Richard III, Arcola Theatre

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As the audience enters, Richard sits at a pub table on an otherwise bare stage. It’s impossible not to watch him until the house lights dim, and this opening sets the tone for the two and a half hours to come. With generically modern costume and no clear concept, Mehmet Ergen’s interpretation employs a light touch on the design elements. However his focus on the text and story is on point, making this an easy to follow and engaging production. Staged in the Arcola’s main house where the audience closes in on three sides of the stage, this is the sort of space that brings out the best in Shakespeare’s energy and language.

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Twelfth Night, Blue Elephant Theatre

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What with the prominent use of music in Twelfth Night, an actor-muso production is certainly a reasonable concept. Original Impact also sets the play in modern-day summertime, playing up the drunken frivolity at the forefront of the story. The recontextualisation largely works, though combined with some brutal editing, it glosses over the more sombre themes of grief and displacement. The cast demonstrate a range of ability with verse and performance skills, and there are some signs that the director isn’t familiar with Shakespeare. It’s not a terrible production by any means, but some minor adjustments would lend it a more professional feel.

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Romeo and Juliet, Greenwich Theatre

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A self-described modern rep company, Merely Theatre is addressing Shakespeare’s  gender problem with 50/50 casting. Five male/female pairs each learn a set of characters in two plays, then on the night it’s decided who will perform. The result is a focus on clear storytelling rather than unimportant details such as the appearance or gender if individual characters. It’s a great device, and partnered with simple staging and a pace that doesn’t hang about, artistic director Scott Ellis has created a distinctive style of performance honouring the historical aesthetics of travelling players, though there’s a lack of nuance dissatisfying to modern audiences.

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Feature | No, Dominic Cavendish – You Are the Thought Police

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by Dr. Jami Rogers, University of Warwick

Dominic Cavendish can rest assured: he will not lose the opportunity to see his favourite (white) male actors in leading Shakespearean roles. After all, what producer would refuse Kenneth Branagh the chance to play Leontes in The Winter’s Tale or stop inviting Ralph Fiennes to work his way through the classical canon? The star system remains overwhelmingly skewed towards the (white) male and, as such, any (white) male classical actor who fancies it will most likely be first in line for a West End Shakespearean lead. Antony Sher has just played King Lear and Simon Russell Beale showed us his Prospero, to name two more male classical actors who are not exactly short of Shakespearean work. Cavendish’s opinion piece is misguided in its assertion that men are an endangered species on the classical stage – and somewhat light on facts.

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Richard III, Rosemary Branch Theatre

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Bill Clinton once told Kevin Spacey that 99% of political thriller ‘House of Cards’ is real – a terrifying thought. Whether true or not, Spacey’s character Frank Underwood has clear parallels with Shakespeare’s Richard III what with the former’s ruthless climb to the US presidency. New company Godot’s Watch picked up on the similarity between the two rulers, taking inspiration from the tv series for their small-scale update to Shakespeare’s popular history play. Though the production has some canny choices, the concept comes across as a generic modern-dress adaptation with some pronounced weaknesses.

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Interview: Mark Brailsford on Staging Shakespeare’s Stories

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When Brighton Shakespeare Company’s press release for their Macbeth tour of historical churches in Brighton and Sussex landed in my inbox, I was sorry I couldn’t make it. Shakespeare productions in churches and cathedrals wonderfully hark back to the grandeur of private performances for noblemen and royalty in the 16th century. Shakespeare’s epic stories sit well in the sweeping architecture of these ancient buildings, and on a practical level it’s a great way for companies to save money on sets and reach audiences in rural locations.

Used to the plethora of venues that showcase small-scale, fringe and progressive approaches to Shakespeare in London, I was curious about BSC’s unusually traditional approach. I spoke to artistic director and founder of this new regional company, Mark Brailsford, about the company’s work.

Tell me a bit about Brighton Shakespeare Company and its mission.

The BSC’s ethos takes a character-led approach inspired by Ron Moody and Stephen Berkoff. The company’s aims are to bring individual, characterful actors to the classics in the style of the time the plays were written.

How do you approach Shakespeare? What concepts to you employ?

We are apparently called radical because we set our productions in the period, something not many companies seem to do these days and we’re happy with this label. Many companies, but not all, like to have directors impose their directorial vision onto the plays whereas my approach is to be true to the story and genius of the Bard himself. [I aim] to bring them to life by allowing the story to stand on its own terms. After all, it seems to have worked for 400 years.

Why stage Shakespeare for audiences today?

[The] story. The themes and narratives are as relevant today as they have ever been. Love and loss, pain and laughter, war and peace and the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. These exist in day-to-day lives all over the world.

What are some of the obstacles you and the company face?

Lack of money! We’re unfunded and back our shows via crowdfunding and box office.

Shakespeare is known for not supporting diversity. What steps are you taking to redress the balance?

This is a myth as there was more diversity in Shakespeare than commonly thought, especially for his time. His women are very strong characters, Othello was black and one of the best take-downs of antisemitism was Shylock’s speech in Merchant of Venice. He also gave prominent parts to working class characters, not a theme of Elizabethan life at the time.*

What do you hope audiences take away from your productions?

Joy, a tingling spine and a thrilling comprehension of the play.

*These views are not representative of those held by The Play’s the Thing UK or its writers.

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.

Undead Bard, Theatre N16

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Professor Ashborn is on a mission to disprove Shakespeare’s existence, but the academics with leather patches on their elbows are trying to stop him. Following Ashborn’s lecture and an interval, Undead Bard creator Robert Crighton summons Shakespeare to talk to him about his life, work and death in an unrelated second half. This two-part show on Shakespeare in the modern world, bardolatry and the authorship debate certainly has some very funny moments of satire, but others are utterly bizarre and the poor execution of an idea. A significantly stronger first act sets up a reasonably enjoyable event, but the second is self-indulgent and anti-climactic in this overly long solo performance.

The paranoid Professor Ashborn’s lecture rips the piss out of Shakespeare academics, those that believe Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare’s works, those that believe someone else did under Shakespeare’s name and anyone with a love for Shakespeare’s plays. Crighton as Ashborn talks the audience through his various ridiculous authorship theories with energy and eccentric humour, evoking plenty of laughs. The script follows a natural rhythm of discovery, disappointment and eventual confession; it’s a story carefully crafted with intuition and skill.

Considering the second act, the first would be better served as a stand-alone piece. After what is quite a good piece of character storytelling, this random, rambling seance on the mundanity of Shakespeare’s life and afterlife is, well, mundane. The inclusion of toilet humour and sexual innuendo do not improve the piece. Shakespeare’s confusion at his legacy is cute, but it absolutely doesn’t warrant nearly an hour of discourse and disconnected pop culture references.

Crighton clearly has an aptitude for crafting a story, as evidenced in the first part of the show. Unfortunately, the rest of it is a muddled letdown that needs to be sent back to the drawing board or discarded completely.

Undead Bard runs through 13 October.

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.