Macbeth (Belt Up, York Theatre Royal, 8th October 2010)

I must admit that this production of Macbeth was very much in the Belt Up aesthetic and contributes to an oeuvre which experiments with using space in inventive ways.  In a proscenium arch theatre this involves the breaking down the fourth wall and any divide between auditorium and stage in using the space in the performance.  Belt Up take some of their ideas from the theatre of the absurd and surrealism.  Now when I go and see Belt Up, I know more or less what I’m going to experience.  On this occasion their approach was to transform Macbeth into a grotesque comedy, but unfortunately this production seemed to over play the joke and the clowning,  and ignored some of the interpretations of the text that could have been highlighted with a more subtle approach.   

The production worked when it was building on the grotesque rather than being  funny ha ha.  There were some clever comic moments for example when we are supposed to feel horror watching Duncan dying on stage (normally he dies off stage),  the joke being he doesn’t die easily even though he is a frail man.  It felt that Belt Up were working hard to blur the lines between comedy and tragedy so in a moment they became the same thing and this worked well here.   There were some other interesting ideas in this production such as a pregnant Lady Macbeth and  the birth in the second  visit to the witches scene was a thoughtful way of taking the pregnancy idea through the play to a conclusion.  Women with beards can be funny  and a Lady Macbeth that changes gender from man to women through a striptease on stage was very entertaining.  This is a reminder that Lady Macbeth was played by a man originally, but probably not a man with a beard.  Indeed, at times, I felt that I was watching a Monty Python approach to Macbeth, but for  nearly two hours it was just a little long, especially as the  joke was evident from the start and was continually repeated in similar ways. 

There were bits of this production which I didn’t think were successful. I didn’t get the clowning at the start of the play, which felt under rehearsed and indulgent and some of the playing against the verse rhythms for effect was irritating.  For example, in attempting to make some of the verse sound like it was being delivered by a WWI general through a loud hailer felt really contrived.   Belt Up have already used the device of a character dying on stage and the actor continuing to lay motionless on the stage for the curtain call in The Trail.  This worked much better in the space used for that production than on a proscenium arch stage where an audience expects a curtain call and playing against this, rather than being innovative, feels just chaotic and confusing.  I found the use of the  Theatre Royal stage which exposed the back wall and the ruins of the roman hospital, with the clutter on stage,  just a little frustrating, because all this suggested the backstage area of the theatre and  made me want to see a ‘backstage’ version of the play.  In setting up this expectation with the set it becomes slightly disappointing when this only happens in part. 

I am pleased that the Theatre Royal is taking chances with the productions it puts on and giving young companies like Belt Up the support it needs to establish itself.  Though some of this production worked for me, and other bits didn’t, it was much better seeing this than another dry ‘traditional’ approach to the play.

Saffron on Macbeth at York Theatre Royal

Reviews and Previews

Review: Macbeth, Belt Up Theatre, York Theatre …

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

King Lear (York Theatre Royal)

King Lear at York Theatre Royal with a cast of stars. This was a read through and it was much more interesting and engaging than I thought it would be. It was like listening to a radio play, I had to really focus on listening to the language without action, and character interaction to convey meaning.  However, there was the benefit of being able to observe the actors’ expressions which actually revealed a lot.

What is interesting is seeing/listening to the very different acting styles.  This can work in a read through much more than on stage. For example Freddie Jones was very classical in his approach and Coronation Street’s David Neilson played Kent as seeming cautious but very determined Kent (a bit like his portrayal of Roy Cropper in his best moments). You could also tell who were the Theatre actors as they moved off text very quickly and played much more to the audience.

Yes an enjoyable evening and I would go again to another read through. 

Reviews and Previews

Andersen's English (Out of Joint at West Yorkshire Playhouse), Jerusalem (Apollo Theatre), An Enemy of the People (Sheffield Crucible), Beating Berlusconi (York Theatre Royal), Murder in Samarkand (BBC Radio 4) w/c 22nd February 2010

The outsider seemed to be dominating the theatre in the performances that I have seen over the last few weeks.  I had listened  to David Hare’s radio play Murder in Samarkand on iPlayer, and following this saw several theatre productions which had the outsider as an ongoing theme.  Murder in Samarkand told the story of Craig Murray (played by David Tennant), who was the United Kingdom’s Ambassador to Uzbekistan until he was removed from his post in October 2004 when stood up to the British establishment.  This seemed to set the tone for the week which  ended with watching Paul Duckworth solo performance in the studio at York Theatre Royal in Beating Berlusconi.  I also saw incredible performances from Mark Rylance as John ‘Rooster’ Byron in the spellbinding Jerusalem and Antony Sher as Tomas Stockmann in Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People at the newly opened  Sheffield Crucible.

Connections have been made between An Enemy of the People and Murder in Samarkand, and listening and watching the two productions so close together it is impossible not to miss the similarities of the two men standing out against society and standing up for their beliefs.*  In the Out of Stock Company production of Anderson’s English at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, the outsider Hans Christian Andersen observes the domestic life of Charles Dickens, as he stays with him and his family at Gads Hill Place in Kent.  Andersen does not fit in well with this English world, and in many ways Andersen does not pick up on Dickens’ cruelty to his wife and children, but he presents the household to the audience who can clearly see this.  The Out of Stock production is thoughtful and surprising as well.  With its pretty domestic set, we think we are in for a comfortable evening, but without laying it on, the production subtly reveals Dickens’ rejection of his wife and lack of understanding of his children.

I addition, the theme of the outsider, Anderson’s English and Beating Berlusconi and Jerusalem explore nationality and specifically what is to be English.  Paul Duckworth plays a Liverpool fan, Kenny, who desperately tires to get a ticket for the 2005 European Cup Final.  Though this trip to the match in Istanbul  is the focus of the show, the play actually tells the like of Kenny Noonan, a lifelong Liverpool against the political background of Thatcherism and Blair.  it is clear from which political perspective Kenny comes from as invites the audience to boo at an image of Margaret Thatcher.  On the other hand, Jerusalem explores what it is to be English now, and deals with many issues which we are uncomfortable in discussing.  In his portrayal of Byron, Rylance takes the audience on his side.  We  laugh so much, but at the end I was left shocked.  It felt like a the destruction of a man, an individual, but also a way of life and to make choices in life.

Further Information


WOS on Jerusalem transfer to Apollo
Jerusalem at the Apollo in The Independent
Jerusalem at the Apollo in The Telegraph
Interview with Mark Rylance in The Telegraph
Mark Rylance interviewed in Official London Theatre
Jerusalem at the Apollo in The Evening Standard
The Independent on Royal Court Jerusalem
The Mail on Jerusalem
The Times on Jerusalem transfer interviews with Rylance…
Jerusalem article in The Telegraph
Jerusalem transfer to Apollo reviewed in The Guardian
Jerusalem at the Apollo in The Financial Times

An Enemy of the People

An Enemy of the People in The Independent
An Enemy of the People in the IOS
What the Critics say about The Enemy of the People
An Enemy of the People in The Telegraph
An Enemy of the People in The Observer
An Enemy of the People in The Financial Times
An Enemy of the People in The Times
An Enemy of the People in The Stage
An Enemy of the People in The Guardian

Andersen’s English…

Beating Berlusconi

Beating Berlusconi in the Press
Beating Berlusconi (in Edinburgh) reviewed in The Stage

* Poly G on Twitter said:  
Having listened to David Hare’s Murder in Samarkand on Rd4 two plays 130 years apart complimenting each other perfectly

A Ghost Walk (York Theatre Royal, 10th February 2010)

Ghost walks are popular in the city of York.  The walks combine performance and a tour guide experience.  The ingenious Belt Up Theatre take this tried and tested format and added a twist to it.  The performance starts from York Theatre Royal and moves onto the street of York.  The night that I went is was snowing lightly and the footpaths were a little icy, so I set off with some trepidation.  As the walk progressed, I found I was really enjoying walking round the streets of York on a winter evening.  This wasn’t something, I’ve done very often and you do see the city  in a different way.  The performance consists of the usual stories told outside particular spots.  However, Belt Up Theatre bring a little extra in the characterisation of the ghost walk leader.  I don’t want to go into details and spoil the experience for those who haven’t been on the walk yet, but to say this is another excellent Belt Up performance, which asks the audience to work hard and participate to get the most out of it.