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Mark Shenton’s week: Time, in a theatre, is an elastic concept

Roeland Fernhout, Fred Goessens, Gijs Scholten van Aschat and Marieke Heebink in Roman Tragedies at the Barbican. Photo: Jan Versweyveld
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Theatre can make you forget time – or be acutely aware of its passing. This was brought into sharp relief for me with separate productions of the same plays that I saw less than a week apart. On March 17, I spent six hours in the Barbican, watching Ivo van Hove’s Roman Tragedies, a compressed blend of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, and Antony and Cleopatra, combined into one continuous story arc in Roman Tragedies. On March 23, I spent six-and-a-half hours watching full-length productions of the first and third of those plays in new Royal Shakespeare Company productions at Stratford-upon-Avon.

At the Barbican, I hardly paused for breath; in fact, the six hours scarcely allows you to. It is interspersed with only a handful of exactly timed breaks, with a clock counting down each one, to enable the stage to be re-set (and audience members to get to the loo). It was one of the briskest, most brilliant Shakespeare adaptations I’ve ever seen, propelled into the here and now with riveting intelligence and a thriller-like momentum.

By contrast, the Royal Shakespeare productions felt like a throwback: not just that they were done in period garb (togas and armour), but also in performance style. It probably didn’t help the RSC ones to have seen them so close to the startlingly fresh modernity that van Hove’s production brought to them. But even without that, the RSC stagings made me feel like time had stood still.

Gorging myself on theatre

I’ve often freely admitted to a theatrical habit that borders on addiction. And in the past 10 days, I’ve lived up to that, seeing some 14 shows. I’ve formally reviewed seven of them, so the other half have been purely for research, pleasure and/or variety.

As well as the aforementioned Roman Shakespeares (at the Barbican and Stratford-upon-Avon), I’ve also reviewed Love in Idleness at the Menier, An American in Paris at the Dominion, The Kid Stays in the Picture at the Royal Court and One Love at Birmingham Rep. But I’ve also spent other nights at places as various as the Union Theatre (catching an event billed as West End Live Lounge, a fantastic evening of West End performers – among them Olivier-winner Katie Brayben, Tyrone Huntley, Marisha Wallace and Oliver Savile – singing songs from beyond the musical theatre template) and English National Opera (a witty and wonderful revival of Christopher Alden’s Olivier-winning production of Handel’s Partenope). And I’ve been back (for the third time) to The Wild Party at the Other Palace, which was purely for my own pleasure.

But the play I’ve been most happy to catch off-duty was Ryan Craig’s Filthy Business at Hampstead, a warmly constructed autobiographical family portrait that plays out an tale of intergenerational conflict in a London Jewish family with remarkable skill and feeling – and a towering performance by Sara Kestelman as the matriarch. It’s one of the greatest feats of tough, unsentimental acting I’ve seen in ages.

The New York Times appoints a new joint chief theatre critic

The New York Times is famously the make-or-break voice in American theatrical journalism. It has long been on a pedestal as the most authoritative opinion on Broadway, partly of its own making as the self-styled paper of record, but also because the territory of serious criticism is so spartan there. Unlike in Britain, where we (still) have multiple ‘serious’ newspapers (even if some of them no longer take theatre very seriously), the New York Times has the quality spot all to itself, while the other daily titles barely register (the tabloid New York Post no longer has a theatre critic). A couple of magazines – the New Yorker and New York magazine – also offer longer-form criticism, but that’s about it, at least in the established media.

But just as newspaper consumption is changing, so is criticism and its effects, and even the New York Times no longer wields the notorious power it once enjoyed, where a damning word from it could close a show overnight. Nevertheless, the Times (as it is known locally) is still the first review people turn to. The top spot of chief theatre critic has been occupied since 1996 by Ben Brantley, with others – among them the excellent Peter Marks and Charles Isherwood – as his second-string. But Isherwood, who had been in the post since 2004, was suddenly and unexpectedly laid off in February, in circumstances that have still not been fully revealed, following an internal review of his work emails.

As I wrote at the time, he “cut a contentious figure, as critics often must, but has provided a singular voice“. Since then, speculation has been rife about who might replace him, and this week it was announced that Jesse Green, currently theatre critic for New York magazine, will do so – but in a move that Isherwood had himself long craved (according to some of those emails), it has also been announced that Green will have a new title: he will share the role of co-chief theatre critic with Brantley.

I’ve long loved Green’s work – he’s been my go-to Broadway critic for a while now. It will certainly be interesting to see how they divvy up the territory but it’s big enough to contain both of them. And of course, now New York magazine will be looking for a new critic. Wouldn’t it be sweet if Isherwood resurfaced there?

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