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Fringe Online 2020

From Henry VI Part 3 to Romeo and Juliet

The One Fell Swoop Project

Genre: Classical and Shakespeare, Comedy, Drama, Historical, Online Theatre, Scratch Performance, Theatre, Tragedy

Venue: The One Fell Swoop Project Online

Festival: ,

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.


Say it started as love in idleness. The Two Gentleman of Verona and the early Henry VIs rippled attention and during the lockdown period a rumour went that a singular project was emerging: to read through Shakespeare’s canon and all the plays he might have had a hand in. And some he probably didn’t.

Every word too – to spend time editing would have been impossible. And to avoid editorial confusion, Folger Shakespeare scripts are provided in 20 point.

Helmed by actor/director Conor Baum The One Fell Swoop Project 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.

Though it seemed inappropriate for a company to invite reviews of what would always be works in progress, such was the increasing confidence that finally a survey to chronicle it all seems imperative and this reviewer’s offer was then accepted.

A review of the first stand-alone A Midsummer Night’s Dream is just up. You can read further remarks on OFS in that review. This chronicles in order those productions actually seen before then.

This writer wasn’t present for the first three plays, but otherwise has witnessed the company’s development. What follows is a whistle-stop of these.


Henry VI 3

Something shifts at the performance of Henry VI/3 where many joined to watch, and OFS Zoom Shakespeare becomes serious. During its first sixteen plays it’s gone up two gears and something remarkable’s happened.

Though not the longest to the Henriad (that’s Henry VI/2), Henry VI/3 from 1589-91, owns an amplitude and level of devastation that makes it an experience to live through. The cast all rise to this, with multi-roling and a sense many reported by the scope and point of this work left an imprint. Its devastation perhaps chimes with ours.

It’s a play thriving on fluid scenes in early-modern epic manner and a strength of this traversal is the way that Zoom can allow a rapid traversal deploying visuals and the glimmer of props, without the slowing-down of spectacle. It’s true of all productions – and is particularly helpful here, since sets aren’t much help in Henry VI!

Recent thinking suggests Shakespeare was tasked with over-writing or scumbling over Henry VI/2 and VI/3 originally entitled The Houses of York and Lancaster and The Tragedy of Richard Duke of York. These were possibly by other hands – Thomas Lodge being suggested (he wrote a strong Edward I that Globe RND presented in 2019); and even Shakespeare’s first critic Richard Greene. They seem though too vigorous in carnage and the latest suggestion is a Marlowe collaboration! Maybe. Shakespeare then penned Henry VI/I as The Tragedy of King Harry the Sixth. It makes sense to perform the trilogy in the order presented, not written.

Conor Baum’s Richard of Gloucester is noteworthy for the élan Baum brings to this role, not the crumpled bottled spider of the next play but a young man’s vigour turned to gall as the impact of his deformity on others mirrors back in a concave manner to him. A natural Shakespearean, Baum being energy to the role and helps drive the scratch performance along.

This reading’s notable too for Rosanna Bini’s seething Margaret, superb in curses and ringing valediction; and Peta Taylor’s dignified, broken Lady Grey, incrementally snapping by inches in couplets. The whole ritual of queenly grief is well-wrought and affecting by all actors. There is – as always – a confusing superfluity of Edwards.


Titus Andronicus

There’s been more attention given to this 1594-published play, the recent RSC a notable clarifying of its themes and textures. Here though the sheer jokiness of the pies and everything else raise more mirth than the RSC, it’s clear the seriousness impacted on John Andrews’ dignified stentorian Titus delivering his verse with a fine sheen, like a soldier’s rifle-bolt slid back.

Christine Kempell’s gleefully conniving Tamora sashays with the greatest insinuation between amorous villainy with Aaron to purring at Saturninus, the emperor she marries to further her dastardly plans: the destruction of Titus’ family.

With her sons as instruments there’s much play between Kempell’s Ben Darlington’s and Ben Baeza’s Chiron and Demetrius – who give exemplary performances of men both savage and even baffled at their reversals of fortune. Like any double-act, they make you watch their villainies – even on Zoom – as a comedic horror show.


Richard III

The second longest in the canon, this play’s never performed entire. It contains multitudes of mirrored speeches between queens and subplots and historic sketches the audience knew but which can with little damage be cut from a performance. Still the huge impact of Richard’s perfidity refracted through sources like Sir Thomas More and Shakespeare gift us a striking slow-motion car-crash of kingship and impact on an already-devastated land.

The brightest stars here are the three Richards. Joanna Rosenfeld’s dignified tricksy one, flicking Clarence’s murder and dissembling plots. Then Lexi Pickett’s lively and gleeful one, rampant in proper delight at Richard’s ascent. Then Katey Fraser’s final Richard to which she brings a kind of apocalyptic gaiety. Each bring layers of Richard and if we’re looking for him, you get a fine cubist portrait here. Conor Baum’s much exercised reading through directions as usual: alarums and excursions.


Comedy of Errors 

The briefest of Shakespeare’s comedies, modeled on Plautus, manages everything in 14,000 words. There’s a snap and zing here as the sheer liberated potency of delivering this classical-convention paly lets it emerge pristine in its headlong farce.

If pushed to outstanding performances, and everyone was fine – Seth Morgan’s Dr Pinch with a plentitude of props and comic afflatus was a highlight. Of the twin-crossed quartet perhaps most outstanding was the clarion confusion of Ben Baeza’s Dromio of Syracuse bewailing his beating and throwing off a startled hurt with an aplomb that makes you wish this set of performances – like several others – might be seen in a real (even physical) theatre. Part of OFS’s glory though, is this spontaneity.


Love’s Labour’s Lost

This first of the great 1595 quartet seems the most leisurely, and like Richard II is hardly plot-driven though more intricate and ultimately more full of incident. Harold Bloom notes this is the play when ‘Shakespeare tested the limits of his linguistic invention and found there were none.’

Again it’s invidious to pick out just a couple of highlights but outstanding here are Deborah Kearne’s wise wiseacre Berowne the principal male role, and Sharon Drain’s dignified sparkling Princess of France.

There’s a particular dignity where Kearne pierces the ear of grief of Drain, a small heart-stopping moment beautifully delivered to swerve the play into at least temporary renunciation.


Arden of Faversham

What can be said of this possibly Shakespeare-touched play from around 1592? It’s immensely playable as several revivals including the RSC Swan have proved, and the comic absurdity of murder plots to alight upon the hapless title role suggests this murder almost escapes into farce. Based on a real murder (spoiler!) that can’t quite happen, but you’re kept in suspense and you’ll have to find out for yourself which act the blow falls.

The language seems in Iii to be touched by Shakespeare but overall, even with Shakespeare’s unmatched breath of vocabulary there’s contractions like ‘dag’ we see rarely if at all in the canon. But it’s a fine realist play, the kind Heywood might almost have written, or later on Dekker, even a prentice Middleton (too young).

The husband and wife really shine here. Rosanna Bini’s conniving lusting Alice really smooches sincerity out fo countenance. She’s particularly fine in roles where sashaying insincerity as truth is required and relishes the challenge.

Seth Morgan’s absurdly trusting Arden invests the role with more than a touch of baffled dignity, speaking the energy of the play’s verse periods with pointed delivery.

John Andrews and Kirsty Geddes form a delicious double-act as the murderously scheming Shakebag and simply brutish Black Will who kills for sport. The way the pair swerve and snarl their frustration and present themselves in an apparently sympathetic light is enormous fun. Especially when fog comes down. Overall it proves Arden of Faversham‘s superb in its TV-drama realism. Whoever wrote it, it’s alive.


Richard II

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.

There’s thought and the spontaneous introduction of props: the thwuck of gauntlets hurled at zoom screens can be heard several streets away.

Baum’s energy is infectious: he invests kingly dignity with petulance, petulance with pathos and kingly dignity. The way the audience is persuaded to dislike then slowly sympathize with Richard is as masterly character study, admittedly at the expense of much action, describing a long dying fall. Baum’s quick and acutely repining early on, but doesn’t milk the long descending arc.

There’s been some fine Richard IIs recently from Charles Edwards at the 2015 Globe production and the cut-down Russell Beale vehicle at the Almeida in 2018/19. I’d like to see Baum’s: he gets the king’s youth – he wasn’t 33 at his death – and the child of 10 who came to the throne and lives in the psychotic majesty of trappings: the Wilton Diptych and introducing forks to the likes of Bolingbroke.

There’s terrific support from the lean periodicities of Rob Cohen’s Gaunt. Cohen snarls with asperity where he chides – you can see the force of the man Gaunt has been and not just the lyrical admonitory dying fall of the last great set speech. Cohen too understands the way Shakespeare times and places the measure of his long speeches. It’s a superb piece of dignity.

David Oliver Simmons’ Bolingbroke is vigorous quite apart from his gauntlets. He too can deliver Shakespeare as a warm breathing thing and not sound stilted. What he manages too is conveying the youth and sudden care – in a few months Shakespeare ages him so he’s a bit ancient by the play’s end, and his language is different. Simmons glints some humour into this querulous conflicted ultimately guilty new monarch.

Jenny Rowe’s oppo to Bolingbroke, Mowbray, is a piece of hurt dignity too, throwing back gauntlets and suggesting a deathly sentence on his terminal banishment. As Percy, Duke of York Rowe suggests something of the ambition we see sparking up in Henry IV/I, though is mostly dutiful and cleanly delivering insurrection on the winning side.


Romeo and Juliet

The third great 1595 play hits the heights and we’ll none of us quite recover from it. ‘It’s about this nurse’ as Shakespeare in Love has it. Certainly Sharon Drain’s Nurse is a real comic turn making prattling more energetic than simply garrulous – and proves delivering it at some speed and without too many gags is a sure way to its truth. Drain quite doesn’t go at it in the velocity of the recent RSC version, but you feel she might. Drain stops off to take in some of the Nurse’s absurdities.

Of the four Romeos David Simmons (Act 3) stars in the struck-down lyricism and pained ecstasy of this climactic act in more than one sense. John Andrews’ Act IV/V Romeo gives us a sudden manhood touched with the playfulness Mercutio often studied, but for death – underscoring a kinship between the two at this point, whatever their differences. Romeo’s boyish transformation is well taken earlier by Ben Baeza and Emma Spicer too.

Edd Berridge sparks in his Queen Mab speech and doesn’t slow down in the way one recent production did.

Katey Fraser’s Act I and 2 Juliet catches the child becoming an ardent teenager with gentle awe and increasing excitement. Conor Baum’s Juliet is quite extraordinary: spelling out in star-struck verse the headlong panicky consummation of love in a truly moving traversal counterpointing Simmons. Kirsty Geddes ever sparkling and instinctual as a Shakespearean delivers the shock and tragic resolve of the latter Juliet.

Juliet’s essential foil is Drain and Jenny Rowe’s Friar Lawrence. Rowe’s care and detail suggests a Friar both quick-thinking and improvisatory, not a bumbler, but one of foreboding.

This is a performance where props come even more into their own. Swords, bills of lading (Andrews) and marks counterpoint hooded apothecaries proffering vials to small and rather frightening knives (Geddes).

Joanna Rosenfeld’s dignified Lady Capulet delivers a beautiful disquisition on grief, suggesting most of all someone long cowed by her husband – her dismissal of her daughter is bleak indeed, and her final crumple memorable. She and drain are particularly affecting in the lamentation over Juliet’s imagined corpse.

Chris Gates makes the most of the egregious Paris who loves by the book: ‘For Venus smiles not in a house of tears‘. Paris is someone whose delivery and deliverance is much enhanced by the whole text where his genuine grief at Juliet’s death in Act V is more sympathetic.

Gates gets the unblinking sexual enforcement of that. Despite Capulet’s original ‘get her heart’ Paris seems oblivious to Juliet turning him down, like Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice. Gates insinuates Paris’ sheer opening arrogance in front of the Friar ‘That “may be” must be, love, on Thursday next… Do not deny to him that you love me.’ His ‘Thy face is mine, and thou hast slandered it’ is in fact chilling.

With this traversal, a real ensemble effort, you might say OFS comes of age.

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. Join and revel – they’re not anywhere near ended.