William Shakespeare

The Legacy of William Ireland

 

10/08/19

PQA Venues, Riddle’s Court, Edinburgh

Ah, the unforgettable works of Shakespeare! Anthony and Cleopatra, Romeo and Juliet, Vortigern and Rowena… wait… Vortigern and Rowena? Chances are you’ve never heard of that one, mostly because it wasn’t actually written by the bard of Stratford but by a wannabe poet and playwright named William Henry Ireland, who also pursued a lucrative sideline in passing off his mediocre efforts as the work of the great man himself.

It all began modestly enough, with Ireland forging bills-of-sale bearing Will’s signature, mostly in an attempt to impress his Shakespeare-obsessed father, but – as time went on – things got somewhat out of hand…

This wittily scripted monologue by Tim Connery depicts Ireland as his deception is uncovered, understandably nervous and ready to flee for his life. Charlie Jack not only plays the fraudster with self-deprecating aplomb, but also looks uncannily like the man himself. I find myself torn between despising Ireland’s guile and feeling rather sorry for him, since the whole deception appears to be fuelled by a desperate attempt to impress the father who clearly hates him.

This is a fascinating look at a little-known historical event and, apart from a bit of dramatic licence in the final act, it sticks pretty close to the unbelievable truth.

Anyway, enough of this. I’m off to forge a new Harry Potter novel. You never know, it might just work…

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

The Taming of the Shrew

 

13/03/19

Pleasance Theatre, Edinburgh

I’ve never seen The Taming of the Shrew. I know the play, of course (I’ve even written essays about it), and I’ve been entertained by a number of intriguing reinterpretations in various forms: Kiss Me Kate, 10 Things I Hate About You, Vinegar Girl. But I’ve never seen it staged. Maybe because it’s arguably Shakespeare’s most contentious play – although The Merchant of Venice certainly has its issues too – and difficult to reconcile with modern sensibilities.

For those readers who need a quick reminder, the ‘shrew’ of the title is Kate, a wayward young woman, whose volatility deters any would-be beaux. Her father – based on some labyrinthine reasoning – imposes a bizarre rule: her sweet-natured sister, Bianca, cannot marry before Kate. But Bianca is a popular girl, and her suitors do not want to wait. Enter Petruchio, with a plan to break the older girl’s spirit. He bullies, half starves, gaslights and manipulates her into submission. In a modern play, this would be the midway point; we’d see Kate regain her equilibrium and Petruchio punished. But here, this is the denouement. It’s most uncomfortable.

And it’s not just the gender politics that make TTOTS problematic. The plot is convoluted and over-contrived, the humour weirdly at odds with the central relationship. It’s a tough call for any theatre company, let alone one so young as the EUSC.

But, under Tilly Botsford’s direction, this is a marked success. We’re never in any doubt that Petruchio (played with chilling self-righteousness by Michael Hajiantonis) is an awful man: he treats his servants with the same foul aggression as his wife. I applaud the decision to cast women as the servants too, emphasising the power of the patriarchal structure, and underscoring the theme of domestic violence.

Sally MacAlister is marvellous as Grumio. She clearly relishes the role, and imbues the much put-upon servant with humour and brio. Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller also stands out as Vincentio: he inhabits this small role with a natural ease that is very impressive.

Of course, Anna Swinton has the hardest job: she’s Kate, and it’s a tough part to play. Perhaps, in some earlier scenes, her body language could be less languid and more combative, but this is a small point. Because her often mute response to Pertuchio’s bullying is nuanced as well as unequivocal, and – in that final moment – when she delivers her speech about why a wife should submit to her husband – the desperation of this broken woman is heartbreaking to witness.

This EUSC production shows then that it is perfectly possible to deliver this controversial play exactly as it stands, without compromising our changed values. A difficult undertaking, but most worthwhile.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

All Is True

09/01/19

All Is True is a gentle affair and, actually, a perfect Sunday afternoon film. You know what I mean: it’s one to settle down in front of when you’ve eaten too much dinner and you want to engage with something clever but not challenging, fun but not frenetic. It’s a quality piece; how could it not be with its fine pedigree? With Kenneth Branagh starring and directing; with Judi Dench supporting; with Ben Elton providing the script? (Okay, I know Elton has his naysayers, but there’s no denying he’s good at this historical comedy stuff. Blackadder is still up there, I think, and Upstart Crow is pretty decent too.)

It’s the tale of William Shakespeare’s latter years, back in Stratford with his family after living apart from them in London. But now his theatre – the Globe – has gone up in flames, destroyed by a misfired prop cannon; he’s lost his mojo and he needs somewhere quiet to lick his wounds. Returning home also gives him the belated chance to mourn his dead son, Hamnet, who died of the plague while his father was away, and to repair his fractured relationship with his daughters and his wife. But there is scandal in small towns as well as in cities, and Will’s no stranger to it. His own father was a thief, and now his daughter, Susanna (Lydia Wilson), is caught up in a lawsuit, accused of adultery.

Interestingly, this is the second fictional interpretation we’ve seen of this affair (the recorded facts are sparse, but we do know that her accuser was found guilty of slander and excommunicated for his lies) – the first, The Herbal Bed by Peter Whelan, was performed at The Lowry in 2016 – you can read our review of it here: https://bouquetsbrickbatsreviews.com/2016/04/02/the-herbal-bed/.

But Elton’s scope is wider than Whelan’s, focusing too on the strange details of Hamnet’s death, and his twin sister Judith (Kathryn Wilder)’s reaction to it, as well as on Shakespeare’s own insecurities as a grammar-school educated merchant’s son, occasionally mocked by the upper-class university graduates he counts as his peers.  There’s a meandering quality to the movie that suits its Stratford setting; the light is gorgeous and the period is beautifully evoked. It’s funny too, and informative. There’s no denying it’s a slight piece of work, a little bit of whimsy to while away the hours, but it’s entertaining and engaging, and, provided you’re not in the mood for something more demanding, perfectly enjoyable.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield

Gratiano

Unknown

04/08/16

Spotlites, Edinburgh

There’s a fascinating idea behind Gratiano.

Take one of the minor players from The Merchant of Venice, (the comedy sidekick who no-one quite remembers), transport him forward in time to 1940s Italy during the rise of Mussolini, and have him re-examine his role in the events of one of Shakespeare’s most enduring plays. A monologue, written and performed by Ross Ericson, this opening night show is somewhat marred by the fact that only a few people have actually turned out to see it – but it’s early days at the Fringe and there’s plenty of time for this to find the right audience. The play is beautifully scripted and gamely performed – and it offers views about fascism and racism that seem powerfully prescient given what’s happening in the world right now.

Ericson’s tale imagines the consequences of the original play’s events: something terrible has happened to Gratiano’s old friend, Bassanio. He’s been found murdered and the police are wondering if his former best friend might have been involved. Gratiano, of course, is quick to dispel such notions. After all, he and Bassanio parted ways years ago. So where’s the motive?

Spoken in contemporary language, this is compelling stuff and some passages – particularly the observations about the concentration camps spill over from prose into sheer poetry. Those who are looking to find a new approach to a time-honoured classic could do a lot worse than investigate this.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Merry Wives

TheMerryWivesimage

15/03/16

The Lowry, Salford Quays

The Merry Wives of Windsor must be one of Shakespeare’s most rumbustious comedies. Northern Broadsides, as the name might suggest, have their own unique take on the play. Set somewhere in the north of England, complete with regional accents (not a spot of RP in sight) and with a delightful 20s setting, this is like the immortal bard crossed with a Brian Rix farce. It’s fast, furious and laugh-out-loud funny – indeed, as an object lesson in making Shakespeare accessible to a contemporary audience, it’s hard to imagine how it could be bettered.

There’s surely little need to explain the plot. Suffice to say that lascivious blowhard, Sir John Falstaff, sets his amorous gaze on a couple of married ladies and they decide to exact a complicated revenge on him. There are a few small adjustments to the script. The fat woman of Brentford becomes the fat woman of Ilkley and I swear I heard mention of a marriage in Skipton, but otherwise this is pretty much the text, as written.

Broadsides veteran Barrie Rutter takes on the role of Falstaff with great relish, managing to make him a buffoon, but also evoking sympathy for his ultimate humiliation. As the wives themselves, Beckly Hindley and Nicola Sanderson are delightfully mischievous, while as Mistress Quickly, Helen Sheals seems to be channelling the late, great Hylda Baker. A word too about Jos Vantyler, who manages to portray feckless ninny, Abraham Slender in a style that would have made Rix suitably envious.

But it’s important to note that there are no weak links here. The eighteen strong cast are rock solid as they move smoothly from scene to scene and the play’s running time seems to just fly by. In what is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, here is a cracking example of why his work still speaks so eloquently across the ages. If you think you’ve seen every possible variation on Shakespearian comedy, think again.

This really is an absolute delight.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

The Winter’s Tale

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Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company Plays at the Garrick 

Live Cinema Screening

26/11/15

The Winter’s Tale is something of a curiosity, the work, it seems, of a playwright who was still experimenting even as he neared the end of his career. Like The Tempest, The Winter’s Tale contains romance as well as realism, and attempts to fuse the yin and yang of theatre, encompassing both comedy and tragedy. And, although this play is arguably more uneven than The Tempest, it is, nevertheless, a delight to watch, particularly when performed and directed with such poise.

Live cinema screenings are a godsend to those of us who don’t live in London, allowing us access to plays we wouldn’t otherwise get to see. But the format does have its limitations, most notable in this production in the lighting. Presumably the audience at the Garrick could see perfectly well, but the low lighting didn’t translate well to the big screen, making the whole of the first half rather difficult to discern; indeed, even the lighter, brighter second half seemed curiously muted, considering its lively and pastoral nature.

This aside, the production worked well. Branagh’s is a traditional interpretation of the play, performed with scholarly precision rather than flights of fancy, playing to the strengths of its distinguished cast and crew. Judi Dench is a fine Paulina – of course she is – and Branagh (equally predictably) makes a convincing Leontes. The contrasts – between town and country, prince and pauper, repression and ebullience – are all writ large, and there’s both charm and energy aplenty here.

Why then am I sighing or shrugging when people ask me what I thought of this? I suppose it just seems like I’ve seen it all before: this is a proficient and assured production, but there’s nothing new or exciting about the way it’s done. Maybe there doesn’t need to be; I’m sure there are many theatre-goers who would see this as a positive and, certainly, I’m not a fan of innovation for innovation’s sake. Still, it all feels just a little too familiar to stir enthusiasm.

A good production, but not a thrilling one.

3.9 stars

Susan Singfield