20 January 2015

Play of Thrones at the Union Theatre was magnificent modern Shakespeare

My introduction to the Union Theatre was with their magnificent Lear and so there was no way that I was going to miss Play of Thrones, their take on Shakespeare's Henry VI trilogy.

Play of Thrones came with high expectations thanks to my recent experiences at the Union Theatre and of other modern Shakespeare adaptations. These expectations were comfortable exceeded in an exceptional performance.

But first I had to get there.

Work took me to Birmingham that day but I was able to leave a little early to catch the 17:00 train back to Euston which got me there at 18:15. From there the Northern Line whisked me down to Borough and I was left with a five minute walk to the theatre. Or rather to The Union Jack pub opposite where I went first for a quick bite and a pint before the show.

The good planning continued and I was able to bag one of the best seats in the house, in the middle of the front row. There I was confronted by two aluminium ladders, clearly this was going to be an unusual adaptation. I like unusual.

I had not seen any of the Henry VI plays before and could remember very little, if anything, of the real history so the story was new to me and I had nothing to compare it to. Phil Willmott's clever adaptation (he was also responsible for Lear) anticipated that book-ended the play with famous lines from Henry V and Richard III to place Henry VI in context.

Stripping the three plays down to one made for relentless action (physical and verbal) and I  never lost that I-wonder-what-happens-next? buzz.

Propelling the drama was a large cast of strong characters strongly portrayed. These were characters I wanted to scream at, marry or fight alongside.

Perhaps it is my Yorkshire birthright swaying my judgement but the character I felt closest too was the Duchess of York played by Penelope Day. Two other women stood out, Margaret of Anjou (Emma Kelly) and Joan or Arc (Abigail Carter-Simpson), and so did two men, the future Richard III (Michael Keane) and Duke of Suffolk (Gavin Kerr). Note that this is a comment on the characters, not the actors, and the lesser characters had good actors too.

These characters bounced off and around each other generating strong passions and deep hatreds. It was hard not to cheer and wince at the same time when Richard tortured Suffolk or to squirm when Margaret and Suffolk conducted their affair. There was quite a bit of torture, a fair bit of hanky-panky and a great deal of killing. The connection to Game of Thrones was obvious.

But there was far more to Play of Thrones than riding on the back of Game of Thrones' popularity with tales of ambition and revenge. The production was fast paced and imaginative, e.g. good use was made of the relatively small cast and the ladders to simulate the many battles.

The net result of all this was that Play of Thrones made three of Shakespeare's weakest plays, which I had never seen advertised much less been to see, something thrilling, exciting and unforgettable. I would go and see it again tomorrow if I could.

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