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As this worrying year moves into its closing months, as voices from the dark side call triumph on both sides of the Atlantic, I thought a soothing image of sunset over calm waters might help us feel a bit better. It’s a shot I took a couple of weeks ago in the Arabian Sea – ironically in the most pirate-infested part of the world’s oceans. I was there to run some acting workshops for passengers on a ship, which mercifully slipped through unnoticed by Somalian boarding parties, and peace reigned. Oh that it would elsewhere, but with HMS UK casting off into choppy Channel waters steered by Mrs May with Boris holding the map, and with the rudder of the Free World about to be grasped by Donald Trump, we could dear friends be in for an interesting voyage…
Back here in the UK, as I write there is snow in the north and bitter winds driving sleet across the reservoir at the end of my garden. On either side of dodging seaborne kidnappers in the the tropics, there have been theatre visits and other events in London.
I had the great joy of meeting one the TYA overseas clients, Joann Valley, who has been taking Shakespeare by Skype classes with me for several years, and who was in transit between Ohio and Russia. We met at Shakespeare’s Globe, and saw a matinee of “Imogen”, a new take on “Cymbeline”. This had lots of noise, pulsing blasts of electronic music, lots of young energy, and finished with – oh welcome change from the lumpen hopping about which ruins the curtain-call of many an English Shakespeare production – a really gutsy street-dance, in which Joann joined with glee. She set off for the land of Chekov with warm thoughts of London and our immortal Bard
I was delighted that she had enjoyed her first experience of the Globe, and yet, and yet… I couldn’t help but note my own inner misgivings. There’s always a place for rock’n’roll Shakespeare (is anyone here like me, old enough to remember “Catch My Soul“?) but so much research, so much effort so many pounds and dollars went towards re-creating the Globe on Bankside, pennies raised in response to the magnificent vision of Sam Wanamaker. A vision allowing today’s directors and actors the chance to match their creativity against the genius of Shakespeare and his contemporaries using the same tools, in the same physical environment. This has been the exact opposite of a dry academic exercise – Mark Rylance and Dominic Dromgoole produced glorious, vibrant productions – think only of the Rylance “Twelfth Night”, of Dromgoole’s rich and varied seasons, in which actors of the calibre of James Garnon, Eve Best, Michelle Terry and Jamie Parker took possession of that challenging wooden “O” and made us thrill to the words, to relish the energy and excitement of the stories, often with the most basic of lighting, and without a microphone or loudspeaker in sight.
But days after our visit came a bombshell. Following a series of “controversial” productions, and I imagine a series of quite lively meetings, the governing council of Shakespeare’s Globe announced that Emma Rice – appointed a few short months ago as the theatre’s Artistic Director – is to be asked to stand down at the end of her current two-year contract. Cue howls of outrage in the London arts community. An exciting, innovative talent had been turfed out by the forces of reaction, demonstrating that no worthwhile creative could ever create good work within the stifling limits set by such a theatre. Well sorry chaps, that’s simply not true – see above. A letter in The Guardian, for me, nailed it: “The Globe can embrace all the rampant creativity the plays were designed to cultivate and still to its own self be true as the “radical experiment to explore the conditions within which Shakespeare and his contemporaries work…” “
Quite so. Messing about with Shakespeare’s plays is now the norm, for God’s sake – there’s absolutely nothing radical or innovative left. Every drama group in every college throughout the English-speaking world does “concept” Shakespeare – on bicycles, on pogo-sticks, set in swimming pools, in media-company offices, etc etc. The Globe offers a wonderful opportunity for directors with courage and confidence not to impose, but to allow the magic waiting in those fabulous texts to emerge and do its work.
But, as with Brexit, until 2018 – until which Emma is still in charge – there is still time for doubters to be proved radically wrong. Her previous work with the Kneehigh company was indeed innovative and exciting: her production of “Brief Encounter” gave me one of the best evenings I’ve spent in a theatre anywhere. The timing of the Globe board’s announcement is at least questionable, as she’s hardly had time to hit her stride. She may yet confound them all, her 2017 Shakespeare shows could take the Globe to new and amazing levels, perhaps after all the board will beg her to stay and accept a new contract, whereupon like Coriolanus she may well turn her back on the common cry of curs and seek a world elsewhere.
Moving indoors, I saw a cracking play at the Royal Court – “Torn” by Nathaniel Martello-White – a sharp, clear-eyed breakdown of life in a mixed-race, urban family, rich in character, rich in use of language, resonant and memorable. One of Nathaniel’s class-mates during his time training as an actor with us at RADA – James Hillier – was in the cast, giving a cracking, arresting and wonderfully layered performance. Look out for both these guys – undiluted, disciplined talent, bringing to our trade what the football commentators call “real quality”
Picture source: “The Stage”
Adelle Leonce and James Hillier in “Torn”Picture source: www.theartsdesk.com
And talking of quality, while the London theatre explores kingship through a gender-blind prism (see this blog’s September entry) television drama has been busy with the lives of two famous queens – Victoria and her current descendant, Elizabeth the Second. Cressida my daughter and I became totally engrossed in ITV’s “Victoria”, happily suspending disbelief as a brilliant cast led by Jenna Coleman, Rufus Sewell and Tom Hughes took us through this – of course carefully tidied-up and disinfected – slice of history. Whatever your politics, the life and loves of people in extraordinary circumstances, well chronicled and performed, make great drama – and the British royals of almost any era live in undeniably extraordinary circumstances, begging to be dramatised. Ask Will Shakespeare.
So we sat down to watch the new Netflix series “The Crown” with eager anticipation – after all, it’s the same story as “Victoria”, fast-forwarded a century or so. But alas try as I might, for me suspending disbelief was a struggle. Now “The Crown” has good actors – Claire Foy and Matt Smith as HM and HRH respectively – and reportedly a MASSIVE budget, and it must be said has been well reviewed.
It’s not because I’m old enough to remember much of the story in real life, and indeed many of the characters are still with us. After all, I enjoyed “The Iron Lady”, despite being completely aware of Meryl Streep acting an all too familiar British politician, and I know Jenna Coleman is far prettier than even the most flattering portrait of Victoria. But both those performances are so well-rounded and complete that I gladly went along with their stories. In “The Crown” there is diligent attention to period detail, the research has clearly been extensive: plausible moments like Princess Elizabeth rushing to visit her seriously ill father, and on arrival instantly dropping curtseys to both her grandmother Queen Mary and her mother Queen Elizabeth, protocol observed scrupulously no matter how distressing the family crisis.
However, I have to say I nonetheless struggled to engage in it as drama, and it’s tantalising to try to work out why. My guess is that it’s not the actors, it’s the directing of the actors, and it’s some of the script. I used to run a workshop at the Actors’ Centre on “British Class”. How do you get inside a character from another era and from a sector of society utterly different from your own background? The era bit is often just plain technical – the etiquette of how to cut a cigar, how to curtsey etc But it’s the core behaviour that’s difficult. Without actually having endured the rigours of Gordonstoun School, without having served as a wartime naval officer, without having lived a life surrounded by folk hanging on every word you utter, how do you arrive at that ducal way of walking, that unique way of talking? It’s tricky stuff: you really need lots of support – and of course dialogue that rings true. At one point Prince Philip said to the infant Princess Anne – “Now run along and play and I’ll be right over…” Right over?
Before the memories of the Summer of 2016 fade, here’s one that will last my remaining years on the planet. Recent generations of RADA-trained actors will tell you without hesitation that they owe much of their confidence, much of their success in life to the support they had as students at Gower Street from the Academy’s Registrar. This summer we celebrated twenty-five years of extraordinary service by Patricia Myers OBE, at a lovely event organised by the tireless Chairman, Sir Stephen Waley-Cohen, at the Garrick Club. Pat’s amazing energy, devotion and humour saw off not just many a student crisis, but many a crisis afflicting her colleagues, including me. I was so glad my office opened directly opposite hers: at difficult times Pat could be relied upon to reach into the desk drawer and produce her famous silver wand. One swift wave, and shadows receded.
The Garrick event was actually quite overwhelming – literally hundreds of graduates attended, and more took part in the tributes by video-links from all over the world, including Hollywood. Not many people can be said really to have Made a Difference to others’ lives, and it’s a rare thing for good works to be celebrated on quite such a scale. So huge thanks to Sir Stephen for thinking of it, and with the RADA Council making it happen.
So, OK, what lies in store over the Pond? Leaving aside the uncomfortable truth that Mrs Clinton actually polled overall two million more votes than Trump, has his campaign been nothing more than a pantomime performance?
Trump’s suddenly soothing and conciliatory victory speech had the air of an actor who’s spent months rehearsing Abanazar the Wicked Wizard suddenly deciding he’d rather play Henry the Fifth. Then talking of class…his body language during the “hand-over” meeting with Barack Obama was that of a chauffeur called into the dignified Presidential presence to explain why a puncture hadn’t been fixed.
But this is no time for jokes. Now more than ever we need hope, we need optimism. On the morning the news of Tump’s triumph broke, I opened my curtains to a vista of ominous, grey autumnal drizzle.
But within hours, lo, the heavens cleared and God sent a rainbow….
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