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


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.

The weird, the wonderful and the violent

The weird

Golem (

               Golem (

1927 are weird, there is no other theatre company like them. They mix animation with live action and music, with a tinge of silent movie and clowning. Their latest, Golem, features various versions of the eponymous (and animated) central character who transforms himself from benign slave to controller, and turns the initially shy and harmless Robert into an aggressive, ambitious fashion slave. So yes it is a swipe at modern technology and some people have remarked on the heavy-handedness of the message, or even, with the students I was with recently, the rather tired subject matter. But to me 1927 are less about subject matter and more about visual invention, and nothing comes more visually inventive than 1927. The current show isn’t as tight as their previous one, The Animals and Children Took to the Streets – which was, in my view, perfect. But a slightly overlong production from 1927 is still a memorable experience.

Only one of them is live (

Only one of them is live (

Golem runs at the Young Vic Theatre until 31 January 2015.


The wonderful

Tim Piggott-Smith (theguardian)

Tim Piggott-Smith (theguardian)

King Charles III is simply wonderful, no less so on second viewing. The power of the Shakespearean language, jarring to begin with perhaps until you get used to it, adds to this big play a totally appropriate feeling of grandeur. It is an important play, it dares to question the purpose and the existence of the monarchy. It reminds us how our reigning monarch, the only monarch most of us have ever known, has kept herself and her opinions so completely under wraps: never uttering a controversial opinion (or any kind of opinion) on anything; never interfering in government, never attracting a moment’s scandal; arguably the most inscrutable public figure in history. So it is not far-fetched to assume that her successor, who’s not so averse to expressing his feelings in public, will not be so prepared to simply sign off on every parliamentary Act that is presented to him.

It is a bold, theatrical, thought-provoking and funny play, with resonances of Hamlet, King Lear and Macbeth. Definitely one for our times.

King Charles III is at Wyndham’s Theatre, also until 31 January.


The violent



Frantic Assembly’s Othello, at the Lyric Hammersmith, is nasty, brutish and short. There’s been some heavy editing here as not only does it run straight through for 100 minutes without an interval, for the first ten or so minutes we get no words at all. Rather we get Frantic’s familiarly physical scene- and character-setting, accompanied on this occasion by loud rock music (Hybrid). The set is a north country pub where a pool table represents everything from a battlefield (resonances of Black Watch) to the marital bed of Othello and Desdemona. The walls of the set bend and reshape themselves at will, or when someone – usually a pumped-up Iago or a drunk Cassio – bumps into them. The words, when they do come, are Shakespeare’s, spoken in dialect. It is a production for young people and young people comprised I’d say 98% of the audience on the night we saw it. They were quiet throughout and enthusiastically noisy at the end, so it worked for them.

Steven Miller (Iago), Leila Crerar (Emilia) and the Handkerchief (

Steven Miller (Iago), Leila Crerar (Emilia) and The Handkerchief (

Personally speaking I’ve always had problems with this play. Why is Iago so obsessively jealous of Othello? Why does Othello believe him so easily when he slanders Desdemona?  This production doesn’t solve those problems, in fact what it gains in furious, brutal  physicality – and shortness – it loses in character development, so that Othello himself, despite an affecting performance by Mark Ebulue, seems almost peripheral. But there are moments of pure Shakespeare, especially in Emilia’s powerful condemnation of Othello, delivered with heartbreaking passion by the track-suited Leila Crerar.

Othello is on at the Lyric Hammersmith until 7 February 2015.

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


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 in Love



One of the many joys of Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman’s screenplay of Shakespeare in Love is the way it takes the p*** out of the acting profession – with its preciousness, its silly rivalries and ridiculous rituals – while at the same time spellbinding us with theatre magic. One of the joys of the stage show is that it – or rather the adapter Lee Hall – retains the wit and magic of the original and adds some of his own.

I wasn’t sure in the beginning if the wit wasn’t veering a bit towards slapstick. Shakespeare appears not to be able to write a complete sentence, and has to rely on his fellow playwright Christopher Marlowe to write his sonnet for him and the actor Ned Alleyn to give him the title of his play. The motley group of actors auditioning is straight out of panto. There’s even a scene borrowed from Cyrano de Bergerac where Marlowe prompts Shakespeare as he stands beneath his Juliet’s (Viola de Lesseps’) balcony clumsily attempting to woo her with poetry. But as Shakespeare regains his muse and his senses so does the play.

It’s an inspired choice to have Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod of Cheek by Jowl to direct and design respectively; they of many productions of minutely observed and forensically detailed Shakespeare. There are cheap gags but there are also moments of stillness and profoundly moving seriousness, as in the final death scene from Romeo and Juliet, which is played and performed as written and which rendered the otherwise up-for-a-thoroughly-good-time audience totally silent. The cast of thirty or so is largely unknown, though I recognised Paul Chahidi from playing Maria in the all-male Globe Twelfth Night, Ian Bartholomew from Oh What a Lovely War at Stratford East earlier this year and the glorious Anna Carteret – who never descends from her Olympian balcony – as Queen Elizabeth. But the younger ones are unknown (to me at least). Tom Bateman is a virile, tender and funny Shakespeare, and speaks the poetry beautifully. Lucy Briggs-Owen as his love and muse Viola seemed a tad fidgety and overwhelmed by the space, but the moments between them are sweet and funny and as romantic as they need to be. Otherwise I particularly enjoyed David Oakes as a dry-as-a-bone Marlowe and Alistair Petrie as a gloriously understated Wessex.

Lucy Briggs-Owen & Tom Bateman

Lucy Briggs-Owen & Tom Bateman

The set is a simple galleried theatre, plain wood, that moves up and down stage and represents the two theatres (the Rose and the Curtain) plus Juliet/Viola’s balcony and the ship on which Viola de Lessings finally departs from England to her new life in Virginia with the tight-arsed, ludicrous Earl of Wessex. The cast is huge and includes four versatile musicians, one with a cello strapped to him and one of them singing in counter tenor.

Oh, and there’s the dog. Of course. Not a major role but shaggy and adorable, and with his own particular brand of curtain call.

Ian Bartholomew & Barney (or Scrumpy)

Ian Bartholomew & Barney (or Scrumpy)

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 (

The Rose site, 1989 (

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:

The ticket-buying jungle (updated)

I first blogged about buying tickets for West End shows a year ago (see here). Recently ticket touts have been in the news for charging outrageous sums for sell-out shows so I thought it was time to take another look at what’s on offer.

As I said before as a theatre tour organiser I am usually booking group tickets, generally for students. This way I not only get special deals, depending on the show obviously, and availability, but I get to avoid booking fees. I also know who to deal with: I know that if you Google show tickets the chances are the first sites that come up will be sponsored ads, paid for by agencies who may charge a big mark-up fee. As a tour booker I deal exclusively with the theatre owners or with ticket agents such as See Tickets.

Last year I featured two long-running West End shows, Phantom of the Opera and The Woman in Black (both of which, as it happens, are still running). This time I’m going for two other hot shows, The Book of Mormon and the Donmar Warehouse production of Coriolanus.

The Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon (


As it happens the first site (sponsored) that comes up on Google is the official show website: For Monday 3 February a premium seat in Row G of the Stalls will set me back £127.25, which includes a booking fee of £2.50 per ticket. In Row P it’s only £49.75 (including the booking fee). The booking agents are the theatre owners,

Through there is very limited availability for that date, but I could buy a ticket in Row G of the Stalls for £140, which is £125 plus a booking fee of £15. Box Office collection is another £2.85; so the total comes to £142.85, which is £15.60 more than I’d be paying through the official site.

The only other site I could find with availability on that same date was Here it costs £159.29 for an unspecified seat somewhere in the Stalls, which is £134.30 plus £24.99 booking fee. (They do say the ‘face value printed on ticket excluding fees: £125’.) There may be further fees on top, I didn’t want to go as far as having to log in.

Conclusion: Stick to the official site at – the owners of the theatre. It’s the cheapest option and they have the best availability. In fact this is such a no-brainer I am surprised some agents can find enough customers to keep them in business.


Tom Hiddleston (

Tom Hiddleston as Coriolanus (

It was this show that was on the news recently because according to the BBC one agent was charging £2,015 for a couple of tickets whose face value was £35 per ticket.

For Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse the official booking site is where you will see every performance is sold out. If you’d been quick enough you could have bought the most expensive seat in the house for £35 plus a £2.50 transaction fee, or the cheapest at £7.50, plus the transaction fee.

I couldn’t find any sites offering tickets for this show, not even for £2,015, which according to the BBC – – is what one site was charging for two tickets whose face value was £35 each. I did find a couple of sites that both buy and sell tickets, which I won’t name because I wouldn’t want to give them publicity. They are completely legitimate, unfortunately, but bearing in mind the Donmar is subsidised by the tax payer, and the top price is £35, and virtually every production there is sold out within minutes of the booking period opening, it does seem iniquitous that anyone other than the theatre itself is profiting so much from its own success.


Or if the show is sold out, GO TO THE THEATRE and ask about their returns policy, or whether they offer TICKETS ON THE DAY. The Book of Mormon for instance has a daily ballot so if you turn up at 10am you can put your name on a list and if you are lucky you will get a front row stalls seat for £20.

As I said before most ticket agencies are not breaking the law, even the ones with 1000% plus mark-ups. But except in exceptional circumstances there is no need to have anything to do with them.

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.


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

The noblest Romans of them all

Cast of Julius Caesar (

The cast of Julius Caesar (

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 (

Frances Barber & followers (

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 (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!

Shakespeare surrounded

What with the BBC2 four-part series The Hollow Crown, Mark Rylance as Richard III at the Globe and Simon Russell Beale as Timon of Athens at the National, Shakespeare: staging the world at the British Museum and reports of the opening ceremony of the Olympics being based on The Tempest, Shakespeare has us thoroughly surrounded.

(And that’s not forgetting the RSC in Stratford, and recently at the Roundhouse.)


Henry V (Tom Hiddleston), Richard II (Ben Whishaw) & Henry IV both parts (Jeremy Irons)

The Hollow Crown,
which finished last night with Henry V, was a magnificent feast of austerely visual splendour and featured the best actors in the country – including SRB as Falstaff.

(Please, BBC, make more of them. Can I put in a plea for Measure for Measure in particular?)


Mark Rylance was a comparatively matter-of-fact, even low-key Richard at the Globe, especially by comparison (odious but inevitable) with the flashier Kevin Spacey and the riveting Antony Sher.

Meanwhile the critics made much of the timeliness of the National’s Timon with its modern setting featuring the Occupy movement and the National Gallery, where Timon the benefactor had a room named after him. Personally while I would travel the world to see SRB I could see why Timon is so rarely performed. It has none of the subtlety and complexity of Shakespeare’s usual characterisation – Timon goes from beaming benefactor to raging misanthrope in the flick of an eyelid.

He is not even the most interesting character in the play – that honour belongs surely to the ‘sceptics’ cynic’ Apemantus, ‘a philosopher’. Or even, as played by Deborah Findlay, Timon’s steward/PA Flavia. At least the gender swap of some of the characters in Timon, of which Flavia was one (Flavius in the original), which made perfect sense, made up in a small way for the all-male Richard.


Shakespeare: staging the world at the British Museum might more appropriately be called Shakespeare’s London, or even Shakespeare’s Venice. Not surprisingly perhaps it’s an exhibition about objects rather than performance, the most remarkable of which, for me, was an original piece of writing in Shakespeare’s hand taken from The Booke of Sir Thomas Moore (sic):

Shakespeare’s handwriting?

Otherwise I have to admit for thrill value the exhibition in no way matches up to its YouTube promotional trailer, which has the Roman army marching across the Millennium Bridge and Othello carrying the dead body of Desdemona through the 21st century streets of the West End of London.


 Forward to the past

In my lectures I draw attention to the fact that when modern theatre appears to reinvent itself it is very often actually harping back to the ideas and the environments of centuries ago. ‘Site specific’ theatre was the only kind of theatre available in the middle ages for instance. Now, in addition to the replica New Globe on Bankside and the Rose Theatre in Kingston, The Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford recently underwent a complete transformation in order to replace the unfashionable vastness of the 1930s pros arch shape with the far more intimate thrust stage design modelled on the 400 year old Elizabethan playhouse.

There has been, ever since the discovery of the foundations of the Rose Theatre on Bankside in 1989, a resurgence of interest in theatre history in London. Four years ago Museum of London archeologists uncovered the foundations of England’s first ever playhouse, The Theatre, built by James Burbage in Shoreditch in 1576.


The Theatre 2008

The site was being excavated before construction began to build a new theatre for the Tower Theatre Company. So I went along at the weekend to see how the new theatre was coming along and saw this:

The Theatre 2012

The Theatre 2012

Just a hoarding, with pictures the only indication of what lies behind it. Peeking through a tiny hole all I could see was rubble – no sign of any new building or of any ancient foundations. If anyone reading this has any information on what’s going on (or not going on) I’d be very interested to hear about it.

I also went looking for the newly-discovered foundations of The Curtain theatre, built the year after The Theatre and just around the corner from it in Shoreditch. Again, nothing to see. All hidden among buildings and just a plaque on the wall.

Still the encouraging thing is that these sites are being excavated and, hopefully, preserved. Shakespeare lives on.

We may not rejoice in our weather in London, but in many other ways we are the luckiest people in the world.