Thursday, December 11, 2014

Shakespeare and Impermanence: Henry IV Part II, Barbican, and Winter's Rages, Rose Playhouse


Hang on - I thought Henry IV Pt II was meant to be inferior to the first. I mean, that's what critics throughout the ages have said. A couple of weeks back I saw the Donmar's all-female Henry IV, which one might think would span the works equitably - but Part II hardly got a look in, with only a couple of scenes tagged on to bring us to the crowning of Hal. Director Phyllida Lloyd was unrepentant about this, dismissing parts of the sequel as "bucolic meanderings".

Blimey. Well, the RSC folk obviously didn't see it this way, and staged a performance of Part II that rivalled any theatre I have seen in terms of depth, charm and sheer joy. Much of this joy and charm came embodied in Antony Sher's masterful Falstaff, who drank, lied, and confided to the audience with such candour that I was sorry to leave his company. I have now seen Sher's Falstaff in both parts, and I feel like I know him personally. I know I'm going to miss him.

Shakespeare based Falstaff upon Henry V's old friend, Sir John Oldcastle; and this caused something of a spat at the time. Part I was a smash hit, a sell out, but somewhere along the line it is likely that one of Oldcastle's progeny - possibly Baron Cobham himself - watched on with horror at the lampooning of a beloved ancestor. Letters flew, arms were twisted, and Shakespeare felt obliged to include an epilogue to the next play, explaining that Falstaff would be back . . hurrah! . . but, by the way, his character had nothing to do with noble, courageous, honourable John Oldcastle. Mumblings. Snorting. Yeah right. 

Falstaff is great company. He is always up for a party; he drinks continuously and is forever weaving schemes and inventions. Inveterate liar, whore monger, thief - there's little to dislike about him. For instance, in Part 2, he gives a thoughtful speech praising the twofold effects of sherry. I wish more playwrights would explore the subject as eloquently.

As we sat chuckling through Sher's monumental performance, it occurred to me that here Shakespeare had immortalised  a prototype - the roistering soak, who liberates us temporarily from the iron cage of puritanism. In Elizabethan England, with its mutaween, Falstaff was a provocative, and wholly necessary, figure. And so he remains in today's climate of PC, self-censorship and myriad -isms. Falstaff coupling with Doll Tearsheet spawned all the tragic, but challenging ne'er do wells that keep us from turning into automata . . . Oliver Reed, Liz Taylor, Georgie Best, GĂ©rard Depardieu, Jeffrey Bernard . . Talking of which, Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell was obviously inspired by Pt 2. Keith Waterhouse merely locked Falstaff into the Boar's Head for an evening, and had him reflecting upon his adventures. I will never think of the Coach and Horses in the same way again.

In my obsessive viewing of Shakespeare plays, I have seen some wonderful performances, but Antony Sher's Falstaff is someone I will never forget. I feel privileged to have met the great man.

Another highlight of this week was seeing "Winter's Rages" at the Rose Playhouse. In this inventive piece, Sophie Kochanowska has cut and pasted together snippets of Shakespeare, and Bard-influenced music to produce a stark, post modern exploration of impermanence. Blioux Kirkby was superb as she played a mentally ill Ophelia, and a fragile, traumatised Ariel; and her singing was rich, alluring and charismatic. Hannah Yip played the keyboards throughout quite brilliantly - in the cold as well. It was, however, Sophie Kochanowska herself who dominated, with the unsettling Drei Lieder der Ophelia by Richard Strauss, and Fear No More the Heat O'The Sun, by Gerald Finzi. Her playing of the youthful, doomed Juliet about to take a sleeping potion was fresh and disturbing. Congratulations to all for highlighting a theme that runs through so much of the Bard's work - impermanence. In many ways, Shakespeare was a Buddhist, and here tonight, as Sophie Kochanoska's singing echoed around the Rose, the truth and tragedy of impermanence was given a voice.

Fresh, disturbing, post-modern . . . how adaptable Shakespeare is. What would Falstaff have made of "Winter's Rages"? Well, he would have enjoyed the singing and the beautiful players . . . but he probably would have disgraced himself, and got himself ejected from the Rose. I'm glad then I left him roaring with laughter in the Boar's Head. More sack, boy . . more sack!!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Shakespeare's Rudest Sonnet? 151


Love is too young to know what conscience is, 
Yet who knows not conscience is born of love?
Then, gentle cheater, urge not my amiss,
Lest guilty of my faults thy sweet self prove:
For, thou betraying me, I do betray
My nobler part to my gross body's treason;
My soul doth tell my body that he may
Triumph in love; flesh stays no farther reason,
But rising at thy name doth point out thee,
As his triumphant prize. Proud of this pride,
He is contented thy poor drudge to be,
To stand in thy affairs, fall by thy side.
   No want of conscience hold it that I call
   Her love, for whose dear love I rise and fall

Friday, December 5, 2014

Measure for Measure, HT Theatre Company, Baron's Court Theatre


By 1603, Shakespeare was wealthy and respected. Poet, playwright and shrewd businessman, the Midlands maestro was at the heart of Jacobean London. His relationship with the newly crowned James was amicable but careful. James was a fan of the Bard's work, and Shakespeare duly obliged with plays in tune with the monarch's interests - Scotland, witchcraft. and the rule of disparate peoples. In spite of a youthful phase torturing witches, James was a cultured man - he had been tutored by the poet George Buchanan - and had a liberal appreciation of theatre. His close engagement with each new dramatic work was highlighted by Ben Jonson in the First Folio, where he mentions ..

"Those flights upon the banks of Thames
That so did take Eliza and our James."

Shakespeare was in some ways a royal poet - but with the ruler peeking over the Bard's shoulder as he wrote. This tension between freely expressing the human spirit, and potential sanction by the powerful, explains much in his writing; and these contradictory pressures undoubtedly contributed to the greatness in his plays. Measure for Measure is a masterful, complex product of these tensions, which sails close to the wind in its examination of corruption in high places, and the caprice of royal rule. 

The scenario: Duke Vincentio has temporarily put his deputy Angelo in charge. Unlike the wise, tolerant Duke, however, Angelo is a puritan who has a dichotomous view on things. He has a particular problem with sex, and targets the suburbs, which in the 17th century were not places of faux respectability, but of crime, dissolution and vice. We thus find ourselves in a suburban brothel, where we witness drunkenness, arrests and confusion. Angelo has ordered a crackdown on the sex industry, causing consternation among the women and their punters. The suburbs are in chaos. 

The play interweaves two narratives. The virtuous Isabella seeks pardon for her brother - who rests in prison awaiting hanging - by petitioning the puritanical acting-ruler Angelo. However, he is struck by her beauty; and, overcome with lust, he demands sex for the release. Not a great guy. The second story line involves the wise Duke disguising himself as a monk, so as to check up on the state of his fiefdom, and the character of his deputy Angelo. His investigations lead him to the prison, where he hears about Isabella's desperate plight. 

Shakespeare is at the top of his game in disrupting these narratives, resulting in a classic "comedy" - one beginning with tragedy, and ending with resolution and marriage. It is a work, however, which involves  dark currents and bitterly observed scenes. Here is the Bard at his most Dickensian. 

HT Theatre has produced a powerful and sincere rendition of this play, and Director, Jaclyn Bradley deserves credit for convincingly evoking a threatening and atmospheric world, with no props other than a small table and a tankard. The narrative involves demanding roles, particularly that of Isabella, who was played with great conviction and skill by Leah Lawry-Johns. Meanwhile, her lusty tormentor, Angelo was portrayed powerfully by Adam Cunis - and the scenes between the two were fresh and taut. Jonathan Curry played a masterful Duke, embodying moral authority and wisdom, but occasionally lapsing into needless cruelty. At one point, the play was disrupted when a drunk man stumbled noisily into the theatre at a crucial dramatic juncture. The cast, however - notably, Jonathan Curry - forged resolutely on, with not so much as the bat of an eye. 

All the players were strong, however. Natalie Harper portrayed Angelo's estranged wife, Mariano, with restrained passion; and Joshua Jewkes' Lucio was light, time-perfect and entertaining throughout. Isabella's condemned brother, Claudio, is a pivotal role and Rob Fellman did a great job expressing the tensions between desperation and resignation. Carly Jukes' provost was one of my favourite performances - utterly convincing as somebody with a soul caught up in the ruthless machinations of state. Martin Sales' Abhorsen was brutal, with a strong and daunting presence. Finally, David Gurney's playing of Pompey - the dissolute bawd, or "tapster" - was delightfully funny and inventive. Here  is a group of hugely talented actors; and in Measure for Measure they have put on one of my favourite performances of the year. Well done to all concerned. 

Measure for Measure is a fascinating work - dark, clever, funny. Its portrayals of the vice trade reminded me of the later and quite wonderful Pericles, written with the dissolute bawd George Wilkins. Indeed, I wonder if there isn't a connection between the two plays. The bard was certainly familiar with the seedier side of London society, and was likely no stranger to the Winchester geese.

I like to imagine Shakespeare sitting back with a cup of beer in a dodgy pub, hooting with laughter as his companions out-lewd each other. After a while, one puts down his ale, clears his throat, and slightly crooks his finger . . .

"Nah, nah . . Better than that . . . Much better . . . Groping for trout in a peculiar river". 

Silence. Gasps. I'll have that, thinks the Bard. 

That line will stay with me forever. Thank you HT Theatre. 

Measure for Measure is playing at the Baron's Court Theatre until 14th December. 
http://www.offwestend.com/index.php/plays/view/12226




Monday, December 1, 2014

Not a man in sight: Henry IV, and Man to Man, by Manfred Karge.


As I clapped at the end of an entertaining performance of Henry IV at the Donmar Warehouse, it struck me that in my last four visits to the theatre, I had not seen one man on stage. This trend started a couple of weeks back, when I saw Martin Parr's beautifully realised "Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang". Actresses Katherine Heath and Lucia Capellaro were so compelling, I was lured back the following evening. Sitting in the ruins of the Rose, I was even more swept away with the heady brew of sonnets, cello and narratives of loss.

The next women-only venture was a mistake, actually. I thought I had booked a ticket for Hamlet, so turned up at the Park Theatre, Finsbury Park ready to marvel at a finely wrought analysis of mind. Turns out, I had got there a week early, so I asked what was on that night. It turned out to be Man to Man by Manfred Karge - a solo play about an East German woman faking being a man, through her whole life. Her husband had died, leaving her with no livelihood, so, after considering her few options, she decided to go into work disguised as her dead spouse. This saga through Nazism, post-war reconstruction and German reunification sets up a harrowing tale of deception, risk, humiliation and slow and unsettling transformation into a defeated, bitter, male retiree, who has almost forgotten his sex. The play was written by Manfred Karge, who joined the Berliner Ensemble in 1961 at the behest of Helene Weigel, wife of Bertolt Brecht. The Brechtian themes are strong, and actress Tricia Kelly bravely laid bare the frustrations of sustaining male identity amidst wild lurches in German society and identity, transforming herself into an embittered, drunk, unattractive pensioner. You could almost smell him.

In the programme, special mention was made of the translator of the script, the late Antony Vivis, who produced an inventive, jarring and sometime rhyming word flow. Listening to the rhythms and juxtapositions made me realise the crucial role of the translator in art such as this.

Later on in the bar, an attractive well dressed woman  breezed in and greeted friends around the table. I realised with a shock, this was Tricia Kelly, who only twenty minutes earlier had festered resentfully in stained trousers.

A week later, I got a standing ticket for Henry IV, which was set in a women's prison. Effectively, this was most of the glorious Part 1 with the main bits involving Falstaff and the rise of Hal from Part II added on. This was highly entertaining, but worth seeing for one overwhelming reason - Harriet Walter playing Henry IV. Shakespeare was cautious in his portrayal of the usurper King, and the role thus has rather limited, subdued material. Walter, however, used these lines with such world-weary authority, that she shed new light on the whole role. No longer a marginalised part; with Harriet Walter, Henry IV reclaims the play that bears his name. It was an amazing performance.

Tomorrow I'm off to see the Hamlet I had intended to see last week. Looking forward to it - though seeing men on stage will be something of a novelty. 

Friday, November 21, 2014

Business Breakfast, by Mark Neal


SARAH SAID

When Sarah said a friend from home 
was starting at college, I didn't know 
that the faceless figurine would hex and intrigue me 
for years to come. 
If I'd sensed that this was so, 
I would have asked, 'What's she like?' 
As it happened, I just said 'oh' 
and set off on my bike. 

When Sarah said her friend from home
was nineteen, five foot two, blonde and slim, 
I became more interested, and some
unlikely scenarios flashed through my mind.
Although most of her features were dim, 
all the necessary bits were there - 
lips and hips, and, light as a whim, 
fine free flowing hair. 

When Sarah said her friend from home
was coming round for tea and staying the night, 
I looked down at the dishes, covered in foam,
and thought at last this abstraction
was coming to life. 
But I felt strange, not quite right
as I wiped another plate, 
sensing that on Friday night
the other guest was Fate. 

When Sarah said her friend from home
was at the door, I nearly died
and cursed the fact that I hadn't a comb, 
and looked more zero than de Niro.
I stood still, defeated and sighed, 
for the girl I longed to meet
was already there, already inside, 
and I had no socks on my feet.

When Sarah said her friend from home
had just come back from hols, 
and that she'd been offered a job in Rome,
Alison - yes Alison - slumped onto a chair; 
and flicking back her hair the way
only certain girls can do, 
she said she'd had a hideous day, 
because of you know who. 

When Sarah slurred she was off her head,
Alison called her a drunken tart, 
and cried that she couldn't believe what she'd said
about her fancying her brother Mark. 
- But he's only just eighteen, 
she said and poured herself another drink, 
- I didn't know you were keen.
Now I don't know what to think. 

As wine decreased, two people changed;
one made flesh, one deranged. 
The book was writ, the canvas filled. 
I was smitten, bitten, thrilled. 

When Sarah yawned and said her friend
could crash on the sofa and use the duvet by the door,
I sensed it was the end;
the chances of copping off now were poor.
So there we remained, too close in a lift,
with only each other to inspect. 
Resigned, I thought this chance, this gift
was irredeemably wrecked. 

And so we sat like rival cats,
with damp wallpaper peeling;
until we heard the Boomtown Rats
thumping through the ceiling.
Alison smoked, and sipped her red, 
and talked about Italian wine,
and how men wanted her in bed. 
I smiled and wished her into mine. 



THE UNICORN

We laughed a lot in the Eighties. 
Whereas others wrung their hands
about weighty matters, stuff about the Falklands, 
we drank cider from plastic glasses, 
and talked about drugs and bands. 
We had snogs, affairs, romances;
waved to each other across the bar
like sodden, smoking little cancers.

Standing cackling in our gowns
on the burning, beaten lawn, 
we licked the speed from our teeth. 
Our folks paid for the rounds. 

And when they finally fucked off home, 
we staggered to the Unicorn. 
As the pub began to spin, 
to some dire song by Magazine,
Thea Burns all scent and sweat
asked me back to hers. 
As you passed us by the door, 
I stared hard at the floor. 

We bought our suits, 
and learned to say "Could I have a word?"
We learned that friendships fade away,
drank pinot and chardonnay.
Chat became more issues-based.
Colleagues smirked and talked of work;
mortgage, car - less speed, more haste. 

We kept in touch. You met a bloke. 
A spark called Mike who seemed alright 
but then again he liked a fight; 
a stringy man who spoke of bikes, 
using words like bitch and poke. 

The invitation on cream card
was embossed, expensive. 
I'd met your parents only once. 
Nice people. Teachers. 
Their names in gold, like patrons of a charity; 
Mike the Bike called Mr Michael Moor. 
To see him linked to you in gilt all seemed rather cheap;
when in the project, I still keep, 
we’re bound on a page of A4.


CARE

My mother phoned me up that day,
- Your father's going in again.
I couldn't find a thing to say
to cheer her up, to make light when
she sobbed for her dear man.

My father's going in today,
going in to get it out;
claims he's fine in every way,
packs away a can of stout
as mother sobs for her dear man.

- You alright? I said to her,
through the line, the empty line
and thought of times when life was fair
as she croaked, Oh I'll be fine.

- Would you like to talk to him?
she asked within a fragile breath,
- Please, I said, and thought how grim
the passage is from life to death.

- H'loo, he said in that light way,
he used on us when we were young.
- Hi, I said and tried to stay
the sense that what was right was wrong.

- Don't you worry. It's routine,
my failing father said to me.
- As you know, I've never been
afraid of mice or surgery.

In the end, he said that he
would see me in a week or two.
I replied - OK, then we
can find that car for Auntie Sue.

He said Bye, and that was that.
I hung on to the hissing line,
half-hoping he'd resume our chat,
and say that everything was fine.

I felt empty, cold and dim,
and thought should I have used the call
to tell him what I thought of him;
that I loved him warts and all.

Instead I sat and thought of ways
he'd helped me through my darkest years,
how his advice and his OKs
had stopped the rot and dried my tears.

These empty hours haunt me still
with thoughts of what I could have done,
if I'd possessed an ounce of will -
if I had been a better son.


CASTLE

The elders are praying and burning herbs. 
The women are silent and constantly eating. 
The men are strutting, each prouder than the other. 
The sky is as blue as the sea. 

The army is two days away,
chopping down people and trees in equal proportions. 
Bloody foreigners. Who do they think they are?
I mean, things were going so well. 
A house. Sprog on the way. 
Who could ask for more?
Now that's all gone. 
The funny thing is, I don't even care. 
Of course, boyfriend's useless. 
He looks distracted and there's a shrill tone to his voice. 
He's looking forward to it all. 
At least there's some glory in his death;
Mine's a gangbang and a stabbing. 
Boyfriend knows that, and it spoils it for him. 
I think he's jealous. 

The elders are praying and burning herbs. 
We women are silent and constantly eating. 
The men are strutting, each prouder than the other. 
The sky is as blue as the sea.


BUSINESS BREAKFAST

I'm sick of life.
I want to die.
The gods have kicked me in the eye.
I'm going grey,
and yesterday
I told my wife another lie.

I like Sue,
and she likes me,
but now that she is forty three,
her looks have fled
and so our bed
is but a field of duty.

I do want sex,
but not with her.
I want it with a teenager.
Somebody who kisses me
and talks about her ex.

I hate my job;
It's killing me.
I should have been an actuary.
Loads of dosh and flexi time
and offices in Camberley.

I want to leave it all behind -
Start afresh, move ahead.
But my wife is good and kind.
She talks to me when we're in bed,
and soothes me with her hugs.

And so I get up every day.
I go to work and grin.
I phone up men I do not know
and say, Well how you been?
And they reply, Oh can't complain
or, It's OK except the rain.

I trap the mobile with my chin,
and tap in numbers as they speak.
On the screen, figures flash
and lines meet at a peak.
I do some sums in my head
and work out the commission cash.

After work I meet the gang
at the usual bars.
We talk of women, work and beer
and the speed of cars.
We laugh out loud and take the piss
and ask, Why are we doing this?

I punch the numbers on my phone
and tell the wife that I'll be late.
She wraps my meal in silver foil,
and eats hers alone.

When I return, I watch the box
and drink a glass of wine.
Sue complains about my socks,
and asks about my day at work.
I say it's been fine.

She yawns and pecks me on the cheek,
and says she's off to bed.
I pour myself another drink,
and hum Simply Red.

I watch a politician lie
and nod with every word.
I sigh as skinny people die,
in some disgusting ward.
I see a girl with puckered lips
run her hands along her hips.

When Sue has safely gone to bed,
I sit and surf through different things -
men on men, two on a girl,
stuff with whips and cuffs and rings.
I watch until my belly curls
and then I wish that I were dead.

As I slip in next to Sue,
I think of things I'd like to do -
win the lotto, write a book;
fuck and fuck and fuck and fuck.
As my wife begins to snore,
I think that life is such a con.
As she grunts and gasps for air
I feel I can't go on.

But I get up every day.
I go to work and grin.
I phone up men I do not know
and say, Well how you been?
And they reply, Oh can't complain
or, It's OK except the rain.



WORKING LUNCH

The mute vibrations of the 12.52
shake my pen, and all of us as one.
We fly past a church, and I hear a woman say,
- I told him where to go, but he wants me to stay.
We're pushed, they're pulled, but we do not move.
A young man sits four feet away.
He's pushed, I'm pulled up along this groove;
pushed by the seat back, pulled by pay.

Trees whip past us, smooth fields flow;
constant clouds like us are still -
grim faces set as busts that know
that life is finite time to kill.
Against the faces starlings toil,
fluttering South in an awkward V,
above cruel crows, pecking at the soil
which blurs and slips away from me.

The world turns black and pops our ears.
I see myself sat pen in hand,
and view the worst of all my fears:
that I am still in shifting sands;
that this is it, that I am whole;
like this until my time is spent;
that in this window my whole life is framed.
- A cough. The feeling went.


OUR MAN

In the days when I was young,
when I was young and the sky was blue,
the seconds ticked like tolls of a bell,
with dings and dongs which rose and fell,
marking out the clouds' career
from here to there, from there to here.
My father's voice, and mother's skirt,
my brother's hair and stare and dirt
were features of those early years
that caused my pain, my laughs, my tears
and made me what I am today,
a man,
a man,
a man called Ray,
with cares and woes and pain and hurt,
and skin, and bloodshot eyes that flirt
with Juliet, my love, my life
and Sue, oh Sue, my fattening wife.


BUSINESS TRIP

Hello you, she says and smiles,
and joins me at the bar.
You buy me drink I talk to you.
Well what's an Englishman to do?
I surely didn't come this far
to start asking why.

What's your name? she say to me
I lie to her, and she say, nice,
my name is Mai. Hi Mai, I say.
and look into the eyes of vice
and wonder what she think of me.

You like me? I say for sure,
much nicer than the other ones;
and so she is - the fantasy -
trying to sell her cunt to me;
a pro within a world of cons
where fucking is a chore.



QUALITY TIME

And when the hurly burly rules,
and chaos gnaws at order's heels,
men will turn from king's to fools
and concert halls will ring with squeals.
And when the drum beats night and day,
and people bump and bang and fight,
my wife will turn to me and say
How you doin'? D'you feel alright?
I'll say, Yes I feel OK.



BACK BY TWO

They're my babies,
sizzling in the sun
They're my babies, seeking adult fun.
She's my little baby, with her sloping spine.
All my little babies, telling me they're mine.

The door clicks closed behind me and I go out on the hunt.
A corner shop allures me with a shelf of paper cunt.
Peering through the door I see a couple of old birds talking.
Feeling unclothed, I stare ahead and keep on walking.

They're my babies,
sizzling in the sun
They're my babies, seeking adult fun.
She's my little baby, with her sloping spine.
All my little babies, telling me they're mine. 
  

YORK HALL, BETHNAL GREEN

Are you press? he said to us
as we climbed the stairs. 
A straight nose never lies 
in the world of mash and pies. 



Thursday, November 20, 2014

Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang. The Rose Playhouse.


This performance expresses everything I love about theatre - a daring, high-wire piece that leads the mind through unexpected visions and emotions. "Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang" is woven together and directed by Martin Parr, who prior to this staged a memorable Doctor Faustus, also at the Rose. When I heard that Parr was doing Shakespeare's sonnets, I thought - great - that will be worth seeing. However, nothing prepared me for this.

What Parr has done here, quite masterfully, is to shape Shakespeare's most intimate writings into a haunting play, which explores every facet of loving relationships. He has done this through letting the Bard's words flow through a morphing love affair as it goes through stages of lust, longing, disdain, outrage, anger, separation and reconciliation.

He sets the stage in Autumn, and sitting expectantly with glass in hand, I found the setting fascinating. The stage and lighting team of Florence Watts, Max Mosley, Christine Dubois and Francesca Baker present a scene of an unmade double bed, a half drunk wine bottle next to it, with several lamps, a bare table and a old chair, with dead leaves scattered around it. Highly atmospheric. A realistic nowhere. A double bed in a room for one person.

This is a fragile piece, that depends entirely upon its two actresses, Katherine Heath and Lucia Capellaro. Lucia is the muse of the piece, the partner, the object of desire, hope and regret; and she embroiders this role with virtuoso playing of the cello, which at times becomes a third person in the relationship. Katherine is alone, but not alone, expressing her evolving and sometimes contradictory feelings for Lucia, who is relatively unchanging.  Katherine, the lover, experiences wildly varying feelings - from infatuation to irritation; at times reflecting upon the inevitable death of her partner, at other times spitting out poisonous jealousy.

Sitting in the audience, this is powerful stuff, and the flowing, but unpredictable performance raises strong emotions. These come powerfully to conclusion in the final scene where a distraught, lonely, Katherine is trying to play her (possibly now dead) lover's cello in the hope of capturing just a little bit of her magic, her voice, her scent. I won't spoil this for you, but it is one of the most powerful and creative scenes I have ever witnessed in theatre - one that has stayed with me, and lured me back last night for a second chance of seeing it.

Walking away from from the performance, I drifted towards the Thames, and reflected that this gem of a play shows why theatre is increasingly necessary and important. In this era of easy media, of electronic access round the clock to any movie/ video/ Shakespeare play etc., a sincerely felt rendition like this becomes rare, precious and significant. One has to travel to see it. Pay to see it. One has to sit in real space, as breathing people take breathtaking risks. They play their heart out, and break ours. Like the tempestuous relationship between Katherine and Lucia, the performance enchants, excites and ends, leaving only memories.

"Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang" plays until 29th November. Go see it. It's that good. 

Friday, October 3, 2014

Edward II by Christopher Marlowe, Venture Wolf Productions, London Theatre.


"All they that love not Tobacco and Boys are fools". 

Gay is the word. Christopher Marlowe found a muse in man's love for man, and infused it in much of his work - particularly in the erotic epyllion, Hero and Leander. Turning over the weighty pages of Holinshed's Chronicles, the twenty something Christopher Marlowe chose Edward II's charged relationship with low-born Gaveston for dramatisation into one of England's first fully realised History plays - a genre that Shakespeare would adopt and make his own. 

Edward II is a pacy, racy, roller coaster of a ride, which establishes its theme in Gaveston's first delighted words - of male love and loyalty taken to such heights that it causes civil war, and the eventual downfall of a king. 

As with his earlier play, the Massacre at Paris, here is a drama in which plot takes precedence over language, without the psychological investigations and existential hand-wringing characteristic of Marlowe's illustrious contemporary. From the clearly chipped characters and fast paced plot, you get the feeling that Marlowe was an excitable, direct sort of character - just the type to get himself embroiled in a squabble in Deptford in May 1593. He never saw his thirties. 

Edward II was his final drama, published shortly after his death. It's a moody, antagonistic work - a play looking for trouble - a libertine fuck you to mainstream, respectable, puritan England. 

Shakespeare may have watched the play with mixed feelings. Marlowe had been the darling of the Oxbridge literati classes - the insider's outsider. Shakespeare meanwhile had no university education - he wanted to be an outsider, accepted by the insiders. How could he out-radical Marlowe, while keeping the punters packed in?  The anything-goes Edward II freed things up for Shakespeare, and encouraged the bard to push boundaries just as far. Richard II, penned shortly afterwards, resonated with variations on Marlowe's sexual politics. 

Edward II is a serious, adult work, and I feared the worst as I entered the subterranean London Theatre in New Cross. to be greeted by enthusiastic young actors in 1920s gear, doing the flap, the Charleston and getting up to the kind of pre-show japes one encounters in undergrad productions. My fears, however, couldn't have been more misplaced. Once the silliness had subsided, Venture Wolf  put on an earnest and thoughtfully wrought production that allowed the darker ambiguities of the play to surface. Imaginatively directed by Paul Vitty, this was a fast paced, creative rendering which was hugely entertaining. 

Henry Winterbottom played the demanding role of the King, as petulant, spoilt and inflexible. It was a fine rendering of an unappealing character, which showed scope and promise. Ramzi Dehani played the King's lover and ruin, Gaveston, with a sly coolness - except where it came to his encounters with the King, when Dehani displayed a warmth and commitment that glowed. Emma Gonella played a pitch perfect Queen Isabella, with grace, beauty and wit. All queens should be like that. Turan Duncan was terrific as the heroic usurper, quickly corrupted by power. 

Of the other performances, James Chadurn played a marvellously entertaining, Churchillian Warwick - a commendably restrained performance, in that the Stentorian lines could easily have crossed into parody or irony. Will Barrett was convincing as the young  schoolboy prince, who quickly grows up to be an avenging successor; and Pippa Caddick was a joy to behold, playing the complex Baldock with charisma and subtlety. There were 17 people involved in the cast, however, and all played their parts well. 

Bravo to Venture Wolf for treating Marlowe's moody masterpiece with the seriousness it deserves. There are laughs aplenty to be had in the punnery and ironies of other Early Modern plays. Not Edward II, however. Marlowe meant this one - and so did this marvellous troupe of actors. Hats off to you all.