Acid house Shakespeare: Sex, drugs and do-si-dos

I have never seen such a druggy, cannabis-hazed, acid-housed production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Meanwhile, Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones are failing to earn a standing ovation for their Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing.

Could Michael Grandage’s exposition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream derive from a misreading of a single line? When Oberon asks Titania to “take hands with me/And rock the ground whereon these sleepers be”, Shakespeare intends a dance so gentle that it will rock the mortals to sleep, as in a cradle. This Dream (runs until 16 November), however, is a rock opera, with pumping pop music, festivalgoers stripped to their underpants, and whole lot of loving goin’ on under the most dilated of full moons.

Obviously the forest police have announced an amnesty on narcotics for the summer solstice. Although the play’s whole plot rests on opiates – the juices of a “little western flower” being sprinkled on Titania and Lysander – I have never seen such a druggy, cannabis-hazed, acid-housed production of this comedy.

The conceit works beautifully well but the play was almost bound to succeed in any case, thanks, as it were, to its “dream” cast. They consistently surprise. Pádraic Delaney is an unashamedly Irish Theseus but returns as Oberon, looking and sounding like a public school-educated Russell Brand. Sheridan Smith, who once said she had a “common face”, starts off dead classy as Hippolyta, with a tight blonde perm, a Thirties wool suit and a clipped, Anna Neagle accent. As Titania, she’s a punk vamp, a Toyah Willcox with work at the rougher kind of cowboy bar on her CV (she can toss a leg over the rail of a spiral suitcase as impressively as Mae West).

Thanks to her TV work as Mrs Biggs and on Jonathan Creek, Smith is a box-office draw. Even more so is David Walliams, who does a lovely, deep-voiced, overeager Bottom, with a habit of dripping his outstretched hand slowly down the faces of his fellow amateur comedians. He makes an aria in many registers out of his death throes in the rude mechanicals’ play, ending them by pressing Thisbe into his groin, fellatio ad absurdum. Funnily enough, though, the actor I enjoyed most was Katherine Kingsley as a sexually aggressive and self-dramatising Helena. Such a danger is she that Demetrius (a buff Stefano Braschi) has to prise her legs together during one attempted female-on-male rape.

The play’s usually interminable first scene passed in about five minutes. After an early interval, we resumed at Act III, Scene Two with Puck’s summary of the action. Given his willingness to dress Walliams in Up Pompeii gear to get a laugh out of his resemblance to Frankie Howerd, I wondered if Grandage considered prefacing this recap with “Previously . . .”. Although the period details skid between 1930 and 1990, this is a version directly aimed at 2013 attention spans.

Grandage’s production may have psychedelic inspirations, but the director’s great gift to Shakespeare, and to us, is to make him line for line, and plotline by plotline, completely clear. There is a risk, particularly with this play, that by doing so, more elusive magic evaporates, and yet so much is gained by clarity. For one thing, you get the jokes.

Over the river at the Old Vic something else extraordinary is happening. Vanessa Redgrave, 76, and James Earl Jones, 82, are failing to earn a standing ovation for their Beatrice and Benedick in Mark Rylance’s Much Ado About Nothing (runs until 30 November). In many ways this is an admirable production. Rylance relocates the action from Renaissance Messina in Sicily to 1944 and Home Counties England, where an airbase is welcoming home an all-black USAF squadron, over here and, after the deprivations of war, oversexed. The nightwatch becomes an elderly Dad’s Army home guard, augmented by Boy Scouts and led by the terrific Peter Wright as one of theatrical history’s few tolerably funny Dogberrys (he is even better playing the Friar).

However. People come to Much Ado for Beatrice and Benedick, the prototypes of every romcom couple who start out hating and end in lurv. Here, our enjoyment is jeopardised by a terrible anxiety that they will forget their lines. On the first night, after some touch-and-go moments, my feeling was merely of relief that they had got through it.

Redgrave looks great, shirted and trousered like a land girl. She has a conversational way with Shakespeare that still works but it is a low-key, autumnal performance and Beatrice’s change from merriment to seriousness is not really marked. Jones, whose fine baritone voice has become muffled with age, speaks many of his great speeches sitting down, and at dictation speed. These two, so well paired a few years ago in Driving Miss Daisy, invent a whole delivery style – ponderous repartee.

Yet what’s most annoying is that the production makes no particular point of the casting. When Benedick concludes that the world must be peopled this surely is the moment for a sly, sarcastic tilt at his future girlfriend’s age. But nothing is made of it. Leonato customarily refers to Beatrice as “niece”. Could Michael Elwyn not put some spin on that? There is much to be said for colour-blind casting. Age-blind, not so much.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Much Ado About Nothing are playing at the Noël Coward Theatre, London WC2 and the Old Vic, London SE1

Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones, so well paired in Driving Miss Daisy, are failing to earn a standing ovation. Image: Getty

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 07 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Nelson Mandela

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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era