Category Archives: Oxford Playhouse

Happy Birthday Shakespeare, a project by bloggers around the world

Shakespeare is a man for all ages. If you tried Ben Jonson’s rave review on your average school student they probably wouldn’t agree, instead the very name William Shakespeare could be enough to make them look confused, yawn with boredom, or tremble with fear. If you sat them down in front of a play, however, they just might believe it.

In January 2010 I joined the eight to twelve-year-olds of Claremont School, Kingsbury, as the Royal Shakespeare Company performed a seventy-minute version of Hamlet. Black and Asians pupils made up most of the audience, and many were watching Shakespeare (and even theatre) for the first time. Children are the harshest critics, but this group offered their undivided attention and had absolutely nothing negative to say at the end.

I, a Hamlet virgin, joined them. I was reminded of when I’d make my way to the Oxford Playhouse as a young teenager, often surrounded by an older white middle-class crowd.  I felt out of place. But once the action started, and the jester laughed, lovers kissed, siblings reunited, there was nothing differentiating me from everyone else.

So if someone were to ask: what does Shakespeare mean to you? Shakespeare breaks down barriers. Everyone, including the pupils of Claremont School and myself, can be transported into his world.

Years later from being in the Oxford Playhouse, I went on to work with the Royal Shakespeare Company. I was responsible for attracting new audiences to the theatre, and have continued to seek out weird and wonderful Shakespeare plays, seeing his work danced, rapped, and even tweeted. A man for all ages? Certainly.

Written as a part of Happy Birthday Shakespeare, runs till April 30.


Spotlight: Alexander Feklistov, Actor

Alexander Feklistov graduated from the Moscow Art Theatre School in 1982, and worked for the Moscow Art Theatre for twelve years. He went onto create the 5th Moscow Art Theatre Studio. He is currently playing Caliban in Cheek by Jowl’s Russian production of The Tempest.

Why did you decide to become an actor?
I became an actor because of the mystery that lives in theatre. From my early childhood I wanted to know: what’s behind there? Behind Uncle Tom’s cabin.

What early theatrical experience can you remember having an impact on you?
I cannot forget Anatoly Efros’s Cherry Orchard. It was performed by great actors Alla Demidova and Vladimir Visotskiy and the action took place on a cemetery. Nothing I saw afterwards in my whole life has touched me as deeply, and it astonished me how this production of The Tempest affected me in a similar way.

Caliban has been performed in many ways onstage: a woman, punk rocker, and Rastafarian. What made you choose to play Caliban the way you do?
Caliban is a child, but he was abandoned and not brought up properly. You feel sorry for him, he can be very irritating, and it’s a very Russian part.

Shakespeare has been performed in Russian to Hindi. What is it to you that makes Shakespeare translate well into all cultures?
I think Shakespeare can be played in any language, but we’re only trying to do it justice. We enjoy his poetry, his verse, but once we start talking about the interpretation of the plays we never have the same viewpoint.

What would you say to a young person to encourage them to see this play?
I think it’s a very simple and honest production, simple but not simplified, and it has huge potential in it. We as actors are trying to catch up with the form of it and it’s never boring.

The Tempest at the Barbican runs from 7 April till 16 April.

The Tempest, at the Oxford Playhouse

oi you at the back, stop sleeping

If understanding the sixteenth-century language of a Shakespeare play can be daunting at times, watching it in Russian might sound positively masochistic. Cheek by Jowl’s The Tempest, in Russian with English subtitles, however, proves a surprisingly liberating experience. As a non-Russian speaker you find yourself more engrossed in the action, and it emphasises that this is how Shakespeare is supposed to be appreciated: onstage and not simply in books.

At under two hours with no interval, the production is fast-paced. The play begins when Prospero, who has been exiled on an island populated only by his teenaged daughter Miranda, their native slave Caliban and the sprite Ariel, uses his magical powers to conjure up a tempest. Prospero’s enemies from Naples are shipwrecked and washed ashore: an effectively bare wooden stage frequently sluiced with water. What follows is a series of attempts to usurp power, a pursuit for love, and families reunited.

Igor Yasulovich’s Prospero puts on a fine performance as the aged, over-protective father, and reinforces the commonly held critical viewpoint that as director of the action he is a version of Shakespeare himself. Prospero is often seen overlooking the romance between Ferdinand and Miranda, and at one point shouts “stop” during a big song and dance, which prompts the house lights to come up and a pretend backstage assistant to run on set, much to the audience’s amusement.

Andrey Kuzichev’s Ariel, dressed in a black suit, is simple but highly effective. He often appears onstage with four other lookalikes to show how he can magically affect the action in many places at once, an idea so brilliant you wonder why no production has thought of it before. At times the others are seen playing instruments in the background, giving the impression that the island is filled with spirit creatures. Only Anya Khalilulina’s Miranda feels inaccurate: instead of being naïve, she is unrefined; instead of being bolshy in her love for the shipwrecked Ferdinand, she is overtly sexual. And she is more like Caliban’s half-sister, animal-like in her movements, and hugging him goodbye before leaving with Ferdinand.

As 2011 marks the four-hundredth anniversary of the play, director Declan Donnellan shows how it can be eternally relevant to different times and cultures. Most modern versions have a colonial perspective, but here we see a clash between communism and capitalism. Propaganda clichés of happy farmers and dancers with sickles are contrasted with Trinculo and Stefano’s fast fashion in power suits and sunglasses.

Humour is the key to this production’s success, which is unusual for a play that is not a Comedy, from Caliban’s drunkenness to buckets of water being thrown over spluttering actors. Repeatedly. After seeing Cheek by Jowl’s superbly funny Russian Twelfth Night five years ago, The Tempest is just as good. Whatever the language, to quote Miranda, “this is a tale, sir, that would cure deafness”.

Runs till 13 March, and tours the country including the Barbican from 7 April till 16 April.


To see or not to see: * * * *

Romeo and Juliet, at the Oxford Playhouse

she didn't believe him when he said she smelled like roses

It’s not often you go the theatre and find yourself surrounded by young people laughing. Not just laughing, but laughing at Shakespeare. Pilot Theatre and York Theatre Royal’s production of Romeo and Juliet pulls out all the stops to get the audience, largely made up of school children and students, to laugh out loud. The only problem is that it’s at sexual innuendos, which of course Shakespeare has many of, but at one’s that were never quite there. “Draw thy tool” is fittingly followed by a phallic object, erect, and thrusting, but so too is every other line that is said by the male characters. This modern version dumbs down the action, dashes through the verse, and does not shed any new light onto our understanding of the story.

The play tells the tale of Romeo, a Montague, who meets Juliet, a Capulet. The two are from feuding families, but fall in love, and don’t realise who the other is until it is too late. One of the unique things about the play is Chloe Lamford’s stage design. Before the action starts the stage is already like a shrine: a flowerbed at the front, flowers attached to posts, and flowers anywhere else possible. The symbolism is simple but clever: we are at a spot that will stage one of the greatest romances, but also where someone has tragically died.

Rachel Spicer, who plays Juliet, has come straight out of drama school to the company. Her Juliet looks young, pretty, and Topshop-clad, but is played bolshy, hard, and with little sincerity. Romeo and Juliet’s relationship should be erotically charged, but here it lacks any real passion. The masked ball, the moment two of the world’s most famous lovers meet, is unmemorable and unromantic. And the balcony scene pits Juliet more like an Amsterdam window girl framed by neon lights, pulling down her bra strap, and blowing kisses.

Oliver Wilson’s Romeo shows promise and is funny as a fumbling Romeo. Additionally, William Travis’ Lord Capulet is excellent at nailing Capulet’s anger, and Louisa Eyo is perfect as a friendly Jamaican accented Nurse. The main downfall for this production is the delivery, even some of the most famous lines like “a plague on both your houses” and “my only love sprung from my only hate”, are not said with conviction. The monotonous music does not help either, rather than adding a feeling of doom it adds a feeling of dreariness.

The company specialises in theatre for teenagers and young adults, and it certainly has this group laughing out loud. But by concentrating on gags it assumes this audience won’t be drawn to the most important thing about Romeo and Juliet: the tragedy.


Runs till November 13. Tours the country until 9 April 2011, including the Unicorn Theatre, London from 2 February till 12 February.

To see or not to see: * *

Punk Rock, at the Lyric Hammersmith

er no, you cannot borrow my PE kit

It’s often said that your school years are the best years of your life, but clearly whoever said this wasn’t thinking of the teenagers in writer Simon Stephen’s drama Punk Rock. As these eight students in Stockport’s public school approach their A Level mock exams, they deal with the difficulties of dating, depression, and death. And with no adults on site in the school library, where all of the play’s action takes place, they are left to their own devices to make (and break) the rules.

The play opens with the entrance of new student Lilly. She’s given a fast-paced introduction-stroke-interrogation by fellow student William who asks where she is from, what her parents do, and what music she listens to. William appears to be nice, but gradually becomes more sinister. All of the performances are well done, but Edward Franklin’s performance of Bennett Francis from a popular cad to school bully gets top marks. There is a Lord of the Flies quality throughout the story with every scene except the last set in the same place, and the teasing of Chad, the awkward, untrendy, green-puffer-jacket-wearing geek of the group, is reminiscent of Piggy.

Simon Stephen is not afraid of controversy: his previous play, Pornography, is set on July 7th 2005 and intertwines seven stories, including an imagined journey of one of the London Underground bombers. Whilst you want Punk Rock to work, it throws almost every cliché about teenagers into the mix: body image, sexuality, and violence. The critical reception of the play, when it first toured in September 2009, was resolutely positive, yet the reviewers could probably hear a voice that was not too different from their own. Chad’s apocalyptic soliloquies in particular, which include lines such as “why should I care about you, when the world is ending?”, sound like 39-year-old Stephen’s lecturing rather than teenagers speaking. Contrast that with What Fatima Did for instance, back in October 2009, where the teenagers sound like teenagers, no doubt helped by it being written by the twenty-one year old Athiha Sen-Gupta.

There is not much new you learn in Punk Rock about the world of teenagers, and the violent ending is sensational – in the bad sense of the word. An A for effort, C for execution.

Runs till 18 September. Tours the country till 20 November, including the Oxford Playhouse from 2 November till 6 November.

To see or not to see: * * *

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, at the quadrangle of the Bodleian Library

cut! rain was not in my contract

British summertime isn’t summer without an outdoor Shakespearean Comedy with a cosy blanket, white wine, and, ahem, rain. Shakespeare’s Globe on tour and the Oxford Playhouse bring A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the four hundred year old quadrangle inside the Bodleian library. On the opening night, which began with drizzle, the company put on a performance that was just as stunning as its surroundings.

This is a world of ever-changing love triangles, bumbling players, and angry fairies. Hermia loves Lysander, Helena loves Demetrius, but Demetrius is supposed to be marrying Hermia. When the Duke of Athens tries to enforce the marriage, the lovers take refuge in the woods. They are not alone though, as there are amateur actors rehearsing a play and a dispute between the king and queen of the fairies.

The play is often brushed off as a children’s story, its risqué humour, which Dr Johnson deemed not the sort of thing Elizabeth I should have seen, is often forgotten. Director Raz Shaw does not shy away from its sexual nature, there are bare torsos, plenty of kissing, and a female Puck so sexy, dressed like Liza Minnelli’s Sally Bowles from Cabaret, she sets the men’s pulses racing with every entrance (and suspender-clad exit). The costumes are attractive and centre on the 1930s: Brideshead Revisited-inspired outfits for the lovers, old-fashioned aprons and hats for the players, and German Weimar burlesque-like masks and wings for the fairies.

Since the play itself is about theatricality, it is fitting that it is performed in the Bodleian library. It is a place that is home to every work of fiction ever published, and it is thought that Shakespeare himself had visited it during his lifetime. The setting lends itself to Quince and Oberon who are both directors: Quince directs his actors and Oberon the lovers. The fourth-wall is often broken, too, by an over-eager Bottom running into the audience and a flirty Puck planting kisses (as well as herself) on the male audience members. Wiliam Mannering steals the show, as expected, as the super-enthusiastic Bottom, and Bethan Walker proves she’s a fine actress switching from the cheeky Puck to innocent Snug.

This is a magical, must-see production that ended with a standing ovation. Even if it does, in true British tradition, start raining, this play shines.

Runs till 8 August, and tours the country including Emmanuel College, Cambridge from 10 August till 15 August.

To see or not to see: * * * * *

Dial M for Murder, at the Oxford Playhouse

she couldn't stand being on hold to celine dion

she couldn't stand being on hold to Celine Dion

Alfred Hitchcock’s 39 Steps, Vertigo, and now Dial M for Murder have all recently been remade for the stage. Hitchcock made Frederick Knott’s 1952 play famous with his film starring Ray Milland and Grace Kelly, and now the West Yorkshire Playhouse company are touring the country with their version.

When Tony discovers that his wife Sheila has had an affair, he plots to kill her and inherit her money. But the plan backfires in the most unexpected way, and it’s up to Tony to cover up the clues. All the action takes place in the couple’s living room, making it intense and voyeuristic, though we still get a good sense of the outside world with its namedropping of London locations such as Victoria station and Chelsea. 

The set is sexy and chic with its blood-red drapes, seductive lighting, and jazz music. It succeeds when it sticks to its old-fashioned storytelling: having the stage revolve at key moments is misjudged. The carousel-like motion does not add to the topsy-turvy nature of this world, instead it is disrupting, messy, and gets in the way of the action.

Lucy Bailey’s direction nevertheless is superb, cleverly creating the suspense and chilling atmosphere required. She previously directed The Postman Always Rings Twice, starring Val Kilmer, for the West Yorkshire Playhouse, and Julius Caesar for the Royal Shakespeare Company. And Aislin McGuckin shines in a role that Grace Kelly made famous.

The play falls down with its slow denouement, however. Since it is not simply a whodunit but a “can he get away with it?” it becomes tiresome. For classic old-school theatre, especially for those who have not seen the Hitchcock version, it is worth watching, otherwise Dial M for Mediocre.  

Runs till 10 October, and tours the country including Richmond Theatre from 3 November till 7 November.


To see or not to see: * * *