Hamlet, Sh!t-Faced Shakespeare, Leicester Square Theatre, London WC2

©Rah Petherbridge Photography - Shitfaced live - HAMLET.jpg

The Sh!t-Faced Shakespeare Company, now Magnificent Bastard Productions, have been bringing various Shakespeare plays to theatres around the UK for a number of years. It is an improv styled show where one of the cast has drunk one third of a bottle of spirits and a number of beers before taking to the stage. The comedy comes from the sober actors attempts to keep their drunken compatriot onstage and on track.

It is great fun to watch and it also looks like it is great fun to take part. Drunken Hamlet takes pleasure in his leeway to make things difficult for the rest of the cast, trying to push them off course and attempting to make them laugh. There is audience participation, in that a couple of audience members are chosen to call for the drunk actor to have another drink if they feel that he is sobering up. Also, Polonius is played by an audience member, this is a brave choice, given that his is the first death scene and the only people on stage are the audience member, the drunk actor and Gertrude, his mother.

It is a good introduction to Hamlet, because it zips through the simplified storyline in around an hour and a half. Drunken Hamlet forgets his lines surprisingly seldom – he makes a great fist of the “to be or not to be” soliloquy despite being made to drink while reciting it- and those parts where he does get lost he has the professionalism to give the audience a synopsis of the scene in modern language.

Hamlet, of all Shakespeare’s plays, is the one that is most often taken too seriously and it is often forgotten that these plays were written as mass entertainment, and that the performances as well as the audiences were raucous and bawdy. This version emphasises that element of the Bard and works very well on that level. I really enjoyed Sh!t-Faced Shakespeare’s Hamlet and I look forward to seeing others in their repertoire in future.

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The First Modern Man, Hen & Chickens Theatre, London N1

Modern Man

Michel de Montaigne is an interesting figure, and this is a well written and beautifully delivered play about the 16th Century French essayist. Much like the essays of the man himself, it is not easy to define. It is not quite a biography because it really only touches incidentally on his life and times, it is an imagined hour long conversation with the man, where you are introduced to a selection of his ideas and preoccupations in a seemingly disordered manner.

However, this is where the cleverness of the writing comes in, the rambling way in which the conversation takes place, is very similar in composition to the way his essays were actually written, with detours, diversions and asides taking you around many different ideas before bringing you back to the original, titular point of the piece. In this play, it serves to capture what you could think of as the personality of de Montaigne.

The Hen & Chickens theatre is a good venue to see this play, because it is intimate enough to give the feeling of a personal conversation. Jonathan Hansler takes full advantage and engages members of the audience individually – he makes Michel de Montagne chatty and affable. The author, Michael Barry, and actor have worked together well, both obviously care for the man they are displaying onstage, and their combination of talents makes him a likeable figure full of interesting concepts, some deep and insightful, some weird, but all entertaining in a quirky and engaging way.

I particularly enjoyed this play, possibly helped by knowing a little of his work before I attended. The quality of the writing and the delivery of the words ensure that there is much to enjoy here whether you have heard of Michel de Montaigne or not. The First Modern Man has that elusive and winning blend, it is a play that manages to be both enjoyable and informative. Recommended.

 

A Very Very Very Dark Matter, Bridge Theatre, London SE1

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Once upon a there was a very talented author. His name was Martin McDonagh. Everybody loved his work and he wrote some wonderfully funny plays and some wonderfully clever scripts for films. However, Mr McDonagh had a terrible secret!

Do you remember Shakespeare’s infinite monkeys at infinite typewriters? Well, Martin had stolen the most talented of Shakespeare’s monkeys. He kept it chained to the typewriter and in reality, it was this monkey, who ghost wrote all of his stuff. It was really the most clever monkey, that had the brightest and funniest ideas, and all that Martin McDonagh had to do was to make sure that he edited them carefully.

Well, one day Mr Shakespeare realised that one of his monkeys was missing. He wasn’t sure which one, because he did have an awful lot of them, but he counted them up and, sure enough, he had infinity minus one! Impossible? Impossible but true! He could not let this happen so he determined to spend eternity looking for his monkey, and sure enough, after 300 years, he found that the missing monkey was living in the office of Martin McDonagh’s house.

Shakespeare decided that he would expose Mr McDonagh’s secret by putting a spell on him, which would impair his editing abilities. This would allow, just one time, the monkey’s writing to be issued straight to the world exactly as it was written, with no oversight at all. Shakespeare turned out to be a very clever magician, the spell worked perfectly and Hey Presto! in 2018 “A Very, Very, Very, Dark Matter” was issued upon the world!

As it happens, this show is not all bad. Granted, you will leave the theatre thinking, “What have I just witnessed?”, but the show is full to the brim with ideas. Some of these are funny and clever, some of them less so. It is a touch of genius using the voice of Tom Waits as narrator, his resonant, off beat tone suits the storyline perfectly.

Phil Daniels is wonderful as a foul mouthed Charles Dickens, but it is shocking to hear his young children using the same words, an interesting juxtaposition, I suppose.  Jim Broadbent plays Hans Christian Anderson as an amiable buffoon with deep psychological scars and sadistic overtones. This would be an impossible task for a less talented actor.

Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles makes her debut here in a starring role as Marjory. This is the most troubling part in the play and she carries it off very well, you would never know that it is her first major role. Martin McDonagh is always able to attract the highest quality actors and the depth of talent throughout the cast is the strength of the show.

This play has so much going on that it is impossible to make sense of it all. At points, it seems like a random jumble of weird toys thrown together by a wayward child. It has  many different ideas running around, some of which will make you uncomfortable, but one thing you can say about Martin McDonagh is that he never plays it safe. This is probably not going to be the most coherent show you will see this year, but I can guarantee that you will not be bored.

Stories, National Theatre, South Bank London SE1

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About a year ago. I saw Nina Raine’s last play, Consent, also at the Dorfman Theatre here at the National.  It was the strength of the writing in that production that drew me to see Stories. This is a play about Anna, a woman approaching 40, who is desperate to have a baby. She does not have a partner and she is investigating the options available to her as a would be single mother.

The Dorfman theatre is an intimate venue when laid out in the round, suited to the living room settings of this play. The show consists of multiple short scenes and the automated set changes where the sections of the floor rise to make a table or slide in to form a bed are very cleverly done. They contribute well to the maintaining the pace of the drama, through the constant scene changes. The clean IKEA lines also felt nicely contemporary.

Anna is played by Claudie Blakely with a controlled desperation, knowing that if she shows it too much, that she will frighten baby fathers off. Sam Troughton plays all the prospective sperm donors and he is almost too good at this, in that his changing performances are very funny and at times this becomes the focus of the play,  distracting your attention from the main storyline. Anna is the only person in the entire play that is one person playing one part and this diminishes the clarity of the piece somewhat.

Brian Vernel is excellent as Anna’s younger brother and Stephen Boxer is fantastic as her Dad. They have great lines and the spiky but caring relationship the three of them have is beautifully conveyed. The rest of the characters are less fully rounded and although they have some very funny lines, they are sometimes two dimensional ciphers. I found this particularly true of Natasha and Girl. I did realise, eventually, that they are meant to represent Anna’s inner child and inner parent, but I am not sure what they added to the story.

I think there might be brilliant play in here, but the story is not presented clearly enough to follow easily. Nina Raine is a fantastic author, there are probably few writers who can capture current bar and dinner table conversations as well or as wittily. This is not the ground breaking piece that she will one day write, but I enjoyed it well enough and I will continue to look out for shows that she writes in the future.

 

Pinter 3, Pinter at the Pinter Season, Pinter Theatre, London WC1

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Pinter at the Pinter is a season of all of Harold Pinter’s one act plays in 7 different programmes over a period of 6 months. Previously on this blog: Pinter 1, Pinter 2 and Pinter 4

The most well known pieces in this collection are “Landscape” and “A kind of Alaska”. These are the opening and closing items and they take up the greater part of the show. They are both interesting and have excellent performances from Tamsin Greig and Keith Allen. Tamsin Greig is spellbinding as a woman attempting to come to terms with the fact that she went to sleep at 16 years of age and only awakened 29 years later.

There are 9 other vignettes in the evening and although a couple might not do any favours to Pinter’s reputation, Jamie Lloyd has unearthed some absolute gems from among his lesser known pieces. Closing the fist half, Lee Evans does a piece called “Monologue” where he effectively has a conversation with an empty chair. This is funny and poignant, and Lee Evans’ uniquely physical delivery brings extra empathy to the character.

“Night” is very unusual amongst the Pinter work in that it is resolutely positive in tone. Meera Syal and Tom Edden make the most of the upbeat lines and portray a couple who patently care for each other, even at those times when their memories differ. This is a short sketch, perhaps only five minutes long, but it is sublime to see Pinter’s words made sweet.  “Trouble in the Works” is another short sketch, absurd abstract comedy, well done and very funny. It is like Monty Python in style but it was written in 1959, so it predates them by a whole decade.

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Great care has been taken in the direction of this presentation to make all the individual pieces link together, and the show certainly does not feel like it is made up of 11 discrete items. This is helped by the ingenious set design which is a slowly spinning living room, highlighting a different area each time it turns. Even though many of the sketches only have one or two of the actors actively involved, Jamie Lloyd has cleverly joined them up so the whole has the feel of a single ensemble piece. This is most apparent in the sketch “God’s District” which is a solo comedy item, delivered by Meera Syal, but by the end it has all 5 of the actors playing instruments or singing along.

Overall, the quality of the writing is very high and the acting is a joy to watch. A couple of the pieces have not aged well, perhaps we are more sensitive to hints of sexism now than we were when it was written. This is Pinter though, so it is hard to say for certain, and they could be seen as his comment on the times in which he lived. Having said that, this compilation is positively uplifting compared to some of his darker anthologies. After watching Pinter’s 1 and 4, I had begun to wonder whether I had the fortitude to watch the rest of the season, but now that I have seen this, I am looking forward to 5, 6. and 7 with a spring in my step.

Pinter 4, Pinter at the Pinter Season, Pinter Theatre, London WC1

 

Pinter 4

Pinter at the Pinter is a season of all of Harold Pinter’s one act plays in 7 different programmes over a period of 6 months. Previously on this blog: Pinter 1 and Pinter 2

Pinter 4 consists of 2 plays.  Moonlight which was first presented on stage in 1993. Night School was originally a a TV play from 1960 with Milo O’Shea as Walter. The programme notes date it as 1979, perhaps they are referring to the first live performance.

Moonlight is a kind of abstract drama. It has some funny lines and some, quite dark, humour but I would hesitate to call it a comedy. It is about a man on his deathbed waiting for his sons to visit him. In his lucid moments he is reminiscing with his wife. In his more clouded times he imagines his sons to be there, but their conversation is intermingled with discussions about him, his memories from work and sometimes their sister is there, perhaps calling him over. I guess the moonlight is the, not quite dark not quite light, gap between life and death. This is the classic oblique writing for which Pinter is notorious. Atmospheric words with ethereal meaning.

The acting is phenomenal. Robert Glenister and Brid Brennan are brilliant as the truculent husband and wife, the definition of tough love. The direction is restrained, Lyndsey Turner keeps it unobtrusive and allows the words to do all the work. The set is low-key too, an old mans bedroom in muted tones. If you want to see Pinter at his most “Pinteresque” then this is probably the one.

Night School is a comedy. First shown in 1960 it feels its age. It is funny and the use of language is clever and witty. It was probably a little bit shocking and regarded as slightly off colour when it was first shown, but that frisson has gone now. Wally returns from prison to find that his aunts have rented out his room while he was away. The new tenant is a pretty young night school teacher…..

The sets for this play are representational, a tea trolley depicts the living room, a chair and door make up the bedroom and shiny curtains portray the nightclub. This play is directed by Ed Stambollouian, with a drummer and drumkit on stage throughout, playing drumrolls at dramatic moments. I’m interested to know whether this is specified by Pinter in the staging notes, I have looked online but can’t find any reference to it. It made the play slightly reminiscent of, John Osborne’s, The Entertainer from 1957.

The acting is the best thing about Night School. The Aunts, Annie and Milly are very funny. Janie Dee is as different as it is possible to be from her role as Phyllis in Follies, but still brilliant as she always is. Al Weaver is obviously the man of the moment, he is on TV in Press on the BBC and in the cinema in Peterloo. Here he is excellent as the funny, but menacing, petty crook Walter. He might not be classroom clever, but he is nobody’s fool.

For me, Moonlight stands up the better of the two plays, although the Aunts in Night School are the funniest characters. It is worth going to see for the acting but,this is really a combination for the Pinter completists.

Romeo & Juliet, RSC Barbican Season, Barbican, London EC2

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Romeo and Juliet was written roughly 420 years ago, but this production makes it feel as though it was taken from stories that we see on the news today. Director Erica Whyman has made bold decisions and taken calculated risks in order to emphasise the similarities and the differences in society in the intervening time.

This is a Romeo and Juliet that deals with gang culture and knife crime. Romeo, Juliet and their friends are young teens dealing with self image, perception and how they wish to be seen. This production highlights how young they are, Shakespeare wrote Juliet as a fourteen year old and I have never before seen a version where I was so aware of their youth and inexperience. Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio are schoolkids trying to look hard in a world where they and all their peers carry knives.

Karen Fishwick is convincing as Juliet – a feisty teenager, used to getting her own way and not above a fit of defiance when she does not. She is surprised by her depth of feeling for Romeo but trusts it completely. Bally Gill is excellent as a contemporary Romeo. At the start he is mooning over his unrequited love for Rosalind but within a day he is head over heels in love with Juliet, the most beautiful girl he has ever seen. He squeezes comedy out of dramatic text. They make a credible young couple, each feeding off the others love.

The director has made a couple of other interesting decisions too. She has changed the gender of Escalus and Mercutio. Both bring something new to the text, The Prince of Verona being a woman brings new light to the speeches about the posturing of men in order to appear powerful. Mercutio’s change is double edged, she is more aggressive because she has to prove herself in a man’s arena, thereby verifying the effect of the sexism she is trying to dispel. Josh Finan is fantastic as Benvolio, he plays him with a schoolboy crush on Romeo, a contemporary twist that fits the text surprisingly well.

The set is bare except for a metal cube. A very abstract idea, but quite practical. It works as a room, the balcony, a dais for the bed, a wall to hide behind….  Personally, I would have preferred a more specific setting, but it is clever and inventive, and it is always interesting to see new thought provoking designs.

Do not go to see this if you want a historic, late 16th Century, costume drama performed as it would have been when it was written.  Do go if you want to see why this play has endured and why a story written so long ago still has relevance to our society today. I know that this production will not be universally loved but I really enjoyed it. It brings new life to one of Shakespeare’s most well known plays.