Thursday, May 05, 2016

Shakespeare's Women (CQAF) - polished and expressive, thoughtful and great fun

Shakespeare’s Women is a real treat. The two night run up in The Barracks is over (and was sold out), but you can be sure it’ll reappear on a local stage before two long.

Clare McMahon (Unhome) and Siobhan Kelly play Jules and Fi (better known to students of English literature as Juliet and Ophelia). Their situation is gradually revealed and it becomes apparent that they’re trapped together in limbo. Hanging around the waiting room of the dead with nothing to do, they talk about their lives and loves.

It’s clear that they’ve been together for some time and are familiar with each other’s stories. They rehearse key moments from their stories, lapsing back from everyday Belfast dialect to Shakespearean vernacular. Subtle accessories – scarves and shirts – transform their grey and denim afterlife uniform into the characters.

At first the mirth emerges from their dissection of Romeo and Hamlet (who “could be a little self-centred!”) before they reach back into the Collected Works and pick out other tragic couples. The audience chortle at the idea of Juliet leaning out the balcony having a sneaky fag (and thinking about Romeo, obviously).

The hour long performance (written by Clare McMahon and directed by Benjamin Gould) rips along with only an odd moment of silence punctuating the boisterous and energetic delivery of McMahon and Kelly, with their clear diction, raised eyebrows and sideways looks.

Large portions of speeches and conversations are interwoven into the two women’s voyage of discovery. The not quite 14 years old Juliet was only married a matter of days before her unfortunate end. But she’s wise beyond her years, the queen of understatement, and ventures to chasten and challenge Ophelia and the other characters they survey. So many women die at the hands quill of Shakespeare’s imagination. Can the dead take back control?

One of the joys of the piece is the slow disclosure of the characters’ state of affairs. We don’t need to know too much too quickly, so Clare has the confidence to withhold detail. The ending is explosive.

Shakespeare’s Women is a thoroughly polished and expressive performance, thoughtful and great fun. And part of a rich vein of new theatre being performed a part of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival - like a Pick'n'Mix revival - in the all-black The Barracks (a newish venue up the alley way beside The Black Box).

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