The Two Gentlemen of Verona, written between 1589 and 1593, is believed to have been Shakespeare’s first play – and, boy, does it show. It didn’t make much of an impression when first performed, and rare revivals in recent times have generally not been very well-received.
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 Globe Theatre came to Calderstones Park last night, bringing their touring production of King Lear. On a warm evening, with the rain holding off, five hundred of us saw eight actors and two musicians, perform one of Shakespeare’s best-known stories. A basic wooden stage had been erected in the garden behind Calderstones Mansion House and as the audience gathered, unfolding chairs and unpacking food and drink, the actors trolled around and chatted to the audience.
For Liverpudlians, the Globe Theatre’s visit was especially significant: for the first time in 30 years, live theatre was back at the Garden Theatre in Calderstones. This was all down to the Reader Organisation that recently took over the Mansion House to develop their International Centre for Reading and Wellbeing which will providing a home for The Reader Organisation and offer educational and literary courses, reading holidays, wellbeing breaks for carers and many more activities.
On a warm summer’s evening when the English weather is kind, what could be better than to sit under the trees and, as darkness falls, watch a great play performed by actors from a great company in a production that was full of energy and offered new insights into the play? As in Shakespeare’s day, the players had to turn their hand, not only to a bit of acting and singing, but also take turns at performing as musicians and stagehands. They were also required to take on two or more roles each. So before launching into the play, they gave us a song and told us about where this year’s tour had taken them – around Britain, across Europe to Romania and Turkey, and finally (lucky players!) to St Lucia.
Directed by Bill Buckhurst, this was not only an energetic rendition of the story, but also had a lighter, more comedic touch than usual (so, for example, the gore and horror of the scene where Gloucester is blinded culminated with an eye being thrown into the audience). This made for a very different reading of the play to the one we saw at the Everyman in Capital of Culture year (featuring the late Pete Postlethwaite in the lead role) which emphasised the contemporary relevance of the play’s politics of succession and division. It was also quite different to the harrowing Donmar production we saw in 2011 at the Lowry in Salford.
There were strong performances all round, but special mention should be made of Joseph Marcell’s fine Lear, played with growing emotional intensity and lacerating sense of loss, Bethan Cullinane who, apart from playing Cordelia, also gave us a lively and entertaining fool, the one person at court who possesses the liberty to tell Lear to his face where he has gone wrong. Ruth Everett and Shanaya Rafaat were brilliant as the hypocritical, amoral sisters Goneril and Regan – I think, perhaps, the best portrayal of the pair who have no conscience, only appetite. Their performance dripped with villainy – the greedy ambition that leads them to crush all opposition, but especially their unrestrained sexual desire for Edmund, which destroys their alliance and leads them to destroy each other.
A travelling production obviously needs to be a spare one, but this one showed how basic materials produce powerful effects. This was seen especially in a spine-tingling storm scene that employed nothing more than a flapping curtain and metal thunder sheets. The doubling-up of actors, although a bit confusing at first, added to the liveliness, particularly in a scene where Edmund, played by Oliver Boot (a bit of a Ralph Fiennes lookalike) dashed around changing hats to appear simultaneously as two characters.
Probably because I had just been writing about Dickens’s exploration of the theme of hypocrisy in Martin Chuzzlewit, I noticed how strongly that same theme emerges in the opening scene, with Lear inviting his daughters to pile on their flattery of him in order to gain a share of his kingdom. Goneril shows no qualms:
Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter; Dearer than eye-sight, space, and liberty; Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare; No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honour; As much as child e’er loved, or father found; A love that makes breath poor, and speech unable; Beyond all manner of so much I love you.
Off to one side, Cordelia resolves to be honest and true:
What shall Cordelia do?
Love, and be silent.
When she speaks she refuses to follow her sisters in their false flattery, saying simply:
Cordelia: Nothing, my lord.
Lear: Nothing will come of nothing: speak again.
Cordelia: Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave My heart into my mouth
It’s a wonderful exchange, Pinteresque in its conciseness. Later when Lear, wandering the storm-wracked heath, encounters Poor Tom the beggar my attention was caught by these lines, which also drew a ripple of cynical laughter from the audience. We were all, no doubt, thinking of more recent behaviour by England’s politicians:
Through tatter’d clothes small vices do appear; Robes and furr’d gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold, And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks: Arm it in rags, a pigmy’s straw does pierce it. None does offend, none, I say, none; I’ll able ’em: Take that of me, my friend, who have the power To seal the accuser’s lips. Get thee glass eyes; And like a scurvy politician, seem To see the things thou dost not.
In the programme, essays by Michael Dobson, Professor of Shakespeare at Birmingham University, and Neil Rodes, Professor of English Literature and Cultural History at St Andrews University, highlight the importance of the theme of homelessness and vagrancy in the play.
The country gives me proof and precedent Of Bedlam beggars, who, with roaring voices, Strike in their numb’d and mortified bare arms Pins, wooden pricks, nails, sprigs of rosemary; And with this horrible object, from low farms, Poor pelting villages, sheep-cotes, and mills, Sometime with lunatic bans, sometime with prayers, Enforce their charity. Poor Turlygod! poor Tom! That’s something yet: Edgar I nothing am.
When Edgar disguises himself as Poor Tom, an inmate of Bedlam hospital, Shakespeare was bringing into the play one of the key social and political issues at the time that Lear was written and first performed in the first decade of the 17th century. By then Bedlam (Bethlehem Hospital) was already an asylum notorious for its appalling conditions and brutal treatment of its patients, some of whom were given licenses to beg outside the hospital.
Dobson writes of the play’s ‘profound interest in vagrancy’:
Shakespeare’s version of the tale of King Lear, a story well-known to Jacobeans is the only [version] in which Lear and Cordelia lose the battle, the only one in which the King goes mad, and the only one in which the king’s moral trajectory through the action hinges on an encounter with what appears to be a mad rural beggar, Edgar in his disguise as Poor Tom. For Shakespeare, half the point of Kin gLear is the salutary, edifying experience undergone by its titular king of becoming a deranged, homeless, lost vagrant himself.
Dobson describes Lear as ‘a literally levelling play’ with ‘no gods, no heavens, no hell, just a disenchanted flat exposed plain on which human beings struggle and die’. At the very core of the play, out shelterless in the rain, Lear expresses this new, egalitarian moral vision in a prayer:
Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are, That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm, How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides, Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp; Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel, That thou mayst shake the superflux to them, And show the heavens more just
For Dobson, ‘this play aspires to speak of, and to, everyone, everywhere’. He adds, interestingly, that among the play’s earliest recorded productions, soon after being performed before King James, was a rendition given illegally by a small company of former artisans who toured the moorland hamlets of Yorkshire in 1609-10.
Introducing the programme notes, Dominic Dromgoole, the Globe’s Artistic Director, observes that touring productions represent a tradition in English theatre that goes back a long way:
Before the construction of the Rose and the Globe all our dramatic experiences were about companies trucking up to strange towns, and performing plays in inn yards, in churches, in guildhalls, in fairs and at any other number of strange venues under the canopy of the sky. Touring was in Shakespeare’s blood and in the blood of the company of actors he worked with. They had toured before they formed a company at the Globe, and they continued to do so after they were established. In part this was an emergency measure – when the theatres had to close due to plague or the opprobrium of the city fathers, then they could take a show out on the road. But there were also powerful economic reasons – touring made money, and was a good way to recycle work that had succeeded in London.
The Globe resurrected this tradition in summer 2007 after a 400-year break taking a scaled-down, touring production of Romeo and Juliet out from the Globe. They have toured ever since, and the tours have gone from strength to strength.
Dromgoole’s piece is illustrated by a detail from Village Festival in Honour of St Hubert and St Anthony, by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, painted in 1632. At the centre of the village festivities, Brueghel has depicted a booth stage – the kind of temporary stage that was dominant in England in Shakespeare’s day. It was a small rectangular stage mounted on trestles or barrels and backed by a cloth-covered booth which served as a tiring-house (short for ‘attiring house’, where the actors dressed).
In the centre of the painting, a large crowd has gathered around the stage to watch a play in which a man dressed as a monk kisses a buxom woman, while another man spies upon them from a basket on a colleague’s back. The painting illustrates a religious festival which would undoubtedly have come as a welcome respite from the monotonous toil of peasant existence. Effigies of Saints Anthony and Hubert are being carried in a procession through the village, but for the most part the spectators’ attention has been diverted elsewhere, gazing instead at the play performed by a group of travelling actors.
In Liverpool this week we’ve been fortunate in seeing the Globe Theatre production of Henry V on the first leg of a nationwide tour, prior to its opening back at the Globe at Southwark in June. I had my doubts when I heard that in this Olympic summer the Globe were presenting the one Shakespeare play in which the patriotic notes can be turned up to full volume. But – no worries; this is a superb production that is colourful, inventive and deft in highlighting all the nuances of Shakespeare’s text.
Henry V is a popular play, crammed with glorious and familiar poetry. Like many of my generation, I imagine, this was the first Shakespeare play I ever saw – in Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film version which had reflected the moment in offering a rousing, patriotic rallying cry for Britons as the war entered its last months. It’s remained a favourite for me ever since, with its glorious poetry and uproarious comedy.
Henry V can be presented as a play to thrill proud patriots – or as a satire on conniving politicians who resort to war to serve their own ends, and a condemnation of the brutality of war. This production doesn’t veer towards either pole. Instead, it underlines the fact that Shakespeare is far too subtle to preach, or offer anything less than a multi-faceted view of human nature. I think this is crystallised in the joyous musical coda that director Dominic Dromgoole has added to the play, in which all the characters join the band of musicians in cavorting around the stage: we see the ‘fair field full of folk’ that Shakespeare has explored – high and low, honourable and thieving, brave and cowardly, the warrior and the sceptic. For this is a play in which heroism and villainy march shoulder to shoulder.
Shakespeare’s Henry is a nuanced portrayal of a monarch who appears at times the courageous leader able to inspire his subjects to rally to the cause, whether mingling with them incognito on the eve of battle or employing the high-flown rhetoric that the play has become famous for:
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; Or close the wall up with our English dead. In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man As modest stillness and humility: But when the blast of war blows in our ears, Then imitate the action of the tiger; Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood […]
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips, Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot: Follow your spirit, and upon this charge Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’
This story shall the good man teach his son; And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by, From this day to the ending of the world, But we in it shall be remembered – We few, we happy few, we band of brothers
On the one hand Henry can expressly order that,
… in our marches through the country, there be nothing compelled from the villages, nothing taken but paid for, none of the French upbraided or abused in disdainful language; for when lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner.
Yet also terrify the governor of Harfleur with these words:
I will not leave the half-achieved Harfleur Till in her ashes she lie buried. The gates of mercy shall be all shut up, And the flesh’d soldier, rough and hard of heart, In liberty of bloody hand shall range With conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass Your fresh-fair virgins and your flowering infants.
Later, on the battlefield, in revenge for the deaths of leading English nobles, Henry orders the immediate execution of all French prisoners.
Music is woven into the fabric of this production, helping to reinforce the authentic sense of the medieval world that director Dominic Dromgoole seeks to create. The play opens and ends with music, and musical interludes are interspersed throughout the action – played on period instruments such as sackbut, lute, cittern, hurdy-gurdy and cornet by a small band of musicians.
In another example of this quest for authenticity, the play opens to the startling sight of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely plotting to convince the king of the desirability of regaining lost lands in France whilst having a crap and wiping their arses as a servant hovers with a handwash bowl. Defecating in public – and accompanying the act with a little conversation or intrigue – would not have been regarded as out of the ordinary in those days.
There was attention to period detail, too, in the costumes, from the rich silks and fur of wealthy courtiers to the rags and filth of the poor infantrymen. The set brought a slice of The Globe to the Playhouse: two huge pillars, a balcony and a stairway constructed from rustic wooden planks served as a representation of the stage at The Globe.
The acting was uniformly excellent. Jamie Parker as Henry gave a sound performance – and I was struck by the way in which he (and others in the cast) avoided the conventional declamatory style of delivery in favour of a more natural one that seemed to elucidate the meaning and the poetry of the lines.
[Update 22 April: listening to The Reunion today on Radio 4 explained that this style of delivery constitutes one of the significant contributions that The Globe has made to British theatrical practice. The programme reunited five people who helped create The Globe Theatre and, despite three decades of setbacks made it a critical and commercial success. One of the contributers made the point that The Globe’s architecture, with a standing audience close to the actors, means that the actors can deliver their lines as if the audience were on stage with them. The discussion also made clear how the commitment to period detail – whether in music or costume – is a central element of the Globe house style.]
Sam Cox as Pistol was brilliant as the eccentric, grasping and cowardly former drinking partner of the king. The Welsh Captain Fluellen was rendered perfectly by Brendan O’Hea, while Chris Starkie deserves a mention for his astonishing performance as the Scottish Captain Jamy, his lines delivered in such broad Glaswegian as to be completely unintelligible.
An unusual feature of this production is that the Chorus is played by a woman (as per Greek drama, perhaps). Brid Brennan’s performance was superb, drawing attention to an element of the play that might be overlooked. Yet there is a great deal of interest in this Chorus: in an almost Brechtian manner, Shakespeare repeatedly draws attention to the unreality of the scenes being presented on stage, and to the limits of what can be staged. Right from those wonderful opening lines, in fact:
O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend The brightest heaven of invention, A kingdom for a stage, princes to act And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
In the prologue, the Chorus reminds the audience of the limitations of the play:
Can this cockpit hold The vasty fields of France? or may we cram Within this wooden O the very casques That did affright the air at Agincourt?
Henry V was written in 1599, a crucial year in Shakespeare’s career that is the subject of a book by James Shapiro that I read a few years back – 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare. I recall its vivid opening chapter that describes how, in the last days of December 1598, a troupe of players led by Richard Burbage (probably the first actor to play the role of Henry V), armed with pikes and swords, march to the Theatre in Shoreditch. The actors are members of The Chamberlain’s Men, Shakespeare’s band of brothers. The armaments are props from the Curtain Theatre where the Chamberlain’s Men had been forced, for the season just past, to stage their productions following a dispute with the landlord of their previous venue, London’s oldest and most celebrated playhouse, the Theatre in Shoreditch.
The Chamberlain’s Men, now lacking a permanent playing space, were in danger of becoming homeless. But they had secured some land in Southwark, giving them a building site, but no theatre. Strictly speaking, Burbage owned the building at Shoreditch, but ownership was most likely to be disputed by the man who owned the land, the man with whom the company were in contention. So while he was away on his Christmas holidays, the plan was for the actors to steal it from under his nose, dismantling the theatre’s timbers and transporting them across the river. And, of course, that plan proved successful – the original Globe Theatre being the upshot.
Shapiro also tells how Henry V was written against the backdrop of what turned out to be the ill-fated Irish campaign by the ambitious Earl of Essex, suspected of mounting his expedition in expectation of returning victorious to overthrow Queen Elizabeth. Henry V may be the only play in which Shakespeare makes explicit reference to the political situation at the time he was writing, giving these words to the Chorus at the opening of the final act, comparing Henry’s triumphant return to London, firstly with that of ‘conquering Caesar’ returning to Rome, and then with Essex returning, ‘as in good time he may’, with ‘rebellion broached on his sword’:
But now behold, In the quick forge and working-house of thought, How London doth pour out her citizens! The mayor and all his brethren in best sort, Like to the senators of the antique Rome, With the plebeians swarming at their heels, Go forth and fetch their conquering Caesar in: As, by a lower but loving likelihood, Were now the general of our gracious empress, As in good time he may, from Ireland coming, Bringing rebellion broached on his sword, How many would the peaceful city quit, To welcome him! much more, and much more cause, Did they this Harry.
Olivier’s take on St Crispian:
Derek Jacobi as the Chorus speaks the prologue from Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 film version: