views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Winter's Rages - Shakespeare in Speech & Song
The Rose
9th December 2014


Publicity image for Winter's Rages

Photography provided by The Rose

It's not unfair to say that one of the most underappreciated elements of Shakespeare's work is his songs. They are the first to fall on the cutting room floor for many an overeager editor (along with the fools, a bugbear of mine which I shan't repeat for the thousandth time here). It's a bit daft, considering the fact Bill's just as famous for his poetry as he is playwriting - why shouldn't we pay more attention to them? Even in full-length productions, they frequently get no more cogitation than a simple lute-carrying minstrel, a "hey nonny nonny" and an "exeunt pursued by a bear".

Soprano, writer and director Sophie Kochanowska clearly feels the same, and has attempted to redress the balance with an hour and change of Shakespeare's songs, translations of Shakespeare's songs, modern arrangements of Shakespeare's songs and... well... you get the idea. I'm not going to go through them one by one - that way madness lies - but from Twelfth Night to Romeo and Juliet, alongside As You Like It and, as the title suggests, Cymbeline. The question is, though, can they survive out of context?

While we do get a little bit of world-building with, on the whole, entire scenes surrounding the songs (ably assisted by actress Bioux Kirkby and pianist Hannah Yip), there's not much more than that. But Kochanowska plays a clever hand, paying deference to the more familiar works - we all know Ophelia goes stark raving - allowing the audience to fill in the blanks. There are also pieces that are more stand-alone, such as Mervyn Horder's Under The Greenwood Tree from As You Like It. It's a balancing act that works.

What's less clear, though, is any sense of narrative or thematic connection. The show hints at the first with Kochanowska telling a troubled Kirkby not to begin the show with something so maudlin, hinting at a relationship or duality that isn't really explored. They're never really "out of character" again. It's more of a sketch show than anything else, which is a little disappointing if not wholly unsurprising. As a director, there are much better ideas on offer - having Kirkby's Ophelia down in the Rose's watery dig site hints at her tragic end. Her haunting final piece is given more weight by Geraint's lighting, as a tapered but total blackout has her vanish before our very eyes. Unfortunately the Othello scene does suffer slightly from some overproduction on the voices, making it difficult to understand at times.

Publicity image for Winter's Rages

Photography provided by The Rose

Still, there's no doubting any of the talent involved. Kochanowska is a fantastic soprano, belting out Strauss' Drei Lieder der Ophelia (Tomorrow is St Valentine's Day) as well as imbuing them with the necessary meaning and power. From what little you see, she makes a great actor too, a perfectly horrid Prospero and tragic Juliet.

Kirkby also makes her mark, even if her Toby Belch is perhaps more drunken hen-do than the Waynetta Slob it quite deserves. Still, her rendition of Greenwood Tree remains one of the most sensual, impishly charming and mesmerising things I've seen this year. Can you tell I'm struggling for an adjective that's not as crass and reductionist as "sexy"? Equally her Ophelia is still big enough not to be engulfed in the void and the voicework is delightful. She's "always nurtured a particular passion for Shakespeare" and it shows.

Yip too goes above and beyond the call of duty. Not content with simply playing beautifully, she gamely joins the action as Andrew Aguecheek and Caliban, delivering monologues that suggest she could turn her hand to acting should she wish. The three together bounce off one another well and bring something unique to the table.

This is the first piece of writing and directing for Kochanowska and can, at times, feel like more of a showcase for the talents of her and her mates than a cohesive show in its own right. A satisfying conclusion to the hinted-at through line would certainly help this. But for spotlighting a much maligned element of the Bard's work she must be applauded. As we and the programme makes clear, this is her first piece as a writer and director, "work which she would like to continue in the future". With the clever ideas on offer here, we'd like her to continue too.

Winter's Rages: Shakespeare in Speech & Song opened on 2nd December and runs until 14th December 2014 at The Rose.

Nearest tube station: London Bridge (Jubilee, Northern)

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