Doll Drama

This year, Measure for Measure has been a popular play. After the excellent Cheek by Jowl Russian language Measure came what sounded like a more straightforwardly comic production at the Globe in the summer (I didn’t see it, so will refrain from further comment) and now The Young Vic have offered their own dark take on what is, surely, one of Shakespeare’s best plays. I suppose this recent glut means the play will have to take a back seat for a little while though presumably the RSC will tackle it at some point in Greg Doran’s tenure. I’ll wait for that, though not with too much hope.

Hope, however, was  in abundance for the Young Vic Measure directed by Joe Hill-Gibbins. And hope, on this occasion, was rewarded. When it comes to theatre, I’m fairly easily pleased yet somehow usually disappointed. I only really need one moment of brilliance to enjoy and I’ll be pretty happy. This production served up several. It ended, wonderfully, with the eerily awkward comedy of a tableau. The Duke (Zubin Varla) forced each of the cast members into an unlikely and unhappy partnership. This obviously included Angelo (Paul Ready) and Mariana (Cath Whitefield), as well as the Duke and Isabella (Romala Garai), but, more unexpectedly, it meant Escalus (here, played as a woman by Sarah Malin) and Barnadine (Matthew Wynn) were paired and the unhappiness of the situation cast a shadow even over the the one consensual coupling: Claudio (Ivanno Jeremiah) and Juliet (Natalie Simpson). It’s a brilliant way to end: funny, but also disturbing, a balance that so many modern productions of early modern plays manage to get wrong. There were lots of other grace notes. For example, in a perfect piece of modernising, Mariana’s doleful tune was transmuted into the Alanis Morisette’s breakup song ‘You Oughta Know’. But my favourite moments involved the use of a large quantity of inflatable sex dolls (that’s a sentence I hadn’t ever imagined having to write).


At the beginning of the production, the stage was filled with inflatable dolls and Escalus and Angelo each unpicked their way through the mass of breasts, open mouths, and erect penises, looking deeply uncomfortable in doing so. Soon after, the novice nun Isabella prayed amidst the plastic bodies creating one of the production’s many scenes of incongruity (throughout the production, the heavy use of video projections was coupled with images from medieval and Renaissance art). But the sex dolls were obviously not just sex dolls. Writing in The Guardian Michael Billington commented on the logic of the design’s excesses:

The plastic sex dolls evoke the hedonistic decay into which Duke Vincentio’s Vienna has fallen. With the installation of his stiff-backed deputy, Angelo, the dolls are swept behind close doors. Thanks to video cameras, however, they are never wholly out of sight and we are constantly reminded of the secret world of vice and torture that exists behind the puritanical facade of Angelo’s city.

But Billington captures little of the extraordinary effect created by these dolls. It’s true that they might, broadly, evoke hedonistic decay but they are not just dolls. They start off as dolls, for sure, but in the sequence to which Billington alludes (the incredible moment when all of the dolls are removed from the stage) they are not merely dolls but bodies. In an interpolated scene, Angelo entered declaiming scripture. An alarm sounded and the big doors at the back of the stage opened. The cast members pushed, shoved, threw, and kicked the sex dolls through the doors – some of these bodies floated up into the air before falling again. It had a kind of graceful beauty, to be sure, but it also struck me as extremely violent and seemed evocative not only of the physical violence to which sex workers are subjected but also the social violence (invisible to many) served down by authority to the detriment of the most vulnerable members of society. Angelo’s restrictive legislation was here seen to have its immediate effect. By suggesting that the dolls evoked the seedy world of ‘vice and torture’ that Angelo tried to hide, Billington, I think, misses the point. It’s not that Angelo wants to hide this corruption – he wants to get rid of it, after all – but that he wants to hide only his own corruption. The biggest problem, then is not with the underworld, but rather with the way in which that world is handled by authority. The dolls are pushed and kicked around not only by the bawd Pompey (Tom Edden) but by everyone in the play and never more terrifyingly than by those who wield authority. At the end of the production, the sex dolls are still visible but by this point they have been shaped into a formation that calls to mind the terrible atrocities of the last hundred years. They are sex dolls, of course, and not bodies, but they speak of a powerful violence that lives, not only in the play’s world, but in our own.

Desperate Measures

I’m not normally one for Bardolatry, but isn’t Measure for Measure really, really good? The two scenes with Isabella and Angelo are – if you’ll permit me to use an exhausted phrase – electrifying, as is the speech in which the Duke instructs Claudio to be ‘absolute for death’ and Claudio’s tortured follow-up ‘Aye, but to die and go we know not where’. Additionally, ‘the old fantastical Duke of dark corners’ might just be the best description of anything ever. What a pleasure, then, to see Cheek by Jowl’s exciting Russian company take on this powerful and challenging play and what a pleasure to see it for free, via an internet stream. Pete Kirwan, who is writing a book about Cheek by Jowl, has already completed three reviews about this production: one on the Moscow show, one at the Barbican, and one on the live stream; you can read them here. I only want to add a few brief comments.

It’s useful, I suppose, to acknowledge the medium. Free streams are great (more please) but they come with their own benefits and drawbacks. The close ups revealed details which might otherwise be hard to catch. In different ways both Angelo (Andrei Kuzichev) and the Duke (Alexander Arsentyev) benefited here, as they were, for the most part, quiet and reserved. In a remarkable opening, distinguised by almost complete silence, the Duke spent a couple of minutes trying to evade the attentions of a mass of onlookers – the production took the Duke’s line ‘I love the people,/But do not like to stage me to their eyes’ literally (or at least, it took the second part of that statement literally). In these instances and at the end, when the Duke made his offer to Isabella (Anna Khalilulina), the camera caught his twitching anxiety. Likewise Angelo’s realization of his desire for Isabella was effectively captured. The downside, of course, is that the camera tells us where to look – one of the dazzling and dizzying pleasures of a Cheek by Jowl production is that there is so much to look at. The camera helps, perhaps, by choosing these moments for us, but it necessarily removes some of the complexity – and the pleasure. It was unfortunate, too, that the close ups on the Duke during his final speech made it hard to see Isabella’s reaction.

Indeed, the relationship between the small, careful, barely perceptible, and the large, elaborate, and shocking, was especially interesting. For example, in one of the most powerful and unsettling scenes, Angelo tried to sexually assault Isabella, beginning by taking off her tights and kissing her foot as she convulsed on the table. But this extraordinary and horrible scene was prefaced, a few minutes earlier, by a simpler action: Angelo took off his jacket and placed it on the back of his chair. RareCheek by Jowl imagely can such a mundane action have seemed so chilling. It was a quietly sinister moment which gave way to something louder and even more troubling. In such ways the production continually distinguished itself. If you ever get the chance to see it, do so. The stream is still available here, until later today (Monday 27 April). I’m looking forward to seeing more Measures this year – at the Globe in the summer and at the Young Vic in the autumn – but the bar has been set very high.


In my last post I said I would preview some of the exciting shows due to take place in 2015. Here, then, are a couple of things to look out for in the next few months.

JANUARY: This month I’ll be seeing Middleton and Rowley’s The Changeling at the Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. I wasn’t altogether convinced by the Globe’s recent ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore but I’m looking forward to seeing what they do, not least because I’ll be teaching it later in the term. Elsewhere, look out for Rupert Goold’s reprisal of his Las Vegas-set The Merchant of Venice at the Almeida. I wasn’t really sold on the show when it was produced by the RSC in 2011, but would be interested to see it again. I’d also be curious to see Frantic Assembly’s Othello, now playing at the Lyric Hammersmith.

FEBRUARY: Now that I’m based in Swansea, I’m trying to keep a closer eye on Welsh productions of Renaissance drama. Two important Welsh productions open in February. First, Terry Hands directs Hamlet at Clwyd Theatr Cymru in a production which will then tour. Later in the month, Wales Millenium Centre in Cardiff present an all-female production of Richard III directed by Yvonne Murphy. Back in my old home of Stratford, I’ll also look forward to seeing Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday at the RSC’s Swan Theatre, before it closes on 7 March.

MARCH: In March Tara Arts will bring Indian movement and music to their touring production of Macbeth which will visit Swansea’s Taliesin Arts Centre. In London, Lazarus Theatre Company will perform Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy at the Jack Studio Theatre in Brockley. I was sad to miss their acclaimed production of The Spanish Tragedy in 2013, so will catch it if I can. I’m also looking forward to seeing the continued exploration of John Ford’s drama. Ford’s The Broken Heart will open at the Sam Wanamaker in March and, in the same month, Edward’s Boys, – whose Galatea was one of the year’s highlights – will perform The Lady’s Trial in collaboration with Globe Education. It’s very interesting to see Edward’s Boys moving out of the Elizabethan/Jacobean repertory to explore a play by Beeston’s Boys. Finally, sometime in the month, the brilliant The Maid’s Tragedy by Beaumont and Fletcher will be performed in Canterbury as part of The Beaumont and Fletcher Project. Details are forthcoming.

APRIL: I’m really looking forward to seeing Cheek by Jowl’s Russian language Measure for Measure, which will come to the Barbican in mid-April. I saw Cheek by Jowl’s Russian Tempest in 2011 and it was among the most astonishing things I’ve ever seen. I also really ought to see Northern Broadsides’ King Lear, which opens in late February, but tours until June and visits my hometown of Liverpool in April. Rather shamefully, for a notherner, I’ve never seen a Northern Broadsides production; it might be a good idea to rectify that error. I’ll also see Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage, by the Globe Young Players at the Sam Wanamaker. I enjoyed their Malcontent, so look forward to seeing what they do with Dido.

I’m not sure I’ll get to see all of these and even less sure I’ll write about them, but I’ll see and write about, as much as I can. This isn’t an exhaustive list, of course and do, please, tell me what I’ve missed.

That Was the Year That Was

It’s the time of year when the theatre critics announce their highlights and so, in that indulgent spirit, I offer my own recap on the UK Renaissance theatre scene in 2014.

Naturally, I didn’t get to see everything, so I’ll start by acknowledging the things I really wish I’d been able to see. Top of my wishlist is Marlowe’s Tamburlaine The Great, directed by Michael Boyd at the Theatre for a New Audience in New York.

You don’t get many chances to see either of the Tamburlaine plays and this looks like an exciting and disturbing production. It’s on until early January, so if you’re in New York, do see it! Closer to home, I also missed Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female production of Henry IV at the Donmar in which Harriet Walter starred as King Henry and Jamie Lloyd’s Richard III at Trafalgar Studios, in which Martin Freeman played the title role. I can’t imagine Freeman as Richard III but it had some strong reviews. I also managed to mix up the dates and thereby miss Lucy Bailey’s revival of Titus Andronicus at the Globe and I’d also have loved to have seen the Dolphin’s Back production of John Lyly’s The Woman in the Moon, directed by James Wallace at the Rose. There are doubtless lots of other things I missed, or have forgotten about, but these are some of the ones that come to mind.

I’ve made a concerted effort to see as many rarely performed Renaissance plays as possible and I’ve been rewarded, almost without exception, with interesting productions. Inevitably, some are more successful than others, but while I wasn’t enthused by the RSC’s The Roaring Girl (and here, I actually blame Dekker and Middleton) I often found that Renaissance plays shone even in the patchier or less successful productions. The Witch of Edmonton emerged for me as a play with a power which exceeded the quality of the RSC’s production. For sure, there were difficult challenges for the young cast who performed Marston’s The Malcontent at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, but here, again, the play’s biting humour and tonal variety came across strongly. I thought that the RSC’s Arden of Faversham slightly over-egged the comedy, but there’s little doubt that the play packs a punch and certainly need not be thought of as a ‘historical document’ as Michael Billington insists. Elsewhere, a series of playreadings at The Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon proved the vitality of Thomas Heywood’s plays and in June I recorded some of the responses to his Age plays in a blog post which you can view here. And in London, Francis Beaumont’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle received a deserved full production at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse and was a major success: it has just reopened and will play until early January so see it if you can. There were many highlights: I had some reservations about Cheek by Jowl’s 2014 revival of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, but I thought its ceaseless inventiveness made it vastly superior to the Globe’s production. Much has been made of how the small stage and atmospheric lighting of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse can create a sense of an invaded intimacy, but Cheek by Jowl, by staging the entire play as if in Annabella’s bedroom, were more successful in this regard. I also really enjoyed Edward’s Boy’s brilliant and joyful production of Galatea. Dolphin’s Back, who deserve more recognition, are one to watch out for in 2015: their production of Marlowe’s The Massacre at Paris was exciting, disturbing, and funny.

By contrast, the Shakespeare shows I saw this year often underwhelmed. On the whole, I thought the National’s King Lear misfired and the RSC’s summer season was a little flat. Curiously, The Two Gentlemen of Verona played for only a couple of months meaning that Gregory Doran’s Henry IV productions reigned in the main house for, perhaps, a little too long. I was looking forward to seeing Filter’s Macbeth at the Tobacco Factory in Bristol ahead of its new year tour but I found it ill-judged and unsuccessful. The Original Pronunciation staged reading of Macbeth, performed worked better, however, and the OP added an interesting twist to proceedings, as I discussed here. It should be said that I didn’t do much to prioritize Shakespeare productions; in 2015 I’ll try harder to catch a wider range of Shakespeare plays. In my next post, I’ll preview some of the shows I’m most looking forward to seeing.

‘Tis Pity How it Ends

I first saw Cheek by Jowl’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore in February 2012, when it was on tour at the Warwick Arts Centre. I thought it was fantastic, and my thoughts then would probably echo some of the points made in these reviews by Pete Kirwan and Steve Mentz. So, when I got the chance to see it again, at the Barbican, I couldn’t say no. Yet, unfortunately, I just can’t be as enthusiastic about it second time round. The cast has completely changed, and this might be part of the reason, but I don’t think it accounts for everything (you can see the current cast list here and compare it to the cast I saw in 2012). Lydia Wilson, who played Annabella in 2012, delivered an outstanding performance, which Eve Ponsonby was not quite able to match; the exquisite variety Wilson offered was missed, though I think that says more about the excellence of her performance than about the poorness of Ponsonby’s. Otherwise, I can’t single out an area I remember being weaker in the more recent production (though this may be a fault of my memory).

Indeed, there are some things I liked here that I don’t remember especially liking last time. I wasn’t particularly convinced by Jack Gordon’s Giovanni in 2012; I think I slightly preferred Orlando James this time round. I don’t really remember how Vasques was played last time, but I found Will Alexander’s comic take surprisingly chilling. He was able to manipulate Hippolita and Putana in a soft, soothing tone which often aroused laughter from the audience. It’s worth pointing out, too, that many of the things I liked the first time, I enjoyed the second time too. Conceptually, I still find it really interesting: the entire play ostensibly takes place in Annabella’s bedroom, or else, in one of the two adjoining rooms (one a bathroom, the other an unspecified space). So, at times, the bedroom is the bedroom, but usually, some sort of transformation is taking place. At the start of the show, Giovanni and the Friar talk either side of Annabella, who lies, oblivious to all this, on her bed. Later, Giovanni and Annabella kiss for the first time, but they aren’t alone; the cast surround them, watching, and then chanting their words back at them. Often, characters who are not taking part in the scene (and here, the standard references to scenes become slippery) watch, their gaze flitting from speaker to speaker. Often, non-speaking characters sit on the bed. Concepts of time are also distorted: dead characters rejoin the cast as silent observers, or as dancers in the production’s many musical interludes. Towards the end, the deceased Hippolita and the maimed Putana join in the revelry, apparently happy to consort with those who had abused them. Additionally, when “off-stage” characters are talked of, they are often actually on-stage, and they play out versions of themselves, as when Putana details the list of Annabella’s suitors and they parade themselves before her.

Tis Pity

I still find all of this essentially thrilling and I’m still inclined to think that it points out the damaging male intrusions into Annabella’s world (indeed, the word ‘intrusion’ is wrong here; the point is that her space is never private enough in the first place). However, I was less impressed overall and I wonder if I had been blinded by the production’s brilliance. Above all, I was troubled by the ending, which was radically cut and reorganized. In the standard ending, Giovanni enters with Annabella’s heart on a dagger; his father dies of shock, he kills Soranzo, he is then killed himself, before the Cardinal attempts to draw an unconvincing moral from the story. In the Cheek by Jowl production, the play ends right after Florio’s death; Giovanni is still alive, cradling Annabella’s heart. In the distance, police sirens call; on the bed, on which Giovanni sits, Annabella appears, and reaches out for her brother. I still admire the abruptness of this ending, but I’ve got problems too and it’s made me rethink the way the gender politics work. Annabella’s gesture suggests she wants Giovanni to join her in death, perhaps so they can reignite their passion in an afterlife, but this seems contrary to what we have just seen. She doesn’t seem to want to die when Giovanni snaps her neck and I’m not sure to what extent she appreciates the brutal dismemberment which takes place immediately after. Does this suggest that Annabella wants to die? That she is complicit in her death? I think her death is more powerful (and it did seem powerful to me) if it’s not what she wanted. I felt, at first, that her attempt to reach out to her brother runs contrary to the brutality we had just witnessed. It might be said, though, that it’s not contradictory; that there is more evidence to support the suggestion that Annabella is complicit, or even an active participant, in her fate. The production opens when Annabella begins an infectious dance: before long, the cast (mostly men) are mimicking her moves. Is this her play? Are the men dancing to her tune? On the one hand, the production seems to refute this: the women are abused; their privacy is invaded. On the other hand it seems to suggest they are.