What a packed week of plays, workshops and treasure hunts! I had originally planned to give you a day-by-day account of what was happening on our Shakespeare Excursion (organized by Conny Loder) but there just wasn’t the time. So I’ll try to give you at least a glimpse of what I experienced, starting with the plays.
We saw five Shakespeare plays in very different locations and productions. For me, two of them stood out, while the other three were entertaining but not exceptional as a whole. But even these had great moments. The list of the short (Beware: I will not give you a summary of the plot!) reviews is chronological.
Henry V (Shakespeare’s Globe, July 26)
Last year I saw Othello at the Globe and was blown away by the impact of the play on the „groundlings“, so I was looking forward to seeing another tragedy, hoping for a similar experience. It pains me to say that Henry V didn’t quite manage to keep me enthralled that much, even though it was a joy to see Leaphia Darko – who played Brutus’s wife Portia in last year’s Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre – on stage again (Duke of Gloucester / Governor / Alice).
I did like Sarah Amankwah in the role of Henry V, and the rest of the cast, but there were bits that didn’t really have a strong impact, such as the „Once more onto the breach“ soliloquy. That was a bit disappointing. What was really smoothly done were the costume changes, sometimes on stage, sometimes quickly as the wind behind the stage. There were two men notably cast in women roles (Mistress Quickly and Katherine), which added some comic relief but was otherwise not logical to me. I also liked that the music consisted mainly of drums (including the post-ending „dance“, when all cast members had drums), which fit perfectly to the war setting. So, even though there were a lot of things I liked about the production, I don’t feel like this will be a production that will stay in my mind for a long time.
Hamlet (Iris Theatre, St. Paul’s Church, 27 July)
I was very curious about this Hamlet production beforehand as it had cast a non-binary transgender person (Jenet Le Lacheur, preferred pronouns she/they) in its title role – and I wasn’t disappointed. Iris Theatre has its venue right in the heart of Covent Garden – on the premises of St. Paul’s Church. There were four different stages, three in the garden and one in the church itself, so the audience had to move around from stage to stage. I really enjoyed that, even though it had rained right before the performance and, therefore, the benches and seats were wet. Luckily, though, it pretty much stopped raining when it started, so I used the „raincoat“ we’d been given to sit on rather than wearing it. The casting was surely a bit unusual, not only regarding Hamlet themselves, as Polonius was Ophelia’s mother here, not her father, and Ophelia herself was played by a young woman that was far from the frail and girly women that are often cast in that role. But it totally worked for me. We had heard beforehand (in our workshop in the morning with two people from Iris Theatre) that the idea was to set the play in a scenario in which girls are kept down not just by men but by women who have become willing oppressors. The garments Polonius and Ophelia were wearing were reminiscent of dystopian, misogynist settings like The Handmaid’s Tale. This worked really well in my view, as Polonius behaved quite differently with her son Laertes than with her daughter.
Talking about Ophelia: This was possibly the first Ophelia I could really empathize with. Jenny Horsthuis‘ performance moved me to tears, maybe especially because her appearance wasn’t frail to begin with. To see her lose her wits after the death of her (cruel) mother Polonius, was simply heart-breaking. Likewise I was deeply touched by Laertes’s (Joe Parker) reaction to his sister’s state and – later – death.
But what worked best for me was Jenet Le Lacheur as Hamlet. The issue of identity was given an additional touch by including a transgender Hamlet who only felt comfortable enough to show his true identity to his best friend (and maybe more than that but there was no kiss on the mouth or anything like that) Horatio. Horatio called Hamlet „My Lady“, to everyone else she was a man (and also dressed accordingly, at least at the beginning). Still, the gender issue wasn’t pushed to the forefront – there was only one occasion where Hamlet actually wore high heels, for example, but that was in her „mad“ state of mind. Yet I felt this underlying question of identity so strongly that the „To be, or not to be“ soliloquy had this additional layer that moved me deeply, especially considering how many transgender people actually think about taking their lives or even go through with it. This made this production of Hamlet surely one of the most successful translations into a modern setting dealing with relevant current issues.
I could say much more about the staging, the grave diggers (such fun!), the players (a little creepy), the Ghost (VERY creepy!), but I wanted to keep these reviews short… All in all, this was one of the most memorable, moving and creative Hamlet productions I’ve seen.
The Merry Wives of Windsor (Shakespeare’s Globe, July 29)
The whole atmosphere before this comedy started was already merry. Some actors (in their roles) mingled with the audience, some of our group helped hanging up laundry, there was a brass band going around and playing in different corners of the pit. So the audience was in a good mood when the action started. I started out standing in first row center stage (see picture) but as a) most of my colleagues were standing on the other side, and b) the woman next to me, well, how to say this kindly, didn’t smell very nicely due to body odour, I moved to the right side of the stage. Let me say this: I did have a lot of fun! I particularly enjoyed the music and dancing (it was set in Britain in the 1930s, so there was a lot of Swing music), the post-ending dancing scene was absolutely fantastic!!! ❤ What was most interesting were the scenes we had worked on in our workshop (more about those in another post) – and seeing that while, of course, the actors on stage were much more fluent and surely more professional, some of us hadn’t been that far off with our interpretations, made for a satisfying experience. I also enjoyed Pearce Quigley’s performance as Sir John Falstaff. Still, when asked how I liked the play afterwards, I only said: „Yeah, it was alright.“ But that could also be the play itself, which doesn’t really have anything important to say besides „You can’t fool women who are friends“ and „Don’t be so jealous“. And even though Falstaff clearly was the one who behaved badly in the first place, some lines directed towards him (or spoken about him) felt very much like fat shaming. But, well, it’s all in the text. I guess fat shaming has existed for a very long time…
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Bridge Theatre, July 30)
Those of you who have read my enthusiastic review of the immersive production of Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre last year surely can’t imagine that I could be even more enthusiastic about anything. Well…
Fourth play: I didn’t think I could be more in awe of @_bridgetheatre
after they blew me away in last year’s #JuliusCaesar. I was wrong. #BridgeDream is breathtakingly beautiful & funny – simply exhilarating! ❤ ❤ ❤
It’s hard to describe how I felt while watching and participating in this magical production. I think it was bliss (Glückseligkeit). When I wasn’t laughing out loud at the Mechanicals (the group of players, most notably Bottom (Hammed Animashaun)), I marveled at the fairies (my favorite was Mustardseed, played by the very handsome Lennin Nelson-McClure, a circus and performance artist) swinging above our heads. When I wasn’t chuckling at all the silliness that Puck (mesmerizing David Moorst) gets into motion, I felt such deep pride seeing Kit Young (one of the young actors from Julius Caesar) excel as Lysander. We danced hand in hand with the characters and after final applause with the cast and I got almost hit by a tiny plastic Christmas tree in a pot during the Mechanicals‘ play. This time we weren’t shouted at when we had to move because of new parts of the stage arose, this time we were asked and pushed firmly but softly.
In addition to all the magical details that made my heart sing, the director Nicholas Hytner had the idea to switch the roles of Titania (Gwendoline Christie) and Oberon (Oliver Chris), which was done so smoothly that someone who didn’t know the play wouldn’t notice anything „strange“. So it wasn’t Oberon who instructed Puck to use the love spell on Titania (and various humans) but Titania who tricked Oberon. This made for much funnier scenes between the „donkey‟ Bottom and Oberon on the one hand, and led a more contemporary interpretation in which the woman isn’t the victim on the other hand. Plus, Hytner, as we had been told by assistant director Emily Burns in our pre-show Q & A, had interpreted the happenings in the woods as a dream that Theseus had, which actually led to a less harsh and strict Theseus in the end. I really enjoyed this interpretation – executed perfectly by Christie and her enormous presence on stage (I mean, she’s just so tall!!!) and Oliver Chris, who pulled off both the strict Theseus and the madly-in-love-with-a-donkey Oberon. But really, the whole cast was amazing! Both Hermia (Isis Hainsworth) and Helena (Tessa Bonham Jones) really impressed me, and I’ve already mentioned Kit Young, who is getting bigger parts with every engagement (and deservedly so!).
Photos by Manuel Harlan for Bridge Theatre
Something that added to my immense joy was actually something that didn’t have anything to do with the production. It was the happiness and wonder I saw in my colleagues‘ eyes, their rosy cheeks of excitement, and the fact that one of my colleagues who had said she didn’t like Shakespeare’s comedies came out of the play saying she loved it too. Mission accomplished! 🙂
I can only recommend that you find a cinema where NT Live broadcasts are shown and watch it on October 17. It won’t be the same experience as being in the pit and actually taking part in the action but I’m sure you will be mesmerized as well.
Romeo & Juliet (Shakespeare in the Garden / Open Bar Theatre, July 31)
This open air production by Fuller’s (a brewery) Open Bar Theatre was a lot of fun. Wait, what? Isn’t Romeo & Juliet a tragedy? Ay, there’s the rub. (Oh my god, I’m starting to use Shakespeare quotes!) It all worked extremely well what the four (!) actors did in the first act, which does have quite some comedy in it, but it didn’t quite fit to the more tragic developments later.
There was still a lot of laughter, and there were a couple of instances when Nathaniel Curtis (Romeo, among others) had forgotten his line, which he dealt with openly and in a fun way, but this prevented the audience (or at least me) from getting emotionally involved. Yet, it was quite impressive how fast the actors changed and slipped into another character. The number of lines everyone had to remember! I also liked how few props they needed and how they interacted with the audience. I was sitting on one side of the stage, which led to my backpack featuring in the play:
Side note: We had been encouraged to take pictures during the play and share it on social media. They would choose a winner who would get a T-shirt. Well, what can I say – my backpack won! 😀
So, while it was certainly a fun experience and the spontaneity and flexibility of the actors impressive, the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet only got partly across.