Review round-up: Works of Shakespeare

A hip hop Lady Macbeth? A Korean Hamlet? A Costa del Sol Twelfth Night? They're all worth a look, writes Tim Cornwell

Screw Your Courage
Screw Your Courage

Musicals & Opera

Macbeth ***

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C Venues – C (Venue 34)


The Song of the Beast (after Hamlet) ****

C Venues - C South (Venue 58)

Broken ***

Serenity Cafe (Venue 248)

Screw Your Courage! (or the Bloody Crown!) ***

Greenside @ Infirmary Street (Venue 236)

Queen Lear ***

Assembly Roxy (Venue 139)

Gratiano ***

Spotlites (Venue 278)

(seen in workshop performance)

At War with Love **

Greenside @ Nicolson Square (Venue 209)

Blood will have Blood **

C Venues - C Nova (Venue 145)

William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged) **

Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33)

Shakespeare Syndrome **

Greenside @ Infirmary Street (Venue 236)

The Female Question **

theSpace @ Surgeons Hall
(Venue 53)

Twelfth Night or the Ship of Fools ****

theSpace on the Mile (Venue 39)

There’s always Shakespeare across the Fringe, but this year’s 400th anniversary of his death has bumped the numbers. The strongest shows on this list remain interpretations of Shakespeare’s work. The weakest took his characters and played with them, typically for laughs, sometimes with dire results. Others reshaped minor characters in the plays.

Original, young, aspirational, laced with raw talent and lovely voices and not too slick: Twist Theatre Company’s Macbeth narrowly misses a fourth star in its current incarnation but a tiny bit of tweaking would take it there. Resetting it as a battle for power in a record label, this R&B and hip hop musical blending rap repartee with true Shakespearean dialogue is a gift. Malika Cholwe’s voice has a lovely, sultry sadness – which helps here as Lady M is reimagined as a fallen star in purple lipstick pushing her husband to help her comeback. Andre Fyffe plays Macbeth as both hard-edged and uncertain, with a gold chain instead of a crown.

There are Fringe PRs who could take a lesson in toughness from Bea Collett Bell, wonderful as Ross, whose reaction to Duncan’s murder is to order the company into PR lockdown. Ryan Yengo, as Banquo, drives Macbeth to distraction when he haunts the music awards. The witches agree to meet at the O2 Arena amid the slick suits of the music industry bosses, and double as lounge singers, their rendition of Double Double, Toil and Trouble segueing into a wonderful drum beat. There’s no weak link.

If I wanted to explain to a GCSE student what Hamlet was about I’d send them to The Song of Beast (after Hamlet). Actor Hyo In Kim, wandering the stage, pathetic and narcissistic, obsessively filming his father’s funeral with his camcorder, simply is Hamlet; though he’s named Hae-In Lee here, he’s the same mad, ineffectual truth-sayer as Shakespeare’s. It’s billed as Hamlet, Korean style – a bloody struggle for power set in a slaughtering business where humans also get carved to pieces.

Hamlet is mourning not his father, but his mother; he’s a once sickly child addicted to drugs, attempting suicide. Hak-Chul, his nemesis, played by Jun Sun Bae, is a gangster on the make, promising to end the time of “moral turpitude,” hand in hand with his lethal mistress.

There is a great soundtrack, effective video tricks, and a dense translated narration which works well, particularly in the hands of Min Kyung Paic. Harim Kim as Soo Min, aka Ophelia, is memorable as she pleads with Hae-In, who croons ‘To be or not to be’ through a drugged dream.

Moving on to the best of the rest: in particular, Broken. This is where Shakespeare would have been comfortable, methinks – in the Free Fringe, at the back of a café, on bare boards. The piece is unpretentious, flirty and witty, with a love affair that starts with a sneeze on the Tube and turns raunchy, raw, and the victim of drink and

It’s written in mock Shakespearean verse but with a sassy disrespect, with noisily energetic sex and slanging-matches. “As the doors opened at Leicester Square, you appeared like a solar flare… The path of true love and Sunpat Crunchy doth never run smooth.”

Writer Matthew Lyon plays Boy, Lauren Mills the Girl. The show was a tonic, leaving its rhythms ringing in your head.

Screw Your Courage! (or the Bloody Crown!) was a thoughtful, well-delivered and witty piece, centred on a young girl cursed with an obsession with playing Lady Macbeth, in the shadow of a mother’s mental illness.

Written and performed by Brooklyn-based Klahr Thorsen, it graduates into a jolly romp of multi-character performances as she journeys to Scotland and England in search of the role of her life. I’d have liked to see the central character developed more, and perhaps a little less of the rest, certainly the pastiche Scotsman. She ends at the Globe Theatre in London, where Thorsen was an international acting fellow.

Queen Lear is a searing and uncompromising piece of theatre. A striking premise, proposing a missing figure from King Lear’s mental make-up; his Queen struggling with the birth of what she desperately hopes will be a son. Foreshadowing the tragedy of Shakespeare’s play, we are made to question what else might have pushed Lear into madness.

It’s clear that Ross Ericson is a compelling actor and writer who delivers four-star work – his other piece, The Unknown Soldier, is selling out this year – but this one-man play, Gratiano, was being workshopped when I saw it, so I will not star-review it here. He uses the premise that 20 years after the Merchant of Venice, this minor character is a suspect in Bassanio’s death; it’s a dark exploration of thuggish prejudice told in the setting of Mussolini’s Italy but referencing forward to Brexit Britain.

At War with Love delivers 32 of Shakespeare’s sonnets, worked into a story set in the First World War. Young men in military khaki, are coupled with girls in white. The production made a valiant effort but needed more full-frontal delivery of the words and characters better distinguished, while a mournful soundtrack distracted rather than enhanced.

In Blood will have Blood, two melifluous Scottish voices launch an intriguing enough tale of Macbeth, witches and destiny; I could quite happily have lain back with my eyes closed and listened to it. But we had to wash rags and wave sticks; for technical issues the show started ten minutes late, and it ended before I got to choose my Shakespearean destiny.

The prologue of William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged) was full of promise. But the opening gags that all Disney films are inspired by Shakespeare opens the way for a run of references to Disney and similar fare. The play revolves around Puck and Ariel in a magical duel fought through Shakespeare’s leading characters. The Reduced Shakespeare Company can rely on an established fan base and the audience roared with laughter, but for me this show signalled a franchise badly in need of a reboot.

There was a touching naivety about two student shows here. In the Shakespeare Syndrome, from the University of St Andrews’ Mermaids, a Dr William Bard offers the listening treatment to mentally mixed-up Shakespearean characters. As comedy it might have been written in the 1960s. The Macbeths take the inkblot test, and so on; it’s all very jolly, and nobody is on drugs, or trying to assault their therapist. Adam Spencer nails his roles, and Samantha Janosik carried Juliet off characterfully.

In The Female Question, a Hull University group
portray a young Shakespeare convinced he can’t write women, and setting out to interview his own female characters on why this is; he’s also a bit like a doctor, behind his desk, but the acting and the lines don’t gel. All power to student productions and any original writing but in the Fringe bear-pit neither shows quite cut it.

The last show I saw in this series restored my faith in theatre. Livewire Theatre’s Twelfth Night, or the Ship of Fools, shone with wit and beauty. In the tiny space on the Royal Mile, we were at close quarters with this energetic cast of 15, from the veteran Yorkshire-based company stacked with classy amateurs. The writing spiced up the Bard with a gang of five fools, borrowed from an allegory by Plato, and a bit of Elvis as well.

The action opens with a plane crashing after some terrifying turbulence, into an Illyria modelled on the Costa del Sol; Sir Toby Belch (James Sanderson) is a straw-hatted boozer, while the bare-chested Sam Straker leads the fantastical and sinister fools. Fabia Tate turns in a heart-breaking performance playing both Viola, in desperate love with purple-shirted Orsino, and Viola’s twin brother Cesario, fending off the advances of Lady Olivia (Jess Tate, by turns scornful and melting; this is a family outfit). Henry Weston-Davies was a Malvolio like no other, simpering and primping and inflamed by love to wear a red bondage suit. It was a lesson in how to update and re-energise a favourite Shakespeare comedy, in a raucous anthem to his memory.

Macbeth until 20 August; today 4:30pm. The Song of the Beast (after Hamlet) until 29 August; today 5:15pm. Broken until 28 August; today 6pm. Screw Your Courage (or the Bloody Crown!) until 27 August; today 1:50pm. Queen Lear until 29 August; today 4:10pm. Gratiano until 28 August; today 6:35pm. At War with Love until 20 August; today 1:50pm. Blood will have Blood until 29 August; today 2:15pm. William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged) until 29 August; today 4:40pm. Shakespeare Syndrome until 20 August; today 12:40pm. The Female Question until 18 August; today 6:10pm. Twelfth Night or the Ship of Fools, run ended.