William Shakespeare

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

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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

Unknown

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