2011

In 2011, the sublime was a popular topic of discussion. At the National Theatre there was Frankenstein and  in the John Martin exhibition at the Tate, the sublime was on show in a spectacular way. The John Martin exhibition was my favourite exhibition of the year. The epic was presented on grand canvases, but what I loved was getting really close to the paintings to see the detail. Earthly worlds melted into fantastical worlds and where one started and the other finished it was really hard to see.  I missed out on seeing Jonny Lee Miller as the creature, but glad I got to see Benedict Cumberbatch in the role in April.

Though I was delighted by the great John Martin exhibition on a trip to Manchester, I was also impressed by the Ford Maddox Brown exhibition at the Manchester Art Gallery. It was good to see other works alongside Work.

The Royal Shakespeare Company came home to perform in the new Royal Shakespeare Theatre in February.  Some of the productions that I liked  in 2011 were at the end of the long ensemble’s run, but I also looked forward to what the new company arriving.  In Stratford, there seemed to be so many ‘opening’  nights that every time I went to Stratford was some kind of event – the first night, the press night, and the queen opening the new theatre.  I was lucky to get tickets to see Katy Stephen play Cleopatra in a much more stripped down emotional version of the long ensemble’s Antony and Cleopatra  in the Swan theatre.  When the opening nights were over, the last night of the long ensemble seemed to happen so quickly.  The last day  that the long ensemble performed in Stratford was a great occasion because I saw three plays in a day and the last time I would see Rupert Goold’s Romeo and Juliet.  The long ensembles’ last work in Britain was three new plays at Hampstead Theatre.

Kathryn Hunter’s Cleopatra got mixed reviews. It was a performance I had grown to like, and I was so pleased I got to see her in Kafka’s Monkey in July. This was a polished and extraordinary piece of physical theatre.

The new company arrived at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre with a Macbeth and a thought-provoking Merchant of Venice. The critics seemed to prefer A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but out of the three main house Shakespeare productions, I thought this was the least inventive and exciting.  This was a production with Bottom wearing his packed lunch in inventive ways as he sleeps with the fairy queen and which the real world transformed into the woods in such a way, we were meant to feel that elements of the court world were seeping into the dream world.  Michael Boyd’s Macbeth played with time and the souls of the dead haunting the stage.  Rupert Goold’s Merchant of Venice gave Portia a central role in a production set in Las Vegas.   However, the joy for me was the Homecoming at the Swan.  This was a beautifully nuanced piece of work and for me beautifully captured the tone and mood of play.

Beauty was on show in the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition at the National Galley and in Eddie Redmayne’s Richard II at the Donmar Warehouse. Unlike the John Martin exhibition it was so hard to get up clue to anything in the popular National Gallery show. It was so nice to be directed through the gallery past the other Renaissance pairings to the exhibition around the Last Supper.  I really enjoyed Redmayne’s performance as Richard falling apart in from to me.

In other Shakespearean productions, Kevin Spacey’s Richard III which was fantastic and brutal and The Tempest at the Haymarket was a little plodding with a nice performance from Nicholas Lyndhust.

I found the Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World (British Museum) fascinating, and  I felt that I should have enjoyed the Grayson Perry at the British Museum more than I did.  I was drawn to the Glamour of the Gods at the National Portrait Gallery, which is always a great place to visit before a matinée.

I saw five different production of Hamlet in 2011, starting the year with the wonderful production at the National Theatre, and finishing with Michael Sheen’s performance in the Young Vic’s production  which was set in a mental hospital.   The other Hamlets were the Northern Broadsides, the RSC Young Person’s wonderful production and the Globe’s touring production.

I saw three different Comedy of Errors.  The year with the magnificent all male Propeller  Company production in Sheffield and finished the year with the National’s lively production. Lenny Henry was spot on with the verse and the set really worked on the large Olivier stage. Though both these productions were superb, I also really liked the RSC Young Person’s version which I saw for the first time when it was last performed  in April.

Not all the cultural events have been memorable. In thinking about the past year, I’d totally forgotten about seeing Twelfth Night at the National Theatre until I heard someone on the radio saying that Charles Edwards was their choice for actor of the year. They reminded me that not only had he been a superb Benedick, but he’d also been a decent Sir Andrew in a dull production at the National Theatre.

Much Ado About Nothing scaffolded the year for me personally . It had been a long time since I’d seen a production, nd then two excellent, but very different productions came along. I loved the Globe’s detailed production and Eve Best’s wonderful performance as Beatrice. I was so surprised when she played the ‘Kill Claudio’ line for laughs. Over the river at the Wyndham’s Theatre was the commercial 1980’s concept production which I saw many times starting with the first night. It was great fun and the performances from David Tennant and  Catherine Tate were great and totally in context in this production. There was some comment that the audience only laughed because they saw David Tennant on stage, but when Alex Beckett took over from David Tennant for two nights the laughs came in the same places and it seemed the audience enjoyed the production and still gave it a standing ovation.

…..and my highlight of 2011 was Adam James’ Don Pedro in the Wyndham’s Much Ado About Nothing. It was a wonderful performance that seemed to catch the character so well.  James made everything look so easy, but actually it was his supporting performance that made it possible for Tate and Tennant to give great comic performances.

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Best of 2011

Here is my best of.. lists. The following post discusses what I thought about the year.

Shakespeare in the Theatre

1. Romeo and Juliet (RSC at the RST)

2. Much Ado About Nothing (Globe)

3. Hamlet (The National Theatre)

4. Much Ado About Nothing (Wyndham’s)

5.The Comedy of Errors (Propeller at Sheffield)

6. Antony and Cleopatra with Katy Stephens and Darrell D’Silva (RSC at the RST)

7. Macbeth (RSC)

8. The Merchant of Venice (RSC)

9. King Lear (RSC at the RST and Roundhouse)

10. Hamlet (Young Vic)

11. Othello (The Crucible, Sheffield)

12. As You Like It (RSC at Roundhouse)

13. Macbeth (Liverpool Everyman)

14. All Well That End’s Well (The Globe)

15. The Comedy of Errors (Young Person’s at RSC)

16. Hamlet (Northern Broadsides at West Yorkshire Playhouse)

17. Hamlet (Globe touring)

18. The Comedy of Errors (National Theatre)

19. Richard III (Old Vic)

20. Richard II (Donmar)

21. Hamlet (Young Person’s at RSC)

22.  King Lear (West Yorkshire Playhouse)

23.  The Tempest (Theatre Royal, Haymarket)

24.  A Midsummer Night’s Dream (RSC, RST)

25. Twelfth Night (National Theatre)

Other Theatre

1. Jerusalem (Apollo)

2. The Homecoming (RSC at the Swan)

3. Frankenstein (The National)

4. One Man, Two Guvnors (The Lowry)

5. Anna Christie (Donmar)

6. The City Madam (RSC, The Swan)

7. Dr Faustus (The Globe)

8. Betrayal (Harold Pinter/Comedy)

9. Inadmissible Evidence (Donmar)

10. Cardenio (RSC, The Swan)

11. Rosencrantz and Guldenstern are Dead (Haymarket)

12. Grief (The National)

13. 13 (The National)

14. Silence (RSC at Hampstead)

15. Little Eagles (RSC at Hampstead)

16. Season’s Greetings (National Theatre)

17. Juno and the Paycock (National)

18. Cause Célèbre (Old Vic)

19. Deep Blue Sea (West Yorkshire Playhouse)

20. Moonlight (Donmar)

21. The Crucible (York Theatre Royal)

22. The Heretic (Royal Court)

23. Forty Years On (York Theatre Royal)

24. American Trade (RSC at Hampstead)

25. Beggar’s Opera (Belt Up at York Theatre Royal)

Note: Forty Years On is here for proud Mum reasons.

Exhibitions

1. John Martin (Tate Britain)

2. Ford Maddox Brown (Manchester City Art Gallery)

3. Degas (Royal Academy)

4. Leonardo da Vinci (National Gallery)

5. Juma Plensa (Yorkshire Sculpture Park)

6. Glamour of the Gods (National Portrait Gallery)

7. Gerhard Ritcher (Tate Modern)

8. First Actresses (National Portrait Gallery)

9. Miro (Tate Modern)

10. Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World (British Museum)

11. Gabriel Orozco (Tate Modern)

12. Watteau (Royal Academy)

13. Hokusai’s Great wave (British Museum)

14. Treasures of Heaven (British Museum)

15. Devotion by Design (National Gallery)

16. Royal Academy Summer Show 2012

17. Building the Revolution (Royal Academy )

18. Barry Flanagan (Tate Britain)

19. Grayson Perry (British Museum)

20. Tacita Dean (Tate Modern)

My great cultural moments of 2011

Meeting Sir Alan and Lady Ayckbourn

First night of Wyndham’s Much Ado About Nothing

Last night of Long Ensemble (2009-11) at Royal Shakespeare Theatre – Romeo and Juliet

First night of Long Ensemble (2009-11) at the opening of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre – King Lear

The performance of the year – Adam James as Don Pedro in Wyndham’s Much Ado About Nothing – just wonderful.

Edinburgh Festival

The RSC Ensemble Revealed at the Swan Theatre.

Best actor and actress

Best Actor – Adam James in Much Ado About Nothing (Wyndham’s)

Best Actress – Eve Best in Much Ado About Nothing (The Globe)

Much Ado About Nothing (aka Club Tropicana Much A Dr Who About Nothing) Wyndham's Theatre – 16th May to 3rd September

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When the party is over what is left?

It’s a little ironic that down the road from the Wyndham’s Theatre in the National Portrait Gallery’s Now and Then: Portraits by John Swannell exhibition is a portrait of a young George Michael in his Wham days looking extremely handsome and tanned. This image is very in keeping with the aesthetic of the eighties focused and Wham themed Much Ado About Nothing at the Wyndham’s.

There is no doubt that this production is a product for London’s commercial West End. It has star casting in Catherine Tate and David Tennant as Beatrice and Benedick. Tate and Tennant have worked together not only on the popular TV show Doctor Who, but also as DJs on the Jonathan Ross Radio 2 show, and on Catherine Tate’s own TV sketch show. Not far away from the Wyndham’s theatre is the ABBA themed Mamma Mia at the Prince of Wales Theatre and more or less opposite is Priscilla at the Cambridge Theatre based on Kylie Minogue’s songs.  Much Ado About Nothing at the Wyndham’s production takes Shakespeare’s words and presents them as Wham-like and other eighties tracks, so overall this production could be seen as a Wham themed production in the vein of the popular musical shows around it. We even get men in uniforms, which is a reminder of George Michael and Andrew Ridgely in those pilot uniforms at the end of their Club Tropicana video.  There were moments I thought I heard echoes of ‘Careless Whisper’, and the finale is a little like a singing along to Wham’s  ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go Go’. In taking this approach, the production is in keeping with much of what is happening around it in the commercial West End.

Like Rupert Goold’s current production of The Merchant of Venice, Josie Rourke’s Much Ado About Nothing fuses popular culture with Shakespeare. This fusion works on a very different level from Goold’s Merchant of Venice , which focuses in on the emotional journey of one character (Portia).  In contrast,  Rourke’s production explores the surface of the play. This is not a criticism, because I think the cast make it look easier than it actually is, and are able to play the comedy in the text and take an audience with them. I doubt that celebrity on its own is enough to move an audience, including those at their first Shakespeare play, to rise to their feet every night and demand four curtain calls.

I blogged about this production on its very first night here, and have had a bit of time after seeing it again to reflect a little more on some of the detail.

The production is set in the early eighties on Gibraltar with the men returning from the Falklands War. There’s the Princess Diana wedding dress complete with creases and her engagement ring. There’s a male character wearing a Margaret Thatcher mask and a reminder of the spitting image puppet than the real Margaret Thatcher.  There is also a range of beach wear, including culottes, that have thankfully  been left behind in that decade.

The production really reflects a world turned upside down that the text suggests, and  before things are returned to normal. In the masked ball, there’s the cross dressing, which we see in other Shakespeare comedies, to suggest this inversion. For most of the production, Beatrice wears Dexys Midnight Runners style dungarees,  and at the masked ball she dresses as one of the Blue’s Brothers. At the masked ball, Benedick is in drag (as Miss Piggy I think) and in red doc martens (those that know me would find the red doc martens a little ironic).  At the ball, there is also Tina Turner, Darth Vader and Princess Leia.  The only character not in fancy dress is the sinister Don John (Elliot Levey) hiding in the shadows and darkness, and still in his naval uniform.  It is very noticeable that Claudio (Tom Bateman) is dressed as Adam Ant’s Prince Charming and Hero (Sarah MacRae) wears a Princess Diana mask at the masked ball. In many ways these roles become a comment on the characters, and the over elaborate flashiness and superficiality of the new romantics identity suggests there is not much below the surface in Claudio’s own character. I couldn’t help thinking that though all ends up with a happy ending and Hero has clearly got her man, and that the future may not be so happy with a man who has presented his dark angry side at least three times in three days. His anger at Don Pedro’s (Adam James) wooing of Hero at the ball, his response to Hero at the wedding, and the way he responds to her mock death. I thought Sarah MacRae’s Hero was a very interesting portrayal. She works with the silences very well especially in Act 1, when Beatrice does all the talking and won’t give her the opportunity to speak. It’s a feisty portrayal and one that moves away from the assumption Hero is weak and passive.  This Hero is clearly taken with Claudio from the start, and like Portia (Susannah Fielding) in Goold’s Merchant of Venice is determined to get her man.

Alcohol plays a large part in the production. We see a lot of social drinking, and even from the moment from when the messenger (Leo Staar) arrives guests are handed bottles and cans of beer. This heavy drinking results in hangovers and Benedick delivers his soliloquy at the start of 2.3 clearly suffering from the night before.  His state gives a rationale for his melancholy and derogatory remarks about marriage and makes it easier to believe that he changes his mind just a few minutes later. Drinking in his production moves quickly from a fun social pastime and underlies some of the darker moments in the production. Claudio drinks to excess from a bottle of spirits to forget when he thinks Hero is dead, and Leonato (Jonathan Coy) is made bold to challenge Don Pedro (Adam James) through drinking too much champagne at the non wedding reception. Both Margaret (Natalie Thomas) and Claudio’s drinks are spiked so that they can easily be tricked by the manipulative Borachio (Alex Beckett) and Don John.

The hen party and stag nights are shown on stage and take place at either side of the revolving stage, and are complete with male and female strippers. This is a device to present the ‘chamber window’ to the audience, as this is normally off stage action. In presenting the audience with an explanation of what Claudio and Don Pedro see shifts some of the blame away from Claudio for his callous reaction to the denouncement at the wedding. At the end of the day Don John’s plot is about getting revenge for Claudio’s part in his downfall and he doesn’t really care that Hero is caught up and discredited in the scheme.

Beatrice and Benedick sit slightly aside from the other characters in this production. Benedick is never really part of the other men’s group and this is often seen alone such as before his gulling scenes, in the church, and when he attempts to serenades Beatrice with the boy’s toy organ.  This isolation makes David Tennant’s dramatic entrance in a golf buggy workable, and is a solution to getting him on stage, and deal with the celebrity moment – that’s why I stress it is David Tennant’s entrance here. There’s a lovely moment on the hen/stag nights when Beatrice and Benedick slightly separate from the other groups catch a glimpse of each other.

There is almost a competition going on between Benedick and Beatrice to get the most laughs in their gulling scenes, which are both centred around a room which is the process of being painted. Benedick’s scene works through the use of slapstick, his response to the men setting him up, and the clever use of the revolving stage which presents different views of him and the men who can clearly see him. An outcome is that Benedick ends up covered in paint. Indeed, this presents Benedick with a beard made of paint making later jokes about his beard and barbers more relevant. The boy is used well in this production, and his part in getting the book for Benedick is very funny in the gulling scene.

Tennant has a wonderful sense of timing that allows him to pause just long enough to get the laughs. In his prose soliloquy at the end of the gulling, he is clearly working with the audience taking them as far as he can, and picking up on a stray giggle in order to direct the line ‘the world must be peopled to’ to that audience member. Tennant warms up the audience for Tate to enter.  Benedick has fallen in love with Beatrice at her most unattractive moment and she enters tugging at her bikini bottoms to release them from her crutch. There’s an interesting use of a stage harness in Beatrice’s gulling scene, which was altered after the first night, to give the actions more of a rationale. It is a comedy after all, and stage business in keeping with pantomime is not amiss.

The ‘kill Claudio’ moment is enormously difficult for Tate to play as she chooses to move away from the sadness she feels at Hero’s shaming, to show her joy at Benedick’s declaration of love for her. Tate uses the moment to demonstrate her sketch show faces, which are very funny, but then she has to calm the audience down and move the tone back to a very serious one. In the previews the audience laughed at the ‘kill Claudio’ line, and that just doesn’t work,  but I noted Tate had worked hard at this by using a long pause and was getting the stunned silent response the line needs in later performances.

The Dogberry scenes are very funny and work well as a mirror to the other characters. Dogberry (John Ramm) is proud of his role as the leader of the watch and sees himself as a Rambo character. He may mix up his words and be a little convoluted, but when he arrives with his rifle and as the curtain falls for the interval, you really feel that Conrad and Borachio’s days are numbered – boom!.  If only Leonato had listened to Dogberry when he clambers over the chairs set out for the wedding to reveal all.

The inclusion of Innogen didn’t work for me. It means she has to be silent in the church schemes and yet during our glimpse of the hen night she’s flirting with the male stripper, which I think might be out of character.

I think that Adam James’ Don Pedro is a relaxed approach to the role and by doing this James has created a man who has lost control of discipline and is too at ease with his men. I think he really does want to marry Beatrice and is rather hurt by her crass rejection. His leadership has broken down, and he encourages the drinking at the stag night, sets up the gulling and takes his eye off his brother. The latter is a problem because Don Pedro’s reactions to Don John have indicated that he does not trust him. The brothers are not reconciled in this production, and it is also clear that Benedick does not like Don John either and ignores his entrance in 1.1. Don Pedro does stand beside Claudio though, and takes some responsibility for his part in the shaming of Hero.

I have read in places some criticism of audiences for laughing at the play and giving it a standing ovation. I think it is a little unfair to be critical because  some audience members may have a frame of reference that they might bring to the performance e.g. they have seen other productions, or know the text has been cut. Other members of the audience are bringing their own frames of references from popular culture with them to the production. I don’t see a problem with people enjoying seeing Tate applying her toolkit of faces and voices to this role, or revelling in the sparring between Benedick and Beatrice and seeing this as an echo of the Donna/Doctor combination in Doctor Who. I am not sure I want to be critical of audiences enjoying an evening watching Shakespeare.

What this production does really well is give a sense of the excess at the beginning of the eighties. It’s a moment with a Tory government and the rise of the commercial West End musical. When the party is over what will be left?  I am aware I am complicit in the setting of the ticket prices, because I have bought the tickets at the high prices. As much I was interested by the way this production worked in the context of the West End, I thought that it was very expensive. In many ways my visits to this production are being subsidised by all the cheaper tickets I have bought for other productions (including a groundling ticket for the Globe production so I can see that more than once).  If everyone was charging this amount for a stalls ticket, my theatre going days would be over very quickly.

Reviews and Previews

My first night comments

BBC News – David Tennant and Catherine Tate reu…David Tennant & Catherine Tate Star in Much Ado…Express.co.uk – Home of the Daily and Sunday Express | Stage :: Much Ado About Nothing, 4/5 Wyndham’s, London. Tel: 0844 482 5120Tate Nabs Tennant – – Blog – Whatsonstage.comTwo Ados | The SpectatorAbout the Contributors – Theaternewsonline .comDavid Tennant and Catherine Tate interview for ‘Much Ado About Nothing – TelegraphTennant and Tate reunite for Much Ado | The Off…Divergent Takes on ‘Much Ado’ – NYTimes.comFrom Doctor Who to Much Ado for Tennant and Tat…Tennant and Tate win over critics – News, Entertainment – Belfasttelegraph.co.ukBBC News – David Tennant and Catherine Tate to …Much ado about 1980s Gibraltar | Stage | guardian.co.ukCan David Tennant and Catherine Tate make Shakespeare the year’s hottest ticket? – Features, Theatre & Dance – The IndependentThe Stage / Shenton’s View / Spoiler alerts (and spoiling for a fight)

Much Ado About Nothing – First Night at Wyndham's (May 16th 2011)

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I have decided to blog about the first night of the Tate/Tennant Much Ado About Nothing (Wyndhams) experience and in doing so this blog post will include SPOILERS.  I don’t normally blog about a production early in the run, but I felt there was something rather fascinating about being at a first night in the same way there was something special about attending the last matinée/night of the long ensemble in Stratford in April. I wanted to talk about that experience as well my first thoughts of the production.

The traffic on Twitter made it clear that many audience members were fans of David Tennant, so that the audience would generally be with the actors, and that created a really energetic atmosphere.

The auditorium was full, and very hot. I think that the play started about 5 minutes late, because there were so many people finding their seats.  The set was concealed by a white curtain, and not visible when entering the auditorium, which built up the anticipation. When the switch off the phone warning was announced, the curtain rose straightaway and the production began with Hero dancing to some 80s music (I can’t recall what).

Overall, I thought the production was slapstick in approach, and in the tradition of pantomime, but I don’t mean that in a negative way. There’s the equivalent of the pie in the face, an inventive use of a stage harness and cross dressing.  I felt that the creative team had made the decision to play up every line, and Much Ado About Nothing is a comedy, so I’d expect it to be funny, and this production was very funny.

As soon as Catherine Tate said her first line as Beatrice, it became clear that she is going to use her well tried stock of voices and expressions, and though she never says ‘am I bovvered’ Lauren Cooper style, it is possible to believe this Beatrice could have uttered this in her past. Alongside Tate’s performance, David Tennant uses exaggeration to great effect when playing Benedick.  For example, Benedick’s (or indeed really I should say Tennant’s ) entrance was very much one Berwick Kaler might make at the annual York Theatre Royal pantomime.  I felt that having such an explosive entrance dealt with the issue how do you get David Tennant on stage. Rather than trying an approach that might get some laughter and a ripple of applause, why not go for an entrance which will  maximum impact?

The problem I felt in playing the comedy at this level throughout is that it is difficult to change gear in the Watch scenes, and highlight the farcical nature of the scenes. I also felt that the ‘Kill Claudio’ scene might be a scene that they need to work on.  I think that Beatrice is still emotionally drained in that scene and though there are humorous moments, I think it might be a moment to tone down the facial expressions, because after the words ‘Kill Claudio’ punctures, it is hard for her to move back to the serious tone needed for the rest of the scene. Much Ado About Nothing nearly turns to tragedy and a production needs to explore the darker moments as well as the comic moments.  In this production, there is a suggestion that Claudio (Tom Bateman) is deeply affected by the shaming of Hero.

There are strong performances from other members of the cast. I felt that Adam James was a melancholic Don Pedro, who was a little sad at Beatrice’s rejection. I think the approach to Hero (Sarah MacRae) was one of the most interesting aspects of the production.  However, I thought Elliot Levey’s Don John was too much like a pantomime villain.  It might have been more interesting to have a melancholic Don John to contrast with Tate and Tennant’s comedy performances.

The revolving stage was used to great effect, particularly in the overhearing scenes.

The audience loved it, laughed throughout and cheered and clapped when Benedick proposed to Beatrice. Needless to say that there was a standing ovation at the end.  It will be interesting to see if there are regular standing ovations through the run.

When I see this again, I will never get that sense of surprise in not knowing what’s to come, though it will give me an opportunity to consider the production in more depth. I am sure time will give me chance to consider and reflect on the detail more and blog again later in the run.

One of the nice things about the evening was that I met @PolyG, @RevStan and @tprw and found their views on the production really engaging.

Further Information:

http://www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk/Theatres/wyndhams_theatre.php

http://theatre.revstan.com/2011/05/much-ado-about-tennanttate-the-first-night.html

http://davidtennantontwitter.blogspot.com/2011/05/david-tennants-first-2-previews-of-much.html

Season's Greetings (National Theatre, 5th March 2011)

In many ways, going to see Season’s Greetings at the National Theatre is a very different experience from seeing Antony and Cleopatra in the Swan theatre the light before. Here we have a lavish set, consisting of three floors of a house and lots of doors. Without knowing the play, I kind of guess that there will be a mix up and lots of people entering and exiting through them. Catherine Tate didn’t disappoint and delivered a lovely performance. I think that I will need to get used to seeing her this year with Much Ado About Nothing coming up this summer.  For me, this was just good entertainment, and I enjoyed a relaxing afternoon in the theatre.  It was like all those farces, I was taken to as a child when we were on holiday or visiting London with my parents.