London’s streets were deserted last week.  Everyone seemed to be home, struggling to cope with the coldest spell we’ve had in years.  But theatregoers were still out and about, scuttling as quickly as frozen pavements would allow.  I could barely speak on the way back from the Bridge Theatre after a production of Julius Caesar but that was more from shivering than lack of things to say.

First, a confession:  I know this play well, having studied it at school.  In fact, I think I could have understudied most of the parts.  But this was a Julius Caesar with a difference.  It was performed at a cracking pace, coming in at a whisker over two hours.  Michael Grandage is well-known for insisting that a play – particularly Shakespeare – can’t hang around, but this would have left even him breathless.  Lack of an interval helped, but even so …

It worked, with one exception.  The famous Friends, Romans, countrymen … speech could have done with Mark Antony feeling his way a little more; there was a slight sense that he was working against the clock and taking the crowd’s reactions for granted as a result. He should be trying to win them over.  After the Donmar’s all-female cast, it felt more authentic to have women in some of the roles, notably Michelle Fairley as Cassius and a perfectly opinionated Casca.  Top marks go to Ben Whishaw for diverting from the usual cadences of his script to provide a thoughtful, flawed and natural Brutus and David Calder for creating the first credible Julius Caesar that I’ve seen.

If Julius Caesar was a scamper, Fanny and Alexander at the Old Vic needed some serious paring.  I saw it at second preview so it might have had its much-needed trim by now.  The first act could have done with at least 15 minutes off it and I’d prescribe half-an-hour off the whole production.  Even then, it would come in at well over three hours.

It needs it because it’s flabby in places, but also to counteract some very unpalatable violence.  I shan’t say any more, but it’s a lesson in checking what you’re going to see before you’re in the middle of a row in the middle of the stalls.  One of our group left after the second act.  It’s challenging viewing.

So, two very different productions showing the breadth of theatre in London.  The Bridge Theatre is a new venue and I’m sufficiently impressed with what I’ve seen to want to go back.  Check it out.

A 21st Century Shakespeare?


I saw Man and Superman at the National Theatre this week. A beautiful and highly entertaining production and I’d recommend it. But that’s not what this entry’s about.

Plays by George Bernard Shaw aren’t a constant feature of the London stage, but Shaw’s works are part of the recognisable canon of plays plucked for revival. And that led to pondering which more recent playwrights would belong to that august group in, say, 50 years. To give some parameters (and to make the exercise a bit easier), I limited the potential field to those writing in English and here’s what I came up with.

First to make the cut were Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard. Both have a distinguished body or work and their plays are already the subject of revivals.

I then hopped across the pond and picked out David Mamet and Edward Albee, before hopping back in time to recognise the claims of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams.

And that’s when it became more difficult. Who is writing the volume of work of a type that will still be produced in 50 years? David Hare? Possibly, too of-its-time political. Alan Bennett and Michael Frayn, I decided, were more likely. Alan Ayckbourn? Possibly too English of a time people won’t identify with (although that hasn’t stopped Noel Coward’s plays from continued success). Jez Butterworth? Ask me in 10 or 15 years and the jury’s also out on Martin McDonagh and Conor McPherson. I’ve never met a John Logan play I didn’t like, but is that too personal a view and will there be a sufficient body of work?

As I tied myself in knots, I realised that I’d never been so in awe of William Shakespeare. It’s rare to find none of his plays on the London stage, and that’s 400 years after he was writing. The quality of those plays is uneven, but they deal with the big topics – love, revenge, power, family relationships – whilst also drawing on political topics and playing with mistaken identity, secrets and misunderstandings. They say profound things about our lives, even today, but they are also entertaining.

So, where is the 21st-century Shakespeare?

Comments and suggestions for the list would be appreciated.