Othello at the Abbey

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When working away from home and staying in a hotel for five nights, like this week, it’s good to get out of my hotel room. So on Tuesday I booked a ticket to see the latest production at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. The Abbey, which opened on 27 December 1904, styles itself the National Theatre of Ireland. It’s located in the Centre of Dublin on the north bank of the Liffey in Lower Abbey Street. Traffic during the evening is always busy in Dublin, especially along the Quays. But roadworks due to the building of the new extension to the Luas tramline required a diversion in congested traffic to reach the Irish Life car park I intended to use. So the journey was more unpleasant than usual.

It’s 400 years since the death of William Shakespeare, and in celebration the Abbey’s latest production is one of his well known plays, Othello. Although I knew the general gist of the plot, it wasn’t a play I was particularly familiar with, so it was going into it with a relatively open mind. However, being a Tragedy there was a good bet that the main characters were going to end up dead.

As during previous visits to the Abbey, I enjoyed the evening. It was a modern dress production with the characters speaking in a variety of Irish twangs. Except for Othello, that is, who spoke in a distinctive West African accent. There were some strong performances, particularly Marty Rea as a sly Iago. He spoke in a Northern Irish accent and looked rather like a young Gerry Adams.

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I also enjoyed the performances by Karen Ardiff as Armelia and Gavin Fullam as Roderigo. Peter Macon was a powerful Othello, if a little bombastic, and Rebecca O’Mara was an attractive Desdemona.

Othello is brought down by the “green eyed monster”, his jealousy, engineered by Iago who was motivated, no doubt, by racism. I wasn’t entirely convinced by how easily he was able to manipulate Othello and induce his jealousy. I guess that’s a weakness of the plot, partly due to the inevitable time limitations, but I’m not sure that the production got this completely right.

Despite this reservation it was an enjoyable evening, and a much easier drive back to the Naas.

Husbands and Sons at the Royal Exchange

They say it’s grim up north, but it’s miserable in the East Midlands, at least that’s the picture D H Lawrence paints in the three plays that were performed simultaneously in the latest production by the Royal Exchange in Manchester.
Lawrence is best known for his novels such as Sons and Lovers and Lady Chatterley’s Lover set in the Nottinghamshire coalfields where he grew up. But he was also a playwright. The Royal Exchange have taken three of his plays, A Collier’s Friday Night, The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd and The Daughter-in-Law, and combined them into a single production. All three are domestic dramas set in the homes of mining families, in communities similar to that in which Lawrence grew up.

The Royal Exchange is a “theatre in the round” where the audience is close to the action. For this production the set took us inside the homes of the three families with plans for their houses marked out on the floor. The three plays were, in effect played simultaneously with the action interwoven, flitting from one home to the other in turn. However, when the action was taking place in one household, the actors in the other parts of the set weren’t still. Movement and domestic actions continued in the background. Personally I found this somewhat distracting. And although the set was meant to portray neighbouring houses in a mining village, there was little attempt at interaction between the three families. The production still largely came across as three seperate plays stitched togethor somewhat unconvincingly. One of the defining characteristics of mining villages was their sense of community and this was missing here.

As usual with the Royal Exchange the acting was extremely good. Anne-Marie Duff, well known from TV, is featured in the advertisments for the production and plays the female lead in The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd gave a strong performance. Martin Marquez, as her husband, was a convincing drunkard. However, I was particularly impressed with Julia Ford who played the wife of a miner in A Collier’s Friday Night, who favoured her son over her daughter and husband. The son, like Lawrence, was a college boy and the play echoes the theme of Sons and Lovers. One quibble. I know quite a few people from the East Midlands and I have to say that the majority of the actors’ attempts at a Nottinghamshire / Derbyshire accent were far off the mark.

I’ve never been able to finish a D H Lawrence novel. I’ve tried, but I dislike his writing style and his themes. And these plays were not unlike his novels. Men are men and are hard, cruel and unsympathetic. His women are strong but badly treated by their men folk. Life is hard with little to smile about. Everyone is miserable. Lawrence’s work is about individuals who are doomed to a life of gloom and misery. There is no sense of the strong community and fellowship that was characteristic of mining areas. Little to suggest the determination to fight back. There is talk of a strike in The Daughter-in-Law, but the main emphasis is the domestic strife between the wife, her husband and her mother in law. No sign of the good things of life. It can’t be denied that life was hard in mining communities in the early 20th Century. However, there were little rays of sunshine that could bring joy and some happiness to the lives of the miners and their families. But not according to D H Lawrence.


So something of a “curate’s egg”. Largely unsympathetic characters and, for me, an unrealistic portrayal of traditional mining communities. But strong performances by an excellent cast.



Lady of the Lake

The Theatre by the Lake in Keswick “does exactly what it says on the tin” – it’s a repertory theatre situated close to the northern lake shore of Derwent Water.  It opened in 1999 with funding from an Arts Council Lottery Fund Grant. It has a main auditorium and a Studio theatre. From May to November every year a resident company of up to 14 actors perform a Summer Season of six plays in repertory.

(Picture source; Visit Cumbria website)

We’ve thought about going to see a play there while we’ve been on holiday in the Lake District, but, for various reasons, haven’t been able to to. But during our recent break in Keswick we got tickets to see their production of The Lady of the Lake by a young playwright, Benjamin Askew, in the Studio Theatre.

Studio performances in theatres are usually devoted to new and/or experimental works. And this was the premiere of the first play by, Benjamin Askew who is originally from the Ribble Valley in Lancashire and who spent childhood holidays in the Lake District.

The playwright builds on the Cumbrian take on the legend of King Arthur. There are claims that Penrith is the location of the Round Table and that  his sword, Excaliber, was found in and returned to  Lake Bassenthwaithe. Some have even suggested that Carlisle was the location of Camelot.

The play locates Avalon, a pagan realm, in Cumbria, ruled over by the Lady of the Lake. Arthur and his men, faced with a Saxon invasion, have retreated to Carlisle. This is the seeing for a tale involving a conflict between pagans and Christianity, pagan ritual, incest and ambition and a struggle for power.

(Picture source: Theatre by the Lake website)

There was a cast of seven, relatively large for a Studio production. I thought the two young female performers, Charlotte Mulliner (Nimue) and Emily Tucker (Morgan), were very good, and there was a strong performance by Ben Ingles as the psychopathic warrior Owain.

The “Game of Thrones” and other series set in a mythical or semi-mythical Dark Ages have become very popular on TV and this play rather reminded me of them. I also saw some similarities with the Simon Armitage versions of the Illiad and the Odyssey which we’ve seen in recent years at the Royal Exchange and Liverpool Everyman.

The play was, perhaps, overlong and a little over the top, especially during the second half. The plot got a little over-complicated too, at times. So Benjamin Askew still needs to work on his craft. But overall an enjoyable evening.

The Skriker

On Thursday we went to see The Skriker, the latest production by The Royal Exchange in Manchester, written by Caryl Churchill and starring Maxine Peake in the lead role. The first two weeks of its run were part of the Manchester International Festival. However we saw it during it’s final week, after the Festival.

It wasn’t a conventional play to say the least. A cross between drama, dance, music and an art installation. Very surreal. The Manchester Festival is meant to be about presenting “edgy” and experimental works and this certainly fit the bill.

We had seats on the stage level, but there was no conventional seating. We weren’t sure what to expect. We were guided into the auditorium where there were long trestle type tables set out. We found seats and waited for the performance to begin. It all went dark and then suddenly we were surrounded by performers with actors walking on the tables. We were literally in the middle of it all with performers all around us and walking inches away from us on the tables where we were sat. During one scene when we were surrounded by a choir of zombies and with demons dancing all around the auditorium it felt like we were a part of Michael Jackson’s Thriller video.

The Skriker was some sort of “fairy” (in the original, sinister sense) or “shapeshifter” who tormented two young women. The dialogue made little sense and much of the Shriker’s speeches were long, rambling, nonsensical rants, incorporating and twisting common everyday sayings.

Maxine Peake was magnificent in a very demanding role. It was some feat memorising long speeches of nonsense. She came across as menacing, threatening, cunning and vulnerable, as the Skriker changed its form and character. The two other actresses playing principal parts, Laura Elsworthy as Josie and Juma Sharka as Lily, were also good. The rest of the cast were an ensemble dancing, singing, performing strange acrobatics as strange spirits and demons.

Was the Skriker real or was it a figment of Josie’s fevered imagination? She appeared to be in a mental institution at the beginning of the play, probably as a result of killing her baby. Who knows? None of us had a clue what was going on but it was an amazing experience.

Romeo and Juliet at Blackwell

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While we were on holiday up in the Lake District, the London based Globe Theatre’s touring company were performing Romeo and Juliet in the garden at Blackwell on three consecutive evenings, organised in conjunction with the Bowness based Old Laundry Theatre . We decided we’d like to and see it as we weren’t staying too far away.

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As we’d left booking tickets to rather late the performances on the Monday and Tuesday were fully booked but we managed to get tickets for the Wednesday. This ended up working out quite well for us. The booking website was clear that the performance would go ahead in all but the most extreme weather conditions. So we made sure we had our waterproofs with us. Luckily, we didn’t need them. Although it had rained for the first two evening the Wednesday performance started in bright sunshine and it stayed dry. However, the temperature wasn’t so warm, especially as the sun began to go down, and we needed to wrap up well. The lamb stew and coffee we bought helped to keep us warm as well.  The setting, by the side of the house with views of Windermere, Grizedale forest and the Coniston Fells was familiar to us due to our regular visits to Blackwell, but magnificent none the less.

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The play was performed by a small company of only 8 actors most (in fact, all except the two leads) had to play multiple roles, differentiated by their costumes and clever use of regional accents. They performed on a “double decker” mobile stage, very useful for the famous balcony scene but also cleverly used throughout the play. Its design was based on those used by Elizabethan companies, when most plays were performed by travelling players.

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I’ve never seen Romeo and Juliet before – either on stage or the films made of it – and never read or studied the text. But the plot was familiar to me, so there were no major surprises. I thought the ending was a little weak. The warring clans were rather quick to make up after the deaths of the two lovers, but hey, who am I to criticise the Bard!

The company pulled the humour out of the play, more so than most productions (I was told!) and there was effective use of music too. The play started and finished with the actors playing instruments and singing and music and other sound effects were used to enhance the mood throughout the performance. The two main roles were played by young actors – Juliet was only meant to be 14 after all. I thought they did well. There were strong performances from Sarah Higgins as the nurse (with a broad Scottish accent) Matt Doherty as Tybalt, Paris and a Geordie servant, Tom Kanji as Benvolio and Friar Laurence and Stephen Elder as Juliet’s father.  The latter was particularly good in the scene where he insists that Juliet marries Paris, seamlessly going from the loving father to enraged dictator.

The performance finished as it was turning dark and we had a 30 minute journey back down the country roads to our cottage.

All in all an enjoyable evening.

The Globe Theatre

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On the second day of our brief trip to London we visited the reconstruction of the Globe Theatre on the South Bank, next door to the Tate Modern. They run regular tours  of the theatre for visitors and there’s a museum with displays about the history of Shakespeare’s Globe, the reconstruction and aspects of the running of the modern theatre.

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The reconstruction of the Globe was the idea of the American actor, Sam Wannamaker who moved to Britain after being blacklisted by the McCarthyite witch hunt in the the US during the early 1950s. We’d been to see his daughter Zoe acting in the play about Stevie Smith at te Hampstead Theatre the previous evening.

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The guided tour of the theatre is meant to last 30 minutes and took us into the galleries and pit area where the audience at performances sit and stand. However, we didn’t get to see any of the backstage areas or stand on the stage. The Globe’s website explains

The Globe is a faithful reconstruction of an Elizabethan theatre: in Shakespeare’s day productions did not have scenery or sets like in modern day theatres, so there was no need to have a backstage area for making props and scenery, and there were also no dressing rooms.

Our guide explained about how the theatre was recreated and talked about the audience experience both in Shakespeare’s time and today.

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The pit in front of the stage would have been occupied by the “groundlings”. Wikipedia tells us

A groundling was a person who frequented the Globe Theatre in the early 17th century and was too poor to pay to be able to sit on one of the three levels of the theatre. By paying one penny, they could stand in “the pit”, also called “the yard”, just below the stage to watch the play. Standing in the pit was uncomfortable, and people were usually packed in tightly. The groundlings were commoners who were also referred to as stinkards or penny-stinkers. The name ‘groundlings’ came about after Hamletreferenced them as such when the play was first performed around 1600.

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After the tour of the theatre itself we had a look around the museum.

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After the tour we both felt that we’d like to experience a performance (some friends of ours have been a few times and have enjoyed it) but I doubt that we’d cope with standing in the pit for three hours! So I guess we’ll pay the extra for a seat on the  (probably not that comfortable!) wooden benches in one of the galleries!

Stevie

Last week we had a short break in London. We travelled down on the Monday so  that we could see the play about the poet, Stevie Smith, starring Zoe Wannamaker at the Hampstead Theatre.

The delightfully eccentric bard of Palmers Green, Stevie Smith, commutes to the West End to her work as a secretary at a publishing company. Her evenings are spent at home with her beloved Aunt – a world of Battenberg cake, gossip, Ginger Nuts and sherry in tiny glasses. But at the same time as leading this seemingly mundane suburban existence, she is writing the piercing poetry and prose that will one day make her famous.

(Photo source: Wikipedia)

Stevie Smith was a writer and poet, best known for her poem Not waving but drowning. She was born in Hull but moved to Palmers Green in North London when she was 3. She led an unconventional life, living with her Aunt and working as a secretary in Covent Garden, writing in quiet moments at work! The play suggests that she was something of a feminist, rejecting marriage and the constraints that would put upon her. Best known for her poetry, she also wrote three novels, the first of which, Novel on Yellow Paper, is due to be re-released by Virago later this month.

On first reading her poems can seem slight,eccentric, even whimsical. But a more careful analysis reveals deeper meanings. According to a Times Literary Supplement critic

“Smith’s most distinctive achievement.” The critic elaborated: “The cliches, the excesses, the crabbed formalities of this speech are given weight by the chillingly amusing or disquieting elements; by the sense of a refined, ironic unhappiness underlying the poems; and by the variety of topics embraced by the poet’s three or four basic and serious themes.”

The play, by Hugh Whitemore, which incorporated extracts from Stevie’s work, was a three hander with Zoe in the lead role, Linda Baron as her aunt with Chris Larkin playing the male roles. All three were very good. The role of Stevie was demanding, dominating the dialogue and with lengthy monologues. A feat of memory for Zoe Wannamaker. 

There was an article by the writer Amy Jenkins in the Guardian Review on Saturday. She writes

Smith is much undervalued, in my opinion. She is one of those writers who is always ripe for rediscovery – is intermittently rediscovered and then never quite catches on because, although she is very funny, she is also tricky, to say the least.