Review – Othello, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 25th May 2021

OthelloFresh from a successful week with their production of Animal Farm, the National Youth Theatre are back at the Royal and Derngate with Othello, abridged by Dfiza Benson, and directed by Miranda Cromwell. When I originally read about the production, I expected it to be closer to a serving suggestion than anything approximating the original Othello. But well over 99% of the text is pure Will; and, anyway, Shakespeare is big and strong and tough enough to lend his work to all manner of adaptations and no number of radical reworkings is ever going to eliminate the Bard’s original plays. More about the language later…

We’re in the Club Cyprus, Manchester. It’s 1991 – thirty years ago. The joint is jumpin’ and the ravers are ravin’. Othello has just got married to Desdemona and they are now wife and wife, much to the fury of Brabantio. Iago, bouncer at the club, is the evil link that binds the story together, manipulating everyone to his own advantage, all of his villainy stemming from that one vital belief: “I hate the Moor.” It’s fascinating to see how this production, incidentally, with its gender-blind casting, strongly brings out the original themes of racism, but there’s not a whiff of homophobia. Brabantio is not remotely concerned that his daughter Desdemona has married a woman; it’s her colour that’s the issue.

The NYT cast and creative team have thrown everything at this production to make it a spectacle of light, colour, sound and movement that assaults the eyes and ears and gives the audience much to enjoy and appreciate. The commitment and creativity that has given rise to this 21st century Othello is to be applauded. And there are some superb performances. From the start, Francesca Amewudah-Rivers stands out as a truly noble and dignified Othello, crystal clear in her oratory, superbly at ease with taking centre stage with this enviable role. Her stage presence shines bright and she is very, very watchable. And she is matched by a fantastically confident performance from Connor Crawford as Iago who delivers an unusually frantic and jumpy reading of the role, but which makes absolute sense. This is a Iago who knows he is chancing his arm all the way through, desperate to achieve his goals, but with none of the laid-back, quietly superior attitude of some Iagos. This one has to work hard to engineer what he wants, and it works extremely well.

Ishmel Bridgeman gives us an amusingly cocky and vain Cassio, pretending to be streetwise but still a lightweight, wet-behind-the-ears kind of guy, so that he quickly finds life inside the Club Cyprus a dangerous environment. Julia Kass is excellent as Emilia, already knowing she is being duped by her husband when she gives him Desdemona’s scarf (there are no handkerchiefs in 1990s Manchester). And I really liked Jack Humphrey’s Brabantio, all powerless bluster and fury, seeing his paternal influence disappear in front of his eyes as old age inevitably gives way to youth. He almost makes you sympathise with his character despite his racism, which shows just how subtle a performance it is.

I firmly adhere to a belief I’ve held for decades now, which is that I would prefer to see a bold and brave attempt to do something new, even if it fails, than a lazy or complacent success. And that’s exactly how I feel about this production because, as a whole, it doesn’t fully work. There are two big innovations with the structure of this show. One is making Othello a woman, married to another woman, and that works extremely well. The other is the introduction of a Chorus, everyman characters whose voices emerge from the recesses of the dance floor whispering their words of suspicion and jealousy to Othello. At first, I thought it was a clever notion, representing all those unidentifiable thoughts that come into everyone’s head when you have a doubt about something. But the Chorus’ whisperings and warnings, endlessly repeated, soon took away the subtlety and nuance of Iago’s persuasions and influence. No wonder Othello fell foul of jealousy; it was delivered all around him like a sledgehammer. So, personally, that didn’t work for me.

The club/disco setting also begins to pall as the play progresses. Whilst there’s no doubt about the ensemble’s commitment to keeping that rave movement going, rather than enhancing our understanding of the story and the characters’ motivations, it becomes a distraction. It takes away from our understanding – and it certainly takes away the audibility of some of the more important scenes in the latter end of the play. As a result, the whole evening, which starts off very pacey and on-the-nose, begins to get a little drawn-out; and at 105 minutes with no interval, it feels surprisingly long.

Dfiza Benson’s new text takes much of Shakespeare’s original, replaces the Iago/Cassio drinking scene with the disco – which is clever, removes Iago’s last line (a shame, because his final silence is one of the most intriguing things about the play), and adds about twenty instances of the F word. Gentle reader, I am no prude. And it made me laugh that f**k was the first word uttered (much better than the original Tush!) But it didn’t always sit well for me. Othello always expresses him/herself with nobility and dignity, and imagination. Would Othello, who elegantly says Keep up your bright swords for the dew will rust ‘em, turn to Desdemona and storm off with a Well F**k You? It’s Othello’s language that raises the character out of the commonplace. By bringing her language down to the level of the others, it diminishes this stature. If the aim of the production is to establish Othello as a powerful, queer, black woman (quoting the online programme), I feel this use of language doesn’t help.

I also couldn’t understand why the play was set in 1991. Othello and Desdemona are proudly married – not just living together but the full legal ceremony  – but equal marriage wasn’t introduced in the UK until 2013. In 1991, the country was still in the grip of the dreaded Clause 28 and LGBT rights were being eroded. Surely it would have made more sense for it to be set in the here and now – pandemic notwithstanding?

For me, although the show is a plucky failure, that’s actually a much better thing than it seems at first sight. It takes one of the great theatrical classics and transports it into our lifetime with our cultural references and shows how we still have to learn the age-old lessons about racism, jealousy and man’s (in this case woman’s) folly. It’s also performed with huge confidence and style by a very talented company. Maybe it’s not for purists, but then maybe purists shouldn’t be such snowflakes (to use the pejorative term of the era). Quentin Letts would hate it, so that can only be a good thing.

Rehearsal photographs by Helen Murray


Three-sy does it!

Review – Animal Farm, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 17th May 2021

Animal FarmYou don’t know how good it feels, gentle reader, simply to be able to type the words “Review – “ followed by the name of a show again after fourteen months away from a theatre. The last play I saw last year was in the Royal Theatre, and the first play this year is in the very same space – seems almost poetic.

Before talking about this new production of Animal Farm, a few words about how the Royal and Derngate are welcoming us back safely in this new COVID world of ours. Timed entry to the theatre, one-way systems, mask on whenever you’re inside (unless you’re eating or drinking – we didn’t), the shortest of intervals – just enough time to nip to the loo which was well marshalled for extra safety, bars closed (you can pre-order drinks), no programmes on sale (there’s a downloadable programme on the theatre website) additional ventilation and the all-important social distancing.

I confess, when I first saw what seats were available for this performance – and bearing in mind the seats are sold within pre-determined bubble groupings – we thought we’d opt for super safety and actually bought a bubble of three seats when there are only two of us. Selfish perhaps, but for us safety measures means baby steps at first, and it just felt safer to have an additional empty space around us. All in all the theatre did a great job in making it a safe and secure occasion. Nevertheless, I’d be lying if I said I was completely relaxed. It’s hard to unlearn the lessons of fourteen months.

I had thought hard in advance whether social distancing would affect the atmosphere for the show. And, fascinatingly, it doesn’t. You’re not so remote that you don’t have other audience members in your peripheral vision, and of course you hear their laughter, and any oohs and ahhs. So if you thought that social distancing would take the heart out of a play – it really doesn’t.

Animal FarmBut, as someone significant once said, The Play’s The Thing. Animal Farm is, of course, George Orwell’s allegory of the rise and further rise of Soviet communism told by the metaphor of animals who take over the running of their own farm and chase their drunken, cruel and wasteful farm-owner away. It’s a brilliant piece of writing, full of pathos, tragedy, wit, humour and the inevitability of disastrous failure. So how does this new adaptation by Tatty Hennessy, directed by Ed Stambollouian, bring the pages of this 1945 novel alive onto the stage, to be performed by members of the National Youth Theatre, under its new arrangement with the Royal and Derngate?

Answer – incredibly well. As the play progressed, the parallels with life today in the UK become horrifyingly clear. Squealer, the master of propaganda, is the ultimate spin doctor who makes you disbelieve the truth even when you have seen it for yourself. Clover is the kindly follower who wants to believe in the cause and is sadly gullible to every lie that the state reiterates. Boxer is the (literal) workhorse who works every hour of the day to the detriment of his own health – and then when he falls ill is sent straight to the knacker’s yard. Snowball is the scapegoat on whom the state can heap all the blame for their own deficiencies. Napoleon is the Machiavellian trickster who’s in the right place at the right time, a media-friendly figurehead with huge self-confidence, an opulent lifestyle, and no real ideas of his own. At the end, even Clover realises that they’re all in on the game, each one with their trotters in the trough, champagning it with the enemy; but it’s far too late to do anything about it. A story of the Russian Revolution and subsequent rise of Stalinism? Yes, but with so many similarities to the last thirty years of the UK as well.

Ed Stambollouian’s lively production is full of colour, noise, movement and song; sometimes harsh to the ears with the stomping and shouting, but this is no drawing room comedy. Out of necessity, Tatty Hennessy’s adaptation plays with some of Orwell’s characters – the book has a large cast of creatures that has to be shrunk down to fit a cast of sixteen – and the order of events is occasionally moved around. But the adaptation, though occasionally wordy, tells the story clearly and with no holds barred. The scene, for instance, where four of the animals are summarily executed hits you with its cleverly suggested brutality, and stays in your head a long time.

The cast put their heart and soul into the show and form a tremendous ensemble who work together superbly and generously. Jack Matthew has terrific stage presence and in his performance as Napoleon, we clearly see his character’s double standards and ambiguity towards both the truth and the society that looks up to him. Will Atiomo’s Boxer is the pinnacle of dignity and honesty; I don’t know how he does it, but he subtly contorts his face in a way that really suggests a noble horse’s head – it’s a wonderful achievement. Adeola Yemitan is also superb as Clover, her slow kindness and supportiveness radiating in every scene; whenever she questions the original policies that were agreed at the first meeting and doesn’t realise they’ve been manipulated by the Party, you can see, through her pained eyes, her thought processes slowly drifting into acceptance and the realisation that she must have been wrong. (She wasn’t).

There’s an excellent and agile performance by Ben Wilson as Snowball, bringing huge energy to the movement and dance sequences, and eclipsing Napoleon with his oratory skills. Matilda Rae’s Squealer is delightfully slippery and manipulative – her occasional firm and ruthless killer lines are brilliantly delivered. I thought Ishmel Bridgeman was brilliant as Blue the dog; starting off as a playful and impudent pup, but by the time he’s been “trained” by Napoleon, he’s turned into a savage Rottweiler who carries out his master’s orders with clinical malice. Will Stewart was also excellent as the vain Molly, desperate to cling on to her ribbons and rosettes because that’s the only identity she has.

James Eden-Hutchinson’s Milo was a favourite with the audience, breaking the fourth wall with his reflections on what’s happening so far – and also entertaining us with his music-hall style advice for how we should behave during the interval! I also really liked Connor Crawford’s grotesque caricature of both farmers, dominating the other animals with his physique and suggestions of violence. But all the performers give excellent performances; a technical thing that’s often overlooked, all the actors had terrific clarity of diction which is always appreciated by a theatregoer who’s getting older!

In the programme notes, Tatty Hennessy writes that she hopes the play makes you angry. It did. But our anger is not only directed to the Napoleons and Squealers of this world, but also to the Clovers and the Boxers for making it so damned easy for history to repeat itself.

Despite the slight unease about being back in a theatre, it was just such a thrill to be back in the Royal, witnessing the magic that only live performance can create. So, thank you – to the cast for their performance, to the creative team for organising it, to the theatre staff for making us safe and welcome, to our fellow audience members for simply being there and witnessing the return. And let’s hope for another return – to some kind of normality. With the rise of the Indian variant, it’s too early to know; but at least last night we could celebrate the here and now, and that was a wonderful thing to share.

P. S. If I have a suggestion for how it could feel even more secure in the theatre, I was expecting a more orderly and structured plan for everyone leaving the theatre at the end. Having carefully avoided each other with one-way systems and toilet marshalling, it was a bit of a free-for-all with the complete breakdown of social distancing. Next time I think we’ll deliberately wait for everyone else to leave first.

Rehearsal photographs by Ali Wright

4-starsFour they’re jolly good fellows


The Edinburgh Fringe One-Weeker 2019 – F. Off, 22nd August 2019

F. OffHere’s something that should be top quality and challenging. It’s the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain’s production of F. Off, at Belly Button, Underbelly, Cowgate, at 12:50 on Thursday 22nd. Read the blurb: “As the extremes of social media kick up an unsettling and unsavoury stink, Evening Standard ‘One to Watch’ writer Tatty Hennessy, National Youth Theatre Artistic Director Paul Roseby and Britain’s best young talent are kicking off in response in true interrogatory style to put Mark Zuckerberg and his social network colleagues on trial. The question is who really is to blame, and who is following who? So we ask you, the audience, to be the jury and the NYT company will be the disrupters. Served with a heavy helping of humour, some knitting and hardcore experts.”

This sounds like an ambitious production, but if anyone can do it, the National Youth Theatre can. Check back around 2.30 pm to see if we enjoyed it. By then the next preview blog should be available to read too.

Another top quality show, not that one should be surprised at that with the brilliant NYT performers. Zuckerberg on trial, interwoven with a story of how a data mining company fixed an election… sound familiar? Terrific show, fabulous ensemble playing, although Tiajna Izekor, Amelia Braithwaite, Will Stewart and Kareem Adeshina really stood out. Food for thought for anyone who owns a smartphone. Scary, funny and highly recommended!

Review – The Tempest, National Youth Theatre/Made in Northampton Co-Production, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 29th June 2016

The TempestThere are comedies, and then again, there are comedies. The Tempest, I have always found, although a “comedy”, isn’t very funny. I’ve seen it a few times, read it, studied it, but whenever it looms on my horizon again I think to myself – oh yes. That play I don’t really get at all. Still, you never stop learning, so I’m always willing to give it another stab.

Ferdinand and MirandaA few weeks ago I remember telling someone there’s no point being a Shakespeare purist because you can always play them “straight” any time and they’ll still work. No modern production of a Shakespeare play is ever going to destroy the original; and the current interest in shaking up Shakey gives you a chance on a new perspective, uncovering some deeper themes, emphasising the plays’ relevance for today. And I stand by that. However, I have to admit that as I went into the interval of this brand new production of The Tempest, I found my tolerance for the shake-up was being severely tested. Not that I wasn’t enjoying it – far from it – but Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s version is such a long way from the original, that it’s less of an adaptation and more of a serving suggestion. I was talking to another chap at the urinals during the interval (as you do, sometimes) and he said, “well, it may be the Tempest, but it’s not how I remember it”. I made understanding and conciliatory noises. “Mind you, that was sixty years ago” he added.

Miranda and CalibanAnd there’s the rub. In these tense times where the younger generation are accusing the old ‘uns of skewing the referendum result, there may be considerable differences between what the young and old want to see in the theatre. This definitely is a young person’s show, being a co-production between the National Youth Theatre and local performers with an association with the University of Northampton’s drama department and others. As we discovered in the Q&A session after the show (which Mrs Chrisparkle reluctantly stayed for and ended up thoroughly enjoying) there was a considerable degree of input from the cast in creating the adaptation, and it was constantly changing, even during previews, as they were trying to make it as relevant as possible to today’s situation. And I realised that, as I have seen more traditional productions of this play before which have always baffled me, this time, with liberties as long as your arm being taken, the play made much more sense. It’s a Child is Father to the Man moment. Wordsworth would have been so proud.

Simona and ArielThis adaptation sees much changing of relationships and sex. Male Prospero, Sebastian, Gonzalo and Stephano become female Prosper, Simona, Greta and Stephanie. Antonio becomes Anton; Prosper and Miranda are sisters (instead of father/daughter); Alonso and Ferdinand are brothers (instead of father/son). And there are six Ariels. Yes, six. Not so that Prosper can tune into Radio Luxembourg (and yes I know that ages me) but something obscure to do with Sycorax’s cruel treatment of the little sprite before the show starts. Actually the six Ariels work incredibly well. Not just because they can act as stage clearer-uppers, but because they can give the role more diversity and characterisation. There’s cheeky Ariel and sombre Ariel, happy Ariel and mysterious Ariel, and so on. It also enhances the sense of magic and sorcery that permeates the entire play. Everyone, whether spirit or not, is at Prosper’s beck and call – she completely rules the roost. This production highlights quite how manipulative the character is; it also brings forward Miranda’s resourcefulness – in this production she is able to subdue Caliban by physical strength and that’s no mean feat. Anton and Simona get a sexual frisson when planning to overthrow Alonso and Greta and take advantage of their victims’ temporary sleepiness to nip off stage for a quickie – very nicely done. I don’t suppose that ever happened with Antonio and Sebastian; but who knows?

Prosper and ArielVisually the production has tremendous impact. The massive tempest with which the play opens (or in this case, nearly opens, as it is dovetailed into scene two) is seen as a contained but nevertheless brutally wet affair, on the other side of the curtains of Prosper and Miranda’s bedroom. I have read other reports that say it’s visually stunning but you can’t hear a word that the cast are shouting to each other out there on that tossed boat. That is indeed true; fortunately, our performance was “audio described” which I personally always find extremely helpful – although it also makes it very clear when the cast go wrong and miss a chunk out of a scene (no names, no packdrill). The long and seemingly narrow set leading to a secret garden at the back worked extremely well; as did the three doors in a row that fell into place plunging us into instant imprisonment. The lighting too, is extraordinarily good, nowhere more so than in the chilling scene where Ariel (in his various guises) gets to vengeful grip with Alonso, Anton and Simona, spotlighting their individual tortures with gruesome starkness.

StephanieBringing this all to life is a fantastic young cast who work together as a brilliant ensemble but who also all have their individual moments to shine. Dominating proceedings is Sophie Walter as Prosper, manipulating all and sundry with a flick of her pencil; she has a fine air of authority and dignity which is perfect for the part and tellingly summons up all the character’s self-obsessed heroism. Beth Markey gives a great performance as her junior sidekick Miranda, apparently placid and obedient in love and respect, but becoming tough as old boots when dealing with Caliban. Charlie Clee is perfect casting for expressing Alonso’s outwardly noble demeanour mixed with his sense of anxiety and innate cowardice; Joe Law gives us a very wise and physically comic Trinculo and there’s a hilarious presentation of Stephanie by Sophie Guiver, who absolutely nails the drunk act as well as her besotted relationship with Caliban. Jay Mailer gets all the wry humour out of the character of Ferdinand, and Gabriel Akamo uses his fantastic stage presence to give us an imposing but quite sensitive Caliban, who’s not as monstrous as Shakespeare would like us to think. And hats off to the mix-and-match Ariel actors, who present him as harpy, gimp, society diva and workhorse. Mrs C thought the shiny silver-grey dresses the female Ariels wore reminded her of bridesmaids from one of the more cash-stretched episodes of Don’t Tell The Bride. I couldn’t possibly comment.

AntonThis highly enjoyable adaptation takes Shakespeare’s text by the throat and thrashes it around like a Dobermann puppy. Very original, full of life and attack, making the most of what humour there is and emphasising its relevance for today. Congratulations on an excellent production – and thank you for finally making me understand the play!