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Dear Sir Peter,

I wrote you a personal letter over 30 years ago,  you were kind enough to reply to, and so generously to say that it was one of the most acute you’d ever read on Shakespearean acting and directing, and since you were in New York at the time, told me to contact your secretary about a meeting.  Alas, I never took you up on the offer, I turned to writing instead, like a fool, and whatever might have happened, never got the chance to meet you.

Now the sad news of your passing has been announced today, I’m sorry I never will get such a chance. Not so sad though, in the sense you were a grand old age, 86, surrounded by  your family and your life and career have been an inspiration to so many.  In the review below we mentioned your directing Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot at The Arts theatre in London, for its premier in 1955, long before you ever achieved the deserved ‘Sir’ and it’s just one of so many astonishing feathers in your cap.  I’m sure the regrets and plaudits will pour in, from so many who knew and worked with you.  But to me, at a distance, you were always an inspiration. A fighter, someone both inside and outside the ‘establishment’, a fierce intellectual, and a man deeply committed to the theatre and the Arts: Director of plays and opera, film critique and of course one of the founders of the RSC.

That is a life worth living, and though perhaps everything passes, and any single play is necessarily ephemeral, the thread of your life and work goes on, not least in another kind of lesson, to seize the day. Thank you.

David Clement-Davies     September 12th 2017  The photo shows Sir Peter on stage with his daughter Rebecca Hall.

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If the terrible production of a Tale of Two Cities is anything to go by (review below), something is wrong at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre.   My own personal experience of it was not just having to sit through that busy evening though, unpaid, but my handling by the company’s so-called Public Relations people, Jo Allan PR.

Company of A Tale of Two Cities (2). Photo Johan Persson

At first I called the Box Office to try and get Press Tickets, to be given an email by a very helpful member of staff that simply didn’t work.  Then I was quickly fobbed off by Jo Allen PR over breazy reasons that successful productions don’t merit wide ranging Press Tickets, or that allocations were already full.  Except, after pressing, I heard a second Press Evening had suddenly been arranged for A Tale of Two Cities. I now realise it was probably because of a mounting sense of nerves about the show itself, that has been generally slated and in The Telegraph was recently called a clash of two egos, that of the writer Matthew Dunster and the Director Timothy Sheader. I wonder how many egos are at war.

I’m now furious though at further sloppy treatment, as sloppy as that production, first being put on the waiting list for Oliver Twist, but so rudely to hear nothing at all, then having to ask twice for Production photos. I seriously wonder if the reasons for it are deeply related in the culture of the place. Is it the great successes that the theatre has had in recent years, for the magical venue itself, and for Musical productions that have proved great commercial triumphs, that is making them generally so blasé? Or that violent commercialism everywhere is letting them ignore the spirit and work of serious writers and bloggers? To the point where only the voices of the major papers, and those Stars they give, merits proper PR handling, because everything is about platforms. Having worked in box offices too I know how oddly tickets and comps can be allocated.

Both the Globe and the RSC, and I have had little arguments with the RSC, say consistently how that kind of coverage and interest are important to them.  They usually prove it too, although of course they make necessary equations about the depth of the coverage, its commercial value and so on.  Jo Allan PR seems not remotely interested though in the quality of the reviews here, their seriousness, or their wider cultural value either, let alone showing any modicum of general courtesy.  Actually in PR.

I am not only indignant as a highly published and prize winning author, a journalist and also a blogger at the financially very foolish Phoenix Ark Press, which seeks and makes no profits at all. But because I must admit to a vaguely proprietorial interest in the Open Air theatre too, having aeons ago been House Manager there for two years, after training as an actor myself.  So what makes my blood boil, in being so casually dismissed by the Jo Allan PR girl, who I doubt has ever had the commitment to the Arts I’ve shown, in everything I have done, let alone swept the tiers and screwed in the bloody chairs where ‘her’ audience now put their bums on seats, is that they simply no longer care and so make only commercial equations.

Of course they must make money, of course the Arts are difficult and always underfunded too. But when theatres throw it all up for profit alone, or obvious coverage, then a company starts to lose its soul.  Because actually, and precisely what is wrong with the assumptions and easy politics in A Tale of Two Cities, it is not all just about money, or must not be, but the quality of thought, art, acting, interest and above all writing surrounding it all.  That’s what gives the Arts connection with an audience or indeed critics who can be as passionately hungry, engaged, or disappointed as they are.  Regent’s Park might well pause this season then to evaluate precisely what it is doing, what its wider values are too, or whether such PR people also deserve a little taste of the guillotine, or the rope. Perhaps I should go back and tell them!

David Clement-Davies is not invited to any other productions at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, so frankly won’t be going. The photo shows the cast on stage hanging themselves.

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I must confess to a dastardly crime against the Theatre, or myself, in not staying for the second half of Loves Labours Lost at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. Perhaps it was the difficulty of the play, or too much slapstick, the industrial scale milking of comic moments, or some of the more bizarre accents too, that turns John Hodkinson’s Don Amardo into a mixture of Shylock and Manuel from Fawlty Towers. It all got rather exhausting then, as did the constant word games and rhyming couplets, though I think it was wanting to gas with an old friend over a drink that really did it. There was a moment of hesitation too when, right at the end of the first half, Berowne erupts into a speech of true Shakespearian power and poetry, presaging deeper things to come, but the friend and the drink won out, no matter how terrifying the price of a Brandy Alexander has become in Central London.


The regret came seeing the deliciously exuberant and utterly charming production of Much Ado About Nothing the next night, so also getting a clearer picture of why director Christopher Luscombe both twins them and sets the plays pre and post First World war.   A deeper understanding was only aided by sitting next to the actor Andy Wincott, who plays Adam Macy in the Archers, and no less than Tara King from the Avengers, charming Linda Thorson, whose eyes are as beautiful and foxy as ever, the cause of many adolescent labourings of lust, and who was so effusive about Love’s Labours Lost, darling, she could have walked straight into the magical cast. Linda convinced me I had missed a true theatrical moment though when all that unnatural idealism falters, though the passion is not spent but so rudely interrupted, both by the women banishing the men in the play and here by the horror of a World War, beyond the ceaseless war of the sexes. Then American novelist Phillip Roth is convinced that the reason we still respond to myths like the Iliad and Odyssey, is that the fight for Woman really lies at the bottom of all conflict and all Art.  Well, obviously life itself.


As for theatrics, Much Ado About Nothing is very stagy too, yet what indeed is a far richer and more complex play, given added depth of frame by the characters now returning from the Hell of Passchendaele, and the rest, quickly evoked by the stage presence of metal hospital beds and echoes of The Shooting Party, became a tour de force. Here then what was for me far too Norman Wisdom in Nick Haverson’s Costard in Loves Labours, grows into a marvellously rich and wounded Dogsberry, perhaps Shell-Shocked, who had the audience both howling and squirming with genuine human pity. Though not as painful, in the tremendous all singing and dancing sets, as the shaming and apparent death of pretty Hero in the highly dramatic wedding scene. Much Ado is potentially far darker and more cynical than this version, especially in the Iago-esque malevolence of Don John, maybe not so inexplicable in motive considering what had just happened in this time frame, and the venom that lies only just below the Social surface, but that is kept firmly under control and the show fizzes. Steven Pacey is tremendous both as Donnish Holofernes and especially Leonato and though Beatrice and Benedict are very well matched, Edward Bennet’s lovely Benedict steals the laurels, in scenes that must have been a joy to improvise in rehearsal and brought some delightful audience interaction too, punters so love.

The reason for twinning them at all is the echoes the plays share and the theory that Much Ado is in fact the lost Loves Labours Won, so perhaps a sequel, mentioned by Francis Meres in Palladis Tamia, published in 1597, that book that also sounded the murder of Christopher Marlowe. To me the jury is very much out on that, probably still wanting to believe that the lost ‘Won’, like that vanished version of Don Quixote, Cardenio, is still out there somewhere. Yet finding a line through both is convincing and certainly seems to energise the actors in this inspiring ensemble cast.


Meanwhile a very plausible RSC Land has been achieved by the Downtown Abbey style set, reflecting the real and very beautiful Charlcotte Manor in Stratford, the home of the Elizabethan grandee Sir Thomas Lucy. That could lead you wandering off down the fustian halls of Scholarship itself, if to an entirely different play, The Merry Wives of Windsor. Since that manor where legend has it Shakespeare was hounded for poaching deer and had to flee for his life, may find its way into the play’s references to lice, a pun on the ‘Luces’ of the Lucy crest. It is also the scene where Justice Shallow first appeared, and Shakespeare was probably taking a swipe at the London Sherriff and obvious crook, Sir William Gardner, relation of Mary Tudor’s Bishop of Winchester, Stephen Gardiner, who had Shakespeare and others up in late 1596 on charges of Murder and Affray. All more or less convincing speculation in what is still a pretty threadbare biographical patchwork of Shakespeare’s life, swamped by the imaginative astonishment of the plays and his mind. But the firm grounding does no harm at all, though must raise costs over the Elizabethan chimney pots. Then it is an extremely generous production, in the lovely setting of the Theatre Royal (if I still think the RSC needs a London home), much aided by Nigel Hess’s specially commissioned score, that gives it a touch of the Musical, the verve of the cast and, since Donald Trump is about to redecorate The White House in Gold, the post fin de siècle sense that we might all be entering very interesting and ugly times indeed.

The photos show Costard and Don Armado, Beatrice and Benedict and the inspiring ensemble cast in the RSC and Chichester Festival’s twinned productions of Loves Labours Lost and Much Ado About Nothing, currently running in London at The Theatre Royal, Haymarket. Tickets by kind courtesy of the RSC.




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Non-stop fun is the stamp of Loveday Ingram’s exuberant, and very sexy production of Aphra Behn’s The Rover for the RSC, in the perfectly proportioned Swan Theatre, Stratford. Complete with hysterical Flamenco forays, touches of tango, a stilt walker, and excellent on-stage band. With a Conchita Wurst look-alike, the bearded lady boy among a tranch of devil masks, in what is very nearly The Rover – The Musical, I half expected someone to break out into Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.

Except Naples is the setting for the late 17th Century Restoration play, at Carnival, to turn everyone’s Worlds upside down, then restore them to the same old cynical order. A steely 1920’s cast-iron stairwell backs the simple set, to represent both the keys to the Kingdom and the Whorehouse, in a very hard world, and for the arrival of four exiled English Cavaliers led by Belvile and our particular Don Giovanni, Millmore: Very possibly modelled on the notorious Earl of Rochester, he who penned poems about dildos and things and died at 33 of booze, syphilis, and genius. This production is good Karma, with The Libertine about Rochester’s life on at the Theatre Royal in London, and Millmore is played with wonderful gusto and skilled comic timing by Joseph Millson, giving a tour de force performance he revels in.

From the moment the Prologue is given to the charming and excellent Faye Castelow though, playing Millmore’s equal-to-be, Helena, so that we really know this play was written by a woman, indeed the first English female dramatist and also a spy in Antwerp for Charles II, we are in safe directorial hands. A knowing self-awareness breathes through all the strong performances, that liberates everyone to many kinds of play. Since Millmore is trying to play fast and loose with every pretty woman that meets his eye, so the director’s cuts have played loose too and streamlined things well, if you wonder if cries of “Mummy” or “Kinky” are quite 17th Century.

Then they have gone for knockabout comedy, and ad libs too, including some great audience interaction, not least when Millmore is drunk, that always delights a crowd. If turning a line about old men and impotence on a greying member of an audience that seemed predominantly over sixty might have been a bit close to the bone! No pulling of punches here then, in the lusty manhood stakes. The climax, with an explosion of rose petals from the ceiling, nearly had people up and dancing on their feet and crutches.

This Rover certainly underplays the darker side of Behn’s play, based on one by Thomas Killigrew, where even the finest women could hardly avoid being labelled Wife, Nun, or Whore. The shadows grow in the story of the very funny and then nasty Blunt, the stuttering English Gent with his hand on the purse strings, played wonderfully by Leander Deeny, who is gulled by a prostitute, described in the original cast list as a ‘jilting wench’, into believing he has found true love. There is little time in life’s seething energy for his brand of hurt though, his hatred of being laughed at, so he is driven off stage in the first half by the semi-demonic revellers. Only to return demonically himself in the second half on the edge of doing something very nasty indeed, where a comedy edges toward potential tragedy, to remind us what can happen in the real world.

What is revolutionary in Aphra Behn, and so provides the explosive energy of poetry and thought throughout, is her ‘feminism’ is no mere complaint about manly men, hate of them either, but a cry for woman to be equal in all. Or at least her and Millmore, since by the end you do believe the pair on stage have found their true match. Thus it is two sisters and their kinswoman who set the plot in true motion too, as Florinda longs for Belvile and Helena refuses to disappear into a nunnery. So, disguised as gypsies, they hit the town like the Cavaliers and paint it red.

The main plot sees the honourable Belvile trying to find his lady, against the machinations of the nasty foreigners trying to arrange marriages, and along with a joke about drawing the longest sword, a Toledo blade, a pair of splendid guilded boxer shorts appear, belonging to a very good Don Pedro, endless filthy double entendres ensue, and there’s even a burst of Rule Britannia. The secondary plot involves the Courtesan Angellica Bianca, and since Behn lived when the theatre was very close to the brothel, perhaps reflecting her own initials and sentiments too, who falls for lusty Millmore. Alexandra Gilbreath is both moving and funny as the whore who gives her ‘virgin heart’ away, to no avail. Though a special mention for her slinking side-kick in a bowler, Alison Mckenzie’s knowing Moretta, who gives a nod to Joel Gray’s compere in Cabaret. This is a world that in truth seethed with violence, sex and fear, where a true Courtesan might make much of herself, but the whore and the poor always paid the price in the end, although Blunt shows men can be victims too. Though since Behn was a Royalist – the play is also called The Banish’d Cavaliers – it is Millmore’s poverty, along with his wit and courage, that gives him his nobility and wins him the prize; not only Helena, but her lovely fortune.

You can read reviews of King Lear and Cymbeline below.  David Clement-Davies

The photo shows Faye Castelow and Joseph Millson as Helena and Millmore in the RSC’s production of Aphra Behn’s The Rover, in the Swan Theatre Stratford. Copyright Ellie Kurttz.



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Thanks to the RSC, and Gillan Doran’s wonderfully ambitious programme for the 400th anniversary, not least for bringing me to a play I’d never even read, Cymbeline. Despite a sinking heart opening the programme to see a picture of Dave Cameron, and a journalist lecturing on about Brexit and why after being neglected for so long this is a play that has at last “found its time.” Hmmm. Shakespeare is always profoundly politically attuned, though better at exposing the imperatives and mechanisms, the nasty guts, than being didactic or ever lecturing. Was the graffiti on the concrete wall then, along with the programme’s nod to Banksi, or an anguished model of a Refugee boat, to make us suffer a Referendum all over again? I think the real irritation is that for nearly three and a half hours it had me imagining Gillian Bevan’s stout, very capable Cymbeline, part Britannia, part Boudicca, as Theresa May, (with respect, a bit of a look-alike), or is that Theresa-may-not? Not that Bevan is at all Lilly livered, and now I know Cymbeline means Cymbeline and there we are!

As for their Brexits, or their Entrances, in a proudly multi-cultural cast, what also irritated is directors (now trendily called Creatives at the RSC) thinking that a lot of running on and off stage and gabbling difficult lines passes either for theatrical energy or realism. Though when the actors settle into thinking and feeling through the words and poetry, there are some excellent performances. Not least from Bethan Cullinane as Cymbeline’s much tested daughter Innogen, the black actor Markus Griffiths as a very funny Cloten, James Clyde’s excellently malevolent Duke, and the Irish actress Jenny Fenessy throwing off the tyranny of the poor understudy to play Pisania, while a treasure chest of language is thrown open.

Jokes aside, busy director Melly Still it is quite right to suggest Brexit’s relevance, since Shakespeare was born out of the trauma and liberation of a disintegrating Christendom, (a reason today’s violent Religious and Scientific divides  or Terrorism might be even more pertinent), if Europa was a word and concept only just emerging at the time. As still Top Monarch, Queen Bess, who made a lot of cash from Hawkin’s African nastiness, and thugs like Francis Drake, saw the loss of any kind of Empire in France, though viciously trying to plant Ireland. While King James mooted but failed to achieve a Union with Scotland. So how did Britain really thrive and invent herself? By putting money in everyone’s purses, well those at the top, from little London, and ruling the waves elsewhere, away from the internecine battles  erupting in Europe. Oh brave New World.

You can argue then that much of Shakespeare is also inevitably about the very writing of a new English Imperial identity, if only through the most glorious expression of the English language. The world’s centre of Gravity was certainly shifting violently though by 1600, in a moment that probably did define how Globalisation and Capitalism would develop and which has not seen an equivalent sea change until now. It’s not just Brexit, of course, but how the Internet is probably the equivalent of the Printing Press revolution. Perhaps Shakespeare is a bit to blame then, at least for that outburst by Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg limply invoking tigers, to give Cameron a prod. I think Henry V is about the conscious manufacturing of a powerful new political rhetoric, soon adopted by the ‘Establishment’.  Even as a once far more intimate Monarchy separated itself from the lower orders, and banished honest Jacks to the bilges and top sails, it conquered half the World, with planting, privateering trade and slavery, and owned it for a very long time indeed.Is that what modern Breixteers want? Not of course that Bill did all this alone, bless him. The Virginia Company was founded in the year the Globe went up on Bankside, 1599, just opposite that walled fortress of London, still a Global epicentre today in UK PLC, and the little Tudor cannons of the terrifyingly powerful and private East India Company were bristling from a fort in Madras by 1607.

That year Shakespeare’s youngest brother Edmund died at just 27, an actor too, and his daughter Susanna was married in Stratford. While ‘savages’ were attacking the new fort at Jamestown, King James’s town, and a little merchant ship called the Red Dragon, Henry Tudor’s badge, did performances of both Hamlet and Richard II off the coast of Sierra Leone. Britain had truly set to sea, and it was coming back in bucket loads. For hundreds of years the scholarly Establishment claimed that record had to be a forgery though, because the Common Man could not possibly understand their Bard, if still stuffing him down School children’s throats. To improve us all and claim Shakespeare was essentially Conservative and there’s nowhere like an England!

If we think Euromillions is an innovation though, the first free standing lottery was launched in 1612 to help colonise Virginia, soon taken up by all thirteen original Colonies, to give very early origins to that ‘American Dream’. Talking of which, having a snack in Café Rouge before the show I’d opened The Times to read with even more sinking heart that the usually balanced and liberal Matthew Paris had just suggested we toughen up on the asylum rules by suggesting what constitutes danger should now only be the threat of Death! Then that Donald Trump was ahead in the bell-weather State of Ohio, invoking the example of Brexit. If we think our own Liberal sentiments (or not) can sway US Politics though, when people were asked to email Americans to complain, they got some very rude replies indeed, about being stupid, Lilly-livered Brits and worse.

A little credence then to the relevance of the traumatised Brexit line, four centuries on, although the production has faced much criticism. Some slack too in Ms Still peopling a Roman court with Mafiosi Eurotrash in lounge suits, sipping cocktails and speaking in Italian, translated onto big screen sur titres, that then translate Latin too, when the big Romans claim their imperial tributes from the smelly Britains. Who dares to translate the greatest translator and interpreter of them all – Shakespeare? Well, Melly Still! That rather heavy handed moment is about the river of history, peoples and languages that made Britain and which Shakespeare’s astonishing English emerged from too. The first dictionary was only printed in England in 1604 and Shakespeare is profoundly a Renaissance writer. While to set us up for losing our heads, the set is dominated by a tree stump, in a glass box, perhaps to echo the production of King Lear. The rest is as hip, with film, and part concrete and vegetative back revolves, to suggest Nature will always break on through, complete with images of modern Rome’s Empire-littered streets and Dad’s Army Invasion maps to have you suddenly asking – Who D’yer Think Yer Kidding?

Actually I should underline that Cymbeline is a tragi-comedy. So to any grasp I got on the plot, untangling which might win you Brain of Britain. Cymbeline’s daughter Innogen and Posthumus are star crossed lovers, or most crossed by Cymbeline, so Posthumous has to flee abroad. There, boasting of Innogen’s love and fidelity, he is tested by Oliver Johnstone’s excellent Iachimo, who travelling to Blighty, as Rome seeks tribute, emerges from a chest in her bedchamber to discover Innogen asleep, nick her bracelet, and spy a starry mole by her breast, rude fellow. So being able to trick Posthumous into believing he has done the act of darkness and Innogen is false. Like Michael Gove Iachimo pays Manhood’s price later, when the War of Men without Women erupts into horror, or is that Boris Johnson?

There is a tangle of poison that isn’t poison and lots of people trying to bump each other off, like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. As Cymbeline revolts against Rome, Innogen flees to the forest, to encounter an exiled General good-of-heart, Graham Turner’s splendid Belarius, and her kidnapped brother and sister, Arveragus and Guideria, emphasising all the healing Nature virtues, and played very well by James Coonie and Natalie Simpson, especially Simpson as Guideria. Though in the tangle of tree roots or Brain-stem ganglia they first appear swinging from, and the whooping hunting cries, perhaps nicking far too much from Avatar. Mind you, did you see that article in the Sunday Times about tree roots being connected and talking to each other, even nurturing or throttling their young, in this global world of ours? With a very peculiar dream Mask, when Jupiter is invoked, to explain the meaning of names via a prophecy, everyone loses identity in going to war, or finds their manhood, though the Brits win, but still need a Cultural head, so pay tribute to Ancient Rome. So Cymbeline ends with the most astonishingly uncomfortable series of resolutions, more than any in Shakespeare, that had many laughing aloud, including me.

Cymbeline is certainly about a crisis of identity, but it sits not at all in Shakespeare’s overtly Historical or straight political plays. It comes among the later Romances, like Pericles, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, when politics, life and suffering had probably confounded the Bard a great deal and he turned his hand to achieving effects through acts of artistic magic. Perhaps his brother Edmund’s tragic death was influential in that sea change. Pericles was written in 1607, for instance, all about incest and lost daughters, but with a family crest that shows a withered branch only flowering at the top. It may be more true though that rather than Cymbeline not being popular for centuries because we had an Empire now, imposing its own tributes, it is because it is a very easy plot to lose. Melly Still throwing the baby and the bath water at it hardly simplifies, or leaves us quite knowing how to vote either. Even if Jacob Rees-Mogg should be told that despite the Histories, most of Shakespeare’s plays are set in interesting foreign and Renaissance climes. I thoroughly enjoyed Cymbeline though and it did not drag for a moment, though the bloke playing the School Master at the new Edward VI museum, backed I think by Mr Gove, told me, rightly or wrongly, it originally ran to five hours! Enjoyed it because just when you’re wondering how Cloten, chasing after Innogen, can get away with possibly being Posthumous in his very ill fitting clothes, so to trick Innogen into believing her lover is dead, his beheading by Guideria is almost hysterical. While Innogen’s burial, then waking to mistaken grief, and true horror, is probably one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen in the theatre. Not least too because Shakespeare, inventing everything, even comes up with the phrase “Brain of Britain”!

 The photo is from the RSC’s rather startling and controversial production of Cymbeline, directed by Melly Still, showing a disguised Posthumous going to war with the Romans, as everyone wrestles for their identity and they try to shake us over Brexit.  Photo Copyright Ellie Kurttz. Ticket courtesy of the RSC Stratford on Avon.






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It was the woman at the New Place ticket office grudgingly lending me a cheap biro, then sourly commenting that not even the Birthplace Trust staff get discounts from the RSC, that had me wondering how everyone really rubs up together in little and hugely over-commercialised Stratford-Upon-Avon.  The house on Henley Street is at the centre of it, Shakespeare’s family house, and the shop where John was a whittawer, a maker of expensive white leather gloves, though the name The Birthplace does give the Bard the gravity of some kind of British Secular Christ.  But the Birthplace Trust are the chief Guardians of Shakespeare’s historical and physical legacy, running, with Royal backing, his house, the archive, and several properties, from New Place to  Hall’s Croft, Anne Hathaway’s House and Mary Arden’s farm.

“The Jewel in the Crown” of all Shakespeare exhibits around the world is how the reopening of New Place is described, highly ambitiously, in the bumf. New Place being the site of the house Shakespeare bought in 1597 for around £120 (I thought it was sixty) and the second largest in Stratford.  The house is no longer there, though the gardens are, where that mulberry tree was, until it was cut down.  It now has a smart new wooden entrance, where Bill’s front door was,  and sculpture park, I’m afraid I found rather fey and underwhelming, with lots of weather veins and things. Though I liked the Shakespeare Processional frieze, if I think that there already. There is also a new walk through-exhibition and shop in the Jacobean house next door, that belonged to Thomas Nashe.  That isn’t at all bad, with the odd little period object in drawers about the place and good time lines to make it interactive, though very much designed for kids and families, to bring ’em in. Well, the folk in the shop, where you can buy imitation jewellery for £75 and £140, were pleased that since opening in August his year it has topped its target of 12,000 visitors.  Though I was annoyed at the door that tickets, which let you into several properties, are £17 but you cannot buy individually.  So you can make a deal out of the merciless Shakespeare industry that has developed,  if you get it right. The foodies were trying to get it right that weekend, with a three-day event of global cuisine, at the reinstated Food Festival in tents around the town, and a bright red Pimms teapot. While a Michaelmas fair at Mary Arden’s farm, my favourite in terms of hockey recreations of Shakespeare’s living world, had mummers, cider makers, basket weavers, archers, falconers and a fellow with a splendid eagle owl to delight the wide-eyed kids.

But for me the real jewels in the crown, if not owned by the Birthplace Trust at all, came just over the way from New Place. First was the splendid little Guild chapel, just across the road, I had never seen before and Shakespeare must have known very well indeed. Since the medieval Catholic frescoes have been somewhat uncovered, with excellent placards to explain and recreate, it perfectly elucidates Andrew Graham Dixon’s point in the programme to the RSC’s King Lear (see review below), about England being culturally and visually blinded in the Puritan whitewashing of images, so giving space to the explosion of the secular word to make us see again, or in a different way.

How thrilling though to stumble next door on Chapel street into a brand new exhibit, The King Edward VI School Museum.  I had often walked past, hoping to catch an imaginative glimpse at Shakespeare’s shining morning face, because he was very probably educated here, six days a week, from 6am to 6pm, for seven years, if his real education was a pastoral one, in life and nature.  So perhaps were his brothers Edmund, Richard and Gilbert. What better way to start to understand the man, and with a very mature exhibit?  Lo and behold, the grammar school itself, given royal charter in Edward VI’s brief reign, one of those 120 or so that still exist, with more mooted by Theresa May, and which is a State funded free school, have, with the help of a million and a half from the Lottery Fund, just opened the place up to pedagogy, or lovely private enterprise. Modern pupils still have morning lessons there too.

It is exceptionally well done, a beautiful building, with positive comments from theatrical luminaries like Sir Ian Mckellan blazoned on the wall, a great little film by the always infectious historian Michael Woods, in the old counting house, very welcoming staff and none-invasive but interesting touch screen displays. Upstairs in the schoolroom even a very knowledgeable Magister, in costume, to tell you about how they learnt Latin and Greek, though I’m not at all sure Shakespeare would have had fluent Latin, sat not at desks but opposite each other, and had to learn things by rote.  Quite enough to make any young Shakespeare play truant and run off to the grounds of Charlcotte to hunt deer, or to London to become the greatest and raunchiest playwright that ever lived. The Bard of course, that “upstart crow”, never went to University, unlike Robert Greene or Kit Marlowe, but still topped them all.  Probably one of the reasons people come up with their snobbish Earl of Oxford or Francis Bacon theories, though what would it do to the Stratford gold mine if it was ever proved?

Still part of the modern school, that has created a trust to preserve and open the building, it is really the epicentre of the historical town too. For here before the Reformation was the Guild of the Holy Cross, that turned into the town council, one Shakespeare’s father John sat on, for all his naughty dealings.  Where a court was held too, downstairs, and upstairs perhaps professional players had to perform before snooty aldermen to get a licence. I say perhaps because with lack of records a deal is still speculation in the whole Shakespeare story, from the bogusness of Hall’s Croft, to certainties about most of the properties.  But it was there, and because it thrives as an active and artistic school to the present, that I really felt in touch with the living Shakespeare story. The ‘school master’ was a bit sheepish about how the Museum is doing, but then it is in competition with The Birthplace, and still has to be properly placed on the Shakespeare map.  It should and will be, because it’s very good indeed and should certainly have no one creeping unwillingly to school!

David Clement-Davies was given entry courtesy of The Birthplace Trust and independent King Edward School Museum. The photo is of the knowledgeable ‘Elizabethan’ school master in situ.




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king-lear-production-photos_-2016_2016_photo-by-ellie-kurttz-_c_-rsc_202320Andrew Graham Dixon’s article in the programme made me realise why the RSC’s coldly magnificent King Lear stumbles in trying to make us see, and feel too. As the art critic says, Lear is all about blindness and seeing, the loss and recovery both of perspective and true moral vision. Whether or not England had been ‘blinded’ during the Reformation, with the whitewashing of frescos and Religious paintings, so its dislocation from thousands of years of history and experience, or only through that could discover an entirely new way of defining reality: The hard Modern World.

Sight though, in all its meanings, is epitomised in the myopia of the mighty King, and ultimate father figure, failing to read the cynical language of his ambitious daughters Goneril and Regan, in his unnatural parental search for the unconditional, as Lear abdicates responsibility and divides his Kingdom and himself. With his banishment both of his favourite daughter Cordelia, for refusing to unpack her true heart with words, and the loyal Kent for defending her.

Metaphor becomes physical fact in the vicious blinding of Gloucester, played admirably by David Troughton, and achieved in Niki Turner’s bold designs by placing Gloucester in a huge glass interrogation box, worthy of The Cube, symbolic both of trial and the  separations of blindness and madness, that soon becomes smeared with his and Cornwall’s blood, as an eyeball bounces off the pane. The odd giggle in the audience was either a reflection of deep unease at real horror, or our own desensitization in a world that sees so much in film and the news. Yet for all the agonies of Lear, the blinding is a very specific act indeed, far from the simply bloodcurdling violence of a play like Titus Andronicus. Shakespeare is very rarely pornographic or gratuitous. In fact the real horrors of Lear are about the inner agonies of mind and imagination, when truly exposed to the whole world. Just as Edgar’s disguise as Poor Tom imagines suffering, and the Foul Fiend too, as much as experiencing them, in an act of feigned madness akin to Hamlet’s.  Lear’s is not quite an arbitrary moral Universe either, just a blasted heath, since Lear’s vanity and Gloucester’s fatherly hypocrisy to his bastard son Edmund, not stressed enough by Troughton, directly unleash what always potentially lurks beneath and engenders the attempts at Judgement and search for poetic Justice. Or rather it puts them on trial too, whether more sinned against than sinning. In the vexed paradox too that if the truth of the World really is violence and the abyss, why should you not be as amoral, vicious or corrupt as the next man?  Pre-empting Nietzsche’s remark that if you stare too long into the abyss, you will find it staring back into you.

So to Lear’s journey towards recovering humanity, or death, his travels with his fool and encounter with Gloucester, after Edgar’s leading his father to a faked suicide on the beetling cliffs of Dover. Graham Dixon quotes Frank Kermode calling that “the most beautiful scene in all Shakespeare” and so it may be. It is more than that though, it is part exorcism and precisely what Shakespeare has Edgar call it too, “a Miracle”.  Or an attempted human miracle, in a now Godless Universe. In that Gillan Doran’s sparse, metallic and pointedly pagan production, raising Lear on a great plinth at the start, among a painted Sun and eclipsing Moon, and their inevitable, ceaseless peregrinations, in an age that still profoundly credited astrology, and used it as excuse, prepare for Anthony Sher’s studiedly formal but now ultimately impotent invocations against his daughters, or the World. Lear as King Priest too, though curses in Shakespeare usually turn on those invoking them.

It also might frame the play in terms of how others have described King Lear, as old fashioned Miracle play, banned in the secularisation of the Reformation, springing from a profound tension in Shakespeare’s own rooted ‘Religious’ instincts, although that is not its main purpose here. This Lear certainly approaches the grandeur of the Miracle cycles, yet the miracle Shakespeare tries for, and so must the actors, is now a secular and imagined one, like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner forging its own language of artistic symbolism, reached with only the artistry of mind and language itself, balancing journeys of inner and outer perception and perspective.  Also as Coleridge did, making the distinction between mere fancy and true imagination, which can only be touched with real feeling. Just as Shakespeare’s poetry and vision, the stamp of his imaginative wonder, is always a constant movement between the minute and the universal, a specific act of ‘seeing’ and almost physical entering in, akin to Keat’s “negative capability’. So Edgar leads his father Gloucester through a frustrated act of self-slaughter, in an almost Christian sacrifice to the absent Gods we fear treat us like flies, then provides a minutely precise rebalancing, in describing what did not happen, now from the bottom of the abyss. So reimagining everyone’s place in the Universe, in the recovery if not necessarily of hope, then at least perspective. “Half way down hangs one that gathers samphire, dreadful trade! Methinks he seems no bigger than his head”.  It is an act of profound psychology that could give rise to the very word Shrink.

Of course, as Graham Dixon also compares Shakespeare and Lear to the arrival of an artist like the blood spattered Caravaggio, though still connected to Christian and Catholic iconography, Shakespeare is a painter too, but with words, in what was the Age of the Word, as opposed to ours of the image. It is a given then he was and is the greatest word painter who ever lived. Therein lies the rub though, if one you might expect from a strong director like Gillan Doran, also Artistic Director of the RSC. Doran’s production does not cleave enough to the source power of Shakespeare’s language and poetry, and his players discovering them in the intimate act, always the route in my view, through every character, to his ultimate vision and meaning.

Instead, ala Graham Dixon, Doran presents this Lear as almost a series of set piece paintings; Lear on his un-heavenly dais, Lear on a chariot-funeral bier that presses forwards on the essentially framed Proscenium stage, Lear at dinner with his fractious Knights, or a back-lit static battle scene that evokes the Bayeux Tapestry. The tree at the back seems to be trying to win the Turner Prize. If words always paint pictures, a play is not a painting though, it springs alive from the frame, as living theatre.

The production, which seems to have been a sell out, is startling and innovative, at times, like Lear and his fool raised again into airy nothing, not in the calm eye but the curled tear of a swirling storm. It is also somewhat superfluous, because that is exactly what Shakespeare is explaining, through the Gloucester moment, and Lear lost on the Heath, with the movement of his own language and ‘vision’; the nature and miracle of imagination, and how to see in balance again, or go Mad.

For me Lear’s true miracle then should still be achieved through the unaccommodated intimacies of the round, both the humanisation and de-humansisation of suffering, the humbling encounters with Everyman, framed by the world’s blasted heath, not something so distant and lofty. That is what ultimately rakes the heart and dislocated soul, pierces the hurt mind, and might turn terror to tenderness, to make it a play that really is a miracle of creative humanity. Also how Dr Johnson described King Lear though, and which this production is frustratingly not, namely “unbearable”. Instead it remains for me a rather cold tableaux, admittedly exacerbated by my restricted-view seat up in the ‘Gods’.

Sher is of course a marvellous actor, but only truly recovers Lear’s magnificent humanity in the second half, now a foolish, fond and human old man, but if a fool, one with a new wisdom and beauty. Too late to save him and Cordelia, but such is life, if the play or art cannot humanise or change us, and perhaps anyway. The point too though is that for all Lear’s kingly tyranny, what is at times obscene in his life denying cursing of his own daughters, engendering that terrible Nothing, he must also have the love and greatness of the Father King, to elicit the loyalty of the morally positive characters in the first place. Sher is not allowed to show that nearly enough in the long first half, despite the original and intense clinches with his ‘bad’ daughters, an actor who certainly could. Let the actors burst from the frame.

Perhaps that is why the others seem at times dislocated from one another too, in their own frames, and what are vital and very intimate transformative journeys. Which must be enacted with a commitment and love too that raise them to the spiritual and mystical, not the somewhat throw away joke by Oliver Johnstone’s Edgar, preceding Gloucester’s jump, nor Cordelia’s unsymbolic recitation of a bunch of herbs. Cordelia, played by Natalie Simpson, is at once very flesh and blood and symbol of Shakespearian earth magic, as Kent is of a neo Christian duty. I shed a tear at Lear’s description of her death, yet had not been able to love Cordelia, as you must if the play is also to achieve an insight Shakespeare is obsessed with throughout his work, the danger to the powerful masculine if the positive and honest feminine is ripped away, inside or out. That is often the very route to violence, inflation and madness. Also grounded in the story of a mythical character never really mentioned but profoundly operative in Shakespeare, also a story of sight and blinding, King Oedipus.

For me Graham Turner’s fool has skill but is too belligerent to be lovable either, first by shrugging off the audience, to break the fourth wall, and secondly in not truly discovering that tenderness that constitutes some act of healing of the Self too. What is also lost is the seething power of the sub plot, driven by the primal forces of youth and sexuality, along with those ‘New Men’ in a violently changing Elizabethan world, that can make Lear cry “let copulation thrive”. Paapa Essiedu’s Edmund is not bad, but too coy. Edmund is a life force, if a death force too. You must, in Edmund’s “now God’s stand up for bastards”, somewhere want him to succeed, as if you too would overturn the Monster Custom and an unjust and blind social order, even though the consequences may be too horrible to contemplate. It is Lear’s profound question about what Nature and human nature truly are, for Nature was Shakespeare’s Goddess too, but one that would come to cause him a lot of trouble. Essiedu gives Edmund far too much moral doubt at the start then, perhaps to justify his later attempt to save the King and Cordelia. The agony of the play must achieve that understanding and change by earning it, not pre-empting it. With a magnificently visual King Lear then you still want to come out sobbing, not left intellectualising about a walk through the Tate Modern, for as Lear comments “Life’s better at breaking hearts than art is.”

The picture shows Anthony Sher as King Lear, consoling David Troughton’s blinded Gloucester. Copyright Ellie Kurttz. Lear was on the main stage in Stratford on Avon. Ticket courtesy of the RSC.


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It was telling that the actors taking their bow after the performance of David Farr’s production of Hamlet last night seemed almost embarrassed that some members of the audience were on their feet in approval, myself included. But then perhaps they were unsure of their skill, or the RSC should abandon just a little bit of its over-democratic, ensemble correctness and let individuals soak up a bit more of the glory, especially with a play that so takes it out of lead actors. Reactions in the audience, particularly over Jonathan Slinger’s troubled, sometimes screechy and certainly challenging Prince, seemed a bit confused too, but if there were certainly flaws, first to the noisy praise.

A production set somewhere between Denmark in the present and on the edge of the Second War, still with its beer Keller fencing fraternities, compensates for all the problems of Titus Andronicus (reviewed below) by giving the play and the theatre straight back to the actors, and of course the playwright. Hence, despite a visually stunning design (apart from the sofas), that suddenly strips away the boards where the fencing courtiers engage in their fatal dance of death, that can only have the two-step of two one directions, backwards or forwards, to reveal the dead earth that we all face, as hard as the set above, and where Ophelia comes to lie in black ash, there is none of the fuss that impedes the players really getting to the text. While Titus engages in a glut of cultural referencing and design chic then, this Hamlet picks one presiding metaphor only, to swell the edgy paranoia, fencing and sword fighting, entirely appropriate to a playwright who, as Peter Ackroyd points out in his biography of Shakespeare, has more staged fights than any of his contemporary dramatists. Thus the ghost, played with a Marleyesque queasiness worthy of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol by Greg Hicks, the actor playing his usurping brother Claudius too, inches into the auditorium dressed in rusting wire mask and modern fencing kit, haloed in neon light, while everywhere swords are at hand to speed the easy and often casual blood-letting. Shakespeare’s were killing times, Ben Jonson killed a player in a duel and another man in single combat on the battlefield in Flanders, and the theatre was a battle of survival and wits too.

Wit is an especially Elizabethan word, of fighting intelligence in the world, so at first you wonder if Jonathan Slinger’s rather elderly Hamlet is not too much of the comic Woody Allen chez Elsinore, until his mind gets really nasty and struggles to find nobility again. Slinger looks a bit like Allen, and this is perhaps the first time the adolescent Prince has been given the qualities of a tragic clown, hint of white face mask to encourage the metaphysical agonies. At times Slinger minces a bit too much, just as both his and Simon Russell Beale’s Hamlet were not absolutely convincing in the final sword fight. It is difficult to carry off, but that is less forgivable in a production like this, that places so much emphasis on the arts of duelling, mental and physical, because even if ‘the readiness is all’, no actor should close their eyes and wave their sword too camply, especially since Hamlet has something dangerous in him, and fencing is a precise, close quarter skill. Perhaps that is what undermined this Hamlet for some, that classical image of Hamlet’s manly nobility, and both nobility and real manhood are such a theme of the play, but Slinger compensates by delivering a performance of such inner pain, complexity and intelligence that he constantly makes you sit up and listen to the words again. A man who has just lost his father, a moment when he must either regress or grow up, and his own childhood too. As for the boyish mincing, it frees his thoughts and words and at times he is very funny indeed, while it is sustainable too, since the homoerotic elements of his passionate and playful male friendships are so underlined throughout. Indeed, rather than making Hamlet all aware, the play really starts to come alive when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern appear, and Hamlet’s need for friendship and trust is so challenged by his almost reluctant revealing of the lies and betrayals encircling him in the political and emotional corruption of Elsinore.

Farr and by extension Slinger have gone for the almost purely internalized then, and with an essay on depression in the programme by the comedienne Ruby Wax, Hamlet’s near mental collapse is stressed in that ‘antic disposition’, as the stage is emblazoned with the Roman motto Mens Sana In Corpora Sanis and the programme cover shows a fencing mask completely blacked out. As vital and relevant a theme and human fact as that is, and the appalling disconnection from the world it can cause, that no-one on the healthy ‘outside’ can understand, part of the problem with it being entirely true to Hamlet is that its ghost is not just a projection of Hamlet’s mind, it is seen by others, except in the bedroom scene, and tells Hamlet things of real foul deeds that spur the action. Although you can see that in context of his own ‘prophetic soul’ too, or of how a consciousness at full tilt can grasp how things can work really in the ‘world’, especially in the ‘incestuous’ play of male and female energies that make or mar us all, or perhaps itself becomes the force of corruption and ultimate despair. It is why that ghostly injuction “Taint not thy mind, Hamlet” is so important. It places Hamlet then on the very cusp of a still believing world and a new ‘psychological’ age, that perhaps we still cannot answer.

In that giving of Shakespeare back to the actors though, every one of these performances are strong and some are superb. Robin Soans is utterly convincing as a kind of ‘Yes Minister’ Polonius, a man of his class, brutal to his daughter, a skilful if dull servant of the dangerous court. Charlotte Cornwall’s Gertrude is not given enough scope, but powerful when it comes to the bedroom clinch and tender in her rediscovered or perhaps never really present maternity of her son. Both Laertes and Horatio are strong too, if the Hamlet-Horatio age gap seems too big. But the laurel for originality must go to Greg Hicks, so intentionally cast as Hamlet’s real duelling opponent. He is constantly eerie, nasty and dangerous, a man truly capable of murder, and a kind of slick Danish gangster, in shiny suit and brandishing easy lies. Hicks nearly steals the show though with his brilliant prayer scene soliloquy, I’ve never seen done so well, a man who does not delude himself, faced with the urge to heaven, but finding himself steeped in a crime he cannot expunge. It shines with intelligence and reality and so he must also advance to the poisonous staging of Hamlet’s murder. The only frustration was the lovely, febrile Pippa Nixon’s Ophelia, since her first appearance is wonderful, aching with a passionate and new discovered sexuality, so phallically underscored in the player’s dumb-show, like a character from a Milan Kundera novel. It could have led to dark wonders in her madness, but the dull white wedding dress metaphor and over strident singing in her grief loses subtlety and vulnerability and you suspect it has something to do with the staging and the desire to keep up the fencing metaphor. Yet her interment at the front throughout the last quarter is bleakly moving and also leaves you with a sense of what might have been.

At three and a half hours with a 20 minute interval there have been bloody cuts, and one of the oddest is not allowing Fortinbras on stage to deliver his valediction, but constant originality and freshness compensate, even entertaining oddity, like Claudius’ acceptance of his own execution by poison cup and so many moments where new meanings or interpretations are found in the marvelous play of words. I have no idea why the sprinklers come on in the end, except to break you out of the cloisterphobic sports hall setting, or because they had some, but it was the bracing originality, clarity and accessibility of this Hamlet that got me to my feet. It is a very unusual Hamlet, certainly not for purists, but a very palpable acting hit.

David Clement-Davies

Hamlet is at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford until September 28th 2013

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By the interval I wanted to scream and shout and tell everyone they must rush to see Michael Fentiman’s rangy production of Titus Andronicus at The Swan theatre in Stratford, and give it the universal thumbs up. By the famous blood soaked denouement though there was an equal feeling of some strange absence, or not quite grasping it. As if, like Titus, I had had my right my hand cut off, so simply had no affirmative thumb left, simultaneously wondering if the real problem is indeed a play that some have described as un-stageable. There are a great many things though to praise about this hyper slick, High-Production-value show, above all the richly layered and deeply moving performance by Stephen Boxer as Titus, the martial Roman whose own actions in mutilating the son of the Goth Queen Tamara precipitate the baked-in-a-pie revenge horrors to come, in a tragedy that seems to engage in a kind of theatrical aversion therapy. Yet in the end the poetic symmetry talked about in the notes, mirroring the fatal actions and consequences among all the characters, excepting that ultimately tragic victim Lavinia, the feminine brutalised in everyone, is strangely lost to so much business and invention. A phantom thumb of gladiatorial approval hovers a little more uncertainly then – whether those about to die, which is nearly everyone on stage, are really saluting pure Shakespeare or not.

What is most refreshing about this Titus though is its energy and immediacy, mixed with a deal of humour, especially effective in the intimate environment of the wonderful little Swan theatre round. With the commitment and skill of the RSC behind it, and its decidedly young cast too, it certainly challenges that old cliché of dismissing one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays as nothing more than a bums-on-seats pot boiler, catering to the worst excesses of Elizabethan bear and human baiting. The hugely popular Titus, written around 1592, and at the moment Shakespeare first appears on the London scene with overlooked histories like Henry VI, is a play that needs and deserves rediscovery and reappraisal, perhaps especially in our hyper violent and violently visual age, as the programme notes stress. A play where Shakespeare seems to reach to the greatest extremes of gory horror, and of himself on the edge of hysteria, yet in order to summon such astonishing poetry, that gushes out on stage like unstaunched arterial blood, or a symphony of human tears. Above all though, it reminds that among all the stage business, what is always true of Shakespeare is that he is also engaged in an almost private argument about maintaining his own extraordinary poetic function and flow, his overall vision, hence tongues, heads, hands and even thumbs are not just incidental, but a metaphor for spiritual and moral mutilations, that might silence any poet, set against the capacity of the human spirit to transcend, or simply repeat its own pathology. That alone marks Titus’s importance to the whole of Shakespeare’s work, while perhaps a play that thirty years later Ben Jonson would commend as a living masterpiece, along with Kid’s The Spanish Tragedy, was the moment of his first liberation, and Shakespeare’s revolt against the obvious parameters of conventional revenge drama too. Certainly the poetic and political themes of all Shakespeare’s plays are at work here and this production can only aid that important reappraisal.

Catering is of course much on the menu in Titus, and since a production is so knowingly referential, Fentiman might have made even more of today’s surfeit of TV Master Chefs, although there are very funny and clever touches in just that bain marie vein, like Lavinia’s armful fight with a boiled egg, followed by an attempt to read the runes in salt, that goes on too long, or two bloody heads and a hand seemingly vacuum packed courtesy of Heston Bloomenthal’s Fat Duck. Its realism and contemporary echo was absolutely right and suitably revolting too, like the blood that gushes out when Lavinia first opens her mouth after her rape, that made us gasp and might make a psychopath wake up to human pain and suffering. It is also why the horror of Titus works much better in a small theatre, if the gore and guts are done as convincingly as this. Yet the endless modern cultural allusions in the staging and costumes are also part of the problem, in a play so about the power and impotence of language, in the face of tongue denying violence, rape and hatred. Just as the programme references everything from Quentin Tarantino to the Hammer Horror film Theatre of Blood then – “ooh, my babies-my babies” – here is a recipe that smacks of just one cook too many, at times, or the issue of fusion cooking itself, which I think has long been an RSC one. As for the inevitable dilemma of the play, Shakespeare of course knew the potential hypocrisy of drawing in and pleasing the crowds, while finding the moral and meaning, more importantly the depth of thought and feeling, but that is the struggle of his art, of Titus itself. This production, heralded back in May with the revealing filmic tag line “There will be blood“, and today’s supposedly smart money too are certainly on the likes of Tarantino nowadays, who in my opinion lost the plot with Django, selling out to the winning, violent and glossy formula. It is why the funny faced wunderkind always gets so itchy when anyone dares to challenge him on the real purpose of violence in his movies. This Titus, and its creators, are similarly a little uncertain about whether they want ‘Shakespeare Minceur’ or a quick ticket to Hollywood, and if it is the pastry dish or the true meat that make the play work, the words.

Leaving too much of an open door on violent video games too, movies or past productions, and that oddly American world building that defines drama today and has these particular Roman Soldiers as irritating action models of Dath Vader, seems to infect the performances too. So John Hopkins’ Saturninus, funny and skilful at times, seems to be snatched straight from Commodus in the movie Gladiator, as one of the Goth queens gets lost down a blow-dry disco. Shakespeare loved actors, at least ones who really serve the purpose of the whole play, and actors love Shakespeare, if allowed to find the depth and song of character through his words, not paste trendy, hyper modern interpretations on top. Katy Stephens’ very sexy Tamara is strong, to prove that women can be just as nasty as men, or that Cat Woman is not dead. Appropriately then one grinning member of the audience last night was the spiky haired classical violinist Nigel Kennedy, who certainly has the talent, like this production, but whose mutilation of his own middle class vowels, in that search to be the archetypal common man, or comfortable in his own skin, can also get a little irritating, mate. Then mutilation of language and poetry is also the point of this play, as is rather hauntingly captured in Dwane Walcott’s shit-stained clown and pigeon rearer, hanged at the back of the set in mute agony, murdered by all the high metaphors.

For all the bits though, even four hundred years ago history’s stage was already so steeped in human blood that Shakespeare’s eternal attempt to engage that dialogue between past and present, the meaning of meaningful history; or to find ‘the contemporary’, did not quite mean he had to reference every act of world mutilation, or produce a cultural exegesis worthy of Derida. In a production that is supposedly first doing justice to Shakespeare then, it might have been enough just to underline the presence of Ovid’s Metamporhoses in the play, that referencing of the story of Philomel, to explore how Shakespeare’s own visions develop in seeking transformation, or in engaging in such theatre at all, without throwing in the kitchen sink of everyone’s attempts at Titus-via-Tarantino. It is also fudges Shakespeare’s strongest themes; pagan versus the supposedly spiritual values of ancient Roman, Catholic interpretations of life’s feast, yet worship of what is really a blood sacrifice too, in a play so much about religion and ritual. But above all the mutilation to the really powerful and creative masculine, when the feminine, inside and out, becomes a source of violence. They are themes that are so deep in Shakespeare they are also too big to be sustained when the Goths are reduced to Asbo worthy adolescent bovver boys, who would probably never get to see a supposedly transformative play anyhow. Which raises Titus’s complex question of whether the orgiastic representation of violence, our visual culture is now so steeped in, is pornographic, worthy pressure-valve entertainment, or just breeds more violence. The young actors did well, but for me were just a little too young and mod deliquent.

There is that long present issue of ‘RSC Land’ Shakespeare too, often a kind of never-never land of all things to all Romans, certainly in sets and settings, that forgets Elizabethan theatre had very little staging and was first one of declamation and poetry. So while all that steamy horror, bawdry and cruelty happened down on London’s Bankside, to make Shakespeare much question the purpose of theatre itself, that in Titus almost vomits out of his system, it was also a place where troupes were also staging bouts of contemporary versification in the great entertainment battle, like modern slam poetry. In the end Titus is a defence of poetry, poetry not nearly regarded enough either, which the cast do certainly grasp wonderfully at times, but who might be given a little more space and, frankly, tongue. The older actors then, like Boxer, or Richard Durden’s dignified Marcus have to carry the poetic authority of the play and thankfully they manage it well and sometimes transcendently. The oddest performance is Kevin Harvey’s Aaron, who has great presence and charisma and a clear future, but who fails when he attempts to explicate verse that should be flying with meanings, found through their own rhythms. Aaron is of course an extraordinary part, that literal black devil, with no obeisance to the politically correct, and in his size and scope a kind of cross between Othello and Iago. Again humour, mixed with the tenderness of trying to save his own child, is what lifts his own performance back towards the gods.

That exploration of art’s pulsing and bleeding arteries though, or Shakespeare’s, is most strikingly achieved when one of the Andronicus brothers reaches his hand down from the gods, into the real and metaphorical hell pit of rape and murder below, which paradoxically is also the womb of Shakespeare’s word making, dark and light. That is why it was so right to stage this at The Swan, where the deepest metaphor of those wooden O’s, those early theatre wombs, and with all the sexual meanings denied to eager schoolboys too, suddenly comes alive, if only momentarilly. That is also why interpreting and performing Shakespeare should be first about the simplest and purest approach to peeling the words off the page and popping them in and out of the actors’ mouths. The sets and designs, and these are generally very effective, including the sacrificial black ash that falls from a deaf heaven, come afterwards. Speaking of which, when the distracted general takes an ultimate revenge by feeding Tamara’s rapine children to their mother, it is oddly done by back staging the celebrated banquet, at the very moment the audience should be most implicated in the action, in the round, and face to face. This audience needed an even more direct invitation to the ghastly feast then, even a bit more blood, and to the sobbing anguishes the play is filled with.

Perhaps our audiences could just not stomach such dry entertainments as Shakespeare without the frills though, or the superfluous BMX’s, but here, just too many times the langauge and the real pain is sacrificed to the visually impressive stage business, which is a pity because when the actors catch it they and the play are glorious and uniquely powerful. Sometimes that staging is very effective, like the nurses at the start, crosses between Catholic nuns and hijab wearing hand maidens, the martial drums or the hook lifted corpses, but at others it impedes the actors’ ability to let rip with the verse and the pure feeling. In fact, despite all the boys on the block being Tarantino fans, Fentiman is not formulaic and so takes many risks in pressing to the outer reaches of gallows humour, the superbly grotesque, like Boxer’s macabre dinner service in a dress, so exploring both our reaction to and need for horror, always on the edge of mad humour, and revealing how Shakespeare pre-empts Brecht’s and Artaud’s theatres of alienation and cruelty by 400 years. Yet, for any criticisms for not completely capturing the poetic integrities of the play, with the raw energy of this debut production, the skill of Boxer and the fact there is truly never a dull moment, that phantom thumb must go up high. “We who have died with you, salute you!” One of the great strengths of this production is to make such good use of The Swan too, also pointing the RSC away from cream-tea tourist Shakespeare in Stratford and back to origins in those rounds in London. It is also a Titus for our tasty, nasty yet often over-packaged times, and remembering that the play is flawed too, a comparatively immature work compared to masterpieces like Lear, in its own way equally horrific, confirmation that the RSC is hot on the trail of excellence and perhaps even better recipes to come.

David Clement-Davies

David is currently writing a book on Shakespeare’s youngest brother Edmund.

TITUS ANDRONICUS is at The Swan Theatre Stratford until October 23rd 2013.

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