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Phil Willmott travels through theatreland...

Why Shakespeare's history plays are one soap opera worth watching...


It’s 10.30am at the Round House Theatre in Camden and a plummy voiced luvvie type urges us to turn off our mobile phones, not to take picture and welcomes us to NINE hours of angry blokes waving swords and bellowing about politics and religion.

And this three play marathon is only a part of the cycle of linked
Shakespeare history plays currently being performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company.

If all that historical speachifying sounds as enticing as snacking on your own vomit think again. Collectively – over eight long plays – this three day theatre festival chronicles the life, times and reign of Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI and Richard III. To immerse yourself in this magnificent medieval soap opera is one of the most fulfilling experiences you can have in the theatre: a kaleidoscope of kings, queens, bravery, treachery, low lifes and high ideals that inconceivably grips the imagination long after the bum has numbed. This is particularly true in Michael Boyd’s pacey, multi–textured production that balances magnificent acting with terrifying sword fights and stunning aerial acrobatics.

If you can get a ticket (at time of writing it’s returns only) do read up before you go. It’s a big complex dynastic saga and some pre-knowledge of which interchangeable Lord is aligned with which scheming Bishop is essential to get the most out of the experience. But there’s plenty of humanity on display too and the epic playing time allows characters to grow and develop in a way that just doesn’t happen in shorter plays. In the three plays I saw Chuk Iwuji and Katy Stephens (King Henry VI and Queen Margaret respectively), seize the chance to expertly plot their characters journey from naivety to seasoned politician. But every single one of the cast turns in memorable performances at some point in the story’s arc.

Illusionist Derren Brown’s new show at the Garrick Theatre is of course considerably shorter and his only co-stars are the audience. You’ll love being bamboozled, mystified, intrigued and just plain entertained by TVs most fashionable magician. As he often explains, the knack of a show like this is to beef up simple tricks with showmanship and his onstage persona is so engaging that you’re happy to be mislead in any direction he wishes to manipulate you.

Much of his act is based on the antics of Edwardian fakes and there’s a timeless quality to this simply staged one-magician-on-an-empty-stage show that is very satisfying. Critics were handed an envelope urging us not to give too much else away to our readers. So I won’t.

Young writer Polly Stenham has made a big impact with her first play That Face, currently running for a short time at the Duke Of Yorks Theatre. It’s a savagely funny portrait of a dysfunctional upper class family dominated by a damaged Ab Fab style mum, played with real relish by Lindsay Duncan.

The 90 minute show delivers some great laughs and some big melodrama, even if it’s hard to care about these over indulged exotic creatures. It’s great to see Hannah Murray from the TV show Skins turning in a beautifully nuanced stage performance and Matt Smith, as the “mummy’s boy” son, is very engaging and equally handsome.

Phil Willmott is the director of F***king Men, a play by Joe DiPietro, showing now at Finborough Theatre, London (0844 847 1652)

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