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Shakespeare's Mothers: Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know
Published on Tuesday, 17 August 2010

3.5 stars

C central (venue website)
5-21 Aug (not 16), 1:15pm (2:05pm)
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

Why do so many of Shakespeare’s plays feature strong, even hard-hearted, mothers?  It’s an interesting question, explored in an equally interesting production from this small but highly professional cast.  Presenting a conveyor-belt of theatrical vignettes, all taken more-or-less unadulterated from the Bard’s original plays, Shakespeare himself provides the commentary for a run through his mothers’ lives and worlds.

The scenes he presents are well-chosen.  The first figures to appear will be known to all – Lady Macbeth kicks things off, despite a rather tenuous claim to fit the motherhood theme – but later, “Shakespeare” begins to explore the lesser-known regions of the Folio, with the likes of Pericles and Cymbeline to the fore.  The programme lists 11 plays and no fewer than 37 characters (including the male roles, which Shakespeare himself steps up to play) – a fact which surprised me, since the pace feels well-measured and unhurried throughout.

All the mothers are played by just two women, taking their turn to join the ever-present author on stage.  The technical skill is truly admirable: it can’t be easy to step off into a tiny back-stage, change your costume in a moment (each character’s individual costume is beautifully matched to their role), then step back into the light and convince the audience that you’re someone new.  Convinced I was, though; all three of the cast are clearly classically trained, and this show was a timely reminder of just what professional actors and actresses can do.

The trouble is, though, I wasn’t persuaded the show really knew what it was aiming to achieve.  In part it’s an educated study, albeit a highly approachable one, but the analysis isn’t deep enough to offer any real insights; for the most part, Shakespeare just comments on his characters’ more obvious motivations, and notes (repeatedly) that their roles helped drive his plots along.  Nor does it really stand up as a comedy, despite a few witty moments where the Bard finds himself on the receiving end of the strength of character his own quill has penned.

There’s a hint of missed opportunity, too, around the clever conceit which starts the play: Shakespeare’s been summoned onto a present-day arts chat show, to defend himself against a claim that his writings are behind a spate of violence by women.  But the rest of the 50 minutes is a lecture delivered by Shakespeare – the chat-show’s not revisited until the very end, and the man from Stratford certainly brooks no debate.

It’s better, I think, to give this show a simpler spin: it’s a quick-fire introduction to a well-chosen range of Shakespeare plays, mixing the familiar with the more obscure and linked by the interesting theme of all-consuming motherhood.  As that, it unquestionably succeeds.  And it’s a credit to strength of acting – and the choice of scenes – that I, not the world’s most committed Shakespeare fan, left the theatre hoping I’d soon see these powerful women in their unabridged form.

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These are archived reviews of shows from the Edinburgh Fringe 2010.  We keep our archives online as a courtesy to those we've featured, and for readers who'd like to research previous years' reviews.

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