If only Caryl Churchill’s plays were as thrillingly macabre as her debut

The first play by the pioneering feminist Caryl Churchill has been revived at the Jermyn Street Theatre. Owners, originally staged in 1972, feels very different from Churchill’s later work and it recalls the apprentice efforts of Brecht who started out writing middle-class comedies tinged with satirical anger. Churchill sets her play in the cut-throat London property market where prices are soaring and tenants are apt to be evicted if they can’t cover sudden rent rises. Marion is an estate agent who secretly buys a house occupied by her former lover Alec who is married to Lisa. Their third child is on the way. Marion hatches an evil plan to kick

Why do I need security guards so I can play Shylock?

These are very odd times. The project of my life – The Merchant of Venice 1936, which sets Shakespeare’s play in East End London during the rise of Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts – was postponed because of Covid, but is now alive and kicking. It’s kicking hard. We’re on a ten-week tour and I’ve been moved beyond words at the reactions of audiences and critics. Yet for the last week, the production has had to have security men around keeping an eye on things. It’s like a dystopian nightmare. A Jewish actress putting on a play about anti-Semitism which needs to be made secure because of Jew-hating extremists. As one reviewer

Has VR finally come of age?

A heavily made-up Iranian woman in bra and knickers is dancing seductively before me. We’re in some vast warehouse, and she’s swaying barefoot. But then I look around. All the other men here are in military uniforms and leaning against walls or sitting at desks, smoking and looking at her impassively. I slowly realise we are in a torture chamber and this lithe, writhing woman is dancing, quite possibly, for her life. Me? I have become one of her tormentors. You can immerse yourself in war-ruined Ukraine, go on the run from the Holocaust, become a mushroom Welcome to The Fury, a bravura attempt by Iranian artist Shirin Neshat to

Hamlet fans will love this: Re-Member Me, at Hampstead Theatre, reviewed

A puzzle at Hampstead Theatre. Literally, a brain teaser. Its new production, Re-member Me, is a one-man show written and performed by Dickie Beau, whose name is a punning allusion to a bow tie. The oddly spelled word, ‘re-member’ refers to the process of reassembling the separated limbs of a dramatic character during the rehearsal process. The poster for the production centres on Mr Beau dressed in 1980s sports gear and wearing a T-shirt blazoned with the logo of ‘Wittenberg University’, written in German. Enfolding his skull is a rainbow headband. These details tell us that the play examines the character of Hamlet with a particular focus on the travails

Does Shakespeare tell us how Succession will end?

The award-winning Succession is many things. Now in its fourth series, it has been compared with a Renaissance painting, a Greek tragedy, a Jane Austen novel, and a psychoanalytical allegory of trauma responses (Kendall – fight; Connor – flight; Shiv – fawn; Roman – freeze). Ultimately, however, it is a Shakespearean series. The writers may have swapped the battlefield for the boardroom and armies for anxious shareholders, but the show’s character studies and themes – power, family, politics, betrayal, revenge – are Shakespearean in their complexity and circularity. Only instead of soliloquies, we have a lot more raised eyebrows, death-stares and ‘uh-huhs’. There’s even a playwright called Willa. Like Shakespeare

The ups and downs of driving a Tesla

I began the week in Miami, looking forward to what a friend of mine describes as ‘the finest sight in all Florida – the departure lounge’. That is a little unfair; a tour of Cape Canaveral is mind-blowing. But beyond that I confess I find the state brash and gaudy, a fitting place for Donald Trump’s retirement. If indeed the 45th President has retired. No one will be surprised if he runs again, nor if he is re-elected with the help of his Republican party which has been busy restricting voters’ rights and playing origami with constituency boundaries. I doubt he will win the popular vote, but nor does he

Why Merseyside is the natural home for a Shakespearean theatre

Prescot is a neglected little town in Merseyside noted for having Britain’s second narrowest street and for its Brazilian waxing salon. It’s now also home to Shakespeare North, a game-changing new theatre. This handsome, modern brick building overlooking a Jacobean church has a light, airy, unfussy interior – a stairway to heaven. You leave the modern world and enter an octagonal cocoon, modelled on a 1630 playhouse, built of slowly splitting green oak, the limbs all pegged together, not a nail in sight. The seats (two tiers) accommodate between 320 and 470 people, depending on the configuration of the stage. Its acoustic is spot-on and it feels cosy but not

Stupendously good: Much Ado About Nothing, at the Lyttelton Theatre, reviewed

Simon Godwin’s Much Ado About Nothing is set in a steamy Italian holiday resort, the Hotel Messina, in the 1920s. A smart move, design-wise. The jazz age was one of those rare moments in history when every member of society, from the lowliest chambermaid to the richest aristocrat, dressed with impeccable style and flair. The show is stupendously good to look at it and it kicks off with a thrilling blast of rumba music from a jazz quartet on the hotel balcony. Even sceptics of jazz need not fear these players. The musical score is a triumph for one simple reason: there are no jazz solos. The comic passages of

The Victorian origins of ‘medieval’ folklore

I would guess that contemporary pagans have a love-hate relationship with Ronald Hutton. With books such as The Triumph of the Moon and Stations of the Sun, scholarly accounts of the history of modern witchcraft and the ritual year in Britain, no one writes more sensitively about their worldview. On the other hand, as an academic, Hutton assiduously seeks to saw off the branch on which many of their fondest assumptions sit. The paradox can be explained. Queens of the Wild returns to one of Hutton’s key themes: the debunking of the idea that pagan practices and beliefs survived intact in Europe from archaic times. With characteristic frankness he explains

The Globe, Plato and the corrupting force of art

The Globe theatre’s project to ‘decolonise’ Shakespeare, as if that would make plays like The Tempest ‘acceptable’ to them and their audience, would have met with no approval at all from Plato (c. 425-348 BC). For him, all poetry and the arts were corrupt, and in his Republic, a discussion of how an ideal state should be constituted, he called for them all to be banned. Plato’s argument begins from exactly the same position as the Globe’s: that all art, but especially that which deals in words, has an educational effect. In other words, it instructs, whether it likes it or not (and Greeks did indeed argue that this was

Somewhere in this production lies Shakespeare’s tragedy: Almeida’s Macbeth reviewed

Yaël Farber’s Macbeth sets out to be a great work of art. The director crams the Almeida’s stage with suggestive props, glass panels, microphones, a wheelbarrow full of jackboots. The witches are not the usual vagrants or carbuncled mystics. These grim-looking ladies have expensive hairdos and nicely ironed shirts — like a panel of disgruntled academics at a tribunal. William Gaunt is a decrepit Duncan who looks ready to receive his telegram from the Queen. He can barely rise from his NHS wheelchair. But one wonders why this frail old chap had to be knifed to death? Much easier to smother him with a pillow and claim he expired naturally.

A triumph: Young Vic’s Hamlet reviewed

Here goes. The Young Vic’s Hamlet, directed by Greg Hersov, is a triumph. This is a pared-back, plain-speaking version done with captivating simplicity and perfect trust in the text. The star is Shakespeare and the production merely opens up an aperture to his dazzling account of human greatness and frailty. The action takes place on a small, level stage that could be covered by two bedspreads. Designer Anna Fleischle adds an oblong arch of distressed stone along with three tall blocks that rotate to create internal hiding places, corridors and cubby-holes. That’s all she needs to suggest a house of horrors, a court of nightmares, a royal palace beset by

Letters: In defence of Land Rovers

How to stay safe Sir: Mary Wakefield is correct to highlight the opprobrium heaped on anyone who suggests sensible safety advice to women (‘Don’t mix up murder and hate crime’, 2 October). It has long been the case that this is the one area where it is impossible to give crime prevention information without stirring up a hornet’s nest. Motorists are constantly told not to leave valuables on display when they park their cars, as they may return to find their windows broken and the articles stolen. No one claims that motorists are being ‘victim shamed’ when given this advice, even though the police may well roll their eyes when

A 21st-century Holden Caulfield: The Book of Form and Emptiness, by Ruth Ozeki, reviewed

The world Ruth Ozeki creates in The Book of Form & Emptiness resembles one of the snow globes that pop up throughout the novel: a whirling chaos of objects and people. The narration is shared between traumatised Benny, a 21st-century Holden Caulfield figure, and ‘The Book’ itself, opinionated, chatty. The author has fun with both wokery and its opposite. Look out for the gender-fluid pet ferret whose preferred pronoun is They. Benny’s father died when the boy was 12, run down by a truck full of chickens. Now going on 14, he hears voices in his head, objects speak to him (coffee cups, sneakers, windowpanes), bombarding him with conflicting advice.

How Shakespeare became ‘problematic’

‘This crossword is problematic!’ exclaimed my husband, tossing aside the folded newspaper marked with a ring where his whisky glass had rested. He was being facetious, a common register of speech with him when vacancy does not take over. Problematic has acquired new life as a label for something disapproved of and therefore ripe for banning or cancelling. Thus The Tiger Who Came to Tea is ‘problematic’ to an influential pressure group called Zero Tolerance because of its ‘old-fashioned’ portrayal of women and families. Shakespeare too had problematic views on whiteness, according to people at the Globe. An article in the Guardian on ‘preppy’ fashion, with pleated skirts, argyle and

The history of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane is the theatrical history of England

Andrew Lloyd Webber has not been in the best of moods lately, largely thanks to all the Covid delays to his new musical Cinderella, now finally about to open — for the umpteenth announced time — at the Gillian Lynne Theatre. The bigger news, however, is that his theatre at the other end of Drury Lane, the grand old Theatre Royal, is finally finished after massive renovations. Lloyd Webber has spent an awesome £60 million on the rebirth of his Grade I-listed theatre, known to show folk as ‘the Lane’, with his wife Madeleine heavily involved and in cahoots with the heritage expert Simon Thurley and the great theatre architect

A shrill, ugly, tasteless muddle: Romeo & Juliet reviewed

What shall we destroy next? Romeo & Juliet seems a promising target and the Globe has set out to vandalise Shakespeare’s great romance with a scruffy, rowdy, poorly acted and often incomprehensible modern-dress production. It starts with two lads having a swordfight using curtain poles. Enter the Prince who fires a gun and halts the action. Then the preaching starts. ‘Rather than trying to understand the nature of the violence, the Prince threatens the community,’ says an actor. These intrusions continue. ‘Patriarchy,’ says someone else, ‘is a system in which men hold power.’ The slogan appears on a screen as well. (Patriarchy means ‘fathers’ holding power rather than ‘men’ but

A Shakespeare play at the Globe whose best features have nothing to do with Shakespeare

Back to the Globe after more than a year. The theatre has zealously maintained its pre–Covid staffing levels. On press night, there were eight sentries patrolling the forecourt where just 42 masked spectators watched a revival of Sean Holmes’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Globe describes his show as ‘raucous’. The action is set in a forest near Athens during the classical era but the text uses 16th-century English. So it seems crazy to add a third time zone but most directors do so unquestioningly. This modernised production features an array of multicoloured stylings inspired by funfairs and Caribbean carnivals. The palette is a mad rainbow of acid pinks, savage

The problem with decolonising Shakespeare

Scarcely a day passes without a major British institution announcing it is ‘decolonising’ itself. Most recently it was the turn of Shakespeare’s Globe, which announced a series of ‘anti-racist Shakespeare webinars’ as part of its ‘commitment to decolonising the plays of Shakespeare’. That brought me up short. At the time of Shakespeare’s birth, England didn’t have any colonies, although other European states did. True, The Tempest can be read as a metaphor for colonialism, with Prospero taking Sycorax’s island from her and enslaving Caliban, but Prospero is Milanese, not British. And it’s not exactly an argument in favour of colonial rule. Prospero wants nothing more than to return to Milan

Shakespeare didn’t need to know the difference between ‘its’ and ‘it’s’

An item on the BBC news site didn’t mean what it said: ‘The latest move is part of a wider crackdown by China to reign in the country’s fast-growing tech platforms.’ China may wish long to reign over us, but in this case it wanted to rein in activity. It wasn’t that the author didn’t know the difference between a horse’s rein and a monarch’s reign. But the moribund metaphor of reining in allowed a homophone to sneak in. If there was a spell-checker on the author’s computer, it would have let it through. I find that a very common spelling mistake is lead in place of led, as in