Review: King Lear at dlr Mill Theatre, Dundrum

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King Lear, Mill Productions, dlr Mill Theatre, directed by Geoff O’Keeffe

This production opens with pulsating music, flashes of light, and three gyrating figures moving under the sway of some mesmeric force, so that for a few startling moments you might be at a production of Macbeth rather than King Lear. These are not the weird sisters, however, but Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia who face away from the audience towards a large structure upstage while human actors transformed into wolves snarl and weave around them. Suddenly the stage lights are reversed, dazzling the audience, and the actors’ faces turn to the back of the auditorium: the King is entering.

The large structure ­– half set and half stage property – resembles part of a huge crown with three spikes each jutting in a separate direction, the whole piece off-centre and its balance slightly off-kilter. In the centre is a throne, empty at first, then occupied by Lear, and later hovered over, circled, and sat on by various other characters. This is clearly a disturbed kingdom where powerful forces have gone askew, where there is splintering rather than unity, and where a sense of preternatural menace hums beneath the institutions of state, family, and marriage. It is quickly understood, then, that the sisters’ dance is not an expression of communion but of compulsion and disharmony.

Mill Productions is the production wing of dlr Mill Theatre and this production of King Lear is part of their “education outreach”. When I attended on opening night last Wednesday, about half the audience were a school group who seemed engaged in the performance throughout. The production does a good job of communicating the plot and character relationships clearly without condescending to the viewer at any point, and of showing how the visual and aural language of theatre generate the play’s meaning as it is lifted off the page. A number of characters are played by the same actor, as they would have been in Shakespeare’s time, but this doubling was never confusing.

It was also made use of artistically in the case of the choice to double the parts of Cordelia and the Fool, played by Clodagh Mooney Duggan. There has been speculation since the nineteenth century about whether the roles – which are never simultaneously on stage – might originally have been doubled. This production seemed to encourage us to consider in parallel how Cordelia and the Fool relate to Lear, challenging but loving him, and the first half ends with the Fool in tears and alone taking off his coxcomb hat to reveal more clearly that this was also Cordelia’s face. Such a choice does pose certain obstacles, however, and perhaps hampered the development of both characters.

I enjoyed the cool malice of Sharon McCoy’s multifaceted Goneril who managed to be both fragile and terrible. Philip Judge succeeded in presenting a Lear who was clearly deeply flawed at the same time as sympathetic. When he laid his head in the Fool’s lap and implored “O let me not be mad, not mad”, his desperation and vulnerability were heartrending. So too was his later admission to Cordelia that “to deal plainly / I fear I am not in my perfect mind”, where the gentle cautiousness of the delivery alongside the situation’s absurdity made it truly moving. It was these moments of pathos for humanity as the trappings of civility are eroded, even as we recognise human culpability, that stayed with me after I left the theatre.

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King Lear runs at dlr Mill Theatre until 28 October with nearly daily matinée performances at 10am and 1.30pm. Contact the Box Office for 10am and 1.30pm performances please – info@milltheatre.ie / 01-2969340. There will be evening performances at 7.30pm on Wednesday 25th October and Thursday 26th October.

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Review: Hamnet at the Peacock/Abbey – Dublin Theatre Festival

Hamnet, as the play’s programme informs us, is just one letter away from greatness. It’s a predicament that haunts the play’s central character, Hamnet Shakespeare, who is based on the real-life son of William Shakespeare. In the play, Hamnet is close to great things – his father, literary fame, knowledge, life, death – but is tragically trapped on their margins. In one hour and with just two actors, Hamnet plucks its titular hero from the side-lines and makes him the centre of attention to tell his story.

From his opening lines as the eleven-year old Hamnet, Ollie West arrests the audience’s attention and never lets go. As a ghost and in asking the audience “Who’s there?”, before telling us “I’m not allowed to talk to strangers”, Hamnet recalls the opening of Hamlet and indicates that fourth-wall breaking will be par for the course. The audience will be both spectators to and participants in Hamnet’s working through of some big and very personal questions – What makes a man great? Why do we suffer? Why do we make art? Why would you choose “not to be”? Are some people born bad? When they’ve never really lived, why do children die? Does his father prefer him or Hamlet? Why did they see so little of one another? It is remarkable that in spite of the gravity of these questions and of Hamnet’s situation, the play is packed with comedy. For instance, Hamnet’s youth is highlighted as he energetically knocks out a Johnny Cash tune on his keyboard, gives a new friend tips on how best to play dead (the key is to stay still and not breathe – wannabe actors take note!), and stuck for answers he pulls out his phone to ask Google. As the play’s authors have crafted a fine balance between tragedy and comedy, West has plenty to work with and he ably shifts between the tones and the media (stage and film) of this production – no small feat for any actor, never mind a pre-teen boy.

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Hamnet sees himself on the video – Image credit: DeadCentre.org

Exploring the performative and critical history of Hamlet, David Bevington observes that the play “has now evolved into a cultural expression of what we as a society have become today” (Murder Most Foul, 2011: vii). Like its more famous ancestor then, Hamnet tackles not only existential questions, it seeks in part to express and examine the state of contemporary society (“to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature” [Hamlet, 3.2]). Hamnet and his father Will are trotted out for our entertainment, but the play frequently forces the audience’s gaze back on itself. This is achieved both literally through the backdrop of a live video that shows the theatre and metaphorically as the play pokes at the suppurating wounds in modern life. Hamnet’s targets are near universal and many hit close to home; the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe, Donald Trump’s presidency, celebrity culture, the double-edge sword that is technology, and child-rearing practices (including the Work/Life balance which is an ideal but more often another source of guilt for the working parent), all fall within the bounds of the characters’ discussions.

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Hamnet faces the video screen – Image credit: DeadCentre.org

Throughout, Hamnet offers several opportunities to play “spot the reference”. Hamnet’s speeches are peppered with Shakespearean quotations and allusions and at other times the play lifts wholesale from the canon. Hamlet is the key source, but we also hear most of Constance’s “Grief fills the room up of my absent child” speech from King John; as Hamnet misses his sister there are echoes of the separated twins of Twelfth Night and Comedy of Errors; Falstaff and Hal’s play acting in Henry IV Part 1 springs to mind when Hamnet plays at being Hamlet meeting Old Hamlet; and there are touches of Act 5 of Antony and Cleopatra when Hamnet worries whether in the future some actor will play him on stage, but botch the job.

The play is more than a tapestry of Shakespearean references though, and even as it draws on Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, it is something fresh, original, and striking. In the days since I have seen Hamnet, I’ve thought about it again and again – it is a prismatic work, turning the play over in my mind I keep seeing new facets, questions, and ideas – and I’m only certain of one thing: I want to see it again.

Hamnet is a Dead Centre and Abbey Theatre co-production and is written by Ben Kidd and Bush Moukarzel, with William Shakespeare. Cast and production details here.

Hamnet runs as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival until 7th October – tickets here –  before touring to Europe and Asia. There will be a Post-Show Discussion on Thursday 5th October, with members of the company.

Review: Hamlet by Icarus Theatre Collective at Cork Opera House

Review: Hamlet by Icarus Theatre Collective at Cork Opera House – 6th Feb. 2017
Review by Edel Semple

Icarus Theatre Collective’s Hamlet, on tour in Ireland and the UK at present, packages itself as “Shakespeare for the Game of Thrones generation”. In its set, costumes, and action, the production often nods to the popular HBO series, using the now familiar imagery to enliven and illuminate this iconic tragedy. Every character carried a sword, Gertrude and Claudius donned furs like trophies of a recent hunting party, and the pair sat in thrones decorated with a spear design that illustrated the interests of the “warlike state”. Denmark’s brutish culture, and Hamlet’s alienation from it, was demonstrated early on as, for the court’s entertainment, a brawny Laertes dispatched an opponent in a bloody knife fight. Huge Danish flags formed the backdrop for the stage and the unfussy set, with its pillars and tiered marble steps, provided plenty of scope for the cast to traverse from the battlements to the court to the graveyard. The play script was similarly economical; the performance time was a neat 2 hours 15min and the cuts were effective. For instance, the Fortinbras subplot was omitted entirely, as in many modern stage productions and Olivier and Zeffirelli’s films, and the production was all the better for it.

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Laertes and his opponent, with Claudius and Gertrude in the background (Credit: Icarus Facebook)

 

The production had just a cast of nine but it seemed like much more as each actor played numerous roles and characters were rarely alone. On Elsinore’s battlements, for example, seven soldiers stood on guard to be met by Horatio. In their exchange, the soldiers responded like a chorus; they would answer Horatio’s question in unison, or one line would be shared by several speakers. In the opening scene, I found this an irritating distraction – it was, quite simply, clutter that got in the way of clear meaning and performance. Later in the play however, the chorus was used effectively and opened avenues for analysis. When Hamlet attacked Ophelia, the actor playing Gertrude said “get thee to a nunnery” before Hamlet repeated the line to Ophelia. This was perhaps a version of Gertrude in Hamlet’s mind, taking his side and advocating chastity and an all-female environment as women’s only route to safety.

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Ophelia recites Hamlet’s letter, now held by Guildenstern and Rosencrantz  (Credit: Icarus Facebook)

 

As Claudius prayed, the chorus sometimes spoke to and for him. When the soldiers informed Hamlet of the Ghost’s appearance, they stood around the stage; their voices acted like an eerie echo chamber and the effect was as disorienting as the supernatural encounter they described. This, however, brings me to a further criticism. Perhaps over-exposure to The Walking Dead and past Hamlets have influenced my expectations of the Ghost, but I feel short-changed when “Old Mole” in no way resembles a corpse (as in the Cumberbatch Hamlet) or a spectre (as in the Branagh and Tennant versions). As in other productions, Icarus’ Claudius doubled as Old Hamlet but when he appeared on stage, save for some smoke and the fear of the soldiers, there were no signs that Old Hamlet was in fact supposed to be a terror-inspiring spectre. Thus as Old Hamlet looked remarkably healthy for a dead man, his scenes were a little lacking.

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Hamlet (far left), with Horatio (seated), a soldier and the Ghost  (Credit: Icarus Facebook)

Overall though, this was a solid production with several flashes of brilliance. Besides the neat cuts to the script and clear vision in the set and costuming, there were striking moments made memorable thanks to the performances of the cast. The tag-team of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were one of the production’s gems. Cast as a woman and man respectively, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern added some much needed levity to the seriousness of the Danish court. The pair appeared youthful, engaging in slapstick like tripping on the stairs and stealing Hamlet’s letter from Polonius and Ophelia to mock the sentiment. Their betrayal of Hamlet was not an act of malice or cunning, but of immaturity; naively impressed by the king and queen, they held to a misguided allegiance to the monarchy rather than their old friend. In his rejection of the pair (“though you fret me you cannot play upon me”), Hamlet assumed all of his princely authority to banish them from his sight.

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Rosencrantz, Hamlet, and Guildenstern  (Credit: Icarus Facebook)

 

Although youthful, Hamlet was neither an effete intellectual nor a sulky teen. Unlike the erratic hyperactivity or inertia of other Danes, the performance by Icarus’ Hamlet was confident and measured. When Hamlet did display intense emotion then, the impact on the scene was palpable. In the closet scene, Hamlet was pitiful when the Ghost reprimanded him and plain distraught when Gertrude could “see nothing there”. During the Mousetrap, Hamlet jumped to his feet and squared up to Claudius, who visibly bristled with his hand on his sword; for a moment it looked as if vengeance would be had and an alternative ending was in store.

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Gertrude and Hamlet in the closet scene (Credit: Icarus Twitter)

 

In the finale, Gertrude deliberately drank the poisoned wine; she determinedly defied her husband, protected her son, and chose her own (fatal) path. Following soon after, Claudius’ death was an arresting affair that visually recalled the death of Fassbender’s Macbeth; impaled by Hamlet’s sword, the king died kneeling with his back to the audience, his head forever in a penitential bow. Horatio’s performance was also particularly affecting. Cross-gendered casting was typical in the production – intriguingly Ophelia played the Gravedigger, a doubling I’ve not seen before – and Camille Marmié was compelling as Horatio. Surrounded by the bodies of the royals, nobles, and the courtiers murdered by Laertes and Hamlet in their frenzy, Horatio sat forlornly atop a mound of corpses. With the omission of Fortinbras, Horatio’s description of the “carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts” became a soliloquy where, like Hamlet before her, she toyed with the idea of suicide. Her life hung in the balance and, as the sole survivor of the orgy of violence, the audience were invested in her fate. After a tense moment, Horatio finally cast the poisoned chalice aside and the scene cut to black. Such was the strength of both performances, I could envision the actors playing Horatio and Hamlet exchange roles as Faustus and Mephistophilis did in the RSC Doctor Faustus (2016).

All in all, Icarus Theatre Collective’s Hamlet is an invigorating and stylish production that captures the attention from the opening scene to Horatio’s last word.

Icarus Theatre Collective’s Hamlet concludes its tour of Ireland in the Siamsa Tíre Theatre, Tralee, Co. Kerry, on 13th-14th February 2017. More information on the touring schedule, cast etc. can be found on the Icarus Theatre Collective’s website here.

Report: Celebrating Shakespeare 400: Performing Pericles, Prince of Tyre in Cork

In mid-November 2015, the Irish Renaissance Seminar met in Marsh’s Library. The seminar theme “Time, Memory, and Commemoration” looked back back to the past but also looked expectantly to the future via an open discussion of plans for the Shakespeare quartercentenary. Many of the proposals which were aired at the meeting bore fruit and have been promoted and cataloged on this blog. My project “Celebrating Shakespeare 400: Performing Pericles, Prince of Tyre”, funded by the Irish Research Council New Foundations Scheme, was one of the final commemorative events in Irish universities in 2016.

The project’s primary aim was to make a unique contribution to the worldwide celebrations of Shakespeare 400. It sought too to inspire interest in Shakespeare’s lesser-known drama; to deepen our understanding of Shakespeare’s sources and his legacy; and to cultivate networks between scholars, theatre practitioners, and the general public. The project comprised a staged reading of Shakespeare’s critically-neglected late play Pericles, Prince of Tyre (c.1606) held in the Unitarian Church in Cork city, and a symposium and public lecture held in University College Cork.

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The Unitarian Church, Cork city

Although unfamiliar to a general audience, Pericles proved to be ideally suited to performance as a staged reading. Story-telling is central to its dramaturgy and, as its narrator Gower insists, the tale is designed to “glad your ear and please your eyes”. As hoped, the performance introduced a new audience to this little-known Shakespearean romance. Part of this new audience included the cast of community actors – students from UCC Drama and Theatre Studies and the local LittleShoes drama group – as Pericles was unfamiliar to them and indeed most had never performed Shakespeare before. After just two days of rehearsals we were delighted to take to the stage, with our director Sinead Dunphy, to perform for a packed house. The reading had in fact sold out quickly and we even had to secure extra chairs on the night – as the British Council’s Shakespeare 400 programme suggested, it seems that “Shakespeare Lives…in Cork”!

The reading attracted a diverse audience which included the general public, as well as UCC staff and students of all levels. Cork is a designated UNESCO Learning City and both during and after the project, it was evident that the performance inspired an enthusiastic response from the city’s lifelong learners. The production was filmed and is available online here. A scholarly review of the production can be found on Dr Peter Kirwan’s Bardathon blog.

In addition to the IRC New Foundations funding, the project was also supported by UCC’s CACSSS Graduate School, the UCC Information Services Strategic Fund, and UCC’s School of English. This group of supporters were invaluable when it came to organising the symposium/graduate masterclass which explored Pericles, its sources, and critical and performative history, as well as issues relevant to the plot. With papers that addressed a wide range of topics including Old English, Middle English, neo-Latin, Shakespearean drama, gender studies, and Shakespeare on film, the interdisciplinary symposium explored and enhanced our understanding of Shakespeare, his influences, and his place in the literary canon.

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Dr Peter Kirwan speaking at the “Celebrating Shakespeare 400: Performing Pericles” symposium in November 2016. 

The keynote public lecture, delivered by Dr Peter Kirwan (University of Nottingham), gave a rare insight into the herculean task of editing Pericles. The symposium concluded with a convivial roundtable on the performance of Pericles, involving the director, actors, and myself as project leader. Full details on the symposium’s schedule can be found here.

Report by Dr Edel Semple.

Review: Lear by John Scott / Irish Modern Dance Theatre

Review: Lear, choreographed by John Scott and starring Valda Setterfield, at the Samuel Beckett Theatre, Trinity College Dublin (22 October)

Guest post by Katherine Hennessey, Visiting Fellow, Moore Institute, NUI Galway

I’ve overdosed on Shakespeare recently, I confess. As a research fellow with the Global Shakespeare programme at the University of Warwick and Queen Mary University of London, during a period that spanned two commemorative years (the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth in 2014, and the quadricentenary of his death in 2016), I’ve binged. I’ve gorged. If plays, films, re-writings, adaptations, parodies, books, articles, blog postings, and the ‘Shakespeare vs. Dr. Seuss’ epic rap battle were grams of trans fat, then in early 2014 I was Cassius—and now I’m Falstaff. Or Nell.

It started innocently enough, with a production of Two Gents at the RSC in August 2014. For a few months afterwards I continued to function like a normal human being. But then things began to spiral out of control.

Sigh. It’s the age-old story: you watch a Romeo and Juliet or two, a Midsummer Night’s Dream, perhaps a Richard II. Gradually you come to learn that the Globe offers £5 groundling tickets… that the BBC archives Shakespeare films on Box of Broadcasts… that there’s a troupe out there doing a history play with an all-female cast, or a gender-reversed Taming of the Shrew, or that Ninagawa is producing Hamlet in Japanese at the Barbican. Before you know it you’ve seen seven Macbeths, six Othellos in four different languages, five different stagings—God help you—of Titus Andronicus. You just can’t help yourself. You see Shakespeare everywhere.

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You begin to cackle defiantly in the face of marathon productions. Spend an entire gloriously sunny Saturday cooped up in the Rose Theatre in Kingston binge-watching Trevor Nunn’s Wars of the Roses? Who wouldn’t?!? Six-plus hours of DruidShakespeare? Bring it, Garry Hynes. BRING. IT.

And then, every so often, you find yourself at a production that’s so balanced, so evocative, so crystalline in its clarity that it rises above the out-of-joint chaos, above the jumbled fragments of memory of the other Shakespeare performances that you’ve seen.

For me, the contemporary dance production of Lear by John Scott and Valda Setterfield, performed at Trinity College Dublin’s black box theatre, was the dramatic equivalent of a glass of ice-cold spring water on a sweltering summer day. (To see an interview with Scott and to see the dancers in action, click here.)

 

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Lear and daughters  (Credit: Patrick Moore)

Credit for this belongs in equal measure to the 82-year-old Setterfield’s grace, command, and fragility in the title role, to the hauntingly expressive ensemble work that Scott choreographed for her and her supporting cast, and—perhaps above all—to their radical re-invention of Shakespeare’s text and characters, and their jettisoning of almost all of his language in favor of their own, both verbal and kinetic. I’ve seen numerous productions of Lear over the past two years, but they’ve all been riffs on a core theme, to which this Lear provided an utterly refreshing contrast.

Setterfield plays the king as a male character, while his daughters are played by a trio of male dancers, Mufutau Yusuf, Ryan O’Neill, and Kevin Coquelard, as Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia respectively (the trio also play the Fool). Lear radically alters its source text, a fact which the set itself advertises from the outset, its back wall covered with sheets of white paper bearing fragments of Shakespeare’s lines: ‘kingdom,’ ‘a poor, bare, forked animal,’ ‘my wits begin to turn,’ ‘down from the waist they are centaurs’. Initial sequences of movement, in which the male dancers pace, then race, across the stage, repeating single but significant words from the text (like ‘Father’, ‘legacy’, ‘condition’, ‘scanted’) suggest a fierce sibling rivalry.

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(Credit: IMDT on Vimeo)

 

The first scene in which extended Shakespearean dialogue is spoken—beginning from Lear’s ‘Give me the map there,’ referring to what looks like a modern residential zoning plan hanging from the rear wall—continues only to Cordelia’s ‘So young, my lord, and true.’ At which point, Coquelard breaks character, or invents a new Cordelia, retorting in a mixture of English and his native French, ‘You want a translation? You are stupid. Silly, stupid Lear. I said already that I love you as is right fit. What more do you want from me?’ As the argument escalates, Coquelard speaks heatedly in franglais, expressing his intention to leave the situation (the argument with Lear? the production of Lear?) and return to his beloved France; he climbs up to a catwalk and storms out a side exit, singing an Edith Piaf tune and strutting in comic defiance.

The production provides abbreviated highlights from Shakespeare’s text, interspersed like the first with increasingly poignant dialogue in contemporary English. Perched on an armchair that doubles as a throne, Setterfield answers a series of telephone calls, of which we hear only her side of the conversation, in character as an elderly father pleading with his child to come visit. ‘It’s been so long since we’ve seen you. We all miss you. The dog misses you.’ The calls involve a series of increasingly urgent requests for help: the local pharmacist has mixed up the elderly mother’s prescriptions; the boiler has broken and water is pouring down the stairs, leaving the father unable to reach the mother’s medication.

These pleas are later cruelly mocked by Goneril and Regan, who grow increasingly resentful of the burden of responding to their elderly father’s requests. O’Neill at one point provides a litany of increasingly impatient conversations with his elderly parent: ‘Did you lose your glasses again? All the food in your refrigerator is past its expiration date. Are the stairs getting too much for you these days? Have you taken your medication? I’ve heard about a nice retirement home near here. You left the front door open again…’ And at one point his Regan and Yusuf’s Goneril dance menacing circles around a weeping, cowering Lear.

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(Credit: Patrick Moore)

 

Setterfield portrays a ruler whose frailty and advanced age are much more evident than his/her tendency, clearly delineated in Shakespeare’s text, to bully and domineer. This production finesses Lear’s obvious missteps and misjudgments by excising most instances of them, replacing them with the haunting one-sided telephone conversations, and with a contrite Regan’s agonizing communication of a doctor’s death-knell diagnosis: ‘He says you can never come home.’

Coquelard’s Cordelia eventually redeems herself for her earlier outburst by a series of tender gestures of care for Lear towards the conclusion. And like her sisters, she dances circles around her father, but rather in the joyful manner of a child shouting ‘Watch me, Daddy!’, basking in parental attention and affection, heedless of Lear’s increasing concern that she is running too fast and will fall (a reasonable fear, it seemed to me, given Coquelard’s incredibly swift pace around a floor strewn haphazardly with sheets of paper). Eventually she collapses, exhausted, and Setterfield’s Lear faces her beloved daughter’s death with a heartwrenchingly dignified resignation.

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(Credit: Patrick Moore)

Scott and Setterfield link their Lear to the tender spectacle of elderly parents, pining for a visit from their indifferent or otherwise-occupied children, tapping into the deep vein of compassion that animates Shakespeare’s play. One of the most moving aspects of Shakespeare’s Lear, after all, is that after suffering abject loss and despair and the chastisement of Mother Nature, he comes to empathise with the ‘poor naked wretches’ bereft of warmth and shelter in his kingdom, summing up his failings as a ruler with devastating understatement: ‘O, I have ta’en / Too little care of this.’ Scott’s and Setterfield’s portrayal of Lear elicits a deep compassion and concern for the aging, the frail, the lonely, for those whose minds are deteriorating, their memories fading. It prompts us to ask, ‘Have I taken sufficient care of this?’ And the emotional impact of the dancers’ movements and their words will remain with me long after the memories of many other Year of Shakespeare King Lears fade.

 

Guest post – Katherine Hennessey is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Moore Institute at NUI Galway. She co-convened, with Clair Wills and Fintan O’Toole, the Ireland and Shakespeare symposium at Princeton in March 2016 and is the author of Shakespeare on the Arabian Peninsula (Palgrave 2017). From January 2017 she will be an assistant professor in the English department at the American University of Kuwait.

Review: RSC live King Lear

Review: RSC live King Lear – 14th October 2016

Guest post by Emer Murphy

As the centenary year marking William Shakespeare’s death nears its close, audiences around the world continue to delight in the wonders of his work. Despite the evolution of both time, and culture, his plots and characters demonstrate true resilience as they poignantly reflect the most basic of human instincts and injustices. But while the twenty first century moves into unchartered territory, there remains an almost striking familiarity. With millions of people displaced as a result of violent conflict and western politics catapulted into a state of chaos, history appears to be repeating. It is against such a backdrop that the RSC production of King Lear, directed by Gregory Doran, becomes all the more resonant for its audience, as the story of the great King’s fall offers lessons to even the most sophisticated of cultures.

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Lear and his daughters  (Image credit: RSC website)

With the stage awash with golds and browns, Lear’s downfall is instantly foreshadowed by the overt use of autumnal colours as he makes his magnificent entrance, wrapped in huge furs and hoisted aloof. He is instantly set apart from everyone else, elevated to a god-like position and encased in a glass box to highlight his utter detachment from his subjects (much like the political elite of today). Anthony Sher’s Lear speaks with controlled authority, almost complacency, as it becomes clear that he is significantly removed from reality. He has become too comfortable atop his throne, something Sher captures so perfectly with his body language, sinking into it with such effortless ease as it appears to be an extension of his being. Lear clearly occupies a realm of his own and is seemingly untouchable, until the moment he makes his most fatal mistake – the banishment of his beloved Cordelia – the catalyst for his fall.

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Sher as Lear  (Image credit: RSC website)

As Lear succumbs to his baser instincts, letting jealousy and egotism rule him, winter colours of grey and black come to prominence on stage and the set becomes more barren and bare. The leaves have withered and gone, just as Lear’s reign has rotted from its roots, leaving him to the mercy of those he scorned. While Sher’s performance displays an understanding of the wayward king, it lacks a little chaos and, to echo Susannah Clapp, it remains contained. He never loses control. He never truly gives into the flames of passion, despair and madness, and because of that the performance lacks a certain spark. Even at his lowest points – his isolation in the forest, his suffering through the storm, and the death of Cordelia – he remains somewhat detached from his emotions, bottling up his inner turmoil instead of releasing it. In short, the explosion never came. But for all that Sher was not, he nonetheless remains an intriguing Lear, spitting venom at his daughters, sitting in despairing silence with his Fool and muttering lovingly to Cordelia’s limp corpse. He captures the quiet, contemplative Lear with the ease of a skilled and experienced actor, and instils in the audience powerful human emotions that can only be triggered by the demise of a great character.

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Edgar as Poor Tom  (Image credit: RSC website)

The stand-out performance, however, goes to Paapa Essiedu for his stunning portrayal of the calculating Edmund. Essiedu brings a refreshing burst of villainy to the role with his mocking irony and humorous disdain, transforming Edmund instead into a most likeable villain. His tantrum-like foot stamping and immature jealousy make him a character the audience can relate to as he manipulates his way into his father’s favour. Strangely, but most satisfyingly, it is he who prompts the most laughter. Likewise, Oliver Johnstone excels as Edgar/Poor Tom. His agile, nimble movements allow him to move energetically around the stage in the image of a wild animal as Edgar slowly transitions to Poor Tom. His startled facial expressions and fleeting looks capture the peril of his situation as he appears more mad than Lear ever does. Covered in a layer of dirt and dust, wearing only a filth-stained loincloth, Poor Tom makes Lear, in his white undergarments, appear as though he is merely on a hike through the wilderness.

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Lear and Goneril  (Image credit: RSC website)

In a similar vein, Goneril’s progression from decent daughter to murderous villain is fluid and measured. She the product of Lear’s contempt, moulded from his cruel, hateful words as she refuses to be governed by his dictations. She does little to warrant or provoke such anger in her father and yet he rejects her so thoroughly, cursing her with infidelity in a scene that would make even the harshest of critics flinch. Her distress is palpable and resounds throughout the theatre as Lear’s treatment of her forces her to become cold and unforgiving in nature. Regan’s progression, by comparison, is not near as convincing. In the most vicious and violent of all Shakespearean scenes, Cornwall and Regan tear out Gloucester’s eyes, but here their actions seem too rushed and instead take from the horror of the scene. Regan maintains her distance from the action and is more of a spectator than an active participant in the violence. The glass box in which Gloucester is bound has echoes of Lear’s opening entrance, but this time the sentiment was very different. It comes to symbolise the utter destruction of his reign as, ultimately, it comes to be stained and spattered in the blood of his closest acquaintance.

Overall, the production captivates from the moment of Lear’s entrance to the moment he breathes his last, but somehow it fails to fully ignite.

Guest post by Emer Murphy. Emer has recently completed her studies on the MA Texts and Contexts: Medieval to Renaissance at University College Cork.

Review: Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare’s Globe

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The Taming of the Shrew, directed by Caroline Byrne for Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, 6th August 2016

Reviewed by Emer McHugh, NUI Galway

For the last year or so, I’ve kept an eye on the programming schedules for the major theatres in the UK and Ireland for 2016. When you work on Shakespeare and Ireland in a major anniversary year such as this one – a Shakespeare 400/1916 double whammy, as you’ll have seen looking at this blog’s archives – looking at how major theatrical institutions mark these commemorations becomes of major interest. (I even had a makeshift scorecard at some point.) For example, the National Theatre are doing The Plough and the Stars; the Abbey did the same, as well as bringing Joe Dowling back to the theatre with Othello (interestingly, it was initially marketed as a ‘state of the nation’ play, a description that disappeared from the website as the run began). But, I don’t think I ever would have expected a combination of both commemorations to come from Shakespeare’s Globe. Then again, new artistic director Emma Rice continues to be full of surprises. And thus, we have Caroline Byrne’s The Taming of the Shrew, set in 1916 Ireland with an Irish cast and crew.

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To be sure, this Shrew deals in a broad, globalised, commoditised Irishness – the musicians played their jigs and reels (strikingly reminiscent of Riverdance at times, of course) on the bodhrán, tin whistle, fiddle, and guitar for the crowd’s pleasure: all the audience needed were pints of Guinness and we’d be at a seisiún right there and then. The characters’ accents and dispositions varied from person to person, region to region: Edward MacLiam’s Petruchio was reminiscent of the Limerick comedian Tommy Tiernan, with slight Northern tones. Aaron Heffernan’s Lucentio and Imogen Doel’s Tranio sported broad Dublin accents, as did Aoife Duffin’s Kate and Genevieve Hulme-Beaman’s Bianca who were both portrayed as upper-class Dubliners. And Colm Gormley’s Hortensio also spoke in a Northern burr. Characters either wore flat caps and breeches, or looked as if they had just stepped out of a Bloomsday celebration (take Raymond Keane’s Gremio and his boater hat and suit as an example of the latter). The text was altered to add elements of Hiberno-English such as ‘Jaysus’, ‘mo chara’, and ‘go raibh mile maith agaibh’. The world of the play, too, was noticeably Irish Catholic: during her wedding, Kate sat on top of two staircases that folded together to display a neon-light cross, whereas Petruchio’s admission to Gremio that ‘me father died’ was met with numerous members of the cast blessing themselves with the sign of the cross. None of this is necessarily a criticism of the production, per se. A lot of this Irishness generated much humour from the proceedings, and certainly I found it funny given how recognisable it was to me as an Irish member of the audience. (And, so it seemed, from a lot of the audience as well.) However, given that this was performed at the Globe, and therefore for a majorly non-Irish audience, it makes me wonder whether this Irishness would manifest in the same way were it premiering at the Abbey, for Druid, or at the Lyric.

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Production shot, Shakespeare’s Globe

Another important context to take note of is the #WakingTheFeminists movement: it’s particularly satisfying that a production set in 1916 responds to a movement born out of the response to a programme of events commemorating that same year. And generally, it’s satisfying to encounter feminist [Irish] Shakespeare on a major British stage, too. From the get-go, the production is sympathetic to Kate, and suggests that her taming by Petruchio is unnecessary and unneeded. From her spoken-word songs about how ‘the nation promised equality’, to her newspaper being ripped out of her hand by her own father, to the production refusing to shy away from the psychological and emotional abuse Petruchio subjects her to (she spends the second half in her torn wedding dress, sleeping on a bed with only Petruchio’s cowskin cape as a duvet) – this Shrew emphasises the implications of a patriarchal Irish Catholic society on the lives of women. In doing so, it does not provide easy answers: Kate delivers her final speech in resignation, anger, and frustration at the world she is forced to inhabit, and her relationship with a troubled-looking Petruchio is left up in the air. Additionally, it emphasises these women’s voices: instead of Petruchio, Kate is given the production’s final words through song, and Amy Conroy’s Widow has a much more expanded role to play: always watching, always waiting, quietly despairing at what unfolds in front of her. Throughout the production, she acts as Kate’s chain-smoking de facto feminist fairy godmother, providing unheard counsel and advice – to the point where the final scene appears to be a battle between her and Petruchio for Kate’s soul. (A Pyrrhic victory for Petruchio is implied, of course.) As Byrne comments in her programme note, ‘[i]t’s not a play about the Easter Rising, but it attempts to chime with the experience of Irish women’: Kate’s journey, and her trauma, is depicted sensitively and with nuance, and, in my view, provides a model of what feminist Shakespeare performance should look like.

It’s not unusual for Irish Shakespeare performance to respond to and to engage with the politics and issues of the here and now. If we reach back as far as 1999, Conall Morrison’s The Tempest premiered at the Abbey echoing the Good Friday Agreement a year before. Very recently, Wayne Jordan’s Twelfth Night at the Abbey acted as a response to Pantigate, a year before Ireland went to the polls on marriage equality, whereas his Romeo and Juliet at the Gate explored the ramifications of patriarchal societal structures. Shrew, whereas it may not have premiered in Ireland, speaks to particularly Irish concerns: Byrne states that ‘Irish women are still seeking equality to this day’, and this is reflected in the ongoing efforts of Lian Bell and her team to attain equality and equity in all sectors of Irish theatre, as well as the ongoing campaign to repeal the eighth amendment on abortion by many feminist campaigners (most recently seen in the Two Women Travel Twitter account and Brianna Parkins’ comments at the Rose of Tralee). Of course, I am not sure if all of this was in the mind of Globe audiences throughout the production’s run. I am also not sure if the production’s feminism was in every audience member’s mind either: judging by the ‘Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!’ chant Petruchio encourages the crowd to partake in very early on in the evening, as well as the cheering and whooping that greets a later kiss between the two. Both times, Duffin’s Kate is uncomfortable and unwilling to participate. So the next step, then, is for Byrne to bring her feminist Shakespeare to Irish audiences. If she does, I look forward to it. Her Shrew is vital, fearless, and willing to ask difficult questions.

Emer McHugh is an Irish Research Council-funded doctoral researcher and tutor at the Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance at NUI Galway, where she researches the cultural politics of Irish Shakespeare performance in modern and contemporary Ireland. Follow her on Twitter at @emeramchugh.