Review: Macbeth the Musical at White Bear Theatre

If you’ve ever watched a production of Macbeth and thought the protagonist seemed like a bit of a muppet, then Stage Splinters’ irreverent new adaptation of the famous tragedy is the show for you. Leaving Shakespeare’s verse well and truly at the door, this musical adaptation performed by puppets playfully pokes fun at both the play and its characters, with the murderous monarch taking the brunt of the humour.

Photo credit: Kevin Kamara

Following an unsettling encounter with three flirtatious witches called Agnes, Breanna and Madison, Macbeth heads home to his wife, who promptly bullies her spineless spouse into murdering the nice old king. Several fumbling attempts later, Duncan’s finally dispatched, and the Macbeths turn their attention to the loyal Banquo and an unexpectedly repellent Macduff – which would all be fine if their intended victims didn’t keep escaping. Elliot Moore and Eloise Jones make a hilarious double act as the enthusiastic but incompetent killers, with performances so expressive and engaging that it’s easy to find yourself watching them rather than the (albeit expertly handled) puppets.

The discarding of the majority of Shakespeare’s original text allows writers Chuma Emembolu and Ruth Nicolas to tell the well-known story from a fresh perspective. John, Rose and Conleth are servants in Macbeth’s household, who witness, discuss and occasionally participate in their bosses’ bloody goings on. At the same time, they put the Macbeths’ problems well and truly into perspective by sharing their own harrowing life stories: John has a bit of a drinking problem and only narrowly escapes having Duncan’s murder pinned on him as a result; Rose was sold into servitude by her father; and Conleth is a former soldier with a traumatic past.

Photo credit: Kevin Kamara

The result of all this is a curious mix: a laugh out loud comedy (the Duncan murder scene is particularly fun, as is Macbeth’s death) punctuated by some really dark moments, which are not only not at all funny but also have a tendency to happen very suddenly, and then be over with just as quickly, leaving the audience feeling slightly off balance. Both Bryony Reynolds (Rose) and Red Picasso (Conleth) give excellent performances in unexpectedly complex roles, and it’s frustrating that having worked hard to establish them as major characters, the show doesn’t then tell us how their stories end.

Having said that, Macbeth the Musical is still a very funny, very silly evening of tongue-in-cheek comedy, which you don’t have to be a Shakespeare scholar to appreciate (though if you are one, you’ll undoubtedly enjoy the countless in-jokes levelled at the source text and its gaping plot holes). The cast are impeccable, the songs are witty and enjoyable, and the puppets are great. Who knew murder could be this much fun?

Macbeth the Musical is at the White Bear Theatre until 7th September.

Review: Macbeth at Temple Church

Having established a solid reputation for their atmospheric and stylish Shakespeare adaptations, it was perhaps only a matter of time before Antic Disposition turned their attention to Macbeth. Returning to London’s majestic Temple Church, Ben Horslen and John Risebero’s meticulously detailed production sets the action in the Victorian period, delving into the gender and class politics that lie behind this well-known tale of murderous ambition.

Photo credit: Scott Rylander

The first and most obvious twist in this tale is the repositioning of the three witches as servants within the royal household. This works incredibly well; safe in the knowledge that they’re as good as invisible to their superiors, the three women are able to become much more active players, observing and enabling the bloody chain of events they’ve unleashed while constantly hidden in plain sight. Robyn Holdaway, Bryony Tebbutt and Louise Templeton are a wonderfully sinister presence, gliding unseen on to the stage and responding with silent, malevolent satisfaction as each new blow in the struggle for power finds its mark.

At the head of a strong cast is Harry Anton’s intriguingly conflicted Macbeth. A commanding physical presence on stage, he’s also a thinker who never acts without first considering all implications, pronouncing each line of his soliloquies with great deliberation and control. This frequently – and understandably – irritates his wife, who’s much more capable of seizing the moment and turning it to her advantage. As with the witches, Helen Millar’s performance is beautifully detailed, her eyes and body language frequently communicating what she can’t say aloud. The dynamic between the two shifts back and forth – when they’re alone he’s submissive to her will, but in public she must step back and play the charming hostess, and her frustration at having to rely on her husband to get the job done is palpable.

The rest of the cast offer strong support, with Andrew Hislop particularly impressive as a vengeful and grief-stricken Macduff, and Chris Courtenay an authoritative yet sympathetic Duncan. I also really enjoyed the touch of comedy brought to the role of Ross by Robert Bradley; his attempts at awkward small talk just before the discovery of Duncan’s body are all too relatable.

Photo credit: Scott Rylander

The production makes excellent use of the venue – though I imagine an evening performance would do so even more effectively than the matinee I attended. The action is presented on a traverse stage, with the audience frequently invited in as guests at the Macbeths’ feast or soldiers in the final battle. Admittedly there are a few issues with acoustics, particularly when actors are facing away – but that’s an occupational hazard in a building like this one and while a few lines of dialogue may be lost, ultimately it doesn’t detract from the atmosphere or impact of the performance. This is further heightened by James Burrows’ music, which subtly signposts the key dramatic moments without distracting from them.

Antic Disposition have set the bar pretty high with their previous work, but Macbeth certainly doesn’t disappoint – if anything, it begs a second visit to catch all the little details we may have missed first time around. A visually striking and deliciously creepy production with impressive performances across the board, this adaptation may make you look at Macbeth with fresh eyes. Failing that, it might just give you a nightmare or two – but it’s worth it.

Macbeth is at Temple Church until 7th September.

Review: The Jailer’s Daughter at The Space

You could be forgiven for not realising that The Jailer’s Daughter is based on a Shakespeare creation (or rather co-creation, in collaboration with John Fletcher), which was itself based on Chaucer. It’s not just that the title’s different, or that The Two Noble Kinsmen is less well-known than many of Shakespeare’s other works. No, the main reason you wouldn’t immediately make the connection is that this reality TV-inspired play is about as far from the early 17th century as you can get.

Photo credit: Holly Matthams

In the original, the jailer’s daughter is a lovesick teenager victimised by every male figure in her life and ultimately driven mad by her unrequited desire for an indifferent prince. Not so in Esther Joy Mackay’s reimagined version, where Julia (Grace Hussey-Burd) is one of the few characters who’s actually seeing clearly. Unfortunately her father – The Jailer (Josh Sissons), a Big Brother-esque reality TV boss – has other ideas, especially after she causes a scene in the production room by protesting his show’s moral and ethical shortcomings. Before she knows it, Julia’s in the “lockup” herself, alongside various D-list celebrities, all of them serving time on the show as punishment for crimes committed on the outside. And then there’s Palamon (Rory Gradon), the jewel in the Jailer’s crown – quite literally as it turns out, because he happens to be an actual real-life prince. Naturally, the nation wants a love story… and one way or another, the Jailer is going to make sure they get it.

In a clever twist, Mackay gives the audience a degree of control over how the story unfolds, by setting up a series of votes throughout the show. These are conducted via voting pads handed out at the start of the evening, which add a fun, unpredictable element to the story – even though the questions posed, with one possible exception, never feel like real game-changers. Given the nature of some of the challenges and punishments we’ve seen and heard being handed out (electric shocks, solitary confinement, being made to eat raw chicken or drink all the booze in the house), I was expecting to be faced with tougher choices and to feel more complicit in the characters’ fates. But perhaps that’s just me – and the fact is the reality TV angle does work very well; anyone who’s ever enjoyed, however guiltily, watching Big Brother, Love Island or I’m a Celebrity will spot plenty of references to geek out over.

Under Sarah Fox’s polished direction, the cast slip effortlessly between playing captors and captives (though there are a few moments during the chaotic group scenes when the traverse staging makes it difficult to catch all of the dialogue). It’s no surprise that the two lead male roles, Palamon – the one who’s actually lovesick – and William (Saem Ahmed) the show’s in-house doctor, have been written as blandly boring nice guys, in contrast to Julia’s fiery determination to bring her dad’s entire project crashing to the ground, come what may. Grace Hussey-Burd is a force of nature as the newly reclaimed jailer’s daughter, making it clear from the start that she has a mind of her own and she’s not afraid to use it. And it’s a pity we don’t get to see more of Rachel Wilkes’ brusquely sympathetic Cleo, a former athlete with her own reasons for objecting to the show’s policy of forcing contestants into couples.

Photo credit: Holly Matthams

The Jailer’s Daughter is based on a great idea, and certainly succeeds in its aim of bringing the nameless teenager of Shakespeare and Fletcher’s play into the light and giving her her own story and identity. From a technological point of view, too, the production is brilliantly executed – lighting, sound and the masterstroke of the voting pads all combine to create a true multimedia experience for the audience. For me, the delivery of the final climactic scene lacked a little bit of drama, but the plot twist is really well written and does genuinely catch you off guard (though who knows, it could be totally different next time). A topical and entertaining take on a 400-year-old play, this is a production that both reality TV fans and cynics alike will enjoy – and then probably debate fiercely all the way home.

The Jailer’s Daughter is at The Space until 24th August.

Quick Q&A: Pericles, Prince of Tyre

Where and when: Upstairs at the Gatehouse, Highgate – August 28th-31st

What it’s all about… Pericles is a Shakespearean epic —an exciting and exotic adventure of mystery, marvels, and mayhem— now brought to life in a bold new production by Idle Discourse.

Having discovered a dark secret in the court of Antiochus, Pericles is forced to wander a world filled with captivating characters. It’s an odyssey of life and death, morality and depravity, civility and barbarity, and, most of all, of the everlasting endurance of love.

You’ll like it if… If you love your Shakespeare brought to you with irreverence, humour, and maybe just a little bit of silliness, then you’ll love this production! Idle Discourse brings Shakespeare’s storytelling to the fore -presenting his grandest epic adventure in an energetic, accessible interpretation that is suitable for all. Audiences of our previous production of The Comedy of Errors called our production “Brilliantly bonkers!” and “Super-fast and super funny!”

You should see it because… this show will allow you to go on a journey around the ancient Mediterranean alongside Pericles, to discover the magical, mysterious lands of Tarsus, Ephesus, Antioch, and Pentapolis… all from the comfort of your theatre seat!

Anything else we should know… after our run Upstairs at the Gatehouse late in August, this production will transfer to the Baroque castle theatre at Valtice, in the Czech Republic. In 2018, Idle Discourse became the first English company in over 200 years to perform at the venue, and we’re delighted to have been invited back this year!

Where to follow:
Facebook: @idlediscoursetheatre
Twitter: @idle_discourse
Instagram: @idlediscourse

Book here: www.upstairsatthegatehouse.com/pericles

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Review: 10 Things I Hate About Taming of the Shrew at Greenwich Theatre

It is a truth universally acknowledged (if you’ll pardon the mixing of literary references) that Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is, at best, problematic. It’s the story of a man torturing his wife into submission, after all, and to be honest there’s not really any easy way to sidestep that fairly significant plot point without completely rewriting the play.

While most of us would probably be willing to admit that Taming of the Shrew is far from Shakespeare’s best, Canadian actor, writer and comedian Gillian English has gone a step further and made a list of everything that’s wrong with it. And I give you fair warning: that list will take down not only Taming of the Shrew but also beloved teen romcom 10 Things I Hate About You (in spite of the manifold and much-missed charms of Heath Ledger, which are acknowledged more than once). Also A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shakespeare in general. Friends. Big boobs. Justin Trudeau. In fact there are very few people, places or things that make it out of this very funny but also very angry show unscathed.

And that’s because while Taming of the Shrew may be the starting point, it actually opens the door to a much wider conversation – about our obsession with reviving Shakespeare plays, even the bad ones, just because of who wrote them. About the damaging impact of romanticising misogyny and turning it into a Hollywood teen movie or a banging rock anthem. About the dangers of pitting women against each other, or telling little girls that boys are only mean to them because they like them. In a show peppered with hilarious personal anecdotes, self-defence classes and a demonstration of the opening number from Get Over It – which I’ve never seen but now desperately want to – it turns out there’s also a lot of serious stuff for both women and men in the audience to unpack and peruse at our leisure.

As a performer, Gillian English quite literally roars on to the stage, making no secret of her anger not just that Taming of the Shrew exists, but that everything bad within this 500-year-old play still needs to be discussed in 2019. She’s loud, in your face, and not afraid to be a bit confrontational, and yet there’s something about her enthusiasm and frank acknowledgment of her own failings that makes her irresistibly likeable (at least I thought so – I can’t speak for how the men in the audience felt about being taught the best way to rip off a penis). Add to that the fact that what she’s saying – even, or perhaps especially, the shoutiest bits – makes a huge amount of sense, and you’ve got the recipe for a show that’s a lot of fun to watch in the moment, but that also stimulates an ongoing discussion and a desire for change going forward.

Not everyone will love it; die-hard Shakespeare fans will no doubt take offence at the way their idol’s work is dismissed, and ironically the kind of men – and women – who most need to hear the show’s messages will probably steer well clear. But for those willing to open their minds, and who are okay with witnessing one of their favourite teen movies being ripped brutally to shreds, this is definitely one to see if it passes through a town near you.

10 Things I Hate about Taming of the Shrew is touring the UK, including heading to Edinburgh – for full dates, and details of Gillian English’s other shows, visit gillianenglish.com.