Posts Tagged ‘Measure for Measure’

We seem to be going through a phase of filleting and re-ordering Shakespeare’s plays. The Donmar gave us a shortened Measure for Measure, twice in one evening, with gender swops between them. The National’s Anthony & Cleopatra started as it ended. Now the Almeida’s Richard II has lost an hour and nine characters and also brings forward a later scene. Somewhat ironically, this hyper-radical interpretation returns to Shakespeare’s original title. What comes out the other end is a frantic portrait of a country falling apart; not too difficult to identify with that at the moment. Shakespeare purists probably won’t like it; I found it bold, but not without its faults.

Eight actors play the thirteen characters remaining, in a large metal box, designed by ULTZ with excellent lighting by James Farncombe. in contemporary casual clothes. It’s somewhat manic in style, with fast speech and rapid movement and exaggerated gestures. Buckets of water, blood and soil (amusingly, labelled) get poured over characters and more gauntlets get thrown down in anger and challenge than you’re likely to have seen in your entire Shakespeare playgoing experience. There’s not a lot of subtlety, characterisations are weakened, verse loses beauty and the narrative of the play suffers……but it is a gripping 100 unbroken minutes and you can’t take your eyes off the stage.

The cast, led superbly by Simon Russell Beale as Richard, are uniformly excellent, but I didn’t feel Joe Hill-Gibbins production allowed them to get under the skin of their characters and reveal their psychological depth and motivation. I see Richard II as an introverted, introspective king who didn’t want to be king, uncomfortable with power, as most productions convey, and this didn’t come over here. Though I respect and admire the audacity and creativity, I didn’t find it entirely satisfying. It was a bit like watching the Tory party tearing itself and the country apart, and I’d done that before I got to the theatre that day, and indeed every other day at the moment.

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I love seeing Shakespeare in other languages. I got the addiction when I saw Yukio Ninagawa’s Japanese (Shogun period – cherry blossom time) Macbeth at the Edinburgh Festival in 1985. Lots of other Ninagawa Shakespeare’s  followed – A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet, Titus Andronicus, Coriolanus and a Kabuki Twelfth Night – plus a Swedish Hamlet at the NT. When the Globe first opened, we got one visiting company each year, starting with a terrific Zulu Macbeth, a Japanese Comedy of Errors, Cuban Tempest, Brazilian Romeo & Juliet and a kathakali King Lear from India. For some reason they then dried up……so how thrilled was I when The Globe announced 37 productions, each in a different language and a groundling season ticket for £100! Well, I was never going to get to them all (as a season ticket holder, you have to mostly do matinees) but I was going to do as many as I could.

The weather has not been kind in this first week, but I manged four out of seven, starting with the South African Venus & Adonis last weekend. The company that brought The Mysteries and Carmen to Wilton’s and Magic Flute and Christmas Carol to the Young Vic created a musical staging of the epic poem, with seven Venus’ passing their (wedding?) dress from one to the other like a baton in a relay. The singing was glorious, the staging captivating and their enthusiasm infectious. They were clearly thrilled and proud to be there and we shouted and cheered our appreciation.

Next up, Troilus & Cressida in Maori! Well, who’d have thought you could relocate it from ancient Greece to the ancient antipodes so successfully? Inter-Maori war instead of the Trojan wars and thrilling it was too. The kathakali King Lear showed how you could act with facial expressions – well, the Maoris did too, adding tongue and buttock acting for good measure! It was occasionally funny (Achilles lover was a Maori Mr Humphreys!) but mostly action-packed thrills. Another standing ovation (well, I was already standing, so I cheered) for another hugely talented bunch who seemed thrilled to be celebrating with us on Will’s birthday.

The Russian Measure for Measure was a complete contrast but a great production nonetheless. They roughed up the stage with litter to create a decadent Vienna, the Duke and Angelo were played by the same actor, making the point (I think!) that the Duke’s lust for Isabella was no better than Angelo’s. The acting was brilliant and somehow the play made more sense to me in Russian than it ever has in English!

I suspect the Greek Pericles was great if you understood Greek. I knew the play (I’ve seen them all) and again I read a synopsis beforehand and the synopsis provided for each scene on screens in the theatre, but the storytelling style of this production meant you really did miss the dialogue. The lack of any ‘production’ as such put all the focus on the words that you couldn’t understand. A disappointment, I’m afraid.

Sadly, the weather got worse as the week went on. It really was too wet to brave the Swahili Merry Wives on Wednesday afternoon. The expectation of an equally bad Friday put me off the Hindi Twelfth Night, though it looks like the forecasters (80% chance of rain!) got that wrong, and by Sunday, still raining, my exhaustion suggested a day at home to recharge my batteries – so I missed the National Theatre of China’s Richard III. Fingers crossed for the coming week’s Korean Dream, Italian Julius, Cantonese Titus, Palestinian RII, Hip Hop Othello and the world’s newest country – South Sudan – giving us Cymbeline. I wonder how many I’ll make…….

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Less than half the c.50 plays I’ve seen in London this year have been new (I can’t wait for Edinburgh to restore the balance). Of the revivals many were definitely worth reviving – from Shakespeare (the Almeida’s Measure for Measure and A Midsummer Night’s Dream at The Rose in Kingston) through Miller (The Open Air’s Crucible and All My Sons in the West End) to The Beauty Queen of Leenane just last Saturday at the Young Vic…..but I would question whether both the Buckner at the NT on Friday and this last night at the Donmar deserve it.

This early 19th century German play centres on a dreamy young prince who becomes a war hero but because he doesn’t strictly follow his orders finds himself in deep trouble. By the interval, though it had held my attention, I was thinking ‘so?’. The second half was much better as the debate about his reasons and the rights and wrongs unfolds. It’ OK, but just OK, and not in my view good enough to see it replace better revivals or new work from the London stage.

Simply but elegantly staged and well acted, it’s hard to fault the production but hard to justify all the effort.

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The last Shakespeare at the Almeida was a dreadful production I named ‘The Designer Macbeth’ which was devoid of any passion and the only occasion I’ve ever seen the talents of Simon Russell Beale wasted.

Fortunately, this is a fine interpretation of a very difficult ‘morality’ play. The modern setting works really well (it starts with lap dancers!) as the themes, including the abuse of power, are just as relevant today. Les Brotherston’s set allows the action to move swiftly between office, street, prison etc. and Michael Attenborough handles the ambiguity of the ending brilliantly.

Rory Kinnear as Angelo and Anna Maxwell-Martin as Isabella are both hugely impressive; it’s a pity Angelo is offstage for much of middle of the play as he’s enthralling when he’s on. Amongst a very good ensemble, I have to single out an outstanding Lucio from Lloyd Hutchinson. I was less convinced by Ben Miles’ Duke – he seemed distracted, resulting in somewhat idiosyncratic verse speaking! – though he did improve as the play went on.

Great to have such a good Shakespeare production anywhere, but particularly welcome at the Almeida.

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