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October 2015

‘Smooth-Faced Gentlemen’ take on the irrationally masculine world of Othello

After being blown away by Maxine Peake’s Hamlet earlier this year, I was eager to see what could become of a classic Shakespearean drama if ALL of the characters were portrayed by women. Whilst drama may be looked on at school as a cop-out, ‘girly’ subject, it doesn’t prevent women from being totally underrepresented and under-appreciated in the profession; thus ‘Smooth-Faced Gentlemen’, an all-female theatre company, attempts to redress the balance. After all, Renaissance theatre was originally intended for performance by a cast of all the same sex!

Unlike Cumberbatch’s Hamlet (see my previous post/rant), this version did not attempt to overdo the play, and, in my opinion, ought to be commended for its simplicity. All the women wore identical, unassumingly beige, 1950s army uniforms; thus enhancing the stand out difference of Othello’s skin colour. The set saw a bare stage adorned with multi-purpose doorframes, hanging (aptly) Venetian blinds. Mounted on wheels, these doorframes afforded fast-paced versatility to the piece, as the action of the play tirelessly changes location. Beyond this, when stationary, the set created some memorable stage pictures, namely: Iago and Othello both kneeling in prayer, each framed by their own door/ confession box. Not lasting all that long, this visual parallelism of the two “men” in matching costumes, postures and framed side-by-side, spoke volumes about Iago’s intentions to usurp the Moor through making him his puppet. Moments such as this added layers of analytical depth to the language, rather than using physicality to necessarily spell out the plot.

Another telling use of the blinds came in the scene where Othello eavesdrops on Cassio, fuelling his anger with misconstrued evidence. A row of half-open blinds cut the stage in half, and spun around to allow the audience to inhabit either side of this arras. As Cassio gushed on his love for Bianca, Othello could be half seen, upstage, pacing in fury. In this scene in particular, the blinds came into their own, marking the key underlying discrepancy between what is seen, heard and so easily misunderstood. The minimalist set design was justified by its symbolic depth.

Despite the effectiveness of the design techniques employed, the overriding simplicity allowed the overall focus to be directed towards the original language, within which the cast found, and exploited, an unexpected level of comedy.

Perhaps overexcited by this opening night of the show’s London transfer, the role of Brabantio seemed comically overplayed in the opening scene; I was momentarily concerned this play could sink into a pit of am-dram clichés (see Romeo and Juliet as played in Hot Fuzz!) However, my fears were allayed as the pressure was laid off of Brabantio and the whole cast adopted an appropriate level of comedy, finding satire and moments of pantomimic self-awareness in the script. Roderigo, played by Hannah Morley, was wonderfully foolish, not only providing comic relief but, importantly, exacerbating Iago’s sinister nature by comparison.

Calm and cunning as he is, perhaps Iago was destined to be played by a wily woman. Actress Ashlea Kaye played the role as perfectly villainous, never allowing masculine rage to let her lose her cool. On the other hand, I wondered from the outset how a role as overtly masculine as Othello could be handled by a female actor. Written as an uninspiring role for the most part, Anita-Joy Uwajeh did seem honestly in love (or indeed lust) with Desdemona; but the true mastery of the role is in the final scene, when her wide-eyed expression crossed the boundary from masculine anger, to the crazed hysteria of a woman scorned. That is not to say that this performance transformed Othello into ‘Othella’; rather that the production as a whole showed the virtue of exploring the unexpectedly feminine depths of character available to these traditional roles.

These feminine attributes were often so subtle that when the female characters actually came on stage, with the simple addition of a colourful skirt over their fatigues, I was forced to double take. Harking back to the original Renaissance playhouses, these women, at times, appeared as men performing in drag! Perhaps so focussed on achieving convincing male portrayals (which, as described, were hugely successful), these actresses didn’t exactly exude femininity when it came to playing Shakespeare’s women. That is with the notable exception of Helen Coles in the role of Desdemona. As expected in this quietly feminist theatre company, Desdemona was a strong female character; she was played with ample sass and, despite her relatively limited stage time, she spoke her lines as if holding her own on a stage full of men.

Finally, drawing together the impressive performances and subtly telling set design, the pace of the play can be considered a triumph in its own right. In order to accommodate the vast geographical and temporal expanses covered, the scenes were made to almost overlap; this, in turn, kept the snappy, comedic energy of the piece consistently high. Never a moment was wasted, unless intentionally so. By creating such tireless energy throughout, the cast left time allowances to slow some scenes to total stillness: such as whilst Othello and Iago share a “friendly” drink, Iago allows silent pauses for his poison to sink deeper into his foe. The opposition between pacy comedy and slow seething truly exacerbated the eventual tragedy.

In order to further enhance the drama and pace of the final act, the cast employed the only script-manipulation I will allow: through a soundscape of repeated lines, out of order and overlapping, it became apparent that Cassio’s attempted murder and Desdemona’s deathbed scene were occurring simultaneously. This slight deviation from folio added to the overall chaos and mania of the closing scenes of the play, somewhat vindicating the rash and undeserved actions therein.

Overall, whilst Othello is by no means my favourite Shakespeare play, this revival brought light, laughter and, most importantly, fast-paced excitement to the piece. It wasn’t just ‘good for a group of girls’, it truly stood out as an impressive, worthy take on classic theatre.

Review: Hamlet Cumberbatch, in all its long-awaited glory

Whilst I appreciated this was a well-executed, grand spectacle, responsible for reinvigorating the masses to watch Shakespeare, I can’t help but disagree with just about every directorial decision presented.

Let’s start at the beginning, or the latter half of act 1, scene 2, as this rewrite had it. By all means, update Shakespeare; I’ve seen it done in 80s dress, with unwelcome pop ballads between scenes and even whilst ‘Shit-Faced’. Every director brings their own slant to the Bard. But don’t rewrite it. Don’t mess with the script.

If Cumberbatch’s record-breaking sell out show is anything to go by, the script worked fine before, and not so much when it’s all out of order. It’s sad that half the world are now going to assume this newfangled version is gospel.

This notable lack of the classic opening scene, for me, diminished the initial shock factor of the Ghost’s appearance. The show tried to compensate by making his eventual arrival doubly shocking, to the point of melodramatic ridiculousness. Old Hamlet’s body was chewed up and ‘zombie-fied’ and his language lost impetus due to the bumbling-old-man voice with which it was spoken. This (unfit) characterisation of the Ghost was only further mocked when the actor doubled as the comedic Gravedigger later; other than the alliteration of their names, I don’t see why these two characters needed to be paralleled.

In opposition to the Zombie of Old Hamlet, much of the performance took a relatively naturalistic tact. The stage was overtly grand, totally befitting of the Court of Elsinore, but seemed comfortably like home for the characters and actors alike. Aligning with this set, Cumberbatch played an honest, sincere Hamlet. His emotions were wonderfully heartfelt, if not a little too melancholy for my liking. For me, Hamlet ought to be driven by bitterness, his wit manifested in sarcasm, demeaning those around him and controlling any situation he inhabits. Yet the premature placement of ‘to be or not to be’ rendered Hamlet suicidal from very early on. Whilst Cumberbatch mastered the role he was given, I personally found his scenes were a little too formulaic: spot-lit soliloquies caused him to break down into teary-eyed paralysis, somewhat slowing the pace of each scene to that of the background actors, who adopted super-slow motion whilst he spoke.

This repeated use of slow-motion, ‘don’t look at us, we’re not here’ acting, wasn’t the only innovative physicality in the piece. As Shakespeare’s lengthiest play, Hamlet can get bogged down in wordiness, so Lyndsey Turner direction utilised the physicality of both actors and props, in order to convey the message to the masses. The slow-motion, whilst Hamlet disappeared into his own thoughts, was well-executed and added a new dimension to the classic ‘single man on stage, pouring his heart out’ formula. However, most of the other physical decisions left me either scratching or shaking my head. It seemed that too much comedy was being found in prop-use, bordering on slapstick silliness when Hamlet’s ‘madness’ reduced him to a childlike state, popping his head out from an under-sized fort. His ‘antic disposition’ ought to be calculated, intelligent, and yes, whilst he should have fun with it, I don’t believe that total regression to match the giant mindless soldier toys was necessarily the way to go.

Beyond this, the closet scene between Hamlet and Gertrude is described in the script itself as being reliant on ‘words’ as weapons; thus the comparison between her two husbands, between a glamorous hanging portrait and a tacky merchandise plate with Claudius’ face stamped in the centre, seemed to undermine the quality of their conversation, for the sake of a cheap laugh.

A less intentional laugh came at the climactic end of the first half, when everyone is in pursuit of the mad, and now murderous, Hamlet. The combination of thumping bass music, strobe lighting and a flurry of ashes and hectic was awe-inspiring; but the courtiers, in full suits, running on all fours, was just a little much. I get the whole ‘pursued by hounds’ factor, but the lack of commitment to their canine roles saw the men gallop across half the stage, before resuming full biped status for the other half.

The second act was suitably dark and ominous, with the once grand stage bestrewn with filth and ash. However, the very final scene was ruined by the over-done death of Laertes. Everything stopped, Hamlet himself this time adopted super-slow motion, to plunge the rapier into the spot-lit Laertes; meanwhile the company did some strange, floaty movements akin to any GCSE drama class. This could have been a fantastic climax, but WHY was it given to Laertes? I would have loved a moment like this (admittedly minus the floaty arm movements) to mark Claudius’ murder, the culmination of all of Hamlet’s strife. Instead, ‘poison to thy work’ was over in a matter of seconds, far upstage and somewhat masked by the balustrade of the grand staircase.

I don’t feel it necessary to prate on about Cumberbatch’s impressive acting (after all, let’s face it, his participation was the only reason the theatre was so beyond ‘Sold Out’ that I had been demoted to a cinema screening.) But it is worth noting the other impeccable acting performances. Claudius was every bit the perfect villain, from the sinister twist to undermine his prayer/confession, to the unloving way he manhandled the increasingly frail Gertrude. Rozencrantz and Guildernstern were the perfect dweebs, underplaying their parts masterfully to become nothing more than pawns in Claudius’ cruel game.

Ophelia, played by Sian Brooke, seemed a little too pathetic from the off, causing me to wonder where her performance had left to go when it came to her breakdown. But this performance truly surprised me, as the second act saw Ophelia ditch her oversized, frumpy jumper, for a Victoriana lace dress, making her Miss Haversham-esque in her madness. Her twitching was enough to make the audience flinch with discomfort; a spectacular use of physicality, amongst all the other silliness. Finally, having expressed herself musically from her very first appearance, Ophelia was granted a dramatic and worthy end, as she shut the piano lid and stumbled offstage, up a dark path, towards the light. If her total physical and mental demise wasn’t enough to suggest her impending death, this dramatic exit certainly did; the always overlooked Ophelia was finally given her last hurrah.

As a whole, I totally respected the performance, particularly from an acting point of view. But, unfortunately, I see it as the very height of hubris to think that one can acceptably re-write Shakespeare. Thus, for someone who has read and reread Hamlet incalculable times, this version undermined its own potential greatness in trying to be just that bit too innovative.

Room 101

Many moons ago, my GCSE English teacher made us write a persuasive ‘Room 101’ speech. At the time, I had few cares in the world thus I threw some completely frivolous things into the pit of eternal damnation: namely, seagulls, feet and… something so pointless I can’t even remember it.

Now, with a few more wise years under my belt, I realise that feet, whilst I still hate them, are pretty necessary. Similarly, seagulls aren’t really that much of a hinderance to my everyday life. So it’s probably time to re-evaluate my list.

Firstly: incompetent people. So it might be totally un-PC to not accept this subculture as part of the rich tapestry of our diverse society. But really, just think how superior our lives could be without those little niggles causes by people getting things wrong.

However, once again, the ‘grown-up lobe’ of my brain started tingling as I realised that perhaps “incompetent people” would be too far-reaching. After all, without the newly employed Uber driver going round in circles, or the library worker issuing a card for Crowther, first name ‘The’ second name ‘Crow’, my anecdotes would be severely lacking in comedy at other people’s expense!

Thus I felt the need to specify, simplify, to streamline my search. Namely to people who can’t seem the differentiate between “your” and “you’re”, or “there”, “their” and “they’re”. Especially when making a heated retort; especially when they air their dirty laundry on Facebook (how very Jeremy Kyle.) This is partially because my inner grammar-nazi twitches uncomfortably at the sight of these words in their incorrect setting, but also because I believe this simple spelling test could be a window to the soul. A textual Tinder, if you will. Misusing “your” for “you’re” could instantly suggest a lack of care which seeps through into all other aspects of life and renders said person totally incompetent. It may seem shallow, but I’m swiping left.

Secondly: nail files; emery boards; whatever name you give them, they are a tool of the Devil’s own invention. If you can bring yourself to overlook the fact that they are a tool which shaves off particles of bone, with no means of catching said particles, thus leaving them to float freely in the air around, and air passages within, you, they still don’t get any better. They are a miniature, portable version of ‘nails being dragged down a blackboard’. They somehow blur the line between a woman’s make up bag and a carpentry toolkit. One’s hands are not an old piece of furniture in need of some TLC and a new lease of life. If you catch your nail on something, get the scissors out (or clippers, I won’t judge!); your fingertip will be rid of its annoyance within a fraction of a second, without the need to subject yourself and those around you to the torturous feel and sound of the gradual erosion of one’s skeletal matter. You wouldn’t allow someone to sit and grind their teeth at you, so why is nail grinding so socially acceptable, or even glamorous?! It must be stopped.

Finally (because you’re only ever allowed three, according to the laws of Room 101): Commuters on scooters. Despite the charm of their rhyming title, I am not referring to any chic image of hot mods, in suits, on Vespas. (Believe me, I think, if anything, we need a LOT more of those.) No, I am referring to the newfound acceptability of fully grown adults, functioning members of society, rushing down pavements on micro-scooters. Maybe it seemed the next logical step in the downsizing from car to bicycle to scooter, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t look ridiculous. Picture Mr Incredible, far outsized for his vehicle, but throw in a pinch of ‘desperately running for one’s life…on one leg’.

What’s more, a scooter isn’t a big enough to hold its own on the harsh roads of London town, thus it’s relegated to the pavement. Once there, the scooter (referring now to the person scooting) has a choice to make: a) to scoot dangerously fast down the pedestrian highway, or b) to slow to the pace of the normal, walking people, thus rendering the scooter entirely pointless. It’s never going to be a worthwhile method of transport, so quit whilst you still can; before Boris comes up with his next genius invention: Santander Scooters.

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