[REVIEW] Twelfth Night, dir. Simon Godwin, National Theatre

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Doon Mackichnan as Feste, Tamsin Greig as Malvolia. (c) Marc Brenner.

Appropriately for a play that begins with a shipwreck, Simon Godwin’s Twelfth Night at the National Theatre left me with a lingering sinking feeling. The production is a watershed (I’ll stop) in cross-gendered casting, with Tamsin Greig’s Malvolia creating a mannequined Miss Hardbroom that kicks over the traces of Sir Donald Sinden, Richard Briers, Sir Nigel Hawthorne, et al. Less prominently, Doon Mackichnan plays Feste as a principal boy-turned-raver, and Imogen Doel carries equal opportunities to its logical conclusion by having to make the best of Fabia[n] – which she does very well, despite dialogue like ‘Sowter will cry upon’t for all this, though it be as rank as a fox’, a line so bad it merits mention in The Art of Coarse Acting. My problem is that this production, lauded for its celebration of race, sex, and gender, inadvertently uses cross-casting to tell a deeply homophobic story.

 

twelfth-night-doon-mackichan-as-festeimage-by-marc-brennerOn the surface, there’s much to like. Soutra Gilmour’s inventive set unfolds from a ship into an endlessly rotating pyramid that’s somewhere between Illuminati shout-out and a tomb by Canova. There’s a jacuzzi in which Phoebe Fox’s Olivia becomes a floozy (mourning garb replaced by a red bathing suit), any number of zooming cars and motorbikes, and a salmon-pink fountain that delights the audience by spurting symbolic jets on cue. The costumes are similarly witty, with Mackichnan’s Feste flaunting a sea-green tribute to Princess Beatrice’s pretzel-themed millinery.

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Daniel Rigby as Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Tim McMullan as Sir Toby Belch. (c) Marc Brenner.

There are also some excellent performances. Excluding Greig, chief of these is Daniel Rigby’s pink-suited Andrew Aguecheek, who, as Bertie Wooster with a manbun and an energetic vogue for disco, overshadows Tim McMullan’s Sir Toby, a rat-bitten roué.

Oliver Chris’s Orsino is the first truly loveable one I have seen, a superhero Prince Charming whose spoilt temper is sublimated into boxing, and who takes the audience into his confidence with winning ingenuity. He tussles readily with Tamara Lawrence’s Viola, an unusually even-tempered, cheerful heroine whose tendency to take all the verse at full pelt robs her bittersweet dialogues with Orsino of all their self-concealing pathos. She calls her situation a ‘barful strife’ but laughs her way through the first two acts, until the joy of being mistaken for a still-living Sebastian (‘Prove true, imagination, O, prove true’) yields the first moment of emotional connection.

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Oliver Chris as Orsino and Tamara Lawrence as Viola. (c) Marc Brenner.

This is a production where love electrifies and mobilises: Olivia gyrates to the onstage musicians’ elevator music, while Viola wriggles and hoots after Orsino gives her a kiss to deliver to Olivia. Ultimately, these are twins whose highest priority will always be each other; Daniel Ezra’s pugnacious, sexually opportunistic Sebastian (an excellent performance) seems bemused by both Antonio and Olivia’s devotion, but adores his sister.

 

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Tamsin Greig as Malvolia and Tamara Lawrence as Viola. (c) Marc Brenner

And then there’s Greig’s Malvolia. Every time she takes centre-stage, she brings with a consummate skill in verse-speaking that is sometimes absent elsewhere. Godwin’s production seems uneasy about the text: switching pronouns and honorifics in line with gender leaves characters ‘lady’-ing each other in the manner of vintage Coronation Street, but more important is the overriding feeling that the text is an impediment to the evening; a struggle to be overcome. Monologues are largely galloped through, Belch supplies ad-libs (Maria is a ‘dirty little girl’) but loses lines that illuminate, including Olivia’s revealing reluctance to ‘match above her degree’ by marrying the count Orsino. This is key to the psyche of the only Shakespearean heroine who uses her last line to insist she pays for her own wedding. Greig gives an electrifying performance, beginning as an obsessive-compulsive spinster, all angular bob, geometric gestures and gym shoes.

Every sympathetic Malvolio incurs tragedy when his passion is mocked; Greig intensifies this, partly by being pitched against an unusually unlikeable gang of ruffian sots, and partly through her bewitching incredulity when she believes her love for Olivia is returned. Her cross-gartered yellow stockings are tights with a pierrot jacket, the latter removed to reveal a primrose bodice and hot pants. Blindfolded and bound, her bare skin increases her vulnerability, and the denouement completes her humiliation – worse than her imprisonment is the realisation that her employer does not, after all, share her feelings – something this single-minded Olivia reveals with remarkably little sympathy.

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Oliver Chris as Orsino and Daniel Ezra as Sebastian.

Greig is an accomplished comedian, whose wit and timing provide all the necessary laughs before the swoop to tragedy: she is an hilarious and heartbreaking Malvolio, and this Olivier production a worthy forum for her talents. Simply making Malvolio’s desire for Olivia same-sex does not necessarily make Twelfth Night a homophobic production, or even a more homophobic play: poor old Antonio must necessarily watch his beloved pair off with Olivia. And there are some genuinely gender-queer moments of light-hearted comedy – Orsino, on his last lines, accidentally snogs a cheerfully acquiescent Sebastian.

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Tamsin Greig as Malvolia and Phoebe Fox as Olivia.

The wider tone disturbed me. Antonio is probably textually gay; this Malvolia pines for her mistress. But Twelfth Night stages a third great losers in love: Antonio, Malvolio, and Sir Andrew – and in Godwin’s production, Sir Andrew is also queer-coded, from his pink clothes and long, frizzy hair to his penchant for cuddling up to both Sir Toby (much to the latter’s disgust) and to the teddy bear Orsino gives Olivia. This is troubling not because it queers a Shakespearean icon, but because it does so via unimaginative stereotypes, as if Agucheek’s incompetent flirting and cowardly duelling mean only one thing. Rigby is an accomplished comic, but the net result is a production with three queer characters, who are also the three to end up humiliated and alone.

Also disconcerting is Orsino’s suddenly-averted gay panic when Viola turns out to be a girl, not a boy: a common moment in productions, but especially jarring when Oliver Chris’s Orsino had shown so little sign of desire for his page. In a production more sensitive to queer identity, the denouement might feel more ambivalent, but clichés abound. The Elephant (an Illyrian tavern, and Antonio’s intended lovenest) appears as a gay nightclub, in which understudies for The Village People hear a black drag queen perform Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ speech as a torch song. This showcases Emmanuel Kojo’s considerable singing talent, and provides an enchantingly funny moment when Rigby’s Aguecheek instantly corrects his ‘Now, sir’ to an ad-libbed ‘Sorry, miss’. But the interposition of another play’s text only reiterates this production’s discomfort with its own, and the gratuitous, glamorous drag queen affects an inclusivity the production doesn’t really possess. Elsewhere, the straight characters’ homophobia is largely played for laughs, and despite Greig’s brilliant, innovative performance, this ‘genderfluid’ Twelfth Night ends up feeling straighter than ever.

 Twelfth Night will be broadcast live as part of NTLive on 6 April. For more information, including the programme of education events, see the National Theatre website.

 

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[REVIEW] Much Ado About Nothing, Wyrd Sisters Theatre, Drayton Arms, London

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It’s increasingly clear that, for the new generation of Shakespearean actresses, the world of girls is not enough. Whether it’s Jade Anouka’s Hotspur at the Donmar, Pippa Nixon’s Bastard at the RSC, or Maxine Peake’s electrifying Hamlet at the Royal Exchange, women are building their careers by reinventing Shakespeare’s heroes. This is also the case for Wyrd Sisters, an emerging theatre company who, pleasingly, take their cross-casting policy in both directions. Thus, their production of Much Ado About Nothing, currently running at the Drayton Arms’ studio theatre (Old Brompton Road, SW5), we have a steely Leonata, played by Christina Balmer; a pugnacious Dogberry (Wendy Morgan), a skittish Ursule (Stuart Murray), and, most strikingly, a Claudia whose flowing hair and maroon beret make her look like she’s stepped straight out of Our Girl (Freya Alderson).

This contemporary, Anglicised Messina is somewhere between stately home and pub garden, where the returning soldiers booze on Somerset cider, strum guitars and plan the odd lesbian wedding. Leonata is a middle-aged hippie, poshly relaxed about her daughter’s sexuality, and then all nails and teeth when her wedding-day shames the family. Don Pedro, Claudia, Benedick, Don John and co. remain in fatigues, boots and berets for much of the play: the programme stresses that they are just back from Iraq. This is perhaps a poor fit for this cheerful gang of youths, who are prone to skinny playfighting and seem more like teammates than scarred veterans. The military background to Much Ado has, after all, never born too much scrutiny (the soldiers seem more Austenesque militia than Band of Brothers, and the emphasis on Operation Telic casts a chilly shadow over Balthasar’s carefree announcement that the combat has killed ‘But few of any sort, and none of name’ – Iraq or not, the subtext remains ‘So that’s all right, then’.

Charlie Ryall’s Beatrice, with her short, ruffled hair, baggy t-shirts and uncompromising stance, seems more like a soldier than Claudia: which is just as well, because of the two, it’s clear which woman lives in a state of constant warfare. This is a scornful, angry Beatrice, simultaneously world-weary and dramatically childish. But she wheels from attention-seeking brat to kind woman, especially when Nicholas Oliver’s Don Pedro claims her hand.

She is ably matched by David Paisley’s Benedick, a sweet-faced teddy bear of a soldier, whose cruelty is cheek and whose doting affection is very readily summoned by the gulling scene. Ryall and Paisley head the cast very effectively; Paisley, in particular, pushes the story on through his soliloquies, and got the biggest laugh of the night in his muffled ‘Fuck off’ to the Boy who returns to expose his hiding place as he eavesdrops on Claudia, Leonata and the Prince.

But the show’s great surprise is Hero. A conventional Hero switches from happy dolly to sad dolly and back again: an inevitable step on the dismal downwards path to Desdemona. She has more to say than Mariana, but less to do than Celia; she is married off worthlessly without having the opportunities of a Helena or an Isabella first, and in all of the Shakespearean canon, there can be nothing less appetising than playing second billing to Beatrice, who is worth a play on her own. Lucy Green transforms a thankless role, giving Hero all the wit, pugnacity and intellect you’d expect of Beatrice’s cosseted cousin. Hers is the great succession of the church scene, when Hero’s long and difficult silences are filled with the emotion of a young woman who’s seeing hell before her eyes. As each new blow falls, Green’s distress grows, as we realise with her what this betrayal of love, loss of family, and wretched humiliation means.

When removed from Renaissance dress, it’s harder to believe that Hero could really be seen ‘dying […] Upon the instant that she was accused’, but Green’s alternately white and flushing face, and step-by-step panic, make the possibility horribly real. Hers was the only convincing collapse I have seen. Leonata, the doting mother who rejects her daughter, is nastier than any father could be, reminding the audience why Lady Capulet’s rejection of her daughter is, in a few words, always more devastating than Lord Capulet’s long harangue. Beatrice’s response also accentuates the horror. Rather than ranting, shouting, or forcibly dragging Hero away from her tormentors, Ryall huddles down beside her cousin in silence. Leonata’s savagery can’t be stopped. Beatrice and Hero bow their heads, curl together, and, like children under violence, wait for it to be over.

Ryall also gives the scene one further moment of tragicomedy. Benedick’s sudden declaration of love once the pair are left alone in the chapel can be played with joyful effervescence, the revelations pealing out in relief after the agony of the preceding moments. This is not like that. After witnessing Claudia’s cruelty and experiencing Leonata’s brutality, when love seems the most poisonous thing in the world to Beatrice, Benedick thinks it’s choice and appropriate to present her with his heart. A deadened, exhausted Beatrice stares across the stage, learning in her dissociated mind two things: first, that the person she loves most in the world loves her back, and second, that he doesn’t understand her at all. This is the loneliest Beatrice I have ever seen, and thanks to Ryall, it will be impossible to forget that quality in the character.

That chilling revelation aside, this is not an especially dark Much Ado. The physical comedy is sometimes very sharp, with spilt drinks, spit-takes and pratfalls underpinning the wittiness of the words. Stuart Murray, doubling Ursule and Friar Francis, justifies his existence a thousand times by turning the Friar (outside the history plays, Shakespeare did not excel at writing clerics) into a pitch-perfect imitation of Blessed Miles Jupp. Biased as I am, writing this admidst the flower crowns, Corinthians, and Natural Tan hosiery that comes from being twenty-eight and permanently on the wedding circuit, but dear Lord, that was funny. As Murray’s excellence suggests, this production has a stunning supporting cast. One disconcertingly good performance comes from Louise Goodfield, who, in the best cross-casting of the night, has made the startlingly turned Don John’s lackey Conrad from a standard stooge to a fully-fledged Lady Macbeth. Hers is a stunningly evil little Machiavel, in sexual thrall to Don John, but equally happy to make mischief for Claudia long after Borachio’s conscience cracks.

Some pacing issues hamper the speed of the piece, particularly in the notoriously difficult sequences with the Watch, and the instrumental music occasionally prolongs the scene changes, rather than covering them. But the final scrap between Beatrice and Benedick, respectively nauseated and gooey over each other’s poems, is tremendously satisfying, and the final rendition of ‘Sigh no more’ as sunny and bittersweet as one could wish. This is a company worth watching, in one of London’s best studio theatres. You don’t need to be in Edinburgh to see excellent theatre this summer – catch Much Ado About Nothing at the Drayton Arms, on stage now until 4th September.

[REVIEW] The Great Gatsby, May 2013.

Baz Luhrmann has taken the aesthetic he used for Moulin Rouge, the least French film ever made about Paris, and transplanted it to 1920s New York. The CGI is worse than a Doctor Who werewolf, but the costumes are stunning and I’ve spent much of today fashion-googling ‘great gatsby clothes’ with a sense of moral disgust, and that, I suppose, is the sign of a good Fitzgerald adaptation.

Carey Mulligan as Daisy.

The central performances are reasonably faithful to the book. Tobey Maguire is constipatedly uninteresting – which is right for Nick Carraway, even if the elimination of queer subtext in his interactions with McKee and Gatsby is a predictable disappointment (but then, this is Luhrmann, who de-gayed Decadent Paris). Carey Mulligan is beautiful, wispy and infuriating – just right for Daisy. Elizabeth Debicki is understated and underused as Jordan, which is annoying for the cinemagoer but actually an improvement on the book. Joel Edgerton’s Tom Buchanan looks like Benedict Cumberbatch’s hardboiled, horsewhipping older brother. Isla Fisher’s Myrtle is a spectacular improvement on the book’s two-dimensional whore. And Leonardo di Caprio? Well, he’s still a great actor, but now his face has gone orange and odd.

Di Caprio’s face is one of a triumvirate of masculine tragedies I’ve endured this week. First, I found out that Noel Fielding is forty. Then I started googling and discovered that Johnny Depp was fifty. I dealt with that a little better, having accepted that Hugh Grant and Colin Firth (for example) are in their mid-fifties by now – and that, God’s honest truth, there are UK citizens of legal voting age who weren’t born at the time of the BBC Pride and Prejudice. Depp’s slightly purple hair, tinted spectacles and twentysomething girlfriend already signalled a slow crawl towards decrepitude. And then I saw what’s happened to di Caprio’s face.

If you’ve seen Moulin Rouge, or indeed any Luhrmann film, you’ve already seen 25% of The Great Gatsby. There are moments where Tobey Maguire looks exactly like Ewan McGregor and entire sequences where Carey Mulligan sounds like Nicole Kidman. There’s a great deal of on-screen typing which, apart from a clever dissolve into snowflakes, gives me the feeling that cinema would be a better place if Luhrmann could get over his font fetish.

For all this, I really enjoyed myself. The anxious speedathons of the driving sequences left me feeling motion-sick, and Oxford’s Magdalen Street Odeon had done something infuriating with the sound levels; nevertheless, I’d watch it again tomorrow, and I’m not sure why. People are going to call this film romantic, and it isn’t; regardless of Nick’s celebration of Gatsby’s capacity for hope, it’s a story about a monomaniac’s near-psychotic love for a debutante who struggles to choose between her two abusers. All the characters in this film push capitalism to its logical conclusion: a disposable culture which disposes of its victims, as portrayed by Myrtle, Wilson, Gatsby’s servants and Gatsby himself.

I have read – and this is a weird story in itself – the third of the Fifty Shades trilogy. It’s immensely boring (see also: misogynist, degrading), cataloguing not only sex I don’t want to have but a range of consumer durables I don’t want to buy. It’s like pages of an in-flight magazine pasted between stills from a porn film. Amidst the sex, the characters eat some very nice meals and do some very extensive shopping.

Gatsby and E. L. James are not so very far apart; they both assume, rightly, that as well as the sex, they’re going to need a lot of food, drink, and conspicuous capitalism, if they’re going to get (their version of) the (money-minded, shallow, easily distracted) girl. Both Christian Gray and Jay Gatsby set the bar very low when it comes to female agency, intuition and discernment. Perhaps I’m doing Daisy a disservice; she got ludicrously turned on by Gatsby’s Disneyland Hotel playhouse, but then, so did Elizabeth Bennet in the shades of Pemberley. And in the last instance, Daisy does have the wit to realise that Gatsby’s dictatorial fantasy of their life together (although a partial product of her betrayal) is every bit as dangerous as her known misery with Tom.

The Great Gatsby is full of toxic colour, gratuitous bling, and over-saturated fireworks. It doesn’t travesty the culture of its setting in the same way as Moulin Rouge, because if austerity’s taught us anything, it’s that the capitalist boom before a financial crash (in this case, Wall Street 1928) deserves all the desecration it can get. Morning-after vignettes – of a man dredging the swimming pool for tinsel, and a servant emptying martinis into a bucket – give the party sequences more depth – sequences, incidentally, which make Frears’s Bright Young Things (2003) seem like it wasn’t really trying. Di Caprio’s comic timing and emotional commitment come as close as anything can to giving The Great Gatsby heart and soul, and if I’m tired of Luhrmann’s cinematic tics (great though it is when an artist wears his id on his sleeve), I’m glad he’s still a fan of the grandiose close-up and that, in his first reunion with Mulligan’s Daisy, di Caprio, as Gatsby remains star enough to sustain one.

I would also, admittedly, like to do my eye make-up like Casey Mulligan’s, and have a head small enough to wear cloche hats. Someone throw a disgustingly vast party, please, and in the meantime, make mine a Highball.

Advent Calendar Day 15: Muppets!

The Swedish Chef, Beaker, and Animal share a choral moment. Enjoy!

(You should of course also take the time to watch The Muppet Christmas Carol, the GREATEST of all Dickens adaptations, and its slightly alarming making-of documentary. I am word-perfect on this film. It’s awesome.)

[REVIEW] Shakespeare’s Shrine: The Bard’s Birthplace and the Invention of Stratford-upon-Avon

https://i2.wp.com/www.oxonianreview.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/shakespeareshrine-e1353084043362.jpgMy review of Jane Thomas’s Shakespeare’s Shrine: The Bard’s Birthplace and the Invention of Stratford-upon-Avon was published in the 18 November issue of the Oxonian Review. You can read it online here.

Apart from the legitimate book-reviewing part, there’s a healthy dollop about the time your own correspondent was a guide in the aforementioned Birthplace (2010). Let’s just say that my mother cannot recall the sight of me in costume without hysterical laughter. I talk about that too. I also go on a bit about Oscar Wilde and French nudity. As ever, any excuse.

Poor Oxford!

“Poor Oxford! Will she, I wonder, ever be made successfully the background for a play, or for a novel?” — Max Beerbohm, 4th October, 1902 (Around Theatres, p. 224).

Sarah Daniels: Plays 1

Ages ago, the nice people at methuen drama very kindly offered to send me a free book (I forget why, but thank you very much and please, more of the same).

In an excess of irresponsibility, I decided NOT to choose anything vaguely useful to my course, and to instead pick, at random, the work of a female playwright with whom I was unfamiliar. Sarah Daniels’s Plays: 1 duly arrived at Brasenose the other day, and since the Orlando Project tells me she’s “the only radical lesbian feminist to have made it into the mainstream”, I think I chose rather well.

Sarah Daniels was born in 1956, in London. Her Orlando profile describes how, as a secondary school student, she

“hated school” and made a habit of sitting at the back of the class, not listening. She left at eighteen for work. Bibliographic Citation link At school she “didn’t even like drama.” Bibliographic Citation link Studying Shakespeare‘s Henry V for O level English was dominated by reading the play aloud and therefore, for her, anxiety about pronouncing the words right. She was astonished to discover that she enjoyed the play when she saw it in the theatre. Bibliographic Citation link

She was lastingly impressed by an incident at her school when a boy raped a girl at knife-point. The boy was removed to a borstal or school for young offenders, but the headmaster then addressed the whole school to tell them that in cases of rape the blame was shared equally by both parties. Bibliographic Citation link

Daniels’s playwriting career took off after she was able to spend a year as the writer-in-residence of Sheffield University’s English department. Her plays have been performed at theatres including the Royal Court and the National Theatre, and Daniels is also on the board of directors for Clean Break Theatre (trans: she is awesome beyond words). Her partner of many years, and civil partner, was the activist and schools inspector Claire Walton, who died in 2009.

Plays 1 comprises Sarah Daniels’s first six plays: Ripen Our Darkness, Ma’s Flesh is Grass, Masterpieces, The Devil’s Gateway, Neaptide and Byrthrite.

So far I’ve read Ripen Our Darkness (1981) and Masterpieces (1983). My ability to consume feminist 80s playwriting knows almost no bounds. Ripen Our Darkness is about marriage, mental illness and misery in the Anglican church; a bolder precursor to Alan Bennett’s Bed Among The Lentils, which followed in 1987 and also depicts a vicar’s wife in crisis. Daniels’s protagonist doesn’t receive even temporary redemption or escape.

Daniels’s next play, Masterpieces is about pornography, misogyny and mental illness. The roles across both plays are predominantly female, and, at its best, the writing is heart-stopping, combative and clear. However, Ripen Our Darkness is weakest and most uneven in its handling of the working-class lesbian Julie, who might have sounded cliched in her speech back in 1981. Yet, for a play that’s 30 years old, Ripen Our Darkness often strikes heart & intellect simultaneously: moreover, Hilary, the most obviously working-class woman in Masterpieces, is far more subtly characterised than Julie. Hilary, a single mother and sex worker, readily accepts a legitimate day job from a male friend of her social worker. The scene in which Hilary’s boss, Ron, begins to seduce and harass her is both timeless and excruciating, as are the unsympathetic responses of the other characters.

Daniels’s unabashedly anti-pornographic stance in Masterpieces has (regrettably) become unfashionable in contemporary feminism, but her emotionally direct style anticipates writers like Laurie Penny. I wish I could see ways of staging her plays for student audiences, but at the moment I’m unconvinced. For one thing, Oxford plays with all-female casts tend to do badly unless they’re Playhouse Creatures or The House of Bernarda Alba (both of which I love), or, at best, attract tedious expanses of critical shock at the goshness and novelty of a play without any boys (on second thoughts, maybe Daniels isn’t dated at all).

As texts, Daniels’s plays read wonderfully. I’m, um, apprehensive about the last in the collection, which is ominously titled Byrthrite and which I suspect of glorying in wom(y)nly gore, but I’m currently halfway through Neaptides (1986) and desperate to know what happens.

If I blink at the scene in Neaptides where Claire tells daughter Poppy a myth-cum-fairy-story about the goddess Persephone’s masturbation, I’m grateful that Daniels wrote in ways that are so combative, unembarrassed, and unashamed. The radical feminists of the 1980s cut swathes through misogyny and chauvinism, so that twenty-first-century girls like me could, if they chose, be embarrassed and Anglican and gay all at once, and in (relative) peace. In Daniels’s excellent first collection, I’m glad to find myself another feminist, literary foremother, and to take a look at another bit of feminism’s theatrical past.

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