The RSC’s high-tech Tempest: acting, poetry and technology spellbind together

The RSC’s high-tech <em>Tempest</em>: acting, poetry and technology spellbind together

Another splendid evening this week in our local Picturehouse last week watching the RSC’s dazzling staging of The Tempest, featuring magnificent and memorable performances by Simon Russell Beale as Prospero and Mark Quartley as Ariel. This is the production that utilises performance capture technology from Imaginarium Studios to render Ariel’s animated avatar live in three dimensions on the Stratford stage. Brilliant as the special effects were, it was the acting which held us spellbound. Continue reading “The RSC’s high-tech Tempest: acting, poetry and technology spellbind together”

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:

SHALLOW:
Jesu, Jesu, the mad days that I
have spent! and to see how many of my old
acquaintance are dead!
SILENCE:
We shall all follow, cousin.
SHADOW:
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?
SILENCE:
By my troth, I was not there.
SHALLOW:
Death is certain. Is old Double of your town living
yet?
SILENCE:
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:

GLENDOWER:
I can call spirits from the vasty deep.
HOTSPUR:
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
opinions.

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.

The RSC’s ‘African’ Julius Caesar: not stones, but men

The RSC’s ‘African’ Julius Caesar: not stones, but men

How many ages hence shall this, our lofty scene, be acted in states unknown and accents yet unborn!
Cassius, Julius Caesar, Act 3, Scene 1

Never spoke a truer word, that man with the lean and hungry look.  Cassius, Brutus and the rest of the conspirators are dipping their hands in the blood of the man they have just assassinated, and action that will unleash civil war.  In Gregory Doran’s production of Julius Caesar for the Royal Shakespeare Company which we saw in Stratford last week, the repetitious nature of dictatorship and civil war is reinforced by having the play set somewhere in modern Africa.  But it could as easily have been the post-Spring Arab world or just about anywhere else on the planet.

But there is another sense in which those words from Cassius resonate here: this is a production in which the entire cast are black British actors who speak Shakespeare’s poetry in vibrant African accents.  In an article for the programme, Richard Dowden, Director of the Royal African Society, points out that, not only is Shakespeare taught in most schools in English-speaking Africa, but Africans also respond effortlessly to the rhythms of Shakespeare’s language and the relevance of the drama of Julius Caesar.

Gregory Doran and Paterson Joseph (Brutus) at rehearsal for Julius Caesar

For director Gregory Doran,  one of the inspirations behind setting Julius Caesar in Africa was learning of the copy of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare that made its way on to Robben Island and which was passed between anti-apartheid prisoners during the 1970’s, all of whom treasured the book, each highlighting passages and quotes that they found meaningful and profound.  On December 16 1977 Nelson Mandela chose to autograph these lines from  Julius Caesar:

Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard.
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.

Africa has no monopoly on dictators –  you only have to ponder this image of four deposed leaders – Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, Ali Abdullah Saleh (Yemen), Libya’s Colonel Gadaffi, and Hosni Mubarak (Egypt) – to understand that this play could easily be staged in the Arab world.  Indeed, in the scene that follows Caesar’s assassination which reveals – through Mark Antony’s ironic evisceration of the conspirators (‘are they not honourable men?’) and his revelation of Caesar’s will – that the murder, rather than saving the republic, has set fire to it, I thought of another place and time, and another fearful and factionalised leadership faced with an inconvenient last will and testament:

You are not wood, you are not stones, but men;
And, being men, bearing the will of Caesar,
It will inflame you, it will make you mad:
‘Tis good you know not that you are his heirs;
For, if you should, O, what would come of it!

In Gregory Doran’s production, as the audience take their seats, the stage is filled with a colourful, noisy and frenzied crowd, yell and sway as musicians playing afrobeat rhythms whip up the excitement.  The set design simultaneously suggests a Roman amphitheatre and crumbling post-independence African architecture, a looming bronze statue of Caesar emphasising the dictatorial threat.

This street fiesta consists of ordinary folk celebrating the return of warlord Caesar, a hero after crushing fellow-warlord Pompey. From the off, Shakespeare avoids simplistic analysis.  Julius Caesar is a play about the encroachment of autocracy on a republic – the conspirators speak of genuine concern for the future of the republic at the same time as they seek their own aggrandisement – but in the opening scene Shakespeare focusses on the fickleness of public opinion.

But, indeed, sir, we make holiday,
to see Caesar and to rejoice in his triumph –

so speaks one of the ‘tradesmen’ who have gathered in the square.  The rejoinder comes from Flavius, one of the tribunes:

Wherefore rejoice?  […]
You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things!
O you hard hearts, you cruel men of Rome,
Knew you not Pompey? Many a time and oft
Have you climb’d up to walls and battlements,
To towers and windows, yea, to chimney-tops,
Your infants in your arms, and there have sat
The livelong day, with patient expectation,
To see great Pompey pass the streets of Rome:
And when you saw his chariot but appear,
Have you not made an universal shout,
That Tiber trembled underneath her banks,
To hear the replication of your sounds
Made in her concave shores?
And do you now put on your best attire?
And do you now cull out a holiday?
And do you now strew flowers in his way
That comes in triumph over Pompey’s blood? Be gone!

Paterson Joseph and Theo Ogundipe in Julius Caesar

This is a production that does not slow for one moment, the absence of an interval maintaining the pace throughout.  The cast are uniformly excellent; as Charles Spencer remarked in his review in The Telegraph:

The production is … a reminder of the strength in depth of British black actors. There isn’t a dud performance here, and Shakespeare – who was such an enduring inspiration to Nelson Mandela and his fellow inmates on Robben Island – sounds just fine with an African accent.

Indeed, the verse-speaking is vibrant and fluent, the rounded rhythms of African speech enriching Shakespeare’s poetry.  The acting also draws out the complexity of Shakespeare’s portrayal of the main characters.  Jeffery Kissoon is superb as a heavy-set, dignified yet intimidating Caesar with fly whisk and white suit:

Danger knows full well
That Caesar is more dangerous than he.
We are two lions litter’d in one day,
And I the elder and more terrible.

Jeffery Kissoon as Caesar

Paterson Joseph succeeds in conveying the contradictions in Brutus’ personality, while Cyril Nri conveys the ‘lean and hungry’ manipulativeness of Cassius. Ray Fearon is excellent as Mark Antony, especially in the aforementioned scene in which he whips up the populace to rebellion with the power of his rhetoric.

If the focus of this production and the reviews which have followed has been on the play’s relevance to recent events in Africa or the Arab world, the first performance of Julius Caesar, on 21 September 1599, also took place in a deeply unsettled times. With an ageing and childless Elizabeth nearing the end of her reign, the issue of the succession – and whether England would remain a Protestant country or revert to Catholicism – preoccupied the nation.

Threatened by Spain and rebellion in Ireland, that very month had seen the Earl of Essex, a Brutus-like figure popular with the public, defy Elizabeth by returning to London after the failure of his campaigns in Ireland.  He  would be convicted, deprived of public office and income, and go on to mount an abortive rebellion.  It was these weeks and months of uncertainty that Shakespeare drew upon as he wrote the great plays of this period: Henry V, Julius Caesar, and Hamlet, dramas in which Shakespeare shifted up a gear or two to produce thought-provoking dramas, each successive play pushing the boundaries a little further with complex portrayals of character and motivation, and reflecting the times with incisive commentaries on power, leadership and morality.

Shakespeare’s greatness as a dramatist is revealed in the way in which he transforms his source material – widely understood to be Plutarch’s Lives, translated into English by Thomas North in 1579.  Although Shakespeare follows Plutarch’s account quite closely, and even echoes some of North’s phrasing, characteristically he emphasises the contrasts and contradictions within the main characters – Caesar, Brutus, Antony, Cassius and Octavious – giving them an ambiguity that makes them more human.

Much discussion of Julius Caesar has centred on its structure, in which the titular character appears for only one-third of the play.  Some critics have even seen the action after the assassination as something of an anticlimax.  But perhaps this misses Shakespeare’s central concern: to explore both what impact Caesar has on the thoughts and actions of the other main protagonists, and to examine the repercussions of the murder, an act championed by Brutus and his fellow-conspirators as one both necessary and liberating.

Shakespeare’s play continued a tradition of literary debate about whether Caesar was a tyrant or the father of the people, and if Brutus was a liberator or treacherous assassin.  Significantly, gives the final words to Antony, with his eulogy for Brutus:

This was the noblest Roman of them all:
All the conspirators save only he
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;
He only, in a general honest thought
And common good to all, made one of them.
His life was gentle, and the elements
So mix’d in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world ‘This was a man!’

This was our first visit to the transformed RSC theatre at Stratford. It re-opened in November 2010 following a three-year transformation project which has retained many of the art deco features of the 1932 Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, but significantly improved the experience for theatre-goers by changing the auditorium to a projecting thrust stage with consequentially better sight-lines and sound.

This is how Ellis Woodman summed up the changes, writing in The Telegraph on the occasion of the re-opening in 2010:

Designed by Bennetts Associates, it is just the latest in a line of remodellings that the Royal Shakespeare Theatre has undergone since its foundation in 1873. The original building presented a ripe fantasy of Ye Olde England, complete with neo-Tudor half-timbering. Its focus was a 32-metre water tower that loomed, Big Ben-like, over the town and was intended as a safeguard against fire.

In 1926, however, the tower and a significant part of the building that it was meant to protect burnt to the ground. A competition was quickly held to find a design for a new theatre. Elisabeth Scott, one of the very few woman architects working in Britain at the time, won it with a design for a 1,400-seat auditorium which backed directly against the retained ruins of the Victorian building. Its layout was indebted to her experience as a designer of cinemas. Intimate, it was not. […]

Ever since, the RSC has harboured a desire to exchange the Scott auditorium for a venue of equivalent capacity, but of a layout much closer to that of the Swan. And the new auditorium really is a triumph. It has yet to stage its first production but shows every sign of living up to Michael Boyd’s billing of it as “the best place for performing Shakespeare in the world”. It actually represents a reduction in capacity of around 400 seats, but the gods of the old auditorium had such awful sightlines that the RSC struggled to fill them. A large part of the problem was that the distance from the front of the stage to the back of the auditorium was a daunting 30 metres – a gulf that prompted one disgruntled thespian to describe performing there as “like standing on the cliffs of Dover, addressing Calais”. In the new theatre, the actors can now make eye contact with virtually everyone in the audience. […]

The new theatre not only has a 7-metre fly tower, but a 7-metre basement to boot. The Forest of Arden can now be summoned at the press of a button.

Beyond the auditorium, the results are more mixed. The new public spaces are generic – the palette of grey painted steelwork and full-height glazing serviceable but distinctly under-imagined. However, the more significant misjudgment is the one moment where the architects have allowed themselves a truly emphatic gesture. On the site’s most prominent corner a new tower has been constructed of a height that matches the long vanished water-tower. One can see the logic. The old building’s primary orientation was to the river with the effect that it turned its back on Stratford – a failing that has now been corrected through the creation of a much expanded lobby running the full length of the town elevation. The tower stands sentry-like beside the new front door. The architects talk of it as being wedded to the Italy of Shakespeare’s imagination.

And yet, this is not a campanile but a startlingly imposing structure designed for the purposes of observation. Visitors can take a lift to the top and, on a good day, see four counties.

See also

Restless Shakespeare unlocked on the BBC

Restless Shakespeare unlocked on the BBC
William Shakespeare: attributed to John Taylor

Recently, across BBC radio and television, there’s been a season of excellent programmes dedicated to Shakespeare.  Best of all was  Neil MacGregor following up his 100 Objects with Shakespeare’s Restless World, 20 programmes that explored the world of Shakespeare through twenty objects from that turbulent period.  On BBC4 James Shapiro re-examined the work of Shakespeare during King James I’s reign in an excellent short series, The King and the Playwright: A Jacobean History, while back on Radio 3 The Essay featured five essays about love in the work of Shakespeare.

 

Drake's circumnavigation medal
Drake’s circumnavigation medal

This is Drake’s Circumnavigation Medal, a small silver medal showing Sir Francis Drake’s 1577-80 voyage around the world. It was created in 1589, around the time that Shakespeare began his theatrical career in London. Neil MacGregor chose this as the first object of his series in order to illustrate how Shakespeare’s generation was the first to conceive of a world whose limits were known. Suddenly, the world looked like a very different place. The 1580s and 1590s saw English figures joining the great adventure of exploration, exploitation, trading and looting that marked the European age of discovery – bringing with it exotic goods and even more exotic tales that would fire the public imagination.

Oberon: ‘We the globe can compass soon,
Swifter than the wandering moon.’
(A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 4.1.96-7)

Puck: ‘I’ll put a girdle round about the earth
In forty minutes.’
(A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 2.1.175-6)

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, MacGregor , pointed out, Oberon, king of the fairies, and his mischievous attendant Puck boast that they can circumnavigate the globe in just over half an hour. It took Francis Drake nearly three years.But it was not really until this period that people could have had a real visual sense of the whole world, and in particular the roundness of the world.

The Stratford Chalice
The Stratford Chalice

In a series of brilliant essays, MacGregor evoked a powerful sense of Shakespeare’s times through objects such as the Stratford Chalice (above), from which Shakespeare may even have drunk (chosen to reflect the changing religious landscape of Elizabethan England), a theatre-goers fork excavated from the site of the Rose Theatre on London’s south bank, and a Plague proclamation from King James I issued in 1603 , the year that a fresh epidemic swept through London forcing the theatres to close for almost a year and leaving Shakespeare’s company little choice but to head out on the road to tour the provinces.

Battle Gear of Henry V

In one essay, MacGregor’s starting point was Henry V’s battle gear, which can be seen the museum at Westminster Abbey.  In Shakespeare’s day, he said, there were two easy ways to learn about national history: you could go to the theatre and see England’s famous victories chronicled in performance; or you could head to Westminster Abbey where in amongst the royal tombs you could be instructed on the ‘living monuments’ of dead kings.  If you did either, it’s probable that one monarch’s heroic deeds would have stood out above all others – those of England’s valiant, dashing, and heroic ‘warrior king’ Henry V.  In the 1590s, as England headed for war with Spain 150 years after Henry’s death, spectacular chivalric displays at Westminster and performances on stage across the river, harked back to this powerful king who personified the ability to unite Englishmen against the enemy.

It was the same for the generation that lived through the Second World war: Laurence Olivier’s film version depicted a handsome and valiant Englishman taking his people onward into battle.

King Henry: 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,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favoured rage;

(Henry V, 3.1.3-8)

In Westminster Abbey we can still see Henry V’s  battered shield and sword, sturdy helmet and saddle for a war horse.  The reason these instruments of battle are in the Abbey, MacGregor said, is because for centuries they were put on public display, hung over Henry V’s tomb.

Obsidian Aztec mirror owned by Dr John Dee, now in the British Museum
Obsidian Aztec mirror owned by Dr John Dee, now in the British Museum

One of the programmes, ‘New Science, Old Magic’, told the fascinating story of how, in 1608, after acquiring a second indoor playhouse to complement the Globe, Shakespeare’s company were able to begin to deploy magical effects in stage performances such as The Tempest.  Greg Doran of the Royal Shakespeare Company explained the impact:

When they moved inside to the Blackfriars theatre, they had control of light and that’s a very important factor. If you can control the light, you can control the effect. In the Globe’s stage, in the open air with no lighting effects to speak of, with the audience wrapped all the way around, very very difficult to as it were to hide the strings.’

Indoors at Blackfriars, stage magic reached a new pitch of sophistication in The Tempest, employing effects developed by Dr John Dee, an Elizabethan celebrity and  famous practitioner of the occult arts who inspired great theatrical characters such as Marlowe’s damned Dr Faustus and Shakespeare’s own master of magical effects, Prospero.  Dr Dee was particularly known in England for what he called his ‘showstones’, reflective mirrors in which, combining prayer and optics, he was able to conjure and talk to angels.

One of Dee’s mirrors is in the British Museum (above). It’s a large round disc of highly polished obsidian, a black volcanic glass.  It was almost certainly a piece of Spanish booty from Mexico, and is in fact an Aztec mirror, painstakingly crafted in Mexico some time before the Spanish arrived. It was shaped with stone tools and we now know, although Dr Dee probably didn’t, that the high polish was achieved by long rubbing with bat excrement. Aztec royalty used obsidian mirrors, like this one, as symbols of their power and as a means of seeing into the future, deriving part of their authority from a god they called ‘Lord of the Smoking Mirror’. ‘When Spanish science defeated the magic of Mexico’, said MacGregor, ‘this magical object travelled to Europe where it became part of a different, but disconcertingly similar, structure of knowledge possessed only by a few’.

The signature of Nelson Mandela next to a speech in Julius Caesar
The signature of Nelson Mandela next to a speech in Julius Caesar

The series concluded with a superb example of MacGregor’s scholarship and humanitarian sensibility.  In his final essay, Shakespeare Goes Global, he explored how Shakespeare’s words have circled the Earth in the centuries since the publication, by a group of friends a decade after his death, of the First Folio which preserved Shakespeare’s plays for future generations.  I thought this episode so powerful that I’ll quote extended passages here:

On 22 July 1942, the German SS announced that all the Jews in Warsaw would, in the euphemism of the day, be ‘resettled’ to the camp at Treblinka. It was effectively a death sentence:

‘There were however six groups of people who were to be exempted from the resettlement. These included all able-bodied Jews of working age, all persons employed by German public authorities or in German production facilities or those who were on the staff of the Judenrat and the Jewish hospitals. One sentence suddenly set me thinking; the wives and children of the people in these categories were not to be resettled either.’

The 22-year-old Marcel Reich-Ranicki was one of those exemptions. Now over 90 years old and Germany’s leading literary critic, he told his story to the German Parliament in January 2012. A German-Polish Jew, he was working for the Judenrat, the Council of Jews set up by the Nazis. He had no wife or children, but he was engaged, and he realised that, if he acted straight away, he could prevent his fiancee from being ‘resettled’. He must marry her at once:

‘The ceremony did not last long. I cannot recall whether in all the rush and excitement I actually kissed Teofila, I don’t know. But I well remember the feeling that engulfed us, a feeling of fear, fear of what would happen in the coming days. And I still remember the Shakespearean line that occurred to me at the time: ‘Ward je in dieser Laun’ ein Weib gefreit?’

‘Ward je in dieser Laun’ ein Weib gefreit?’: ‘Was ever woman in this humour wooed?’ It’s a quotation from Shakespeare’s Richard III and it’s an astonishing thing for a young German Pole to think of at such a moment. At this time of extreme need, the only words Marcel Reich-Ranicki found were Shakespeare’s. […]

In this final programme I want to look at the many things that Shakespeare’s plays have come to mean to the whole world. For hundreds of years, people like Marcel Reich-Ranicki have found in Shakespeare the words to express their own deepest feelings. How has this supremely public writer become the private companion of so many, his words the stuff that their hopes, fears and dreams are made on? How did this very English playwright go global?

Well the answer, I think, is here in the British Library, and it’s in this book that I’ve got in front of me: Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies – often referred to simply as the ‘First Folio’. … The first folio was advertised for the Frankfurt Book Fair of 1622, six years after Shakespeare had died, but as often happens, the publishers ran a bit late and it appeared only in 1623. Now, it was rare for plays in English by a single author to be gathered and published like this. That tribute was usually reserved for the great writers in Latin. But with this book, people everywhere, people who had never seen Shakespeare played in the theatre, could make his works part of their lives. And from the beginning, we know that they did.

The First Folio allowed Shakespeare to travel out of the theatre and into the world. The copy I’m looking at now belonged to William Johnstoune, who lived in Dumfriesshire in Scotland.  […]

Johnstoune’s copy of the First Folio is now in Meisei University in Tokyo. But I am studying it in a cafe in London on my smartphone. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Puck puts a girdle round the earth in forty minutes. In the world of modern magic, online Shakespeare circles the globe instantly.

And on every circling the words mean something new. In 2012, the very new state of South Sudan found echoes of its post-conflict recovery in an officially sponsored production of Cymbeline in Juba Arabic. […]

Memorably [Shakespeare] was there on Robben Island, the infamous South African jail, where in the 1970s, leaders of the African National Congress were imprisoned during the struggle against apartheid. Sonny Venkatratham was one of them:

‘When I got to Robben Island we had no access to a library or any other reading material. I applied to buy some books and the reply came that I am allowed only one book. Eventually I decided the only book that would keep me going for some time would be the Complete Works of Shakespeare – well I knew they wouldn’t allow me to have the Das Kapital or something.’

In order to keep his Shakespeare with him in his cell, Sonny Venkatratham disguised it by sticking Hindu cards sent to him for Diwali over the covers. The Robben Island ‘Bible’ is now part of the legend of the battle against apartheid:

‘About six months before my due release date, I circulated The Complete Works of Shakespeare and asked my comrades there to select a line or a passage that appealed to them and sign it. All of them chose lines or passages that inspired them and strengthened the resolve for the struggle.’

On the 16 December 1977, the disguised Robben Island Bible reached Nelson Mandela. He signed his name beside this passage on courage and death from Julius Caesar:

Caesar: Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear,
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.

(Julius Caesar 2.2.32-7)

The same passage had moved William Johnstoune in Scotland 350 years earlier: ‘Death a necessarie end will come when it will come and is not to be forefeared’.  The prisoner Walter Sisulu, pondering racial injustice in South Africa, fascinatingly does not choose as his passage words chosen by Othello, the Moor of Venice, and victim of many racist slurs. He chooses instead the Venetian Jew, Shylock:

Shylock: You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,
. . .
Fair sir, you spat on me on Wednesday last,
You spurned me such a day, another time
You called me dog

(The Merchant of Venice 1.3.108-25)

Imagining Sisulu reading these lines, is to imagine Shakespeare conjuring the humiliations of apartheid South Africa. The Robben Island Bible, like the First Folio, allows everyone to see in Shakespeare the mirror of their own predicament and, in the Warsaw ghetto or in a South African prison, Shakespeare speaks to the unsettled condition of our time. In the First Folio, his contemporary Ben Jonson described him as the ‘soul of the age’, but also as ‘not of an age, but for all time’. Shakespeare scholar, Jonathan Bate:

‘I think the key to Shakespeare’s endurance, and the fact that in every culture and every age he seemed to speak to the present, comes from that paradox. On the one hand he was the ‘soul of the age’, all the great conflicts and innovations of the age, the sense of the discovery of new worlds, new ways of looking at the world, it all is there in Shakespeare. He was the soul of the age, but at the same time he never confined himself to the particularities of his historical moment and that meant that because he sort of plugged in to the fundamental questions about human society and human life, he speaks to every age. Shakespeare is always our contemporary.’

James Shapiro

I’ve been an admirer of James Shapiro, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University , since reading 1599: A Year In The Life of William Shakespeare and another of his books, Shakespeare and the Jews.  In the Shakespeare Unlocked season he presented a three-part series about Shakespeare in the reign of King James, The King and the Playwright: A Jacobean History. It proved to be fascinating stuff, with revealing insights into the background that informed plays such as Macbeth, Coriolanus, Measure for Measure and King Lear.

Shapiro began by sketching in the anxious mood of 1603 when the Scottish king succeeded to the English  throne. Puritans, plague, an extravagant gift to a Spanish diplomatic delegation, and a new British coin called the Unite all featured in Shapiro’s rich and fascinating history of a troubled time which saw an extraordinary creative outpouring.  Shapiro’s main purpose was to relate Shakespeare’s late plays to the politics and the tensions of the Jacobean period, much as he did for later Elizabethan England in his book 1599. He pointed out that  the theatre was of tremendous significance in Jacobean London: in a city of just 200,000 people, there were eight theatres. There would need to be 300 for an equivalent ratio today.

What Shapiro (and MacGregor, too) made clear was just how much the death of Elizabeth was a political chasm that opened at the feet of the age. Shapiro emphasised what an enormous change it represented for Shakespeare in particular.  As he said, we tend to think of him as an Elizabethan playwright who simply progressed from triumph to triumph. But James’s accession endangered that progress. Shapiro, drew attention to the difference between Hamlet (1600) and Measure for Measure (1604):

The distance he travelled… suddenly you have this play of incredible ambiguity and disturbing resolution that has come out of a different world … I am struggling as a cultural historian to understand this moment.

Measure for Measure was not the first Shakespeare play to be presented before the new king, but was likely the first to be written in his reign. James hated crowds and was awkward with people: he was far happier in a library or on a hunting field than playing the part of a king. Or, as the Duke puts it, ‘I love the people but do not like to stage me to their eyes’. In addition, Measure for Measure addresses the exact same issues of good governance, of pragmatism versus piety that were preoccupying James at the start of his reign.

In Macbeth, written in 1606 in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot when the authorities were cracking down on Catholics, Shakespeare  captured the anxiety and obsessions of the time. Shapiro drew out the links between Macbeth, especially the famous and chilling Porter’s speech, and the Gunpowder Plot.

Here’s a knocking indeed! If a man were 
porter of Hell Gate, he should have old turning the 
key. (Knock.) Knock, knock, knock! Who’s there, 
i’ the name of Beelzebub? Here’s a farmer, that hang’d 
himself on th’ expectation of plenty. Come in time! 
Have napkins enow about you; here you’ll sweat for’t. 
(Knock.) Knock, knock! Who’s there, in the other 
devil’s name? Faith, here’s an equivocator, that could 
swear in both the scales against either scale, who com- 
mitted treason enough for God’s sake, yet could 
not equivocate to heaven. O, come in, equivocator.

The Porter, he points out, uses the word ‘equivocate’ once and ‘equivocator’ twice. The Catholic priest Henry Garnet, executed for complicity in the plot, had written A Treatise of Equivocation instructing Catholics in how to conceal their faith. Concealment, secrecy and ‘equivocation’ were words that signified the fears of the age.

Romeo and Juliet

The Essay on Radio 3 marked the season with a week of essays about love in the work of Shakespeare. Margaret Drabble explores how our concepts of love and humanity have been deepened by the power of Shakespeare’s poetry and how his many and varied versions of love continue to shape our imaginations: from the first love and love at first sight shared by the teenage Romeo and Juliet to the all consuming last love of the ageing Antony and Cleopatra.

Other essays were given by Stanley Wells – who suggested that, though Shakespeare’s work is not generally considered to be autobiographical, there is good reason to believe his varying portrayals of love and romance may reflect the changing nature of Shakespeare’s own experiences – and by the actor and director Samuel West, who explored the many and varied portrayals of love in Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays. Professor Helen Hackett examined in some depth the love sonnet spoken by Romeo and Juliet and how, like so many of his poems, it creates a moment of extreme unreality. Time stands still as the protagonists pour out their hearts in what is effectively a sonnet whose lines are handed back and forth between the two lovers, a sonnet that takes us beyond poetic convention and beyond realism to tell the truth about love:

Romeo [To Juliet]: If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.

Juliet: Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.

Romeo: Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?

Juliet: Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.

Rome: O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
They pray — grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.

Juliet: Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.

Romeo: Then move not, while my prayer’s effect I take.  [Kisses her.]
Thus from my lips, by yours, my sin is purged.

Juliet: Then have my lips the sin that they have took.

Rome: Sin from thy lips? O trespass sweetly urged!
Give me my sin again.  [Kisses her.]

The final essay was in some ways the most interesting, related as it was to Neil MacGregor’s final essay. In it, the writer and journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown recalled how her own heart was captured by Shakespeare as a child growing up in Uganda, East Africa, where his plays were performed at her school on a regular basis. She told her own astonishing story, a tragic variant on Shakespeare’s tale of forbidden love between families divided by hatred and prejudice.  After playing Juliet to a black African Romeo, scandal followed and her father never spoke to her again until he died.  Alibhai-Brown recalled the experience in article for the Independent:

I am forever grateful that some of my teachers were brave enough to instil in us ideas which were inimical to those held by our parents and communities. That they took on their more conventional colleagues, broke rules, took risks and made us into questioning little upstarts and worthy rebels instead of a generation of little obedients. Our poor old British teachers today would never be allowed to get away with such subversive behaviour.

Mrs Mann, my English teacher is the true heroine of the one-woman show I have been performing as part of the RSC’s new work programme based on my life as a young girl in Uganda and my love of Shakespeare. Mrs Mann came into our predominantly Asian school (with a minority of black pupils) and shook things up by producing Romeo and Juliet with Asians playing the Capulets and Africans playing the Montagues. I was Juliet. Shame and scandal followed and my father never spoke to me again until he died.

Africans in the early Sixties had grown to despise us, even the massive good we did. Asians thought of Africans as inferior beings. After independence we had to make a different country. Mrs Mann made us break from those deep prejudices. She came to the show in London on the final night and I publicly told her that whatever had happened within my family, she was right to do what she did.  I often talk to pupils in schools and am increasingly appalled at how poor they are at challenging each other’s ideas, how they reproduce the prejudices of their parents and tribes, how unfree they are.

In her radio essay, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown argued that, though Shakespeare may never have left England, he had a global outlook on love.  ‘He wrote so perceptively and eloquently about cross-cultural and interracial relationships that no playwright since has ever come near’, she said. From Titus Andronicus and the Merchant of Venice to Othello, the plays are full of rebellious lovers, mixed race couplings whose complex lives are portrayed with such moral clarity and moral ambivalence that they resonate today.

Note: The painting of William Shakespeare at the head of this post is the only portrait of him that has any claim to have been painted from life. It may be by a painter called John Taylor who was an important member of the Painter-Stainers’ Company. The portrait is known as the ‘Chandos portrait’ after a previous owner. It was the first portrait to be acquired by the National Portrait Gallery in 1856. In June, this and other portraits from the NPG will be available to view online when  a further 21,000 paintings will be added to the excellent Your Paintings website.

See also

Morte d’Arthur at the RSC

Morte d’Arthur at the RSC

Jonjo O'Neill as Launcelot and James Howard as the Grail Angel in Morte d'Arthur

Jonjo O’Neill as Launcelot and James Howard as the Grail Angel in Morte d’Arthur

Last night we saw the RSC adaptation of Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur at Stratford, performed in the temporary and remarkably good (in comparison with the old main theatre) Courtyard Theatre, a little way downriver.  I had to be persuaded to see this, not having been much taken with Arthur and his knights of the round table when I was a kid, and then rather too-heavily influenced by Monty Python’s Holy Grail parody.

So most of the stories and Malory’s work itself were all unfamiliar to me; I’m glad I boned up on Wikipedia before I went, because there was a lot of narrative to keep up with in this four-hour production.  Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, completed in 1470 and printed by Caxton 15 years later, runs to some 600 pages. This adaptation is by Mike Poulton, who explains in the programme notes that he first started work on this project ten years ago and found himself faced with the problem of trying ‘to wrestle it to the ground and make sense of it’.  Well, he’s managed to cram in the stories of the sword in the stone, the vision of Excalibur in the misty lake, the defeat of King Lot, the love triangle of Arthur, Guenever and Launcelot, the fellowship of the Round Table, the search for the Holy Grail, the jousts at Winchester, the usurpation of Mordred and the final battle.

On the whole, it is an enjoyable night at the theatre, with the staging and design being especially successful, making for real spectacle that is all the more effective for being performed on an apron stage, with the ensemble making dramatic use of all areas of the theatre.  However, there are great chunks of exposition as the tales rattle by at great speed, and such a bewildering array of characters that at times it’s a struggle to keep tabs on them all. I struggled especially to distinguish the sons of King Lot – Gawain, Agravain and Gareth – who only came into clear view for me in the third part.

But the main problem seemed to be an uneveness of tone – the sense of epic myth was undermined by moments of comedy, and the portrayal of Mordred as a sniggering, Blackadder figure rather undermines the sense of him as a murderous traitor.  For me, the weakest element was the presentation in part three of the search for the Holy Grail

Malory’s prose is more instantly accessible than Shakespeare’s poetry (Poulton’s adaptation relies entirely on Malory’s words) but a lot less memorable, with countless fair maids, fair ladies and damsels. Malory also didn’t go in for internal psychology, so understanding the motivation of the characters, when there is so much else that is mysterious to the modern viewer – particularly in the Grail stories – is very difficult.

Essentially this is a story about human ideals undermined by lust and greed for power – a subject that it seems Malory  knew a lot about. He’s described in the programme notes as ‘a prime thug’.  We don’t know when he was born, but he had been knighted by 1441 and also served as a Member of Parliament before embarking on a career of criminal violence.  He had such a reputation for unrestrained violence that a force of sixty men was once sent to arrest him.  He wrote Morte d’Arthur in prison, awaiting trial on charges that included grievous bodily harm, attempted assassination, extortion, and raping the same woman on two different occasions.

The historical Arthur, if he ever existed, was possibly the leader of a band in the sixth century resisting invading Saxons following the withdrawal of Roman forces from England.  It was another 600 years before the Norman-Welsh cleric, Geoffrey of Monmouth set the Arthurian myth rolling with his chronicle Historia Regum Britanniae – the accepted version of the British past right down to Shakespeare’s time, when Holished drew on it for his Chronicles, Shakespeare’s prime source for English history.

Malory drew on Monmouth’s Arthurian stories, but also interwove versions from thirteenth-century French prose (responsible for the introduction of the Launcelot character), together with at least one tale from the Middle English Alliterative Morte Arthure.  Coincidentally, all this was elaborated the night before we left for Stratford by Simon Armitage in a BBC 4 documentary, The Making of King Arthur, in which he traced the evolution of the Arthurian legend through the literature of the medieval age.

Mike Poulton writes that

Eventually we decided to produce a single play with three very different acts. The first starts with the mythic and magical side of Arthur – encounters with necromancers, demi-devils and monsters lurking in the dark forests on the edge of a Christian world. The second act is the tales of Arthur’s Knights, culminating in the quest for the Holy Grail, as worldly ambition gives way to a deep longing for spiritual fulfilment.  The third act is like an early Shakespeare History play.

What came into my mind was John Barton’s Wars of the Roses – which, as a mere infant, was the first thing I ever saw in Stratford. There is a lot more dialogue in the last two books of Morte d’Arthur and these are Shakespearean in their scope. So I started with the last two books of the Morte d’Arthur, and for the first two acts selected material that served what becomes the play’s climax – the resolution of Arthur’s story and that of Launcelot and Guenever. The play attempts, in a way, to show how myth transforms itself into history.

Malory was writing at a time when the Wars of the Roses were in full swing. Caxton published the book in 1485, the year of the Battle of Bosworth. Mordred’s armies at the end of the book are clearly Yorkist armies and Arthur, like Malory, is clearly a Lancastrian. Malory is imposing the history of the Wars of the Roses onto his material. To me, this makes the story really coherent.

There was a great deal to enjoy in this production, being imaginatively staged and well acted. But it would have benefitted from paring the action down to a few stories to focus on the tension between chivalric ideals and rapaciousness.  The Financial Times review sums up my mixed feelings:

Malory’s work does not have adequate narrative drive: it rambles through a Round Tableful of knights, a slew of adventures and quests, a flange of handy hermits and so forth. Even the Grail quest and the final strife, which constitute most of the latter two of the three acts, feel baggy. And yet a version that cut an hour or so might seem paltry, or spreading the material across a diptych profligate. This is absolutely the kind of project the RSC should take on; it’s just that sometimes it doesn’t pay off.