A surfeit of the sweetest things

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.

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“The flowers of odious savours…” On the set of The One Show

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!

RWIn 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.

Then it was off to Canterbury to see the latest incarnation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation. I wanted to see this version for a number of reasons:

  • 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

 

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Canterbury Mechanicals     Photo by Topher McGrillis RSC

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. 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 work 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.

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The ‘B’ Team give it a go!

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.

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Isn’t that something?

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.

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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.

Norwich


 

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A surfeit of the sweetest things

Met By Moonlight

For the first time in a number of weeks, indeed months, there is little to report on in the way of direct Dream activity. Having finished its initial run in Stratford upon Avon A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation is taking a well-earned break before the national tour starts in earnest (actually it starts in Newcastle – boom boom!) However that does not mean that nothing worthy of mention took place – so here’s what occurred at a couple of events I went to.

WeekenderUnless you have been living under a stone for the last six months you cannot fail to have noticed that 2016 marks four hundred years since Shakespeare’s death and that, in consequence, there are an awful lot of things planned in commemoration. The Barbican in London (our performance venue in May) has its own programme of plays, concerts, dance performances and exhibitions which goes under the general title of Play On; this, in turn, is part of the nationwide celebrations known as Shakespeare 400. As part of this, on the first weekend in March, the Barbican held what it called A Shakespeare Weekender. Filling the various open spaces and foyers of the Barbican, this event was two days of modern responses to Shakespeare and his world by artists drawn from theatre, dance, film, art and music and included workshops, talks, poetry readings, installations and performances throughout the weekend. So I thought I’d go along and see what was happening.

I’d thought it would be quite a brief visit but I actually managed to fill a whole afternoon immersing myself in Shakespearean related activity. First stop was perhaps the most bizarre – a pop up performance of something called Much Ado About Bingo. I think you had to be there but it basically involved listening out for Shakespearean quotes included in the patter of a fictional 1970s TV personality interspersed with reminiscences about the hit tunes and TV adverts of the day. Prizes included a bunch of parsnips, packets of dried lasagne and a Crunchie bar – as I say, you had to be there. Next it was off to a workshop run by RSC voice coach Tess Dignan where we all got to do vocal warmups (a salutary reminder of what we had been doing recently in Dream rehearsals), insulted each other Shakespeare style and carried out a mass reading of a Caliban speech from The Tempest. I popped my head in at the Shakespeare Karaoke Glitter Party – and quickly popped it out again – watched the T shirt making, badge making and tattooing exhibitions (quotes from Shakespeare) and handled some real Elizabethan objects courtesy of the London Museum. These included one of the pots used to collect theatre goers’ entrance money which I had learned about in my autumn online Shakespeare course. I singularly failed to participate in MoveMe’s flashmob dance class (perhaps I really should have), but listened to some poetry reading and rounded off the afternoon by taking a look at a stage fight demonstration again put on by the RSC.

However, all was not quite over as I then headed off on the short walk to the Guildhall. There was just time to view Shakespeare’s signature on his mortgage deed and see a copy of the First Folio in the Guildhall Library before joining the crowd in the courtyard for an early evening viewing of the Shakespeare son et lumiere. This was quite spectacular using 3D projection on the Guildhall’s façade accompanied by speeches from the plays and a musical composition by the resident School of Music and Drama. A most uplifting 20 minutes to end a day that was both stimulating (big tick) and free (another big tick).

Met By MoonlightNow, I have written in this blog before about the work of the RSC Education team (see here and here) and, even if the main production of The Dream is on furlough, their work has continued. Thus it was that I took myself off to Canterbury one evening to see a performance entitled The Dream: Met By Moonlight, an interschool’s version of Shakespeare’s play (don’t worry I’ll explain in a minute!) The performance stemmed out of work carried out through the RSC’s Learning and Performance Network. This is where subscribing schools enter into a three year partnership with the RSC leading to teacher training, learning about Shakespeare in the classroom, artist-led projects and performance opportunities. Indeed it is from schools in their second year of partnership that the 580 children playing Titania’s fairy train have been drawn for the #Dream2016 production. The schools taking part in this production (at six locations across the country) are in the final year of partnership.

I had never actually been to the Marlowe Theatre but it is a very nice space indeed with a 1,200 capacity, very comfortable seating and good acoustics. It only reopened in 2011 and I can see why it is fast becoming a popular venue for touring shows such as the RSC’s Dream. There were nine schools performing the evening I went along, giving a shortened version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream which had been divided into nine scenes with each school taking on responsibility for one part. It was akin to a relay race and not unlike our own experience with the RSC project. However, instead of each amateur group passing on the baton to the next at the end of a week’s run, in this version the baton was passed on between scenes. Thus we saw nine different Titanias and Oberons, nine sets of Mechanicals and so on. You had to keep your wits about you as one minute Puck might be a fourteen year old boy and the next a nine year old girl – indeed the actors ages ranged from seven to seventeen. All of this was played out in a variety of costumes, to the accompaniment of student musicians and co-ordinated by student stage hands. All in all some 200 young people were involved. There were some arresting performances and delightfully magical moments and the packed audience could sense the pride the students had in their achievement.

535219_1672486859668677_3792005944168065919_nThe individual scenes had been rehearsed in the various schools but the whole thing had to be brought together in one day before the performance in the evening – hats off to Robin Belfield of the RSC Education team who had somehow achieved this mammoth task. I sat next to him during the performance and, just like any director, he was gripping the seat arms with anticipation and reacting with delight when it all worked. It was good to meet Fiona Clayton, the RSC Programme Developer for the Learning and Performance Network, who I had been corresponding with on Twitter; turns out she used to live just up the road from me! Also present were Sarah and Sally (Canterbury Players’ Quince and group director respectively) and we were able to catch up in the interval. They too are playing the waiting game until it is their turn to perform – though they are up earlier than us. In fact they are performing on THE big day, 23rd April, just the very ideal time to go and see a Shakespeare production. Perhaps I’ll see you there!

By the way it’s #ShakespeareWeek in schools. Find out more by clicking below

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The UK tour starts this week at Northern Stage in Newcastle. Please click on image below to show detailsNewcastle

Met By Moonlight