Hamlet, Harold Pinter Theatre

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Hamlet may or may not be Shakespeare’s magnum opus, but the Dane is unquestionably one of the greatest roles in the English language. Theatre’s pop star Robert Icke, what with his reputation for hot takes on the classics, no doubt found the play’s allure irresistible. This Hamlet, freshly transferred to the West End from the Almeida, is a slick, beast of a production surpassing three hours. Undeniably contemporary, it does its best to smash the restrictions of the proscenium arch with a celebrity cast and achingly cool, Scandi/corporate design. His casting of Andrew Scott in the title role and subsequent character choices makes this a Hamlet for cool young people on the hunt for profundity, depth of meaning and instagrammable aesthetics.

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Hamlet Fool, Lion & Unicorn Theatre

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A lesson: always read press releases in full. Why? Because you might turn up to a show and discover it’s performed in Russian (when you don’t speak Russian). At least in this instance knowing the source material for Hamlet Fool, a one-woman street performance style retelling Shakespeare’s classic, provides a base knowledge.

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The Cardinal, Southwark Playhouse

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Within 50 years of Shakespeare’s death, playwriting was changing quickly. Less flowery language and more powerful female characters are prominent in James Shirley’s rarely-staged The Cardinal, written in 1641. The plot is more streamlined, but some of the outdoor playhouse performance conventions linger along with the grandness of the king’s court. The story proudly flaunts influence from earlier revenge tragedies and is no less bloody, but easier to follow than some of those on stage a few decades or so earlier. In Southwark Playhouse’s smaller space with historical costumes, Justin Audibert’s production evokes the intimate atmosphere of indoor playhouses that were beginning to take over towards the end of Shakespeare’s career.

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The Ferryman, Royal Court

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Nearly a decade after Jerusalem opened to universal acclaim at The Royal Court, Jez Butterworth finally gives us another masterpiece. A sprawling family/political drama taking place over one day in 1981 rural Armagh, The Ferryman barrels towards a predicable end. But the genius lies in the final scene, where the plot shoots off in a different direction like a rogue firework before exploding. Laden with familial craic, rebel spirit, the complexities of colonialism and rounded off with phenomenal performances, The Ferryman encapsulates the best of contemporary British playwriting.

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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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Guards at the Taj, Bush Theatre

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Humayun and Babur have known each other since they were boys. Now the newest of emperor Shah Jahan’s imperial guards in Agra, the best friends work side-by-side on the night shift. Today is different, though. The first light of dawn will reveal the completed Taj Mahal, previously hidden from anyone other than its makers. Fit to burst with excitement, the two don’t know that the day to come will irrevocably change them as they fall prey to the giant cogs of the imperial machine.

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The Bad Seed, Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

L-R Rebecca Rayne as Rhoda, Jessica Hawksley as Monica and Beth Eyre as Christine © David Monteith-Hodge

Rhoda is the picture-perfect 1950s American child. Obedient, clever and helpful, she is a dream for any parent. But after the death of a classmate who won the penmanship medal Rhoda coveted, mum Christine’s investigations into past “accident” uncover a dark secret from her own childhood that means Rhoda isn’t all that seems. The revelation ends in tragedy with serious implications for Rhoda’s future.

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