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.

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)

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?)

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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.

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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.

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 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.

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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.