views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Shakespeare Tonight
Theatro Technis
2nd August 2016

★★☆☆☆

Publicity photograph for Shakespeare Tonight

Photography provided by the Camden Fringe

If you could invite any guest to your dinner party, dead or alive, who would you choose? It's a common question that is frequently answered with the names of famous politicians (Churchill does well here), with royalty and celebrities also quite popular. When answering this question, co-writers Paul Wilson and Tim Ferguson would probably name Shakespeare as their invitee of choice. The Bard after all is the focus of their faux chat show Shakespeare Tonight, with plenty of questions thrown his way. They have an obvious passion for the life and works of ol' Billy boy, which shines through in the idea and the numerous clever references.

Shakespeare on camera? Well, given the Bard's works have been staged countless times in London, you can understand Wilson and Ferguson trying to do something new. Their concept is hugely ambitious but not unworkable. The main issue is in its execution, with the format not quite chat show and not quite drama. Making the production more interactive would undoubtedly make it more fun, with the audience asking the guests pre-written questions on cue cards hidden under seats, or even being allowed to ask a few spontaneous questions, testing the actors' improv skills and knowledge of their characters. Theatro Technis is one of the bigger venues in the Camden Fringe, so director David Parry needs to put more effort into creating a lively atmosphere and making the show more dynamic.

The reason why removing the fourth wall initially seems so out of reach is that the action switches between onstage and backstage, with the location of the set in front of us changing. If instead Martina (Priscilla Fere) and Rebekah (Francesca Mepham) had their 'cosy' little chats to the side of the stage, in hushed, furtive tones with Shakespeare (Peter Revel-Walsh) and archenemy Francis Bacon (Garry Voss) left on the television film set eying each other up suspiciously and trading Old English insults, making this a semi-interactive piece would indeed be possible. And it could be a joyous thing. This isn't a production without potential.

Paul Obertelli has a great stage presence, yet struggles to create energy as the Duke, probably because of the constraints of that fourth wall, which he seems only allowed to break once. If his character must remain in the show (and indeed it seems largely superfluous), he should be used to regularly warm up the audience, rather than leaving him sitting next to a piano reading out fake tweets. It's beneath him. Mepham too plays a largely pointless character, however she does so reasonably well, a believable caricature of a power-hungry assistant dreaming of better things.

Again, if Rebekah must be kept, she should be better utilised. She could quite feasibly sit in the audience itself during the show rather than waiting backstage, huffing and puffing at Martina's line of questioning, making notes and perhaps even interrupting and stealing her limelight. At the very least, it would entertaining to see the two competing women exchanging the odd inappropriate death glare. Kaara Benstead makes a heartfelt cameo as Anne Hathaway, but like Obertelli and Mepham, is largely wasted here, not given enough stage time.

As well as the way the show is framed, Wilson and Ferguson's script itself is inherently problematic, with the substance of the plot only being revealed 55 minutes into a 65 minute show. Chat show or not, that's a lot of unstructured rambling. More foreshadowing is required (there is some, just not enough), a tighter pace and probably a shorter running time. A better version of this "problem play" could be constructed with a 45-minute length, max.

Although Shakespeare Tonight is a seriously flawed production as is, there are clear ways for how to make it better, so that the company's labours are not lost. They have an idea, a good set and passable players, but some frantic rewriting is needed on the journey up to the Edinburgh if it's to get a more favourite reception up there.

Shakespeare Tonight opened on 1st August and runs until 6th August 2016 at Theatro Technis, as part of the Camden Fringe.

Nearest tube station: Mornington Crescent (Northern)



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