Category Archives: THEATRE

[REVIEW] Suddenly Last Summer, ETC, Oxford Playhouse

Here is my mini review of Suddenly Last Summer: Mary Higgins should be booked in to play Hecuba twice a term until she graduates. Ideally in a newly-discovered translation by Sylvia Plath. She rises with red hair and eats men like air as the disturbed Catherine in this disorientatingly ambitious version of Williams’s Dead Gay New Orleans Play. Derek Mitchell plays Violet Venables as a geriatric Blanche du Bois, successfully crossed with the disembodied head of Madame Leota. The results are horribly brilliant.

The experimental score is the most ambitious and perhaps least successful bit of the production, stuck in an aural aesthetic standoff between Teutonic techno and Lana del Rey. The onstage singer and guitarist (Georgia Bruce) is brilliant. Suddenly Last Summer is a one-act (keywords: lobotomy, cannibals), which director Sammy Glover has expanded with movement sequences that initially made me worry she’d have preferred to shoot a music video, but in retrospect illuminated the play.

The supporting cast are strong – especially Ell Potter and Aaron Skates, who as Catherine’s mother and brother make fireworks out of the first and second prizes in the Tennessee Williams Most Thankless Supporting Role competition. Skates’s Louisiana accent is particularly spot on (I say this with all the authority of someone who’s spent precisely a week in New Orleans and bored people with the Instagrams ever since. ‘Ah, yes, Garden District,’ I smugged during the performance, in a manner more usually seen by people cleverness-signalling at Jacobean comedies).

But, yes. Mary Higgins and Derek Mitchell. Casting Mitchell as Violet may have been ‘controversial’, but as it turns out, nobody could better depict that she-pander (nails grappling for purchase on your forearm, wig bobbing incessantly) than a second-year undergraduate. As for Higgins, Tennessee Williams only wrote two female characters (groteseque whore/saviour-wife), and sensibly Higgins and Glover have conspired that the former shouldn’t play either. As I said – Hecuba. It’s ages til finals.

Red Velvet at the Garrick

Back in 2012, I was historical advisor on the original production of Lolita Chakrabarti’s Red Velvet, the theatrical biopic of Ira Aldridge. Aldridge was the first African-American actor to gain fame in Europe, and the play tells the turbulent story of his 1833 Othello at Covent Garden. My job was to introduce the cast to the world of 1830s theatre, and (the best part of all) help them recreate the melodramatic acting style that gives Red Velvet’s play-within-a-play sequences both humour and power. I drew on my expertise in the history of acting style, and images I’d worked with both at Oxford University and in the collections of the Garrick Club. The play ran at the Tricycle & has since toured to Brooklyn. Now, brilliantly, it’s part of the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company’s season at the Garrick Theatre. I was delighted to be invited back  to work with the new cast, who are absolutely lovely, and full of curiosity about the characters and their world.

Working with theatre companies is one of the very best parts of my job: play in the truest sense. Red Velvet has taken me places I never expected to go, and it’s enriched every aspect of my research. Even completely unconnected activities somehow link back – for example, as part of the final throes of Shakespeare’s Women and the Fin de Siecle (out soon!), I was watching a 1988 film of Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies (1891–1992) giving, as a nonagenarian, a masterclass for young Juliets. One of them was Lolita Chakrabarti herself – and thus I was able to get a first-hand account of the intergenerational mentoring that’s so crucial to my book.

I’ve also written academically about Red Velvet in Staging the Other in Nineteenth-Century British Drama (ed. Tiziana Morosetti, and published by Peter Lang, 2015). My chapter is entitled ‘A Progressive Othello: Modern Blackness in Chakrabarti’s Red Velvet (2012)’ and examines intersectional politics, race and biography. I talked about my experience as an historical advisor in Oxford and London, and you can read more about my work on Red Velvet in Guardian article which Adrian Lester wrote at the time.

Theatre and theatre history have different priorities. As a rehearsal-room advisor I constantly strike a balance between historical enthusiasm and encouraging the company I’m with to jettison anything that’s only historically, rather than artistically useful. Actors, directors and designers are always meticulous and their enthusiasm is so rewarding – never more  than on Red Velvet, where Indhu Rubasingham, the director, has been especially generous. I’m so proud the show now has its West End transfer. Go and see it, and on your way in, pay particular attention to the statue just opposite the theatre. Ira Aldridge [as played by Adrian Lester] now faces the Irving Memorial, D.F. Cheshire’s statue of Sir Henry Irving (1838–1905). Irving was Britain’s first theatrical knight, and the most powerful actor- and actor-manager on the late Victorian stage. It’s great to see two ground-breaking nineteenth-century actors in such proximity, and even better when it comes as a sign that Aldridge is finally getting the recognition he deserves.

Elizabeth, Victoria, and Ellen

This evening, Elizabeth II becomes Britain’s longest-reigning monarch. This is interesting to me not merely because I have deeply conflicted feelings about royal babies and their great-grandmother vs. workshy princesses and the amount of social housing you could build at Highgrove.

Queen Victoria in 1897 (slightly after becoming our longest-reigning monarch, celebrating her Diamond Jubilee! …I say ‘celebrating’…).

Until 5.30 this evening, our longest-reigning monarch is still Queen Victoria, who reigned 1837–1901. Victoria became the longest-reigning monarch by outlasting poor old George III (1760–1820), exceeding the length of his reign on 23 September 1896. The morning papers were, as you’d expect, full of adulatory editorials on the Queen’s longevity and popularity.

But 23 September 1896, coincidentally, was also the day that the Victorians’ best-loved actress, Ellen Terry, woke up to hyperbolic reviews of her own British royal. The evening before, Terry had opened at London’s Lyceum Theatre as Imogen, the British princess who’s the heroine of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline. Victoria was queen of the British Empire, and Terry was the queen of British theatre.

Ellen Terry as Imogen, 1896 (Creative Commons).

Just after finishing my DPhil, I wrote about the 23 September coincidence for Platform‘s Spring 2014 issue, and this morning seemed quite a good time to revisit it! So, if you want to read about theatrical curation and memory with a royal twist, “Dynasty, memory, Terry: curating the 1896 Cymbeline” is now open-access via academia.edu and in its original home on Platform

[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.

Pride & Prejudice & Elderly Fin-de-Siècle Actresses

Currently finishing the book – Shakespeare’s Women and the Fin de Siècle. Yes, that is exciting. Except when it looks an awful lot like a person with a laptop and 9,000 printouts, who has inexplicably taken to writing her most important notes-to-self on small white squares of paper. Which blow everywhere. Given that I really need to finish the book, I am of course LITERALLY BURSTING with ideas for other creative and academic things.

this picture epitomises elizabeth bennet’s family / drink whenever mrs bennet

Sometimes these are useful. Sometimes they are the outline for a BBC Pride and Prejudice drinking game (drink when anybody says “Make haste!” drink when Mr Darcy looks like he’s swallowed an ostrich!), because 1) it is the single perfect piece of television in our time and 2) although popularly remembered as a witty comedy of manners about two witty and intelligent people who wittily and sexily find each other, it is actually about a witty, intelligent woman who is continually embarrassed by her family, and a young man wearing forty-nine layers of clothing who behaves like her embarrassing stalker and is continually dismayed like unto man who has sat down on a weasel.

The drinking game would also include “drink whenever a woman of mature years sports headgear like unto large burgundy shower-cap” and “drink whenever people discuss how Jane Bennet needs to Do More to entice Charles Bingley into matrimony, conveniently overlooking that thanks to Regency necklines she is practically topless“. There would be special shot forfeits whenever Mr Collins is sweaty and whenever you need strong liquors to sustain you in the face of imdb’s depressing responses to the perennial “Where are they now?” (this outstanding piece of television was apparently career Kryptonite for most of the supporting cast).

#marybennet2k15

Special mentions on rewatching also go to the fact that a) Lucy Briers, as Mary, does truly outstanding background acting every time David Bamber’s Mr Collins approaches the frame, and b) by today’s repulsive and totalitarian body standards, literally every young woman in the Bennett household would be considered a heifer and not allowed on TV. Do buy the DVD. Everything’s been especially remastered and the Making-Of Feature includes Colin Firth going flump onto a crash-mat.

imagine these 5 women with these 5 bodies being allowed to be the sexy leads on 2015 television

Anyway, so that this post may run the gamut of my current niche interests, back to the book. One of the late-stage/late-onset tasks in monograph completion is thinking about the images you’d like. This involves much foraging into online image archives, a job that I last did professionally, as a freelance rights assistant, and which I greatly preferred when I was being paid for it.

But never fear. This is not a post about anything as useful as “the process by which I decided certain images would best support and illuminate my text”. This is “Sophie Duncan’s personal guide to what the actresses in her monograph looked like when they were really, really old”.

‘Dame Madge Kendal’ (1928), by Sir William Orpen. Kendal was then aged 80.

Luckily for theatre and for me, my women tended to live long past their long careers. Madge Kendal was churning out her particular blend of vicious Victoriana as late as the 1930s in autobiographies, while Mrs Patrick Campbell saw the start of the Second World War.

Ellen Terry died somewhat earlier in 1928 (Kendal was palpably delighted to have outlived her), but – like Campbell – made a handful of films. Lillie Langtry died in 1929, as the if anything more languorously named Lillie, Lady de Bathe.

Ellen Terry (1847–1928), pictured in 1925.

There is something pathetic and unnerving in these images, of course – Ellen Terry’s eyes, made bleak by macular degeneration, in this film from 1925, and the frankly spooky sight of the most famous Victorian beauty dolled up by Cecil Beaton. Stella Campbell swelled up.

But they’re still there: more there, somehow, in the new and steadily more unflinching technologies of twentieth-century photography. They are a little ghostly, long past the century in which they made their fortunes and enjoyed so much professional and social freedom, but still marvellous.

Lillie Langtry (1853–1929), pictured by Cecil Beaton in 1928, aged 75..

I could also have included Sybil Thorndike (1882–1974), not because she’s the group’s sole successor, but because I think she was one of the most beautiful old women I’ve ever seen. It’s a frequent boast today that Britain’s older actresses do better across the Atlantic than their American sisters, because our women have had less recourse to surgery and retain more expression, character and emotional articulation. I like this idea a lot, of course, but I’m suspicious of the idea that Western culture has a special cache of appreciation for women’s character at any age. I think it’s perhaps just that some women get more beautiful as they get older (Judi Dench and Harriet Walter are two obvious examples).

Mrs Patrick Campbell (1865–1940), pictured by Cecil Beaton in 1938, aged 73.

In any case, it’s lovely for me, at the end of long, long familiarity with a handful of key images (Ellen Terry by Sargent; Madge as Galatea; anorexic Stella Campbell and Lillie Langtry’s bare legs as Cleopatra) to discover these women anew, once old. I hope you enjoy them too. Or, at least, that you enjoy this latest manifestation of a phenomenon wearily familiar to everyone who knows me in real life: my endless Weird Victorian Facts!

Why do you go to the theatre?

Why do you go to the theatre? What makes you go, keeps you going, or (conversely) makes you stay away?

I’ve been thinking about some possible reasons, contemporary and historical, for theatregoing. There’s seasonal pantomime-going, or the individual who racks up a lifetime’s theatre attendance because they’re the dutiful spouse of a hardened fan. There’s theatre as the venue for a treat, date, or other celebration; as a place to see and be seen; or as an experience akin to sight-seeing or a heritage trip, if you want to sample an indigenous or traditional performance style. There’s escapism. There’s wanting to see a particular actor (star or spear-carrier, never let it be said that I and sundry other schoolgirls did not lose our hearts to Rory Kinnear when he was MERELY CAIUS LUCIUS), director, playwright, or designer (I am not highbrow enough for the last). There are educational reasons, whether it’s school trip or the minor miracle of finding out that someone’s been brave/foolhardy enough to stage the subject of your PhD. There’s your friend’s play, your college play, and the play starring the person you fancy. There’s a play that drags you to the theatre when nothing else has in ages, either because of the themes or the unusual casting choice that puts someone like you on stage, for once. There’s the Travelex offer, the student discount, or the Underground ad that seems like a good idea. There’s the fact that your choice is limited by where you live or what you earn or how you get about. There’s the fact that you love Cats/Hamlet/Harriet Walter/Spamalot/£22 seats at the Hampstead/Jodie because she’s better at the 9 am online rush than you are/weird immersive things in a mask more than is usual or healthy (I am all these people and worse).*

You will have other and better and more thought-provoking reasons. I should like to hear them. Thanks!

*I am much worse at the cinema than I am at the theatre, partly because I am spatially unable to understand chase sequences, and partly because I shouldn’t eat Haribo. That said, the last film I saw was Testament of Youth (plot summary: everyone you love dies horribly, and mud) and I wept noiselessly and violently for a solid two hours. No Haribo. Late on, Vera Brittain is having her long-overdue nervous breakdown back in Somerville (MERTON) and her tute partner says “I’ve brought you some more books to read”. The most Oxonian moment on film. It dehydrated me.

[TALK]: Lady Dervorguilla Seminar Series / Black History & Ira Aldridge

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Here is the swanky and over-generous flier for my next talk. When your eyebrows have returned to a normal altitude, I hope you’ll join me in agreeing that “Lady Dervorguilla” could be equally a flesh-eating pot plant and the greatest, oldest peer the House of Lords has ever seen. Instead, she was Dervorguilla of Galloway, the original Balliol woman, seen inset looking judgmental in a deep red gown. Many thanks to Balliol MCR for inviting me a couple of months back, and if you’d like to come along, see the Facebook event for details. You’ll hear more about…

In 1833, Ira Aldridge was the first black actor to play Othello in Britain, just as Britain was debating the abolition of slavery in its colonies. In 2012, Lolita Chakrabarti’s award-winning Red Velvet rediscovered Aldridge’s theatrical practice and extraordinary life. Dr. Sophie Duncan, historical advisor on the original production, talks about Aldridge’s life, rehabilitation, and the “progressive” Black history of the play, as well as offering advice on combining a career in academia and theatre.

NB: the flier neglects to mention the wine reception, surely the most important aspect of the evening.

[CFP]: Victorian Dirt

Victorian Network is an open-access, MLA-indexed, peer-reviewed journal dedicated to publishing and promoting the best postgraduate and early career work across the broad field of Victorian Studies.

The tenth issue of Victorian Network (Summer 2015) will be guest edited by Professor William A. Cohen (University of Maryland) on the theme of Victorian Dirt. Dirt – its causes, consequences, and control – obsessed the long nineteenth century, from the fuels and detritus of the Industrial Revolution, to the obscene books sold on London’s Holywell Street (which boasted fifty-seven pornographers by 1834). Technological advances brought increased pollution, while cities’ growth generated more dirt and the new urban workforce crowded together in sickness and in health. Meanwhile, public legislation and agitation tried to clean, civilise and purify the populace in both body and mind. Writers and cultural commentators debated the middle and upper classes’ responsibility to relieve the plight of the poor and dirty, but also drew on the metaphorical valences of dirt to explore cross-class attraction and repulsion. Rubbish mounds and the filthy, sewage-infested Thames are the iconic images of Charles Dickens’s exploration of class relations in Our Mutual Friend; Hannah Cullwick, diarist and domestic servant, documented her relationship with the barrister Arthur Munby – a secret connection based on the potential eroticism of dirt on the working-class body; and ‘slumming’ emerged as a term and practice in the 1880s, as well-to-do Londoners went on organized or individual tours of the East End. Recent scholarship and exhibitions have revealed the changing nature and status of dirt in the nineteenth century, taking an interdisciplinary approach to uncover (quite literally) the science and significance of the filthy, disposable or disgusting in Victorian life.

We are inviting submissions of no more than 7,000 words, on any aspect of the theme. Possible topics include, but are by no means limited to, any of the following:

  • Dirt in industrial processes and products: coal, smog, smoke or ashes.
  • Dirty money: blackmail and corruption; smuggling; the sex trade.
  • Filth: scandal, gossip, obscenity and pornography.
  • Disgust and horror; dirt and the Gothic; dirt and the atavistic or bestial; dirt in the laboratory.
  • The earth: dirt as life source; dirt as land; possession; burial ground and charnel house.
  • Roads, woodlands, waysides and canals.
  • Ashes to ashes: dirt and putrefaction; decay; decomposition and death.
  • Dirt and disease: overcrowding, sanitation; refuge, dust and disposal; the relationship between dirt and poverty.
  • Washing, cleanliness, purification; moral and physical dirt.
  • Housework and domestic service
  • The use of dirt in racialised imagery; dirt and the exotic; dirt and the colonial mission.
  • The dirty body; sweat, grime, and other fluids; eroticised dirt.

All submissions should conform to MHRA style conventions and the in-house submission guidelines. Deadline for submissions: 15 January 2015.

Contact: victoriannetwork@gmail.com


This is my first issue as Editor of VN, and I am extremely excited. And resisting (temporarily) all manner of “send us your dirtiest work in Victorian Studies” puns. And slightly alarmed by the kind of google searches that might lead people to this post. Fifty-seven pornographers, though.

 

[REVIEW]: Macbeth, Creation Theatre, Lady Margaret Hall

Creation Theatre’s Macbeth is an open-air production in the gardens of Lady Margaret Hall, the first Oxford College to admit women to read for degrees.

Against a backdrop of midsummer borders, Jonathan Holloway’s production of Macbeth reconceives the action inside a military sanatorium, with Duncan as a faceless, wheelchair-bound burns victim, and the witches a side-effect of ECT and pharma. This high-concept approach generally succeeds, thanks to the cast’s versatility and an ambitious electric soundscape by sound designer Matt Eaton. The cast of six degenerate from soldiers to patients, while Madeleine Joseph plays the Porter as a disenchanted nurse, driven to exhaustion and drink by the trauma she’s witnessed.

Reading Holloway’s enjoyably trenchant programme essay, however, suggests that not all aspects of this concept made it across the (grassy) footlights. Apparently, the play starts with the funeral of the Macbeths’ child. I will concede that stage right featured a Saltire-covered coffin, but as far as sightlines would permit (we were in the “Fairweather” seats: don’t book one if you’re short or short-sighted), I didn’t see anyone interact with said coffin at this point. It’s true that the play also began with the ritual waving and repositioning of a dozen or so black flags, whose swirling and furling sometimes suggested the wings of planes and sometimes the hulls of boats – but, again, this military formation, in tandem with shelling and engine noises in the soundscape, seemed like basic tone-setting, episodes of which punctuated the performance. War, and the pity of war, clearly: but inferring a dead son in Flanders was too much.

The three LMH buildings – Wordsworth, Talbot and Toynbee – date from the fin de siècle to World War 1, making them the perfect architectural backdrop for reimagining the Macbeths’ mansion as convalescent home. Lady Margaret Hall looks like a dystopian Downton Abbey, as characters appear at windows or rage on balconies. Since said buildings are presumably housing real-life conference guests or summer schools over the long vacation, there’s a lovely realism to the lights flickering behind closed curtains – just as the setting sun and odd murder of crows winging westward matches the play’s thematic slide from chivalric celebration to psychological night.

Yet, at times, this hyper-real geography seems curiously inconsistent. It’s believable that the success-soaked, hubristic Macbeths might plan Duncan’s murder mid-snog in their bedroom, and nicely effective to see Lady Macbeth alternately welcoming her husband and communing with the sky. Later, however, there’s no chance whatsoever that they’d wash their bloodied hands and discuss the aftermath of killing Duncan in extremely loud voices with the windows open, in a castle full of guests.

The decision to situate key scenes at such long range from the audience also serves Laura Murray’s Lady Macbeth very poorly: with the exception of the sleepwalking scene, all her key scenes happen a very long way and several floors up from the audience, forcing her to emote at very much more than arm’s length.

Another consequence of the huge set and soundscape is that all the actors are miked. This works reliably 95% of the time (again, praise to Matt Eaton) but makes finding which actor is speaking (and from where) extremely difficult, as a speaker system means their voices emanate from everywhere, and that the actors themselves often get lost in the landscape. With much cast doubling and the men all dressed in khaki (against green borders), there’s an occasional danger of losing track even of characters: a pair of spectacles reified the distinction between Simon Spencer-Hyde’s tense, pugnacious Macduff and his honourable Banquo, but I struggled to distinguish between Spencer-Hyde’s Banquo and Richard Kidd’s (also white, shaven-headed) Ross.

Scott Ainslie’s Macbeth is low-key without ever being low-stakes. Too often, even very great actors hear the witches’ first prophetic cackle and switch instantly and permanently from popular warrior to psychopath, meaning that by the time the audience reaches Act V, we’ve got so used to Macbeth’s mad-eyed horror that, the sleepwalking scene done, there’s nothing to look forward to except the designer’s take on walking trees. Ainslie, happily, avoids all this. Not only is the momentum kept up brilliantly via bunker mentality and some Downfall-esque shouting into field ‘phones, but we’re treated to a bravura tour de force from the very top of Talbot Hall, from which a hipflask-swigging Macbeth seems only too likely to pelt Christopher York’s hapless Doctor.

More importantly, Ainslie builds the monstrosity slowly, illuminating text. For the first time, Banquo’s “Thou hast it now […] and, I fear/Thou play’dst most foully for’t” sounds more like the perspicacity of an intimate friend than the deeply overdue realisation that the new King of Scotland is a murderous nutjob. Equally, Lady Macbeth’s “You lack the season of all natures, sleep” – the last line she ever says to Macbeth onstage – typically sounds beyond incongruous, given that by this point most ghost-seeing Macbeths would sooner order the Thane of Fife on toast and snack on a Satanic yoghurt than drink a peppermint tea and turn in. But what’s so chilling is that you sense that these Macbeths do still share a bed, sustaining a normal existence alongside the regicide and terror.

Above all, Scott Ainslie’s murderous Macbeth remains horribly plausible: an officer and a gentleman, whose residual likeability is the most dangerous thing about him. Violence has become normality. Macbeth is as desensitised to private murder as national war: one justifies another, until killing is the most natural act imaginable. Ainslie’s charisma has important consequences for Christopher York’s damaged First Murderer, a Smike-like young private, convinced by Macbeth’s paternal rationality that Banquo deserves to die. York goes on to slaughter the Macduffs before finally exsanguinating in his general’s toxic embrace.

Holloway has edited Macbeth with a mix of liberalism and butchery. In their first appearance, the witches (the supporting cast, black flags trailed across faces) aren’t on long enough to establish themselves, and for every useful streamlining – Seward and Seyton are heavily pared – there’s a disappointment. Eliding Ross with the messenger right before Lady Macduff’s murder means that Richard Kidd switches awkwardly from consoling his “pretty coz” to calling her “madam” and announcing that he can’t stay any longer immediately after having left. It’s a shame to mess about with Madeleine Joseph’s best scene: alongside Christopher York, hers is the standout performance of the night.

Holloway is entirely right to say that Macbeth shouldn’t be treated as a sacred text, immune from editing – not least, perhaps, because the Folio version that survives for us is apparently one that Thomas Middleton had a go at, revisiting the play after Shakespeare’s death and interpolating material from his own The Witch (1615). I quite like a bit of hubble and bubble, and it’d be a shame if a future generation of theatregoers grew up without wondering what a brinded cat was, or how its shriek sounded, but Macbeth without the witches isn’t (quite) Hamlet without the prince, so fair enough.

Unexpectedly, it was Holloway’s least controversial cut that proved my greatest regret. In the fourth act of Macbeth, there’s a scene in England, in which Macduff and Malcolm plan the invasion of Scotland, and discover (via Ross) that Macduff’s family have died at the tyrant’s hands. Before that – often to the twitching boredom of the audience, who are waiting for Macduff to discover the massacre – Malcolm has a long and weird attack of cold feet. He tells Macduff at great length how pathologically unfit for kingship he is, beset by vices from avarice to blasphemy, and then, once Macduff is thoroughly appalled, confesses that he’s actually a virtuous virgin with every intention of ruling well.

As scenes go, it’s psychologically unnerving, dramatically tricky, lengthy, and – at such a late dramatic stage – complicates rather than advances the plot. Since Malcolm is a relatively small role, in a traditional production it’s often weakly cast. But with Christopher York as Malcolm, I suddenly longed to know how the scene would play out. It was largely cut, depriving the audience of a key part of the night’s strongest performance. Alongside the subjugated, savage Murder, York’s Scottish prince was a chilly, convincing portrayal that moved from filial thin-lipping and a disdain for “grief unfelt” to a final moment of violence that indicates Duncan’s son will be a far more frightening king than his usurper.

Sometimes both sound and vision missed the mark – there was no discernible “cry of women” announcing Lady Macbeth’s suicide, and when the audience were cued to put on paper crowns as Macbeth’s vision of the Stuart dynasty, they couldn’t hear the (recorded) line or find the crowns. Despite this, stellar performances by Ainslie, Joseph and York make Creation’s production well worth seeing – wrap up warmly, and enjoy the beauty of one of Oxford’s less-visited colleges.

 

Creation Theatre’s Macbeth runs until 13 September at Lady Margaret Hall. Standard tickets cost £22 and are available online.

Rehearsal notes: thoughts on The Notorious Mrs Ebbsmith

Today, I was back with the cast and crew for Primavera’s production of The Notorious Mrs. Ebbsmith, Arthur Wing Pinero’s 1895 play about the relationship between a radical female demagogue, and the young MP who abandons his wife and career for her. Living as political comrades and lovers in Venice, Agnes Ebbsmith and Lucas Cleeve are visited by his rakehell uncle, the Duke of St Olpherts, who plays the very longest of games in attempting to neutralise Agnes’s influence over her lover, and return Lucas to his wife.

Writing that summary caused me great pain, because re-reading the text and working with the company has reminded me what an ambiguous, complicated and wonderful play it is. It’s also one that I find incredibly sad (which is somewhat unfair, given that I laughed out loud frequently during the run I watched). As well as the standard historical advice bit (pockets! Wedding rings! What is Dr Kirke doing in Venice?), I also gave notes to a cast for the first time in years, which was a daunting but enjoyable– and also one that reminded me how illegible my note-taking is, during a run. I should say that I only gave notes at the behest of Abbey Wright, the marvellous director who has cast the production incredibly cleverly (full disclaimer: she’s an Orielensis and from Warwickshire, although I didn’t know either of these facts when I took the job. Disclaimer son of disclaimer: also just discovered she directed the 2012 run of Bitch Boxer, which I saw in 2013). In particular, her casting resists the temptation (and I think thereby doing a rather better job than Pinero’s original text might have done) to turn the supporting female roles – Gertrude, a young widow from Yorkshire, and Sybil, the MP’s aristocratic wife – into mere foils. Julia Goulding and Sarah Madigan are as strong and arresting as the eponymous lead.

Primavera’s production is the first since 1895, which is remarkable given that The Second Mrs. Tanqueray (his 1893 work, to which this was the career sequel) is done fairly regularly – and that this, in all its ambiguity and obsessive negotiation of gender and class, is actually a great play for today.

The Duke of St Olpherts reminds me of those better known fin-de-siècle flaneurs, Lord Henry Wootton, Lord Darlington and Lord Goring. He’s actually more dangerous and more interesting than all three. Although patently attracted to Agnes (and not pace Gladstone, “in the missionary spirit) and a lifelong rakehell, he doesn’t have an emotional crisis and offer her his hand (Darlington), or preach aesthetic philosophy (Wootton), or offer witty salvation to the hero, as Goring does to Lord Chiltern, Wilde’s version of the compromised “coming man”. Thackeray called Vanity Fair “a novel without a hero” and this is a play without a hero – Lucas Cleeve isn’t Robert Chiltern. But although Olpherts isn’t Wootton, he is Wildean. Responding to Agnes’s frankly splendid account of his outrageous and enterprising past, St Olpherts declares “I detected the tendency of the age”. This reminded me of what Wilde wrote in his prison his prison letter to Lord Alfred Douglas (which, although subsequently titled De Profundis, George Bernard Shaw saw as Wilde in excelsis). Comparing himself to Lord Byron (actually a far better role model for St Olpherts than Wilde), Wilde wrote ‘I was a man who stood in symbolic relation to […] my age”. St Olpherts stands in symbolic relation to Agnes, to Lucas, and to all of monied, dissolute fin-de-siècle society. Agnes calls him a torturer; at times he seems like a natural Pandarus forced into precisely the opposite role. There are also moments when he’s the most shocking character in the play.

He’s also, physically, the sickest person in a play that’s overwhelmingly about sickness – what it means to be healthy, unnatural, or mad. Anyone interested in health, class, or gender should see this play. Between 1898 and 1918, the trades union movements grew especially fast, and the political rhetoric Pinero gives the working-class Agnes anticipates much of the language of the suffrage and socialist movements. But back to sickness. In a tiny cast of characters, there are two doctors, and two nurses: Agnes is professional, and Gertrude has helped with nursing Lucas because of her devotion to her (Amos, it seems, may have made a third nurse). Lucas has been recently violently unwell, although it’s unclear whether his troubles are more mental or physical. Gertrude has terrible bouts of depression and has experienced the deaths of husband, lover, and child. Agnes faints and is attended by Kirke in the course of the play; we subsequently see her with a burned and bandaged hand. “Mad Agnes” also discusses the extent of the misery and privation she’s suffered in the past – until her “bones were through [her] skin”. The original, in fact the only other Mrs Ebbsmith was Mrs Patrick Campbell, who in 1895 was considered horribly thin. Sadly, today her physique is the default and pinnacle for film acting, although theatre remains (mercifully) more diverse.  It’s also a play in which characters desperately try to alleviate each other’s suffering, with Amos and Gertrude ultimately presenting spiritual healing as Agnes’s only possibility of an effective “cure”.

I’m so glad I was able to be involved with Primavera, and I can’t wait to see the full show: today’s run was a joy. It was also my first visit to the Jerwood Space, via Jubilee line chaos, an emergency cab dash, and a fascinating chat to the driver about The Knowledge (3 years! full time! 400 routes to memorise). These are rambling notes, but I’m trying to make the blog more active and not let the perfect (eloquent) be the enemy of the good (published).

Finally, I hope my UK readers aren’t suffering too badly from the smog. My eyes are itching horribly and London today was so polluted that, in comparison, the half-a-dozen trees beside the Tate as I walked up to Blackfriars smelled like a verdant meadow. And then my journey back to Oxford took 90 minutes longer than expected, thanks to a diversion. I feel I could now win Mastermind with my specialist subject as the backstreets of West Wycombe.