Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Shakespeare Live

Borrowed from another William, Bill Bryson

The clue was in the title. What we expected - and wanted - was an evening of Shakespeare live from the RSC. Since we don't get to go out much any more. Since York's theatre has been closed for the past year (and hardly ever does Shakespeare when it is open).

What we got was largely a load of dumbed down dross. To mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death (or his 452nd birthday, depending on whether you are a glass half full or half empty kind of person), the folk at Stratford had staged a celebration of his work - or rather, a celebration of the influence of his work. This meant that the Bard's actual words were for the most part pushed aside by musicals, opera, ballet, comedy sketches and hip-hop.

A garden near to Stratford-on-Avon in the style of Anne Hathaway

Mnah. I suppose it was well-intentioned. Joseph Fiennes showed us some nice footage of Anne Hathaway's cottage and garden through the seasons in a sort of Alan Titchmarsh meets Monty Don kind of way. But did most of the people watching at home really need a Horrible Histories sketch to explain who Shakespeare was? This wasn't a child-friendly production. (We saw Judi Dench snogging Al Murray dressed as a donkey, for starters.)

For most of the two hours, they stuck to the funny stuff, just throwing in some tragedies towards the end. Even the excerpt from Henry V was the only scene in the whole play with a joke. They only let that famous speech from Hamlet happen after it had been mocked by Tim Minchin, Benedict Cumberbatch and, er, Prince Charles. Who had almost as many lines as Cumberbatch. That was another marker of the evening - the good, gritty stuff was too brief. Like Lady Macbeth's candle. They could have given Benedict more to do. He wasn't even allowed to play the character whose name he almost shares. It seems crazy that a botched song from Kiss Me Kate was allowed to go on for what felt like hours when soliloquays from King Lear or Richard II flashed by in an instant.

And then there was David Tennant and Catherine Tate, transported from the TARDIS to be the Sam Fox and Mick Fleetwood of the evening, doing the links. When will people learn that nobody can read an autocue? It's what makes award ceremonies so excruciating, the news sound weird, and George W Bush sound like a moron. (And he didn't need much help.)

Juliet's Balcony (allegedly), Verona

Tennant and Tate both proved at other times during the evening that they can act. Unlike the terrible couple picked to perform the balcony scene from Romeo And Juliet, a play which got far more attention than it deserved. There were other great performances - David Suchet, Roger Allam, Anne-Marie Duff, Ian McKellan and Antony Sher did not disappoint. At the end, Helen Mirren as Prospero smirked at the audience and stole the show.

Some of the better things were on video. Songs sung by Alison Moyet and Ian Bostridge. (Not together, obviously.) And Simon Russell Beale. Oh, Simon Russell Beale. Don't ever dumb Shakespeare down; just make Simon Russell Beale do it. He'll make sure you understand it. He'll make you LOVE it. For Simon Russell Beale is never anything short of incredible. I am so lucky to have seen him in numerous productions (Shakespeare and non-Shakespeare) at the National Theatre when I lived in London - from Life of Galileo to Hamlet to Candide. He was amazing in every single one. So much so that I once saw him on the Tube and nearly said something. But I was scared I would start gushing uncontrollably, and the poor guy was just trying to get to work. And you don't talk to people on the Tube, EVER.

I have seen the RSC do many wonderful things over the years - at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle (£3 for a student stand-by seat in the gods), the Barbican in London, and most recently Henry VI Part 3 in a temporary theatre in Stratford known as "The Rusty Shed". (The Swan was being rebuilt.) But the person who introduced me to Shakespeare died recently, and so it was him I remembered on Saturday night. He was the Head of English at my school and put on a Shakespeare play every year. He too had been in the RSC, though we always joked that it was playing third tree to Judi Dench's Lady Macbeth. Which is possibly why he always tended to cast himself in the lead role. To be fair he was the only male available - it was an all girls' school, with a token three boys in the Sixth Form, none of whom could act. Generally our productions were like some mass Shakespeare's Globe gender reversal. But this teacher knew his stuff. Thanks to a bout of flu taking me out of A Midsummer Night's Dream, the only play I was ever in was Macbeth ("Hot potato, orchestra stalls, Puck will make amends!"). I had four lines and was then murdered, where I then had to lie dead on stage while Macduff and Macbeth did battle (with real swords) above my head. But I was also in the chorus and got to see the workings of the entire production and learn it by heart. And while we may not have given the best performance of the text ever ("Within this three mile may you see it coming; I say, a moving groove" said one of my friends earnestly as Birnam wood approached Dunsinane), I still think his interpretation of it was second to none. As they say, nobody ever forgets a good teacher. Dr Peter Cochran, RIP.
A moving groove

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