Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Royal Shakespeare Company

There’s not much to do in the evening in Stratford if you’re free and single or if you’re in melancholic mood, alone. Actually, there were flyers all over the place for this music concert or that am-dram production with the odd thing on at the Civic Hall. Just not the week I was there. When I asked at the tourist information centre for some ideas, all they could suggest was a ghost tour though since that was being run by the people who also own what could be the very worst tourist attraction I’ve ever visited, Tudor World, (more on which another time) I was suspicious.

So on the evenings when I wasn’t seeing a performance, I still somehow managed to find myself at the Royal Shakespeare Company. The main venues are closed for refurbishment, but on Tuesday and Thursday after dinner, I sat on the grass nearby reading a book or listening to some Shakespeare on cd about as relaxed as I’ve been in years. One of my last experiences of Stratford was sitting in the shadow of The Swan listening to David Tennant read Shall I Compare Thee To Summer’s Day? and trying to work out what I’d need to do to move there and wistfully wondering how I could woo the girl with long flowing red who was passing by that I was certain must be an actress (not being David Tennant a definite handicap).

The other nights were something else entirely. The RSC have the monopoly on theatres but at present, the only auditorium open is The Courtyard, formerly The Other Place, a giant multi-level space patterned after The Globe (or if you’re local to me, the Everyman with balconies). My heart was pounding on the Monday as I walked the road up to the theatre for the first time, my hands quivered as I handed my bag into the cloakroom, I stuttered when asking to buy a programme. Walking into the auditorium, I caught the scent of the place, a fragrant mixture of paint and wood. “It smells like a theatre doesn’t it?” I said to usher. “That’s because it is a theatre.” He replied dryly, though I could tell he knew what I meant. I think.

Despite visiting the birthplace and other houses and where the man was buried, I only really became sentimental that night. I’ve idolised that theatre and its rolling companies for so many years that I couldn’t believe I was actually sharing their air, watching a performance by them and just ten hours after the leaving of Liverpool. During a rather fabulous song and dance number in the Bohemia section I was on the brink of tears. Isn’t that silly? I suspect I could have been watching any production of any play, and I still would have had a lump in my throat. Is this what happens when real Beatles fans step into the faux-Cavern for the first time?

The Winter’s Tale hasn’t previously been one of my favourite plays though I know that has had a lot to do with the assemblages I’ve had to endure, samples being the BBC tv version from the 1980s which looked to have been filmed on the set of a Blue Peter Christmas Special and featured some of the country’s very worst child actors and an all male production which also swapped the masculine/feminine assignments to provide some rather butch women and fey men. Director David Farr turns the opening half of the play, everything leading up to the abandonment of the child on the beach into a brooding noirish tragedy then sharply contrasts it with the jolly pastoral scene in the second half, like splicing Peter Brook’s Bermanesque film of King Lear with Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing, with its lashings of hey-nonny-nonny.

My problem with Julie Bailey’s Julius Caesar is that she allows the multimedia backdrop, depicting locals and battles, to dominate the action so much that there’s not much space for the actors to develop their roles, which also means the opening hour drags horribly and only gains momentum with the murder of Caesar though that’s largely because the text forces it to accelerate. Sam Troughton’s Brutus has just the right measure of confused passion, but John Mackay’s Cassius is too understated; it’s a delicious character, the embodiment of the serpentine devil from Milton’s Paradise Lost but here he became a kind of Peter Mandelson figure but without the impression that the quiet man could be a complete bastard given half the chance. It goes without saying that Greg Hicks is amazing in both productions as men betrayed by a perception of who their friends really are.

But with the shadow of temporal distance I can tell it’s not a perfect place to see a play, which might have stoked my prejudices. The seats are very close together which means if you’re sitting next to a fidgeter as I was on the Monday, you’re perennially distracted by someone periodically tickling you. Even after I’d moved to somewhere else in the circle after the interval, I was stuck in a place which despite offering an amazing view of the land was also behind a prop ladder. On the Wednesday during Julius Caesar, the staging meant that if an actor stood in front of my ground level corner seat the entire rest of the stage was blocked, the show briefly turning into radio as you could only imagine what was happening behind Sam Troughton’s arse.

Acoustically it’s suspect too – often the surrounding talkers were more audible than the actors which wasn’t at all fun during Caesar when I found I’d also bought a seat in the middle of a coach party who clearly didn’t have too much of an interest in Shakespeare or the play and spent most of the show commenting on everything or passing wisecracks around during some of the more dramatic scenes. Example: in the climactic battle scenes, one of the characters, having been stabbed in the back, is clawing for life across the stage, dragging himself ever closer to the audience desperately looking for our help.

Idiot One: [Inaudable.]
Idiot Two sitting in front: WHAT?
Idiot One leaning forward: HE’S COMING TO GET YOU! HAA HAA HAA!

Meanwhile, the poor actor is clearly out of breath but trying not to show it. I’m sure I could see him looking balefully in our direction out of the corner of his eye.

And I still managed to have get wrench through my throat because of the proximity to the actors. That seat was also right next to the runways which largely brought the performers onto the stage from the foyer and often they’d hesitate before joining the main action, perhaps even kneeling and I can’t imagine how disconcerting it must be to have someone like me eyeballing them from just inches away, close enough for them to spit on me. In Empire Magazine a couple of months ago, Sam Mendes was asked if he’d consider using 3D cinema and he said he already had. It was called theatre. Now I can see what he meant. At the opening of the second half, the remains of a solider were parades on and our section were drenched in fake blood and I’m convinced I also had the liquid contents of half the cast on my top by the end of the evening too.

That’s one t-shirt I’ll not be washing soon.

Walking away that evening I was overtaken in the street by actress Noma Dumezweni who'd played Paulina in The Winter's Tale and Calphurnia in Julius Caesar and who my fan gene had identified as playing UNIT Captain Erisa Magambo in Doctor Who at Easter and had demonstrated here that she has rather more range than when she was simply barking orders at Lee Evans. She looked to be in determined mood and it took only a fraction of a second to decide to not to chase after her looking for an autograph. It seemed wrong, an invasion. Like it would spoil the mood. So I let her go, and simply let the romance of the evening envelop me, knowing that these had been some of the best evenings of my young life.

Shakespeare's Final Resting Place.

Shakespeare’s final resting place is at Holy Trinity Church on the banks of the Avon. You can’t help whispering as you enter and pay the couple of pounds to the small reception (card table with a plastic box) cannily erected half way up the naïve. There’s not very much to see – a nice church (which must be atmospheric at Christmas in the way that only churches like this can be), the memorial, of course, and then the tomb, which, because the bard was a lay preacher he was entitled to have added to the altar area. Most of his immediate family tree can be found here too, carefully labelled.

I chatted with the school masterly guide sat to the left, showing him an entry about the place from the Penguin miscellany which was my main reading material for the week (on account of the very short entries ready to fill in all kinds of still moments), which he gave 8/10 for factual correctness, then left just as a visiting school group, camera phones cocked, swamped the area. In the graveyard I sat writing out a postcard. It (I) said, “It’s quite unsettling to visit where a person was born, see some of their life’s work that evening, then the place they were buried the following afternoon.” I can't imagine there are many world figures with whom this is possible.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Shakespeare's Houses

In 1759, Reverend Francis Gastrell, the final owner/occupier of Shakespeare’s retirement home, New Place, was so incensed by the constant stream of tourists pitching up at his house and invading his lawn that he knocked out all the windows and chopped down the mulberry tree that had reputedly been planted in the garden by the bard. Then when the local council demanded Land Taxes, he furiously demolished the house itself, its ruins still rotting as he was run out of town by his bloodthirsty compatriots and banished from returning to Stratford for the rest of his life. Now, all that remains of the place where Shakespeare died are the stone foundations and a rather nice lawn, accessible from his son-in-laws property next door (see above).

Lord knows what Gastrell would make of the tourism which exists in his town now; it’s apparently the second biggest destination in the country behind London, its population of 23,000 probably doubling (tripling?) during the peak season. It’s not something the Shakespeare Trust shy away from; throughout their properties there’s a twin story, not just of his life and period but also of the people who’ve paid homage to him since; in places they highlight the other great thinkers who’ve also taken the same steps you have around the houses – in the birthplace they’ve even preserved one of the bay windows in which visitors famous and not so have left their mark or autograph. Which meant that though I was travelling alone, I didn’t often feel it, since I was part of a tradition stretching back centuries.

This wasn’t the first time I’d visited the birthplace; the last time was in the early nineties when I was studying the plays at school and it seemed the thing to do. Then, I’d characterised the experience as ‘disappointing’ (for reason I forget). Not so now. Having spent the intervening years becoming a proper fan of Shakespeare and discovering the plays and his life it was quite overwhelming to be standing in that place again, even if as the demonstrator described the method of his birth, her words were being translated into Japanese for some of the other visitors, the surprise of one half of the room to the news that the phrase ‘Night night, sleep tight’ referred to the way that Elizabethan babies were tucked in at night on a rope frame underneath the marital bed, repeated minutes later by the other half.

So I was rarely alone in these places, especially on Monday and Tuesday when the town was saturated by delegates from the 100th International Rotary Conference in Birmingham, all wearing a little white badge with their first name and country of origin on them. But just now and then, within a lull, by taking things slowly against the crowd, I’d find myself in an empty room and could briefly imagine what it must have been like to live that superficially simpler life. All five houses are to some extent frozen in time or recreations of a period in their history selected because of the association with Shakespeare, attempts to provide a context for students of history and literature and they work best when you can hesitate at a kitchen utensil or piece of furniture and think about how different the person using them must have been and whether you’re much of an improvement.

The demonstrators are the key element which brings these places alive. Some are simply tour guides offering a bit of background to the house and why it’s an important part of the story. Others, dressed in period costume, balance precariously between that and full blown improvisation. At Arden’s Farm, a group of roleplayers prepare a meal across the day and then sit and eat it to show what the process of living in the house was somewhat like. I spent ages in that kitchen talking to the cook about everything from the health awarness of Elizabethans to the preparation of nettles and why we don’t eat them as much these days, the information flowing from her lips as she shimmered in and out of character by the pronoun, like a Doctor Who actor appearing on Blue Peter being asked to break character by Simon Groom.

Just as interesting, at the birthplace, in the gardens at the back and the street in front, actor work through extracts from the plays, girly arguments from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Nurses advise to Juliet and according to the poster Hamlet soliloquy’s, all of them completely in character as though we’re witnessing the fraction of a production. Fighting to be heard against tourists chatting about cameras and children poking fun at their costume, they’re absolutely fearless and a rather more visceral way of reminding the visitor why they’re taking the time to walk about this house in particular than the introductory display in which a voiceover from Juliet Stevenson and Patrick Stewart tell us that we’re looking at the actually desk that Shakespeare may have learnt the classics from or the actual book, or actual etc.

My favourite was probably Anne Hathaway’s Cottage. It’s the most complete dwelling, the only one in which all of the rooms are given over to showing living rooms (all of the others including an exhibition space of one sort or another breaking the illusion), and the most romantic since it’s presumed to be the place were young William wooed his future wife, perhaps inspiring dozens of similar romances in his plays. Without a car or coach, the only approach seems to be a walk from the parish centre through a series of alleyways cutting across suburbia then a field and into the village of Shottery of which it is but one of a multitude of thatched buildings (which did mean I misidentified the odd building before finally happening upon what was obviously the tourist attraction). One of the moments of perfect calm I experienced during the week was sitting in the garden outside the house, listening to the birds and looking up past the roof towards a deep blue sky. I need to have more of those.


Life I’m not happy to be home.

There’s no greater mental barometer of how well a holiday went than the genuine feeling as you stumble onto the train at the end of the week (or in my case about four days) that you’re leaving a place were you felt complete and yourself and complete within yourself and those things are effortless, to return to a place where you have to work at them. That’s what vacations are supposed to do, but you hear so often about how stressful they can be, how often they’re nothing like a holiday because of the hassle involved in attempting to enjoy yourself, I’m so pleased and elated that I can genuinely say that I did enjoy myself, despite having developed blisters by the end of the first day and painfully limped through the rest of it.

I’ll be boring you stupid in the coming days (and weeks?) with tales of Stratford-Upon-Avon (and photos, so many photos) but I want to make the most of my Shakespearean glow by finally watching the BBC adaptations of his history plays so I’ll not spend too much time tapping things here today. Just to say this: after watching the results, I’m glad I didn’t follow my original idea of a coach tour. I watched coaches park up throughout the town, outside the various designated Shakespeare houses, the passengers herded off and into the dwelling which they’d trundle through briefly, take some photos, buy some souvenirs before being led back to the coach and on to the next attraction, presumably working through all five before returning to wherever they came from without the time to breath in the atmosphere.

To spend just half an hour here and there is not enough time. Much better, as I did, to slowly let the story of the bard's life through his home unfold slowly over a few days, seeing the places where he and his family were born, died, were buried and commemorated and discovering the world in which all of that happened. If you’ve already been yourself, you’ll know that there aren’t many places like it in Britain. It might have gained many of the elements of a modern town, the same high street shops which make most places seem like a photocopy of each other these days and industrialisation and suburbia just outside the centre, at magic hour it still retains the stillness of an ancient village, a reminder of what we've lost.

[Exit pursued by a bear.]

[End of Act I.]

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

'Shakespeare Made Fit' by Sandra Clarke.

Much as I love Shakespeare, I do get impatient with him sometimes. Well, not him exactly but the way that he’s being presented in repertory, or more precisely that of the thirty-eight (or so) plays in the canon, only about fifteen are regularly production. Rarely do the likes of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, All’s Well That Ends Well, King John, Cymbeline or particularly since it’s my favourite, Measure for Measure, see the inside of the playhouse. Critically they’re all perceived to have faults, or are generally unknown to audiences, so the playhouses tend to stick to the core repertory because that’s what the people want. Which is fine to a point, but those of us with adventurous tastes, it’s a bit disappointing when the only choice is yet another production of King Lear or Romeo & Juliet. What we need is to find a way of presenting the most popular plays which would attract the more seasoned/fatigued/picky theatre goer.

Sandra Clark’s book Shakespeare Made Fit offers another choice. In the restoration period, just after the theatres reopened in 1660 after the Civil War, to fill the gap in product, theatres were given license to produce Shakespeare. The catch was that by law, the versions put on could in general only be revisions and rewrites. So Troilus and Cressida became a tragedy, Romeo and Juliet lived, Measure for Measure and Much Ado were conflated and as Clark describes in her introduction: “Macbeth was done as a semi-opera with witches in flying machines”. Dozens and dozens of works by famous and infamous writers of the time and audiences flocked to them as texts which by then, to them, had become somewhat archaic were given a new lease of life.

Clark selects five examples providing commentary and a reproduction of the text: John Lacy’s Sauny the Scot, a contemporary retelling of The Taming of the Shrew giving the writer/actor a central role commenting on the action; The Tempest by John Drden and William Davenant prefiguring the text to become a comedy of manners; Dryden’s All For Love retelling the final hours in the lives of Anthony and Cleopatra; Nahum Tate’s notorious Lear in which the King lived to see his daughter married and Colley Cibber’s Richard III which drew from Shakespeare’s other histories to try and put the King’s machinations into some kind of historical context (an idea later borrowed by Olivier in making his film version of Shakespeare’s original).

These adaptations have had their fair share of criticism over the years with respected critics like Dover Wilson using words like “dismemberment” and “vandalism” when referring to them. In the commentary, Clark herself painstakingly notes the imperfections, especially in Lear which keeps large chunks of Shakespeare’s text whilst dropping in the material which changes the tone of the story, noting that in places it reads like two different plays mashed together. The deletion of “Now is the winter of our discontent …” from Richard III is hard to take, especially since the replacement, “Now are out Brows bound with Victorious wreaths …” is so pedestrian.

But, as Clark also points out, what these critics failed to notice, is that these adaptation do not destroy the original, they’re merely variations on a theme, just like the numerous films which have been turned out, and in many cases aren't half bad. True, some of these adaptations, especially Tate’s Lear, were the only versions in production for quite some time, but eventually they were superseded again, the Bard’s poetry fighting back and rediscovered. Many of them can stand separate from their sources, in much the same way that Shakespeare’s rarely criticised for rewriting and modifying some earlier version of Hamlet. I think by now you can work out what I’m about to say in the closing paragraph.

Why not put these adaptations back into production? On the page, it’s impossible to get the flavour of what these plays must have been like in the theatre, but there must have been something pretty entertaining about them if they stayed in theatres for so long. I’d love see how the happy conclusion to Lear worked in theatre and it would provide audiences who are less familiar with the originals an opportunity to see why Shakespeare’s work worked so well, his moral ambiguity and imaginative leaps set against the more linear line of thought here. If a theatre wanted to be really creative and the production team were up to it, original and adaptation could run simultaneously for that purpose. Seems a shame to let this part of our theatrical history sit and gather dust.