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.

Privates Parading Again

Noel Coward, Harold Pinter, Ivor Novello, John Gielgud – what do they all have in common?

Personally if I was in the business of naming West End theatres I’d have one called after Peter Nichols – one of the greatest playwrights living today, in my personal opinion.

Peter Nichols (Standard)

Peter Nichols (Evening Standard)

His best known show, Privates on Parade, is back again. It’s never been my favourite Nichols play – a tad too much campery for me – but it’s still a lot of fun. It is memorable mostly for its ‘panto dame’: first it was Dennis Quilley, then Roger Allam and now Simon (cannot-put-a-foot-wrong) Russell (from-Timon-to-panto-dame-in-the-flick-of-an-eye) Beale. Personally (yet again) while SRB’s performance is obviously faultless and he puts his musical numbers over as if he’s been doing it all his life, I think it’s a shame the camper-than-a-row-of-tents Captain Terri Dennis tends to overshadow the other characters, and in particular the barking-mad, teetotal, God-fearing, Empire-loving Major, played unforgettably by Nigel Hawthorne in the original RSC, 1977 production and hilariously by Malcolm Sinclair at the Donmar in 2001 (also directed, as here, by Michael Grandage).

Roger Allam, Donmar 2001 (tumblr.com)

Roger Allam, Donmar 2001 (tumblr.com)

Dennis Quilley (guardian)

Dennis Quilley, RSC 1977 (guardian)

What Nichols is particularly good at is telling a serious story – whether it’s about a family coping with a badly disabled child (A Day in the Death of Joe Egg), the trials of growing-up with an impossible father (Forget-me-not Lane), life and death on the NHS (National Health) or the dying days of Empire (Privates on Parade) – always with a bit of vaudeville thrown in. And even the most tricky characters – the father in Forget-me-not-Lane or the Major in Privates – are drawn with humour, affection and compassion.

“They’ve partly rewritten it!” I boldly announced to my companion at the Noel Coward theatre on Saturday night. “Updated the swear words and changed ‘queer’ to ‘gay’.” But I was wrong. I didn’t think the ‘c’ word would have been acceptable in 1977 but there it is in the original script. What is more surprising is the ‘g’ word because I swear that didn’t come in till the seventies at the earliest. I first encountered homosexuality when I first entered the theatre – which was a while ago now but nothing like as long ago as 1948, when Privates is set – and my fellow actors were either called ‘queer’ or ‘camp’ (which means something slightly different now but we knew what we meant then) but never ever ‘gay’.

Still none of this matters except to see Peter Nichols back in the West End. Along with SRB as well of course.

Privates (SOLT)

SRB in Privates on Parade (officiallondontheatre)

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On the other hand I couldn’t make head nor tail of the Royal Court’s latest, In the Republic of Happiness. It starts out conventionally enough: a family Christmas, three generations, granddaughter pregnant, father partly deaf, grandfather partly delusional, and then along comes Uncle Bob to verbally abuse them systematically one by one on behalf of his girlfriend, who then appears in a sack before metamorphosing into a shiny green frock. I had thought we might be in An Inspector Calls territory, but in the next scene there they all are lined up in the semi-circle as if at a conference, spouting abstracts, and they remain there more or less – with a few breaks for some songs – till the final scene, which takes place in a white box that appears by magic through the floor of the stage.

Confused? Totally. I wait to see what the critics make of it.

2013 and all that

Some great shows coming up in 2013:

Simon Russell Beale in Peter Nichols’ hilarious Privates on Parade, directed by Michael Grandage (opens December 2012).

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Helen Mirren as the Queen in The Audience, written by Peter Morgan, with Paul (Curious Incident) Ritter as John Major, Robert Hardy as Churchill and Haydn Gwynn as Thatcher (the play obviously covers a considerable period – Blair and Brown have yet to be cast), directed by Stephen Daldry.

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The transfer of The Curious Incident, which means the National Theatre will have three shows in the West End, which will help the subsidised coffers no end. (War Horse has reputedly already earned the NT £9m).

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.