THEATRE: One Man, Two Guvnors by Richard Bean (dir. by Nicholas Hytner for National Theatre At Home)

The first of the National Theatre At Home screenings – the National’s response to the Covid-19 outbreak, repurposing previously released cinema screenings for home viewing – is an unabashedly populist choice. James Corden, loathe him or hate him, is now a bona fide global celebrity and is in his natural element heading up a fast-paced, gloriously self-indulgent farce; and Richard Bean’s canny script brilliantly pastiches classic British farce, sitcom and end-of-pier tropes – right down to the casual homophobia, racism, sexism and xenophobia – to create an entertainment with the same mix of innuendo and nostalgia as a smutty panto, with the same intended broad reach.

James Corden's One Man, Two Guvnors among National Theatre shows ...
‘What a Country Life!’

Of course, this isn’t without its problems. In many ways One Man, Two Guvnors is an abhorrent play. While it’s knowingly parodying dated tropes, it’s also indulging in them, and in having it both ways it serves to reinforce bigotry. When Stanley Stubbers (Oliver Chris) reacts to one revelation with the line ‘That’s very Japanese of him!’, one can hear a clever critique of the public schoolboy, Empire-inheriting class’s casual bigotry, or one can just hear flat-out, punching-down racism at a time when people of East Asian origin are being attacked in the streets out of fear and misplaced blame. The show is clever in its pastiche; it isn’t clever enough to effectively challenge and progress beyond what it parodies, though. In this it reminds me of Upstart Crow – a series that laughs at a theatre establishment refusing to cast people of colour while itself having an entirely white main cast. Mainstream British comedy is due a reckoning with itself.

But with that massive caveat out of the way, the NT’s One Man, Two Guvnors is a brilliant vehicle for some exceptional comedy performances. At the most simple level, everyone completely nails their stock figures and standard devices – Suzie Toase’s Dolly’s massive asides to the audience are a great example of a way in which a hoary convention is made funny precisely because of its awkwardness, while Fred Ridgeway’s Charlie ‘The Duck’ has such tortuous rhyming slang and geezer bluster that he might as well be on Only Fools and Horses. The artifice is made more deliberately self-conscious as the scenery moves back and forth during a Keystone-Cops style multiple-doors chase during which Francis (James Corden) runs impossibly quickly back and forth after two different malefactors, sometimes turning somersaults; when his body double ‘accidentally’ wanders across the stage after Francis has finished, it’s a hilarious moment of conscious badness.

And on top of the pitch-perfect recreations of stock figures, the show repeatedly draws attention to instances of virtuoso skill. When Francis first enters, he is throwing peanuts up into the air and catching them in his mouth, including (allegedly) managing to catch one even when falling backwards over a chair. The musical interludes between acts, where the cast come out to join the fantastic skiffle band (Grant Olding’s songs are a thing of wonder), are the most overt venue for this: Corden’s xylophone playing, Daniel Rigby’s belly-slapping solo, the women’s Andrews Sisters tribute, Chris’s elaborate horn honking, Trevor Laird’s steel drum – these demonstrations of actorly skill, learned especially and performed live, are key to understanding the whole play as showcase for talent.

And when the cast are on top form, there’s no matching them. Chris was born to play Stanley Stubbers, in the second-best performance of the night. With hair coiffed like Jude Law’s character in A.I., and a voice borrowed from Ace Rimmer, Stanley Stubbers strides through Brighton with all the confidence of the posh boy and a string of quite extraordinary bon mottes and anecdotal wisdom. His perfect smiles, flashed quickly to the audience in pantomimic asides, are perfectly delivered, a walking narration of his own life. But the best performance by far is Tom Edden’s Alfie. What feels like it should be a bit part is in fact a tour de force of physical comedy – from the tremors as the ancient waiter slowly attempts to bring a plate setting to a room, to the spectacular pratfalls as doors are slammed into his face, to his sudden burst of energy as his pacemaker is turned up to 9, Edden steals every moment he’s onstage, and is the breakout performance.

But none of this would be possible without Corden’s showmanship throughout. As the harlequin figure (as he explains in an impromptu lecture) he’s charged with driving the whole thing forward, and his easy charm makes the whole thing work. He’s especially good working with the audience members (both plants and real) who are brought up onstage at different times, and there’s so much skill in the way he makes scripted banter with ‘interruptions’ look like corpsing and improvisation. The physicality of his performance is fearless, and his management of the Act One climax, during which he tries to simultaneously serve dinner to both his guvnors, is consummate. There are problems with the play in its often thoughtless recycling of problematic tropes, but there’s no denying that the recycling is very, very well done.

THEATRE: Hamlet by William Shakespeare (dir. Thomas Ostermeier for The Schaubühne)

The opening sequence of Thomas Ostermeier’s legendary Hamlet offers an audacious statement about the production’s tone and aesthetic. Following ‘To be or not to be’ being projected in close-up onto a gauze hanging in front of a feast, the production shifts to the burial of Old Hamlet, with a substantial coffin positioned downstage of a muddy graveyard. As the assembled courtiers look on sombrely, an actor aims a hosepipe up in the air to create rain, and a hapless Gravedigger grapples with the coffin, attempting to lower it safely while stumbling and slipping and dropping the coffin. The combination of clowning and severity foregrounds the weight and substance of Old Hamlet’s coffin, a weight that will haunt the production.

A man bestrides a coffin while lowering it into the ground, while others stand behind under umbrellas a a man aims a hose into the air.
Clowning and grieving set the tone.

The Schaubühne has been putting a different production online every night, and Ostermeier’s hugely influential Hamlet is a fabulous inclusion for those who haven’t had an opportunity to see it. Given this production was filmed in 2008, it’s remarkably well directed. The camerawork is fast and dynamic, and works intuitively alongside the onstage camera work – allowing, for example, the projected images of characters delivering soliloquies and reports to fill the entire frame, and using reverse angles to frame actors in iconic positions against the lights. And the cameras also capture the vast space of the Festival Theatre at Avignon, into whose auditorium the actors occasionally venture as characters attempt to colonise the world outside their own, whether for understanding or for control.

The production is propelled – literally, at times – by Lars Eidinger’s magnificent Hamlet. Wearing a fat suit, he’s a physically imposing figure; when he slams a hand on the tiny Ophelia’s (Judith Rosmair) shoulder, you can hear the force. Eidinger’s performance is memorably physical, established early on as Claudius speaks to him at the wedding feast and, without flinching, Eidinger pitches face first into the mud of the main stage, a perfect faceplant repeated later for effect. This Hamlet’s mad scenes are dangerously unhinged, disrupting normal interaction, even in as small a moment as him running with open arms towards Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and missing them entirely. The physical thrill is sustained for two and a half hours of unbroken performance during which the actors almost never leave the stage, and the final duel between Hamlet and Laertes (Stefan Stern) is visceral and brutal.

The physicality is part and parcel of the violence of Hamlet throughout. The nunnery scene is especially shocking, as Hamlet manhandles Ophelia and buries her alive in the mud; his physicality is replicated when confronting Gertrude, played again by Rosmair. And this violence is made increasingly visible in Hamlet’s frantic lashing out, which is partly for effect and partly an enactment of his repressed rage. During Claudius’s prayer, Hamlet covers his head with plastic sheeting and smashes red liquid (ketchup, I think) into the head, viscerally mimicking the violence he wants to enact. Hamlet is regularly accompanied by a live camera, throwing his actions up onto the curtain that bisects the stage, and this gives his actions a public angle exaggerated further by his use of a hand-held mic; Claudius (Urs Jucker) does the same throughout, and the two competing for dominance of the message is a recurrent feature of the action, especially as both venture into the audience to plea personally on their own behalf.

The public performance also feeds into the comedy. The slapstick of the opening scene is part and parcel of Hamlet’s unpredictable violence, and the flailing of Eidinger’s ungainly – yet clearly athletic – body is comically disruptive. The disruptions are also verbal – Hamlet switching to English for a parody of a DJ, where he makes first Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and then the audience engage in call-and-response – and grotesque, especially in ‘The Mousetrap’, where an underpants-clad Player King and Hamlet himself as the Player Queen strip down and play an oversexed version of the romance and murder with the help of squeezy sauces. And sometimes the comedy is more simple, as when Hamlet leans on Polonius’s (Robert Beyer) unresponsive corpse while casually telling Claudius what he has done with it.

The graphic symbolism – which repeatedly uses the banquet table and its food to stand in for bloody acts – allows the production to draw liberally on motifs of horror. The most effective of these comes in Rosmair’s first transition between her roles as Gertrude and Ophelia. At Gertrude’s wedding, she sings a sultry song to her new husband; then, in slow motion, her voice breaks down into shrieks and snarls, inhuman sounds, as she reaches up and pulls off her wig, as if she’s turning herself inside out. The uncanny horror returns throughout, especially at the end as the characters force themselves into a grotesque tableau behind the banquet tables as they are killed, and begin burbling in overlapping words. They are pulled out of view as Hamlet turns to the audience and, just as the voices all stop in unison, there is dead silence as the production ends on his ‘The rest is silence’. It’s a powerful ending to a powerful production.

THEATRE/COMEDY: Mark Thomas, ‘Check Up: Our NHS @ 70’ (dir. Nick Kent)

Among the huge amount of excellent content being made available online during the worldwide lockdown to contain Covid-19, Mark Thomas’s one-man show ‘Check Up: Our NHS @ 70’ is surely one of the most pertinent. Based on his month-long residency at the NHS, where he shadowed everyone from registrars to GPs to dementia nurses to building managers, Thomas’s show is simultaneously a celebration of the importance of the NHS and its phenomenal achievement, and a searing indictment of its careless and malignant treatment by the politicians of recent decades.

A man in suit and trousers stands in front of a screen saying 'NHS'
One of the liveliest sermons you’ll ever see, proselyting on behalf of public health (Photo: Sid Scott)

Formally, Thomas’s show feels like a comedy gig – it’s one person on stage, holding forth for 75 minutes on a theme, and even making jokes (a particular riff on crocs is quite funny, Thomas declaring that wearing a pair is a public declaration that you’ve given up on everything). But it’s more sermon, the jokes acting as punctuation to a show that is closer to a TED-talk delivered with the zeal of an evangelist. It’s not an unflattering comparison – Thomas is an evangelist. At one point, meeting the criticisms of the right-wing press that the NHS is a money pit head-on, he practically screams ‘It IS a money-pit – AND WE’RE ALL IN THE PIT! LET IT RAIN! HALLELUJAH!’ Amen.

Thomas thinks we’re complacent about the NHS, and complacent about our own health. Twin faults he points out in his audience (not literally the audience at the Arcola at this recorded performance, though they stand for all of us) are the British exceptionalism in continuing to assert that the NHS is the best in the world, and the blase attitude to basic well-being. The first he punctures with a list of statistics asserting that the British NHS is distinctly average, even in the bottom third of success rates in many cases, compared to other national health services; a result, he says, of the lack of money being put into it. On the second, he has a great bit about how in twenty years we’re going to look back at re-runs of The Great British Bake-Off and scream at our futuristic tellies about how the hell they got away with this poison on prime-time.

But Thomas isn’t a street preacher, speaking from a place of ignorance; this show is him showing the receipts. In his month of shadowing, and his various interviews and research trips around it, he spoke to politicians, academics, theoreticians and financiers, as well as people working within the NHS. This being Thomas, it’s a bitingly political show, with Andrew Lansley as the architect of the NHS’s 2012 reforms – modeled on the privatisation of the gas and electricity industries – coming in for a particularly scathing treatment. As Thomas outlines and repeats the billions that have been structurally committed to the processes of privatisation, billions that would otherwise have been invested in services, there’s a fury at the cavalier attitude to the sector, which directly contrasts with the footage of Danny Boyle’s Olympics celebration of the NHS the same year. Working with the numbers and politics, Thomas paints a bleak picture of just what kinds of violence have been inflicted on the organisation.

Which isn’t to say it’s all gloom. Thomas puts himself front and centre, asking a GP to explain all the things he should be worried about in his own health, leading to lots of jokes about his own lifestyle. He does impressions of his interview subjects, acknowledging the variable quality of his accents, but getting in some great bits – including one interviewee, the health inequality expert Michael Marmot, with his delivery of the line ‘If we judge – and I do judge, by the way‘ as he outlines the external factors that lead to poor public health. In another fun sequence, he scores his description of a fat removal operation to a jazzy soundtrack that captures the brio and delight of a finely choreographed operation before screaming ‘bring on the dancing girls!’ And the gallows humour of his NHS contacts comes through as churning even Thomas’s stomach.

At its heart, though, this is a story of love. Thomas has deep affection for his interview subjects, even those he politically disagrees with, and some of the most moving moments come from him talking to patients, whether an elderly Irish lady with dementia who’s in a frisky mood, or a depressed obese man who just wants a normal relationship with his daughter. The stories of the little tricks played by carers on the dementia ward are ingenious and funny. But they also introduce the actual care that Thomas worries about getting lost. The NHS was founded to stand ‘in place of fear’, Thomas argues, but the NHS is only held together by faith – or, more prosaically, an unusual amount of goodwill generated by a sense of duty. The stage goes to black on his killer final line: ‘and that will never happen with private profit’. He’s right, but will we listen?

THEATRE: Night of the Living Dead – Remix, dir. Andrew Quick and Pete Brooks for imitating the dog

imitating the dog haven’t tackled a film before, but George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is the perfect vehicle for the company’s innovative blend of theatre and digital media. The concept is simple: an ensemble of seven performers attempts to create the classic film shot-for-shot live on a stage, while the film plays on a screen above. The execution, however, is anything but simple, and the resulting theatrical experience is a tour de force that manages to be both a virtuoso display of technical and choreographic skill, and a surprisingly moving enhancement of the original film’s social implications.

On a stage, a man holds up a gun towards a group of silhouetted zombies, while screens above show a film and a live feed.

The company has four cameras at its disposable, ranging from large steadicams to hand-held devices to fibre-optics for miniature work. The promise to recreate the film shot-for-shot is, surprisingly, not an exaggeration. The seven performers not only play the characters, but also film one another from the exact same angles (or as close as possible) as the film. At its most complex, this leads to dizzying displays of multi-tasking, including one moment where a performer plays a newsreader from the neck up, while holding a camera at waist level which is filming another character’s reactions to watching the news.

The precision is staggering, as both performers and camera operators move quickly to their marks and strike the appropriate pose and angle in time for shots that sometimes last a fraction of a second. The chaos of the stage – with several shots being filmed or set up simultaneously – is clarified in the right-hand screen above the stage, which gives an edited live feed that matches the adjacent movie screen with surprising accuracy. But there’s also a great amount of comedy. Especially in the second half, when there are more characters meaning a more complex arrangement of blocking to allow for two-shots, the performers position themselves in uncanny angles in relation to one another, making themselves available for the camera rather than recreating the implied naturalistic blocking of the film. At times, performers might duck to the floor so that a reaction shot can be filmed over their heads, before twisting back into place for a fresh angle.

The style offers an interesting practice-based commentary on the differences between stage and film acting. Here, the craft of the actor is on display as they set themselves up for isolated moments; in between their shots, however, they are camera operators or moving into place. There is no arc for the actor, no continued psychological exploration of a single character. Indeed, while most performers have a primary character, they also double as many others; and many characters are played by multiple actors. The central role of Barbara is, for much of the first half, played by two actors in identical wigs and costumes, to allow for the company to catch her from different angles. Film acting fragments the individual, severing them into moments and positions and reactions, but denying them autonomy and development. In this sense, the film actor becomes a kind of zombie, moving through the motions at the behest of an invisible power (here, time as marked by the irrevocable linear movement of the source film).

This of course isn’t to imply that the cast aren’t excellent; in fact, they’re extraordinary. Not only are they acting and filming simultaneously, but they’re also recreating bad performances, most hilariously in Will Holstead and Adela Rajnovic’s turn as teenage lovers Tom and Judy, who have a hilariously mannered conversation. The cast don’t play it for laughs, but comedy is inevitable as they start shuffling around as zombies and having fights; and the use of small models for long shots, with zombies on sticks growling and shuffling in groups, is clearly hilarious. And every now and again there is subtle meta-theatrical commentary on the performances; at one point, one of the actors playing a newsreader continues in her role when not speaking, walking to the front of the stage and glowering as she waits for her line, before putting on a breezy smile to continue reporting on the horrors.

For much of the production, Night of the Living Dead – Remix can be seen as a technical showcase for its own sake; but it becomes clear that there’s more going on here. Across the screens that make up the three walls of the set – which regularly show hand-drawn perspective sets against which the actors are shot – the production regularly flashes contemporary footage of historical events. Newsreaders offer reports on the assassinations of JFK and MLK, and speeches by John, Martin and Bobby Kennedy are played out as well. At times the interruption of this footage creates profound effects – during the hurling of molotov cocktails, the screens start showing footage from Vietnam; and when the militia starts heading out to shoot zombies, there’s another cut to US forces in Vietnam. But the production builds to a climax where, as Ben waits in the house, the last survivor, he begins delivering lines from Kennedy and King’s most famous speeches as images of the men flash up on screen, presaging his murder by the white militia with reminders of the sacrifices made in the pursuit of the civil rights struggle. These are subtexts embedded in the original film, but to see them turned into main text here gives the whole endeavour purpose and clarity. It’s a powerful end to a compelling and dazzling production.

THEATRE: The Revenger’s Tragedy by Thomas Middleton (dir. Declan Donnellan for Cheek by Jowl)

Cheek by Jowl’s first Italian-language production brings Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy back to its putative home country. A play about corruption and sordid affairs among the political elite in Italy has no small amount of resonance with the country’s recent history, yet Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod bring their trademark playfulness to bear on a production that goes beyond political commentary. In The Revenger’s Tragedy, Cheek by Jowl interrogate the theatrics of power itself.

A man with long hair grooms a skeleton in a dress.
A little off the top? Photo: Masiar Pasquali.

The production is centered on Fausto Cabra’s Vindice, who begins by stage-managing a masquerade of sorts, leading on a string of dancing figures who, it turns out, are already trapped within his cycle of vengeance, and unable to break away from his control. Accompanied by a stage manager with a headset, Vindice revels in the control he has over the stage environment, and his ability to puppeteer the people of the play. It’s a joy that is revisited on him two hours later, as the masquers collectively turn on him and stab him in an assassination worthy of Julius Caesar.

Vindice’s revenge is aimed against the Duke (Massimiliano Speziani) who murdered his fiancée, and the Duke’s corrupt family. In this nicely balanced production, it is quite clear that the Duke’s inner circle are already busy imploding. In particular, the comic pair of Supervacuo (Christian Di Filippo) and Ambitioso (David Meden) have a nice line in evil deeds going awry as they scheme for power that they are clearly too inept to wield. And the Duchess (Pia Lanciotti) is already wooing the buff Spurio (Errico Liguori), the Duke’s buff bastard son, to compensate for her dissatisfaction with the Duke in the bedroom – when we see them in bed together, the Duke is pumping away under the sheets while the bored Duchess dries her nails and occasionally grunts.

But Vindice is keen to make a spectacle of his enemies, and he does so in grisly fashion. In this, he employs his brother Ippolito (Raffaele Esposito), who is initially wary of getting involved and spends much of the production attempting to rein in his brother, but who – when given the opportunity for revenge – embraces it with gusto. Stripped to the waist, Ippolito first offers his own body to the blindfolded Duke as they trick him into approaching the skeleton of the woman he murdered. Then, after the Duke kisses the poisoned mouth of the skull, a gleeful Ippolito gladly tears out the Duke’s eyelids and tongue, all caught in excruciating detail by an onstage camera. Ippolito’s bloodlust is an important and shocking reminder of the ways in which Vindice’s own cycle of revenge drags everyone down with him.

Performed in a modern Italian translation, there’s much of the text that was inaccessible to me but clearly hilarious to the Italian speakers in the room. A particularly irreverent scene sees Vindice acting as pander to his own sister Castiza (Marta Malvestiti), who rightly slaps Vindice for attempting to procure her for Lussurioso (Ivan Alovisio), but whose mother is more than happy to give her up for the promise of greater riches. Vindice’s skill throughout is manipulating people into giving into their secret desires, a skill he also shows with Lussurioso when slowly introducing him to the idea of stabbing a corpse that Lussurioso thinks is his enemy, but is in fact his own father. Everyone, sooner or later, gives into excess.

The production ends with a metatheatrical coup as, with Middleton’s text ejected and the company engaged in a full-scale orgy of violence, the stage manager suddenly turns on flood lights and the company get up, dust themselves off, and wander offstage. There’s something quietly profound about this deliberately anticlimactic conclusion, suggesting that no order or proper conclusion can be given to a cycle of violence. The artifice of the play consumes itself with the same vigour as its characters do when pursuing their own ends, and all that’s left is a group of actors doing a job, who are glad to call it a night.

THEATRE: Macbeth by William Shakespeare (dir. Douglas Rintoul for Derby Theatre)

Derby Theatre’s new production of Macbeth is pitched squarely at the GCSE audience. That’s not a criticism. This over-produced play has generated any number of psychologically complex, multi-layered narratives around the play, ranging from extended back stories to explorations of personal and political trauma, to cynical political conflicts. In some ways, it’s refreshing to see a version that takes the characters at face value, exploring Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as ambitious villains and setting up a fast, surprisingly emotional version of the play with some spectacular effects.

A kneeling man grasped by three screaming women, while a silhouette looms behind.
‘Behind you!’ ‘It’s not bloody panto …. oh’ Photo by Mark Sepple

A simple but extremely effective set makes great use of the deep stage at Derby Theatre, creating an upstage area that is often in complete darkness and into which characters can instantly disappear, allowing the shadows to encroach upon the playing area and the witches to vanish easily. Periodically, a series of white slatted curtain are lowered to act as a screen, behind which the Scottish wars are presented in silhouette and the apparitions appear, looming over the characters on stage. The back-lighting works well, casting enormous shadows that give the production an iconic quality. But the curtains also act as a dividing line between the living and the dead; Macduff’s family – and later Macbeth himself – are pushed through the curtains to meet their ends.

The medieval aesthetic is clean and crisp, if quite dully predictable. The standard tropes of Macbeth are all present and correct: a kindly, white-bearded Duncan; effeminate Malcolm and Donalbain (played by a non-binary actor and a woman respectively); witches gossiping and cackling around a projected cauldron. The production starts with a more interesting innovation, with a child alone flying a kite who then, in a crash of lightning, is suddenly presented in silhouette on the back screen surrounded by soldiers; and then the witches appear with one of them howling over the body of the child. This implication of a personal narrative for the Witches is not revisited, however, and it’s a shame that the production doesn’t take bolder interpretive decisions.

However, the ambitious Macbeth (Paul Tinto) and Lady Macbeth (Phoebe Sparrow) use the relative clarity of the production to forge an interesting and nuanced relationship. Both are immediately ambitious, Macbeth smiling as he hears the prediction of his crown, and Lady Macbeth animated and excited by the possibility of advancement. For the first half, she is the driving figure, with Macbeth stumbling about the stage after the murder, clutching his head while pulls the daggers from him and marches off. But she is taken aback when he dismisses her before meeting the murderers, he suddenly showing a detachment that she had not expected. At the end of the banquet scene, during which Macbeth flails wildly with daggers at empty air, Macbeth suddenly collapses into laughter before staggering off the stage, unhinged by what has happened; Lady Macbeth is left alone. Her sleepwalking scene thus seems to stem from her abandonment by Macbeth, her enthusiasm for Duncan’s murder having ultimately come to nothing.

The performances throughout are variable. On the better end, actors such as David Nellist (Ross) and Connie Walker (Lennox) bring an emotional weariness to the parts of the thanes that seems to give them a stronger role within the story; here, the whispers of the Scottish nobles begin fermenting the discontent that allows them to take the fight back to Macbeth in the closing act (and with Siward cut, there’s a stronger sense of Scotland taking charge of itself). Macduff (Ewan Somers), too, is a powerful performer who enjoys a beautifully choreographed fight scene with Macbeth that crosses several levels and ends with a smooth push back through the curtain to allow him to drive a sword through Macbeth’s head in silhouette. But there’s also some ropey verse-speaking, including one actor who leaves an emphatic pause at the end of each verse line regardless of syntax or enjambment, making complete nonsense of the speeches.

A gesture at the production’s end sees Fleance re-emerge carrying a crown and a sword, walking forward to stand beneath Macbeth’s head, swinging from a hook. As with the opening image of the dead child, it’s another interpretive addition that doesn’t have nearly enough to back it up in the production, and might have been better omitted. Far more powerful is the weariness and uncertainty of the conquerors, with Malcolm (Tilda Wickham) somewhat anxiously taking on the burden of command, and Macduff wearily getting down from the table where he had been holding Macbeth’s head aloft. Throughout the production, there’s a sense of the bonds holding the various factions together and the strain they have been put under. It’s an efficient, traditional, straightforward Macbeth, but this is a strength as much as it is a weakness.

THEATRE: Women Beware Women by Thomas Middleton (dir. Amy Hodge for Shakespeare’s Globe)

The Globe’s Women Beware Women is set in the trappings of a privately owned luxury hotel, the perfect environment, perhaps, for a modern spin on the abuses of power and the ways in which wealth and privilege are used in exploiting women as property. Amy Hodge’s spin on the play foregrounds the agency of the three women at the heart of the play’s machinations, understanding them as complex human beings put into impossible situations by a series of patriarchal structures that repeatedly overwhelm them.

A line of actors holding up candles in candle-holders shaped like chess pieces.
The symbolic chess game explicitly turns its actors into pieces being moved around a board.

The chess game, one of Middleton’s most spectacular scenes, is presented here via human bodies that move about the stage as Livia (Tara Fitzgerald) and Leantio’s Mother (Stephanie Jacob) play their game. This is only the most explicit of several images throughout the production in which people are moved by seen or unseen agents, rendered abject and obedient. Through the middle of the game, Guardiano (Gloria Onitiri) brings Bianca (Thalissa Teixeira) to the Duke (Simon Kunz) where, in a rape scene that stops short of exploitation but makes absolutely clear what is happening, she freezes in horror as the Duke pulls down one of her stockings and begins kissing her.

This is a world in which men assume privilege over women’s bodies. Casting women as the characters in the comic subplot – Guardiano, Ward (Helen Cripps) and Sordido (Rachael Spence) allows these scenes to play as a dark parody of the worst of ‘manhood’. The Ward and Sordido are public schoolboys who have already been trained to understand women as property, and despite Isabella’s self-possessed asides and subtle mockery during the ‘appraisal’ scene, the confidence with which the Ward places her on a plinth and Sordido sticks a gloved finger under her skirts to inspect her leaves her still shaken and upset. The funny and the serious are all part of the same culture of misogyny.

The only white male actor in the cast, Kunz, occupies the highest position, the Duke whose attitudes pervade lower levels of society. The rest of the cast is integrated, with white and black actors alike taking the parts of abusers and abused; the production is careful to avoid implying any racialised narrative about who abuses who. But there is a clear sense of the liberties enjoyed by the mega-wealthy as they totter about their hotel drinking champagne. Hippolito (Daon Broni) is especially unsettling as he allows his hands to wander over his niece Isabella, while Livia’s comic awkwardness around Leantio as she falls for the young man only goes to underscore how easy she usually finds everything else.

In this context, Teixeira’s performance as Bianca is perhaps the most revealing. Right from the start, when she meets the dowdy Mother, it is clear that she realises the extent of what she has done in throwing off her former family and friends and committing herself to this more humble life. Crucially, the production cuts her post-rape arrogance with the Mother that emphasises Bianca’s more material language. Instead, the thing that drives her to return to her assaulter is Leantio’s immediate reaction to learning that the Duke has seen her, as he opens up a trapdoor and expects her to get inside. Bianca – like Isabella, and like Livia – is forced to make impossible choices, and resists constraint where she can. Returning to an abuser who at least theoretically allows her some liberty is the best she feels she can hope for.

The production leans into the silliness of the final bloodbath, staging the elaborate masque as a rich people’s folly while the Duke and Fabritio (Wil Johnson) look at their plot synopses and complain to the audience that they’ve got no idea what’s going on, while classical figures top one another in escalating acts of spectacular violence. But the Cardinal’s final speech – the only character left alone onstage, shocked at what has happened – invites the closely packed audience of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse to look upon what this culture of toxic privilege and wilful misogyny has created. There’s no redemption here for anyone, just pain.