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Review: Forests @ The Old Rep Birmingham

I haven’t been to the Old Rep for years (the new Rep’s still being rebuilt) and I’d forgotten what a charming old theatre it is with a fantastic rake which means there isn’t a bad seat in the house, very important for those of us who like a good view. I sat in the fourth row, which turned out to be lucky. I’ll explain later.

Forests uses lines sampled from Shakespeare’s plays both comic and tragic. Catalan director Calixto Bieito’s device is to explore the dramatic events Shakespeare set in the Forest of Arden using words from the plays or extrapolations of them. These are spoken and sung in both English and Catalan (helpful subtitles make this work) and explored physically by a cast of seven including George Costigan, one of my favourite actors.

The forest itself is represented by an immense dead oak in a giant planter, a wonderfully Godotesque design by Rebecca Ringst, but gradually as the evening progresses the idea of the forest opens out to become the whole world depicted in the plays.

The first scenes showed mainly love, its pleasures and pains, with a fair amount of the cross-dressing familiar from the comedies and referring neatly to the ban on actresses in the Bard’s time. There’s no interval in this 100 minute piece but a second act seemed to begin when the giant tree of life’s planter was destroyed revealing a huge mound of dry earth. As the dead tree was raised aloft the actors scrabbled in it, rolled in it, carried it around and smeared themselves with it. Earth to earth. The result was a cloud of dust which rolled out from the stage and hung atmospherically in the air, explaining why the first three rows had been left empty. This second phase became increasingly dark as cruelty, suffering, suicide and bloody murder came to dominate the action.

I loved Forests, but don’t go if you’re easily offended. There’s real violence and cruelty including sex scenes and full frontal. But for all the on-stage drama the overall impression created here is of the richness of the Bard’s immortal words and his ability to explore all sides of humanity. Forests is an extraordinary evening which I would gladly watch again. Just don’t sit in the front three rows.

Forests runs at the Old Rep until September 18. For tickets phone the box office on 0121 236 4455 or go online at

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