Monday 4 June 2012

Globe to Globe - Weeks 3 and 4.

Got a bit behind, haven't I?  Blame my students...

The Dhaka Theatre's Bangla Tempest was another folk-theatre reading, with much use of music (Ariel played by a singer) and the production book-ended by scenes of ships, represented by models on the fore-arms of the ensemble.  The most interesting moment came at the end , with Prospero giving the island to Caliban, as the latter moved out of the tortured physicality he'd held throughout the show.   This struck me as another of those scenes that Shakespeare didn't write but should have, like the assassination at the beginning of Richard II, and reminded me of the similar redemption that Alan Moore gives (in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) to Caliban's literary descendent, the Frankenstein monster.

Teatr im. Kochanowskiego's Polish Macbeth was, frankly, a bit of a dud, like a conservative theatre-goer's idea of what all modern-dress productions are like.  The general aesthetic was Eurotrash gangland - lots of white suits, drag-queen witches, and a Tarantino-easque use of music, including 'I Will Survive' (which, weirdly, also turned up in the German Timon of Athens) and Nancy Sinatra's 'Bang Bang' (which is also in Kill Bill; as I occasionally tell my students, there comes a point where intertextuality just becomes copying).    The high point was a very drunken post-show party, with drag queens passing vodka shots into the audience (actually water, which made me feel better about not getting any), and Duncan doing a striptease to 'Billie Jean'; the low point was a lengthy onstage rape of Lady Macduff - apart from anything else, she's such a minor character that it doesn't serve any dramatic purpose.

I only saw the first half of the National Theatre of Albania's Henry VI: Part 2, which struck me as a very old-fashioned production, with heavy, undifferentiated costumes and leaden pacing.  Because of this, I didn't bother with the Macedonian Part 3, of which I've since heard nothing but good.

The Compania Nacional de Teatro's Mexican Henry IV: Part 1 and Elkafka Espacio Teatral's Argentine Part 2 were on the day that had the worst weather of the season so far; it was actually hailing during the former.  Despite that, I enjoyed the production a lot more - the Latin machismo suits the play.  This was emphasised by the set, with two cat-walks running in a v-shape into the audience, and down which the characters would run for stand-offs (of which the play has an amazing number).  David Calderon, playing Hotspur, deserves a special mention in dispatches; at one point, he put his foot through one of the catwalks while running offstage, and tore a flap of skin off his leg - he not only reacted in character, but came on in the next scene as Francis without missing a beat.

This was one of the first productions to use any kind of historical costume, a sort of RSC-timeless that mixed medieval and modern.  The Argentine company went in for a sort of cartoon-ish modern dress - justices in wigs and bowlers, Hal blazered like a renegade member of the Bullingdon club, and Rumour, the prologue, who's described as wearing 'a garment painted with tongues' in a Rolling Stones tee-shirt.  (I played the same part at school 35 years ago, and wore the same design.)  When the crowds at Hal's coronation came on waving Jubilee-esque Union Jacks, I did start to wonder if this was intended as an Argentine parody of Englishness - maybe even a comment on the bald men's fight over a comb that was the Falklands War?  Just a thought.

The National Academic Theatre's Armenian King John (described by Dominic Dromgoole as 'a challenge to our marketing department') didn't make that much impression on me, though it had a nifty set, made up of a variety of suitcases and packing cases, which were stacked in various combinations, including John's throne, and the height from which the boy Arthur falls to his death.

The Belarus Free Theatre's King Lear was preceded by the sight of Tom Stoppard in the audience, and an usher warning us that it would contain 'nudity, whipping, water and eggs'.  I thought it was absolutely brilliant - constantly surprising, but never gratuitous.

The tone was set early on as Goneril and Regan sang their rehearsed declarations of love for their father, like a sort of regal karaoke, and were then rewarded with handfuls of earth symbolising their territories, that they gathered in their skirts.  This was a production that constantly returned to the physical realities - Edmund humiliatingly holding a commode for his wheelchair-using father, Edgar, as Poor Tom smearing his face with his own shit (peanut butter, I think), Kent spitting in Oswald's face.

The storm itself was stunning - the cast manipulated a large blue tarpaulin like waves, enveloping Lear as he raged amid the water.  The naked Poor Tom emerged from under the same tarpaulin, causing Lear to tear off his own clothes, and making a reluctant Kent and Fool follow suit.  Like Peter Brook, the company refused to sentimentalise the morality, playing Lear's knights as rowdy football hooligans, and Edmund as the ignored bastard son, Gloucester at one point threatening him with his belt.  

In case you're wondering about the eggs, they appeared in a bird's nest, which the mad Lear wore on his head, carefully placing them at the front of the stage, then stomping on them on 'Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill!'.  Strangely, the best other production of this play I've seen - Adrian Noble's for the RSC in 1982 - also featured raw eggs, one being broken and swallowed by Tony Sher as the Fool.  Maybe something to do with the fragility of social institutions?

The Marjanishivili Theatre's Georgian As You Like It was a delight, performed as if by an early 20th century group of strolling players, Chekhov meets Vincent Crummles.  If Lear was an earthy production, this was an airy one - Orlando released his love-notes on balloons,  Jacques (here played as a cross-dressing lesbian, with an emo-kid's haircut) was caught up in a storm of blown leaves.  She also played the best 'All the World's a Stage' speech I've ever seen, relating it to the offstage company and their implied stories - Audrey was the company prompter, Silvius and Phoebe having an illicit affair.  Those of you who know me personally will know that I've got a romantic streak a mile wide, so this production, with its a capella 'love at first sight' theme was right up my street.

(Not everybody's, though - I was discussing this show the next day with the Canadian playwright Jason Sherman, who's a lot less keen on this season than I am.  I asked if he'd enjoyed it, and he said 'Not as much as they did.'  Honesty also compels me to add that this show made no concessions at all to being in the Globe - anyone sitting at the sides would have had a terrible experience.)

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