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Joining two smaller pieces together as a ‘Double Bill’ (‘Bill’ being a play on the Bard’s name) is often a much trickier task than it might appear. It is inevitable that audience members will expect the pieces to be linked closely enough that they warrant being referred to as one piece of Theatre, whilst being different enough so that the audience don’t feel like they’ve been duped into watching pretty much the same thing twice over. There is certainly no fear in the latter occurring here.

The Arts Theatre, the least-fringey Fringe venue in town, has been on something of a run lately, so it is nice to see that there is still a place for small pieces such as the two being presented as a ‘double header’ currently. Staged this summer at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, these two productions are based on the works of Shakespeare; one specifically on King Lear and the other on pretty much every play in the great Bard’s canon. Whilst sharing a common source material, these two productions could not be more different.

Performed by a cast of 3, one of whom is male, Shakespeare’s Queens can be loosely called a whistle stop tour of every female monarch in Shakespeare’s Folio ‘from the She-Wolf of France to the Serpent of the Nile’. Starting out in a very ‘Fringey’ type way, including the audience in a fourth-wall breaking acknowledgement of the viewers and the current year, we see Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots and William Shakespeare discuss and quip about the Queens’ difficult relationship and the Bard’s female characters. Kath Perry, playing Elizabeth and many others, is the type of performer you could watch every day. The smallest look or movement, intonation of the voice or flick of the wrist tells a myriad of stories. She switches from character to character seamlessly; one minute a curmudgeonly northern maid to Anne Boleyn, and the next throwing herself about the stage in a sex-fuelled frenzy. Wholly believable in every role, even as the stoic yet witheringly witty Tudor Queen, she is a captivating presence. Rachel Ferris is faultless when it comes to portraying Shakespeare’s female monarchs, and a wonderfully grotesque Puck, however playing second fiddle to an icon like her queenly cousin means that Mary becomes the comic relief. Unfortunately the majority of the comedy falls flat, and Ferris is overshadowed by her incredible fellow female player. For Shakespeare to take a backseat in a play about Shakespeare is an odd thing, but this is the ladies’ show. That is not to belittle the talent of Patrick Trumper, who admirably plays all the men involved.

Sadly, The Madness of King Lear is so abstract, over-the-top, disjointed and frankly just plain weird that it sits uncomfortably next to the previous piece. With only Lear, played well by Leofric Kingston-Smith, and his Fool to tell the tale, great swaths of this classic have been lost and odd dramatic devices have been used to include the ageing King’s three daughters. Like a strange 80s-inspired trip, the piece awkwardly attempts to use music to bolster the atmosphere, but often feels clumsy and inappropriate. Lucas R Tsolakian’s commitment to the role of Fool is impressive, but seems a cross between Caliban and Ariel of The Tempest infused with outlandish clowning, which is so conflicting with Kingston-Smith’s Lear that it is as if the actors are in different productions.

Whilst sometimes feeling like it could be a show touring schools to teach children about Shakespeare’s work, Shakespeare’s Queens is an impressive piece paying homage and showing respect to England’s greatest playwright with a highly versatile, talented cast and wonderful use of costume. Simple yet effective. The Madness of King Lear is so confused in its aim, so disjointed in its playing and so abstruse in its production that it felt a bit like watching an obscure, ‘contemporary’, drama school piece. ‘Madness’ is quite an apt title.

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REVIEWED 18/10/12

By Tom Norman

16th Oct – 3rd Nov 2012
Arts Theatre, London, WC2.

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