In just over a decade at London’s Globe Theatre Dominic Dromgoole has rediscovered the potential of Big Will to make modern groundlings laugh — and not just in the knowing way of seasoned quip and pun spotters. Dromgoole has shone his director’s light onto the tricksters, gulls and incidental characters with gusto. Some would cavil that he has tended towards Shakespeare-Lite. But Dromgoole has a record to celebrate for a non-subsidy-funded theatre, with a Hamlet-to-go casting that has often beaten the RSC for ingenuity. He’s given us the Eve Best as a snarky, sarky, sexy Beatrice and Cleopatra, plus Roger Allam’s bittersweet Falstaff, and he has lured Tim McMullan from the National to steal the show as Jacques in As You Like It.
His farewell piece is The Tempest in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse with McMullan promoted to a leading role as Prospero. Dromgoole makes the most of the small theatre’s intimate theatricality and bold suspension of disbelief. Drums are pounded on stage to summon up the storm and the tempest is more Captain Pugwash than technical wizardry. Tricks are played along the way: Ariel is straight out of early Lou Reed — “Shaved her legs and then he was a she” — played with devilish ethereality by Pippa Nixon. The wires on which the capricious sprites ascend and descend are unhidden.
This sense of theatre in the making sets a more relaxed tone to the play than is conventional. The tone of The Tempest always depends on the interpretation of Prospero. Ralph Fiennes set a contemporary template with a sternly patriarchal, chilly interpretation, in which the sorcery was incidental to the desire to dominate. McMullan celebrates the role in a more human dimension: a fatherly anxiety underpins his obsessive wish to control the burgeoning maturity of Miranda (Phoebe Pryce), contrasting with outright harshness in the treatment of poor Caliban (Fisayo Akinade). Dominic Rowan is a perpetually befuddled Trimalchio and perfect showcase for Dromgoole’s talent for the bawdy. It would not be a fitting farewell if we did not get his trademarks share of burps, farts and slapstick alongside the poignancy of the play’s meditation on the transience of all things, real or magical.
All in all, it feels like a darker cousin to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Dromgoole’s shoes at the Globe and Wanamaker will soon be filled by Emma Rice, who intends to assign more traditionally male parts to women. It is a move that has brought feminist cheers, but that is the easy part. Getting the mix right in practice will be tough. Dromgoole understood that the spirit of the Globe requires gut instinct to bring to life and in The Tempest he brings dreams to life with aplomb. Can Rice pull that off one day with a female Prospero? I’ll let you know.
The chance to watch theatre in cinemas has extended the reach of the London stage to our alarmingly culture-starved regions, but some material is more suited to the transition than others. Martin McDonagh, whose Hangmen was broadcast via National Theatre Live throughout March, fits the bill as an accomplished screenwriter as well as the playwright who brought home the ghastly sentimentality of terrorism in his IRA satire The Lieutenant of Inishmore and portrayal of some of the most luckless hitmen in Europe in the noir caper In Bruges. His staccato dialogue and trompe-l’oeil shifts of perspective work a treat on screen.
This production also has the good fortune of David Morrissey, an experienced TV actor, in the lead as Harry, a gloomy former hangman and Oldham’s least welcoming pub landlord, who has long resented his status as “second best” executioner to the tabloid favourite living ghoul, Albert Pierrepoint. Harry finds himself back in the spotlight when the Mirror comes to interview him after the death penalty is outlawed in 1963. Hangmen wowed the critics as McDonagh’s return to the theatre after a decade. In truth, it is not his most compelling work, despite his bang-on ear for the absurdities of ordinary speech. An elaborate plot, in which a dandy possible serial killer (Johnny Flynn) stalks Harry’s gullible daughter armed with crazed existentialism, sexual nastiness and the collusion of Harry’s guilt-ridden assistant, proves chilling, but inconclusive.
What McDonagh understands, however, is the mythical lure of the surgical death “professional” and the coarsening consequences of glorifying that. The subtlety lies in the fact that apart from a blood-curdling opening scene of a botched execution and an alternatively hilarious and awful makeshift one in the pub, we are not lectured about capital punishment. Instead, we eavesdrop on the grimy mores of the mid-Sixties outside swinging urban centres — the bleak milieu of the trapdoor and noose.
After Carole King, Mamma Mia!, The Commitments and Memphis, you might wonder what pop-music genre remains for desperate musical impresarios to plunder. I heard it on the grapevine that the Shaftesbury had got round to the eponymous Motown so ventured forth in spangly top and big hair to revisit the life-story of the soul-stroking sound. Charles Randolph-Wright’s production is a bold and bright affair, with slick and pacy choreography and a hard-working young cast.
The stand-out star is the South African actor Sifiso Mazibuko, who bawls, rages and sings his lungs out as Marvin Gaye, and Jordan Shaw (excellent in The Scottsboro Boys) channels the energy and optimism of Stevie Wonder. You would not wish to stand in the way of the imperious Diana Ross (Lucy St Louis) — or Dee-anna-Raws as we should say in Motown-ese.
As for the story of the record label, two hours of this spectacle leave us none the wiser. The show is based on the memoirs of Berry Gordy (Cedric Neal). Either these were the lamest recollections in pop history or Gordy chose to omit the bits we most want to hear about — the shoulder-rubbing of convicts and music magnates, the controversial move from its Detroit roots to LA, and sweeping social change on race.
It’s so sketchily drawn here that we wait impatiently for the next foot-stomping hit. Yes, it’s the same old song with the West End tribute shows. Gordy’s first hit was “Money (That’s What I Want)”. This show has the kerching! factor and unforgettable tunes, just not enough soul-searching along the way.