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.

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The weird, the wonderful and the violent

The weird

Golem (theguardian.com)

               Golem (theguardian.com)

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 (telegraph.co.uk)

Only one of them is live (telegraph.co.uk)

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

(franticassembly.co.uk)

(franticassembly.co.uk)

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 (oxfordtimes.co.uk)

Steven Miller (Iago), Leila Crerar (Emilia) and The Handkerchief (oxfordtimes.co.uk)

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

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 in Love

Programme

Programme

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 (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:

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 (atgtickets.com)

(atgtickets.com)

As it happens the first site (sponsored) that comes up on Google is the official show website: http://www.bookofmormonlondon.com/home.php. 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, delfontmackintosh.com.

Through www.ticketmaster.co.uk 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 www.seatwave.com. 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 delfontmackintosh.co.uk – 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.

Coriolanus

Tom Hiddleston (tomhiddlestononline.net)

Tom Hiddleston as Coriolanus (tomhiddlestononline.net)

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 www.atgtickets.com 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 – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-25849543 – 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.

The moral of the tale overall is ALWAYS BUY YOUR TICKET FROM THE SHOW’S OFFICIAL WEBSITE.

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.

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