My top ten to bring us in from the January cold

January isn’t most people’s favourite month. I’ve heard a lot of people complaining about it. It’s cold. Christmas has gone and won’t be back for a long time so it seems like there’s nothing to celebrate. It hasn’t snowed. It probably won’t. A holiday to somewhere warm would be nice but….

So, with a brief nod to a lovely woman I worked with once, who said I was ‘horribly positive,’ here’s my top ten of things to warm the heart this January. In no particular order other than random selection …

  • VEGANUARY. So many people are trying a plant- based diet this January and 61% of them, according to statistics, will still be vegan by December. The Bosh! Cookbook will be out soon and, having followed their blog for years, I know there will be some sumptuous recipes to make everyone happy, whether they are looking for a Christmas dinner, a delicious burger or a chocolate cake.
  • BOOKS. There are so many good books to read. Mary Beard. Sarah Winman. Patrick Gale. This is just my January reading list. On the exercise bike, it’s amazing how many chapters I can whizz through in an hour. I’m so lucky to have good books to read.

  • FOOTBALL. After Liverpool’s monumental win over Manchester City last week, (a team I admire for their attacking football and excellent players such as De Bruyne,) the future for the Reds looks good, especially if we can sort out the goalkeeper conundrum. Plus we have signed Virgil Van Dijk, and the Fab Four (Salah, Mane, Firmino, Ox) continue to amaze. Football is theatre, a performance in two halves. Which brings me to the next one on my list.
  • THEATRE. Last year ended on a high, seeing Josie Lawrence in Mother Courage. This year promises to be brilliant too. Hamlet is on in Plymouth next month and it will be really good. I must sort out tickets and then I’ll look forward to it throughout January.
  • MUSIC. I’m enjoying Spotify while I work at the computer and my current writing backing track is Humble Pie. I love Steve Marriott’s voice and the stomping rhythm makes sure my writing is pacy. Check this one. I know it’s from way back in 1973 but who cares if it’s this good…
  • WORK.  My book cover is out. My novel follows soon and I am so excited. I’ve had a wonderful review and such kind words and real enthusiasm blow me away. It’s a joy to work with people who aren’t just incredible professionals, but truly lovely. We are blessed if we find ourselves alongside people we trust, who are supportive, efficient and completely totally nice. Kiran, Rachel, Sabah, the Avon Team – they know who they are.

  • NATURE AND TRAVEL Whatever the season, whatever the weather, being outside, travelling, going somewhere the wind blows the salt of the sea in your face, or somewhere there is nothing but silence and a deer peering behind a tree, or somewhere you have to try a new language and rethink your own lifestyle, or somewhere you can be lost in bustle and noise and culture. It’s good for the soul.
  • ANIMALS (CATS). Last year, my best cat, Pushkin, was knocked down on a lane where three cars pass daily. She was so unlucky and of course, I said, as we all do, ‘No, I won’t get another cat. Ever.’ My daughter persuaded me to adopt Monty and Murphy, two mad clowns who had been feral and will now scrounge hummus on toast. Colin is just starting to tolerate them. They are lovely and cats make such great company. I love the way they slap their bottoms full-on the keyboard when I’m editing and give me six pages of dzzsmk..rrrtlgggggggggggg

  •  FRIENDS. My friends are scattered everywhere from the North to the South. I don’t always see them all as often as I’d like. I know we have email, messenger, Facebook, Skype, Twitter, phones. When we do meet up it’s rock and roll. I have happy friends, mad friends, friends who need a hug, who give hugs. I have funny friends, talented friends, kind friends. Where would life be without friendship? I love you all.
  • FAMILY. Family is at the centre of everything I think and do. Without them, it would all mean so much less. They are my backbone. They are my smile when I wake up each morning.

You don’t choose your family. They are God’s gift to you, as you are to them. Desmond Tutu 
I’ll tell you what I’m grateful for, and that’s the clarity of understanding that the most important things in life are health, family and friends, and the time to spend on them. Kenneth Branagh.

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Amazing production of ‘Mother Courage’. It should be on national TV.

I took time out last weekend to see Josie Lawerence in Mother Courage. It was in a lovely little theatre in Southwark. I had front row seats, which is ideal for a Brecht play, to be able to take in every facial expression. I couldn’t understand why the theatre was three quarters full: tickets were only ten pounds each. But the play was a real gem.

Mother Courage and her Chidren is a play by Bertolt Brecht, set in  Europe during the Thirty Years’ War. Mother Courage is a canteen woman who pulls her cart with her three children, Eilif, Kattrin, and Swiss Cheese. Following the army, she lives by trading with the soldiers and attempting to profit from the war. To her, war is her living but making money costs her dearly in the long run .

The play is typical of  Brecht: his epic theatre was a phenomenon arising in the early to mid-20th century,  responding to the political climate of the time. It educates through the medium of entertaining; it’s political theatre.

I once directed The Mother, another play by Brecht and it was greeted by two typical responses. One was from audience members who thought that it was a serious play, too political, dull, lacking frivolity and entertainment. The other was that it was pertinent, moving and important.

Josie Lawrence’s Courage straddles both audience viewpoints. With lively music and lots of laughs, she and her cast entertain as Brecht intended, but the strong political message about capitalism and profiteering, poverty, war and exploitation is central.

I remember as a teacher of theatre, working hard  to enable students to understand the individual style of Brecht. I wish I could have taken them to see this production. Mother Courage embodied all Brechtian theories, from Gestus to alienation. It was funny, poignant, tragic and beautifully performed by a team of talented actors, headed by the superb Josie Lawrence.

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There were magical moments, from raunchy song and dance routines, to Courage’s devastating silent scream when Swiss Cheese dies; from Kattrin’s martyrdom to the final seminal image of Courage pulling the cart, her personal ball and chain. With the fourth wall broken, the actors would share jokes and biscuits and eye contact with the audience. There was one wonderful moment where Mother Courage put out a hand towards the person next to me, begging for support, as she trudged on alone.

The production has now finished but I hope someone decided to film it. I hope it’ll be streamed to cinemas. Apart from it being full of accomplished performances,  it is an important play. The storyline is gripping and Brecht’s words are perfectly translated by Tony Kushner, a playwrite I adore for his best works, Angels in America and A Bright Room Called Day.  (Apparently, he’s currently busy writing a play about Donald Trump.)

I hope Mother Courage tours the country and packs huge theatres. It’s one of those plays I’d love everyone to see. Sadly I suspect this production won’t be seen again. I’d love it to be on TV over Christmas, so that everyone could watch it from the comfort of an arm chair. But I fear it wouldn’t compete with Corrie or Strictly.

Brecht intended his plays to be for the masses, so it’s ironic that only a few theatre-goers will have witnessed this brilliant and thought provoking production. But then that’s the moot point, isn’t it? Audiences for whom it was intended will never see it.

I’ll leave you with some ironic lines from Mother Courage and let my readers decide if it’s still a relevant must-see play after almost eighty years. Does it still resonate?

What they could use around here is a good war. What else can you expect with peace running wild all over the place? You know what the trouble with peace is? No organization. And when do you get organization? In a war. Peace is one big waste of equipment. Anything goes, no one gives a damn.

 

 

How theatre tells us to fear the inadequate life

I love theatre. I love all different types and styles of theatre: Shakespeare, Brecht, Stanislavsky, Artaud, Grotowsky, Meyerhold, Lecoq, agitprop, avant garde, physical theatre, mime, puppetry, theatre of the absurd, naturalism, modernism, post-modernism. I can go on. I love the moment when the lights dim and then it’s often a journey of the mind and the emotions until applause breaks out hours later and I remember I’m in a theatre again. And the best theatre transports not just the imagination, the mind, the emotions but the soul. Think of McKellen in Richard the Third, and Godot and Lear. Dench in Macbeth. Rylance in Twelfth Night and Endgame. Ralph Fiennes in The Tempest. Graeae Theatre are great in everything they do, but Bent was magnificent!

Leave the caves of being. Come. The mind breathes outside the mind. (Artaud.)

As kids, we all experiment with theatre from the moment we start to play. Role play. Then we get creative and try and refine what we do. A talented young actor said to me this week about her GCSE performance piece, ‘My play is pretty dark.’ We explore issues we don’t want to happen in our own life from the safety of the stage. I remember being allowed to ‘do’ an assembly as a kid at school, making experimental theatre, a row of friends in black clothes with white masks jerking around to sombre music,  me dressed up in a long black cloak and a skeleton mask. A girl called Higby tried not to breathe while lying on a table under a cloth as I intoned the John Donne lines, below:

Death be not proud

Though some may call thee mighty and dreadful

For though art not so

I thought I was cool. My friends thought it was funny when some of the teachers took out hankerchieves and snivelled. Looking back, I wasn’t cool or funny. I was using the stage to prod people’s emotions about a subject I then knew nothing about, when the audience clearly did.

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Some years later, I directed The Mother, a great and often ignored play, by Bertolt Brecht. The lead was played by a talented young actor who is now Amanda Lawrence. Remember her performancein the film,  Suffragette. Then, she was just as magnificent as Pelagea Vlasova, the eponymous mother.

She spoke a line in The Mother which has always stayed with me. Resonated.

Do not fear death so much but rather the inadequate life.

Simple words but profound. A motto. A guide by which we can make our lives more meaningful. Death, of course, is The undiscovered country from whose bourn No traveller returns. We don’t know what to expect. Many people offer many suggestions about death, what comes afterwards. Heaven, Hell, The Afterlife. Or, of course, it could be nothing at all. I love the way Andrew Scott said the lines of Hamlet’s soliloquy recently. Not the often spoken  To die, to sleep No more… but To die, to sleep. No more. There’s the rub. That’s it. The end. Nothing. Infinite space. Brilliant interpretation.

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Hence the importance of making life all we can make it. Not to spend it fearing something which might happen, will certainly happen, but packing present time with good things: kindnesses, learning, making fun, loving, excitement, creating, contemplation, mischief, dancing on tables, making music, hugging, laughing, whatever is ‘adequate’ and beyond. I recently spoke to a fascinating vicar, who suggested that GP doctors, rather than ask patients ‘Do you drink or smoke?’ as lifestyle questions, should ask ‘What makes you truly feel alive?’ She has a point. It’s a question we should ask ourselves from time to time. We need to strive for good health, but we also need to live an adequate life, at least. So many people live inadequate lives, bound in circumstances they can’t control and can’t escape from, and it’s both a tragedy and a travesty. Brecht’s words are a bare minimum: we should expect and work towards adequacy, at least.

Artaud explains how theatre motivates and shapes our experience,  in his own passionate way. Theatre inspires us to move away from inadequacy and mundanity towards something which can truly change lives .

A real theatrical experience shakes the calm of the senses, liberates the compressed unconscious and drives towards a kind of personal revolt…

This week, my little cat was knocked down in a lane where only three vehicles pass each day. Pushkin. I rescued her two years ago, a skinny, starving stray in a city and she rewarded me with one thing I don’t find anywhere else. Unconditional time. If I called her, she’d come and rub her face against mine. She’d lie in the crook of my arm when I was typing. She’d pat my face, stroke it, show me her tummy and ask for hugs. Humans can’t give you that. Humans are always too busy doing something else, aren’t we? That offer of unconditional time has gone now. But theatre is always there, ready with a quotation, something which fits the bill exactly and clarifies the moment and explains how grief affects us. Brecht again The Mother, after her son Pavel is shot. It wasn’t reason that made me weep. But when I stopped, reason had something to do with that.

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I’ve lost my best ever cat. I hope she had an adequate life. She wasn’t much more than four years old. Now Shakespeare’s words come to me:

And will he not come again?
  No, no, he is dead,
  Go to thy deathbed.
 He never will come again.

So, Brecht was right about fear. Not death, but an inadequate life. The inadequate life is to be avoided and we must make the most of each moment. Theatre is a condensation of life in the form of a play, and there are pithy words for every occasion.  All the world’s a stage, as Shakespeare said, and we need to make the most of the short hours traffic of our stage before we end up Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

Brecht had a more than adequate life: women adored him, his plays were well received, he was a prolific writer, although he was a refugee, his plays blacklisted due to his Marxism. That’s more than adequate, though. That’s inspirational.

Artaud was a genius, flawed and hospitalised. He died alone in a psychiatric clinic, at the foot of his bed, clutching his shoe.

Meyerhold was brutally tortured and sentenced to death by firing squad. He said:

I want to burn with the spirit of the times. I want all servants of the stage to recognize their lofty destiny. I am disturbed at my comrades’ failure to rise above narrow caste interests which are alien to the interests of society at large. Yes, the theatre can play an enormous part in the transformation of the whole of existence.
Their lives weren’t inadequate, though. Far from it. They were game changers, all of them. Inspirational people. Their theatre is energising, enabling us to suspend disbelief, so that our souls soar and reach out for new ideas, making our lives richer and our hope to rise above mediocrity becomes intense, greater. As Swiss director and performance artist Natasha Tsakis says:
We know the Arts are the archives of our human history, the wind of invention and the heartbeat of humanity

That’s well above adequate. I’ll aspire to that.

 

Fiennes shines as Richard III

Several years ago I saw Ralph Fiennes as Prospero in The Tempest. It was directed by Trevor Nunn, at the Theatre Royal, in 2011. Ralph, as in Salph and Sound, had only been on stage for twenty seconds. He hadn’t spoken a word. He simply raised a digit slowly into the air and -pow! Thunder crashed  and lightning split the stage. That is the sort of performer he is: autocratic and accurate and absolute in his instinct.

The Tempest isn’t one of my favourite Shakespeares but Fiennes as Prospero was commanding and powerful, yet vulnerable and utterly convincing. We were in Salph hands.

So, Fiennes as the villainous Richard the Third in Rupert Goold’s Almeida production, screened live to cinemas on 21st July, could only promise to be thrilling  theatre.

The play begins with Richard’s skeleton being discovered in a grave in a Leicester car park. The grave is the centre point of the stage and sets the context for the play as the archaeologist pulls out the twisted length of a spine and lifts it high. The lights change and we are in the fifteenth century and Richard sways forward, dragging the audience into his seething monologue:

But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking glass;
I, that am rudely stamped and want love’s majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtailed of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them—
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to see my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity.

Fiennes delivers to us a callous misogynistic Richard who is ambitious, cunning and intent on achieving power at any cost. He dissembles and lies to other characters but with the audience he is honest, brutal, sometimes exposed in his weakness, but always scheming and self-obsessed.

There are times when he is funny. The scene where he pretends not to want the crown, but holds out the Bible and feigns piety, is hilarious: Fiennes becomes a master of stand-up comic timing. But then there are the murders and the deliberate schemes to strike his enemies and we know everything he does is done to further his own position.

The scene in which he persuades Anne to marry him while she is mourning over her dead husband’s corpse is outstanding. A difficult scene to achieve for actors- one minute Anne curses him, spits at him, then he asks her to kill him: she almost does it, then agrees to marry him. However, the rapport sizzles: we understand the motivation for Anne’s acquiescence in the face of Richard’s power, his craftiness and his sexual assault of a vulnerable woman. Anne becomes prey and victim and we the audience believe every moment. She is merely a step towards Richard’s achieving the crown: I’ll have her; but I will not keep her long.

Richard’s interaction with women is a key theme of the play. Fiennes’ King holds no respect for women. He has no natural affection  for his mother and he repels Margaret’s bitter curse with a single swipe. He is indifferent to the fact that he has brutally murdered Elizabeth’s sons: he tells her that he will marry her daughter as recompense:

If I did take the kingdom from your sons,
To make amends, I’ll give it to your daughter.
If I have kill’d the issue of your womb,
To quicken your increase, I will beget
Mine issue of your blood upon your daughter

Goold then directs the scene shrewdly and with breathtaking impact: Richard rapes Elizabeth. He is violent in his abuse and she quickly leaves the stage: she has not acquiesced, but she is shaken and violated, and when she has gone he shows no remorse, but calls her a : Relenting fool, and shallow, changing woman!

It is perhaps at this point that we realise the monstrous king must die.

Fiennes is outstanding as Richard but this isn’t a one-man show. Vanessa Redgrave is magnetic as the cursing Margaret, carrying a doll which represents dead babies, feeding it alcohol from a glass. There is a powerful and tender scene where the three mothers, Margaret, Elizabeth and  the Duchess of York, combine their sorrow and lament the death of their children. Margaret advises Elizabeth to experience as much bitterness and pain as she has known in her own life and the three women combine in a curse as powerful as anything in Macbeth:

Think  that thy babes were fairer than they were,
And he that slew them fouler than he is:
Bettering thy loss makes the bad causer worse:
Revolving this will teach thee how to curse.

The performances of Aislin McGuckin, Joanna Vanderham and Susan Engel as Elizabeth, Anne and The Duchess of York are powerful: although they are each in turn the object of Richard’s maltreatment, they are still vocally compelling and each creates a taut and credible victim while demanding to be heard in their own right. They are no pushover, demonstrating the extremity of Richard’s heinous behaviour towards them. James Garnon as Hastings is perfect: the scene in which he realises Richard has duped him and he is to be killed is a triumph of characterisation. Finbar Lynch makes a superb Buckingham, perfectly balanced as a liar and cheat and as a victim of Richard’s fickle allegiances. Daniel Cerquiera’s Catesby is exactly right: the noble thug who does all Richard’s dirty work with impressive efficiency.

Each moment is a gem – there are no sagging scenes in the play. The final action where Richard is visited by the ghosts of his victims, and the Earl of Richmond has a contrastingly peaceful night’s sleep, is intense and thrilling as both men sit at the same table and the ghosts speak first to Richard then to Richmond, and we sense the outcome of the next day’s battle.

The final battle scene is everything it should be- loud, crashing and quick, with Richard repeating his famous lines A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse! until we can only hear the gasped word horse! and he is killed and falls into the grave where, as the lights fade, we see the archeological excavation and exhumation in February 2013 in Leicester.

Richard the Third ends with a satisfying reminder of where it started: the back story has been filled in and Goold has shown us history on stage. Fiennes has created the character of Richard with physical and vocal perfection: there is the dragging leg and the hunchback, but he does not wheedle or whine. Rather, he plots and simpers and cajoles and threatens; he is mentally incisive and always dangerous. He licks blood from the block where Hastings has been beheaded. He searches the audience for assassins to help him. He is commanding and sinister and lethal and in control.

I would have loved to have been at the Almeida and seen Richard the Third live. It was a close second, though, to be in a cinema auditorium  with another twelve or so people, having the opportunity to watch this fantastic production as it is performed in the capital.

It’s an interesting plot factor that  Richard seizes the chance to rule a divided country in difficult times. He sees the opportunity open before him and through his crazed ambition, his ability to deceive and his unswerving determination, he takes his country from stability to division and chaos. Fiennes said of the play that it resonated with what is happening in our own current political climate: “Not through our doing but just because of events happening around us. Suddenly it became full of a pertinence that perhaps it hadn’t had before.”

Of course he’s right. This is exactly the time to be watching Richard the Third and to be considering our own political parallels. Perhaps we’re not so Salph!

So where do we start looking?

 

Last chance to see Krapp…

It’s not often Beckett comes to Devon.

I have seen brilliant Becketts in our big cities but the Cygnet’s version of Krapp’s Last Tape in Exeter, starring James Elston, is definitely worth catching. It runs until June 11th.

I am a real Beckett fan and I have been fortunate to see master actors on stage performing   Beckett’s superb works: Thewlis, McBurney, Margolyes, Rylance, Stewart and the sublime McKellen. I have seen Krapp’s Last Tape, starring John Hurt.

So, when a new, young actor tries to step into the shoes of giants, it appears audacious, risky and a bit mad, to say the least. The Cygnet is a little theatre and, when I went last night, the auditorium was just half full. The sound quality was poor and the synchronised sound-timing wasn’t always great. That would have put off a novice, but James Elston is made of tougher stuff.

He began the play by being seated on stage as the audience came in, deep in thought and surrounded by a spider’s web of spools and tapes and junk, signifying his personal confusion. He sustained this focus for several minutes when the lights dimmed and the performance began, taking an age to create a physical and idiosyncratic Krapp. This was not indulgent, however – it was about creating detail in the character and setting the scene.

Krapp is a ‘wearish old man’ in his late sixties, listening to a tape he made aged 39, and reminiscing about lost love and time, which have slipped away from him, leaving him indulgent, alone and morose. James Elston is covered in dust and, with grey hair and eyebrows, creaking across the stage, he looks not unlike Beckett himself. He is an old man, his tongue poking through dry lips, his voice cracked and not used to speech. Elston is utterly credible, despite only being in his early twenties.

It is a study of solipsism, showing exactly how loneliness and being distanced from your own life can render a person both self-indulgent and separate. Krapp listens like a bystander to the tape of his younger voice which tells of a love affair which he let slip through his fingers. Krapp’s story is a sad one, and Elston recreates the selfish old man without animosity; he physicalises the character’s grotesqueness without excessive humour or cruelty.

Krapp’s current existence is pointless: he drinks too much alcohol, he eats bananas and slips on the skin, he is lonely,  but he is never a figure of fun, nor do we wallow in his predicament. James Elston creates Krapp as he is, a man for whom time and memory are both painful and inescapable.

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Beckett’s absurdist play is intelligently interpreted by Elston: with strong physicality and striking facial expressions,  Krapp struggles with his lost eloquence and wasted youth. His dilemma is that he has missed the  opportunity to live his life fully, but he says  of the frittered years ‘I wouldn’t want them back. Not with the fire in me now. No, I wouldn’t want them back.’

Elston is a striking and magnetic figure on stage; Krapp, while not being quite empathic enough to be endearing, is also not a tragic figure, although he has no options remaining to him in terms of life choices. As he plays his last tape, Krapp is centre stage, suffocated by his own lost time and wasted love.

Time is the central theme of this absurdist play: Krapp reflects on his past and struggles to understand a time beyond the present. The stage set embodies his isolation and the pointlessness of his life: his small room is a circle of lights and heaps of detritus, used and unravelled tape spools, empty bottles, skinned bananas.

Krapp’s Last Tape isn’t an easy play to perform: beyond it being a one-man-show, which demands great concentration from the actor, it is a Beckett, sometimes impenetrable for some audience members, frustrating for others but, as a whole piece, it is both meaningful and moving.

James Elston manages to capture the character and the moment and he creates an impactful and memorable Krapp. He is an actor who will benefit from playing such demanding roles: if he can create a credible Krapp in his early twenties, he has the potential to take on any role in the future with the promise of certain success.

Don’t miss the opportunity to see Krapp’s Last Tape in the Cygnet, Exeter, this week. The theatre should be full. It’s a great play, and it’s performed with sensitivity, panache and understanding.

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Sublime Shakespeare: ‘Tis Beauty Truly Blent

‘… we will draw the curtain and show you the picture.’

I loved Shakespeare when I was at school, despite my English teachers. They were not the enthusiastic pedagogues of today, striving to make the bard accessible because every child mattered. My teachers were dry pecking birds who wanted to perpetuate a class system in which the Felicities and Florences were urged towards Oxbridge and the threadbare uniformed eleven plus-passing paupers like me were relegated to the back row of low expectations. I knew I would achieve an A grade at A level in English. When I mentioned going to Liverpool to study my degree, the headteacher wrinkled her rhinoceros nose at me and said ‘Eww, that is so towny!’

I paid her about as much attention as I ever did and never looked back once I’d left.

But I loved the Literature classes, even though Abigail and Arabella got to read all the best parts round the class and I had the occasional comic role because I could do accents.

In year eight we ‘did’ ‘Twelfth Night’. I struggled a bit with the concept of Shakespeare’s comedies at that point. We were told that some plays were classed as comedies, but I didn’t understand why some of them  were funny, and no-one explained it to me. In ‘A  Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ we were meant to laugh at Bottom’s working class plight and his subsequent humiliation. In ‘The Shrew,’ we were meant to find Kate’s subjugation funny. And I never knew, as a kid, what was  so hilarious about the antisemitic abuse and exploitation of Shylock in ‘The Merchant of Venice.’

It was the 20th century, not the 17th, and I was clear why Sir Toby was fairly funny and Sir Andrew was a figure of parody, and I understood that it was hilarious that Maria and her boys took the poke out of Malvolio because he deserved it for being priggish. I was a bit uncomfortable with that, though. The idle rich and drunk laughing at others and marrying the maid because she showed her superior wit by ridiculing someone a bit weak with probable low self-esteem. Wasn’t that bullying, I wondered? And as a thirteen year old, I had no idea why it was funny to dress up as a boy and cause a rich egotistical heiress to pursue you.

Then much later I saw Mark Rylance as Olivia.

‘Twelfth Night’, at The Globe in 2013, was an all-male cast, much as it would have been almost 400 years ago, in Jacobean costume, with traditional music and instruments.

Rylance as Olivia brought everything into sharp focus: with his tiny steps, which gave the impression of gliding daintily across the stage, and his falsetto-high voice, his performance was not a parody or a grotesque, but a radical and witty interpretation which cleverly makes the traditional also sharply contemporary. Olivia was not played for her superficial beauty, but for her keen wit and her ability to run her own household powerfully and with insight. And when she sees Cesario, Viola’s male character in disguise, looking very similar to Boy George in his days of ‘Karma Chameleon’, she decides she must have him.

All performances were incredibly impactful and strong. The cast were a collaborative team, but Rylance has such a superb sense of timing and diction and how to use Shakespeare’s language to wring out the most meaning for the audience. The moment Cesario and twin Sebastian appear on the stage together for the first time , Olivia exclaims ‘Most wonderful!’ A fresh interpretation from the one which implied a miracle: we as the audience know she is goggle-eyed, considering the prospect of a ménage a trois and we oblige with spontaneous laughter.

Olivia is in charge but her attraction to Cesario is a sucker punch to her omnipotence, and it is this new found frailty and dependence which swings from cool mistress to besotted girl which inspires the humour. We find ourselves, like the groundlings of the 1600s, laughing raucously at the innuendo jokes which would never be noticeable in a straight performance done entirely for the type of middle class audiences who laugh politely in the right places. Yet Rylance remains credible, a dilemma of delicate femininity and a woman who rules her own world. It is fun and frivolous, but never a pantomime.

The scene between Orsino and Viola/Cesario annoyed me when I was in year 8, when Orsino says such lines as:

There is no woman’s sides
Can bide the beating of so strong a passion
As love doth give my heart; no woman’s heart
So big, to hold so much. They lack retention.

But this scene was tenderly homoerotic. Orsino is not the priggish macho aristocrat here: we realise that his words are currently mistaken as Viola gazes at him through the eyes of Cesario, but we forgive him, because she does, and also because the rapport between the characters promises such passion and hope for change. This too is why the scene is humorous but also full of tension and romance. It’s perfectly positioned to pave the way for the action and confusion which follows.

While Stephen Fry as Malvolio and his rowdy tormentors create the slapstick which the groundlings would have revelled in, Rylance and the actors play out the love triangle and confusion of identity with  intelligent comedy, wit and farce, a great homage to how Shakespeare should be done. I just felt really happy to be in the audience: no numb bum moments, which can be the case with some productions – we were truly transported and delighted throughout. If I didn’t understand Shakespeare’s comedies before, this production made every opportunity crystal clear.

I also saw Rylance as Richard the Third, a performance rich in self-loathing and machiavellian exploitation. But perhaps that production is for another blog.

As we remember Shakespeare’s birthday, and his death on April 23rd, 400 years ago, we can contemplate an important part of our culture which may once have been the property of the middle class audiences who, due to their elitist backgrounds, understood or claimed to understand what it all meant. But it didn’t start that way. Shakespeare’s plays were the top dramas and soap operas of his time, played for fun, for laughter, for passion, loved by all who saw them, whatever age, class or background.

It is thanks to brilliant actors like Rylance and his cast, and thanks to the dedication of outstanding modern teachers who make Shakespeare’s plays fresh, accessible and meaningful that those times are here again. We can all enjoy Shakespeare; we can understand the meaning of every line in context, and new and exciting interpretations enable us to build bonds with the characters and make the storylines contemporary and meaningful without losing their original impact. The curtains have been drawn and we have been shown the picture. And what a great picture it is too.

If I could go back to my dry and diffident English teacher, I’d still say thanks, though. She may not have taken me to where I was always going to go, but I had a seat in the room and a book marked ‘Shakespeare’. And from that starting point, the journey was always going to be exciting.

Best of Samuel Beckett: Mark Rylance hamming it up. (Part 1)

Lots of people tell me they don’t get Samuel Beckett.

Perhaps they have stared at a script in a Drama lesson at school, or watched a little bit performed out of context on film. My own first taste of Beckett was watching a play called ‘En Attendant Godot’, aged 18, all in French, in a theatre in Liverpool. I didn’t really get it either.

The trick is not to try. The trick is to immerse yourself in the humour and the language and the characters of it and to give it a go. And the best advice is to watch someone perform it who knows what they want to get out of it, and who is really good at what he or she is doing.

Beckett said: ‘James Joyce was a synthesizer, trying to bring in as much as he could. I am an analyzer, trying to leave out as much as I can.’

And he’s right, he does leave stuff out. But oh, the stuff he puts in – when it’s performed properly, it’s magic.

I have been very lucky to see two brilliant performances of Beckett plays live. I will blog the second one another time. The first was Endgame in 2009, in The Duchess Theatre in London. Théâtre de Complicité, with much of it’s work rooted in director Simon McBurney’s Lecoq training, and therefore full of animated physicality, performed a masterclass in Beckett, showing why it is both entertaining and bittersweet .

Nell, played by Miriam Margolyes, spends the entire play in a dustbin, next to another bin containing her husband Nagg, played by Tom Hickey. They cannot move and they are tragic in their tender symbiosis, yet she says ‘Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.’ Later in the play, Nell dies in her bin – and then Nagg dies of a broken heart.

Hamm, their son,  is blind and in a wheelchair and he is seated throughout the play, squirming and waving. Their world is one room, a prison; they dwell upon their past and seem to have no future.

McBurney, as the servant Clov, waits upon Hamm. He can move, he is unable to sit: he is downtrodden and disenfranchised, but his blighted life is quirky, touching and amusing as he staggers stiff-legged at Hamm’s beck and call.

All four performers are magical but Rylance excels as Hamm, a blunted hammer who beats and subjugates the others, who are his nails. (Clov – clou in French; Nagg – nagel in German. Nell, I am guessing, is ironically her own death knell). Hamm lurches from side to side, his emotions ranging from cruel to hysterical. At times he dominates, at others he is a martyr. He is a spoilt child, he is a torturer; he is suffering, he hands out pain. Rylance manages to make his character furious, humorous and always expressive as he performs with high energy, his vocal skills and changing pace both communicating his need to dominate and his need to be pitied. He is vulnerable yet he is a parasite.

Beckett is a master at using words. He once said:’Words are all we have.’

Ever the witty pessimist and a genius with linguistics, Beckett also said ‘Nothing matters but the writing. There has been nothing else worthwhile… a stain upon the silence.’

And there you have Endgame, a sensitively written thing of beauty, perfectly performed, leaving you at the final curtain feeling the  stain upon the silence, because we as an audience cannot care for the emotionless, self-centred Hamm, who is left on stage at the end of the play to starve to death. Although nothing much happens in the play in terms of action, it is bleak and powerful.

Look here at Hamm’s monologue as an example of Beckett’s brilliantly sensitive language:

HAMM:

One day you’ll be blind, like me. You’ll be sitting there, a speck in the void, in the dark, for ever, like me.
(pause.)
One day you’ll say to yourself, I’m tired, I’ll sit down, and you’ll go and sit down. Then you’ll say, I’m hungry, I’ll get up and get something to eat. But you won’t get up. You’ll say, I shouldn’t have sat down, but since I have I’ll sit on a little longer, then I’ll get up and get something to eat. But you won’t get up and you won’t get anything to eat.
(pause.)
You’ll look at the wall a while, then you’ll say, I’ll close my eyes, perhaps have a little sleep, after that I’ll feel better, and you’ll close them. And when you open them again there’ll be no wall any more.

The stage is a desperate place where four characters act out the intensity of life as they all totter towards death. The set is visually powerful, a dark and foreboding skull – shaped prison with two high and unreachable windows, and the acting is always acutely moving.

McBurney is a great actor and director; he’s ubiquitous in his film roles too. He pops up in The Last King of Scotland, Harry Potter, and the most recent Mission: Impossible, but he is undoubtedly most magnetic on stage.

Rylance has had huge acclaim for his recent role in Bridge of Spies. He was the best Olivia I have ever seen in Twelfth Night, but that’s for another blog.

Back to Beckett and his genius: his ability to write plays which seep into the core of your emotional understanding, even if you don’t fully get him, is unsurpassable. He is a pessimist and a master of words and emotions, and it is always entertaining, therapeutic, uplifting and cathartic to watch his plays performed well.

I’ll leave the last word to him: his plays are encapsulated in the following quotation:

‘The tears of the world are a constant quality. For each one who begins to weep, somewhere else another stops. The same is true of the laugh.’

Franca Rame: behind the great man there was a superstar

When Franca Rame died in 2013, aged 84, the Italians at her funeral remembered her by wearing red clothes with red roses,as she had requested. She was a superstar, grieved in much the same way as recently departed cultural icons have been remembered after their deaths, surrounded by tributes and superlatives.

In this country, Rame’s husband and professional partner, actor-playwright Dario Fo, is much better known than Rame. When Fo received the Nobel prize for literature in 1997, he hailed Rame as his muse and shared the medal with her.They gave most of the Nobel money to charity.

Fo is well known for his political plays, ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’ and  ‘Accidental Death of an Anarchist’, which featured roles for both himself and Rame. In 1970 they co-founded their own militant theatre group, La Comune, in Milan.

Franca Rame was a superb actress, a feminist and a champion of the underdog. She was never afraid to speak out against injustice. She worked for Soccorso Rosso (Red Aid), to collect funds for the families of political prisoners, who were being mistreated in Italian jails.

She said in 1984: “I’m not defending prisoners because I think they’re poor helpless beings who have been maltreated by an evil society. I just want to defend their right to dignified human treatment.” Such activity made it initially difficult for her and Fo to be given visas to visit the US.

Rame was a seminal writer and great performer of monologues, and again her characters and performances reflected her political convictions.In 1977, she put the sketches together into a one-woman show, ‘Tutta Casa, Letto e Chiesa’ (It’s All Bed, Board and Church).

It became a favourite text for feminist theatre groups and was performed (as Female Parts) by Yvonne Bryceland at the National Theatre in London in 1982.

Her monologues, ‘A Woman Alone’, are outstanding to watch and to read; they range from deeply serious to the extravagantly comic and grotesque, all comments on the female condition. Rame said, ‘The pieces are comic, grotesque, on purpose. First of all because we women have been crying for two thousand years. So let’s laugh now, even at ourselves.’

It is impressive that Rame can use writing and the stage as a platform for catharsis and political injustice. In 1973, Rame was kidnapped , tortured and raped in a van by neo-fascists. They abandoned her in a park, after dark. Ten years later, she used the experience for a monologue, Lo Stupro (The Rape), which featured in a 1983 workshop she did at the Riverside Studios in London.It can be found in her collection, ‘A Woman Alone’ and is a harrowing depiction of her ordeal, written in the first person.

In 2006, Rame surprised everyone by standing for parliament. She was elected to the senate for the populist Italia dei Valori (Italy of Values) party, a enemy of Berlusconi’s party, set up by former magistrate Antonio Di Pietro.

For the last four decades of her life, Franca Rame fought against against rape culture, always insisting that hers was never a special case. She insisted that rape is always a crime of hatred, about power and control.

Dario Fo is still alive and he is an active participant and campaigner on various political, social and cultural issue. One of his famous quotations about his work is ‘With comedy, I can search for the profound.’ If he was the people’s court jester, then maybe Rame was behind him, pulling strings or in the wings, prompting. But her work deserves its own place in the limelight. She should be remembered for her incredible contribution to political and feminist theatre.

Review: Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet

Although audiences looking for a more faithful adaptation, without additions or subtractions, may feel Lyndsey Turner’s Hamlet isn’t complete or fulfilling, there are plenty of reasons why this Cumberbatch Hamlet hits the mark.

Benedict Cumberbatch himself is a likeable, accessible Hamlet, his madness arising from his grief. This is entirely clear, easily marked out from the moment he stands upon the dinner table and proclaims ‘O, that this too, too solid flesh would melt.’ At this point, the rest of the cast are obscured, slow motion shadows. We are enabled to focus on Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Hamlet’s inner thoughts, and provide some window into his isolation and his intentions.

Not only is he plausible, but Cumberbatch’s Hamlet is admirable. Unlike other Hamlets, he is not a misogynist in the way that Ken Branagh and Rory Kinnear have portrayed him; nor is he an egotist, like David Tennant’s or Jude Law’s Hamlets.

The brutal edit may be deemed inappropriate by purists, but it was imaginative and inspired, allowing the play to flow quickly, revealing exactly what the director and actor intended their characters to show without the archaic nuances of  17th century cultural mores.

Lyndsey Turner is unafraid of cutting lines that contradict the portrayal she intends in order to support the modern expectations of her audience. Ophelia does not sing songs about any sexual relationship she has had with Hamlet, ‘Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s day ‘ not making the cut at all. Instead she sings a plaintive song, accompanying herself on the piano, seeming to only half-recognise Laertes as she does so. Her wasted wit is embodied by what looked like a patch of hair that had been ripped out, a semiotic with a little more indication of violent madness than the typical, predictable ripped dress.

Cumberbatch’s Hamlet is caring towards Ophelia. Her descent into madness is not catalysed by sexual rejection, but her own sensitive nature combined with the tragedy of her father’s violent death. Siân Brooke’s Ophelia’s delicacy is cleverly sign-posted: from very early, she exhibits tentative idiosyncratic gestures, which grow into the aching embodiment of mental breakdown following Polonius’ death.

“To be or not to be” was not misplaced at the beginning, as it had been earlier in the run, but the script around it was still subject to some major edits. It followed the scene where Hamlet teases Polonius: again, there was no malice, unlike Tennant or Kinnear who used their antic disposition to plague ‘these tedious old fools.’ Instead, clad in soldier uniform, Cumberbatch showed Hamlet’s failure to be the son his father wanted, and the depth of the misery this caused him. A brief banter with Polonius was followed by the famous soliloquy, showing the impact of his self loathing. Cumberbatch’s performance here was faultless, revealing Hamlet’s hamartia and his weakness to an audience sympathetic to his tears.

This Hamlet’s relationship with his mother (Anastasia Hille) is one of the most tender I have encountered. The rapport between them ably demonstrates Hamlet’s genuine affection for his mother as well as the scorn he feels about her “o’er hasty marriage” to his uncle. Both actors showed the difficulty of this dilemma. Their scene together in Gertrude’s chamber, often and easily overshadowed by more obvious dramatic moments of Hamlet’s killing of Polonius or the reappearance of the ghost of King Hamlet to “whet [his son’s] nearly blunted purpose,” was characterised by the symbiosis and evident understanding between Hamlet and his mother.

Ciarán Hinds’ Claudius was immediately redolent of a Pacino-esque patriarch (there being something in his voice and his bearing that certainly put me in mind of Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate, albeit with Hinds’ Claudius exhibiting more vulnerability and guilt), and there was something in his just slightly hammy portrayal of a controlling, calculating monarch which communicated the precariousness of his hold over his court. There was nothing one-dimensional, however, about Hinds’ Claudius. He carried much of that period in the early second half of the play from which Hamlet’s personality and development are absent. And there is a hint of contrition when he soliloquises his confession. He is an unsalvageable, twisted Claudius, but no pantomime villain.

Minor roles include shining performances by various individuals, including a loyal, supportive Horatio, devoid of the subservience from which insipid characterisations  so often suffer.

Even Rosencrantz was likeable, with his affable humour. The gravedigger’s chipper, cockney philosopher did not jar with the mood of rest of the play. The ending was swift. I recall Simon Russell-Beale taking nine minutes to die, but Cumberbatch’s exit was marked from the moment he realised he had been poisoned, and his credibility was better and more poignant for his quick end.

The play was not without imperfections and oddities: we saw Hamlet being playful with Ophelia in a scene change before she rushed to Polonius and told him she had ‘been so afrighted’, a moment which jarred with implausibility.

There were few of the gimmicks we are used to in modern Shakespeare interpretations, but the play did not suffer, as Turner’s directional ideas were fresh and Cumberbatch’s Hamlet honest and heroic, despite his tragic flaws of procrastination and hypersensitivity. We did not need Ophelia present and laid out downstage throughout the second half, an ingenious diretor’s addition to the Kinnear play; we did not need the t-shirt of bones Tennant wore to depict his closeness with the afterlife. Cumberbatch’s performance reminded us all the time of his aching solitude and his grief.

This is an unabashedly clever Hamlet, an intellectual, such that something is made of his mother’s plea that he ‘return… not to Wittenberg.’ But because Cumberbatch did not, as many previous Hamlet’s have done, cram the prince with arrogant egotism, the intelligence of his character was allowed to shine through as an entirely positive character trait, a rare – if not unique – feat among Hamlets I have seen.

He was a Hamlet to be admired; he evoked pathos and empathy and there was no badness in him, as any lines where we might lose sympathy had been cleverly cut. This Hamlet was indeed a ‘sweet prince’, and his energy and passion embodied and empowered a very impactful production.