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.

The Hounding of David Oluwale (WYP, 18th February 2009), Othello (RSC 21st February 2009), Othello (Northern Broadsides, 25th February 2009)

For one week in February, when you walked up to the West Yorkshire Playhouse you would have been confronted by two large poster images of David Oluwale and Othello (Lenny Henry). I’m not sure whether it was a deliberate decision for the West Yorkshire Playhouse to put on The Hounding of David Oluwale and Othello back to back, but in doing so and juxtaposing the two images, you can’t help but make comparisons. Renaissance Venice and the late twentieth century Leeds contain uncomfortable racist elements and a story that is 400 years old is still, sadly, relevant today. An article on the West Yorkshire Playhouse web site, discusses how the face of David is made up of a montage of pictures of scenes of Leeds (http://www.wyp.org.uk/interface/news_item_details.asp?news_ID=4283 accessed 23rd February 2009). Even more striking is the fact that the image looks across at Millgate Police Station, the station where the police officers who were accused of hounding David were stationed.

The Hounding of David Oluwale is a play about the stories of two men, David and the investigator, Perkins. Perkins acts as a narrator trying to piece David’s real story, the one beyond the police file and hospital records. It’s also a story about Leeds as the city attempts to rebuild the city and present a sense of civic pride. A pride that we also see in Venice as the army goes to war against the Turks. In building a pride in the city, Leeds’ issues are hidden, so rather than solve the homeless problem, the homeless are constantly moved from the door ways then sleep in and given little opportunity to sleep. One of these people is David who is constantly moved on by the police and in the end is brutal at the hands of those who are supposed to protect us. The play makes us aware of what the crux of the narrative from its opening as the body of David Oluwale is recovered from the River Aire and Perkins starts his search for the truth and to get justice for David’s death.

The story is narrated through conversations between David Oluwale and Perkins which are flash backs and also interviews with other people involved in the story. Interspersed with the story of David in Leeds are memories of Nigeria and David’s youth. There are scenes with his mother who clearly did not want her son to come to England. The cast move between roles so you get a real sense of the city and the range of people involved in this story. When playing the homeless the characters wear masks over their faces to illustrate that they are playing people with no identity outside the homeless community.

This is a heartbreaking story and it really moved me, as well as making me uncomfortable at Yorkshire’s past. David’s story starts with so much promise as he comes to England with the hope of becoming an an engineer. He meets a girl, Jenny, and the scenes between them are so tender. The things go wrong, and David is accused of not paying for a cup of tea and is assaulted for the first time by the police. He spends time in Armley jail and then in hospital where he is subjected to EST. David’s arrival in England was full of so much hope and it is shattering to see the man who danced limping and broken.

The RSC’s production of Othello, directed by Kathryn Hunter, has a clear theme running through it. This world is a racist and sexist world, where the entertainment consists of characters blacking up and an effigy of Desdemona being crudely smeared with black shore polish. The Northern Broadsides production does not use this kind of stage business to convey the racism in the play, but is more subtle in its approach, but does not detract from how awful the racist elements of the society are. At the moments that characters refer to Othello’s race and make derogatory remarks, Henry just rolls his neck to indicate his discomfort and that he is clearly tired of hearing this stuff all the time. Henry’s action is just so powerful.

Henry is a big man and his Othello has a clear stage presence which is very forceful and at the start of the plays really makes you feel that he is in charge. It is all the more shocking then when Henry ends up on the floor in a fit brought down so quickly by Conrad Nelson’s excellent Iago. All this happens in a day, which makes you wonder what kind of ‘chaos’ Othello encountered before he met and married Desdemona. Henry’s Othello is a transition similar to David Oluwale which is represented between both the physical and mental deterioration.

The area that I felt that Northern Broadsides did not make the most of was 5.2 as if the company didn’t really get round to blocking the scene. Henry did not make clear which lights he was referring to and there was little contact between Othello and Desdemona until her murders him. Henry enters the bedchamber and stands at the side of the bed to speak as if he was clear what the actions might be. I suppose this scene has been produced in so many different ways from Maggie Smith’s passive Desdemina in Olivier’s version to Imogen Stubb’s struggling and fighting back in Trevor Nunn’s version, and something less played was a challenge at this point in the play.

This was very much an ensemble production. As a regular at Nothern Broadsides performances, I recognised actors from previous roles. Conrad Nelson’s Iago was stunning. He made so much of those pauses and twists and changes. Maeve Larkin was a wonderful Emilia and the moment she realises that Iago has manipulated everything was an exciting piece of theatre.

Henry was a really credible Othello and the audience clearly loved him. He looked drained at the end of the performance, I saw having brought a really interesting interpretation to the role and moved to dispel this view that Shakespeare is just for posh people. Henry showed that Shakespeare can touch us all. Just as Othello is sadly relevant today, The Hounding of David Oluwale is also a powerful story and more so because it is a true story.

The Hounding of David Oluwale

http://www.wyp.org.uk/events/event_details.asp?event_ID=639 (Details of the production)
The Hounding of David Oluwale, West Yorkshire P…
Preview: The Hounding Of David Oluwale, West Yo…
Theatre review: The Hounding of David Oluwale /…
The Stage / Reviews / The Hounding Of David Olu
Theatre reviews from around the country – Teleg
Preview: The Hounding Of David Oluwale, West Yo…

Othello (RSC)

Othello – Touring – Times Online
Othello at the Warwick Arts Centre and touring – Times Online
Topical Bard (From The Northern Echo)
The Stage / News / Harry Potter actress to make…
Bidisha: Othello? Don’t do it, Lenny Comment …
Othello at the Warwick Arts Centre and touring …
Othello – Touring – Times Online
Interview: Kathryn Hunter talks about Othello -…
Theatre review: Othello / Warwick Arts Centre, …
Othello: Oxford Playhouse (From The Oxford Times)
The Taming Of The Shrew, Novello Theatre, Londo
FT.com / Arts / Theatre & Dance – Othello, West…
The Stage / News / Harry Potter actress to make…
Interview: Patrice Naiambana theatre features…
Birmingham Post – Life & Leisure – Birmingham C…

Othello (Northern Broadsides)
http://www.wyp.org.uk/events/event_details.asp?event_ID=5454 (Information of the production)
Bidisha: Othello? Don’t do it, Lenny Comment …
The Tempest, Courtyard, Stratford
Othello, W…

What to say about … Lenny Henry’s Othello S…
FT.com / Arts / Theatre & Dance – Othello, West…
Lenny Henry on playing Othello – Telegraph
Shakespeare’s Othello is no joke for Lenny – Co…
Theatre review: Othello, West Yorkshire Playhou
Lenny Henry shows he’ll be a tower of strength …
No reason why Lenny Henry can’t be Othello – Bi…
Curtain goes up on region’s must-see shows – Yo…
Lenny Henry makes non-comedy stage debut as lea…
Lenny just a jealous guy… and it’s no joke – …
Othello at the West Yorkshire Playhouse – Times…
People: Eileen Atkins turns up her nose at Lenn
Othellos past, present and future Stage gua
Lenny Henry set to take on Bard challenge (From…
First Night: Othello, Quarry Theatre, West York…
Sneak preview: Lenny Henry as Othello – Yorkshi
Charles Hutchinson reviews Lenny Henry in Othel
‘Isn’t there some panto you want me to do first…
Eileen Atkins voices concern at Lenny Henry’s a…
Lenny Henry on playing Othello – Telegraph
Preview: Othello, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Lee…
BBC NEWS Entertainment Arts & Culture Hen…

Is Carla Emilia? (ITV1, Coronation Street, 4th February 2009)

Ok I said I was getting a little fed up with the ‘Tony is a murderer’ Coronation Street story line yesterday, but it was a great cliff hanger tonight. Just like Emilia in Othello, Carla is out to expose her husband for the rat he is. We all know what happened in Othello, so a cliff hanger where Carla is put in danger as Tony sends the ‘you lot’ home and locks the factory is one which leaves us wondering and wishing that this was a recording and we could watch the next episode in a few minutes time. Roll on Friday to see what happens.