The Merry Wives of Windsor in Chester’s Grosvenor Park: a touch of the 1970s

<em>The Merry Wives of Windsor</em> in Chester’s Grosvenor Park: a touch of the 1970s

Watching The Merry Wives of Windsor at Grosvenor Park open air theatre in Chester the other evening, I wondered why this Shakespeare comedy is so rarely performed. As always, the Grosvenor company put on a terrific show – fast-paced, multi-sensory, and packed with music and comedy. We couldn’t have asked for a more entertaining three hours of theatre – and on one of the warmest evenings of this dreary summer. Continue reading The Merry Wives of Windsor in Chester’s Grosvenor Park: a touch of the 1970s”

Romeo and Juliet in Calderstones Park: teenage hysteria

<em>Romeo and Juliet</em> in Calderstones Park: teenage hysteria

The drizzle, it seemed, was determined to droppeth as the rain from heaven for some time, but heaven’s mercy prevailed to allow for a mainly dry performance of Romeo and Juliet by a wandering troupe from the Globe Theatre in Calderstones Park.

Still, nothing – least of all a bit of rain – comes in the way of Britons determined to enjoy a bit of Shakespeare. People were togged up in  hooded anoraks, waterproof rugs and warming flasks of something or other as the travelling players wandered around, joking with the audience before the performance started with a song and dance – just as it would in Shakespeare’s time. Continue reading Romeo and Juliet in Calderstones Park: teenage hysteria”

The Skriker: A midsummer nightmare

<em>The Skriker</em>: A midsummer nightmare

I have never longed so much for the moment I could leave the theatre as when watching the Royal Exchange production of Caryl Churchill’s 1994 drama, The Skriker, that really should have been left un-revived rather than being the centrepiece of the 2015 Manchester International Festival.

The production has attracted uniformly adulatory reviews, and it has to be said that the staging by Lizzie Clachan and Maxine Peake’s central performance are superlative. It’s the play that’s the problem. Continue reading The Skriker: A midsummer nightmare”

Northern accents in Jonathan Miller’s King Lear

Northern accents in Jonathan Miller’s King Lear

The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

Jonathan Miller’s touring production of King Lear for Northern Broadsides arrived at the Playhouse this week. It’s a stark, pared-down staging of Shakespeare’s starkest play, in which the weight of suffering at times feels almost as unendurable for the audience as it is for its characters. Continue reading “Northern accents in Jonathan Miller’s King Lear”

A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Everyman: darkness on the edge of town

A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Everyman: darkness on the edge of town

There’s a darkness on the edge of town. A place of misrule and disruptive magic that in Shakespeare’s day incited dark fears and dreams of wild abandon. The Everyman production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, seen on the penultimate night of its successful run, helped me appreciate for the first time the darker side of Shakespeare’s timeless comedy. Continue reading “A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Everyman: darkness on the edge of town”

Representations of the Holocaust: stage, screen and text

Representations of the Holocaust: stage, screen and text

To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.
― Elie Wiesel, Night

Human suffering anywhere concerns men and women everywhere.
― Elie Wiesel, Night

Two very different representations of the Holocaust seen in the last 48 hours are the subject of this post. The first is the stage adaptation by Children’s Touring Partnership of  Irish novelist John Boyne’s ‘fable’ for younger readers, The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, set in Auschwitzthe second a documentary film, Night Will Fall, about the army photographers who filmed the horrific scenes revealed when British forces entered the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen. Continue reading “Representations of the Holocaust: stage, screen and text”

The Absence of War: parliamentary socialism, anybody?

The Absence of War: parliamentary socialism, anybody?

A revival of David Hare’s 1993 play, The Absence of War, seemed an enticing prospect. A drama portraying the Labour Party as lost in ideological confusion, drained of vitality, and unable to mobilise public support or present a vision or values in any compelling way promised to be highly relevant in present circumstances.

But at the Liverpool Playhouse the other night I found Headlong’s revival an uninspiring disappointment. The production seemed drained of energy, suffering from lifeless acting and direction which did little to overcome a script that suffered from flatness of dialogue and shallowness of characterisation.  It was as airless as the meeting rooms in which most of the action took place and the arguments that were batted back and forth in them. Continue reading “The Absence of War: parliamentary socialism, anybody?”

One Man Breaking Bad

One Man Breaking Bad

How to explain the phenomenon of Breaking Bad? I pondered this as we waited for One Man Breaking Bad to begin last night in a sold-out, packed Liverpool Philharmonic.

The fact that Miles Allen, a Los Angeles-based actor and comedian could fill the place with his 80-minute précis of five seasons of a series never shown on UK television is quite something. Asking for a show of hands at the start, Allen confirmed that all but a handful of the audience had seen the entire series. Indeed, there would be no point in attending if you hadn’t. Continue reading “One Man Breaking Bad”

Filtered Macbeth at the Everyman

Filtered Macbeth at the Everyman

I have done the deed. Didst thou not hear a noise?

On Saturday afternoon we were at the Everyman to see the Filter Theatre production of Macbeth that was passing through, on tour.  Filter have gained a reputation for innovative and exciting theatre since 2003, and this was certainly no routine presentation of what is one of the most familiar of Shakespeare’s plays. I learnt the play as an O-level text, and have seen it performed two or three times since, including Trevor Nunn’s 1974 production at Stratford, a sort of Jacobean black Mass with Nicol Williamson and Helen Mirren as the murderous couple. Filter’s is a cut-down 75-minute version that might be difficult to follow if you are unfamiliar with the play. Continue reading “Filtered Macbeth at the Everyman”

Bright Phoenix: celebrating the city’s wild, anarchic spirit

Bright Phoenix: celebrating the city’s wild, anarchic spirit

Rhodri Meillir as Spike

Rhodri Meillir as Spike in Bright Pheonix

‘Why is it only ever one shoe?’

At the end of the week in which the new Everyman building won the Stirling Prize for new architecture my daughter treated me to a meal at The Quarter and a ticket to see Jeff Young’s ‘love letter to Liverpool’, Bright Pheonix at the Everyman.

Young’s play opens with Spike, a one-eyed, shambling drunk haranguing a sharply-suited woman – a member of Liverpool’s new networked elite, no doubt – who is promoting a vision of business redevelopment for the shabby scene of dereliction that greets visitors to the city when they emerge from Lime Street station.  Soon we are inside the building that symbolizes Lime Street’s decay, the derelict Futurist, Liverpool’s first purpose-built cinema, now a mouldering shell in which the only thing that thrives is buddleia.

Encamped in the derelict cinema, kind of Occupy style, are a motley group who were childhood friends in the 1980s, and the play alternates its narrative between the present day and the 1980s in order to develop Young’s theme of a regenerated Liverpool turning its back on the magic and mythic city of the past. Lucas (played by Paul Duckworth returns twenty years after leaving Liverpool and meets up with the survivors of the gang of kids who scrabbled and fantasised in the dirt and decay of 1980s Liverpool.  Like Lucas, writer Jeff Young has spent his adult life leaving and returning to Liverpool, most recently coming back for Capital of Culture year, since when he’s stayed.

For the 8-year-olds playing games of make believe by the Leeds-Liverpool canal there are dreams of travel to distant places, re-enactments of scenes from war films seen after bunking into the cinema, home-made planes and fishing for rubbish in the canal (‘Why is it only ever one shoe?’), kisses and fags. They dream of flying, like the wartime bomber pilots, or the old Standard firework that gives the play its title. One member of the gang in particular is flying-mad – Alan (calls himself ‘Icarus’, played by Carl Au with Meccano wings strapped to his back.  He’ll come to a tragic end. The other members of the group, who call themselves The Awkward Bastards, are Alan’s sister, Lizzie, with whom Lucas falls in love, Stephen (Mark Rice Oxley) who at eight years is already uncertain about his gender identity, and Spike, an imaginative and impulsive boy whose (literal) entanglement with Lucas has terrible consequences. Rhodri Meillir’s terrific, lurching performance as Spike overshadows everything else in the play, making the sensitive but illiterate child, and the damaged alcoholic he becomes, a compelling, sympathetic figure around whom all the other characters revolve.

Carl Au as Alan 'Icarus' Flynn in Bright Phoenix

Carl Au as Alan ‘Icarus’ Flynn in Bright Phoenix

Twenty years later, Lucas, the only member of the gang to leave the city, returns, and is far from being welcomed by the others.  Gradually we learn of the impact that Lucas has had on the lives of the others, including a series of tragic accidents that tore the group apart. The survivors of the eighties fetch up in the derelict Futurist, where Lizzie (Penny Layden) is camped out, attempting to bring the cinema back to life and revive the wild, rebel spirit of their childhood days. ‘Do you live in magical places?’  she asks, a question that goes to the core of Jeff Young’s vision in this play. Bright Phoenix has been described as Jeff Young’s love letter to his Liverpool, populated by the kind of people with whom he feels an emotional kinship, and set in a place for which he holds a genuine affection.In a recent interview, Young said:

My favourite people are people who live on the margins, in the shadows that might get overlooked, as you said, misfits, who are kind of forgotten. The play is about all these kinds of people. There are homeless characters in it, people who are rejected by the educational system. The characters of the play, when they were children, were really wild and rebellious. When we meet them as adults; we meet them three times: as kids, teenagers and grown-ups. When they are grown-ups, they’re still as wild and rebellious as when they were kids. They still don’t fit in, they still don’t belong. There’s a sense about it that they don’t want to. They deliberately live outside the system. It’s a celebration of that spirit, a celebration of that wild, anarchic spirit. They are non-conformist, they’re anti-establishment, and quite happy to cause trouble!

In the present-day scenes the old Futurist gradually comes to be populated by a motley crew of anarchic rebels. There’s Spike, learning to read and write, spray-painting poetry on the walls; Stephen (Mark Rice Oxley) is a cross-dressing torch singer who observes of regenerated Liverpool: ‘We’ve got cafes. Cafes with chairs outside. You don’t get that in Paris’; and wandering in and out is Cathy Tyson in an understated role as a bag lady, Elsie, who remembers when she was beautiful.  She has one great song in the production.

These scenes depend critically on staging that convinces the audience that, amidst the dereliction,  there is magic in the air, but it has to be said that few of the sequences really take flight. It ought to work, as Ovid ‘s poetry is graffitied on the walls, as gorgeously-dressed Stephen sings swooning torch songs from the balcony, and  Lizzie’s Free Radio broadcasts rebellion across Liverpool ‘s airwaves.

But it never really comes together.  The production feels sluggish, stuttering from one scene to the next and between the past and the present.  The occupied Futurist seems under-occupied on stage: too few people, too many halting pauses between scenes. The music is good: compositions by Martin Heslop are played with panache by flautist and singer Laura J Martin and multi-instrumentalist Vidar Norheim (who was, the Everyman notes, voted Norway’s most promising songwriter in 2011).

Jeff Young in the bistro at the Everyman (Liverpool Echo)

Jeff Young

In the aforementioned interview, Jeff Young claimed that Bright Pheonix was a metaphor:

It’s a metaphor for believing in certain values and those values are cultural and about community and that collective spirit. That kind of place is about bringing people together and the importance of the crowd, instead of living in isolation. What makes places like that really powerful is not just the films that are being shown on the screen. It’s the fact that there are 50 or 100 people collectively gathered in there and that matters. The energy of the people together in that room.

The trouble with this production was that the energy and collective spirit to which Young refers just didn’t come across.  When the police move in to close down the occupation, you don’t feel any sense of loss. Young has said (in a recent post on Seven Streets) that he wants people to look afresh at their city, and to re-connect with places that form part of his Liverpool mythology: ‘I want people to explore those places and spaces again. To consider what public space is – what is it and how should it be used.’

Dave Sinclair, Bibby's shortly before closure

Dave Sinclair, Bibby’s shortly before closure

There’s certainly a debate to be had about the way the city has changed in the last decade or so – whether it is for the better, how much has really changed, and whether some things have been lost.  But, in my view, Bright Phoenix did not contribute very much to that debate. That Liverpool has changed since the 1980s is indisputable.  Coincidentally, in News From Nowhere this week I came across a book of brilliant photographs of the city in that decade taken by Dave Sinclair, who was working as the official photographer for the Militant newspaper in the city at the time. His book, Liverpool in the 1980s, contains memory-jolting images of the people, streets, derelict factories, docks and protests that gave Liverpool a very different image nationally in those days.

Dave Sinclair, Tate & Lyles, 1980s

Dave Sinclair, Tate & Lyles, 1980s

In a preface, Sinclair tells how, after leaving Alsop Comprehensive in 1976 half-way through his A-levels, he webnt to work at Kwiksave on County Road, stacking shelves.  After three years he went to art college where he learned to draw, but most importantly became interested in photography, initially as a form of note-taking for his drawings. He found inspitation, too, in books:

Liverpool Central Library had a fantastic collection of photography books, and I’d spend many hours after college poring over photographs.  Cartier Bresson was there, Ansel Adams, Paul Strand, Walker Evans, William Klein, Eugene Smith and many Europeans, too, including Don McCullin.  Loads of brilliant books taking up some serious shelf space.

I wish those who now advocate library closures could read that.  Sinclair became especially interested in Liverpool’s urban landscape while studying.  In 1983, he went to Newport in South Wales to study photography and by the beginning of the Miners’ Strike in March 1984 he was spending a lot of time in the Welsh Valleys ‘which was going through something very similar to Liverpool economically, albeit with more hills and space’.  Although his photographs of striking miners were being published in socialist newspapers, the college lecturers didn’t regard them as art.  So he left, and was soon working for the Militant newspaper, travelling the country documenting struggles and strikes.  But he was ciontinually drawn back to his home town where Militant councillors had taken over the leadership of the Labour council, and were coming into conflict not only with Margaret Thatcher’s government, but also with the Labour party leadership for refusing to set a budget. The book contains 160 superb photos taken during the hours that Sinclair spent walking around Liverpool, exploring the landscape of dereliction, but gaining increasing confidence in capturing people.

Dave Sinclair, Chucking rock in Leeds Liverpool Canal '82

Dave Sinclair, Chucking rock in Leeds Liverpool Canal ’82

In the days before different attitudes toward photographing children in the street, many of the photographs feature children like the young gang in Bright Phoenix – the one above could almost be a scene from the play.

Dave Sinclair went on  to work as the official photographer for Tower Hamlets council in London.  When he went part-time in 2007 he had the opportunity to catalogue his archive, which he placed on the photo-sharing site, Flickr. The photos in the book have been selected from his Flickr photostream.

Dave Sinclair, Everton drunks, 1980s

Dave Sinclair, Everton drunks, 1980s

Liverpool has changed – our walk from my favourite restaurant to the Everyman reflected this fact in microcosm: the bustling restaurants (with chairs outside!), LiPa, the street art, the Philharmonic Hall renovation, the huge student apartment block going up on the corner of Hardman Street, and the new Everyman itself.  There’s a debate, of course, about how much this is for the better – there may be plenty of new jobs in the city centre in those restaurants, cafes and hotels that cater for the tourists who now flock to the city and the thousands who pour forth from the cruise liners that dock here weekly.  Down river dredging works have started for the Liverpool2 superport which will allow access for post-Panamax size container ships, reversing Liverpool’s long decline as a port.

Surprisingly, much of Liverpool’s renaissance – symbolized by Capital of Culture year – has held up, despite the banking crash that started that same year.  The rub is that in this new economy, many of the jobs in services and tourism are low-paid, part-time or on zero-hours contracts. But what is mostly taking the shine off the city’s renaissance is the government’s policy of austerity and public spending cuts.

Meanwhile – does anyone want to buy an iconic but derelict cinema on Liverpool’s most mythical street?

The Futurist in 1954The Futurist interior

The Futurist in 1954

The Futurist interior todayThe Futurist today

Inside the Futurist today

The Futurist opened on 16th September 1912 as the Lime Street Picture House, an upmarket city centre cinema. Until its closure in 1982, the Futurist was considered to be one of the most luxurious cinemas on the circuit, originally housing a full orchestra to accompany silent films and a prestigious first floor café, with a foyer lined with Sicilian marble. It was the first in the city to show wide screen Cinemascope films. With a Georgian-style façade and a French Renaissance interior, the auditorium was designed to have the effect of a live theatre with rich architectural detailing and plaster mouldings. Now the interior is probably unsalvageable. Whether the façade can be preserved, and Lime Street rejuvenated is another matter. Perhaps we need some artistic and determined young people to occupy it?

And does a building hold the memories of those who have spent time within its walls? Maybe so.  I certainly have memories of seeing films at the Futurist in the seventies.  But I have even stronger memories of times spent inside another of Liverpool’s iconic buildings, also now derelict, in the 1980s – a building I revisited last week.  More in the next post.

Alex Cox gets into the Futurist

See also

Henry IV in two parts on Salford Quays

Henry IV in two parts on Salford Quays

Antony Sher as Falstaff

Antony Sher as Falstaff

Youth and age, the passing of time, are among the themes in explored by Shakespeare in Henry IV parts 1 and 2, and watching Gregory Doran’s production for the RSC at the Lowry last week the decades slid away and I was a youth again, turning the pages of the play we studied for A-level, never imagining I could ever be as old as Falstaff or Justice Shallow.

Now freed from the chains of toil at desk or workbench, we can join the silver-haired throngs and spend an afternoon watching Part 1, and then see Part 2 in the evening. Seeing the plays back to back like this showed how much Shakespeare was on a roll: having kicked off his series about the rise of the House of Lancaster with Richard II in 1595, a year or so later, in Henry IV Part 1, he produced one of his most popular plays, introducing comic characters who reappeared in the equally successful sequels that followed in quick succession – Henry IV, Part 2 (1598) and Henry V (1599).

Both of the Henry IV plays mix  serious history and politics with riotous comedy in a way that has probably never been done so seamlessly and so successfully.  In fact, for most of us what lingers  after seeing these plays is the memory of the comedy scenes – and of the character of Falstaff in particular. Ever since their first performance, it has been the boisterous rowdiness of the tavern scenes presided over by that ‘ squire of the night’, that ‘sweet creature of bombast’ Falstaff that have won the hearts of audiences.

In this production Falstaff is played by Antony Sher – not a man of great stature – who is bulked up and padded out in a fat suit and enormous wig of white flowing locks. Sher’s movements are not only those of a fat man (there’s an hilarious moment on the battlefield when, legs waving in the air like a beetle, he struggles to get off his back), but also those of a gouty, arthritic old man.  Sher’s Falstaff enunciates his words with an educated precision and a throatiness that often sounded as if he was gargling. Sher delivers Falstaff’s lines in a manner that eliminates any sense that the fat man is at all lovable. Quite the opposite: Sher’s performance makes it abundantly clear that he is a schemer and a rapacious deceiver, every riposte and criticism answered with a sharp and deliberative wiliness. Not so ‘fat-witted’, then, but the ‘villainous abominable misleader of youth’ and ‘old white-bearded Satan’ that Prince Henry calls him.  This means that any sympathy you might feel for Falstaff when he delivers this speech is eliminated:

But to say I know more harm in him than in myself,
were to say more than I know. That he is old, the
more the pity, his white hairs do witness it; but
that he is, saving your reverence, a whoremaster,
that I utterly deny. If sack and sugar be a fault,
God help the wicked! if to be old and merry be a
sin, then many an old host that I know is damned: if
to be fat be to be hated, then Pharaoh’s lean kine
are to be loved. No, my good lord; banish Peto,
banish Bardolph, banish Poins: but for sweet Jack
Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff,
valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant,
being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not him
thy Harry’s company, banish not him thy Harry’s
company: banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.

Falstaff is also quite clearly an alcoholic.  While there’s obviously a great deal of sack quaffed in Shakespeare’s text, Antony Sher gives us a Falstaff whose hand shakes with delirium tremens as he pours yet another glass. One of the highlights of Sher’s performance is his delivery of Falstaff’s celebration of good sherry, and assertion that if he had sons the first humane principle he would teach them should be ‘to forswear thin potations and to addict themselves to sack’:

A good sherris sack hath a two-fold
operation in it. It ascends me into the brain;
dries me there all the foolish and dull and curdy
vapours which environ it; makes it apprehensive,
quick, forgetive, full of nimble fiery and
delectable shapes, which, delivered o’er to the
voice, the tongue, which is the birth, becomes
excellent wit. The second property of your
excellent sherris is, the warming of the blood;
which, before cold and settled, left the liver
white and pale, which is the badge of pusillanimity
and cowardice; but the sherris warms it and makes
it course from the inwards to the parts extreme:
it illumineth the face, which as a beacon gives
warning to all the rest of this little kingdom,
man, to arm; and then the vital commoners and
inland petty spirits muster me all to their captain,
the heart, who, great and puffed up with this
retinue, doth any deed of courage; and this valour
comes of sherris. So that skill in the weapon is
nothing without sack, for that sets it a-work; and
learning a mere hoard of gold kept by a devil, till
sack commences it and sets it in act and use.
Hereof comes it that Prince Harry is valiant; for
the cold blood he did naturally inherit of his
father, he hath, like lean, sterile and bare land,
manured, husbanded and tilled with excellent
endeavour of drinking good and good store of fertile
sherris, that he is become very hot and valiant. If
I had a thousand sons, the first humane principle I
would teach them should be, to forswear thin
potations and to addict themselves to sack.

As always, the Falstaff scenes are great entertainment.  But I also particularly enjoyed the long scene in Part Two between Silence and Justice Shallow (a soulful Oliver Ford Davies) in which they reminisce about the days that used to be. Shallow is wonderfully eloquent about the loss of youth and the rewards of friendship:

By the mass, I was called any thing; and I would
have done any thing indeed too, and roundly too.
There was I, and little John Doit of Staffordshire,
and black George Barnes, and Francis Pickbone, and
Will Squele, a Cotswold man; you had not four such
swinge-bucklers in all the inns o’ court again: and
I may say to you, we knew where the bona-robas were
and had the best of them all at commandment.

(‘Bona-robas’, by the way, were prostitutes.) At times I thought their exchanges sounded almost as if they might have been written by Beckett:

Jesu, Jesu, the mad days that I
have spent! and to see how many of my old
acquaintance are dead!
We shall all follow, cousin.
Certain, ’tis certain; very sure, very sure: death,
as the Psalmist saith, is certain to all; all shall
die. How a good yoke of bullocks at Stamford fair?
By my troth, I was not there.
Death is certain. Is old Double of your town living
Dead, sir.

Another scene of dissoluteness and debauchery in Part Two that caught my attention was the one in which Mistress Quickly – in a stream of consciousness torrent of words that might have come from the pen of James Joyce – rages about all Falstaff’s unpaid bills:

I am undone by his going; I warrant you, he’s an
infinitive thing upon my score. Good Master Fang,
hold him sure: good Master Snare, let him not
‘scape. A’ comes continuantly to Pie-corner – saving
your manhoods–to buy a saddle; and he is indited to
dinner to the Lubber’s-head in Lumbert street, to
Master Smooth’s the silkman: I pray ye, since my
exion is entered and my case so openly known to the
world, let him be brought in to his answer. A
hundred mark is a long one for a poor lone woman to
bear: and I have borne, and borne, and borne, and
have been fubbed off, and fubbed off, and fubbed
off, from this day to that day, that it is a shame
to be thought on. There is no honesty in such
dealing; unless a woman should be made an ass and a
beast, to bear every knave’s wrong. Yonder he
comes; and that errant malmsey-nose knave, Bardolph,
with him. Do your offices, do your offices: Master
Fang and Master Snare, do me, do me, do me your offices.

Time passing, and old age creeping on. With maturity comes responsibility, atheme explored by Shakespeare in his depiction of the central relationship between Falstaff and Prince Hal (Alex Hassell) as he frequents the taverns of Eastcheap.  In some productions, Hal is portrayed as a dissolute youth Lacking any sense of his future kingly role, but here Gregory Doran has JHassell play Hal as much more self-aware: a young man who knows he’s not being particularly princely, but fully intends to change his behaviour when the moment comes.

The most surprising feature of Doran’s production of Part One is the treatment of Hotspur. Though Henry IV rebukes his son for haunting taverns and playing truant from honour while Hotspur is valiant and battle-hardened, Trevor White’s unusual performance presents him as a near-autistic hothead, impatient to the point of derangement, who continually prances around in anger, unable to listen to other people. He is far from being the dutiful son King Henry wishes Hal would be: rather than embodiment of chivalry and valour, he is more like a violent overgrown child.

RSC Henry IV part I

Henry IV part I: tavern scene

What is so remarkable about these plays is the way in which Shakespeare weaves together low-life scenes with serious themes of politics and kingship. What makes a ruler legitimate? Which qualities are desirable in a ruler? When it is acceptable to usurp a ruler’s authority?  In the programme, there’s an interesting essay in which the historian Ian Mortimer notes how Shakespeare had to be very careful in how he approached that last question. Henry’s seizure of the throne from Richard II might have removed a tyrannous ruler, but he had been the rightful king of England:

Henry had saved England from tyranny by removing Richard from the throne but such a strategy was anathema to ElizabethI, who locked up one historian in the Tower of London simply for writing a book about Henry IV. To portray such usurpation as not only succesful but blessed by God was far too dangerous. So Shakespeare downplayed the role of Henry IV.  He focussed on the people around the king. There was no danger in celebrating the king’s son, Henry V, the hero who led the English to victory at Agincourt.

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. We might add that Shakespeare’s portrayal of Henry IV (played here by Jasper Britton) is of a man wracked by guilt, determined – as soon as the rebel alliance of Percy, Mortimer, Glendower and Douglas has been put down – to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem (he only gets as far as the Jerusalem chamber in the palace of Westminster).  In the dramatically-staged opening scene, with a candlelit background of chanting monks, Henry IV is a tormented usurper, seen beneath the figure of Christ prostrate  in self-abasing prayer. Stephen Brimson Lewis’s set design was sombre throughout, the stage lined on all sides with wooden slats, like unplastered lath walls, though perhaps not best suited to bringing out the rambunctiousness of the tavern scenes.

With recent political events in Scotland and the growing restiveness in places far-flung from London fresh in mind, I found myself tuning into Shakespeare’s portrayal of a kingdom not only disunited but also one of great diversity. The presentation of the accents, culture and traditions of the North, and of Wales and Scotland forms a key element of Part One. Shakespeare incorporates into the play many different languages, dialects and manners of expression, from Welsh and Scots dialect to the rough language Hal encounters in the taverns of Eastcheap.  Gregory Doran emphasises this beautifully in the scene from Part One in which the Welsh leader Owen Glendower is present with Lord Mortimer and his Welsh wife, Glendower’s daughter. She can speak only Welsh, her husband only English. Shakespeare’s stage directions read: ‘Glendower speaks to her in Welsh, and she answers him in the same’. Doran treats us to an extended interchange between the the three characters, with Glendower’s daughter speaking expansively in Welsh.  This was a captioned performance and it was lovely to be able to see, as well as hear, the Welsh words.

Shakespeare was obviously fascinated with the accents, traditions, and legends of the various nations of the British Isle, though his portrayal of the Welsh Glendower and the Scottish Douglas does also obtain laughs from what would have been for his audience recognisable stereotypes – Glendower the magician (looking like Ian McKellen’s Gandalf complete with staff) and Douglas as the hotheaded warrior:

I can call spirits from the vasty deep.
Why, so can I, or so can any man;
But will they come when you do call for them?

Nevertheless, the range of language and forms of expression in these plays is astonishing: in addition to high speech and low speech, there is poetry and prose, as well as various regional accents.

In the first play there is a running debate about the nature of honour. For the quick-tempered Hotspur, honour means glory on the battlefield and the defence of his reputation and good name against perceived insults:

By heaven, methinks it were an easy leap,
To pluck bright honour from the pale-faced moon,
Or dive into the bottom of the deep,
Where fathom-line could never touch the ground,
And pluck up drowned honour by the locks;

For the troubled king, on the other hand, honour is bound up with the well-being of the nation and his legitimacy as ruler. It lies at the root of his anxiety about how usurpation of Richard II, which won him the crown, might be seen as be a dishonourable act:

And is not this an honourable spoil?
A gallant prize?

Then there is the matter of a son bringing honour to his father, when the king speaks of ‘Hotspur, Mars in swathling clothes’ :

My Lord Northumberland
Should be the father to so blest a son,
A son who is the theme of honour’s tongue;
Amongst a grove, the very straightest plant;
Who is sweet Fortune’s minion and her pride:
Whilst I, by looking on the praise of him,
See riot and dishonour stain the brow
Of my young Harry.

The Prince attempts to calm his father’s fears in a speech that reveals his certainty that he can regain his honour at will:

In the closing of some glorious day
Be bold to tell you that I am your son;
When I will wear a garment all of blood
And stain my favours in a bloody mask,
Which, wash’d away, shall scour my shame with it:
And that shall be the day, whene’er it lights,
That this same child of honour and renown,
This gallant Hotspur, this all-praised knight,
And your unthought-of Harry chance to meet.
For every honour sitting on his helm,
Would they were multitudes, and on my head
My shames redoubled! for the time will come,
That I shall make this northern youth exchange
His glorious deeds for my indignities.

The best speech on the subject is given to the man who has no honour, the amoral rogue Falstaff, for whom the idea is nothing but hot air:

Well, ’tis no matter; honour pricks
me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I
come on? how then? Can honour set to a leg? no: or
an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no.
Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is
honour? a word. What is in that word honour? what
is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it?
he that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no.
Doth he hear it? no. ‘Tis insensible, then. Yea,
to the dead. But will it not live with the living?
no. Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore
I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so
ends my catechism.

RSC Henry IV part II

Alex Hassell as Prince Hal, trying on the crown in Henry IV part two

In the afternoon, in Part One, we saw the king preparing for war against the insurrectionists and Prince Hal coming to terms with his responsibilities as heir to the throne.  In the evening, in Part Two, the King’s health is fading and Hal finally chooses between duty to his country and loyalty to an old friend: ‘I know you not, old man’.  While Henry IV Part II lacks the power of Part One, this production contained some wonderful moments and was as entertaining as the earlier play, especially in the comic scenes featuring Falstaff as well as the red-nosed Bardolph (Joshua Richards), Mistress Quickly (younger than I had imagined her to be, energetically played by a spikyPaola Dionisotti), the wild, anarchic, incomprehensible Pistol (Antony Byrne), and Justice Shallow.

Another scene that played well was when the dying king wakes to find Hal has taken the crown. Angry at first, he is reconciled with his son before he dies. A new, mature Hal accepts the crown as King Henry V and turns his attention to war with France, having been urged by his father ‘to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels’. It’s a line that never seems to lose its pertinence.

The moment when Prince Hal, in procession to his coronation, finally denies Falstaff is quite shocking in the severity of Alex Hassell’s delivery of the line ‘I know you not, old man’ and the cursoriness of his manner. Doran dispenses with Shakespeare’s ending – an ‘epilogue spoken by a dancer’ – which reveals that the sequel was already planned:

One word more, I beseech you. If you be not too
much cloyed with fat meat, our humble author will
continue the story, with Sir John in it, and make
you merry with fair Katharine of France: where, for
any thing I know, Falstaff shall die of a sweat,
unless already a’ be killed with your hard

Instead, after Prince John has uttered the promise of foreign wars –

I will lay odds that, ere this year expire,
We bear our civil swords and native fire
As far as France: I beard a bird so sing,
Whose music, to my thinking, pleased the king.
Come, will you hence?

– Doran has the stage darken, a single shaft of light illuminating the figure of a small boy.

After nearly six hours of drama we emerged into the unusual warmth of a Salford October night well satisfied with a production that had brought out the richness of Shakespeare’s plays and his remarkable ability to present audiences with the full range of human experience.

United We Stand: agitprop reminder of conspiracy and miscarriage of justice

United We Stand: agitprop reminder of conspiracy and miscarriage of justice

Des Warren and Ricky Tomlinson

Des Warren and Ricky Tomlinson in 1975 after Warren’s release from prison.

Drive a short distance from Liverpool along the M62 and you see direction signs to the Hillsborough Inquest, now being held on an industrial estate outside Warrington, a reminder that 25 years of campaigning was needed before the injustice of what happened on 15 April 1989 was recognised and a new inquest opened.  Meanwhile, the Independent Police Complaints Commission conducts a separate investigation into whether senior officers perverted the course of justice, and a parallel criminal investigation into police behaviour at Hillsborough continues.

The success of the Hillsborough campaign has led to pressure for a similar investigation into the policing of the miners’ strike in 1984, as frustration grows over the reluctance of the IPCC to launch a full investigation into possible criminal actions by the South Yorkshire Police at Orgreave coking works during the strike. On 18 June 1984, 95 miners were arrested at Orgreave after thousands of police officers – many in riot gear, with others on horseback – brutally assaulted miners participating in a strike aimed at defending jobs and mining communities.

But there’s a third, less-noticed example of an ongoing campaign to rectify a miscarriage of justice and subsequent cover-up during the years of Tory government nearly half a century ago.  It’s the case of the Shrewsbury pickets – 24 men who took part in the first-ever national building workers strike in 1972, and it’s now the subject of a brilliant two-hander of a play – United We Stand – that I saw at the Lantern Theatre in Liverpool last week.


United We Stand is a production of the Townsend Theatre Company and was written by Neil Gore.  Before the production tours the country during the next two months, the play is having its premiere in Liverpool where the Shrewsbury campaign has gained a lot of attention – not least because Ricky Tomlinson was one of those who served time for the crime of striking for better wages and urging others to do the same by picketing. The idea for a play about the Shrewsbury 24 came when Gore was in Liverpool in 2012 with a production of Robert Tressell’s Ragged Trousered Philanthropists and met Tomlinson.

I hadn’t been to a show at the Lantern Theatre before.  A small space in a converted warehouse in the trendy Baltic Quarter, it consists of a room that seats around 80 with a bar at one end and the stage at the other.  It reminded me of the tiny places that you encounter as pop-up venues in the Edinburgh Festival.  The production itself reminded me of something else – the deeply politicized productions of agitprop theatre companies of the early 1970s such as 7:84 and Red Ladder.  Appropriate really, since the play concerns politics and class conflict in that period.

United We Stand

Neil Gore as Ricky Tomlinson and William Fox as Des Warren in ‘United We Stand’

The play is a two-hander in which Neil Gore and William Fox do everything, taking on numerous roles, and performing songs, some written specially for the play by John Kirkpatrick who has been a member of numerous British folk groups such as Steeleye Span, the Albion Band and the Richard Thompson Band.  At one point Gore and Fox were singing while shifting props, changing costumes, preparing a video projection, and altering the lighting.

United We Stand tells the story of 24 building workers who were accused of violent picketing and intimidating workers during the industry’s first national all-out strike in 1972.  Its aim was to gain better pay and conditions – in particular to end the hated Lump, the practice by which building workers were self-employed and thus not entitled to holiday pay, national insurance or PAYE tax deductions, instead receiving a lump sum, supposed to cover all expenses. In the decade leading up to the strike, the number on the lump had more than doubled to 400,000. The lump led to shoddy work and an increase in fatalities and accidents. Because those on the lump negotiated their own terms of employment, trade union organisation was undermined. Which was exactly the intention of the big construction companies that had come to dominate the industry – McAlpine, Wimpey, and Laing.

In the 1972 strike, flying pickets left the contractors reeling. By the end of the twelve-week dispute the building workers had succeeded in winning the highest ever pay rise in the history of the industry. The Tory government and the large building companies wanted revenge, and five months after the strike ended 24 pickets were arrested and accused of offences, including unlawful assembly, intimidation and affray. None of the pickets had been cautioned or arrested during the strike.

At the first Shrewsbury trial, beginning in October 1973, three of the pickets were found guilty of conspiracy to intimidate, unlawful assembly and affray. They were sent to prison: Des Warren for three years, Ricky Tomlinson for two years and John McKinsie Jones for nine months. It was clear that the case against the workers was political and an abuse of power by the Conservative government of the day that had close links with the owners of the companies that dominated the building industry. Remember the context: that same year the Heath government had been defeated by the miners after a 7-week strike had led to the three-day week and power blackouts. The NUM victory shook the Tory government to the core, and made a powerful impression on a young Margaret Thatcher, Education minister and chief milk-snatcher at the time.

Neil Gore and William Fox in United We Stand

Neil Gore and William Fox in ‘United We Stand’

All of this was despatched in two acts of quick-fire sketches and rousing songs. As writer, Neil Gore managed to convey the causes of the strike and its progress, largely through comedy and song (including ‘Part of the Union’, rescued from its snarky anti-trade union associations). There were instances where things might have been tightened up, with a scene or a song dropped, and in places (as with most agitprop theatre) it was, as the Liverpool Echo remarked ‘rough around the edges’.  But there was no doubting the energy and passion of the show and its commitment to bear witness to injustice.

There was a brilliant puppetry presentation of ‘The Big Conspiracy’ that revealed the connections between the leaders of the construction industry and government ministers (see this page for confirmation), and another scene which featured a wonderful impersonation of Hughie Green in an Opportunity Knocks devoted to the McAlpine family, owners of McAlpines, the main contractors on the building site in Shrewsbury which featured prominently in the charges against the pickets. The McAlpines had form:

Robert Alistair McAlpine became the Treasurer of the Conservative Party in 1975. The McAlpine family had great political influence in the North Wales area. The High Sheriff of Denbighshire, which is a large part of the county of Gwynedd, is the senior person responsible for law and order. Up to the 1970’s the past nine High Sheriffs had been members of the McAlpine family. The person appointed High Sheriff in April 1974 was Mr Peter Bell, a director of McAlpine and the son-in-law of the late Sir Alfred McAlpine, who was also Mr Bell’s predecessor as High Sheriff.

The pickets were the ones charged with conspiracy.  But the real conspiracy was to be found elsewhere.

The play concluded with scenes from the trial of Des Warren and Ricky Tomlinson, including their final speeches from the dock. I was a little disappointed that it ended there and failed to consider the personal impact of the convictions (especially on Des Warren who died in 2004 from Parkinson’s disease, attributed to the long-term effects of the treatment he received during his jail sentence, in particular the ‘liquid cosh’ – a cocktail of tranquillisers he was given for refusing to cooperate with the prison authorities).  There was no mention, either, of the ongoing campaign to clear the names of the 24 convicted pickets (though there was an informative display at the rear of the theatre).

Whose Conspiracy? Justice for the Shrewsbury pickets: this 2009 film tells the story of the Shrewsbury Pickets

The Shrewsbury 24 Campaign was established in Liverpool in 2006 after a meeting between several of the convicted pickets and local trade union activists.  The campaign demands that the convictions of the 24 men accused of violent picketing and intimidation be overturned.  Earlier this year a petition with 100,000 signatures was handed in at 10 Downing Street, calling on the government to release documents on the case.  But Chris Grayling, the Justice (sic) Minister has said that they will remain  sealed until 2021 on the grounds of national security. Ricky Tomlinson’s view of the matter has been characteristically succinct: ‘National security? My arse.’

See also