The Play’s the Thing

Richard Bean, One Man, Two Guvnors (based on Carlo Goldoni, The Servant of Two Masters, directed by Nicholas Hytner, National Theatre Live)
Robert Louis Stevenson, adapted by Bryony Lavery, Treasure Island (directed by Polly Findlay, National Theatre Live)
Mary Shelley, adapted by Nick Dear, Frankenstein (directed by Danny Boyle, National Theatre Live)
William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night (directed by Simon Godwin, National Theatre Live)
William Shakespeare and John Fletcher, The Two Noble Kinsmen (directed by Barry Rutter, Globe)
William Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra (directed by Simon Godwin, National Theatre Live)
William Shakespeare, Macbeth (directed by Cressida Brown, Globe)
Inua Ellams, Barber Shop Chronicles (directed by Bijan Sheibani, National Theatre Live)

Terrestrial telly seems to have relegated High Culture to Christmas and other bank holidays, aside from a few attempts to do other bits of Shakespeare (those Hollow Crown semi-films). But now it seems as if we are living in a constant month of Bank Holidays and there’s an overwhelming flow of National Theatre Lives and Globe screenings, on YouTube. I assume most of these were shown in cinemas, so we’re twice removed – it’s not the cinema experience of theatre relay. And in bed with an iPad is … not ideal. And the BBC have uploaded half a dozen or so.

I wish I could love these – but I think I have a certain lack of stamina for Improving Plays. It’s not all Shakespeare, of course, but at least it’s not all wall to wall propagandist Henry V.

One Man, Two Guvnors comes with the freight of James Corden – still memorable from Teachers and The History Boys, and the apparent comic genius of Gavin and Stacey (which so far I’ve failed to see), but some of his performances as “himself” have put me off. Which is definitely my loss, as we have him here in an old-fashioned farce, complete with pratfalls and slapstick. It’s an awfully slow first scene, and there’s some mannered acting that I struggled with, but Corden steals almost the whole play. Bean was to go on with Hytner to open Young Marx at The Br/dge.

I skipped one, I think, and Treasure Island feels like it was the kind of spectacle that would have been far better live. I confess I didn’t realise it was Arthur Darvill, as Long John Silver, and I assume the gender swapped Jim Hawkins wasn’t in the book. Have I even read the book? I fear it made me want to rewatch the Muppet version.

I’ve already written about Frankenstein but Twelfth Night was more fun, dominated by an extraordinary performance from Debbie off The Archers, who any fule kno is a six-foot leggy blonde, here disguised as Louise Brooks. Malvolia, rather than Malvolio, is subject to an awful prank in the middle of play in which a woman disguised as a man plays intermediary for a couple, both of whom fall in love with her (him). At the back of your mind, you have to remember that all roles were plays by males (not necessarily boys) in the Elizabethan/Jacobean theatre. Some good stuff.

From the aching void of the Olivier at the National, we get to the relatively intimate space of the Globe. I’ve only been once, and not to see Shakespeare, and I had a certain degree of scepticism as to why you recreate the space of Elizabethan theatre but not the rest of it. I fear it seems like a gimmick – and I suspect there are better thrust stages. The Two Noble Kinsmen is a bit of a patchy play, but blame Rye-born John Fletcher for that. It’s Shakespeare ripping off Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale”, with a comic subplot about the jailer’s daughter added. Actually, she (Francesca Mills) rather steals the show, as she did in the revived two-part Worzel Gummidge. For years, of course, Barry Rutter was associated with Northern Broadsides, and I think expected something a bit more muscular. There’s also something a bit fumbled about the ending. (Goes away to check Chaucer…)

So, Palamon and Arcite are imprisoned by Theseus and from their cell see the beautiful Emilia, falling in love. Arcite is released and the jailer daughter, smitten, helps Palamon to escape. The two noble knights fall in and out of friendship and enmity, and Emilia keeps being given the choice of which one she should marry and which one should die, with no sense that she might want to choose neither.

One of the local student blocks of accommodation is called Palamon Court. It won’t end well.

Behind me is a shelf of Arden Shakespeare editions – I think they are all from the Second Series, but some may be slightly later versions. Some were bought at A Level and some during my degree, and then the rest as I might as well complete the set. I have some gaps – because they came off the shelves, Love’s Labour’s Lost, King Richard III, Pericles, Troilus and Cressida and The Two Gentlemen of Verona – but I don’t seem to have The Sonnets or have put it somewhere else. I’m sure I can remember having a Cymbeline. There wasn’t an Arden 2 Two Noble Kinsmen, as far as I can tell. The completist in me suggests I should look out for an Arden 3.

Antony and Cleopatra I know from A Level, and seeing the Hopkins/Dench version at the National, which I reckon was better. Sophie Okonedo is a fine but shouty Cleopatra, but I didn’t quite buy Ralph Fiennes as object of desire. And it occurs to me that of course Antony is older than I realised, because he has to be older than boo hiss Octavius Caesar. She dies (spoiler!) at 39, he at his mid-50s. I’d forgotten how he dies, and how far before the end he does die. I’ve not convinced we needed have the last two minutes of the play at the start, and Enobarbus (Tim McMullan) suffered from being so soon after his Toby Belch in Twelfth Night. Ok, he can do louche, but it’s not how I remember the role.

But it was better than the Globe’s Macbeth, which I suspect had its school audience in mind and they were rather noisy groundlings. This takes me back to O Level, when they rather nervously showed us the Roman Polanski film, and I went on to see The People Show version with Bernard Hill and Julie Walters (not playing it scouse) and a disappointing Pete Postlethwaite directed by George Costigan. It’s a dark play, with some comic moments, few of which are in the drunken porter scene (which seemed to have lost ten minutes of brewer’s droop jokes). The opening is promising, with a pile of corpses, and I guess we might want to see Duncan as an ambivalent figure… I half recognise Dickon Tyrrell, but I think I’m confusing him with an actor from Victoria Wood. I fear it didn’t work for me.

Inua Ellams’s Barber Shop Chronicles was a different kettle of fish, an up to date (well, 2017) exploration of Black African male experience in barber shops in Lagos (Nigeria), Peckham (London), Accra (Ghana), Kampala (Uganda), Johannesburg (South Africa) and Harare (Zimbabwe). The all-male cast play thirty roles between them, moving furniture around the stage to form the different locations – Peckham was easiest to pick out, but I struggled with keeping the others distinct. In an illustration of the African diaspora, some characters in one city know or know of characters in another, the same joke is repeated between men. The barber shop is the equivalent of the den, a supposedly safe space, where masculinity can be performed, challenged, displaced and so on, along with racism and other identities. Is it entirely accidental that Desmond’s, one of the first Black British sitcoms, was also set in a barber shop in Peckham? I think I’d like to read the text and watch it again – it felt very rich and I’m so pleased to have caught up with it.

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