A year without Shakespeare?

I’ve just come back from the Sage Gateshead, where I was at Radio 3’s Free Thinking Festival for my last official outing as a New Generation Thinker. It was a little different to the essays and discussion shows I’d done so far: we all had to come up with a “controversial idea” for an academic... Continue Reading →


Review: Tom Stoppard on text and performance

A review of Sir Tom Stoppard’s lecture as Humanitas Professor of Drama at Oxford University.

The Oxford Culture Review

How much “Shakespeare” is there in a Shakespeare play? A facetious question, perhaps. But it’s a question that is peculiarly specific to the theatre — how much of the author can one distinguish in a play text? Unlike the novel, with its possibilities for narrative stretches where the author’s “voice” can emerge, in plays the author is heard through the lens of an actor playing a character. And that’s before you take in to account the director, stage and sound design, costumes, lighting… Of course, in poetry and prose the author can also adopt masks and assume characters, but the presence of multiple voices is more acute when dealing with live events such as plays. This relationship between page and stage, and the position of the playwright’s authorial voice, provided the subject for Sir Tom Stoppard’s first lecture as the Humanitas Visiting Professor of Drama at Oxford University. With characteristic…

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Review: ‘The Rape of Lucretia’

On staging The Rape of Lucretia.

The Oxford Culture Review

Seventy years after its première at Glyndebourne, Benjamin Britten’s opera The Rape of Lucretia is still deeply unsettling. Its small cast of eight singers and thirteen musicians places very little distance between the audience and the unfolding of Lucretia’s rape and subsequent suicide onstage. And unlike operas such as Das Rheingold where the idea of rape functions symbolically, the actuality of sexual assault tempered in some way by using it as a metaphor for the violation of nature and plundering of gold, in Lucretia the rape itself is unavoidable. The act of sexual assault is written into Ronald Duncan’s libretto, with the physical and musical drama entirely revolving around the central scene between Tarquinius and Lucretia.

Added to this, Britten’s music and Duncan’s libretto are deeply problematic. There are no clear-cut villains or heroes in their setting, and the women themselves are given very little agency in comparison to…

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Review: ‘Macbeth’

How do you stage Macbeth with only two actors? Review of a great performance from Out of Chaos at the Old Fire Station in Oxford.

The Oxford Culture Review

Staging a well-known Shakespeare drama in his anniversary year is beginning to seem something of a madness —and it’s only March. Having been given Hollywood treatment last year by Justin Kurzel, Macbeth is being, or has been, staged at the Young Vic, Birmingham Repertory Theatre, London Globe…the list continues. With this amount of coverage, how do you bring something new to a play as famous as Macbeth?

Out of Chaos’s answer to this, rising admirably to the challenge, is to cut the running time by half, and the number of actors to just two. For a play as full of people (and corpses) as Macbeth, this is no mean feat. By necessity, such a pared back version of the text has to be extremely innovative to stop it falling apart at the seams. And with slightly less charismatic actors than Troels Hagen…

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Review: ‘King Lear’

Review of Creation Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’.

The Oxford Culture Review

2016 is proving to be the Year of Lear. Shakespeare’s most troubled tragedy seems to be dominating his anniversary year — it’s hitting stages with Anthony Sher and Glenda Jackson in the titular role, and has been the subject of both historical and performance-centered scholarship. It’s also Creation Theatre’s Spring production, currently running at Blackwell’s Bookshop in Oxford, as part of Oxford’s Shakespeare festival.

Creation Theatre set out to find ‘unusual spaces’ to stage their plays, and the Norrington Room has proved to be a pretty perfect space for King Lear. With audience members nestled among the alcoves holding volumes on philosophy, religion, and psychology, there seems to be no more fitting setting for Lear’s descent into madness. The written word is pivotal in Lear — miscommunication and manipulation largely occur via letter, when there is no physical presence to confirm or refute their meaning. So holding the…

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Review: ‘Noose’

Review of Anthony Maskell’s new drama ‘Noose’.

The Oxford Culture Review

Noose is something of a reviewer’s nightmare, as the entire drama rests on the (excellent) plot twist as the curtain falls. It’s almost impossible to give a proper opinion without significant spoilers. A new play by Anthony Maskell, it revolves around a couple’s final day together as one of them prepares to commit suicide. They’re interrupted by a blind pilgrim, whose presence begins to unravel their plan. Throughout, there’s a sense that you’re missing something, there’s something not quite right. And it suddenly makes sense as the play ends, and the audience is placed in the uncomfortable position of realising that they have fallen prey to the play’s premise — really, we don’t know people like we think we do. We see and hear what we want to and assume is correct, and in the process misunderstand ourselves as much as we do others.

The drama plays out in an…

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Review: ‘Thark’

Review of Clive Francis’s adaptation of 1920s farce ‘Thark’.

The Oxford Culture Review

Thark has earned the dubious accolade of being the play at which I have sustained the most bruises. It’s a rip-roaring adaptation of Ben Travers’s 1920s farce, which relies on exaggerated physical humour for a lot of its impact. Butlers career on and off the stage whilst country gents scurry about trying to placate their jealous wives — this is true slapstick territory. If you’re sat in the aisles there’s perhaps a little too much slap in the balance, having been on the receiving end of many a flailing limb. And this rather sums up the production as a whole. There’s much about it which is delightful and charming in its absurdity. But these elements are overpowered by comedy that is too obvious, and holes in the script that left the chaos that underlies the play rising to the surface a little too often.

Currently running at the Michael Pilch…

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Shakespeare in Scandinavia

Just had a guest post for the Shakespeare anniversary published on the music site Corymbus. What made Shakespeare so appealing for the C20th Nordic stage, and how was he interpreted? The article looks at early twentieth century music for Scandinavian Shakespeare productions, including pieces by Jean Sibelius, Ture Rangström, and Gösta Nystroem. The full article can... Continue Reading →

Review: ‘The Changing of the Guard’

Review of ‘Changing of the Guard’, a new play by Shomit Dutta based loosely on the Odyssey.

The Oxford Culture Review

The Changing of the Guard is a Classical epic turned inside out. A new play by Shomit Dutta, it imagines what might have happened when Odysseus broke into Troy, disguised as a beggar. Originally an episode mentioned only obliquely by Helen in Book IV of the Odyssey, Dutta has expanded it to be a sometimes poignant, and always witty, meditation on fate and human agency. This week saw its premiere at the Keble O’Reilly Theatre, directed by Iqbal Khan. Given that the cast had only a week of rehearsals, the quality of production and performance was remarkable. Unfortunately it did mean that the play was rendered without its final act, but in many ways I felt that this contributed to its overall effect. In the format presented last Wednesday, The Changing of the Guard was a delightful and unexpectedly quirky take on both the Odyssey itself, and…

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