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Review: Henry V, the Barn Theatre – and, live stream theatre its very self

We’re sick of the C word. I know. And we’ve all got things and people we’re missing. Some are obviously more up the priority list but we mustn’t dismiss the little things in life that keep us going and, to put it bluntly, sane.

I miss my family.

That goes without saying, But we all miss our little pleasures in life too. The arts and culture enrich our lives and if we didn’t realise it before, we’re sure as hell realising it now.

Residing in Manchester, my blog of course is Manchester focussed – write what you know and, of course, what’s relevant to your life and those around you. But in the world of lockdown and isolation, we’re entering a virtual world, now more than ever before. And so our entertainment, ‘social’ lives and soul food now has a geographical irrelevance.

And it is with thanks to the Barn Theatre, Cirencester, for my first virtual press night and live streaming theatre experience. I know I’m probably lagging behind the times on this one, but being so lucky to have so many theatres, galleries, music venues and just places on my doorstep in Manchester, I’ve never tapped into the concept.

I wanted to review the production but also the experience itself.

The way it worked with the Barn Theatre is they used their social channels to host a link to the ‘live’. I should point out, at this point, that all the creatives are on lockdown too so this was a live stream of a performance filmed in May 2019. No flouting of the rules here.

Sat in my living room, I had my drink in hand (my theatre tipple of choice tends to be a glass of red, but this was a celebration – champagne was absolutely necessary) and sat through the countdown.

And you know? I was back in a theatre. I mean obviously not, but a play cannot be confused with a television programme, a film, because the very constructs are different, they’re in real time, they’re more ‘raw’ and whilst you yourself are not with the players in front of you, you’re still feeling the theatrical magic.

And so to the production itself…

Friday 27 March was World Theatre Day and so the perfect choice for the Barn Theatre to stream their past production of Henry V. And it is at this point that I want to emphasise that the stream is still available so if you like what you read, check it out yourself (links at the bottom).

Directed by Hal Chambers, the production stars Aaron Sidwell (Eastenders , Wicked, Ghost) and Lauren Samuels (Bend it Like Beckham, We Will Rock You, Grease) and is a modern take on Shakespeare’s Henry V in all but text (although I did note a couple of diversions, notably a chorus of ‘It’s coming home, it’s coming home…’

Henry V in a nutshell tells the story of Henry V who assumes the throne after the death of his father (yep you guessed it), Henry IV.

After he’s insulted by the heir to the throne of France, Henry invades France to claim the throne he believes should be his.

Whilst preventing an assassination plot, Henry’s rousing speeches to his troops rally them to victory, against all odds. Next stop marry the Princess of France and both nations brought together.

This highly stylised version keeps matters fairly simple on stage in terms of props and scenery allowing the acting to literally take centre stage, but it is the technology, the lighting, the music that elevates it to a new and interesting place.

Rolling news has pretty much got us by the proverbial (and literal, dependent on your dna) balls, during this time of lockdown and our old mate pops up early on when we see ETV projected at the back of the stage bringing news and reaction of the death of Henry IV (later we see FTV reporting on the battle – you get the idea).

The famous text tells of the early life of the soon to be crowned Henry V living his best life with friends at the local tavern. This production brings this screaming to our attention as it flashes to him engaged in a rave and all that comes with it (including flashing lights and some of the fantastic and original composition by Harry Smith.

In fact in an interview shown during the ‘interval’ of the live stream conducted by Barn Theatre Artistic Director, Iwan Lewis, Aaron Sidwell tells of the cast’s preparation by way of a method night out of drinking and general cavorting (all very PG and professional, mind) whilst all in character.

With on-screen graphics (I can’t be sure how this translated to the physical production in the theatre) and overheard voxpops commenting on events, the production really does give an established text an exciting injection of post-modernism and relevance.

And speaking of, Henry V’s rallying speeches really can be said to resonate as we tune into our daily briefings with the government and their aides during this time of difficulty and crisis.

Who can forget the infamous

Once more unto the breach…

As we’re urged by ‘our leaders’ to fight the war against Corona and stay in our houses.

And so, whilst I applaud this original production itself from all players and creatives involved from the Barn Theatre, I equally applaud the live stream itself put together so early on in our ‘new world’ bringing wonderful theatre and artistry into our homes.

You can live stream Henry V for free by using the Barn Theatre social channels :here on Youtube, Facebook or Twitter.

You can also download a free copy of the interactive programme and exhilarating soundtrack by visiting http://barntheatre.org.uk/

During these tough times, the theatre is looking at a £250,000 loss and potential permanent closure and so any donations to the #saveourbarn can be made through their website.

And so as one of our oldest forms of culture is brought bang into the 21st century by both the approach to the production itself and the concept of live theatre, join me in supporting our arts and, indeed our own sanity, by continuing to feed our souls during this new (and hopefully temporary) normal.

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Review: Richard III at HOME

It was the late, great, Mr Manchester himself, Tony Wilson, who said if it’s between the truth and the legend, print the legend (someone else said it first but all should defer to Tony).

I’m a sucker for legend. It’s always more fun.

The Bard must have listened to Tony Wilson (I know, but like I say, Tony Wilson transcends all, including the linear concept of time), when writing the dark, blood-thirsty account of, let’s say, Richard III’s ‘driven’ ascent to the throne (and subsequent exit via a bloody end on the battlefield).

Indeed history tells us he wasn’t responsible for all those in his path who fell by the wayside.

The death wayside.

But Shakespeare tells it different.

I recall watching the unbelievable account of the discovery (and verification of such) of Richard’s skeletal remains underneath a car park in Leicester.

One such expert involved (no names – that is, I can’t remember it), was distraught and almost defensive of Richard as a long lost love, when it was suggested that he was anything but righteous and, indeed, up-right. I don’t think suggesting that he was suffering from scoliosis of the spine is somewhat scurrilous in nature, but perhaps she’d taken Shakespeare’s depiction of the King somewhat quite to heart.

 

Hopefully she swerved Headlong’s production of Richard III at HOME Mcr last night, as it pulled no punches in staying true to this dark tale, directed by John Haidar.

Whilst the words are Shakespeare’s, their delivery belonged completely to Tom Mothersdale in the lead role who owned both those and the character.

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Tom Mothersdale as Richard III, pic credit Marc Brenner

We were truly in the presence of extraordinarily talented actors all round, there was only one person in Theatre 1 last night and that was he and his wonderfully, dark, deliciously humorous, physically contorted creation (a wonderful actor ‘creates’ his character – and he did), of one Richard III.

Indeed, and I don’t mean this anything other than complimentary, shut your eyes or even squint your eyes and you could be watching, hearing, being captivated by another legend (and kind of first namesake) Rik Mayall – the mannerisms wild, but appropriate, the asides and occasional breaking of the 4th wall biting and ‘laugh out loud’ funny, but these elements were contained to those moments where warranted, suddenly reminding the audience of the evil behind the character (none moreso when he proceeded to bite off an ear – oh.yes).

Highly stylised, the use of two way mirrors which would light up to reveal the ghosts of those slain, the smoke, the scissor-sharp strings of the music which punctuated the scenes and the crackling and flashing of the lighting to depict death and destruction, all contributed to an electric atmosphere in Theatre One, when at times you could hear a pin drop (those times were usually followed by a ‘jump out of your skin’ moment.

I’m still recovering.

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Tom Mothersdale as Richard III,  John Sackville as Henry, pic credit Marc Brenner

Indeed, when towards the end, Richard uttered those immortal words,

A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse…

I was ready to dash out onto Whitworth Street and track one down, such was my desperation to prolong his life and, in turn, the play.

Tom Mothersdale as Richard III, Heledd Gwynn as Ratcliffe, Stefan Adegbola as Buckingham, Derbhle Crotty as Elizabeth – pic credit: Marc Brenner

Whatever the truth of this contorted monarch, in both character and body (or not), the entire outfit delivered a legendary performance.

Catch this extraordinary production at HOME until this Saturday 4 May.

For times, tickets and all other details, visit Home Mcr website

 

 

 

 

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Theatre review: Romeo and Juliet – Moscow City Ballet

I love Prokofiev’s score, Shakespeare’s story, and I love going to the ballet. So with all ingredients in place, it is natural that I have seen multiple ballet productions of Romeo and Juliet in the past and either because of or despite this, I happily wanted to see the latest brought to Manchester; this time by the Moscow City Ballet at the Palace Theatre.

And so what would this production of the infamous star-crossed lovers bring to the stage?

The Company were in town for two nights, bagging a brace of big production ballets, accompanied by a live orchestra, the  Hungarian Simfonieta Orchestra, conducted by Igor Shavruk.

The second was Swan Lake, the first; this the most famous of love stories.

The costumes were something to behold, the colours dazzling, the flowing fabrics of the female dancers as graceful as the steps performed in them, and the sets simple yet vibrant with curtain backdrops depicting Verona including the infamous balcony and the church where the short-lived marriage took place.

I can’t speak of the aesthetics and costumes, designed by Natalia Povago, without mentioning the challenge posed to principle dancer, Kseniya Stankevich, who, as Juliet, not only stole the show with her heartfelt, honest and moving performance, but even did so for quite some time with a dress which hadn’t quite been zipped up during a scene with her nurse. The tension!

Speaking of the nurse, special mention must be given to Ekaterina Lebedeva who gave a perfectly pitched comedic performance, an almost slapstick affair, as she stomach-juttingly stomped across the stage, gurning away providing a laugh out loud moment and the perfect light relief. And let’s face it, I shouldn’t think I’m giving much away when I point out that whilst Romeo and Juliet is a love story, it is one shrouded in sorrow and devastation.

In fact the production provided perfect light and shade throughout. The shade, whilst most expected, had added dark dimensions by way of the dancers bedecked in swathes of black fabric, depicting pending and eventual death. None more so than in the final scene of the production when the four victims of death, two Capulets, two Montagues, are held aloft in formation – almost symbolic of crucifixion.

But let’s get back to that light – the marriage scene where Juliet and Romeo (Dzimitry Lazovik) charmingly, naively and sweetly steal frantic kisses at the altar behind the Friar’s back, was again a welcome injection of humour to a story that even the least experienced in the texts of Shakespeare knows will end in heartbreak.

In summary, the entire Russian company put on a spirited performance, bringing an oft-told tale of young love and family rivalry alive once again, adding artistry and a touch of beauty, to what would normally be another dark and dreary January night in our dear old city.

For dates of future performances by Moscow City Ballet throughout the UK, see http://www.pmbpresentations.com/

For all upcoming productions at the Palace Theatre, visit https://www.atgtickets.com/venues/palace-theatre-manchester/

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Culture Manchester Popular culture preview Preview/review The Arts Theatre

OthelloMacbeth – a play of two halves…

Or should that be a production of two plays? Or a production of two halves, each one a play? But are they two plays? In this world premier of the HOME and Lyric Hammersmith co-production, they are two, yet they are one.

And I shall tell you for why.

The plays (when discussing Othello and Macbeth, I shall from hereon in refer to them as ‘the plays’, and when discussing OthelloMacbeth, I shall refer to it as ‘the production’)…

And so, the plays, written by one William Shakespeare, are both linked by their tales of jealousy and power and this was non-more so apparent by the seamless fusion of their narratives in last night’s production.

However, we can’t give all the credit to the themes set out by Shakespeare those centuries ago, but some must go to  Salford-based Director, Jude Christian, and the incredible cast  of  Samuel Collings (Iago/Macduf), Grace Cookey-Gam (Lodovico/Lennox), Paul Courtenay Hyu (Brabantio/Duncan), Caroline Faber (Lady Macbeth), Kirsten Foster (Desdemona), Sandy Grierson (Cassio/Macbeth), Kezrena James (Bianca), Melissa Johns (Emilia) and Ery Nzaramba (Othello/Banquo).

But fear not (and I can feel the tension from those worrying just how alternative OthelloMacbeth might be), the heart of both plays are there – the dialogue faithful to the Bard’s writing, the delivery as passionate and empowered as any you would see in a ‘straight’ version of both plays at the RSC.

But the focus of both plays and indeed production, is shifted to the females, the spotlight and the narrative shifted both seamlessly but markedly to their roles in the plays and story. Whilst I would argue that Macbeth was perhaps quite ‘good’ for flagging up the females in the tale of murder, ego and greed, I would say that Lady Macbeth was played out, in this production, as no less strong but perhaps more sympathetically and softer in the delivery of lines and expressions as the weaker but markedly out of control Macbeth takes down those in his way. An example of softness adding a positive strength and sympathy to a character.

The women of Othello are dignified in their passionate reactions to the unjust (understatement) treatment of Desdemona by beau Othello and those around him as they storm, swagger and posture their way through the tale.

At this point, I should say that whilst all cast were truly mesmerising throughout each play and indeed multiple roles played, my attention was often stolen by Melissa Johns and her strong, feisty, funny, warm, determined depiction of Emilia.

With regional accents retained, traditional costume replaced by contemporary clothing, this does nothing to distract from the stories and impressive acting of the two great works.

Indeed, the sets are stark, particularly in Othello, the focus of the first half, where all action takes place in front of a stark, steel backdrop leaving literally nowhere to hide for the company. And as the first half, and indeed play draws to a close, the audience are treated to a blurring of the tales as the steel curtain is raised and Melissa Johns, Kirsten Foster and Kezrena James seamlessly evolve into the three witches of Macbeth…

Spellbinding, clever and captivating, I think even Shakespeare would be proud of this representation and indeed modern mash-up of his work.

OthelloMacbeth is faithful to not just the classic texts but moreover to the female roles taking them from the metaphorical wings to the centre stage.

Showing at HOME until Saturday 29 September, click here for more information and tickets.

Photo credits: Helen Murray