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.

Happy Birthday Shakespeare – On going to see Shakespeare's plays and why I do.

I am writing this blog as part of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Happy Shakespeare blog project www.happybirthdayshakespeare.com I decided to join the project, because as a blogger I am often writing about going to see Shakespeare’s plays performed, and felt it appropriate to write about why I enjoy seeing Shakespeare in performance so much.

Charles Lamb, the Romantic critic, wrote about how he felt that Shakespeare’s plays shouldn’t be staged. I once met an academic who talked with great delight about how they would walk out of a performance of a Shakespeare play at the interval and how they preferred to go to the pub instead. I had a friend who had seen Jeremy Irons as Leontes in The Winter’s Tale and she said that she could never go to see another production of The Winter’s Tale because she didn’t want to spoil that memory. These stories make me a little sad, because I think that it is a shame that people can often place their own barriers around how they experience Shakespeare in performance. I know what Lamb really meant was that it didn’t want to see a bad production of a Shakespeare play (see Professor Stanley Wells’ article referenced below), and I was rather amazed at the statement about leaving the theatre in the interval because this was someone who was famous for writing academic books about Shakespeare. My friend was a regular at the RSC season in Newcastle, so she didn’t stop going to see Shakespeare on stage, just not The Winter’s Tale again. The critic, the academic, and regular theatre goer may sometimes have different reasons for watching Shakespeare in performance, but we’re all part of the audience, and for me being in an audience watching is about experiencing Shakespeare.

Of course, I want to see a brilliant production, one that will wow me. I felt like that when I saw the Baxter Theatre/Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) production of The Tempest in 2009. I was amazed by that brilliant opening to the latest RSC production of Romeo and Juliet and I still have the image of Mercutio’s (Jonjo O’Neil) entrance swinging in on the gate and that wonderful performance overall. I saw that production of Romeo and Juliet again several times and enjoyed it each time that I saw it. The anticipation at the start was built up when I could glance Sam Troughton and Noma Dumezweni take their places at the auditorium doors and I knew the play was about to start. However, I just love the experience of being in a theatre, whether it has a thrust stage or proscenium arch. I am just too curious to leave in the interval, even if I felt a production was not going well. I was puzzled by Tim Carroll’s recent RSC Merchant of Venice, but the second half was much more exciting than the first, and I was so glad that I stayed.  I saw this production again and felt I understood what was happening more on the second visit.

I’ve just seen the National Theatre production of Hamlet. It couldn’t have been more different from the Greg Doran’s RSC 2008-09 production of Hamlet, but I enjoyed both equally. I will see another three productions this year – The Gobe’s touring Hamlet, Northern Broadsides’ production at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and Michael Sheen at the Young Vic- and what interests me most is how will each company will approach the text(s).  I want to see their interpretations, and certainly not my idea of how the play should be performed. I just love seeing something, I wouldn’t have thought about myself.

Watching the development of the recent RSC Antony and Cleopatra was a very interesting experience.  I was unsure about the production at first, and many of the reviews were mixed, but I felt that some of the risks did pay off, and I was so pleased I managed to get returns to see the production go into the Swan theatre, stripped down and with Katy Stephens as Cleopatra.

I think, I’m haunted by the ghosts of the RSC as the RSC is itself is with its ghost wall projecting images of past productions as the audience enter the new RST at Stratford.  I remember Roger Rees as  in Hamlet, Antony Sher as Richard III, Simon Russell Beale as a brilliant Ariel in The Tempest and of course Jeremy Irons as Leontes. As I say goodbye to one RSC ensemble, I become excited by the next one coming into Stratford, and again I am curious about what they will do and how they will approach each play. I look out for productions in the regions, at local heritage sites, at the Globe and even in the West End. I am looking forward to seeing Much Ado About Nothing with David Tennant and Catherine Tate. That was my ideal casting, I told my friends and then when it became a reality I was delighted to get tickets.

I sometimes make attempts to separate my different identities as a critic (blogger), an academic or regular theatre goer, but the boundaries are becoming increasingly blurred. Fro me, watching Shakespeare is usually intellectually stimulating, sometimes frustrating, but thankfully often amazing.

Further Information

Well, Stanley ‘Shakespeare in Hazlett’s Theatre Criticism’. Shakespeare Survey, 35 (1982), 43-55.


Best of 2010

Theatre: Shakespeare

1. Romeo and Juliet (RSC).

2. King Lear (RSC).

3. As You Like It (West Yorkshire Playhouse).

4. Measure for Measure (Almeida).

5. The Winter’s Tale (RSC/Roundhouse).

6. Henry IV part 2 (Globe).

7. Macbeth (Globe).

8. Antony and Cleopatra (RSC).

9. Antony and Cleopatra (Liverpool Playhouse).

10. Hamlet (The Crucible, Sheffield).

11. King Lear (Donmar).

12. Henry VIII (The Globe).

13. The Tempest (Old Vic).

14. As You Like It (Old Vic)

15. Macbeth (Belt Up/York Theatre Royal).

Theatre: Not Shakespeare

1. Jerusalem (Apollo).

2. After the Dance (National).

3. An Enemy of the People (Sheffield Crucible).

4. Women Beware Women (National).

5. London Assurance (National).

6. Enron (Theatre Royal, Newcastle)

7. The Habit of Art (National Theatre).

8. Corrie! (Lowry, Salford)

9. The Real Thing (Old Vic).

10. Canterbury Tales (West Yorkshire Playhouse/Northern Broadsides).

11. La Bete (Comedy Theatre).

12. Death of a Salesman (West Yorkshire Playhouse).

13. Three Sisters (Lyric, Hammersmith).

14. The Misanthrope (Comedy Theatre)

15. Beating Berlusconi. (York Theatre Royal).



1. Gauguin (Tate Modern).

2. Van Gogh (Royal Academy).

3. Renaissance drawings (The British Museum).

4. The Book of the Dead (British Museum).

5. Venice. Canaletto and his rivals. (The National Gallery).

6. Sargent and the Sea (Royal Academy).

7. Rude Britannia (Tate Britain).

8. Summer Show (Royal Academy).

9. Beatles to Bowie (National Portrait Gallery).

10. Chris Ofili (Tate Britain).



1. Andrea Levy The Long Song.

2. Hilary Mantel – Wolf Hall.

3. AS Byatt – The Children’s Book.

4. Rose Tremain – Trespass.

5. Colm Toibin Brooklyn.

6. Ian McEwan  Solar.

7. Paul Magrs Diary of a Doctor Who Addict.

8. Tony Blair The Journey.

9. Kate Atkinson Started Early, Took My Dog.

10. Alexander McCall Smith The Double Comfort Safari Club.


1. Coronation Street –  especially for Jack’s Death and the Live episode (ITV).

3. Ashes to Ashes (BBC1).

4. Doctor Who – The End of Time part 2 (BBC1).

5. Doctor Who – especially for the eleventh hour (BBC1).

6. Downton Abbey (ITV1)

7. I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here (ITV1).

8. Macbeth (BBC 4).

9. Luther (BBC1).

10. Silent Witness (BBC 1).

and my guilty pleasure of the year

Peter Kay at the Studio, Lowry (and again at the Manchester Evening News Arena).

Romeo and Juliet again..(RSC at the Roundhouse, 4th December 2010)

It felt a little bit strange going into a theatre that looked like a theatre I had become very familiar with, but was slightly different.   In reconstructing  the Courtyard in the Roundhouse, the RSC have created a version of the Stratford theatre, rather than a replica theatre.  There’s no upper circle and the rusts and reds are transformed to blacks, resulting in the feeling of being in a black box.  The seats are not so comfortable, as they are clearly portable seating.  I was sat in the front row of the stalls and it felt that the stage was a little shorter and a little higher than the Courtyard thrust stage in Stratford.  Last time I saw this production, I was sat in the middle of the stalls in Newcastle, and it was great to be close to the performance again.  I feel that the proscenium arch has it advantages, but being near a thrust stage  is much more invigorating than sat far away from a proscenium arch stage.  Being right up on the edge of a performance is a fantastic experience and particularly for this production.  This time watching Romeo and Juliet, I felt that I was actually in the middle of the fight scene and the masked ball.  I was so close that Jonjo O’Neill’s Mercutio threw his money at me, and I was able to pick it up. For the first time when watching this production of Romeo and Juliet,  I noticed that Mariah Gale’s Juliet wiggles her toes just as Romeo is about to drink the poison.  He has his back to her and doesn’t see her doing this.  It’s as if a moment could change everything and if he had  turned round, the ending could have been so different.  As I was watching this time, I was thinking that Juliet was a bit like Hermione, and in the white wedding dress, she was  like a statue coming alive.  Instead of finding new life, she comes back to life only to brutally stab herself and die in an instant.

I will see this production again in the new theatre, and I am very interested in seeing

My Other Posts



Romeo and Juliet (Theatre Royal, Newcastle and York)

Two productions of the same play in Theatre Royals in the North of England, yet very different experiences.

In the past month, I have had chance to revisit the RSC’s production of Romeo and Juliet in Newcastle and have seen the Pilot Theatre’s production of the same play in York. Having seen both productions so close together, I wanted to think about them at the same time.

The biggest difference between the two productions is clearly that the creative team working on the RSC production have had the opportunity really fine tune it, as the production has already been running for six months. The work that has gone into the production shows in its transfer to Newcastle. In addition, the RSC production has benefited from the actors working together for some time as part of the RSC’s long ensemble, which has an impact on how they relate and respond to each other.  In contrast the York production is an example of a fresh approach to the text, with some raw edges, from a company who have met recently just for this production.

The RSC production started its life on the Courtyard Theatre thrust stage. When I saw it for the first time, I felt it was the best thing coming out of the RSC long ensemble (first seen 17th May). In moving to Newcastle, the production has had to transfer from the thrust stage to a proscenium arch stage, and there were many things that had changed in Newcastle in order to take the space into account.  In many ways it is the creation of the distance from the audience  which has also strengthened this particular production. Indeed, the new space highlights the aesthetic  more than the space in Stratford did.  For example, one of things that makes this production so engaging is the way it references film and other media, such as the fight in the opening scene and the masked ball. Both scenes use slow motion to great effect, and are more effective being played in the stage frame. Other features which work well on the Newcastle stage is the reflection of the rose window on the stage when the audience enters the auditorium and it is very clear in the dark cube of the stage area.  Seen from the front across a smaller stage, the chapel within the inner stage is stunning .  There are some additions in Newcastle, one of the nicest is Jonjo O’Neill taking advantage of  the proscenium arch stage to play to the whole audience and  serenade them with a few snatches of Chris de Burgh.  His Mercutio is just as impressive in Newcastle, as it was in Stratford, and I think it is the best performance in the role that I have ever seen.  In moving the fights up stage, and from the raised platform centre stage,  there is a greater emphasis on Mercutio’s surprising and shocking death.  Sam Troughton’s Romeo is laddish and a very exciting  portrayal.  In the balcony scene, he hides amongst the audience as he observes Juliet enter her balcony.  In this case the whole audience become  trees which is a little amusing.  However, this is one thing that was lost for me in the transfer and it was some of the intimacy with the actors that the thrust stage brought. For example, in the Courtyard Theatre, Sam Troughton speaks his lines in the balcony scene from the front of stalls and when I saw it, he actually sat next to me at this point in the play.   Having to climb up steps and go onto the stage takes away that moment he has to be close to the audience.

In contrast, the Pilot version made use of flowers on the stage which were shaped into heart at the start of the play. It was in modern dress production, which made it feel very current for the young audience that was in the night I saw it, who cheered and applauded with delight at the end.  I liked the use of the neon window and the way it became the cross and chapel towards the end of the play.  However, the combination of dress from different historical periods used in the RSC production is very powerful and illustrates the gulf between the generations, but also that sense of the play itself travelling through time and constantly being replayed worked very well for me, especially seeing it again in a different theatre (I discuss this more in my original blog).

The strap line for the Pilot Theatre promotion is ‘Kiss by the book’. I think that the way this line is delivered was one of the things that really illustrated how far the RSC version has benefited from the long ensemble approach. Mariah Gale makes so much more of the line, giving it a real poignancy and establishing the personalities of her Juliet and Sam Troughton’s Romeo that play through the rest of the action.  Indeed, Mariah Gale’s performance is a fantastic performance which is getting even better with time.

Further Information

Pilot Theatre

RSC Romeo and Juliet

Reviews of RSC version