Surprisingly Shakespearean: Two Gentlemen of Verona (RSC) and Shakespeare in Love (West End)

It might sometimes feel like nothing new can be said about Shakespeare. But I’ve just seen two Shakespearean productions that surprised me, for different reasons: the RSC’s Two Gentlemen of Verona and a new West End adaptation of Shakespeare in Love.

Two Gents is rarely staged so I jumped at the chance to see it in Stratford, having assumed that I’m unlikely to have many opportunities to do so again.

Its reputation is not good. It’s one of Shakespeare’s novice plays, perhaps his first, and certainly his earliest comedy. And it shows all the signs of being a play by an inexperienced writer. As the director Simon Godwin mentions in his very informative programme note, the dialogue in the play is usually shared out between two or at most three characters – a sign that Shakespeare had yet to develop the confidence to sustain conversation across larger groups. He goes on as follows:

There’s directness in the plotting. As playwrights get more experienced, they become oblique in their exposition. Here, characters come on and say “the following things have happened so we must do this immediately”… This play is joyfully clear but sometimes you notice the joins.

With its cross-dressing heroine, and its themes of betrayal and over-hasty reconciliation, it is seen generally as a prototype for later, better plays, especially As You Like It. So in some of the press previews for the production, it’s been presented as an opportunity to see a curiosity: bad Shakespeare done well. That’s been a minor trend lately: we’ve seen strong productions of Timon of Athens by Nick Hytner and Troilus and Cressida by Cheek By Jowl, for example. So I went along with a sense of curiosity but without high expectations.

I was pleasantly surprised. I don’t think the play is a neglected masterpiece, but the production was consistently engaging and entertaining. There’s a courage in giving this flawed play to a director who’s new to the RSC – and he in turn has been courageous in casting actors who seem in most cases to be just out of drama school. This is a young person’s play with a very young cast – and despite their lack of experience, the performances are very good, and in some cases excellent.

As the audience enters the auditorium, the action is already underway – we find onstage an Italian piazza with an outdoor café. The cast lounge about, sipping espressos, playing music, gossiping, perhaps flirting. Some members of the audience are led onstage and given ice-cream: a gimmick that reminded me of John Tiffany’s direction of Oncethe Musical, which opens with the cast already having a session in a bar, at which audiences can buy pints of stout during the interval.

As the action kicks off, there is again a pleasant surprise: the delivery of lines has a clarity that is unusual, even at the RSC. The actors fully understand what they are saying, and they make sure that we do too: there’s some simple and effective use of emphasis, gesture, and body language to make sure we know what’s going on, notably from Martin Bassindale, the actor playing Speed. Also impressive is the way in which the actors have been directed to respond to each other: they clearly understand each other’s lines too. I was also surprised by how literally the lines were delivered. A lot of Shakespearean performances nowadays try to get cheap laughs from playing against Shakespeare’s original meanings, but here the actors just tell Shakespeare’s jokes, even the slightly clunky ones. This might all seem like  very basic stuff (understanding your lines, responding to the other actors), but the quality of the work was strong enough to make many other recent productions of Shakespeare that I’ve seen seem seriously under-rehearsed by comparison.

So by the time the two gents have arrived at Milan, the production has found an easygoing, confident rhythm. And yes, there is a live dog onstage, and yes she steals the show, repeatedly. There are also several musicians who play live throughout: I glumly noted that the RSC have more musicians in the wings than many theatres have actors on stage.

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Roger Morlidge and Mossip

And when the plot flags a bit, the direction finds a way to liven things up, adding in some extra business that enhances the action without changing the meaning of the play. A lively highlight occurs about half-way through the first part of the play, when we find ourselves in a Veronese nightclub, cast and musicians joining together to don sunglasses and dance to music that feels more Brazilian than Italian –  not because Shakespeare wrote this scene (he didn’t) but simply because the characters are young and they want to dance (you can hear the music and see parts of this scene in the trailer below). Here I found myself being reminded of Rupert Goold’s brilliant direction of the ball in his RSC Romeo and Juliet from 2010, in which we find Juliet losing herself in a heavily percussive beat that made it very difficult (for me, anyway) to stay sitting passively – and which established a tone and level of energy that persisted to the play’s conclusion.

In suggesting that Godwin’s work reminded me of Goold and John Tiffany I don’t want to imply that his direction is derivative. What impressed me about him was his willingness to both respect the text (by directing his actors so carefully) while also theatricalising it fully. He has a great scene, for example, when the foppish Turio tries to woo Sylvia by singing up to her as she stands on her balcony. Lest we be distracted by memories of Romeo and Juliet, Godwin has his actor (Nicholas Gerrard-Martin) perform his courtship in the form of a song – one so fabulously bad that we might half-wonder if Silvia might take pity on him after all.

Is it a good play? Well, not really – but we find here that Proteus is more than just an interesting prototype of Iago or Hamlet – and that Julia is more than just a prototype for Rosland and Viola. We also see how, from the beginning, Shakespeare was playing with form: here he gives  us a comedy that concludes with Valentine offering to give up Silvia to Proteus – the man who had just attempted to rape her. Valentine’s proposal that his wedding to Silvia be accompanied by a wedding between Proteus and Julia feels very uncomfortable, in a way that would be repeated (without being much improved upon) in Measure for Measure.

And there are some very good performances. The two female leads are very strong. Many of the female performers I’ve seen in recent RSC productions seemed miscast or out of their depth: they seemed too inclined to use an affected throaty style of line delivery instead of – well, instead of acting. As Julia and Silvia, Pearl Chanda and Sarah Macrae  bring their own individuality to their characters: there is a naturalness and a distinctiveness to the line delivery by both that impressed me very much, especially given that both parts are so horribly underwritten and repetitive (especially Silvia’s).  Chandra’s performance has an apparently effortless quality that makes her transformation from male to female at the end of the play seem both sexually charged and poignant. She’s very  impressive. I am sure we’ll be hearing more about her in the years ahead.

Mark Arends (Proteus) and Pearl Chanda (Julia)

Mark Arends as Proteus and Pearl Chandra as Julia

This production is running on in Stratford for the rest of the summer, and they plan to broadcast it live around the world in early September. I’d recommend it.

Meanwhile, in the West End we have the stage adaptation of Shakespeare in Love, a charming and very smart film that was scripted by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman. This West End adaptation comes under the Disney banner (co-produced with Sonia Friedman), but it’s also directed by Declan Donnellan, so any fears that it might be a blatantly commercialised production are balanced out by the credibility of the director.

This production has been getting great reviews, and it’s easy to see why. The stage features a large three-story structure that reproduces the architecture of a typical Elizabethan playhouse (as shown below). The design, of course, is by Nick Ormerod, whom Donnellan always works with in their Cheek By Jowl productions.

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Sometimes the action is literally set in a playhouse – for a rehearsal or for the performance of Romeo and Juliet that concluded the film so memorably. Yet even when the action happens in other places, we remain within a theatre, so that even intimate scenes (such as when Will finds his way into Viola’s bedroom) are observed by other members of the cast, who become a silent audience when they are not actively performing. Donnellan has  thoroughly theatricalised the entire performance, which becomes a series of plays within plays: like a dramatic version of a Russian matrushka doll.

And it’s been quite skilfully adapted too (by Lee Hall, who also gave us Billy Elliot). The role of Christopher Marlowe is expanded considerably, so that he now feeds lines to Will in a scene that fills in some of the missing links between  Romeo and Juliet’s balcony scene and Cyrano de Bergerac. These interchanges give Will someone to talk to, making his characterisation easier to understand – and they also intensify the audiene’s distress when Marlowe’s death is revealed (drawing gasps from some of the people watching the play, incidentally – does it require spoiler warnings?).

And as you’d expect, there is some lovely movement around the stage. Donnellan always creates wonderful stage pictures, and does so here too – the image below, for example, is one of the first we see:

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Or there’s this one:

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Such tableaux feel natural and unfussy, and they’re often very pleasing to look at.

Donnellan also makes a virtue of having a simple set. Sometimes we see  action that is “backstage”, sometimes we are seeing it being performed “onstage” – and the flipping back and forth from the stage to behind the scenes offers all the fun of Noises Off, while fleshing out the idea that is at the heart of this adaptation, as it is at the heart of Shakespeare’s work – namely, that the performances of actors merely make explicit what people do in other aspects of their lives: they perform at the court of Elizabeth, or in the arrangement of marriages, or in the application of the law or diplomacy. It might be clichéd to come away from this performance observing that all the world is a stage, but that indeed is the point it wants to make.

So it’s clever and touching and very well directed and beautifully designed and funny….

And yet… It’s slightly disappointing in parts.

The pace isn’t quite right yet, perhaps because the show is still early in its run. The film has many good jokes, but a lot of them were lost when I saw it earlier today – and indeed some of the dialogue was inaudible, at least to me: it was drowned out by stage business or spoken into the back of the stage. I also found it difficult to warm to the performance of Viola (perhaps too much influenced by the ones I’d seen in Two Gents), which I found to be occasionally affected without ever being affecting – I don’t think we have enough time to warm to the character.  So I was surprised to find myself missing Gwyneth Paltrow (having listened to the most recent Coldplay album more often than I should have done, I did not think myself capable of such a feeling…).

And some of the other characterisations felt like missed opportunities.  In the film, Wessex was played as a genuinely unlikable character –  and as someone we could genuinely imagine existing. Here he is written and performed more as a buffoon: full of a bluster that appears designed to hide his own impotence and lust. He’s not much of a threat to Will, and thus the sadness of Viola’s forced marriage to him does not seem quite as upsetting as it did in the film.

I also found the production and script a little too willing to be ingratiating. One of the great things about the film script was that it had so many references to his plays – I loved the way it segued into  Twelfth Night at the end, for example. Most of those references are retained, but (unless I am misremembering) it seems like many more have been added.

Some of them are indeed very funny: “Out Damn Spot” and “Tomorrow and Tomorrow” from Macbeth are deployed to great comic effect (though the reference to Banquo’s ghost from the film feels thrown away here). There’s also an amusing allusion to Malvolio towards the end. But there are some jokes that seem a little too keen to please – a reference to Marc Antony’s speech in Julius Caesar felt a bit obvious to me, and I thought that at one stage I heard the ‘out vile jelly’ line from Lear. And when at the end Romeo and Juliet is declared a “palpable hit” I wondered if the actor was actually going to turn and wink at the audience. So when the actors break off from the curtain call to give us an Elizabethan dance (as would have happened in Shakespeare’s time too, of course), it all feels like they are trying too hard to put a smile on our faces… In short, the Disney starts to show after a while.

There is one new allusion which works well – and that’s the inclusion of a dog (taken straight from Two Gents). But perhaps Shakespeare in Love might have been better off if it had instead taken more notice of the darker elements of Two Gentlemen. The betrayal by one friend of another and the attempted rape of a young woman appear in both plays, but are rushed through here in what feels like a race to get us to the end. Shakespearean comedy is always most successful when its darker elements are emphasised – as when we felt sorry for Malvolio and Olivia in Wayne Jordan’s recent Twelfth Night, for example. But there is no darkness here. There isn’t even much shade.

This is not to say that Shakespeare in Love is bad but rather that it could be (and may still become) better. In its desire to please it seems to betray an anxiety, a wish to be liked, that is perhaps understandable but wholly unnecessary. The play is a hit; it will almost certainly be going to Broadway, and it is likely to be enjoyed there too. We will probably find it showing up in the Grand Canal Theatre in Dublin, sometime around 2022, after it’s been everywhere else. So perhaps the cast will slow down, taking time to flesh out their roles a bit more – and remember that, since this is a comedy, we should spend at least some of the time feeling disturbed and upset.

Having said all that, I am certainly in a minority in my views on Shakespeare in Love – reviews have been largely positive.  Here’s the trailer for Shakespeare in Love:

And the RSC’s Two Gentlemen of Verona

Both are worth seeing – but if you have to pick one I’d recommend the bad Shakespeare done well over the brilliantly directed re-imaginging of Shakespeare – which has the odd effect of seeming to reduce his importance, even as it places him centre-stage.

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Corn Exchange and _ A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing_ at Dublin Theatre Festival

Well, this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival programme is out today, and I’m looking forward to spending a bit of time digesting it. There are some obvious highlights  – Thomas Ostermeier’s Hamlet,  Ganesh Vs the Third Reich, and the NTS’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner on the international side; and on the Irish side, new plays from Deirdre Kinahan, Tom Murphy, and Mark O’Rowe, and new productions from Anu and Pan Pan, among many others.

But by far the biggest surprise – and the most intriguing prospect – is that Corn Exchange plan to adapt Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing into an eighty-five minute performance that will star Aoife Duffin (below). My immediate reaction upon hearing this news? “But that’s impossible – they’ll never manage it”.

A Girl is A Half Formed Thing

But then, after a moment’s reflection, it occurred to me that I’d had this reaction to news of previous Corn Exchange productions several times before.

I never thought it would be possible to put on a stage adaptation of the film version of Lolita – yet they did this very memorably in the Peacock in 2002, with Andrew Bennett playing Humbert, Ruth Negga (below) playing the title role, and David Pearse and Ciara Simpson completing the ensemble. The strangeness of Humbert’s narrative – and Nabokov’s distance from it – was made theatrical by the company’s use of commedia and live musical accompaniment. Annie Ryan, in other words, had found a theatrical language that translated the novel’s most important characteristics into something physical and dramatic.

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A few years later, I never thought they’d be able to adapt Dubliners for a production at the Gaiety – firstly because it’s a collection of short stories, secondly because the theatre was so big, and finally because the impact of the stories lies not (just) in plot or characterisation but mostly in language and what it does to the reader. But again Ryan and Michael West found a way to make it work on the stage,  allowing the stories to accumulate a theatrical energy that corresponded to the collection’s transitions from childhood to maturity, and by retaining as much as possible the original language. This had the impact of highlighting the performative elements of Joyce’s stories – the songs that are sung, the stories that are told, the public spectacle  – the fact that Joyce was working within a tradition that was both literary and oral.

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I never thought that they’d be able to do Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under The Elms in Ulster accents last year, and I was wrong about that.

And I was sceptical when I heard back in 2006 that their production Everyday was being seen as an attempt to do in the theatre what filmmakers like PT Anderson were doing in movies like Magnolia (or Haggis’s Crash or Soderburgh’s traffic): showing how an entire community’s stories overlap in surprising ways. Well, I was wrong there too.

Then there was the time I heard about the idea behind Dublin By Lamplight and… well, you get the idea.

So perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that I again have no idea how Corn Exchange are going to pull off something that seems impossible to me.

The story McBride has to tell – about the upbringing of a young woman and her shifting attitudes to  sex, identity, autonomy, mortality, religion – is difficult, but it can be put on the stage, especially, I’d think, if there is a careful enough focus on the relationship that  the woman has with her brother. But how can the stage accommodate what McBride does to language and form?

McBride does something shocking with syntax and language. Her sentences are jagged, written as if torn out of some longer, more coherent narrative. They spill out and overlap as if being forced from a body.

It’s notable that so many people state that reading the book feels like a physical experience – for once, the reviewers’ clichés about the text being visceral or feeling like a kick in the stomach or the narrative being heart-breaking actually feel accurate: McBride’s language has a kind of muscularity that hurts sometimes. And the language does actually change the reader, permanently: you have to learn how to read the novel, and that means forgetting what you know about reading. You can’t skim; you can’t fill in blanks. You just have to let the words accumulate and the meaning will make itself felt, sometimes painfully so.

It’s an impressive book, and a very unsettling one. It’s also a difficult book – difficult to read in many ways: it takes time and effort, and the content is upsetting.  But it’s massively rewarding, and I consider it to be one of the major Irish novels of our time. People have compared it with Molly Bloom’s soliloquy – and while that should be seen as a compliment of sorts, I think it also runs the risk of obscuring the fact that McBride is not just one more Irish novelist trying to out-Joyce James Joyce. She is doing something that no-one has ever tried before.

But here’s where I wonder about the adaptation. Perhaps what makes the novel so rewarding is that it’s never fully possible to identify the features of the novel in a literal or realistic sense. We never learn the protagonist’s name; we may be able to guess or infer where she is from or where she studies or lives – but we’re never told for sure. We are never fully sure whether individual events in the novel are real or fantasised or dreamed or anticipated or feared. The fractured language is an expression of the protagonist’s individuality but it also works to defend that individuality – to reject the ways in which her mother, uncle, community, and society all seek constantly to name her, to narrow her down, to fix her in place with words. She doesn’t want to be named: she doesn’t want to be formed by language but to use language to disguise herself.

So what happens when you turn the narrator – who is just a broken voice – into a human being on a stage? What happens if the words become physicalised and literalised? Can the text’s ambiguity survive the transition to the stage?  Can the many ‘half-formed’ features of the novel be given form?

Well, of course they can. There is one useful model already in existence:  Beckett’s Mouth in Not I, another text that Half-Formed Thing can be compared to, while standing on its own merits. But of course Annie Ryan isn’t going to just give us a mouth in the darkness.

But it’s pleasant to be faced once again with the conviction that Corn Exchange can’t possibly achieve what they are setting out to do – and the happy expectation that I’ll be proven completely wrong, yet again.

Here’s a link to the production page: https://dublintheatrefestival.com/Online/A_Girl_is_a_Half_formed_Thing

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Chapatti at Galway International Arts Festival

It’s been a great first week at the Galway International Arts Festival – and I have lots to say about Enda Walsh’s Ballyturk in particular (though I need to see it again, and then lie down for at least two days afterwards to recover). But for now I wanted to write a short note about Christian O’Reilly’s Chapatti. 

I first saw an O’Reilly play at the Galway Arts Festival in 2002, when Druid produced his Good Father, a two-hander that charts the relationship of a couple who have a one-night stand, and then discover that the woman has become pregnant. I was impressed at that time by the emotional honesty of that play – it was clear about what it wanted to say and it didn’t feel the need to overcomplicate the plot or draw attention to itself. As has been true for all of O’Reilly’s subsequent plays, he has a very clear understanding of how people’s needs determine their interactions – and he just gets out of the way and lets the story be told.

He subsequently had Is This About Sex? produced by Rough Magic at the Dublin Theatre Festival, and his much admired Sanctuary with Blue Teapot appeared at DTF last year also. Less well known is Here We Are Again Still, a play based on interviews with people living in Galway’s Mervue estate. I saw it at the Galway Theatre Festival a few years ago and found it formally interesting (it is fascinating to compare it with other recent works that make use of interviews – by people like Alecky Blythe or even Anu Productions). I also enjoyed the story and liked the characters. And that’s a trait of all of O’Reilly’s plays – he always gives us a good story and people the audience can identify with. Here We Are Again Still was produced here in Galway, directed by Andrew Flynn – and as is often the way of these things, it went largely unnoticed in the rest of the country, especially in Dublin.

For all of these reasons, i was delighted to learn that Chicago’s Northlight Theater were staging his new play Chapatti – first in Chicago and then here in Galway for the Arts Festival. It’s a two-hander with John Mahoney and Penny Slusher, and it’s directed by BJ Jones, who brought The Outgoing Tide and Stella and Lou to Galway in 2012 and 2013 respectively. And it’s very good.

O’Reilly writes in his programme note that he’d originally imagined the story being told as two monologues, one by a man and the other by a woman, both somewhat elderly and both encountering different forms of loneliness. He spent several years tinkering with the play before finally having the two characters begin to speak to each other. So the play, put simplistically, shifts from monologue to dialogue before settling finally on the latter.

And again, I think that’s very interesting formally. The monologue in Irish drama is often used, and probably overused, to signify loneliness and isolation. The reason that Pig and Runt speak to the audience in Disco Pigs is because it’s no longer possible for them to speak to each other. The same is true of the characters in Friel’s Faith Healer or Beckett’s Play, among many others – the form and the content influence each other very strongly.

Here the movement from monologue/direct address of the audience to dialogue/realistic representation of the acting is a formal representation of the burgeoning relationship between the two characters.

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But it also means that there was a risk of the play feeling uneven or disjointed – like two plays tacked together (a theme in this year’s Festival – more on that sometime soon). What impressed me here was that Jones’s direction ensures that there is a coherence to the action overall.

He presents the action on a large, slightly rounded set that represents the living rooms of both characters – the man usually occupies the left side, the woman the right, but while there is a realistic level of detail in the set we also understand that the table centre-stage can sometimes be in the man’s house and sometimes in the woman’s. In other words, the action is both realistic and theatricalised at the same time.  We believe that what we’re seeing is happening in the real world, but we also know that there’s a lot of play happening too.

And that allows the shift from monologue to realism (and back again) work very well throughout the action. Sometimes the characters act out their monologues – jumping this way or that, miming holding something, and generally using their physical presence to convey the story. So the direction of the monologues is very dynamic – much more so than is usually the case in Irish plays (an exception being Mark O’Rowe’s direction of Tom Vaughan-Lawlor in Howie the Rookie last year).

But the realistic sections are then played down, held back, restrained. It’s a very neat balancing act: the quality of the direction is evident largely in the fact that you’re almost never aware that the play has been directed at all.

The play itself is a very simple story about a man and a woman exploring the possibility that they could form a relationship. As such, it is very similar to last year’s Northlight production Stella and Lou. And it also reminded me a lot of Deirdre Kinahan’s Halcyon Days from last year – people who liked Kinahan’s play as it toured Ireland would probably love Chapatti, and for similar reasons. Like Kinahan, O’Reilly knows how to tie his plot  together very skilfully.

I was also very struck last night by the audience’s engagement: there were lots of “oohs” and “ahs”, a bit of wolf-whistling at one stage, and lots of familiar laughter. The audience were rooting for the characters, wishing them well. So like the director, the playwright here is making something very difficult seem effortless.

It’s an interesting experience seeing a Chicago company stage an Irish play. Audience members here are bound to notice a few bum notes: the accents sometimes wander and the costumes don’t quite ring true. Does this matter? I don’t really think so. It doesn’t matter because the play is not really looking to create geographical authenticity: the play is set in Dublin but it could easily be set in Galway, or indeed in Chicago. The company is doing a huge amount to respect the Irish origins of the play, and I think that merits respect.

And it also doesn’t matter because we in Ireland don’t own the Irish play anymore – if it ever belonged to us in the first place. That’s why we find Conor McPherson’s Night Alive being staged in London and New York, though it’s yet to receive a full production here (a reading was staged in Cavan I believe). That’s why John Patrick Shanley produced Outside Mullingar, a play that was set in “Ireland” but which displays little evidence of any knowledge of the Ireland that I happen to live in – and doesn’t seem all that bothered that this is the case.

I don’t want to simplify a complicated situation. And I don’t want to imply that producers have no responsibilities when it comes to being accurate and/or authentic in the staging of Ireland. But I do think it’s great that a mid-career playwright like O’Reilly has been able to find a theatre in the US that have been willing to take him on, giving him a full-blooded, fully worked out production, and bringing forth a play that would almost certainly never have been produced to this level in Ireland.

So it’s interesting as a cultural phenomenon, and it’s a very good play that people can enjoy, and are enjoying. As I was leaving the theatre last night, I heard a middle aged man – in proper, full on pleasantly-surprised mode – saying to his wife that “that’s a play that would make me want to come back to the theatre again”. I think we need more plays like this.

The Night Ethan Hawke Performed at the Abbey Theatre

Over the last couple of days, I’ve been reading about Richard Linklater’s new movie Boyhood – which has been getting some great reviews, such as this one from Donald Clarke in the Irish Times.

For those who don’t know, twelve years ago Linklater cast a six-year-old boy called Ellar Coltrane. He shot some scenes with him, with Ethan Hawke playing Coltrane’s father, Patricia Arquette his mother, and Linklater’s daughter Lorelei playing his sister. Each year, Linklater would reassemble the group, shoot a bit more, until eventually the character reached the age of 18. The film thus shows us his development – physically, emotionally, mentally – over his entire boyhood.

It’s a bold concept, and a brave one too (for an example of what can go wrong with casting a child actor, look no further than The Phantom Menace, for example). And it’s notable that critics have been able to look beyond the innovative composition of the film to praise its plot and acting.

Anyway, I’m writing because I was struck by a line in Clarke’s review about Hawke:

The kids age in fascinating ways – sometimes undergoing dramatic metamorphoses, sometimes just gaining a little height – while the infuriatingly chiselled Hawke continues to look much as he did 25 years ago in Dead Poets Society.

This reminded me that back in 2003, one year into the shooting of Boyhood, Hawke had appeared on the stage of the Peacock Theatre – for one night only – in a staged reading of Sam Shepard’s The Late Henry Moss.

I remember that reading very vividly. It was directed by Peter Sheridan and most of the actors gave script-in-hand performances, rather than simply sitting and reading. What was notable was the commitment Hawke gave to the performance. He’s one of those actors who works very hard at making what he does seem effortless: to deliver lines as if with a shrug, to pace his delivery so as to find and reveal unusual nuances in the script, and to use a strange kind of passive energy to bring the other actors into the performance. Of course, Hawke had previously appeared in a full production of Henry Moss, but even so his performance that night was exceptional.  A few years later, I saw him in a full production of the Bridge Project’s Winter’s Tale, and all of those characteristics were again in evidence (the picture below is taken from that production, directed by Sam Mendes at the Old Vic).

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In other words, he gave as much commitment to a once-off reading in the Peacock as he did to a full production in one of London’s most distinguished theatres.

Other actors in the reading were similarly memorable. Ned Dennehy gave a performance full of unblinking creepiness and, if I remember correctly, a thoroughly disarming Mexican accent. And Lorcan Cranitch was imposing and very witty.  I came away looking forward to what seemed at the time an inevitable decision to give the play a full production in the theatre (though this never happened).

The reading happened as one of a five-part series of American play readings at the Peacock in March 2003. The other plays included Homebody by Tony Kushner (later elevated to a full production), The Race of the Ark Tattoo (which later went on tour), Wallace Shawn’s The Fever, and a genuinely unforgettable reading by an all-white cast of Suzan-Lori Parks’ Fucking A – which was directed by Paul Mercier and featured an amazing performance by Eleanor Methven as Hester. I think Parks actually attended that reading – would have loved to know what she thought of it.

Those readings happened during a brief period when the Peacock was buzzing, shortly after Ali Curran’s appointment to the directorship of that theatre. They brought in Corn Exchange, who did a terrific production of Loilita with Ruth Negga playing the lead role. Blue Raincoat were also there a few times. And those one-off readings happened occasionally: another series I remember very clearly featured new work by Hilary Fannin and Michael West, for example.

Hawke, by the way, was not the only Hollywood actor to appear at the Peacock at that time. In 2002, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon brought their production of The Guys (a 9/11 play) to that theatre for a very short run. I remember the queues around the block of the Abbey on the morning that the box office  opened – just as I remember Robbins and Sarandon’s mild look of surprise at the end of the performance I attended – when the audience failed to give a standing ovation…. Also in 2002, John Mahoney appeared in a very moving  play called The Drawer Boy, which  also appeared in that year’s Galway Arts Festival (again tickets sold out very quickly). Mahoney is back here in Galway this year for a new play with Christian O’Reilly, of course. There was also a reading of a play called Lovers Re-United which featured Ewan Bremner (Spud from Trainspotting) and Samantha Morton who had just been Oscar-nominated for In America.  Campbell, Bremner and Morton may not be well known now, but there was a lot of excitement about that reading at the time (it happened in 2002).

We’ve had a lot of talk recently about the Peacock, so I’ve often found myself recalling those times when that space was full of excitement and genuine innovation. It seemed to a be a place where world class actors wanted to appear, a place where you could do amazing things like stage a reading of a musical play about abortion, or a production like Fannin’s Doldrum Bay – which focussed on two ad men who had been hired to devise a recruitment campaign for the Christian Brothers. The theatre had even commissioned a play by Aaron Sorkin, right at the height of his fame for the West Wing… Of course, that model of the Peacock proved unsustainable and those energies quickly dissipated… But that’s another story.

And of course, the Peacock would later host two premieres of plays by Sam Shepard – Ages of the Moon and Kicking A Dead Horse.

As for Hawke – yes, alarmingly, he still looks almost exactly as he did in 2003…

Here’s a trailer for Boyhood:

On “Red Forest” by Belarus Free Theatre

A very interesting post from Kim Solga about Belarus Free Theatre

The Activist Classroom

Belarus Free Theatre is an extraordinary company. Political dissidents working in exile, making performance that fights oppression and dictatorship in their home state, many of the members of the company have suffered at best job loss and at worst arrest, detainment, and threat simply as a result of their choice to use theatre as the public platform for free and open speech against injustice that it always ought to be. Their two earlier shows in London, Minsk 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker and Trash Cuisine, were critical and popular smash hits, and established BFT’s reputation as a company with both a political heart and a lyrical soul.

So I jumped at the chance to book a ticket to Red Forest, their offering at the 2014 LIFT (London International Festival of Theatre). And I was enormously surprised not to be impressed; in fact, I was shocked at my tremendous disappointment…

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