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Brighton Year-Round 2020

Low Down

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. Next reading The Merry Wives of Windsor on 19th, and Henry IV/2 on 23rd.


They’re back. And they’re hungry. We left the Lockdown incarnation of the One Fell Swoop Company on the June 26th performance of Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, one of every possible play Shakespeare might have touched in this jaw-dropping traversal of over 40 works.

Then in August-September came OFS Unlocked, six magnificent open-air Shakespeare productions with similar two-day rehearsals each a surprise to everyone save directors Conor Baum and Joanna Rosenfeld. Rules are simple: the play’s cast two days ahead, actors con their parts, everyone including observers join on zoom. It’s live, pure adrenalin pumps your screen, the action of the tiger crashes through it. Enjoy.

Henry IV Part 1 takes up where June’s reading left off. And with the same four-day interval between each. Ross Gurney-Randall is born to be king, quite a lot of them As Henry IV a mournful wrath, a tetchy reflectiveness suffuses his basso delivery, a copper-bottomed gnarl into care: prematurely-aged.

The putting off of purgation in the Holy Land is a recurrent motif, the shade of Richard II is unsettled, much-invoked by Hotspur later. The head’s already lying uneasily and through the later Richard II and these two Henry IV plays we see the titular character of the latter decay inwardly with usurpation; England’s diseases and civil strife strike away from the body of the king and flare. Gurney-Randall digs into a consummate dark of world-weariness. The greatest scenes follow with his son.

We encounter that only through the fug of the Boar’s Head, as Joanna Rosenfeld’s Hostess (also a politic Westmoreland) makes a more precise believably efficient Hostess and we encounter the first Prince Hal, for there are two. David Oliver Simmons (Acts 1-3) is as authoritative in the great Act 3 scene with his father, grave and pitching a truth as the two commune in a ringing black verse, wild with all restraint in a mutual recognition. It’s exceptionally moving. It sets the seal on the serious rather than sheerly zesty tenor of this production – partly because uncut.

Elsewhere Simmons is limber and laddish in his quickfire dealing with Sharon Drain’s Falstaff. Drain starts sotto voce and you wonder, then finds a grainy weariness that suits this slimline Falstaff perfectly – Quigley Pearce’s 2019 version at the Globe springs to mind. Drain suffuses Falstaff with an autumnal flicker, a bit like a November bonfire. Now is the time of the burning of the leaves. Yet there’s zest and froth, badinage and regret ‘banish Jack Falstaff and banish all the world’, undercutting Simmons’ momentarily bluff ‘I do. I will.’

The latter pairing of Amy Sutton’s ringing Hal and Drain’s Falstaff have less chance to interact but more warring to get through. Drain’s Falstaff here is a darkly winking affair: energetic in self-preservation, roguish in recruiting skeletal     beggars and lame men – virtually all slaughtered. Drain’s way is inviting the audience to agree with her Falstaff. Sutton’s Hal is graver, quick in war, suddenly given to melancholic elegy. It’s Sutton’s Hal who finally encounters Hotspur, but not the one we started with. So screech reverse.

Miles Mlambo’s ailing Northumberland has much battering to get through before he seems to desert his hothead son, wound about with Rosanna Bini’s wily insinuating Worcester. Their response to the blast of Conor Baum’s trumpet Hotspur is beautifully distressed. Edd Berridge in a number of roles – treacherous Archbishop of York, the hapless Francis much put upon in jest, and the even more put-upon Gadshill snatches dignity out of the wreckage in a different way each time.

I’ve suggested elsewhere this s one of those Shakespearean roles Baum was born for and he couldn’t disappoint if he tried. Baum’s clarity, attack, touch of petulance and here a hasty leap over anapaests and blank verse like over-vaulting a horse suit him as admirably as any Hotspur I’ve ever seen. He sparks off others with a scrape of his spur, you feel the flints spark on the ground.

It’s the speech of others trailing him, notably Lexi Zoe Pickett in one of her three roles, as she complains sincerely – it can be played quite comically as sexual frustration, or as here rather tragically. Pickett brings pathos rather than playfulness. The chimes at midnight in this production are consistently dark. It’s there too taunting full-tilt in the face of Christine Kempell’s magniloquent Glendower, full of dragonish fancies and blank verse backed very like a whale

Kirsty Geddes as Poins lightens this, decisive, loyal full of japes and stratagems but fundamentally decent. Shakespeare doesn’t know what to do with him in HIV/2: too good to banish, too low to be a courtier. He can’t even kill him off. So with his usual magnificent economy, he simply forgets him. Ben Baeza’s burly-thinking Bardolph is a character who does – sadly for him – recur in the next two plays of the Henriad. Baeza plays him straighter than some and it works better: Bardolph here is in fact truthful, doesn’t lie in the face of overwhelming truth and realises serving self might be safer. For the moment. Mlambo’s Peto is even straighter – someone who fades out as Robin in the next instalment fades in.

Martin Gordon as Hotpsur in Acts 4-5 has a lot to live up to, and he does with quiet magnificence. Gordon too can speak the lines beautifully and he rings them with a little iron. And when needed bronze. He brings though something else: pathos. It’s there in the dark knowing of his death, the valedictory orders and moving gravity-shaped death speech. Sutton’s at her best responding to the modulations of Gordon before and after, and then to Drain’s prose-subverting blank-verse Falstaff. Drain’s is a Falstaff that further grows in confidence, weight, and some wink of pathos.

As Mortimer Geddes is consummate with warning Hotspur; Mlambo’s Blunt excellent at flinging the king’s defiance in his face. Matthew Carrington’s hard-ringing Douglas seems fuller of substance than the suddenly-absent Glendower in actually joining battle but there’s an instability here only explored at the last when Douglas suddenly bolts. As the thoughtful luckless Vernon Lucy Laing (standing in) etches in some dignity and restraining influence, speaking Hal fair to Hotspur. It does Vernon no good as it happens.

Being uncut, there’s a superb set of Travellers and Ostler scenes with Harry Morris, Carrington, Berridge, Laing. It’s one of the few chances we get to see a street-scene in Shakespeare. Laing’s a consummate blank-verse speaker. It’s to be hoped we’ll see more of Morris, one of the new voices. The cast here inter-react in a wild lively jig of a scene, bouncing off each other in a zizz of negative electrodes. One or two members not able to join the cast though were covered, partly by Mlambo at short notice. The uncast John of Lancaster was neatly snatched up and run with particularly at the Battle of Shrewsbury.

And there’s the sovereign Jules Craig, as Sir Michael, Vintner in the above scrum, and a sober chamberlain. Craig breathes blank verse and always a quirk of individuality in each of her roles. Dignity and dispatch, mild outrage and – though not needed here – a ringing authority or a soft regret.

The gravity of this play – city outskirts and green fields – are laid open in the full text of some 24,500 words. Slightly longer than average, though spruce compared to its successor. Henry IV/1 is a zestier more spring-like work than the autumnal disease-hovering Henry IV/2. Here though the shadows fall the more convincingly to join with those chimes at midnight in the later play – though we have to prance through The Merry Wives of Windsor next on 19th.

The full original cast as intended is appended below. Note three actors weren’t able to perform, such are the hazards of the season.