Saturday, 22 December 2012

A second week in London theatre

Jacobean playwrights played well together. They were forever dividing up the playwriting labours. Shakespeare sometimes wrote with others, but for Thomas Middleton it was a happy habit. His best play, The Changeling (1622), was written with William Crowley, who probably wrote the beginning, the end, and the subplot. But it's Middleton's play.

This production of The Changeling at the Young Vic is instructive. It was a big success in the theatre's small space and here has similar success in the main space, its season already extended. It's good to see Rowley's subplot, so often cut, treated equally. In fact, considerable effort has gone into equalising the two layers of the story. All are bedlam. And there's a lot of wedding dessert that finds its way into bed, in a very Jacobean way. When the food fights begin, all are equal.

But the production instructs in a different away. This kind of production, with its febrile sense of play and its refusal to be bound to a fast concept, despite its contemporary dress, is quite common in Australia. I found it familiar. But here it's unusual. English productions of plays of this period tend to be straight-jacketed to a particular time and place. The Donmar Warehouse Julius Caesar, set in a contemporary women's prison, and now playing, is a good example. It could never break from that simple idea. It was interesting to read reviews of Benedict Andrews' production of Chekhov's Three Sisters in this same theatre just a few months ago. I've had a few conversations with colleagues over the last few days who saw it and thought it a good and relatively tame and quite friendly version of the play from Benedict, especially compared to his version for Sydney Theatre Company in 2001, which I saw and mostly admired. But the Young Vic version sent some of the English critics into apoplexy.

Why is it that?

Friday, 14 December 2012

A week in London Theatre

I’m in London for a few weeks and thought I’d share a few observations about what’s on in town.

I caught the all-male Twelfth Night, a transfer from the Globe now playing in the West End. It was performed in 'original conditions' - the production was created for the anniversary of the first recorded performance of the play in the Middle Temple Hall, and so it suited the comfort of the Apollo Theatre more than it might have. It stars Stephen Fry as Malvolio and the incomparable Mark Rylance, the oft-proclaimed greatest British actor of his generation, as Olivia. It plays in rep with Rylance's Richard III.

I've never 'got' Twelfth Night. I've never found it very funny or interesting. There was a period when it was fashionable to give 'brown' productions, glossing the play with a Chekhovian melancholy. It's never worked much for me, I'm afraid, though I am prone to gentle drifts into ennui and, like Orsino, am often best when least in company.

Every production I've ever done of Shakespeare has been informed in some way by my longtime research into Elizabethan and Jacobean performing practices. Hamlet, Julius Caesar and As You Like It at La Boite have all eaten at that table. The space suits: the Roundhouse and Globe are related. So the production had real interest.

This is one of the most lucid and assured productions of Shakespeare I've seen. It's not an ambitious production, in that it does not test any unusual conception, but it does strive for, and achieve, a quite uncommon and unrushed maturity.