Review: Hamlet: Rotten States at The Hope Theatre

It’s Hamlet, but not quite as we know it. For one thing, Hamlet’s not actually in it. But Brian Blessed is. Sort of.

With Hamlet: Rotten States, 6FootStories return to the three-actor format of their acclaimed Macbeth: A Tale of Sound & Fury, which was first performed at the Hope a few years ago. In this case, the three actors (Will Bridges, Amy Fleming and Jake Hassam) are, in fact, actors – specifically, the players who visit court and are promptly recruited by Hamlet to recreate the murder of his father and in doing so catch the conscience of the king. But things are about to get more complicated for our players, who are visited by the ghost of Hamlet’s father and charged with avenging his death. And so Shakespeare’s play within a play becomes a play within a play within a play, as the three set out to answer the ghost’s challenge and reawaken Hamlet’s purpose in the only way they can think of.

Photo credit: Matthew Koltenborn

This naturally involves a bit of playing around with the original text, but the result is still a coherent, if incredibly brief, retelling of Hamlet’s story. The three performers are clearly enjoying themselves as they whisk us through the key events, dividing the principal roles and speeches between them, and filling in the inevitable gaps with puppetry and props. There are song and dance routines, overblown death scenes, and sword fighting without actual swords; Gertrude appears only as a floating head, and the murder of Gonzago is portrayed using toby jugs. Oh, and the dead king looks a lot like a fiercely grinning Brian Blessed.

Needless to say, there’s a distinctly mischievous tone to the production that die-hard fans of both Shakespeare and his tragic masterpiece may find hard to stomach. But it’s important to note that there’s no lack of respect here either; while the text may be somewhat rearranged to suit the show’s purpose, we still get the core plot in the right order, and speeches delivered with appropriate passion and reverence where required. The fact that the performers then immediately break character to congratulate themselves on the quality and content of said delivery is great comedy, but it also helps the audience appreciate afresh the dramatic power of Shakespeare’s language.

Photo credit: Matthew Koltenborn

Reducing four hours of action into one necessarily calls for high energy and a pretty brisk pace, and a pumping electronic soundtrack and flashing disco lights – all managed on stage by the actors themselves – complement this well. Unlike the original, in which every action is mulled over a thousand times, this is very much “blink and you’ll miss it” Hamlet, which keeps the audience focused throughout. The production walks the line well between familiarity and originality; those who know the play well can sit back and laugh at the numerous inside jokes, while for newcomers there’s enough here for them to follow the story, and perhaps spark an interest in seeing a more traditional retelling. Cheeky but respectful fun, this entertaining show guarantees a good time for all.

Hamlet: Rotten States is at The Hope Theatre until 1st February.

Review: Twelfth Night at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

With Christmas safely behind us, ’tis now the season for Twelfth Night, and Yard Players’ new production of Shakespeare’s popular comedy is one of several opening over the next couple of weeks in London. It may also quite possibly be the darkest, with director James Eley injecting a note of malice into not only the always questionable antics of Maria and Toby, but also the play’s traditionally neat and cheery conclusion, in which more than one character casually transfers their affections and everyone is seemingly okay with that.

Photo credit: Yard Players

From the start of this version, which has been updated to take place in the 21st century, the laughs are there – but so too is the sense that all is not well. Orsino (Duncan Drury) is quickly revealed to be little more than a petulant child who wants what he can’t have. Maria (Heloise Spring), whose character is conflated here with that of Feste the fool, greets everyone with a mocking sneer – including a recently shipwrecked and clearly distressed Viola (Jess Kinsey), who believes her twin brother Sebastian (James Viller) has drowned.

Malvolio (Daniel Chrisostomou), on the other hand, is here not so much pompous as just a bit of an oddball, his loyalty and affection for his boss Olivia (Candice Price) making him an easy target. The same can be said for Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Drury again), a likeable fool whose lack of brains see him walk time and again into the traps set by his permanently inebriated “friend” Toby (Pete Picton).

This means that even the scenes which are usually particularly riotous – Malvolio and his yellow stockings being the most obvious example – feel somewhat subdued, which allows the audience to view what’s happening in a different way. Viewed from this new perspective, Malvolio’s storyline is shown to be what it is (and in fact always has been): gaslighting – having first made their victim believe Olivia secretly loves him, Maria and Toby go on to try and convince him he’s imagined the whole thing, and nearly drive him to actual madness in the process. At the same time, almost every relationship in the play is revealed to be entirely hollow, based solely on physical attraction, lust for power, or financial gain. The final scene is particularly well done – unlike in most productions, there’s little happiness on display, even from those characters who seem to have got what they wanted.

All that said, the play still makes for an entertaining night out, and there are plenty of laughs to be had from the gender swapping, mistaken identities and general mischief going on. The setting is a bit muddled; it’s obvious we’re in a seaside town, and most of the characters wear either blue or red lanyards, marking them early on as rivals in business as well as romance, though it’s quite difficult to make out what kind of company they all work for. There are suggestions, too, in the posters that adorn the set, that Orsino may have political ambitions, while Maria – who’s officially employed by Olivia – seems to have a rather lucrative sideline of her own.

Photo credit: Yard Players

As a slightly weary Twelfth Night veteran, personally I enjoyed this more sombre adaptation of the play, which remains accessible to newcomers while offering a fresh perspective to those who’ve seen it before. It may not have the belly laughs of other productions, but does ask some interesting – and refreshing – questions about whether a story that’s had audiences in stitches for centuries was really all that funny in the first place.

Twelfth Night is at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 1st February.

Review: Lullabies for the Lost and The Delights of Dogs at Old Red Lion Theatre

There’s a very personal feel to the two plays by Rosalind Blessed currently being performed in rep at the Old Red Lion – and it’s no surprise to learn that they’re both based on the writer’s own experience. The first, Lullabies for the Lost, is a new piece directed by Zoë Ford Burnett, which explores the power of open conversation in the battle against mental illness. The second, The Delights of Dogs and the Problems of People, is directed by Caroline Devlin and depicts the unravelling of an abusive marriage. Both very powerfully written and performed, neither shies away from the tough issues with which they’re dealing, and while they’re far from easy viewing, they each make a valuable contribution to a vitally important discussion.

Photo credit: Adam Trigg

Lullabies for the Lost uses the metaphor of a room in which eight characters find themselves trapped. It’s not clear what the room is, or indeed how they got there, but the key point is that to get out, they have to reach some point of understanding or resolution with their own mental health issues. And in order to do that, they have to repeatedly tell their stories to their fellow “residents”. Some, like Robin (Rosalind Blessed) and Ash (Duncan Wilkins), who each describe their experience of eating disorders, have been there for years. Larry (Chris Porter) has just become the newest arrival, as he wrestles with crippling social anxiety. Andy (Chris Pybus) has spent months in bed with depression, viewing the world only through the appearance-obsessed filter of social media. Nerys (Kate Tydman) started hoarding after suffering multiple miscarriages. Sarah (Helen Bang) is plagued by emotional sensitivity and low self-esteem into a lonely, unsatisfying existence. And brothers Jez and Tim (Nick Murphey and Liam Mulvey) each feel they need to put on a brave, “manly” face for the other, not realising they’d take much better care of each other if they just talked.

The metaphor is clever and well set up, and while the piece is essentially a series of monologues, the content of each is so well written and the performances so compelling, that the format never struggles to hold our attention. Where the play struggles slightly is in its conclusion, which certainly packs an emotional punch, but feels somehow underdeveloped and a little too neat. The words of Ma, an unexpected extra character played by Blessed’s own mother Hildegard Neil, are warm, wise and important, but it’s not made clear enough why, after so long grappling with their problems, it should be her who suddenly breaks through for so many of the characters.

As the more established play, The Delights of Dogs and the Problems of People suffers no such issue. The story of Robin – played by Blessed and importantly, the same character we met in Lullabies for the Lost – and James (Duncan Wilkins) is both gripping and desperately sad. This piece allows us to see more of Blessed herself, and the emotional intensity of her words really resonates; it’s clear they come from a very real and heartfelt place.

The play begins on the couple’s fifth wedding anniversary, as James excitedly prepares a romantic meal for his wife. He’s funny and charming, and it seems we’re looking at a loving husband. But the clues are already there, in the way he speaks about Robin, that all is not quite as it seems – although the truth, when it’s revealed, still has the power to shock us. Through a series of flashbacks, we see how a seemingly loving relationship began to crumble, and explore the factors on both sides that contribute to creating a toxic, abusive environment.

As is also the case with Lullabies for the Lost, the play tackles difficult issues, but nonetheless does so with humour and a degree of optimism and faith that human nature will prevail. In The Delights of Dogs, not unexpectedly, this lighter content is inspired by the writer’s love of dogs and appreciation for the support they provide. Even at her lowest, Robin can still talk to her old dog Ben, who listens without judgment and responds only with unconditional love. In Lullabies, too, a dog provides unexpected relief to one of the characters, and ultimately this new-found friendship allows them to become the only one who leaves of their own accord.

Photo credit: Natalie Wells

Another factor that unites the two plays is the way the characters speak out directly to the audience. This is more overt in The Delights of Dogs, but in both cases we become a key player as the characters bare their souls, allowing them to speak out and share their innermost struggles without fear of judgment or ridicule. And so they do, holding very little back, which again reveals how much the stories are grounded in real experiences. Some of the details are gruesome, others shocking, others just very sad – but each helps to educate the audience a little more about conditions and experiences that many of us will know little or nothing about.

Watching one play, let alone both together, makes for an intense and at times quite distressing few hours in the theatre. The content is intensely real and raw, and shines a spotlight on a variety of mental health issues in a very personal but accessible way. A tough but fascinating watch.

Lullabies for the Lost and The Delights of Dogs and the Problems of People are being performed in rep at Old Red Lion Theatre until 1st February.

Review: The Importance of Being Earnest – played by immigrants at Tower Theatre

There’s a good reason The Importance of Being Earnest remains one of the most popular comedies in British theatre. It’s a very silly story about ridiculous people doing utterly implausible things, and yet for all its joyous irreverence, the play still has plenty to say about society, class and the judgments we make about each other based on little more than a name or birthplace.

It’s this last that most informs Pan Productions’ unique and memorable adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s classic. The company’s first production in English, its cast is made up entirely of immigrants whose first languages include French, Turkish and Greek. These actors may never have had to confess to being found in a handbag at Victoria Station, but they’ve all certainly had to explain and perhaps even justify where they come from, probably on more than one occasion. So it’s through their eyes that we see this very English comedy unfold, cucumber sandwiches and all, as friends Jack (Louis Pottier Arniaud) and Algernon (Duncan Rowe) pursue two women who know exactly what they want – and, more importantly, what they don’t – in a suitable husband.

There’s no denying that the vision of director Aylin Bozok is an unusual one, though that’s by no means a bad thing – after so many “traditional” versions of the play, a fresh take is more than welcome. The modern dress production retains Wilde’s script, albeit peppered with moments where the cast slip back into their native languages, but beyond that this interpretation bears little resemblance to the genteel Victorian drama we know. It’s still a comedy, yet visually and tonally the play is much darker than we’re used to; there’s a decidedly gothic feel to the production that’s unexpected, to say the least. The pace is also considerably slower, though there’s never any danger of the audience’s attention wandering – the deliberation that goes into each and every movement is fascinating, and ultimately proves to be a source of comedy in itself. (Who knew watching someone painstakingly lower themselves on to a sofa could raise so many laughs?)

Another intriguing, if slightly confusing, aspect is the suggestion that the characters, for all their wealth and social standing, have no control over their own story. Instead, that power lies with the omnipresent and slightly sinister character of the maid (Nea Cornér), who encompasses both manservants, Lane and Merriman, while also filling the role of a Greek chorus and a puppeteer who manoeuvres the characters on, off and around the stage. While this is an interesting take, at times it feels like a bit of a distraction – due in no small part to Nea Cornér, whose performance is completely compelling throughout. The problem is that the production is already so rich in detail that we have more than enough to look at and absorb, and by adding another element to it, we find ourselves at times not knowing quite where to look.

The cast are uniformly excellent, taking recognisable characters and breathing fresh life into them; particular highlights among many include Glykeria Dimou’s feisty teenager Cecily and Pinar Öğün’s perfectly poised Gwendolen. The actors are all clearly enjoying themselves with Wilde’s use of language, and this in turn allows the audience to hear the familiar text afresh. Some of the more famous lines are played down – Lady Bracknell’s appalled exclamation of “a handbag?!” is delivered by Ece Özdemiroğlu as little more than an incredulous and even mildly amused murmur – while others are elevated to new significance through deliberate mispronunciation and subsequent gentle correction by the rest of the cast.

Though it at times veers towards trying to do too much, this unique new take on The Importance of Being Earnest certainly hits the mark in terms of both entertainment and intrigue. It’s also a very polished and precise production, where every aspect has clearly been given careful consideration – which in turn leaves the audience with plenty to think about on the ride home and beyond.

The Importance of Being Earnest – played by immigrants is at Tower Theatre until 18th January.

Review: The Invisible Man at Brockley Jack Studio

At first glance, the Brockley Jack’s choice for their final show of the year doesn’t seem particularly festive. But while it may not be a Christmas story – nor, in its original form, a particularly cheery one – The Invisible Man proves to be another winner for the theatre’s in-house creative team, and easily as entertaining as the best panto in town.

Photo credit: Davor@The Ocular Creative

Based on the H.G. Wells novel and adapted for the stage by Derek Webb, The Invisible Man finds us in the small English village of Iping, where a stranger wrapped in bandages (Shaun Chambers) has just taken a room at the pub. Bad-tempered and mysterious, he’s quickly viewed with suspicion by the locals, among them his landlady Mrs Hall (Matthew Parker) and the village doctor, Cuss (Scott Oswald). When his secret is revealed, the Invisible Man – a scientist unable to reverse his own discovery – embarks on a reign of terror against anyone who stands in his way.

In Webb’s adaptation, fifteen characters are played by three actors – with all the ensuing chaos that ratio implies. And yet it’s perfectly managed chaos in the hands of director Kate Bannister, costume designer Martin Robinson, and of course the multi-talented cast, each of whom juggles their various roles with great enthusiasm, and without missing a beat. Wisely, both script and production openly acknowledge the multi-roling aspect, and play it for maximum laughs, delighting the audience with tongue-in-cheek observations like the fact that the three policemen (all played by Chambers) all look alike, or that Dr Cuss must always carry a medical bag to avoid confusion.

As you might expect from a show in which the main character is invisible, the production also pulls off some impressive magic tricks. Karl Swinyard’s set is deceptive in its simplicity; there are several hidden secrets waiting to be discovered as the story unfolds. Wine glasses hang in mid-air, signposts turn all by themselves, and the actors – Scott Oswald, in particular – hold entire conversations, including physical interactions, with thin air. (And they do it so successfully that it’s almost possible to believe there really is an invisible man up on stage with them.)

Photo credit: Davor@The Ocular Creative

For all the comedy, however, the show does follow Wells’ original plot pretty closely, so inevitably there are some serious moments. The Invisible Man is the target of suspicion in Iping because he’s different and doesn’t fit any of the traditional village stereotypes, and it’s ultimately this isolation that pushes him on to a dark path. There’s a political element too; he speaks more than once about the dangers of capitalism, claiming he wants to steal from the bankers and redistribute their wealth – a particularly topical reference given recent events.

We’ve come to expect great things from the Brockley Jack team, and once again this production does not disappoint. Already a compelling story, this adaptation keeps us entertained and enthralled with its slapstick humour and just the right amount of playful audience engagement, but never detracts from the story’s more solemn themes. A thoroughly enjoyable alternative to the more traditional Christmas fare – get your hands on a ticket if you can.

The Invisible Man is at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 4th January.