REVIEW: Othello, National Theatre, July 2013

Othello production poster.  (c) Photo by Seamus Ryan.
(c) Photo by Seamus Ryan.

Last Monday, the 22nd of July, was a big step in the theatre-going life of Young Emer. Even though I have been living in the UK for almost twelve months now, it was the first time that I had stepped foot inside the National Theatre to see a show. I’m very glad that my first time happened to be Nicholas Hytner’s production of Othello at the Olivier. It’s an intense, claustrophobic production, anchored by some remarkable acting. It being my first time seeing the play on stage, it might just banish the memory of being forced to watch the Kenneth Branagh-Laurence Fishburne 1995 film version in school, which had a very wet Emilia, Branagh’s otherwise great performance being hampered by the fact that they shot his soliloquies like a David Attenborough documentary, and Desdemona dancing with a pole for no particular reason except it probably looked nice (to which my Leaving Cert English teacher responded, ‘As you do’).

Hytner places his actors onto a set that is initially quite urban (Iago and Roderigo’s first exchange takes place outside a very loud bar, for example), but as soon as it moves towards the climax of Act One with the Duke’s Council, Vicki Mortimer’s set begins to focus on the interior: as the production progresses, tiny, brightly-lit rooms are revealed, becoming the site for much of the action. This is particularly effective once the play moves to the Cypriot barracks: with large, looming concrete walls and lamp-poles in the background, it’s almost as if someone literally ripped off the roof of one of the cabins in order to peer into the characters’ private affairs. This highlights the domesticity of Othello, and the domesticity and intimacy of its tragedy: carnal affairs, and things we’d rather keep to ourselves, are a preoccupation of many of the characters. It also lends a sense of claustrophobia to the proceedings: there’s no opportunity for fresh air, everyone’s in each other’s faces, and there’s no chance of privacy. People may overhear your raucous drinking sessions. People may be eavesdropping on your private conversations. Nothing is your own private business here.

(l-r)_Rory Kinnear as Iago, Adrian Lester as Othello. Production photography by Johan Persson.
(l-r) Rory Kinnear as Iago, Adrian Lester as Othello.
(c) Photo by Johan Persson.

But perhaps the greatest success of this production is its Othello and Iago (Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear). Lester’s Othello is charismatic, imposing, and remarkably restrained when he needs to be: rather than a surprising exclamation, his ‘Goats and monkeys’ is delivered in a rather deadpan fashion to Lodovico (Nick Sampson) before marching off stage without another word. The final scene of the play sees him swing from displaying cold ruthlessness to expressing genuine, honest grief in a short space of time, yet he pulls this off rather convincingly: his murder of Desdemona (Olivia Vinall) is particularly horrible, but we grow to express a degree of sympathy for him in his final moments of despair. Rory Kinnear’s Iago is refreshingly non-Machiavellian: there’s a degree of earthiness to him which makes him more dangerous. When he spits out ‘I hate the Moor’, his bitterness and anger is palpable. One of the greatest ironies of the play is the constant refrain of ‘honest Iago’, and Kinnear’s performance actually makes sense of this: he almost plays mentor to Cassio after his disgrace in Act Two, and you get the idea that he’s played a similar role to the soldiers who have also passed through the ranks. He’s the friendly bloke at work who you meet on the first day, who shows you the ropes, and who takes you for your first pint at the end of the day; it’s not for nothing that Iago leads the session that results in Cassio losing his job. You realise why Othello trusts him so much: Lester’s performance benefits from Kinnear’s in that it becomes very hard to view Othello as a gullible fool, and Kinnear’s benefits from Lester’s in that Iago does not resemble a pantomime villain. Their friendship (well, it’s very one-sided from the looks of it) becomes actually tangible and more realistic to the audience member. Lester and Kinnear become a formidable partnership.

They’re ably supported by the likes of Lyndsay Marshal, who plays a wonderfully fiery, pragmatic Emilia, who’s not afraid to have a pint with the lads or to stand up to her husband (one disturbing moment of manhandling infers that he’s abusive towards her). Jonathan Bailey, a.k.a. that little shit in Broadchurch, effectively brings out the braggadocio in Cassio, but also conveys that the young lieutenant has a lot to learn. Olivia Vinall is terrific in parts (especially in her final scene), but she begins her scenes in a weirdly declamatory fashion. She’s good as she goes along, and she teases out aspects of the character beyond the two-dimensional ‘angel’ template, but it’s jarring when she begins with WHERE SHOULD I LOSE THAT HANDKERCHIEF EMILIA before easing into a delivery similar to that of her fellow actors. What’s particularly interesting about how her performance fits in the grand scheme of things is how out of place Desdemona is at the barracks. This is epitomised by the Venetians’ arrival in Act Two: Iago, Othello, Emilia, Cassio et al arrive wearing army helmets and fatigues, but Desdemona rushes in casual wear and a blue backpack. There’s genuine tenderness between Lester and Vinall, but it becomes clear from their performances that Desdemona didn’t realise what she signed up for when marrying into the army, or that she perhaps took Othello’s stories at face value.

(l-r) Desdemona (Olivia Vinall), Othello (Adrian Lester), Emilia (Lyndsay Marshal). (c) Photo by Johan Persson.
(l-r) Desdemona (Olivia Vinall), Othello (Adrian Lester), Emilia (Lyndsay Marshal).
(c) Photo by Johan Persson.

All in all, it’s a very thoughful, well-made production. The final moments leave us with Iago, who pauses before leaving Othello and Desdemona’s lodgings with Lodovico, Gratiano, and Cassio. He stares at the three dead bodies of Othello, Desdemona, and Emilia on the bed for a good few seconds. Initially I believe he’s staring at them with a degree of remorse… or perhaps he thinks he’s exceeded his expectations and has hit the jackpot. With a man who vows never to ‘speak word’, and who won’t fully disclose his intentions, it’s fitting that we close with more ambiguity on Iago’s part. Runs until 5 October.

[Long Overdue] REVIEW: Midsummer Night’s Dreaming (RSC/Google+), Stratford-upon-Avon, June 2013

A while ago, Midsummer Night’s Dreaming, a collaboration between the Royal Shakespeare Company and Google+, took place in Stratford over the weekend of 21-23 June. (Well, if you’ve been reading this blog for the past while, you already know this.) After distilling my thoughts about the project for some time now, I think it’s now time to offer some thoughts on the weekend’s events, as well as prior to that. As well as posting some pictures that I took of the performances  — the internet does like pictures, right?

(l-r) Alexandra Gilbreath as Titania and Joe Dixon as Bottom.

A lot of criticism aimed at the project suggested that those who got the most of the project were those who attended the events in Stratford, or as Dominic Cavendish in The Telegraph suggested, ‘you were confronted with a near-constant stream of tittle-tattle about the action, most of it posted by new ancillary characters, without witnessing the thing itself.’ Whereas I’d be the first to admit that the live performances really enhanced my experience of the event, and that my opinion is wholly subjective in that I had experienced the play both offline and online, I’m unsure if Cavendish and others had been interacting with the Google+ community before the weekend had started, or had they even posted at all. That community had been there for quite a long time before the 21st June, with people from around the world posting and sharing content. Not only that, but the RSC had organised live Google Hangouts for people to watch in the run-up to the weekend, featuring contributions from director Greg Doran, actors performing in the show, and those who had interacted with the play through their work creatively and academically — so there had also been interactive content directly linking to the shows that were coming up. I had only joined the community a week or two before the performances, but posting in it encouraged me to be creative about what I posted, and to be creative about how I would interact with the play online. I can’t speak for those who couldn’t be in Stratford, but I honestly think that it was a project that the more you put in, the more you got out of it. I understand that some people would be happy just to see the shows. Some people are happy enough to share posts and look at the pictures online. But whatsoever way you chose, it welcomed an active response rather than a passive one.

This is one of many things I posted to the #dream40 community. It’s the closest I’ll ever come to being funny with Shakespeare.

I missed the performance of Act 1 on Friday (due to taking Sam aka WordOtter to his first RSC performance — it was Hamlet, fact fans), but I did catch the rest of the performances that followed. The next performance took place in the Ashcroft Room at 2.30am on Sunday morning, which took care of Act 2 to 4.1. It was limited seating, in a room full of windows and probably mainly used for rehearsal space (anyone who has been in the Ashcroft Room more often than I have, please feel free to prove me wrong), with limited props. Doran asked us to think of it as a ‘rehearsal’  — they had only been rehearsing it for the past week, and they were all in basic costumes — but it was a very, very good rehearsal if that’s so: special commendations to Peter de Jersey’s Oberon/Theseus, Alexandra Gilbreath’s Titania/Hippolyta, Joe Dixon’s Bottom, and Lucy Briggs-Owen’s Helena (and you, Robin Goodfellow, in your Mark Hadfield disguise). The fact that it was a select audience, that there wasn’t that many of us, lent a sense of mystique to the proceedings. To put it plainly: it’s very early morning in the forest, and while people are sleeping soundly in their beds, there’s some mischief going on here — and we’re the only ones who know what’s going on. And as intended, things wrapped up around 4am in the morning. Light was beginning to pour out of the windows in the Ashcroft Room. Stumbling outside of the Swan Bar, day had come. It was a nice touch.

(l-r) Peter de Jersey as Theseus, Joe Dixon as Bottom, Lucy Briggs-Owen as Helena, Mark Quartley as Lysander, Alexandra Gilbreath as Hippolyta. Foreground: Simon Manyonda as Demetrius. Also Hippolyta looks suspiciously like Titania. WHAT A COINCIDENCE.

The next afternoon saw Stratford preparing for Midsummer’s three weddings, so in Bancroft Gardens a fete was held, with food; cake to be decorated and, uh, other decorations to be made; and free music.  It might just have been the first wedding to have a donkey as a wedding cake.

CAYUK. I decorated two of the cupcakes surrounding it. I then learned that I am terrible when it comes to icing guns.

It was a rather nice way to spend a Sunday afternoon: for one thing, the kids taking First Dance lessons along with their parents has to be one of the cutest things ever. It may have been wet, yes. I don’t know whether it’s my nostalgia for picnic blankets and music festivals, but sitting with a massive group of people nestling near the stage (with picnic blankets, obviously) waiting for 4.2 to begin is not a bad way to spend your Sunday.

Waiting for the wedding to begin. Notice the fairy lights.

The performance of 4.2 was brief, as it had to be. The most interesting part was watching the rehearsal of 5.1, or what we could see of it until it got rained off. Not that it dampened anyone’s spirits: dear Sammy had to flee, but he was just happy that he got to see Greg Doran for the first time. Everyone’s first sighting of Greg Doran is always a happy time: just ask any Institute student. I regret that I don’t have any pictures of Joe Dixon in a ridiculous wig playing with kids. Ah well.

But we DO have a picture of Paul Chahidi (Peter Quince) wearing ridiculous spandex.

A part of me was slightly glad that the rehearsal got rained off before we could see the entirety of the final act being rehearsed: seeing as I was going to see it later that night, I prefer it when I don’t see what’s coming, and I like to be surprised. So maybe it was simply serendipity. Later that night, it was thankfully dry once more, but the Dell was illuminated with several torches and rugs lying on the ground for people to sit on. [My companion and I ended up sitting beside Antony Sher: I apologise for the babbling Mr Sher, it was just really exciting to meet you for the first time.] The atmosphere was warm, affectionate, and intimate. I’m sure so many people in the audience had seen Midsummer several times. Maybe some of them, like myself, were seeing it for the second time (the first had been the SI Players’ wonderful production, and I am not being biased just because I was in the revival). Or maybe some had never seen it before. Who knows. But the audience shrieked with laughter when Dixon as Bottom as Pyramus kissed Wall’s ‘stones’ (I’ll leave that to your imagination), when Jim Hooper’s lovably benign Starveling turned up, literally resembling the man in the moon, and when Pyramus began to unfurl yards of red ribbon as he died (and kept dying, for as long as he possibly could do so). And just as Doran and the cast had hoped, the bells of Holy Trinity began to ring as Theseus was about to say ‘The iron tongue of midnight hath told twelve’, leading to a massive cheer from the audience. It may have been another ‘rehearsal’ to use Doran’s phrase, but another one worth watching.

(l-r) Theseus (Peter de Jersey), Hippolyta (Alexandra Gilbreath), Bottom as Pyramus (Joe Dixon), Starveling as Moonshine (Jim Hooper).

But the one thing that stays with me, more than anything over the weekend, was the performance of Oberon and Titania’s blessing. Every single cast member moved towards the front of the performance space, Theseus and Hippolyta leading the way as they began to sing the blessing to the audience. Illuminated by the torches, each actor hummed, harmonised, or just sang along. A few of the Mechanicals got out small bottles of liquid and began to blow bubbles which floated into the air. Perhaps it was the light, perhaps it was the music, perhaps because it was that midnight atmosphere, but I felt incredibly moved by this. I guess you could say that the actors created a sense of communitas amongst us all, to steal the term from Victor Turner. I can’t account for every single audience member there, but I don’t think I’ll see a production of Midsummer quite like that one.

Although, the final performance raised questions about the advantages and disadvantages of performance spaces for such an experiment. As we were encouraged to take photos and update to Google+ or elsewhere with the hashtag #dream40, I had been doing so rather regularly throughout the weekend, as had several people attending the performances (the multiple photos, videos, and different perspectives became rather interesting to see as the weekend progressed). I had no problems with taking photos during the performances on Sunday morning and afternoon, but things became rather complicated during the final performance. For some reason I could not pick up the wifi on my iPad, so I resorted to using my tiny little smartphone with a not-so-smart camera to take pictures (which is why the night-time pictures look so blurry). Even though we were allowed to take pictures and update, the darkness and atmosphere somewhat inhibited me. It was hard to see any similar lights along the front row of rugs, but my phone was one source of quite, quite blinding light, so much that I kept accidentally blinding my companion with it (and then began to wonder if I had been doing the same to others). Maybe it was just the smart-phone, maybe it was my own sheer clunkiness and lack of subtlety in operating it, maybe it was my need to update during the performance instead of after as others had chose to. It does, however, ask questions as to which performance spaces can lend itself to such an initiative as #dream40, and which equipment and interfaces would lend itself well to it too.

The entire cast of Midsummer Night’s Dreaming, towards the end of the performance.

Regardless, I sincerely hope the RSC and Google do a similar project in the future — The Tempest, The Comedy of Errors, and Much Ado About Nothing could work particularly well in real-time, although the former would rely on Prospero and Miranda being shipwrecked on an island that also happened to have wifi — and I hope that they continue to experiment with the format. Maybe live-streaming would be the next thing to add, for instance. I just hope they don’t just stop there. Midsummer Night’s Dreaming allowed me to commune with others in the performance space and also online, and goodness knows there’s several ways in which one can mine that for creative advantages.

REVIEW: Private Lives, Gielgud Theatre, July 2013.

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This weekend I caught a matinee of Noel Coward’s Private Lives at the Gielgud Theatre in London. First thing of note: it was the first piece of modern theatre I’ve seen outside Stratford for quite a while (does Joe Wright’s production of Pinero/Marber’s Trelawny of the Wells at the Donmar count? Mind you, compared to Shakespeare…). So after having spent most of the year watching plays in a thrust stage auditorium, I found myself in a traditional proscenium arch set-up. So that was slightly odd (one gets so used to having the actors so very close to you after a time), but it’s perhaps a reminder to myself that I need to see a lot more theatre outside of Stratford. Another thing of note: many seats in the Upper Circle and Dress Circle were vacant throughout the performance (although, from where I could see, the stalls were relatively packed, barring a few empty seats). That’s a shame, considering Jonathan Kent’s production was worth passing the afternoon for.

I don’t claim much of an expert opinion on Coward: my only exposure to him was reading Private Lives on the bus home from Galway in the second year of my degree, and I remember really, really enjoying it (and somehow managing not to get seriously carsick). As far as I know — and anyone who has a more far-ranging knowledge of Irish theatre history than I do is welcome to prove me wrong — you wouldn’t see many of Coward’s plays in the repertory back in Ireland either, so the most exposure you’d have to his work is through reading them. Again, a great shame.

As far as my understanding of the play in performance goes, the play can’t really work if you don’t believe in Elyot and Amanda, and if you don’t sense the chemistry and passion (in more ways than one) between them on the stage. In that sense, they’re a sort of anti-Romeo and Juliet: the performance just won’t work if they don’t convince you. Perhaps the greatest success of this production is the casting, then, as Toby Stephens and Anna Chancellor are absolutely outstanding as the lead pair. Stephens especially has a gift for comic timing and pratfalling (well, myself and Miss Mickum knew that already, from watching Vexed): his gasp of mock horror when Victor calls him a drunkard, and his response to Sibyl’s ‘Where are you going?’ (‘Canada’ is the sharp reply) are hilarious. He’s caddish, alarmingly brute-like, very immature, and somehow very likeable. Chancellor’s Amanda is more than a match for him: she’s flighty, glamorous, stubborn, and ready to dance to The Rite of Spring just to annoy her ex-husband. Even though she’s just as prone to losing her temper as he is — the final moments of Act II are utter chaos, as Elyot is rained on with anything from roses to sheet music, and just barely missing being hit by cups and saucers — she also displays hints of vulnerability. Perhaps Elyot is the same, as well: the two spend most of Act II clinging to one another, terrified of repeating history before everything goes to pot just before the interval.

(l-r) Anna Chancellor as Amanda and Toby Stephens as Elyot. (c) Photograph by Alastair Muir.
(l-r) Anna Chancellor as Amanda and Toby Stephens as Elyot.
(c) Photograph by Alastair Muir.

They’re ably supported by Anna-Louise Plowman (Stephens’ wife in real life, fact fans) as Sibyl and Anthony Calf as Victor: one needy, insecure, and dressed in ludicrous taffeta (Elyot’s ‘Oh God’ sums it up precisely); the other bad-tempered, blustering, and fiercely proud. It’s particularly funny to watch these two tear seven shades out of one another towards the play’s end — made even more the funnier by Elyot and Amanda’s silent and amused (and eventually, quite bored) presence in the background. Sue Kelvin’s Louise is only unintelligible due to my poor French, but perhaps that was the point: you got the sense that she was perhaps having the last laugh on those who couldn’t understand her.

A final note about set design, and other things: I’ll never get tired of revolving sets. Good that we’re got that out of the way. Compared to the simple corresponding balconies of Act I (signposting how the two married couples seem to mirror each other throughout the scene), Amanda’s Paris apartment is a luxurious haven surrounded with plush beds and throws, vinyls, and numerous paraphernalia. Stephens and Chancellor lounge around such a place in their pyjamas during Act II, jokingly claiming that they’re ‘living in sin’. Whilst such sentiments are a reminder that we’re still in the early 1930s, thankfully Kent’s production is not. Elyot’s complaint about Amanda’s sleeping around, an activity he claims is the reserve of men, is deeply misogynistic, but here — and perhaps Stephens’ pratfalling plays a part in this — he becomes the butt of the joke rather than the joke reflecting more on Amanda. Perhaps it is another manifestation of how our cultural attitudes can shape our reception to plays  written before our generation (see W. B. Worthen and Shakespeare and the Authority of Performance for this), but Elyot’s sexism is held up as baseless posturing. I can’t account for the entire audience, nor should I account for the reception towards the play’s original performance, but for me on that Saturday afternoon, Elyot’s sexism wasn’t glorified. Amanda laughs at him for being very outdated, and so do we.

So, perhaps you should get yourself a ticket while they last. Runs until 21 September 2013.

‘Shakespeare in Education: Educational Trends and New Directions’ /// 3rd July 2013, The Shakespeare Institute

There will be a free to attend symposium titled ‘Shakespeare in Education: Current Trends and New Directions’, organised exclusively by students of The Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham on Wednesday 3rd July 2013.The symposium is supported by the University’s Postgraduate Research Development Fund and is designed for those interested in Shakespeare and Education including students, alumni and any Shakespeare educators. It will be held at the Shakespeare Institute campus over one day from 10am-4pm, bringing together both new and expert researchers at an emerging hub of scholarship in Shakespeare and education.

Together with disseminating, sharing, and discussing a range of teaching methods and approaches,we have visiting speakers and experts to discuss topics at the forefront of the field, ranging from using digital Shakespeare resources to getting published.

The tentative schedule is as follows (all events in the Hall):

9.00-10.00 Registration

10-10.55 Shared Experiences and New Ideas – Laura Nicklin and Thea Buckley
This will consist of a workshop-discussion presenting our findings and experiences from attending relevant conferences. It will be an opportunity for us to share with you what we have learned that will then act as a springboard for the afternoon’s group discussion.

11-12.30 Plenary – James Stredder: ‘Active Shakespeare in the Cyberage: can collective theatre-making survive in today’s classroom?’
Dr James Stredder was Chair of the British Shakespeare Association Education Committee until very recently and is still working with the BSA in the field of Shakespeare and education. He has a vast and deep knowledge of the teaching Shakespeare field and has previously taught the Shakespeare and Pedagogy module at the Shakespeare Institute. He holds an MA and PhD in Shakespeare studies and is the esteemed author of the fantastic teaching resource The North Face of Shakespeare. He will be running a dialogue/workshop with us all, including discussing the sources of current trends in teaching Shakespeare and the new directions that these are taking.

12.30-13.15 Lunch Break
A sandwich lunch will be provided in the Conservatory.

13.15-14 .00 Roundtable Discussion
The idea here is to create a shared platform for discussing that which you may have experienced as being particularly successful or unsuccessful in teaching Shakespeare. Through this we can gain and create a knowledge bank of new and existing ideas that we can then take into our own educational work and/or experiences.

14.00 -15.50 Innovative Software Focus Group – Andrew Kennedy: ‘Storming Shakespeare: Applying MovieStorm softwares to teaching Shakespeare’
Andrew Kennedy is a pioneer in software for education and is the Managing Director of software company Movie Storm. In coming to share and develop his new engagement with Shakespeare and educational software with the conference delegates, he hopes to gain useful feedback to ensure that the product developed is something that will be of optimum usefulness in educational settings. This session will involve a discussion dialogue, practical demonstration and first chance use of software built with the purpose of teaching Shakespeare. This will give all delegates the unique opportunity to trial and contribute to the effective development of this product to ensure that the ultimate creation is ideally fit for most effective use.

15:50- 16:00 Closing Remarks and Thanks
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Our student-led symposium also aims to build on this knowledge base of current approaches to teaching Shakespeare, by situating it in the latest scholarly conversation through sharing insights gained through the organisers’ wider experience in participating at recent international level Shakespeare conferences. These include most importantly the Worlds Together Conference on Shakespeare in education in London late last year sponsored by the Royal Shakespeare Company, and the recent Folger Shakespeare Library educational workshop on Setting Shakespeare Free and active approaches at the 2013 Shakespeare Association of America (SAA) Conference, Toronto.

A light lunch will be provided for all attending. We are also a short walk from the nearby railway station. There is parking; however it is very limited on site, so where possible delegates are advised to use public transport or seek alternative parking in Stratford.

If you wish to attend please e-mail Laura Nicklin or Thea Buckley at nicklinll@fsmail.net with your name, or click ‘attending’ on the Facebook event. We look forward to seeing you at the event.

[So, yeah. If you happen to be in the Stratford vicinity, you might want to go to this. It’s free, I tell you, FREE! I’ll be livetweeting from the conference with the hashtag #edshakes2013 (I’m @emeramchugh), I’d love it if you could join in the conversation. So I’ll see you there, yes?]