Monologues review – Oxford Castle

It’s been six months since The Man in the Grand Circle has sat in a grand circle, or indeed any kind of theatre seating. Happily, that period of enforced abstinence came to an end tonight in the beautiful, floodlit courtyard of Oxford Castle.

Starting with Richard III’s “Winter of our discontent” and ending with Puck’s epilogue from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Monologues offers 16 of Shakespeare’s best-loved speeches in quick succession, presented with few frills but plenty of gusto by actors from Oxford’s BMH Productions and Siege Theatre.

It’s an evening brimming with powerhouse performances – including Kieran Donnelly’s “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” from Julius Caesar, Craig Finlay and Martha Ibbotson’s “Get thee to a nunnery” scene from Hamlet, and Alex Lushington and Amber-Anne Allen’s sizzling pre-murder pep talk from Macbeth.

I also enjoyed Rachel Wilmshurst’s feminist take on Henry V’s “Once more into the breach” speech, which she performs amid scattered #MeToo placards.

Crucially, each segment left me wanting more – and I’d love to see some of these performances in a complete version of the play. Hopefully that’s all to come.

The whole socially-distanced show was engagingly hosted by Ed Blagrove, who put each scene into context and even managed to include a timely quarantine joke about the Greek islands in his introduction to The Comedy of Errors.

Frankly, I couldn’t have wished for a better reintroduction to live theatre than this.

Monologues is at Oxford Castle & Prison until 5 September

Macbeth review – Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre at Blenheim Palace

4 star review

This is pop-up Shakespeare on a grand scale.

In the grounds of Oxfordshire’s opulent Blenheim Palace, a replica Elizabethan theatre – inspired by London’s Rose Playhouse (1587) – has been constructed on the very route that Shakespeare is thought to have travelled from Stratford and London.

Macbeth is one of four plays being staged here over the summer (along with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Richard III and Romeo and Juliet).

Directed by Damian Cruden, this is an atmospheric production with lively battle sequences, brutal murders and scary supernatural scenes. The witches’ skull masks are particularly nightmarish.

In the title role, Alex Avery gives a wonderful insight into Macbeth’s conflicted soul. This scene in which he thinks he sees Banquo’s ghost at the feast – during which he directly addresses several members of the audience in the “groundling” area – is particularly well done.

Suzy Cooper gives one of the most powerful performances of Lady Macbeth I can recall. Her wailed “all the perfumes of Arabia” speech – with the sky darkening overhead – is a wonderfully intense moment.

There’s strong support from Mark Peachey as Banquo and Paul Hawkyard as Macduff. Paul Stonehouse deserves as special mention for his amusing turn as the Porter. Christopher Marin’s percussion-rich score is superb too.

It always feels special to see Shakespeare being brought to life on the type of stage on which it was originally performed. With its lashings of Game of Thrones-style gore, Blenheim’s Macbeth is a bloody good show.

Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre at Blenheim Palace runs until 7 September

A Midsummer Night’s Dream review – Bridge Theatre

5 star review

If you go to see this production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I can recommend the standing tickets. Yes – your feet might ache a bit, but you come out feeling like you’ve been at a wild party you didn’t want to end.

I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to the beginning: I took my 19 year old son to see this. He’s studying for a degree in Computer Science, and had never seen a Shakespeare. There was an element of risk.

But he’s also a massive Game of Thrones fan, so his reaction to the sight of GoT’s statuesque Gwendoline Christie encased in a glass box as we walked into the pit was worth the ticket price alone.

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It’s an inspired piece of casting. Christie makes an imposing Hippolyta, the captured queen of the Amazons, and a magical Titania, queen of the fairies.

It’s also fun seeing Brienne of Tarth dressed up like a nun.

The early scenes are deliberately drab and make the explosion of music and acrobatics as the action shifts to the forest all the more dramatic. The set is ever-changing, with characters and beds gliding in sideways, or rising from the floor and taking flight.

There are sublime performances throughout. Oliver Chris, as Theseus/Oberon, shares several hilarious scenes with Hammed Animashaun’s unforgettable Bottom – one of them in a bathtub. The audience roared.

Not to be outdone, the “rude mechanicals” (they even have it written on their backs) squeeze plenty of laughs out of their Pyramus and Thisbe play-that-goes-wrong.

I also enjoyed the excellent chemistry – and sense of confusion – between the bewitched lovers in the forest: Isis Hainsworth (Hermia), Tessa Bonham Jones (Helena), Paul Adeyefa (Demetrius) and Kit Young (Lysander).

Director Nicholas Hytner takes delightful liberties with Shakespeare’s text, switching key characters, and making inventive use of the magic love juice.

Which brings me to David Moorst’s Puck. I saw Moorst in one of his earliest roles in Violence and Son at the Royal Court many moons ago. It was obvious then he was something special. Here he is simply extraordinary. It’s impossible to take your eyes off his twitchy, shape-shifting Puck.

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There’s a genuine sense of joy in this production. I’ve never seen an audience laugh so much at a Shakespeare play. To say there’s a party atmosphere is something of an understatement.

My son is already planning to go again.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is at the Bridge Theatre until 31 August

Antony and Cleopatra – National Theatre (Olivier)

First things first. This production of Shakespeare’s tragedy in the Olivier is a colossal three hours and a half hours long. That’s the same as watching Carry On Cleo TWICE with enough time in between for a leisurely bathe in ass’s milk. But what a wonderful theatrical journey this is. Hildegard Bechtler’s swirling set transports us effortlessly from palatial Alexandria to a hi-tech Rome fizzing with TV screens, while one stunning transition conjures Pompey’s massive battleship out of the floor.

Director Simon Godwin makes the clever choice to begin at the end, with [spoiler alert] Caesar (Tunji Kasim) announcing over the body of Cleopatra (Sophie Okonedo) that she will be buried alongside Antony (Ralph Fiennes). Then we slip back in time to see the Egyptian queen, who has remained prostrate on stage, coming to life in her lover’s arms.

The casting is magnificent. I’d been excited by the initial announcement back in October 2017 and wasn’t disappointed. Fiennes blazes as both “strumpet’s fool” and tough Roman general. But Okonedo shines even brighter. She flits between witty, playful, moody, and dangerous. The scene in which she angrily tries to drown an unfortunate messenger bearing bad news is a hoot. She’s surely going to win awards. Her costumes, by Evie Gurney, are fab.

And yes, that’s a real snake at the end. It curled right on cue. I suspect it has theatrical asp-irations.