Macbeth: A Tale of Sound and Fury, Hope Theatre

The witches in Macbeth are the most interesting and powerful characters in Shakespeare’s play, and the easiest to reconceptualise. I’ve seen them as nurses, children, old men, dancers and various other incarnations, with differing levels of success. In 6FootStories’ version, the company’s resident gypsy characters, Billy, Sailor and Blackmouth, play the three witches, who play all the other characters in this hour-long edit. The gypsy fortune-tellers suit the witches’ manipulative, ruthless personalities and the added layer of interpretation is handled skilfully. This three-hander loses its way slightly with the addition of slapstick elements, but good performances and a solid but versatile concept make this three-man Macbeth: A Tale of Sound a Fury thoroughly enjoyable.

Here, the witches are creatures of the earth rather than ethereal, and blend into the sinister gypsy characters well. They don’t feel human what with their grotesquely stylised movement and voice work, but actors Will Bridges, Jake Hassam and Nigel Munson switch from gypsy, to witch, to other characters with clarity and ease. Simple accessories and contrasting accents signify character changes and the cast differentiate them splendidly, taking turns to play the bigger roles. Some actor-character combos work better than others: Will Bridges is a bit too drag as Lady Macbeth, but is a wonderful Macbeth. Nigel Munson is an excellently dark Banquo. Jake Hassam as Sailor is the leader of the three, the most charismatic performer, and excels at every character he takes on. Though as a trio, they fling their energy around the tiny pub theatre and can easily suit a larger venue.

The initial animalistic aggression works brilliantly and is supported by gypsy punk music, giving way to the witches’ playacting the other characters. They return to this tone as the gypsies/witches, until Banquo’s murder, which is inexplicably comedic – an ineffective choice. Though their mocking is cruel and vicious in itself, it breaks the established convention. A further scene employs object manipulation to similar effect, and the objects used are clean and new, also clashing with the filthy aesthetic of the travelling fortune-tellers. 

There are a few other minor issues, such as not returning to the witches often enough and the random appearance of vats of spaghetti, but these are few and rare. 6FootStories thoroughly owns this Macbeth and whilst staying true to the story, adds a level of interpretation that makes this a unique production. It might be tough to follow for someone with no prior knowledge of Shakespeare’s original, but the cast bring clarity, insight and excellent performances – the ingredients of a successful Shakespeare reinvention.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

 

Beetles From the West, Lion & Unicorn Theatre

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Half of the UK population born after 1960 will be diagnosed with cancer during their lifetime. Considering this figure, cancer rarely features as the primary subject matter in theatre, though last year there were several productions that put it at the forefront. I caught two of them in Edinburgh: The Eulogy of Toby Peach and Goodstock. James Hartnell’s debut play, Beetles From the West, is also driven by a diagnosis. Set in a hospital waiting room, immature Boyd waits with his girlfriend for news of his father’s health after a sudden collapse that’s left him unconscious. A young doctor’s attempts to explain what’s going on are aggressively questioned as Boyd comes to terms with what it all means. Hartnell’s script, obviously early career from its unwieldy text and underdeveloped characters, spotlights the importance of cancer screenings but it needs more development to have greater impact.

A combination of flowery, metaphor-filled monologues directed to the audience and simplistic scenes between the characters attempts to show range, but they are so dramatically different that they seem spoken by different characters. Dialogue paints Boyd (Ryan Penny) and his girlfriend Jenny (Amy Doyle) as immature and ignorant young teenagers. Their monologues have a more mature gravitas, but these contrasting tones don’t reconcile. The transitions in the writing are abrupt and jarring, creating an unconvincing baseline reality. Hartnell has a sense of dramatic arc and a satisfying ending that suits an awareness piece, but individual scenes and monologues sit clumsily within it. The script does manage not to preach, though.

There’s little subtlety or depth in the characters despite their dialogue, but Penny, Doyle and Matthew Marrs as the doctor attack them with gusto. Penny also directs, and favours heightened performances – though this might suit the language, it clashes with the thematic content. It’s an interesting choice, but not one that consistently works. There are some moments of good chemistry, particularly when the doctor reveals details of his own past – though highly unprofessional and unlikely to happen in the real world.

Beetles From the West shows cancer isn’t a battle, it’s a disease we are just as likely to get as not. It reminds us to monitor our mental and physical health and have symptoms investigated, something men are more likely to neglect than women. This is definitely a men’s health play, though it doesn’t alienate women. It’s just a shame that the script doesn’t do the themes justice or give the performers properly developed, meaty roles.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

Hamlet Peckham, Bussey Building

What happens when a director completely disregards age, gender and nationality in a Shakespeare production, then stages it in a former cricket bat factory with a stripped-back aesthetic and fantastic performers? Shakespeare Peckham. Founded by actor/director/producer Anthony Green, Hamlet Peckham bears more resemblance to the vibrancy and gender bending of Shakespeare’s original productions than most modern conceptual interpretations. Green incorporates several aspects of original practice, which prove that embracing the conventions of Shakespeare’s theatre with a fearless cast is a winning combination.

There are a few concepts that Green adds, such as casting three actors as Hamlet to highlight “the problem, the plan and the solution” of Hamlet’s narrative. He also empowers Polonius, making the father of Laertes and Ophelia the strongest character in the play. There’s loads of direct address and audience interaction, as there was in Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre and as there should always be. The ghost is just a man rather than ethereal or otherworldly, and when Hamlet is played by a woman, he changes all gender pronouns to “she” and “her.” These choices, proving Green’s instinct for excellent theatre and Shakespeare performance, either work well or, at the very least, don’t not work. The only one of these approaches that jars is the textual changes according to gender, but it will have little impact on a viewer who doesn’t know the play well.

The Bussey Building, here configured with the audience on three sides, also has three slender poles along the front of the stage. Though their position prohibits the curving movement that the Globe’s pillars creates, the actors use them – as supports, to hide behind and to propel them. Sight lines are occasionally blocked, but never for long. There is no backstage, so the actors hang out in the dark behind the audience. No feature of this space goes unused, though there are no specific adaptations that warrant the addition of “Peckham” to the show title. This isn’t a site-specific production, but it is certainly wonderfully site-responsive as well as being sensitive to the audience’s energy. Set designer Michael Leopold and lighting designer Adam King create a subtle, harmonising impact on the space with wooden crates, white curtains and colour. The actors’ black and white contemporary costumes looks like their own clothing, but rather than appearing cheap, it comes across as relaxed and accessible.

The cast is phenomenal. Nine of them take on all roles, with only a few not doubling, tripling or more. It’s impossible to chose a few standout performances, but the three Hamlets (Sharon Singh, Max Calandrew and Izabella Urbanowicz) seamlessly blend their interpretations whilst making each moment their own. Gil Sutherland as Polonius is the driving force behind manipulative Claudius (Pete Collis), Daniel Rusteau is a warm, grounded Horatio. Eva Savage is half a dozen characters, particularly excelling as the joyful singing gravedigger. As a whole, they are a well-oiled, energetic and charismatic bunch who have the talent for the world’s biggest stages. Working with Green, each moment is crafted with care and detail, but the effort only shows in the performers’ ease.

Both progressive and ancient, Hamlet Peckham is what contemporary Shakespeare should be – striving for equality in cast and crew, respecting core performance techniques from original Shakespearian theatre practice, and a relaxed, flexible concept that focuses on telling the story with passion and muscularity. This production creates opportunities, showcases great talent and tells Shakespeare’s story with all the energy and life of new play. Don’t miss it.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

Dress Rehearsal, OSO Barnes

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A performer’s life is far from glamorous, particularly for those managing to eke out some sort of living in the business. Corporate gigs, theatre-in-education, skin work and small-scale touring is better than working in a call centre or bar, but this work is exhausting and usually demoralising. I remember similar days in my past life as an actor, particularly that panto tour to schools and social clubs in South Wales. The schools were fine; teachers kept order. But the social clubs were all loud, drunk adults, and kids hyped up on e-numbers who thought hitting the actors was the most hilarious thing ever. With two shows a day, six days a week for a month and a half, I keenly feel the anguish of opera troupe The Overtones’ pub booking in AJ Evans’ Dress Rehearsal, even though those days are long behind me. Despite kinship with the characters’ aspirations and conflicts, and fantastic singing, the clunky script, poor performances, and undeveloped characters make this a missed opportunity to showcase opera within the structure of a play.

The concept reads well on paper and it could be a great way to make opera approachable as well as demystify life as a performer: flipping between the pub floor gig, the dressing room and reserved mezzo Steph’s past, we see trouble within The Overtones cast and career goals clashing with reality, and some cracking opera numbers. There’s certainly scope for situation comedy as well as character-driven dramatic conflict. However, Evans’ script hovers in the liminal space between these styles, creating something that manages to be both unfunny and quite flat with hackneyed dialogue. Subplots and the flashbacks are neglected and left incomplete, making them feel gratuitous to the main plot thread. The first half is slow and little happens other than exposition, but after the interval, both tension and pace picks up. The final moment even has genuine emotional connection between two characters, something that is pointedly absent in the script up to this point.

The singing is excellently emotive, however. There’s enough book (albeit a poorly written one) to make Dress Rehearsal a play with music, but there’s enough music to suitably break up the simplistic dialogue. Five of the eight actors are opera singers, one is a pianist who sings and two are “just” actors. The singers are certainly good at their primary craft, but lack in their acting ability. Director Paola Cuffolo focuses more on staging than coaching truthful performances from her cast. There is some stylisation that, as a conceptual break from realism, is under used and lacks punch.

If Dress Rehearsal was a single act composed mainly of the current second half, it would be a much stronger play. As it is, it wanders aimlessly for quite some time before finding its purpose and conviction. Fortunately, the songs are welcome respite in what feels like something that well precedes a dress rehearsal.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

Shifter, Crick Crack Club at Soho Theatre

Going to a Crick Crack Club storytelling event is a bit like joining a private members’ club. This club doesn’t have strict entry criteria, nor is it cold and exclusive – quite the opposite. A welcoming spirit of community and the use of ritual enhance Jan Blake’s and TUUP’s four globe spanning stories. The first half of the two-hour, four-story Shifter has sturdier narratives, but the tales of trickery and metamorphosis interspersed with simple call and response create a magical, engrossing evening despite a few structural shortcomings.

We begin in Scotland, where young prince Raymond on a hunting trip meets a beautiful woman in the depths of the forest. He takes her home and the two soon marry. After many years and the births of their ten children who all have some sort of foreshadowing deformity, the prince makes a surprising discovery after spying on his wife whilst she bathes one evening. After a public reveal, the myth quickly relocates to a chateau in France, where inexplicable marks on a high window ledge are made clear. The prince is very much the victim of his bride’s deceit, but their love is also held up for admiration. Told by TUUP, this story is particularly male focused, demonising the female but also giving her power. It would be an interesting experiment to see what a woman storyteller could bring to this story. The climax and denouement are rushed, but the final line satisfies. TUUP has a relaxed, magnetic presence and his delivery of this warped love story is endowed with empathy and respect.

Blake now takes us to the Gulla Islands off the coast of America, one of the first settlements by African slaves. This is a another love story, again with a man who falls in love with a powerful, shape-shifting woman. Mary is less friendly than Raymond’s wife, and the threat to hew new husband John is tangible in Blake’s telling. This unnamed tale alludes to Rumpelstiltskin and Sleeping Beauty with the prominence of a spinning wheel and mysterious nighttime happenings. The strongest of the four stories in Shifter, its madness and imminent danger give this story a thrill, heightened by the various percussive instruments TUUP uses to accompany.

After the interval, two tribal, pre-Christian tales evoke the savannahs of Africa and the prestige that comes with being a successful hunter. The morals in these stories aren’t about the fear of powerful women in the Christian West; they more broadly apply to all humanity – don’t allow yourself to lose sight of your life goals, and practice rather than magic will bring you success. This half has a more epic sense of coverage, but the narrative arcs are less familiar to Western stories. They are more rounded, with a greater sense of the world outside of the characters; this makes them initially unsatisfying, but more universal.

TUUP and Blake both have natural warmth and charisma that draws in the audience like a hug. They are energetic but not ostentatious, simply relying on the rhythms and language of their stories. Much of the pleasure from Shifter comes from their presence, though hearing these stories grants a comfortable sense of inclusiveness despite some rocky moments in the stories themselves.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

Hamlet, The Rose Bankside

The Rose, the tiny fringe theatre built on the remains of its Elizabethan original, is one of the most unique theatres in London. It has its issues, though. Rather than the hierarchy with an artistic director at the top, it is managed by a team of artistic associates, all volunteers. Due to the lack of  an individual’s clear programming vision, the productions here are hit and miss. Their current production of Hamlet, though it has a few moments of invention and effectiveness, largely misses the mark due to poor performances and a huge reduction in length, which hacks the dramatic arc and character journeys to bits.

Of the cast of seven, Luke Jasztal as Horatio is the only one with completely consistent characterisation and stage presence. As the confident, loyal friend and member of the court’s inner circle, he holds the plot together and picks up the energy in lagging scenes with warmth and charisma. Chris Clynes in the title role is more believable once Hamlet decides to feign madness. His ‘to be, or not to be’ is simple and honest, and he is full of energy whilst deeming Polonius a fishmonger. Clynes’ initial sullen sulk casts him as an overgrown, spoils teenager rather than a grieving young adult, but fortunately he gets over that quickly. The remaining cast tended towards either completely flat, monotone delivery or overwrought melodrama, with little light and shade between the two performance styles. The verse handling is also hugely inconsistent amongst this cast.

At nearly three hours if left intact, to reduce Shakespeare’s script to 90 minutes removes a lot of action. Though director Diana Vucane’s edit is linguistically seamless, major plot points are inevitably lost. The focus on Hamlet is maintained, but with so much of his dialogue cut, his character choices come across as unjustified. With The Rose’s 90-minute limit on productions, perhaps Hamlet isn’t the most suitable for this venue.

Some of Vucane’s choices were strong, whilst others questionable. Hamlet’s use of puppets in the players’ scene was inventive, but the impact of the scene was diminished with the murder reveal coming from Hamlet rather than strangers. Contemporary dress also worked in this casual, reduced version of the original but the number of costume changes was excessive and pointless. I stopped counting after Ophelia’s dresses numbered four, in as many different scenes. The rich sound design that stood in for the ghost and scene transitions was rich and spooky, but inexplicably gave way to vintage show tunes. (I’ll never know why “The Lonely Goatherd” made an appearance, or Judi Dench’s rendition of “Send in the Clowns” after the evocative introduction.) She utilises the rear of the The Rose rarely, but it is striking and powerful when she does. If she cast the play, she ought to look at her audition process in order to secure more consistent talent. No lighting designer or fight choreographer is credited, but both of these elements are well done and can count towards Vucane’s strengths as a director.

Though the abbreviated length works against the original play, with the performances given it largely goes in this production’s favour. Diana Vucane shows some promise as an emerging director, but her choices need more clarity in their justification. Luke Jasztal is a pleasure to watch, and Chris Clynes gets closer to his level eventually, but this Hamlet, like the Midsummer mechanicals, is tedious brief.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

Weald, Finborough Theatre

As picturesque as agrarian life may be with it’s rustic farmhouses, sweeping land and livestock, it is not an easy one for older and younger generations who just want to make a decent living. Faded and weather worn, Sam looks after his horses as he’s done his whole life; the younger Jim is all bouncy, boyish banter. The two clearly have much affection for each other in this emotive story of a tragic hero’s fall. But Daniel Foxsmith’s Weald, though full of poetry, passion and the ability to find the audience’s raw nerves, at just over an hour it sells itself short and lacks the sweat and earthiness of farm labour.

Sam (David Crellin) and Jim (Dan Parr) spend most of their time in a barn surrounded by riding tack and looking after horses. Though everything seems well, dramatic revelations are eventually confessed, bringing fiery conflict between the two. Crellin and Parr’s performances are exemplary, with emotional journeys that are the kind actors dream of. They both relish Foxsmith’s rich language and have a wonderfully watchable presence. Their character journeys feel rushed, though; this is wholly down to the script. It’s too short to justify Sam’s final, sudden deterioration that harks of Shakespeare’s Henry V should he have failed at Agincourt.

Bryony Shanahan’s direction taps into the poetic and powerful heart of the script that addresses coming to terms with personal failure, life choices and platonic male relationships that span decades. Her regular use of the audience space shows this is a story that won’t be contained. Though a masculine play, it’s still accessible to female audience members what with the themes that transcend gender. As a failed actor having to adapt to a new and totally unplanned for life, Sam’s struggles particularly resonate and left me feeling exposed and vulnerable, but the grit endemic to farming is glaringly absent. Linguistically heady, Weald lacks a visceral-ness. Even Sam’s final actions when faced with his own ruin are stylised, distancing the audience from the characters’ emotional life.

This is still a beautiful play with fine performances and painfully relevant to present day economic uncertainty, but it’s a sanitised version of real life. Though Sam and Jim mock the wealthy city family that bought the farm house, covering it in solar panels and driving a spotless Range Rover, their daily routine as depicted in the script bears more resemblance to the unseen city man with his shiny wellies than the true life of yard workers.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.