Busman’s holiday

It is often said that at any given moment there is a Shakespeare play taking place somewhere in the world and this is probably no more true than it is in this big anniversary year. The sheer number of events connected with #Shakespeare 400 suggests that all the plays in the canon will be covered in one form or another in the UK alone; perhaps one of the most frequent to be so will be A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Several polls have been running asking respondents for their favourite Shakespeare play and those for The Stage, The Daily Telegraph and You Gov (why are You Gov running a poll on such a thing??) placed The Dream in the top three choices; this is reflected in the flood of productions of this play taking place in 2016.

Telegraph poll
The Telegraph poll (nice to see Bottom at the top!)

Quite apart from our own A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation which has been criss-crossing the country there are at least another three professional touring productions taking place (Rain or Shine Theatre Company, Chapterhouse Theatre Company and Illyria Theatre Company). Other one off productions are scheduled for Oxford, Cambridge, Bath and the Edinburgh Fringe. Trevor Nunn completes his bid to direct every Shakespeare play with a production in Ipswich which will feature local children playing Titania’s fairy train (now, I can’t think how they came up with that idea!). As variations you can see Benjamin Britten’s opera at either Glyndebourne or The Minack in Cornwall. For children there are “retellings” – Robin Goodfellow’s Amazing Travelling Show or To Dream Again. Heaven alone knows how many amateur companies will be putting on productions. You don’t even have to leave the comfort of your own home – the recent Russell T Davies version for the BBC is currently still available on iplayer and can be acquired as a paid download or purchased on DVD/Blue Ray. While I’m not aware of a collective noun for a group of productions of the same play, maybe I can suggest one – a dramglut.

In London alone we have and continue to be inundated with Dream productions. Already over and done are versions at the Pleasance and Lyric Hammersmith. Recently opened are a stripped down production at the Southwark Playhouse (7 actors playing 17 roles) and The Donkey Show: A Midsummer Night’s Disco (Shakespeare meets ‘80s dance moves) in Camden. Perhaps most bizarrely is the version by Sh*t Faced Shakespeare in which the audience randomly choose one of the actors to consume a quantity of alcohol. S/he is then turned loose to wreak havoc throughout the performance. I have to declare my hand here and say that I think the whole set up of this artistically questionable (maybe even morally reprehensible) but as the show has just announced an extension run I guess I may be in a minority there. Highest profile of all the London openings has been that of the production at The Globe on the South Bank. This marks the takeover of the theatre’s artistic directorship by Emma Rice and has drawn some very positive reviews while drawing a good deal of criticism from traditionalists. As the main London contender to our own offering I thought I should take a look.


The last time I went to the Globe theatre I tried my hand at being a groundling but this time I felt a little more comfort was in order – if the Globe’s hard wooden benches could ever be categorized as “comfortable”. I also thought an evening performance would be fun as the night drew in and the atmosphere changed. It certainly did towards the end of Act 4 when there was a torrential downpour! Although I had read some reviews and had some prior warning from Maria I don’t think I was quite ready for the sheer number of changes/additions/tinkerings with which I was presented. The whole look/feel of the production was a mash up (more a mish mash in my humble opinion) with contemporary lovers, Elizabethan punk fairies, Indian exoticism and the Mechanicals as Globe theatre stewards. Did this work? Not really. Too much of the kitchen sink approach for my liking (throw everything in and see what sticks).

Even more irksome was the approach to the text. OK there were cuts – no real problem with that but I was less satisfied with some of the insertions. Rita (rather than Peter) Quince’s opening audience briefing was fun but this was before the play proper began. Other than that there was just too much monkeying around with something that has worked perfectly well for four centuries. Redistributing lines and reordering the sequencing might have some merits but here it just seemed to be gratuitous. Changing all the Athens references to “London”, “Bankside” or “Hoxton” seemed to be about getting some cheap laughs rather than improving clarity. And I still don’t understand why we were treated to snatches of Beyonce and David Bowie, what an impersonation of Marilyn Monroe added to the mix or why Lysander’s song used the words from John Donne’s “To His Mistress Going To Bed” – after all Shakespeare clearly didn’t write much love poetry himself, did he?

Globe Puck
Puck takes a pot shot

One character I just found plain annoying – Puck, in hot pants, Elizabethan ruff, sparkly trainers and toting a water pistol. It was all meant to be playful but I felt it became intrusive and excessive; I have to say our own Puck (Lucy) handles a broadly similar approach with much more finesse and style. It didn’t help that Katy Owen playing the role doubled as Egeus. What was that all about? I can only assume it was a way of suggesting that Puck was also somehow directly responsible for the plight of the lovers.

Meow Meow
What angel wakes me from my flowery bed?

So was it all bad? Far from it though it is in the nature of these things that the irritations tend to stick in the mind; there were many excellent moments which, had they been sustained, would have improved my view overall. I rated cabaret artist Meow Meow’s turn as Titania/Hippolyta; she had a very funny routine with several pairs of tights and literally went weak kneed at the sight of Bottom’s ass (both senses!) I also thought changing Helena to Helenus worked well and I certainly enjoyed the sometimes touching performance of Ankur Bahl – having said that it does seem slightly perverse when equal opportunity is such a concern, to have redesignated a key female Shakespearian role to someone male. The rest of the lovers did a sterling job, though I think Shakespeare put in enough (and funnier) insults about Hermia without resorting to calling her a “bitch” – the audience are intelligent enough to work that out for themselves without being told. The Bergomask/jig at the end of the play, however, was a thing of joy and another highlight was the ouzel cock song done as a George Formby pastiche – indeed the music throughout was a pleasure.

Globe Bottom
Bottom makes an ass of himself

And what of the Mechanicals? I thought these were good performances all round though somewhat hampered by the general concept. One of their defining characteristics (their jobs) had been axed – no longer Bottom the weaver and Snug the joiner but Nick the Health and Safety officer and Joanna the cleaner. It worked having Bottom as the sole male but then I think our production has already proved that varying the Mechanicals’ gender need be no barrier to consistency. They found plenty of comedy in their roles though personally I found Pyramus and Thisbe an anticlimax. What should have been the comic highlight had been undermined by some of the earlier horseplay which I felt detracted from the overall arc of the play.

Emma Rice in her new home

I’ve only ever seen one of Emma Rice’s productions before (her reimagining of Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter for Kneehigh Theatre) and thought it most enjoyable but I really don’t think you can necessarily take the same approach to Shakespeare. I enjoy a certain amount of invention around the text and I’m certainly as guilty as the next man of including things in my own performance which are definitely not in the original but our directors kept a firm grip on any excesses which I didn’t feel was always the case here. I thought too many aspects went just a bit too far and that things became a bit too arch, a bit too knowing, a bit too “hey, look at me, aren’t I clever?” I guess in the end I’m bound to be just a teensy bit biased but I think I know which production I prefer.

I think I probably need to go and see another Globe production soon – one of a play in which I don’t have such a vested interest and where I can look more dispassionately at the outcomes. It will be interesting to see how the Globe develops under Emma Rice’s leadership and maintains its status as a world class venue. Looking around the foyers during the interval there do seem to be a number of interesting and ambitious plans afoot. One which caught my eye was an MA in Shakespeare Studies offered jointly by the Globe and King’s College. What a fascinating follow up to this year’s experience that would be!

The production is now back in Stratford upon Avon. Click on the image below for details

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Busman’s holiday

Bottom’s Day Out

In a previous post I suggested that a London version of Bottom might well have indulged his passion for all things dramatic by attending a performance at the Globe Theatre. In order to understand this aspect of my research better I decided to replicate his journey and go to a performance at the reconstructed playhouse on the south bank of the Thames.

The route from Bottom's place to the Globe Theatre
The route from Bottom’s place to the Globe Theatre

It had become clear from previous research that the weavers tended to live just outside the old City walls so I chose the Liberty of Norton Folgate (near Shoreditch – home of two early playhouses, The Theatre and The Curtain) as my starting point (A on the map). The liberties were areas attached to the City but outside their direct jurisdiction; appropriately the Weavers’ Livery Company built six alms-houses there for poverty stricken workers in the early 18th century. The 2.5 kilometre walk (of course Bottom walked – he was a relatively poor working man) first took me past Spitalfields which was just starting to develop as the centre of the silk weaving industry – the foreign rivals who brought this skill to England were not popular with the domestic weavers. Also near here was the original site of the Bedlam madhouse (now Liverpool Street station). Bottom would then have entered the City proper through the Bishop’s Gate and into the parish of St Helen’s where Shakespeare is known to have lived during the 1590s – the time when A Midsummer Night’s Dream was written. The route then took me/us south across the eastern edge of the City towards the Thames.

Those who could afford the 1d fare would have crossed the river by wherry (water taxi) but this would have been outside Bottom’s budget so London Bridge it had to be (B on the map). In Elizabethan times this was the only way of crossing the river on foot though it was not the present construction and had houses and shops lining both sides. Most imposing of these was the four-story Nonsuch House (as in “none such like it”), a prefabricated building constructed in the Netherlands and then shipped to England in 1579 to be rebuilt by the likes of Quince the carpenter and Snug the joiner. Once on the South Bank it was a relatively straight walk along through Southwark. In Bottom’s day this area was also outside the City’s jurisdiction hence the abundance of entertainment venues (bear baiting, theatres, brothels and taverns) of which the city elders did not approve. Interestingly the aforementioned wherrymen also vociferously opposed such places of entertainment being built inside the City as this would have removed a lucrative strand of their livelihood.

And so to the Globe itself (C on the map). The theatre’s history and the story of its reconstruction led by American actor Sam Wannamaker (Zoe’s dad) is a subject far too large for this blog but there is plenty about it on the Globe Theatre website. Although approximately 200 yards from the original, with wider entrances and exits to accommodate modern fire regulations and, presumably, rather more hygienic toilet arrangements, it is in nearly all other respects a true facsimile and an impressive piece of reconstruction.  The interior, particularly, gives a real sense of what it must have looked and felt like when Shakespeare worked there and if you’ve never been fortunate enough to go inside there’s a very helpful virtual tour you can see on the theatre’s website.

At the Globe Theatre - the
At the Globe Theatre – the “groundlings” from the actors’ viewpoint

Although I have been to the Globe before (I recall a hugely entertaining Taming of the Shrew and a particularly unedifying Tempest with a miscast Vanessa Redgrave as Prospero) this had always been as a seated spectator. This time, following Bottom’s journey, it had to be as a “groundling”. I’d always supposed that this name was acquired because the audience members stood on the ground in the area known as the yard but apparently it was the Elizabethan slang name for a small type of fish. The yard audience became known as “groundlings” because from the actors’ viewpoint (five feet above the crowd) the audience could be seen gaping at them with mouths open just like a shoal of fish…. I shouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t also have something to do with the stench of so many unwashed bodies packed together (this, I hasten to add, was in Bottom’s day and not, fortunately, mine). So I paid the very reasonable ticket price (1d in Bottom’s day – £5 in 2015) and took my place for the 2.00pm start – exactly the starting time in the 1590s.

The play was Measure For Measure not, it has to be said, the strongest piece in Shakespeare’s canon. Often known as a “problem” play it balances high drama with bawdy (in this case extremely bawdy) low life comedy. My own problem with it stems from the writing of the central female character; in my opinion it is all decidedly one note. Isabella’s tortured self-examination of her decisions makes for a character who comes across as whiny and miserable and although Mariah Gale gave it her best shot I still remain unconvinced.

A scene from
A scene from “Measure For Measure”

The comedy, however, was quite uproarious centring as it does around prostitution, drunkenness, criminals, innuendo and plain filth. These were earthy characters more in the vein of the Dream’s Mechanicals and the actors and actresses involved certainly knew how to work the crowd. Brendan O’Hea’s camp Lucio and Dean Nolan’s constable Elbow were particular hits with those of us in the yard.

I thought it would be harder work standing than it actually was. The freedom to move around (rather than shift uncomfortably in a restricting seat) was quite liberating and as it was a pleasant, though not hot, day the 2 hours 40 minutes quite flew by. .A very interesting experience and one that gave me a greater sense of what Elizabethan playgoing was like and why Bottom would have found the acting lark quite so fascinating.

I have to admit I bypassed the opportunity to walk all the way back to my starting point and instead continued down the South Bank to the National Theatre bookshop for a good old browse and to pick up a copy of the official Dream text that we will be using next year. While it’s a bit early to start learning lines yet, acquiring the text makes it all seem just that bit more real.

The official text
The official text
Bottom’s Day Out