah Daniels’s first six plays: Ripen Our Darkness, Ma’s Flesh is Grass, Masterpieces, The Devil’s Gateway, Neaptide and Byrthrite.

So far I’ve read Ripen Our Darkness (1981) and Masterpieces (1983). My ability to consume feminist 80s playwriting knows almost no bounds. Ripen Our Darkness is about marriage, mental illness and misery in the Anglican church; a bolder precursor to Alan Bennett’s Bed Among The Lentils, which followed in 1987 and also depicts a vicar’s wife in crisis. Daniels’s protagonist doesn’t receive even temporary redemption or escape.

Daniels’s next play, Masterpieces is about pornography, misogyny and mental illness. The roles across both plays are predominantly female, and, at its best, the writing is heart-stopping, combative and clear. However, Ripen Our Darkness is weakest and most uneven in its handling of the working-class lesbian Julie, who might have sounded cliched in her speech back in 1981. Yet, for a play that’s 30 years old, Ripen Our Darkness often strikes heart & intellect simultaneously: moreover, Hilary, the most obviously working-class woman in Masterpieces, is far more subtly characterised than Julie. Hilary, a single mother and sex worker, readily accepts a legitimate day job from a male friend of her social worker. The scene in which Hilary’s boss, Ron, begins to seduce and harass her is both timeless and excruciating, as are the unsympathetic responses of the other characters.

Daniels’s unabashedly anti-pornographic stance in Masterpieces has (regrettably) become unfashionable in contemporary feminism, but her emotionally direct style anticipates writers like Laurie Penny. I wish I could see ways of staging her plays for student audiences, but at the moment I’m unconvinced. For one thing, Oxford plays with all-female casts tend to do badly unless they’re Playhouse Creatures or The House of Bernarda Alba (both of which I love), or, at best, attract tedious expanses of critical shock at the goshness and novelty of a play without any boys (on second thoughts, maybe Daniels isn’t dated at all).

As texts, Daniels’s plays read wonderfully. I’m, um, apprehensive about the last in the collection, which is ominously titled Byrthrite and which I suspect of glorying in wom(y)nly gore, but I’m currently halfway through Neaptides (1986) and desperate to know what happens.

If I blink at the scene in Neaptides where Claire tells daughter Poppy a myth-cum-fairy-story about the goddess Persephone’s masturbation, I’m grateful that Daniels wrote in ways that are so combative, unembarrassed, and unashamed. The radical feminists of the 1980s cut swathes through misogyny and chauvinism, so that twenty-first-century girls like me could, if they chose, be embarrassed and Anglican and gay all at once, and in (relative) peace. In Daniels’s excellent first collection, I’m glad to find myself another feminist, literary foremother, and to take a look at another bit of feminism’s theatrical past.

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REVIEW: MONSTERS, BT STUDIO, PICNIC PRODUCTIONS

Monsters, by Niklas Rådström, deals with the 1993 killing of toddler James Bulger by eleven-year-olds Robert Thompson and Jon Venables. The script veers between self-righteous harangue, and the disingenuous blurring of fiction and reportage. Most of Monsters’ dramatic force derives from co-opting Venables’s confession, a verbatim text that, in describing Bulger’s slow death, would horrify whether read by cast, lawyer, or android. This sickening account made me want to leave the theatre, but this is no tribute to Rådström. His own writing is mainly overwrought posturing: avant-garde theatre at its exploitative, sensationalist worst.

Monsters opens with a choric harangue of audience by actors. They don’t know why we’re here. They don’t know what we expect. They don’t know what we want from a play about children killing a child. Do we think it’s useful? DO WE? Once the cast have stopped criticising the audience for having the temerity to turn up, Monsters consists mainly of quotations from Venables and Thompson’s interrogations, interrupted by further choric hand-wringing and hectoring.

Director Matthew Goldhill’s cast are four good actors doomed by a dreadful script. Standout moments include Fen Greatley’s childlike demeanour as Thompson under interrogation. Chloe Orrock is memorable as Thompson’s mother, describing his childhood: her understated delivery somewhat tempers Rådström’s melodrama. All four could excel in a better play. Throughout, Monsters fails to fully engage with the specificities of regionality and abusive poverty that surrounded Bulger’s killing. Murder happens everywhere, but by ignoring the details of location, cyclical abuse and social deprivation, Rådström’s text – heavy on handwringing, low on characterisation – does not universalise what happened on Merseyside. Instead, attention is refocused away from the murder, back to the four performers. Too often the consequence is the spectacle of bright young things in a state of unfocused indignation about a death they were barely born for; privilege theorising its unimaginable reverse.

The temptation is to turn the play’s questions – is seeing Monsters useful? Moving? Educational? – back on performers, director, and ultimately on Rådström. Why is anyone there? To help thesps feel angry? To let audiences look sombre? Underpinning Monsters are two insulting and reductive suppositions: first, that nobody has attempted to think deeply about the murder before, and, second, that we share complicity in Bulger’s death. The first is laughable; the second dangerous. There are ways not to be complicit: voicing our suspicions and be prepared to risk our own safety in defence of a child’s. Monsters does not reflect this, preferring its dubious mission of blame and mimetic outrage.

Like the press coverage of which Denise Bulger complained, Monsters withholds James Bulger’s real name until its closing moments. Everything – injuries, indignation, avant-garde posturing and vague sympathy for the killers – is made more important than the personhood of that little boy. Ultimately, Monsters is guilty of the fetishisation and exploitation of which it accuses its audience.

Monsters’ cast were born at about the same time as James Bulger. He deserves a better memorial than that afforded by Rådström’s play.

 

A version of this article originally appeared at Oxford Theatre Review.com

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[REVIEW] CUPPERS 2010

Last week, I was lucky enough to be a judge for OUDS Cuppers 2010, the first-years’ college drama festival. This involved gazing into the tiny, uplifted faces of fresh thespy youth and then brutally marking them out of 10 in a variety of categories including acting, design and marketing. As in 2007 (the last time I judged), the process was accompanied by a lot of moaning, whinging, averted eyes and tears, chiefly from the panel. Onstage, the Freshers were relatively restrained, stopping at fellatio and the odd anal rape. As in 2007, I actually really enjoyed the process – especially running the feedback sessions for competing teams –  and hope that OTR sends me back again next year.

I haven’t seen the final awards list, but my Oxford names-to-watch would be Matthew Brooks and Frankie Goodwin as directors; and Rhiannon Kelly, Charlotte Lennon, Emily Norris and Claire Taylor as performers (hey, guys? If you’re reading, be awesome, it’ll make me seem clairvoyant).

Anyway, for posterity’s sake, my reviews:

Wednesday 17th November

2.30 p.m. The Wizard of Argoz, St. Peters College

“Warmly appreciated by a large College audience, which, after all, is one purpose of Cuppers” Sophie Duncan ★★

3:00 p.m. Phaedra’s Love, Wadham College

If Michael Brooks develops this version of Phaedra’s Love into a more nuanced but no less intense production, he’ll be the director to watch.” Sophie Duncan ★★★

3:30 p.m. Comic Potential, Jesus College

“I rather lost my heart to this engaging cast” Sophie Duncan ★★★★

4:30 p.m. The Choice, Corpus Christi

“His unexpected intensity made Choice, for a moment, a completely different play.” Sophie Duncan ★★★

5:05 p.m., Love of the Nightingale, Somerville College

“Claire Taylor as Procne gave the performance of the day.” Sophie Duncan ★★★★