Sunday Retrospective ~ February 24th 2019

During weeks three and four of my Shakespeare course we were focusing on Twelfth Night.  (Henry V this past week and next, The Bears have spent the last few days declaiming ‘Once more unto the breach’ and proudly proclaiming themselves a ‘band of brothers’; goodness only knows what is going to happen when we reach ‘Exit pursued by a Bear’.) anyway, back to the point – Twelfth Night.  One of the things we were asked to consider was what constitutes a comedy and what makes us laugh.  Well, the general view in our family is that I was born without a funny bone because almost nothing makes me laugh.  Oh, I can laugh because I’m happy, but laughing because I am amused almost never happens.

In fact, I think this might be because I was exposed to Shakespearean comedy from a very early age and the point that was being made on the course was that for Elizabethan audiences comedy was very much about structure.  We start with a certain amount of chaos, proceed to stir things up even more and then in Act Five (not that they would have called it that) we miraculously manage to bring everything to a happy(ish) conclusion.  Comedy describes the journey not the rib tickling sideshows along the way.  I am still fascinated by how this, and other narrative structures, work out and obviously never got round to taking account of the funny bits along the way.

All this is by way of a preface to telling you that yesterday I went to Stratford to see not a Shakespearean Comedy but a retelling of Molière’s Tartuffe set among Birmingham’s British Pakistani community with Tartuffe as a fundamentalist Muslim preaching reform to the paterfamilias of a modern family who have adopted a British lifestyle – even Grandma, although she would never admit it –  in an attempt to fleece them all of their money and possessions and the women of their honour as well.  Now, I could see that this was a clever (possibly in the less than positive sense of that word; I haven’t quite decided yet) way of approaching the play to make it relevant to a current audience. Recasting the family maid, Dorine, as a Bosnian Muslim cleaning lady, Darina, was a stroke of genius and Michelle Bonnard was the star of the show. But, when everyone around me was laughing away, at times uproariously, I was sat there cringing because what was happening on stage was everything I would normally avoid. People, especially the aforementioned paterfamilias, were ranting and raving, making total fools of themselves and being blackmailed before our eyes and for the life of me I couldn’t, still can’t, see why this is supposed to be funny.  All right, I go in knowing that this is a comedy and therefore also knowing that it will all come out right in the end.  Tartuffe will get his comeuppance and family harmony will be restored.   But, I’m  still not sure why this makes it all right to laugh at people who are being duped.  Perhaps it’s my Asperger’s getting in the way. I don’t know. I do know that it was one of the most uncomfortable afternoon’s I’ve spent in a long time.

My discomfort wasn’t helped by the fact that the play ended with a ‘message’.  Now I don’t know the original well enough to be able to say whether or not it finishes with a warning about marginalising people because of the way they look.  Perhaps someone can tell me.  However, here Tartuffe’s final speeches preach the idea that it is impossible for someone who looks like him to make his way in British society by any other means than that which he has chosen. And I do mean preach.  It was far too obvious an insert for it to have any real impact.  And, I wasn’t certain quite what he meant.  If he was referring specifically to his long beard then he might have been said to have a point.  But, if he was just talking about British Muslims being unable to rise to positions of power then I surely can’t have been the only one who wanted to say “er – Home Secretary”?

I know that the problem is mine.  Everyone else there was having a great time until the final message clearly made them uneasy.  Not that their dis-ease lasted for long, mind you.  The comedy police act turned up just in time to save the day and the laughs.  They were straight out of a Brian Rix farce.  Another form of humour I never really understood.

Why did I go?  You may well ask.  But I live in hope that one day there will be a flash of light and suddenly all will be revealed to me. I will be able to join in with the mirth around me and be one of the crowd.  Unfortunately, it didn’t happen yesterday.

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RIP Sir Peter Hall

IMG_0250Sir Peter Hall, founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company has died at the age of 86.  His legacy will be feted by a great many people from the world of theatre and opera, and he will be remembered by all who work in the arts for his political campaigning for greater recognition of the part that the creative industries play in this country. I will simply remember him as the man who changed my life.

By the time I was twelve I had been going to the theatre for ten years. First to pantomime, then to light comedies staged by the local amateur dramatic companies and then to musicals. My theatre going reflected my parents’ tastes, although the compulsion to substitute theatre tickets for Christmas and birthday presents was all mine. Then, quite by chance, I saw a televised broadcast of a production of As You Like It with Vanessa Redgrave as Rosalind, a production staged by this new company which had been founded by the then ‘plain’ Peter Hall.  For me everything changed that night. Shakespeare became the mainstay of my life and the group of actors, directors and designers that Hall had gathered round him as familiar to me as my own family.  Whenever I could afford it I would walk to the end of the road, ticket money in hand, to climb onto a bus for the hour’s journey to Stratford.  If it was being staged, I saw it. I had no idea what a production looked like from the stalls (tickets were £2 a head down there – untold wealth needed for that!) but the back of the gods suited me fine. I had riches of a different sort. The first production I saw live was A Midsummer Nighs Dream with a cast that included Judi Dench, Diana Rigg, Ian Richardson, Ian Holm, Peter Egan and David Warner. Just think about that for a moment.

Hall left the RSC in 1968 and inevitably the company has changed considerably since then. Most especially it doesn’t have that same company ethos which Hall fostered and which Trevor Nun and Terry Hands after him continued to build. Nevertheless, it still produces wonderful examples of Shakespeare’s work and it is still the backbone of my theatre going, just as Shakespeare will always remain the backbone of my artistic experience.

Sir Patrick Stewart, who joined the company under Hall, tweeted:

The man who created The Royal Shakespeare Co, Sir Peter Hall, has died. He transformed classical and modern UK theatre and gave me a career.

And he gave me a life.  There are no words to say thank you.

 

Well I See It This Way

IMG_0103With the first week in September on us Gallery Tours at the local Institute of Fine Arts, where I am a volunteer, have started up again.   I had two groups round this week and with one of them got into a discussion about the different ways in which we respond to paintings and how we talk about them. As some of you know, I am no art historian.  The gallery invited me to act as a guide for my ability to place the art works in their historical and cultural contexts rather than for any knowledge of the techniques used to produce the paintings. Some of my fellow guides, however, are painters in their own right.  If you go on a tour with them you will get an entirely different take on the works in the collection and for that reason I often advise visitors to come on several of our free tours, rather than thinking they know about the gallery after just one visit. Varying their guides will mean a completely different experience each time they come.

Of course, this isn’t just true when it comes to painting.  Our responses to any work of art, whether that be fine art, music, literature or the theatre, will depend to a large extent on our previous experiences in the medium.  This was brought home forcefully to me last weekend, when a friend and I went to see the RSC’s current production of Titus Andronicus.  If you don’t know the play you’ve probably heard about it because whenever there is a new staging the papers are always full of the number of people who have fainted clean away and had to be carried out of the theatre. It isn’t just that people are killed on stage; it’s more to do with the up close and personal mutilations and the serving up of her sons as a dish fit for an Empress.

I must have seen at least half a dozen different productions of the play over the years  and I have to say that I have never yet seen anyone faint.  Certainly no one had to be carried out last Saturday, but one woman left of her own accord and there was a lot of empathetic oohing and aahing going on around me.  And through it all, I sat unmoved.  Well, perhaps not completely unmoved, but certainly not horrified in any way, because many decades ago I spent three years as a drama student and then went on to teach theatre studies to undergrads for five or six years and, as a consequence, I look at what is going on onstage with very different eyes.  When everyone else is turning the other way, I am sat there thinking something along the lines of, “That was interesting. I wonder how they did that?”  Or as at one point last week, “That was a mistake. They should have left that in the rehearsal room.” And at another, “That was risky.  I’m surprised they got it past health and safety.”  Let me say straight away that this lack of emotional engagement on my part wasn’t anything to do with the merits of the production.  It was excellent, one of the best I’ve seen.  But it simply isn’t possible for me to sit through a theatre performance without my analytical brain clocking in.

My past experiences mean that dissecting the hows and the wherefores of what is in front of me on stage is what I do.  I had a quick count last night and after over five decades of theatre going I can reckon on the fingers of two hands the number of times I have been so caught up in the emotional intensity of a performance that the analytic part of my mind has closed down and I have been swept away into the world of the play.  I haven’t worked out the percentage, but as I go to the theatre at least twenty times a year it clearly doesn’t happen very often.

Of course, what happens when I admit this is that people assume I don’t get any enjoyment out of the experience.  Far from it.  I’d hardly keep going if that was the case.  I get immense pleasure out of appreciating the skill that has gone into crafting a production.  Possibly even more when I can think, “oops, should of got rid of that bit of business by now, shouldn’t you?”  And on the odd occasion – about once every five years – when I am blown away, I may well be blown further than your average theatregoer.

P.S.  You might like to know that the last time I got completely caught up in a production was the RSC’s most recent staging of Love’s Labour’s Lost when I had to be prevented from rushing on stage to rescue a teddy bear who was being cruelly, cruelly mistreated.  I very nearly withdrew my company patronage and I’m not sure I’ve got over the trauma even now.

Year of the Fat Knight ~ Antony Sher

IMG_0250Shakespeare is big in my life. And, because I live only an hour’s drive away from Stratford, the same is true of the Royal Shakespeare Company. I saw them on stage for the first time in 1962 and have been a constant visitor ever since. I have dozens of memorable productions stowed away in my memory and not a few of them have featured performances by Antony Sher.

Now, I know that Sher is something of a marmite actor: you love him, or you hate him. I have one friend who refuses to see any further performances of Richard III because she wants nothing to diminish her memory of his 1984 interpretation. I have other friends who pointedly avoid anything he’s in. Personally, I am a fan.

I first saw Sher in 1982 playing the Fool to Michael Gambon’s Lear. This was not long after I had started out on what was to prove to be a nineteen year marathon during which I studied for three successive degrees at the same time as holding down a full-time job. Going to the theatre was about the only other activity I found time for and over that period of nearly two decades Tony Sher was one of a small number of actors who never failed to stimulate me and send me out of the theatre with new ideas careering round my brain. I didn’t always agree with his interpretations (the least said about his Malvolio the better) but he was never there just to make up the numbers. It was fitting, then, if completely unexpected, to turn up for my third and final graduation ceremony and find that he was the Honorary Graduand. He gave a speech that day which managed to turn what had been threatening to be a very embarrassing morning, centred round a hard-nosed plea for money from the university’s Chancellor, into what it should have been: a celebration of the achievements of the young people who had worked so hard and long for their degrees. I wrote to him afterwards to thank him and received a very generous response. As I say, I am a fan.

I am always glad then to see another in his series of diary accounts chronicling his journey towards the creation of a new part. There have now been three of these: The Year of the King, Wozza Shakespeare, and most recently, Year of the Fat Knight. The first was concerned with Richard III, the second, written jointly with his partner, Greg Doran, focused on a production of Titus Andronicus staged in post Apartheid South Africa, and the third about the current production of the Henry IVs.

I love the Henry IVs. They are up there amongst my favourite plays, especially Part II, which I think has a melancholy all of its own. And, I have seen some cracking productions over the years. So I was delighted when they were announced for the 2014 season with Sher cast as the reprobate, Falstaff. I didn’t share the doubts about his ability to play the role that he seems to have had and in fact, the early sections of this journal centre around the question of whether or not he is going to agree to take the part on. Some of the most interesting discussion focuses on why many of our greatest character actors have refused to agree to play Falstaff. Both Derek Jacobi and Ian McKellen had turned it down before it was offered to Sher and neither Olivier nor Gielgud ever played the part. As Sher says Gielgud would have been the Don Quixote of Falstaffs and like him I’d have paid blood to see [Scofield] do it.

Once committed to the role Sher sets about discovering the Falstaff he can play and we go on the journey with him as he mines the text for indications of what it is that makes the fat knight recognisable to us as a real human being. This is a painstaking process and for someone like me, who is of an age with the actor, one I can empathise with, especially when he talks about the growing difficulty of learning lines. I didn’t think that there was as much analysis of the part and of the plays as there had been in the earlier books and felt this as a loss, but there is still much discussion of the rehearsal process and given that he was talking about people I have become familiar with over past seasons and spaces that I know very well, the book was nevertheless a very enjoyable read.

The added bonus where this journal is concerned is that it is now possible to go back and watch the plays again in the light of the journey Sher has laid before us. Recordings are available and although they will never quite catch the magic of the live performance it’s a darn sight better than not being able to see it at all. If you are a lover of Shakespeare or simply a lover of the theatre in general then I recommend a weekend spent with this book and the DVDs of the two plays. You won’t regret the time spent.

Year of the Fat Knight ~ Antony Sher

51Sdn5uTyaL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_As you will by now have gathered Shakespeare is big in my life. And, because I live only an hour’s drive away from Stratford, the same is true of the Royal Shakespeare Company.  I saw them on stage for the first time in 1962 and have been a constant visitor ever since.  I have dozens of memorable productions stowed away in my memory and not a few of them have features performances by Antony Sher.

Now, I know that Sher is something of a marmite actor: you love him, or you hate him.  I have one friend who refuses to see any further performances of Richard III because she wants nothing to diminish her memory of his 1984 interpretation.  I have other friends who pointedly avoid anything he’s in.  Personally, I am a fan.

I first saw Sher in 1982 playing the Fool to Michael Gambon’s Lear.  This was not long after I had started out on what was to prove to be a nineteen year marathon during which I studied for three successive degrees at the same time as holding down a full-time job.  Going to the theatre was about the only other activity I found time for and over that period of nearly two decades Tony Sher was one of a small number of actors who never failed to stimulate me and send me out of the theatre with new ideas careering round my brain. I didn’t always agree with his interpretations (the least said about his Malvolio the better) but he was never there just to make up the numbers.  It was fitting, then, if completely unexpected, to turn up for my third and final graduation ceremony and find that he was the Honorary Graduand.  He gave a speech that day which managed to turn what had been threatening to be a very embarrassing morning, centred round a hard-nosed plea for money from the university’s Chancellor, into what it should have been, a celebration of the achievements of the young people who had worked so hard and long for their degrees.  I wrote to him afterwards to thank him and received a very generous response.  As I say, I am a fan.

I am always glad then to see another in his series of diary accounts chronicling his journey towards the creation of a new part.  There have now been three of these:  The Year of the KingWozza Shakespeare, and most recently, Year of the Fat Knight.  The first was concerned with Richard III, the second, written jointly with his partner, Greg Doran, focused on a production of Titus Andronicus staged in post Apartheid South Africa, and the third about the current production of the Henry IVs.

I love the Henry IVs.  They are up there amongst my favourite plays, especially Part II, which I think has a melancholy all of its own.  And, I have seen some cracking productions over the years.  So I was delighted when they were announced for the 2014 season with Sher cast as the reprobate, Falstaff.  I didn’t share the doubts about his ability to play the role that he seems to have had and in fact, the early sections of this journal centre around the question of whether or not he is going to agree to take the part on.  Some of the most interesting discussion focuses on why many of our greatest character actors have refused to agree to play Falstaff.  Both Derek Jacobi and Ian McKellen had turned it down before it was offered to Sher and neither Olivier nor Gielgud ever played the part.  As Sher says Gielgud would have been the Don Quixote of Falstaffs and like him I’d have paid blood to see [Scofield] do it.

Once committed to the role Sher sets about discovering the Falstaff he can play and we go on the journey with him as he mines the text for indications of what it is that makes the fat knight recognisable to us as a real human being.  This is a painstaking process and for someone like me, who is of an age with the actor, one I can empathise with, especially when he talks about the growing difficulty of learning lines.  I didn’t think that there was as much analysis of the part and of the plays as there had been in the earlier books and felt this as a loss, but there is still much discussion of the rehearsal process and given that he was talking about people I have become familiar with over the past couple of seasons and spaces that I know very well, the book was nevertheless a very enjoyable read.

The added bonus where this journal is concerned is that it is now possible to go back and watch the plays again in the light of the journey Sher has laid before us.  Recordings are available and although they will never quite catch the magic of the live performance it’s a darn sight better than not being able to see it at all.  If you are a lover of Shakespeare or simply a lover of the theatre in general then I recommend a weekend spent with this book and the DVDs of the two plays.  You won’t regret the time spent.

Beware… The Green-Eyed Monster

imagesIt can have escaped very few people’s notice that 2016 is the four-hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and celebrations of various sorts are popping up all over the place. (Question:  At what point does it become acceptable to stop mourning someone’s death and start celebrating it instead?  Is there a rule of thumb, I wonder? And why do we celebrate Shakespeare’s death only once a century but that of Guy Fawkes every year? Funny things, we humans.)

It will also have escaped the notice of very few of my blogging friends that much of my life is spent engaging with Shakespearian study in one form or another.  You won’t be surprised, therefore, to hear that I am seriously excited about all the events that are going on locally, and as I live only an hour’s drive away from Stratford that is likely to be a fair few.  I suppose, then, that I really have no right to feel aggrieved that some of the celebrations I would most like to join in with are not going to be within either my geographical or financial reach.  Well, let me tell you, rights or not, I do, and one particular set of events, which caught my attention in the weekend papers, I really regret missing.

At the Barbican in London the RSC are screening a season of films of the company’s past productions.  These are not the more recent shows which have been relayed through cinemas worldwide over the past couple of years, but rather performances, some of which go back as far as the fifties, that for one reason or another were captured on film and in some cases given only a single television airing.  I would be fascinated to view any of these, but there is one in particular that I would love to see again because it was the film of this production that was responsible for starting me off on the long road that has led to more than fifty years of  Shakespearian studies.

Talk about an act of serendipity.  It was a Thursday evening, my mother was out and I noticed in the Radio Times that there was a showing scheduled of As You Like It.  Why did I want to see it?  I have no idea, other than perhaps the fact that it was theatre and I had been a theatre addict since I was two.  But theatre in our house meant pantomimes, musicals and the occasional light comedy.  It definitely didn’t mean Shakespeare.  Well, I had always been able to wrap my father round my finger (I doubt I would have got away with it had Mom been in!) and, of course, there wasn’t the choice of viewing available then, so we watched it.

I know now that what I saw that night was a recording of the newly-formed RSC’s production of the play from 1961, with Vanessa Redgrave giving a performance as Rosalind that many critics claimed as definitive.  (Certainly, I had to wait until Pippa Nixon’s interpretation for the same company in 2013 for one that came anywhere near it.)  You can read Michael Billington’s memories of the production here.  At the time I knew nothing of the play, the company or the actors, I simply knew that from the moment the broadcast began I was hooked.  And the high point of the whole evening came when, as Rosalind/Ganymede, began to berate Phoebe for her treatment of Silvius, I realised, before it happened, that the shepherdess was going to fall helplessly in love with a woman she thought was a man.  That’s when the light bulb went on, when the fireworks began to soar, whatever metaphors you want to use.  That was the moment when I knew that all those centuries earlier Shakespeare had looked down through the ages, seen a young girl being brought up in one of Birmingham’s red light districts and had decided to write his plays just for her.  The bus to Stratford stopped at the bottom of our road.  Within days I was making a journey that was to be the start of the rest of my life.

You hear people talk about having their life changed in an instant.  Well, I am one of those people.  If I hadn’t sat down to watch that specific production on that long ago Thursday evening, I have no idea who I would be now, but I suspect it would be someone very different.  Perhaps it’s better that I don’t see the performance again but just keep it in my memory as a gift from the gods for which I will be eternally grateful.

The Play’s The Thing

swan-theatreI went over to Stratford yesterday to see Helen Edmundson’s new play Queen Anne in the RSC’s Swan Theatre.  Because the weather was so terrible and I didn’t feel like driving back after dark, in the pouring rain and a gale force wind, I went over on public transport and, as a consequence, had a very long time to think through what I had seen and to come to the conclusion that there are narratives and narratives and what I had just witnessed was not a narrative that belonged in the theatre.

I know that a lot of people don’t agree with me, but I have very definite requirements from a piece of live theatre, the most fundamental of which is that I should come away having been shaken out of some aspect of my complacency and made to think afresh about the way in which I view and live my life.  It may be because I spend so much of my time working with Shakespeare, I don’t know, but I expect a play, whilst obviously being about specific characters, to have a  more universal facet, to reflect not only the life on stage but also the society in which it is being presented.  Hamlet is not just about Hamlet; it is about the horror of indecision and uncertainty that can afflict each of us and, as a result, have incalculable consequences for any individual, any state.

Helen Edmundson’s play doesn’t, I’m afraid, fit the bill, mainly because, unlike Hamlet, it is just about the main character, Queen Anne, and her relationship with Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough.  It wasn’t that it lacked interest.  Like most of us, I suspect, I knew very little about Anne other than that she had given birth to and lost seventeen children and that she had had a difficult relationship with Sarah.  It was a story worth telling.  It is just that, for me, that sort of close exploration of a specific character and a specific relationship, belongs in novel rather than in a play.  I didn’t come away feeling that I needed to rethink anything about my own circumstances or about the society in which I function.  I’m sorry but, gale force winds or no gale forces winds, the world hadn’t shifted.

I hadn’t realised just how strongly I felt about this until I had almost three hours in which to ask why I had come away feeling so uneasy about the play. And I don’t mean to denigrate the narrative of the novel in respect of the narrative of the play in anyway whatsoever.  It was simply that this particular production made me recognise that I ask different things of the two story-telling forms and that in this instance I felt that the playwright might have been better advised to write a novel instead. Apart from anything else, you really can’t explore a relationship as complex as Anne and Sarah’s in two and a half hours of dialogue. It requires something far more detailed.

It was all the more disappointing as I really felt that Edmundson missed an opportunity to explore something that is more universal and certainly something that pervades our twenty-first century every bit as much as it did the beginning of the eighteenth and that was the influence on public perceptions of the satirist.  The play does touch on this, indeed, one of the more prominent characters was Jonathan Swift, satirist extraordinaire, but it wasn’t central.  It wasn’t what the play was about.

I’ve been uneasy for sometime now about the number of productions we’ve had at Stratford recently which have been adaptations of novels.  Surely there are enough playwrights out there who have something of their own to say? But it has taken this play to make me realise why I have been so disquieted.  I suppose from that point of view it was at least a performance that clarified my perceptions and for that I should be grateful.

My Name is Shylock

quill_n_paperI’ve just come in from Stratford having been over there this morning for a discussion on whether or not The Jew of Malta and The Merchant of Venice, both of which are in this season’s RSC repertoire, are anti-semitic plays.  This was the last of three such discussions, each relating to current productions, that we’ve had this summer, the previous two having asked, in the case of the first whether or not the Arts in the UK are pale, stale and male and in the second whether Othello is a racist play.

The panel this morning included Justin Audibert, who directed the current production of The Jew of Malta, Patsy Ferran, who is playing Portia and the novelist Howard Jacobson, who is writing a modern version of Shakespeare’s play as part of a project to reimagine the entire canon as novels for the 2016 celebrations.  Given the outgoing nature of each of those participants it was a lively discussion and a number of ideas were raised that I shall want to consider in greater detail later in the year.  This coming term I am teaching Love’s Labour’s Lost but after Christmas it will be The Merchant of Venice  and then after Easter, Othello.

Today, I just want to think about the panel’s immediate response to the question posed in the title of the session as it applies to Shylock. The unanimous view of the panel was that Shakespeare’s play, at least, is not anti-semitic.  Yes, it presents a man who has some of the attributes that an Elizabethan audience would probably have associated with a member of the Jewish race but Justin Audibert offered what sounds to me like a very good reason for Shakespeare having gone down that route.  The Jew of Malta, Marlowe’s play, was first produced in 1592 and records tell us that it was a box office bonanza.  He (and I) could just imagine Shakespeare storing that information away and thinking “one day, just you wait, one day….”.  Come 1596, when we think The Merchant was first performed, he knew what his audience would expect and to some extent would have had to give it to them, especially if his company wanted their own financial gold mine.

But, when you look at Shylock and compare him with Barabas there are so many very apparent reasons as to why he might justly feel he was being persecuted that in the first half of the play at least you might well argue that this is Shakespeare’s anti-anti-semitic play.  Patsy Ferran noted that the key concept behind the current production was ‘people behaving badly’ and in the early scenes it definitely isn’t Shylock whose actions should be called into question.  And, we also have to ask whether he ever thought that there was even the remotest possibility that he would call in the bond.  Antonio is expecting thrice the necessary funds in less than two thirds of the time allowed.  No, to call this an anti-semitic play seems to me to take a far too simplistic approach.

However, what I did find myself thinking about was a comment made by Hugh Quarshie during the earlier discussion about Othello.  It was widely reported that Quarshie was reluctant to take on the role of Othello because of the way in which he felt it portrayed men of colour and during the debate he wondered about why so many black actors were eager to play the part.  He compared this to the way in which several great Jewish actors (although he didn’t name any) had turned down the role of Shylock because it was seen as anti-semitic.  Well, he might be right, I’m not in a position to know, and I suppose, these days, it does depend to a large extent on the way in which the director decides s/he wants to shape their production, but I must have seen this play at least a dozen times and I can’t remember a Shylock I haven’t ended up sympathising with.  Portia might speak loftily about the quality of mercy but neither she nor anyone else in that court scene offers Shylock so much as one solitary drop of the stuff and at the moment when he is told that he must forcibly convert to Christianity there is nearly always an audible intake of breath from the audience who recognise the sheer effrontery of such a demand.

I have a lot more thinking to do about this, although I will probably have to shelve it until after Love’s Labour’s Lost,  but I would be really interested to know if any of you have seen The Merchant of Venice produced as an anti-semitic play and if so how successful an approach it was.  One of the strands in my approach to a play is to look at the production history as it relates to the context in which those stagings took place and it would be helpful to collect any examples you might recall.

A Traumatic Weekend.

IMG_0001You will have to excuse me if I don’t post anything lengthy or sensible today.  The Bears and I have had a traumatic weekend.

This should not have been the case.  It certainly wasn’t what we had planned.  The only thing in the diary for these two days was a visit to Stratford to see the RSC’s new production of Love’s Labour’s Lost.  You may have read about it.  It’s been staged along with Much Ado About Nothing (which the theatre’s powers-that-be have decided is the missing Love’s Labour’s Won, but that is a conversation for another day!) setting one on either side of the First World War.  It’s not the first time that Love’s Labours has been located in the Summer of 1914.  Ian Drury placed it in an Oxbridge College in that year and closed the show with a shower of bright red poppy petals.  It tore me apart.  And, to be fair, this production is every bit as good, if not better.  As I took part in a well deserved standing ovation, I was in tears at the end.  However, brilliant or not, it does not excuse what happens just before the interval!

My trusty companions and I were really excited because it was clear from the rehearsal stills that one of the leading actors was a Bear.  Now, just because, when Shakespeare drew up the cast list for this play, he forgot to put the Bear in doesn’t mean that it isn’t perfectly appropriate for Lord Dumain’s faithful friend to accompany him when he signs up to study with his King for the next three years.  When I go to stay anywhere for any length of time The Bears always come with me.  And who else should Dumain try out his romantic verses on if not someone who has loved him since he was a boy?  All perfectly logical and indeed highly proper.  This was a performance we were looking forward to.  Theatrical Bears finally coming into their own in the country’s leading theatre.  Imagine then, our anguish when the thespian Bear playing the role of Bear Dumain, far from being treated with the dignity that his character’s unswerving love and devotion deserved, was dangled by the ear over the parapet of a roof top!

Well, as you will not be surprised to hear, I had to be forcibly restrained from climbing onto the stage and carrying out a daring act of rescue.  It is not enough for the Company to insist that the Bear has never been dropped and that there is no intention that he ever will be dropped.  All I can say is that he has never been dropped YET and that doesn’t mitigate the trauma this poor ursine must go through every performance wondering if this is the time he has to learn how to bounce!

Of course,cruelty to Bears is nothing new to the RSC.  There was the never to be forgotten performance of Richard III in which Anton Lesser kicked the Duke of York’s Teddy Bear!  You can tell how shocked the audience were. They had sat through the murders of Clarence and Hastings without so much as a murmur but, when Richard unleashed that unkindest kick of all, the intake of breath that went round the theatre was deafening.  You might have thought that following such a reaction as that the Company would have learnt its lesson, but it appears otherwise.  The RSPCB will have to be notified.

And so, even as I write to you, The Bears are composing a letter of sympathy to the intrepid performer, assuring him of their support should he wish to take this matter up with Equity.  They are doing it, however, through blearily eyes, because, as you will understand, they had very little sleep last night due to bad dreams.  And, as much as I assure them that I will never dangle them by the ear over a rooftop parapet, it is too late; they have seen it done.  They have witnessed the cruelty that we humans are capable of and their faith in humanity has been shattered.  I hope the RSC realise just what they are responsible for.

A Star is Born

dog-blog-mossup-150x160Over the weekend I’ve been to see the RSC’s production of Henry IV Pt I but I’m going to postpone a post until I can couple it with a review of Pt II as I really want to see how the main characters develop before passing judgement on their presentation.  I did think, however, that in an effort to brighten up what might otherwise be a very dull Monday morning, I should draw your attention (especially yours, Briar) to the undoubted star of this season’s RSC lineup, Mossup the Dog.

Mossup is, of course, playing the part of Crab in The Two Gentlemen of Verona.  The leading canine role in Shakespeare, it is one that the doggie stars of stage and screen only infrequently get a chance to perform on account of ignorant producers and directors not realising that it has the potential to draw in the audiences in exactly the same way as would a well-known actor agreeing to tread the boards in the role of Hamlet.

To be fair to the RSC, they have recognised the compliment that Mossup has paid them by agreeing to join the company, as can be seen by the fact that they have given him his own blog.  You can read about his triumph during the audition process in Exit Pursued by a Pug and his followup piece on the vexed question of To Pee or not to Pee – always a problem, because while every well seasoned canine performer knows that you absolutely shouldn’t, the audience do seem to love it when you do.

For real Mossup fans you can follow him on his dog cam  as he prepares for his role in his personalised dressing room. (You will need to follow the dog cam link on the web page for this.) And of course, WhatsOnStage have interviewed him about his experience of treading the RSC boards.

I wanted to take a photo of his dressing room (which of course is distinguished by a very large star and a bone), but someone had rudely parked a car in the way. Perhaps next time I’m there.  I shall as well, when I see the production next month, be attempting to get Mossup to paw mark my programme, but I would imagine that there will be hoards of his fans seeking exactly the same thing so I may just have to worship from afar.  (Large sigh!)

Well, it’s Monday and we all need something to smile about 🙂