Jack Studio Theatre
Reviewed – 21st March 2019
“the Ed Miliband of Shakespeare: reliable, dependable, with the right words in the correct order but lacking that sense of purpose or timeliness”
I understand why people want to put on Shakespeare. It’s deep, people want to watch it, and it’s royalty free. What more could you want? But Shakespeare isn’t impressive like surgery is, it’s impressive like running a marathon is. Now, everyone has seen a marathon and if you want to make a statement you either need to do it exceptionally well, or you need to dress up as a Rhino and deliver your message.
And if putting on a Shakespeare isn’t like running a marathon, then it’s really like trying to be prime minister or a member of parliament. I want to know ‘why you?’ What does the version of Lear say different from the last? What extra insight do you have into our contemporary world? What do you believe in? This production of King Lear was the Ed Miliband of Shakespeare: reliable, dependable, with the right words in the correct order but lacking that sense of purpose or timeliness.
James Eley’s production at the impressive Jack Studio Theatre isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination. The cuts to the script are sensible; the performances are credible, and the production tells the story. But this is all cone and no ice cream. It leaves an audience member wanting more and with their attention free to focus on minor defects of pace and accent. You will be sure you saw King Lear but not sure why.
Themes were suggested and hinted but never committed to. In the beginning, the play seemed to be set in a series of pubs with Lear and his daughters as landlords, and club owners waging a turf war. But then the ‘fool’ was more Commedia dell’arte, the fighting Tarantino and the soundtrack part classical and part brit pop. Edmund became Ada with lesbian relations, but nothing came of it. All good ideas but the question ‘why’ just swirls and swirls.
Lear isn’t a simple production, and between disguises and actors playing many parts, it’s easy to get lost. Our players did a reasonable job of telling the story and keeping it clear, although occasionally we got lost with some scenes delivered like the actors quickly needed to get to the end. The experience of Christopher Poke (Glouster) and Alan Booty (Lear) did shine as they slowed down and gave some timing to the scenes.
Ultimately this is not a bad show. Lear is long and challenging and complex and just getting through it is often enough as the text does so much. If you like Shakespeare then this is worth a shake. But if you’ve read King Lear, you know the rough story, and you’re looking for more then you might be disappointed. In the end, just like a politician, I would prefer a flawed play with something to say, rather than a polished production saying everything all at once.
Reviewed by William Nash
Photography courtesy Yard Players
Jack Studio Theatre until 30th March
Previously reviewed at this venue:
The Unnatural Tragedy
White Bear Theatre
Reviewed – 5th July 2018
“Spanning sobriety, wit, tension and fatality, this ‘Unnatural Tragedy’ entertains the mind and the heart.”
In the first performance since it was written 360 years ago, ‘The Unnatural Tragedy’ plunges straight into the 21st century with a compelling production which reveals the work of a female writer who was years ahead of her time. Prolific in quantity and scope, Margaret Cavendish, sometimes nicknamed Mad Madge due to her ‘outlandish’ ideas and opinions, wrote everything from plays and poetry to philosophy and science. In this, one of fourteen plays, three storylines run parallel, ostensibly separate though related in themes, predominantly the concept of nature. The main plot tells of Frere’s obsessive sexual attraction for his married sister, Soeur, when he returns after many years away at university, and his attempt to seduce her. Secondly, and not dissimilar to a Greek chorus, are scenes of the ‘sociable virgins’ – modernised as teenage schoolgirls – and their discussions on women’s values and roles, marriage, classical poetry and history. A third tale is that of rich and irascible Malateste who berates his gentle wife, Madame Bonit. When she dies he finds a new wife among the sociable virgins and the tables are turned.
Director, Graham Watts, skilfully interlocks the three scenarios, with slick pacing and dramatic balance, engaging the audience in each story. The open, two-sided stage area with a simple yet effective set design (Alys Whitehead) allows the numerous entrances and exits to flow and the lighting (Paola Capuano) and sound (Matthew Iles) add colour and detail.
Watts uses the disjointed nature of short interjecting scenes to build up tension and anticipation as the characters and situations develop. Jack Ayres and Alice Welby give strong, nuanced portrayals as the brother and sister. Frere’s repeated advances become more intense and his frustration grows frenzied; Soeur becomes trapped by his arguments, trying to convince him of his sinful thoughts as he rationalises his incestuous desires by explaining what he perceives as ‘natural’. The rise and fall of Malateste’s (Alan Booty) life is clearly drawn with a touching performance by Alison Mead as Madame Bonit who preserves her integrity in spite of her husband’s insults, and the domineering second wife, played by Madeleine Hutchins. Mademoiselle Amor, (Phebe Alys), is steadily crushed by unrequited love for Frere until, in a heartfelt moment of desperation, she collapses into the comfort of her father’s (James Sanderson) arms. Meanwhile, the sociable virgins, (including Eleanor Nawal and Lily Donovan), debate and deliberate with spirit and petulance, testing the patience of their tutor (Norma Dixit).
The striking feature of this play is its relevance today, stressing Cavendish’s radical thinking in creating voluble women characters who address conventional attitudes to matrimony, love and nature. Accomplished acting all round, with several of the cast making debut appearances, and sensitive, intelligent direction bring it alive with nuance and fluidity, tying together the threads of narrative, comment and emotions. Spanning sobriety, wit, tension and fatality, this ‘Unnatural Tragedy’ entertains the mind and the heart.
Reviewed by Joanna Hetherington
Photography by Alys Whitehead
The Unnatural Tragedy
White Bear Theatre until 21st July
Previously reviewed at this venue