Saturday 23 April 2016

Tales of the Bard - Shakespeare and the History Girls by Charlotte Wightwick

Today is the 400-year anniversary of Shakespeare’s death (and the 452nd anniversary of his birth.) 

To mark the occasion, we’ve been blogging about The Bard all month, but today we thought we’d bring you a round-up of some of our best and worst Shakespearean experiences – from ketchup-based blood and being trapped in purgatory to stunning sets and intimate ‘before they were famous’ moments.

There’s also the opportunity to see how well you know our History Girls, with our Shakespearean quiz. 

William Shakespeare, 1564- 1616. Image courtesy of the University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin.

Almost all of us have some memories of Shakespeare – whether from tortuous experiences at school or inspirational moments which will never leave us. The History Girls are no exception to this rule.

When asked about her best memories, Tanya Landman says of Shakespeare’s continued ability to engage with modern audiences that she and her then 11-year-old son “came out buzzing” from the RSC/Baxter Theatre’s 2009 production of The Tempest:
“It was visually stunning, with amazing Zulu and Xhosa imagery and giant puppets… It was his first Shakespeare and a real gift to both of us – a production that really opened your eyes and made you think about colonialism and its after effects.”
Gillian Polack agrees that Shakespeare’s plays, when well produced, remain hugely relevant to today’s audiences and speaks with passion about an experimental production of Hamlet in Melbourne, nearly 30 years ago:
“They only allowed 100 people to watch, and we were in two tiers of seats in the round, so none of us were very far from the performance. The intimacy and the acting style and the bareness of the acting space (few props, no set) changed the way I saw Shakespeare: by losing the physical distancing, the play also lost the cultural distancing… Later, when the same players did the same production on a traditional stage, it was far more ordinary.”
Gillian’s experience shows that the staging of a production is all-important, and other HGs agree when thinking about their favourite experiences. For example, Adele Geras talks about the power of a production she saw in the early 1960s:
“The set, which I recall as if it were yesterday, was a hexagonal sand pit which took up the entire stage area. The actors...have faded from my memory though I remember being completely transfixed by everything that was unfolding before my eyes. What I do remember in vivid detail was that set: the sand changed and shifted as the actors walked through it, fighting, talking, embracing. It was quite wonderful.”
 Or again, Lydia Syson says of her favourite production that:
“The patterning of the final dance has particularly stayed in my memory: a formal grid-formation in which dancers brushed past each other and exchanged lingering glances. Disorder had been re-ordered to create something entirely new and wonderful.”
Other HGs highlight the importance of lead actors when thinking about their favourite moments, for example Leslie Wilson says of Judi Dench in Measure for Measure in Nottingham in the 1960s:
“Dench's Isabella, hard, slightly repellent, still moved me intensely when she found herself blackmailed by Angelo; I wanted to sympathise with her, as a victim of male sexual exploitation, yet couldn't totally, which I feel was completely right for Isabella, and her personality and physicality filled the auditorium. It is a problem play, and the problems weren't bucked in the slightest.”
Other performances which left their impressions include Kenneth Branagh as Hamlet who “somehow managed to speak the verse as if he was just having an ordinary conversation - while not losing the poetry of it.” (Sue Purkiss) or Tom Hiddlestone in a ‘raw’ Coriolanus (Liz Fremantle).

But not all Shakespearean experiences are as inspirational. By far and away the play that most of the HGs had seen poor productions of was Macbeth: the opportunities for over-acting, lingering ghosts and gallons of fake blood are, it appears, endless. Both Lydia Syson and Tanya Landman saw Peter O’Toole’s ‘laughably bad’ version at the Old Vic, which has gone down in theatre history. Lydia says:
“The titters of disbelief at Macbeth began almost as soon as O’Toole staggered and swaggered onto stage, spitting and lisping. I think he must have been drunk. As the blood began to pour, the laughter shockingly swelled. Nobody could quite believe it when Banquo’s ‘ghost’ actually came on stage and sat down at the table, apparently drenched in ketchup. As he shook his gory locks, the sound of an ambulance could be heard most distinctly from Waterloo Road.”
Celia Rees also had a poor experience with
 “An avant garde “experimental’ Macbeth ...I realised it was a mistake as soon as the play started but we were in the Studio Theatre and I was in the middle of a packed row. No discreet way of escaping. There was no interval, so I had to stay for the whole thing. Theatre can be magical but it can also be a special sort of purgatory.”
However Sarah Gristwood declines to point a finger at modern productions, suggesting instead for her idea of a worst production:
“practically anything from the eighteenth century, when an actor advanced to the front of the stage, took a stance with one arm upraised, and bellowed.”
And for her best?
“I'm going to choose to believe the theory, launched by Nicholas Rowe in that same early eighteenth century, that Shakespeare himself appeared as the Ghost of Hamlet's Father. That, or the version of Hamlet performed in 1607 on board the merchant ship Red Dragon, becalmed off the coast of Africa in 1607, for an audience of four tribal chiefs.”
 Now, surely there’s a novel in that…

The Globe, London. Image courtesy of Gillian Polack


1) Which History Girl interviewed both Kenneth Branagh and Clare Danes whilst working as a journalist?

2) Who ‘can’t abide the Bard’ (but likes Polanski’s film version of Macbeth because of its handsome lead actor?)

3) Which History Girl was inspired by the Shakespeare’s History Plays and became obsessed by the Plantagenets as a result?

4) Who was inspired by a production of Troilus and Cressida and went on to write a novel about Troy?

5) Which two of the History Girls admit to leaving poor performances at the interval?

The Minack Theatre, Cornwall. Image courtesy of Charlotte Wightwick

Quiz answers:
1) Sarah Gristwood
2) Elizabeth Chadwick 
3) Mary Hoffman
4) Adele Geras
5) Elizabeth Fremantle and Mary Hoffman


Sue Bursztynski said...

I'm afraid I have yet to see a production of Macbeth that impressed me. I remember my first viewing, in which the offstage battles spattered blood on the glass screens on each side of the stage, and Lady M's skirt had grubby stains on the bottom(I was in the front row). Actually, now I think of it, some of our students filmed some quite good scenes with the direction of a lady from the Bell Shakespeare company... The young man playing Macbeth was very good and went on, the next year, to play Hamlet. I've always wondered if he ever had a go at the professional stage(the lady from Bell organised him a workshop).

The Tempest, though - I've generally been pleased with every version I've seen, including one in which the island was Australia and Ariel and Caliban were both enslaved indigenous Australians.

Much Ado: one version was done in Regency costume by some top actors, another in 1950s costume, with Hugo Weaving and Pamela Rabe in the leads. Both wonderful!

Leslie Wilson said...

Nottingham Playhouse again, I think with John Neville in the lead. Brilliant Macbeth! Indeed, I can hardly think of a single bad performance from the Playhouse Company in the 60s. Apparently once Neville and another actor (john Shrapnel?) fell off the revolving stage, but weren't injured, just laughed, and this was received by the audience with great good humour!

Ruan Peat said...

I was lucky enough to not only see but have a tour before hand of Macbeth in the Stratford RSC in the late eighties, which was an attempt at black box staging. Very minimal, very intimate, no distractions and fab acting, no idea how long it was as I held my breath most of the way through. Never forgotten!

Unknown said...

I'm thrilled that you are celebrating Shakespeare. I often think that we are so, so lucky to have his plays still speaking to us in his - and our - own language.

Sue Purkiss said...

I'm with Leslie about Nottingham Playhouse in the sixties with John Neville and co - wonderful!

Marjorie said...

I saw Patrick Stewart's Macbeth a few years ago, which other than a rather irritating lift as part of the set was excellent!

I also saw the RSC / Baxter Tempest, which was marvellous.
And just last month, I saw the current RSC Hamlet (with Paapa Essiedu in the title role) which I can't recommend highly enough.

The Tom Hiddleston Coriolanus was another high point.

Is anyone else here planning to see the RSC's Tempest, with Simon Russell Beale, later this year?

Leslie Wilson said...

Another brill production, 2 years ago: Anthony Sher as Falstaff at Stratford..

Marjorie said...

I have to confess I don't like Falstaff much, even when it's Anthony Sher.
I loved the totally manic Hotspur in that production, though. And Alex Hassell as Henry V.

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