Monday 28 June 2021

Radio review: The Rival

The closing of the theatres for Covid has been compared many times to the Elizabethan closing of the theatres for plague, and I wouldn't be surprised if we get a few plays in the next few years explicitly making the connection and following Shakespeare in that time. But while Jude Cook's radio play The Rival does that, its inspiration is one that's been giving writers and academics food for thought for centuries, most recently in the Globe's hit Emilia: The story of Shakespeare's Sonnets, and the mysterious figures they're dedicated to. The poetry collection starts in workmanlike enough fashion, when Shakespeare (Elliot Barnes-Worrell) is hired by Lord Burghley (Philip Jackson) to write 17 sonnets meant to convince his wealthy ward to marry his granddaughter. They fail completely on that front but the Earl of Southampton, known as Wriothesley (Freddie Fox,) becomes Shakespeare's patron, and when the plague closes the theatres he returns to Wriothesley's home to write the long narrative poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece.

Sunday 27 June 2021

Radio review: The Merchant of Venice

Despite the theatres gradually reopening this will still end up being a very Shakespeare-light year for me, so it's as good a time as any to catch up on a few more of the recent audio adaptations from Radio 3, which remain available on BBC Sounds under the Shakespeare Sessions strand. It's not a particular favourite of mine but it's been a few years since my last Merchant of Venice and the casting for Emma Harding's 2018 production is intriguing, notably that of Andrew Scott as Shylock. Harding has set the story in the City of London during the 2008 financial crash, and to open with a sidebar, I was once interviewed for a theatre job by someone who supposedly specialised in "authentic" Shakespeare, who grumbled a lot about a modern-dress RSC production of this play, saying it was impossible to set it post-Holocaust. Unless you base your interpretation entirely on the fact that the play's antisemitism is openly state-sanctioned (and I've talked elsewhere about my feelings on defining an entire production by one line or scene,) that seems either a naïvely sunny view of modern tolerance, or more likely a restrictively literal-minded approach to theatre: In the years leading up to that particular crash Jews might not have been the bogeyman of choice, but the post-9/11 world wasn't exactly shy about demonising one group of people.

Thursday 24 June 2021

Theatre review: Under Milk Wood

A collection of our more sprightly older actors populate Lyndsey Turner's production of Under Milk Wood, which reopens an Olivier Theatre that is wisely playing it safe, and staying in its temporary in-the-round configuration for the next few shows. And, after a year they probably spent shielding more carefully than most, I guess you could do worse as a high concept at the moment than a cast who've all had both their jabs. The reason for the high concept is that Dylan Thomas' beloved play for voices has been given a new framing device by writer Siân Owen, putting the action into the morning routine of a retirement home. After we've got to meet some of the staff and residents, Owain Jenkins (The Actor Michael Sheen) arrives unexpectedly in hopes of speaking to his father, whom he hasn't seen for a long time. So long that he doesn't realise Richard (Karl Johnson) has become almost non-verbal with dementia.

Monday 21 June 2021

Theatre review: J'Ouvert

Second in the season of three new plays reopening the Harold Pinter Theatre is one that originally debuted in the much more intimate Theatre 503, where it must have felt pretty cramped as Yasmin Joseph's J'Ouvert tries to cram the whole Notting Hill Carnival on stage. It is, to start with at least, a pretty loose journey through the day with three young women: Nadine (Gabrielle Brooks) and Jade (Sapphire Joy) have known each other since they were children, while Nisha (Annice Boparai) is a newer friend who recruited them for a local activist group. Nadine is a bit cold and standoffish with Nisha, who she sees as a bit of a cultural tourist at an event with specifically Afro-Carribean roots, but Nisha believes it's an opportunity for women of colour to stand together and stand up for each other, and sees Jade as a potentially inspiring speaker for their cause.

Saturday 19 June 2021

Radio review: Lights Up - The Meaning of Zong

Another BBC Lights Up instalment to make it to radio rather than TV, actor Giles Terera's playwrighting debut has an epic scope and emotional intimacy that would, between them, have made trying to film it using social distancing difficult. Helped by Jon Nicholls' sound design, The Meaning of Zong finds a natural home as an audio drama that can conjure up some of the bleakest crimes of British history along with triumphs (am I saying that radio is closer to theatre than film or TV are in how much of the work the audience's imagination has to do? Maybe I am.) It's a topical story, especially given that Tom Morris' production was commissioned for Bristol Old Vic, a city at the centre of the ongoing argument about Imperial Britain's racist and oppressive heart, and the loud voices that insist any attempt to reveal the truth about history is the same as erasing it. This is alluded to in a present-day framing device in which Rachel (Moronke Akinola) has an argument with a bookshop manager over a book about the slave trade being displayed in the African, rather than British, history section.

Wednesday 16 June 2021

Theatre review: After Life

The Dorfman reopens with a Headlong co-production in which all the characters are dead. Arguably a questionable subject after the reason theatres were closed for so long in the first place, if it weren't for how charming and gently moving After Life proves to be. Designer Bunny Christie, director Jeremy Herrin and writer Jack Thorne are credited with co-creating the concept for a stage adaptation of a cult Japanese film from 1998, set entirely in a limbo that feels somewhere between a small office and a mid-range hotel (there is, unequivocally, no steam room.) Every Monday the Guides, led by Kevin McMonagle's phlegmatic line manager Five, meet a new group of the recently-deceased, or Guided. In private meetings they discuss happy, significant or otherwise precious memories from the life that just ended, and by the end of Wednesday the Guided need to have made an enormous, perhaps impossible decision.

Tuesday 15 June 2021

Stage-to-screen review: Lights Up - The Winter's Tale

The RSC's a funny old company, isn't it? At one time considered downright avant-garde, in the last four decades its reputation has gone to the opposite extreme, as a byword for safe, old-fashioned, "heritage" Shakespeare. Nowadays I'd say it sometimes tries (with wildly varying levels of success) to push the envelope, but for the most part slips back into the kind of Shakespeare that reveres the text just that little bit too much over the theatricality. They make for an odd choice to provide the longest, largest-scale entry in the BBC's Lights Up festival, following as they do a lot of new writing with small casts and current concerns. Exactly what concerns Erica Whyman's production of The Winter's Tale deals with is anybody's guess, as apart from a couple of neat design ideas I came out of it with not much clue as to how Whyman interprets the odd, bleak story of Sicilian king Leontes (Joseph Kloska,) who essentially has a complete personality change mid-sentence, accusing his wife Hermione (Kemi-Bo Jacobs) and best friend Polixenes (Andrew French) of having an affair.

Saturday 12 June 2021

Stage-to-screen review: Hushabye Mountain

In the 1980s and '90s there was a whole raft of gay plays dealing - albeit sometimes with charm and humour, like Angels in America or My Night With Reg - with the bleak reality of living through the AIDS pandemic. In more recent years there have been new approaches to the subject, whether it be assessing the legacy of a lost generation like The Inheritance, or seeing what the disease means to younger gay men like Undetectable, Jumpers for Goalposts, or the recent Cruise. But Jonathan Harvey's Hushabye Mountain dates from 1999, and it consciously attempts to deal with an uncertain period of hope somewhere in between the two: AIDS still dominates gay men's lives and people are being lost to it, but AZT trials are promising a real hope of successful treatment. It's no longer an automatic death sentence but for Danny (Nathan McMullen,) currently in a celestial waiting room somewhere outside the Pearly Gates, it's come just a little bit too late.

Thursday 10 June 2021

Re-review: A Midsummer Night's Dream (Shakespeare's Globe)

I have fond memories of, and emotional connections to, a lot of venues, but in the last year of theatres facing an existential crisis it was the thought of never being able to go to Shakespeare's Globe again that hurt the most. So it's probably for the best, given I might have got a bit emotional, that my first trip back to the main house in two summers was to a production I'd seen there before: Sean Holmes' fiesta-style A Midsummer Night's Dream from 2019 has returned to launch the 2021 season, and though both venue and production have had to make a few changes while COVID-19 restrictions are still in place, both have retained the atmosphere that makes them special. In the audience, along with social distancing in the three galleries, and all shows playing without intervals (to stop everyone crowding to the loos at once,) the most obvious change is in the Yard, where there's usually up to 700 standing groundlings. For the first couple of months of the season these have been replaced with just three rows of temporary seats arranged by support bubbles.

Tuesday 8 June 2021

Stage-to-screen review: Lights Up -
Orpheus in the Record Shop

Virtual theatrical offerings like the BBC's Lights Up festival have been a godsend in terms of keeping some form of theatre going during lockdown and reminding us of what we want to get back to, but they've done the live arts a service even when they don't quite hit the mark: Shows like Orpheus in the Record Shop come with the distinct feeling that they really are missing a dimension when you're not there in the room. Written, composed and performed by Testament, this was a show premiered to a socially distanced audience at Leeds Playhouse during one of the thwarted attempts to come out of lockdown in autumn 2020, and Aletta Collins' production has been reimagined for an (almost) empty auditorium by James Brining and Alex Ramseyer-Bache. Named after the mythical musician better known for his trip to the Underworld, Orpheus owns a failing record shop that trades in vinyl of all genres, but with a focus on his own preference for hip-hop, Northern Soul and funk.

Saturday 5 June 2021

Rehearsed reading review:
A Brief List of Everyone Who Died

Not all theatres can reopen in person just yet: If the Finborough attempted to do social distancing that'd be one audience member in the theatre and the next one at Earl's Court station, so for the moment they're still going strong with online content. Some brand-new content in the case of Jacob Marx Rice’s tragicomic A Brief List of Everyone Who Died, which gets its world premiere as a Zoom rehearsed reading, directed by Alex Howarth. At the age of 5 Graciella (Vivia Font) has her first experience of death; her parents (Caoimhe Farren and Paco Lozano) try to get her to say goodbye to her pet dog before he's put down, but she's distracted. The next day she's forgotten what they told her, and when she realises she'll never see her dog again she blames them for the loss. It becomes a frequently-recounted anecdote but it also feeds into Marx Rice's recurring question of whether someone's first experience of death in childhood influences the way they deal with it for the rest of their lives.

Tuesday 1 June 2021

Theatre review: Walden

My first trip in over fourteen months to yer actual West End, much of which is hoping to go right back to normal in the next couple of months at full capacity. A few venues are more gradually dipping their toes back in with smaller-scale productions, playing to the socially distanced audiences allowed by current regulations. At the Pinter this takes the form of a short warm-up season, ReEmerge, courtesy of Sonia Friedman Productions and curated by Ian Rickson, who directs the first of three new plays. Amy Berryman's Walden is named after Henry David Thoreau's proto-Environmentalist book and is set entirely in a remote cabin in the woods that barely has electricity, but its genre is Sci-fi, not pastoral or slasher horror. It's some decades in the future and twin sisters, both Duchesses of Malfi, are the daughters of the NASA astronaut with the most Air Miles: Over a number of missions their late father spent a total of five years on the International Space Station.