Tag Archives: reviews

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

https://i0.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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Happy Birthday, Shakespeare!

Liz Woledge of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust invited me to be involved with this project.Liz Woledge of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust contacted me, asking me to participate in Happy Birthday, Shakespeare: the SBT’s 2011 project inviting bloggers to write about Shakespeare’s impact on their life and work. I was delighted to get involved. #hbws 1564-2011.

I exist because of Shakespeare. Hyperbolic though that may sound, it’s less an assertion of Shakespeare-as-self-help (although, if you’re in the market…) than a statement of historical fact.

Ben Kingsley and Niamh Cusack, 1985.

My parents worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company; my mother was a Senior Wig and Make-Up Artist, my father a Deputy Stage Manager. They met during the RSC’s production of Othello in 1985, started dating in previews, were living together by press night, and got engaged five months later. They’ll celebrate their silver wedding in July.

Although Stratford babies have yet to start gurgling in iambic pentameter, my experience of Shakespeare has always been inseparable from my experience of Stratford. This sense of ownership has, quite naturally, engendered a sense of belligerent, smug parochialism that would put the inhabitants of Royston Vasey to shame. Although wildly partisan about the glories of Stratford, from the Singing Man Of Henley Street to the architecture of the new theatre (which still looks quite a lot like a 1930s power station, but, good, I like it that way), I can, for the sake of argument, admit there might be an objectively equal town somewhere on planet Earth. The great thing about Shakespeare is that I have never needed to recalibrate my smugness. Shakespeare is the best, and the glorious thing is that the rest of the world seems to agree.

Growing up in Stratford, with theatre-loving parents and the RSC on my doorstep, I was guarded from the horrific slow death that can be a first encounter with Shakespeare at school. Instead, I saw my first production aged eight (Josie Lawrence in The Taming of the Shrew ) and benefitted from a drama teacher, Ali Troughton, who made Shakespeare’s language the birthright of seven-year-olds. The first speech I ever learned was the seven ages of man, and the first scene was the Witches in Macbeth. We were never taught that Shakespeare was difficult, boring or remote on some plain of exaltation; instead, he was immediate, exciting and ours.

I went on to take a degree in English, write a Masters thesis on Shakespeare performance history, and am now writing a doctorate on Shakespeare’s heroines at the Victorian fin de siècle. I’ve also directed and acted in Shakespeare productions, playing my way through his illustrious back catalogue of Women Who Are Short and Boys Whose Voices Haven’t Broken.

(c) Alastair Muir, 2003

Alexandra Gilbreath and Jasper Britton, 2003.

If Shakespeare has led me to some strange places, I can only apologise to my fellow-travellers. Special and fervent self-recrimination should be laid at the feet of one Jasper Britton, who had the misfortune to become the object of my schoolgirl adoration when I was fifteen, and he was in The Taming of the Shrew. Everything in my feminist, liberal, pinko-Pankhurst heart quite rightly rebels against Petruchio and all he stands for. Nothing can excuse the day I chased Mr Britton across the Bancroft Gardens to the cackling approval of a dozen other fifteen-year-old girls. Somehow, I went on to be the sort of Front of House staff member who could safely usher the Patrick Stewart/David Tennant Hamlet season. I also apologise to the student actress whom I forced to climb furniture around the edges of my college room, refusing to let her touch the floor in a “freeing” exercise to “help her find” Puck.

I, too, have suffered for Shakespeare. Part of my summer job with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (who bravely commissioned this blog post) involved me dressing as the first act of The Crucible in tropical temperatures while 3,000 visitors poured through the Birthplace each day. The upside is that I can now can now say “glovemaker” in Korean. Aged twelve, I wore a purple, gold and sky-blue blazer (I want you to take a moment to imagine that. Use this bracketed space to fully contemplate sixty eleven-year-old girls in purple, gold and sky-blue blazers. With shoulder pads) to represent my school in the Birthday Celebrations and lay flowers on Shakespeare’s tomb.

Christopher "Kit" "too cool for school but got stabbed in the eye" Marlowe. Not quite as good as Shakespeare.

As an undergraduate, my Oxford tutors tried their best to vary my literary diet of Women, Gayness, Shakespeare and Death. I studied conceptions of masculinity, attended with joy to the thrusting passion of Heathcliff and Cathy, acknowledged Middleton and swapped John Donne’s self-burying sermon for… no, I still read about Death. For a term, I even followed the cool kids by pretending I preferred Marlowe to Mr W. S.

However, while a BA is a time for experimenting with bad haircuts and all kinds of textual identities, grad school is different (for one thing, you no longer have money for a hairdresser). Critics in feminism, from Sandra M. Gilbert to Anette Federico, have described how academic research increasingly becomes “a kind of re-search into our own lives”. This is true for me: my own experience of Shakespeare is equally inseparable from my experience of theatre, and of my hometown.

Today, my academic research explores performances of Shakespeare’s heroines at the end of the nineteenth century, a time when Shakespeare was simultaneously the planet’s most idolized and most contested playwright.

Reading the writings of our most famous Shakespearean performers – then and now – convinces me that however we encounter Shakespeare, whether as readers, scholars or performers, we have always used his plays to help us understand ourselves, and to articulate our own experiences.

Responding to the Arts Council England cuts, I wrote a polemic on the value of theatre, trying to express the ways in which theatre teaches confidence, creativity, self-belief and, above all, communities in which diversity, trust and risk-taking can flourish together. Everything that is true of theatre is especially true of Shakespeare. No other writer that I’ve found so consistently challenges and empowers all those who encounter him.

(c) www.bustledress.com

Lillie Langtry, c. 1880.

Back in 1882, Lillie Langtry, by then a sidelined Royal mistress with a bankrupt husband and illegitimate baby, turned to acting largely out of financial necessity. The result was artistic liberation. Staging Shakespeare she was, for the first time “my own master, my own mistress, and freed from unaccustomed control”. Generations of performers have felt the same freedom.

If this sounds too much like Bardolatry, I should say there are some plays I absolutely hate – King Lear is always about seven hours too long, and as one very famous Shakespeare scholar noted in my hearing, consists chiefly of “all those men going mad”.

This August, I’m thrilled to be seeing Catherine Tate and David Tennant in Much Ado About Nothing. I hope the combination of superstar actors and one of the world’s most-visited cities brings a new generation of theatregoers to one of Shakespeare’s best-loved, sharpest comedies. I hope seeing their first play encourages them to track down a second – and a third, and a fourth. Happy Birthday, Shakespeare.

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 ★★★★

NaNoWriMo, murder and the Wallace affair…

This is, I guess, an appropriate post for the run-up to Hallowe’en! Warning: gory/disturbing stuff beneath the cut (my first attempt at using one on WordPress, hope it works!)

A couple of days ago, I signed up for NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. For the uninitiated, this is a worldwide online project where participants each write a novel – 50,000 words – in the 30 days of November. Since signups, I’ve been fretting about the possibilities of libel, slander and nobody speaking to me ever again. I hope this is merely a clever displacement activity to avoid the most likely reason for failure – simply not producing those 50,000 words.

The prospect of winning NaNo (trans: successfully meeting the word limit) fills me with huge relief: in 30 days, it’d be done. I’d have written a novel, and – no matter how bad, boggy and unpublishable – I would know it could be done. And then I could do it again, rather better – it’d never be so difficult again, not until the tricky third-novel-slump where I have to go and stay in a friends’ house in the Fens and drink tea and stare out and possibly have a passionate/doomed love affair with the man who brings the post/dark-eyed waif from the village. And then produce something a bit Woolf and a bit Dylan Thomas.

God, can you imagine how that child would have looked.

I am also, my brothers, joining A Book Club. I have never been sure about Book Clubs. They always screamed Richard & Judy and those 3 for 2 stickers (no that’s not just snobbery, those stickers induce HORRIBLE ANXIETY, I can NEVER find 3 books I want on the table and then the girl asks and god), also the prospect of sitting round discussing Clarissa Dalloway’s Motivation does tend to make you scream when it’s what you do for – well, not a living. For the three years that push you dramatically into debt, teach you to eat plovers’ eggs and are so golden-and-aquatint that the rest of the world seems cold and dark, woe, woe, et cetera. But Simon is in lots, so they must be okay, and now Book Clubs appeal to me in the same way as NaNoWriMo. I am jobless. I am dolescum. I finally have the time.

Plus, my sole close schoolfriend currently in Really Gainful Employment (Recruitment Consultant, hoyes) hates it so much he suggested a Book Club in his first recorded moment of speech without irony. Sincerity, from him, indicates a man on the edge of a quarter-life crisis/a Birmingham-based Columbine, so we’re all going to sit in a pub and mock our own literary endeavours, before choosing books to read for next time.

Of the two readers whose tastes I know well, I predict – respectively – Nabakov and Orwell as opening gambits. I’m veering towards Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood (haven’t read it yet – any thoughts?) for several reasons: 1) love my boys though I do, I’d be surprised if they chose many women writers – they’re Salinger & Orwell kind of guys, and 2) the fact it’s dystopian means they might actually like it. I’m not a big reader of dystopia, but I adored Oryx & Crake. Here’s another reason I’m nervous of the Book Club – when I talk about books outside an academic context, I sound sort of stupid. I don’t know whether to play nice and seem witless, or leap into a tutorial-style discussion and attempt to shed their hearts’ blood.

In terms of what I’m actually reading, I’m on a massive P. D. James kick, and waiting (probably forever) for Gary Taylor’s Inventing Shakespeare to arrive from Amazon. I heard P. D. James preach in chapel once, but until now Dalgliesh has been a big omission from my personal detective-canon. Having read Cover Her Face, Shroud For A Nightingale, The Black Tower, A Mind to Murder and now Death of an Expert Witness, I watched an ITV3 profile of her earlier in the week. Gyles Brandreth being an amiable idiot, Ruth Rendell being surprisingly closed-lipped on a woman she obviously loves, Mark Lawson being an unforgivable cretin (apparently Dorothy L Sayers “was all right on character but couldn’t really write a sentence”, berk berk “>berk berk) and Val McDermid rather ostentatiously calling her “Phyllis” (I wanted to link directly to McDermid’s website, but the typewriter sound effects are too annoying).

Several of PD James’s novels owe a positive debt to Dorothy L. Sayers. Shroud for a Nightingale has the same closed female community, sexual spectres and last-minute-assault-on-the-sleuth as Gaudy Night and, not coincidentally, is my favourite thus far. Set in a nurses’ training school in the 1970s, its opening pages contain one of the most horrific murders in detective fiction, the death of Nurse Pearce in the nurses’ demonstration room.

Talking of horrific murders, it cannot be every family that stores an almost-forgotten cache of crime scene photos in the same blanket box as old letters and birth certificates. I guess I’m just lucky. Our blanket box is a last-chance saloon for paperwork, never opened except  for those mysterious periods in my childhood when my father would get out 400 pieces of paper and  balance our finances (or at least acquaint himself with the imbalance).

Beneath the layers of respectable bills and invoices lies stuff from a film my dad worked on in 1990,about an unsolved murder in 1930s Liverpool. Do you remember the Prudential insurance ads? The Man From The Pru was the story of William Herbert Wallace, whose wife Julia was bludgeoned to death on the hearth in their shabby, cramped front room. Wallace claimed he’d been out at the time of the murder, searching for a non-existent in a street that was never built. The client was R. M. Qualtrough and the street was Menlove Gardens East, and I am enough of a terrifying crime nerd that I’m telling you all this from memory.  Wallace was tried, convicted and then sensationally acquitted. He didn’t hang, but died a broken man. The film starred Jonathan Pryce, Anna Massey and it dates horribly and as a child I was strictly, strictly forbidden to read the contents of the THE MAN FROM THE PRU file that was exacavated during my father’s financial archaeological digs.

My parents rarely censored what I read. Occasionally my mother has guilt that I got hold of trashfests like Yes, Mama (illegitimate orphan cruelly treated father disinherits mother senile child abuse prostitution suicide marries one-armed Boer veteran) and A Lady in Berkshire (“Kitty Winters could never have been called handsome but at that moment she looked almost beautiful” — trufax, and I found that at primary school) at nine, but since I also read all her Shakespeare, Dickens, Blyton, Christie & EJ Howard, it didn’t hurt. I think censoring children’s reading is pointless and stultifying, unless your precious lamb is somehow veering towards Firearms Monthly and Mein Kampf. I was only ever banned from The Jewels of Tessa Kent, which I read surreptitiously and guiltily in five-minute intervals (at thirteen, two years after Emily Organ passed round the sex bits in The Horse Whisperer to an awestruck Form 7X), The Betsy (mother decides Harold Robbins automobile expose will destroy child’s innocence) and, unforgettably, The Contents Of This Folder. My father said sternly that it was Not Very Nice (I must have been about five or six the last time the folder was unearthed in pursuit of papers – not long after the film was made, in fact), but otherwise I think he’d forgotten the thing existed.

I must have been a compliant kid. I didn’t read the folder until yesterday. And yes – apart from the respectable and fascinating original newspapers, it was horrible, horrible stuff… Continue reading

REVIEW: Julius Caesar, dir. Lucy Bailey, RSC Courtyard Theatre

Greg Hicks as Julius Caesar I’ve published my first piece on the Alligator! It’s a review of the RSC’s new production of Julius Caesar, featuring local actors Sam Troughton and Hannah Young, as well as Greg Hicks (left) in the title role. You can read my review here.

In other & exciting news, my friend Elizabeth (who writes Oxford, Abridged) just told me that we’ll be graduating on the same day – her from her M.St, me from my BA. So I’m really pleased about that.

REVIEW: AS YOU LIKE IT, COURTYARD THEATRE, RSC

Katie Stephens (Rosalind) and Jonjo O'Neill (Orlando). (c) Ellie Kurtz

Katie Stephens (Rosalind) and Jonjo O'Neill (Orlando). (c) Ellie Kurtz

In Michael Boyd’s new production of As You Like It, the action moves from the frozen monochrome of a court in crisis to a forest less welcoming than a Siberian tundra. The comedy of Rosalind following her father into exile in the Forest of Arden is often portrayed as a play of riotous thigh slapping and lurid green sets, with plenty of opportunity for flowers, straw, and a strutting “Ganymede” (Rosalind’s male alter-ego; this being Shakespeare, she exchanges her skirt for trousers for much of the play). Instead, the latest Royal Shakespeare Company production finds both savagery and beauty in this beloved Shakespeare play. The result is a compelling exploration of the comedy’s dark heart.

Returning from the Histories season, Boyd and designer Tom Piper create a new aesthetic for the new RSC ensemble. From the blue-ochre blaze of the Histories sets, Piper has moved to a starker, colder look.  Initially, the stage is spare, the back of the courtyard dominated by a gleaming silver-white structure of square panels. Its metallic sheen provides a static backdrop to the glittering, inhospitable court that Duke Ferdinand, Orlando and Adam, Rosalind, Celia, and Touchstone successively flee.

But then Boyd and Piper unleash destruction on the set: the wrestling bout between Orlando and Charles smears the panels with blood; an enormous ball of straw bursts through double doors—quite literally the forest of Arden. Inside is Richard Katz’s Touchstone, a man with the frizzy grey hair of a clown, with his legs strait-jacketed together. The square panels are opened, battered, or removed altogether, revealing a casual abattoir (a deer hangs from a meathook, coat glistening), dead branches, or a dusty, yellow light. Instead of elegant poems on parchment, Orlando’s sonnets are big black letters on scrappy placards, enormous cardboard panels suspended from the flies or pinned to the pillars and set. In this production, the concepts As You Like It usually conveys with charm—clown, forest, poetry—are pushed to their limits, creating visual shocks that alternately amuse and surprise.

At the end of the interval, Geoffrey Freshwater as Corin guts and skins a real dead rabbit onstage. Detractors may find it too gory, but even the decapitation (a flash of the cleaver while the audience braces itself) is remarkable more for its efficiency than for its horror. The moment is an effective metaphor for a production fighting audience assumptions about this cosy comedy. Boyd’s As You Like It refuses the notion that a big-budget staging has to look safe or beautiful.

Where other productions gloss the play’s darkness to foreground the comedy, Boyd and his cast address the psychological impact of the characters’ experiences. Katy Stephens’s Rosalind is, above all, a woman who has just lost her father, and her performance has the sharpness of raw grief. Rosalind’s love for Orlando is as painful as it is instantaneous, and in the intimacy of the courtyard, it’s a shock to see her stand on the stage with tears in her eyes after the first wooing scene. Rather than looking the part of a wriggling schoolboy, when Stephens cross-dresses to become Ganymede, she turns into a dashing young man. She is the only Rosalind I’ve seen who convinces in the fainting scene, when Rosalind has to endure news of her beloved Orlando’s tussle with a lion, herself dressed as the male Ganymede (a slightly spivvy aesthete in Barbour and moustache). Usually, Rosalind keels over at the briefest flash of Orlando’s blood-stained handkerchief; here, she is forced to stand with the gory white scarf around her neck until the proximity of the blood becomes excruciating. Both of them are fighters, the extent of the blood indicating just how much Orlando had to bear.

Mariah Gale’s Celia is Rosalind’s junior, a princess full of an enthusiasm that renders her vulnerable. Celia is a problematic role: she tends to disappear into the trees as the Rosalind-Orlando relationship takes over. Her own last-minute love plot with Oliver is conveyed in a couple of sentences. Nevertheless, Boyd fleshes out the role with a bizarre, but enjoyable, dream sequence and a well-cast Oliver. As Oliver, Charles Aitken, a veteran of physical theatre companies such as Headlong and Frantic Assembly, echoes Stephens’s Rosalind by rooting his performance in trauma, which stems from a father’s death.

The most memorable performance comes from Forbes Masson as Jacques, the melancholic courtier who masterminds the utopian project of Duke Ferdinand’s exile. Masson plays a gin-soaked Goth with sneering blacked eyes and a purple velvet blazer, faintly ridiculous with his Cuban heels and ginger hair ruffled to the ends. Masson sings with intensity. His tenor is disarmingly icy, like Rufus Wainwright turned malevolent choirboy. There’s a hint of the jilted lover in his sneering, bitter relationship with Clarence Smith’s Duke Ferdinand, the exile who sets out to find “sermons in stones, books in the running brooks”. Ferdinand raises Jacques’s hopes of a utopia in Arden, but by the end of the play, those hopes are dashed. When Duke Ferdinand’s crown is miraculously restored, the company drops to their knees, while Jacques stays standing. His sense of contempt as Ferdinand takes the crown—the lure of power is just too strong for the exiled duke—is palpable; their sylvan dream is shattered. Jacques skulks offstage alone, leaving the festivities he can no longer enjoy.

The members of Boyd’s new ensemble have, in As You Like It, created an almost flawless conception of a fiercely flawed world. This company will perform together until 2011, opening the New Royal Shakespeare Theatre currently being built. Traditionally, acting contracts are much shorter, forcing actors into hothouse collaborations lasting only for the few weeks of rehearsal. The Long Ensemble, together since January, has time to develop intense relationships with one another and with the roles they will reprise in future seasons. The visceral emotion and fierce intelligence of this production suggests that summers in Stratford will be hot for years to come.

As You Like It | dir. Michael Boyd | The Royal Shakespeare Company | The Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

This review originally appeared in the Oxonian Review. To subscribe to the Review, click here.

REVIEW: Much Ado About Nothing, RABID PRODUCTIONS, O’REILLY THEATRE, 12-16 May 2009

(c) Adrian Krajewski

(c) Adrian Krajewski

[review originally published here]
Inspired by avant-garde group The Factory, the ‘rules’ of the Bright-Dukes-Maltby Much Ado are myriad, and their theatrical game enjoyable. There’s promenade, props supplied by the audience, and ‘tasks’ imposed by a bowler-hatted Sam Bright. Conceived and led by Lindsay Dukes as Beatrice, the O’Reilly’s latest experiment deserves much praise.

The cast is strong. The comedians particularly shine, with Joe Eyre’s Borachio, John-Mark Philo’s Dogberry, and Joe McAloon’s Verges thriving on the chaos throughout. I found myself laughing aloud: a rare treat at press previews. Of the lovers, Dukes’s Beatrice has great energy and comic skill; unfortunately, she rather gallops through Beatrice’s psychology. Both the revelation of her reciprocated love for Benedick and her rage against Claudio are taken much too fast. We must remember that speed isn’t passion. However, the originality and talent of Dukes’s performance emerge whenever she slows down.

Conversely, James Corrigan’s Benedick begins weakly but improves; their love scene is the play’s subtlest, mature and melancholic. Isabel Drury is the production’s greatest surprise, creating in Hero an honesty and emotional intensity that indicate Drury’s right to larger and more rewarding roles.

The company could benefit from a firmer hand with the storytelling. Enraptured by the creative process, there are moments when the verse is garbled, the play’s essence reduced to a convenient coathanger for the antics of an improv troupe. Intensive vocal work would help, as would lighter shoes so that one actor’s lines aren’t drowned by the feet of fourteen others.

This ambitious production marries ideas from the best in professional theatre practice with the freshness and idealism on which student theatre thrives. Liberated from the commercial demands of professional theatre, we students can afford experimentation even in a recession. Above all, our theatre allows us to create spaces in which to do what students do best: imagine, endeavour, and learn.

The highlights of my Much Ado were Dukes’s hiding in a hatstand, Philo’s singing from a shopping trolley, and the incredible acrobatics of Eyre. Yours will be different. With all its variations, this Much Ado will be a first rate show, every night of the week.

Four Stars.

This review (minus hyperlinks) appeared in the Stage section of the Cherwell newspaper on 5 May 2009. Read it on the Cherwell website here.

REVIEW: The Mysteries of Pittsburgh | Women & The Campus Novel

51d4obbekqlI have just finished Michael Chabon‘s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988), the unforgettable but certainly not unmissable story of the rather tears-prone Art Bechstein, college student and gangster’s son, and how he spends a summer. I say ‘not unmissable’ because you’ve probably read it already. The trio of neurotic and rather boring narrator, attractive/irritating/enigmatic girl and enticing/enigmatic/somewhat homosexual male friend is also to be found in The Talented Mr. Ripley (aren’t the current Radio 4 versions dreadful?), The Secret History and Brideshead Revisited ; all of which function to a greater or lesser degree as examples of the genre. The remainder of Pittsburgh, Highsmith- Tartt- and Waugh-free, owes a great deal to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby and a bad case of genre confusion, but already I know I’ll reread it. As a whole, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh doesn’t live up to its opening, which has a brilliance of style and a kind of enormous narrative swoop that promises golden prose and enjoyable heartbreak. Read it for the opening. If you’re reading this and know me, I’ll lend you my copy. If you like books about crime, America, colleges, homosexuality, doomed youth and doomed love, you’ll like this and quite frankly I do and that’s why. I’ll definitely be reading other Chabon soon. Oh, and the bastard wrote the book for his MFA thesis. Life’s not fair.

BUT. There is a but. There’s a big but, and one which brings us right back to Brideshead. Apparently, they’ve (by which I mean director  made a film of Pittsburgh. A film, which, on its ‘Story‘ and ‘Meet the Cast‘ pages, makes no mention of anybody playing the novel’s second main character – Art’s namesake, corruptor and sometime lover, the (as I mentioned) enticing/enigmatic/somewhat homosexual Arthur Lecomte. With Art’s mostly unseen father (the gangster – no, really, it’s brilliant, the Mafia’s in it lots), Lecomte is the most interesting part of the story. I fear that the film of Pittsburgh, in sidelining Arthur/Art for the heterosexual romance between Art and Phlox, makes the same mistake as the airless, degayed and de-Catholicked Brideshead (re)-adaptation last year. Phlox is played by Mena Suvari, and if Phlox is the film’s heroine, it’s going to be a film with a vacuum at its centre.

Phlox is at the kind of girl who only exists in the campus novel. Like Jane, she’s unreal; less real even than Julia Marchmain, or Howard’s various sad-eyed victims in The History Man (1975). I wondered if this was an I-Blame-The-Patriarchy moment with something to be imputed to male authorship, but no. In Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (1992), the most successful campus novel of recent years and (to my mind) the most beautiful (and heavily indebted to Chabon), Camilla is completely unreal, only a grey-eyed little image (albeit a beautiful one) about whom we know things, rather than knowing her. The other women, central to the story are Papen’s California friend Judy (to be unfavourably contrasted with Camilla – loud, brash, freckled, promiscuous) and Bunny’s girlfriend Marion (a ‘little thing’ who’s ‘not afraid to wear a dress – [Bunny] likes that’).

Perhaps, depressingly, it’s impossible for the female to be anything other than the Other in a novel about education. Alan Bennet makes the point admirably in The History Boys, through the lips of Mrs Lintott – but isn’t it telling that, first off, the female character added to the film was Fiona (visible sex bomb vs. referenced sex bomb of the stage script), and that second, although we’ve had the Man and now the Boys, we’ve yet to meet The History Women?

I should say that I love – absolutely adore –  all the texts I’ve just mentioned. I wouldn’t change them. But I would, if I could, give them sisters; female narratives of education to rank alongside, either talking about both sexes without casting one as Other, or focussing on women as earlier texts did on men. My favourite novel of all, Dorothy L. Sayers‘s Gaudy Night (1936, and rather madly annotated here) does this, getting to the heart of the problems of learning, sex and academia, and arguing them as honestly as possible. But I don’t know anything that’s done so, in the same dirty-handed, articulate, beautiful way, since Sayers.

That children’s fiction used to do this for girls in secondary education – Blyton, the endearing Oxenham, Bruce, Angela Brazil etc – is simultaneously recognised and derided. A quick guide – if you read the above authors now, Blyton will seem the most familiar, Oxenham the gayest, Bruce the most formulaic and Brazil weepingly funny. There are earlier, more radical texts, like the BLISSFUL er, v complex and interesting Alice Stronach’s A Newnham Friendship (1901), which is unusual in that a) it’s set at Cambridge, b) it actually gets involved with the heroines’ academic lives (Homer! Translations!) as opposed to merely their sporting/pranking exploits or noble and really quite racist capturing of unfortunate German spies, and that c) it’s really, really good.

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