The Tempest, Barbican Theatre

7/10

The RSC’s latest production of The Tempest is causing quite a stir at the moment – even among those who don’t usually take an interest in the theatre. The reason is that this production incorporates ambitious uses of projection mapping and motion capture technology. The set – the wrecked hull of a ship – is augmented by vast, moving projections that transform it from rocking ship to turbulent undersea, to enchanted forest.

The effect is both captivating and frustrating. The audio visuals work best when they are bringing the sea and the island to life. I have never seen a more spectacular shipwreck scene, with a lifelike rocking of the ship and vivid images of bodies tumbling through the water are projected onto a cylinder onstage. Digital projection allows the landscape to shift from underwater to forest and back again – at times it was even like a magical underwater forest – everything you expect from a sorcerer’s island. Thanks to these projections, Prospero’s recreation of Ariel’s years in the pine tree becomes a scene of physical and emotional torture, in which we see Ariel once again imprisoned in its boughs – it’s also the only moment when this Prospero appears to be truly cruel. And yet, sometimes the effects feel overdone – Ariel’s hounds of hell were too much for me, the wedding masque was overlong and the digitally projected dresses on Juno & Friends were overkill.

Far more striking than the projections is the fact that Mark Quartley’s Ariel wears a mocap suit throughout, allowing his movements to be animated and enlarged into spirit manifestations. This works when he is enchanting Ferdinand in the guise of a sea nymph, and when he is presiding over the waters with an eagle’s wings. It works less so well when his spirit form is being projected onto a black flag flying above the stage – the suspension of disbelief, for me, was lost. Also, in spite of all the technology, Quartley’s Ariel never manages to be sufficiently ethereal. This might be down to the sinewy suit he wears, or the fact that his movements were boldly athletic rather than quick and lithe, but the overall effect was good but not great.

And this is where the production really falls down for me: the performances are solid but not great. I’ve seen two outstanding productions of The Tempest in the past decade – a previous RSC take starring Patrick Stewart and Dominic Dromgoole’s production at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in which Tim McMullan and Fisayo Akinade were outstanding and Dominic Rowan and Trevor Fox made my sides hurt from laughing.

Simon Russell Beale’s approach to performing Shakespeare has always thrilled me – the verse trips off his tongue as though the words had just formed in his head, making every scene feel like reality rather than drama. And yet, when it comes to Prospero, this ability becomes a weakness: Prospero is meant to be larger than life, especially in the early stages of the play, where he doesn’t have much stage time.

For me, at least, Prospero is one of Shakespeare’s most dramatic characters. After all, the tempest is raging within him as well as around the island. SRB’s natural delivery means that he never manages to convey the very dramatic emotions – rage, obsession – that drive Prospero in the early stages of the play. He is more like Leonato preparing industriously for the arrival of his distinguished guests than a man hellbent on revenge. The crucial moment – and change of heart – that occurs when Ariel shames his master by saying that were he human he would pity the prisoners, loses its impact if Propsero has never been that angry to begin with.

Ultimately, it’s a production that has a lot of good things about it – but only the technology seems really fresh. Everything else, I felt I had seen before. Joe Shire – understudying Joe Dixon – seemed to relish the role of Caliban, but I found the production’s interpretation of Caliban too overtly troll-like for my taste. Shire really took to the role, though, and added his own nuance to Caliban’s pain and frustration – the final scene where he finally walks upright and strides into his cell with his Prospero’s broken staff won me over entirely. Simon Trinder’s Trinculo seemed to have walked out of an episode of The League of Gentleman and he and James Hayes as Stephano never really achieved the energy and chemistry I have seen in other productions. You leave not exactly disappointed, but with a sense of exciting possibilities left unfulfilled.

 

 

 

 

 

Hamlet, Harold Pinter Theatre

9/10

When I was a child, one of my aunts often used to sit me down to watch films starring Hayley Mills. If you grew up in a world where The Parent Trap starred Lindsay Lohan, then I should explain here that Hayley Mills was the daughter of a British film star, who became a child star in the 1960s. For me, one of the defining features of these films, most of which were made by Disney, was that they starred a distinctly British child surrounded by an American family. I was frustrated by the lack of backstory around this, especially in the film That Darn Cat! which even featured an older sister who was American, so I couldn’t even plausibly convince myself that the character’s parents had spent a chunk of time in the UK and recently return to the US.

What this digression has to do with the Almeida production of Hamlet that’s just transferred to the Harold Pinter Theatre, is the fact that Andrew Scott is the lone player with an Irish accent, while everyone else gives their best (and in some cases approximate) RSC delivery. This ends up being both a distraction and a revelation, because it’s hard not to wonder why he is different when the others are so much the same.

Scott’s delivery is what makes this production. Suddenly, lines which are usually soberly declaimed bubble forth like real, live speech. You get the impression that this Hamlet is thinking and feeling his words, rather than reading them off the backs of his eyes. The rhythms of Scott’s speech are a perfect match for Hamlet’s soliloquies. He makes the ravings of a madman make sense – and delivers them with a knowing humour that draws loud cackles from the audience. The fact that he feels real and the rest of the cast are Doing Shakespeare reinforces the fact that there might, as Polonius suggests, be method in his madness. Hamlet, despite losing his wits, is the only one who sees the world as it really is – a powerful message in the current political climate.

The only scene I didn’t enjoy as much was the “get thee to a nunnery” exchange with Ophelia, which is usually my favourite part of the play. The spirited delivery of the rest of the text muted its impact: and I am not going to complain.

It’s a modern Hamlet – the action takes place in 21st Century Denmark, some of the costumes could have been bought in Muji, and both CCTV and press footage are incorporated into the action in a way that seems entirely natural and appropriate. Whereas many other productions finagle modern elements into old plays to make awkward  parallels, this Hamlet fully – and comfortably – inhabits the modern world.

The direction is superb, and helps to expand some of the characters whose stage presence is too brief in the text. We see them going about their lives behind a screen while the main action takes place, giving us a sense of who they are even before they first speak. The same screen is also a subtle way of dealing with the distinctly unmodern streak of supernatural in the play – the dead inhabit the world beyond the screen.

As ever, I must make a brief pause in all this to hammer on about the male gaze and its ugly interruption of what is a stellar production. Why, should Ophelia (both sane and mad) feverishly wrap her legs around her brother Laertes and hump him as though she is Martine McCutcheon in Love Actually? I admire the form of Jessica Brown Findlay as much as the next person with a pulse, but really, I felt this was merely an excuse to get a young actor into an unnecessarily sexual pose.

I’m known for seriously disliking Hamlet. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it’s my least favourite Shakespearean tragedy. It’s always felt rather self indulgent to me – both in the way it is written and the way it is performed. I loathe its tendency to make even the finest of actors generally catching their breath a little before launching into the famous speeches. I’ve seen it four times since the age of 14, and managed to feel unmoved even when Michael Sheen brandished Yorick’s skull mere inches from my face. I can’t hep but lose my will half through the second act every time.

Except this time. This production not only has me wanting to purchase another ticket, but itching to revisit the text – something I haven’t bothered to do for at least 15 years. I think that warrants a Bravo all round.

Twelfth Night, Shakespeare’s Globe

8/10

Twelfth Night is one of those plays I’ve always found difficult to enjoy. Now that our culture has all but abandoned the topsy turvy twelfth night tradition, Sir Toby’s japes are the only element of the plot that seem to have any shred of probability to them. Then there’s the fact that directors can never really reconcile their desire to have a “pretty” female lead with audience’s need to have someone who looks even halfway convincing in drag (the 1990s film adaptation is a prime example of this, with Imogen Stubbs feeling rather too much like Blackadder’s Bob for comfort). The japes take an uncomfortably dark turn and the denouement is wildly hasty, with significant characters disappearing abruptly, their absence explained in throwaway lines. And into all of this, you have to insert regular dances and songs. Like I said, it’s a difficult play.

The current production at Shakespeare’s Globe navigates these difficulties with aplomb. I went to a midnight matinee feeling somewhat worried about staying awake after failing to stop at home for an early evening nap. I needn’t have worried. It isn’t humanly possible to sleep through a show like this.

The action starts on a cruise ship, vibrant with disco music and 70s fashions. Sebastian and Viola are both pretty in flares, with close cut afro hairstyles. Gender-bending is the order of the day. Many of the players – notably Katy Owen (last season’s spectacular Puck) as Malvolio and Nandi Bhebhe as Fabian in heels – play opposite gender parts, with the focus on androgyny rather than drag.  This provides a far more subtle and interesting commentary on our perceptions of ‘male’ and ‘female’ than Viola’s assumption of boy’s attire.

Anita-Joy Uwajeh strikes a perfect note as Viola, alternating lash-beating timidity and boyish awkwardness. She modifies her body language to signify the change, making the disguise believable with no need for comedy facial hair.

The cast is spectacular – so much so that it is hard to single out anyone in particular. Each of them adds distinct touches that smooth out the play’s loose ends and ragged edges.Annette McLaughlin’s comic timing makes Olivia’s approach to her love life somewhat less ridiculous. Joshua Lacey’s Orsino is long-haired, leather-jacketed and oversexed, a womaniser clearly fickle enough to switch his affections from Olivia to Viola once the central ruse is up.  Elegant drag performer Le Gateau Chocolat dazzles in sequins and gives good voice as Feste and brings welcome sass and sparkle to ‘Sister’ Topaz. Carly Bawden is pert and saucy in her maid’s outfit as Maria – pining less for Sir Toby and taking more of a leading part in the action than in some other productions – egging the others on and leading their mischief. Marc Antolin – potentially the best thing in the show – is uproariously camp as a lisping Sir Andrew Aguecheek with a wardrobe that deserves its own place on the cast list. Tony Jayawardena’s kilted Sir Toby Belch for once stays on the right side of the grotesque: a drunk, for certain, but it’s clear why Maria is so taken with him. Katy Owen takes sheer delight in playing Malvolio, buzzing around the stage like a tiny, uptight mosquito, who bursts out in turn with repressed pride, rage, and love.

Music and dance enliven the parts where the plot starts to drag, and movement affords characters such as Antonio and Sebastian more charisma than they otherwise might have had. Even at the end, the cast is buzzing – and the audience are too. It’s an enlivening and uplifting show – and an excellent take on one of Shakespeare’s more unusual plays.