Jennifer Marsden, the creator of Knights of the Rose, is a qualified barrister, yet she has always been interested in theatre. She began writing Knights of the Rose over eight years ago. Here she shares her love for poetry, verse, rock music and, most of all, theatre.
A dramatic opera set in a dark place
There is no joy in the world of the Macbeths: no sense of love for family or nation. Just a deep-seated desire for power and domination. Verdi wrote to Antonio Somma, his librettist for Un ballo in maschera, in 1853, “I prefer Shakespeare to all other dramatists” by which point he had already finished composing Macbeth (1847, revised 1865) and continued to celebrate his respect for the Bard with Otello (1887) and his final masterwork, Falstaff (1893).
Currently, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and National Theatre (NT) have produced two new productions of Shakespeare’s Macbeth which, unfortunately, haven’t received the best reviews. That said, the Royal Opera House did a better job with Verdi’s opera, a reduced version of Shakespeare’s play, which was sung by the showstopping Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, as Lady M., and Serbian baritone Željko Lučić, performing the role of Macbeth.
Canadian costume and set designer Michael Levine has worked in a variety of prestigious theatres and opera houses internationally for more than three decades. He created the original set designs for Robert Carsen’s production of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is currently being revived at the English National Opera (ENO), London Coliseum. I spoke to Michael (on the first day of Spring) to discuss the inspiration behind his work; the usage of the green and blue colours, the symbolic relationship between the world, Tytania and Oberon, as well as the floating beds on the ENO set. He also shared his experience of a dramatic transition within design over the course of his career and gave an in-depth account of the role of a set designer.
Long for the days of Summer’s innocence
Lucky number three. Three ravishing productions have been performed at the London Coliseum from the English National Opera’s (ENO) Spring 2018 programme. It seems that the quality of the ENO’s productions are proving consistent and worth complimenting. The third of which I saw on its press night (on Thursday) on a week that had been heavily affected by snow storms and Siberian winds under the alias ‘The Beast from the East.’ Luckily for the audience inside the London Coliseum, it was warmer and rosier with its sweet and playful portrayal of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Remember last year when theatres in America were receiving hate mail for producing shows written by Shakespeare? It was from the backlash of audience reactions to New York Public Theatre’s production of Julius Caesar. Their depiction of Caesar, based on the Roman emperor who was murdered in 44 BCE, looked very similar to the current US president. Those who had voted for Trump, including those who hadn’t seen the show, felt compelled to protest and demand the production be shut down in fear it would encourage the idea of making the play a reality – the assassination of the president and a civil war to brew.
Totally last minute! I got word from Fran (@Crosseyedpiano) about 7 Star Arts’s concert taking place not too far from me. It was their Sweet Harmony concert which focused on the genius of Shakespeare through music, words and art. The event took place at Chiswick’s quaint St Michael’s Church with a small and intimate audience, yet the performers and artists were far from amateur. This was an special occasion to get up close with accomplished, talented and professional artists who had graced the stages of The National Theatre, performed with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and released classical music albums.
The evening was a feast for the senses. Shakespeare’s writings, from his diverse plays, and romantic sonnets were confidently and passionately narrated by Susan Porrett. After each reading, it was an immediate escape for the eyes and the ears.
Shakespeare wrote many plays – 38 to be exact – and only now can I confess that I’ve seen his psychological, semi-comedic drama, The Winter’s Tale. That may sound pretty shocking for a theatre enthusiast, but I am glad I waited for Cheek by Jowl’s production, presented at the Silk Street Theatre of The Barbican, for a brilliant and insightful undertaking.
Declan Donnellan has directed Shakespeare’s imagined world of jealous kings, angry gods and unconditional love at the kingdoms of Sicily and Bohemia and transferred them onto a contemporary platform. Cleverly done, I managed to understand the threads of each plot without having studied the sophisticated dialogues, previously. It is to the masterful cast, too, that brought their characters to life and made every moment engaging and entertaining.
There are so many things to learn from Shakespeare. But Grassroots’ Siobhan Daly alludes to one of the most important lessons – the human soul and its fragility – in her production of Othello at the Leicester Square Theatre. With subtle sounds orchestrated by Tom Barnes, simple lights directed by Andy Peregrine and rich coloured fabrics that instill Venetian nobility and imagination by Rachael Vaughan and Suzi Lombardelli, much vision and craft can flourish in such intimate settings.
Nari Blair-Mangat’s dramatic illustration of a young and good Othello tarnished by eating the fruits of Iago’s (James Alexandrou) words and tempting concoctions drive him into a pit of insane hell. Alexandrou’s plays a cool-under-pressure Iago sure of his deeds and intentions under a looming red light as he softly and slowly quotes Iago’s most famous soliloquys. He manages to retain east London characteristics as Eastenders’ Martin Fowler yet with keeping his boyish attributes at bay he successfully plays the most dangerous character. Iago is without a doubt a favorite villain not only for his Machiavelli cunningness and power to control the fate of feeble innocents but his undeniable tendency to make an audience question human evils and capability; can we plant the seed of manipulation to take life including one’s own?
Blair-Mangat’s Othello however, is extraordinary. He is the most aggressive and maddest hothead but this does not put him at a disadvantage. Valiant and noble as the ‘moor’ must be, this lighthearted and loving husband is a sweet honeymoon bloom whose fortune is undermined by his naivety and gullibility. Blair-Mangat’s portrayal highlights an insecurity silently killing Othello as he tells the audience, ‘she loved me for the dangers I had pass’d, and I loved her that she did pity them.’
If Shakespeare were alive today this would be how he wanted it to be. Iago the frighteningly clever psychopath and Othello the easily swayed captain who regresses into a sickly and mentally unstable maniac. One may even say that Blair-Mangat’s Othello takes on another shade, a paranoid husband who believes he does not deserve the love from Desdemona, (Annabel Bates) the Venetian senator’s daughter.
Bates’ displays a pitiful and cherubic Desdemona whose unfortunate simplicity makes her submissively obedient to her jealous lover. Roderigo, (Adam Blampied) is Iago’s sad sideline but Cassio, (Boris Mitkov) is the complete antithesis as the handsome charming soldier who regards Othello highly.
Emily Jane Kerr was most notable for her embodiment of Emilia in the final scene showing the audience what a truthful best friend looks like. And Jim Conway’s version of Brabantio is ruthless. You would not want to mess with him nor his sword.
Shakespeare theatre is not dramatic unless its makes an audience engaged, gasping and introspecting the human condition and Daly’s Othello effectively does this. Othello can be produced in various ways but Grassroots ‘re-vitalised, re-imagined and re-examined’ work warrants a position in the West End as part of Shakespeare’s legacy, which so happens to take place on his 450th birthday.