Who’s there?

Question: Who’s there?
Answer: Benedict Cumberbatch. Everywhere.
Yes, last night was the live screening of the Benedict CumberHamlet, a show which has been sold out for what seems like several summers. The production opened to a flurry of controversy (or did it? It was reviewed in preview after all). The early decision to open the play with the cast performing ‘to be or not to be’ was criticised at the time and while I don’t object to experimentation, it sounds like it was unlikely to work (even if it was fun when, in the specially prepared live screening preview, Cumberbatch visited a school in which the children performed those famous words in a similar fashion).

Even still, the production made several changes to the opening scenes and I found myself somewhat disappointed by them. Cumberbatch/Hamlet spoke the opening lines: the focus was on him from the outset when the conventional staging keeps him offstage for some time. On balance, I think I prefer the conventional approach – the play is Hamlety enough as it is without the instant dose of Hamlet. I tend to think, if you’re going to make considerable cuts to the opening why not follow that through and cut the whole play more extensively? I’m happy to see shorter Hamlets but this was a fairly long production that cut some of the best bits. I found myself groaning through the opening and this wasn’t helped by what seemed to me the disappointing decision to stage all of the soliloquies (including ‘To be or not to be’) as if they were a retreat into interiority. For each soliloquy, the cast remained on stage but faded into the background and moved in super slow motion. Hamlet was free to deliver his lines apparently safe from the threat of eavesdroppers. ‘To be or not to be’ was staged in such a way as to completely remove the possibility of his speech being overheard. I accept that, in speaking to us, the sanctity of this interiority was called into question, but I felt as if the play’s insistent questioning of these ostensibly ‘private’ speeches is a good deal more complicated than the production was prepared to acknowledge. I sometimes enjoyed the beauty of the staging and the freeze frames were often evocative, but overall, I was bit underwhelmed.

That said, it did perk up a bit, rather suddenly. After what seemed to me a fairly dreary opening, Cumberbatch sprang into life. I noticed something similar with the last English language Hamlet I saw, although Cumberbatch was better. Based on the reviews I was half expecting the whole thing to be pretty terrible but, you know what, despite the hype, I thought it was pretty good.

Hinamatsuri Hamlet

A couple of months ago, I saw an esteemed director – Terry Hands – direct Hamlet. Yesterday, I saw another Hamlet by another famous director: Yukio Ninagawa. This was, in fact, Ninagawa’s eighth Hamlet and his second time working with Tatsuya Fujiwara, who first played Hamlet for Ninagawa in 2003 at the age of 21. It was, though, my first time seeing a Ninagawa production and I’m delighted to have had the chance to see his work. In many respects, the show was, perhaps surprisingly, conservative in scope: Kevin Quarmby, with a hint of dissatisfaction, described it as ‘a Western production performed in Japanese’. Nonetheless, there were some really effective moments. I discussed the set of the Hands Hamlet here; since the Ninagawa set was also interesting, I’ll offer a few thoughts by way of comparison.

At the start of the production, a surtitle board informed us: “This is a poor quarter of Japan in the 19th century, when Hamlet was first introduced to Japan. Now in the 21st century, we Japanese begin our Hamlet“. This is a fascinating way to begin: ‘this’ and ‘now’, 19th and 21st century, are brought together, even as they seem to be kept apart. The core of the set suggested the ‘poor quarter’ – shafts of light broke through the dusty windows of apparently abandoned buildings – but the court was, probably appropriately, opulent: an elaborate chandelier hung from the ceiling, and the set was bathed in a red glow. Much later, the production seemed temporarily to forget itself and the sound of a helicopter was used to signify an approaching army: in the main, though, a 19th century setting was maintained.

I really enjoyed how often the set offered an echo of an earlier event. When, at the end of the production, the youthful Fortinbras (Kenshi Uchida) appeared on the upper level, it recalled the first appearance of old Hamlet’s Ghost (Mikijiro Hira). Earlier, after delivering his ‘To be or not to be’ speech – here, with Hikari Mitsushima’s Ophelia onstage throughout – Hamlet threw open the doors around the edge of the stage looking for spies: this recalled the scene in which the Ghost urges Hamlet and his companions to ‘swear’ (each time he spoke a door would open to reveal a glow of light). There was a sense, then, of Hamlet’s Ghost being present during the main course of the action and yet this was achieved without having him onstage in a way which would probably feel hackneyed (though he did appear, as expected, in the closet scene).

But the most memorable and brilliant staging choice was saved for the mousetrap. After a dumb show which Claudius did not seem to be paying attention to, a giant curtain was pulled down to reveal a magnificent set styled like a Hinamatsuri doll set. It was, by far, the most theatrical moment of the production and it reminded me (in a way that plays sometimes forget to do) of the joy that can come when you know you are watching a play.girls-day-hina-ningyo-set

Above: a tiered Hina doll set.

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (My Masters)

Mad World

I managed to miss A Mad World My Masters when it played at the RSC’s Swan Theatre in 2013 but was grateful to get to see it in London, at the Barbican, where it enjoyed a short run. I’m pretty pleased to have seen it and the more I think about it, the more I like it. At first, I found it hard to get past the often ineffective modernizations – of these, the most irritating is the substitution of ‘Littledick’ for the funnier ‘Shortrod’, but there are other annoying examples too. But while it seems to me that, on the whole, the production struggled with the verbal intricacies of Middleton’s text, it scored highly for visual inventiveness. The visual jokes often had depth and richness with the cruder verbal puns did not (and by crude, I mean unsophisticated, not salacious – there were plenty of salacious visual jokes). The production’s distrust of Middleton’s language was flagged up by Penitent Brothel’s interpolated admission that his pun isn’t very good. ‘I cannot be patient and physician too’ he says, before turning to the audience to add ‘Thomas Middleton, 1605’. The RSC have, of course, placed faith in Middleton by staging his play, but still, this isn’t the worst pun in the production – plenty of the newer additions are equally groansome. As Emma Smith noted in the TLS, the production betrays a ‘surprising lack of confidence in the play’s original language’.

To Smith’s list of examples of unsuccessful modernizations I’d add the unfortunate decision to excise the potentially knockout line ‘I am the constable i’th’ common wealth’ and replace it with ‘I am the constable in the very tragedy’. I’ve heard the ‘common wealth’ line work wonderfully in play readings and it works better rhythmically, to my ear at least. Furthermore, it makes more sense: the Constable is trying to point out what we know and the onstage ‘audience’ do not – that they are not watching a play – but it includes a further metatheatrical joke as we also know he’s not actually in a common wealth but is, in fact, in a play. But while these updates usually seem botched, the visual updates do not. The fake play-within-a-play involves Sir Bounteous Peersucker (Sir Bounteous Progress in Middleton) hosting a Jacobean fancy dress party, so we get a gesture towards original staging arriving, with wonderful incongruity, in the middle of a consciously updated production.  

What to make of the gap between the way the production treats the visual and the verbal? I’m cautious about claiming that theatre producers should ‘trust the text’ and it may be that the irreverence shown to the language allowed for a more playful approach to be taken, but it’s not a bad thing to use the words either – many of them are pretty good.

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.

‘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.