Brighton Year-Round 2020
Directed by Conor Baum these scratch performances involve a settled pool of actors working through the entire Shakespearean canon and apocrypha. Some props are deployed.
It started perhaps as love in idleness. The Two Gentleman of Verona and the early Henry VIs were reportedly a hoot. Something shifts at the performance of Henry VI/3 where many joined to watch, and The One Fell Swoop Project’s Zoom Shakespeare becomes serious. During its first sixteen plays it’s gone up two gears and something remarkable’s happened.
Helmed by actor/director Conor Baum OFS is a mainline online addiction, not just for actors, but an increasingly large number of actors looking on as well as those signed up to watch.
It’s not the only Shakespeare complete works being traversed online during lockdown, there’s one other: the magisterial The Shows Must Go Online boasts everything from props to Kate Morley PR. Like OFS they present an uncut performance that in their case goes on YouTube once a week with each performance up for perpetuity.
OFS is different again. Not only in taking on all the apochrphya from Locrine through Arden of Faversham to classics Shakespeare had a hand in like The Spanish Tragedy or Edward III. It’s the sheer spontaneity, the thrill of actors trying out blank verse and tripping up or into a flower-bed of sublimity. It’s risking it, winging it, taking fun, getting achingly serious. It’s live, epic and terribly uncut.
There’s occasional mute glitches that bedevil the Zoom generation but increasingly these scratch performances take on the quality of a company. Actors who’d scarcely conned Shakespeare before are becoming fluent. Some Shakespeareans are moving to brilliance. Brighton-based, OFS pulls in actors as far as the U.S.
With Richard II and Conor Baum taking the title part by storm – one of the finest Richard II title traversals I’ve seen anywhere – we move into different territory. 1595 with its four dramas has allowed regulars to coalesce, strength to settle.
Baum was directing A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the Fringe, and had a rationale worked out. It’s clear some of this with the actors he’d already cast, is reflected in the dispatch and cut-through of this performance.
Gone are slow introductions and the complete text took including a 10-minute interval a little under 2 hours 20. Actors brought occasional props and applied makeup.
This scratch performance has several distinctions. It’s an unfussy unlaboured reading, full of dispatch and a pull-through that some productions fail to deliver. It has much to teach us of fresh discoveries: of the plot’s compact unfolding, its actors flued and sanded for the chase, and a blow-away feel delivering all the lines to deepen our experience of this most compressed play so far in the canon.
Matt Preece’s is a strong delivery, with a feel for the lines and a regality that never falters It’s important – he establishes the energy of the production and delivers with a grounded authority whenever he’s on..
Joanna Rosenfeld’s Hippolyta shows more the humane than an understandably modish Amazon of recent productions. Her exchanges with Preece are dignified, flashing shafts of amusement. Immediately we’re assaulted with Sarah Jeanpierre’s aggrieved Egeus (later a Fairy too) as well as the quartet. Jeanpierre brings a cheerful languid delivery to some tiny parts to contrast with Egeus’ ire.
Though the courtier Philostrate only appears at the end the ringing Edd Berridge makes a fine late entry with the right degree of baritonal pomp and suppressed harrumph.
Baum’s cast a male and a female couple. Thus Rosanna Bini’s sultry Hermia is a quick study in dark passions, where she catches Hermia’s extremes well. Bini runs with the adolescent short-circuiting desperation that befalls an over-sheltered, slightly abused child. Bin’s particularly effective at suggesting the edge of panic never far from someone who’s forsaken everything.
Bini’s paired with Lexi Pickett’s plangent Lysander full of ardent delivery making more of Lysander’s devilment than can be the case. Pickett brings the sense of Lysander’s under-developed slipperiness. We generally feel Lysander and Hermia might prove happier than their friends. You feel all could be on the hazard. Pickett enjoys a fluency in blank verse and a real swoop at phrases: there’s a headlong rush to her delivery.
John Andrews’ Helena certainly enjoys a fine projection faintly fuzzed by a connection’s harsh timbre. What Andrews’ brings out often is Helena’s gawky bewilderment and her essential equine privilege fawning on someone seemingly her opposite. Andrews too delivers the perplexity of someone who’s perhaps never had to question themselves till Demetrius, never – unlike Hermia – had to stand to fathers and lovers. Andres gets the ‘use me as your spaniel’ with an exquisite shudder of what that means.
Helena’s anti-beau is naturally the unsympathetic Demetrius – a sort of developed Proteus, come to think of it. Benjamin Darlington’s strong-thewed darkness come across impressively. He gets the right emphasis on that acid test ‘I’d rather feed his carcass to my hounds’ which distinguishes Demetrius from Lysander – who’s also prepared to be callous when under the juice.
Ever since Alan Howard rung bronze from Theseus in the Peter Brook production, there’s a feel for certain passages that have shifted a bit. Like ‘I know a bank..’ David Simmons not only looks the smouldering package, he manages to create a tenebrous backdrop that adds to his shadowy Oberon. Best of all he delivers with a stadiness that parallels Preece – often the roles are of course twinned. But the two actors complement and parallel each other.
Sharon Drain’s Titania brings a sprinkling of quiet magic – we saw her recently in Sam Chittenden’s Sary and the wise woman ambience from that exquisite play informs the dignity and humour of this performance. Drain edges Titania with a sexy sly sense of fun and a lyric delivery with Bottom and her own fairies with a light touch and sudden shudder of awakening. There’s a smack of authority here.
Kirsty Geddes’ Puck is one of the shows’ two highlights. Whether winking, blowing penny whistles or taking her lines at a run Geddes’ is a consummate performance, a wonderfully fluid, rapid quick-witted and knowing guffaw at eternity. That wink’s perfectly timed. Geddes has clearly thought this through and manages acceleration and delivery
Conor Baum’s Bottom – and Pyramus – is the other stand-out. Baum’s a consummate Shakespearean, so any performance guarantees a level of professionalism. Here he thrusts another Bottom with less of the orotund Bottom as it were that often slows the part, and makes of the character a fleet no-nonsense cut through of a man who quickly knows fate when he spies it, ramps up shamelessly but not absurdly as Pyramus (indeed he became another actor altogether) and lives up to being the strongest artisan actor in Athens. It’s important. Bottom’s too easily guyed. He might be naïve rude and untutored: he’s not absurd.
Ben Baeza’s quick pedanticism as Quince and Prologue again doesn’t milk the character’s literalness. Jenny Rowe – someone known as a writer/actor/director in modern theatre has developed as a Shakespearean. Here she outrages online decency with some wonderful and cobwebs hat as Cobweb and as Snout – and thus that roughcast Wall – deliciously ponderous.
Katey Fraser’s another show-stealer. Not content with applying makeup appropriate for roaring as Snug the Lion, she does it – like a true roaring girl. The online connection wobbles. As Peaseblossom she explores faux shy delicacy.
Grace Leeder yet another regular flutters a Moth though of course in that traditional tailored doubling as Starveling she gets to mooch as Moon and gives it welly with harvest rusticity somewhat before the season.
Flute and Thisbe as well as the tiny role of Mustardseed were to be taken by Chris Gates who unable to attend is taken by Joanna Rosenfeld with a wry collapse as Thisbe kills herself.
Some actors here are finding their verse-feet as Shakespeareans. Some are clearly flying. The overall camaraderie, running gags throughout the series (‘alarum’ a favourite) and a familiar feel to a company is making this Online Shakespeare unique. Not just because it’s the most wide-ranging traversal, but because of that settled pool of actors sharing an ethos. With Baum’s direction they and we discover new thresholds, new anatomies, as American poet Hart Crane put it. There’s cobwebs a-plenty in King John, up next. Watch them blow those away.