With celebrations of good old William Shakespeare’s ‘birthday’ everywhere this week, I got to thinking about some of the great Shakespeare productions I’ve seen over the years… let’s face it, there’s not much else to do these days but take various strolls down memory lane! There have been many productions, but only five to top this list.
Mostly these productions impress on the merit of refreshing takes on the ‘classics’. Traditional renditions have their place and there’s still a charm to seeing total commitment to authentic productions but I’m no purist and I love to see Shakespeare’s resonance felt fiercely through inventive, fearless stagings. In the right hands and with plenty of vision, a production can remind us in no uncertain terms that Shakespeare’s works enjoy such longevity because they are so infinitely relevant and universal. From thrilling spectacle to inspired modernisations to gender revisions and good old fashioned brilliant performances from great casts, here are the Shakespeare productions to have reminded me that the bard’s work remains rich and entertaining rather than a dull old snooze fest…
1: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bridge Theatre
The most uniformly brilliant cast you could hope for. Spectacle and fun front and centre. Bunny Christie’s vibrant set design. This production made a party of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and with Hammed Animashaun’s glorious performance at its core, it was an absolute belter. None of the magic of Shakespeare’s writing was lost through modernisations, this was a cracking piece of theatre and one which I’d happily call the best possible introduction to Shakespeare in performance. Full review here.
2: Twelfth Night, Propeller
All male cast. Token props. Superb comic timing and beautifully inventive staging. Fantastic use of live music and yes, some excellent ad libs and liberties taken. I didn’t review their work and the company are now MIA but by God they were an exciting troupe who made Shakespeare so much fun to watch when I was younger. I adored their Taming of the Shrew too, but Twelfth Night just about tops it.
3: Macbeth, Oddsocks
Talk about blowing the dust off an ‘oldie’… Oddsocks took this dark Shakespearean classic and re-invented it as a Steam Punk comedy. With lots of superb comic timing, great physical comedy and whacky renditions of chart toppers, this was a corker. Few productions have surprised me so much and I remain in awe at how they managed to pull that transformation off so damn well. They’ve done great work before and since but for me, Macbeth is the best of their most recent offerings. Full review here. I also interviewed company founders Eli Mackenzie and Andy Barrow recently – it’s well worth a read and can be found here.
4: Othello, English Touring Theatre
Another great example of judicious updating of the bard’s work. This 2018 production made the beauty and the cruelty of Shakespeare’s writing reverberate while gently modernising – primarily through the infinite possibilities of the unscripted moments with lots of updates via visual cues. It also featured one of the best pairings I’ve seen in Victor Oshin and Kitty Archer as an Othello and Desdemona who take us on this horrific journey from young thrilling love to shocking tragedy so skilfully. Full review here.
5: Hamlet, Leeds Playhouse
Playing around with casting and flipping the script for new angles has become a compelling branch of modernisations. Amy Leach’s production made Hamlet a princess which in itself gave the story and script itself so much fresh perspective but it was in casting the chameleon that is Tessa Parr that was the making of this production. I loved the new lens, I loved the dynamic staging and the opportunity to listen to Shakespeare’s writing from different angles. It’s a rare example of an authentically brooding Shakespearean tragedy which found naturally occurring fresh nuance thanks to refreshing casting. Full review here.
So there you have it – the top five. Other productions have definitely impressed recently – the RSC’s 2017 The Tempest for instance impressed with its futuristic tech bringing new flair to Ariel and I’ve enjoyed watching the latest Shakespeare streams this week – seeing Tamsin Greig reinventing Malvolio(a) in the National Theatre’s production of Twelfth Night and Katy Owen taking on Puck in Emma Rice’s production at the Globe.
And let’s not forget that it’s not just in productions of Shakespeare’s work that theatrical magic lies – it can be found in work which draws on those originals for new stories and fresh directions. Take Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s Emilia and Wrongsemble’s Billy Shakes: Wonder Boy for instance; one a beacon for the empowered woman, the other a fantastic introduction to Willy Shakes for kids. Whether Will awakens awe or yawns in you, there’s no denying that he’s well and truly still great fodder for the stage.