Saturday, 30 April 2011

Unhappy couple

'Well, it rattles along, doesn't it?' remarks an elderly audience member at intermission. 

And it does: Michael Boyd's extraordinary, compelling and iconoclastic new production of Macbeth (Shakespeare's shortest play) opens the renewed Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.

But if this is an express train, Bill the Bard has us bound headlong for Hell, as Boyd and his cast take us on a harrowing journey into the darkest regions of the human heart.

Boyd's boldest stroke is to re-imagine the 'supernatural solicitings' that so famously awaken Macbeth's dormant yearnings for ever greater status and power. To do so he (shockingly?) cuts some of the most famous scenes in the play, presenting the three 'witches' as (I'm guessing) they have never been seen before. Purists may have palpitations.

Not that the original production in the early 1600s was without its dangers: a play about the murder of a Scottish king, performed before King James I, newly arrived from Scotland to succeed the childless Elizabeth I. 

And whether you're a monarch or the man or woman on the bus, 'succession' is crucial to the well-being of everyone in the kingdom - our hopes often resting on the vulnerable shoulders of a child. And Shakespeare's on-stage children rarely see a happy ending: most die. As did his only son, Hamnet, aged 11 in 1596.

This play has more children and babies (seen and unseen) than in any of the other tragedies, their experience casting a grisly light on the consequences of the Macbeths' terrible betrayals. And it's Boyd's development of this theme that makes this show so disturbing, amply fulfilling the spirit of the text - if not the letter. 

Fine work from Jonathan Slinger and Aislin Mcguckin as the Macbeths, disintegrating before our eyes. Massive hurrahs for lighting designer Jean Kalman and composer Tom Armstrong. Designer Tom Piper sets the action in a vast space reminiscent of a crumbling, desecrated cathedral. (The new auditorium triumphantly fulfils the promise of being able to combine epic with intimate.)

The vast back wall holds a silent clue to Boyd's vision for the play: between the shattered stained glass and statuary the eye picks out a shallow space that once held the sacred building's focal point: but the cross has been removed.

Here's Charles Spencer's review for the Daily Telegraph.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Will goes to Spain...

A strange and rather wonderful experience awaits Bard buffs at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon: a Shakespeare play where you've no idea how it's going to end.

OK , for Shakespeare read 'Shakespeare'. This is an intriguing 're-imagining' of the celebrated 'lost play' Cardenio, its existence a matter of historical fact, but which never made it in to 1623 First Folio edition of the 'complete works', seemingly lost for ever.

Fast forward to 1727 and the premiere of The Double Falsehood, a crowd-pleaser from long-forgotten playwright Lewis Theobald, who (savvy marketer) claimed his work was based on original manuscripts of Cardenio (in his possession), a collaboration between Jacobean giants John Fletcher and William Shakespeare.

Oh and - add another name - the plot is drawn from Cervantes' Don Quixote, which Shakespeare could have read in Thomas Shelton's 1612 translation.

Scholars seem to agree that Theobald's text has stylistic echoes of both Shakespeare and Fletcher.

Still with me? I know, you'd be forgiven for guessing that the show on offer in Stratford must be a dryer-than-dust experiment in academic re-construction.


Wisely acknowledging the impossibility of recreating the 'play behind the play', director Greg Doran has approached Theobald's text with a light touch and with an imagination drenched in years of Bard-related empathy as both an actor and a director.

The result is a play that stands robustly on its own feet, providing a richly entertaining evening.

Doran and his production team clearly relish the opportunities of the Spanish setting, wreathing the action in luscious chiaroscuro and wafting it along on clouds of incense, intercut with languorous guitar music.

Good news, too, for Bardphobics: the plot is an easy-to-follow tale of love and friendship betrayed. The villain of the piece being the outrageously dreadful Don Fernando, all posturing, posing and perfect pectorals. The eponymous hero is one of his three victims.

What with nuns, a fiesta, a spunky cross-dressing heroine, the old abduction-via-coffin ruse, full-on flamenco (plus a wee bit of auto-flagellation), this is a show with something for everyone, performed with panache by a Rolls Royce cast.

For me, the ending raised some worrying questions - as to the forgiveness granted to the truly appalling Fernando.

That said, a must-see and a terrific opening to the RSC's 50th anniversary season.

And here's what the DT's Charles Spencer had to say.

Friday, 1 April 2011


Ever ready to acknowledge a kindred spirit, Mr Gnome relished a brief but uplifting encounter with Chris Samuel at the recent Community Choirs Festival.

Check Chris's website for a glimpse of his mission to awaken people to the life-enhancing joys and benefits of singing in groups - just for the fun of it.

A brisk glance through his CV reveals the aspect of Chris that most intrigues Mr Gnome.

Chris is a Spooky Man.

That's to say he is a booster, enthusiast, evangelist and, indeed, part-time member of The Spooky Men's Chorale, the incomparable Australian a capella musical phenomenon.

Sparing with his use of the word 'unique',  Mr Gnome has no hesitation in applying it to this quirky, gifted, subversive and massively entertaining ensemble.

Be warned, the Spooky Men will be performing around the UK in summer 2011. More details on their website.

Meanwhile, immerse yourself in spookiness via the men's Youtube compilation.