The National Theatre in London first produced Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus in 1979. It went on to be a huge hit, playing in the West End and on Broadway, and being adapted for the screen by Milos Forman. The National Theatre has revived the play, and I attended it yesterday. This is a tough ticket to get, as the performances are all sold out. My partner and I bought a membership at the National Theatre to be get advance access to tickets, and were able to snag a pair in the fourth row when a number of dates were added early this year.
The National Theatre has made a bold choice by casting Lucian Msamati as Salieri. This black actor, who I saw as Iago in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2016 production of Othello – the first time the RSC had cast a black Iago – is an astounding actor. As Iago he was brilliant; as Salieri, he is breathtaking. His stage presence dominates this production, and his performance is powerful and subtle.
(Photos by Marc Bremmer for the National Theatre.)
It’s the twilight of Salieri’s life, and he reflects on the past, when he knew Mozart, and was partly responsible for his downfall. “Awestruck by his genius, court composer Antonio Salieri has the power to promote his talent or destroy it. Seized by obsessive jealousy he begins a war with Mozart, with music and, ultimately, with God.”
Salieri dominates the play, and Mozart is present as much in his mind as well as when he is actually on stage. Played by Adam Gillen, Mozart comes off as a spoiled child with Tourette’s, and I found it hard to suspend disbelief, at least until the end, shortly before his death. His over-the-top performance led one reviewer to suggest a resemblance with Harpo Marx, and I think he’s spot on. Gillen goes too far; he’s too crazy, too impulsive, too unbelievable.
But Msamati is powerful, and the rest of the cast fully in the play, making the overall ensemble excellent. I had trouble with the first half of the play, where the scenes seemed a bit disjointed, and where Mozart’s behavior was too off the wall. But the second part was much better, as it followed a more chronological order as Salieri’s plot to take down the better composer was set in action.
The Olivier Theatre at the National Theatre has a very large stage. It’s round, and it can turn (though it doesn’t in this production), and this production takes full advantage of the stage by enlisting 20 musicians from the Southbank Sinfonia, who perform music along with the play. From what I understand, this use of music is new; it was not in the original production, which was more of a play than a spectacle. Together with a chorus and some excellent soloists singing bits from Mozart’s operas, this production of Amadeus comes off as a lush combination of music and theater that is designed to please.
It’s hard to not like this production. For me, it’s just the Mozart character that keeps it from being a true classic, but the audience reaction was such – many people giving a standing ovation, something not common in the UK – that it’s clear most people just shrugged that off. This production has been so popular that the National Theatre is brining it back for more performances in 2018 (presumably with the same cast), and I could see this transferring to another theater and playing for many years. It has everything you want in the theater: a strong story, a fine cast, and the music and elaborate staging make it a spectacle to remember. Heck, I’d even consider seeing it again next year…
Note that Amadeus was broadcast to cinemas as part of the NT Live program, and there will be encore screenings. So if you can’t see it live, you can still see it in cinemas, in the UK and in other countries. Find out more here. Here’s a trailer for the cinema broadcast:
In 1989, a young professor named Gary Taylor published “Reinventing Shakespeare,” in which he argued that Shakespeare’s unrivalled literary status derives less from the sheer greatness of his plays than from the cultural institutions that have mythologized the Bard, elevating him above equally talented Renaissance playwrights. “Shakespeare was a star, but never the only one in our galaxy,” Taylor wrote. The book was his second major attempt to counter the view of Shakespeare as a singular genius; a few years earlier, he had served as one of two general editors of the Oxford Shakespeare, which credited co-authors for five of Shakespeare’s plays. In “Reinventing Shakespeare,” Taylor wrote that the Oxford Shakespeare “repeatedly shocks its readers, and knows that it will.”
Late last year, Taylor shocked readers once again. The New Oxford Shakespeare, for which Taylor serves as lead general editor, is the first edition of the plays to credit Christopher Marlowe as a co-author of Shakespeare’s “Henry VI,” Parts 1, 2, and 3. It lists co-authors for fourteen other plays as well, ushering a host of playwrights–Thomas Nashe, George Peele, Thomas Heywood, Ben Jonson, George Wilkins, Thomas Middleton, and John Fletcher, along with Marlowe–into the big tent of the complete works. This past fall, headlines around the world trumpeted the Marlowe-Shakespeare connection, and spotlighted the editors’ methodology: computer-aided analysis of linguistic patterns across databases of early modern plays. “Shakespeare has now fully entered the era of Big Data,” Taylor announced in a press release.
This is all very admirable. I certainly accept what many scholars say about Shakespeare having worked with others. But from my seat in the bleachers, Gary Taylor is somewhat problematic. As the article explains, he fought to try to prove that a poem by some unknown author was actually by Shakespeare, and, in 2006, when a collection of Thomas Middleton’s plays he edited was released, he went on a tour trying to say that Middleton was almost as good as Shakespeare, calling him “the other Shakespeare.” (If you’re a subscriber to Time Magazine, you can read an article by Taylor touting his book here.) He said:
Most specialists in Renaissance drama now agree that Thomas Middleton wrote masterpieces of comedy (The Roaring Girl, A Chaste Maid in Cheapside) and tragedy (The Revenger’s Tragedy, The Changeling, Women Beware Women). His history play, A Game at Chess, was the greatest box-office hit of the period. Middleton also wrote successful masques and indoor entertainments, and the most ambitious dramatic pageant of the period (The Triumphs of Truth). He wrote political and theological nonfiction. He wrote experimental literary works that we call “pamphlets,” because they mix prose and verse, and don’t fit our conventional generic labels at all — works like The Black Book (where an exuberant Satan comes up to London to help out a starving writer) and The Owl’s Almanac (where a learned female owl makes satirical predictions about the coming year). There’s at least as much variety in Middleton as in Shakespeare.
And comments like this – from the same Time article – make one wonder how he was given control of the new Oxford Shakespeare:
So why do comparisons like this irritate or infuriate Shakespearian fundamentalists? Arguing with the Shakespeare industry is like trying to reason with the Inquisition. They know you’re wrong before you open your mouth. It’s easy to see why Shakespeare attracts so many intolerant fans (who believe that the world is too small to support more than one great artist).
I’ve only seen one Middleton play at the Royal Shakespeare Company, my local theater troupe, and it was better than mediocre, but not much. It was full of tired tropes; kind of like a sitcom from the Elizabethan age.
But no matter. Not everything Shakespeare wrote is brilliant. It’s fair to say that there are a dozen masterpieces, another dozen very good plays, and the rest that are good enough, at times.
It’s not a heresy to accept that many of Shakespeare’s plays include sections written by others, and that Shakespeare himself wrote scenes for other authors. But Taylor seems like someone who is trying to hard to tear Shakespeare down in order to gain prestige for himself.
There are constellations and planets christened after Greek and Roman gods. The craters on Mercury are artists and musicians, like Bach, John Lennon and Disney. And the moons of the planet Uranus — there are, impressively, 27 altogether — have literary ties — 25 of them relate to characters in Shakespeare’s plays.
Interesting story about the many moons of Uranus, and some other celestial bodies.
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s current production of The Two Noble Kinsmen hasn’t gotten much love. Reviews have been poor, and according to some who have seen the play, attendance hasn’t been brilliant. This late collaborative work by Shakespeare and John Fletcher is certainly not the brightest star in the firmament of theater, but it has a lot going for it.
I finally got to see the production last night. I had bought two sets of tickets when they went on sale – as I do for all the Shakespeare plays at the RSC – but relinquished mine the first time around, back in August, when my partner’s sister came to visit. My partner and her sister returned home that night with long faces, not having enjoyed the play at all. Add to that the poor reviews of the play, and I went to the theater last night with much apprehension.
The Two Noble Kinsmen is playing in the Swan Theatre, the smaller of the RSC’s two theaters, which is mostly used for plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries, as well as for some more recent works. I’ve seen plays by Marlowe, Jonson, and similar authors of the period, as well as a contemporary adaptation of Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, and others. When attending plays in the Swan, I’m often aware that the plays themselves may not be the best; I’m thinking of the older ones, not the modern works. Such is the case with The Two Noble Kinsmen. If the RSC had felt it was up to the standard of Shakespeare’s other works, they would have presented it in the main theater.
With all this out of the way, I have to say I very much enjoyed the performance. My mental bar for this production was set fairly low, and I was ready to disappointed.
There are lots of problems with the production, and with the text; it’s not the most interesting of Shakespeare’s plots, but you can ignore that if the production is good enough. To begin with, Blanche McIntyre’s choices for this production are sometimes confounding. The wardrobe in particular looks like they just fished out some old costumes at random and stitched them up to fit the actors. There was no coherence to them at all: some actors were in more-or-less modern dress, others had hats that looked like they came from Flash Gordon, and there was a fair amount of leather. The set was also problematic. There were low concrete walls on each side of the stage, and on much of the front of the stage, and there was a concrete covered staircase at the back, with some small concrete walls at its sides. The whole thing looked a bit Ballardian. One innovative element of the set was the grilles that descended to the edges of the stage to simulate the jail cell where Arcite and Palamon are held for a time.
(Photos: Donald Cooper for the RSC.)
After a confusing opening scene, where three queens descend to the stage on ropes to ask that their husbands’ deaths be avenged (I think; I really couldn’t understand much of what was said, nay, yelled, in that scene), we switch to a battle scene, then one where Arcite and Palamon are imprisoned. And here’s where it gets good. The chemistry between Jamie Wilkes and James Corrigan was wonderful. Both of these actors are familiar faces, having been in productions I’ve seen since living in the area. Wilkes was in Oppenheimer and The Shoemaker’s Holiday, and Corrigan appeared in The Merchant of Venice and Othello. Their on-again, off-again relationship is the centerpiece of the play. When they are imprisoned, they both spy Emilia (brilliantly played by Frances McNamee, who, like much of the cast, is also in The Rover at the Swan this year), and fall in love with her, and end up fighting for her love.
A sub-plot involves the jailer’s daughter played by Danusia Samal. She falls in love with Palamon, and, when he ignores her after she frees him from prison, she drifts into Ophelia-like madness. Samal’s performance is the other light of the evening, as she slowly changes from a prim young woman to a shell of herself, craving love, which she only finds at the end through some trickery.
The Morris dancing bit could go, as could the wacky costumes and attitudes of the actors, but if you ignore those parts, and just focus on the two love plots, it’s really a moving play. Much of the text is, well, Fletcher, but the moments that shine do contain some lines worthy of Shakespeare. At nearly 2:40, it’s a bit long, and it would have been beneficial to cut some fat (though I’m not familiar enough with the text to know if anything was cut). And the bit with the buzzsaw? If you’re not going to use it, don’t bring it on stage. That was just sophomoric.
In the end, this was an enjoyable play, with an opportunity to see a “rarely-performed” Shakespeare work (and it’s obvious why it’s not performed more often), with a very good cast. Alternating with The Rover (which I saw in the summer, but didn’t review), this cast is most likely enjoying themselves. It’s a shame that the production was hindered by such simple things as incoherent wardrobe and overall logic, but if you have a chance to see this before it ends in February, I’d go for it.
Oh, and The Rover? It’s not a great play, but it’s one of the most boisterous productions I’ve seen at the RSC. I don’t remember much about it, but I had good time.
Note: one possibility for the difference between my experience and my partner’s is that the play has evolved, and perhaps changed since the early days. We generally agree on the quality of the productions we see, and given all the negative reviews of this play, the only logical explanation is that changes were made after the early performances because of the many negative reviews.
Glenda Jackson’s performance as King Lear in London’s Old Vic Theatre’s production of the Shakespeare play is being adapted for BBC Radio 4.
The production forms part of the BBC’s Christmas radio output, which also includes a documentary about Tommy Steele and an adaptation of A Christmas Carol starring Mark Gatiss as Scrooge.
King Lear will be broadcast on Radio 4 on Boxing Day at 2.15pm. The stage version of the show was directed by Deborah Warner, but the radio adaptation will be helmed by Susan Roberts and Pauline Harris.
Jackson, whose performance in the production marked her first return to the stage in 25 years, said: “It will be very interesting to see how the play transfers from stage to microphone [and radio]. I look forward to it.”
Radio 4 controller Gwyneth Williams said the production would provide a front-row seat to “one of the unmissable theatrical hits of 2016”.
I wanted to go see this in London, but at £150 a ticket, I said, “Nope.” It’ll be nice to hear the audio recording. It would be nicer if it was filmed and broadcast to cinemas.
The Tempest has never been one of my favorite Shakespeare plays. I find its multiple plot threads confusing, and the long info-dump in the second scene, right after the wreck of the ship containing the King of Naples and Prospero’s brother, gets the play off to an odd start. There’s way too much exposition in the beginning of the play, with backstories of Ariel and Caliban, and it takes to long to get moving. Beyond that, the plot isn’t that interesting. There’s a pretend marriage (with the prospect of an actual marriage to come), a pair of brothers who find each other after a dozen years, and the “happy” ending of Prospero once again becoming the Duke of Milan.
Nevertheless, it’s a perennial crowd-pleaser, perhaps because, unlike the tragedies, it’s not a heavy play; kids can enjoy it, if the magic is foregrounded enough. In the current Royal Shakespeare Production, the magic is more than foregrounded; it’s the main selling point for the play. The RSC has worked with Intel and with Imaginarium, the company founded by Andy Serkis (Gollum, in the Lord of the Rings), to bring motion capture technology to many domains. (You can learn more about the technology used in this production here.)
But even without all this digital derring-do, this production would be notable, as it features Simon Russell Beale as Prospero, in his first performance at the RSC in more than twenty years.
(Photos by Topher McGrillis for The RSC.)
To begin, the photo above of Simon Russell Beale as Prospero and Mark Quartley as Ariel shows the intricate stage set, designed to look like the broken hull of Prospero’s ship, which crashed a dozen years earlier, stranding him on the island. In three and a half years seeing plays at the RSC, this is by far the most imposing set I’ve seen. Behind it is a large, curved screen, onto which images are projected, and above the stage is the Vortex, a spiral of mosquito netting that descends on the stage at times so images and Ariel’s avatar can be projected on it.
Above is the scene where Prospero is explaining how he released Ariel after the witch Sycorax had trapped him in a tree. We see the tree slowly imprison Ariel, then release him. As you can see in this photo, projections are not just on the Vortex, but also on the stage, the ship’s hull, and the rear screen. At a few moments in the play, these projects are almost overwhelming in their intricacy, and their beauty. The effects create an enveloping experience, if you’re sitting in the right location. (More on that below.)
The play is not all digital wizardry; in fact, it’s the acting that makes this an excellent production. Not just Beale, who is a force of nature as Prospero, but many of the supporting actors bring this production alive.
One of the sub-plots involves the people whose ship wrecked in the first scene. These kings and dukes, dressed and acting like they stepped out of a Gilbert & Sullivan musical, are probably the least interesting part of the play. Their role is simply to facilitate Prospero’s eventual return to his dukedom, and I found these sections to be a bit of a slog. In the very first scene, where they are all on stage swaying, pretending to be on the deck of their ship in the storm that Prospero conjured up, the noise of the storm was such that I heard only a few words of what they said, and in later scenes, they mostly seem to stand around jawing.
Another sub-plot follows Caliban with Stephano and Trinculo, two drunkards who escaped from the shipwreck, well laden with sack. Caliban takes Stephano for a god, and together they plot a coup against Prospero. The scenes with these characters are among the most enjoyable. Tony Jayawardena, with his Indian accent, and Simon Trinder, with his clown make-up and little tooting horn, provide some perfectly timed slapstick comedy, which delighted the many young people in the audience. (Last night’s production had several school groups in attendance.) At one point, he even hops into the audience to sit one one spectator’s lap. Shortly after the intermission, the person next to the unwitting cushion hadn’t finished their ice cream, so Trinculo takes it and starts eating it; this brought a great deal of laughter from the audience. Caliban, played by Joe Dixon in a suit that made him look like a true monster, had the perfect balance of naiveté and pathos for this role, and, while he doesn’t have many great lines, his one long speech is beautiful:
Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.
The other sub-plot is about Miranda and Ferdinand, one of the escapees of the shipwreck, who Miranda immediately falls in love with.
Is the third man that e’er I saw, the first
That e’er I sigh’d for…
As often in Shakespeare’s comedies, these two young lovers will eventually be united, but they face few obstacles to their love, and I was relatively unconvinced by Daniel Easton’s performance as Ferdinand. Jenny Rainsford as Miranda was fine, but I never felt any convincing emotion from her performance. At times she was a bit over the top, at times a bit withdrawn, but she, the one who is discovering a “brave new world that has such people in it” doesn’t seem that amazed by it all.
One of the oddities of this production is contrast between the sumptuous images of some scenes and the stark simplicity of others. In a way, these can be seen as magic versus reality, with the magic being excessive, and the reality being as stark as a Beckettian landscape. And perhaps that’s the point of the production. The best example of this is lovely wedding masque in Act 4, where three spirits, Iris, Ceres, and Juno, perform a song with bright colors projected on the stage and the rear screen, with dancing and happiness, when, suddenly, Prospero ceases their revel, and the stage becomes dark, colorless, lifeless. The sharp contrast between those two is almost breathtaking, and is a powerful moment of theater.
This production has an intermission after about an hour and a half; the second part is just under an hour. I felt that the first part dragged on a bit – it had the Pirates of Penzance and their rambling discussions – but the second part was a lot more vibrant. It featured the masque, which gives the play a joyous tone, even though it’s cut short, and Prospero is on stage much more in the later scenes. In the end, when Prospero speaks the epilogue, it all comes together. This is, indeed, Prospero’s play, and theater-goers fortunate to see this performance by Simon Russell Beale will not be disappointed.
I thought of writing two different reviews of this play, because, while I saw it last night from the third row in front of the stage, I also saw an early preview, from a seat on the side of the stage, near the back. From that vantage point, I saw pretty much none of the special effects. I could not see the projections on the Vortex, as they are mainly visible from the front, I couldn’t see the rear screen at all, because it’s far to the back of the stage, and I couldn’t even see all of the stage, because my view was blocked by one of the ribs of the ship’s hull. There’s a real problem with seating for this production, and many people I have discussed this with have been disappointed by how little they could see from their seats. And these tickets are not marked “Restricted view,” as is the case with certain seats in the theater that are adjacent to beams or in other locations.
As you can see in the first two photos above, the stage set is built sort of like a funnel. It comes out to the sides of the stage, and if you’re sitting on the side – the Royal Shakespeare Theatre has a thrust stage – you may not see many or most of the effects. I’m not sure where the lines of sight are sufficient, but if you’re in front of the stage, you’ll see everything; on the sides, it depends on how far toward the back of the stage you are. You’re better off sitting on stage left, because of the angle of the two parts of the ship’s hull used as the set allow you to see the rear screen more easily.
A number of people have also pointed out that sitting in the stalls means you cannot see the projections on the stage. I was in the third row, and I saw them fairly well, but it does seem like the ideal location to see this production is in the circle, the first level up, near the center. In fact, given the problems with sight-lines, the best way to see this play may be when it is broadcast to cinemas on January 11, or when it is released on DVD and Blu-Ray. It’s a shame to attend such a performance and not see everything, and this is the first time I’ve seen a production at the RSC when this is a problem. I’ve sat in similar locations at the side of the stage before, and never missed anything. It’s worth noting that the play is transferring to the Barbican in London, and that having a proscenium arch stage should eliminate many of the problems of lines of sight.
(For an interesting perspective on how seating can affect one’s impression of this production, see two reviews by The Bard of Tysoe: bad seat and good seat.
As for the electronic wizardry, it is spectacular at times – see the photos above – but it doesn’t seem essential. Mark Quarterly, playing Ariel, is sometimes on stage, but invisible to the characters (“Go make thyself like a nymph o’ the sea: be subject, To no sight but thine and mine, invisible”) When he performs the bits that are projected on the screens, the audience can still see him, and I think this is a mistake. His avatar’s movements lag behind his actual movements, and all this does is distract the audience from the avatar, which is what the characters see. I suspect this is done so it’s clear that the motion capture is live, not recorded, but it just confuses things. If an audience can suspend disbelief at the theater, they don’t need to have visual proof of how the digital magic is made. In addition, there are a few bits where a smaller Vortex moves across the stage with the avatar project on it, and the projections didn’t quite follow the column of mosquito netting. If this can’t be perfect, it’s not worth doing.
I started this review saying that The Tempest is not one of my favorite Shakespeare plays. This production tries to be many things, and, in the end, is satisfying, even jubilant at times. But it’s not the gimmickry that saves it, it’s Simon Russell Beale’s Prospero that makes this worth seeing. I look forward to seeing it again in January, in good seats. In fact, my seat is the exact one where Trinculo hopped into the audience, so at least I’ll be prepared…
To sum up: see this production for Simon Russell Beale, see it for the novelty of the effects, but see it from the right place in the theater, if you can get a ticket. (The Stratford run seems to be almost entirely sold out.)
One final note. The British people are parsimonious about standing ovations, but Mr. Beale received one from many audience members last night. This is the first time I’ve seen this at the RSC.
Find out more, and subscribe to the podcast, at The Next Track website. You can follow The Next Track on Twitter at @NextTrackCast, to keep up to date with new episodes, and new articles from the website.
This year’s Royal Shakespeare Company production of Hamlet, starring Paapa Essiedu, was just wonderful. I saw it twice, and was blown away by this young actor. I later saw him play Edmund in King Lear, and it’s clear that Essiedu will be a major actor in the near future.
The RSC filmed the production for broadcast to cinemas in June, and the DVD and Blu-Ray versions of this film are now available in the UK, and will be out in the US in a couple of weeks. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)
This Hamlet – the first black actor to play the role at the RSC – is unconventional, but it works perfectly. The production was brilliant from start to finish, with a cast of fine actors, and excellent music, sets, and costumes. Read my review of the production, then order this disc. This is one of the great Hamlets.
The long-held suggestion that Christopher Marlowe was William Shakespeare is now widely dismissed, along with other authorship theories. But Marlowe is enjoying the next best thing — taking centre stage alongside his great Elizabethan rival with a credit as co-writer of the three Henry VI plays.
The two dramatists will appear jointly on each of the three title pages of the plays within the New Oxford Shakespeare, a landmark project to be published by Oxford University Press this month.
Using old-fashioned scholarship and 21st-century computerised tools to analyse texts, the edition’s international scholars have contended that Shakespeare’s collaboration with other playwrights was far more extensive than has been realised until now.
Henry VI, Parts One, Two and Three are among as many as 17 plays that they now believe contain writing by other people, sometimes several hands. It more than doubles the figure in the previous New Oxford Shakespeare, published 30 years ago.
It’s long been known that Shakespeare collaborated with other authors; now the Oxford Shakespeare gives credit to Christopher Marlowe. To be fair, the Henry VI plays are not prime examples of Shakespeare’s quality as a writer, so it’s no surprise that he didn’t write them all. They were some of his first plays, and it shows. It’s good to understand that they were collaborative efforts, like many of Shakespeare’s early and later plays.
This doesn’t diminish Shakespeare as a writer, but it shows how the theater worked in his time.
In 1925, the scholar Leslie Hotson published the coroner’s report in his book The Death of Christopher Marlowe. Witnesses testified that he was stabbed in the eye during a fight over payment of a bill and died instantly. The document did not end speculation, with some supporting the theory that Marlowe faked his death and continued to write as Shakespeare.
It’s sad that people still believe in these conspiracy theories…
I think [King Lear is] the most profound of the plays. It’s not one you go to for a jolly night out, Shakespeare was deeply serious in writing this play. It does have its comic aspects, but it’s easily the most profound examination of what it means to be human of anything that I know.
Stanley Wells on his five favorite Shakespeare plays, and more, to coincide with the release of a new book of his essays on Shakespeare.