All entries for Saturday 31 March 2007

March 31, 2007

The Completed Works

So, that’s it! After a year of theatregoing, and even longer of planning and buying tickets, I’ve finished the Complete Works. I’ve seen all fifty-four main productions in the Festival, as well as a smattering of Fringe productions, talks, events and happenings. I’ve spent a great deal of money, moved house twice, had one relationship end and started another, moved job so that I’m actually working alongside the RSC, turned 24 and had holidays to Switzerland and Edinburgh. The Complete Works has been the underscore to twelve important months of my life, and is probably one of my greatest achievements in terms of the difficulty in getting into sold out shows, queuing, battling shoddy weather and, of course, having to rely on public transport to get in and out of Stratford every time I want to see a play!

A quick thanks, then, to Charlotte Mathieson, Ruth Nicol, Susan Brock, Justine Williams, Emma Argles, Sharon Miles, Carol Rutter, Julia Ihnatowicz, Lewis Beer, Lia Buddle, my parents and everyone else who has helped me with transport, tickets, accommodation, interpretation, ideas, company and everything else that has made this whole thing do-able and not a complete nightmare! Also thanks to my bosses at the Arts Centre for giving me time off to get to see plays, the box office staff at the RSC for their constant patience, particularly as I come in to transfer yet ANOTHER ticket, the Front of House staff who now know me by name and have been very welcoming, the three other Complete Works-goers who I am very grateful to for showing me that I’m not the only one foolish enough to attempt this and everyone else who’s helped me out in some way.

I leave this post with ten short anecdotes just to show you some of my personal biggest dramas of the Festival, and some of the things that have tried to thwart me:

  • Trying to get to ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ in the most torrential downpour of last year. In addition to getting soaked through, both trains and buses were heavily delayed. I arrived at the theatre quarter of an hour late, bought a ticket to the next day and went straight home on coach, being delayed for over an hour by a road accident. An 8-9 hour round trip and soaked through, for absolutely no gain!
  • At a desperate time at work, having to do an 8am-11am shift, then dash to Stratford for the afternoon one-off performance of ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’, then return to campus for 6pm in order to work til midnight, as they couldn’t get any cover for that day.
  • Queuing for over TEN hours for ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle’ tickets, and promptly hugging the complete stranger who came in with an unwanted spare ticket.
  • The Yellow Earth production of ‘King Lear’ running over by over an HOUR from the advertised length, and then having a post-show discussion, meaning my poor friends were left waiting in the pub wondering where the hell I was for hours.
  • After another late train, sprinting across Stratford with my ex-girlfriend in a desperate attempt to get to the Courtyard before ‘The Taming Of The Shrew’ started. Amazingly, we just caught the start of the production, having managed a five-minute mile.
  • ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle’, again- being held at 9pm on a Sunday in November, the only way of getting out of Stratford was a taxi. I’ll leave you to imagine how much it cost to get back to Coventry…...
  • The Week of Hell in September, where i saw 9 performances in seven days, while managing to still work four shifts on campus. Ouch.
  • Arriving outside the theatre on November 10th a full two hours before the doors opened, on the day when I finally got my last ticket. I got a mention in an RSC programme not long after, when they referred to “the never-before seen sight of students queuing at 7 in the morning in order to get tickets for the Cube”.
  • Being gutted at having missed most of ‘Antony and Cleopatra’, having only been able to get a standing ticket in the top gallery of the Swan. By a fluke, and the complete kindness of CAPITAL, getting to see it again in the very front row of the stalls, feet away from the cast, thanks to a random spare ticket.
  • And finally….. when I made one big ticket order of about 30 shows, someone at the RSC box office managed to pick up the wrong patron name. Meaning that all 30 tickets, paid for by me, were somehow reserved under someone else’s name. Luckily I also got printouts of all the tickets before the mistake was made, but for six months, every time I tried to make a query or change a ticket, I was told that I didn’t have a booking for that particular show. Aaah, nothing like a bit of unnecessary stress…..

The rumours are true….

In addition to the review, I thought I would also just confirm the rumours for those who haven’t seen it yet. Yes, there is nudity. Yes, it is Sir Ian. Yes, he is naked onstage, bar his socks, for a substantial period. I know a lot of people were very excited about that…...

King Lear @ The Courtyard Theatre

I don’t wish to come across as unprofessional, but this is going to be a very difficult review to write. Last night I sat in the front row for Trevor Nunn’s ‘King Lear’, and I still don’t feel as if I’ve entirely recovered. It was theatre as I’ve rarely experienced it- theatre that reaches inside your chest, tears out your heart and leaves you in severe emotional distress. It was also quite possibly the best thing I have seen in the last twelve months, and certainly the finest production I have EVER seen at the RSC.

From the start, Trevor Nunn set the tone with powerful organ music booming across the theatre from a backdrop that reminded me of nothing so much as ‘Phantom of the Opera’, with balcony, plush red curtain and chandelier, as the cast processed across the stage in state. Nunn had updated the play to an unspecified 18th-19th century background, the costumes a mix of late-regency/Napoleonic/Cossack military regimes. It was a setting that worked purely to the production’s advantage, particularly as the lush backdrop was gradually destroyed and the bare stage piled up with barricades and sandbags as the war blew up. An awe-inspiring war sequence saw the blinded Gloucester writhing in terror on the floor as lights flashed, guns crackled and explosions shook the theatre. In some ways, this was more akin to his world-beating musicals than his chamber Shakespeare, the production having the epic feel of a ‘Les Miserables’.

The acting quality was exactly what we have come to expect of Nunn’s unrivalled directorial output, and so we come to Sir Ian McKellen. Working entirely as part of an ensemble, rather than dominating the production, McKellen’s Lear was an intricate balance of opposing forces- the kindly father, the betrayed old man, the violent servant-beater, the confused madman and the dying man bereaved of his daughters. Clearly not content to rest on the laurels of an incredible career, he proved yet again why he’s known as the greatest Shakespeare actor of his generation with a performance that had several of the audience in tears, yet still drew laughs and gasps from us too. He was Lear, and the RSC was entirely justified in selling the production on him.

Anyone who knows me, though, knows how sceptical I am about the star system, and that there is no way I would be satisfied with a production that relied on its lead actor to carry it through. The cast were, individually and together, absolutely superb. Lear’s three daughters were highly individual, and Goneril in particular more sympathetic than usual, even giving a motherly embrace to Cordelia before she left the court. Cordelia, on the other hand, was at the start a silly little girl, who didn’t understand the consequences of the speech she was expected to meet and used the occasion to ridicule her father and sisters, laughing at the ludicrousness of the situation and not for one second expecting it to mean anything- her reaction as she was disinherited was one of utter shock and disbelief, staggering around the stage as her world collapsed. Far more modern- and far less drippy- than she often seems, she brought a breath of fresh air to the part.

A powerful Edgar, played by Ben Meyjes, gave an outstanding showcase of his talent, going from bookish to naked and Gollum-like to hardy servant to chivalric hero, flicking between accents impeccably and giving an emotional performance even when simply watching the older men talking. The stage fight was the best I have ever seen, and did credit to he and Philip Winchester’s Edmund, but especially to fights director Malcolm Ranson who created a very real and very exciting fight, with furniture and cups flying about, brother striking out in real rage and absolutely no sense of staginess about it.

Every time I think of Sylvester McCoy’s Fool, a tear wells up. Funny and moving at the same time, he redefined the role for me, giving a beautiful representation of a servant trying desperately to do his job in the face of overwhelming sorrow at his master’s deteriorating condition. Famous for playing the spoons, McCoy showed off this talent throughout, but by the time he was soaked through in the storm he was barely able to raise a smile anymore, shouting his jokes at Lear in frustrated hope. The first act ended with his collapsing onto a bench sobbing while Gloucester watched, before soldiers arrived to take the Earl away at gunpoint. Laughing at the wretched figure of the Fool, they stood him up and put a rifle to his head, before having a better idea. Taking him to a strut that stood stage-left, they stood him on a chair, put a rope around his neck and hanged him there and then. As the house lights came up for the interval, he continued to swing there the audience appalled at the sight, and he wasn’t taken down for some minutes. While this isn’t the first time the Fool has been hanged onstage, I doubt it has ever been quite so moving.

I could talk about this production for hours- the chilling moment where Kent marched off on his ‘journey with a pistol loaded, ready to end it as soon as he left our sight, the beautiful death scene that left the audience emotionally gutted and mostly unable to even stand for an ovation, the maid who was dragged offstage to be raped by Lear’s soldiers and was twitchy and petrified for the remainder of the play, the real downpour of water that drenched Lear and the Fool (and us!) and the excellent performance as Gloucester by William Gaunt, bloody onstage blinding included. My only criticism was the unjustifiably noisy and disruptive scene changes- the setting up of Edgar’s shelter at the back of the stage was so loud that I couldn’t even hear the scene at the front between Edmund and Cornwall (it sounds picky to criticise a scene change, but do ask anyone who was sitting in the side sections of the stalls, and they’ll agree). That doesn’t matter in the end, though, for this was a truly amazing experience. The hype, I humbly admit, was justified.

Old friends: Richard Goulding and John Heffernan

One of the satisfying things about seeing the entire Complete Works has been the opportunity to see actors – often in the smaller parts- returning to the stage again and again, excelling in parts and coming to audience’s attentions. Rob Carroll is a good example- a bit player in the ‘Antony’/’Caesar’/’Tempest’ company, who got to fully showcase his talents with an excellent performance in ‘The Rape Of Lucrece’ and in two workshopping sessions. ‘Regime Change’ gave several of the same company, particulaly Julian Bleach, Joseph Alessi and John Hopkins, an excellent platform to play very different parts. Harriet Walter’s appearance in ‘Venus and Adonis’ was a wonderful surprise; the brilliant Peter de Jersey has quietly appeared understudying in ‘Antony’ and performing ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle’; Jane Lapotaire and Henry Goodman made unannounced returns in ‘The Rape Of Lucrece’ and ‘Regime Change; Curtis Flowers’ started the Festival with ‘Romeo’ and ended it with ‘Coriolanus’ and so on. Growing to know the work of these performers has been one of my highlights.

It was with pleasure last night at ‘King Lear’, therefore, that I saw two young actors sharing the stage with a highly prestigious cast- two actors who’d both appeared in smaller roles earlier in the Festival and had clearly been picked out for their talent. John Heffernan played a series of small roles in the ‘Romeo’/’Much Ado’/’King John’ cycle (his most memorable role probably being the Sexton in ‘Much Ado’), but last night he got a much more important role as Oswald, giving an excellent performance, veering between his cowardliness facing Kent and his would-be evil as he prepared to kill Gloucester.

Richard Goulding (Knight/ Messenger and Prospero)

Even more fascinating was the pleasant sight of Richard Goulding, playing a Knight and Messenger among other smaller roles. He had some of the meatier supporting parts, including delivering the news of Cornwall’s death and Lear’s killing of the Captain. As a friend of mine pointed out in the interval, however, he has also played a part earlier in the Festival- for one afternoon only, he was Prospero in the Guildhall School of Music and Drama’s ‘The Tempest’. He gave a solid and mature performance in that role, a performance which I certainly remember helped him stand out over the other (very good) students in the production. According to my contact, though, it was as a result of that performance (done while he was still at drama school) that he was handpicked out to join Trevor Nunn’s latest project and play in the biggest production of the Festival opposite Sir Ian McKellen.

If that is, in fact, what happened, then that’s a pretty amazing impact of the Complete Works Festival for one young actor- to be invited with his school to perform for one afternoon in the Swan and in a couple of local schools, and as a result of that to close the Festival at the Courtyard Theatre under Trevor Nunn. He was seemingly undaunted by the task, and played excellently, particularly in his grief over Cordelia. I look forward to seeing him as Konstantin in ‘The Seagull’, and hope even better things come of this for him!

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Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.

The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.

Theatre criticism always needs more voices. Please comment with your own views and contributions!

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