Friday, 12 July 2019

Review: Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Thespis Theatre, GM Fringe)

Wednesday 10th July 2019
Whitefield Garrick Theatre

This year’s Greater Manchester Fringe runs from 1st-31st July. I’m reviewing a selection of shows staged throughout the month for this blog and for North Manchester FM. The next production I saw this month was Shakespeare’s Sonnets by Thespis Theatre, which was on at the Whitefield Garrick on the 10th and 11th July (I was at one of the performances on Wednesday 10th July). You can hear my radio review of the show on Saturday’s edition of Hannah’s Bookshelf, but here’s the blog version…


I was interested in this production for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is one of two shows I’m planning to see this year that’s in a language other than English. Thespis are an Israeli theatre group, and their production of Shakespeare’s Sonnets is (mostly) in Hebrew, with English subtitles. While this year’s Fringe programme offers many great opportunities to see local talent, I’m excited to also have the opportunity to see emerging companies from further afield.

The second reason I was intrigued by this show is that I’d never been to the Whitefield Garrick before. Situated very close to Whitefield tram stop, this small theatre is home to the Whitefield Garrick Society, which grew out of wartime Home Guard performances. The building is a former machine shop – and it’s a really great little theatre space.

But back to Shakespeare’s Sonnets… the real reason this production interested me is that it weaves together and mixes up the words of Shakespeare’s famous poetry sequence to create a theatrical and narrative experience. If you are familiar with the sonnets, you will know that there is some (admittedly debated) sense of a narrative thread – even some sense of character, at times – to them, but I was fascinated to find out how Thespis would draw this out on stage.

Shakespeare’s Sonnets is an intense, almost hypnotic, production, which uses expressionistic performance and stylistic design to focus on the themes of erotic love, vanity, jealousy, cruelty and sadness that permeate Shakespeare’s sequence. Directed by Meir Ben Simon and performed by Yoav Amir, Reut Berda-Levy, Odelya Dadoun, Debbie Levin and Gal Shamai, the production almost works as a series of vignettes, highlighting and dramatizing particular emotional threads, rather than as a linear story.

The show opens with a painter at his easel. The four other performers move onto a raised area at the back of the stage and watch him. At first, it feels as though they are watching with admiration, but it soon becomes clear that they are vying for his attention, like a troupe of somewhat competitive muses. Mirrors and paintbrushes abound, with the artist both drawing and being drawn by his muses.

The approach taken to the text of Shakespeare’s poetry is to fragment, repeat, distort and mix lines from different sonnets. Although the screens show lines from the English text, and signal the sonnet number from which they are taken, even non-Hebrew speakers in the audience quickly realize that these are not verbatim subtitles of the words being spoken on stage. Individual lines and words are repeated, or echoed by another character, and lines from multiple poems are brought together.

The overall effect of this is an emphasis on the musicality of the sonnets, which – when combined with the stylistic physical and aesthetic design – transcends the actual language being spoken (much in the same way as in an opera). This transcendence comes to the fore later in the production, when the first line of Sonnet 40 is repeated and echoed by the performers in a series of other languages (I think I caught French, German, Italian and Spanish).

Thespis have constructed their ‘narrative’ of the sonnets through a series of vignettes. For those familiar with Shakespeare’s poems and the standard interpretations of them, it is no surprise to see the ‘Fair Youth’ and the ‘Dark Lady’ appearing on stage, or to see them engage in a near-vicious tug-of-war over the artist. However, what’s more interesting are the interactions between these two characters, and the way they respond to one another in often unexpected ways. The actors adopt personas, rather than characters, and these adapt and alter as the performance progresses, following threads suggested by Shakespeare’s poetry.

I say the performance ‘progresses’, but this would suggest a more concrete linearity than is found in the production. While certain relationships appear to grow and fade on stage, this is not a strict narrative progression, nor does it follow a particular sequencing of Shakespeare’s poems. In places, Shakespeare’s Sonnets uses its source material as a jumping-off point for a more virtuoso enactment, with the poems being suggestive, rather than prescriptive.

I’d like to give praise, too, to Rona Mishol’s costume design, which lends a sriking visual style to the production. Each performer wears a simple white outfit, overlaid with jagged embroidery that suggests a broken mirror – a nice touch. However, costuming and design (including the sound design and music by Nadav Vikinski) really comes into its own when one of the female performers makes the (perhaps anticipated but certainly arresting) transformation into the Dark Lady. As a set-piece, this transformation is beautifully worked and was one of the highlights of the show for me.

Shakespeare’s Sonnets is an intense and rather serious piece of theatre that offers an expressionistic and thematic interpretation of a poetic sequence. Nevertheless, Thespis aren’t averse to a bit of crowd-pleasing! The performance of Sonnet 18 – undoubtedly the best-known of the sonnets – is a proper show-stopper, and it made me smile to see that – even in a complex and fragmentary meditation on leitmotifs and musicality – ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’ still gets to headline!

Shakespeare’s Sonnets is an intelligent and stylish staging of the Bard’s poetry sequence. For non-Hebrew speakers, it is an opportunity to lose yourself in the music of the poetry and the performance. If you get chance at another venue (in Israel or beyond!), I recommend you check out Thespis Theatre’s production.

Shakespeare’s Sonnets was on at the Whitefield Garrick on 10th and 11th July, as part of this year’s Greater Manchester Fringe. To see the full programme for this year’s Fringe, visit the festival website.

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