Methinks once more

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Now that’s a year which everyone of a certain age tends to remember as rather momentous. The BBC first broadcast in colour, the first credit card was launched in the UK, the Aberfan disaster happened, Henry Cooper managed the seemingly impossible by flooring Muhammud Ali and, of course, England won the World Cup (those were the days). I remember 1966 for another particular  reason – it was the year I took my first steps on the amateur stage at a local church hall with a group called the St Mary’s Players. It was in a somewhat creaky old farce called Caught Napping by Geoffrey Lumsden who later regularly appeared in Dad’s Army as Mainwaring’s rival Captain Square. By a strange quirk of fate he also played Egeus in a 1981 TV version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Lumsden

I can’t really recall much about Caught Napping but according to www.doollee.com/ it is set in a boys’ school at the beginning of the Easter holidays, when all the pupils should have departed for the vacation. But one remains behind surreptitiously for the sake of a racehorse called Gwendoline. In no time at all his housemaster’s home is brought to a state of upheaval, made even more complicated by the fact that an effigy of the headmaster has been found in the square, seated in a bath subsequently discovered missing from a bathroom in another teacher, Mr. Potts’s house. Well, it was one of those farces! Somebody definitely lost their trousers en route though I don’t recall any feather dusting maids or doddery vicars; there were, however, definitely french windows! I played the aforementioned schoolboy who rejoiced in the name of Laker-Hopp – not a great stretch of my nascent acting abilities at the time (though I did have to try and be posh). His big scene was to pretend that a rare illness he had contracted caused him to bound about the stage croaking like a Greek frog (brekke-ke-kex, ko-ax, ko-ax!) My only other real memory was thinking I knew what I was doing with stage makeup and producing something that was a cross between  a circus clown and Frankenstein’s Creature. And now here I am 50 years later in Stratford-upon-Avon…and what a way to celebrate that particular anniversary!

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Falcon hotel

As I sit here in the Falcon Hotel (where all the amateurs are being put up) I can reflect on what a long road I’ve travelled. Nearly 150 productions working with groups such as Actors Anonymous, Mark II, most particularly and fondly with the Redbridge Stage Company (the other RSC) and more latterly with Tower Theatre and SEDOS. Highlights abound such as playing Hector in The History Boys, appearing at the Minack as Mr Micawber in David Copperfield, being in the amateur premiere of Noises Off, directing 30 productions including some cracking school plays (Lord of the Flies a particular favourite) and best of all getting to work with scores, even hundreds of other like-minded performers, directors, technicians and theatre folk; it has been a constant thread in my life.

I’m just about to set off for a day’s rehearsal and performance with the world renowned Royal Shakespeare Company on their home territory at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre (now there’s a sentence I never thought I’d be writing). It’s only taken 50 years to get here. Has it been worth it? Methinks it most definitely hath!

Caught Napping
I knew that gesture would come in handy again sometime!

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                     The Tower Theatre performing with the Royal Shakespeare Company                                at The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

Monday 11th and Tuesday 12th July at 7.15

Methinks once more

Getting back on the hor.. donkey

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It’s a funny thing that despite many years spent in the world of am dram I have only very rarely been involved with the same play on more than one occasion; in fact looking back I could only find six examples. And in just four instances have I returned to the same role. So it is with no particular form in the field that after a two month lay off I find myself returning to dust off my Bottom (hooray, finally a new angle on an old favourite) and revive our work for the good people and tourists of Stratford-upon-Avon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation.

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Checking the words? Photo by Topher McGrillis RSC

Of course, Bottom’s never really taken a back seat (hmm, doesn’t quite work that one) as the production has formed a constant underscoring to the rest of daily life as it made its way to Cardiff, Belfast and then back to Warwickshire. At this point each of the 14 teams around the country went to Stratford to play there for two days. It has been quite exciting to follow the progress of my colleagues in their teams as one by one they pick up the baton in this theatrical relay race and get to perform on the stage of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

A couple of weeks ago we in the Tower team met up for our first rehearsal for some time but, it has to be said, this was more an excuse for a meal (Greek, naturally) than an attempt to get down to serious business. Our Maria was unfortunately poorly but nothing daunted we used what we had learned from the RSC and employed video technology (i.e. Skype) to hook up with her and have a line run. Then during the last

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Tom’s props go back to basics!

week the Tower Team reconvened properly to reacquaint ourselves with characters we are playing and get to grips with their dialogue. The main concern was that, in the interim, the words might have disappeared into the ether but I’m happy to report that our muscle memories do not seem to have become flabby just yet – certainly, after all the earlier work and training that went in, that’s a massive relief. Words, intonations, actions, reactions and interactions seemed to flow with relative ease. It’s all a bit like riding a horse donkey – once done it’s not easily forgotten.

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David puts us through our paces

What will be principally different is the staging. As noted in a recent post the RST has a thrust stage and it’s difficult to recreate this in the small rehearsal space at our disposal – no longer do we have the luxury of being spoiled by the vast expanses available at the RSC rehearsal rooms in Clapham or at the Barbican. However, it’s home and with a bit of imagination we were able to manage. It was strange, now, working without costume and props (or indeed the other actors) but it all seemed to fall back into place reasonably easily. Our understanding is that we will be exploring the stage space throughout most of our Monday rehearsal time in Stratford ahead of our first performance in the evening so we will need to be on the ball in order to get it right just a few hours later.

So now our (second) big moment is nearly upon us as we begin the final section of our awfully big adventure. Time to pack a bag and head off to Stratford trying to fit in and around the finals at Wimbledon and Saint Denis (you’d have thought they would have had more consideration really!) We’ve got our own final to concentrate on; I think it’s going to be somewhat emotional.


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The Tower Theatre performing with the Royal Shakespeare Company at The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

Monday 11th and Tuesday 12th July at 7.15

Getting back on the hor.. donkey

Make It Two More

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What could be better than a journey to Stratford-upon-Avon to see a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream? How about a journey to Stratford-upon-Avon to see two productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream? Given that it would soon be our turn to perform on the RSC’s home turf and that we’ve had the best part of six weeks off this seemed an ideal way to reboot and to get prepared for the final push. I wanted to visit one of the midweek matinees in the third or fourth week which meant seeing either the Leeds/Bradford mechanicals or those from Nottingham. Actually I really wanted to see both as I’d so enjoyed what both my fellow Bottoms (Barry and Becky respectively) had brought to the part in rehearsal but a choice, unfortunately, had to be made. Resorting to the well-worn tradition of the coin toss, fate chose Leeds/Bradford. Sorry Nottingham but I promise I did watch your version of the Best Bottoms TV programme and it certainly looked like you were having a ball.

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Six characters (and three directors) in search on an author: the Leeds/Bradford team

The journey up on the train was uneventful and Stratford looked delightful in some rare midsummer sunshine. Shortly after 1pm I took my seat in a packed RST auditorium for the Play For A Nation version. On this occasion I had deliberately chosen to opt for a seat in the Circle as I wanted to get a feel for the view from that position. The RST’s auditorium is steep and it also has a thrust stage (as opposed to the more traditional proscenium stage at the Barbiacan) so we will need to give some thought to our blocking and the techniques which will need to be employed to ensure all members of the audience feel included. I caught the eye of the lady sitting two seats along from me who nodded, leant forward and said “I think you were the Bottom in London”. I was slightly taken aback but said that I indeed was and asked how she knew. It turned out that she had seen the production at the Barbican and was so impressed with it that she thought she would bring her mother to see it at Stratford. There were murmurings/pointings from others around us who had obviously overheard but at that point Tarek and Lucy appeared on stage, the lights dimmed, the play began and I was able to sink back into anonymity.

The performance was a captioned one; it was quite tempting to keep checking the screen to ensure there had been no paraphrasing but of course there wasn’t. We’re talking about professionals here – even the amateurs are professional in their approach. There was a sense of comfort about the production by now; rather like putting on a favourite cardigan though of course for the majority of the audience this was unfamiliar territory and it was great to hear them react on cue to things that I knew were about to happen (Ben Goffe’s sudden appearance towards the end of Act 1 still brings the house down).

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The RST thrust stage and auditorium (with voms clearly visible)

I made mental notes as the play proceeded as to exits and entrances. A lot of these were along the walkways through the stalls audience known as voms – short for vomitoria, though this has nothing to do with being sick. Everything was just slightly different on the thrust stage itself; the main technique seemed to be to play on a diagonal line – somewhat similar to the positioning used for “in the round” staging. At the same time I enjoyed the performances of my fellow Mechanicals and loved some of the new ideas (to me anyway) they brought to the roles. As we have constantly found there are a number of ways but no single right way to interpret these Shakespearean characters.

At half time I went outside to stretch my legs and had a wander around the grounds and gardens. One thing that caught my eye was the Stratfords of the World Friendship Flowerbed which featured beautiful willow sculptures of Bottom and Titania by artist Emma Stothard. Suddenly I spotted most of the Canterbury team who had just arrived in order to pick up the baton the following day. They were evidently excited at the prospect of appearing in Stratford (who wouldn’t be?) but just a little bit sad that their Flute (Adam) was going to be unable to perform due to ill health. Though hardly the same, I am sure he was with the team in spirit; get better soon, Adam.

The second half of the play fairly flew by and my resolve to keep a mental note of the exits and entrances rapidly went out of the window as I got caught up in the action of the play generally and the play within a play more specifically. Again some very different choices from our own made for a highly diverting 20 minutes or so (it’s easy to forget how long the last scene actually runs). Then we were into the Bergomask, the children’s big moment in the blessing and finally Puck’s farewell.

I took myself round to the stage door – reminding myself that very soon we would be going through it as performers – where I met up with several of the cast. Ken (the Leeds amateur director) was particularly enlightening as to what to expect during the first day of intense rehearsal and Barry was, as ever, on good form. AD Kim was also there and she gave me a quick briefing on what our team should be doing to prepare for our performances. Despite being the last day of June the weather was quite chilly so a brisk walk beside the Avon was called for and this took me in the right direction for my next destination. My theatrical main course at the RST had been well and truly digested and it was now time for dessert – interestingly this was to be made out of the same ingredients.

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The Other Place studio theatre

I was heading for The Other Place, the RSC’s studio theatre, which was hosting the Playmaking Festival. Schools local and national had put in a bid to perform a specially commissioned half hour Dream and the fifty chosen ( Playmaking Festival Programme) were performing across two weeks. I had booked to see Stratford College’s version (simply because this was conducive to my timings) but there were five different schools performing throughout that day. What a great experience for the young performers and the group I saw were evidently relishing what they were doing.

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Children’s work being displayed in the foyer

They were Post 16 students on a BTEC Performing Arts course and contained some highly promising performers; they’ll have to forgive me if I refer to character rather than actual names but I’ve no way of knowing the latter. Oberon had a very strong speaking voice and Puck was a good foil to his scheming. The four lovers were well cast and the girls, particularly, came across well. Perhaps I’m slightly biased but I was most impressed by the Mechanicals who had a good sense of comedy both verbal and physical and threw themselves into what they were doing with abandon. Top turns came from Bottom and Flute and I was pleased to be able to tell them so afterwards.

I wished I could have stayed to watch the primary school that were to perform in the next slot but time and the rail system wait for no man. So I headed back to the station reflecting that the next time I would be in Stratford it would be to appear at the top Shakespearean venue in the country (the world?). Time to start getting serious again!


The production runs for two more weeks in Stratford upon Avon. Click on the image below for details

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The Tower Theatre performing with the Royal Shakespeare Company at The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

Monday 11th and Tuesday 12th July at 7.15

Make It Two More

Midsummer @ Midsummer (Part The Second)

It was Midsummer last week so there was a lot going on. As the previous post threatened to grow to unmanageable proportions bisection was the obvious answer. For continuity purposes you might like to read Part The First, first!
Right, all caught up? Then off we go!

Not content with offering 84 adults the opportunity to work on the professional stage through its flagship 2016 production A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation, the RSC has also been extremely busy ensuring that the next generation engage with this most popular of Shakespeare plays. Regular readers will be aware that bands of fairies up and down the country have been drafted into the production and received excellent coaching from the RSC mentors (click here). The Education Department has also produced first rate supportive materials to encourage teachers to explore the play with their pupils in their own schools (click here).

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Last week another family oriented experience took place on the banks of the Avon namely the Fairy Portal Camp – click here. This was devised and led by Slung Low theatre company assisted by The School Of Night and RashDash. The camp’s aim was “to reopen the connection between us and the spirit world” and was loosely based on Shakespeare generally and some of the themes in The Dream. During the week visiting participants could simply drop in and take part in free activities including willow-work, poetry classes, improvisation, cooking, costume making, singing, dance classes and writing workshops. Each evening a silent disco ‘fairy rave’ took place around a bonfire, dinner featuring vegan food was served and performances of song, dance, drama and poetry took place under the trees. Celebrations culminated on Saturday 25th June with the attempt to ‘open the portal’ between the two worlds through a theatrical immersive ceremony of feast, fire and song – complete with mechanical dolphins travelling down the River Avon.

Sounds irresistible and so it proved to one of the Tower team. Having already seen a performance at the RST earlier in the week our trusty man of action Al, (“one Snout by name”) took the long road back to Stratford.
Dream 2016 producer Ian Wainwright had put out a call for participants for a flash mob which would suddenly appear and do the main production’s Bergomask dance in the Fairy Portal Camp, a collection of tipis up near Holy Trinity Church (presumably so that Will could keep an eye on things). I thought twice about going (and Ian clearly thought I was mad to turn up), but the journey free of weekday traffic early on Saturday was smooth, and I was spurred on by the hope of getting a day ticket for the evening ceremony in order to make a day of it.

I was first in the queue at the theatre, only to find, when they opened at 10.00am, that the Fairy Portal tickets were down at The Other Place, to which place I duly ran, arriving to find myself about sixth in the queue. Worse was to follow: there were no day tickets at all! But Matthew from The Other Place took my phone number, and during the morning he called me to let me know that a ticket had become available.

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Flashflood

This was as I was coming away from the aforementioned flash mob performance of the Bergomask. This actually got close to being a flash flood as the heavens opened just as Ian was deciding where (and even if) we should perform. After a few minutes under umbrellas, it got so bad that we had to take refuge in a tipi where we were made welcome until the rain stopped. After that, the Bergomask went ahead led by Glasgow’s Bottom, Martin Turner. The mob was a motley crew, including the Glasgow Citizens Dream team who were

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Flashmob

currently playing the Mechanicals, members of the main company including stage management and production, other assorted Mechanicals like me, and director Erica who, fittingly, knew all the dance moves. The opening of the Fairy Portal, later, was a magical evening of storytelling, songs, dancing, eating, and transformation leading up to the final summoning ceremony.

In between these two events I went to the newly refurbished and reopened Other Place for a coffee and found myself taking the tour of the building (recommended). It was a particular pleasure to see a picture displayed of the first read-through of our Dream production at Clapham; this was outside the top floor rehearsal room on a revolving slide show screen (if you see what I mean). Long may it stay there! And there I was in the picture, and there were all of the Tower cast with the main company. Ian Wainwright had said after that read-through, that there was a big sigh of relief when it became clear that this Dream bird was going to fly. And we are soon flying up to Stratford for our two nights onstage on the 11th and 12th July, not by private helicopter, but hey, are we looking forward to it…………!

With you on that one, Al and thanks for your report.

Playmaking Festival

As you’ll have gathered by now the RSC is VERY big on A Midsummer Night’s Dream this year and the next addition to the growing roster of events is the Dream Team Playmaking Festival. Last year schools were invited to put together a production of a specially commissioned half hour adaptation of the play and now over 50 schools (and 1,600 children) have been invited to Stratford to give a performance of their version at either The Other Place or The Dell, the open air performance space which had hosted the Fairy Portal Camp. Another great feat of logistics by the backroom boys and girls of the RSC but one that really shows their commitment to inclusivity. I’ll have more to say on all this in my next post as I’m going to sample one of these performances alongside a visit to the main house production and, now that I’ve seen Al’s report, I’ll hopefully fit in a tour round The Other Place exhibition. It’s all go, isn’t it?

Meanwhile (and talking of impressive logistics) let’s wrap up this post with some of the statistics which have characterised the touring production:

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The production runs for two more weeks in Stratford upon Avon. Click on the image below for details

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The Tower Theatre will be performing with the Royal Shakespeare Company at The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

Monday 11th and Tuesday 12th July at 7.15

Midsummer @ Midsummer (Part The Second)

Midsummer @ Midsummer (Part The First)

Well…that vote was a bit of an eye-opener wasn’t it? No not THAT vote – I’m referring to the poll launched on a previous post which raised the thorny question of when, exactly, Midsummer falls. Well the people (some people) have spoken and after a close run thing I am happy to announce that the people are…undecided. The various dates which were suggested polled roughly equal numbers. Slightly ahead (and therefore, of course, the democratic winner so no whinging, whining or signing ‘please can we have a rerun’ petitions) was the delightfully vague category of “other”. One might almost think that it wasn’t of enough importance to people. It’s not as though there was anything else of significance going on last week, was there? The best we can say then, is that Midsummer is “around this time of year” (probably) so let’s just call last week Midsummer Week and that keeps most voters happy. Thus there will be no need to invoke Fairy Article 50 and we can all get on with our lives.

So what DID happen during the week most closely connected to A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation? Quite a lot as it turns out – in fact there’s so much to say that I’ve decided to split this post into two – especially as I have another of my wonderful roving reporters to help me out. This time it’s the turn of Mr Al Freeman who is playing Snout the tinker (who in turn plays Wall in Pyramus and Thisbe). So, over to you Wall – sorry, Al!

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Photo by Topher McGrillis RSC
I went up to Stratford on Tuesday 21st June to see the People’s Theatre from Newcastle take their turn in the Dream encore performances. Back in 1994, I was in Newcastle training to be a teacher, and had done a couple of shows with them. Looking back, I don’t now know how I managed to get away from the relentless lesson planning and assignments in order to have done this, nor how I managed to be in the World Headquarters club drinking Broon Ale on a regular basis. Priorities, I suppose!

I had previously contacted the company to see if any of the people I knew from 1994 were in the Dream cast, and got a reply from Chris Heckels (their Director) saying that she was my only link to that time. Chris had played the Headmistress in ‘The Happiest Days of Our Lives’ (John Dighton), in which I had played an angry parent. I thought that the 21st was the Summer Solstice and therefore a special night for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In fact, I was wrong – it was the previous night, Monday 20th, but never mind, eh? (See, I told you it needed sorting out – Ed.)

I thought I was going to be late for the start of the performance when I found at Leamington Spa that the vital Stratford connection had been cancelled. (Why the railway companies can’t organise faster, more frequent and more direct trains to Stratford remains a mystery to me). But much to my surprise, taxis were organised for rail passengers with very little delay, and with the result that I arrived in Stratford earlier than expected, even being dropped off close to my B & B. Having checked in, I was straight off down to the theatre in time for the performance. Once again a good time was had by all onstage.

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Snouts from Newcastle, Stratford and London in Wall formation

In the Dirty Duck afterwards, Lucy was looking well after another great performance as Puck. Also in attendance were several of the pros and AD Kim. I met up with Chris Heckels; neither of us remembered much about 1994, or each other for that matter (must have been the Broon Ale). Snouts from The Bear Pit (David), the Castle Players (Ben), the People’s Theatre (Stuart) and myself had our photo taken together in the Snug Bar (!) by Lucy. That’s four Walls, and that makes a Room. Behind us was the People’s Theatre photo on the wall next to the fireplace, which was to be replaced by the next company’s photo the next night. A nice touch that, as ephemeral as the theatre itself ….‘These our actors as I foretold you…’

Thanks Al and he’ll be back in the next post to tell us about the second part of his big Stratford week.

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I didn’t have to travel quite so far afield for my own little Midsummer adventure but it was to a slightly more unusual venue; the Imperial War museum to be precise. To explain – way back last autumn, while all the project’s preliminaries were still going on, I took a ten week online course with FutureLearn entitled Shakespeare and his World. Last week I was asked to go and give a short talk about the course and how it fed into the Dream project and this took place in the aforementioned museum. Attendees (about 100 in all) were potential future funders and developers of further online courses and came from universities from the UK and as far afield as Australia and the USA. Thus it was a really good opportunity to flag up the RSC project to a solidly academic audience. There was video testimony from course takers overseas and a very articulate 17 year old student and his teacher explained how he was supplementing his Sixth Form study with a range of short courses from the FutureLearn portfolio.

Then it was my turn. I started by giving the audience a blast of Bottom’s “Dream” monologue – partly to prove to myself I could still remember it.

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I then outlined the context of the RSC project and how workshops and tasks had got us ready for the rehearsals, how the FutureLearn course gave a structured dimension to the background research which I had carried out and how the content had fed into a better understanding of Shakespeare’s play. A (fuller) account of taking the course can be found here.

It was quite an honour to be asked to address such an eminent body of educationists and as they politely laughed in all the right places and nodded enthusiastically, I felt it had gone down well. In the coffee break which followed I found myself the centre of much questioning and, inevitably, slightly ribald comments about my Bottom (is there one variation left that I haven’t heard over the last year?) As the delegates returned to their conference I was whisked away to answer some questions on camera for a FutureLearn website video.

I finished my day there with a look around the museum’s “Family at War” exhibition. A bit late for further research I suppose but, as the production is set immediately after World War 2 it did give me a chance to brush up on the sort of experiences the Mechanicals might have recently been through. As I left I reflected that, but for the Dream project, here was yet another opportunity which would not have come my way. I’ve already mentioned how I may fill the gap left by #Dream2016 with further academic study and FutureLearn is certainly an option I shall be looking into.

So that’s the first part of a big week that was significant in so many ways – though not all of it directly connected to the project. To mark the anniversary of the launch (at Midsummer 2015) a video has been released which I hope you’ll enjoy. (Warning – it does get a bit emotional at one point!)

See you shortly for Midsummer @ Midsummer (Part The Second)


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

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Midsummer @ Midsummer (Part The First)

Another anniversary

Have I really been blogging on the subject of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation for a whole year? So it would appear from the congratulatory message from WordPress.

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I took the decision to plunge into blogging just a couple of days after the media launch of the project on Midsummer’s Day 2015. I’d already written several articles for the Tower theatre newsletter outlining the process up to that point and these formed the backbone of the blog’s first pieces in order to get more general readers up to speed.

And what an experience it has been since then.

  • 77 blog posts
  • Just shy of 70,000 words
  • 7,500 views
  • Readers from 60 different countries

Although the blog was always going to be secondary to the Dream project itself, it now has a rather special place in my everyday life and I am very glad that I have kept a full account of this momentous escapade even if I’m the only person ever to access it again. It will give me something to look back on with pride and a sense of achievement and perhaps ease the symptoms of Dream withdrawal – alas the final furlong is fast approaching. It’s amazing to think there has been so much to say since that media launch 12 months ago – the project, the people, the tasks, the workshops, the rehearsals, the performances – and still just a little bit more to come.

Thanks gentle reader for taking the time to join me.

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Photo by Topher McGrillis RSC

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

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Another anniversary

One Year On

My Facebook page has just prompted me with a “one year on memory” photo released as part of the launch campaign for A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation.

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What a glorious day that was. Full of hope, joy and the thrill of collaboration – a project to unite people up and down the country and produce something positively life affirming Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive

Now one year on it’s as though the lights that are burning so brightly in that Barbican auditorium have suddenly gone out. Division and hate have (apparently) triumphed

As ever Shakespeare puts it best:

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house
Against the envy of less happier lands;
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Feared be their breed and famous by their birth,
Renowned for their deeds as far from home
For Christian service and true chivalry
As is the sepulchre, in stubborn Jewry,
Of the world’s ransom, blessed Mary’s son;
This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out – I die pronouncing it –
Like to a tenement or a pelting farm.
England, bound in with the triumphant sea,
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds.
That England that was wont to conquer others
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself

(Richard II)

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I despair! That is all.


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

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One Year On

A tedious brief scene

Sorry everyone but if you care about our futures then you need to stop what you’re doing, read on and focus on something really important right now. There’s a big decision to make today which could affect us for the rest of our lives and indeed our children and their children and so on down the ages. You’ve heard the politicians, you’ve tuned into the commentators, you’ve listened to the experts (well, unless you’re Michael Gove) but the time has now come to stand up and be counted. The big question is … when exactly is Midsummer?

The amateur casts for A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation were announced at Midsummer last year and so we’re now a whole year on. In that time the play has travelled the country and the term Midsummer has been bandied about in 12 cities across the UK but the vexed question of when it happens remains unresolved. I mean, it’s not like Christmas is it? Midsummer tends to move around a lot.

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Is it the same as the summer solstice (i.e. this year June 20th )? Certainly much of the media seemed to think so reporting on a Midsummer deluge on Monday morning and the appearance of the very rare “Midsummer strawberry moon”. But surely that day is officially the start of summer. If that is the case then that would make the autumn equinox the end (this year that’s September 22nd). The mid point between those two is (hang on while I work it out….) August 7th but that seems far too late. As we all know in the UK, summer’s pretty much over by then ….not that this year it’s ever got started. Even as I write the rain is thundering down again. Maybe Titania’s speech about the confused seasons is actually coming true:

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the spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,

By their increase, now knows not which is which.

OK, time out!…Now let’s get back to the point. One of the paper calendars in the house shows Midsummer Day as 23rd June and another 24th so that’s not much help. Wikipedia (which is, as we all know, totally accurate all of the time) has this to say:

Midsummer, also known as St John’s Day, takes place on a day between June 19 and June 25 and the preceding evening. The exact dates vary between different cultures. The Christian Church designated June 24 as the feast day of the early Christian martyr St John the Baptist, and the observance of St John’s Day begins the evening before, known as St John’s Eve.

Confused? You will be. The country that pays the most attention to Midsummer as a festival is Sweden and with their usual sense of orderliness and the fact they always want it to be at a weekend they designate a Friday as Midsummer Eve and a Saturday as Midsummer Day – this year June 24th/25th respectively. (Not sure if I can use Sweden as an example as they are in the EU and I don’t want to exert undue political pressure on the other key question of the day. Mind you, they don’t use the Euro so that’s all right then…isn’t it?)

By the way, in case you’re by now wondering why I’m bothering my brain about this, it was because I was trying to work out which of the amateur groups has or will be performing on the big day at Stratford. Turns out it could have been either of the Newcastle teams or will be our Glasgow brethren. Anyway Shakespeare’s title is ambiguous, isn’t it? Does he mean Midsummer Eve – the day before Midsummer – or the night of Midsummer Day or just some random night at some point in summer?….Tell you what, let’s just move on shall we before someone loses the will to live?

So to sum up; it’s June 20th or 23rd or 24th or 25th or some unspecified date between 19th and 25th or will be August 7th – you decide. Now there’s a thought. Perhaps the only way to solve this is to put it to the people in a Midsummer referendum. I know there’s another (obviously less significant) vote taking place today but if you could bend your collective brains to this tricky proposition that would really ensure the future of this vital question once and for all. Come on people; let’s get together and take back control! (No bias intended either way)

Thanks for voting. Results will be declared in due course by the returning officer, Monsieur Mustardseed.

I could teach you
How to choose right, but I am then forsworn;
So will I never be (Merchant of Venice)


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

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A tedious brief scene

Never anything can be amiss

If the various reviews which have emerged as A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation has toured the country are to be believed (and I think they should) the production has been a resounding hit. National and local critics, online bloggers and contributors to discussion boards and social media have been almost universally positive in their praise for the show (a digest of comments about Tower Theatre’s contribution can be found here). Ticket sales have also been strong suggesting a high level of satisfaction amongst the theatre going population. However, a number of blogs/articles have raised some question marks about the project and whether amateurs should or shouldn’t encroach on traditionally professional territory. As the final month of performances is now taking place this would seem to be an appropriate moment to address this point and the question of whether the experiment was a success and should ever be repeated.

Guardian blog

The highest profile commentator has probably been Michael Billington, a critic for whom I have the greatest respect. In his regular blog in The Guardian (and based on his viewing of the production in London) he gave the amateur cast a very positive review but raised the question of whether the project is or should be repeatable. He reaches the conclusion that it should remain as a one off:

If I argue that amateur and pro should generally be kept separate, it is because I respect the craft of both. Professional acting, as we all know, is a precarious business with a high unemployment rate… The RSC Midsummer Night’s Dream is a special case in which an honourable attempt has been made to create “a play for the nation”. It should be enjoyed as a one-off, but not become a template for future occasions. In hard times, we need to protect the status of the dedicated professional.

I have to say I find this argument a little disingenuous. The logical conclusion would be that in any given field only those specifically trained and dedicated to a professional standard should attempt anything. Really? By extension that would mean any actor struggling to find work should not accept a position as a part time tutor or waiter or call centre operator, etc because a) they’ve probably not trained for it and b) they certainly won’t be as dedicated as they would be to acting; that would clearly be both untenable and ridiculous. And who is to say that an amateur cannot make just as good a job of something as the “dedicated professional”? If I want a celebration cake and I know and can trust a good amateur baker, why would I necessarily go to a professional?

Stage 1

A similar argument has also been raised in a piece in The Stage in which anonymised professionals (not quite sure why they need to be so) were asked their opinion on mixing the worlds of pro and am.  Would you let an amateur plumber mend your sink? muses “Albert”; well, yes I might very well given that the context and circumstances were conducive. It is also not the case that allowing an amateur actor to appear on the professional stage is going to threaten someone’s health, safety, life span or possessions and so comparing them to (for instance) plumbers, dentists or lawyers is not really helpful. To be fair some of Albert’s fellow professionals take a rather broader view:

I think it’s great to use community and amateur casts. Not threatening at all… I have massive respect for them and for the role theatre can play in the community. (“Jenny”)

Totally inspires me. I have worked on a few community-based projects and it definitely encourages authenticity and originality, especially in new work. (“Tina”)

However, as these are Jenny and Tina’s only reported remarks in the article their positive slant is somewhat overbalanced and a rather more pessimistic view prevails. There is particular opprobrium reserved for producers who take this route to economise:

You Me Bum Bum Train and Secret Cinema – both dubious in the extreme as to their using actors and not paying proper rates. Or even anything. (“Albert”)

Guardian 2

The thing is, A Play For The Nation was anything but a rentacrowd or a gimmick led approach. No Andrew Lloyd Weber talent show casting here! (Interesting that Gary Barlow has just announced a resurgence of the format for finding a new Fake (sorry, Take) That) From the get go, the amateurs involved were respected and treated as an integral part of the whole RSC production, not some media generating bolt on. Lyn Gardner in another, earlier, Guardian blog summed up this position:

Without the involvement of non-professional actors, the RSC’s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream simply wouldn’t have happened. Community involvement was at the very heart of the project. It’s a very different case from a theatre simply deciding that it will use amateur actors because they can save money on the wages bill.

Agreed. And I think there are other subtler ways of cutting down on the bills. I have absolutely no idea what the budget for A Play For The Nation has been – I can only imagine. Despite that I have seen little by way of cheese paring. We have had phenomenal coaching from the likes of Michael Corbidge and Sian Williams, directing from the Deputy Head of the RSC and her talented team, a full and generous complement of highly skilled backstage and organisational staff and unbounded support from the professionals in the cast. Neither have their numbers been skimped on as a result of using amateurs. There are 26 adult performers in each show (18 professionals plus the 6 amateur Mechanicals). Interestingly there are only 14 all told in the current Globe production and a mere 7 in the production at Southwark Playhouse (see here) – indeed in the latter case the paucity of performers is the key selling point of the show. Aside from this the RSC has enhanced prospects for workers in the regions through touring the show to a number of locations. Far from taking away professional earning potential I don’t think that it’s going too far to say that much work has been provided through this particular project.

Christopher Haydon, artistic director of the Gate Theatre, in a blog piece rebuffing some of Michael Billington’s arguments goes further. He contends that rather than the project undermining the work of those fully paid members of the company, it acted as a clear demonstration of how great art does not have any boundaries – a seasoned pro, or a teacher from Hackney, can both find pathos, humanity and truth in the words they are speaking.

 

Puck
Lucy Ellinson

He then goes on to quote our very own Puck – Lucy Ellinson – who generously says:
I’ve learnt a lot from my amateur colleagues (the collaboration has been) “an important reaffirmation for me that when we tour the country with our work we’re not simply offering the local community something – we are making each and every performance with them.

 

Thanks for the vote of confidence, Lucy, and I  think I can confidently say that, reciprocally, we have learned a phenomenal amount of stagecraft from our wonderful pros and that this will undoubtedly inspire us in our ongoing work within our local communities.

Indeed a learning experience is certainly what it has been right from day one. Susan Elkin, The Stage’s Education and Training Editor has stated:

The whole concept is one of the most inspired celebratory training initiatives I’ve ever encountered – as well as producing a glitteringly good evening’s theatre.

In her article she roundly calls on the powers that be to deliver a repeat of the project every year; well I’m game!

So was it worth doing? An unqualified yes. It has touched the lives of so many people amateur and professional, young and not so young, actors and audience alike that I think it will be fondly remembered as a trail blazer for many years to come. Should it be repeated? If the end results are going to be so joyous, life enhancing and affirmative it would be criminal not to do so. I’ll leave the final summation to Erica Whyman:

It is a project on an almost unimaginable scale, but it is also a very simple idea: to make a new production of a great play in partnership with good colleagues. If it works it will strengthen those bonds and make visible a truly national passion for making theatre.

It most certainly did, Erica, and it most certainly has!

Graham-and-Erica-Final
Graham Fewell (who visited all versions during the tour) presents Erica with a poster signed by the amateurs

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

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Never anything can be amiss

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.

Globe

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.

emmarice
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