Breaking news: The Bacchanals are staging the NZ premiere of Jessica Swale’s Blue Stockings!

“A woman who expends her energy exercising the brain does so at the expense of her vital organs,” said Dr Henry Maudsley, world-renowned psychiatrist and advisor to the royal family in 1874.

Earlier in 2014 The Bacchanals brought you Once We Built A Tower, Dean Parker’s play about how New Zealand once had the most ahead-of-its-time welfare scheme in the world. In October 2014, The Bacchanals Are Back!TM with a play that again shows how fortunate we are to live in such a progressive country (don’t let the election result fool you!). “I know, I know,” says director David Lawrence, “everyone thought we’d be doing an adaptation of Dirty Politics instead of a Victorian period drama. Don’t worry, it’s still political!”

Two decades after Kate Edger became New Zealand’s first female university graduate in 1877, women in the rest of the British Empire were still fighting for the right to education despite matching their male peers grade for grade. Blue Stockings tells the tale of four women studying science at Girton College, Cambridge in 1896, the year that headmistress Elizabeth Welsh attempted to convince the University senate that women should be allowed to graduate with degrees.

Photo (c) Douglas Chubb

Photo (c) Douglas Chubb

Jessica Swale’s play premiered at Shakespeare’s Globe in August 2013, and The Bacchanals are thrilled to be presenting it in New Zealand for the first time. “It doesn’t matter if it’s the 17th century or the 21st – when you’re writing plays for the Globe stage, the ideas have to be huge and epic,” says David Lawrence. “Blue Stockings is at once comic and tragic, intimate -and epic, specific and timeless.” Said The Guardian’s Michael Billington: “Jessica Swale writes with palpable vigour and leaves you astonished at the prejudices these education pioneers had to overcome.”

Winners of the Critics’ Wildcard award for Guts, Determination, Kiwi Ingenuity and Inspired Profligacy With Zero Budget at the 2013 Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards, the same team of Bacchanals who brought you Coriolanus, The Clouds, Gunplay, All’s Well That Ends Well and Once We Built A Tower are so happy to be back with their third show for 2014 and their 29th production as a company. Blue Stockings stars Kirsty Bruce, Alice May Connolly, Joe Dekkers-Reihana, Brianne Kerr, Salesi Le’ota, Michael Ness, Hilary Penwarden, Jean Sergent, Ellie Stewart, Michael Trigg and Aidan Weekes, and is directed by David Lawrence.

The Bacchanals present Blue Stockings by Jessica Swale ● The Long Hall, Point Jerningham (behind St Barnabus’ and Roseneath School) ● Tuesday 28 October – Saturday 8 November, 7pm (no show Sunday) ● All tickets $15 ● Bookings e-mail

Next time: a cut & paste of the media release for our January 2015 production of Richard III, no doubt!

Breaking news: The Bacchanals stop their terrible neglect of this ‘blog to tell you that they are touring a play!

That’s right, folks – if you haven’t already seen it on our main/proper website or via our Twitter feed, The Bacchanals are touring the South Island from August 25 – September 6 2014 with Dean Parker’s Once We Built A Tower.  You can catch us in the following places on the following dates:

Monday 25 August – Sinclair Centre, Ashburton

Tuesday 26 August – Caroline Bay Community Lounge, Timaru

Wednesday 27 August – Twizel Events Centre

Thursday 28 August – Tekapo Community Hall

Friday 29 August – Omarama Community Centre

Saturday 30 August – Kurow Memorial Hall

Monday 1 September – Oamaru Scottish Hall

Tuesday 2 September – Otago Pioneer Women’s Memorial Association Hall, Dunedin

Wednesday 3 September – James Cumming Wing Lecture Theatre, Gore

Thursday 4 September – South Otago Theatrical Society Hall, Balclutha

Friday 5 September – Millers Flat Hall, Roxburgh

Saturday 6 September – Clyde Memorial Hall

All shows are at 7pm and entry is by koha/donation! The show is two hours long and there’ll be a fifteen minute interval for a cup of tea. We’re exhausted with the effort of telling people how great this show is and what a good time this tour will be, so look to our website for more information on the show and the cast.  Come on down and see us, y’all! you won’t regret it.  Looking forward to seeing you all in the South Island!

Huge huge thanks to our funders & sponsors and in particular to Interislander, Coffee Supreme, Emerging Artists’ Trust Wellington, Pelorus Trust, Creative New Zealand plus Boosted, Playmarket, The Long Hall and everyone else who’s helped us out!  We love you so much it will surely kill us.  Or you.  You decide!

Next time: will The Bacchanals be able to squeeze one more show in before Richard III opens on 15 January 2015??

Announcing our first show for 2014 – happy Year of the Horse, everyone!

Your friends and ours The Bacchanals (6-time Chapman Kip and 11-time Chapman Tripp winners!) are back to kick off the theatrical year for 2014 with one of their favourite obscure Shakespearean comedies performed in their favourite obscure Wellington venue!  Last summer was blood & homoeroticism & Oedipal complexes in Coriolanus; this summer The Bacchanals are proud to bring magic potions & dying kings & unjustly-wronged heroines to The Long Hall in All’s Well That Ends Well, Shakespeare’s classic tale of a girl who can’t understand why her stepbrother doesn’t want to marry her!

AWTEW_1mediumWith the King of France dying of an apparently incurable disease, the orphaned and low-born Helena turns out to be the only person in the world with the medical knowledge to save the King’s life.  As a reward, the King grants Helena the power to marry whoever she desires, regardless of wealth and status – but no one is prepared for the severity and ruthlessness of the seemingly-virtuous Bertram’s rejection of Helena as his royally-decreed wife, nor with the lengths Helena is prepared to go to in order to win his love.  “I know, I know,” says The Bacchanals’ director, David Lawrence from the cabinet room of his bunker while his actors shave the serial numbers off ammunition clips, “starting the year with a romantic comedy is hardly in keeping with our usual guerrilla approach to theatre.  But this is no ordinary romantic comedy, and we’ve got lots of other angry political stuff planned for the rest of the year.  Don’t worry, there will be bombs!”

All’s Well That Ends Well stars Hilary Penwarden as Helena and recent Chapman Tripp-winner Joe Dekkers-Reihana as Bertram, with stalwart company members Salesi Le’ota, Brianne Kerr, Jean Sergent, Michael Ness, Charlotte Pleasants, Alice May Connolly, Aidan Weekes and a special guest appearance by the legendary Alex Greig.  It plays at The Long Hall in Roseneath (at the Saluting Battery at Port Jerningham, behind Roseneath School & St Barnabas’) from Thursday 23 January – Saturday 1 February at 7pm.  All tickets are just $15 and you can book by e-mailing

Winners of the Critics’ Wildcard award for Guts, Determination, Kiwi Ingenuity and Inspired Profligacy With Zero Budget at the 2013 Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards, The Bacchanals intend to spend 2014 campaigning for good and fighting evil, so don’t forget there’ll also be the world premiere of Dean Parker’s Once We Built A Tower at BATS in March!

Next Time: something about Once We Built A Tower!

Here we are updating the ‘blog for the first time in months with a posting that’s pretty much identical to the announcement over on our Official Website! (but guess what: we’re putting slightly different photos on this one so it was worth your while visiting both ‘sites!) Yes indeed, people: The Bacchanals will be back in 2013 with TWO fantastic new shows!


In January we’ll be presenting our twenty-fourth (!) show and our twelfth (!) Shakespeare, and it’s a good one!  Can it really be only a year since David realised that Coriolanus isn’t the worst play in the canon?  What happened was this: at the end of Julius Caesar we were talking about a community centre touring Shakespeare for 2012 and David re-read a bunch of plays to choose between the final contenders.  If you were reading this ’blog last summer you’ll know all this – it was looking like a toss-up between All’s Well That Ends Well, Troilus and Cressida, Antony and Cleopatra, Timon of Athens and Pericles and Much Ado About Nothing would have also made the final list.  But in the midst of a Christmas-New Year Early Modern Drama-binge, David was re-reading Heywood and Middleton and Fletcher and suddenly found himself realising, “Hey, I haven’t read Coriolanus since 1997 back when I thought it was crap,” and took it off the shelf on one of his daily long-walk-around-Wellington-reading-a-play walks (you’ve seen that weird guy who walks around Wellington reading plays? that’s him!!).  Never has someone been so happy to discover that a play they thought was crap was actually one of the best plays in the entire canon and even though it seemed far too ambitious and difficult to be a Bacchanals church hall/community centre touring production, the play wouldn’t leave David alone and the more he read and re-read it, the more he realised this would be the next Shakespeare for The Bacchanals!


Coriolanus is the tale of how one man can go overnight from being the most popular guy in town to the town’s most hated and feared enemy.  It caps off two Shakespearean trilogies based around the same story/idea – it forms the last instalment of a trilogy that begins with King Lear and Timon of Athens in terms of showing us a man whose faith in humanity is destroyed when he discovers how people really see him; it forms the last instalment of a trilogy that begins with Antony and Cleopatra and Macbeth in terms of showing us a man who knows himself too well to be listening to the corrupting influence of an ambitious woman (only in this case it’s his mum rather than his mistress or wife!).  Coriolanus was Shakespeare’s last tragedy before moving into the tragic-comic/Romance mode of the late plays.

Our production of Coriolanus (which we like to think of as ‘The Parish of St Barnabus Re-Enact the story of The People of Rome versus Caius Martius’ , if that gives you any idea of how we might be staging it!) plays at The Long Hall in Roseneath from Thursday 24 January to Saturday 2 February 2013, at 7pm every night except Sunday.  All tickets are $10!  The Long Hall is easier to find than you’d think – it’s behind Roseneath School and St Barnabas’ church.  Get yourself to the Roseneath shops and it’ll be signposted!  You can book by e-mailing (click that link and book now, go on!).  Bring food with you if you want, bring cushions (we’ve got chairs aplenty but they’re probably not the most comfortable things in the world!), and early rehearsals indicate that blood might go everywhere during this show, so maybe don’t wear your Sunday best, hipsters.

Coriolanus stars the mighty Alex Greig as Caius Martius, Jean Sergent as his mother Volumnia, Salesi Le’ota as his old friend Menenius, Kirsty Bruce as his wife Virgilia, Joe Dekkers-Reihana as his great enemy Aufidius, Michael Ness as the general Cominius, Brianne Kerr and Walter Plinge as the tribunes Sicinius and Brutus, Hilary Penwarden as Titus Lartius, Amy Griffin-Browne as the First Citizen, Cassandra Cleland as Valeria and Dasha Fedchuk, Morgan Rothwell, Tony Black, Lauren Wilson, Hugo Randall, Rosanagh Kynoch and Rebecca Sim as messengers, soldiers, citizens, attendants, senators, gentlewomen, Romans, Volsces and Coriolii!  The show is designed by Bronwyn Cheyne, frocked by Charlotte Simmonds and directed by David Lawrence.  Come spend a lovely summer evening with us in a lovely hall having a time.  If the play goes to plan, there’ll be a riot, then a battle, then an election, then an exile, then an alliance, then a war and finally a reconcilement!  Corio3forblogYou’d better come and see this show because, look, Alex knows where you live.  Can’t wait to see you all in January!


One of the very last acts of the fantastic Martyn Wood, the best programme manager BATS has ever had (but welcome Cherie! you will be great also!), was to schedule a Bacchanals show for April.  What began as an intended sequel to last year’s Half An Hour In Heaven Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, to be performed low-key in the Pit with no organisation/rehearsal, will now become a proper show in a proper theatre! (or as much a proper theatre as BATS turns out to be in 2013!)  Which is great, because now it can have songs! dances! masks! banjos! a Chorus! hula-hoop fights! And much much more!  Aristophanes’ play The Clouds wasn’t a huge success upon its first performance in 423BC – it only came third place in that year’s City Dionyzia – but perhaps, 2436 years later (or 2138 years later if you believe in Phantom Time, which we do – it’s only 1715 folks, and it’s October!) its time has come at last!  Since we started with a Greek comedy back in 2000, it is fitting that the 25th Bacchanals show should be our 13th-birthday-production of a brand new text of an Aristophanes play!

To get out of paying his debts in this time of economic recession, Strepsiades decides to send his son Pheidippides to University so he can study Argument under the great Socrates – that way when the creditors turn up Pheidippides can argue them out of having to pay their bills, because everyone knows that if you’re skilled in Argument then hey, you can murder your own brother-in-law and get away with it!   Imagine a cross between an episode of The Simpsons, The Muppets, 30 Rock and The Young Ones.  The Clouds is, depending on how you look at it, either a biting satire of those who believe that higher education is a waste of time or a biting endorsement of higher education as a waste of time!

HAHIHBTDKYD7forwebThe Clouds plays at BATS Theatre in their temporary home upstairs on the corner of Cuba and Dixon Streets from TUESDAY 2 APRIL to SATURDAY 13 APRIL at 6.30pm.  Book by calling (04) 802-4176 or e-mailing (do it now – they’d find it hilarious!).  At this stage the plan is that it will star Julia Harrison, David Lawrence and the magnificent Salesi Le’ota as Socrates (yes, the above image is of him as Dionysus, not Socrates, but you get the idea!), but who knows how much will change by April?  Maybe there’ll be a huge Chorus of Clouds in Princess Leia bikinis?  Celebrity cameos every time we do a 30 Rock-stylewhip-pan?  Anyway – expect live music, metatheatricality and angry ranting satire at the very least.  The Clouds will leak as much comedy as Coriolanus oozes blood!

So there you have it, faithful viewers – not one but TWO Bacchanals shows to look forward to at the start of 2013!  Who knows what else the year will have in store?  People keep calling for parts two and three of Henry VI … and we also have an idea for a show called Happiness is a Warm Gun: A History of Firearms because we all know that video games killed all those kids and that armed guards in all American schools is the answer to everything.  Don’t worry, the reverse-gender Importance of Being Earnest is still on the cards too …  Keep checking back here with us!  Or follow us on BookFace, WordStamp or Tweeter for the latest updates!  Let’s make this the best 1716 ever! (seriously, google Phantom Time.)

Next time: more up-to-the-minute Coriolanus updates, no doubt!

That’s right, folks, The Bacchanals are back celebrating our 12th birthday with our 23rd show! 

Our production of Dean Parker’s adaptation of Nicky Hager’s book Other People’s Wars runs for a strictly-limited season (oh, the clichés!) from Tuesday 17 April to Saturday 28 April, 8pm, BATS Theatre, Wellington!  Don’t bother reading the rest of this – call (04) 802-4175 now, or hit this hyperlink right here:  Go on!

As the back of the book says, the so-called ‘War On Terror’ (yes, those are David’s sarcastic quotation marks!) has been the longest foreign war in NZ history, and yet most New Zealanders know absolutely nothing about our role in it.  Since 9/11 the NZ military have successfully duped both the government and the public as to the true nature of our involvement in America’s illegal invasion of Afghanistan, hiding behind bogus claims of ‘peacekeeping’ and ‘humanitarian aid’.  Yes, there was indeed some peacekeeping going on and humanitarian aid provided, but that was a footnote to our actual role supporting and aiding the US forces as they devastated a country they already knew Osama bin Laden wasn’t in, and where all the terrorists they were dedicated to wiping out were US-financed in the first place.

Our smiling Prime Minster, John Key, claims that Hager’s book is “a work of fiction” but coming from a man whose favourite author is John Grisham, I don’t know that his grasp of fact versus fiction is that great.  The fact is, John, throughout history the NZ military have answered whenever America has called, regardless of public opinion, morality or even the express commands of government (not your government though John – you couldn’t fuel your six houses without that foreign oil, could you?).

Does that sound heavy-going and full-on?  It won’t be, promise!  Yes, it’ll be angry leftie propaganda from a bunch of hippie greenie actors led by their politically naive director who thinks why can’t we all just get along, but it’ll hopefully be lots of fun too!  Other People’s Wars stars Bacchanals regulars Alex Greig, Jonny Potts, Brianne Kerr, Kirsty Bruce, with Blair Everson, Diana Aurisch, Hilary Penwarden, Paul Waggott and Joe Dekkers-Reihana as Willie Apiata, and heralds the long-awaited return of Julia Harrison to The Bacchanals (last seen in front of the red banner playing one half of the title in 2004’s Romeo and Juliet, 8 years and 12 Bacchanals shows ago!) with technical/frock/stage managerial support from William O’Neil, Uther Dean, Charlotte Simmonds and the much-loved Salesi Le’ota, and the thing is directed by David Lawrence (why won’t he just die? soon. soooo-ooon!).  Expect to see Boxie, Red Banner, the Hedda Gabler Table, Those Same Old Chairs and all your old friends.  If 2011 was the year of suits and ties, this year it’s all gonna be about camouflage pants and switchable military hats! (yes indeed, Coriolanus is still holding firm as leading contender for this year’s Shakespeare, now that we’ve confirmed the Ralph Fiennes film hasn’t used up all our good ideas!)  Other People’s Wars opens on Tuesday.  Don’t miss it – you need to know the truth about this stuff, people!

Next time: more stuff about Other People’s Wars, no doubt!

That’s right, folks – the reason it’s been quiet from the bunker lately is that we’ve been frantically rehearsing a new show!

And here are the first exciting preview images from it!  Yes, that is indeed a NZ SAS trooper terrorising an Afghani …

The Bacchanals present Other People’s Wars, adapted by Dean Parker from the book by Nicky Hager.  Opening at BATS on Tuesday 17 April!  More soon! x

That’s right, a breakaway Bacchanals contingent performs a play this week at BATS!

I know I know, it’s been a long month since there was any sort of update from us here at Bacchanals HQ.  The truth is, we’re still massively under siege.  Caius Martius Coriolanus (stress on THIRD syllable, remember – ko-ree-OH-li-niss!) has camped his army outside and refuses to budge.  Whenever any of the remaining competitors attempt to enter the ring, he gives them such threatening looks that poor old Pericles and Cymbeline dare not venture forth!  And none of the competitors who’ve already been through want to risk their lives facing Coriolanus and his army.  Is there any end in sight to this siege?  And all the while new kings proclaim themselves every day and we’re getting ravens from the Wall saying help us keep out the wildlings and so on and so on … it’s all too much to take!

However, a small group of Bacchanals and Bacchanals-affiliates have managed to sneak out through a sewer and THIS VERY WEEK they’ll be performing a play at BATS, and you should come come come and see it, because it’ll be great!  Or maybe it’ll be weird!  Or maybe it’ll be awful?!  You never know!  Word through the grapevine is that folk are expecting it to be a “beautiful mess” and that sounds like something worth seeing!

You Be The Angel I Be The Ghost is a new play by Paul Rothwell, writer of Hate Crimes, Golden Boys, Deliver Us, Kissing Bone, Christmas Indoors, The Blackening, No Taste Forever!, Fun/Shy and much much more!  What’s it about, you ask?  “Post-modernism versus modernism!  Existentialism!  Jungian psychology!  The artist’s process!  The impact of identity on relationships!  Everything that’s topically important in 2012, except for current events.  And wars and global affairs.”  (Yes, that’s not actually what it’s about.  That’s what a character in the play says when a character in the play asks him what the play is about.  It’s called metatheatricality, meatbags!)  Look, it has a dancing ghost and an angel with an assault rifle – do you really need more than that?  It stars Alex Greig (Chapman Tripp Supporting Actor of the Year, 2005!), Morgan Rothwell (is he really just Paul Rothwell, or a different person who looks and sounds just like him?) and Elle Wootton (is it true she can drink six cans of Coke in a row and not wet herself?  See the show and find out!) and is directed by David Lawrence (does he never sleep? besides in a coffin, I mean?).  We’d love to tell you there are a whole bunch of other people doing lighting and sound and costume and set design stuff, but in reality NO! it’s just all of us!  Here’s a picture by our pal Benny Vandergast:

It runs THIS WEEK at BATS Theatre – from Wednesday 8 February to Sunday 12 February (Alex’s 31st birthday – you could come that night and bring him a cake!) at 8pm.  You can book by calling (04) 802-4175 or e-mailing  We’d love to see you there!  It might be a bit weird, but it could also be very special and worthwhile!

UPDATE ON MONDAY NIGHT!  Alex requested that we remove the bit about it being his birthday on Sunday – an actor in his position is prone to attract many stalkers and well-wishers, and of course we want to respect Alex’s privacy.  But we were shocked to discover at today’s rehearsal that it’s actually Morgan’s birthday as well – what are the chances in a cast of three of two of them being born on the same day?!  So rather than retract our potentially stalker-attracting invite, let us say again: come on down on Sunday night when it’s Alex AND Morgan’s birthdays!  You bring the cake, we supply the birthday boys!

And don’t forget that coming up at the end of the month is The No Nonsense Parenting Show written by and starring Jonny Potts – more about that in a bit.  You should go and see the 2012 Summer Shakespeare production of Twelfth Night too, because it’ll be good fun.  And Dean Parker’s adaptation of Nicky Hager’s book Other People’s Wars is on the way – April 17 equals opening night, so long as Coriolanus lets us out to rehearse (I think he’s trying to starve us out, but we have bags galore of gluten free pasta and dentist-approved toothpaste!).  Keep watching the skis!

Next time: The No Nonsense Parenting Show!  Other People’s Wars!  The Clouds!  And much much more!

That’s right – in a Games of Thrones-calibre twist, the battle to be the 2012 touring Shakespeare suddenly admits a previously unknown competitor!

I’ve never seen anything like it.  There we were, just about to watch Pericles compete with Cymbeline, both late-pastoral-romances quietly organising their chivalric armour and assembling their fairy tale plot elements, ready to do battle, and suddenly a wall exploded, debris flew everywhere, and a blood-drenched challenger calling himself Caius Martius, corpses at his feet and weeping widows at his back, marched into the ring and demanded a place in the contest.  Pericles and Cymbeline ran for cover, and when the other plays stepped forward to tell him the shortlist was compiled a month ago and he wasn’t on it, he killed Troilus and Cressida there and then, and danced on their grave!

We’re still in shock.  Coriolanus, that play no one knows how to pronounce (the metre varies but it should be ko-ree-OH-li-niss ninety percent of the time, even if you’ve always thought it was ko-ree-oh-LAY-niss) and that we all just figured was even more boring than King John, turns out to be really exciting and interesting.  I haven’t read it since the late-’90s and the only production I’d seen of it was hardly one to cherish – my memory was of lots of ranting and political instability.  But as the only play left in the canon which I haven’t re-read in the past year-or-so (aside from Henry VIII, which I have never read in the hope that I can have one true experience of seeing a Shakespeare play in the theatre without knowing what’s going to happen), I figured I’d just read the first scene to see if it’s as boring as I remembered … and what a great time I had.

Coriolanus hails from the same era as Antony and Cleopatra and Timon of Athens as a somewhere-around-1605-1609 play.  The Plutarch heritage and the huge Roman content never allowed me to consider it as a development of the ideas in King Lear and Timon, but if I can claim on this ’blog that Measure For Measure, All’s Well That Ends Well and Troilus and Cressida are different versions of the same play, then I think the same applies here: Coriolanus deals with what is usually my absolute favourite sort of story, best typified in Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, Durrenmatt’s The Visit and the Gus van Sant film Dogville – what happens when the most popular guy/girl in town suddenly becomes the most hated guy/girl in town? what happens when you’re so blinded by flattery that you can’t see what people really think of you? what happens to a city/town when its residents embrace mob mentality?

He’s not a nice guy.  He’s arrogant and proud and at the start of the play the angry mob go from hating him to loving him when he is re-surnamed Coriolanus after his impossible one-man-against-thousands victory at Corioles, where he defeats Tullus Aufidius and the Volscians for the umpteenth time.  He doesn’t want to be made consul but gives in to the peoples’ demands and stands for election … but scheming tribunes make the crowd believe Coriolanus is mocking them, so they change their minds and, rather than beg for the title he never wanted, he tells them they don’t deserve all the victories he has won for them.  When they try to banish him, he retorts, “No, I’m banishing you!” and turns his back on Rome, joining with Aufidius and the Volscians, who are about to launch yet another attack under the logic that “the fittest time to corrupt a man’s wife is when she’s fallen out with her husband” (!).  Aufidius welcomes his greatest foe as a brother, and in an echo of Timon’s contempt and hatred for his former city, Coriolanus refuses to hear any entreaties for peace from his former allies and friends in Rome (the scene where he dismisses Menenius, the nearest thing he has to a father, with a cold simple “Away” that would make Prince Hal look like Elmo, is fantastic).  But Aufidius is easily jealous at how much regard the rest of the Volsces suddenly accord Coriolanus, and his hatred is further fuelled when, on the verge of war, Coriolanus’ resolve and hardness is completely broken by the chastisement of his mother and he weeps and seeks peace between both armies.  While Coriolanus’ wife and mother and all the people of Rome await his homecoming as the great unifier of the Romans and the Volsces, Aufidius and his conspirators murder Coriolanus.

It’s unrelenting, epic, dense and bloody and Coriolanus makes even the proudest characters in the rest of the canon look humble.  How it would fare as a small-scale touring show remains to be seen, but there’s ample scope for all sorts of cunning political analogy and you’d have to find a way of making it intimate and naturalist, because Spartacus-esque battle scene after battle scene wouldn’t be interesting.  And its crowd scenes are much more tricky and sophisticated than Julius Caesar’s – it’s not a play that I think would be necessarily fun for actors or audience, but would be of immense value nonetheless.

But what an unexpected game-changer!  We’re currently all hiding in the corner while he stands in the ring, covered in blood and refusing to budge.  As I said, he’s killed Troilus and Cressida, AND he says he’ll do the same to Timon of Athens and Antony and Cleopatra if they’ll dare to face him!!  What could possibly happen next?!

Next time: will Pericles get to face Cymbeline?  Will Coriolanus break the Timon of Athens-Antony and Cleopatra deadlock? 

That’s right, it’s Round Three in the battle to be our touring Shakespeare of 2012, and today it’s Romans & Egyptians versus Greeks!

Everyone loves a sequel, which is why some of the current Bacchanals are huge proponents of Antony and Cleopatra, with the motion tabled that Jonny and Salesi play the mature version of star-crossed lovers.  It goes without saying that under this logic, Andrew reprises his Octavius Caesar, and Elle would be back as Lepidus.  You can’t quite see it reading it the way everyone could see 2 Henry VI clearly – after all, while those early Histories were probably written for the same company of actors (and therefore had continuity of character), I don’t think the same is true of the relationship between Julius Caesar (1599) and Antony and Cleopatra (around 1605).  We do know, in the same metatheatrical referencing that tells us Brutus and Caesar went on to play Hamlet and Polonius, that the same actors who played Antony and Octavius in Antony and Cleopatra went on to play Macbeth and Banquo.

I’ve always found Antony and Cleopatra, with its numerous choppy scenes, quite a weird play and my only experience of it onstage was seeing Mark Rylance play Cleopatra at the reconstructed Globe in 1999.  You know how immediate and engaging the Baz Luhrmann or Franco Zeffarelli films of Romeo and Juliet seemed when they came out?  I think it’s to do with the vitality and energy of the central couples in both films.  By contrast, the central relationship in the George Cukor film of the 1930s is laughable – not because of the age of the film but because of the age of the actors.  Who cares about the plighted love of Norma Shearer (in her 30s) and Leslie Howard (in his 40s)?  I think that’s where my unease with Antony and Cleopatra has always come from: can an audience really invest in and engage emotionally with two middle-aged lovers behaving like impetuous teenagers?  Of course, now that I’m nearer Antony in age than Romeo I have a much better understanding of what compels us to abandon notions of adulthood and keep trying to recreate or hold onto the passions of youth.  The plot: Antony and Cleopatra have a devastating row then a passionate reconciliation, Antony and Cleopatra have another devastating row and then another passionate reconciliation, Antony and Cleopatra have another devastating row and then another passionate reconciliation, Antony and Cleopatra have yet another devastating row, she sends him word she’s dead (that’ll teach him!) so he commits suicide but botches it, so they have an awkward partially-comedic scene together as he slowly bleeds to death, and then she commits suicide rather than be subjugated by Octavius Caesar.

Timon of Athens has long been one of my favourites and I like how the Arden Shakespeare website cites Coleridge calling it the stillborn twin of King LearTimon of Athens hails from the same era as Antony and Cleopatra and most recent editions have put it firmly in this fashionable new Shakespeare-Middleton-collaboration-or-revision category.  I’ve always believed it’s the closest Shakespeare got to writing a play about his father: like John Shakespeare, Timon goes from being the most popular guy in town to being afraid to leave his house for fear of being arrested for debt.  Essentially, Timon keeps throwing lavish parties and being beneficent and giving to everyone he knows in the belief that as he has been generous to those in need, they’ll repay the favour when the tables are turned.  And of course, when he goes bankrupt all his supposed friends can’t or won’t help him out financially.  But the moment he announces another lavish party, they all turn up to eat and drink on him.  He denounces everyone (throwing at them the dishes full of warm water and stones he has served up – think about it!!), runs off into the wilderness, and lives in a cave for the rest of the play while Athens wars with Alcibiades.  People come to visit him in the cave because he’s found a buried pirate’s fortune, but he tells them all to get bent and dies in misery, hating mankind.  Good fun.  Timon introduces a few motifs we’ll see again and again in the later plays – Timon’s steward is the prototype for Kent in Lear, plus Camillo (The Winter’s Tale), Helicanus (Pericles), Pisanio (Cymbeline) – while also carrying on some of the ones we’re already used to – the cynical ranting Apemantus has his origins in Lucio (Measure For Measure), Parolles (All’s Well That Ends Well), Thersites (Troilus and Cressida) but has a lot in common too with the Fool (King Lear)  as being the only person speaking sense but the only person never taken seriously.  Timon is a much more internal, insular play than Lear – after all, the main character is just a guy rather than a king – but I think Timon, in being ordinary rather than royal, is a much greater Everyman than Lear and it’s always baffled me how seldom this play is performed given it’s one of the few that will never be not-relevant – it’s up there with Othello in its immediacy of subject matter and examination of the most basic human condition.

Could these be the two most evenly-matched plays of the competition so far?

Genre: both tragedies, so evenly matched.

Poetry: Enobarbus has some good bits in Antony and Cleopatra but nothing your random person on the street could cite if asked.  Evenly matched.

Obscurity: Antony and Cleopatra gets done occasionally in NZ – there hasn’t been one in Wellington for a long long time though – while Timon of Athens has never had a proper professional production (I remember once being told about a student version in Palmerston North but that seems unlikely!).  But at least people might have heard of Antony and Cleopatra.  Ten points to Antony and Cleopatra!

Length: Antony and Cleopatra is one of the longest plays in the canon and was three-and-a-half hours the one time I saw it staged; Timon of Athens is one of the shortest plays in the canon.  Ten points to Timon! (although it must be noted that we’re not averse to cutting)

Ensemble: Antony and Cleopatra has two title characters and clear sets of people on both the Egyptian and Roman sides of the play; Timon of Athens centres around one title character with everyone else working in relation to that character, so it’s a case of clear ensemble play versus star vehicle.  Ten points to Antony and Cleopatra!

Location: Antony and Cleopatra jumps between Rome and Egypt, land and sea, all over the place at such breathtaking speed that it’s very hard to know where we are or whose side is whose from moment to moment.  Timon of Athens is a nice clear citysetting for Acts I-III, forest setting for Acts IV and V.  Ten points to Timon!

Women’s roles: Antony and Cleopatra has, of course, the Queen of Egypt, but also her attendants Charmian and Iras who have substantial roles, and Caesar’s sister Octavia who becomes Antony’s wife partway through the play.  Timon of Athens, on the other hand, has a couple of nameless whores who dance at a party and then later visit him in his cave.  Ten points to Antony and Cleopatra! (although it must be noted that many of the characters, even Timon, could easily be played by/as women)

Other notable characters: Antony and Cleopatra has the famous Enobarbus, a follower of Antony’s who loses faith in his general and runs off back to Rome and is then wracked with shame and guilt when Antony sends all of his riches and fortunes back after him; Antony also has a lot of posturing potential in Octavius Caesar and Pompey.  Timon of Athens has the vitriolic Apemantus who I’m afraid eats Enobarbus for breakfast and then wears his skeleton as a suit; it also has Alcibiades who postures as well as Caesar or Pompey; Timon’s Steward is a beautifully empathetic character and while a lot of the other characters in Timon don’t have a fleshed out backstory, they all have a massively clear thematic and moral function and are the canvas for some great acting.  Ten points to Timon!

Critical favour: I have it on record that Antony and Cleopatra is the favourite Shakespeare play of at least one Wellington theatre reviewer, whereas no one has ever asked when o when will The Bacchanals please perform Timon of Athens before.  So we’d be hopefully guaranteed one favourable review on purely personal-preference if we went for the former over the latter.  Ten points to Antony and Cleopatra!

Immediacy of subject matter & relevance to Wellington in the here and now: oh come on.  Terry Serepisos loses all his money and property, then ends up living on Courtenay Place wearing a blanket?  Ten points to Timon!!!

THE VERDICT: we don’t need the various bits of categorisation to continue for you to see where this is going, do we?  In a shocking twist to the competition, David is declaring A TIE!  Antony and Cleopatra and Timon of Athens are polarised in many cases, but in a weighing of pros and cons it’s impossible to determine which play is the winner since they both have as much going for them as they have against them.  And looking at our other two current semi-finalists: I think All’s Well That Ends Well could hold its own against either of these two, but Troilus and Cressida gets its arse kicked by Timon and Apemantus while Antony and Cleopatra shag using its corpse as a pillow (there’s a Shakespearean image for you, or at least something that’ll increase our search engine traffic!).  BOTH PLAYS go through to the next round!

Next time: two supposedly similarly-matched late Romances exchange blows.  But when you think carefully about it, does Cymbeline really stand any chance against Pericles, one of the canon’s least-suspected but most enduring plays?  Watch and see, if you dare!!

The battle continues as two more plays go head to head.  Can the medieval English defeat the classical Greeks and Troyans to be contenders for next year’s touring show?

Edward III has only been seriously included in the ‘legitimate’ Shakespeare canon for little more than a decade even though, depending on your stance on authorship theory, it has as much right to be there as 1 Henry VI, Pericles or even Macbeth.  I was very excited, as a champion of the lesser-known plays and fan of the Histories, by the New Cambridge edition of the late 1990s but haven’t really ever returned to the play in detail.  Having much more stylistic knowledge now than I did then makes revisiting Edward III an interesting experience – as with 1 Henry VI in 2009 and re-reading The Two Boring—sorry, Noble—Kinsmen and Sir Thomas More this year, I found myself pretty certain I knew which bits were Shakespeare’s contributions.  The New Cambridge says Edward III can’t be any later in composition than 1592-3 which fits with similar theories of 1 Henry VI as a jointly-authored-by-several-guys-project in terms of where Shakespeare’s early career was at.  The presence of the historic Edward looms large through the other Histories – in my 2009 Summer Shakespeare production of Henry V we had a special Edward III ‘salute’ which everyone onstage performed every time his name was mentioned (and it carried over to our production of 1 Henry VI later that year).

As well as the stylistic similarities, Edward III is closest for me to 1 Henry VI in its random episodic nature and that most of its episodes are based on historic events that, while recent and immediate and important to its original audience, haven’t necessarily gone down in the annals as being things that are common knowledge today.  At the start of the play, Edward listens to justification of a claim to France on his mother’s side just at the point that he can’t be bothered paying France the tributes they demand of him, so invades France while also dealing with a Scottish invasion at home.  Much of the first two acts deal with Edward’s sudden falling in love with the Countess of Salisbury and his battles with his conscience as she both bewitches him and resists his advances.  At the end of a lengthy scene akin to Richard wooing Anne in Richard III, the Countess offers Edward two daggers, says, “I’ll give in to you so long as you go and stab your wife with this knife, while I stab my husband with the other,” Edward suddenly realises the extent to which he has swayed from morality and repents.  The rest of the play features battle after battle as French territory is captured, lost and re-captured; the emotional climax sees Edward receive and process the news that his son Prince Edward has been killed, only to have Prince Edward then arrive victorious, having subdued the French in the face of impossible odds.

Pros: there’s NEVER been a production of it in New Zealand so we’d have a nice publicity angle; the verse is simple and direct and there are some great passages; the Act Two scenes between Edward and the Countess are really strong and compelling; like many of the other Histories the play defies genre constantly.  Also, doing Edward III would be the excuse to do a LOT of fun research and investigation – any play based on real events is always rewarding in that sense.

Cons: there’s a lot of talking and posturing; most of the events and incidents in the play are not particularly relevant or interesting to a modern audience (the battles of Bosworth Field or Agincourt, for example, turned out to be game-changing historic events audiences today have heard of; almost nothing in Edward III is going to jog the memory unless you’ve actually been to Calais); a play this obscure could be a really hard sell.

Troilus and Cressida, like Measure For Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well, hails from the early 17th century when Shakespeare’s creative output was huge but stifled by an 18-month theatre closure.  It’s a much simpler play than it looks: Cressida keeps resisting the advances of Troilus, telling him (and her uncle Pandarus, who keeps soliciting on Troilus’ behalf) she’s not interested but then confessing to us in soliloquy that she does really like him but a) men ditch you once they’ve had you and b) we’re in the middle of an epic war; I could be sold to the Greeks tomorrow!  Finally in Act Three she concedes but no sooner have they left the stage to consummate the relationship than sure enough, Cressida is sold to the Greeks as ransom for the return of a Troyan prisoner.  Selfish impetuous Troilus makes her swear an unfair oath of eternal faithfulness which she is forced to break because she has to take up with Diomedes for protection from the dozens of other Grecian generals who are all over her, pawing and kissing her, from the moment she arrives in the Greek camp.  In a scene reminiscent of Othello IV.ii, Troilus spies on her, mishearing and misinterpreting everything she says to Diomedes as evidence of her falseness.

What complicates Troilus and Cressida is that 1. the relationship of the title characters is only a tiny portion of what’s one of the longest plays in the canon and 2. that what in all other versions of the story is the socio-political background, i.e. the siege of Troy by the Greeks, takes up the bulk of the play.  Even when he’s presenting both sides fairly, Shakespeare still usually chooses a side – i.e. in Henry V the French are not portrayed as out and out villains, nor are the English thoroughly sympathetic, but it’s clear amidst moral ambiguity that Henry is the play’s hero and the English the play’s victors – but part of the problem with Troilus and Cressida is that both sides are equally right, equally wrong, equally stubborn and equally entitled.  (This was part of what made 2003’s Toi Whakaari production, set during the Maori land wars with the Greeks as colonising English, so dissatisfying to me – it applied a clear right versus wrong approach in terms of oppressed minority versus conquering colonists to a play that’s meant to be morally ambiguous; I really hope the upcoming International Arts Festival version of the play is going to steer clear of such simplification.)  For me the first few scenes of Troilus and Cressida are really straightforward and exciting and direct, but as soon as we get to the first scene in the Grecian camp and what we think is going to be the subplot ends up hijacking the lion’s share of the play, it gets convoluted for me and confusing.

Pros: every single character is distinct and exciting.  Cressida for me is not the unfaithful harlot Troilus accuses her of being, but up there with Isabella and Helena as an unfairly wronged heroine.  Troilus is the first in a series of heroes who are both identification points for the audience but also irredeemably misogynistic; Ulysses has some of the finest passages in Shakespeare; Thersites has some of the finest bile and vitriol in the whole of Shakespeare; there’s great comedy in Pandarus, and it struck me this time around that all the Ajax Hector Achilles Patroclus etc. stuff is potentially very funny also; and in the same sort of genre defying as the Histories, it’s balanced with the prophecies of Cassandra, the very reasoned arguments for not returning Helen to the Greeks, and the rawness and fury of Troilus’ response in the final scene to the savagery of the Greeks’ treatment of Hector and then his rejection of Pandarus.

Cons: it’s really long; there’s already a production of it (albeit in Te Reo) scheduled to hit Wellington early next year and while there might be merit in seeing the ‘proper’ play rendered in English as a balance there are also huge pitfalls; the play’s cynicism and bleak conclusion aren’t necessarily what you’d want to send an audience out into a winter night with afterwards.

THE VERDICT: both plays are equally problematic but for different reasons.  However if it’s a battle for the greater good, then Edward III is not bringing a lot to the fight.  One really strong sequence of scenes involving Edward III and the Countess of Salisbury aren’t enough to defeat the military might of the combined Greek and Troyan forces, however weird and uneven and cynical some bits of Troilus and Cressida are.  But which is the greater risk: a play no one’s seen or heard of, versus a play there’ll have already been one version of in Wellington in 2012 already?  In all likeliness neither play probably has the hardware or weaponry to defeat many of the others in the game, but if it were me in the ring about to bitch-fight Much Ado About Nothing or The Merchant of Venice, I’d want to think I at least stood a chance of scoring a couple of points, or failing that to know I was being pulverised by a brother than some illegitimate half-sibling conceived in an alley while drunk.  The winner?  Sorry folks, it has to be Troilus and Cressida!

Next time: Round three – can the company’s favoured shortlist play (Antony and Cleopatra) beat out the company’s director’s favoured shortlist play (Timon of Athens)?  A Roman cheating on his wife with an Egyptian goes ten rounds with the canon’s greatest misanthrope as the battle continues.  See you there!

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