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Review Shakespeare

‘If Music Be The Food Of Love’ – Review: Twelfth Night at the Globe


Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is a festive comedy, thought to have first been performed during Christmas 1601-2. Its composition may have been inspired by a visit to the Elizabethan court of Don Virginio Orsino, Duke of Bracchiano, and Shakespeare himself may even have performed in the play before the Queen and her Italian guest.

The latest production of Twelfth Night at the Globe certainly delivers a sense of festive merriment and celebration. The staging is, as ever at the Globe, simple; greenery adorns the balcony above the stage, and is entwined around the parallel pillars, delivering both a sense of the magical ‘green’ world of the play, and traditional English Christmas ornamentation. Musicians in Elizabethan costume play traditional music on the stage as the audience finds its seat, or plants its feet firmly in a small space in the yard.

In the opening act we meet the shipwrecked Viola; a vision in white, and as she transforms herself into Cesario, the only clue to her feminine identity is her long red hair. Johnny Flynn’s Viola is hesitant, almost shy, yet her lively temperament gradually emerges as she delivers messages of love from Orsino to the grieving Olivia. In its use of an all-male cast, this production beautifully highlights the double comedy within the play: a young man playing a young woman playing a young man. And it works. Flynn is a charming Viola: nervous but self-assured, comic yet radiating passion and infatuation.

The comic capers of Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, played respectively by Colin Hurley and Roger Lloyd Pack, are a sheer joy to watch. Hurley’s Belch staggers about the stage in a state of perpetual inebriation, and Pack’s Sir Andrew is both farcical and quietly touching. Mark Rylance’s Olivia however, while clever and very funny, left me with a vague sense of unease. His age at times undermines the innocence and grief of Olivia, and his infatuation with Cesario, played for laughs, detracts from the more serious issue of his character’s self-deception.

High laughs also come thick and fast from Paul Chahidi’s Maria; his split-second comic timing, and his portrayal of Maria, caught as she is between her duty to Olivia, and her enjoyment of merry-making with Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew, is beautifully delivered. Chahidi explores every facet of Maria’s character while remaining superbly consistent.

The surprise of the show perhaps is Stephen Fry. It was always to be expected he would be the star turn, given his fame, but in fact it is his talent at acting, not his celebrity, which is very much in evidence. A pompous killjoy, an ‘affectioned ass’, Fry’s Malvolio gleams with a refreshing verve and energy. Malvolio can be a difficult character, but in Fry’s hands he is every inch the entertaining Puritan. The gulling letter scene works particularly well, and Fry portrays the dawning potential for Olivia’s affection with superb comic aplomb. I had anticipated the production being rather top heavy, with Fry’s presence on the stage the major event, but the sense of an ensemble, of a company of players, is evident throughout, and while he shines as Malvolio, he does not cast his fellow actors into shadow, which is a testament to both his fine skill as an actor, and the excellent direction of Tim Carroll. It is to be hoped that this is not Stephen Fry’s last appearance on the Shakespearean stage.

This is a fun, engaging production of Twelfth Night. Its focus on high comedy perhaps leaves some of the more subtle elements of the play behind, but its sense of festive fun abounds. There is in this production a communal sense of celebratory sharing, a ‘cakes and ale’ atmosphere, which is reflected in the very obvious enjoyment of the audience. Whether standing in the yard, or sitting in the galleries, it is impossible not to be swept along on the energised tide of cheering, laughing, clapping, and stamping which this production provokes. As I left the theatre, dark chilly autumn skies overhead, it was impossible not to smile and look forward to the merry festivity of winter.

Twelfth Night runs at the Globe until 14th October. It is currently sold out, although returns are possible on the day. It transfers to the Apollo Theatre for a limited run from 2nd November.


Review Shakespeare

Much Ado About Nothing – Review

Paul Fulford reviews the latest RSC production of Much Ado About Nothing.

MANY and various are the novelty settings for Shakespeare’s plays. Many and various are the disasters as ill-advised directors contort words and action into a setting that makes about as much sense as a Hattie Jacques trying to squeeze into one of Twiggy’s frocks. Here, though, an Indian setting of Much Ado About Nothing makes perfect sense – not only illuminating the text, but creating a thoroughly entertaining experience. Which ticks the boxes that should be ticked by any Shakespeare production.

The sexual politics of the play are well served by this interpretation – the women allowed a degree of freedom and feistiness, but ultimately subject to the suffocating and brutal rules of the patriarchal society in which they live. The spellbinding Amara Karan is an unusually strong-willed Hero, full of fun, desire and a steeliness of character until she, too, bows to the pressures of the unforgiving world she inhabits. Meera Syal is a mischievous, sharp-witted and engaging (no pun meant) Beatrice who, like Hero, ultimately conforms… though not without first uttering an expletive or two. Paul Bhattacharjee is confused and torn as Benedick, uneasy in the company of his macho compatriots.

And thus amid the colour, verve, spirit and humour of this production there are distinct shades of darkness. Witness, for instance, the dismissive, at times irritated treatment of the comedic but forlorn servant girl, a poignant and lost figure amid the hubbub. Few liberties are taken with the text – there are subcontinental references, but they add to flow and understanding rather than jar. Though, on occasions, delivery is a little hesitant and indistinct. But this is a small criticism of director Iqbal Khan’s production whose three hours’ running time flies by.

The production runs from September 24 until October 27 at the Noel Coward Theatre in London. I may well hop on a train down to the smoke for a second helping.

Paul Fulford

Bankside Education Elizabeth Gunpowder Plot London Review Shakespeare Theatre

Staging the World: Review


The British Museum is soon to stage a major exhibition on the world of Shakespeare in collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company. The exhibition provides an insight ‘into the emerging role of London as a world city, seen through the innovative perspective of Shakespeare’s plays.’ It is part of the World Shakespeare Festival and runs from 19 July – 25 November 2012.

The British Museum Press has released several publications to compliment the exhibition, and kindly sent me review copies. A further book on Shakespeare and Food is forthcoming shortly. The titles I’m reviewing here are Shakespeare: Staging The World, Shakespeare’s Britain, and Angels and Ducats: Shakespeare’s Money and Medals,

First up is the rather splendid ShakespeareStaging The World by Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton. This is a big beautiful book, which considers the early modern period through the eyes of Shakespeare; its premise being that the things he, his players, and his audience saw, ‘mattered at least as much as what they read in shaping their vision of the world.’ This is cleverly illustrated by the juxtaposition of a stunning collection of early modern objects with Shakespeare’s characters and plays.

To look at a woodcut of a Jewish household in Venice and a sixteenth-century Caribbean wood carving of a spirit imprisoned in a tree and a pack of playing cards in which Cleopatra and Queen Elizabeth appear side-by-side is to be given a new historical and intellectual perspective on the characters of Shylock, Ariel and Cleopatra.

The book not only serves as a catalogue of the objects on display at the exhibition, it features a rich and detailed commentary by the Shakespearean scholar Jonathan Bate, and the exhibition’s curator, Dora Thornton, which in and of itself enriches both existing scholarship, and our knowledge of daily life in early modern England. The book is divided into nine chapters, each of which explores a specific theme and the objects which serve to bring it to life. For example, Chapter One gives an overview of London in 1612; a World City. It provides a narrative of aspects of London life at this time, and considers the theatres as bustling commercial enterprises. One of the most compelling objects featured in this chapter is a surviving turned oak baluster excavated from the site of the Rose theatre. It may have been part of the safety rail around the upper galleries:


© The Trustees of The British Museum


Subsequent chapters explore Country, County and Custom, Kingship and the English Nation, The Legacy of Rome, Venice Viewed from London, The Noble Moor, The Scottish Play, and the Matter of Britain. Each is illustrated throughout with truly mouth-watering photographs, illustrations, maps, and woodcuts. One of my favourite objects is this Horn-book from the late 1600s, comprising a sheet of printed paper protected by a layer of horn, similar to the one from which Shakespeare himself would have learned his alphabet and Lord’s Prayer while at school:


© The Trustees of The British Museum


One of the many facts I discovered while reading Staging The World, is that in 1571, a statute was enacted enforcing the wearing of woolly caps by everyone over the age of six on Sundays and holidays. This knitted man’s cap was found in Moorfields, London and dates to the mid-sixteenth century:


 © The Trustees of The British Museum

Perhaps my favourite object is this lantern, traditionally associated with Guy Fawkes. It was given to the University of Oxford in 1641 as a memento of the Gunpowder Plot. It’s made from sheet iron and would originally have had a horn window so it could be completely closed to hide the lighted candle within:
 © The Trustees of The British Museum

Shakespeare: Staging The World is more than just a museum catalogue, it’s a stunning collection of early modern objects brought vividly to life by Jonathan Bates and Dora Thornton. I’d endorse it for anyone with an interest in Shakespeare or early modern England. For the Shakespeare scholar it’s a valuable addition to the bookshelf, for the historian it’s a smorgasbord of early modern artifacts. For the general reader it’s a beautifully illustrated and informative guide to the world of Shakespeare. Highly recommended. Shakespeare: Staging The World, Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton (The British Museum Press: London, 2012) (£25).
A smaller, shorter version of Staging The World can be found in Shakespeare’s Britain, also by Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton. It contains a condensed overview of some of the objects found in Staging The World and has a specific focus on Shakespeare and Britain; a theme which preoccupied the playwright in his later years, and one which was ushered in by James I who longed for a unified kingdom. Perfect for someone who wants to get a flavour of the period, it neatly encapsulates Shakespeare’s Britain with lavish illustrations. I particularly love the cover image, which comes from a watercolour entitled ‘Going to Bankside’ painted by Michael Van Meer in 1619, and depicts some rather fancy-looking people enjoying a trip across the Thames to Bankside, perhaps to see one of Shakespeare’s plays. Shakespeare’s Britain, Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton (The British Museum Press: London, 2012) (£9.99)
The final book, Angels and Ducats: Shakespeare’s Money and Medals, is a fascinating catalogue of the coins on display at the exhibition. As anyone who’s been forced to admire my Elizabethan sixpence will testify, I do love sixteenth and seventeenth century coins. Not because I have any interest in numismatics, but because they give us pause to wonder just who’s pocket they’ve been in, and as such, they connect us with history in a real and immediate way.
© The Trustees of The British Museum
The above ducat dates from the office of Marino Grimani, Doge of Venice from 1595-1605. Ducats were, in origin, ‘the defining gold coin of Venice, but the term also meant any coin of the same standard and it was widely used and familiar.’
Another coin, perhaps my favourite, is a milled sixpence dated 1562, depicting the profile of Elizabeth I. It’s in much better condition than my own. Milled sixpences were machine-made coins circulated in the early 1560s at the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign. They were treasured at the time, and often used as reckoning-counters.
    © The Trustees of The British Museum

As well as using sixpences as counters, specially-made counters were available for accountants, and a bag or cylinder of counters served as an early modern calculator. The Clown, in The Winter’s Tale, talks of his need for counters before he goes shopping:

I cannot do’t without counters. Let me see, what am I to buy for our sheep-shearing feast? Three pounds of sugar, five pounds of currants, rice – what will this sister of mine do with rice?

Below is a set of silver counters depicting the Stuart royal family, dating to the 1600s. The accompanying silver box holds all twenty-nine counters.


 © The Trustees of The British Museum
Angels and Ducats fulfils a valuable role. It enables us to see for the first time exactly what the coins Shakespeare refers to in his plays actually look like. In this way this book enriches our understanding of both Shakespeare’s work and his life. Angels and Ducats is essential reading for anyone interested in the themes of money and finance on the London stage, but beyond that it is a wonderful introduction to the variety of coins in circulation in early modern England. Angels and Ducats: Shakespeare’s Money and Medals (The British Museum Press: London, 2012) (£9.99).
All three offerings from The British Museum Press are beautifully written and stunningly illustrated. If I had to recommend one, it would be Shakespeare: Staging The World, since it covers all the objects included in the exhibition. However Shakespeare’s Britain is a neat precis of some of the objects on display and Angels and Ducats is unique in its study of specific coins in England during this period. If you’re intending to visit the exhibition then any or all of the books are a great way to familiarise yourself with the history of the objects on display. If you can’t make the exhibition then each of the books serves as charming compensation. But in their own right, all three deserve a place on any bookshelf.
The books can be bought via The British Museum Bookshop online. Tickets for the exhibition Shakespeare: Staging The World can be bought here.
© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved
Review Shakespeare

If I must die, I will encounter darkness as a bride

Measure For Measure – Review

The Rose theatre on Bankside is a simple construction which houses the archaeological remains of the first theatre built on Bankside (c.1586-7). Not the easiest of places then to stage a Shakespeare production. The Rose has no auditorium, just a smallish viewing platform constructed above the theatre’s foundations. This serves as the stage, with the audience sprinkled in chairs around its edges. Measure For Measure, Shakespeare’s play about the hypocritical Angelo, placed in temporary charge of a corrupt Vienna by a Duke who wishes to observe society in disguise, is often regarded as a problematic play. However director Brice Stratford handles the challenge with ease.

This production is, by turn, laugh out loud funny, disturbing, thought-provoking, cynical, and even occasionally whimsical. Devoid of props, aside from chains used in the prison scenes, Stratford’s production relies entirely on compelling performances from the cast and on the audience’s imagination. In this it has much in common with original Elizabethan theatrical performance. Mistress Overdone, the play’s comic prostitute, is beautifully played by Elizabeth Bloom, who chats and flirts with the audience, and serves as a entertainingly cynical contemporary commentator on the action. Dan Van Garrett’s Angelo is thoroughly mesmerising; dark and violent, yet undoubtedly human. Thomas Vilorio’s delightful delivery and affable charm as the bungling humorous Lucio, who slanders the Duke and weaves in and out of the action, is a genuine highlight of the play. Brice Stratford takes on the role of Vincentio in a measured and very accomplished performance, and Suzanne Marie plays Isabella with an enthusiastic professionality which although occasionally feeling rather over-stretched, is nevertheless convincing. Jeremy Smith’s Clowne is witty and highly enjoyable, and Otis Waby’s condemned Claudio is moving and sympathetic. As an ensemble, the cast has an holistic integrity which makes for a seamless and cleverly authentic production. By teasing out the high comic elements of Measure For Measure, Brice Stratford exposes the darker moral undertones of the play, and this contrast is at times startling; the attempted rape scene for example, is handled particularly well.

If you’re not a fan of intimate theatre this production may perhaps prove a challenge, but if you want to experience intelligent, lively, and genuinely interactive theatrical performance in a haunting historical setting, then hie thee hither along to the Rose.

Runs until 4th December.
The Rose Bankside

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