Inspirational AF: Akala

I went to see Akala speak about two weeks ago, having long admired him from afar. He spoke and answered questions on ‘Is Britain Having an Identity Crisis?’ for two hours with an mind-boggling level of eloquence and thoughtfulness, at the same time as being incredibly relatable and human.

You don’t need to watch all the above, but watch at least a little to get a sense of Akala’s level of knowledge – and to learn something new about Britain’s history and politics.

Also, a bonus vid below – Akala is also a legend because he loves Shakespeare. See below for his amazing rap paying tribute to the Bard. I always love a Shakespeare-lover.

Monday List: 5 Great Shakespeare Adaptations

I tend to think Shakespeare is best live and in a theatre – but with no shortage of screen adaptations, there are plenty of gems in there amidst the dullness of others. In honour of tonight’s broadcast of King Lear on BBC Two (9:30pm), enjoy this list of other fab adaptations of Shakespeare’s work.

  1. Shakespeare Re-Told: Much Ado About Nothing
    Re-telling Shakespeare in modern-day English, this series saw James McAvoy as a murderous Michelin-starred Macbeth, Shirley Henderson and Rufus Sewell as warring politicians in The Taming of the Shrew, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream set in a caravan park. But none of those was as good as the joyous rewrite of Shakespeare’s best romcom (no arguments please) by David NichollsSarah Parrish and Damien Lewis are Beatrice and Benedick as broadcasters, whose bickering is too much to take for their colleagues. It’s light-hearted and funny, just as this play should be.
  2. The Hollow Crown: Richard II
    All of The Hollow Crown is fantastic; faithful to the text, beautifully shot and acted. This, the first of them, is still my favourite, partly because I love Ben Whishaw and Rory Kinnear, who star as Richard and Bolingbroke respectively. You can find my review from way back in 2012, when this was first aired here.
  3. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Russell T Davies)
    If you’re looking for a more irreverent take on a classic than The Hollow Crown will give you, Russell T Davies’ version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream should be right up your alley. However well you think you know this story of fairies and donkey heads and lovers, the last ten minutes will definitely surprise you. It’s also as star-studded as tonight’s King Lear, with Maxine Peake, Matt Lucas, John Hannah, Elaine Paige, and a handful of excellent young RSC/Globe actors as Puck and the lovers.
  4. Shakespeare Live! From the RSC
    Not strictly a full adaptation, but this deserves a place on this list for the many joyous excerpts from Shakespeare scenes, starring many British national treasures. The Rory Kinnear/Anne Marie Duff Macbeth scene is so gripping, it makes the recent National Theatre production feel like even more of a let-down. And who can forget the hilarious ‘To Be or Not To Be?’ sketch, starring none other than Prince Charles.
  5. Romeo + Juliet (Baz Luhrmann, 1996)
    The absolute classic. I was planning to just focus on TV adaptations, but I couldn’t leave this out. Flashy and over-the-top and melodramatic, this is a perfectly teenagery, stylistic version of Shakespeare’s fatal romance, filled with lustful longing. Also Leonardo DiCaprio deserves to be on every list in existence.

#tbt The Astor Place Riot

When I say crowd riot, you might think of political protests, student revolution, football hooligans, eager fans. Theatre does not leap automatically to mind. Yet the 10th May 1849, 169 years ago today, saw a deadly riot break out at the Astor Opera House in Manhattan, NYC, killing at least 25 and injuring over 120: the infamous Astor Place Riot. And what provoked this awful event (and the largest number of civilian casualties due to military action in the United States since the American Revolutionary War)? A fight between two actors over who performed Shakespeare better. Talk about divas…

In fact, theatre riots were not an unusual occurrence in the early nineteenth century. Theatre was entertainment for the masses. Actors, and particularly the superstar actor-managers like our protagonists Edwin Forrest and William Charles Macready had legions of hardcore fans ready to defend them on a word (think the Cumberbitches/Directioners on steroids). ea3b8711772038b4ae14fe3220885461--america--break-outs

This came to a head when the Astor Place Opera House invited acclaimed British tragedian Macready to perform Macbeth during his US tour. This pissed the patrons of the Bowery Theater right off, as they were champions of American actor Forrest. Forrest had recently returned from a disappointing European tour where he’d been hissed and booed in London by Macready’s fans. In retaliation, Forrest embarked on a tour of the same cities Macready was playing, doing a rival version of Macbeth. Thus, when Macready was scheduled to appear at the Astor Place Opera House, the Bowery Theater downtown would mount Forrest’s production of Macbeth. As any Shakespeare fan knows, two Scottish plays in one city can surely never lead to good things.

However, this was not simply a fight about Shakespeare. It was rooted in much deeper conflicts; class, nationality, values. Astor Place was seen as a venue for the upper class; the Bowery Theater was not. The pretensions of the Astor Place moneyed patrons had become offensive to an emerging street culture embodied by “B’hoys,” or “Bowery Boys.” Macready and Forrest therefore came to represent upper-class New Yorkers versus lower-class, English versus American values.

On May 7th, things started badly. Macready walked onstage to be greeted by boos, hisses, and pelted rotten eggs and old boots. The performance had to be cancelled. Macready refused to perform for the next two days. It was only on May 10th that he agreed to continue – bravely ignoring, or blissfully unaware, that the Bowery Boys had stuck up posters around the city demanding action from its citizens: SHALL AMERICANS OR ENGLISH RULE THIS CITY?


By the time the performance began a crowd of ten to twenty thousand people surrounded Astor Place, pelting it with bricks and paving stones. New York’s elite militia, the Seventh Regiment, was called in to quell the riot—the first time a military unit had been asked to do so in peacetime. When the crowd did not disburse, the soldiers were given the order to fire. Eighteen died that day, although more would die from their injuries over the next few days. The militia’s actions were widely praised by the city’s elite.

More than just a riot, we can even see this event as creating the stigma around Shakespeare that we see today. The idea that Shakespeare somehow belongs to the elite could come from, or have been furthered by this event and its fall-out. According to Nigel Cliff in The Shakespeare Riots, these riots furthered the process of class alienation and segregation in New York City and America; as part of that process, the entertainment world separated into “respectable” and “working-class” orbits. As professional actors gravitated to respectable theaters and vaudeville houses responded by mounting skits on “serious” Shakespeare, Shakespeare was gradually removed from popular culture into a new category of highbrow entertainment.





“It is an heretic that makes the fire, Not she which burns in’t.”

The Winter’s Tale, Act 2, Scene 3

William Shakespeare

This is I think the fourth Winter’s Tale production I’ve seen – more different productions even than Romeo and Juliets or King Lears. It seems like this has become the ultimate Christmas Shakespeare (to be fair the clue as to why is kind of in the title), a comedy that so almost becomes a tragedy at several points and involves the infamous Exit pursued by a bear stage 5

This production really plays up the Christmas factor as well, and a Victorian Christmas at that (which seems slightly odd given the obsession with the Greek oracle but oh well, this is theatre, we can suspend our belief). The Sicilian court features a Nutcracker-esque Christmas tree, laden with red and gold presents, boxes which are excitedly opened by little Prince Mamillius and handed round to the adults – Leontes, Hermione, and Polixenes – who gasp and thank in childish awe and playfulness. blog 2However, this warm and festive world soon has a cold shadow cast over it, the lighting darkens the wide stone hallways and snow, which at the beginning is tossed joyfully over the audience, drops instead at the back of the stage, and later exclusively on Leontes, a picture of grief with white hair and tortured expression.

Now, this is where my English student-ness comes out, but this, and projections of snow swirling around, seemed designed to make the stage reflect one of the gifts most ostentatiously opened at the beginning: a snow globe. Now this is a trope often used, not just in Christmas entertainment but all the year round to show dreams, these dreams or illusions being shattered (think Hilary Duff in A Cinderella Story), or a la Sylvia Plath, a stifling glass jar impossible to escape 1 Obviously, given the relatively dark subject matter (particularly in the first half), it was the latter that director and star Kenneth Branagh chose to focus on. The snow and who is was showered on showed this growing claustrophobia; first of all, a Christmassy sense of togetherness, then the court closing in on itself in the wake of scandal, and then Leontes, alone with his grief and trapped in an icy kingdom of his own making. Even Hermione’s statue set-up had Elsa-from-Frozen levels of frosty beauty, which made it seem like she, too, was trapped in a walled-in winter… and then of course the walls break down, the glass is shattered, and everyone is happy and together yay (except *SPOILER ALERT* Mamillius who’s dead a fact which is always forgotten at the end. I mean, a child died. But oh well get over it and move on. It is Christmas after all.

So as well as getting my lit nerd on, I really enjoyed the less interpretive elements of this production too! Branagh was excellent as the passionately jealous, and then grief-stricken blog 3King Leontes, with Miranda Raison as his resilient, incredibly human, wife Hermione. This is the third time I’ve seen Jessie Buckley in a Shakespearean ‘ingénue’ kind of role (previously she was Miranda in the Globe’s The Tempest and Princess Catherine in the Micheal Grandage Company’s Henry V) and she does pull it off incredibly well, with exactly the right balance of innocence, strength and vitality. Tom Bateman of Shakespeare in Love theatre fame played a vivacious, energetic Florizel who seemed far more at home among the peasants of Bohemia than in the courtly clothes his station required. blog 4In fact, the peasant dance was almost over the top in its determination to focus on the physical and the carnal; especially during the kissing bit of the dance when all the men suddenly started stripping off – which reminded me quite a lot of a university party rather than sheep-shearing festival, but I guess the youthfulness ties the two together? It was definitely fun to watch anyway…

Now, how could I go this far without mentioning the one, the only, Dame Judi Dench, as Paulina. Warm and imperious, she brought both humour and gravity to the stage – particularly in the line I’ve used as my blog title. Her Paulina commanded attention and respect; although she was hilariously blogmanipulative in reminding Leontes of his terrible actions to get him to do things. I kept picturing how they’d have lived day to day for the sixteen years basically alone together – every time they order takeout:
LEONTES: I think I’ll go for the American Hot.

PAULINA: Remember how you caused the untimely deaths of your wife and children because of your outrageous jealousy? And also the death of my own husband?

Leontes bows head in grief

PAULINA: On phone So we’ll have a Margarita each please.

(If someone is a cartoonist and fancies illustrating a situation like this then I would love you forever)

So anyway, back on track. This production of The Winter’s Tale is beautifully designed and very festive, with enough bitterness to make it not a sugar overload. It all feels very filmic, especially the beginning, with lots of atmospheric background music. There were also some really fun comic turns from John Dagliesh as Autoclyus and Jack Colgrave Hirst as Clown. The only element that’s slightly sour is when Paulina and Camillo are conveniently paired together right at the end – but to be fair, that is kind of Shakespeare’s fault. I guess I would have just cut that out if I were Branagh. But that was a very small feature. The actors are great, and the set design is pretty; it’s a lovely production of what seems to have turned into a festive classic.

The Winter’s Tale  at the Garrick Theatre: 4.5/5 stars

“An unweeded garden that grows to seed”

Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 2

William Shakespeare

Now before you all go getting any ideas, my title quotation refers not to my feelings about Poor Players Production’s Hamlet, but rather to the set; a small stage surrounded bblog 8y (incredibly realistic) soil, dirtied sheets sometimes lit up from behind, an atmospheric balcony above, and vine-enwrapped translucent pillars which seemingly magically silently slithered up and down between scenes to take us both inside the austere towers of Elsinore and outside into the muddy graveyard. The set design, by Steve Wright and Max Mulvany, is immediately arresting as you step into the O’Reilly Theatre at Keble College, Oxford. It’s then down to the actors and director James Watt to do the rest of the work in this, Shakespeare’s most famous play, and indeed perhaps the most famous play of all time.

The opening is certainly gripping, the balcony smoke-filled and the only lighting provided by the guards’ torches as they fix their glare on each person who enters with tense cries of “Who’s there?” From then on, this tension never really lets up, which it exactly what you want from Hamlet, a play characterised by treachery and fraught (to say the least!) relationships. Given this, and the lit-up, shadow-making sheets at the back, I was surprised this set feature wasn’t used that much; surely we could have seen every single person who spies on anyone else through it, yet it was used in this function only once. I liked, however, that it echoed the players’ dumb show, which was also done through shadow dance. Combined with the small stage, it was as though Hamlet and Gertrude and Ophelia and all the rest were also players in their own tragedy – as indeed they are – a small meta-theatrical reference that I appreciated (classic English student I know).

blog 4How can I go any further without mentioning Hamlet himself, played by Ieuan Perkins (who has very successfully collaborated with Watt and Poor Player Productions twice before). This was definitely, as it should be, the star performance of the night; it was he who everyone mentioned to me in the interval as a highlight and he deservedly got by far the loudest round of applause at the end. His Hamlet seemed one bordering on psychotic at points, but always rooted in realism. The often dreaded “To be or not to be…” was excellently done, a outwardly calmly considered thought process which clearly contained extreme turmoil inside.

The other standout performances for me were Ellie Lowenthal as Ophelia and Chris Connell as Polonius. The latter had perhaps an easier job of it, providing us with some much needed comic relief (until his death of course – no spoiler alerts here I’m afraid; the play’s been around for 400 years guys!), but this comic relief was well-timed and, importantly, actually made us laugh – always a good thing! – even if occasionally the words were a little stuttered. Lowenthal was particularly impressive, with Ophelia definitely not the easiest part to play sympathetically given how much she seems to rely on the blog 3men in her life. Yet Lowenthal had a sweet charm in the opening scenes with Connell and Gregory Coates playing a brotherly affectionate Laertes which got the audience on her side, so that her descent into madness was truly distressing. These scenes between the Polonius family were actually some of my favourites, with all three actors bouncing off each other so that they really seemed like a family.

The rest of the cast is certainly strong; Rosencrantz (Jonny Danciger) and Guildenstern (Felix Grainger) were believably fun-loving comrades; Ali Porteous and Mia Smith certainly made the most out of their small courtier and player roles; and Alex Hill, together with James Mace, were brilliant gravediggers – even that late on in the play, and with quite a few ‘Renaissance humour’ kind of jokes, they still got everyone in the audience laughing. Stan Carrodus acted very well as both Claudius and the Ghost. In the former role, he wblog 7asn’t nearly as ‘straight-evil’ as is usually portrayed, making the character much more sympathetic – at least to me – than I thought possible. As the queen, Gertrude, Clare Saxby had much of the same anxious appeal that she did when she wowed in A Doll’s House last year at the same venue. I felt occasionally she spoke a little too softly to be heard with ease, but the acting in the closet scene was certainly a highlight, and she pulled off the interesting directorial decision regarding her death with aplomb, staring at Claudius knowingly before gulping the poison down. As Horatio, Clementine Collett’s comradery with Perkins was excellent, although on occasion, particularly at the beginning, it was very hard to hear what she was actually saying, she was so passionate and emotional. The actress has a beautifully expressive face, but I feel that sometimes its constant changing almost becomes slightly too much. Her final speech, however, was absolutely her best moment, and, combined with some brilliant lighting and staging, left the audience slightly stunned! (in a good way)

This is a production of Shakespeare’s most famous play that is well worth seeing. The set design and Perkins as Hamlet are obvious highlights, but they could not carry the show on their own, and are supported by a strong cast and interestingblog 5 staging. There are a few bugs that I felt needed to be ironed out, in that the music was occasionally loud enough as to be distracting whilst the actor were speaking, and the smoke machine seemingly went off at random moments – but perhaps I simply wasn’t paying enough attention and these were deliberate directorial decisions referencing the script which I missed the meaning behind! The production is also long, even for Hamlet – I think around three and a half hours although I didn’t properly check – which I think is because Watt has included some, to me unnecessary scenes (like the Player King’s first, lengthy speech about Phoebus and things). This may be because Watt is an English student and therefore – like me! – after having studied a text thinks that every single thing is massively relevant and important to the plot, but I think maybe a step back would be wise in future.

To be honest, this production is worth going to see just for the fight at the end. The training I’ve heard Perkins and Coates were sent on certainly paid off, and the flash and bite of steel darting about the stage is intensely exciting. The remaining image, however, that stays with me (apart from the ending) is of both Ophelia and Hamlet, separately, in closely related, but separate scenes, playing at tightrope walking their way along the side of the mini-stage, carefully treading the balance between the small, claustrophobic, but raised floor of the court and the low, soil-covered open space below, the ground or “noble dust” to which, Hamlet reminds us, we must all return to be food for the worms.

Hamlet  at the Keble O’Reilly Theatre by Poor Players Productions: 4/5 stars

N.B. All photos thanks to Daniel Cunniffe

“Shall I compare thee to a summer day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate…”

Sonnet 18, Line 1-2

William Shakespeare

To be honest, I can’t actually believe it’s taken me this long to see the stageblog 6 production of Shakespeare in Love, considering my ridiculous obsession with both theatre and the Bard. And I loved the film (who didn’t?!)

Anyway, I finally made it to the Gallery last week to enjoy a romp through Elizabethan stage life and to bore my friend with ‘fun facts’ about how accurate the script actually was, which I’m sure she was also absolutely thrilled by…

But seriously, the great thing about this show, and the film, is how historically accurate it is, without being the slightest bit boring. The stage is filled with constant action, toing and froing from the large cast; it’s interesting that director Declan Donellan has clearly decided never to leave his characters alone on 1 The set is basically like an Elizabethan theatre, with a large open space at the bottom, and three tiers of wooden levelling that the cast can scamper all about, or observe the real action from. The Shakespearean idea of life as a theatre definitely comes across, but no too obviously, which I appreciated. I hate it when a good idea is forced down your throat; subtlety is always better.

Orlando James as Shakespeare himself was very impressive – full of energy and life, likeable and believable – what more can you ask?! I thought Eve Posonby as Viola, the heroine,blog 4 was equally energetic. In a way, this was great – it’s always nice to see such a strong, spirited female character, yet someone who is also sympathetic and sensitive – but I also found her a little over hearty for my liking at some points, especially when she was playing Viola playing Juliet. Yes, Juliet is madly in teenage love, but at the same time, she’s also a woman who knows her new husband is about to be exiled after killing her beloved cousin. A personal view I know, but I just don’t think she’d be bounding around the stage at that time; Juliet’s quite thoughtful, and it made all of Shakespeare’s compliments to Viola on her ‘natural’ acting style seem confusing. A little too boisterous for my liking anyway.

blog 5Apart from that, however, the cast were brilliant. Particular highlights were Edward Franklin as Kit Marlowe, Ryan Donaldson as Ned Alleyn and Suzanne Burden as a haughty but just Queen Elizabeth I. I also loved Paul Brennan as Hugh Fennyman, or rather, a very eager Apothecary, he provided some of the best silly light relief in the play – combined with, of course, the obligatory adorable dog. Gregg Lowe was actually equally endearing as Sam, the ‘boy’ of the company, whose voice unfortunately breaks just before the performance. Talking of voices, the singing and music is absolutely gorgeous – props to countertenor Charlie Highe for some soaring descants, and to Paddy Cuneen as music director.

Overall, this is a lovely show – with elements of great slapstick, and silly humour which anyone will be entertainedblog 2 by, but also sophisticated, witty jokes for the Bard Nerds in the audience. There are countess references to some of Shakespeare’s most famous lines, but you don’t have to pick up on all of these to enjoy the play. It stands alone, a riot of music and action and passion, recreating Elizabethan London and the way they felt about life brilliantly. Some of the acting was a little over the top for my liking, and I found some of the references just a little clunky. I’m not awarding it five stars because I never quite felt moved by it. But really, I can’t think of a reason why someone wouldn’t enjoy this show, so definitely highly recommended.

Shakespeare in Love at Noel Coward Theatre: 4/5 stars

“I may be negligent, foolish, and fearful; In every one of these no man is free.”

The Winter’s Tale, Act 1, Scene 2

William Shakespeare

Stepping into the chilly, misty atmosphere of the small Lion and Unicorn Theatre, it’s hard to know quite what to expect; the icy fog swirls about your ankles ominously, and yet colourful fairy lights twinkle cheerfully above your head. A contradictory mixture fitting to a play famously of two not-quite-perfectly-merged genres: Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. The first act is tragic in the extreme (people die! Children die!) and then good ol’ Bill has a complete change of heart midway through and makes the rest of it a typical comedy (family reunions! Lovers! Gags about the stupidity of poor people!). This confusing mixture can be hard to reconcile in production, but Shakespeare Sessions do a very good job of 1

The first half, however, is particularly impressive. Christopher Neels gives Leontes an edge of madness as he stumbles around the stage, contorted and shaking with jealousy, foul insults spitting out of his mouth in rage at the calm, composed Hermione (Elizabeth Appleby). Sometimes, in fact, Neels became so angry that the words ran together and became quite hard to tell apart. Against this constant tirade, Appleby’s poised, queenly performance was particularly powerful, especially her behaviour when arrested.

I always think it’s a shame Hermione disappears from the play so early; she’s such a great, strong female character. You can almost look at the beginning of The Winter’s Tale as another Othello (a jealous male leader with no real cause for jealousy becomes consumed by it when he interprets his innocent wife’s behaviour wrongly); but I think this production showed the difference between Desdemona and Hermione. The former is out of her place in a soldiers’ camp, whereas the latter is the daughter of the Emperor of Russia, and can therefore much better bear up under the pressures of magisterial life. Appleby did a great job of showing this; pale, but calm next to her weeping servants as she was taken under arrest. This also made her subsequent break down all the more powerful.

blogAnother strong character, all too often forgotten about, is Paulina (pronounced Paul-eye-nah here, which did make the verse flow better), played in this production with steely resilience by Hannah Ellis. Ellis commands attention as the authoritative woman; like Appleby she gives the impression of great emotion hidden under a composed exterior. However, given that Ellis is so skilful, I did wonder why they underplayed Paulina’s relationship with her husband, Antigonus (David Robert Olley) so much. My companion actually didn’t even realise they were married – I feel his death (sorry, spoilers!) would have been so much more poignant if Paulina had perhaps seen Antigonus and baby Perdita off, or if some reference to their bond had been made.

Having said that, the bear scene was done very well; the puppetry was actually really beautiful, and the ominous noises offstage just stayed on the right side of threatening. I quite liked the sombre singing at the end of the first act too, and the lighting choices were very clever, with each character providing their own lighting with an almost holy atmosphere.

Whilst the second act was done well, it never quite lived up to the poignancy and drama of the first; although admittedly, less goes on in the second half. Remy Moynes was sweetly sensible as Perdita and made a nice link between Leontes’ children – she also played Mamillius at the beginning of the play. Jack Sharman made for a very naïve Florizel, while blog 2Robert Myles was insanely over-the-top as Autolycus; this was mostly funny, especially when McQuillan played off of Olley and Nic McQuillan(who was particularly funny) as the foolish shepherds, but elements were a little laboured, particularly the random song/rap in the middle. The lyrics weren’t Shakespearean or anything, and it wasn’t really relevant to the story so I’m not too sure why it was included.

However, I loved the stagnant atmosphere they created in Leontes’ court, as though nothing had changed apart from the lines on the characters’ faces; it contrasted well with the debauchery and drunkenness of the shepherds’ party in Bohemia. The family reunion was done pretty well – the one between Perdita and Leontes seemed a little rushed – but the Hermione-statue scene was both dramatic and poignant. I would have liked to see a little more of Paulina here as well though; marrying her off to Camillo was far too pat, and as such a strong, independent character I don’t think she would have been satisfied with that. Also, unlike in the Royal Ballet’s production earlier this year, no mention of poor Mamillius was made. In other words, the ending was well done, but left me feeling oddly unsatisfied.

blog 3This, therefore, is an enjoyable, atmospheric production, well directed by Ross McGregor and well performed by a likeable cast. I’m definitely going to keep a look out for their next production, a gender-swapped Taming of the Shrew in summer, as the actors seem really to understand how to work well with one another, and, in the majority, speak the lines with great expression and vitality. The lighting is lovely and the steampunk costumes are aesthetically pleasing, although they add little other than colour to the production as a whole; the steampunk aspect didn’t, for me, create a whole new layer of interpretation (although McGregor explains his thinking behind it more on the Facebook page) but it is quite pretty. Overall, it is really the women in this production who particularly stand out; Appleby and Ellis as Hermione and Paulina quietly command the audience’s attention despite the chaos and tragedy around them.

The Winter’s Tale (Shakespeare Sessions) at The Lion and Unicorn Theatre: 3/5 stars

“Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.”

King Henry IV part I, Act 2, Scene 4

William Shakespeare

More Shakespeare! More RSC for that matter, although this time in London, rather than Stratford-Upon-Avon, and a play I’d never seen or read before, Henry IV parts I and II. Not that I went into the Barbican completely without expectation; what Bard-nerd hasn’t heard of the brilliance of Falstaff? And, of course, Henry IV contains a lot of Prince Hal, blog 4who goes on to become one of my favourite Shakespearean heroes of all: King Henry V. Swoon.

So with these high expectations, I have to say I was a little disappointed by the actual play script; although, as with almost all RSC productions, it was beautifully performed, with a strong cast, lovely scenery, great lighting etc, etc. It just felt like the script didn’t bear up to all of this – or at least, it wasn’t worth being almost six hours long! Part One at least has some good comedic moments, a rebellious uprising and a final, bloody battle to keep you interested; Part Two, however, is simply the story of endings, “not with a bang, but with a whimper”. The King is dying, a new rebellion is thwarted almost before it can get going, Falstaff and his band of drunkards and thieves are up to their usual tricks, but Prince Hal isn’t there nearly enough to ramp up the comedic factor. It’s the ending not only of Henry IV’s reign, but also of that of Falstaff, and this basically leads to a bit of an anti-climax.

Saying this, there are some beautiful lines in the play, and some of the characters are brilliantly painted. How can I carry on blogwithout mentioning Flastaff, the drunken, thieving, incredibly likeable knight, played in this production by Antony Sher? Sher performed the part with great wit and charm, and I loved his rich, throaty voice; the voice of someone who has indulged a little too much in sensual pleasures – you could hear the effect of the smoking, drinking, eating and general “hallooing” every time he spoke, as well as the sound of someone always juts about to break into laughter. I especially loved the scene where Falstaff continually exaggerates his great daring and bravery against “a hundred” robbers who attack him in the night, to the great delight of the real robbers, Hal and Ned Poins.

Hal himself was played with great charisma by Alex Hassell. With one of the best entrances anyone could ask for (a bed, two girls and Flastaff were all involved) he portrayed the troublesome young Prince with sensitivity, showing both his penchant for drink, sex and mischief, and the stirrings of the nature of a true Kingblog 3. The bedside scene between him and his father Henry IV (Jasper Britton) was particularly poignant; even more so when contrasted with the earlier hilarity between him and his best friend Poins (a very likeable Sam Marks – what happened to him at the end?!). His banishment of Falstaff was also quite moving, especially after having been so powerfully foreshadowed in Part One, as a seemingly ruthless farewell to his surrogate father. Hopefully, Gregory Doran will put on Henry V next year with Hassell in the lead part!

Trevor White as Harry Hotspur in Part One was also very impressive, with massive amounts of energy and force. His bickering relationship with his wife (played by Jennifer Kirby) was funnily modern, although it almost brought to mind Brutus and Portia in Julius blog 1Caesar at some points. His constant vitality was what kept the ‘rebellion’ plot interesting, and Part Two definitely suffered from his absence (although some of it was felt when White returned as Lord Mowbury). Just one small criticism – why on earth give him bleached white-blond hair?!

Apart from that, though, the staging was very well done, the simple wooden arches becoming a tavern in Eastcheap and then, through clever use of lighting, the stone pillars of Henry’s castle. The lighting and music really helped add and change the mood better than anything else could, and kept my interest despite the lack of plot.

However, the tavern scene in Part Two needs some changes, in my opinion. Mistress Quickly and Doll Tearsheet are played with great character by Paola Dionisotti and Nia Gwynne, and I also really liked the amiable Bardolph (Joshua Richards). However, together with Falstaff and Falstaff’s page (played either by Luca Saraceni-Gunner or Jonathan Williams surprisingly well – where do the RSC get such clearly spoken children from?!) they are placed on a stage within a stage, supposedly in a room above the main tavern. An incredibly long, supposedly comedic, scene then takes place, involving a clearly high, drunk “swaggerer” Pistol (Antony Byrne), lots of shouting and insults and just general madness. The trouble is, it’s all just a bit too mental for anyone to understand. The staging is far too small for all the characters; funny at first, yesblog 2, but after a little just tiresome. It felt like every piece of movement was calculated to set up a kind of ‘ta-dah!’ freeze-frame – ‘look, audience, how clever we have been! Our chaos has somehow become order especially for you!’ Personally, I would have just given them more space to move in – or even cut out the Pistol scenes all together.

(I did really like Byrne, however, in his first role, as the Earl of Worcester. It’s just a shame that, like Harry Percy, he wasn’t around for Part Two.)

The was one other particularly odd moment – this time in Part One. Douglas, your typical bearded, fearsome, blue-painted Scot was about to kill King Henry IV, when suddenly Hal turns up and threatens him a bblog 5it. What does Douglas do, having already killed plenty of people, and definitely being a better fighter than the two Henrys? He walks off stage, whistling and swinging his battleaxe merrily. I still can’t quite work out what happened there to be honest. Still, I suppose if it’s written in the script, what can you do?!

These plays, then, show off the RSC’s great acting skill, and beautifully directed production talent, but fall a little short simply because of the script itself. As Jamie Parker once said, everyone has their own Shakespeare, and unfortunately, Henry IV isn’t mine. That’s not to say it was a waste of time going – especially to Part One which is definitely the more entertaining of the two – but simply that if you’re new to Shakespeare, it’s probably best to see one with a little more plot.

Henry IV parts I and II (RSC) at the Barbican Theatre: 3/5 stars

(although if we’re going on just acting and production value, it would have been four)

(Ooh, and kudos to the Barbican, whose theatre I love anyway – such spacious seats! We got upgraded both nights from Upper Circle to Stalls! Not too shabby!)

“Disdain and scorn ride sparkling in her eyes.”

Much Ado About Nothing, Act 3, Scene 1

William Shakespeare

So Much Ado About Nothing is probably my favourite Shakespearean comedy of them all; despite the amazingness of the characters in Twelfth Night, As You Like It and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, no one can live up to the sparkling wit of Beatrice and Benedick. blog 5When I see a bad Much Ado, therefore, it’s like someone cancelling Christmas on the evening before – so much anticipation, and then so much disappointment (remember this Old Vic production?!).

Luckily, the RSC’s current production up in Stratford-Upon-Avon is absolutely worthy of the brilliant script. Marketing it as ‘Love’s Labour’s Won’ to partner Love’s Labour’s Lost (which I’ll hopefully be going to see in February), the two leads are perfectly cast in this sparklingly funny, yet moving, festive piece of theatre.

Michelle Terryblog was as powerful a presence as Beatrice as she was last year as Titania in the Globe’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She has to be one of the ultimate queens of showing strong, independent, assertive women to be caring and intelligent as well. Terry both makes the most of the witty humour of the lines and also shows true emotion at the dramatic wedding scene. But it is her chemistry with the fabulous Edward Bennett as Benedick that really elevates this production. The two bounce off each other, and it is instantly clear they are meant for each other – and yet we love their repartee so much that we almost don’t want them to get together, so as to prolong our enjoyment. Although then, of course, when they did I genuinely squirmed in my seat with overexcited happiness – not that I’m a massive romantic or anything…

I think the best part of their relationship was that they were equals; blog 1they were the two actors I was waiting for to get on stage, and both of them shone whether on their own or together. Bennett was brilliant at the slapstick and had a quite incredible variety of expressions on his face – I think his appearance in the huge Christmas tree was one of the highlights for everyone in the audience. Plus he brought out my two of my most favourite lines perfectly:

“The world must be peopled.”

“Ha! ‘Against my will I am sent to bid you to come in to dinner’; there’s a double meaning in that.”

blog 2I’m really excited to see the two together again in Love’s Labour’s Lost; they were the perfect double-act.

Naturally, these two parts are the most important by far in this play, but Terry and Bennett were supported by a very strong cast (as is usual with RSC). Flora Spencer-Longhurst was sweetly convincing as Hero, with Tunji Kasim charismatic and gullible enough to just about get away with playing the confusingly nasty, yet romantic Count Claudio. I also liked John Hodgkinson as Prince Don Pedro, everyone’s favourite matchmaker, and it was lovely to have a person – Harry Waller – who could properly sing and play piano as Balthasar. The actresses who played Margaret and Ursula (Emma Manton and Francis McNamee respectively) also made the most of their small parts.

Apart from the two protagonists, Dogberryblog 4 is the only other major character in Much Ado, and he’s also one of the most problematic. Your stereotypical Homer Simpson style slapstick fool, it’s a part difficult to balance between completely ridiculous and genuinely hilarious. Nick Haverson made a good stab at being the ludicrously pompous, stupid constable, producing gales of laughter from the audience with his disgusting spitting (how does one man produce that much saliva?!) and some great farcical scenes. However, I do feel like I still haven’t seen an actor that’s truly got Dogberry; for me he should be played completely straight. So much of the comedy – in fact perhaps all of it, since we don’t have any stage directions in the script – comes from the lines and the hapless constable’s malapropisms and misunderstandings, yet no one ever gets to hear them properly because the actor is trying so hard to create his own comedy. It’d be great to see someone play it completely straight, to show just how seriously Dogberry takes himself. Still, it’s not like this production failed or anything, it just wasn’t quite as funny/gripping as the main plot, which I thought was a shame.

blog 3The setting of this production is absolutely lush; set in an English stately home, either during or just after WWI, at Christmas time. As possibly the most festive person on the planet, I very much appreciated the aforementioned massive Christmas tree and the cosy, carol-singing, sherry-drinking atmosphere that permeated the air, even in the auditorium as well as onstage. We are transported effortlessly from a drawing room to the gardens to Hero’s bedroom to a country church, and it works together with the music to make a lovely atmosphere.

Basically this is a really warm and inviting production with two superb leads whoblog 6 definitely carry the play on their capable shoulders. A perfect show for Christmas, for comedy and romance, and for drama; whilst the Dogberry scenes aren’t quite as hilarious as they could be, they still elicited a great big response from the audience and the ending is beautifully sentimental without being cheesy (although I love a bit of cheese, so who am I to judge?!) A show that will leave you hugging yourself with happiness.

Much Ado About Nothing at Royal Shakespeare Company Theatre: 4.5/5 stars

“I am determined to prove a villain.”

Richard III, Act 1, Scene 1

William Shakespeare

I have been looking forward to seeing Martin Freeman star in one of my favourite Shakespeare plays ‘Richard III’ for a good long while. After fellow Hobbit-star Richard Armitage’s stunning photoperformance in The Crucible’ earlier this year, and James McAvoy’s pretty great ‘Macbeth through the same programme, Trafalgar Transformed last year, I had pretty high expectations of this production. And as a production, it was actually fantastic. In terms of Richard himself, however, I was left a little disappointed.

It’s not that Freeman is acts badly. As anyone who’s seen ‘Sherlock’ (my favourite TV show of all time) knows, he’s awesome! The trouble is that this portrait of the charismatic, seductively evil King Richard becomes a little one dimensional. It’s clear this is from a directorial choice by Freeman and director Jamie Lloyd, rather than by error, but let’s just say, if I were them, I wouldn’t have chosen that route. To me, Richard should be like Edmund in King Lear; through his sarcasm and jokes and copious soliloquies he seduces the audience into being his conspirators; then before they know what has happened they are rooting for a cold-blooded murderer. It’s a great illustration of how evil dictators can charm their blog 2way into power.

Unfortunately, this production chooses to make Richard just purely evil. He is awkward and stern right from the beginning. Like McAvoy’s Macbeth, as soon as they enter you can tell ‘this is a nasty man’. There’s no suspense to the play, there’s no feeling it could go any other way, and you just can’t understand why anybody would ever trust this man. During the classic ‘speech to the public’ scene when Richard appears holding a Bible, it’s Jo Stone-Fewings as Buckingham who really works the crowd, rather than Richard himself.

All this being said, Freeman comes into his own in the second act, when Richard’s truly malevolent side is exposed to one and all. He’s got what he wanted and so now he doesn’t need to act a part anymore, and this is where Freeman starts to live to up to his reputation. Threatening, a cold-blooded killer, and yet terrified of losing it all, I especially liked him talking to himself in his tent before the infamous battle.

Talking of other cast members, Gina McKee as Queen Elizabeth is absolutely amazing. Her pitiful blog 3sobs after her sons are killed are heart-wrenching and yet she is a strong and dignified presence throughout. Gerald Kyd was horribly amoral as Catesby, Joshua Lacey as Lord Rivers was very charismatic and Philip Cumbus (one of my favourite regular Globe-ers) was, as always, brilliant as Richmond. Margaret’s curse played a huge part in creating the fatalistic atmosphere in this production, and Maggie Steed was nicely bitter in this tricky part.

The set and production really get across the utter chaos and bloodiness of the play. It was set in an office in the 1970s which created some amazingly disturbing contrasts; one minute a man was being drowned in a fish tank (and the actor was under for an infeasible amount of time! I’m impressed!) and the water was slowly turning crimson, and the next everyone was sitting round drinking coffee, as twinkly liftblog 4 music played in the background. I loved that they left the blood-filled tank onstage – it was a visual representation of the shockingly violent undertones to the seemingly civilised society. Lord Rivers’ death was also brilliantly dramatic, and the haunting ghost scene was the best I’ve ever seen it done.

The ending was almost my favourite moment of all. Richard was dead, the audience breathed a sigh of relief. The right person won, the country was saved! Richmond made a live TV speech pleading for peace. Supposedly. Whilst saying these words of amity and cease-fire, he had an out-of-place ferocious intensity. One could feel the audience grow uneasy. The speech finished. Silence. Then, amongst all the bleeding bodies on the stage, an aggressive yell of triumph from Richmond. After all of this anarchy, all of this thinking Richard was the embRichard III - Martin Freeman and Lauren O'Neil - Photo Marc Brenner.jpgodiment of evil, the villain of the piece, the final moments created an awful notion that all no one was really fighting for England. All anyone really wanted was power.

This is an intense, bloodthirsty production, which certainly presents a new twist of a marvellous play. Personally, I feel that the portrayal of Richard is a little simple, and, at least in the first act, Freeman is somewhat lacking in the seductive charisma which, to me, is the highlight of the script. However, the production is still entertaining – there were a reasonable amount of laughs – and, more importantly, I think, Lloyd really gets across a disturbing and fascinatingly dark atmosphere. The play improves as it continues; the ghost scene is stunning and the ending really gives you something to think about.

‘Richard III’ at the Trafalgar Studios as part of the Trafalgar Transformed program: 3/5 stars