Shakespeare in the sunshine – The Taming of the Shrew

What wonderful weather we’ve been having! Perfect for a spot of Shakespeare in the sunshine. It’s that time of year again when the Globe Theatre on tour visits Portsmouth to put on a show in the City Museum Gardens, in association with our very own New Theatre Royal. As usual, they didn’t disappoint…

Enjoying Shakespeare in the sun

An all-female cast seemed an interesting and ironic choice for a play whose patriarchal tones often challenge a modern audience. I have always struggled with this play. Brilliantly written and highly entertaining, it is nonetheless the story of a woman’s submission to her husband. I’ve never known quite how to take Katherina’s speech where she submits to Petruchio. Is she playing a game, or is it truly how she feels?

Using an all-female cast gave the performance an extra edge – seeing Petruchio beating down Katherina’s resolve when played by a man, it is easy to feel angry at him, and associate this anger with the fact that he is a man, the historical oppressor of women. But when Petruchio is played by a woman, this raises the notion that the abuse Katherina suffers could be inflicted as easily by a woman as by a man. It had an almost cannibalistic feel, the woman turning on her own kind.

However, one wonderful element to this production was the fact that you completely forgot these were women playing men. A brilliant and beautiful Leah Whitaker strode around with an air of arrogance as Petruchio, and it wasn’t long before you simply forgot she wasn’t a man, striking looks aside. Right from her first strut onto the stage, all long leather coat and clompy boots, she fostered an essence of testosterone and masculinity that I’m sure one would be hard pressed to find if they met her out of character.

Strong performances all round

A particularly memorable Kathryn Hunt gave a strong performance as Baptista Minola, perfectly capturing the intricate mix of self-assuredness and growing confusion and exasperation he feels towards his situation as father of such an unruly daughter. She was equally brilliant, and charmingly hilarious, as Grumio, and at all times seemed to have a wonderful command of Shakespeare’s language. Not one utterance seemed strained or unnatural.

Joy Richardson also played a male part convincingly and with admirable gusto. Her Gremio seemed to at times creep and others skip across the stage – an excellent use of the body to convey character and emotion.

The infamous speech where Katherina submits to Petruchio’s rule over her had the audience silent and transfixed. Not an eye wandered from the outstanding Kate Lamb, as silent tears rolled down her Katherina’s face. You felt drawn into her performance, into her resignation, and I felt tears on my own cheeks responding to hers.

Last summer I had the pleasure of seeing The Taming of the Shrew at the Globe Theatre, and the Katherina there, played by Samantha Spiro, was much more feisty, rather than simply angry. This was something I missed in Lamb’s performance, but as the play went on I realised this was a more sensitive performance. Both Katherinas were equally valid interpretations, and both brought something to the part that made it enjoyable for the audience to watch.

A perfect Saturday afternoon

There wasn’t a weak link in this performance – staging was excellent, costume was fitting and diverse, helping to build on each character’s traits in subtle, or in Petruchio’s case, not so subtle, ways. As is the company’s custom, most of the actors played several parts, and a range of dialects were excellently employed to easily define one character from another.

Live music and songs with the odd bit of dancing added an element of fun to the whole thing, and put a smile on the sea of faces sitting in the sun watching.

Diction was clear and the storytelling coherent to the point that my boyfriend, who has sat through many a Shakespeare performance for my benefit, said he understood the whole thing perfectly, and it was in fact the most enjoyable Shakespeare performance he’s ever been to. Kudos to director Joe Murphy for pulling together such an amazing performance from a wonderfully talented cast.

The weather was perfect, the company excellent and the performance a delight. If only every Saturday afternoon could be spent this way!

6,000 miles away part 3: Bye

Photo: Bill Cooper

Photo: Bill Cooper

The piece we had admittedly all been waiting for, Guillem’s solo Bye, arrived at last. Choreographed by Mats Ek and set to Beethoven’s last piano sonata, the piece was a delight to watch.

Mats Ek is not only a choreographer, but has also staged productions of various plays in his native Sweden. A former stage director and ballet dancer, he has become a guest choreographer for many of the leading companies in the world. His style is known for conveying the feelings and emotions behind a storyline rather than just the narrative itself.

This style is beautifully apparent in Bye. The choreography bounced from flowing arms and legs to clunky child-like movements, channeling joy mixed with discovery. Guillem’s exuberance and energy filled the stage as she leapt and bounded about, belying her 48 years. This looked like a woman rediscovering freedom, breaking free from the confines of her daily life and revisiting that childlike joy of dancing just for the sheer pleasure of it.

As first the cardigan and then the shoes and socks were removed, I sensed the carefree abandonment of youth, like when you strip off your socks and skip across the slippery stones to paddle in the icy cold river, knowing you’re late for dinner and will surely get a telling off, but just wanting to feel the water run between your toes.

The staging of the piece included a screen the size of a doorway, on which we were first met with Guillem’s eye looking around at us all before the face pulled back. The projected video footage showed Guillem trying to figure her way out to us, a human leg unfolding from around the side as the film Guillem stuck a leg out beyond the parameters of the screen. This use of film in harmony with the physical, tangible dancer delighted the audience.

The ending of the solo saw Guillem put back on the cardigan, socks and shoes and return to the world of the screen, where a curious crowd had by now gathered to watch her dancing antics. As she returned from whence she came, the people seemed accepting and the crowd dispersed as they presumably went back to their daily business. It conjured in my mind images of village life, where everyone knows your business and leaping through the fields would most definitely draw a crowd. Once returned to the flock and what is considered as ‘normal’ behaviour, the interest wanes and you return to routine… until the next time you venture out without your shoes and socks on!

6,000 miles away part 2: Rearray

The second piece of the evening, Rearray, was choreographed by the internationally renowned choreographer William Forsythe. A former dancer with the Joffrey Ballet, Forsythe was director of Ballet Frankfurt for 20 years before founding The Forsythe Company. He is an Honorary Fellow at the Laban Centre for Movement and Dance, holds an Honorary Doctorate from Juilliard, and has pioneered new approaches to dance documentation, education and research.

Photo: Bill Cooper

Photo: Bill Cooper

Despite the brilliant Sylvie Guillem dancing in this piece, I have to say it was my least favourite of the three. The music, by David Morrow, was discordant and jarring and made me feel strangely uncomfortable. There was one particular note whose high pitch physically hurt my ears, and brewed within me a sense of violence that put me on edge and filled my muscles with the urge to lash out. That said, a friend sitting next to me enjoyed the piece, and said he could detect a pattern within the music so the discord no longer seemed apparent.

I can see how the music set the mood for the choreography, which was brilliant. Massimo Murro partnered Guillem with strength and grace, the two dancers complementing each other in their physicality and lean, flowing arms and legs. I got a feeling of a disjointed relationship, of two people not quite on the same page – perhaps wanting to be, and at times achieving this with beautiful moments of harmonious choreography, two bodies reaching an elegant symmetry, but then falling away to their individual rhythms.

The choreography was firmly rooted in a classical training, but at parts it would veer off to something more abstract than I was accustomed to, which really opened by eyes to the artistic possibilities of contemporary dance. A stalwart of classical ballet, it could be said my preferences are a bit tame!

6,000 miles away part 1: 27’52”

Sylvie Guillem is one of my heroes; a brilliant ballet dancer with seemingly elastic legs who these days excels in contemporary dance. To me, she is dance.

6,000 miles away programme

6,000 miles away programme

The chance to see her perform in the flesh as opposed to countless YouTube videos understandably filled me with a giddy glee. That chance arose last weekend. Guillem was performing at Sadler’s Wells in a triple-bill called 6,000 miles away.

The name 6,000 miles away is a bow to the people of Japan who were hit by the tsunami in 2011 while Guillem was working on the piece in London.

However, there was another reason for the name. Sarah Crompton, arts editor and dance critic of the Daily Telegraph, said: “-it sums up her [Guillem’s] belief that you do not have to be physically near someone to admire and like them. This evening is also a tribute to the ties that bind people of like minds.”

I’ve split the review into three parts, one for each piece, in order to do each justice while not prompting a scrolling spree for the reader.

27’52”

The first piece of the evening, 27’52”, the name reflecting the length of the piece in minutes and seconds, was choreographed by Jiří Kylián. Former artistic director of Nederlands Dans Theater and founder of Nederland Dans Theater II, Kylián has received many awards and titles, including the prestigious Commander of the Legion d’honneur from the French government, and the Medal of the Order of the House of Orange from the Netherlands.

The piece was an enthralling opening for the evening. The music, a new composition by Dirk Haubrich, created an eerie sense of unease. Early on in the piece, the voices of people speaking in various different languages slows to a drawl then speeds up as the choreography perfectly matches the changing tempo. The two dancers, Aurélie Cayla and Lukas Timulak, showed immense skill and artistry as they weaved across the stage in a game of push and pull. The choreography was at times jagged and staccato, at times soft and flowing, and suggested a sense of something not quite right in their relationship.

At one point, Cayla lying with her bare back to the audience whilst Timulak seems caught in his own self-absorbing dance downstage, I sensed her vulnerability, and wondered if there was an undercurrent of something more sinister in their relationship. When he returned to her and lead her around she seemed almost reluctant, but after pulling away she would return to him, as if the desire to be free of him could not override the need for his affection.

The ending of the piece, as Timulak disappeared under a black sheet, which was cleverly disguised as part of the stage floor, left me with a great sadness. While he seemed resigned to his fate (death?), Cayla looked confused and tried to find a way out of this fate. But as a third dancer entered the space to hold up the other end of the sheet for her, she solemnly accepted that she too must be enveloped in the darkness.

As the lights came up and the dancers were met with applause, I tried to shake off the sadness that had settled on me. It was mixed with a sense of awe and appreciation of such gifted dancers and such thoughtful and touching choreography.

Rite of Spring signals theatre’s rebirth

As the Rite of Spring reaches its centenary, what better piece to mark the rebirth of a theatre than one so rich with regeneration and the creative power of spring.

Rite of Spring rehearsals

Rite of Spring rehearsals

Choreographers across the country are reviving the ballet that caused such controversy with its first performance in 1913, and which some say still holds the power to shock and unnerve. One performance, in a cosy Portsmouth theatre last week, was particularly significant.

Over 100 young musicians and 40 local dancers brought this infamous piece to life. It is perhaps fitting that these were the final notes to fill the auditorium of the New Theatre Royal before it closed its doors for redevelopment. It will reopen in 2014 as a theatre reborn. Just as spring finally comes after the long winter, so the day has finally come, after 40 years of tireless work, when the regeneration of the theatre can finally begin.

Caroline Sharman, Director of New Theatre Royal, says: “the symbolism couldn’t be more apt.”

“To mark the centenary of the composition that totally challenged the music conventions of 1913 and is so rich with expressions of rebirth and regeneration chimes perfectly with our own story of rebirth.”

Construction work began this month as part of a £12 million joint project between the theatre and the University of Portsmouth to restore the backstage area and stage house, increase seating numbers and add much-needed workshop and office space. The theatre currently uses a temporary thrust stage after the original stage, orchestra pit and backstage area were completely destroyed in a fire in 1972.

The rebuild is also set to include a new Creative Learning Space where film, television and drama students from the university can train and perform, and where new practitioners and companies can develop and show their work in a cultural hub at the heart of the city.

Collaboration is key

Last week’s performance of the Rite of Spring was a truly collaborative project, involving the Hampshire County Council’s Music Service, local schools, community dancers and the Hampshire County Youth Orchestra, with the assistance of players from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.

Caroline highlights the importance of creative collaborations like this: “It is only through collaboration that great art can be created and will be sustained. Our collaboration with the University of Portsmouth is enabling us to rethink and restore our theatre, and our partnership with Hampshire County Council’s Music Service enabled a 100-piece youth orchestra and 40 dancers to create such a great event together.”

“Partnerships, in my view, only work if both sides really want it and are prepared to work at it as much as each other. Saturday’s performance was testament to this collaboration’s success.”

Conducted by Carl Clausen, over 100 members of the Hampshire County Youth Orchestra performed the classic score live. A company of local dancers, choreographed by Jamie Roberts of Jam Jar Dance and Donna Bish, brought to life the story of an ancient society deciding which maiden to offer as sacrifice to the gods. The dancers, aged from early teens to mid seventies, came from local schools as well as community dance groups, including the Misspent Youth dance company, Fred and Ginger group, and the Aging Disgracefully dance group.

Students from two local schools worked with Fraser Trainer, an internationally renowned composer whose work has been performed at the BBC Proms, to produce music inspired by Stravinsky’s original score, which they performed on the night. A University of Portsmouth student production team, fondly referred to as ‘Laura’s Angels’, was involved in the costume design and stage management of the project, and also included the assistant creative producer and assistant choreographer.

A shared experience

Lead choreographer Jamie Roberts, of Jam Jar Dance, was keen to involve the local community in the project. “We decided to use community-based artists to make up our cast. Working with school and colleges as well as dance artists and over 50s was imperative to the success of our ‘Rite’. The collaboration between these groups leads to a wider bank of experiences on which to draw in the choreographic process. Using a range of people with a selection of ages provides them with a shared experience that helps bring the community together.”

Jill Larner, Head of Hampshire County Council’s Music Service, can see the benefits for the young people involved, of the different artistic disciplines working together. “It’s rare for the instrumentalists in the orchestra to have dancers there,” she says. “Suddenly the music isn’t just music, it’s being performed in the way it was meant, and the audience has a visual stimulus as well as the sound of the music itself. The dancers added a new dimension for our young musicians, and enabled them to experience the excitement of a different outlook on the music.”

“Equally, most of the dancers are probably used to dancing to a recorded track, so to perform to live music created by a 100-strong orchestra was hopefully a great new experience for them too.”

Looking to the future

So with the final performance of the season over and the doors firmly closed until next year, are the theatre staff confident of this being a success story, where so many regional theatres have failed?

Caroline is mindful of the challenges they face, but optimistic. “I still have much to do to embed our partners into our future plans so as to ensure the theatre’s sustainability. My challenge now is to find the balance between making and touring great shows to attract new audiences, providing a space to experiment as we nurture artistic talent of all ages and, importantly, providing excellent skills development opportunities for our local community. A tall order, but we certainly have the ideal place to offer it and some excellent partnerships already in place, so I feel optimistic too.”

Following on from its sell-out performance at New Theatre Royal on Saturday April 20, the Rite of Spring was performed at Anvil Arts, Basingstoke on Saturday April 27.

One day, two plays – The Duchess of Malfi and Step 9 (of 12)

With my boyfriend away in Edinburgh the other weekend I decided to spend a day on my lonesome in London, watching a play and losing myself in the myriad of bookshops, and considering the price of the train ticket to get there I thought I may as well see two plays to make it worth my while. The second of these, The Duchess of Malfi (Webster) directed by Jamie Lloyd, was impressive, but not the highlight of the day. I’m a big fan of Jamie Lloyd and his work with Polar Bears (which I directed for an in-house production last summer), The Pride and The Faith Machine, and was equally impressed with his staging of this – a moody and atmospheric set, which the impressive size of the Old Vic stage lent itself perfectly to, the choreographed candle-bearers in hooded cloaks, and the overall underlying menace he managed to instil into the whole production really brought to life the underlying themes of the play. Acting was strong, especially Eve Best as the Duchess, but there were moments where it dragged a little, and when several key characters had died so quickly and violently, waiting for Bosola to finally pop his clogs you wanted to yell, “just get on with it!”.

The Duchess’ death scene was chillingly brilliant, the anticipation building as we waited with a macabre fascination for the moment when they pulled on the ropes to strangle her. The way Best’s body jerked and writhed about gave me a genuine chill. Harry Lloyd as the violent and volatile brother Ferdinand was pure perfection, showing a man torn between emotions and societal pressures – I hear he’s in Game of Thrones so will be checking that out! I did enjoy the play, but the second act couldn’t match the pace of the first, and no matter how hard I tried I just couldn’t sympathise with the character of Bosola and his actions. I know many consider Webster’s language to be even more complex to interpret than Shakespeare, so perhaps I just wasn’t in a receptive mood.

The first of the two plays I saw, however, affected me deeply. It turned out that the two plays were not only very different pieces set in different times and with different circumstances, but also staged very differently, one on a grand scale in the Old Vic, the other in a small cosy studio space in the Trafalgar Studios 2, which added a nice bit of variety to my day!

Step 9 (of 12), a play by Rob Hayes, tells the story of Keith, a recovering alcoholic, as he tries to apologise to those he has hurt the most with his destructive behaviour, and featured Blake Harrison of The Inbetweeners fame. Having loved him on screen as the lanky simpleton Neil, I was keen to see what else he could do as an actor, and I can happily say I wasn’t disappointed! Although the first ten or so minutes moved rather slowly with the jokes a little forced and I felt he was shouting out the lines for the room to hear rather than directing them at his fellow actors, the pace soon picked up with smart dialogue and troubled yet realistic characters that were brought to life brilliantly by all concerned. Harrison showed an ability to snap from light-hearted nice guy to menacing in an instant; equally from menacing young man to vulnerable little boy. The moments where he was begging his foster mother to forgive him and calling her ‘mum’ for what we deduce is probably the first time ever were heartbreaking, and the tears in his eyes brought tears to my own, as I had to stop myself from running on stage to give this suffering little boy a big hug and tell him everything would be alright. The beauty of the piece being performed in such an intimate space is that you really did feel a part of the action, and that you were witnessing a private conversation between a troubled family rather than watching a play on a stage, detached from the characters and their lives.

Barry McCarthy as the protagonist Keith’s foster father gave a beautiful performance, struggling to hide the inner turmoil beneath a veneer of amiability. The contrast between this ‘mask’ he wore at the start of the play, showing a guy who just wants to get along with and support Keith’s endeavours, and the true hurt and struggle that lived within was played with expert empathy and showed an actor who truly understands the complexity of the human condition. Wendy Nottingham as the foster mother was at times a little vocally ‘flat’ but played a woman scarred by her experiences beautifully, and at the point where the character Mark was threatening them the fear in her eyes was haunting. Ben Dilloway as Mark, the son of a man who Keith had put in hospital with permanent brain damage, gave a short but powerful performance. A mess of pain and wanting vengeance for what was done to his father, Dilloway played him perfectly, wrenching even the hardiest heart in the audience out of its chest.

The play is brilliant. The humour was there at every turn and the audience was often chuckling at this or that. Awkward conversations and moments were interspersed with dry humour and left us not sure whether it was appropriate to laugh or not, causing us to question our own reactions to the characters and their actions. The staging was thoughtful and made good use of the space. Keith’s front door being situated off stage made us use our ears rather than just being fed everything visually, and helped create a sense of tension as you heard the slam and awaited the arrival of a character. An impressive West End debut for Harrison, a powerful yet poignant performance by McCarthy, and a success for the director Tom Attenborough and his creative team. Oh, and hats off to Rob Hayes for a bloody good play.