Sorry, I seem to have been missing in action this past week. I managed to get myself into a situation where I had half a dozen deadlines to meet all at pretty much the same time and I had to turn my back on everything else just to make sure that I didn’t let anyone down. And now, when it would be nice to settle down to some uninterrupted reading, I find myself in the middle of an unplanned theatre weekend, when I’m seeing five plays in as many days.
Tomorrow, I’m going over to Stratford to see two plays, one by Alice Birch and the other by Timberlake Wertenbaker, which are part of a programme of new work intended to be a present day response to The Roaring Girls season in the Swan Theatre. This season comprises three plays contemporary with Shakespeare’s work, which each features a strong woman in the main role, The Roaring Girl, Arden of Faversham and The White Devil. Four playwrights have been asked to respond to the phrase, first coined by American historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, well behaved women seldom make history. I’m also going to be attending a series of conversations about what it means to be a Roaring Girl today and how difficult it is for women to stand up and be heard not just in the theatre, but in all walks of life. This is the first of four such events between now and the beginning of September and I have to say I’m very much looking forward to each one of them.
Then, on Sunday, I’m going to a NTLive screening of Alan Ayckbourn’s A Small Family Business. I’m having a bit of a private Ayckbourne season just at present, having been to see Woman in Mind only last Saturday. None of Ayckbourn’s plays are as frivolous as they might at first seem when you begin to dig beneath the surface, but Woman in Mind is the playwright at his bleakest and so I’m hoping for something on Sunday that will at least make me laugh at the same time as it makes me think.
Monday sees another live screening, this time of the Globe Theatre’s production of The Tempest with Roger Allam as Prospero. Now, there’s a treat to look forward to. Allam has come to more general notice in the past couple of years playing DI Thursday in the Morse spin-off Endeavour, however, I’ve been watching him on stage at Stratford since the early eighties and he was Javert in Les Mis when it first opened at the Barbican in 1985. (I can’t believe it’s been that long since I saw that play!) He’s an actor who has just continued to grow in stature with every performance he’s given and I’ve heard great things about his Prospero – mouthwatering!
But the weekend began early, last night, when I got to see yet a third screening (and how lucky we are to get the chance to see shows this way now) in this instance of the award winning West End production of Ibsen’s Ghosts.
I have seen Ghosts before on stage. Indeed, I was lucky enough to see it with Vanessa Redgrave in the role of Mrs Alving. However, either that was a very different translation or I simply wasn’t old enough at the time to take in the magnitude of the issues that Ibsen is exploring. Ghosts was a wonderful play to see just before the Roaring Girls day tomorrow because if ever there was a woman who suddenly found it in her to roar against the constraints that society has bound her by it is Helene Alving. I was much more stuck this time round by the feminist issues in the play and the way in which both women are fighting for their right to shape their own lives in a society that still sees them as property and where the male perspective rules with a rod of iron. I have a suspicion that when I saw it before it was at the time when AIDs was first making an appearance, and if that is the case you can understand why a production, as I remember that doing, would lay its emphasis on the issue of sexually transmitted diseases and focus on Oswald’s inherited syphilis. Last night, I was much more aware of two other points. The first was the way in which a man’s good name and reputation had to be put before even common sense let alone a woman’s point of view. Pastor Manders was so self-serving! It was a good job we were in the cinema; had we been in the theatre I would have found it very hard not to climb on stage and strangle him. Secondly, and topically, on the day when the question of assisted suicide again went through the courts here in the UK, was the issue of euthanasia. In the script it is left open as to whether or not Mrs Irving actually decides to use the morphine that Oswald has begged her to administer should he have a final, debilitating, syphilitic attack. In practice, on the stage every actress is going to have to make her mind up how the play will end. In this production the brilliant Lesley Manville eventually finds the courage to give her son the drugs that will end his suffering. It was a stark reminder of the terrible dilemma that the families of the terminally ill can face.
So, a wonderful start to what I hope will be a magnificent weekend of theatre and associated events. And, the reason I won’t be around much until it’s over. See you on the other side.