Shakespeare 400: The Complete Walk

In 1769 the actor-manager David Garrick organised a three day festival in Stratford-on-Avon with the aim of putting both Shakespeare and Stratford on the map, but the weather was so bad the temporary theatre he built for the occasion flooded when the River Avon burst its banks and the jubilee had to be abandoned on its second day.

I was thinking of this as I arrived on the South Bank in London yesterday  – 400 years to the day since Shakespeare’s death – on a freezing cold day with the rain threatening (and occasionally showing itself), to stroll the South Bank taking in some of the 37 films of Shakespeare’s 37 plays on 37 screens organised by the Globe Theatre, only to find half the screenings not working. No Hamlet, no Henry V, neither Richards. And it seemed the closer you got to the Globe Theatre itself the worse it got.

Globe The Complete Walk

(shakespearesglobe.com)

It turned out that due to the security cordon surrounding President Obama’s visit to the Globe the technicians were unable to get access to the screens in order to fix the problems. On my way back to Waterloo from Southwark Cathedral (where I had the privilege of sitting in Shakespeare’s own choir stall listening to an idiosyncratic talk by the comedian Arthur Smith on Shakespeare’s publishers) most of the glitches had been fixed, though there was still no Henry V.

The Globe’s Complete Walk, masterminded by its outgoing Artistic Director Dominic Dromgoole, was a triumph of art and technology (once it got going). The 10-minute films were especially made for the occasion and filmed in their original settings – Hamlet in Elsinore, The Merchant of Venice in the Jewish ghetto in Venice, Love’s Labours Lost in a castle in Spain for example – and the excerpts were combined with snippets from Globe productions. So we had two Richard IIs – James Norton in Westminster Hall and Charles Edwards at the Globe; two Olivias – Olivia Williams at Parham House in Sussex and Mark Rylance, likewise; no fewer than four Hamlets (slightly confusingly), including one female (Michelle Terry) and Alex Jennings; two versions of the same actor in Jonathan Pryce as Shylock, with beard at the Globe and without in Venice, performing a scene with his daughter Phoebe Pryce as Jessica, and no Richard IIIs at all barring a voice-over and a silent-film version, and a scene with the two conspirators filmed in the Tower of London.

Shakespeare 400 South Bank (2)

Gemma Arterton in Love’s Labours Lost outside the National Theatre

It goes without saying that the performances and the films themselves were first-rate, in particular Lindsay Duncan in All’s Well that Ends Well and Toby Jones as Falstaff in Henry IV Part 1. And if you missed any of the famous speeches (as I did) such as John of Gaunt’s ‘This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle … ‘ – why, there was Simon Russell Beale performing the same in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s two-hour Shakespeare extravaganza televised live at the RST in Stratford, attended by the Prince of Wales, who also took part in an improvised masterclass on how to perform ‘To be or not to be’ masterminded – if that’s not too formal a word for the ensuing chaos – by Tim Minchin, Judi Dench, Harriet Walter, Rory Kinnear, Ian McKellen, David Tennant, Paapa Essiedu and Benedict Cumberbatch (did I miss anyone out?).

Shakespeare 400 South Bank (9)

Romeo and Juliet in front of the Royal Festival Hall

What total joy. Shakespeare would have been proud. Thank you Globe Theatre. Thank you the Royal Shakespeare Company. Thank you London. Never mind about the weather, it all added to the total Britishness of the whole glorious experience.

Tales of madness and sadness

Kingston summer school takes place over the month of July. My theatre group comprised twelve lively lads and lasses (mostly lasses), as always up for a thoroughly good time in this golden city of ours.

Our first show was Death of a Salesman, an RSC production starring Sir Antony Sher and Dame Harriet Walter. I was told on authority that some of the accents veered away from the Bronx on more than one occasion, but frankly the greatest play to emerge from America’s greatest playwright is such an astonishing piece of work it’s impossible not to be completely caught up in the trials and tribulations of the deluded, self-obsessed, deeply flawed Willy Loman.

Show_DeathOfASalesman

Alice's Adventures

Les Enfants Terribles

The programme for Everyman at the National described Loman as a ‘modern Everyman’. This production at the Olivier generally got the thumbs-down from my students: a piece of sound and fury signifying not much, despite a powerful performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor. By comparison Alice’s Adventures Underground sent them into ecstasies. An ‘immersive’ show performed in The Vaults under Waterloo Station, you get to meet the Cheshire Cat, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the Knave of Hearts and – depending on whether you choose ‘Eat me’ or ‘Drink me’ – the Mock Turtle, the Duchess, and of course all members of the Mad Hatter’s tea party and the authoritarian Queen of Hearts. It is a complex show involving a whole team of (unseen) stage managers and a cast of thirty-something, brilliantly designed and utterly bonkers.

Lampedusa at the Soho by contrast focused on the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean, and featured – ingeniously in the circumstances, bearing in mind the enormity of the whole issue – two actors, in a blank space, eyeballing and haranguing us for 80 minutes on the appalling nature of their jobs: fishing bodies out of the Med, and collecting payments from the people of Leeds who can’t afford to repay their loans. It is a passionate piece, a bit of a hectoring lecture in the way it is executed, but nonetheless a timely reminder of how lucky we first-worlders are not to have to be cramming ourselves into unseaworthy boats or clambering on the roofs of Eurostar trains.

(hightide.org.uk)

(hightide.org.uk)

Bend it Like Beckham is what you might expect: a fun, glittery evening of Anglo-Asian kitsch with an old-fashioned, slightly thin plot but some great performances. And finally Measure for Measure at the Globe, done for the most part as farce, as in no depths to which the Globe will not stoop to get a laugh from its eager audience. That got the thumbs-up from my largely indifferent-to-Shakespeare group. So once again, thank you Globe Theatre for showing us the fun and accessible side of a difficult play like Measure.

Thank you too to Linda Walsh at the NT costume hire store in Kennington, who allowed us to tour – and to try on some of – their astonishing collection of clothes dating from prehistory to the future.

But above all thank you to my twelve enthusiastic, committed, fun-loving theatre lovers, who go so far to reassure me every year that the younger generation, given the chance (and affordable tickets), are every bit as passionate about theatre as we all used to be at their age; which promises well for the future.

Kingston class of 2015

Kingston class of 2015

Mark Rylance – master of transformation

I’ve seen Mark Rylance playing a genuinely moving Cleopatra and a hilarious Olivia. I’ve also seen him playing men, most remarkably the muscular and foul-mouthed Johnny (Rooster) Byron in Jerusalem. And if one of the marks of a great actor is the ability to transform themselves physically as well as in every other way then Rylance is the epitome of the great actor.

Rylance as Olivia in the Globe's Twelfth Night (theguardian.com)

Rylance as Olivia in the Globe’s Twelfth Night (theguardian.com)

Mark Rylance Cleopatra (guardan)

Rylance in the Globe’s Cleopatra, with Paul Jesson (theguardian.com)

His Cleopatra was winsome and coquettish but boy was she heartbroken when her beloved Antony died. His/her Olivia was sweetly controlled and image-conscious, gliding around the stage as if on casters except when her infatuation for Cesario got the better of her. These were examples of Rylance’s ‘thin’ acting. Johnny in Jerusalem was not thin. I don’t know if Rylance spent weeks in the gym developing those muscles – I suspect he did – but the man who played Johnny was unrecognisable from anything I’d seen him do before.

Rylance as Johnny Byron in Jerusalem (guardian)

Rylance as Johnny Byron in Jerusalem (guardian)

Then last night he was back doing his thin acting, this time as a man and on television, as Thomas Cromwell in the six part adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. Not just thin but delicately underplayed, which is not something you’d normally associate with Rylance’s style of performing. The camera made sure he was the centre of focus however, even if he was in the shadows saying nothing, but observing closely. A masterly performance in a brilliant production.

Thomas Cromwell (independent.co.uk)

Thomas Cromwell (independent.co.uk)

Backstage tours & other things

Not only is London the theatre capital of the world (discuss) but it offers, in addition to the rather more obvious and glittery shows in the West End and elsewhere, a plethora of other theatre-related events, such as backstage tours and workshops.

Backstage tours

I’ve ‘done’ the National Theatre, Drury Lane and the Globe more times than I am now able to count. Each of them has something to offer but of all of them the one that seems to go down best with my students is the backstage tour of the National.

The Temporary Theatre (NT)

The Temporary Theatre (NT)

This is not just because it is the National Theatre, now boasting no fewer than four auditoriums, including the Shed – now renamed the Temporary Theatre – and the about-to-open Dorfmann – what used to be the Cottesloe; and not just because the NT has such extraordinary facilities, and all on the one site; but because the tour guides, in my experience anyway, are such enthusiastic, knowledgeable, passionate and great communicators.

At the Theatre Royal Drury Lane a pair of actors take you around backstage in the persons of David Garrick, Richard Brinsley Sheridan – past managers of the theatre – and Nell Gwynn. In the course of it they impart a massive amount of information in a highly entertaining way, but the last tour I went on was so massive – 60 people, at a guess – it took so long to herd us all about we could barely hear, or see, what was going on.

Drury Lane theatre, the Royal Box

The Royal Box at Drury Lane Theatre

The tour at the Globe is definitely worth doing in the winter, when you actually get to walk onto the stage and, if the mood takes you, spout whatever comes to mind to an imaginary audience. In the summer the stage is annoyingly occupied by professional actors, and since the tours are so popular you may find you are in one of around a dozen groups, each with its own group leader vying to be heard above the others.

Students from SUNY New Paltz

The Globe stage with students from SUNY New Paltz

Workshops

I’ve taken my students to workshops at the National, the Globe, the Haymarket, the Duke of York’s, the V & A and the Prince of Wales Theatres. They vary in quality, but again you can always rely on the National to produce the goods., although recently they’ve had to curtail their workshops during the redevelopment of the building, which when it opens shortly will include a brand new education centre.

'Commedia' workshop at the NT (students from SUNY)

‘Commedia’ workshop at the NT (students from SUNY)

I have also conducted my own workshops, which involve a certain amount of improvisation and are based either on a specific play or a particular writer, most possibly William Shakespeare. Workshops are excellent for getting to grips with gritty new plays and impermeable old ones (eg Shakespeare); for investigating the collaborative nature of theatre by putting oneself into the shoes of the writer, director, producer, actor or marketing person; and for understanding the context the plays were written in.

V & A set design workshop (students from Kingston)

V & A set design workshop (students from Kingston)

If you’d like information on any of these please click on Contact Me.

Shakespeare’s London Theatreland

I read about this book on the website of the Museum of London Archeology. It’s written by an archeologist, Julian Bowsher by name, and tells the story of the discovery of remains of playhouses discovered in London recently and dating back to the ‘golden age’ of theatre in Shakespeare’s time.

Shakespeare's London Theatreland

It is an accessible book, nicely jargon-free and very readable and, to someone like me, fascinating. I had no idea for instance that there were so many playhouses built in the latter part of the 16th century other than the ones we know about: The Theatre, which I had erroneously thought was the first purpose-built playhouse to be built in England since Roman times (I blogged about it here), The Curtain, The Rose, the Globe, The Swan, The Hope and The Fortune. Most of the others were short-lived, or there’s not much known about them. I also didn’t realise how many playhouse-builders lost so much money, or got entangled in complex and lengthy disputes, though it doesn’t take a genius to realise that running a theatre commercially has never been and never will be a job for ordinary mortals.

It may be my perception but it seems as though contemporary interest in old playhouses really began with the discovery of the remains of The Rose Theatre on Bankside in 1989.

The Rose site, 1989 (geograph.co.uk)

The Rose site, 1989 (geograph.co.uk)

I can remember the outcry when, having discovered a surprisingly large section of the theatre’s foundations between the demolition of one building and the development of another, the powers that be were about to allow the new building to be built right on top of them, obscuring them and presumably demolishing them all at once. I remember how the guiding lights of theatre at the time, headed by Dame Peggy Ashcroft and the local MP for Bankside, Simon Hughes, came and camped on the site in protest at the redevelopment, and won. (The foundations are preserved and the new building went ahead without disturbing them.) Ever since then the MOLA  – The Museum of London Archeologists – have been hard at work uncovering foundations of all the theatre mentioned above, with the exception I believe of The Swan, which is on the site of Sampson House, not far from the Globe and the Rose, which has been too thoroughly gutted over the years.

Sampson House, on the site of the Swan Playhouse

Sampson House

The Hope Theatre, in The Bear Garden, round the corner from the new Globe, has been hidden behind hoardings for years now, and I was quite distressed the other day when I walked past to see it is now a demolition site. Bowsher’s book tells us however that the site – which had a dual purpose as a playhouse and a bearbaiting ring – was excavated ‘between 1999 and 2000 but very little was found, as most of the building lay outside the site limits’. What they did find were the remains of piles of animal bones, legacy of the bear-baiting.

What used to The Hope Playhouse

The Hope

The book includes a number of walks around Shakespeare’s London, to sites of old playhouses, inns and bear-baiting rings, from the City and West end to Greenwich and Hampton Court. It is published by  Museum of London Archeology and costs £20. Much recommended.

For more on MOLA and its excavations of playhouses visit the Museum of London’s website HERE:

Shakespeare in London

In a quiet street off Farringdon in an unremarkable building called the London Metropolitan Archives – which I confess I had never heard of before – a remarkable document is on display. It is dated 10 March 1612 and it contains one of six surviving ‘authenticated’ signatures belonging to William Shakespeare. The document, under glass in a dimly lit room, is the deed of purchase of the only house Shakespeare ever bought in London, in Blackfriars, somewhere near where the Cockpit Pub now stands on the corner of St Andrews Hill and Ireland Yard. Shakespeare never actually lived in the house apparently and took out a mortgage on it that was still unpaid at his death two years later. 

The Cockpit Pub, not there in Shakespeare's time

The Cockpit Pub, not there in Shakespeare’s time

Shakespeare and London is the name of this small but fascinating exhibition running at the LMA until 26 September. I found it quite by accident while googling ‘Shakespeare in London’ before taking my summer school students on a Shakespeare walk through the City and Bankside. As I explain at the start of the walk there actually isn’t anything directly relating to Shakespeare remaining in the City, thanks to the Great Fire and the Blitz, so it’s a bit of a ghost walk really: here is where Shakespeare probably lived, here is the cathedral that was not there in his lifetime, on this corner or thereabouts was the house he bought and this plaque commemorates the building that’s no longer there that housed one of the theatres Shakespeare worked at. A bit tenuous, you could say.

Not the cathedral that was there in Shakespeare's time

Not the cathedral that was there in Shakespeare’s time

But according to the London Metropolitan Archives Shakespeare’s spirit is alive and kicking all over this great metropolis. Apart from Lord Nelson and Winston Churchill there are more pubs in London named after Shakespeare than any other person. There are statues of Shakespeare in Westminster Abbey, Southwark Cathedral, Leicester Square and Love Lane, in the City.

IMG_9172

Shakespeare statue and memorial to Heminges and Condell in the City

There are streets and buildings named after him, the newest and most famous of which is a replica of one of his original workplaces.

Not Shakespeare's Globe but very like it

Not Shakespeare’s Globe but very like it

The LMA exhibition also contains a fascinating film about the building of the new Globe, original maps of 16th and 17th century London and Hogarth’s famous portrait of the actor David Garrick as Richard III. There is an entire wall of portraits of Shakespeare, only two of which ‘have traditionally been accepted as representing a true likeness’, since as the exhibition brochure points out ‘Surprising though it seems to our modern image conscious sensibilities, none of Shakespeare’s contemporaries left a written description of his physical appearance’.

The exhibition also contains records of a ‘burglary on the house of Cuthbert and Richard Burbage’, Shakespeare’s colleagues at The Theatre and later The Globe, and a letter from the Lord Mayor of London to the Lord Chancellor, dated 12 April 1580, in which he said ‘ … He thought it his duty to inform him that the players of plays, used at the Theatre and other such places, and tumblers and such like, were a very superfluous sort of men, and of such faculty as the laws had disallowed; that the exercise of the plays was not only a great hindrance to the service of God, but also a great corruption of youth, with unchaste and wicked matters, the occasion of much incontinence, practices of many frays, quarrels, and other disorders, within the City. He therefore begged that order might be taken to prevent such plays, not only within the City, but also in the liberties.’

The 'superfluous' David Garrick as Richard III (Hogarth)

The ‘superfluous’ David Garrick as Richard III (Hogarth)

There is also an order dated 1612 from Middle Sessions of the Peace abolishing the practice of the after-show jig, which followed every performance of every Shakespeare play, even the tragedies – a tradition the new Globe has revived (though their jigs tend to be pretty inoffensive). This was the result of complaints received about ‘certayne lewde jigges songes and daunces’ at playhouses where ‘divers cuttpurses and other lewde and ill disposed persons in great multitudes doe resorte thither at th’end of euerye playe many tymes causing turmultes and outrages’. Failure to comply meant imprisonment for all players who ‘persiste and conynewe their sayd Jiggs daunces or songes about sayd playe-houses’. This was not long before Shakespeare retired, and perhaps was the reason for his retirement. (Only kidding)

Shakespeare exhibition

The exhibition is free and runs till 26 September. For further information go to http://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/things-to-do/visiting-the-city/archives-and-city-history/london-metropolitan-archives/news-and-events/Pages/shakespeare-exhibition.aspx

The noblest Romans of them all

Cast of Julius Caesar (donmarwarehouse.com)

The cast of Julius Caesar (donmarwarehouse.com)

While waiting for the all-female production of Julius Caesar to begin at the Donmar last Saturday I was chatting to my next door neighbour (an actress) about Privates on Parade, which I saw recently, and she said she wouldn’t want to see a show that featured an almost all-male cast and only one part for a woman. That brought me up short rather, because the gender makeup of the cast has never really been something I’ve taken much account of when deciding what shows I want to see. (But then I am not an actress, not any longer; and fortunately I didn’t tell her one of the plays on my agenda for January is the all-male Globe production of Twelfth Night.)

In fact I sat down to Julius Caesar (director Phyllida Lloyd) with quite a few misgivings. An all-female Julius Caesar of all plays – why? Set in a woman’s prison – double why??  (That said I thought the all-female Richard III at the Globe a few years ago was a deal better than the all-male version of the same play I saw there this summer.)

The first ten minutes or so did not nothing to dispel those misgivings. The show begins with an awful lot of noise, and these women in grey track suits running up and down the stairs, banging tin trays, gesturing and yelling in a decidedly butch manner and kowtowing to the woman in the beret, who shouts louder than any of them.

Frances Barber (donmarwarehouse.com)

Frances Barber & followers (donmarwarehouse.com)

However once the play itself began things begin to fall into place. The woman in the beret is Caesar, of course (Frances Barber), and the pale, gaunt one is Brutus (Harriet Walter). From then on it was, pretty much, plain sailing.

It’s not so much that I forgot they were women – despite some ultra masculine haircuts and posturing I never felt these women were pretending to be men; the gender issue wasn’t an issue. What I did get from this production, more I think than I ever have from any previous version, was the strength of friendship, in particular between the muscular, energetic Cassius (Jenny Jules) and the pale, doubting Brutus, and between Brutus and Mark Anthony (Cush Jumbo) – whose transformation from headstrong, callow youth to canny politician reminded me rather of young Hal/Henry V.

Jenny Jules (Cassius)

Jenny Jules (Cassius)

On occasion (not too often) we are reminded that this is a prison production, when fight scenes get out of hand and sirens sound and prison warders appear through a heavy clanging door and slam on the lights; and on another occasion when Brutus/Harriet Walter, annoyed at the suppressed giggling outside his tent while he is remonstrating with Cassius, breaks off to hiss through the gap in the canvas – ‘Will you shut the f*** up!’.

Harriet Walter (Brutus)

Harriet Walter (Brutus)

But oddly enough rather than annoyingly interrupting the flow these interjections add another layer to the proceedings, by reminding us that these are professional actors playing prisoners playing Romans. So when the girl playing a pregnant Portia mysteriously retains her bump when doubling as Octavius this is because it is the prisoner who is pregnant, rather than Portia. (I admit this had to be explained to me.)  And because the multi-tasking cast, some of whom played instruments, remain on stage for much of the action you are never quite sure whether it is the ghost of Caesar lurking in the background during the battle scenes, or the prisoner in the beret.

Cush-Jumbo

Cush Jumbo (Mark Anthony)

So I have to say my misgivings were totally allayed. This is one of the clearest, most beautifully spoken and – above all – most moving  versions of Julius Caesar I have ever seen (and I’ve seen a few); perhaps it was because of the all-female cast, but I think more likely it was that we were simply watching acting of the highest order.

*****

PS: More on Peter Nichols. Passion Play is opening at the Duke of York’s Theatre in May, starring Zoe Wanamaker. It was always my suggestion that the Globe name their second theatre after its creator, her father Sam Wanamaker. So someone is listening to me after all!