On the face of it I suppose it does seem odd to be celebrating someone’s death rather than their birth and yet that is precisely what has been happening up and down the country over the last few days as the quadricentennial (that’s 400 years to you and me) of William Shakespeare’s demise took place. In essence it’s probably no different from many a modern day memorial service commemorating the life and achievements of the recently departed rather than mourning their departure and in that sense it’s the man’s legacy that is up for celebration. Given the number of celebrity deaths which seems to be plaguing us this year (as I started this post it was announced that Victoria Wood had passed away and the next day Prince had also died) it looks like 2416 might be a busy old year. One thing’s fairly predictable though – a certain WS will still be being feted. There has, of course, been a wealth of commemorative events, performances, walks, talks, exhibitions and media events to choose from in the last week.
Many of the key ones were listed on last Tuesday night’s The One Show on BBC1. Four of the team had actually been invited to be part of the audience for the live show. Although seeing the programme being made was interesting (the studio is really really tiny) as an advertising opportunity for our particular production it was very much a “blink and you’ve missed it” affair. C’est la vie!
In any case I had already made my plans. Saturday started with a listen to Rufus Wainwright’s new album Take All My Loves based on nine of Shakespeare’s sonnets. This was a curious hybrid of wistful melancholy, opera and poetry reading (William Shatner, anyone?) but it made a fitting start to the day accompanied by a Spanish omelette – well, it was the 400th anniversary of Cervantes’s death as well.
- it was the Bard’s big day so what was more appropriate than to see one of his plays?
- the Canterbury Players are our nearest “neighbours” in this enterprise so I felt it would be appropriate to support their turn
- I needed a timely reminder of the production itself as we gear up for our slot at the Barbican in less than a month
- I had yet to see it acted on a proscenium arch stage as we will be doing (my previous visit was to see it on the thrust stage in Stratford) and it was my first time seeing Ayesha playing Titania throughout (on the previous occasion understudy Laura had done a very good job in her stead)
- this version had one of the two female Bottoms – hats off to Lisa Nightingale for blazing a trail – and I was intrigued to see what differences this might throw up
So it was for the second time quite recently that I found myself at the Marlowe theatre. The auditorium was quite packed and I was once again mindful of just how big the place is. There were clearly a number of the school children’s’ family members in attendance and a definite buzz of excitement was evident as the start drew near. Tarek Merchant (MD on the show) walked on and we were off. The show looks to be in good shape. It was clear that the pros had been refining and improving their scenes during the course of the run and the production has become a lot slicker as a result. The amateur Mechanicals picked up the baton from their predecessors and ran well with it, scoring a palpable hit with the audience, especially in the Pyramus and Thisbe scene. The Canterbury group are equally balanced between male and female performers with, as already mentioned a female Bottom. Did that make any difference? Essentially no, the character works just as well either way it seems to me. However, the sexy chanteuse singing the ousel cock song and the “dying swan” delivered as part of Pyramus and Thisbe are not things I shall be attempting myself. In the interval I got to have an interesting chat with Sally (Canterbury Players’ director) and she was able to fill me in on how the final rehearsals worked for them and was able to give me some tips on what to expect from the big week. The time at the theatre fairly raced by and after the curtain calls Lucy Ellinson (Puck) reappeared to encourage us to give one more round of applause for the man without whom…This was long and hearty and, as is the way in the modern age, filmed on a smart phone to be uploaded to Twitter.
Next it was round to the stage door for some slightly luvviefied greetings, renewal of acquaintanceships and cries of “not long now” from Assistant Director Kim. Also there was Graham Fewell (Castle Players’ Snug) making good on his promise to go to all the different productions round the country. He’s on track so far despite still being on crutches after an accident had left him unable to perform in his particular stint. I can only imagine how devastated he must have felt to miss out but at least he has the encore at Stratford to look forward to.
Then it was back on the high speed train to London (still can’t believe it’s less than an hour to Canterbury these days). Here I opted for a taster session on the Globe Complete Walk. This was the Globe’s celebration centrepiece of ten minute films displayed on screens scattered along the South Bank and covering all of WS’s dramatic output. I’d initially planned to do the Walk in one fell swoop on the Sunday but having ‘done the math’ (37 screens at ten minutes a time plus time spent walking between each – you it out) a few days earlier I had realised that this might prove tricky. Besides, the London Marathon was also happening on the Sunday and scheduled to finish around Westminster – just the point where the walk starts. Thus I tackled the first seven screens a day earlier than planned. The first stop was the grounds of St Thomas’s hospital and a scene from Two Gentlemen of Verona (great). One of the first faces I saw on screen was Peter Hamilton Dyer who plays Egeus in the RSC Dream – apparently he has done a goodly amount of work at The Globe and I was to see his face several more times over the next 24 hours. From here it was straight along the South Bank until, just shy of Waterloo Bridge, I watched Romeo and Juliet (not so great, I’m afraid).
A little later than planned it was home for dinner (a meat pie since you ask….slightly unfortunate in that I’d just been watching Titus Andronicus; and if that remark doesn’t make any sense then you need to look up the plot of the play!) It was also time for the televised broadcast of the RSC’s Shakespeare Live! from Stratford upon Avon. This was a very feast of acting talent – including our old mate Mr Cumberbatch (ahem!) – and was a timely reminder of why the rest of the world often looks to the UK for classy thespianism.
The only bum note for me was that involving Prince Charles appearing in a sketch about rehearsing that line from Hamlet. Sorry, but to me it just smacked too much of trying to get one up on the Queen in the Olympics opening ceremony. That aside a great show and quite heavy on The Dream. With Judi Dench as Titania, David Suchet as Oberon, David Tennant as Puck and Al Murray as Bottom, I think the gauntlet has been well and truly thrown down.
On Sunday it was back to Waterloo where the first thing that confronted me when the tube train door opened was a giant poster of Lucy/Puck and Chu/Oberon advertising the Barbican run and which gave Tower Theatre equal billing with the RSC. Marvellous! (Apparently there are a total of 59 of these posters at 37 tube stations and a further 55 at 49 mainline stations including Gatwick and Luton airports – oh to have that sort of advertising budget). Picking up where I had left off the evening before, I spent the day ranging from Richard III outside the BFI to The Tempest in the shadow (literally, as night fell) of Tower Bridge. Highlights were Kenneth Cranham’s King Lear, an hilarious Omid Djalili in The Comedy of Errors, Toby Jones as Falstaff (someone should really cast him as this character very very soon), Timon of Athens with Simon Russell Beale and of course A Midsummer Night’s Dream where as well as enjoying the film I was able to do some surreptitious leafleting. It was a very long (and unfortunately bitterly cold) day. That said it was also an extremely rewarding event and it was particularly refreshing to see the crowds that were being drawn to watch, perhaps after having seen the Marathon which was proceeding on the north bank of the Thames as the Walk was happening on the south. In all, then, a veritable feast for the eyes and ears and bumping into the Dream’s movement director, Sian (at Twelfth Night) was a nice little bonus.
My only criticism is that the event was a bit too big for it to be done at leisure (took me just over eight hours in all) and it is a pity that it could only be mounted over one weekend. If the screenings were followed in strict order (which is what I did) the Complete Walk showed the chronological development of Shakespeare’s skill as a writer and the enormous legacy he has left. I believe plans are afoot to put all the films online; if that happens give yourself a treat and watch them. On a personal level the walk also served as a timely reminder that there are still seven of his plays I have yet to see on stage and that I must set about correcting that shortfall (Titus Andronicus, King John, Troilus and Cressida, Timon of Athens, Coriolanus, Henry VIII and Cymbeline if you’re interested).
That, then, was my Shakespeare weekender; oh, plus reading Jonathan Bate’s The Genius of Shakespeare, adding some thoughts to #ShakespeareSunday, writing a Shakespeare Day blog post, discovering a lost Shakespeare manuscript in the attic, doing a Shakespeare crossword and watching a BBC 4 documentary about Shakespeare on film – NB: I may have made one of those up* . And, of course, the celebrations are far from over yet. There’s plenty of good stuff coming up on the BBC, exhibitions and concerts continuing right round the country, books, articles, blogs and reports to be read and (and I’m not sure, but I may have already mentioned this) a certain little production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that seems to be creating a stir wherever it goes.
*It was the one about discovering the lost manuscript in the attic – I don’t actually have an attic!
This week the production is at the Theatre Royal in Norwich– click on the image below to reveal full details.