Shakespeare 400: And now for something completely different

An Australian aboriginal version of King Lear? In the commercial theatre? It doesn’t get a lot more different than The Shadow King.

Shadow King, Tom E Lewis (perthfestival.com.au)

Tom E Lewis (perthfestival.com.au)

The language isn’t Shakespeare’s but rather a clever mix of contemporary English and aboriginal; so what we get is the familiar punctuated by the weird and wonderfully ‘other’ rhythms of the indigenous.

Lear (Tom E Lewis) is a clown and his Fool (Kamahi Djordan King) is a camp narrator prone to cross-dressing. Goneril and Regan are modern lasses wearing shorts. Edmund – the performance of the evening from Jimi Bani – is a charismatic, virile life force in leather. Gloucester is a woman. Lear’s ‘retinue’ is a ragtaggle bunch of musicians placed on the side of the stage and comprising, among the guitars and percussion, a didgeridoo (natch) and a singer with the most astonishingly resonant voice you will currently hear on a London stage.

The set is a steeply-raked platform with equally steep stairs leading to the abodes of Goneril and Regan and more besides. (Not easy to perform on I would imagine.) A projected backdrop takes us right into the red outback and the precipice from which Gloucester doesn’t jump and into the bush houses of Lear’s daughters. Downstage the characters play with fine red sand, probably imported.

Shadow King Fool and Edgar (theage.com.au)

Kamahi Djordan King as the Fool and Damion Hunter as Edgar/Poor Tom (theage.com.au)

Running at just over an hour and a half without an interval this is not an in-depth version of the much-loved and often-hated original, but what we lose in character development – Lear’s ‘conversion’ at the hands of Edgar/Poor Tom does not have the resonance of the original for instance – we gain, many times over, in atmosphere and visual impact. The creators (Michael Kantor and Tom E Lewis) and dramaturg (Marion Potts) stick loosely to the somewhat simplified plot – there is no Cornwall or Kent for instance – but in the end it is the land that is the star, which for a play that begins with the dividing of a kingdom is utterly appropriate.

As far as I could tell the cast is 100% aboriginal. If you are interested in something completely different, get along to the Barbican this week.

The Shadow King is a Malthouse Theatre production and runs at the Barbican Centre until 2 July. www.barbican.org.uk 

Shakespeare 400: The Curtain

I’ve blogged before about our newly awakened consciousness of London’s theatrical heritage, thanks for the most part to the archeologists at the Museum of London, aka MOLA. (Click here for previous blogs)

The first, and the most astonishing find in recent times was of the Rose Theatre on Bankside, in 1989. Ever since then it seems if there is any new development happening on a site of what could be historical interest the archeologists are permitted a certain time to excavate it before the building continues. This happened some years ago on the site of what was (arguably) the first ever purpose-built playhouse in London, in Shoreditch, call The Theatre. It looked like this:

049

The Theatre MOLA excavations in 2010

The Tower Theatre were supposed to be building a new theatre on the site but they ran out of money, so it looked like this:

The Theatre 2012

The Theatre July 2012

Eight years after excavations first began it looks like this:

Shakespeare 400 The Theatre 2016

The Theatre April 2016

Which is a crying shame as while arguments continue over who gets to own and develop the site no one gets to see any of the Theatre’s original foundations so meticulously excavated all those years ago.

HOWEVER

Along comes the Curtain Theatre, just down the road from the Theatre. Currently under excavation as I write this by MOLA, I was privileged to be able to visit the site yesterday – but strictly not allowed to take photos – as part of a Shakespeare 400 walk called ‘Rogues and Villains of Elizabethan Theatre’.

Shakespeare 400 Shoreditch walk (6)

Old buildings viewable behind the hoarding from the outside (Hewett Street)

So far most of what they have discovered in this huge site is 18th century, but there are sections of it that just could be the remains of the Curtain Theatre itself. It is all very exciting, and whatever they do uncover will be preserved as part of the building’s development, which will I believe also include a playhouse.

There will be more news about this site when excavations end in June.

For more information on MOLA and the Curtain Theatre click here:

Patsy Trench April 2016

Shakespeare surrounded


What with the BBC2 four-part series The Hollow Crown, Mark Rylance as Richard III at the Globe and Simon Russell Beale as Timon of Athens at the National, Shakespeare: staging the world at the British Museum and reports of the opening ceremony of the Olympics being based on The Tempest, Shakespeare has us thoroughly surrounded.

(And that’s not forgetting the RSC in Stratford, and recently at the Roundhouse.)

 

Henry V (Tom Hiddleston), Richard II (Ben Whishaw) & Henry IV both parts (Jeremy Irons)


The Hollow Crown,
which finished last night with Henry V, was a magnificent feast of austerely visual splendour and featured the best actors in the country – including SRB as Falstaff.

(Please, BBC, make more of them. Can I put in a plea for Measure for Measure in particular?)

~

Mark Rylance was a comparatively matter-of-fact, even low-key Richard at the Globe, especially by comparison (odious but inevitable) with the flashier Kevin Spacey and the riveting Antony Sher.

Meanwhile the critics made much of the timeliness of the National’s Timon with its modern setting featuring the Occupy movement and the National Gallery, where Timon the benefactor had a room named after him. Personally while I would travel the world to see SRB I could see why Timon is so rarely performed. It has none of the subtlety and complexity of Shakespeare’s usual characterisation – Timon goes from beaming benefactor to raging misanthrope in the flick of an eyelid.

He is not even the most interesting character in the play – that honour belongs surely to the ‘sceptics’ cynic’ Apemantus, ‘a philosopher’. Or even, as played by Deborah Findlay, Timon’s steward/PA Flavia. At least the gender swap of some of the characters in Timon, of which Flavia was one (Flavius in the original), which made perfect sense, made up in a small way for the all-male Richard.

~

Shakespeare: staging the world at the British Museum might more appropriately be called Shakespeare’s London, or even Shakespeare’s Venice. Not surprisingly perhaps it’s an exhibition about objects rather than performance, the most remarkable of which, for me, was an original piece of writing in Shakespeare’s hand taken from The Booke of Sir Thomas Moore (sic):

Shakespeare’s handwriting?

Otherwise I have to admit for thrill value the exhibition in no way matches up to its YouTube promotional trailer, which has the Roman army marching across the Millennium Bridge and Othello carrying the dead body of Desdemona through the 21st century streets of the West End of London.

~

 Forward to the past

In my lectures I draw attention to the fact that when modern theatre appears to reinvent itself it is very often actually harping back to the ideas and the environments of centuries ago. ‘Site specific’ theatre was the only kind of theatre available in the middle ages for instance. Now, in addition to the replica New Globe on Bankside and the Rose Theatre in Kingston, The Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford recently underwent a complete transformation in order to replace the unfashionable vastness of the 1930s pros arch shape with the far more intimate thrust stage design modelled on the 400 year old Elizabethan playhouse.

There has been, ever since the discovery of the foundations of the Rose Theatre on Bankside in 1989, a resurgence of interest in theatre history in London. Four years ago Museum of London archeologists uncovered the foundations of England’s first ever playhouse, The Theatre, built by James Burbage in Shoreditch in 1576.

048

The Theatre 2008

The site was being excavated before construction began to build a new theatre for the Tower Theatre Company. So I went along at the weekend to see how the new theatre was coming along and saw this:

The Theatre 2012

The Theatre 2012

Just a hoarding, with pictures the only indication of what lies behind it. Peeking through a tiny hole all I could see was rubble – no sign of any new building or of any ancient foundations. If anyone reading this has any information on what’s going on (or not going on) I’d be very interested to hear about it.

I also went looking for the newly-discovered foundations of The Curtain theatre, built the year after The Theatre and just around the corner from it in Shoreditch. Again, nothing to see. All hidden among buildings and just a plaque on the wall.

Still the encouraging thing is that these sites are being excavated and, hopefully, preserved. Shakespeare lives on.

We may not rejoice in our weather in London, but in many other ways we are the luckiest people in the world.