Glenda Jackson’s King Lear to be adapted for Boxing Day broadcast – The Stage

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.

Source: Glenda Jackson’s King Lear to be adapted for Boxing Day broadcast | News | The Stage

Theater Review: The Tempest, by the Royal Shakespeare Company

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.

The Tempest production photos 2016 press call 2016 Photo by Topher McGrillis  c RSC 207549
(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.

The Tempest production photos 2016 press call 2016 Photo by Topher McGrillis  c RSC 207566

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.

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The other sub-plot is about Miranda and Ferdinand, one of the escapees of the shipwreck, who Miranda immediately falls in love with.

This
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.

The Tempest production photos 2016 2016 Photo by Topher McGrillis  c RSC 207334

But…

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.

The Next Track, Episode #27 – Composing Music for Stage and Screen, with Paul Englishby

The Next Track Blue Flat Button2 400pxPaul Englishby talks about composing music for stage and screen, including the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new production of The Tempest.

Listen to The Next Track: Episode #27 — Composing Music for Stage and Screen, with Paul Englishby.

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.

Theater Review: King Lear, by the Royal Shakespeare Company

As the Royal Shakespeare Company continues its traversal of all of Shakespeare’s plays, it’s time to present one of the biggest ones, King Lear. Opening last night in Stratford-Upon-Avon, where it resides for a very short run (only six weeks) before heading off to London, this Lear features Antony Sher as the King. After triumphing as Falstaff in Henry IV part 1 and Henry IV part 2, then playing Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, Sher returns in the role of the aging king slowly losing his mind, and suffering from a choice he made that he eventually regrets.

Lear is my favorite Shakespeare play. It is the play with the widest range of emotions, with love and loss, treachery, revenge, and so much more. In its three hours, Lear is a map to the human mind. In addition to the main plot of Lear disowning his favorite daughter Cordelia as he plans to abdicate, there is the secondary plot of Edmund, the “whoreson” (bastard) of the Duke of Gloucester, who tries to take control of everything. And the ending is tragic, with Lear realizing all that he did wrong.

I first saw the play in preview a week ago, and again last night at the press night performance. I wanted to like this production a lot; I wanted to love it. I very much like Anthony Sher, and felt his portrayals of Falstaff in the Henrys and Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman were excellent; indeed, it’s been a banner period here in Stratford with Sher on stage the past two years.

I wanted to like this production a lot, and I left feeling that it just doesn’t have the intangible magic it needs to be great. I had hoped that my initial thoughts about the production during the preview would be erased by the opening night performance, but, alas, I was disappointed. This is still a very good King Lear, and the audience was wildly appreciative, but I left feeling unsatisfied.

The play starts with Lear being carried out on a very high palanquin with a sort of glass cube surrounding him. When the palanquin is placed on the stage, the cube is lowered, and Lear sits atop his mobile throne. He looks very regal, almost exaggeratedly so, with his overly thick fur coat and a big Russian fur hat (he wears two such fur coats during the first half of the play, his body seeming to be dwarfed by these vestments). The actors on the stage come out all in dark costumes, two carrying tall sticks with large discs at their tops (the sun and moon), and others holding up bits of dead trees. It all looked a bit like an experimental production from the 1960s. (Perhaps it was a reference to Peter Brook, whose 1962 production of Lear at the RSC also feature a Lear with a fur coat and hat. You can see some photos of that production here.)

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(Photos by Ellie Kurttz for the RSC)

The sets changed throughout the play, more so than usual at the RSC, and there was a lack of continuity in the visual elements of the production. In the beginning, the stage was empty, though covered for the most part by a sort of tarp that was later used in a strange way during the storm scene. Lear and the Fool were on a platform that raised up from the stage, with the tarp hanging down below and behind them, to signify… something. I felt the storm scene was overdone; with the bright, flashing lightning and the loud thunder, it was hard to pay attention to the words being spoken.

After the intermission – after nearly two hours; perhaps the play could have been cut more evenly – the stage stands empty again, with just a chair inside a glass cube near the front. This is where Gloucester has his eyes gouged out, in a violent scene with squirting blood and squirming spectators. The glass cube seemed to have no logic except for the fact that it allowed Cornwall to smear blood on it; otherwise, it looked like the sort of prison cell you see Bond villains locked up in.

The most striking set was the Beckettian wasteland where Gloucester and Tom O’Bedlam wandered, replete with a dead tree upstage right that would be perfect in Waiting for Godot. With the stark black stage contrasting with white walls, this minimalist set worked well in those scenes, allowing the imagination to fill in the details of the bleak setting.

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The acting overall was excellent, and the secondary actors made this a very strong ensemble performance. The highlight was Paapa Essiedu playing Edmund, the conniving schemer who would set in motion the plan that led to the tragic end. Essiedu has this year’s Hamlet at the RSC, and he was as brilliant as Edmund as he was as the Dane. It’s worth noting that Essiedu got noticed when he was an understudy for Edmund in a National Theatre production and the actor playing the role was taken ill. His reprising the role at the RSC seems fitting. Edmund has a number of short monologues, and each time, Essiedu crafted his words with guile and humor, and had the audience laughing at his evil intent.

Anthony Byrne was a wonderful Kent, boisterous, and, with his booming voice, commanding a strong presence on stage. Oliver Johnstone as Edgar (and Tom O’Bedlam) had the right balance of madness and confidence, and his scenes with David Troughton’s brilliantly pathetic Gloucester were memorable. Natalie Simpson as Cordelia was very good, but her little voice was often hard to hear, notably when talking with Kent. I noticed this in the preview, and it was only marginally better in the press night performance. The stage is deep, and if the actors aren’t facing the audience – and they don’t always do so – it’s easy for their voices to be too drowned by the open space. There were a few points where some of the quieter actors weren’t quite loud enough; and I imagine the people in the back rows might have found the voices even softer.

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Antony Sher was indeed excellent throughout most of the performance. His Lear as king is convincing, and his descent into madness, following the storm scene, believable. But he lacked the pathos of Lear; he was acting the king’s madness, but it felt just a bit shy of convincing. In the final scene, where Lear holds the dead Cordelia, Sher was wheeled out on a cart, perhaps because Sher couldn’t carry her; the stage directions are “Re-enter KING LEAR, with CORDELIA dead in his arms.” It all looked too staged, and when Sher said “Howl, howl, howl,” he was not howling, but saying the words. In that final scene, everything looked staged. Sher’s “Never, never, never, never, never!” almost made up for the howls, but I felt there was a missed opportunity to move the audience.

I wanted to really like this production, and have tickets to see it two more times before it closes. I may return one or both sets of the tickets; this isn’t a sub-standard production of King Lear, but it doesn’t have the magic that would make it great. I had been looking forward to it, and am a bit disappointed, but perhaps my standards are a bit high, living a few miles from the RSC, and seeing their productions all year round. And especially wishing I had seen Ian McKellan’s 2007 version at the RSC (which is fortunately available in a filmed version (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)). If you’re not a Shakespeare buff, you’ll probably love this production; in spite of its flaws, it gets almost everything right. But sometimes very good isn’t enough; sometimes you want great, and it doesn’t quite reach greatness.

The Technology of Buying Harry Potter Theater Tickets

The latest extension to the Harry Potter universe is a play called Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Playing at the Palace Theatre in London, this two-part play has received excellent reviews following its opening last weekend. The script was also released in book form, though many readers were confused by it.

Harry potter ticketsAs expected, a play of this sort is quite popular, and tickets for the initial run sold out immediately. In addition, being in two parts means that half as many people can see the entire play as a “normal” play, since just about everyone buys tickets for both parts. It is shown with both parts the same day, or over two days, and you can buy tickets for the two parts with the same seats, which is a nice touch.

Yesterday, the theater released another 250,000 tickets for performances through December 2017. I bought tickets, and I found the online process interesting.

The play’s website contains ticket information and links to two resellers. At 10am yesterday, one could click those links and enter a queue, and then wait for the opportunity to buy tickets. I did so at 10am, in two browser tabs on each of two computers. I tried each of the different resellers, and for three of the four tabs, my number was above 50,000, but for one of them, it was around 27,000. (The screenshot at the left shows a position I would have had if I had joined the queue late yesterday afternoon, after I had finally purchased tickets.)

Throughout the day, the “Number of users in queue ahead of you” decreased. One of the two resellers sold their allocated tickets in a couple of hours, but the second – where I was 27,000 – still had tickets. Finally, around 5pm, I was able to buy tickets.

I had expected to find only cheap seats, far from the stage, available at that time. But since I had already chatted with some people on Twitter who had bought tickets, I knew to look far ahead rather than try to get tickets for a show in a few months. I picked a date in October 2017, found I had very good seats, but let them go. I then picked a date two weeks later and got front row seats.

What’s most interesting about this process is that, unlike when, say, Apple launches a new iPhone, you don’t have to constantly reload a web page in the hopes of being able to see anything. The queuing system was well organized, and made the process much simpler. I even heard from one person on Twitter whose wife was waiting for tickets, lost Wi-Fi, but when it came back, still had her position in the queue. So the browser saved a cookie which allowed it to recover that position.

When I finally got to browse for tickets, things were a bit slow. Clicking on a date to check for tickets took a while, then removing tickets and trying again also wasn’t very fast. But I knew that the system was working as it should, and I had no worry that I would lose my place. When buying an iPhone, it’s all hit or miss.

Apple should consider using a system like this. It leads to a lot less frustration, and funnels users into a purchase process more logically. I’m sure they won’t, however, because the website would have to show a user’s position in the queue, hence betraying the number of people waiting to buy the product. And Apple doesn’t want anyone to know that.

Stop back in about 15 months when I’ll post a review of the play…

Theater Review: Doctor Faustus, Christopher Marlowe, at the Royal Shakespeare Company

A funny thing happened the first time I had tickets to see Doctor Faustus. My partner and I were all set to go to the theater one Tuesday evening in February, and I went to get the tickets and noticed that they were for the night before. We weren’t able to get to see this show at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theatre for a while, since we moved a few weeks ago, but finally had a chance last week.

Doctor Faustus is often a long, tedious play. The language isn’t as interesting as Shakespeare, and the plot meanders. In this new production, directed by Maria Aberg, the play is fast. It zips by in about 1:45, with no intermission, which is an excellent length for a play. But that tempo comes with risks.

One of the interesting elements of this production is the casting of the two main characters. Sandy Gierson and Oliver Ryan walk on stage and each one lights a match. The one whose match burns out first plays Doctor Faustus; the other Mephistopheles. This suggests that the two characters are both part of a whole, and it would be interesting to be able to see both actors perform each of the roles.

Faustus match
(Photos by Helen Maybanks for the RSC.)

We got the chance to see Oliver Ryan (left in the photo above), who I recalled playing Jacques in As You Like It in 2013 (also directed by Aberg). His Faustus is manic, as if he’s on speed. His diction is fast, his movements often overexcited, especially in the first part of the play. Faustus leafs through all his books, looking for answers, and ends up drawing a white pentagram on the stage, and calling for the devil. During this long scene, Ryan acts as though he has little time, as though his life is a burning match about to extinguish itself.

Faustus pentagram

The seven deadly sins scene changes the tone a great deal. Each of the “sins” is portrayed by an actor in a sort of Rocky Horror Picture Show outfit, and their lines are over exaggerated. There is music and singing, a bit of dancing, and from that point on, with more actors in a number of scenes, the tone changes, being less about a single character’s mania, but more about the mania of the world.

Orlando Gough’s music is some of the best I’ve heard at an RSC production, but it was too loud. With Ryan speaking quickly, and Gierson somewhat softly, I often lost the thread. While the play was visually stunning, I had trouble keeping up with the plot because of this. During the Helen of Troy scene at the end, I could barely hear what Gierson was saying, and had no idea how this scene linked to the rest of the play.

On the smaller Swan Theatre stage, this Faustus seemed a bit cramped, but, in a way, perhaps that was the right fit. Everything was compressed, concentrated, in space and in time, giving the entire production a unique feel. I didn’t dislike the play, but I would have enjoyed it more if the music were toned down a bit, and if the actors – particularly Ryan – spoke a bit more slowly. Perhaps the desire to keep the play short led to a decision to have Faustus speak fast; if so, I would have appreciated another ten minutes to allow his words to be more understandable. I’m not alone in this feeling. The Birmingham Mail called it incomprehensible gabble, giving the play one star out of five, and other reviewers noted the same problem.

Faustus confetti

It was certainly an enjoyable evening. I very much appreciate Aberg’s approach to theater, and found her As You Like It – the first RSC production I saw, back in 2013 – to be magical. It seems that, after running several months, and reading the reviews, she should have slowed things down a bit, and perhaps toned down the music. In spite of these criticisms, I would recommend seeing this play. It’s innovative and very visual, and, if you’re familiar enough with the text to be able to compensate for words you miss due to speedy delivery, you might even understand everything that happens.

I took advantage of £15 tickets the RSC offered through its Twitter account, @TheRSC. If you use Twitter, keep an eye out in case they have lots of empty seats again and have another such offer. I might take them up on it if they do so again; in spite of my reservations, I’d be willing to see this play again, perhaps getting to see Sandy Gierson as Faustus.

Theater Review: Cymbeline, by the Royal Shakespeare Company

Last night was press night for Cymbeline, at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. This “rarely performed” play is touted as a “romance of power, jealousy and a journey of love and reconciliation.”

Shortly after the performance, Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells, who was in attendance, tweeted: “Cymbeline is surely Shakespeare’s maddest play.” This sums up the beyond-suspension-of-disbelief plot of the play. This graphic from Good Tickle-Brain gives an idea of how over the top the plot is:

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One of Shakespeare’s late “romances,” those plays that don’t fit in the three standard categories – comedy, tragedy, and history – and most of them contain, well, all the plot elements in the above graphic, except one. Critic Harold Bloom said, of Cymbeline, that it is “a revenge by Shakespeare against his own achievements.”

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Theater Review: Hamlet, by the Royal Shakespeare Company, with Paapa Essiedu

This year – in fact, one month from today – marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. As such, the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-Upon-Avon is holding celebrations, and the entire season is dedicated to this anniversary. The RSC couldn’t not perform Hamlet, Shakespeare’s best-known play, and the new production of this play has just opened, with press night – or opening night – held last night.

It hasn’t been long since the last RSC production of Hamlet. In 2013, the RSC featured Jonathan Slinger as Hamlet, in an introspective performance. Slightly older is the David Tennant Hamlet, available on DVD and Blu-Ray (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), with another psychological approach to the role. But this year’s Hamlet takes a different tack. The 25-year old actor Papa Essiedu portrays a Hamlet that is petulant and impulsive, one who wears his madness as a badge of pride. But is his madness real or just feigned?

Essiedu’s story is interesting. He was first noticed when, as an understudy, he had to take over the role of Edmund, in mid-performance, in the National Theatre’s King Lear with Simon Russel Beale. The RSC then asked him to play Hamlet, the first black Hamlet in this company’s history. This 25-year old inhabits the character with aplomb, portraying both the serious side and the manic side of the character with ease and grace.

Hamlet begins the play in a blue funk. He is depressed after the death of his father. I watched as he stood next to me – I was sitting on the aisle in the second row – before climbing the few steps to the stage. He teared up in preparation for his first lines, and his emotion was palpable. But before that, there was a brief scene at Wittenberg University – a scene not in the text – showing Hamlet at a graduation ceremony. This scene is useful to provide a contrast between the setting of a staid educational institution and the African country to which he later returns, where Claudius – a prototypical dictator – has married his mother, Gertrude, after murdering his father.

There’s a lot of Africa in this production. Most of the cast is black, and it seems as if the “Denmark” of the play is some African country, ruled by a despot. Hamlet returns to his country, following the death of his father, and his educated persona doesn’t fit in. After seeing the ghost of his father – admirably played by Ewart Jamses Walters, though in too much smoke as he rises from the center of the stage – Hamlet adopts a persona of madness. This Hamlet is a painter, a graffiti artist, whose costume is covered with Basquiat-esque drawings, and whose face is marked with the paint he uses to express himself. Hamlet is often played as cerebral, with the “To be or not to be” soliloquy an example of the depth of his psychology. Esseidu’s Hamlet was childish, as if he regressed after seeing his father’s ghost. During that famous soliloquy he almost looked like a child trying to figure out his way out of a problem, rather than a philosophical Hamlet weighing his options.

(Photos by Manual Harlan for the RSC.)

This Hamlet is also not just mad, but, it times, crazy. Essiedu doesn’t pull any punches, playing the character as one who transgresses all limits, notably in the violent scene with Ophelia. It’s Hamlet’s youth that stands out, his attempt to control a world that he doesn’t understand, that he can’t grasp, yet one that he tries to manipulate. In spite of this, he never goes too far; he always remains believable. Essiedu’s Hamlet pushes boundaries, yet doesn’t cross them.

As I said, this production is full of Africa, from the costumes to the music – lots of drumming, perhaps a bit too much, some of which seemed like filler. But the setting and the tone work perfectly, with this cast of mostly dark-skinned actors flouting convention. For what does it matter what color they are? A black Hamlet is no different from a white Hamlet, and while this production may be seen as the RSC’s nod toward diversity in the anniversary year, it’s no less multi-cultural than many of the RSC’s other productions. (I don’t notice the actors’ skin in these performances, since the RSC is so diverse.)

This is a bright, colorful production, with Hamlet as artist, huge paintings having from above the stage, and a painted suit and t-shirt bearing motifs from the play. Drummers and musicians in African garb lend more color to the play, and one can’t help being immersed in the rhythm of the music. For once, this is a Hamlet without swords or daggers. Hamlet kills Polonius with a gun, and, in the final scene, battles with Laertes using sticks.

The play breaks for intermission during the scene when Claudius is praying, and Hamlet almost kills him; interestingly, this is the same point when the 2013 production went to black. It’s a sort of cliffhanger, but it’s a facile choice; I would have preferred the intermission to come at the end of that scene. Because when it returns, after drinks or ice cream, you’ve lost the tension of the moment, and that entire scene loses its gravitas.

The gravediggers’ scene was delightful. Starting with some Afro-Carribean music, and a bit of song, Ewart James Walters – who is also the ghost – helped turn this brief scene into a tableau of humor. Of course, it’s a pivotal scene, one where Hamlet recalls his past, seeing the skull of the dead Yorick, and the one where Laertes accuses Hamlet of causing Ophelia’s death.

Other standouts in the production include Cyril Nyi’s Polonius, who managed to balance the ridiculous and the serious aspects of the character; Natalie Simpson’s Ophelia, whose poignant scene in the second part of the play, using her hair as the flowers she distributes to the other characters, was nearly perfect; the ambitious performance of Clarence Smith as Claudius, not quite sure if he’s in the right or just another despot; and Tanya Moodie, as the excellent dictator’s wife.

Director Simon Godwin, whose last production for the RSC was the surprisingly delightful Two Gentlemen of Verona, one of the wonderful surprises of last year, manages to make a light and rhythmic Hamlet that contains both depth and bling. It’s fast-paced, at just under three hours (not counting the intermission), with enough cuts to keep it from dragging on too long. It’s colorful, musical, exciting, and never flags.

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that this is one of the most enjoyable RSC productions I’ve seen in the three years that I’ve been attending all of the company’s plays. The reaction from the audience was certainly the strongest I’ve seen, with some people even standing (the British don’t often give standing ovations). I witnessed the birth of a new star last night at the RSC: Paapa Essiedu showed that he can handle one of the great roles of the theatre with ease and flexibility, and that he can make it his own. This was an excellent performance, and this Hamlet is a man to watch.

Catch this performance at the RSC through August, or in cinemas from June 8. I, for one, am glad that I’ll be seeing it again twice during this run. This is certainly a Hamlet to see more than once. This is as good as it gets, and shows just how creative the Royal Shakespeare Company can be, and how Shakespeare’s plays can be adapted to a variety of contexts.

(An aside: a cellphone rang behind me during the first part of the performance. This is the first time I’ve heard a cellphone ring in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. They used to make announcements before performances, and don’t any more. Maybe they should again. If you were the one who didn’t turn off your phone, I hope you feel like an idiot…)

Theater Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by the Royal Shakespeare Company

As part of the 400th birthday celebrations for William Shakespeare, the Royal Shakespeare Company has just started performing A Midsummer Night’s Dream. With a subtitle, A Play for the Nation, the RSC is positioning this as the defining production for this year’s festivities. The big selling point for this version of the well-known comedy is the fact that the RSC is working with 14 amateur theater groups, and 58 groups of children, who will perform along with the RSC’s actors in a dozen different venues around the UK.

These amateur actors play the parts of the “Mechanicals,” a group of actors who perform a play within the play. Each group will perform in the venue near where they are based, and they will also get a chance to perform at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Last night’s production was the press night (or opening night), and featured a local group called The Nonentities, whose performances proved that the name certainly isn’t accurate.

Theseus, Duke of Athens, and Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons are to be married. Egeus wants his daughter, Hermia, to marry Demetrius, yet she loves Lysander. Hermia and Lysander want to marry, against the wishes of Hermia’s father, and decide to elope, and head off into the forest. Puck, the trickster, instructed by Oberon, gives his love, Titania, as well as Lysander and Demetrius, a potion that makes each one fall in love with the first being they see when they wake up. Titania falls for Bottom (one of the Mechanicals), after Puck has turned his head into that of an ass. And Helena loves Demetrius, but he is the one Hermia’s father wants his daughter to marry. Puck enters into this fray, drugging the lovers, and confusing the couples.

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(Photos: Topher McGillis for the RSC.)

As with other Shakespearean comedies, much of the intrigue here involves the mistaken feelings between these latter couples, and, in particular, how Helena feels they’re all just playing with her. In the end, Oberon has Puck sort things out, and the two couples marry, as do Theseus and Hippolyte, who only appear in the first scene of the play and the long final scene. There’s a lot of rom-com going on here, and it gets a bit confusing.

In the press night performance, the first 45 minutes or so dragged. The actors didn’t seem comfortable in the first few scenes, and the Mechanicals’ scenes aren’t the most interesting. But things took off in the penultimate scene before the intermission (III.2), where the two couples (Hermia, Helena, Lysander, and Demetrius) enter into the confusing conflict of who really loves whom (and, remember, there are drugs here to spice up the plot). The comic timing in this scene is brilliant, and it features plenty of physical acting, keeping the long scene very lively. There’s even a huge laugh when Lysander says “Get you gone, you dwarf.” One of the fairies – Mustardseed, played by Ben Goffe – is, as I guess you say now, “vertically challenged.” At this line, he runs out from the back of the stage, spanks Lysander, then runs across the stage, out across one of the voms. The audience was in stitches at this joke, and it reinforced the slapstick nature of this scene.

Alas, the rest of the play doesn’t maintain the same energy. I found the interaction between Titania and Bottom to be drab. Titania’s bower was the top of a piano, and there was little eroticism in the scene that features the two of them and the fairies. Contrasted with the rest of the play, it seemed to be filler. And the scenes where the Mechanicals were preparing for their play weren’t very interesting; it’s no fault of the actors, it’s just that these scenes feature a lot of exposition, and not much bite.

The high point of the second part of the evening was the final scene, where the amateur actors, performing a play entitled The most lamentable comedy, and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe, almost upstaged the professional company. Sure, the acting was camp and hammy, but it worked very well, and had the audience laughing a great deal. Not that the RSC’s own actors were inferior; while most of them are performing with the RSC for the first time, they’re all excellent, but the amateurs do get one of the better parts of the play. Much credit to to Chris Clarke, as Bottom, who plays Pyramus, and Alex Powell as Thisbe, for their death scenes at the end of the play.

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In addition to the amateur actors, there is a group of children, who sing a song in the first part of the play, and share some lines near the end (though not very well) that are usually spoken by Oberon. There’s a song and dance number at the end as well, and the entire play is infused with 40s jazzy tunes. In fact, the design is apparently based on a post-World War II bombed out theater, which wasn’t apparent, though Egeus does wear an RAF uniform (the only costume suggesting this setting). A lot of the design and direction feels cobbled together, with juxtapositions that didn’t seem obvious. In fact, if I hadn’t read the Guardian review, I wouldn’t have known that “The dust left by bombs is replaced by the vivid colours of the Hindu festival Holi, the sound of destruction by the jazzy beat of a new era as spring arrives in a shower of rose petals.” It seems that the director and designer were a bit too clever.

Most of the acting was excellent, in spite of the time it took for things to take off. Puck was truculently played by Lucy Ellinson, whose tuxedo and top hat recalled Liza Minelli in Cabaret, and whose exaggerated facial expressions at times seemed a bit much. Chu Omambala’s Oberon was suave and subtle, exuding the energy of the character very well. Of the lovers, Laura Riseborough’s Helena was refreshing and complex, though all four of the young lovers were excellent.

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While this isn’t one of the best RSC productions I’ve seen, the two scenes – the one with the two pairs of lovers in the first part of the play, and the amateurs’ performance of Pyramus and Thisbe at the end – make this production worth seeing. I have a feeling that everyone tried too hard to make this play contain everything, and it doesn’t succeed. A play with highs and lows like this may be less disappointing than one which stays in the middle all the way through, but I certainly felt that it was an enjoyable evening.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is running through July 16, 2016, and is performed at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and a dozen other venues. Unlike the other Shakespeare productions the RSC has been putting on recently, this one will not be filmed and broadcast to cinemas.

Royal Shakespeare Company Brings Digital Motion Capture Technology to the Stage

The Royal Shakespeare Company, my local theater company, does a lot of Shakespeare, offering both traditional and modern takes on the plays. This year, for Shakespeare’s 400 birthday, they’ve got an interesting project in store. Working with Intel, and Imaginarium Studios (Andy Serkis’ company), they’re bringing digital motion capture technology to the stage. It’s not clear yet exactly how this is going to work – I expect the RSC to tease this for much of the year, until the play opens – but I consider this to be very exciting. Here’s a video giving a glimpse of what they’re doing:

You can find out more about the play here. I’ve got tickets to see it twice, and I’m looking forward to it. I also hope to be able to write about this use of technology before the play opens.

Oh, and it’s starring Simon Russel Beale as Prospero. That alone makes it worth checking out.