Year of the Fat Knight ~ Antony Sher

51Sdn5uTyaL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_As you will by now have gathered Shakespeare is big in my life. And, because I live only an hour’s drive away from Stratford, the same is true of the Royal Shakespeare Company.  I saw them on stage for the first time in 1962 and have been a constant visitor ever since.  I have dozens of memorable productions stowed away in my memory and not a few of them have features performances by Antony Sher.

Now, I know that Sher is something of a marmite actor: you love him, or you hate him.  I have one friend who refuses to see any further performances of Richard III because she wants nothing to diminish her memory of his 1984 interpretation.  I have other friends who pointedly avoid anything he’s in.  Personally, I am a fan.

I first saw Sher in 1982 playing the Fool to Michael Gambon’s Lear.  This was not long after I had started out on what was to prove to be a nineteen year marathon during which I studied for three successive degrees at the same time as holding down a full-time job.  Going to the theatre was about the only other activity I found time for and over that period of nearly two decades Tony Sher was one of a small number of actors who never failed to stimulate me and send me out of the theatre with new ideas careering round my brain. I didn’t always agree with his interpretations (the least said about his Malvolio the better) but he was never there just to make up the numbers.  It was fitting, then, if completely unexpected, to turn up for my third and final graduation ceremony and find that he was the Honorary Graduand.  He gave a speech that day which managed to turn what had been threatening to be a very embarrassing morning, centred round a hard-nosed plea for money from the university’s Chancellor, into what it should have been, a celebration of the achievements of the young people who had worked so hard and long for their degrees.  I wrote to him afterwards to thank him and received a very generous response.  As I say, I am a fan.

I am always glad then to see another in his series of diary accounts chronicling his journey towards the creation of a new part.  There have now been three of these:  The Year of the KingWozza Shakespeare, and most recently, Year of the Fat Knight.  The first was concerned with Richard III, the second, written jointly with his partner, Greg Doran, focused on a production of Titus Andronicus staged in post Apartheid South Africa, and the third about the current production of the Henry IVs.

I love the Henry IVs.  They are up there amongst my favourite plays, especially Part II, which I think has a melancholy all of its own.  And, I have seen some cracking productions over the years.  So I was delighted when they were announced for the 2014 season with Sher cast as the reprobate, Falstaff.  I didn’t share the doubts about his ability to play the role that he seems to have had and in fact, the early sections of this journal centre around the question of whether or not he is going to agree to take the part on.  Some of the most interesting discussion focuses on why many of our greatest character actors have refused to agree to play Falstaff.  Both Derek Jacobi and Ian McKellen had turned it down before it was offered to Sher and neither Olivier nor Gielgud ever played the part.  As Sher says Gielgud would have been the Don Quixote of Falstaffs and like him I’d have paid blood to see [Scofield] do it.

Once committed to the role Sher sets about discovering the Falstaff he can play and we go on the journey with him as he mines the text for indications of what it is that makes the fat knight recognisable to us as a real human being.  This is a painstaking process and for someone like me, who is of an age with the actor, one I can empathise with, especially when he talks about the growing difficulty of learning lines.  I didn’t think that there was as much analysis of the part and of the plays as there had been in the earlier books and felt this as a loss, but there is still much discussion of the rehearsal process and given that he was talking about people I have become familiar with over the past couple of seasons and spaces that I know very well, the book was nevertheless a very enjoyable read.

The added bonus where this journal is concerned is that it is now possible to go back and watch the plays again in the light of the journey Sher has laid before us.  Recordings are available and although they will never quite catch the magic of the live performance it’s a darn sight better than not being able to see it at all.  If you are a lover of Shakespeare or simply a lover of the theatre in general then I recommend a weekend spent with this book and the DVDs of the two plays.  You won’t regret the time spent.

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Beware… The Green-Eyed Monster

imagesIt can have escaped very few people’s notice that 2016 is the four-hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and celebrations of various sorts are popping up all over the place. (Question:  At what point does it become acceptable to stop mourning someone’s death and start celebrating it instead?  Is there a rule of thumb, I wonder? And why do we celebrate Shakespeare’s death only once a century but that of Guy Fawkes every year? Funny things, we humans.)

It will also have escaped the notice of very few of my blogging friends that much of my life is spent engaging with Shakespearian study in one form or another.  You won’t be surprised, therefore, to hear that I am seriously excited about all the events that are going on locally, and as I live only an hour’s drive away from Stratford that is likely to be a fair few.  I suppose, then, that I really have no right to feel aggrieved that some of the celebrations I would most like to join in with are not going to be within either my geographical or financial reach.  Well, let me tell you, rights or not, I do, and one particular set of events, which caught my attention in the weekend papers, I really regret missing.

At the Barbican in London the RSC are screening a season of films of the company’s past productions.  These are not the more recent shows which have been relayed through cinemas worldwide over the past couple of years, but rather performances, some of which go back as far as the fifties, that for one reason or another were captured on film and in some cases given only a single television airing.  I would be fascinated to view any of these, but there is one in particular that I would love to see again because it was the film of this production that was responsible for starting me off on the long road that has led to more than fifty years of  Shakespearian studies.

Talk about an act of serendipity.  It was a Thursday evening, my mother was out and I noticed in the Radio Times that there was a showing scheduled of As You Like It.  Why did I want to see it?  I have no idea, other than perhaps the fact that it was theatre and I had been a theatre addict since I was two.  But theatre in our house meant pantomimes, musicals and the occasional light comedy.  It definitely didn’t mean Shakespeare.  Well, I had always been able to wrap my father round my finger (I doubt I would have got away with it had Mom been in!) and, of course, there wasn’t the choice of viewing available then, so we watched it.

I know now that what I saw that night was a recording of the newly-formed RSC’s production of the play from 1961, with Vanessa Redgrave giving a performance as Rosalind that many critics claimed as definitive.  (Certainly, I had to wait until Pippa Nixon’s interpretation for the same company in 2013 for one that came anywhere near it.)  You can read Michael Billington’s memories of the production here.  At the time I knew nothing of the play, the company or the actors, I simply knew that from the moment the broadcast began I was hooked.  And the high point of the whole evening came when, as Rosalind/Ganymede, began to berate Phoebe for her treatment of Silvius, I realised, before it happened, that the shepherdess was going to fall helplessly in love with a woman she thought was a man.  That’s when the light bulb went on, when the fireworks began to soar, whatever metaphors you want to use.  That was the moment when I knew that all those centuries earlier Shakespeare had looked down through the ages, seen a young girl being brought up in one of Birmingham’s red light districts and had decided to write his plays just for her.  The bus to Stratford stopped at the bottom of our road.  Within days I was making a journey that was to be the start of the rest of my life.

You hear people talk about having their life changed in an instant.  Well, I am one of those people.  If I hadn’t sat down to watch that specific production on that long ago Thursday evening, I have no idea who I would be now, but I suspect it would be someone very different.  Perhaps it’s better that I don’t see the performance again but just keep it in my memory as a gift from the gods for which I will be eternally grateful.

Looking Ahead

ImageI am always envious of those readers who seem to be able to look forward to the coming year and make reading plans which they confidently forecast they are going to be able to carry out successfully.  For me this has always seemed to be the surest route to failure.  It’s a bit like the Great Expectations experience writ large.  As the year goes by so I am repeatedly faced with my inability to live up to the predictions I made with such confidence back at the beginning of January. Nevertheless, I still continue to try and beat the fates by outlining my intentions even if it is only in the broadest possible way.  So here goes for 2016.

At the top of the list go three dozen or so books many of which I don’t yet know the titles of.  These are the books that I’ll need to read for my three book groups and the August Summer School.  January’s selections are Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread,  Ian McEwan’s The Children Act and David Mitchell’s  The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.  The first two will be re-reads but the Mitchell is new and I’m excited about that as I really loved The Bone Clocks and have wanted a reason to fit more of his work into the schedule ever since.

Another inescapable list will be books to do with the Shakespeare plays I shall be teaching during the year.  The groups focus on one play a term and this year we are going to be studying The Merchant of Venice, Othello and Antony and Cleopatra.  Lots of blood and violence there then.  Othello and Antony and Cleopatra were my A level texts and it will be interesting to come back to them from a very different point of view.  We don’t focus on close readings but rather on how the plays fit into the era in which they were written, their publishing history and the ways in which they have been produced on the stage from Shakespeare’s time to the present.  This year, for at least one of the plays (The Merchant of Venice) there will be an updated novel version available as part of the Hogarth Shakespeare project.  Howard Jacobson’s Shylock Is My Name is due to be published in February.  I have been very sceptical about this enterprise, but having heard Jacobson talk about the book last summer I probably will read it.  Tracy Chevalier is tackling the Othello re-write, but there is no publication date as yet.

The other reading to which I am already committed is that for my course on Dorothy L Sayers.  I still have more than half a dozen of the Peter Wimsey novels to finish as well as all the short stories.  I am not a short story reader and I suspect I shall only tackle those if it becomes obvious that I can’t complete the module without doing so.  The course finishes at Easter but I’m hoping that it will jump start another project I’ve had in mind for some time. I read an inordinate amount of crime fiction but without any real direction or purpose.  What I would like to do is use the essays in The Companion to Crime Fictioas an organising tool to undertake a more deliberate exploration of the genre, be that through a chronological approach or according to sub-genre. I’m particularly interested in the ways in which plots are organised and how they are signalled to the reader.  Has that changed over time?  Are there specific features associated with specific sub-genres or perhaps specific countries of origin?  What I would really like to do is set up another book group to facilitate discussion but whether I would have the time to run a fourth is doubtful.

Over and above these, as it were, social reading commitments there is, of course, my little list.  I’ve already marked down any of my ‘must read’ authors who have books due between now and the middle of the year and as soon as I can I shall put in library reservations for them.  In any one twelve month period the number of novels I get through in this category probably runs to about thirty so, when you add that to what I’ve already outlined, you’re coming very close to the hundred odd books that I get through in a year.  Perhaps then I had better stop at this point or there will be no room for any serendipitous reads that I discover as 2016 goes on.  Will I, I wonder, have the courage to come back in twelve months time and see how well I’ve managed to stick to my forecast?  That, I suspect will depend on how successful I’ve been.

The Play’s The Thing

swan-theatreI went over to Stratford yesterday to see Helen Edmundson’s new play Queen Anne in the RSC’s Swan Theatre.  Because the weather was so terrible and I didn’t feel like driving back after dark, in the pouring rain and a gale force wind, I went over on public transport and, as a consequence, had a very long time to think through what I had seen and to come to the conclusion that there are narratives and narratives and what I had just witnessed was not a narrative that belonged in the theatre.

I know that a lot of people don’t agree with me, but I have very definite requirements from a piece of live theatre, the most fundamental of which is that I should come away having been shaken out of some aspect of my complacency and made to think afresh about the way in which I view and live my life.  It may be because I spend so much of my time working with Shakespeare, I don’t know, but I expect a play, whilst obviously being about specific characters, to have a  more universal facet, to reflect not only the life on stage but also the society in which it is being presented.  Hamlet is not just about Hamlet; it is about the horror of indecision and uncertainty that can afflict each of us and, as a result, have incalculable consequences for any individual, any state.

Helen Edmundson’s play doesn’t, I’m afraid, fit the bill, mainly because, unlike Hamlet, it is just about the main character, Queen Anne, and her relationship with Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough.  It wasn’t that it lacked interest.  Like most of us, I suspect, I knew very little about Anne other than that she had given birth to and lost seventeen children and that she had had a difficult relationship with Sarah.  It was a story worth telling.  It is just that, for me, that sort of close exploration of a specific character and a specific relationship, belongs in novel rather than in a play.  I didn’t come away feeling that I needed to rethink anything about my own circumstances or about the society in which I function.  I’m sorry but, gale force winds or no gale forces winds, the world hadn’t shifted.

I hadn’t realised just how strongly I felt about this until I had almost three hours in which to ask why I had come away feeling so uneasy about the play. And I don’t mean to denigrate the narrative of the novel in respect of the narrative of the play in anyway whatsoever.  It was simply that this particular production made me recognise that I ask different things of the two story-telling forms and that in this instance I felt that the playwright might have been better advised to write a novel instead. Apart from anything else, you really can’t explore a relationship as complex as Anne and Sarah’s in two and a half hours of dialogue. It requires something far more detailed.

It was all the more disappointing as I really felt that Edmundson missed an opportunity to explore something that is more universal and certainly something that pervades our twenty-first century every bit as much as it did the beginning of the eighteenth and that was the influence on public perceptions of the satirist.  The play does touch on this, indeed, one of the more prominent characters was Jonathan Swift, satirist extraordinaire, but it wasn’t central.  It wasn’t what the play was about.

I’ve been uneasy for sometime now about the number of productions we’ve had at Stratford recently which have been adaptations of novels.  Surely there are enough playwrights out there who have something of their own to say? But it has taken this play to make me realise why I have been so disquieted.  I suppose from that point of view it was at least a performance that clarified my perceptions and for that I should be grateful.

My Name is Shylock

quill_n_paperI’ve just come in from Stratford having been over there this morning for a discussion on whether or not The Jew of Malta and The Merchant of Venice, both of which are in this season’s RSC repertoire, are anti-semitic plays.  This was the last of three such discussions, each relating to current productions, that we’ve had this summer, the previous two having asked, in the case of the first whether or not the Arts in the UK are pale, stale and male and in the second whether Othello is a racist play.

The panel this morning included Justin Audibert, who directed the current production of The Jew of Malta, Patsy Ferran, who is playing Portia and the novelist Howard Jacobson, who is writing a modern version of Shakespeare’s play as part of a project to reimagine the entire canon as novels for the 2016 celebrations.  Given the outgoing nature of each of those participants it was a lively discussion and a number of ideas were raised that I shall want to consider in greater detail later in the year.  This coming term I am teaching Love’s Labour’s Lost but after Christmas it will be The Merchant of Venice  and then after Easter, Othello.

Today, I just want to think about the panel’s immediate response to the question posed in the title of the session as it applies to Shylock. The unanimous view of the panel was that Shakespeare’s play, at least, is not anti-semitic.  Yes, it presents a man who has some of the attributes that an Elizabethan audience would probably have associated with a member of the Jewish race but Justin Audibert offered what sounds to me like a very good reason for Shakespeare having gone down that route.  The Jew of Malta, Marlowe’s play, was first produced in 1592 and records tell us that it was a box office bonanza.  He (and I) could just imagine Shakespeare storing that information away and thinking “one day, just you wait, one day….”.  Come 1596, when we think The Merchant was first performed, he knew what his audience would expect and to some extent would have had to give it to them, especially if his company wanted their own financial gold mine.

But, when you look at Shylock and compare him with Barabas there are so many very apparent reasons as to why he might justly feel he was being persecuted that in the first half of the play at least you might well argue that this is Shakespeare’s anti-anti-semitic play.  Patsy Ferran noted that the key concept behind the current production was ‘people behaving badly’ and in the early scenes it definitely isn’t Shylock whose actions should be called into question.  And, we also have to ask whether he ever thought that there was even the remotest possibility that he would call in the bond.  Antonio is expecting thrice the necessary funds in less than two thirds of the time allowed.  No, to call this an anti-semitic play seems to me to take a far too simplistic approach.

However, what I did find myself thinking about was a comment made by Hugh Quarshie during the earlier discussion about Othello.  It was widely reported that Quarshie was reluctant to take on the role of Othello because of the way in which he felt it portrayed men of colour and during the debate he wondered about why so many black actors were eager to play the part.  He compared this to the way in which several great Jewish actors (although he didn’t name any) had turned down the role of Shylock because it was seen as anti-semitic.  Well, he might be right, I’m not in a position to know, and I suppose, these days, it does depend to a large extent on the way in which the director decides s/he wants to shape their production, but I must have seen this play at least a dozen times and I can’t remember a Shylock I haven’t ended up sympathising with.  Portia might speak loftily about the quality of mercy but neither she nor anyone else in that court scene offers Shylock so much as one solitary drop of the stuff and at the moment when he is told that he must forcibly convert to Christianity there is nearly always an audible intake of breath from the audience who recognise the sheer effrontery of such a demand.

I have a lot more thinking to do about this, although I will probably have to shelve it until after Love’s Labour’s Lost,  but I would be really interested to know if any of you have seen The Merchant of Venice produced as an anti-semitic play and if so how successful an approach it was.  One of the strands in my approach to a play is to look at the production history as it relates to the context in which those stagings took place and it would be helpful to collect any examples you might recall.

A Star is Born

dog-blog-mossup-150x160Over the weekend I’ve been to see the RSC’s production of Henry IV Pt I but I’m going to postpone a post until I can couple it with a review of Pt II as I really want to see how the main characters develop before passing judgement on their presentation.  I did think, however, that in an effort to brighten up what might otherwise be a very dull Monday morning, I should draw your attention (especially yours, Briar) to the undoubted star of this season’s RSC lineup, Mossup the Dog.

Mossup is, of course, playing the part of Crab in The Two Gentlemen of Verona.  The leading canine role in Shakespeare, it is one that the doggie stars of stage and screen only infrequently get a chance to perform on account of ignorant producers and directors not realising that it has the potential to draw in the audiences in exactly the same way as would a well-known actor agreeing to tread the boards in the role of Hamlet.

To be fair to the RSC, they have recognised the compliment that Mossup has paid them by agreeing to join the company, as can be seen by the fact that they have given him his own blog.  You can read about his triumph during the audition process in Exit Pursued by a Pug and his followup piece on the vexed question of To Pee or not to Pee – always a problem, because while every well seasoned canine performer knows that you absolutely shouldn’t, the audience do seem to love it when you do.

For real Mossup fans you can follow him on his dog cam  as he prepares for his role in his personalised dressing room. (You will need to follow the dog cam link on the web page for this.) And of course, WhatsOnStage have interviewed him about his experience of treading the RSC boards.

I wanted to take a photo of his dressing room (which of course is distinguished by a very large star and a bone), but someone had rudely parked a car in the way. Perhaps next time I’m there.  I shall as well, when I see the production next month, be attempting to get Mossup to paw mark my programme, but I would imagine that there will be hoards of his fans seeking exactly the same thing so I may just have to worship from afar.  (Large sigh!)

Well, it’s Monday and we all need something to smile about 🙂

After the Curtain Call

Theatre-Curtains460_276I’m just emerging from my long weekend of theatrical extravaganza and am still a little dizzy with it all.  I remember a colleague once saying that he could tell when I hadn’t been to the theatre for some time because it was so apparent that my batteries needed recharging.  Well, at the moment I think said batteries may have been charged to the point where sparks are coming out.  Certainly, I am buzzing with all the thoughts that the productions I’ve seen have given rise to.

Overall, the performance to which I keep returning is the one I saw last Thursday.  For me the best theatre is that which speaks to the audience about the society in which they are living now and with its emphasis on the question of assisted suicide Ghosts did precisely that.  However, it was also the most powerfully staged and performed and the chill with which it left me is still palpably running up and down my spine.

Alan Ayckbourn’s A Small Family Business wasn’t quite what I was expecting.  Written at the height of Margaret Thatcher’s governmental power, it is about the consequences of greed at every level of society and while it is very funny it is also very concerning.  Jack McCracken has just taken over the family business when he is faced with the dilemma of what to do when his daughter is charged with a minor shoplifting offence.  Should he offer work to the private detective who has the power to drop the case or should he let her go to court?  As in so many of Ayckbourn’s plays, a relatively small decision has consequences that snowball until Jack finds himself enmeshed in a web of corruption that threatens the future of both family and business.

I can understand how, when this was first staged in 1987, it would have been cutting edge satire but we have seen so much more of what corruption can do since then and somehow for me this didn’t transfer to 2014 as well as I had expected.  I couldn’t fault the production or the acting but at best it left me squirming with embarrassment and at worst feeling thoroughly grubby.  Not Ayckbourn at his incisive best for me.

The Tempest was typical Globe Theatre and coming from me that isn’t always a complement.    I can’t come to terms with their need to play everything for laughs.  If you don’t know what I mean and you want to see them at their worst then try and get hold of a copy of their Richard II.  The funny bit in that ought to be the scene with the gardeners and even that should have you laughing through your tears.  What shouldn’t be the comic relief is Richard’s performance. Why you should want to make Richard a clown is beyond me.  I had a problem with their Twelfth Night as well, which admitedly is a comedy, but not surely at the expense of Olivia?  Anyway,  what I’m getting round to saying is that I don’t like being asked to laugh at Prospero.  If he isn’t scary then the play doesn’t work for me and much as I love Roger Allam he came over as far too avuncular.  In fact, he played him pretty much as if he was Fred Thursday.  And, what is more, although I’ve only just thought of it, Ferdinand became his Endeavour.  When the final curtain call is for Prospero, Miranda, Ariel and Ferdinand, and Caliban is banished to take his ovation with the smaller roles then you know the balance of the play is out, especially, as James Garnon acts the socks of everyone else on the stage.

Reading this back it sounds as though I had a pretty miserable weekend, but in fact, for me, almost any theatre is better than no theatre at all because you have to engage on a minute by minute basis and even if you’re disagreeing with the interpretation at least you are involved.  This coming weekend I’m going back to Stratford to see the other two plays in the Midsummer Madness series, so I’ll write about the ones I’ve already seen along with those.  I’m afraid I have to say, however, ‘don’t hold your breath’.

It was a good weekend, really!