The Merchant of Venice: William Shakespeare

Shakespeare: Merchant of Venice

★★★★

(Illyria Theatre at Arundel Castle, 18 August 2018)

Riotous isn’t usually a word that I associate with The Merchant of Venice, but it’s really the only word that does justice to Illyria’s madcap outdoor production currently touring around the UK. Performed by a band of only five actors, who don a breathless variety of roles by running round the back of the stage and reappearing with a new coat or hat (leaving us in tears of laughter while doing so), it was perfect summer Shakespeare. Plus, before I get going, here’s a funny story: we’d also meant to see an outdoor Merchant at Westminster Abbey earlier this month, but as the day moved into evening and the sullen rain strengthened, we decided to chicken out. Imagine our amusement when we arrived at Arundel Castle for our Illyria expedition, and realised that the Westminster show had been Illyria too! We could well have ended up seeing the same show twice. Not that this would have been any great hardship, I hasten to add.

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Much Ado About Nothing: William Shakespeare

Shakespeare: Much Ado About Nothing

★★★★

(Antic Disposition at Gray’s Inn Hall, 21 August 2018)

There will be a number of theatrical posts over the next few days, for two reasons: first, I have seen an awful lot of plays recently and, secondly, I still have to catch up with some plays I saw earlier in the summer. Fortunately, they’re all terribly good. This is one post, however, that’s pretty quick off the mark: it was only this week that I went to Gray’s Inn Hall to see the ever-brilliant Antic Disposition and their current production of Much Ado About Nothing. The company always performs their plays in France over the summer before coming to London and that’s had two important influences on their reading of Shakespeare’s delicious romantic comedy. They’ve adopted a mixed French and English cast for Much Ado, with some familiar faces from the blended cast of their magnificent Henry Vand Messina moves from Sicily to become a small French village, just after the end of the Second World War. The stage is set for love, longing and a merry entente cordiale, as romance blossoms over a lazy postwar summer.

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Love Online: Lisa Tuttle

★★

This is the first Lisa Tuttle book that I’ve read, though I have several more already lined up on my Kindle, and it probably wasn’t the best one to choose. English girl Rose Durcan has come to stay with her grandmother at Wishbone Creek while her scientist parents head out for fieldwork in Africa. This means Rose must attend American high school, something which fills her with anxiety: she’d much rather be online, playing long-distance with her brother Simon (a student at Oxford) in one of their multiplayer adventures. But school has to be endured, and her first day isn’t that bad: she sees the delectable Orson Banks, on whom she immediately develops a crush. Unfortunately, Orson only has eyes for the aloof Olivia, who in turn has no interest in dating. But there is one way that Rose can get close to Orson: the online gaming world of Illyria, where Orson takes the role of Count Orsini and Rose, eager to spend even some virtual time in his company, adopts the persona of a helpful young musician, Roberto.

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Dark Lady: Charlene Ball

★★★½

A Novel of Emilia Bassano Lanyer

After reading The Girl in the Glass Tower, I was keen to learn more about the poetess and musician Aemilia Lanyer, and so was thrilled when I was offered this book to review. It takes a much broader view of Aemilia’s life (or Emilia’s, as she’s called here), following her from childhood to middle age. It explores the challenges faced by well-educated, independent women, even in the age of Elizabeth I, who was surely the paragon of such virtues. Unlike The Girl in the Glass Tower, there is little mention of Arbella Stuart here: this isn’t a book about court intrigue so much as the simpler human desire for self-expression, and the limits placed upon that. Accompanied by an engaging cast of secondary characters, Emilia is brought to appealingly vivid life and the book teems with the sights, sounds and scents of Tudor England.

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Shakespeare within the Abbey

Shakespeare within the Abbey: Mark Rylance

★★★★★

All Places that the Eye of Heaven Visits 

(The Globe at Westminster Abbey, 22 April 2017)

Waiting outside Westminster Abbey with mounting excitement, my mum said that she really didn’t mind what this evening involved as long as she got to see Mark Rylance. We were about to experience his brainchild: an extraordinary promenade performance which brought a company of Globe actors over the river for a magical evening among the pillars and monuments of this splendid church. For two nights only, you could wander in the Abbey and be surprised at every turn by an actor ready to share a soliloquy in front of a tomb, or to stare into your eyes and declaim a sonnet. It’s entirely thanks to my parents’ efficiency that we’d been able to get tickets and so I was keen that Mum should have her moment. And she did, though not as any of us had expected.

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New Boy: Tracy Chevalier

★★★

Hogarth Shakespeares are like buses, aren’t they? I haven’t picked one up for years and now there are two at once. Following on from the quirky, inoffensive Vinegar Girl (retelling The Taming of the Shrew) is New Boy, Tracey Chevalier’s reworking of Othello. I’m a great admirer of Chevalier and her concept is clever – to set the story among the ever-changing alliances and rivalries of an elementary-school playground. Certainly, this setting gives plausibility to the lightening-swift shifts of Shakespeare’s characters, but I just couldn’t shake off a certain… uneasiness. Such a story, which hinges so heavily on sexual jealousy and very adult violence, doesn’t sit comfortably in such a place. On one hand, we risk the complexities of the story being lost; on the other, we see children behaving in a way which feels too mature for eleven-year-olds. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting – and disturbing – experiment.

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Miranda and Caliban: Jacqueline Carey

★★★★

In Act 1, Scene 2 of The Tempest, Prospero launches a virulent verbal attack on his servant Caliban: he is ‘filth’, a ‘poisonous slave’, ‘hag-seed’. He has greeted all Prospero’s efforts to civilise him with brutish indifference and, worst of all, he has repaid the magician’s kindnesses by trying to debauch Prospero’s young daughter Miranda. The play, like the island, is dominated by Prospero’s will and superficially we see nothing to counteract this stinging denunciation. But, if we look more closely, there are hints that all may not be so simple. Jacqueline’s Carey elegant novel draws out some of these allusions and offers a subtle retelling of the story, in which a childhood friendship between two motherless children develops into a heartbreaking study of the loss of innocence.

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Love’s Labour’s Lost: William Shakespeare

Shakespeare: Love's Labour's Lost

★★★★½

(Royal Shakespeare Company, Haymarket Theatre, until 18 March 2017)

There are days when the whole world seems pitched against you. On Monday there was a Tube strike, it was pouring with rain and, too late, I found a hole in my boot. On arriving at the Haymarket, cold and grumpy and with a very wet sock, I was not disposed to be happy. But the RSC’s latest London transfer could charm a smile out of a stone. Two plays have come to town: Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing. Conceived as two halves of a pair, joined by a common spirit if not by the same characters, these plays unfold in a country house on either side of the First World War. Brimming with light and life, skirmishing lovers and rapier wit, they’re bubblier than a bottle of prosecco.

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Hamlet: Globe to Globe: Dominic Dromgoole

★★★★

Taking Shakespeare to Every Country in the World

I’m going to end the year with a recommendation for your reading lists in 2017. Although it won’t be published until April, this book offers an optimistic note of hope to banish the darkness of what has, by any stretch of the imagination, been a bleak year. The context is this. Back in 2012, Shakespeare was at the heart of the cultural festival that accompanied the London Olympics. The main feature was the ambitious Globe to Globe festival, during which every one of Shakespeare’s plays was performed, each by a company from a different country, each in a different language. Buzzing from the success of that project, the team were looking for their next big adventure. And it was Dominic Dromgoole, then director of the Globe, who came up with a crazy idea during a genial away day. Why not tour Hamlet to every country in the world?

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The Comedy of Errors: William Shakespeare

Errors keith higinbotham and andrew venning in antic disposition-s the comedy of errors

★★★★

(Antic Disposition, Grays Inn Hall, until 1 September 2016)

A year on from Henry V, Antic Disposition turn their sights on another of Shakespeare’s plays, this time the considerably less familiar Comedy of Errors. As you all know, I do like my Shakespeare, but I’d neither read nor seen this play before and had little idea of what to expect. However, I always know that I’m in for a good show where this company are concerned and they outdid themselves here, turning this zany comedy of mistaken identities into a riotous farce, peppered with sultry musical numbers and with a setting best described as a blend between Some Like It Hot and The Grand Budapest Hotel.

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