I’m conscious that while I’ve written blog posts about nearly every aspect of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation I haven’t really said much about the venue in which we will be playing – the Barbican in London. I recall that I when I first heard about the project (back in November 2014 – yes it really was that long ago) I didn’t actually pay much attention to where the final performances would be taking place. It all seemed so remote a possibility that I might be part of a winning team, it wasn’t something that really needed to be considered. Of course since then our original auditions have taken place at the Barbican (click here and here) and we have been lucky enough to have used the facilities for some of our rehearsals (click here). And now here we are just a couple of weeks away from appearing at one of the biggest arts centres in Europe on a stage with an international reputation- let’s hope it still has one by the time we’re finished with it!
There are, I think, three good reasons why the Barbican is such an appropriate venue for this production but before I get to that, here’s a short video which sums up the general history of the area in which it is sited
The area in which the Barbican is situated has significant ties with Elizabethan theatre. It’s generally well known, I think, that in Shakespeare’s time London playhouses had to be sited beyond the pale, i.e. outside the City Walls. The rather puritanical City fathers disapproved of anything which smacked of entertainment and, therefore, theatres found themselves outlawed to areas such as Shoreditch, Southwark and Cripplegate (the area where the Barbican now stands). In the closing years of the 16th century Shakespeare’s theatre company, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, were forced to leave their centre of operations in Shordeditch (at The Theatre and The Curtain) and move to Southwark. Here they set up the Globe Theatre built from the timbers of The Theatre which had, incidentally, been stowed in the area of The Bridewell, also outside the City Walls and one of the places where Tower Theatre gives many of its current performances. The new Globe was now situated near to The Rose which was under the control of their company’s biggest rivals, The Admiral’s Men. Rather than start a box office war the latter decamped to the north side of the river and put up the Fortune Theatre just north of where the current Barbican Theatre stands. (If you’re interested in London playhouses of the period, an absolute goldmine is available at the ShaLT website)
Nor is that the limit of the area’s connection to the Elizabethan/Jacobean dramatic scene. For about eight years from 1604, Shakespeare was known to have lodged in a house on Silver Street which was just inside the City Walls – the house itself was destroyed in the Great Fire of London. The landlords were a French family, the Mountjoys, whose trade was making “tires” – extremely fancy headdresses for the ladies of the court and, probably, for theatrical costumes. Shakespeare was lodging there while writing many of his later works (Othello and King Lear for instance) and got caught up as a witness in the case of an unpaid dowry involving the Mountjoy’s daughter. Court records of the time give us the only words known to have been actually spoken by the playwright. The whole fascinating tale is told in Charles Nicholl’s “The Lodger” which I’ve just finished reading.
The second reason that the Barbican is an appropriate venue has much to do with the setting of the current production. I don’t think I’m giving too much away if I say that the look and period of the play is late 1940s. Designed by Tom Piper, it now takes place in an abandoned and bombed out theatre where the magical events happen. The area in which the whole Barbican complex now stands was one of the most ravaged in World War 2. Sited close to St Paul’s Cathedral (probably the real target of the Luftwaffe) which miraculously emerged from the Blitz virtually unscathed, the area surrounding Cripplegate was all but razed to the ground. Pictures taken at the time show a bomb scared landscape but out of this a new sense of hope was due to emerge. How appropriate, then, that this latest version of The Dream will be playing in an area which once looked just like that conjured up by our brilliant designer.
After the war the Cripplegate area stood derelict for many years until a housing estate – the Barbican – was built there between 1965 and 1976 (Silver Street disappeared in this redevelopment). Designed by architects Chamberlin, Powell and Bon it is celebrated, though some would say derided, for its Brutalist style; whatever one’s view it now has Grade 2 listed status. (If you want to learn more about the architecture please click here). The building of The Barbican Centre arts complex followed and this was opened in 1982. The complex consists of a concert hall (home to the London Symphony Orchestra), two theatres, three cinemas, two art galleries, a library, two trade exhibition halls, conference facilities, foyers, shops, eateries, public spaces and a conservatory. You can see the development of some of these aspects by clicking here and using the sliders to reveal the changes that occurred.
The two theatres (The Barbican and The Pit) were always envisaged as the London home of the Royal Shakespeare Company ; thus the company was instrumental in advising on the design and proportions of the auditoria. There are some interesting photographs of the main house in development here. Their very first production was a double bill of the Henry IV plays directed by Trevor Nunn with Joss Ackland as Falstaff. Also in that opening season were productions of All’s Well That Ends Well, The Winter’s Tale and … of course, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This was directed by Ron Daniels and the cast included Juliet Stevenson as Titania and Harriet Walter as Helena.
The RSC regularly brought its productions down from Stratford and even opened new shows there – perhaps the most celebrated (though at the time the reviews were, to put it politely, mixed) being a “shot in the dark” musical, Les Miserables in 1985. There was a somewhat acrimonious split between the RSC and the Barbican in 2001 but in 2013 it was announced that the, by now, totally Stratford based company would be forging a new relationship with the venue. I think I’m right in saying that it was in the same breath that the plans for what was to become A Play For The Nation were first announced.
The RSC said it would lead a nationwide celebration of Shakespeare on the 400th anniversary of his death on 23 April 2016. The celebrations would culminate with a project called Dream 16 which would see a tour of A Midsummer Night’s Dream where Bottom and the rude mechanicals would be played by local amateur groups and Titania’s fairy train by local schoolchildren – The Guardian, September 10th 2013
With the Barbican being the RSC’s long standing London home it is entirely appropriate, not to say extremely rewarding, for the production to be playing there.
I’ve been to the Barbican theatre on many occasions but always as a member of the audience. I like it as a theatre. It’s large but at the same time intimate; no seat is located more than 20 metres from the stage and the tiered seating provides excellent views. For those of you who wish to know more, here is the relevant document (Barbican theatre technical spec) The thing that jumps out at you straightaway on that list is the sheer numbers of seats to fill (over 1,000 if you didn’t click). Those of us in amateurland generally fight a constant battle to get bums on seats. In the last week alone I’ve attended two good quality amateur performances but audience numbers were, to put it euphemistically, disappointing. Now we’re faced with the daunting but stimulating prospect of playing to our biggest audiences ever and, such is the interest in the project and the first class reviews gained by our preceding colleagues that about 90% of those tickets have been sold.
When the team first went to the Barbican theatre about a year ago to have the official group photographs taken we were shown onto the stage looking out to the auditorium. I can’t speak for the others but I think this was the moment at which it really began to sink in quite what we had achieved and could begin look forward to. Next time we look out in the same direction it will all be “for real”. Better go and check those words through again!
This week the production is at the Theatre Royal in Nottingham– click on the image below to reveal full details.