Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Dane-jà vu

If there's one Shakespeare play you can guarantee to find on stage at some point during the year, it's Hamlet. I think I've seen it on stage four times (Michael Maloney, Sam West, David Tennant (both RSC) and, last week, the Northern Broadsides). Every time I'm staggered again by the fact that so many of our everyday phrases and sayings come straight from the page. All Shakespeare plays have contributed something to the English language. Hamlet did it by the shovel-ful.

But, is it really necessary to put on quite so many versions of it? I saw the RSC production in January of last year (and it really blew me away - far and away the best production of any Shakespeare play I've ever seen, and I've seen a lot!) and then, as I said, last week I went to see the Northern Broadsides production at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. And for the first time, it fell a bit flat. It wasn't a bad production - in fact it was good, and the girl playing Ophelia did a fantastic job with one of the hardest female characters to pull off, without the madness going over the top, or being too silly, or being too soppy or just requiring a good slap, which she usually does. There was a young actor in the main role, who was a lot better in the second half than the first, which might have been part of the problem. Rosencrantz and Guildernstern were creepy and practically Tweedledee and Tweedledum like in their similarities - played by real life brothers. I think on the whole. But really, it was just suffering by comparison to the clearest, most thoughtful interpretation I'd ever seen. Too soon to see it again, apparently, though I could have been to see two other versions (including Jude Law in the title role), if I'd so desired.

The reason I went to see it was the Northern Broadsides. I've blogged before about them, and their greatness, so I shan't repeat myself here. They are one of two companies whose productions are reliably brilliant. The other is Propeller - an all male Shakespeare company who always do two plays at once, touring with them, either alternating or doing one then the other for a solid block.

I discovered them last year when they were performing at Oxford Playhouse. Having watched The Merchant of Venice open mouthed, at the end of the performance I went straight to the Box Office to buy a ticket for the following days A Midsummer Night's Dream. This year just before Easter I had to traipse out to the Watermill Theatre near Newbury - a lovely and slightly surreal theatre that is basically in the middle of nowhere - to see their Richard III. Richard Clothier in the title role gave a wonderfully creepy and magnetic performance, that left the audience in reluctant sympathy for the murdering, conspiring, ambitious villain. Propeller pride themselves on the vitality (ironically) of their performances and this one was no exception - the murder by chainsaw, with spurting blood and lumps of flesh was probably the highlight of the violence in this play. It reminded me strongly of the King Lear a couple of years ago that saw an eyeball bitten out on stage then spat out into a trough directly in front of the audience. Propeller made an ultra-creepy production, with the actors not involved in the specific scene disguised with white coats and stretched white masks to act as attendants, torturers, and passersby. At the end of the interval one be-masked man craned over the shoulder of the woman at the end of my row to read her programme, coming closer and closer until she jumped a mile. If you want Shakespeare that grabs you, Propeller is my bet. I'm off to Hampstead in June to see A Comedy of Errors, since I couldn't get to it in Newbury. I hope their Pocket Propeller productions manage to hook a new generation of Shakespeare audiences. And even better, they keep doing plays I haven't seen done to death!