Theater Review: Hamlet, by the Royal Shakespeare Company (Newcastle)

As part of my Shaksespeare Week in September, I saw all four current Shakespeare plays that the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company) was producing in Stratford-upon-Avon. I had previously seen As You Like It and Titus Andronicus, and enjoyed the Hamlet so much that I wanted to see it again, so I took advantage of the fact that the RSC shows some of their plays for a short time in Newcastle, about an hour and a half from York, where I live, to see it again last night.

I won’t give a full review of the play; you can read the review I wrote in September. But I will discuss some elements of the play that were different, or that seemed different.

First, I had great seats. In the front row, just to the right of center. I had booked seats in row B, and was happy to be in the second row, but it looked as though the first row of seats had been removed as the stage hung over the actual stage a bit. Here’s what I saw:

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The main difference between the Newcastle performance and the Stratford version was the stage. The Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford has a thrust stage, which juts out into the audience, and the actors play to spectators on three sides. The Newcastle Theatre Royal is a standard proscenium arch stage, so the actors were only playing to the front of the stage. This seemed to change quite a bit. There was less movement; the actors were less fluid, as they didn’t need to turn to play to all the angles. Especially for the many soliloquies; Hamlet – and Claudius, in his speech before praying – stood for the most part at the front of the stage.

I was sitting in the fifth row on the side at Stratford, and I saw As You Like It from the first row on the side as well. For other plays at Stratford, I was sitting a few rows back, more or less to the front of the stage. One thing I noticed at Stratford was that the actors didn’t make much eye contact with the audience, or, if they did, they were constantly looking at different people all around them. But here, on a standard stage, they shifted their eyes between the front row and the mezzanines. This was the case for Jonathan Slinger, who played Hamlet, but also Claudius, and some of the other actors. Hamlet’s many soliloquies felt very personal, as Slinger often looked at me, or my girlfriend, sitting next to me. In fact, he fixed his eyes on her when he said, “Frailty, thy name is woman.”

After the play, discussing it with my girlfriend, we both agreed that the actors seemed more relaxed than the first time. It could be that they’re at the end of their run, and are less stressed by the performances, or it could simply be that, over time, they’ve fully internalized their roles. While I thought that Jonathan Slinger, as Hamlet, overshadowed the other actors when I saw the play in Stratford, the rest of the cast seemed much more present at the Newcastle performance. Pippa Nixon was notably excellent as Ophelia, even more so than the first time I saw her in that role. She truly owned Ophelia last night.

Another thing I noticed – both with last night’s Hamlet, and with the other plays that I saw twice this season – is that it really pays to see a good production twice. You notice things you might not have spotted the first time, and you can better appreciate the choices made by the actors or the director. I left the theater with a much better appreciation of Jonathan Slinger, and his Hamlet, and the entire RSC company.

Unfortunately, this is the last performance I’ll see of this season’s productions, but I have another RSC date to look forward to in a week: Richard II, with David Tenant, in Stratford. This is the first RSC play that will be filmed and broadcast to cinemas in the UK and around the world, and I hope all of these plays will also be released on DVD (or sold on the iTunes Store), so I can see them again whenever I want to.

Theater Review: Othello, by the National Theatre

Last night, I saw the National Theatre’s Othello as part of their NT Live series of plays broadcast to movie theaters in the UK and around the world. Starring Adrian Lester, as Othello, and Rory Kinnear, as Iago, this production has been unanimously praised by the press. The NT Live broadcast is a live, filmed version of the play, from the theater.

I was very disappointed by the performance. I felt it was full of incoherences that nullified my suspension of disbelief, to the point that I actually thought of leaving the cinema before the end. I’m quite perplexed, though, as all the reviews that I have seen online about the play are highly positive. Did I miss something?

Yes and no. Part of my dissatisfaction was that I didn’t buy Rory Kinnear’s Iago. This duplicitous character is hard to play, and requires subtlety to keep from seeming clichéd. I felt that Kinnear chose a style of acting that was out of sync with the character, at least the character in this production’s setting. And there’s the rub: it may have been the setting and staging that ruined it for me.

Othello is a play about soldiers and war, and takes place, for the most part, on Cyprus, where Venetian soldiers are awaiting the Turkish fleet to go to battle. But the fleet sinks, and there is no war to fight, leaving the soldiers to do what soldiers do when there’s nothing to do. Iago, with much time on his hands, plots Othello’s downfall. This production is set in modern time, with an army (curiously wearing British flags on their uniforms; in the play they are Venetians) in a heavily fortified base.

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I was not able to reconcile this with Kinnear’s demeanor, if he is indeed a soldier in a professional army. In Act I, as the senators and Othello are discussing fighting the Turks, Iago stands by a door, his feet splayed, his shoulders hunched, something no soldier would do. His way of speaking throughout the play was overly aggressive; there was no subtlety in his anger. If he was upset that Othello passed him over for promotion, his demeanor would make it surprising that he ever got to the level he did, as Othello’s “Ensign.” (I have nothing against Rory Kinnear as an actor. I recently saw him in a filmed version of Richard II, where he was an excellent Bolingbroke, and am seeing him next week in the NT Live Hamlet.)

Another problem with the setting was the fact that Othello’s wife, Desdemona, was able to be in the military base with her husband. Given the context, this just wasn’t believable, just as having Emilia, Iago’s wife, in uniform, didn’t work.

There was much over-acting in this production. There was a scene where Desdemona was talking to Othello, and Olivia Vinall, as Desdemona, seemed to be playing Carrie Matheson (of Homeland) off her meds. Emilia was stone-cold for much of the play, but in the final bedroom scene, she was over the top. Jonathan Bailey was quite good as Cassio, showing well how he was tricked, but Tom Robertson’s Roderigo was out of place. His limp-wristed, posh-accented character could never have killed Cassio.

So then we get to the two main actors. Richard Lester was fine as Othello, until the final bedroom scene, where he kills Desdemona. All of a sudden, he lost it. I felt he was wooden, overacting, and had trouble showing real emotion. Rory Kinnear remained the same at the end of the play as at the beginning, but at times he slipped out of character, punching the air in delight at a couple of points. All in all, I just wasn’t convinced by either of them.

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So what went wrong? And why did I see something different than dozens of theater reviewers? I can think of two possibilities. The first is that the actors were simply tired. The play started back in April, and the NT Live production was near the end of the run, five months later. The second is the medium, or, more correctly, the way this play was filmed and presented.

NT Live productions aren’t changed when they’re filmed; the cameras have to adapt to the staging and production. So in this play, with many close-ups and tracking shots, there were presumably cameras on the stage itself, which may have jarred the actors. And this is a play that was rehearsed for a stage, not for TV-like close-ups. The way one acts and speaks for a 1,000-seat theater is very different than when one is in front of a camera, and perhaps the actors couldn’t make their big play fit in the small lenses of cameras.

Also, the NT live production of this play was long. In the theater, it runs 3:15, with a 15-minute intermission. The NT Live production ran 3:40, with about 15 minutes of trailers and a useless interview at the beginning, then a 10-minute “feature” at the end of the intermission. Also, the feature takes you out of the theatrical space, yet, when it ends, it simply segues back into the play, destroying any feeling a spectator has of being in the moment. (During the intermission, you see a fixed shot of the audience, with a clock counting down from 15:00 in one corner of the screen.)

The previous NT Live productions I saw didn’t suffer as much from this. One, Kenneth Branagh’s Macbeth, had no intermission, so there was no way to lose the momentum that was building up in the play. Another, The Audience, was not gripping enough for it to make a difference. NT Live is a wonderful way to see plays, but they really need to resist the urge to include “bonuses,” especially with plays as long as Shakespeare’s.

You know the feeling when you’re watching a movie or play, and you get irked by a few little things, which all add up, making you want to leave? That’s what happened to me. I can understand why many people liked this production, but it just got on my nerves. I hope next week’s Hamlet is better.

Theater Review: All’s Well that Ends Well, by the Royal Shakespeare Company

For the fourth and final night of my Shakespeare Week, I attended All’s Well that Ends Well at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. This was third play I saw featuring Alex Waldmann, and the second where he was the lead (he was Orlando in As You Like It and Horatio in Hamlet). All’s Well also features Joanna Horton as Helena (she was Celia in As You Like It), and Jonathan Slinger as Parolles (he played Hamlet).

(Most of the actors in All’s Well were also in As You Like It and Hamlet. Since these three plays alternate in the same theater, many of the actors are in two or three of the plays. Since Titus Andronicus is in the smaller Swan Theatre, those actors can’t be in the other plays, as the schedules would conflict.)

All’s Well is not one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, and it’s not ofter performed. Director Nancy Meckler has said about All’s Well:

The play is neither a comedy or a tragedy and people are unsure whether its ending is a happy one. I think that is part of the reason it is called a ‘problem play’. But I am really enjoying finding unexpected and surprising clues about the characters which give lots of opportunity for visual storytelling. One of its great strengths is its characters. They are bold, complex, romantic, and funny.

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I find the plot a bit hard to swallow. Helena cures the king of France of a fistula, and in exchange, she asks him to give her something: she wants to marry Bertram. She had known Bertram all her life, having grown up in court with him, and being considered a daughter by Bertram’s mother. But she had never let on that she loved Bertram.

The king orders the marriage, against Bertram’s wishes, then the latter finds an excuse to go off to war to avoid consummating the marriage. Helena later goes in search of him, and sets up a bed trick while in Florence to get him to unknowingly sleep with her. At the end of the play, Bertram returns to court, meets the woman who he thought he slept with, then discovers Helena pregnant, and realizes that he loves her.

The plot is a bit contrived, and many of Shakespeare’s comedies have similar twists, but I never really got All’s Well before. In fact, it wasn’t until after the play that I realized what the point was. Talking with Alex Waldmann the following morning, he explained what he thought about Bertram:

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“He doesn’t just fall in love in the final lines of the play, he just realizes that she comes home pregnant and that’s the one chance that he may have to be able to make amends for all the bad things he’s done. It’s not about suddenly falling in love, it’s thinking […] this person I’ve known all my life, she’s carrying my baby, […] this is my one chance at the future.”

I admit that having seen just one filmed production of All’s Well (the BBC TV production from the 1980s), I never saw the play this way. Perhaps the comic elements of the play made it hard to realize that this was what Bertram was thinking. But the expression on Bertram’s face when he puts his hand on Helena’s pregnant belly shows all that Waldmann said above.

This is a funny play, and there was much laughter. In Act II, Scene 1, Helena explains what she wants as reward for her healing powers:

Then shalt thou give me with thy kingly hand
What husband in thy power I will command:
Exempted be from me the arrogance
To choose from forth the royal blood of France,
My low and humble name to propagate
With any branch or image of thy state;
But such a one, thy vassal, whom I know
Is free for me to ask, thee to bestow.

In Act II, Scene 3, the king offers Helena four lords to choose from to be her husband. Bertram is standing at the rear of the stage, smirking as Helena sends each of the four lords away, with great tact. But when she finally chooses Bertram, he is stunned. This entire scene is delightfully played, and Bertram shows surprise and says:

My wife, my liege! I shall beseech your highness,
In such a business give me leave to use
The help of mine own eyes.

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But the play contains much more than just the relationship between Helena and Bertram. Just as Henry IV is about Prince Hal, it’s also about Falstaff; All’s Well has its own Falstaffian character in Parolles. This character, admirably played by Jonathan Slinger, is the comical sub-plot in the play. As his name suggests, he is all words (paroles means “words” in French). In this production, is the very model of a modern blustering soldier, right out of Gilbert and Sullivan, with a long mustache and a smarmy laugh. Parolles is very concerned about his clothes; in the text, he wears a number of scarves as decorations. One Lord describes him as:

the gallant militarist,–that was his own
phrase,–that had the whole theoric of war in the
knot of his scarf, and the practise in the chape of
his dagger.

In two long scenes in Act IV, Parolles is taken “prisoner” by his own men, blindfolded so they can’t see him, and they speak to him with odd accents, asking him to give up information about his army. Which he does, and then is shamed when he sees who had been interrogating him.

Jonathan Slinger, who just the night before was a visceral Hamlet, comes across here as an excellent comic actor, and the whole Parolles side plot is a delightful bit of the play that had the audience laughing a great deal.

When the play began, I felt that Joanna Horton was a bit wooden, but I realized that this was part of the style of the production; it was played a bit like an Edwardian farce. As the play goes on, Helena gets more confident, and her delivery changes, as her character grows. She finishes as a strong character who has been through great difficulty, standing up for what she wants in a very masculine world.

Greg Hicks (Claudius in Hamlet) was also excellent as the king of France, first seen in a wheelchair with doctors and nurses around him, then later dancing a very acrobatic corante after he is healed.

The staging was very sparse; the entire stage was bare, with actors adding and removing furniture as needed, and at the back of the stage, a backdrop occasionally revealed a sort of fishtank-like structure, which was used in different ways, as a small room.

This was a delightful production, and the audience loved it. I came away with more appreciation for this play that I hadn’t particularly liked before, and especially an appreciation for the quality of this company, who I saw three times in three different plays.

Watch Act I, Scene 3 off All’s Well that Ends Well:

Thoughts on a Week of Shakespeare

I’ve returned home from my Shakespeare week, a five-day adventure in Stratford-upon-Avon, seeing four Shakespeare plays at the Royal Shakespeare Company. It was a very interesting week, with four great performances, and meetings with the renowned Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells, and two actors from the current RSC productions, Pippa Nixon and Alex Waldmann. (I’ll be posting a review of the fourth play I saw, All’s Well that Ends Well, along with interviews with Stanley Wells and Pippa Nixon and Alex Waldmann soon.)

It was an interesting week. Stratford-upon-Avon is a lovely little town, and I stayed at the Arden Hotel, which is right across the street from the RSC. The area around the RSC is delightful, with riverside gardens, and more swans and ducks than you can imagine. Here’s a picture from the RSC’s riverside café:

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The RSC has two theaters: the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, which seats 1,040 people, and the Swan Theatre, which seats 460. The first play I saw, Titus Andronicus was in the Swan, and the other three were in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. While the latter theater is twice the size of the Swan, you don’t really notice, since they both have thrust stages, with the audience on three sides of the stage. No matter where you sit, you are very close to the action.

This was a tiring week, though. With four long plays – from 2:45 for Titus Andronicus to 3:35 for Hamlet (intermissions included) – these are long evenings of sustained attention. While I’m familiar with Shakespeare’s language, I still need to pay more attention than with, say, a movie or TV series, and four plays in four days proved to be taxing. But these were four excellent productions, and I’d especially like to see Hamlet again.

So, stay tuned for more about my Shakespeare week. I’ll post a review of All’s Well that Ends Well soon, and I’ll post interviews next week.

It’s worth noting, for those too far from Stratford, that three of the current RSC productions will be touring at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle upon Tyne, from 18 October to 9 November. I’m hoping to head up there to see Hamlet again; Newcastle is actually closer to where I live than Stratford.

See all my posts about Shakespeare.

Theater Review: Hamlet by the Royal Shakespeare Company

For day three of my Shakespeare week, I attended the big one, Hamlet. Running a total of 3:35 (with a 20-minute intermission), I can’t remember the last time a theatrical performance went by so quickly. While I tend to get antsy after a while in the theater, or when seeing long movies, this Hamlet was so gripping that it felt like it was just an hour long.

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Every Hamlet is defined by the actor who plays the title role, and this production is no exception. Jonathan Slinger’s performance was breathtaking. The energy he puts into the role, and his portrayal of Hamlet’s slow slide toward tragedy, are astounding.

But this comes with a price. At times, this Hamlet seemed like a one-man show, where the rest of the cast restrained themselves in reaction to Slinger’s commanding presence. Hamlet is not on stage the entire time, of course, but even when he’s not visible, his presence is felt. The only exception to this was the parts in Act IV, when Hamlet is away to England. The scenes with Claudius, Gertrude and Ophelia had these characters become much more dynamic.

Slinger’s Hamlet is fierce and truculent. In the first scenes of this modern-dress production, he looks like an accountant, with his suit and tie, and his middle-aged glasses. (You can see this in the video at the end of this article, from Act I, Scene 2.) After he sees his father’s ghost, he changes into a fencing suit, for most of the rest of the play. (Director David Farr’s set for the play is a gymnasium, with rapiers on the walls, and lines drawn on the floor for fencing.) Slinger’s acting is very physical, showing Hamlet’s (real or feigned?) madness not only in words, but also in gestures. He hops and skips across the stage, does a Groucho Marx walk behind one character, and generally acts like a clown.

It is easy to slip into ridicule when playing Hamlet in this way, but I never felt that Slinger crossed the line. He wears his madness on his sleeve, and goes into manic excess at times, but it always seemed in character. As a contrast, Ophelia’s madness (played by the wonderful Pippa Nixon) seemed understated, almost as though it was a feminine counterpoint to Hamlet’s more effusive folly.

The production used some interesting ideas to underscore the themes of the play. At the back of the stage, on an arch, is the slogan “Mens sana in corpore sano,” a healthy mind in a healthy body. And the burial scene, which takes place at the front of the scene, leaves Ophelia’s body visible – yet ignored by the rest of the players – until the very end. The presence of her body provides an interesting context to the duel at the end of the play.



Some elements of the staging bothered me. The lighting was often dim, using neon-type lights on the “ceiling” of the fencing room. The use of music during some of the speeches was intrusive, especially as I was sitting all the way at the front, too close to the speakers (the musicians were playing above the stage, but were not visible, and the music was amplified through speakers). And why did it rain on the stage for about ten seconds at the very end?

Textually, I found it interesting that the play ended with Horatio’s lines:

Now cracks a noble heart. Good night sweet prince:
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!
Why does the drum come hither?

This cuts out the whole bit where Fortinbras instructs his soldiers to bear away Hamlet’s body “like a soldier.” I’ve never quite understood the point of that ending, but this choice seems ever more perplexing. Why not just end the play with Hamlet saying:

The rest is silence.

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I haven’t said much about the other actors in the play, but I would like to mention Pippa Nixon, whose Ophelia was striking. I was all the more impressed having seen her the night before as Rosalind, in As You Like It. Her ability to shift between those two characters is impressive, and the way she changed from what looked to be a gawky university student (when she first comes on stage, she bears an armful of books and note books), to the mad Ophelia in a wedding dress, was stunning.

Greg Hicks was excellent as Claudius, and it was only during the cabinet scene that I realized that he was also the ghost. This was an interesting choice of casting, creating a great deal of ambiguity about what Hamlet saw (or thought he saw). But since it wasn’t obvious at the beginning, it didn’t click for me until after the play was over, when I confirmed, in the program, that it was the same actor playing both roles.

Alex Waldmann’s Horatio was very good, but he seems to have lost many of his lines. The letter from Hamlet about escaping from pirates was trimmed, and Horatio’s part seemed overall to be much shorter than usual.

But, in the end, this was Jonathan Slinger’s show. He played a convincing Hamlet, one that went very far, but never too far, and one that had me on the edge of my seat for much of the play.

Watch Jonathan Slinger in Act I, Scene 2 of Hamlet:

Theater Review: As You Like It, by the Royal Shakespeare Company

Last night I attended the second play in my Shakespeare week: As You Like It. After the bloody revenge of Titus Andronicus, the light-hearted comedy and love story of As You Like it was a welcome change.

Rosalind and Orlando are both unhappy in court. Orlando regrets that, being the third son of his father, he has none of the advantages of the first son, and Rosalind is not liked because she as the daughter of the Duke who had been banished. She is only allowed to stay because she is such close friends with Celia, the usurper’s daughter.

Rosalind meets Orlando at a wrestling match, and it is love at first sight. Pippa Nixon as Rosalind is goggle-eyed and Alex Waldmann is tongue-tied, as their budding romance begins a bit like a screwball comedy.

Each of the two – Orlando accompanied by his faithful servant Adam, and Rosalind by her cousin Celia – head out for new lands. Coincidentally, they both end up in Arden forest, a magical place.

Much love-making ensues, as Rosalind, dressed as a man, convinces Orlando to woo her, as if she were the Rosalind that he loves, and to whom he leaves verses on many trees in the forest. But there are other parallel love stories, with three couples. One involves Touchstone, the fool that Rosalind and Celia brought with them. Nicolas Tennant in this role is a delight, bringing comic relief to every scene he is in. Another pairing occurs between a couple of shepherds, and a fourth between Oliver, Orlando’s elder brother, and Celia. It’s a bit hard to follow, but in this production, directed by Maria Aberg, everything makes sense; as much as it can, in this play full of coincidences.

The setting of the court features people in dark suits and dresses – and thumping electronica as a soundtrack – and the forest has a ragtag band of outcasts, dressed as modern hippies, replete with acoustic guitars, to sing the songs in the play. The RSC commissioned original music by singer-songwriter Laura Marling (iTunes), which works well with the tone of the play.

But it’s the acting that stands out. Pippa Nixon and Alex Waldmann are a brilliant couple, and have true chemistry, even though Rosalind is disguised as a man. The “trick” of getting Orlando to woo her in her manly guise is but a vehicle for this Elizabethan romcom, and it works well here.


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But the play drags a bit at the beginning. The court scenes, the wrestling match, and all the preparations for the two lovers leaving court, are a bit drab and slow. When they reach the forest, however, everything changes, and the pace quickens, the acting sparkles, and the actors clearly enjoy themselves. As the play draws to a close, with four weddings, and much singing and dancing, it becomes one of those magical moments in the theater where everything is just right.


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I had seen As You Like It in May, and my opinion of my first viewing hasn’t changed. I had a seat in the front row for last night’s performance, at the side of the stage. Being that close to the actors allowed me to better see the brilliant comic timing of Pippa Nixon, and I also better appreciated how excellent Joanna Horton was as Celia. She was especially appreciated during a song she sings of Orlando’s verses to Rosalind; she got a rousing round of applause from the audience.

And the male actors are also excellent. Alex Waldmann has just the right amount of cluelessness as the tongue-tied lover at the beginning of the play, and the verbal skills of the more loquacious lover in the forest. And Nicolas Tennant’s Touchstone is a memorable character, who, even in a wonderful bit of dumb show following the intermission, brought down the house.


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This is a delightful play, which manages to have that touch of magic that every love story contains. Most of the audience left the theatre with smiles on their faces. A wonderful time was had by all, cast and audience alike.

Watch Act III, Scene 2, with Orlando and Rosalind.