There’s never a bad time, it seems, to present Shakespeare. Sheffield Theatres, currently riding high with two wins at The Stage Awards including best regional theatre, is in rehearsals for Robert Hastie’s production of Coriolanus. Why that play now? Well, let’s see: it’s about leaders, populism, the masses, voting, the possibility of a second vote…
In other words, like Lucy Kirkwood’s extraordinary The Welkin at the National Theatre, it is, with no mention of the B word, a Brexit play.
Shakespeare, meantime, has left the building via the end of Michael Longhurst’s taut, Donmar Warehouse run of Mike Lew’s disquieting Teenage Dick, which saw Richard III re-imagined as a high-school drama about a 17-year-old with cerebral palsy ruthlessly plotting to become senior-year president played (superbly) by Daniel Monks, an actor with hemiplegia. But Shakespeare is back this week with previews beginning at London’s Gielgud Theatre for Upstart Crow, Ben Elton’s stage version of his hit TV series starring David Mitchell as Stratford-upon-Avon’s finest.
This will, I think, mark the first time Britain’s greatest playwright has appeared simultaneously in two West End shows – since he is already on stage in the preposterously enjoyable hit musical &Juliet. Playing at the opposite end of Shaftesbury Avenue at the Shaftesbury Theatre, it grafts the monster back catalogue of Max Martin mega-hits on to a story about Shakespeare (Oliver Tompsett) and Anne Hathaway (Cassidy Janson) squabbling over what Juliet’s story would have been had she not died at the end of Romeo and Juliet.
That’s not the first time Shakespeare has turned up as a character in a musical. Christian Borle won a 2015 Tony playing him in Something Rotten, an Elizabethan tale about Nick and Nigel Bottom who run a theatre troupe trailing behind the success of one William Shakespeare, hence Nick’s song: “God, I hate Shakespeare.” Casey Nicholaw’s production ran for 20 months with a book co-written by British author and satirist John O’Farrell who is now co-writing the book of the Mrs Doubtfire musical opening in April at Broadway’s Stephen Sondheim Theatre.
That address is neatly coincidental since it was Sondheim who first put Shakespeare himself into an American musical. Or, rather, a Greek one. He and book writer Burt Shevelove created a musical version of Aristophanes’ The Frogs. It played Lincoln Center in 2004 headlined by Nathan Lane with Michael Siberry playing Shakespeare as rival to George Bernard Shaw.
The musical itself, however, dates back to 1974 and its ill-fated premiere in, of all places, Yale University’s swimming pool. If you want to know one of the reasons why it was a flop, think back to the last time you attempted an audible conversation in a swimming pool, let alone trying to perform a musical. It must have seemed like a dream, since the story involves journeys across the river Styx, but production mishaps turned it into a nightmare. If you really want the gory details, the next time you run into playwright Christopher Durang or actors Sigourney Weaver and Meryl Streep, ask them because all three were in the ensemble.
Sondheim, of course, has history with Shakespeare, having made his Broadway debut in 1957 aged 27 writing lyrics for the Romeo and Juliet adaptation better known as West Side Story. That’s back previewing on Broadway in Ivo van Hove’s production (opening February 20), replete with video screens, violence and, by all accounts, darkness and danger played to the hilt. Even in previews – lengthy due to cast injuries – it has been playing to 100% capacity.
All of which makes me yearn not for famous Shakespeare musicals such as Kiss Me, Kate or The Lion King (Hamlet on four legs) or even Rodgers and Hart’s jaunty The Boys from Syracuse (The Comedy of Errors), but the ones that, miserably, I’ve never seen.
I’d love a revival of 1971’s Two Gentlemen of Verona with music by Galt ‘Hair’ McDermot and book by John ‘Six Degrees of Separation’ Guare, which beat Follies to the 1971 best musical Tony. And the ambulance chaser in me longs to have seen 1977’s Fire Angel, the Merchant of Venice rock opera that Plays and Players pronounced as a “lobotomy of the play”. Ray Cooney produced it at Her Majesty’s Theatre, London for £100,000 – and lost the lot. And, oh, to have seen Broadway’s Rockabye Hamlet in which Ophelia committed suicide by strangling herself with her microphone cord.
But the one I’d really love to see is 1985’s Nightshriek, the Macbeth rock opera produced by the National Youth Theatre with book, music and lyrics by 15-year-old Trisha Ward. “Beg or even steal a ticket, hammer on the theatre door until they let you in”, yelled the Times. Malcolm was played by one Daniel Craig. Surely he could fund a revival?
Read David Benedict’s columns every Wednesday at thestage.co.uk/author/david-benedict