William Shakespeare

Julius Caesar


Debating Hall, Teviot Row House, Edinburgh

It’s a fascinating concept – Shakespeare’s classic play reimagined as a gangster epic.

Imagine those stirring soliloquies as delivered by a young Robert De Niro or Al Pacino – the senate represented by mob mosses and wise guys, bustling around the tables of a crowded nightclub while a live band blasts out spirited jazz. That’s what we have here and, fortuitously, the baroque setting of the Teviot’s debating hall proves to be the ideal location. EUSOG have never lacked ambition and this production, directed by Devki Panchmatia, may be their most confident offering yet. There’s a powerful buzz tonight and extra seats have to be added at the last minute to accommodate an enthusiastic audience.

In this version, Francesco Davi plays the titular role as a swaggering Don, appearing to general acclaim while a fawning Mark Antony (Julia Lisa) hangs on his every word and wastes no opportunity to ingratiate himself. But Cassius (Tom Wells) is growing tired of obeying the whims of a man he perceives as a ruthless dictator. He enlists Caesar’s old friend, Brutus (Haig Lucas), as his co-conspirator. It isn’t long before they have enlisted the services of others with similar intentions and a fateful date is set: the Ides of March, where Caesar will meet with bloody retribution..,.

I’ve always felt that the play is oddly weighted, the first half culminating in one of the bard’s finest scenes (and, as performed by Julia Lisa, it’s certainly the high point of this production). The final third feels more ramshackle, condensing years of civil war into a few brief skirmishes – and there’s also the impression that some of the longer interactions could benefit from some judicious editing. I know, I know. A bit late to bring it up now!

Unfortunately, the play starts later than the advertised time and the interval stretches on for so long that the hard-earned momentum evaporates and the cast have to work really hard to recapture it. It must also be said that the decision to stick rigidly to those wise-guy accents means that it’s not always an easy matter to follow every character’s dialogue. Those audience members who know the speeches by heart will have no issue with that, but it’s a while since I last studied the play and, occasionally, I find myself struggling.

Still, there’s much here to admire. Victoria White’s costume design is impeccable and Luca Stier’s set convincingly evokes the atmosphere of a nightclub. Isabelle Hodgson offers up a sneering, duplicitous Casca, while Tom Cresswell manages to shine both as Cicero and in his brief appearance as Cinna the poet.

The strobe-lit fight scenes are effectively done, while Panchmatia manages to keep a large cast moving around the crowded stage with great efficiency. And of course, it’s always heartening to witness a young company showing total commitment to a challenging project. Here, EUSOG deliver a Julius Caesar like no other.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Macbeth (An Undoing)


Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

Unlike the monarchs he wrote about, Shakespeare has reigned supreme for more than four hundred years: his plays, rich with examples of human fallibility, are endlessly relevant. But you’d think, wouldn’t you, that we’d run out of different ways to retell the same stories? I mean, the first time I ever saw Macbeth, way-back-when on a sixth-form theatre trip, it was set in a concentration camp (courtesy of Braham Murray at Manchester’s Royal Exchange). Next, I fell in love with Penny Woolcock’s 1997 film, Macbeth on the Estate, which transported the action to a maze of contemporary council flats, and I even enjoyed TV’s ShakespeaRe-Told, where chefs James McEvoy and Keeley Hawes killed off their rivals to take over a restaurant empire. More recently, Flabbergast Theatre’s wonderfully physical, visceral adaptation had me hooked, and there’s been a slew of others along the way. What I’m saying is: I know Macbeth. We all know Macbeth. It’s been done, right? What else is there to say?

And then along comes Zinnie Harris with An Undoing – and the whole thing is turned on its head.

Macbeth (An Undoing) starts from a simple premise: what happens if Macbeth and Lady Macbeth follow their natural trajectories? Because, let’s face it, although Lady M is arguably the best of Shakespeare’s female characters, she’s also the most frustrating, initially a force to be reckoned with – an interesting, complex woman – before disappearing for an age and then returning broken, for a brief goodbye, with very little to tell us why. What if, asks Harris, it’s Macbeth who crumbles? What if it’s Macbeth – whose conscience troubles him from the start – who unravels, while his wife continues unabashed, for a while at least, determined to make their plan succeed? It makes perfect sense, given their starting points.

At first, when the curtains open on a blank stage, and we’re treated to servant/witch Carlin (Liz Kettle)’s fourth-wall-breaking opening gambit, I think perhaps this will be a relatively straightforward version of the play, with just a little mischievous tinkering here and there. After all, “This story will be told, the way it has always been told. What use is it otherwise? The hags on the heath. The woman who went mad. The man who became a tyrant,” she tells us. And, for the first half, that’s sort of what we get: Macbeth at a gallop, mostly in the Bard’s own words, step-by-step through the plot. There are a few changes: we’re in the 1920s, or the early 1930s perhaps; Ladies Macbeth and Macduff (Nicole Cooper and Jade Ogugua respectively) are reimagined as sisters, and share some revelatory new scenes (An Undoing easily passes the Bechdel test); Lady Macbeth and her husband (Adam Best) don’t just want power for power’s sake – they have a meticulously-planned vision for a utopian Scotland. But, in the main, it’s as it’s always been, so that, in the interval, I find myself musing aloud, “How can there still be an hour and a bit to go? There’s not much story left…”

But then we get to the undoing…

Harris’s adaptation is bold, daring and witty. I love the idea of the witches as servants: it makes perfect sense. They’re the eyes and ears of the house, privy to the paperwork the Macbeths have drawn up, witness to intimate moments and careless asides. Invisible. Ignored. These witches are also a family – in fact, Kettle and Star Penders, along with impressive young actor Farrah Anderson Fryer, form the most functional family we see on tonight’s stage, with clear bonds uniting them. I also like the depiction of Malcolm (Penders again) as a petulant youth, patently ill-equipped for leadership and ripe for exploitation by the ruthless Macduff (Paul Tinto).

But this is, without doubt, Lady Macbeth’s play. It’s the part of a lifetime, and Cooper makes the most of it, imbuing her with strength and vitality – and just a hint of vulnerability. She’s ambitious and single-minded, but never merely cruel or heartless. We believe in her love for her husband and sister, and we believe in her idealism too. She’s angry when the lairds misgender her, referring to her as the King because they can’t conceive of a woman behaving as she does (even though, to be fair, she does ask to be ‘unsexed’). In a well-aimed swipe at other interpretations of the role, she’s also angry at being reduced to her infertility.

The set (by Tom Piper) is simple but extraordinarily effective, with warped mirrors concealing as much as they reveal, offering us multiple perspectives, and highlighting the Macbeths’ interdependence and duality. We’re there too, shimmering in the background, complicit and agog, just as Carlin accuses at the start.

The Lyceum is busy tonight – some of the boxes have even been pressed into use – and deserves to be so for the next month. You’ve probably seen Macbeth, but I doubt you’ve seen anything quite like An Undoing before.

4.7 stars

Susan Singfield

The Northman


Cineworld, Edinburgh

It seems suspiciously like fate. Here I am – only just returned from a week in Shetland, where I’ve been researching Vikings – and this film is waiting for me at the local cineplex. Of course I have to see it. I can’t not see it. But I have some reservations. For one thing, despite the film’s almost indecent rash of five star reviews, I haven’t been exactly enamoured by Robert Egger’s previous offerings, The Witch and (more especially) The Lighthouse, both of which felt like cases of style over content.

It’s clear from the get-go, that The Northman is a big step up for Eggers (who co-wrote the screenplay with Sjon). His evocation of Viking life is vividly painted in freshly-spilled viscera across a massive landscape. The world-building here is dirty, ugly and thoroughly convincing. In the opening scenes, we meet young Prince Amleth (Oscar Novak), welcoming his father, King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke), back from his conquests. Amleth’s mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), is rather less welcoming and the reason for that soon becomes clear. She has secretly allied with Aurvandil’s brother, Fjölnir (Claes Bang), who is determined to kill Aurvandil and his son, and take Gudrún as his wife.

If the story seems familiar, it ought to. The ancient Scandinavian legend of Amleth is the tale that initially inspired Shakespeare to write Hamlet.

Amleth manages to escape from the bloody mutiny and, when next we meet him, he’s grown into a thoroughly buff Alexander Skarsgård, who, adopted by another tribe, has become a fully-fledged wolf warrior, a berserker. An ensuing battle sequence leaves no femur unshattered, no skull uncleft. Those viewers who wince at bloody violence may prefer to avoid this film at all costs – or spend a lot of time looking away from the screen.

Amleth learns that his uncle Fjölnir has had his stolen kingdom taken from him and has been exiled to Iceland, where he’s attempting to make a new life for himself as a sheep farmer. Gudrún has gone with him and Amleth knows that he must follow. So he disguises himself as a slave (by first branding his chest with a hot coal) and stows aboard a boat taking a consignment of workers over to Fjölnir. On the hazardous journey across the ocean, he meets up with Olga of the Birch Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy), a self-professed earth witch, and quickly falls under her spell.

But can this new love quell the thirst for vengeance that has consumed him since childhood?

The Northman is by no means perfect. It’s at its best when depicting the savage lifestyle of the Vikings and I also love the hallucinatory images that often flood the screen, particularly Amleth’s repeated visions of the legendary Tree of Yggdrasill, where family members are suspended like ripening fruit from its entwined branches. There’s also a spectacular Valkerie ride that carries me headlong to Valhalla.

Kidman, though initially underused, does get one scene that puts an entirely different spin on circumstances and makes me appreciate why she’s a director’s go-to for so many difficult roles. I would also have liked to see more of Willem Dafoe who, as Heimar the Fool, has clearly been drafted in to fill the Yorrick-shaped hole in the piece.

If I have a criticism, it’s simply that the age-old theme of revenge offers little in the way of surprise – indeed, there’s one point in the film’s later stages that seems to offer a braver and less conventional solution to Amleth’s torture, should he be man enough to take it – but, perhaps inevitably, it’s thrown aside and our rugged hero goes back to the well-worn path he’s always been destined to tread. Which makes the final fiery confrontation a little underwhelming.

Still, there’s no doubt that this is Eggers’ most assured film thus far – and I’m definitely interested to see where he goes next.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

The Tragedy of Macbeth


Filmhouse, Edinburgh

I’m not sure what to make of the writing credit for this latest adaptation of Macbeth. The wording – ‘written for the screen by Joel Coen, based on the play by William Shakespeare’ – seems a tad… hubristic. Because this is mostly Shakespeare’s work, albeit deftly sprinkled with some movie dust. Coen’s direction here is sublime, and his pared back adaptation works really well. It’s just, y’know. ‘Play by William Shakespeare; adapted for the screen by Joel Coen’ would sit better.

But it’s my only real gripe (if I overlook the absence of a single Scottish accent in the, ahem, Scottish play). This is the best movie version I’ve seen – and I have seen a lot. Although Shakespeare never specifies the Macbeths’ ages, I’ve tended towards the view that they ought to be young: all that swagger and ambition and impatience. When they’re portrayed as middle-aged, something seems to be lost. Here, both lord and lady are actually old: they’re in their sixties; nigh on retirement age. And it all starts to make sense again: this is a last-ditch attempt to fulfil their dreams. Time and place “have made themselves” and the Macbeths can’t resist the temptation to finally realise their desires.

Shot in black and white, Coen’s Macbeth is a claustrophobic affair, with none of the epic battle scenes I’ve grown used to seeing in big-screen adaptations. Indeed, it feels very theatrical, the castle walls as contained and constraining as any stage could be. We rarely venture out of Macbeth’s castle; when we do, it’s into countryside so swathed in mist that very little is visible. This is a stripped back version of the play, shining a spotlight on the key elements and emotions.

Denzel Washington is magnificent as the flawed hero: this is a towering performance, at once imposing and accessible. We can believe in him as a good man corrupted by greed, unable to live with his own actions. Likewise, Frances McDormand gives us a Lady Macbeth we can understand: she’s not presented here as a temptress, leading Macbeth to his doom, but as his partner, his equal, persuading him to indulge in a shared fantasy. The consequences are as devastating to her as they are to him.

Kathryn Hunter – playing all three witches – is perhaps my favourite thing about this production. She’s a gifted physical performer, and lends the shape-shifting ‘weird sisters’ a wonderful unearthly quality. Again, Coen’s judicious employment of theatrical devices (it can’t be incidental that Hunter has worked extensively with Complicité) makes for a compelling and unusual movie; this is a successful hybrid.

Coen only deviates from Shakespeare when it comes to Ross (Alex Hassell). A minor character in the original play, he appears here as a Machiavellian schemer, sidling up to where the power is, with one eye always on what might happen next. He’s Iago; he’s Tony Soprano; he’s Dominic Cummings. The additional layer really works.

In short, this is a triumph. It lays bare the heart of Shakespeare’s play. So, proceed further in this business; be the same in thine own act and valour as thou art in desire, and get yourself to the cinema. This is too good to miss.

4.8 stars

Susan Singfield

The Legacy of William Ireland



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



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


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




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



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


Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company Plays at the Garrick 

Live Cinema Screening


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