I'm in the midst of teaching the Duke University London Drama programs ad have been seeing so much theatre that I'm way behind reporting on it. So here's a capsule of recent productions of plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries
MACBETH at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon.
I dreaded seeing another Macbeth, but this Michael Boyd production was actually quite fascinating. First, the surprise beginning -- a bit of the final scene, giving the play a circular structure and making time relative. Then the usual prophesies to Macbeth and Banquo, but no witches; instead we had three children lowered from the ceiling and suspended in front of the two generals. We later discover that these are the children of Macduff that Macbeth has murdered. The army that conquers Macbeth via Birnham Wood is an army of the ghosts of all the people Macbeth has murdered.
The production was effectively staged. This is the first production actually saged for the new theater and Michael Boyd used every resource, particularly strong verticals -- characters were often lowered from above or suspended. A lot of use was made of the auditorium itself. One really felt part of the production.
Jonathan Slinger is brilliant at using every note in his voice. Seldom have I heeard Shakespeare spoken in such an arresting manner. The rest of the cast were all very good. Not revelatory, but effective enough.
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING at the Globe
A typical Globe production. Elizabethan dress. The plusses were Eve Best and Charles Edwards as Beatrice and Benedick. Delightful. The rest of the cast was no more than OK. Director Jeremy Herrin staged the play as if the entire audience was directly in front of the actors. However, the audience sits on three sides at the Globe and the 2/3 of us on the sides got side views all night and had trouble hearing all but Edwards. One deserves more for £29.
Things looked much better from the side at Jonathan Dove's production of ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL. Dove knows how to work at the Globe. A runway went from the stage all the way to the far wall of the pit of the Globe, which meant that essentially, this was almost an arena presentation. More important, Dove had interesting ideas about this difficult play about a young woman who loves a man who doesn't love her. In this production, Sam Crane's Bertram is drawn to Helena, but is simply not mature enough for marriage. He is a bit of a spoiled brat, but there is also tenderness toward the girl he is forced to marry. The ending seems less of an abrupt piece of trickery than usual. Janie Dee's Countess was not the usual grande dame, but a still vibrant, sexy woman, just old enough to be the mother of a teenager. The cast was consistently strong. I've never seen an audience so enjoy this play.
Massinger's THE CITY MADAM at the RSC Swan Theatre could have been delightful, but Jo Stone-Fewings played Luke, the central character as if he were the villain in a revenge tragedy. With such joyless, non-comic acting at the center of a comedy, the production fell flat as a pancake.
I dreaded Katie Mitchell's new production of Thomas Heywood's 1603 play, A WOMAN KILLED WITH KINDNESS at the National. Mitchell can be infuriating. There were some of her usual tricks here. The stage was quite dark, as if lit by only the lamps on the set, which meant that one seldom saw actors' faces. Some of the actors' diction was incoherent. However, Mitchell had strong, valid ideas about this play in which women are the pawns of negotiations between men (a wife is seduced by her husband's best friend; a man forces his sister to marry his enemy in order to cancel his debts and broker an end to a feud). For the most part, this was Mitchell in her ultra-realist mode with stylized set changes and scene breaks. Yes, there was the usual running around of supernumeraries, but at least in this production you understood who was running where and why.