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The curtain rose and just as a copperish head of curls started to emerge on the stage to the strains of Nat King Cole’s Nature Boy I heard a quiet gasp and a hand grabbed my upper arm. I jumped. A voice whispered in my ear, “Knock knock …”

 

“Who’s there?” said Benedict Cumberbatch.

 

Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet. Photographer: Johan Persson.

 

This trip to the theatre had been a whole year in the imagining, the anticipation so great there was a real danger of it being a huge anti-climax. But I remained hopeful, even in the face of some horrible behaviour from the press and some less than favourable reviews of the early previews. Cumberbatch is an actor I consider to be one of the greatest of his generation and I like to make up my own mind about these things.

 

We were making the most of our weekend in London and before we even got to Hamlet we went to the Almeida Theatre in Islington to see Bakkhai with Ben Whishaw and Bertie Carvel. Bakkhai is the story of Dionysus, son of Zeus. An ancient Greek tragedy by Euripides. Now, call me uncultured but I know nothing about the Greek Gods and the myths and legends that surround them. I kept telling people I was going to see Bacchus and was somewhat relieved to discover that Dionysus is referred to as Bacchus quite regularly throughout the play as that’s what the Romans named him. I might just have got away with that one!

 

Ben Whishaw as Dionysus, Bakkhai. Photographer: Marc Brenner.

 

The play was very different to anything I’ve ever seen before. Ben Whishaw is a wonderful waif of an actor, best known to me for his ethereal performance as Richard II in The Hollow Crown series for which he won a BAFTA. Perhaps known better elsewhere for being the latest incarnation of Q in the James Bond films. In this he is almost androgynous, funny and sinister with an otherworldly air. There were only three actors in the whole play, as is apparently traditional, and they take on all the various parts, hence Bertie Carvel played both Pentheus and Pentheus’ mother. He was rather good in drag – apparently something he’s done before. Ben Whishaw aside, the thing I will remember most is the Greek chorus: a group of women who can do things with their voices I have never heard before and perhaps wouldn’t want to hear again.

 

Chorus, Bakkhai. Photographer: Marc Brenner.

 

Bakkhai is ultimately rather disturbing but it was very good and an interesting and cultured start to the weekend.

 

The following day we continued with the culture and ancient things and paid a visit to the British Library to see the Magna Carta: Law, Liberty and Legacy exhibition which is fascinating but rather long and drawn out by what appeared to me to be some fairly tenuous links in the legacy part. Tony Hancock anyone? The stars of the exhibition are the beautiful illuminated books, manuscripts, charters, Papal Bulls and all manner of other things. All stunning in their painstaking detail and fascinating in their content and context. As someone who loves words I wanted to be able to read everything but in most cases it is almost impossible for us who are untrained and so spoilt by modernity to even attempt to read the beautiful and archaic script. The message that one takes away from this exhibition is that our rights, our freedom, justice, are not new concepts. It has ever been thus.

 

But I digress. On to Hamlet, which I can categorically state right now was not, in any way, anti-climatic.

 

We were in the fourth row, mesmerisingly close to the stage. After the knock knock joke from my witty friend Nic, which wasn’t entirely unexpected, I stared at the man on the stage, unable to quite comprehend that this was the Benedict Cumberbatch, right in front of me – Hamlet, no less.

 

Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet. Photographer: Johan Persson.

 

When the whole stage was revealed I was stunned. It is a jaw-dropping set. Beautiful and magical and full of surprises. And it is vast.

 

I am one of those people the press have been trying to shame. I am not a Shakespeare connoisseur. Yes, I love his work but I’ve seen relatively little and I don’t always understand everything. I didn’t know what an arras was, was a bit sketchy on the bare bodkin and knew even less about the story of Hamlet. Unless I’m going to The Globe or to my local theatre I nearly always choose to go and see something because of who is in it. I wanted to see Hamlet because of Benedict Cumberbatch and what’s so wrong about that? Actors like Cumberbatch want to open up the theatre to a whole new generation of theatre-goers. They want people who’ve never seen a Shakespeare play to experience the Bard and love him like they do, and they want to eradicate the elitism and snobbery that prevails throughout much of theatre-land. I, for one, get very excited by the thought of Shakespeare reaching places he’s never reached before. Theatre needs new blood and most of all it needs the kind of blind enthusiasm and utter joy that only the young and un-jaded can bring. In Shakespeare’s day no-one minded heckles and jeers and applause and laughter, it was expected. I do think Willy Shakes may have been with Cumberbatch on mobile phones though.

 

During the interval, while scoffing some seriously good ice cream, we exchanged our views on the play so far. They were unanimous: the whole thing was mind-blowing in the extreme. Cumberbatch was mind-blowing, the set was mind-blowing, we loved it. We all felt that we were watching something rather special – a master at work.

 

Cumberbatch was born to perform Shakespeare. The poetry and the prose make perfect sense only when spoken in the right way and he does this unfailingly. He is witty, poignant, sad, angry and ultimately heart-breaking. He has perfect comic timing and can easily reduce me to tears of mirth or tears of sadness. He is a very physical actor on stage and when he roars he roars – I flinched!

 

For me there wasn’t a bad performance in the whole cast. Special mentions should go to Jim Norton for Polonius who was funny and bewildered, Sian Brooke for a heartbreaking Ophelia and Karl Johnson, an actor I already loved, for the ghost and the gravedigger – the latter being brilliantly dark with wicked humour.

 

The critics seem to be largely fixated on three things: the set being a distraction, the time in which the play is set and what sort of Hamlet Cumberbatch is portraying.

 

The set is immense and sumptuous – later imploding to become something much darker and sinister – but I was only truly distracted by it when it first appeared, staring in wonder with my jaw resting on my chest. After that I was drawn to the players and the story. For me the set only enhanced my experience.

 

I agree that the time in which the play was set was somewhat ambiguous but I don’t see why this mattered. Generally I saw it as being a fairly modern setting but ultimately this Elsinore seemed quite fantastical and ambiguity and fantasy go quite well together I think. So really … who cares?

 

What sort of Hamlet is Cumberbatch? “A bloody good one” according to his mother and I concur. Quite frankly I had no idea that this was “a thing” – I’ve never seen any other Hamlet so for me Cumberbatch’s will always be the definitive performance, the gauge by which I judge all others. I found him beguiling, seriously funny, mad with grief and anger, heart-breaking and full of rage. Most of all I felt great empathy towards him.

 

The instant standing ovation at the end was so well-deserved. Cumberbatch hadn’t quite reached the trinity of blood, sweat and tears but two out of three ain’t bad. He is a force of nature on stage, a fact enforced by the soaked t-shirt, and I only wish I could go and see this Hamlet again and again.

 

Judgement?”
“A hit, a palpable hit.”

William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 2

 

A sweaty Hamlet contemplates killing Claudius. Photographer: Johan Persson.

 

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Apologies for the delay in writing this but I’m still struggling to put into words the wonderful weekend I recently spent in London. Two plays, four friends (plus me) and the big smoke … weekends don’t get much better. But throw Richard Armitage into the mix and you reach the heights of pretty damn perfect!

 

But I digress a little … after all, I started the weekend with a couple of doubts.

 

First things first; my friends and I got to meet Rachel. We’ve been chatting to her online for simply ages and I was dying to meet the person who I say fangirls “like a boss”: straight talking and with an honest appreciation of all things Armitage and Cumberbatch there was little to go wrong. No doubts here and definitely no disappointments.

 

We all met up on the South Bank at the BFI, watching the strange and eclectic mix of London life go by. Pantaloons anyone? All present and correct we made our way to The Globe to watch Julius Caesar. Doubt número uno!

 

I have been ill for some time now. I have endured an interminable wait to find out the results of a CT scan I had a few weeks ago; the good old NHS had a backlog and so I waited … and waited … and waited. I have unexplained pain in my back and elsewhere, which the doctor thought may be kidney stones. (It turns out it’s not, so back to square one for me). I’d also been laid low with a nasty virus for about four weeks – my third in six months thanks to me working in a school – which only started clearing up with the help of some antibiotics after this much anticipated culture weekend. Anyway, the upshot of this was that I knew there was no way I could stand for three hours in the yard at The Globe, hence my doubt. I planned to see if they had any returns of seated tickets but fully expected to be spending my afternoon mooching around St Paul’s Cathedral just across the river instead.

 

I went to the ticket desk and asked if they had any seated tickets. They didn’t. My lovely friend Julia pleaded my case and miraculously a ticket became available – pretty much the best seat in the house. Major doubt quickly dispelled.

 

I hired a cushion to soften the wooden bench I’d be perched on for the duration and grabbed a free cardboard hat to shield my face from the scorching sun and settled down. The players were in the courtyard outside the theatre before the play making lots of noise and revving up the audience.

 

Me in my free and very silly but much needed hat at The Globe. Source: Julia.

 

The play started well with a raucous opening with the players encouraging the audience to join in and chant “Caesar, Caesar, Caesar” over and over with much clapping of hands and stomping of feet. It was like being at a football match when a popular player is about to walk onto the pitch. At The Globe each and every member of the audience is a member of the cast.

 

Overall I enjoyed the play but I suspect that was mainly because of where I was. There were some great performances but sadly I felt Caesar wasn’t one of them. Julius Caesar isn’t the most compelling of Shakespeare’s works. After Caesar is killed the play just seems to be a succession of people convincing someone else to kill them rather than take their own lives.

 

If it seems like I may have missed something then blame the heat. My seat may have been very good but it was in full sunlight for the entire play. The hat helped shield my face but it felt like I was sitting in a furnace with little or no breeze to provide any relief. I resisted the urge to remove my thin cardigan in an effort not to get severely sunburnt. Several members of the audience had to be taken out in wheelchairs after succumbing to the heat.

 

Finally released from the furnace the real excitement of the day started. The Crucible! Out of the furnace and into the fire, so to speak.

 

O conspiracy!
Sham’st thou to show thy dangerous brow by night,
When evils are most free?”

William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act 2, Scene 1

But what of my doubts? I’m not too proud to admit that although I had a long-held interest in Richard Armitage and thought him to be a very good actor, an interesting and intelligent person and thought him not too shabby in the looks department, I was not of the opinion that he was a great actor. I was desperate to see him on stage because he fascinates me but I was prepared to be disappointed, or, at least, not blown away. I doubted him and I was so very wrong.

 

Richard Armitage, The Crucible at The Old Vic. Source: The Old Vic.

 

Our seats were in the second row back from the front and the first I knew of this was when I sat down. I don’t think I realised just how close the actors would be to us until the play started, from which moment on I was completely captivated.

 

I’m not going to go into any detail about the play because there’s nothing I can say that hasn’t been said before. There are not enough words in the world to describe how wonderful this particular production is, how moving, evocative and thought provoking it is, or how compelling and completely absorbing I found it.

 

From the moment he first appeared on the stage my eyes were drawn to John Proctor. It was not Richard Armitage that appeared on that stage, it was all Proctor. From his sore-looking feet to his bloodied fingers, from the roar of his voice to the tears in his eyes, every last inch of him was the embodiment of John Proctor. When it was all over, I stood, heartbroken and in awe, and applauded. As he took his final bow and looked upwards to take the applause from those sitting above us, the lights that shone down upon him showed us that Proctor’s tears still glistened in his eyes and my heart broke a little more.

 

Of course, one actor does not a play make, or at least not this play and it would be remiss of me not to mention that the whole cast was magnificent. There wasn’t a single performance that was unconvincing or lacking. The whole play was brilliant; beautifully staged and stunningly performed.

 

Despite being heartbroken and devastated I didn’t cry. I might have done were it not for the fact that I spent the entire play trying desperately not to cough thanks to my nasty virus. As I’m sure many of you will know a cough is always worse at night and mine was no exception. I had plenty of water but the constant dry ice did me no favours. This is not a criticism it’s just a shame that I spent so much time trying to remain silent instead of relaxing. The woman in front of me didn’t help. She turned round every time I had to give in and cough – and it wasn’t like I was the only person coughing! My friends were not amused with her.

 

A friend should bear his friend’s infirmities,
But Brutus makes mine greater than they are.”

William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act 4, Scene 3

Anyway, coughing aside, and apologies to anyone I annoyed (except “Brutus” in front who made me mildly paranoid – and yes I know the quote implies Brutus is a friend), when the play was over we gathered our wits and made our way to the stage door. I had been in two minds about whether or not to do it – another doubt – and having seen the tears still in Richard Armitage’s eyes when he took his bow, my doubts escalated. But this was probably going to be the only chance I’d ever have to meet him in the flesh. In the end only two of us joined the queue which eventually stretched all the way back to the front of the theatre. In hindsight we could have been better prepared but he came, he signed, he spoke, I took a photo and he moved on.

 

The photo was not my finest moment. We thought we’d be able to get a photo with both of us in but hadn’t thought through how we would take it and as Richard kindly pointed out, the security guys aren’t allowed to help. I took a photo of him with my friend, Nic, and then he was gone. She was concerned that I didn’t have a photo of me with him but all things considered: my cough, being a horrible sweaty mess thanks to London still being sauna-like even late at night, and the distinct possibility that I didn’t smell too sweet, I was happy to leave having spoken to him (about taking photos) and wielding a signed programme. I was not disappointed. The queue was enormous, he was the consummate gentleman, and quite frankly, having witnessed what he goes through on stage I was astounded he came out at all.

 

What of the photo? Well, he blinked and Nic looks decidedly shocked but we met him so I don’t think either of us really cares! I’m not posting it here because it’s not especially flattering of either subject. It’s a shame because the overall quality of the photo is actually quite good!

 

I left The Old Vic with the biggest grin on my face despite the hacking cough and unsightly sweatiness. I can’t help but say that in the flesh Richard Armitage is far more beautiful than he is in any photo or film. I was quite stunned. On stage he is a towering presence whereas at the stage door he was less tall and a lot slimmer than I imagined – although seeing him shirtless on stage (right in front of me) it seemed obvious to me that his apparent broad chest and shoulders are more about how he carries himself rather than his physicality.

 

Anyway, I did wonder why he comes out to greet people night after night when he must be exhausted and completely spent, especially after a day of two performances. In the interview he did with Richard Armitage US at the Into The Storm premiere, when asked why he goes out of his way to “connect with his fans on a personal level”, he said that he is “blown away” by the support he receives and for that reason alone I’m so glad I queued outside the stage door.

 

As to my doubts. I said before I was wrong and in a way I’m glad. Seeing just how great an actor he is blew my mind and took my breath away. To discover it this way was a real privilege.

 

So there you have it. It’s not a review but it’s what I want to say. Thank you to the lovely ladies who made the whole weekend simply wonderful – Julia, Nicola, Rachel & Carole. They deserve special thanks for putting up with my coughing and not making me feel like a leper although now I come to think of it no-one seemed keen to share a room with me!

 

Finally, I’ll let you into a little secret. I’m going to see The Crucible again in less than two weeks time! This time with no annoying cough … might need tissues!

 

 

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Back in July I wrote about the things that remain elusive in my family tree and the fanciful idea of finding a Royal connection. I sit here now with a piece of paper in front of me on which I have written the descent of William the Conqueror from Charlemagne because I’ve found that elusive piece of information thanks to a message I received from someone who happened to read my blog.

 

King William I (‘The Conqueror’) by Unknown artist.
oil on panel, circa 1620, purchased, 1974
Primary Collection. NPG 4980(1)
© National Portrait Gallery, London.

 

I know that pretty much everyone with British ancestry is more than likely related to Royalty somewhere along the line and that what I’ve found is anything but exclusive or special or even that interesting to most people, but it means something to me. You see, while we all may be related to the great and the good, and the not so good, those of us who are able to follow the trail back are a lot rarer.

 

I always assumed that if I was really lucky and found a connection it would be via a shared ancestor. I never imagined that I’d follow the trail back and find names like Lancaster and Plantagenet. You see, as it turns out, I’m descended from Henry III and Eleanor of Provence by two of their sons, Edward I (Edward Longshanks – Hammer of the Scots) and Edmund Crouchback. This, of course, means that I can trace my lineage back to William the Conqueror and Charlemagne and then further still.

 

The amount of “blue” blood flowing in my veins, if indeed there’s any at all, because after all who knows what went on behind closed doors, is infinitesimal. But I can draw up my family tree and see one branch of it stretching back nearly 1500 years and to me that is quite incredible. I can’t quite comprehend it and some would argue that the reason I can’t is because it’s meaningless. But instead of thinking of it in terms of years I look at William the Conqueror and I realise there are only thirty generations between us. Thirty! That seems a very small number to get back almost 1000 years. And after that it’s only another eleven to get back to Charlemagne.

 

I’m well aware that thirty generations back I should have over a billion ancestors but of course that would be more people than there were on the entire planet at that time so there’ll be a lot of common ancestors across the various branches of my family tree. I may even have other lines of descent from William the Conqueror. Who knows?

 

It seems funny to me that the very first family tree I ever drew was a Royal one. When I was a teenager there was a drama series on the television called Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna. It told the story of Anna Anderson, the woman who claimed to be the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. I was of an age, fifteen, where I was easily caught up in romance and fanciful ideas. I fell in love with the story and desperately wanted it to be true. I set about finding out how Anna Anderson would be related to Queen Elizabeth II had she turned out to be Anastasia. The relationship between the current British Royal family and the Russian Tsar is, of course, well documented, but I had no knowledge of it so I sat in the local library armed with the Dictionary of National Biography and various other books and wrote it all out. Imagine what my fifteen-year old self would have done with the knowledge that, not only was she distantly related to the entire Royal Family, but she was descended from Kings and Emperors, not to mention Vikings!

 

In many ways I’m still that fifteen-year old girl with fanciful ideas and endless daydreams. I must remember that just occasionally fanciful ideas are not so fanciful after all.

 


 

I went to the theatre on Tuesday evening. A long anticipated trip to Stratford-upon-Avon to see David Tennant play Richard II at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. It was sublime, extraordinary, wonderful, moving, and every other superlative you might care to suggest. I’m a huge fan of David Tennant which is why I bought a ticket; however, seeing it just confirmed to me my love of Shakespeare. The fact that it happened to be Tennant playing the lead was simply a fabulous bonus.

 

David Tennant in Shakespeare’s Richard II at the RSC in Stratford. Source.

 

I mention this here because as the main characters were revealed upon the stage I was struck that I can now go to the theatre and see plays about people that I can legitimately add to my family tree. Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, banished forever by Richard II, is a distant great-uncle. He was brother to a direct ancestor of mine a mere twenty generations back. Fanciful ideas …

 

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Joseph Millson as Macbeth at Shakespeare’s Globe. Source.

 

Macbeth stalks across the stage mid rant, gesticulating and fired up. Without pausing for breath he grabs the offending item, snatching it from the hands of the hapless perpetrator. Still talking he proceeds to grapple with it furiously before folding it and throwing it back into the pit with a dark glare.

 

This may be the only performance of Shakespeare’s tragedy in which an umbrella has a starring role. The rustle of plastic ponchos had already prompted Macbeth to ask “why you cover up?” as if we did it to protect ourselves from his descent into madness. In reality we were just trying to lessen the effect of the rain which was coming down quite heavily.

 

On Saturday I saw my first play at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London and it was magical. I may run out of superlatives when describing it but suffice to say it was unlike any other theatre experience I’ve ever had and I’m desperate to go again.

 

Shakespeare as Shakespeare may have intended. No-one knows his intent or indeed what exactly The Globe looked like in his day; the theatre that stands today is just a best guess, but it’s still a revelation.

 

Modern theatres with their fly lofts, lighting rigs, sound systems and special effects are a far cry from this wooden structure with not a single one of those things. Its only obvious concessions to modernity are a concrete floor, a sprinkler system (a mandatory requirement without which they would not be allowed to retain the thatched roof), and some lighting for the exit signs. Appearing on the stage must be a true test of an actor’s mettle. They have nothing to hide behind except a costume and makeup. Their voices must fight against the noise of aircraft passing overhead and the general background hum of one of the biggest cities in the world. And, if it rains they, like their audience, will get wet.

 

I had a ticket for the yard which is standing only. If you dare to sit while the play is in progress you will be approached by a member of staff and politely asked to stand up. If you hold your phone up to grab a quick photo of your new crush, then you will likewise be chastised. If you dare to put up an umbrella then you run the risk of the Thane of Cawdor himself seeking a terrible revenge … or at least making you look very silly while earning himself a round of well-deserved applause. My ticket for the yard cost me the princely sum of £5 and never have I spent so small an amount in return for so much joy and entertainment.

 

In this unusually light-hearted production of “the Scottish play” directed by Eve Best Macbeth was played by the deliciously dark and brooding Joseph Millson. He is best known in this country for appearing in the long-running hospital drama Holby City but may be better known to the readers of this blog for playing Billy Banquo in the ShakespeaRe-Told version of Macbeth. I will be digging out my DVD very soon! Lady Macbeth was brilliantly portrayed by Samantha Spiro and, rather excitingly, Banquo was played by Billy Boyd who is best known, at least to me, as Peregrin “Pippin” Took in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. There were many other wonderful performances but I was particularly taken with Joe Millson.

 

Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s darkest tragedies but this version found the humour in the text and showed that you can tell a dark and terrible story while occasionally making the audience laugh without losing any of the poignancy or horror. It showed that the actors can ad lib every now and then to poke fun at the audience standing in the rain without breaking character or taking anything away from the performance … in fact to the casual observer it would be difficult to recognise such moments as ad lib which is another testament to the talent displayed on the stage.

 

I was captivated by the entire play and I am no expert either in Shakespeare or theatre but for me, it was simply one of the best things I have ever seen. The Times gave it four stars and described it thus:

Here at the Globe in London, it’s Joseph Millson and Samantha Spiro starring in Eve Best’s utterly absorbing, unusually amusing staging, which shows us a loving couple whose souls blacken as marriage frays … Millson is remarkable: clubbable, capricious, enjoyably sarcastic, frenzied, but always emotionally legible. They give performances to relish of clarity and intimacy … This journey to the dark side has rarely been so refreshing.”

I didn’t really want to leave the theatre, wishing that they would simply start over so I could watch it all again. That said, I’m not sure my back would have held me upright for much longer and if I go again I will be better armed with painkillers because despite my discomfort I would happily choose to stand again.

 

There is something unique about being a groundling and standing in the yard. You feel a definite affinity with the stinkards or penny-stinkers that would have stood in a similar space in the 1600s with the obvious difference that we are all clean and deodorised. With the exception of the owner of the umbrella we were all undoubtedly better behaved than our 17th century counterparts; there was no heckling and no food was thrown.

 

It was not a sunny day and, despite the rain, I think the dull cloudy sky helped to create the right atmosphere for this play. It was a windy day and as the weird sisters began their chant of

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire, burn; and, cauldron, bubble.”

smoke rose from the stage and swirled around the yard, slowly spreading around the theatre and rising upwards towards the sky. A more atmospheric moment would be hard to conjure.

 

When Macduff delivered the final blow, in this case a fatal twist of the neck, I was almost moved to tears. So enraptured was I by the whole thing and, to be honest, deeply drawn to this rather gorgeous Macbeth, I felt genuinely sad to see him die. I wish I could go back to watch it all again. I understand that The Globe has filmed the production for later cinema / DVD release and I shall look forward to reliving it over and over again.

 

In rep until 13th October, Shakespeare’s Globe.

 

 

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