Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Royal Shakespeare Company

There’s not much to do in the evening in Stratford if you’re free and single or if you’re in melancholic mood, alone. Actually, there were flyers all over the place for this music concert or that am-dram production with the odd thing on at the Civic Hall. Just not the week I was there. When I asked at the tourist information centre for some ideas, all they could suggest was a ghost tour though since that was being run by the people who also own what could be the very worst tourist attraction I’ve ever visited, Tudor World, (more on which another time) I was suspicious.

So on the evenings when I wasn’t seeing a performance, I still somehow managed to find myself at the Royal Shakespeare Company. The main venues are closed for refurbishment, but on Tuesday and Thursday after dinner, I sat on the grass nearby reading a book or listening to some Shakespeare on cd about as relaxed as I’ve been in years. One of my last experiences of Stratford was sitting in the shadow of The Swan listening to David Tennant read Shall I Compare Thee To Summer’s Day? and trying to work out what I’d need to do to move there and wistfully wondering how I could woo the girl with long flowing red who was passing by that I was certain must be an actress (not being David Tennant a definite handicap).

The other nights were something else entirely. The RSC have the monopoly on theatres but at present, the only auditorium open is The Courtyard, formerly The Other Place, a giant multi-level space patterned after The Globe (or if you’re local to me, the Everyman with balconies). My heart was pounding on the Monday as I walked the road up to the theatre for the first time, my hands quivered as I handed my bag into the cloakroom, I stuttered when asking to buy a programme. Walking into the auditorium, I caught the scent of the place, a fragrant mixture of paint and wood. “It smells like a theatre doesn’t it?” I said to usher. “That’s because it is a theatre.” He replied dryly, though I could tell he knew what I meant. I think.

Despite visiting the birthplace and other houses and where the man was buried, I only really became sentimental that night. I’ve idolised that theatre and its rolling companies for so many years that I couldn’t believe I was actually sharing their air, watching a performance by them and just ten hours after the leaving of Liverpool. During a rather fabulous song and dance number in the Bohemia section I was on the brink of tears. Isn’t that silly? I suspect I could have been watching any production of any play, and I still would have had a lump in my throat. Is this what happens when real Beatles fans step into the faux-Cavern for the first time?

The Winter’s Tale hasn’t previously been one of my favourite plays though I know that has had a lot to do with the assemblages I’ve had to endure, samples being the BBC tv version from the 1980s which looked to have been filmed on the set of a Blue Peter Christmas Special and featured some of the country’s very worst child actors and an all male production which also swapped the masculine/feminine assignments to provide some rather butch women and fey men. Director David Farr turns the opening half of the play, everything leading up to the abandonment of the child on the beach into a brooding noirish tragedy then sharply contrasts it with the jolly pastoral scene in the second half, like splicing Peter Brook’s Bermanesque film of King Lear with Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing, with its lashings of hey-nonny-nonny.

My problem with Julie Bailey’s Julius Caesar is that she allows the multimedia backdrop, depicting locals and battles, to dominate the action so much that there’s not much space for the actors to develop their roles, which also means the opening hour drags horribly and only gains momentum with the murder of Caesar though that’s largely because the text forces it to accelerate. Sam Troughton’s Brutus has just the right measure of confused passion, but John Mackay’s Cassius is too understated; it’s a delicious character, the embodiment of the serpentine devil from Milton’s Paradise Lost but here he became a kind of Peter Mandelson figure but without the impression that the quiet man could be a complete bastard given half the chance. It goes without saying that Greg Hicks is amazing in both productions as men betrayed by a perception of who their friends really are.

But with the shadow of temporal distance I can tell it’s not a perfect place to see a play, which might have stoked my prejudices. The seats are very close together which means if you’re sitting next to a fidgeter as I was on the Monday, you’re perennially distracted by someone periodically tickling you. Even after I’d moved to somewhere else in the circle after the interval, I was stuck in a place which despite offering an amazing view of the land was also behind a prop ladder. On the Wednesday during Julius Caesar, the staging meant that if an actor stood in front of my ground level corner seat the entire rest of the stage was blocked, the show briefly turning into radio as you could only imagine what was happening behind Sam Troughton’s arse.

Acoustically it’s suspect too – often the surrounding talkers were more audible than the actors which wasn’t at all fun during Caesar when I found I’d also bought a seat in the middle of a coach party who clearly didn’t have too much of an interest in Shakespeare or the play and spent most of the show commenting on everything or passing wisecracks around during some of the more dramatic scenes. Example: in the climactic battle scenes, one of the characters, having been stabbed in the back, is clawing for life across the stage, dragging himself ever closer to the audience desperately looking for our help.

Idiot One: [Inaudable.]
Idiot Two sitting in front: WHAT?
Idiot One leaning forward: HE’S COMING TO GET YOU! HAA HAA HAA!

Meanwhile, the poor actor is clearly out of breath but trying not to show it. I’m sure I could see him looking balefully in our direction out of the corner of his eye.

And I still managed to have get wrench through my throat because of the proximity to the actors. That seat was also right next to the runways which largely brought the performers onto the stage from the foyer and often they’d hesitate before joining the main action, perhaps even kneeling and I can’t imagine how disconcerting it must be to have someone like me eyeballing them from just inches away, close enough for them to spit on me. In Empire Magazine a couple of months ago, Sam Mendes was asked if he’d consider using 3D cinema and he said he already had. It was called theatre. Now I can see what he meant. At the opening of the second half, the remains of a solider were parades on and our section were drenched in fake blood and I’m convinced I also had the liquid contents of half the cast on my top by the end of the evening too.

That’s one t-shirt I’ll not be washing soon.

Walking away that evening I was overtaken in the street by actress Noma Dumezweni who'd played Paulina in The Winter's Tale and Calphurnia in Julius Caesar and who my fan gene had identified as playing UNIT Captain Erisa Magambo in Doctor Who at Easter and had demonstrated here that she has rather more range than when she was simply barking orders at Lee Evans. She looked to be in determined mood and it took only a fraction of a second to decide to not to chase after her looking for an autograph. It seemed wrong, an invasion. Like it would spoil the mood. So I let her go, and simply let the romance of the evening envelop me, knowing that these had been some of the best evenings of my young life.

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