Open Mic Mondays: Darth Vader in a Doublet

This fifth Open Mike Monday piece comes from my Dad. Ian Stuart is a poet, writer, voice actor, Ghost tour guide, raconteur, possibly bon vivant and pen, whiskey and cake enthusiast. As yet he has not attempt to combine the three into some form of boozy ink deploying edible monster that he will, I am sure, use to seize control of the world. On that day, victory will assuredly be his. On this day, the Open Mike Monday slot is, and that’s a start. Follow him on twitter at @yorkwriter99 and his blog, The Top Banana is over here. He wanted to try something a little different with this and I applaud both his bravery and how well he’s taken to it. After all, A Long Time Ago, In A Galaxy Far Far Away, The Play’s The Thing…

I’ve liked Shakespeare since I was ten years old- and I owe it to my dad. We used to read bits of the plays aloud ( this was before tv and shortly after The Flood.) He used to explain the rude bits to me and we would do the Prince Hal and Falstaff scenes  from “ Henry IV” or the rude mechanicals from “ Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

 

I totally fell in love with Shakespeare in the summer of 1964 when I saw the Peter Hall’s “ Wars of the Roses” sequence. That year the RSC did all the histories from “ Richard 11” to “ Richard 111”- and  every weekend during the season they did all three parts of Henry V1 in one day. Nine hours of Shakespeare- and I got a seat right at the front. It was incredible- blood, battles, love affairs, hangings, evil plots- all happening two yards in front of me. I was totally blown away. I loved the spectacle- and I loved the story too- the great rambling, blood soaked tale which started with Richard 11 and ended with Richard 111 ( Ian Holm) twitching like some  crushed spider as he died. I love Shakespeare. I think I’ve made the point.

 

I love “ Star Wars”- I always did. I love the visuals- swirling galaxies and space ships which looked….like real space ships would look. They had bumps and fairings and gun ports. They were the real deal. The story has everything a story should have…a boy on a search for himself, a beautiful girl, a buccaneering pirate of the spaceways and a robot double act. And it was so clever- Darth Vader is so much more than a pantomime villain; the  bad guy storm troopers wear glossy white armour. Quest, love story, saga-Star Wars has the lot.

 

I love Shakespeare.I love Star Wars. You can imagine how I felt when I read” William Shakespeare’s  Star Wars “ by Ian Doescher. Ecstatic doesn’t even get close.

 

This wonderful script is a re-imagining of “ Star Wars” written through the lens of Shakespeare’s writing . It’s in blank verse and Ian Doescher borrows shamefully ( and wittily) from the plays. At the very start of the play C3PO says:

 

“ Now is the summer of our happiness/ made winter by this sudden fierce attack”

 

That ‘s kind of familiar, isn’t it ?

 

The end -of-scene couplets are there as well: Luke says boldly:

 

“ A Jedi shall I be, in all things brave-

and thus shall they be honoured in their grave.”

 

There are lovely, perceptive touches. Han Solo is described as “ a smuggler with a lover’s kindly heart” and C3PO describes  Vader as “ split ‘twixt manhood and machine.”

 

In fact I love the language so much, I can’t help having a go at it. Here’s one of the Chorus speeches for you to listen to…

 

 

Great stuff, isn’t it ? But it isn’t just the language that shadows Shakespeare’s plays. Just look at the characters. Who is Luke but Hamlet, uncertain and unsure as his personality unfolds. Obi Wan is Prospero  while he’s alive and Hamlet’s Father’s Ghost after he’s dead. Princess Leia is all the tough, brave girls in the comedies – Rosalind, Viola. Jabba is either Sir Tony Belch or Falstaff. Oh…and there’s one other clever reference…. Puck the mischievous sprite from “ A Midsummer Night’s Dream “ is…R2D2. All those beeps and trills are just a front. R2 speaks !

 

I cruised at light speed through this book in an afternoon, and now I’m going to start it again. I’m sure there are plenty of touches I’ve missed first time around. If you like the idea of Darth Vader in a doublet, then this is for you.

Many thanks to Alasdair Stuart for his invitation to sit in this week. It has been a pleasure and an honour.

Thanks, Dad. Both for this and the genes. Especially the buttery man voice ones.

Now! There is a single Open Mike Monday slot left. It’s next Monday, clearly, and if you want it, get in contact at this email address. By now you’ve seen how wide ranging the pieces I’ve run are in terms of style and content so if you have an idea, get in touch and if I like it I’ll run it.

Pseudopod Halloween Parade 2012: The Answers

(Still from the excellent These Glory Days)

Here are the answers to the parade I posted over the weekend. This post is utterly crammed with links so if you don’t recognize a character click on their name, or if a book looks interesting click on the title for an Amazon page.

-Jack is of course, the Jack from the story.

-The irradiated teenagers are from The Chernobyl Diaries, as are the creatures hunting them.

-The astronauts are the crew of the Prometheus. Holloway is the one who’s on fire, Fifield is surrounded by his hounds (And wouldn’t his life have been much easier if he’d actually followed the map? He’d MADE?). The vast shadow is the Engineer ship that crashes towards the end of the movie and the small, stocky woman leading them is of course, Liz Shaw. One of the things that I really liked about Prometheus was its exploration of her faith and how she refuses to lose it even in the face of the endless horrors she suffers. I don’t agree with it, at all, but I do find it interesting.

-The presidential convoy is Abraham Lincoln from Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. It’s a patchy as hell movie but it’s a lot of fun and Dominic Cooper as Henry the English vampire is excellent. Hence his deserved cameo appearance here.

-The girl behind them is Elizabeth Olsen’s character from Silent House, the real time found footage movie based on the 2010 Urguayan movie La Casa Muda, made in 2010.

-The polite Edwardian couple are the lead in The Woman in Black and his wife, both very dead and both so relieved to be reunited at last that they don’t really care about anyone or anything else,not quite yet anyway.

-Hadley and Sitterson, ladies and gentlemen! Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with blood all over their hands. I loved The Cabin in the Woods and these two are a very big reason why, Likewise, Amy Acker as Lin who’s following behind them with the rest of the cast stalking along behind her, delighted that the Cabin staff suffered as much as they did on the way out.

-Sigourney Weaver’s character cannot possibly be human in The Cabin in the Woods. Look at the sequence she appears in, there’s only one entrance to the sacrificial chamber and it’s behind Dana and Marty when they come in. The Director, when we first see her, steps UP onto the platform from the other side. She’s an avatar of the things that sleep beneath the Cabin and the gloves she’s always wearing are another indicator that she’s less, or more, than human.

-Alec Holland and the Swamp Thing come next, their newly separate status reflecting how the new Swamp Thing series starts. Following them is Buddy Baker and family from Animal Man, another one of the best new DC titles and closely connected to Swamp Thing.

-The Edwardian police officer is Chief Inspector George Suttle from the excellent Vertigo mini-series The New Deadwardians. The trade’s out shortly and I highly recommend it and everything else Dan Abnett has done. He’s talking to Governor Arcadia Alvarado, the lead in Saucer Country, Paul Cornell’s excellent UFOlogy/political thriller.

-Her bodyguards, the two identical twins, are from Ed Brubaker and Sean Philips’ excellent series Fatale.

-The tall brawny woman is Amelia Cole, the lead in Monkeybrain Comics excellent series Amelia Cole and The Unknown World. Her friend is Autumn Ackermann, the lead in one of their other, also excellent series The October Girl.

-John Constantine comes next, along with his wife, Epiphany, a new addition to the family.

-Behind them, the cast of The Stuff of Legend, a superb and horrible comic about toys battling to rescue their child from the boogeyman.

-The Winchester boys come next, of course, and as always they make an entrance. Their passengers this year are Castiel, still looking startled to be there and the legendary Mr Bobby Singer. Following them are, of course, everything they’ve ever hunted and Lillith, front and centre. Where she always wanted to be.

-The bare chested man is Fornicus, Lord of Pain and Desire, the Pinhead analogue from The Cabin in the Woods. The sphere is definitely Fornicus’ but I like to think Pinhead sent some Cenobites to walk with him this year, as a sign of solidarity.

-The giant irradiated ants are from every giant irradiated ant movie ever made, although I like to think of them as survivors of Them! Their handlers are the Creature from the Black Lagoon and Frankenstein’s monster.

-The slaughtered kings are just that, the Shakespearean kings, the Jacobean kings and all the rest. They’re accompanied by the movie versions of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, played by Tim Roth and Gary Oldman.

-The Director again, walking with her people this time.

So there you go, that was the Halloween parade for this year. Hope you had fun guessing and do try the Churros, they’re great.

 

Want to talk to me about the article? Come see me on Twitter at @alasdairstuart or email me.

Caliban’s Games

Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony for London 2012 was crammed full of meaning and symbolism, concept stacked on concept in a constantly shifting look at British culture that began where the Thames begins and finished with the lighting of the Olympic torch by athletes who have yet to reach their full potential. It was, even in the light of the countless, all valid, complaints about LOCOG and G4S’ choices, a monumental success. It was also startlingly politically charged ceremony, the salute to the NHS equal parts well timed, overdue and almost certain to have no appreciable effect.

One moment in particular stood out as both the hub of multiple levels of symbolism and arguably the cleverest, most self-deprecating part of the ceremony. Especially as, superficially, this sequence was the height of British triumphalism

Let’s unpack the symbolism here; first off, there’s the hill, which is designed to be a stylized Glastonbury Tor but also very deliberately evokes not only the rural idyll that inspired Tolkien to create The Shire but the North of the country. This idea, of evoking multiple geographic location through one is itself built on by the fact that these locations are both real and fictional. The hill becomes a notion state rather than a nation state, a place that represents all places. This was then built on once more by the fact that the flag of every competing nation were placed on the hill. The message is surprisingly nuanced;l the world is assembled here to embrace an ideal, something fictional in concept and real in execution; the best of human sporting endeavor, the Questing Beast in running shoes.

The hill’s symbolism is also heavily tied to Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the British engineer who was responsible for the first transatlantic propeller-driven steamship, assisted in the creation of the first tunnel under a navigable river and was responsible for the creation of the Great Western Railway. Brunel was, and still is, a towering figure of British industry, a man responsible for decisions and innovations that still shape the world today. He’s a captain of industry, an embodiment of the industrious, can do spirit. But also an embodiment of the industrial revolution, a period which was directly responsible for massive breakthroughs and improvement in every aspect of life as well as drastic decreases in the quality of living for vast amounts of people. Brunel is a man with blood on his hands as well as grease and that’s the first clever, subversive idea Boyle puts forward. Brunel’s arrival precipitate the second; as extras scour the inside of the arena, turning it from idyllic countryside into a forge where one of the Olympic rings is constructed amid smoke stacks, grime and industry that’s red in tooth and claw. The world is being improved, whether the world likes it or not. Boyle’s stage direction for this, notably, was ‘You are building hell’, which clearly acknowledges the third clever, subversive thing he does; introduces the idea that Great Britain is a complex, troubled place, where good and bad often mean the same thing.

This third point is driven home by the final level of symbolism. Sir Kenneth Branagh, one of the greatest Shakespearean actors and directors of the last forty years, plays Brunel and the symbolism is added to once again; the great play of civilization becomes the great play of history. Brunel is encoded into the country’s history in the same way as Shakespeare and his characters are. That in turn ties into the ritualistic elements of the ceremony. Rapper and 21st century renaissance man Akira the Don described the ceremony as a ‘mega ritual’ and he’s absolutely right, with Branagh’s role as arguably the central point. He’s driven on set in a carriage, dressed as the greatest engineer in British history, strides onto the hill that represents multiple places, real and fictional and recites this speech, from The Tempest;

Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked,
I cried to dream again.

At first, it makes perfect sense to quote The Tempest. After all, Prospero is the best authorial stand in Shakespeare ever wrote, to the point where the play could, arguably, be about how difficult it is to write a play like The Tempest. It’s a story not just about creation, but about turmoil, and anyone who has a missile battery on their roof, or who worked for nothing, or had to go to work a different route in the last few months has experienced that first hand. I was in London in December and Leicester Square was a building site, even then. The city centre has been turned upside down, and the use of a speech from The Tempest, and the invocation of Prospero that comes with it, plays like a tacit apology for the inconvenience. Branagh is playing Brunel, quoting Shakespeare and representing every authority figure in the city and country.

Except this speech isn’t Prospero’s. It’s Caliban’s.

That’s the genius of this entire sequence; that Boyle not only uses one of the most difficult, complex plays Shakespeare ever wrote but uses the speech it’s most bestial, tragic character gives about the place he both loves and hates, and turns it into the center piece of a national celebration. This isn’t subverting or misunderstanding the text ether, it’s the most British approach you could imagine to the most international sporting mega ritual on the planet. It’s self deprecating, modest, even in the middle of the insane price tag, the vast scale and the bubbling resentment that, like so much in the country, it will remain focussed on London and the south. Boyle’s ceremony, and British history, embodied in Brunel and Branagh acknowledge all this, turn to an assembled world and say:

“Hello, this is Great Britain, we’re difficult and complex and we get things wrong. We’re every colour, every creed, every nationality and sometimes we all hurt. But tonight, the clouds open and show riches. Tonight, we shine. Come and play, we’ve put the kettle on.’

Want to talk to me about the article? Come see me on Twitter at @alasdairstuart or email me.

Home From The War: The Wyndham Theatre’s 2011 Much Ado About Nothing

 

Picture a card table, black wood, green felt. Cards are dealt onto the table, old, familiar cards in a routine that’s as familiar but not unwelcome. This is an old trick, but like all great tricks it’s also a great story and seeing that story unfold is always a pleasure. The cards turn, flip, fold and dance, changing position and suit, color and value in a routine which is so well known, well trodden, you’re anticipating each manouvere as it comes. There’s no surprise here but there is joy in seeing a great story well told.

 

Then there’s a rabbit in the centre of the table. The trick has changed, the rules have changed, the story is new again and yet, somehow, still familiar. This sensation, the old becoming new, is what lies at the heart of the Wyndham theatre production of Much Ado About Nothing.

 

There are three crucial decisions in the make up of the production that make it work. The first is the setting; Gibraltar in the 1980s. Straight away, this places the courtly excesses of the original play in a setting that’s both contemporary and absolutely in keeping with the play’s original structure and intent. The Don and his men become the command staff of a Royal Navy vessel on its’ way home from the war whilst Leonato becomes the island’s governor, a comfortingly authoritarian figure who’s life is defined by his expensive suit and the power-dressing ’80s monstrosities that inhabit his wife and daughter’s wardrobes. Even the watch, normally the slowest part of the play, find new life as a group of ex-pats led by a magnificently overblown, Rambo-obsessed Dogberry played by This is a decade filled with excess and a specific time within it where that excess was at its height. It’s John Ramm.

 

As a result of these choices, it’s very difficult not to look at the nobles as returning home from the Falklands war and that places the play securely in the ‘safe’ period of Thatcherite Britain, before the poll tax and John Major, before the leadership campaigns and being pried from Number 10. This is the time before the time, a suspended bubble of atmosphere that floats on equal currents of nostalgia and rage, neither quite consuming it, both threatening to do so at any moment. Josie Rourke’s production avoids both by doing simple thing; comitting,utterly, to its time period. As well as the setting, the production is riddled with songs that, at first listen, are classic pieces of ’80s power pop. Duran Duran, Wham!, Alice Cooper and more seem to flit across the stage and it’s only when you listen closer that you realise what’s actually being sung, are Shakespeare’s words. Old verse is married to retro music to create something which is both instantly recognisable and very different, giving one scene in particular remarkable emotional impact. The apparent ‘seduction’ of Hero is played out on a rotating circular stage, one half of which is the Hen and the other the Stag party. As the pseudo-goth music swells and we see Claudio’s reaction to what appears to be his fiance rutting against a nightclub, the scene builds to a musical and dramatic crescendo that’s surprisingly intense. This is the 1980s, redolent not only with excess and hedonism, but with casual sex, violence, brutality and the class divide and this one scene shows us it all, red in tooth and claw and so drunk it can barely stand. It also marks the performance out as both visually and verbally witty, the music and rotating set giving Rourke the opportunity to ‘wipe’ between scenes like a film. The play even ends on a dance number, Shakespeare’s traditional maths (Everyone still alives gets married) mixed with 1980s movie logic (Everyone still alive gets everything they wanted and it’s all fine again) to create something which is archaic but brand new. This is Shakespeare with shoulder pads and a bleach job, something new and different and strikingly familiar.

 

That familiarity is further enhanced by the second crucial decision; the casting of David Tennant and Catherine Tate as Benedick and Beatrice. Tennant and Tate are that unique type of double act that are funny simply by standing next to one another and that’s proved here with their very first scene. Tennant, crashing into shot in a golf cart, throwing duty free lager left, right and centre, is the maniacal whirling dervish to Tate’s precise, arch, measured presence. The relish with which they spar is crucial to the play, you have to believe these two enjoy disliking each other, and that’s clear from the moment they share the stage. They play Benedick and Beatrice as two fiercely smart, driven people who know exact;y what they want and are utterly terrified of getting it and the end result is remarkably sweet. The vast, face-breaking grin that Benedick leaves the stage with when he’s convinced Beatrice loves him is topped only by Beatrice’s flappy handed delight when she hears the same.

That similiarity between them is neatly exploited in the play with Benedick and Beatrice’s best scenes both coming from the scene where the plot to ensare them unfolds. Tennant lopes around the pillars at the centre of the stage as they rotate, pursued by Leonato’s son holding his book until the book is hurled off stage and the boy stomps off in disgust. It’s a beautifully paced scene, as funny for what we don’t see as what we do as the Duke, Leonato and Claudio struggle to keep straight faces, Benedick struggles to be heard and the child struggles to just give the long legged fool his damn book. The entire thing has an air of Morecambe and Wise to it, right down to Benedick’s monologue, delivered with beautifully paced glee by Tennant. That sense of absurdity is continued by Beatrice’s scene which opens with her hiding under a painter’s tarpaulin and culminates in her being suspended over the action by a painter’s harness. It’s broad, absurd and uniquely of it’s time, once again. Even the jokes here are, if not recycled, then cleverly repurposed and re designed to create a very complete, very deliberate approach to the material. The performance we saw even had a welcome dash of real humour, as Tate struggled to get out of the harness, muttered ‘Oh come on’ to herself as she broke free and was greeted with rapturous applause. She left the stage grinning, clearly relieved and with an extra dash of humanity to add to Beatrice’s considerable collection of it.

 

The third crucial decision that the play hangs on is Rourke’s refusal to focus exclusively on the big moments. Much Ado About Nothing is a play full of broad strokes and Rourke makes sure each has it’s moment, but she’s as interested in the smaller lines. Adam James, a go to actor for ‘oily yuppie villain’ for any Kudos TV production, turn in superb work as Don Pedro and his proposal to Beatrice is wonderful, a brash military man showing a moment of vulnerability and being brutally punished for it. Tate gets a big laugh on her reaction, then another, then smaller and smaller echoes as Beatrice’s horror at what she’s done to this genuinely good man is mirrored by the audience’s sympathy for both of them. This may be a scene written in 1598 but the social awkwardness, the moment of vulnerability, the unintentional cruelty is universal.

Later, the scene where Beatrice and Benedick confess their love for one another is funny, sweet, romantic and audibly curdles the second Beatrice says ‘Kill Claudio’. Tate gathers the air in the room to her at that point, becoming a cold, hard point that you can’t take your eyes off. It’s the hinge the play shifts around and the entire production is pushed by those two words, Catherine Tate’s delivery and the way that Tennant responds. His chilling, still, rage-filled challenge to Claudio is another highlight and the moment he dismisses himself from the Duke’s service leaves you in no doubt that this is a man going off to fight, and kill, a good friend of his. The fact that the next time we see them Benedick is unintentionally composing ‘Green Sleeves’ on a bontempi keyboard does nothing to distract from this. Benedick is a clown, certainly, but he’s a clown with a sword and that sword is entirely at Beatrice’s disposal.

This attention to detail is found again and again throughout the play, with even minor characters getting real moments to shine. John Ramm’s magnificent Dogberry has already been mentioned but Jonathan Coy as Leonato and Tom Bateman as Claudio are also given genuinely great moments. The scene where Leonato all but threatens to go to war with the Don and Claudio feels as genuine as Benedick’s vow to kill his friend whilst Bateman’s Claudio is exactly the right combination of physical, confident, immature, likable and hateful. This is Bateman’s first time out of the gate, having just graduated from LAMDA and he nails Claudio’s odd combination of passivity and violence. There’s a palpable sense of this being a good man, but one in need of tempering, and that lends weight and spark to his confrontations with both Benedick and Hero.

 

Much Ado About Nothing is almost the archetypal romantic comedy but here, it becomes something different and mercurial. Shakespeare’s play is still there, and presented with rare wit and verve, but there’s also a very odd, very involving hymn to the genre it all but spawned and a love letter to a decade that may not deserve it but here, feels like it should. The trick has changed, the trick is still the same and the characters dance on, not caring what time or era it is. After all, the Don’s men are home from the wars.

 

The Man with the Book – The Tempest

Whitby SeascapeYou don’t notice him at first. The stage is open, set in a ramshackle garden behind York Library, surrounded by Roman ruins and picnic blankets. It’s light, early evening in the summer, that moment before the curtain comes up mixed with the moment before the sun goes down. Unobtrusively, a man sits down on one of the mini-stages, engrossed in a book. He’s tall, middle-aged, well-dressed and completely focussed. He looks like us. He’s sitting where we are. The stage is empty.

Then, satisfied, he walks on stage, holds the book up high and slams it shut.

And in the middle of York, in the middle of Summer, reality shifts.

A storm breaks and suddenly we’re on the deck of a ship filled with grim sailors and terrified noblemen. The man with the book is there too, invisible to the other characters, an audience member somehow on stage, an author somehow within his own story. This is The Tempest, a play where audience members and characters, where author and story and reality and fantasy mix to dizzying effect, presented in York Library Gardens by Sprite Productions.

Roger Ringrose’s Prospero is the author idealised, a muscular, vigorous intellect who throws himself around the stage with tremendous intensity and more than a little flamboyance. Prospero is, on paper, a tragic hero of the sort Shakespeare loved; a man left to die by his brother, forced to survive on a desolate island and exiled for over a decade whilst he plotted his revenge. He is, on paper, a Hamlet rather than a Claudius, the victim of a story instead of a protagonist.
However, that very exile empowers him. Prospero is thrown outside the story, runs off the edge of the film like Yosemite Sam but instead of plummeting to the ground, finds out he can influence the story from his place beyond it. His books may be supplied by Gonzalo but the knowledge, the will to build his liberation comes from Prospero alone. He becomes, within minutes of the play opening, a contemporary of Faust, a man who not only knows his place but knows how to make it better and knows the price he will pay for that. He is the first enlightened scientist of English literature, the tree whose roots still run through modern fiction and incorporate everything from Bernard Quatermass to Sherlock Holmes.

He is of course, also Nigel Kneale and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare. Prospero is outside the book looking in, an author up to his elbows in the organs of his story, present in almost every scene and frantically assembling events to produce the ending he wants.
This makes for some fascinating structural choices in The Tempest. The play is amongst Shakespeare’s most broken backed with the second half little more than an extended series of resolutions as Prospero first gives his blessing to the marriage of Miranda and Ferdinand, then foils the half-baked assassination plot of Trinculo, Stefano and Caliban and finally, almost as an after thought, brings his enemies forth, renders them powerless and then forgives them. Were the play not so redolent with some of Shakespeare’s best language it would feel anti-climactic. Instead, it feels new, clean, almost elegant. This is an author at the end of his life no longer content to build the same story with the same tools but, instead, wanting to comment on that story and explore how it has changed and how he in turn changes it. It is, in short, arguably the first post-modern play ever written.
Prospero is not the only character to transcend narrative however. This production features an Ariel who is simultaneously both resolutely physical and completely incorporeal. This Ariel is played by every member of the cast not on stage and occupied with other roles, a hive mind that is simultaneously individual and united, picking up each other’s sentences, finishing each other’s lines and throwing questions at Prospero from every angle. This is Ariel as a breeze, an idea, a concept given temporary voice and it’s an approach so elemental, so incredibly effective that it’s difficult to understand why every production doesn’t use it. Of course, the one character who never forms part of Ariel is Prospero. The author’s role in the story is inviolate, intimate but distant, involved but apart and whilst he can control a chorus of voices, he can never be part of it directly.

Ranged against these two, the rest of the cast seem almost perfunctory. Miranda in particular is one of the least of Shakespeare’s heroines, a woman required to do little more than love her father, fall in love with Ferdinand and deliver the ‘O brave new world!’ joke. Likewise the pairings of Sebastian and Antonio, Trinculo and Stefano are essayed villains at best, men separated by class but united by blank, unthinking avarice. Here, once again, the cast are used in a manner which is both efficient and clever, Sebastian and Trinculo both played by Phillip Benjamin, Alonso the duke of Naples and Stefano both played by Jacob Krichefski. The rich and the poor alike in every, lost on an island writing itself into existence around them.
Which isn’t to say the company don’t do an excellent job, because they do. This is one of the most uniformly strong companies of actors I’ve seen in years with Benjamin in particular showing a neat ability to shift between the embittered Bertie Wooster of Sebastian and the affable and casually violent, cockney Trinculo. Krichefski is also extremely impressive, bringing a wounded, resigned dignity to Alonso and playing Stephano as a jovial, sinister, cowardly stand up comedian, boasting about murdering Prospero one moment and swapping hats with an audience member to avoid being identified the next. Jack Whitam’s Caliban is a gangly figure, uncoordinated and unfocussed and all the more sympathetic for that whilst Tony Taylor’s Gonzalo is arguably the greatest of Shakespeare’s councillors, a man who is quietly compassionate, ruthlessly intelligent and completely honest about his failings. Each one of them and the rest bring something unique to the role or roles they play, from Stephanie Thomas’ intensity as part of Ariel to David Hartley’s compassionate, open Ferdinand.
However, each of them is in the end nothing more than a phrase in Prospero’s book, a component to propel the story to it’s conclusion. This is a play about a man using the tools of narrative to bring his own story back on course, seizing back control of the life that’s been taken from him and he does so with a ruthlessness that often isn’t communicated. Trinculo, Caliban and Stephano are last seen pursued by dog and wolf spirits, Ferdinand is put through arduous physical labour to prove his worthiness to Miranda and the play finishes with Gonzalo, Alonso, Sebastian and Antonio completely at Prospero’s mercy. They are saved not just by Prospero’s mercy but by the fact that any other ending would be untidy. Things must return to normal must, if anything, be better than normal and the only way that can be achieved is if Prospero is reinstated as Duke of Milan and Ferdinand and Miranda marry, cementing his alliance with Alonso. Everything that happens along the way from the way he toys with Alonso’s grief to the enslavement of both Ariel and Caliban drives that purpose, and with it the story, forwards; Prospero must be returned to the book, he must finish his story and that story must have a happy ending.
But can you return to the book after you’ve been outside it? Prospero’s closing speech suggests otherwise, suggests instead that he knows all too well the crimes he has committed and that the price he will pay for them, is knowledge of them. As the play closes, again with Ringrose alone on stage, it seems clear that he will never be fully part of it again. The actor, the character, the author all leave the stage as one, the story they have worked so hard to build finished and receding and, somehow, doing so without them. Prospero’s books, it seems, imprison as much as they empower.

The Doctor Returns to Elsinore

Over the last year I’ve been to the theatre three times, all different and all fantastic shows. The Mckellen/Stewart Waiting for Godot, a production of Pirates of Penzance that was gloriously, riotously silly and the David Tennant-fronted Hamlet. I reviewed it here, and I wasn’t alone in hailing Tennant as one of the greatest Hamlets of all time.

What I didn’t know until recently was that Tennant didn’t reach the amount of performances needed to be considered for an Olivier award. Whilst he did over seventy shows in Stratford upon Avon, a back injury meant he could only perform eleven times in London.

Now, multiple sources are reporting that the RSC are planning to re-unite the cast to film the production. Oliver Ford Davies, who played Polonius, revealed that the play would be filmed in early June and he was hopeful the entire cast would return. The story, reported in the Telegraph, was confirmed by the RSC although the exact form the film will take remains unclear. Ford Davies said “It won’t be a full feature film as there isn’t time but it will certainly be more than just the filming of the stage.”

Even if it is, this is fantastic news. Hamlet at it’s best is a play like no other and this production really is Hamlet at it’s best.  

Hamlet-How To Draw Your Own Map

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I watched an actor draw his own map on Saturday.

The RSC’s production of Hamlet, held at the Courtyard Theatre whilst their complex is, in essence, rebuilt, has attracted a lot of press due to the casting of both Patrick Stewart as Claudius and David Tennant as Hamlet.  Whilst not all of that press has been positive, most notably the RSC’s refusal to allow the actor to sign Doctor Who memorabilia, the production has been getting very positive word.

The reason for that is simple, because that’s exactly what this production is; simple.  The Courtyard is a wonderful theatre, designed with absolutely no artifice so every wiring track and support strut, every light and even props are on display, the carpet the Players enact their scene on being stored, unobtrusively, by one of the exits.  It’s an appropriate location too, as this Hamlet is a bare-bones production, the cast finding their way back to the elements of the play and creating something which is both devastatingly open and honest and at the same time elegantly crafted.

The stage is a black, reflective square backed by mirrored doors, creating a half square, a right angle that draws the audience in straight away, subconsciously completing it.  This also allows for some minimalist but remarkably atmospheric lighting, most notably in the first scene where the primary light is the watchmen’s torches, reflected from the floor and visibly arcing upwards.  This first scene not only sets out the stall for the story but also for this production.  The watchmen have never felt so real, so human and their blank terror as the ghost splits around them is utterly real.  The production serves its everymen very well too with performances from Polonius’ long-suffering servant Reynaldo, played by Ewen Cummins, and the courtier Osric, played by Ryan Gage, both registering later.  This is Elsinore as a vast machine of state, one where the first signs of a problem, the first tremors are felt by and affect the smallest cogs first.

This understated approach continues as the Royal Family make their appearance, smiling and waving at a photo call as they walk through onto the stage.  Tennant’s Hamlet arrives with no fanfare, a tall, uncomfortable figure standing alone in the corner of the stage and unnoticed for much of this first scene.  Only a look from Claudius and a pointed ‘Now, Laertes.’  Shows the audience he’s there and also shows them how uncomfortable the two men already are with one another.

It would have been easy for Tennant to play Hamlet as the Doctor, the two characters have the same mercurial intellect, the same flamboyance, the same wilful lack of social skills.  It would have been easy for Tennant to spend the entire play sprinting around with the maniacal energy he brings to that other role and to be fair, there’s more than a hint of the Doctor’s jet black sense of theatre to some of Hamlet’s later adventures, especially the moment where he sets off for England, tied to an office chair.  It would have been easy for Tennant to coast through this role, to hit the same marks thousands before him have, to do nothing new.

Nothing Tennant does here is easy.  His first soliloquy is delivered in wracking sobs, Hamlet collapsed into a foetal ball of grief and pain that you feel uncomfortable watching.  There’s no artifice here, no sense of buttons being pushed, this is a man who lives completely in the moment and the moment is full of nothing but agony and loss.  It’s impossible not to feel sorry for him, impossible too not to remember that Tennant lost his mother recently and the end result is a Hamlet who is, in essence, naked, broken and still has a long, long way to go.

Tennant’s performance, if anything, improves over the course of the play and he starts to take an almost wilful delight in not playing to the usual interpretations of scenes.  His first meeting with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern sees him measure and defeat them in seconds and he toys with his two friends from there on, alternately revelling in their company and despising it.  Likewise, the moment where he has the opportunity to kill Claudius and doesn’t is fascinating, firstly for the fact the scene is cut in half across the interval and secondly because of the sheer emotion behind every one of Tennant’s lines.

That emotion is at the heart of this Hamlet’s madness, and it’s a devastatingly smart choice by Tenant and director Gregory Doran.  Hamlet clings to his anger and grief, uses them as a weapon to hack his way through life and only when Polonius is killed does he stop and realise what’s happened.  Rash action has just cost an old man his life and Hamlet any chance of redemption and the scenes that follow vary from one of the most electrifying confrontations between Hamlet and Claudius in recent years to a moment where, meeting Fortinbras’ sergeant, he sees the future of Denmark and seemingly accepts that he’ll be no part of it.

This is a Hamlet with fierce intelligence who is far too willing to use it, but, again, the production confounds expectation.  Instead of the out of control intellectual of old, the inclusion of the scene with Fortinbras’ sergeant brings into focus this version’s willingness to sacrifice himself.  Hamlet knows he’s not part of the greater good, of the solution and accepts that.  His peace comes here, not so much through vengeance as through the realisation that, at last, he can rest.  This is, in short, a Hamlet constructed of complexity and contradiction, a man who defines himself by his death as much as his life.  Visceral, emotional and painfully open this is also, I suspect, the definitive Hamlet of the next decade.

Tennant is far from alone on stage, Patrick Stewart’s dual roles proving as electric as Tennant’s.  Casting Stewart as both the Ghost and Claudius is inspired, as is the decision to dress Claudius in slightly period formal suits whilst the Ghost is confined to armour and military dress.  One man is vital, physical and dead.  The other is intellectual, charming, plausible and killed him.  Stewart’s Claudius is a man absolutely at home in affairs of state, as bullish intellectually as his brother was physically and all the more threatening for that.  His weariness with the verbose Polonius and growing contempt and fear for Hamlet are fascinating to see and his reaction to the Players, fascinatingly, leaves him in absolute control.  He walks up to Hamlet, stares at him, shakes his head very deliberately and almost murmurs ‘Away.’  It’s the moment where the two men finally see face to face, finally realise they will destroy one another and Claudius, not blinded by the savage vindication Hamlet feels, sees that straight away.

It’s the quiet moments where Stewart shines however.  Left alone after the play he’s wracked with coughs, his guilt spewing from him as bile whilst alone with Gertrude he’s the picture of husbandly concern.  Just as Hamlet feels he has no place in Elsinore, Claudius feels he must earn his place through hard work and altruistic gesture, through making Denmark great again.  His strength, his control, is all façade and when that’s revealed, when Hamlet is standing over him, knife in hand, the play shifts suddenly.  It’s no longer a war for Denmark or a quest for vengeance but rather a battle between two terrified, intelligent men with no semblance of control over their lives.  Each defines the other, each controls the other and in the end, each dooms both.  Once again, it’s a remarkable, unique take on an old role and once again it showcases an actor at the absolute top of his game.  A friend of mine pointed out that Stewart even alters his voice, his Claudius always near the top of his register, always dry-throated as he struggles to hold the bile back and it only heightens the desperation, the sense of danger mentioned above.

Elsinore’s other tragic family are also well served here with Oliver Ford Davies’ Polonius embodying the contradictions of the role with humour that never once belittles the mundane, banal evil Polonius does.  One part doting father to one part obsessive spymaster he’s blinded in the end by his connection to the great machine that is Elsinore.  Hamlet, Claudius, even Gertrude can see the changes coming but Polonius can never see past the walls of the castle and that, in the end, dooms him and his children.

Edward Bennett and Mariah Gale complete the triangle of grieving children in the play, Bennett’s Laertes a ’60s student radical with an axe to grind.  He’s a perfect upper-class big brother and when he begins to fall apart, the comparisons between him and Hamlet are inevitable and well drawn.  Both are intelligent men driven mad through grief, both are intent on vengeance and both are parts of the machine, neither realising until it’s too late.

Mariah Gale’s Ophelia takes a leaf from Tennant’s book, her grief as real and raw and desperate as Hamlet’s own.  However, her death serves not only to complete the pattern of grieving children but also show how lucky Hamlet is.  He has vengeance to power him, to distract him whilst all Ophelia has is the knowledge that the man she loved killed the man who loved her, her father.  Her final scene, grubby, bleeding and clutching a pile of pond weed is like Tennant’s opening speech, remarkable and, like that earlier scene, extremely uncomfortable to watch.

Penny Downie’s Gertrude and Peter De Jersey’s Horatio are the two quiet stars of the play but no less impressive for that.  Downie has few lines but never stops acting and her poise and increasingly brittle, cracked façade break the audience’s heart twice.  The first time is after Hamlet leaves her, throwing a cheery ‘Goodnight Mother!’ behind him as, clearly, he always has.  The abject joy on her face as she realises that for a few seconds, her son has returned to her, shatters into wracking sobs as the reality of her situation descends on her, closely followed by Claudius’ unwelcome, massaging hands.

The second is at the climax of the duel, a moment traditionally played as Gertrude toasting her newly recovered son.  Here, she clearly realises what Claudius has done, clearly realises what’s coming and wants no part of it.  She kills herself and in doing so sets in motion the final chain of events, seizing control of her life as her son did before her.

Finally, De Jersey has the most thankless task of all.  The stoic Horatio does nothing but react throughout the play but, once again, is well served here.  De Jersey’s default costume, a tweed jacket with suede elbow pads speaks to his academic past and this Horatio is fiercely intelligent, a muscular, rebellious presence who supports his friend as much through shared jokes at Elsinore’s expense as assisting his investigation.  He’s a dependable, solid presence in the play and provides a sounding board for Tennant’s Hamlet, throwing him into starker relief as well as putting a human face on the closing tragedy of the play.

It’s there, in the final seconds though, that Doran pulls the rug from under the audience’s feet.  As Hamlet dies, the doors open and Fortinbras strides in, accompanied by the sergeant Hamlet spoke to earlier.  There’s no closing speech, no expression of regret, just a man in uniform who, after a moment, Osric bows to.  The great machine of Elsinore rumbles on, but a new controller is at the helm and whether or not his intentions are pure is left up to us.

This is Hamlet stripped bare, the cogs and gears exposed and it’s a revelation.  Intelligence, emotion and sheer physical presence combine to create a performance which is both pragmatic and grounded and shot through with equal veins of black humour and tragedy.  This is Shakespeare taken down to the essentials and ready to be rediscovered for the 21st Century, a seething powerhouse of a cast and a performance.  This is Tennant drawing the map of his future career and, in doing so, showing the way to a definitive new perspective on Hamlet.  This is, in short, extraordinary.