Much Ado About Nothing at the Cremorne Orpheum

Most of the updating to a modern setting worked. But not quite all.

Although I was very keen to see Much Ado About Nothing, I wasn’t sure how much I would like it, since I couldn’t really envisage Amy Acker in the part of Beatrice, and I was only so-so on the idea of Alexis Denisof as Benedick. But I actually really enjoyed her performance: aside from a couple of not-very-funny pratfalls, she really made me believe in the character. He was good as well, but I truly believe that Beatrice is much the more difficult part. In every production I have seen – and there have been some real dogs! – Benedick always manages to get laughs in his two soliloquy scenes, but Beatrice is much harder to get right. My favourite actors in the roles would still be Emma Thompson/Kenneth Branagh (film) and Pamela Rabe/John Howard (stage) – with an honourable mention to Sarah Parish/Damian Lewis in Shakespeare Re-told (I would love to see them do the play properly) – but Acker and Denisof were far from disappointing.

Though oddly enough, the one scene that didn’t quite work for me – and I can’t put my finger on why – was the post-wedding ‘Kill Claudio’ scene. Somehow, the emotional range just didn’t quite seem to be there.

Aside from them, the rest of the cast were good, but not outstanding. I liked Hero, and although Claudio didn’t really convince me as being a decent human being, that is always going to be a challenge with this play. Leonato, Ursula and Margaret were all fine. I quite liked Borachio, although I couldn’t really see the point of turning Conrade into a woman (unless it was purely so they could put in a sex scene). Sean Maher made a reasonable Don John, though seeing him as a (clean-shaven) villain gave me flashbacks to his line in Firefly – after being referred to as a criminal mastermind – ‘I’m thinking of growing a big black mustache. I’m a traditionalist.’ I was a bit underwhelmed with Dogberry and Verges, but they’re not really my type of humour, so they need to be done very well for me to find them funny – and cutting some of the better lines didn’t help.

But I think the only real disappointment would be Don Pedro. There was nothing actively wrong with the performance, but he didn’t seem to have any real presence – no sense that the was The Most Important Person In The Room. At times, he was almost overlookable. And while he’s not one of the key protagonists, I think if he ends up sidelined, then the play rather loses it balance.

For the most part, I felt that the modern setting worked very well. Clearly it helped that Joss Whedon has a lovely house and extensive garden! And there were some nice touches. I particularly liked the fact that Leonato having everyone stay at his house meant that (even though it was a large house) he had to put Benedick and Claudio in the room of a (not-appearing-in-the-film) little girl. The look they gave each other as they were shown in was priceless! Since IMDb tells me that Joss Whedon has an 8-year-old daughter, I’m guessing that this room – with its twin beds, soft toys, and dollhouse complete with Barbies – received little to no set dressing for the film. (In the context of the film, I guess it’s best not to ask who the room’s actual owner is – clearly not Leonato’s daughter, since ‘Hero is his only child’, and presumably he wasn’t putting guests in the room of a servant’s child!)

The arrival of the Prince’s men in large cars was less dramatic than the horseback entrance in Branagh’s film, but it was effective in a different way. And I liked the fact that Don John and his people were initially in plastic wrist restraints, which were cut off before they entered the house. The use of a smartphone to show video of Don John’s capture at the end was also a nice touch.

And I don’t think I have ever seen a production quite so awash in alcohol!

But one of the challenges of putting Shakespeare in a modern setting is whether the plot and dialogue actually clash with the surroundings. And I think Much Ado has three key problem areas in this regard:

  • The repeated emphasis on Hero’s virginity
  • Following from this, Leonato saying it would be better if she were dead
  • Benedick agreeing to Beatrice’s demand that he kill Claudio

(I don’t include Claudio’s rejecting Hero at the altar. This can work in a modern setting, if you treat the issue as not so much about virginity, as about having sex with someone the night before she is marrying someone else.)

‘Kill Claudio’ actually did kind of work. It still seemed a bit odd and unrealistic when Beatrice first said it, but when Benedick went back to his room, and got out a gun, I realised that of course (a) this is America, and people do have guns; and, more importantly, (b) they have all just come back from a war, so maybe killing people isn’t really such a foreign concept. And in any case, given Benedick’s initial reaction to Beatrice, I don’t imagine you are really meant to see it as a completely normal action.

But unfortunately, the emphasis on Hero being (or not being) a ‘maid’ did jar, and Leonato’s speech about ‘Do not live, Hero’ was completely unbelievable. Not only was all of this dialogue left in – and I’m sure some of it (especially Leonato’s speech) could have been cut – but it was further emphasised by the scene from the very start of the film in which it was clear that Beatrice, at least, is not a virgin. This created a clash that I found it was quite hard to overcome.

I found it interesting that Joss Whedon decided to place Act V Scene ii (where Benedick tells Beatrice he has challenged Claudio, and which finishes with them hearing the news that ‘Don John is the author of all’) after Act V Scene iii (in which Claudio hangs an epitaph on Hero’s tomb). Kenneth Branagh did the same thing in his film. Maybe it’s an inversion that often happens (like swapping the first two scenes of Twelfth Night), but I don’t think I’ve seen it in any stage production. What bothers me about this change, is that the visit to the tomb happens at night. So Benedick doesn’t go to see Beatrice until the next day, rather than pretty much immediately after challenging Claudio. And yet in the intervening 12+ hours, he’s somehow failed to hear the news – very much out of the information loop. Furthermore, Beatrice was shown with Hero, clearly aware of what was happening, during the night of the tomb visit (I think it was the same in Branagh’s version). So why doesn’t she let Benedick know? Unless she’s so pissed off with Claudio that she wants Benedick to kill him anyway. But that seems rather deceitful (to Benedick), and it isn’t really supported either by the words, or by her demeanour. So I really can’t see any reason for swapping the two scenes around – and plenty of reasons not to!

But in spite of these concerns, I still really enjoyed the film!

Favourite moment

Don John casually pinching a cupcake when leaving the wedding.

Though I also liked pretty much every scene set in the room Benedick and Claudio were sharing.

Bechdal test

Pass. There are a number of named female characters (one more than in the play, due to Conrade’s gender swap!), they do talk to each other, and it’s not always about a man.

Stars

4

Twelfth Night (William Shakespeare) – Shakespeare’s Globe production at the Apollo Theatre

Not a subtle production.

This production was quickly sold out at the Globe, so when the season finished it transferred to the Apollo Theatre, where it also sold out. Probably because it had Stephen Fry playing Malvolio.

It was all-male – apparently a revival of a very successful 2002 production. I seem to be in a minority in that I hated Mark Rylance as Olivia and Johnny Flynn as Viola. It seemed that Johnny Flynn was working so hard to maintain a falsetto voice that he didn’t have anything left to act with – certainly he didn’t give Viola any of the emotional depth that can (should!) be present. And I just found Mark Rylance over the top – not a drag-queen performance, but occasionally getting close to it. On the plus side, Viola and Sebastian did look convincingly similar.

However, I enjoyed Paul Chahidi’s Maria. Over the top, yes, but then the character is drawn with broader strokes anyway – emotional depth is possible, but not so essential. And he managed to have a very impressive cleavage!

But because of this, the storyline that I love about Twelfth Night – Viola/Olivia/Orsino – really didn’t work for me in this production, whereas (or perhaps because of this) I quite enjoyed the Sir Toby/Malvolio plot. These actors all gave solid, if not particularly nuanced, performances, with the emphasis being on broad comedy, ignoring any potential for pathos. It is, however, very arguable that this was how it was intended to be played, and trying for a different feel is to impose a 20th century sensibility on a 16th century work. (I still prefer it with pathos – and I think lines like ‘I was adored once, too’ do lend themselves to it – but I don’t think it’s fair to complain about its absence.)

The production was in Elizabethan dress, and an interesting touch was that they had the actors dressing and putting on their makeup onstage, as the audience was arriving.

Another nice touch – almost certainly a result of its originally being a Globe production – was that there was a bit of interaction with the audience. In fact, some audience members were actually seated in boxes on the stage. I’m not sure what you had to do to score one of these seats – when I made the booking, I’m pretty sure they didn’t show on the seating plan – but it certainly worked well.

There was one unfortunate incident the night we were there. During the gulling of Malvolio scene, Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Fabian were hiding inside a frame covered in leaves. At the end of the scene, just before the interval, Sir Andrew was exiting the stage still inside the frame, and he tripped over and fell quite hard. After the interval, Mark Rylance came on stage and said that although the actor seemed okay, they thought he should see a doctor, so someone else had to take over the part for the second half.

Favourite moment

The gulling of Malvolio scene (except for Sir Andrew falling at the end). Which is weird, because normally it’s a scene I hate. But in this production it did work. Which so many of the other (better) scenes didn’t.

Bechdal test

Not sure.

The play has some great scenes between Viola and Olivia, and for the purposes of the Bechdal test, I think it is irrelevant that Olivia doesn’t realise she is talking to a woman. But it is arguable that their conversations are all about a man – Orsino at first, obviously, but then ‘Cesario’.

Stars

3

Plays in first half of 2008

So far in 2008 I have seen 8 plays:

Blackbird (David Harrower): Sydney Theatre Company at the Wharf Theatre
The subject matter of this play is fairly confronting – a man receives an unexpected visit from a woman he had a sexual relationship with many years ago, when he was 40 and she was 12 – and apparently the first production, in Edinburgh, was very popular. But for some reason – I don’t know whether it was the cast, the direction or the play itself – I just wasn’t engaged by it. I think part of the point (aside from dealing with such a taboo subject) was to look at the layers of lies and deception gradually being stripped off, but in the end I didn’t really care what the final truths were.

As You Like It (William Shakespeare): Bell Shakespeare Company at the Playhouse (Sydney Opera House)
As You Like It has never really worked for me on the page, and I’d never actually seen a professional production before, so I was looking forward to seeing what Bell Shakespeare would do with it. And I thoroughly enjoyed it. I finally realised that Rosalind can be an engaging character, rather than a pain in the neck, and Celia came across as having a bit more backbone than I had thought. The production didn’t really change my opinion that Orlando is a bit of a thicko, but it seemed to me as if they’d just gone “OK, he’s a dork, let’s just accept that and move on”. So rather than try and make him anything more than he is, they concentrated on making him fundamentally likeable – and succeeded. Most of the rest of the cast were good fun as well, though Jacques seemed rather inconsistent between scenes (in that his personality was whatever they wanted for that particular scene, regardless of what he had been like before) but maybe that smoothed out later in the run: we saw it fairly early on. All in all, the production was a fun romp, and though I still wouldn’t put As You Like It on the same level as Twelfth Night or Much Ado, I now have more time for it than I did previously.

The Vertical Hour (David Hare): Sydney Theatre Company at the Drama Theatre (Sydney Opera House)
The problem with this was that the two main characters were self-righteous and basically unpleasant, and the number three character was nice enough but totally wet. It could have been an interesting debate about the Iraq war, and there were some good bits, but her voice was like fingernails down a blackboard, and he was a nasty manipulative piece of work, and this really made it difficult to get any empathy with either of their positions.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (William Shakespeare): Dash Arts at the Sydney Theatre
This production was by Indian and Sri Lankan actors, using a range of different languages – English, Tamil, Malayalam, Sinhalese, Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Sanskrit – without surtitles. So it helped to be moderately familiar with the text, or one might have been quite lost as to what was happening – languages would change between characters, and even within speeches. The performances and costumes were good, but what really struck me most was the athleticism of the production. The acrobatic work – apparently all done without safety harnesses – was just breathtaking.

Rock ‘n’ Roll (Tom Stoppard): Sydney Theatre Company at the Sydney Theatre
Michael thought this play was baby boomer self indulgence. I quite enjoyed it, though it would have been better if Matthew Newton (Jan) had had more charisma (or any). But I thought William Zappa (Max) was fine, and Genevieve Picot (Eleanor and then Esme) was very good. I thought the moment where (as Eleanor, suffering from breast cancer) rips off her wig and tears open the front of her dress was very powerful – far more confronting than any single moment in, for example, Blackbird. I might have got more out of the play if I had been more familiar with Czech history: the play starts in the late 60s and finishes in about 1990, and I knew absolutely nothing about what was happening in Prague through this period (nor did I have any idea that Plastic People of the Universe – a group whose name I was vaguely familiar with – were Czech). But the play did inspire me to look it up afterwards. Which has to be considered a Good Thing.

The Serpent’s Teeth (Daniel Keene): Sydney Theatre Company at the Drama Theatre (Sydney Opera House)
This was actually two one-act plays, dealing with different aspects of war. The first one, Citizens, was set at the dividing wall of an unnamed country beset by war. It was a series of vignettes of citizens walking past the wall, getting on with their day-to-day lives in the face of hardships – an old man and his grandson taking a tree to the next village, and bringing a different one back, a married, pregnant couple walking to a new home, a woman carrying her dog to find a vet. It had some very compelling moments – the bit where the husband and wife are arguing, and spill part of their last bottle of water made the whole audience gasp – but there was somehow something a bit distancing about it. In spite of being about “the human spirit”, it was intellectually interesting, but for the most part not emotionally gripping.

The second one, Soldiers, was set in an Australian airbase (or something), where the families of five dead soldiers are awaiting the return of the bodies – a mix of wives, siblings, parents, children, etc. This one really was emotionally compelling. At some stage, most of the characters had a “poem” – sort of Ancient-Greek style theatre – which I found a bit stylised and not really successful. But the interactions between family members, and between members of different families, were very powerful.

As with just about every other STC Actors Company production, the standouts were Amber McMahon, Hayley McElhinney, Pamela Rabe and John Gaden, with Peter Carroll also putting in excellent performances in each half.

The Great (Tony McNamara): Sydney Theatre Company at the Wharf Theatre
This play about Catherine the Great was not very historically accurate, and had many intentional anachronisms (not to mention a truly remarkable number of horse references in the first act) but it was hugely fun. Robin McLeavy, who played young Catherine in the first act and her daughter Natalie in the second, was very funny, and Liz Alexander (the older, second-act Catherine) filled the stage with personality. Toby Schmitz as the second-act Orlo was wittily amusing but also emotionally resonant at times.Toby Schmitz was funny as Peter in the first half (though he seemed to have watched Hugh Laurie in Blackadder III way too many times) and okay as the son, Didi, in the second act. I thought the play was at its best when delivering clever dialogue and court intrigues, and at its weakest in the more emotional scenes (excepting some of the older Orlo’s). In particular, I found the love-of-Catherine’s life plotline not very successful. Overall, though, it was a fun play, if not particularly deep and meaningful.

Hamlet (William Shakespeare): Bell Shakespeare Company at the Drama Theatre (Sydney Opera House)
This production has had very good reviews, but it didn’t really work for me. Brendan Cowell’s Hamlet was very “big” (for want of a better word): he wasn’t actually chewing the scenery, but he was certainly very out there. I would like to see something a bit more intimate and introspective. And I didn’t think the scenes with the ghost were very successful: they were using a sort of split-stage effect (which the Cheek-By-Jowel Othello also used) with the ghost on one side of the stage, and everyone else on the other side, but rather than looking at the ghost, they were looking straight ahead, as if the ghost were in the audience. On the other hand, I enjoyed Colin Moody’s Claudius, and Heather Mitchell’s Gertrude was okay, up until her rather overdone death scene (it’s a bit of a worry when the audience actually laughs). Ophelia was pleasant, but not very strong, and R and G were basically a comedy act. The fencing in the duel scene wasn’t very impressive.

2006 in Review

Films

I saw 22 films this year. The high points were probably Casino Royale, Flags of our Fathers and Superman Returns. The biggest disappointment was X-Men: The Last Stand, because it was so much weaker than the first two X-Men films. However, the actual Worst Film would be a competition between Lord of War (which I saw on a plane, so didn’t actually waste any money on), Tristan + Isolde and Mission: Impossible III.

Plays

I saw 12 plays in 2006 (though I only actually blogged 9 of them). Ten were from the Sydney Theatre Company subscriptions (although one of these – The History Boys – was actually a National Theatre of Great Britain production). Of the other two, one was the Russian production of Twelfth Night, which was here for the Sydney Festival, and the other was You Never Can Tell, which I saw in London. My favourites were probably Twelfth Night and Woman in Mind, and the worst was unquestionably The Lost Echo.

Books

I’ve been very slack about blogging books this year. However, in August I set up – and have been maintaining – a What I’m Reading book log. So I know that from August to the end of the year, I read 81 books – though two of them I gave up on, and another two I haven’t yet finished. 47 of them were first-time reads, and 34 were re-reads. Alternatively, I could sort them by target audience (48 adult, 9 young adult, 24 children) or by genre (25 fantasy/science fiction, 15 crime/thriller, 7 non-fiction, and the rest a variety).

It was quite a good year for new-books-by-favourite-authors. George R. R. Martin’s A Feast for Crows (book 4 in A Song of Ice and Fire) was a bit of a let down, but I don’t think it would have been possible to maintain the intensity of the third book in the series, and I still have high hopes for the rest of the story. Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Sharing Knife: Beguilement was enjoyable, but only half a story (the other half comes out this year), and I still prefer her Vorkosigan books. Jaclyn Moriarty’s The Betrayal of Bindy Mackenzie was interesting, but unlikely to become my favourite of her books. On the other hand, On the Jellicoe Road could end up being my favourite Melina Marchetta. The other exciting event was Under Orders – the first new Dick Francis in six years. It wasn’t his best work, but it was a long way from the structural mess of his last couple.

I think my favourite new author for the year would be Donna Andrews. Her chick-lit/detective story crossovers are a lot of fun, if not exactly great literature. I read them from the library, and I’ll hold off on buying them until I know for sure I want to re-read them, but I’m certainly hanging out for the latest (No Nest for the Wicket) to come out in paperback and turn up in the library. Other new (to me) authors included Naomi Novik (Anne McCaffrey meets Patrick O’Brien), Anthony Horowitz (James Bond for teenagers – and with some clearly conscious Fleming homages, which I’m sure people who’ve only seen the films don’t get) and Stella Rimington (spy stories by a former head of MI5). They were all enjoyable enough to read more than one of their books, but I didn’t get overly excited by any of them.

She’s the Man at Hoyts, Broadway

She’s the Man, as all the publicity points out, follows the tradition of Clueless and 10 Things I Hate About You in translating a classic work into an American high-school setting. In this case, the classic work is Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night – my absolute favourite play, so, even though the trailer didn’t inspire me with confidence, I was determined to see this film. And ultimately, I was pleasantly surprised (at least relative to my expectations).

Twelfth Night is clearly the primary source for the plot, but there are a few other films/plays it calls to mind. It seems to owe a certain amount to Bend it Like Beckham: not only that soccer is the sport of choice, but also in the situation of an athletic daughter and a mother who wants her to be more feminine. The scene when they are learning to be debutantes is reminiscent of the opening of Mulan – and the film also shares with Mulan a distressing tendancy to find “humour” in having the heroine grossly overact when she is disguised as a boy (more about this later!) Finally, the scene in which Viola (disguised as Sebastian) is trying to show Duke how to talk to girls by “pretending” to be a girl for him to practise on, could be straight out of As You Like It.

The main thing I didn’t like about this film was the number of times Viola overdid it when she was pretending to be a boy (Viola the character, that is, not Amanda Bynes the actress). Productions of Twelfth Night have been known to show Viola having difficulties with the mannerisms and activites of masculinity, but this can only go so far, as it’s not specifically there in the text. But there are no holds barred in She’s the Man. Particuarly early on, Viola often speaks with an exaggeratedly deep, hearty voice, and stagey manner, and with lines that are so unconvincing it’s impossible that a halfway intelligent character could think they would make her fit in with the men. It’s the humour of embarrasment, which I loathe, and this was a particularly unsubtle and puerile version, and totally cringeworthy. At least in Mulan there were only two scenes involving this, but in She’s the Man it kept recurring throughout the entire film. She wasn’t like that all the time, but it was much, much too often for my taste.

The other thing I found repellent was the character of Eunice. Does anybody really wear that type of external mouth brace? And having made her as unattractive and awkward as possible, they then burdened her with a neurotic personality as well. I found it very tasteless – and from a plot point of view, there was absolutely no reason why Toby should be even vaguely interested in her. The other character I didn’t like was the principal, but he wasn’t actually offensive, just chronically unfunny: someone like Joss Whedon would have written a much better version (eg Principal Flutie in the first season of Buffy).

OK, now for the stuff I did like. I thought it was quite a clever adaptation of the plot. It didn’t match exactly point for point (e.g. Viola specifically disguised herself as Sebastian, rather than just as a random youth – though, contrary to the impression the trailer gives, he doesn’t know she’s doing it) and some of the characters were changed (I got a bit of a shock when Olivia went out with Duke to make “Sebastian” jealous). But in general the central triangle was nicely done. And there were a few fun jokes for people who know the play – e.g. Malcolm having a pet tarantula called Malvolio, and everyone going to “Cesario’s”. Plus the “some are born great” speech was included in full.

Even aside from the cringe-comedy, much of the humour was fairly broad. Some of this I didn’t like (e.g. the scene where Viola is trying not to let Monique see her too closely), but for the most part I was able to connect with my inner teenager and have a good time. So I enjoyed the not-appearing-in-Twelfth Night bit where Viola is trying to be both herself and Sebastian at the fair, the time when Viola and Duke leap onto the beds to escape the tarantula and then freak when they find themselves embracing, the inevitable men’s change room scenes and even the moment when Viola gets a soccer ball in the groin and takes a few seconds to realise what her reaction should be. And as well as the broad comedy, there were some funny one-liners, such as the deadpan delivery of “Is it me or does this soccer game have more nudity than most?”

But I think the main reason I enjoyed it was that the two leads were so charismatic. Some of the reviewers don’t seem to like Amanda Bynes, but for me she filled the screen with personality every time she appeared. She had a lovely smile, and was a nice combination of bounciness and determination and blind panic and (where appropriate) wistfulness. And (except in the cringe-making scenes) she was also very funny. Channing Tatum wasn’t as central, and didn’t have the same range, but he was very decorative, appealing in the scenes when he was showing his “sensitive” side, and good at the end when he thinks “Sebastian” has betrayed him, and then learns the truth about Viola. The scenes they had alone together, and the relationship they presented, were some of the best parts of the film.

The critics are somewhat divided over She’s the Man, but on average more seem to dislike it than like it – and while some absolutely loathe it, even the ones that like it don’t give it a complete rave. On At the Movies, David found it “jaw-droppingly awful” and only gave it half a star, while Margaret (somewhat to her surprise) enjoyed it and gave it three and a half. For me, it was definitely worth more than half a star, though I’m not sure I’d go quite as high as Margaret did: some parts were jaw-droppingly awful, and the stuff that I did like wasn’t enough to completely block this out.

But it’s a pity, because I think it did have the potential to be a really good adaptation – maybe up there with Clueless (though a higher suspension of disbelief would have been required). Much of the plot and character transposition was cleverly done, and most of the actors were very engaging. If only there had been less time spent on cringe-making slapstick comedy, and more on clever dialogue (of which there was some) and the relationships between the characters. After all, the relationships have plenty of comic as well as romantic potential: I’m not just talking about the main triangle, but also Viola and her mother, Monique, etc – the comedy here could range from subtle to extremely broad, without necessarily spending too much time on the humour of embarrassment.

A lot of reviews say that this film is aimed at younger-end teenagers: it’s notable that the parties and drug/alcohol references of Clueless and 10 Things I Hate About You are replaced with a fund-raiser fair and a debutante presentation. And I guess the younger demographic is supposed to really get into the slapstick, whereas the changes I want would have shifted the film to a higher-end teenager chick flick/date movie. So maybe it wasn’t what the filmmakers wanted to do – but with the material they had to work with, they could have done it, and it might have been really good.

I find it interesting that She’s the Man was much more about issues of masculinity and femininity than Twelfth Night. Not that I’m saying gender is irrelevant in Twelfth Night, but it seems to me that it is much more driven by individual personality. You have two completely self-absorbed, self-deluded people, who get a complete shake-up when a self-aware, empathic and intelligent outsider enters their lives (I’m reminded of an expression used in Grosse Pointe Blank: “Shakabuku … a swift, spiritual kick to the head that alters your reality forever”). In spite of the gender differentiation, Orsino and Olivia are very similar in personality; and Viola’s gender is only one part of what makes her what she is.

But the driving force behind She’s the Man is less Viola’s individual personality than the fact that because she is a woman she is more in touch with her emotions, and more able to talk about them. This is what attracts Olivia to her, and is also why Duke is able to open up and express his own “sensitive” side in a way that he can’t to his actual male friends. The counterpart of this is that a lot of the embarrasment-comedy (the stuff I objected to above) arises from Viola’s difficulties with finding an acceptable form of masculinity. Much of the “humour” occurs when she shows a feminine response, and then, in an attempt to recover from this, overreacts with what she thinks is masculine response, but which is so exaggerated as to be just as much at odds with Duke and the others: “What does your heart tell you? … I mean, which one would you rather see naked?”

I’m not sure that these ideas about gender actually go anywhere, but I found it an interesting line of thought …

Twelfth Night (William Shakespeare) – Chekhov International Theatre Festival in co-operation with Cheek by Jowl at the Theatre Royal

It seems a bit ironic that a week after seeing an English translation of The Cherry Orchard, I should see a Russian translation of Twelfth Night. The audience seemed to be a mix of people who had come because it was Shakespeare, and people who had come because it was Russian. I guess you don’t get a lot of Russian-language theatre in Sydney.

We weren’t sitting in the best position to read the surtitles, but that didn’t matter too much, as I’m sufficiently familiar with the play that I could just glance at them now and then, and enjoy the performances while the sound of the words washed over me. I hadn’t realised until now just what a beautiful language Russian is.

As well as being in Russian, this was an all-male production, and there was little attempt to disguise the sexuality of the actors. Olivia and Maria were both in skirts, but Olivia, in particular, had a very male haircut, which looked rather incongruous. And when Viola was wearing a dress, the boy-shorts underwear was very obvious. Ages ago, I remember reading a piece about Shakespearean theatre, which said that when a female character dresses as a male, for the audience this was simply a removal of disguise. I hadn’t actually realised the full psychological impact of this until now. In some ways, Viola was much more ambiguous than usual, simply because it was so much easier to think of her as male.

This production was from the same director as Othello a couple of years ago, and some of the same techniques were used: mostly empty stage, rather minimalist costumes, and particularly the way one scene sort of bled into the next one (ie the new scene would start even as the previous scene was still finishing). Although it doesn’t always work, this can be very effective.

I enjoyed all the performances. There were some interesting casting decisions – particularly the fact that Malvolio was quite young, and one of the two best-looking of the actors (the other being Sir Andrew!), so he did actually have some small basis for believing Olivia was in love with him.

The character of Fabian was completely dropped, with Feste taking over much of his part (though, oddly, the line about Toby marrying Maria was spoken by Maria herself). I’m not sure how I feel about this. He’s a bit of an add-on character who seems to appear out of nowhere to take over Feste’s part in the conspiracy (Jasper Fforde makes a joke about it in one of his Thursday Next books – that Feste has run away, so Fabian will have to cover for him). And yet, while the character was probably created for the practical reason that they had a leftover actor who needed a part (and, in this production, cut in order to save paying another actor), it does serve to keep Feste a bit more independent – on good terms with everyone, but not actually part of any of the inner circles. Which, for me, is very much the essence of his character.

It was hard to tell for sure how much of the play was cut. Certainly lines were missing from the surtitles, but I have a suspicion that in at least some cases, the actors still spoke them. The ending was interesting. There was a hint at first that Orsino wasn’t totally comfortable with Viola as a woman (he instinctively snatched his hands away from her when she reached out for him) but this seemed to disappear. More oddly, it seemed as if they were going to cut Malvolio’s “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you” line. And then right at the end, when everyone was dressed in happy, light coloured clothes, Malvolio came back on in his servant’s dress, served them all drinks, and then came to the front of the stage and said “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you” in a really menacing tone. At which point, the play ended. One can only wonder what might have been in the drinks he served!

Julius Caesar (William Shakespeare) – Sydney Theatre Company production at the Wharf Theatre

I was distinctly underwhelmed by this production. I didn’t like the mix of Roman and modern dress, I didn’t like the “staginess” of it all, the actors were singularly lacking in charisma and Brutus seemed to spend the whole play in an unchanging cloud of gloom. Rather disappointing, since this was the first time I’d ever seen Julius Caesar live. When Michael was in New York for a conference earlier this year, he saw a production starring Denzel Washington – he said it was a lot more accessible than this production.

Shakespeare’s Villains at the Seymour Centre

Another good night at the theatre, though again I didn’t get quite what I was expecting. The concept is that Steven Berkoff chats to the audience about a number of Shakespeare’s villains, interspersed with acting significant scenes from each. The villains include most of the usual suspects – Iago, the Macbeths, Shylock and Richard III – along with some more controversial selections such as Hamlet, Coriolanus and Oberon.

The talk (which I gather is unscripted, but probably covers the same general areas each night) was partly psychological analysis of the characters, partly an actor’s perspective of playing them, partly theatrical traditions surrounding the plays and a bit of general “actor’s life” chit-chat (and bitchiness). This was more or less what I had expected (well, maybe not the chit-chat/bitchiness) and it was interesting, enjoyable and amusing.

I was a bit surprised, though, that when he was actually giving excerpts from the parts he did a lot of them over the top for laughs. This was particularly apparent with the Macbeth bit (where he did both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth) and with Hamlet (Hamlet, Gertrude and Polonius). I guess he has been doing this for a lot of years, and knows what will work for the audience. And it was undeniably funny. But I was glad he chose to do Coriolanus straight.

Twelfth Night (William Shakespeare) – Bell Shakespeare production at the Playhouse Theatre (Sydney Opera House)

This was not what you might call a subtle production. For me, Twelfth Night is primarily a poetic love story, in which the Malvolio subplot interferes. This director obviously preferred to emphasise the bawdy aspects of the play. Feste, in particular, was rather more crass than I would have liked – though I can’t deny he was funny.

I’m not a huge fan of Twelfth Night done in modern dress. However, allowing for this, I did quite like some of the costuming choices. Sir Andrew as sort of would-be tough punk was fun, as was Orsino listening through earphones to music on an MP3 player (although I wouldn’t have said it had a “dying fall”). I also rather liked the rent-a-cop look of Orsino’s guards. Viola managed to look very much like a scruffy teenage boy, which was effective in some scenes, but did lead one to wonder what Olivia found to fall in love with. I was unpleasantly reminded of the American court case about the teacher who had entered into a relationship with a 14-year-old (?) student.

The production opened with Viola and Sebastian in the storm. They used real water, but unfortunately, because they obviously couldn’t flood the whole stage, it looked rather more like Viola and Sebastian under the shower. It was actually a lot more effective at the end, when they reused the apparatus to make it rain on Feste as he finished singing “Wind and the Rain”.

I didn’t find any of the performances particularly outstanding, though neither were they particularly bad. I probably enjoyed Genevieve Hegney’s Olivia the most. I thought Viola was very patchy, but then she is my absolute favourite heroine in all of Shakespeare, and I have some very firm ideas about her character, so I suppose I was bound to be disappointed. Nevertheless, I don’t think Caroline Craig is any threat to my two all-time favourite Violas – Felicity Kendal (1980 BBC TV production) and Imogen Stubbs (1996 film).

The production emphasised the broad humour, and somewhat de-emphasised the poetry, of the play. Not really my preferred balance, but nonetheless an enjoyable evening at the theatre.