RSC Summer Season

A few months ago, I wrote a disgruntled blog post about the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse winter 2015/16 season. My problem was that the Globe abandoned their commitment towards the wider corpus of Renaissance drama to stage a succession of Shakespeare shows. I was particularly irritated by the suggestion that the entire enterprise of staging non-Shakespearean Renaissance plays was merely an ‘experiment’. It’s not the end of the world, of course, but a bit of a shame, eRSCven given the 2016 anniversary. It was with a degree of trepidation, then, that I awaited news of the RSC’s 2016 Summer Season. Would they go all out Shakespeare too? Thankfully, the answer is no. In amongst the standard Shakespeare staples – their A Midsummer Night’s Dream sounds interesting; Hamlet is being done, again – is a Cymbeline (which may be contrasted with the Globe’s Sam Wanamaker production later this year) and, best of all, some more Marlowe and Jonson. Even if these shows are in the Swan, rather than the main house, it’s great to see them played alongside Shakespeare, rather than in some weird vacuum.

Maria Aberg, who directed a fine King John and what was, for my money, a hit and miss The White Devil at the Swan in 2012 and 2014, will direct Doctor Faustus. Polly Findlay, whose 2014 Arden of Faversham I rather liked, directs Jonson’s The Alchemist. The RSC’s Volpone was excellent, so if they can do anything like that again, I’ll be happy. In amidst the Shakespeare celebrations we shouldn’t forget the 400th anniversary of the Ben Jonson Folio and I hope there’ll be more Jonson to see in the next year. The burning question, though, is surely: will anyone be celebrating the 400th anniversary of Francis Beaumont’s death? After the Globe’s excellent Knight of the Burning Pestle will someone dare having a go at some more Beaumont? 


Shakespeare Season

Today, Shakespeare’s Globe announced their autumn/winter season at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Four Shakespeare plays will be performed; all were written in the final stage of Shakespeare’s career. Two of these plays – The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale – are staged regularly, but the other two – Pericles and Cymbeline – are not as commonly performed. It is hoped that the season will yield some interesting insights into how these apparently demanding plays were staged. In Cymbeline, Jupiter descends on an eagle and throws a thunderbolt. That’ll be interesting. People clamour for Shakespeare, and that’s understandable. There are commercial imperatives at work and, in any case, it will be good to get an extended opportunity to see Shakespeare plays in the environment of the SWP. 

But I do have a gripe. In its first two years, the SWP was home to a number of Renaissance plays. Most of them were tragedies, which was a bit of a shame, especially since The Knight of the Burning Pestle was such a success, but I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to see these plays, even if I didn’t always like the productions themselves. It’s a shame, then, that there are no not-Shakespearean Renaissance plays in the new season, but worse than that is the accompanying advertising rhetoric, which imagines the last two seasons as a kind of experiment. The implication here is that the plays performed at the SWP during this time, many of them wonderful in their own right, are awkward failures, or half-successes. The experimenting is over, it is implied, and now the finished work will be revealed: Shakespeare. I’m not really surprised by this, but it is disappointing, especially since the Globe have done great work in making these plays available. Indeed, later tonight, they’ll be using the SWP for a very worthy event: the Back by Popular Demand Read Not Dead. Sadly, the experiment rhetoric does Renaissance drama no favours. It risks making things like Read Not Dead seem a token.

Retrospectively, the solution to this might have been to have integrated Shakespeare into the programme from the beginning. That two years of non-Shakespeare have been followed by one year of all-Shakespeare has only served to strengthen the divide between the Shakespearean and the non-Shakespearean.

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!

To see or not to see

The Changeling is one of a handful of plays – along with The Duchess of Malfi and A Woman Killed with Kindness – that convinced me I wanted to spend so much of my time reading, watching and writing about Renaissance theatre. It’s also the first play I ever performed in (I was Alonzo, since you ask) and, as such, it has a special place in my affections. Having never actually seen it staged (and having missed Joe Hill-Gibbens’ 2012 Young Vic production) I was looking forward to seeing it on the Sam Wanamaker stage. I’ll be seeing it again in February and will be writing a full review elsewhere, but for now I wanted to make a few brief comments, first about comedy, and then about sightlines.

Last month, I wrote about the Globe’s production of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, which I thought generated unpleasant and uncritical laughter. It’s not that there isn’t humour in the play, but the production harnessed humour in such a way as to obscure the terrible fate of Annabella. The Changeling, like ‘Tis Pity, is also comic (indeed, even more obviously so) and the Globe actors made sure to capitalize on the potential for laughter. I didn’t find this troubling, as I did with ‘Tis Pity but I wasn’t always sure it was successful, or rather, I felt that it was a shame that the attention to comic opportunities was not matched by attention to other tonal possibilities. For example,  Trystan Gravelle’s De Flores was near-unflappable and charismatic; displaying a fine sense comic timing, he frequently got the audience on side with a well-judged aside. For the most part, this was interesting and effective, but I didn’t really get the sense of the other side of the character. He didn’t seem ugly enough, angry enough, or in much physical or psychic pain. The play seems to demand that its actors embody these contraries, but I felt as if Gravelle addressed only part of the role. De Flores’ disposal of Alonzo, in which he moved from a brutal frenzy into a detached calmness, achieved the kind of effect I was hoping for, but this kind of complexity was not sustained.

My other gripe with the production is also a gripe with how the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is being used. Last year, I complained about sightlines at The Knight of the Burning Pestle and I found myself again frustrated by what I couldn’t see. My view of Beatrice-Joanna and De Flores, revealed in the closet, was pretty much entirely blocked by the actors on-stage. I’m assuming the view is not blocked for people in more central seats; if this is right, it seems a shame that only some people can see. It’s been argued that Renaissance theatre practice privileged listening over watching, but I don’t really understand what is gained by not being able to see.  I suppose it could be said that the blocked sightlines convey something of the confusion of the moment, but I’d rather have the drama of the revelation. Given that it’s easier to see facial expressions at a place like the Sam Wanamaker, where everyone is in close proximity to the stage, it seems a shame not to see the expressions of the actors at this critical moment. Maybe I came with a skewed expectation, but I left frustrated.



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.