“I am to wait, though waiting so be hell”

Sonnet 58, Line 13

William Shakespeare

I was literally in the process of reading Beckett’s famous masterpiece when the chance came up to see the new play Waiting for Waiting for Godot at the St James’ Theatre Studio (blog-5thanks to #LDNTheatreBloggers and Debbie – Mind the Blog –  for the ticket!). The drama of two understudies desperately hoping to play Beckett’s two most famous leading men, Vladimir and Estragon, Waiting for Waiting for Godot seemed like a fun premise, if a little limited. And indeed, this is what it turned out to be; a reasonably entertaining evening for theatre buffs with sadly no particular point-of-view or depth to take it further.

The St James Studio, however, is the perfect location for the play. The set is a crowded dressing room, complete with tiny toilet and ironing board table, and full of entertaining props and costumes to be used throughout.The actual auditorium is intimate and relaxed, with bar stools and drinks tables adding to this atmosphere. Certainly at press night it seemed almost the entirety of the audience was made up of ‘theatre types’ – critics, bloggers, friends and family of the cast and crew, and theatre buffs. blog-2This helped enormously, as jokes about Pinter, RADA and Brecht I can imagine falling flat in a larger, more diverse audience received a warm chuckle from the luvvies. This isn’t to say the jokes weren’t funny, just that they were tailored to a specific audience. For example, the melodramatic vocal warm-ups of Simon Day as the older understudy Ester ponderously pronouncing the names of Latin American countries (“Costa Ricaaah” “Nicaraguahh”) were a great way to start the play. The script is indeed witty, but, by imitating much of the repetitive nature of Beckett’s original script, the wit ran on far longer than was necessary not only for one joke, but on multiple occasions.

Day and James Marlowe (as the much younger understudy, Val) perform their parts with gusto, showing both characters as inexperienced and naïve about “show business” as each other, and finding plenty amusing about passing the time as they wait for the mysterious ‘director’ to call them for their big break.blog-3 Day’s self-important older actor who firmly (and wrongly) believes he knows all there is to know about theatre is by turns pompous and pathetic, whilst Marlowe is sweetly credulous as the younger man believing in the pretension of Ester. It just does feel like they are simply passing the time, rather than having anything deeper to say. The biggest points Dave Hanson’s script makes is that the backstage crew are underappreciated, and that being a successful actor is based predominantly on luck; points which have been made many times before. Laura Kirman nonetheless plays her part as the put-upon ASM with frustrated energy, and the three actors work together to produce some fun Python-esque physical comedy. The two men have a companionable bond which helps us warm to them, and understand their relationship even when both are behaving ludicrously (classic Waiting for Godot territory I guess…).

However, they are not helped by director Mark Bell’s decision to interrupt a 75 minute drama with a seemingly unnecessary 15-minute intervalblog – leaving the second act at only around a quarter of an hour long. For all its cleverness in imitating Beckett’s style and for all its wit and humour, this script simply can’t sustain that kind of treatment. Saying this, it’s always pleasant to have seen a full performance by 9.30pm – and this isn’t a play with nothing to offer. The analogy between understudies and Beckett’s leads is clever and interesting (both waiting in blind hope for a mysterious figurehead to come and deliver them from an eternity of anticipating). Perhaps I should dodge trying to put it into my own words and pretentiously quote Beckett himself to sum up the essence of Waiting for Waiting for Godot:
Vladimir: That passed the time.

Estragon: It would have passed in any case.

Vladimir: Yes, but not so rapidly.

 

Waiting for Waiting for Godot at the St James’ Theatre Studio: 2/5 stars

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“A very good piece of work, I assure you, and a merry.”

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 1, Scene 2

William Shakespeare

When I heard the Mischief Theatre team were doing a Christmas version of their hilarious hit The Play That Goes Wrong (in my top ten shows of bloglast year in fact), I urged my Mum to book it for the whole family as a Christmas treat – last year we went to see The Scotsboro Boys, a musical which, whilst incredibly thought-provoking, wasn’t exactly a laugh a minute.

Peter Pan Goes Wrong at the Apollo Theatre, however, was exactly the opposite. Not particularly thought-provoking perhaps but packed full of laughs, as the poor Cornley Polytechnic Amateur Dramatic Society attempted vainly to deal with an electrocuted Tinkerbell, an uncontrollable revolving stage, and some incredibly indiscrete voice recordings whilst putting on a Christmas production of J.M. Barrie’s much-loved Peter Pannot a pantomime as co-director Chris Bean (played by actual co-writer Henry Shields with aplomb – and such stressed tension I’m surprised the vein on his forehead didn’t burst).

Having seen The Play That Goes Wrong I was a little more prepared this time for the pre-show antics in the stalls, but that didn’t make them any less enjoyable – plus I was thrilled to see a certain Fred Gray who I last saw at the Edinburgh Fringe as the starring role in Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens… this was rather more family friendly of course and involved many less drag queens and sudden strip teases as I’m sure parents will be pleased to hear.

blog 1The play, once it started, took a very similar format to the original version, as is to be expected, except that the directorial apologetic speech was given not only by Chris Bean but also by new co-director Robert Grove (played with enormous gusto by second co-writer Henry Lewis), with a new dimension of competition added to the mix of theatrical disaster and comedic mayhem. In fact, this play as a whole was much more focused on the behind-the-scenes relationships of the actors as well as the slapstick of the original. Apologies, by the way, for referring so frequently to The Play That Goes Wrong, but it is very hard not to compare, given its obvious connection! I did, however, take my Dad with me who’d hadn’t seen the first play – and as a result perhaps enjoyed the Christmas version slightly more than my Mum, my brothers and I.

Now I’m not saying I didn’t have a great time at Peter Pan Goes Wrong – the production has some genius moments (I loved Dennis (aka Jonathan Sayer the third of the co-writers) who, due to not being able to remember his lines, wore headphones throughout, leading to some great moments as he repeated literally everything he was broadcast). And the cast in general are just so comical and likeable and enthusiastic that I would basically go see anything they were in.blog 3 All those who had to battle with “flying” across the stage were particularly impressive; I can’t imagine just doing it right is easy, but to deliberately do it badly and make that funny rather than pathetic or frustrating shows serious talent and practice. Greg Tannahill (Peter Pan – at least for most of it) and Chris Leask (Trevor the Techie, determinedly fixing the scenery no matter what else was going on, and forced to constantly step in and attempt to fix things) were particularly skilled at this whole complicated flying-and-banging-into-things malarkey.

I loved the girl power felt between an effervescent Nancy Wallinger as about a gazillion parts, including a feisty Tinkerbell, and the untiring Charlie Russell, heroically tying the whole play together as the flirty Sandra, playing Wendy to several different Peters. Dave Hearn as the shyly smiling Max, playing both Michael and the Crocodile, had the entire audience behind him by the end. Tom Edden was a new and welcome addition to the group as the Narrator, flinging piles of glitter into the air and jolting on and off the stage on his ‘magical’ chair.

blog 4

What I’m trying to get across here is that all the elements of a great show are here; slapstick chaos reigns on-stage and the characters are foolish, obnoxious and arrogant, but also so delightfully determined to complete their show at any cost that you just can’t help but will them along -a bit like Bottom and the Mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. At the same time, for me I felt the focus on the intra-cast relationships sometimes took away from the overall comedy. I always find it irritating in TV shows, like House M.D. or OUAT when the key concept, the originality I started watching the show for in the first episode, becomes lost with writers desperate to focus more on complicated human relationships rather than the plot or the cases or, in this case, the gags.

'Peter Pan Goes Wrong' play, Press Night, London, Britain - 9 Dec 2015

I mean, maybe I’m just heartless and detached and more interested by curiosities than real personal contact but you know, oh well, I am what I am. And my overriding feelings are that the best moments of this very funny play were when it focused on very small elements (a man dressed as a dog stuck inside a door for example) rather than when it had to take on the big themes of love and jealousy.

Still, the cast are fantastic and the jokes are a-plenty, and it’s a lovely Christmas treat for the family – just remember; it’s not a pantomime.

Peter Pan Goes Wrong at the Apollo Theatre: 3.5/5 stars

(And, by the way, Happy New Year! A round-up of 2015 will be coming soon!)

“Journeys end in lovers meeting”

Twelfth Night, Act 2, Scene 3

William Shakespeare

Admittedly, I have just got back from the most amazing English Lit. trip to Stratford-on-Avon , but since I started this blog post before I left, I might as well finish it off first! This post will be about another of the Shakespeare Uncovered series on BBC4; this time the episode entitled ‘Joely Richardson on Shakespeare’s Women’, although this title is slightly misleading, since the programme is mainly on the comic heroines and especially focuses on Rosalind from ‘As You Like It’ and Viola from ‘Twelfth Night’. However, of course, there was plenty of information to plunder!

From the off, Richardson made it clear that she felt that the comic heroines drive the plots of all Shakespeare’s comedies; think of Katherina in ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, Beatrice in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, Portia in ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and the two aformentioned. Howeverm it is not simply enough to state this, but to look at why this is unsual and what these characters are like. Shakespeare had an extraordinary sympathy for his female characters: “One of the things that’s fabulous about Shakespeare is how he understands…the psychology of women” Professor Marjorie Garber. We must also examine the content of Shakespeare’s comedies to understand why women played such a central part in them (and consider that it was thirteen years after Shakespeare’s death before the first women appeared on stage in England – and this was in a French company and they were, according to Thomas Brande “hissed, hooted, and pippin-pelted from the stage!”). Professor Jonathan Bate talked of the main themes of comedy during the episode: “In terms of thinking what it is to be human, what it is to live in society and above all what it’s like to live in personal relationships…the comedy is the place where Shakespeare really works that out in a profound way.” Indeed, most of Shakespeare’s comedies are built around the theme of love in all its manifestations. Love, in fact, is the soul of most Shakespearean comedy, and for many, this shows why women are so vital to them; love for a man is just part of his life, but for a woman it is her whole life.

The programme also elaborated on a contested part of Shakespeare’s life: his time with his family; as Germaine Greer said “What’s special about Shakespeare is the poetry. To expect him to be a nice bloke might be pushing it.” However, despite his apparent disinterest in life in Stratford with his wife, Anne Hathaway and three children, Susannah and twins Judith and Hamnet, he clearly thought about his family  to a reasonable extent, since he shows a bigger interest in twins than any other writer of the time. What is also interesting is that his only son, Hamnet, died around five years before ‘Twelfth Night’ was written, and the theme of the loss of a brother is demonstrated in both Viola and Olivia, both of whom are mourning at the beginning of the play. The climax of the play is Viola being reunited with her twin brother Sebastian and in creating this end Shakespeare may have been concocting his own fantasy of family harmony restored.

Much of the programme Richardson explored the history of ‘Twelfth Night’ and what I found interesting was how the sub-plot of Malvolio and

“Remember who commended thy yellow stockings . . . And wished to see thee cross-gartered” (‘Twelfth Night, Act 3, Scene 4)

the yellow stockings was always considered the funniest part of ‘Twelfth Night’. “Shakespeare’s imagination was so fertile that he could never resist weaving many different elements into each play, so there are some examples where a sub-plot, ostensibly brought on just for comic relief almost takes over the play itself” Professor Jonathan Bate. Indeed, one of the first silent films ever was ‘Twelfth Night’ (1910) with Charles Kent as Malvolio and in Charles I’s edition of Shakespeare’s collected works has ‘Twelfth Night’ crossed out, and in it’s place ‘Malvolio’. This shows how much Malvolio and his sub-plot, involving the famous yellow stockings, stole the show in most of the early performances.

Moving on to ‘As You Like It’ and Rosalind; one of the biggest roles in all the Shakespearean canon even though it would have been played by an apprentice. And yet Rosalind isn’t merely ‘a woman’. She is strong, independent, witty and intelligent, yet she is not ‘every woman’. In fact, most of the academics on the programme agreed that Rosalind is her own woman, and through her behaviour she subverts the idea, which was strong in the Renassaince, that men and women were different creatures. Joely Richardson conducted an interview with her mother, Vanessa Regrave, and they came to the conclusion that: “Within every Shakespearean heroine role are the seeds for any performance of an actress that we’ve ever seen in any role.”

So by the end of the episode I felt that ‘Twelfth Night’ had been explored in great depth, although I would have liked a little more on ‘As You Like It’ (saying this, I had just finished ‘1599’ James Shapiro which goes into great depth on ‘As You Like It’, so I probably didn’t take as many of the notes down as they were already in that book). Still, it has made me think again about which characters to examine in close detail, and how perhaps, instead of looking at ‘Henry V’ and ‘Richard III’, I could do some analysis on Rosalind and Cleopatra, since I’m already doing ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ at school, and both are strong, independent woman who know how to get there own way, but one is in a comedy and one a tragedy…? Feel free to comment and tell me what you think about this!

I’ll leave you with Richardson’s closing speech of the episode, and I’ll hopefully be back to write more soon:

“At the heart of these plays is something we can all relate to. One person trying to love another; it’s got to be the oldest story of all. But it’s never been more beautifully told than by Shakespeare.”