If there is one thing that bored me to tears at school, it was studying Shakespeare. Nothing was worse than the monotonous sounds of me and my class mates attempting to read out loud from Romeo and Juliet, completely void of emotion and interest. The idea that anyone would want to study Shakespeare, let alone find him amusing, was, frankly, a ludicrous one. I remember well the bewildered silence that followed when, during a reading of Henry VI part one, my teacher had the audacity to chuckle at one of Falstaff’s lines.
I hope since then that my understanding and appreciation of Shakespeare has increased and yet I will freely admit that I am still not his biggest fan. Like music critics who accuse the Beetles of being the worst thing that happened to popular music, Shakespeare’s legacy casts a long shadow of apparent unmet expectations over modern theatre.
My cynical attitude as I entered the Olivier theatre, made my experience of Dominic Cooke’s production even more a revolution to me. As has often been said, reading Shakespeare and seeing Shakespeare performed are two completely different things. To watch Cooke’s production is to be transported to another world, as Bunny Christie’s set immerses the audience within a distorted, dream like modern day London. Crucially, watching his humour come to life in the form of fantastically choreographed slapstick and lines uttered with perfect comic timing finally breaks down some of the barriers surrounding Shakespeare, making it accessible to both the young and old. I found it heartening to witness school aged children almost hysterical with laughter in response to something that, in the class room, would only provoke glazed stares.
The untameable energy of Cooke’s production is exhilarating, its physicality and laughs as big and broad as its set. Indeed the set becomes the embodiment of this infectious energy, its huge blocks revolving and rotating like the pieces of the play’s puzzle coming together. It is utilised best in scenes like the climax of the play in which the characters are literally running around in circles, the set spinning in unison to create a hurricane of movement and mania
What’s fascinating is that the city that the set creates almost becomes a character in its own right. Its awe inspiring ability to shape and morph into different locations, from the cold corporate Phoenix hotel to the seedy fluorescent lights of the Porcupine nightclub works to create an entire world. Criticism of the production has argued that the set almost over powers the action and characters on stage and yet, in a play all about identity, the set has managed to create a presence equal to that of the characters on the stage. It effectively conveys the idea that your identity and your surroundings are one of the same and interdependent. Without that set presence, the audience cannot hope to gain a true grasp of the characters’ identities within it.
The show’s modern day setting also plays a vital part in this question of identity. Whether through the rich Nigerian accents of Lenny Henry and Lucien Masamati as Dromio or the band’s wonderful renditions of modern day pop songs in Romanian, the multicultural vibrancy of the city echoes throughout the whole production. It also adds to the notion of identity and place being interchangeable and suggests that one man’s search for his other half is a search many of us in multicultural Britain undertake as identities fuse together.
It is also important to note that for a play of such big and broad proportions, it is littered with tiny moments of genius. As the revelations unfold at the end of the play, the subtlety and simplicity of Lenny Henry as he glances to the audience and utters, “who did I dine with?” provide the biggest laughs. This is a testament to the wonderful comic ability of Henry and points to the success of casting a comedian in the role. And yet one of the play’s key strength lies in the production as an ensemble. Claudie Blakely, in a performance that would make The Only Way Is Essex cast proud, also gives a memorable turn and really stood out for me.
The success of this production lies in the energy and life it breathes into an ancient script and its ability to make Shakespeare accessible to people of all ages. Comparisons to the National Theatre’s other comedy smash-hit, One Man Two Governors, are inevitable and yet I feel that this production manages to stand alone as a truly exciting and unique interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays.