[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.

 

Shakespeare’s Women and the Fin de Siècle

I’m delighted to say that as well as being published in the UK and the USA by Oxford University Press, my monograph Shakespeare’s Women and the Fin de Siècle is now also available to subscribers via Oxford Scholarship Online.

15326327_10101851765544169_3667282702916612841_nThe book came out in the UK on 1st December (what, I’m excellent at timely self-promotion) and even ended up in the window of the OUP Bookshop on Oxford High Street! It’s been spotted at MLA, launched in Magdalen (quote of the evening: “Now I’ve bought it, and, more to the point, you’ve seen me do it”).

I’ve got discount codes for people who’d like to buy the book – just comment below!

Thanks to everyone who helped bring the book into print – I learned a lot from the experience, and am now busy writing the second one.

13 Things I Learned From Turning My Thesis Into A Book

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Shakespeare’s Women and the Fin de Siècle is out in UK hardback from OUP on 1st December! I thought I’d share what I’ve learned from the process of revising your thesis into a book. If the title seems like clickbait, it’s certainly v. niche.

Some of what follows is general, some deliriously specific. But here’s What I Have Learned…

  1. In the beginning, you feel embarrassed

Returning to your thesis after a pause will reunite you with a species of embarrassment you haven’t known since reviewing your UCAS statement. Dear lord, weren’t you lofty in your disagreements with critics? Why have you never learned to spell ‘negotiate’? And, as your supervisor so frequently asked you, did you think you were being paid by the semicolon? Also, ctrl+find on the phrase ‘this thesis’. Rinse and repeat.

  1. Bad proposals sink good books

I’m lucky: OUP read your thesis alongside your proposal for the Oxford English Monographs list. My readers liked the thesis and hated what I’d said about it. Despite good advice and money spent on A Well-Known Book On The Subject, I’d made a mess of the proposal. Unsure what needed changing, and teaching full-time, I offered to butcher my dissertation, double-quick. I could as usefully have written “please publish me?” on a post-it. On my forehead. My editor and supervisors helped me parse the reports, which became my most-studied documents through the rewriting process. I wrote in response to their reports, they replied, and it became clear that they were very enthusiastic about the material and had offered me a far clearer path to revisions than I’d expected. I can’t believe how much trouble everyone took.

I’ve since gone through the proposal process far more successfully, and would advise:

  • Don’t claim you can rewrite the book too quickly. Ask your proposed editor/whoever is working with you at this stage (if there isn’t someone, ask for them – if you’re still in a university faculty, is there a Research or Publishing Facilitator who would help?) for a sensible timeline. Ask your supervisors too.
  • Tailor your proposal exactly to your publisher’s requirements. If your publisher gives minimal guidelines, look at other publishers’ websites to see what tips they give.
  • Write the proposal engagingly. If your 2,000 words are boring, your 80,000 words are likely to be more so.
  • ASK TO READ OTHER PEOPLE’S PROPOSALS. I have no idea why I didn’t do this. Pride? Fear? Stupidity. I have a bad proposal (Book 1) and a good proposal (Book 2) on my hard drive & they’ve circulated more times than a Mudie’s mystery novel (it’s that kind of 1895 wit that’s got me where I am today. As Ed Balls would say, BOOM).
  1. You don’t have to negotiate like a first-time author

Possibly you’re a lofty, confident, professionalised young ECR with a hard head, a ten-year plan and convictions about this monograph’s worth. Or possibly you are deeply relieved and grateful that your Publisher Of Dreams wants your book in the first place. I was the latter. On two separate occasions, there was something about the contract/process which I wanted to alter. I felt that raising the matter would make me seem uppity/entitled/would jeopardise the publishing process. I nervously constructed an email, then ripped out all the feminine apologetics (like any good Springboard graduate).

It was totally fine. Unwanted contractual detail expunged by return of post. Just do it: a) even if the answer’s no, nobody will mind you starting the debate, and b) for all you know, 9 out of 10 (straight white male) first-time authors historically make – and are granted – the same request.

  1. Thrills abound.

You know the contract will be exciting (FYI, so will saying ‘I’m under contract’ as if it’s with Warner Bros but you’re breezily calm). You’ve been planning your acknowledgments (monograph answer to an Oscar speech) and you’ve probably had some thoughts about the cover art. But there’s more. Your Amazon page! Your publisher page! The first time your book appears in a catalogue, convincing you – with a touching, residual faith in print – that your book will soon be real. All these are marvellous. Treasure them.

  1. You can get a contract for your second book before the first is published.

Again, this might have been obvious to lofty, hard-headed ECRs with a ten-year p. and a conviction about their scholarship’s w. (see above) but it was not obvious to self. Nevertheless, several things fell into place: having always been crap at condensing my doctorate into two sentences, I was determined to be able to pitch my second book. I honestly went along to the Routledge editorial speed-dating event to practice pitching. I’d assumed that nobody would take my second book seriously until the first one was a physical object. Stupidity, again. You know what’s great? Signing your first book contract (I instagrammed mine). You know what’s amazing? Signing your second. You feel like JK Rowling. And, yet:

  1. It might be bittersweet.

I have always dreamed of writing a novel. In my head, my first book was going to involve literary prizes and film rights, and although I suppose there is a chance that Shakespeare’s Women and the Fin de Siècle MIGHT turn into a six-part BBC series starring Hattie Morahan as Ellen Terry, Keeley Hawes as Madge Kendal, and Michelle Dockery as Mrs Patrick Campbell (PLEASE NOTE: this would be the greatest BBC series of all time, I’ve done the work for you, we just need to find a Lillie Langtry as beautiful as Francesca Annis was in 1978), I have resigned myself to the truth. For the moment, I am very much of those academics with 1,000 novel ideas in their (twenty-first-century-Cloud-equivalent-of-) bottom drawer. I hope to one day graduate to being one of those academics with one novel idea realised on a Waterstones shelf.

  1. You will become obsessed with your readers’ identity.

The slightest expression of interest from a fellow conference-goer will seem like a veiled confession. I know one of my readers, because they introduced themselves to me. I was so delighted that I hugged them rapturously, and now beam like a fool whenever they’re mentioned in conversation. Rightly, much light is now being shone on the unpaid murkiness that dominates work for many ECRs – in the name of experience, our industry is building up an ‘internship culture’ to match any other sector, even if the reality is ‘can’t pay’ rather than ‘won’t’. But academic service makes heavy demands of scholars further along the line. I think anyone who reviews a book/thesis MS lucidly and generously (like my readers) is brilliant. Everything I’ve written in the book (and everything I’m writing in the next one) is better because of them.

  1. You will be obsessed with the last people to publish on your list.

How did they do the index? What’s the font like? Why is their name italicised on the cover? Which colour did they choose? Their index sub-headings don’t seem to be indented, why are their acknowledgments so well-written, gosh they’ve got an actual Amazon! Look Inside link, ugh their 3 to 5 marketing bulletpoints don’t sound like they were written in terror —

  1. You never really finish proofreading.

The only good things about reading your own proofs are 1) the talented patience of your professional proofreader, and 2) when you open the PDF and see your manuscript laid out like a proper book. Otherwise, the defining feature of Looking For Errors is that of stargazing or finding ants on the kitchen floor: every time you find one, you see six in its immediate vicinity. I am just about convinced, now, that there won’t be ten blank pages, five historical howlers, and three instances of ‘[EXPLAIN MORE HERE]’ in the published version. This will be entirely due to the professionals and not to my own checking. If you do find a blank page or historical howler etc., feel free not to tell me.

  1. Indexing is like having your brain removed by tweezers.

I had always vaguely planned to pay someone to do my indexing, but then two world-rocking things happened. 1) My colleague described to me, over lunch, how rigorously she’d compiled her own index, explaining eloquently how authorial knowledge of the manuscript was essential for an index that reflected and enhanced the text. I listened, reflected on all the crap indexes I’d encountered during my own DPhil, and light-up hipster letters flashed in my brain: SHE DID HER OWN INDEX. And, a nanosecond later, SHE IS A PROPER ACADEMIC. God damn those colleagues, modelling excellent scholarship at every turn. And then, 2) I found out how much paying an indexer would actually cost. I did my own bloody index. It was like proofreading my own psyche, one hideous preoccupation at a time. A mini-tip: index everything from page 1 onwards, because something you think wasn’t important at all will turn out to have occurred 50 times between pages 150-200 and you’ll be thinking nauseously of all those earlier references you overlooked. That sentence might not mean anything now, but it will. In the process, you’ll come to wonder why other people’s indexes have entries like ‘Regatta, Henley’ and yours has ‘rape, marital’. You’ll go from resenting how much professional indexers are paid to thinking it’s not enough. Also, you probably don’t have long to index, so don’t waste time on learning indexing software. You can’t afford it.

  1. You’ll remember how much you loved your doctorate.

And you can even sneak in some more research. I wallowed in ‘necessary’ extra visits to my favourite archives and read every scrap of writing from Henry Irving to Ellen Terry. This is my idea of a very good time. I revised my thesis into a book alongside the start of my postdoctoral project, and alongside the challenge of a new and less familiar subfield, returning to actresses, suffragettes, and Shakespeare was bliss.

  1. Supportive friends and family will plan to buy the book.

Then you’ll have to tell them how much it’ll cost.

  1. It takes a village.

Not a village. An extremely conscientious publishing company and its team across three continents. I am still floored by this. My editor is based in Oxford; my marketing contact is in New York; my production coordinator is in India, and my copyeditor lives in Lancaster! My proofreader is the only enigma. From her name, I imagine her as a 1950s bluestocking with a recent history in espionage.

I could link you to a million articles bemoaning the downturn, high cost, and jeopardised future of academic publishing. I’d rather tell you how great my team has been. I feel lucky to have had amazing women all around the world work on my book; appropriate for a book that’s about cooperation and mentoring between creative women (it’s also about Jack the Ripper, but that’s a less seamless segue).

What did you learn, or what are you learning, through writing your first book?

 

New Orleans, new book, new radio…

I’m in the last couple of weeks of editing my monograph, which is under contract for Oxford University Press’s Oxford English Monographs series (I feel like I’m copywriting, there are so many “Oxford”s in that sentence). When everything’s down to the commas, it’s incredibly easy to forget that I do anything else except obsess over footnotes and wordcounts (and eat Penguin biscuits). In fact, there’s a lot of exciting stuff coming up over the next few weeks! If you’re at any of the events mentioned in this post, please comment or say hello either at the bottom of this post or on Twitter.

Next Wednesday, on 9 March, I’m speaking at Senate House as part of the Language, Literature, Literacy & the Mind symposium, run by the amazing Human Mind project. I’m there as part of the Calleva Centre, talking about last year’s experimental work on tragedy, endorphins and cognition. My contribution is an analysis of gender-bending, metamorphic plot structures and the ‘doomed muse’ trope in tragedy on film. The wider line-up looks amazing, and you can get tickets here.

On Monday 15 March, I’m going to Old Broadcasting House for media training as part of the shortlisting process for the BBC New Generation Thinkers scheme. I’d never applied before, and am really excited to have got this far. No idea who else will be at this particular workshop, but looking forward to saying hello.

A week later, I’m off to New Orleans (casual) for the Shakespeare Association of America 2016 conference. I’ll be part of the Shakespeare & Cognition Seminar, sharing my recent research on Othello, extended cognition and Early Modern gift theory. NB: I have never been to Louisiana or to an SAA. I am a mass of intellectual and culinary excitement. There has been talk of an “appetiser buffet”. Or appetizer? Who knows.

Then on Sunday 24 April, I’ll be in Stratford-on-Avon recording (in front of a live audience) an episode of The Essay for BBC Radio 3 (produced by Beaty Rubens), as part of the programming for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. I’m one of five academics working on this week of The Essay , and very pleased to be joining Joan Fitzpatrick, Siobhan Keenan, James Loxley, and Preti Taneja. I’m thrilled to be broadcasting on Radio 3 for the first time, and it’s on an aspect of my research I really love – The Winter’s Tale and suffragette activism.

I’m especially glad we’re recording in Stratford. I was born and brought up there, and it means I’ll be back for the weekend nearest my own birthday – as well as, er, Shakespeare’s. I think as a very small child I had some confused notion that the annual parade on the nearest Saturday was actually mine. Once I know the broadcast date, I’ll be back to update this post.

As I said, it’s great to be part of a five-strong team for The Essay in April, and I’m also looking forward to meeting up with friends & colleagues old and new at Senate House and #shakeass16. If you’re heading to The Human Mind, Broadcasting House, New Orleans or (the equally glamorous) S-on-A, I look forward to seeing you very soon. It’ll make a great change from the footnotes.

Elizabeth, Victoria, and Ellen

This evening, Elizabeth II becomes Britain’s longest-reigning monarch. This is interesting to me not merely because I have deeply conflicted feelings about royal babies and their great-grandmother vs. workshy princesses and the amount of social housing you could build at Highgrove.

Queen Victoria in 1897 (slightly after becoming our longest-reigning monarch, celebrating her Diamond Jubilee! …I say ‘celebrating’…).

Until 5.30 this evening, our longest-reigning monarch is still Queen Victoria, who reigned 1837–1901. Victoria became the longest-reigning monarch by outlasting poor old George III (1760–1820), exceeding the length of his reign on 23 September 1896. The morning papers were, as you’d expect, full of adulatory editorials on the Queen’s longevity and popularity.

But 23 September 1896, coincidentally, was also the day that the Victorians’ best-loved actress, Ellen Terry, woke up to hyperbolic reviews of her own British royal. The evening before, Terry had opened at London’s Lyceum Theatre as Imogen, the British princess who’s the heroine of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline. Victoria was queen of the British Empire, and Terry was the queen of British theatre.

Ellen Terry as Imogen, 1896 (Creative Commons).

Just after finishing my DPhil, I wrote about the 23 September coincidence for Platform‘s Spring 2014 issue, and this morning seemed quite a good time to revisit it! So, if you want to read about theatrical curation and memory with a royal twist, “Dynasty, memory, Terry: curating the 1896 Cymbeline” is now open-access via academia.edu and in its original home on Platform

[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]: Macbeth, Creation Theatre, Lady Margaret Hall

Creation Theatre’s Macbeth is an open-air production in the gardens of Lady Margaret Hall, the first Oxford College to admit women to read for degrees.

Against a backdrop of midsummer borders, Jonathan Holloway’s production of Macbeth reconceives the action inside a military sanatorium, with Duncan as a faceless, wheelchair-bound burns victim, and the witches a side-effect of ECT and pharma. This high-concept approach generally succeeds, thanks to the cast’s versatility and an ambitious electric soundscape by sound designer Matt Eaton. The cast of six degenerate from soldiers to patients, while Madeleine Joseph plays the Porter as a disenchanted nurse, driven to exhaustion and drink by the trauma she’s witnessed.

Reading Holloway’s enjoyably trenchant programme essay, however, suggests that not all aspects of this concept made it across the (grassy) footlights. Apparently, the play starts with the funeral of the Macbeths’ child. I will concede that stage right featured a Saltire-covered coffin, but as far as sightlines would permit (we were in the “Fairweather” seats: don’t book one if you’re short or short-sighted), I didn’t see anyone interact with said coffin at this point. It’s true that the play also began with the ritual waving and repositioning of a dozen or so black flags, whose swirling and furling sometimes suggested the wings of planes and sometimes the hulls of boats – but, again, this military formation, in tandem with shelling and engine noises in the soundscape, seemed like basic tone-setting, episodes of which punctuated the performance. War, and the pity of war, clearly: but inferring a dead son in Flanders was too much.

The three LMH buildings – Wordsworth, Talbot and Toynbee – date from the fin de siècle to World War 1, making them the perfect architectural backdrop for reimagining the Macbeths’ mansion as convalescent home. Lady Margaret Hall looks like a dystopian Downton Abbey, as characters appear at windows or rage on balconies. Since said buildings are presumably housing real-life conference guests or summer schools over the long vacation, there’s a lovely realism to the lights flickering behind closed curtains – just as the setting sun and odd murder of crows winging westward matches the play’s thematic slide from chivalric celebration to psychological night.

Yet, at times, this hyper-real geography seems curiously inconsistent. It’s believable that the success-soaked, hubristic Macbeths might plan Duncan’s murder mid-snog in their bedroom, and nicely effective to see Lady Macbeth alternately welcoming her husband and communing with the sky. Later, however, there’s no chance whatsoever that they’d wash their bloodied hands and discuss the aftermath of killing Duncan in extremely loud voices with the windows open, in a castle full of guests.

The decision to situate key scenes at such long range from the audience also serves Laura Murray’s Lady Macbeth very poorly: with the exception of the sleepwalking scene, all her key scenes happen a very long way and several floors up from the audience, forcing her to emote at very much more than arm’s length.

Another consequence of the huge set and soundscape is that all the actors are miked. This works reliably 95% of the time (again, praise to Matt Eaton) but makes finding which actor is speaking (and from where) extremely difficult, as a speaker system means their voices emanate from everywhere, and that the actors themselves often get lost in the landscape. With much cast doubling and the men all dressed in khaki (against green borders), there’s an occasional danger of losing track even of characters: a pair of spectacles reified the distinction between Simon Spencer-Hyde’s tense, pugnacious Macduff and his honourable Banquo, but I struggled to distinguish between Spencer-Hyde’s Banquo and Richard Kidd’s (also white, shaven-headed) Ross.

Scott Ainslie’s Macbeth is low-key without ever being low-stakes. Too often, even very great actors hear the witches’ first prophetic cackle and switch instantly and permanently from popular warrior to psychopath, meaning that by the time the audience reaches Act V, we’ve got so used to Macbeth’s mad-eyed horror that, the sleepwalking scene done, there’s nothing to look forward to except the designer’s take on walking trees. Ainslie, happily, avoids all this. Not only is the momentum kept up brilliantly via bunker mentality and some Downfall-esque shouting into field ‘phones, but we’re treated to a bravura tour de force from the very top of Talbot Hall, from which a hipflask-swigging Macbeth seems only too likely to pelt Christopher York’s hapless Doctor.

More importantly, Ainslie builds the monstrosity slowly, illuminating text. For the first time, Banquo’s “Thou hast it now […] and, I fear/Thou play’dst most foully for’t” sounds more like the perspicacity of an intimate friend than the deeply overdue realisation that the new King of Scotland is a murderous nutjob. Equally, Lady Macbeth’s “You lack the season of all natures, sleep” – the last line she ever says to Macbeth onstage – typically sounds beyond incongruous, given that by this point most ghost-seeing Macbeths would sooner order the Thane of Fife on toast and snack on a Satanic yoghurt than drink a peppermint tea and turn in. But what’s so chilling is that you sense that these Macbeths do still share a bed, sustaining a normal existence alongside the regicide and terror.

Above all, Scott Ainslie’s murderous Macbeth remains horribly plausible: an officer and a gentleman, whose residual likeability is the most dangerous thing about him. Violence has become normality. Macbeth is as desensitised to private murder as national war: one justifies another, until killing is the most natural act imaginable. Ainslie’s charisma has important consequences for Christopher York’s damaged First Murderer, a Smike-like young private, convinced by Macbeth’s paternal rationality that Banquo deserves to die. York goes on to slaughter the Macduffs before finally exsanguinating in his general’s toxic embrace.

Holloway has edited Macbeth with a mix of liberalism and butchery. In their first appearance, the witches (the supporting cast, black flags trailed across faces) aren’t on long enough to establish themselves, and for every useful streamlining – Seward and Seyton are heavily pared – there’s a disappointment. Eliding Ross with the messenger right before Lady Macduff’s murder means that Richard Kidd switches awkwardly from consoling his “pretty coz” to calling her “madam” and announcing that he can’t stay any longer immediately after having left. It’s a shame to mess about with Madeleine Joseph’s best scene: alongside Christopher York, hers is the standout performance of the night.

Holloway is entirely right to say that Macbeth shouldn’t be treated as a sacred text, immune from editing – not least, perhaps, because the Folio version that survives for us is apparently one that Thomas Middleton had a go at, revisiting the play after Shakespeare’s death and interpolating material from his own The Witch (1615). I quite like a bit of hubble and bubble, and it’d be a shame if a future generation of theatregoers grew up without wondering what a brinded cat was, or how its shriek sounded, but Macbeth without the witches isn’t (quite) Hamlet without the prince, so fair enough.

Unexpectedly, it was Holloway’s least controversial cut that proved my greatest regret. In the fourth act of Macbeth, there’s a scene in England, in which Macduff and Malcolm plan the invasion of Scotland, and discover (via Ross) that Macduff’s family have died at the tyrant’s hands. Before that – often to the twitching boredom of the audience, who are waiting for Macduff to discover the massacre – Malcolm has a long and weird attack of cold feet. He tells Macduff at great length how pathologically unfit for kingship he is, beset by vices from avarice to blasphemy, and then, once Macduff is thoroughly appalled, confesses that he’s actually a virtuous virgin with every intention of ruling well.

As scenes go, it’s psychologically unnerving, dramatically tricky, lengthy, and – at such a late dramatic stage – complicates rather than advances the plot. Since Malcolm is a relatively small role, in a traditional production it’s often weakly cast. But with Christopher York as Malcolm, I suddenly longed to know how the scene would play out. It was largely cut, depriving the audience of a key part of the night’s strongest performance. Alongside the subjugated, savage Murder, York’s Scottish prince was a chilly, convincing portrayal that moved from filial thin-lipping and a disdain for “grief unfelt” to a final moment of violence that indicates Duncan’s son will be a far more frightening king than his usurper.

Sometimes both sound and vision missed the mark – there was no discernible “cry of women” announcing Lady Macbeth’s suicide, and when the audience were cued to put on paper crowns as Macbeth’s vision of the Stuart dynasty, they couldn’t hear the (recorded) line or find the crowns. Despite this, stellar performances by Ainslie, Joseph and York make Creation’s production well worth seeing – wrap up warmly, and enjoy the beauty of one of Oxford’s less-visited colleges.

 

Creation Theatre’s Macbeth runs until 13 September at Lady Margaret Hall. Standard tickets cost £22 and are available online.