Play Previews: May – August

I usually write a preview post every four months or so. It’s that time again…

MAY is a busy month. I’ll be in London later this week where I will try to see The Globe’s Merchant of Venice starring Jonathan Pryce as Shylock. I’ll also definitely see the RSC’s A Mad World My Masters at the Barbican. I was finishing my PhD when this was on in Stratford, so completely missed it, so I’m happy to have another chance to see the Constable of the Commonwealth. I’ll be in Stratford later this month too, where I’ll look forward to seeing Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta and, if possible, Ford’s Love’s Sacrifice. If I can, I’ll also go back to London for Ninagawa’s Hamlet at the Barbican. It will be busy, then, and there will be a lot that I won’t see. I won’t get to the York International Shakespeare Festival and I’ll miss the Malone Society’s staged reading of King Leir at Somerville College, Oxford. Last year’s event, which I wrote about here, was really good, so I’m sad to miss it.

JUNE sees the opening of two of my favourite plays: Measure for Measure at the Globe and Othello at the RSC. I’ll hope to see both. It’s also an interesting month for staged readings of John Ford. The Globe’s Read Not Dead will produce The Queen in May and follow that up with The Lover’s Melancholy and Perkin Warbeck in June. You can see the full list herePerkin Warbeck is really wonderful, so I’ll try very hard to see it (in the meantime, someone please do a full production). I’ll be in Canterbury at the end of the month for the John Fletcher conference at which there will be a script-in-hand performance of The Two Noble Kinsmen at St Mildred’s Church. The full details, including the conference programme, are available here.

JULY involves another exciting Fletcher event: a script-in-hand performance of The Scornful Lady at The Shakespeare Institute. Middleton’s A Game at Chess also gets a script-in-hand performance in July, at an interesting symposium in Canterbury. I also look forward to the opening of the RSC’s Volpone and to the National Theatre of China’s Richard III which is at the Globe.

AUGUST is harder to preview – I’m sure lots of things will pop up between now and then, but I’ll hopefully also see The Merchant of Venice at the RSC and I’m interested in Carol Ann Duffy’s adaptation of the medieval Everyman at the National. I’m sure there’s lots that I’ve missed out or don’t know about and there are some that I’ve ignored (I can’t write about everything!) Let me know what you think!


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.

Hollow Laughter

Why do we laugh at tragedies? Probably because they are often funny. It’s sometimes said that tragedies offer scenes of comic relief, away from the pervading atmosphere of horror, but this ought to be treated with suspicion: it’s far too woolly a term and works to keep tragedy and comedy discrete when, in fact, they are often brought into an unsettling unity. But while we should recognize that tragedies are funny, it’s worthwhile thinking about the different ways in which they make us laugh. Yesterday, I watched John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore at the Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse and it got me thinking, again and again, about what constitutes comedy in that play. 

Typically, I’ve been beaten to the punch by Pete Kirwan, who notes, rightly, I think, that in the final moments the production elected for the easy and not entirely successful option of laughter. Giovanni, parading Annabella’s bloody heart on a dagger, sang his lines to the tune of Happy Birthday and blew a party whistle, before killing Soranzo and, in turn, meeting his own bloody fate. There’s no doubt that this is an extraordinary display and one which packs comic potential: Giovanni’s entrance represents one gigantic rupture in the decorum of the household banquet, one possible response to this is to laugh. However, laughter demands ethical assessments: if we find Giovanni funny – and plenty of people, egged on by the performances, found much to laugh at – we should also ask what our laughter means. In this instance, as Kirwan observes, the laughter helped obscure the pitiful death of Annabella. The final scene was enjoyed just a little bit too much considering it came at the cost of a multiply-wronged woman unfairly branded as the titular ‘whore’ in the play’s closing line. Perhaps this is part of the point – to force the audience to question whether they ought to laugh, or whether they ought to qualify their laughter – but I suspect not. Annabella’s condemnation of her killer, which in turn heavily ironizes Giovanni’s murderous revenge rampage, was glossed over at the Globe and could give the false impression that Annabella consents to her own murder. Accordingly, the play’s obsession with the ‘honour’ of its leading woman is lost in the broader brushstrokes of the production’s denouement.

But there’s no question that there’s humour in both the scene and the rest of the play. James Garnon has won great acclaim for his bravura performance as Bergetto, the comic suitor accidentally slain on a pitch black stage. I can’t quite echo these plaudits – I find his whole, oops I’ve fallen into the audience shtick, which I sense will quickly become a staple of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, a little tiring – but the tonal transition, from brash humour to unexpected horror, really paid off. It also allowed Garnon to take on a different kind of role as he almost instantly reappeared as the sinister Cardinal. It is this wholly unlikable figure who closes the play and here, again, a different kind of laughter might be generated. The Cardinal, reflecting on the destruction, asks that the ‘gold and jewels’ of the dead be confiscated ‘by the canons of the Church’. This line’s a surefire hit and the audience were indeed suitably amused, but I heard belly laughs when I was hoping for hollow laughter. I wanted to hear laughter lacking conviction, laughter which questioned and which acknowledged the horror as well as the humour. Of course, it might not be possible to read laughter in this way – how can I know what the audience were thinking when they laughed? Nonetheless, it seemed to me that the production and the performances, were encouraging a comparatively straightforward laughter. Perhaps unfairly and unrealistically, I’d have liked the production to have caught a sense of laughter exemplified brilliantly and terrifyingly, in a different representation of a Cardinal: Francis Bacon’s famous portrait.


Defending the Witch

The Witch of Edmonton is a Jacobean play, often classified as a domestic tragedy – in that it deals primarily with non-aristocratic communities – which was co-written by Thomas Dekker, William Rowley, and John Ford. It is currently enjoying a necessarily brief run at the RSC’s Swan Theatre (Eileen Atkins, playing the title role, is 80 years old) but it was also performed at the same theatre in 1981. Its revival has been greeted with some generally positive reviews and Atkins, in particular, has been praised for a powerful performance. I’m going to have my say about the production elsewhere, at a later date, but here I wanted to address one of the frequent criticisms voiced in reviews: that the play itself isn’t very good. Michael Billington, whose views on Renaissance drama are making me feel increasingly irritated (see my piece on Arden of Faversham for further disagreements), opens his review for The Guardian like this:

Two things stand out in this rare revival of a 1621 play by Rowley, Dekker and Ford. One is the sombre beauty of Gregory Doran’s production, which anchors the play firmly in its original period. The other is the brooding presence of Eileen Atkins as the titular witch. My only doubts concern the quality of the play itself.

He’s not alone. In The Telegraph, Dominic Cavendish complains that Elizabeth Sawyer, the Witch, is too marginal a figure, laments the ‘fiendishly knotty plotting’ and wishes that the subplot, involving the Bottom-esque Cuddy Banks, be cut entirely. In The Observer, Kate Kellaway describes the play as ‘lively’ and ‘unruly’; the second adjective is more equivocal, but I took this, apparently incorrectly, as a positive. Kellaway then says that ‘too many playwrights spoil the plot’ and that the dramatists ‘seem not to have agreed on whether they were writing a comedy or a tragedy’. It must be said that, while I find the observation unconvincing – loads of solo-authored plays veer between standard definitions of comedy and tragedy and I’m not so sure that such generic indeterminacy spoils anything – Kellaway does admit that the play is entertaining and offers it some praise. Still, there’s a sense that, for many people, this just isn’t a very good play. I don’t agree.

It seems to me that despite all that the fascinating lurches between humour and horror which Kellaway found confusing, the ending settles on a tone which is recognizably sombre, though it does it in a diction which is unusual for tragedy. As Frank Thorney is led off to be executed, he stops to make his peace with the community his actions have torn apart. The ensuing show of forgiveness is genuinely moving. Carter, whose daughter Frank has murdered, is moved to tears by the compassion which unexpectedly flows through him; in turn, he catches the audience off-guard with a metaphor of enchanting simplicity: ‘thou hast made me water my plants in spite of my heart’. Later, in a line which the RSC used to close the play, he ushers the gathered crowd home: ‘so let’s every man home to Edmonton with heavy hearts, yet as merry as we can, though not as we would’. If this was moving in the RSC production (and I felt it was) then it’s because of the quality of the writing, as much as, if not more than, the quality of the acting. There’s much to admire elsewhere as well: Frank Thorney is a fraught, challenging character of considerable complexity, Cuddy Banks – an annoyance to Cavendish – has a perceptive charm which makes him funny and, in his confrontation with the Devil dog, surprisingly powerful, and Elizabeth Sawyer is an engaging and unexpectedly funny character. It’s a play that deserves to be staged.

A full review of this production will appear in Shakespeare.