2017 stage stars in review: The London, U.K. file

At the end of a calendar year, publications fill up with reviewers’ recollections of outstanding work they’ve seen. From Teahen Tales’ “London Calling” files, two looks back at outstanding arts from along the Thames. Part 1 (this post): stage stars. Part 2 (next post): gallery greats.

Boudica by Tristan Bernays

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Gina McKee in the title role of Boudica. Photo credit: Tristam Kenton

It’s become the rage lately to cast women into epic Shakespearean roles, given the classical canon is cluttered with male, rather than female, heroes or villains, disadvantaging classically trained female actors once they “age out” of young romantic-lead roles. One solution is to cast a woman as King Lear. Another can be found in Boudica, a new play by Tristan Bernays, which is a welcome retelling of an epic tale with female characters front and centre.

Boudica, as described in the London Telegraph review of the show, is “the Iceni queen who sought savage revenge on the occupying Romans in ancient Britain for raping her daughters and stealing her kingdom.” The play features not only the queen in the titular role but also major roles for those two daughters, one who responds to the violence and degradation she suffers by out-warrioring the warriors, and the second who increasingly turns to compassion, much to her sister’s and mother’s dismay.

Playwright Tristan Bernays has been working in theatre professionally for less than a decade and his plays have yet to “jump the pond”: while I have not seen his other many works, if Boudica is any indication, he deserves productions around the English-speaking world. The text is incredibly accomplished and the production of the play in 2017 at The Globe Theatre in London, directed by Eleanor Rhode, animated the ancient British warring world with vivid intensity: fresh, complex and, at times, startling. At one moment, there are howls of laughter at the oh-so-bored and petulant Roman soldiers complaining about British weather; then howls of horror at nearly unwatchable cruelties.

Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare

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Ever since a modern reconstruction of the Renaissance-era Globe Theatre opened in 1997 on the south bank of the Thames River in London, I’ve wanted to see a Shakespeare play done there. This was finally the year and we lucked into an energetic production of Much Ado About Nothing directed by Matthew Dunster, set in early 20th-century Mexico. We were novice “groundlings”, paying only five pounds to stand in the open yard in front of the stage. Experienced groundlings got there early to find one of the few spots where you can lean on the back wall, or the stage itself.

I had a moment of disappointment early on when I spotted wireless mikes threaded through the actors’ costumes: initial intentions to keep productions at the Globe true to Shakespearean-era capacities has given away to mixing soundboards and some whiz-bang lighting and special effects. But my disappointment soon gave way to sheer enjoyment of a boisterous ensemble that found every comic nugget in Shakespeare’s tale of love revealed and, in some cases, nearly destroyed, by tricksters. It was colourful, at times crude, and the obscured-by-time references and jokes that sometimes slow down this play were either cut or imaginatively rephrased.

Queen Anne by Helen Edmundson

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This 2015 play, first produced at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-on-Avon, transferred to London’s West End Royal Haymarket Theatre in 2017. Like with Boudica, this play artistically explores the legacy and influence of another woman who was Queen from 1702 to until her death in 1714.

The facts of the ancient historic leader-queen Boudica is mostly lost in the mists of time; Queen Anne’s life was well documented although has often been overlooked, overshadowed by the more-famous British queens, Elizabeth I, Victoria, and the current Queen Elizabeth.

The play focuses on the relationship between Anne, often ill and seemingly weak (she bore 17 children in her life and not one of them lived beyond childhood), and her trusted-yet-conniving friend Sarah Churchill, made Duchess of Marlborough. Sarah is, perhaps, the meatier role for an actor: an ambitious, beautiful, whip-smart woman who climbs in society due to the Queen’s affection but who, in the end, is undone by that same ambition.

Thames Chamber Orchestra at St Martin-in-the-Fields

As a student studying music in university, I tuned frequently to CBC Radio 2’s classical music programming. It seemed every third recording was from London’s St Martin-in-the-Fields Church, often by the resident orchestra then conducted by Sir Neville Marriner. When we booked a trip to London, seeing a concert at St Martin was at the top of my wish list.

Our side seats gave us a ringside view of the Thames Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Keith Marshall. The concert was titled “Mozart and Puccini by candlelight” and we enjoyed a Mozart piano concerto and Symphony No. 39, along with Puccini’s Crisantemi, an elegiac work written in 1890 in response to the death of the Duke of Savoy.

But where the orchestra shone most brilliantly was in Benjamin Britten’s Simple Symphony, written in 1934.  It’s one of those pieces that can be underwhelming in a recording but, heard live, the extensive delicate pizzicato sections (where the violinists and other string players pluck, rather than bow, the strings) were ethereal and enchanting.

Main image: celebrating the “Summer of Love” programming at the Globe Theatre, London, including Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Unless noted otherwise, all photos by Kelley Teahen.

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