You need to be strong to be so weak

Henry VI is not a play I’ve seen often, usually skipping from the previous Henry plays to Richard III without passing go.

But the new production at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre at Shakespeare’s Globe was too good a chance to miss, setting Richard III (seen on the same day) in a proper context. In particular, it allowed the sometimes distracting deformities of Richard Crookback to be represented only by the text rather than prosthetics. Richard’s desire to sweep aside all who stand in his path to the throne of England is driven by clarity of evil thought rather than out of revenge for disabilities which never seem to disable his vaunting ambition.

Both plays were set in a time of your own choosing, but the occasional modern musical sting to one murder or another allowed you to see this as contemporary as you might wish. Certainly, Henry, a weak, incompetent leader surrounded by strong, opinionated but divided courtiers, is recognisable from recent history. Is recognisable from virtually any period of history.

The weak King needs to be played with some confidence and assertion to be believed. The tracksuited Jonathan Broadbent is a strong actor for the part and is convincingly unsure about each and every major decision. His French Queen Margaret played by Steffan Donnelly is brutally certain by contrast.

Henry VI combines the second and third part of the traditional three plays – leaving out the French set up with Joan of Arc to concentrate on the English War of the Roses.

The androgenous casting lends further uncertainty to who sides with whom (or for how long), and it only the emerging Richard Duke of York who has a constant sense of direction, at least in his own mind. Sophie Russell is fantastic as Richard – manoeuvring players in the War of Roses is the first play and trampling all before her in the second. It is helpful (and amusing) that many players are swapping red and white football shirts with the names on as allegiances shift between the red and white of Lancaster and York.

By the time Clarence is murdered in the Tower by people wearing T-Shirts proclaiming ‘Murderer 1’ and ‘Murderer 2’ the tone is already well established for a crossover between humour and terror.

Both plays bring on stage much of the mayhem and murder which is merely hinted at in the wings of other productions. John Lightbody, who is himself murdered several times as different characters in Henry VI, stalks the stage in Richard III as Lord High Executioner Richard Ratcliffe; and is given a few more people to despatch than in the original script.

All in all, theses are two plays which concentrate on the important and leave out the unnecessary (the final battle scene in Richard III is probably the shortest ever). They are productions of pace and vigour and great credit must go to the co-directors Ilinca Radulian and Sean Holmes.

This is Shakespeare meets Tarantino. It’s a must see.

Henry VI and Richard III
The Sam Wanamaker Theatre, London until 26 January 2020

Girl Power

A day out at Stratford-upon-Avon to see a couple of Restoration plays at the Swan RSC Theatre and, surprisingly (to me at least) women were on top in both. Restoration plays are from when theatres were reopened after a 17-year ban by the (right but repulsive) puritans of Oliver Cromwell. When Cromwell’s son (not a dynasty) Richard couldn’t hack it as Lord Protector, the army effectively said those Cavaliers had a point – Charles II, have this crown and try not to get involved in another civil war, (or to bollocks things up like your dad).

With Charles II restored to the throne in 1660, the Restoration period was underway and lasted for a generation and was roughly the start of a hundred years or so of the Enlightenment – a period noted for reason and logic, as well as liberty and constitutional reform.

When Charles was exiled in Europe he was exposed to a lot of theatre, and became an active patron of the arts on his restoration. Apart from reopening the theatres he also demanded that female characters should be played by women, Most recently people would have been used to seeing women played by male actors, but now they would see gender politics brought to the fore by actresses in a new series of Restoration plays across all the genres.

Venice Preserved, by Thomas Otway, was written in 1682, 70 years after Shakspeare’s last play and immediately apparent is how much closer to modern English the language is. This a play we did not know and had not read in advance yet the dialogue was considerably easier to follow than Labour’s Brexit strategy. This is a play of political plotting and betrayal, apparently in part alluding to the recent struggles between Catholicism and Protestantism, between Church and the State. The only honest characters are the two main women – Belvidera, a Senator’s daughter, and Aquilina the brothel keeper. And Jodie McNee and Natalie Dew respectively give two of the strongest performances.

Set in a Blade Runneresque dystopian present or near future this tale of Venice in ruins is set on a bleak empty stage, illuminated in occasional neon and memorably, during a prison sequence, in dazzling lasers. This a play of morals, dishonesty and deception. But there are precious few whose morals we would support. As a reformation play, it is probably apt that it is populated by the ‘Wrong but Wromantic’ along with the ‘Right but Repulsive’ as the English civil war opponents were described by 1066 and All That.

The light relief is played out by John Hodgkinson as yet another corrupt Senator with a predilection for sadomasochism at the hands (and whips) of Aquilina.

As a performance, it is too long. Read the synopsis and the major themes are played out in the first few minutes. Unfortunately, it takes another two and a half hours to tell us what we then already know.

The second play of the day was a little more jolly. The Provoked Wife is a comedy of manners written by John Vanburgh in 1697. Again the language is very modern (save for the odd Gadzooks). And so are the themes, albeit by the mores of the 17th century.

Lady Brute (Alexandra Gilbreath) is tired of her tedious, drunken husband (Jonathan Slinger). When she decides to spice up her love life with a younger man, scandal threatens to ruin her. The scandal is fomented by Lady Bountiful and her French lady-in-waiting.

This is no dystopian performance, past or present. Set in the 17th Century it is played in costume. Again, it is overly long but at least it is a comedy and played for laughs. A combination of English farce and Noel Coward comedy, this is a welcome relief from the stark amorality of Venice Preserved.

Once again the women are the lead. They seek to change their lives or to change the lives of others. The men are the objects upon which the women play out their dramas, although the main centres of attention for Lady Brute and her companion seem almost 21st-century new-manish by comparison to Lord Brute. This role reversal is what would have scandalised the contemporary audience – but the age of enlightenment was getting into full swing, and the play’s the thing.

It was certainly interesting and rewarding to see two restoration plays in one day. In Shakespeare country, one is used to the words resonating across the centuries. But these plays didn’t just seem to have relevance for today. They could have almost been written today. Certainly spending some time working out the context in which they were written helps – in some ways, more so than with Shakespeare.

Many of the cast perform in both plays. I can’t begin to imagine how difficult that must be on the same day, but all who do seem to switch roles without any accidental crossovers of character.

As always the Swan is a great theatre to see any performance. Close to the action with excellent sightlines. A little too close if the blood is flowing, but there is little of that in either of these. Would I recommend you see either or both of these plays? Yes, if you like Blade Runner and/or farce. Will I want to see them again? No.

And as a final aside, next time you are in Stratford, try a little pre-evening performance dinner at Susie’s Cafe Bar in The Other Place (the third RSC theatre space) just a five-minute stroll along the river. Give yourself time – the service isn’t the quickest – but the food and range of drinks are both very good and good value for money. It is also one of the few restaurants that seem to be able to cope with online bookings for the same day.

Venice Preserved
The RSC, Stratford upon Avon until 7 September 2019

The Provoked Wife
The RSC, Stratford upon Avon until 7 September 2019

Taming of the Shrew

There have been plenty of plays where women have taken the roles usually played by male actors. Legends Sarah Siddons (in the 18th century) and Sarah Bernhardt (in the 19th century) are among the women who’ve played Hamlet. More recently Glenda Jackson was outstanding as King Lear, as was Tamsin Greig as Malvolio. Of course, Shakespeare’s original company of players were entirely men – playing all the female roles. And we now have an all-female company, the Smooth Faced Gentlemen, playing Shakespeare as the tables are turned. In an extraordinary trilogy, Dame Harriet Walter led an all-female cast through Julias Caesar, Henry IV and the Tempest.

We didn’t want to be coy about addressing the gender imbalance.

Harriet Walter on the Donmar’s all-female Shakespeare trilogy

But the current production of Taming of the Shrew playing at the RSC Stratford is something different. This is not women playing male roles and vice versa. This is the complete reversal of gender in society. The male parts are played by women as women. All the female parts are played by men as men. This is the world turned upside down. It is a matriarchy. Women have the power, wealth and status. Men are subservient and know their place. Interestingly, although the women carry the swords, have the money, take the decisions they are still ‘feminine’. Then men are still recognisably men – albeit one or two camp it up a bit.

Taming of the Shrew
Claire Price in foreground, Joseph Arkley. Image by Ikin Yum.

Taming of the Shrew is not a pleasant play at any time. It legitimises controlling and coercive behaviour. It was only the interest created by this whole society gender reversal which attracted us to see it. Although not enough to travel to Stratford – we chose the live cinema view at the Harbour Lights, Southampton. The play itself was efficiently played and directed. Clair Price, playing Petruchia, and Joseph Arkley, playing Kate (slightly confusingly retaining the female name) were convincing in the lead roles, but the standout performance was Amy Trigg (Biondella), hurtling around the stage in her wheelchair as the slightly manic servant to Lucentia, delivering speeches with machine gun rapidity and dramatic pauses like the jam in the machine gun being fixed.

Taming of the Shrew
Amy Trigg. Image by Ikin Yum

But it was the discussion after the play that was the most interesting. The director, Justin Audibert, said he wanted the play to be the start of a conversation. He got that right.

The four of us, two small-l liberal couples, quickly concluded that this production was profoundly more disturbing than previous, more traditional, versions that we had seen. The main conclusion we reached was that the current society is so patriarchal that even we find gaslighting of men by women more unusual, more disturbing than the other way round. The subservience of women is seen as more natural, more usual than the other way round – even to men AND women who have embraced equality personally and politically all their lives.

This is a truly powerful message and makes this play worth a look. Even if you, like me, dislike the concept of the play in either form.


The RSC, Stratford upon Avon until 7 September 2019

Through the Glass Darkly

Through the Glass Darkly

Roger Allam is an actor worth seeing. When it was announced he would be playing the Edwardian patriarch at the centre of a glass manufacturing dynasty in this revival of Githa Sowerby’s ‘Rutherford and Son’ it was definitely added to the bucket list to see.

Written in 1912 and set against her own family background in glass-making, Githa Sowerby was lauded when the play was premiered under the playwright’s name of G.K. Sowerby. When it became clear the author was a woman, the glowing tributes took a more patronising “who would have expected a woman to write this” tone. And in many ways, that is fitting for this play with its clear undercurrents (and overcurrents) of feminism against a backdrop of Edwardian capitalism.

The story is simple enough. The patriarch, John Rutherford, has run a successful glass-makers for a generation or more, but increased competition from improved mechanisation means he has to finds ways of making ends meet. He is consumed by the business and his two sons and daughter become increasingly and desperately marginalised by his authoritarian drive to save the family firm. If only he had put as much energy into saving the family.

One son, Richard, is a vicar and seeks his father’s permission to take up another living with better prospects away from the family home. His second son John, who lives with his wife Mary and baby son in the family home, believes he has invented a new formula which will dramatically cut costs in the glass-making process. And his spinster daughter, Janet, has developed a clandestine relationship with Rutherford’s trusted foreman. A trusted foreman who will help Rutherford steal John’s formula, and is then sacked – his relationship with Janet having been discovered.

None of his children can be allowed to get in the way of the firm. Or the supposed respectability which the family name now has. “My children can’t go back” is his mantra yet he cannot see that each in their way want to go forward. As each family member in turn is cut adrift Mary, the daughter-in-law, ends up alone with Rutherford. And now this quiet voice of reason takes centre stage to play out the transition of power from his family to hers.

This is a powerful play about power and family. Whilst some of the stark examples that Sowerby illustrates may be less familiar to us today, it still resonates as a timeless piece of drama. Set in the main room of the household, the set is initially partially hidden by a curtain of water as a thunderstorm breaks across the city. As the rain ends the whole set slides several metres to the front of the stage, bringing the audience into the house. Part of the drama. The beautifully sung, haunting folk music which preceded the curtain and was again heard at the interval set the mood for the emotions which the excellent cast delivered throughout. Allam was outstanding.

At around 2 hours 35 minutes (including an interval) this play, directed by Polly Findley, rattled along. Set in the northeast, the accents occasionally needed hard listening, but I did wonder if one well-known theatre critic who pompously declared them “impenetrable” would have said the same of Chaucer’s English. This was gritty realism. When first performed it would have been exactly contemporary with its age and a clarion call for change, which is still to be fulfilled completely 100 years on.

This is the first play by Sowerby that I have seen. Although her other works didn’t receive such critical acclaim, it would be interesting to see any of them revived.


The Lyttelton, National Theatre until 3 August 2019

Death of a Salesman

Death of a Salesman

As America begins to lift itself out of the Great Depression, William Lowman, Willy, is sucked further into the quagmire of his own personal depression in this classic Arthur Miller play at the Young Vic.

Unable to cope or come to terms with his own mistakes over the years William invests all his hopes and dreams in his sons, Biff in particular, desperate that they become the success that will counterpoise his own perceived failures. As major milestones come and go – his marriage, the birth of his boys, Biff’s success at college football, the house bought and then paid for – more minor molehills become mountains in his path – the fridge breaking down while still on HP, his inability to cultivate his garden.

And central to all is a secret shared by father and son lying like malignant cancer across the family relationships.

This is a play entirely about human relationships. About how a single event can change that relationship and how the audience is left to wait to see what exactly is leading the salesman inexorably to his self-destruction. It is a powerful production with powerful performances from the entire cast. Wendell Pierce (the Wire) as William, Sharon D Clarke (Holby City, Dr Who) his wife, glueing the family together, and Arinzé Kene (The Pass, Our Girl) as Biff all give truly compelling performances. There is a feeling of creeping terror that here is a situation to which there should be a solution. But to which there is not.

The sense of instability, of teetering on the edge, is added to by the time switches from the present day (the Lowmans’ present day) to when the children were thinking about scholarships and their futures some 15 years earlier. Are these real flashbacks or is it just William remembering and misremembering his family’s past. Other characters – Uncle Ben, Willy Lowman’s father – are all in the mind. Or are they?

The unstable nature of the relationships and of Willy’s psyche is exacerbated by the ever-changing set. Floor platforms raise and lower, tables, chairs, windows and doors all rise up and down on wires as the scene changes from living room to kitchen, bedroom to hotel, office to restaurant. And the wires, by accident or design, occasionally seemed to be attached to one family member or another. A puppet unable to influence events for better or worse without the intervention of someone else.

This play runs at over three hours including an interval but it absolutely flew by. It was emotionally draining enough for the audience – well for me at least. I have no idea how the cast can get through it night after night. And on top of that, they have some incredible singing voices too – yes there are a couple of songs properly woven into the drama.

Casting an all black family in Death of a Salesman reflects the time as African Americans were gravitating toward Brooklyn in the first half of the 20th century. But, inevitably, this production, will be compared to that of the RSC of a few years back with Antony Sher and Harriet Walter in the lead. For me, this production surpassed even that last great performance. The maelstrom of emotions contained in the play was brought viscerally to life by each and every member of the cast.

This was a five-star performance of a five-star production and the whole theatre standing ovation was thoroughly deserved.


The Young Vic until 13 July 2019

All in the mind

I have been studying how I may compare
This prison where I live unto the world.

King Richard II

This prison is sharply defined on stage at the Almeda Theatre where Simon Russell Beale remembers the events which lead him to incarceration, and predicts events which wil lead to his death. The four grey walls which surround him may just be the prison cell, but they also seem like a metaphor for his own brain, his mind in turmoil recalling snatches of conversation, and unconnected episodes which make up his story.

Richard II is an episodic play. Discrete chapters of history; characters introduced and removed without adding much, anything, to the narrative; and major swings in plot-line without any back-story or build up. This new performance, directed by Joe Hill-Gibbons, builds on that episodic nature and everything that is needed to tell the story, for Richard to remember the story, is on stage throughout. Eight cast playing a dozen or so parts, buckets (literally) of blood and earth, and a single prop – the hollow crown. As Simon Russell Beale calls to mind or imagines a conversation, those characters detach from the group of players huddled at the sidelines waiting like substitutes for the manager’s instructions.

And as the vast sweep of the story unfolds in Richard’s mind, little groups of characters emerge, change, flow across the stage mingling with others as alliances are built and destroyed. As traitors to one cause become protagonists for another.

If you know the play, it may be marginally easier to follow which character is betraying who and why. But that is not necessary and it is not how this play reads. Instead, we have a central character, the King, remembering and imagining a series of events. It almost doesn’t matter how that narrative is constructed. Think of how you remember a significant period of your own life. Highlights come and go; people come and go; different friends and family have slightly different roles each time you remember.

But because we are seeing the story through the eyes of the defeated King there is one significant change to other productions of Richard II that I have seen. Bolingbroke, about to become Henry IV, is portrayed as a weak and hesitant man. A puppet controlled and instructed by the puppet master, Northumberland, who Richard clearly blames for his fall. And, of course, Richard is the victim here and not (as ‘1066 and all that’ would have it) a bad King.

This is a completely new and thought-provoking production with Simon Russell Beale giving another consummate performance as the embattled and then doomed King. Whether you come it with a knowledge of the play traditionally directed, or with no pre-knowledge, this is a thoroughly entertaining and different view of the ebb and flow of English History.


A square peg in a square hole

A square peg in a square hole

I’d never heard of square bullets. Or the Finborough Pub Theatre. Or hardly knew, to my shame, Tony Harrison – although I did know some of his work, most notably ‘V’.

So this could have been a recipe for disaster, especially when travelling 70 miles just for this performance. But the reviews were good and we are always on the lookout for something new to tempt us. And it turned out this was a rare treat indeed.

So soon after seeing Copenhagen at Chichester, and Women in Power at the Nuffield City Theatre, this revival of Harrison’s 1992 play “Square Rounds” was a perfect foil to both. Performed by a strong all-women cast playing strong men and strong women, the clash between science for good and science for war (is that never good?) was explored in a history told from the First World War back to the early 18 and mid 19 century and forward to the present day. The poetry blended arguments in the way that the original Puckle Machine Gun rather bizarrely was designed to fire round bullets at Christians and square bullets at Muslim Turks.

The easy poetry of this play blended the arguments as they raged back and forth, which made each monologue and dialogue mesmerisingly gripping. Simple set and costume changes moved the scene from factory floor to laboratory to battlefield and allowed the audience to concentrate on the sublime delivery of the words. Each discrete passage is conjured into being by the revolving magician’s box and her/his top hat, from which chemical elements are produced to show the progression from fertilisers to feed the world to chlorine gas to kill it. As Frtiz Haber, a German Jewish chemist (played by Philippa Quinn) responsible for the chemistry of both life and death, sets out – bullets and bombs are just chemical warfare which uses gas to propel death rather than cause it directly. And at least your corpse can be identified after a gas attack.

Haber is also the ringmaster magician who calls into being the other main characters – including his own wife Clara Immerwahr, passionately played by Gracy Goldman. Clara is another German Jewish chemist and the first woman chemist to be awarded a doctorate in Germany. A pacifist, she argues vehemently with her husband and points out that the anti-semitic Kaiser was unable to develop the gas-mask which would have won the war for Germany because he already had too many Jews working for him. And the gas-mask was being developed by another Jewish scientist.

As we approach Armistice Day, this essentially anti-war play will resonate strongly with many, and will be thought provoking for any who see it.

And the intimate space of the Finborough Pub Theatre was the perfect venue. 50 seats so you can almost touch the actors. You will certainly be touched by the emotion.

This revival only has a few days left to run. Catch it if you can.


At the Finborough, London, until 29 September.

Eyam - A Plague on All Their Houses

Eyam – A Plague on All Their Houses

The plague was something you you lived with – or died with – in the 17th century. It had been around for 300 years. It could strike anywhere. Without warning. With little remedy.

This new play by Matt Hartley at Shakespeare’s Globe explores what happened to the people of Eyam, a Derbyshire village of some 350 inhabitants, when plague arrives shortly after the new Minister and his wife.

The play is a factual account of the decision of the villagers to stay in Eyam, quarantining the village. 260 villagers died but it is estimated that they saved many thousands more by not spreading the disease throughout the neighbouring towns and villages. And therein lies the strength and weakness of the play. Sufficient facts are known of he people and personalities to ground this telling in the solid history of the events. And there is sufficient unknown to allow a rich development of the moral dilemma and debate leading up to a decision to stay or to flee. The enormity of this single collective decision is a powerful tale. But this central element of the story was given cursory attention. The new minister says no-one should leave until 28 days after the last death from plague. Everyone nods. Moral dilemma sorted.

Many of the characters themselves are well enough drawn. Reverend Mompesson (Sam Crande) and his wife Katherine (Priyanga Burford), the Gravedigger Marshall Howe (Howard Ward), and the unfortunate newly arrived tailor’s assistant George Viccars (Jordan Metcalfe) who brings the plague flea in damp cloth ordered from London are all central to the unfolding tale. Back-stories – invented or based on fact – are given to virtually all in order give life to a dying village. But the chance to develop the collective decision to choose quarantine, to chooses almost certain death was badly missed.

Matt Hartley gave the village a pantomime villain, a landowner trying to intimidate people into selling him land. (It was for a new dress for his wife that Viccars ordered the bolt of plague infested cloth). Our villain did enable some threads to be drawn together, but this was no Alan Rickmanish serpentine bad guy and there may be opportunities to strengthen this character as the season progresses. 

Having said all that this was a well delivered story as far as it went, and the humour sat realistically alongside the pathos.

The final roll-call of the 260 villagers who lost their lives was breathtaking. The play is worth seeing for this alone.


Shakespeare’s Globe until 13 October 2018

Power to the People - well, at least to the women.

Power to the People – well, at least to the women.

I had the delightful experience of attending the press preview of Women in Power, a new version of an old (very old) play, at the the Nuffield City Theatre in Southampton.

Directed by Blanche McInityre, this is a new interpretation of Aristophanes’ satire on the weakness of government, a Parliament of Women.  Originally performed by men for men, these comic plays were the Spitting Image of the day. Rude, crude, comic and with a political barb with which to prod the incompetent and pompous politicians and celebrities of ancient Athens. Or as one of the many amusing explanatory display boards pointed out – “as we like to call it, modern Athens”.

Co-authored by poets, performers, comics and Labour’s vey own Jess Phillips MP, this collaboration took me back to the days when we were first trying to get local parties to accept women only shortlists for parliamentary and local government selections (and unfortunately still true today, a generation later, in some places). “No women want to put themselves forward” was all too often the mantra of the those happy with the status quo, “if you force us to have AWS, we’ll only get stupid women.” To which my invariable, and rather intolerant, response was, “Well you won’t notice the difference in that case because you’ve got plenty of stupid men.”

This satire could have been brought up to date. It would have been easy to set something similar in the corridors of Westminster today, or the White House or Kremlin, or the amongst the captains of industry around the world. But the original conceit would have been lost, and there were enough references in the language, the costumes and the props to draw parallels with the modern world without over-cooking it into a Trumpian parody.

In one of the more modernised speeches to win the idea of ceding power to woman, the story of the search for a new senior member of staff is recounted. Despite the number of well-qualified and capable women, it is always Colin from accounts who is promoted. But as a result of the vote in the Assembley, women don’t get equality, but absolute power. Over everything.

The six performers brought a tremendous energy to the play which additionally brought together dance, music and song. And they were clearly having great fun at the same time. The story rattles along from women disguising themselves as men to subvert the government and place all power in the hands of women, to the turmoil of creating an egalitarian society where no one can agree whether all, or just some, property is theft.

Like Aristophanes a couple of thousand years ago, today’s authors explore the real issues of governance, power and equality with humour. But this isn’t just gentle satire, although it is that too. It is laugh out loud funny from fake facial hair start to giant penis end (of the play, that is).

And the early rejoinder “fuck off Colin” will live with me for a long time.


At the Nuffield City Theatre, Southampton until 29 September.

  • Co-authored by Wendy Cope, Jenny Eclair, Suhayla El-Bushra, Natalie Haynes, Shappi Khorsandi, Brona C Titley and Jess Phillips MP.
  • Performed by Lydia Rose Bewley, Elizabeth Boag, Anna Fordham, Lisa Kerr, Alicia McKenzie, and Anne Odeke.