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April 22, 2009

The Lost Interpretations of Hamlet @ The CAPITAL Centre

Writing about web page

It's a shame that my PhD doesn't (at the moment, anyway) include any performative elements; I can imagine it being uniquely exciting to have your thesis shaped by theatrical experimentation and events. Last night saw PhD researcher and CAPITAL artist-in-residence Tom Cornford's first public presentation of the Hamlet Project's rehearsal experiments, which I'd just like to make a few notes on.

The production was based on four early European Hamlet projects:  Stanislavsky/Gordon Craig’s 1912 production and Michael Chekhov’s 1924 Moscow Art Theatre Studio production, and Meyerhold and Tarkovsky’s planned versions, neither of which was produced. The hour long performance incorporated elements planned by all four productions, combining them into a single, coherent aesthetic.

Only key scenes were included, mapping the play rather than telling the entire story (Ghost and Hamlet, To be or not to be, Nunnery, Advice to players, Mousetrap, Closet, Ophelia's death, Yorick and funeral). Cast were seperated from audience by a translucent white screen, containing the action safely away - except when Hamlet forced his way under the screen to directly speak to the audience, as in soliloquy. Back projections, meanwhile, displayed images (the King and Queen in masks, for example) or tracking shots that lent depth to the stage action, most notably as a camera lingered over Ophelia's corpse in a woodland, or as the bodies of the final scene were shown in stillness, the discarded swords and goblets being individually picked out.

Key to the presentation were twinning and doubling. Two Hamlets, one male and one female, interacted throughout, whether bouncing thoughts off one another in soliloquy (rendering "To be..." particularly fascinating, as the two acted out the progression of thoughts) or joining to create a cumulative effect of speed and energy (such as the lightning fast instructions to the players, with Hamlet seemingly talking to everyone at once). "To be" additionally engaged the audience as the female Hamlet moved to a position behind and to the side of the audience seating, directly addressing the male Hamlet who stood directly in front of the screen. The Hamlets also interacted in the personas of other characters; for example, the male Hamlet doubled as the Ghost, suggesting that the Ghost is simply an aspect of Hamlet, prompting all kinds of Freudian explosions.

Doubling was used importantly elsewhere. The Freudian aspects of the play were again highlighted in The Mousetrap, which saw the female Hamlet doubling as Lucianus while Claudius played Gonzago and Gertrude his queen. This idea deserves further attention; the multiple significances of Hamlet taking on his uncle's role in the dumbshow, while the uncle becomes the father, were hugely arresting and complex, the Oedipus parallels being made visual and physical (though stopping short of showing Hamlet-Lucianus and Gertrude together - the fantasy aborted by Claudius' call for "Light!"). Among the minor characters, similar links were made. Polonius and Ophelia, both having recently died, reappeared as the Gravediggers, while Horatio became Laertes, complicating his relationship with the Hamlets.

The acting was heavily stylised in places, and I regret missing the discussion afterwards as this is the aspect I know least about in relation to the performances being quoted. However, the adoption of stylised techniques for "The Mousetrap" worked especially well in the case of Claudius and Gertrude as they became the players - the restricted movements and stock gestures employed in their acting-out of their crimes lent a sense of entrapment and crudity to what they had done, their decisions chaining them. Lucianus, meanwhile, dressed in black while speaking the prologue and performing in the dumb-show, moved through a series of pre-defined gestures that separated her eerily from the others on stage; in this player, the female Hamlet was reincarnated, and she maintained an otherness, a detachment from the rest of the characters, that showed her deliberate intent in performing and introducing the play. It was moments like this that strengthened the connection between the two Hamlets, creating a partnership that bound the plot directly in with the workings of their mind.

The sudden appearance of the Ghost provided one of the production's most enduing images, leaping suddenly up onto a raised platform and holding out an arm towards Hamlet, face obscured by a black cloak that rendered his body shapeless, blending in with the darkness of the stage. In response, the guards moved through the motions of loading and firing longbows, almost in slow motion, turning the instinctive reflexes into a choreographed and predestined ballet with the ghost; their actions were impotent, ineffectual. Hamlet's anxiety and emotion on seeing his father were conveyed through a further, bizarre set of movements as he fought to get to him, culminating in the female actor leaping to a kneeling position on Horatio's shoulders, an unnatural position which demonstrated the extremes of his emotional response.

The nunnery scene raced past in a heartrending encounter between Ophelia and Hamlet, while Polonius and Claudius could be glimpsed standing behind a second translucent screen. Ophelia took a static position at one side of the stage, weeping and pleading with Hamlet, while he paced back and forth across the width of the stage. His restricted movement was at odds with his seemingly limitless energy, his frustration and anger being channelled into his attack on Ophelia, culminating in his brutally shoving her to the floor. This sense of a captive energy finally found a release at the end of Ophelia's madness, when she ran off-stage. Another actor took over seamlessly behind the second screen, shuttle-running across the stage, until finally emerging as the furious Laertes. This transition not only served to link the change in focus between the siblings, but also allowed the wild energy to finally be released; culminating, of course, in Ophelia's offstage death, announced shortly after (here, the siblings never met). At its heart, the production was concerned with repression and constraint, chronicling the effects of release after entrapment that destroy all they come into contact with.

A relatively kindly Polonius was the victim in the closet scene, but not a victim we were encouraged to identify with; he was simply collateral damage. More powerful was Hamlet's confrontation with his mother, during which both Claudius and Old Hamlet were brought physically back on stage, standing either side of Gertrude and forcing her to confront her choices. Polonius reappeared in the Graveyard, standing behind a raised platform on which Hamlet stood, looking down into the grave. This platform provided a focal point for the final scene, including the locked grapple into which Hamlet and Laertes entered.

Finally - it was only an hour long! I have to say, I do enjoy a Hamlet of this length much more. An extremely interesting performance, with some cracking student actors. I only hope Tom can find a way to write it all up!

March 03, 2009

Shakespeare Blogged

The National are doing a talk entitled Shakespeare Blogged on June 23rd, described thus:

Actor and RSC blogger Nick Asbury joins director and author Simon Reade for a light-hearted look at how Shakespeare the playwright would survive in today’s world of internet scrutiny and arts subsidy.

Nick did the RSC blog for the Histories way back when. Despite the title, sounds like it's not my particular area of Shakespeare blogging, and as the symposium I'm organising is the next morning, it's unlikely I'll be going to this talk. Be fascinated to hear how it is if anyone goes though!

March 01, 2009

Endymion Extracts (King Edward VI School) @ The CAPITAL Centre

One of the CAPITAL Centre's current Fellows of Creativity is Perry Mills, teacher at King Edward VI School in Stratford, who is running a fascinating project based on 16th-17th century boys' companies. These companies, the relatively 'private' rivals to the adult companies of the period, were hugely popular in their heyday. Their plays, often scandalous, were educated and appealed to a sophisticated clientele, and the companies of choirboys who performed them were renowned for their voices and faculty with complex parts. Small wonder that many of the greatest dramatists of the age, including Middleton, Lyly, Marsden and Jonson, wrote for them.

Mills' project gives academics a fascinating opportunity to see extracts of the boys' company plays performed by a modern day cast of boy players, drawn from the teenage students of the school. Their current production, commissioned for a conference at Shakespeare's Globe, is a heavily-edited 40 minute version of Lyly's Endymion, the story of a youth in love with the Moon who is cursed into a decades-long sleep by a jealous rival for his affections. It's rarely performed, so the opportunity to see even an edited version at Warwick was hugely appreciated.

Mills' text excised the Sir Tophas subplot and simplified most of the supporting characters: thus, Tellus only appeared for the final reckoning and explanation of her actions, Geron's previous relationship with Dipsas was not mentioned, and several characters were entirely removed: Dares and Samias, Floscula and Semele (though Eumenides' sacrifice of his own happiness was alluded to), while Corsites' role was greatly reduced. One charitably hopes that the parent who, in the post-show talk, commented that the play was far less sophisicated than Shakespeare, didn't realise that he was watching only extracts! What remained of the play served to focus attention on the friendship between Endymion and Eumenides, and Endymion's love for Cynthia.

One of the production's most intriguing and successful decisions came from the boys themselves, one of who had (according to the programme) "Hey, this Endymion - he's so emo!". Thus, Endymion and Eumenides became lovelorn teenagers with black lipstick and t-shirts bearing legends such as "I like you - I'll kill you last". This not only allowed the production to mock stereotypes of teenage angst, love and lust, but also made surprising sense of their opening conversation with its repeated references to blood-letting for the sake of love, appropriating the emo cult of self-harm and dramatic gesture.

Cynthia herself dominated the stage in a high throne, which she ascended and descended to the sound of eerie humming from the rest of the company. Dressed in grey suit with silver lapels and subtle make-up, the presentation of boy-as-woman was hugely effective, the young actor oozing a detached yet distinctly feminine authority. She rarely made eye contact with anyone else on the stage (made easier by the actor being a head taller than most of the rest of the cast), instead speaking to the middle-distance, aware but above the action of the play. This made the moments when she did actively engage with the other characters (such as when she finally realised Endymion was in love with her) all the more impactful.

Another of the production's most fascinating decisions was to set up a member of the audience as the 'Queen', thereby recreating the original performance conditions at court. As Cynthia is herself a representation of the Virgin Queen Elizabeth, this allowed the company to step out of the action and engage in some good, old-fashioned flattery. Prologue and Epilogue were both addressed directly to her, but more powerfully Endymion's own final praise of Cynthia was spoken directly to the 'real' Queen instead of to her on-stage counterpart. The purpose of the play was thus made explicit in performance, the production demonstrating how Lyly's writing intersected with the external conditions of presentation. As the Epilogue closed, the boys dropped to their knees and bowed before the Queen, ending the play by literally offering their work at her feet.

While the removal of much of the comic material meant the extracts were inherently less funny than the play as a whole, the boys still found much humour in it. As well as satirising teenage lust, they came up with a wonderfully evil Dipsas complete with villainous cackle and a doddering Geron who hobbled along after Eumenides. The pair of boys who shared the Prologue, too, created humour through their shared lines and iterated stage managing of the action, such as their fixing a false beard and wig to the aged Endymion.

As dramatic experiment, this kind of work is invaluable, and as a performance Endymion managed to both shed light on early modern playing techniques and create a modern performance language for twenty-first century boy players. Testament, too, to the skill of the boys is their facility with language that most of the audience struggled to understand; unfamiliar and learned as Lyly is, through rehearsal the boys had clearly come to appreciate and make his words their own.

In a couple of weeks, the boys will be back presenting Middleton's A Mad World, My Masters, with a punk aesthetic. Having seen them bring Lyly to life, I'm now fascinated to see what they make of Middleton.

July 03, 2008

Regional Schools Celebration @ The Courtyard Theatre

On Monday, the Courtyard Theatre hosted the Regional Schools Celebration, a culmination of sorts of the first phase of the RSC's Stand Up for Shakespeare campaign. Featuring a full programme of nine 25 minute playlets by school groups ranging from primary to 6th form, interspersed with awards ceremonies and talking heads, the event was a large-scale public celebration of the work the RSC are doing in schools across the country.

Stand Up for Shakespeare

I wasn't going to write a blog about this event, much less a review, as I thought it would be inappropriate given the nature of the event. However, I haven't been able to get some of the playlets out of my head. The ideas and work that went into them were in several cases extremely interesting, and the work deserved attention (as Michael Coveneyagrees on his blog). Sadly I was only able to stay for the morning, but I thought I would include a breakdown of what I saw as, particularly when you consider the age of the kids, there was stuff here that I would really like to remember.

The day itself was compered by Hardeep Singh Kohli, with contributions in the morning from both Michael Boyd and Michelle Gomez - a nice gesture, having the Artistic Director and current leading actor in attendance. Hardeep himself did a solid job of hosting, with a whole selection of terrible puns that were primarily designed to cover the changes between casts. Nonetheless, he seemed to have a genuine enthusiasm for the event, and the atmosphere in the Courtyard was good throughout.

Hardeep Singh Kohli
Hardeep Singh Kohli

Julius Caesar by Queen's Park Primary, West Kilburn, London

The first show began with the theatre being plunged into darkness. A loud epic soundtrack boomed out, while the children tiptoed onto the stage from various sides, shining torches in their faces and onto the audience before gathering in the centre and becoming the conspirators of Caesar. Seeing school drama benefit from the technical capabilities of the RSC's main house was one of the pleasures of the day, though this was the only production to achieve such a startling effect from it. The production tapped into ideas both of surveillance and of street violence; opening with the conspirators and the murder, two 'newsreaders' (stood on the side balconies) then took over the reporting of the event through a series of news-style flashbacks and vox pops with dissatisfied Romans. A focus on the gullible doggedness of the crowd to believe whoever was talking made the orations scene particularly interesting, the crowd caring passionately about the last thing that was spoken. To this end, the playlet captured this school's fascination with the power of propaganda, which ultimately destroyed everyone. A fascinating insight into the contemporary resonances which the staff and students had found in the play, and also a particularly impressive performance from the young girl playing Brutus. Throughout the day I was impressed at how well the young people held the Courtyard stage, but Brutus in this play was superb, clear and powerful all the way.

Henry V - In Love and War by Fred Longworth School, Atherton, Manchester

The most sophisticated of the five plays, and practically deserving of a full review of its own. Fred Longworth's retelling of Henry V was an innovative and fascinating one that brought several original ideas to the text. It had been trimmed down from an hour long, but in this 25 minute version we caught a glimpse of the excellent work that had gone into it. Taking a slant that focussed on issues of love and marriage, this production centred Katherine, playing her scenes almost in full. Adding in dialogue from Romeo and Juliet, a new narrative was created that saw the King of France commanding his daughter to prepare for marriage with Henry in case of defeat, much to her disgust and panic. To this end, in a genius scene, her French lesson became a comically violent preparation, with her miming how she was going to use her fingers, nails and 'bilbows' to punch, scratch, poke and gut her 'enemy'. In the final scene, in another excellent decision, Henry mixed Shakespearean dialogue with contemporary phrases to emphasise the 'plainness' of his speech, eventually winning her over through her directness. The Chorus was played by three young actresses who were all extremely articulate verse-speakers, splitting the lines between them and throwing a tennis ball to various actors in order to start the scenes. I've heard good Choruses before, but for some reason the strong Manc accents worked perfectly with the verse, and were definitely the day's best vocal performances. I have no hesitation in saying that, even as abbreviated as it was, this was better than some of, say, the drama school performances in the Complete Works. Excellent work.

Romeo and Juliet - Friendship Never Dies by Churchill Gardens Primary, Westminster, London

This version of Romeo, performed by a group of very young children, drew its power from the knowledge that the children go to school in a particularly rough part of East London (according to Hardeep, anyway) that suffers badly from knife and gang culture. Almost entirely ignoring the romance aspects of the play, this production stripped Romeo down to its streetfighting, finding in it a message about retribution and the culture of respect that the children, despite their age, clearly knew all too well. Here, all the children came on stage to shout the play's early lines at each other in staged violence, while at the Capulet's Ball they danced to modern R&B (the guest list that Peter carried included such names as Beyonce and Rhiannon). After the ball, though, the narrative interestingly switched to Tybalt, stewing in his bedroom at the insult and disrespect that Romeo had paid him by coming to the party. Other actors voiced his thoughts while he paced back and forth. The play then skipped forward to the climactic duel, with Tybalt killing Mercutio and Romeo Tybalt, with plenty of focus on the young Romeo's decision to take his knife and continue the cycle of violence. The play's closing image, then, was of the Prince ordering Romeo to be dragged off, screaming, to prison while Juliet tried to follow him and was held back. No tragic deaths here, simply the inevitable - and very modern - consequences of a life of violence. Shocking in its bleakness and in the young children's grasp of matters of life and death, this was both disturbing and vital, Shakespeare used for exploring issues of monumental impact.

Mr Mac and the Ruler Army by Milton Abbot Primary, Devon

The final two productions didn't have the same impact, but were still entertaining and provided good comedy value. Milton Abbot School translated Macbeth to a primary school, "Dunsin Lane", with Mr. Duncan as the Headmaster, Mr. Mack and Mrs. Banks as teachers and a chorus of garishly made-up dinnerladies as the witches. The children obviously had great fun contemporising the play, with Duncan's murder becoming his expulsion for helping children cheat (deviously engineered by Mack), while Mack's tyranny was shown through his introduction of a 12 hour schoolday and no playtime. The contemporising eventually fell apart (Mr. Duff and Mr. Mack settled their differences through, erm, a sword fight!),  but it remained an entertaining and often funny take on Macbeth.

Supernatural in Shakespeare by Fred Nicholson School, Norfolk

By far the most bizarre of the morning's productions, Fred Nicholson (a school with a particular focus on students with special needs) took the Mechanicals of A Midsummer Night's Dream and brought them onto the Jeremy Kyle Show in an effort to resolve the differences and squabbles caused by Bottom always taking the best parts for himself. This was a highly unusual idea, of course, but one which allowed them to explore ideas of bullying in a contemporary context. Heavily reliant on audience participation, the boys did a good job of encouraging audience participation through cheering and booing. Through the middle of this skipped Puck, who played tricks on the young actors throughout. Regardless of the content, it was clear that a great deal of work and creative thought had gone into this playlet and, as with all the groups performing, the students seemed to have developed themselves through the act of rehearsing and performing as well as learning their Shakespeare, and that was the most important thing.

I couldn't stay for the afternoon, but I was sorry to leave. I won't lie, I expected that the day would be something of a chore, but I was very pleased to be proved wrong. The work done by the young people was eminently watchable and I was surprised at how enjoyable the day was. I'm not the right person to comment on the RSC's education strategy, on the methodologies being employed or the manifesto that "Stand Up for Shakespeare" presents, but the day showed a large group of children who had got a great deal out of exploring Shakespeare practically, and that can't be bad.

May 27, 2008

Streets Ahead @ Liverpool

Having only just escaped Belfast's Festival of Fools, I thought that would probably be my random street theatre festival for the year. Nope, for having gone to Liverpool for the Walker Gallery's exhibition Art in the Age of Steam, I found myself slap in the middle of another one. Only this was HUGE, with performances happening every few metres down Liverpool's main shopping streets. This was the Streets Ahead leg of the CAPITAL of Culture programme, again bringing in performances from all over to assault pedestrians and create a carnival atmosphere. There are pictures and reports available at the Liverpool Arts blog.

I didn't stay to watch anything, partly because we were too busy going between the exhibition and the new Indiana Jones movie (don't bother, it's all about aliens). On principle, though, I think this kind of event is a fabulous idea - not for the quality of the individual shows, which are almost by necessity incredible variable, but for the atmosphere it creates in a town area. The impact of upsetting the everyday routine, of confronting people on their shopping trips with in-yer-face art and theatre, generates a unique atmosphere. Whether people love or hate it, it focuses the communal attention, creates shapes out of the formless mass of people and provides a talking point. It would take a lot for me to go out of my way to participate, but it's great that these carnivals are with us and drawing such big crowds.

May 26, 2008

Underground and Cargo @ Millburn House

Last Friday saw the official opening of the new premises for Warwick's School of Theatre, Performance and Cultural Policy Studies in Millburn House, where I'm also based. The wine flowed, the food was demolished and the School hosted a series of performances and installations by a variety of theatre practitioners. It was a good, varied day and I managed to get to a couple of events.

First was Motionhouse Dance Theatre, the Leamington-based dance company, who presented their new touring piece Underground. Unfortunately the poor weather meant it took place in a Rehearsal Room, leading to apologies from the company manager beforehand owing to the cramped space. The tight surroundings, though, actually benefitted a piece whose primary concern was claustrophobia. On a small frame structure, four performers enacted the discomfort, unease and fear of a tube journey over an impressive and entertaining half hour. Twisting, swinging and flipping around the beams, shaking the structure back and forth and ripping through the cling film that initially covered the gaps in the frame, the physical dexterity of the dancers, particularly at such close quarters, was breathtaking to watch.

The themes and ideas that came out of the various movements were equally fascinating. One whole section, after the frenetic opening, saw the exhausted dancers leaning and falling asleep on each other, spinning away and swinging from the overhead bars from one side of the 'carriage' to another. Most powerful was a section set to Placebo's Meds that saw one dancer emerge as a character suffering a form of withdrawal, clutching at his head, curling up and lashing out, while the other three dancers edged around the carriage trying to keep away from him. The piece culminated in a section based around pickpocketing, ending as a case burst open and threw a shower of poppies into the air and over the audience. The whole show tapped fascinatingly into the day to day business of travel on the underground, bringing up issues regarding the suspicion and paranoia with which we regard the strangers we are forced into proximity with.

The Plasticine Men were one of the evening's two closing acts with Cargo. Its position in the schedule immediately after the wine reception prevents me from providing a particularly thorough or insightful interpretation of the performance, but the three performers (Simon Day and Chris and Matt Gunter) created a bizarre and very funny hour of devised randomness. The relatively coherent opening, two men adrift on a raft in search of a mythical figure, while a scouse shark swam around them mouthing off to the audience about how 'ard 'e was, set the tone, and the scenes that followed conjured a surreal Lord-of-the-Flies-type world where half-literate men hunted a football that snorted like a pig, sat impatiently through a church service and, at the last, faced the American war machine. I wasn't familiar with the stories of 'Cargo Cults' that were being referenced, but the themes were clear enough and the storytelling techniques employed - from little toy captain-suits suspended under an actor's face to the simple re-use of just a couple of palletes and boxes to move the action around the south Pacific - were never less than inventive.

Plus, it was all free! 

May 10, 2008

The Festival of Fools in Belfast

I was in Belfast last week for my younger brother's wedding, and had a bit of time spare for a day exploring the city. This was May 4th, right in the middle of Belfast's Festival of Fools, which sees performers come from around the world for several days of street performances and happenings.

I didn't get a chance to stop and watch any individual performances, but in many ways I'm glad I didn't. What I got instead was a day of walking round the city and having several random encounters with bizarre people - overheard shouts, men in crazy costumes, a small group here crowded round a tightrope, a cowboy over there entertaining children. It was a fascinating festival, with an almost guerilla feel - events weren't signposted, there weren't any 'Festival of Fools' banners or billboards, there was just entertainment happening around every corner.

A few that I caught were Leaping Louie, the aforementioned cowboy, Pete Sweet, another American who was winding up his tightrope/unicycle climax when we passed, the extremely funny Edmund Tahl, carrying a suitcase which periodically let off bloodcurdling screams causing him to run down the street, and the irritating St Joan's Ambulance, a pair of faux medics who interrupted our bus tour.

I only mention the Festival because it's under threat, having been unable to secure funding for next year. It seems a real shame, as from what I saw of the Festival it was a fun and highly interesting undertaking, that was genuinely engaging people of all ages in free theatre. I only hope that some private sponsors step up, as it would be very sad for Belfast to lose it.

September 03, 2007

The British Shakespeare Association Conference

The what? Well, for the last six months I’ve been kept very busy co-organising the British Shakespeare Association’s 3rd conference, which was held at Warwick Uni this weekend. I’m somewhat knackered, but wanted to write a little bit about some of the stuff that came out of the conference, as it’s not entirely irrelevant to what happens on this blog!

Firstly, and most obviously, there was a panel discussion on ‘Blogging the Bard’, perhaps the first ever academic debate on blogging Shakespeare! The panel was convened by Andy Dickson of the Guardian and included myself, Natasha Tripney who writes the Interval Drinks blog and Pat Tatspaugh, who not only helped us with lots of the preparation for the conference and wrote a very helpful performance guide to The Winter’s Tale, but also took time out of her weekend to help me proofread my dissertation. What a legend!

We had a very interesting discussion, much of it concerned with the nature of theatre reviewing and the benefits and problems with blogging, some of which I covered in my last post. Andy and I recorded a podcast just afterwards which I’ll post up here when it comes up, as it should give a decent idea of what we spoke about. There were enough people to have a lively session and I got to speak to several people afterwards about what I’ve been writing, which was great as these conferences are all about meeting people when it comes down to it. It was nice to meet people who’ve been reading the blog as well- hi folks!

The highlight of the conference was undoubtedly Jonathan Bate and Stanley Wells going head-to-head in a debate about editing Shakespeare. Everyone was joking that it was going to be ‘The Big Fight’, but it was something of a surprise when it actually was, with various wags in the audience making catcalls! Best moment- Stanley Wells actually using the word “Cowardly” when describing Jonathan’s Folio-based approach. Miaow. I’m staying well out of it, but would like to note for the record that I do own both editions…..

Other than that it was lovely to meet so many people over the weekend, and being an organiser had its privileges, not least getting to chat to Simon Russell Beale and Oliver Ford Davies. Stanley Wells and Paul Edmondson were also wonderful dinner company (I’m not biased by Stanley buying our whole table wine, of course) and we also had the UK premiere of a new colour print of Asta Nielson’s wonderful film of Hamlet. I have to admit that by that time of night I was flagging, but lots of people turned up which was great!

I’m quite glad I won’t be organising any more big conferences for a while, as the workload has taken it out of me somewhat, but I had a great weekend regardless of various hiccups here and there. I have a day off tomorrow, having handed in my MA dissertation today (see next post!), and shall be seeing the RSC’s new Twelfth Night in the evening. Looking forward to it!

May 05, 2007

The RSC Open Day

It’s been almost a week since the RSC Open Day 2007, which among other things heralded the official close of the Complete Works Festival. I’ve had a hectic week at work and haven’t had a chance to even think about posting blogs for a while, but the one advantage of having the extra time is that I’ve been able to think a bit about the talks I went to, and try and work on what was REALLY going on at the Open Day.

The Open Day itself was good fun- aside from the horrendous queuing for events, there was a lot of entertaining stuff going on, in particular the hysterical football match between the houses of Lancaster and York, which gave the histories company a good excuse to roll about on the floor, kick balls into the lake and generally let their hair down. I caught a small amount of the kids events happening as well, which they seemed to be enjoying!

In general, though, I found the event a bit uninspiring. Possibly I’d put a bit too much hope into this ‘official close of the CWF’ title, because in fact the day wasn’t about that at all. There were two things on everyone’s mind- the return of Tim Supple’s ‘Dream’, which everyone was raving about, and the transformation of the theatres, which was causing a lot of quite violent debate during the day.

The Royal Shakespeare Theatre and Swan Theatre

One man in particular will always remain in my mind, who launched a huge tirade at Chip, the incredibly hard-working events chap, about the Courtyard Theatre, citing its “Scrapyard Chic” and complaining that Shakespeare “wasn’t written for these stupid spaces….. it’s like a circus….. you can even see the scenery being changed”. Resisting the urge to take the chap through some of the basics of Elizabethan theatre practices, I was nonetheless pleased to see some of the other audience speaking against this ignoramus and defending the Courtyard.

The polarisation of the debate has left me feeling pretty cold about the whole transformation project. I know where I stand- I love the Courtyard, I love thrust theatre and I think it’s a fantastic thing. Yes, I AM going to miss the opportunity to see proscenium arch theatre, but I personally don’t like the atmosphere of the RST as it stands. I find it old-fashioned, highly conservative and weighed down under its own illustrious tradition, the perfect theatre for the Stratford set who sit guffawing loudly at the obscure jokes in order that everyone can hear how well-educated they are, and rabbit on about “When I saw Olivier here…” etc etc. I know by saying all of this that I’m talking in terms of stereotypes, but more and more I get disillusioned about the possibility for change. Tradition is a fine thing, but I feel the RSC is held back by historical baggage.

If we could just have a proscenium arch theatre, a thrust stage and a studio space in Stratford, all vibrant, new spaces thriving in the 21st century I’d probably be a lot more sympathetic to those audiences against the change, but to me the arguments against the transformation are more against modern ways of performing. Those saying they want the RST to remain as it is are, consciously or subconsciously, saying that they want the RSC to continue performing as it did in the 60s- these are the people who feel that ‘proper’ Shakespeare is reserved for the likes of Olivier, Peggy Ashcroft and John Gielgud.

To tone down the rant- I feel that the transformation of the RST will allow the RSC to develop far more freely as an artistic company without worrying about pandering to outdated models of performance. The past needs to be acknowledged, but it also needs to be escaped from.

The reason I said I feel more coldly about the whole debate, despite my own strong views, are that the polarisation of the arguments have caused the pro-transformation lobby to lose much credibility as well, which brings me back to the Open Day. All day, Michael Boyd looked harrassed. He seemed to be feeling under attack about the changes in the company, and by the time we got to the RST for the hour-long discussion about the theatre, he seemed very tired. He then sat through the four earlier artistic directors reminiscing about their time at the RSC and their love for the theatre as was. Eventually, the talk came round to Michael, and he seemed to snap. Acknowledging that, “even though it’s the responsibility of the current artistic director to listen and learn from his predecessors…”, he gave a short and very sharp outline of what was happening. “We have not compromised. We have gone for a thrust stage, where the audience are aware of the rest of the audience. I’m sorry for those of you who like sitting in the dark- I recommend the cinema”. He received a round of applause from about half of the audience for this, while the rest sat in silence.

Michael Boyd

I didn’t want the RSC Open Day to be like this. The previous day had seen a members’ discussion at the Courtyard on the transformation project, and that (to me) seemed to be the place for these discussions. The RSC was finishing one of the most successful years in its history, a year which has seen some phenomenal theatre, a fantastic sense of diversity and multiculturalism, and a real sense of moving on, and yet it culminated in this day of mixed views, high tempers and bickering. Granted, some of the nostalgia was lovely, in particular a very funny discussion between some of the RSC’s most respected acting alumni talking about their experiences. I suppose I just felt that, after taking great leaps forward this year, it suddenly felt like everyone had been brought up short.

There were other fab events though. Paul Allen, CAPITAL’s Fellow of Creativity, led a fascinating panel discussion on the Festival, which highlighted some of the diverse views of those who had attended productions (Gavin Friday- generally not loved; Cymbeline- mixed views; Othello- surprisingly liked in retrospect). Sir Christopher Bland, another of the three that I’m aware of who saw everything, revealed that he’d raised thousands of pounds for charity by doing it sponsored, so all credit to him (though it must be a bit easier to do when you’re the chairman of the RSC and have your tickets booked for you….. not that I’m bitter…..). Michael Wood led a fascinating talk on international interpretations of Shakespeare, in which actor John Kani shone with wonderful anecdotes, and there was also a very interesting talk at the start of the day as the Swan tech crew set up for the ‘Dream’.

If the RSC is going to get the best effect out of its open days, I think it needs to find a better way of siphoning off the serious debates. What should have been a celebratory day was marred by the arguments, and I think the achievements of the year were overshadowed by the uncertain future. I hope now that the RST is closed and the new programme is fully underway, though, that the RSC can get on with its most important responsibility- being an artistically vibrant theatre company.

March 29, 2007

F.Murray Abraham talk @ The Swan Gallery

Firstly, I want to say that F. Murray Abraham is one of the nicest ‘famous’ people I’ve ever met. In a pre-event chat with my supervisor and an RSC events manager, he still insisted on bringing me into the conversation, asking me my opinions and generally welcoming me into a discussion I wasn’t even sure I was meant to be at. I have to confess to a little bit of a thrill at being chatted to normally by an Oscar-winning actor, but still- lovely man.

F. Murray Abraham

F. Murray is in Stratford playing Shylock with Theatre For A New Audience, and last night saw he and Carol Rutter in conversation as a special event for RSC Patrons. This was an immensely interesting experience for me- the Patrons are a small group of RSC supporters who give gifts upwards of £1000, many as much as £10,000, and for whom the RSC puts on special events as a means of thanks. I was there as Carol’s guest, but it was extremely interesting seeing this other side of the RSC, where wine and canapes were passed around and most of the audience (about 25 strong) nodded in agreement when one person mentioned seeing Oliver playing Shylock. However much time I spend studying Shakespearean performance, these were the folks who’ve been coming to this theatre for as much as fifty years, and the cumulative knowledge of performance history in that room was quite intimidating.

The talk itself touched on several interesting points, with F. Murray explaining his personal credo, much discussion of the perceived ownership of Shakespeare by Britons and a lot of praise of the Swan, which he believed was the best venue he’d ever performed in in over 40 years of acting. I won’t bore readers with a full recap of everything he talked about- what seems important to note is the intimacy of this event. Actor, academic and audience all together in a very small room, having a general chat, followed by mingling with wine afterwards. The ability of the RSC to offer this kind of event, when you compare it to other theatre companies, is quite extraordinary. It seems a shame, however, that for most of the audience, the closest they get to speaking to the actors is in a post-show discussion- this strikes me as the kind of event that gets people excited about theatre-going. I’d love to see this kind of thing done on a far wider scale.

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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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