Missing the Mark: Three Shakespeare Appropriations, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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As great as it is to see Shakespeare inspiring contemporary theatre makers to create derivative work, like any new writing it has the chance of missing the mark by a long shot. Annika Nyman’s Romeo and Juliet Post Scriptum poses the question, “What happens and Romeo and Juliet don’t die?” and the answer isn’t pretty, nor well thought out or well-written. Z Theatre Company’s The Female Question gives us Shakespeare and his female alter-ego bickering over whether or not they shortchanged his female characters, from whom we hear a lot of moaning. MacBain, part of Summerhall’s Big In Belgium season, retells Macbeth through a hybrid of drug-addled Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love and Shakespeare’s text, giving us MacBain.

Romeo and Juliet Post Scriptum is such a lovely premise, but the route Nyman takes is inexplicably far from the characters Shakespeare created. Romeo is the main issue here. Nyman presents him as an indecisive coward who now regrets the whole “feigning death and running away” idea. Deciding that family is more important than love, he wants to go home and make up with his dad. Juliet, unimpressed by this, tries to convince him to stick to the plan and when he is unconvinced, they argue for pretty much the rest of the play. They speak in stilted English that isn’t Elizabethan, but it’s certainly not modern either, preventing the actors from connecting their text. The characters partly make up, then they argue again. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. The rushed ending is disconnected from the all the fighting leading up to the moment, making the overarching effect one of pettiness that doesn’t relate to Shakespeare’s characters and no clear message about their actions.

It’s 400 years since Shakespeare died, and he and his female alter ego meet for their annual discussion in his office. She’s trying to convince him of their legacy, but he doesn’t believe her. Hamlet has been bugging him lately, and he’s feeling like he didn’t do his female characters any justice, hence The Female Question. He talk to the skull on his desk, texts on his phone and has a desk covered in books about himself and papers. Quite what is occupying his time since his death is never revealed, neither is how he got a mobile phone, why there are two of him and why Hamlet keeps giving him grief. Some of his characters come in for a chat, but the through-line (that was never really made clear to begin with) only tenuously connects these characters to Shakespeare’s inner dilemma. This could likely be due the fact that there are two of the same dead person and the rest of the characters aren’t real. Whilst the idea to give Shakespeare’s women another crack at the spotlight is admirable, the execution is muddy, badly performed and has no solid resolution or narrative structure.

MacBain has the most promise due to it’s Summerhall location, but this one-trick pony also disappointed. Despite excellently imposing lighting and sound design, the performances of Kurt and Courtney off their heads playing at talk show interviews that randomly morph into a two-person Macbeth with children’s toys is almost completely pointless. There is no commentary on the Macbeths’ power dynamic, sexuality or guilt. The only thing of any interest is the introduction of “the babe that milks me,” a son that eventually committed suicide. Otherwise, the banter between Kurt and Courtney, a powerful, mythic couple in their own right, comes across as self-indulgent stoners. Watching MacBain is like being the only sober person at a party where everyone else is off their nut, having a great time making in-jokes and reminiscing, only truly coherent to each other. When they are finally pinned and silenced beneath a descending sheet of plexiglass covered in vibrating cutlery, it is sweet relief.

In three unrelated productions that have premises with potential to offer fresh insight into Shakespeare and his work, the lack of dramaturgy and clear concept is painfully apparent. None of them managed to have any meaningful follow-through and most ended with an unspoken question hanging in the air – “what was the point of that?”

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