Julius Caesar is perhaps Shakespeare’s most topical play right now. Nick Hytner’s modern-dress production for The Bridge Theatre, follows the RSC’s 2017/18 Roman-dress version. A populist leader adored by the populace overreaches himself to the disgust and horror of the ruling elite, who prove fatally to lack the common touch. The mob is swayed back and forth by conflicting oratory, but the people’s choice has to be the one who offers the most tangible rewards – money and quality of life. Brutus, Cassius and their equally patrician co-conspirators step up, but are forced to step aside when Caesar’s protégé Mark Antony expertly plays on the emotions of the ‘ordinary’ Romans mobbing the funeral of their assassinated ‘beloved leader’.
The stand-out feature of Hytner’s vision is to have some hundreds of audience members promenading in the pit, cleared of seating and filled by designer Bunny Christie’s extraordinarily versatile set. His platforms rise and fall to transport the audience to Ancient Rome, from Senate House to Forum, Brutus’s palatial home to battlefield. Hytner’s masterstroke is to cast the promenaders as the Roman mob, ruthlessly controlled by uniformed apparatchiks (perfectly-drilled theatre staff who ensure the promenaders get out of the way of fast-moving scenery).
Five years after Sheldon Harnick and the late Jerry Bock struck gold with Fiddler on the Roof, they turned to Mayer Rothschild. Specifically the story of how he and his five sons transmuted the poverty of the ghetto into a golden future. The streamlined version of that show, premiered off-Broadway in 2015, arrives in London with American leads Robert Cuccioli and Glory Crampton as paterfamilias Mayer Rothschild and his wife and helpmeet Gutele, respectively, plus original director Jeffrey B Moss.
Is it an accolade if your name becomes an adjective to describe your work as playwright? Brechtian is (perhaps lazy) shorthand for alienation and Pinteresque for menacing. Unsettling menace may permeate the sea air in the unnamed resort where Meg runs a shabby boarding house and husband Petey is a deckchair attendant, but Harold Pinter brings rather more to this party. He is laugh-out-loud funny for a start. His ear for the vagaries of daily conversation, the transactions and the power play, is acute; the heightened rhythms and repeats of his characters’ exchanges and what they reveal of their hopes, fears and relationships – and the pauses (carefully written into the script) – are entirely his own.
“Tears are the juice of our souls”, declares Blueberry the Clown, demonstrating how squeezing a blueberry produces a tear-like drop. He’s born Isaac Solomon Loew, son of a proud, observant Prussian-Jewish immigrant to America’s Deep South. His mother tells him that in Hebrew his name means ‘he who laughs’. It seems it’s this nominative determinism that begins his journey towards becoming a whiteface Pierrot, first in the circus then in vaudeville on Broadway. It’s 1932 and the Depression is kicking in when he meets us, his audience, in his dressing room, after what he confides will be his last ever show. Perhaps Blueberry himself has taken one too many kicks, for you sense the tension behind his rueful smile early on. Still, things are upbeat as he starts to share his life story – and his basket of blueberries – with his public.
East first shocked and delighted audiences in 1975 and in Jessica Lazar’s production for Atticist Theatre it has lost none of its power. Her five actors relish Berkoff’s marriage of precisely choreographed physical theatre and heightened language to make it their own. He folds witty takes on Shakespeare – “he doth bestride Commercial Road like a Colossus” – into heroically scurrilous prose and verse, using Cockney rhyming slang and evoking place names and bus routes to conjure the East End of his youth. It’s a bleak and dangerous manor of dashed hopes, hard graft, violent machismo, sexism and sexual rivalry. Yet it’s a paean to generations who lived there and live there still, fascists and Jews, immigrants and those who resent them.
It’s an odyssey through the first half of the 20th century, an unreliable memoir and a very personal state-of-the-(German) nation allegory – and that’s just Günter Grass’s epic novel. Now Kneehigh Theatre’s powerhouse of creatives stages their collective vision of the tale of Oskar, a man-child who refuses to grow up in “this despicable age”, in a corrupt and ugly world; choosing instead to remain inside the body of a three-year-old – if not the mind – for he’s a transgressive and over-sexed infant.
Israel Zangwill, a ferociously intelligent, passionate champion of multiculturalism, escaped poverty in London’s East End thanks in part to his education at the Jews’ Free School, where he also subsequently taught for a time. He went on to become a writer, political thinker and activist. He was the first to use the phrase ‘the melting pot’ to describe what he also calls ‘God’s crucible’ – America – in this play, endorsed enthusiastically and vocally by then US president Theodore Roosevelt at its 1908 premiere in New York. Now Bitter Pill Theatre produces the first UK revival of The Melting Pot since 1938.
Mel Brooks’ The Producers was a legendarily successful translation from film to stage, but Young Frankenstein, his classic 1974 horror spoof film of Mary Shelley’s gothic tale, proved more problematic on Broadway in 2007. The sprightly 91-year-old Brooks personally oversaw this London revival, along with original director and choreographer Susan Stroman. This lower-budget production in a more intimate space makes the most of a relatively simple set of backdrops by designer Beowulf Boritt, showcasing Brooks’ inventive lyrics and music. The question is, can music hall innuendo survive not just political correctness, but more problematically, the recent outing of sexual exploitation? Laughing out loud through the dazzling – often smutty – lyrics Brooks wrote in his 80s (”Though your genitalia have been known to fail ya”) for me the answer is a giggling yes. And judging from audience laughter from both sexes, I’m not alone.
As Israel Zangwill’s play is revived for the first time in 80 years in the UK, by Bitter Pill Theatre at the Finborough Theatre, Judi Herman finds out about the visionary writer and activist. He coined this evocative description of inclusivity for the title of a play that influenced President Theodore Roosevelt at its premiere in 1908. Judi spoke to actor Peter Marinker about the play and his own inclusive background, complete with tales of rabbis and nuns! He plays Zangwill himself, as well as both the uncle and prospective father-in-law of Jewish composer David Quixano, escaped from a massacre in a pogrom to the melting pot that is New York City. First we hear an extract especially recorded for JR OutLoud by Marinker and actor Steffan Cenydd, who plays David, a man in love with a beautiful Russian Christian called Vera, much to the consternation of his Uncle Mendel (Marinker).
In the Wanamaker Playhouse’s candlelit space Jon Bausor’s clever set divulges sinister built-in drawers of files. Conspirators plotting treason discover the hard way that a mole is privy to their plans. Religious refugees fleeing to England in the wake of massacres on the continent find themselves unwelcome in isolationist Britain. Late 16th-century London feels a lot like a John le Carré thriller set right now. And indeed playwright Anders Lustgarten owes his title to le Carré, who wrote “espionage is the secret theatre of our society”.