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.

Review: Othello: Remixed at Omnibus Theatre

Updated and relocated to a London boxing club in 2019, Intermission Theatre Company’s reimagined Othello is an accessible and creative take on a Shakespearean classic. Othello (Kwame Reed) is the club’s star boxer, and when he chooses Michael Cassio (Micah Loubon) as his cornerman for the upcoming championship fight, a bitter Iago (Baba Oyejide) hatches a plan to bring him down. Taking emotional and financial advantage of Rico (Iain Gordon), who fancies Othello’s girlfriend Desdemona (Hoda Bentaher), Iago convinces Othello that she’s cheated on him with Cassio, and in doing so unleashes a violent chain of events that will ultimately end in tragedy.

Photo credit: Richard Jinman

Using the plot and key themes of Shakespeare’s original as a starting point, director Darren Raymond breathes new life into this story of jealousy, insecurity and deception. The dialogue interweaves Shakespearean verse with street slang, and also skilfully incorporates mobile phone use and a contemporary soundtrack, all of which makes the plot easier to follow and more relatable to a modern London audience (Othello and Desdemona being spotted together in Nando’s is a particularly nice touch). The action moves much faster than in the original, too, shaving a good hour off the traditional running time to come in at just two hours including interval, without losing any of the essential plot details.

Also interesting is the addition of a new character, the Referee, who acts as a physical embodiment of the jealousy that provokes both Iago and Othello into their actions. Played with sinuous malice by Danielle Adegoke, the Referee takes away a little of the responsibility from each man – while both are undeniably guilty, the audience is invited to question what led them to commit these crimes, instead of condemning them both out of hand as bad people. The play’s conclusion is also less bloody than the original, the violence less ruthless, and there’s an unexpected twist at the end that has the potential to write a very different story. (Sequel, anyone?)

The cast is made up of graduates from the Intermission Youth Theatre, which was set up to give opportunities to vulnerable young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. By setting the action in a boxing club which was established with the same goal in mind, Raymond paves the way for performances that feel grounded in reality. This is particularly true for Kwame Reed as Othello; throughout Act 1 he comes across as a decent guy who’s trying to leave behind a troubled past by channelling his aggression into something productive, whereas in Act 2 we see how easily and terrifyingly that pent-up violence can be misdirected. Baba Oyejide is also strong as Iago, confidently manipulating everyone around him – including the audience, who laugh along on more than one occasion – with a subtle mix of humour, veiled threat, and an occasional nod to the by now well-known concept of “fake news”.

Photo credit: Richard Jinman

It’s testament to the quality of the production that even if you know how the story ends, the final scene – in which the full impact of Iago’s scheming is realised by everyone – is still incredibly powerful and more than a little tense. For those who don’t know the story, meanwhile, or for those who’ve never had the opportunity or inclination to see Shakespeare done the “traditional way”, Othello: Remixed is an ideal introduction. In touching on topical issues like knife and gun crime, drugs, discrimination, misogyny and the disaffection of young people in the UK today, the production demonstrates how Shakespeare’s work speaks for, and should therefore be available to, everyone. It’s fresh, fun and action-packed with an explosive finale, and I can’t imagine Shakespeare would want it any other way.

Review: Twelfth Night at the Rose Playhouse

OVO’s reimagining of Twelfth Night begins like any other: at sea, with the devastating shipwreck that separates twins Viola (Lucy Crick) and Sebastian (Joshua Newman). But unlike most, this version never reaches land, as vaudeville performer Viola is saved from the waves and brought on board the cruise ship SS Illyria at the height of the roaring 20s. In this adaptation, Orsino (Will Forester) is the captain, Olivia (Emma Watson) is a fabulously famous actress, and Lady Toby Belch (Anna Franklin) is a washed up music hall star (I’m not being mean; that’s what it says in the programme).

Twelfth Night at the Rose Playhouse
Photo credit: Lou Morris Photography

It’s a clever premise, and one that works particularly well at the Rose Playhouse, where it takes very little imagination to transform the small wooden stage area into a ship’s deck. By setting the action at sea, director Adam Nichols brings to the production an atmosphere of stifling luxury; at the end of the day, this is basically a story of bored rich people amusing themselves with drink, song and fairly meaningless romantic dalliances. It’s still a comedy with plenty of laugh out loud moments, but this version places more emphasis on the spiteful bullying of Olivia’s uptight PA Malvolia (Faith Turner) and nice but dim “upper class twit” Sir Andrew Aguecheek (James Douglas). It feels appropriate, then, that these two characters should get to have the final word – though it’s equally disheartening that most of the others, having had a good laugh about it all, don’t bother to stick around to hear it.

Equally interesting is the gender switching, inspired by the changes that took place around gender and sexuality in the 1920s. Two pivotal characters – Malvolia and Lady Toby – are now women, which mixes things up not only in terms of the potential romantic pairings but also the gender politics. Orsino might be the ship’s captain in name, but in reality the male characters are reduced to little more than onlookers who things happen to; it’s the women who drive the action forward, and though some of their actions are despicable, that new perspective feels refreshing and rather enjoyable.

The 20s setting is punctuated by jazz versions of more recent hits from the likes of Britney, Rihanna and Katy Perry, which should probably feel jarring but actually works surprisingly well. That said, there are a lot of songs squeezed into quite a short play (90 minutes), not all of which contribute much to the plot – although there are undeniably some great performances, particularly from Hannah Francis-Baker’s Feste, who in this version is not a Fool but the ship’s Master of Ceremonies. In addition to singing, the cast also provide their own music, with the piano in particular a vital and extremely adaptable part of the set that’s played (and/or climbed on) by most members of the cast at some point.

Twelfth Night at the Rose Playhouse
Photo credit: Lou Morris Photography

One small but bothersome plot niggle aside – where was Sebastian for the last three months, and how come nobody ever ran into him? – this is an inventive and well-executed reimagining of a well-known comedy. There are laughs aplenty, but where the play really shows its strength is in its drawing out of the nastier aspects of human nature, which are so often brushed aside or treated as just a bit of fun. This brings a fresh perspective to a story many of us will have seen several times before, and that in itself is quite an achievement.

Review: Macbeth at Jacksons Lane

There’s a lot to like about Proteus Theatre’s original take on Macbeth, especially if you’re a fan of all things 80s. The action of Shakespeare’s tragedy has been transplanted to the cut-throat financial markets of London in 1987, inspired by the crash of Black Monday. Director Mary Swan’s vision is one that fits well with the story of Macbeth, in which power is everything and rivals will stop at nothing to come out on top – but despite some solid performances and strong design decisions, the production as a whole never quite takes off.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith

Unfortunately, this is largely due to an unconvincing portrayal of Macbeth by Riz Meedin. Though he does a decent enough job as the hen-pecked husband who’s browbeaten into regicide by his scheming, ambitious wife (Alexandra Afryea), the character never really develops beyond that. Even later in the play, his Macbeth still feels hesitant and not at all like the murderous tyrant hellbent on slaughtering men, women and children alike to secure his position. If anything, Danny Charles’ slightly sleazy Duncan and Jessica Andrade’s manipulative Malcolm come across as more threatening.

While both Charles and Andrade prove themselves adept at playing multiple parts (including a couple of very entertaining cameos), the play’s strongest performances come from Alexandra Afryea as Lady Macbeth – already at the brink of insanity when the play begins as a result of both her ambition and her grief for a lost child – and Umar Butt, in two very different guises as Banquo and Ross; his appearance as the ghost Banquo is one of the play’s most striking (and gruesome) scenes.

The 80s setting is cleverly worked in; each scene change is heralded by another classic hit, and the characters’ power suits and corded phones leave us with no doubt what decade we’re in. Instead of a crown, the current “king” is portrayed as a sort of mafia don figure with their coat draped across their shoulders, Macbeth snorts cocaine before murdering Duncan, and Banquo and Fleance head out for their fateful ride wearing motorcycle helmets. Katharine Heath’s clever multifunctional set design finds the characters first battling it out on the stock exchange trading floor (with Duncan and Scott on the rise; a nice detail) but with a few simple rearrangements transforms into a lift, an office, a dinner table and a phone box, among others.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith

The concept does slightly lose its way in the final battle, because it’s not really clear who’s fighting who, or how or where. The confrontation between Macduff and Macbeth also feels a bit anticlimactic, although the framing of Macbeth’s killing as a hit rather than a death in combat is interesting and gives the play’s conclusion an original new angle. There’s certainly no lack of drama, either, with Peter Harrison’s excellent lighting design bringing an intensity to the stage even at times when it’s missing from the performance.

Shakespeare’s work is so frequently performed that it’s refreshing to see a version like this one, which makes you consider a story you know well in a completely different way. It’s also great to see Shakespeare performed by an entirely BAME cast, something we still don’t see enough of in London. Tapping into the greed and corruption of the business world is a clever move, so it’s a pity that the production itself – though imaginatively staged – doesn’t always reflect the necessary ruthlessness to quite carry it off.