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Bored of The Bard?

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I’m checking train timetables and scanning play script getting ready to visit Sheffield to see Othello. Bearing in mind the cast - Dominic West and Clarke Peters are back together for the first time since The Wire) and the reputation of the Crucible it has to be essential viewing.

But I’m getting a bit blasé about the Bard. It might be subjective but 2011 seems to have had a plethora of Shakespearian productions – every major company in the North West has done one and there was a series of extracts at Joshua Brooks in Manchester. It’s getting to the point that I’m starting to almost wish for a decent musical or something modern.
The trend started with the Lowry whose short Shakespeare festival in February and March featured some of the best interpretations of the plays that I’ve ever seen. Rory Kinnear was a superb Hamlet delivering some of the most famous speeches fag in hand but it was Nicholas Hytner’s direction that showed the clarity and excitement that can be created by establishing a proper context (in this case an unstable political regime) for the play.

This was lacking in the Bolton Octagon’s version of Romeo and Juliet and the Everyman’s Macbeth. The former offered a recognisable violent modern day Verona but failed to establish sympathetic characters. The latter set the play in a post apocalyptic world without considering why ambition would be a motivating force in such an environment.
Ever since the then Watermill Theatre presented Henry VI at the Contact way back I’ve adored their daring and cheeky versions of Shakespeare and been dying to see how they’d handle Richard III. Naturally it had to be a let down. The all male cast caught the sterility of the madman’s rule but the concept of Richard corrupting society to the extent that chainsaw murders became acceptable went a bit too far. On the other hand their Comedy of Errors was a scream.
The Lowry managed to top itself by hosting Derek Jacobi’s King Lear. His decision to play the king not as a symbol but simply as a human being seems obvious in retrospect but the impact it had in the theatre was devastating. It brought home the full terror of the aging process in a way that could not be avoided. Jacobi’s version will probably remain definitive until Pryce or Russell Beale gives it a go. You have to feel sorry for Tim Piggott Smith who is taking on the role at the West Yorkshire Playhouse while the memory of Jacobi is still fresh.
As You Like It at the Royal Exchange took awhile to get going -specifically we had to wait until the characters got to the forest of Arden - but was fun when it did. But this production highlighted the problem with having so much Shakespeare. It was the third time that the Exchange has put on the play and demonstrated that the companies are playing it very safe and sticking to a narrow range of the plays. The only real surprise this year is that Midsummer Night’s Dream has been missed.
One of the reasons that Macbeth (another of the greatest hits and coming to the Octagon soon) has a reputation for being unlucky is, ironically, because it is popular. The legend is that during hard times producers would put on the short and popular play in the hope of attracting audiences. Actors aware of the situation came to feel that if the play was included in the season they were close to getting their P45 and so perceived it as unlucky. Knowing that the current recession isn’t going to end any time soon producers hope that sticking to the tried and tested will entice potential audiences to part with their limited funds.
So really what I object to isn’t there being too much Shakespeare around but to it being the wrong sort. I’ve been going to the theatre for decades and still haven’t seen Timon of Athens or Titus Andronicus. Not saying that they are the best the Bard wrote but I’d just like to have the option.
The new theatre season suggests that the trend might be ending. The Royal Exchange is leading the way with a season that offers great variety. This is welcome! After all we’re approaching the time of year when the Whatsonstage.com Northwest editor asks us to nominate our favourite productions of the year and I’m going to look an awful snob if mine are all Shakespearean!
- Dave Cunningham

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