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Why Shakespeare’s brain is better than yours


It’s your classic love pentagon.

Watching Othello:

The audience believes that…
Iago wants…
Othello to believe that…
Desdemona loves Cassio…
Who loves her right back.

Evolutionary psychologist Professor Robin Dunbar calls the process by which we as human beings understand the hidden motivations and thoughts of others ‘intentionality’. This example from Othello is fifth level intentionality – that is, five layers of social understanding. The ability to think in this way is one of the main things that separate us from the apes. Human beings function in societies that are far larger and more complex than other primates (though not as large as you might think – ‘Dunbar’s number’ posits that you can only sustain 150 meaningful relationships in your life, a figure that has remained constant even in the age of Facebook).

This is possible because we have developed abnormally large brains with the considerable computing power needed to sustain social networks. If you’ve ever wondered why human babies are so utterly useless compared to the get-up-and-go offspring of other animals, it’s because we’re all essentially born 12 months premature. We’ve evolved such gigantic heads (really nothing more than pretty brain cases) that human babies have to be evacuated unfinished at 9 months, otherwise they’d be stuck forever. The rest of a baby’s development has to be finished off outside the womb. So this explains why my 6 months old nephew is such a tough crowd.

Another consequence of this is that we are capable of fifth order intentionality, whereas monkeys only manage first order (“they know that they know” to quote Dunbar) and some apes possess second order intentionality (“they know that someone else knows something”). Where this becomes crucial for the development of human culture is that it’s necessary to have at least third order intentionality to tell even simple narratives (where the teller communicates to the audience that someone else did something), and four levels are required to elevate this to the level of literature (‘‘the writer wants the reader to believe that character A thinks that character B intends to do something’’).

Dunbar argues that literature is at its most fascinating when it operates on the level of fifth order intentionality – as in the example from Othello. But here’s the catch. In order for Shakespeare to be able to write stories on the fifth level, he, as the weaver of this tangled web, had to be operating on the sixth level of intentionality – ie “I want the audience to believe that Iago wants Othello to believe that Desdemona loves Cassio, who loves her right back”. The ability to do this makes Shakespeare very unusual. Less than 20% of people are able to operate on this level, and this, says Dunbar, is one of the reasons why anyone can appreciate a great story, but it takes a brain like Shakespeare’s to write one.

Though rationalising Shakespeare’s storytelling gift like this might seem to some to diminish it, to me it only adds to its lustre. Though Shakespeare (and other great writers like him) were not, of course, aware of these theories, his innate understanding of what it is to be human meant that his writing intuitively reflected these principles. Further research showed that Shakespeare limited his dramatic setups to stay below the limit of intentionality that most people can comfortably grasp, to the extent that if a couple of offstage characters are being discussed, Shakespeare drops the amount of characters onstage to preserve fifth level intentionality. Other scientists have noted that Shakespeare’s plays have an average of 28 characters – the same size as the intimate inner circles human beings tend to form.

There’s one final evolutionary insight that culture vultures might find sobering. In primate societies, the key method of social bonding is grooming. It’s why monkeys can so often be found picking at each other’s fur. This serves no practical purpose, but it does release endorphins in the brain and help monkeys feel close to one another. Turns out the same works for humans, with MRI scanners showing endorphins flooding into the brain when we’re stroked lightly. The problem is, with our larger social groups, if we bonded in this way we’d have to spend nearly half of our day stroking each other. Pleasant as this sounds, it wouldn’t leave much time for building pyramids or conquering the world or writing theatre blogs, or any of the other things that make us as human beings such advanced creatures. In fact, we spend only around 20% of our day on social bonding, and Dunbar thinks it’s culture that bridges this gap. As a shortcut to social bonding, we’ve created religion, we make art and music and dance in unison, and most crucially we laugh together. Our artists conjure rich social experiences that glue our complex societies together.

So next time you see some Shakespeare and are tempted to feel a little smug over the fancy fifth level intentionality you’re operating on, remember that, in evolutionary terms at least, you’re just picking fleas out of the other monkeys’ fur…

I saw Professor Dunbar give a talk at the Royal Institution. Check their website for a fascinating lineup of events, held in the theatre where they film the Christmas Lecture – GEEKFEST!


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Pests review ★★★★★

It’s rare that a playwright comes along whose use of language is so distinctive they couldn’t possibly be mistaken for anyone else. It’s rarer still to encounter one who seems to go beyond this to invent a new language that’s all their own.

But that, dazzlingly, is what Vivienne Franzmann does in Pests, then uses it to unlock a world of pain and let us in.

This is the story of Pink and Rolly, two sisters trapped in a tiny rotting world. Their little family has been divided as much as it’s ever been together, by time in separate care homes and time in jail. At the start of the play though, Rolly, with nowhere else to turn, pregnant and just out of prison, has gravitated back to her sister and her filthy flat once again.

The story that unfolds is a darkly magical vision of how poisonous even the deepest love can be; how two people can hold each other up and tear each other down at the same time. As Rolly tries to look towards some sort of future, Pink clings to the past and listens to the Spice Girls Wannabe, with its upbeat but meaningless instructions for life, on endless repeat.

The way these sisters talk to each other is unlike anything you’ll ever have heard in a theatre. Franzmann spent years as a teacher and worked closely with the fascinating Clean Break theatre, meeting women who are or have been in prison. It’s clear she picked up a lot from both these experiences, but it seems to me that the dialogue of the play is not a mere impersonation of any one reality. Pink and Rolly speak a magpie language patched together from their experiences, constructed according to their own rules, with its own texture and rhythms. Sometimes learned from each other, sometimes baffling to each other, it wordlessly expresses both their unbreakable closeness and the widening gulf between them.

Ellie Kendrick and Sinéad Matthews devour this foreign language, speaking it as naturally as if they grew up with it themselves, sensitive to all of its secrets. Both are wonderful: raw, honest, focused. These girls are so different to the kind of people we normally see represented on stage that it’s to the credit of everyone involved that there’s no whiff of patronisation about this production, just empathy and understanding.

This production has a quiet elegance and sophistication that belies its seeming chaos. Lucy Morrison’s direction is so lightly stamped it feels almost invisible (in the best way possible), never getting in the way of the story, but lying silently behind the total control and clarity you feel in the heartbeat of this show. The sound design by Emma Laxton is some of the best I’ve ever heard – rich and atmospheric but wedded so completely to the energy and undercurrents of the performances that again you more feel than notice it.

Joanne Scotcher’s set (made entirely of duvets, mattresses and sofas – so close to the land of my dreams it’s scary) manages to conjure both the inner and outer worlds of the characters with magical realism, especially when painted with Kim Beveridge’s hauntingly abstract and yet somehow specific projections.

This is an extraordinary play, but not entirely perfect. Towards the end Franzmann has her characters state things that have already been more eloquently expressed in a hundred subtle ways, and this perhaps robs the ending of some of its power.

Altogether though this is a truly unique play, offering insights into worlds theatre has rarely visited, and it could not be better served by a cast and crew in harmony with every note of its strange and beautiful music.


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Is mental illness still taboo in theatre?

Today on his blog for The Stage, Mark Shenton talked with refreshing openness about his depression, and how it can have a positive influence on his life when he tackles it right.

It got me thinking: is mental illness still a taboo in the theatre world? Other industries have different prejudices to tackle – the battle to wipe homophobia out of sport springing to mind – but theatre has always prided itself on being a broad church, a gang of misfits, a place for free expression.

But how often do we really talk about depression and other mental illnesses? Stephen Fry has done much to raise the profile of these issues, but it’s remarkable how often reviewers refer to his disappearance during the run of the play Cell Mates in 1995, with the implication of ‘that time he went a bit mental’.

I think there are a couple of stumbling blocks to having a more meaningful discussion about mental illness. The first is the longstanding impression that depression and creativity somehow go hand in hand, that the ‘black dog’ is the artist’s muse, that the tears of the clown are somehow necessary. From my own experiences of depression, it’s nothing of the sort, it’s a deadening, stifling weight that robs you of the confidence needed to create anything. Though it’s true that many creative people have suffered from depression, in my view they achieved what they did in spite not because of their illness. This, I think, is a far more interesting narrative – how people are able to overcome their problems to create things that bring great joy to others. This story is one that, if shared more openly, could be extremely helpful to sufferers both in the industry and in other walks of life.

Secondly, there’s the perceived importance of always showing your best and most beautiful face – you are an entertainer, of course, and the show must go on. This is equally nonsensical. Having a mental illness need not stop you from being good at your job as an actor or a theatre creative, any more than being gay stops you from being good at football. Indeed, in a profession that draws so heavily on the extremes of emotion, we should seek to learn from and represent all shades of human experience, and that includes the people we call upon to create our theatre.

Aside from the clear good that actors and high profile creatives could do in helping to remove the stigma and fear around these issues, there’s also a more selfish benefit that could come of a greater engagement with these issues. When you stop to think about it, how many of the great characters in drama would, if given a session on a psychiatrist’s couch, be diagnosed with some form of mental illness? A good number of Chekhov’s characters display all the symptoms of depression, ditto many of Miller’s to pluck just a couple of authors from the air. Causeless, unnamable malaise is a regular theme of a lot of the new writing I see.

One of my favourite descriptions of theatre is from the pen of Oscar Wilde.

I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.

If he’s right, and I hope he is, then we must try to share that experience in its entirety, not hide from truths because they’re painful or bite our tongues to avoid embarrassment.

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Venice Preserv’d review ★★★

Venice Preservd

‘Immersive theatre’. Is there any more terrifying combination of words in the English language?

I’m deeply distrustful of immersive theatre for reasons which, I now realise, go to the most Freudian depths of my infantile psyche. As blogging is cheaper than therapy, I shall now share them with you, and tell you how they make me feel.

  1. There’s some small part of me that wants theatre to always take place under a proscenium arch, and preferably emerge as if by magic from behind a thick red and gold curtain. I know the precise local theatre curtain that did this to me as a child. It’s also the reason that if I’m honest I think any set that doesn’t look like a wood panneled library in an Agatha Christie whodunit isn’t a real set at all.
  2. I hate audience participation to a pathological degree. If I think there’s even the merest possibility of it happening I’ll book tickets at the very back of the upper circle, or, ideally, in a different theatre.
  3. I just want to be told a story at night time. Is that so much to ask?

I’ve hated everything I’ve ever seen by Punchdrunk. In both Sleep No More in New York and The Drowned Man in London I just found myself wandering round the beautifully designed environments, desperately seeking some kind of story, increasingly frustrated that whoever I followed they just seemed to have a fight or do some interpretive dance on a sofa, apropos of nothing. I like Secret Cinema (to which Spectators Guild, producers of Venice Preserv’d, has been compared), but in terms of narrative it rides on the pigtails of well loved films, and is at its best when bringing to life and expanding upon the world the film provides rather than trying to tell new stories in the chaos.

As a rational adult, I suppose my problem with immersive theatre has usually been that it’s a lot of sound and fury in the service of very little – a fun, even exhilarating experience with nothing at its core.

Venice Preserv’d is a very different approach to immersive theatre, taking as its basis as weighty a theatrical text as you could wish for – Thomas Otway‘s 1682 tragedy – and building a world around it. It promises to transform Greenwich into the serene republic of Venice, and breathe new life to this rarely performed classical oddball. Does it work? Not entirely. But its failures are often noble, some of its successes sublime, and there are tantalising glimpses of how, a couple of productions from now, this talented company could achieve something really very special.

It doesn’t help that the evening starts with a ‘carnivale’, leading audience members from a meeting point at the Cutty Sark to the vast wharf building in deepest darkest Deptford where the main action takes place. While this 30 minute walk could have – should have – been an opportunity to immerse us in the shadowy world of Venice, instead it’s a poorly thought out, cheap feeling, slapstick affair – more dodgy than dogey – that’s tonally and qualitatively at odds with everything that follows. It serves to immerse you in nowhere so much as, well, Deptford – the highlight for me being a glimpse of a newly opened Waitrose. We’re repeatedly told that we’re now entering Venice, yet at one point a strolling actor asked us ‘What are these noisy things that clatter down the streets? We do not have these in Venice’. Consistency is essential in creating believable worlds (something Punchdrunk, to their credit, always achieve), but it was lacking here.

Things improve considerably when you arrive at the wharf. Once the play proper begins, it takes place in 5 or 6 different locations inside and outside the building. The first scene, in which a plot to assassinate the senators of Venice is hatched, is played on a platform overlooking a fine stretch of the river Thames. Vast and oddly peaceful, drenched (at least during the uncharacteristically beautiful sunset when I saw it) in golden light, if you squint a bit you could almost imagine yourself in Venice. More interestingly though, the most dominating feature of this docklands backdrop are the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf. The dark pyramid atop HSBC’s headquarters blinks sinisterly as our protagonists declaim

Reign, reign ye monarchs that divide the World,
Busy rebellion, ne’er will let you know
Tranquility and happiness like mine;
Like gawdy ships th’ obsequious billows fall
And rise again, to lift you in your pride;
They wait but for a storm and then devour you

This piquant modern colouring is reinforced early on by some new contemporary dialogue added to help ease the transition between locations. However, after a few scenes these additions abruptly disappear – a shame because they’re well written and genuinely complement the text, and are delivered with raw, magnetic energy by the intriguing Dwane Walcott (who I’d definitely like to see more of in future).

This disjointedness is characteristic of the evening as a whole. After a couple of exterior locations, the action moves inside, to what are basically two large, traditionally arranged theatre auditoriums where this becomes, in essence, traditionally staged theatre. There are sporadic attempts to involve the audience which are fun and engaging enough, but things then quickly settle back into largely passive spectatorship. Later, for the play’s climax, we’re broken out of this setup again, and rewarded with an extremely involving, simple but emotionally effective ending.

While each of these different stagings work in their own way, the overall journey the audience is taken on is uneven and uncertain, which also makes the evening seem longer and more drawn out than it needs to.

That’s not to say that there aren’t considerable treasures to be had along the way. The design is beautiful, from the costumes to the clever sets, to atmospheric sound design and haunting use of projection. And one area where this production’s hype delivers is in its casting. These are indeed young classical actors to watch. Ashley Zhangazha is an impassioned, engaging and sympathetic Jaffier (even if at times, like so many other actors playing Shakespeare, he does suffer from the tendency to take on a flatly pleading tone). Ferdinand Kingsley as Pierre gives us the full journey from raffish rogue to unexpected hero with complete clarity and strength throughout. And Jessie Buckley as Belvidera is just extraordinary. It took me a while to realise I recognised her from Lloyd Webber talent show I’d Do Anything, but I’m happy to report the acting lessons with Denise Van Outen she was subjected to as part of that charade have left no lasting damage. She brings enormous energy and life to the part, but also subtlety, connecting every word of the dialogue, even at its most melodramatic, to honest emotion. Her climactic moments are mesmerising.

This production then, like the selection of ‘Venetian’ canapes you can buy on a little wooden boat for £8, is a decidedly mixed experience. It’s certainly true that, even in such a radical production, what’s likely to linger with you is the most traditional aspect of all: damn fine acting. But it’s also true that the parts here are greater than their sum. There’s enough that’s exciting about this way of doing theatre – immersive, with a purpose – that I hope this company will build on what they’ve achieved here, perhaps choose a more appropriate text as their basis, and deliver something that more completely marries the old and the new next time.


Venice Preserv’d runs until 8th June 2014. Learn more and book

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Titus Andronicus review ★★★★★

Titus Andronicus at the Globe

There’s a less well known flipside to the unsettling sensation of deja vu called jamais vu. Where in deja vu sufferers feel brand new situations are somehow familiar, jamais vu instills in its victims the opposite sense that the faces of loved ones, daily routines and favourite places are entirely unknown. The Globe might want to consider setting up a jamais vu support group, because this production of Titus Andronicus could make even the most hardened of groundlings feel uncertain of their surroundings.

With the stage swathed in black cloth, the air cloudy with incense smoke and the atmosphere brooding with ominous sounds from unseen sources, William Dudley’s design for Lucy Bailey’s production is a statement of intent. It sends a message from the moment you enter that this is not going to be a jolly evening out at the Globe with good ol’ safe Shakespeare. It’s the most radical use of the Globe’s space I’ve ever seen, and is effective in all sorts of subtle ways that become apparent as the evening progresses. And though Bailey’s production is a wilful deconsecration of what can sometimes be hallowed as a sacred space, it comes out of deep respect and a profound instinct for how this unique theatre works, and what it can be.

Having broken the sanctity of the stage, Bailey yanks the players out into the yard (and this is one production where standing is most definitely the best seat in the house). Moving through the crowd on platforms of black scaffolding on wheels from which the actors call to each other and to us, the drama seems to fill the entire space and yet retain an extraordinary intimacy and power.  I’ve never felt quite so involved in a Shakespeare production, quite so certain that when the leaders on stage appeal to the people of Rome, they’re not making empty rhetorical flourishes but talking directly to me. 

The inkily blank canvas also heightens the power of the simple theatrical magic worked by Bailey – from the fluttering handwritten propaganda thrown from the gallery to the actors transformed into hunting hounds by brilliantly observed canine performances and strange, barking horns.

The purity and bravery doesn’t stop with the design. This is a cast without a weak link, and with a shared sense of complete clarity and purpose. William Houston makes a fascinating Titus, from the beginning a proud wreck of a man who, after years of war, has lost none of his fight but the better part of his mind. He wears pain on his face and his limbs seem to twitch from wild exhaustion. Indira Varma’s Tamora is a delight, delivering moments of real pain, but more usually having a lot of fun with the duplicity and manipulativeness of her character while staying just on the right side of vampish. David Shaw-Parker is show-stealing in a hilarious, drunken cameo as Bacchus.

The production doesn’t flinch from violence or bloodshed (‘As used by the Wardrobe Mistress of Titus Andronicus’ must be this year’s most coveted washing powder endorsement).  It’s shockingly visceral and graphic, but more than that it leaves a haunting impression of a society so brutalised that violence is almost all it has left. It’s a vision of Rome in its last days clinging to a long lost vision of glory and grandeur, a once golden fountain, to borrow the play’s imagery, now brackish with slime and flowing with tears.

The first half is bleak and almost unbroken by any crack of light. The second half, in contrast, turns out to be surprisingly entertaining, even funny. Both William Houston and the production as a whole seems to take their cue from the moment when, asked why Titus is silent after his daughter has been raped and mutilated, he only laughs, explaining

Why, I have not another tear to shed:
Besides, this sorrow is an enemy,
And would usurp upon my watery eyes
And make them blind with tributary tears:
Then which way shall I find Revenge’s cave?

The second half’s maniacal humour lends it a driving energy and a curious darkness of its own. Only once did I feel this had been taken too far, when Tamora’s impersonation of Revenge (along with her two sons Rapine and Murder) in order to trick Titus comes over as just plain silly – especially jarring given how much of a smooth operator Varma has shown herself to be in the rest of the play.

All told though, this is the best, most consistently and powerfully gripping production I have seen at The Globe. In one telling detail, though the black cloth obliterates the Globe’s legendary stage, Titus and his people wear terracotta and gold robes that are the exact colour of the fake marble columns hidden beneath the shrouds.  The Globe is reinvented, but all that is best about it still shines through in this production that’s as full of life as it is of death.


Titus Andronicus is at The Globe until 13 July 

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Five things to see in May

The Silver Tassie

This isn’t the kind of all-encompassing uber-list you’ll find at other, more tryhard theatre sites (yes Londonist, I’m talking to you and your goody two shoes). Instead, it’s simply the five things I’m most excited about seeing this month.

1. The Silver Tassie at the National Theatre

World War One is sorightnow right now, and this rarely revived 1920s play by Sean O’Casey has the critics cooing like doves in a jacuzzi.

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2. Venice Preserv’d in Venice (by way of Greenwich)

The Spectators’ Guild’s immersive approach has already seen them dubbed ‘the Secret Cinema of classical theatre’, and this production – which promises to transform Greenwich into the serene republic of Venice – is a good chance to find out if the comparisons are deserved.

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3. The Testament of Mary at the Barbican

Fiona Shaw is never less than electrifying, managing to transmogrify even mediocre plays like last year’s Scenes from an Execution into something special. And here you’re getting not just Shaw, but theatrical power couple Fiborah, as she once again teams up with long time collaborator Deborah Warner. The results are so sure to be interesting that the Barbican could qualmlessly offer a money-back intriguarantee. Combining words is fun.

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4. All My Sons at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

I’m always up for a bit of Miller time – but will the huge expanses of Regent’s Park drown an intimate play, or make this modern classical tragedy even more powerful?

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5.  Secret Theatre at ?

You pays your money, you takes your chances with this pop-up theatre experience imported from New York. With no idea of what play you’re going to see or where (other than that it’s a ‘Secret Gallery’ in Zone 1) it’s a risky £20, but then, this is a non-profit organisation and with profits going to charity Orca, this production will save the whales even if it jumps the shark.

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A Small Family Business ★★

Nigel Lindsay in a small family business at the National Theatre At the start of this production, the set – a nearasdammit full size reproduction of every suburban estate house you’ve ever seen – wheels round before our eyes to reveal the home hidden inside. It’s a clever coup. By breaking down the forbidding brick walls it beckons us in, making the cavernous Olivier seem somehow intimate, promising to expose the secrets of those who dwell within. Sadly though, when the set stops moving, all this promise quickly evaporates leaving us with little more than a gigantic doll’s house.

Ayckbourn has been buffeted more than most by the choppy currents of theatrical fashion. Once derided as safe and populist by critics who thought they were being clever, some modern critics (who think they’re being even cleverer) have decided that he is in fact a subversive chronicler of his times. And so A Small Family Business has come to be hailed by Michael Billington as a “devastating assault” on the “entrepreneurial values we were taught to admire in the 80s”, and Mark Ravenhill as “one of the most intensely political plays of the period”.

This, in my opinion, is a reassessment too far. Ayckbourn himself denies that he writes political plays , and on the evidence of this by-the-numbers production, at least, this cat isn’t going to upset even the most squeamish of pigeons.

Our hero, Jack McCracken, begins the play as a pillar of propriety, known by one and all for his upstanding, unshakable principles. The only problem is his extended family don’t share his scruples, and as he takes over his father-in-law’s business he’s drawn deeper and deeper into their murky schemes. As he compromises his beliefs one after the other, he comes round to the view, expressed by his wife, that everyone bends the rules a little here and a little there: it’s the only way to survive. This, say the play’s admirers, is a clear commentary on Thatcherite materialism. And in a sense, of course it is. But it’s actually much more universal than that – the character of Jack owing more than a little to the theatrical archetype of the tested idealist, seen perhaps most powerfully in Ibsen and Miller. But where those playwrights extract pathos, irony and dark, bitter humour from their heroes’ fall from grace, this play offers no such rewards.

The problem, really, is that Jack is just a nice guy who plays a frustratingly passive part in the story. He’s much too accepting, taking every step of his journey towards the immoral world everybody else inhabits with a moment of comic fluster, of indignance, of mild outrage, then plodding on without ever really being conflicted or or examined. Perhaps it’s true that the danger of rampant commercialism is its uncomplaining, almost unremarked acceptance. But it’s also true that watching someone sort of weak sort of going along with something isn’t particularly dramatic or funny.

The shortcomings of the play are exacerbated by the production, which is entertaining enough but mild and consistently unremarkable. It’s not really Nigel Lindsay’s fault. His Nick is a thoroughly engaging, powerfully likeable presence – it’s just that the script and the direction don’t allow him to be much else. There’s capable support from the large ensemble cast with some amusingly drawn character work. Benedict Hough (who some readers may remember as the geeky one from 1990s sitcom Game On) gives a genuinely extraordinary performance as a snivelling private investigator. His presence is so reptilian as to be physically repulsive, not least because he spits profusely as he talk until saliva runs down his chin and those in the front row (as I was) start wishing the National would hand out souvenir ponchos reading ‘I survived the Splash Zone at A Small Family Business!‘ It’s either a fairly severe medical condition or a bold character choice. Not being able to tell exactly is what makes it great acting.

The evening as a whole feels flabby though. A lot of jokes never really land, the timing never seems quite right, and the more farcical elements lack the necessary precision. That set, so wonderful in its opening moments, is required to represent 4 or 5 different people’s houses over the course of the play, but it’s much too specific to do this, neither director nor designers figuring out a way of solving this staging challenge. And yes, I know the point is that everyone lives in identikit suburban houses. It’s a pretty standard way for artistic types to present ‘ordinary people’, but it’s blinkered. In reality of course no two houses are in any way identical. And either way it’s still deadening to watch.

I have a love/hate relationship with the National, and it tends to work out to a pretty predictable 50/50 split. At its best the theatre is a wonderful place, full of energy and capable of producing extraordinarily imaginative works that simply wouldn’t be possible anywhere else. But so often you find yourself wondering: why this play? Why now? Couldn’t they have found something more necessary to do in this unique space?

What if all your in-laws are outlaws? asks the poster for A Small Family Business. By the end of the evening it’s hard not to answer glumly… So what?


A Small Family Business plays at the National Theatre until 29th June

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Women of Twilight review ★★★

women of twilight

There’s a bit of a mania at the moment for rediscovering lost plays. This is understandable, laudable even, in a world where so often we’re expected to get excited about seeing the same old characters in the same old plays but – wait – this time played by Jude Law! But the problem with buried treasure is that sometimes all the effort of hunting it down and digging it up can lend it a lustre that isn’t really its own.

Director Jonathan Rigby certainly believes that Sylvia Rayman’s 1951 play Women of Twilight is just such a lost classic, having undertaken a long search to rediscover and restage what was once hailed as ‘London’s Most Daring Play’. So let’s imagine ourselves at some theatre history version of The Antiques Roadshow – what exactly has Mr Rigby brought to the table?

Without a doubt it’s an interesting piece, taking us into the wretched establishment of Helen Allistair who offers overpriced refuge to unfortunate young women who have fallen pregnant out of wedlock, and are consequently turned away everywhere else they try. The play follows ten of these girls, eking out an existence in the squalid basement of the house, and the indignities they must endure both at the hands of the sinister Mrs Allistair (who, it transpires, is underfeeding the babies, blocking access to justice and even dabbles in babyfarming) and of 1950s society.

It’s not surprising that this play shocked in its time – an exposé of a deeply uncomfortable subject, written by a woman and featuring not a single man in its world. It’s an honest, brave and tender play (here in a staging that brings out all of these qualities). But it’s by no means perfect. The director clearly regards it as a predecessor to the British ‘kitchen sink’ drama that would develop later in the 50s, and dismisses any attempt to label it as Dickensian. Ultimately though, this is no piece of social realism, and the harder this production strives to subdue the more melodramatic tendencies of the piece, the more impishly they strive to re-exert themselves.

Characterisations are broad and at times overblown (there are at least three or four too many characters, introduced continuously and confusingly throughout the piece). The play’s dialogue seems to be bogged down in its period, where better writing swims and delights in the mores of its time. It never seems more natural than in the pitch-perfect clipped tones of Elizabeth Donnelly as Christine. And ultimately, this play gives in to sentimentality and implausibility.

This production is at its best when it stops resisting and embraces some of these undeniable elements. There are some wonderful lines about kippers and pressure cookers (delivered with relish by Vanessa Russell), and Sally Moretemore is a suitably spiderly villain – half Mrs Danvers, half Miss Hannigan from Annie. It’s wonderful to see such a strong ensemble cast at work on the fringe, all sharing a clear conviction of the dank world of the piece and playing with complete conviction. In a uniformly strong cast, special mention goes to Elizabeth Donnelly who manages to make the fragile innocence of her gateway character engaging (no easy task); the quietly intense, deeply felt performance of Claire Louise Amias, stigmatised by a murder committed by the man she still loves; and Emma Reade-Davies who gives an affecting portrayal of Sal, tackling her disability with restraint and sensitivity. The direction too is sure, making effective use of the space, and as clear as the increasingly tangled script allows.

There’s much to like in this tight, riveting production, and the director is right in describing the play as worthy of more attention – a ‘historical freak’. There’s just a tad too much reverence and effort to imbue the play with modern sensitivities and subtlety. This, I think Rayman was saying, is an unbelievable gothic fairytale. In fetid cellars, outcast women are having their babies taken from them by evil manipulators. But what’s most shocking about this fairytale is that it’s true, and happening right now in 20th-century Britain. The melodrama is the message.


Women of Twilight plays at The Pleasance, Islington until 27th April 2014

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The day the music died: Why the National’s justification for ditching the War Horse musicians doesn’t stand up

War Horse musicians lose their bid to be reinstated in the showThis week, five musicians who had provided live music for War Horse on the West End for four years before being axed last year lost their legal big to be reinstated.

It was clearly a cost cutting move, and the National admitted that was part of the motivation for the change. It’s sad when producers make changes to shows in the name of economy, but heck, this is a business, and it’s understandable given the harsh realities of commercial theatre today. But in defending the move, the National Theatre went further. Nick Starr, executive director of the theatre, stated

The National Theatre’s artistic judgement, made by those with the expertise to assess such matters, is that a live band does not provide the same quality and impact of performance as can be produced through the use of recorded music and professional actors

It’s hard to see this as anything other than disingenuous. Firstly, the musicians had been a part of the show since it opened on the West End. What has happened in the intervening years to convince ‘those with expertise to assess such matters’ that the inclusion of live musicians – a founding element of the production – is no now longer in the show’s best artistic interests?

The words ring especially hollow coming from a theatre which, during the often overblown era of Hytner’s leadership, has at times been notable for throwing live musicians into just about everything. Though less prevalent now, a few years ago you couldn’t swing a cat in the Olivier without hitting a musician. Sometimes this enriched the production – a memorable example being Deborah Warner’s Mother Courage and Her Children in which Duke Special shared the stage with Fiona Shaw, with songs that were an indisputable pillar of the piece – but often, they performed the exact function of simply playing music that might as well have been recorded, as if the National just wanted to fill those draughty corners of the Olivier.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe that live musicians necessarily enhance theatre. John Doyle’s famous production of Sweeney Todd where the actors all played their own instruments, for example, was an interesting experiment but ultimately served to confuse and distract from the story and characterisation. But used for the right reasons, and in a certain kind of theatre, music can be one of a director’s most effective tools.

The use of music at the Globe instantly springs to mind. Lacking the design shortcuts of today’s theatre, music and live sound was one of the key ways of expanding the horizon’s of a play’s world. But more than that, Shakespeare’s theatre had a different social function. There’s a keen sense in Shakespeare’s work of gathering, of people coming together, huddled in the embrace of the Globe as day turns to night and stars fill the sky. Together, the actors and the audience share in a communal process of storytelling, one in which collective disbelief is abandoned and something magically transporting is made from the barest of physical resources and a boundless store of imagination.

War Horse is, of course, not Shakespeare. But its effect, and I think the reason so many people around the world love the show, is much the same. It’s a show that asks us to believe that a tangle of fabric and wire is a horse. It asks us to go with this ‘horse’ on a simple yet incredible journey and invest more of our hearts into it than the greatest of Shakespearean heroes. To suddenly decide that the folk musicians who help weave and colour this story are no longer necessary is a bit like saying that the puppeteers who give the horse life are no longer necessary, and could more effectively be replaced with animatronics. The live musicians are, in the same way, integral to the aesthetic of the show as it was.

Producers sometimes have to make tough decisions and change their shows for reasons other than art. It’s unavoidable. But when they do so they shouldn’t betray the hard work of artists, or seek to deny the original vision.  War Horse, as they have pointed out, works very well in its many international productions without the musicians. But when they removed them from the London show, they changed it. Perhaps they should have the guts to admit it.


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The Massacre at Paris review ★★★★

St Bartholomew's Day Massacre

In 16th-century France, Where’s Wally was a far more brutal affair

In its own odd way this just might be one of the theatrical events of the year.

The performance space at the Rose, with its small, oddly shaped stage and intimate seating would be like any number of other fringe venues were it not for the fact that the backdrop for the stage is a cavernous underground void, hidden beneath office buildings just round the corner from the Globe. This on its own makes it an extraordinary place to do theatre – vast, atmospheric, echoing – and that’s before you realise that trapped beneath a protective layer of concrete and water out there in the gloom, marked out by glowing lines of cheesy but somehow evocative red rope lights,  are the remains of the old Rose Theatre. Built in 1587, the Rose pipped the Globe to the post in the proliferation of public theatres that sprung up around Bankside in Elizabethan London. The Rose’s theatrical history is as august as they come: this was the first public playhouse to put on a show by one William Shakespeare, and the man himself trod these boards as an actor. This play – Marlowe’s The Massacre at Paris – debuted at the theatre in  1593, then after a few revivals, disappeared almost entirely, not being performed in London for 400 years. Until now.

The Rose Theatre remains, London

Lights mark the foundations of the Rose

Given the weight of history that comes with performing this play in this venue then, it’s very much to this production’s credit that we’re not offered anything fusty or reverential, but rather a bold and refreshing take on the material. We’re not expected to enjoy this night at the theatre merely as a piece of history.

This is all founded on one fairly crucial realisation: this play, fascinating though it is for all sorts of reasons, is not – how to put this – very good. Believed to be one of Marlowe’s last plays, there’s a strong theory that the only text that survives is not as Marlowe wrote it. More likely it was cobbled together from memory after Marlowe’s death by actors who’d known the play. It’s a theory that makes intuitive sense as you watch. It’s short (90 minutes in all), it’s  heavy on action, there’s little subtlety or distinctive language – indeed a lot of lines are lifted directly from Shakespeare. It’s sort of like what happens when a group of friends get together for brunch and, clutching Bloody Marys for dear life, try to piece together what happened the night before. Eventually they remember the juicy bits, but most of the finer details are lost forever to the haze.

The play that resulted from this bastardisation is a deeply odd little fishy. Although it feels like a history play, when it was written around 1592, the events at its heart – the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in Paris in 1572 and its consequences – were live, contemporary and unresolved episodes in the brutal French Wars of Religion, still raging after 30 long years. The massacre, in which up to 10,000 protestants were slain by Catholics in Paris and across France, remains a deeply complicated, murky affair in the annals of history. Not so in Marlowe’s version, which strips out all ambiguity, casting the Catholic Duke of Guise, Henri III and the Queen Regent Catherine de Medici as inkier-than-ink bad guys who revel in the slaughter, informing us at every stage of their evil motives. Marlowe even includes a murder-by-poisoned-glove (something that’s not possible, let alone historical), playing into the popular image of the Catherine as an arch Machiavellian manipulator who employed her own full time poisoner.

At first, it’s easy to read this play as a piece of pure protestant propaganda, calculated to appeal to ordinary Elizabethans, their Queen and, as importantly, her censors – with whom Marlowe was shortly to get into a spot of bother, in the arrest that preceded his death at the age of just 29. This is certainly sensational, The Tudors-does-history type stuff, but it soon becomes clear that it’s more complicated than simple propaganda. Firstly, given that Guise, Henri III and Catherine are cast as the perpetrators of this Catholic atrocity, it’s odd both that we see events so squarely from their point of view, and that all the protestant characters are so flimsily written. Henri of Navarre, who emerges at the end of the play as King of France (though at the time of the first performance he was still fighting to establish himself and end the wars) should be the knight in shining armour of the piece. But in this version of events he’s about as interesting as, say, Prince Eric from Disney’s The Little Mermaid. 

The play seems to have been originally subtitled The Tragedy of Guise, an especially odd reading of a story about the thousands of deaths the Duke ordered and perpetrated. Given, though, that this is a play in which eventually everyone dies, many critics have wondered whether the senselessness and violence is in fact the point. In a spiral of events as futile and horrific as the Wars of Religion, there are no winners, and today’s ringmasters will be eaten by the lions tomorrow. If so, this was subversive stuff, in line with Marlowe’s rumoured atheism, even if he does insert an intriguing though unconvincing scene at the climax of the play in which the dying Henri III sends his love to the Queen of England. To add further complexity, the shadowy, silent English agent whom Henri calls to deliver his message is suggested by many to be a representation of Marlowe himself, who almost certainly dabbled in espionage for England.

Given what a tangle of a play this is, this production, directed by James Wallace, does about the most sensible thing you could possibly do with it: have a lot of fun. Styled as a 1960s British gangster film, this a is a fast-paced, energetic and, given the subject matter, surprisingly entertaining evening. Where the script draws characterisation towards the pantomimey, neither director nor cast hold back, sinking their teeth into villainy and launching with relish into an orgy of violence. Whilst the violence is stylised rather than shocking, the clever device of clouds of red confetti bursting out of each dismembered or defenestrated victim has the cumulative effect, after murder upon murder, of trashing the stage completely. These piles of red paper, with channels cut through them from the lifeless feet of yet more corpses being dragged off stage, serve effectively to convey the near-farcical madness of the massacre.

Clever use of space doesn’t stop there. The ghostly red outlines of the Rose’s foundation suddenly become a bridge, or the Seine full to bursting with drowning protestants. Sections of the play are performed down on the very ruins of the Rose itself, the actors picked out of the darkness by shaky torchlight. The effect is altogether haunting.

It’s also an admirably clear production, hacking a path through these unfamiliar events that makes the story instantly accessible, and delivering the dialogue with complete conviction, clarity and an energy that makes it all seem utterly modern. The ensemble cast gel well, each making the most of moments of comedy and poignancy. Special mention should go to James Askill, who shows us Henri III transforming from simpering child to steely king, defiant in death, before our very eyes in the short space of 90 minutes. John Gregor is a silver-tongued, chilling Duke of Guise. Delivering on the promise of that Tragedy of Guise subtitle, he’s felled by his own Caesar-like delusions of invincibility.

This Massacre of Paris takes the bloody history of religious war and the impenetrable mysteries of Marlowe’s text and writes them out in strawberry laces. It’s a momentous event in London theatre history, and – more than that – it’s a hoot.


The Massacre of Paris plays at The Rose until 29th March 2014