Where we play

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 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)

Agas map
Cripplegate – The Mountjoy’s house circled in red and site of the present Barbican marked with a blue star

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.

RSC 1982 production poster

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. 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.

Barbican seats
Opening night – looking good

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.


Where we play

We two have shared

I know I have said it before but the level of intensity on Week 5 of rehearsals for A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation rose sharply again. This was the penultimate week of the mainstream rehearsals and the final week that the professional company was due to be working in London so it was definitely time for a final push. To help with this there were link ups to both Norwich and Nottingham in order to share good practice and trade ideas. It is a wonder that there are any new ideas left to have but that, of course, is part of the joy of Shakespeare. There is always something new to discover; even if you haven’t discovered it yourself it’s likely that someone else has. Sharing has been absolutely at the heart of this project throughout – professionals with amateurs, amateurs with each other, regional theatres with local communities and so on.

Erica directs The Bear Pit while Tower watches

On Wednesday evening it was a real treat to welcome our colleagues from the Bear Pit (one of the two teams from Stratford upon Avon) to Clapham and share our discoveries. The Saturday hubs meant that I had had plenty of shared Bottom time. However, this was the first occasion that the rest of the Tower Dreamteam had had the opportunity to work with their counterparts from another part of the country. Although there are similarities between the two teams there are some notable differences: their Quince is male and ours female, the Starvelings are the other way round and there could not be a greater difference in the physical appearance of our Snugs/Lions. It all serves to show how diverse this production is going to be as it tours the country. One aspect that will be the same, of course, is the professional cast and Lucy who is playing Puck was also on hand that evening to help us try out different ways of approaching the scene where the mechanicals rehearse Pyramus and Thisbe. We were able to demonstrate some intricate business with an almanac which had finally been resolved the evening before and a complicated exit was shown to us by the Bear Pitters. We will still need to perfect this but have a little bit more time than they do – their first performances are less than two weeks off (good luck, guys!). It was great fun working for the evening with such a talented bunch of like-minded people and we are looking forward to seeing the final results when we go up to Stratford and watch the Bear Pit company on stage in a few weeks’ time.

The run through with special guest Sue Downing

Friday was a big day for our team and, as it transpired a very long one. Firstly, I had a rehearsal call to go and work with Ayesha on the Titania/Bottom scenes. This was my first attempt at these; time had been at such a premium on the Saturday sessions that I had never actually got to my feet though I had spent quite a few hours observing my colleagues and how the scenes were to be structured. I had also spent a good deal of time thinking things through and having some preliminary practice with David and Karen (our director and rehearsal Titania). That said I was relieved to run the scenes through – especially given what was to come that afternoon. This was the time scheduled for the first full run through of the play and Tower had been invited to participate. There was a clear sense of expectation in the room as the professional actors arrived along with the entire creative team and the rest of the Tower players. Our one absentee was Maria who simply could not take time out of work. Erica had arranged that Sue Downing (Quince from the Kidderminster Nonentities company) who was visiting London, would substitute. Erica gathered us all together to offer some final words of encouragement, we all sang a rousing “Happy Birthday” to Sue and then we were off.

Of course there were great swathes of the production which we had never had the opportunity to watch (I had never seen Oberon in action for instance) and so there were some truly remarkable and surprising moments to appreciate. Our scenes were full of nervous energy as the adrenaline flowed; Sue’s expertise meant she fitted into our staging with little difficulty. My own scenes with Ayesha also went smoothly although I have to admit I did get Peaseblossom and Cobweb mixed up at one stage and I certainly didn’t get through the Bergomask dance unscathed. The rest of the team was also on fine form and both Adam and Al drew applause from the gathered audience which must have run to fifty people. I should mention that among these was the near-legendary former RSC Voice Director Cicely Berry now in her ninth decade; what an honour! Three hours later it was all over; I felt drained but elated but I think we acquitted ourselves well and it has shown us what things we still need to work on. Even that wasn’t quite the end – that evening we all had costume fittings with designer Tom Piper and the wardrobe team. It is great to see what we will be wearing and it provided a calming coda to what had been a tremendous day and one that I feel thoroughly privileged to have experienced.

A trio of Bottoms with a side order of Mustardseed and Titania

And so to Saturday and the last of the Bottom hubs. This was attended by five of us in London linking up to our three Midlands colleagues with the opportunity for the rest of the country to tune in online as usual. The morning concentrated on the Titania/Bottom scenes and refining the detail of their two close encounters. At one stage there was quite an intense debate about the underlying sexuality of the scenes and whether Bottom’s transformation into an ass had included the acquisition of “attributes” other than a pair of ears. Nothing amiss with that of course, if anything I was a bit surprised that the topic had not arisen before. However, it was perhaps a little ironic that this was the exact time a journalist from Radio 4’s Front Row put in an appearance to investigate our rehearsal – she must have thought we were all a bit obsessed! Over the lunchbreak the same journalist interviewed us for a forthcoming feature; this time the carnal aspects of the play were carefully avoided.

When we got back to the rehearsal room a huge transition had taken place. While we had been away any remaining furniture, props and other rehearsal paraphernalia had been packed away in a van and whisked off to Stratford – even the walls had been stripped of all the notes, photographs, drawings and lists which had previously been there. Thus it was that the final afternoon’s work was carried out in a somewhat bare space and in an atmosphere of slightly Chekovian melancholy that this aspect of the work was drawing to a close. The time was spent investigating Bottom’s monologue in Act 4 and, as ever, several versions were tried; it has given me several ideas for how I might approach this key moment. And then suddenly that was it, the production’s time in London was up (well, until the actual play reaches the capital in May) and everything has moved to Stratford for final rehearsals, previews and the opening night. Although a key chapter in the production process has drawn to a close, a new and even more exciting chapter is just about to begin; best wishes to the two Stratford teams as they take us down the home straight towards opening night.

We two have shared

You have been listening to….. (Task 3)

It’s been another busy week on the Play For A Nation project as the Tower team prepared its radio adaptation of the Pyramus and Thisbe section of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This was the third preparatory task set for the various Dreamteams by the RSC ahead of rehearsals starting in January (just one month left to go now!). For Task Two, other commitments meant we had had to do the task quickly before various folk disappeared to other parts of the globe. By the same token the same commitments this time meant that everything had to be squeezed in at the latter end of the given time frame. Still it’s always helpful to have a bit of pressure – no really!

Three directors for the price of one – David, Erica and Kim

Ahead of this, however, we were due our second visit from project director Erica Whyman. In fact this time turned out to be a double header as Assistant Director Kim Sykes was also in attendance. Erica started by letting us have a sneak preview of some of the costume designs. These (along with the setting) are being designed by Tom Piper – one half of the duo responsible for the Tower poppies installation last year. The concept of the production is that the play will be set in the Britain of the late 1940s. As Erica revealed in an article in The Independent recently: “It’s about the country coming together after surviving a traumatic time and about the post war austerity. It fits with the play. It will have a Dad’s Army quality about it. That sense of an ill-equipped group of people.” Not quite sure who Erica is thinking of when she makes the Dad’s Army analogy as the Tower team are all in the first flush of youth (Ahem!) What the costume designs show is that the characters will be very firmly rooted in their professions and that means overalls, aprons, work boots and so on.

After this it was down to some practical work. Firstly, we read through our original audition scene and it was interesting, coming back to it, to see that we soon fell back into the speech rhythms and intonations that we had used previously. Originally I had been playing the scene as though there was some already established antagonism between my Bottom (sorry!) and Maria’s Quince. Erica pointed out that this particular scene was the first time the audience will meet the characters and that if the antagonism starts too early then there is really nowhere for the characters to go and that a more obvious spirit of co-operation at this point would give us greater room for development at a later stage. This, of course, made perfect dramatic sense and when, after being giving a number of other suggestions and ideas, we read the scene again I felt that it worked much better for this new approach.

We then moved onto the scene where the Mechanicals have their first rehearsal of the play they are due to perform; this was one we had not tackled before so was an interesting departure. This time we got the scene “on its feet” and explored various possibilities. All the time both Erica and Kim were building on the good points, trying alternatives and gradually refining what we were doing; at the same time we were encouraged to use our own ideas and develop our sense of the character. As Bottom I had developed a tendency to do a lot of striding about and going up to whichever of the other characters I was addressing, so Erica asked me to try the scene taking up a dominant position down right and not budging throughout. While it was quite difficult to do this it actually gave the character a palpable sense of power. It also meant that the scene didn’t get “closed down” by the actors being too close to one another; we need to keep reminding ourselves that when we get to perform it will be on rather larger and wider stages than most of us are used to. It’s not necessarily the case that the scene will end up in this configuration but it’s instructive to explore possibilities.

As with the previous visit the time we spent together flew by but what a lot we learned in that short space! As Erica and Kim departed it was somewhat sobering to be reminded that the next time we meet directly, we will be in actual proper rehearsals –eek!

Al, Tom and Karen at the mic

And so on to our task of the radio play. For this we allotted one evening for practice and one for recording, both to be carried out in the basement area of director David’s house – it’s not easy finding somewhere in London without extraneous noise. The rehearsal was, as ever, a healthy mixture of work and play and we soon realized there were two distinct elements to the piece; the play within the play and the running commentary that is provided by the onstage audience. This meant some doubling had to take place; not for me fortunately, my character already has enough to say for himself. Thus Tom as well as playing Starveling would use his carefully enunciated tones in playing Duke Theseus, Adam and Al (Flute and Snout) would also take on Lysander and Demetrius and in a chance to get fully involved for the first time Karen (our rehearsal Titania) would be Hippolyta. Strangely although the characters Helena and Hermia are present in the scene they have no lines to say; perhaps Shakespeare is making a point here…although equally perhaps he isn’t. We also decided to add mutterings, murmurings and some laughter from the rest of us as unnamed members of the court.

Recording was a real experience and gave us a taste of how complicated this process could actually be. We were fortunate to be able to call on the skills of film maker and general sound guru Leon Chambers who was able to bring along some top notch equipment and who fortunately had a game plan of how we should proceed. Firstly we recorded all the lines of the play within a play involving Pyramus and Thisbe, the Wall, Lion and Moonshine. This also included the notoriously tricky Prologue by Quince – a test for any actor. A couple of “takes” of each section were tried varying intonation and intensity. All the meaning of course had to be conveyed by our voices alone (the real purpose of the task) although personally I felt it helped to semi act it at the same time as verbalising which led to some extraordinary postures and grimacings at the microphone. As previously, our efforts were being filmed for the BBC documentary so I hope the more excessive contortions won’t be making the final edit.

Technical whizz – Leon

Next we recorded the interjections by the court characters which are interspersed throughout the scene together with any accompanying laughter (there’s a lot of sycophancy and one upmanship going on here we discovered). Finally and most bizarrely we all sat around for the best part of a minute and chuckled, guffawed, laughed, tittered, hooted, gurgled, sniggered and chortled away to provide linking material. With a speed that defies description, Leon then edited everything together in about 20 minutes and there it was, our 14 minute epic take on “the most lamentable comedy and cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe”.

In a week in which the great Glenda Jackson returned (after a 23 year hiatus – not sure what she’s been doing; oh yes, featuring in a long running comedy set somewhere in Westminster) to appear in a radio play it seemed fitting that the Tower Dreamteam was taking its first faltering steps to glory in that medium. We’ve conquered radio, we’ve been filmed for TV so what next …oh yes, just that little matter of the stage!

Yesterday this blog received a visit from its 1,000th viewer. Sincere thanks for all the support over the last few months – long may it continue.

You have been listening to….. (Task 3)

One, Two, Three…Go!

“We are going to set you three tasks!” No, not the words of the king of a fairy tale land to the prince hopeful of winning the hand of the beautiful princess. These were the words spoken by Erica Whyman the project director for the RSC’s Play For The Nation and they were being said via a laptop stationed in the Tower Theatre office in the Bridewell in London. Our Dreamteam along with the thirteen others around the country had gathered together to participate in an online get together via Google Hang Outs (no me, neither – think of it as similar to Skype … if you’re not sure what that is then you’re probably on a hiding to nothing).

The Common Lot from Norwich (minus Amelia who was with us)
The Common Lot from Norwich (minus Amelia – who was with us)

Tagging along with our group we were very pleased to welcome Amelia, a member of the Norwich team, the Common Lot. She is playing Quince for them; having recently moved down to London she will be commuting backwards and forwards once the real fun starts. Good luck with that and if you’re looking for a friendly and ambitious company to join once this great adventure is over……

If anyone’s trying to do the maths that means that around the country there were getting on for a hundred of us huddled round screens, eager to hear what Erica had to say and if possible pose some questions. At the end of the session we would know what first task the RSC were going to set us as preparation for our work on the production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Indeed that is what the autumn sessions are going to be all about – some preparatory tasks and further work with RSC trainers on voice, movement etc. If all that wasn’t exciting enough each group was being filmed by regional teams from the BBC. I may not have mentioned this so far – there’s been so much else to reveal – that the plan is for each amateur company to have a documentary about its progress aired in their performance week– a piece of show promotion that most amateur groups could only dream about. The programme is provisionally entitled The Best Bottoms In The Land and, if you take my tip, I wouldn’t try Googling that!

Erica - overall director of the project
Erica – overall director of the project

Erica outlined her vision for the production and spoke about her preferred way of working and exploring the text. Though she admitted to a little trepidation – something of this size and scale has never been tried before – I think we all felt confident that this was something that could be made to work. Questions about set, costumes, period setting, music and lighting were dealt with. I really don’t want to give away too much at this point – in any case, nothing is yet set in stone – but I’m particularly excited that the set designer is Tom Piper, one of the two geniuses responsible for the stunning poppy display at the Tower of London last year.

Our group director, David, had already received an official letter from the RSC and once Erica’s introduction was over she asked the groups to open this and read out the contents.
Task 1 covering letter
Once this was done the focus shifted to each individual group and we were invited to introduce ourselves and the roles we were playing and to pose one pertinent question (per group) to Erica. The wonders of modern technology (hurrah for the RSC techies!) meant we were able to see and hear everything each group said – well apart from Cornwall who got rather lost in technical glitches – shame about that guys). It was all a bit reminiscent of the old style voting on the Eurovision Song Contest where they called in the results from participating countries. However, it was nice to put faces to names that I’d been swopping banter with on Facebook for weeks. Once this was done we were handed our individual tasks.

Rather than use the Dream itself (there will be enough of that next year) at this stage the RSC are encouraging us to work on our general Shakespeare skills. To that end we have all been given a speech or duologue from another play to research, learn and then perform/film before the end of the month. The chosen extracts have been selected to help us find out more about an aspect of the character we are due to play. What was amazing is that each piece has been tailored for the individual actor/actress rather than for each of the six roles. They are not specific to the age, physicality or even gender of the participants and it must have been a real labour of love finding quite so many differing pieces to challenge us with. Of course some duplication was inevitable and I know that a few of my fellow Bottoms have “Blow winds and crack your cheeks” from King Lear to work on. I can only assume that they think I’ve already got shouting a lot and raging against overwhelming odds off pat and therefore need to develop another aspect of stagecraft. Anyway, here is how it worked out for us:

  • Maria (playing Quince) – Jacques: “All the world’s a stage…” (As You Like It 2.7)
  • Adam (playing Flute) – Hermione: “Sir, spare your threats…” (The Winter’s Tale 3.2)
  • Peta (playing Snug) & Tom (playing Starveling) – Othello and Iago: “My noblelord/What dost thou say, Iago?” (Othello 3.3)
  • Al (playing Snout) – Claudio: “Ay but to die and go we know what where…” (Measure For Measure 3.1)
  • John (playing Bottom) – “O, pardon me thou bleeding piece of earth…” (Julius Caesar 3.1)

Now if you’ve been paying attention you’ll notice that I slipped in the word ‘film’ back there; that’s right we have to record our efforts for posterity – well, the RSC anyhow. This will be nothing fancy and we can achieve this using any method open to us – apparently even VHS is an option! Once filmed the pieces will be sent to the RSC for analysis, comment and feedback – this latter will be happening at the next mass session in October when we’ll also be set Task 2. However, just to keep us on our toes, on the night of our next live link up some of us will be selected to perform our piece live to all the groups and, of course, the RSC themselves. No pressure then – all I can say is thank heavens we’ve already passed the auditions!

Now then, just time to peruse the RSC brochure and newsletter which arrived this week (and which really confirms the whole enterprise as official) and then it’s time to start some Mark Antony learning: “Et tu, Brute!” – oh no, hang on, that’s the other bloke!

RSC season brochure - inside

One, Two, Three…Go!