Category Archives: Stratford Upon Avon

Happy Birthday Shakespeare, a project by bloggers around the world

Shakespeare is a man for all ages. If you tried Ben Jonson’s rave review on your average school student they probably wouldn’t agree, instead the very name William Shakespeare could be enough to make them look confused, yawn with boredom, or tremble with fear. If you sat them down in front of a play, however, they just might believe it.

In January 2010 I joined the eight to twelve-year-olds of Claremont School, Kingsbury, as the Royal Shakespeare Company performed a seventy-minute version of Hamlet. Black and Asians pupils made up most of the audience, and many were watching Shakespeare (and even theatre) for the first time. Children are the harshest critics, but this group offered their undivided attention and had absolutely nothing negative to say at the end.

I, a Hamlet virgin, joined them. I was reminded of when I’d make my way to the Oxford Playhouse as a young teenager, often surrounded by an older white middle-class crowd.  I felt out of place. But once the action started, and the jester laughed, lovers kissed, siblings reunited, there was nothing differentiating me from everyone else.

So if someone were to ask: what does Shakespeare mean to you? Shakespeare breaks down barriers. Everyone, including the pupils of Claremont School and myself, can be transported into his world.

Years later from being in the Oxford Playhouse, I went on to work with the Royal Shakespeare Company. I was responsible for attracting new audiences to the theatre, and have continued to seek out weird and wonderful Shakespeare plays, seeing his work danced, rapped, and even tweeted. A man for all ages? Certainly.

Written as a part of Happy Birthday Shakespeare, runs till April 30.


Morte d’Arthur, at the Courtyard Theatre

capello thought the england team should go back to their roots

When does a play need to be three hours and forty-five minutes? Judging by the bored critics and yawning audience members at the Royal Shakespeare’s production of Morte d’Arthur, never. Staging Thomas Malory’s 600-page story, covering Arthur’s lifespan, is a valiant undertaking in itself, as it took writer Mike Poulton ten years to complete. Regardless of this, it desperately needs to be cut.

The play retells Arthur’s rise and fall including the notable tales of the sword in the stone, the Round Table, the Holy Grail, and the adultery of Launcelot and Guenever. In fact it includes almost every story, one after another, that every English student thought they would never read again. The play begins fast-paced, yet moves slowly after the interval. The laborious narration does not help. As content is put first, the characterisation is second, so more interesting matters like Guenever and Launcelot’s emotions and betrayal to Arthur are not fully explored.

Sam Troughton proves he is a fine actor, having delivered a young Romeo in the company’s Romeo and Juliet and now an ageing Arthur. The costumes are spectacular: the bear-suited knight Gareth, bearded wizard Merlin, and an Alexander McQueen clad Devil. The fights, too, were dazzling: it’s only in RSC productions you have actors climbing up the pillars in the stalls, or jumping from the circle right next to you to land onstage.

Whilst King Arthur is a figure that everyone knows: there is the cute Disney King Arthur, the satirical Monthy Python King Arthur, and the comical Spamalot King Arthur. It is ironic that the lets-stay-faithful-and-include-everything King Arthur doesn’t work. This is one show you will want to exit, even if you’re pursued by a bear (suited knight).

Runs till 28 August.

To see or not to see: *

Antony and Cleopatra, at the Courtyard Theatre

A verse and a chorus, or else...

Antony and Cleopatra is one of the most dramatic stories in history and literature, so it should come as no surprise that before the premiere of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s show things took a dramatic turn. The company’s Antony, played by Darrell D’Silva, shot himself in the hand during a technical rehearsal and required surgery for his wound meaning the opening had to be delayed. The accident is a fitting illustration of the play: director Michael Boyd aims, shoots, but unfortunately misfires.

The play tells the story of Antony, one of the three rulers of the Roman Empire, who begins an affair with Cleopatra, the Queen of Egypt, and is caught with her between desire and duty. Michael Boyd has been Artistic Director of the RSC since 2002, and this is his third production he has directed with the company. Whilst D’Silva gives an outstanding performance as Antony, it is Kathryn Hunter’s Cleopatra that feels inaccurate. Hunter is a fine actress, she was the first woman to play King Lear and went onto play Richard III, but here she is not fully used.

Cleopatra is a melodramatic actress herself with a mercurial personality. When we are told that Antony “has given his empire up to a whore”, we expect to see a woman who is worth leaving his superpower home and wife for. So she should be a woman, as in the text, that is powerful, possessive, and incredibly sexual. As today’s power couples have females, from Michelle Obama to Angelina Jolie, who gain equal if not more interest than their male partners, it is odd that Cleopatra (of all women!) and her sexual energy is reduced to quick laughs. For example, when Cleopatra hears from a messenger the news that Antony is married her jealousy is delivered as a joke rather than a threat: “though I am mad, I will not bite him”.

Tom Piper, Boyd’s long-term collaborator, has designed a fitting set and lavish costumes. It is the modern-dress, in fact, that is hard to ignore. Cleopatra’s sexy trench coat and boots to sensual mermaid-like sari outfits bring the scenes alive. The tight and speedy fight scenes are also a treat. An ambitious play, it has all the blasts of a gun but is sadly filled with blanks.

Runs till 28 August.

To see or not to see: * *

Spotlight: Geraldine Collinge, Royal Shakespeare Company’s Director of Events and Exhibitions

Geraldine has run her own theatre company Jericho Productions, worked for Battersea Arts Centre and the British Council. In 2009 she joined the Royal Shakespeare Company to work as the Director of Events and Exhibitions. She is responsible for taking the work of the company outside the theatre and to the public, and Such Tweet Sorrow, a professional production of Romeo and Juliet on Twitter, is the latest example.

As Such Tweet Sorrow draws to a close, how do you measure its success?
The purpose was to expand in a new form, to try new ways of working, and to reach audiences who can’t come to Stratford. We said at the beginning it wasn’t about the number of followers, but about the level of interaction from the followers. I loved that before Juliet’s birthday, when she was having a Masked party, people made their own masks and uploaded them onto Twitter. That for me is one of the real measures of success. It’s a longer-term hope that people will come and see productions, but it’s more about changing perceptions of the brand and making Shakespeare feel less remote.

There has been criticism over the modern language. Why was this chosen?
The project was about doing a contemporary version of Romeo and Juliet for Twitter. If we wanted to do Romeo and Juliet in its original language online, we might not have used Twitter as a platform. It was definitely about the contemporary, the improvising, the experimental. The actors were improvising a lot of the tweets and were free to use their own language. Juliet is a nineteen-year old performer, for example, so a lot of it is in her idiom. I think that’s a part of the energy of the piece, it’s part of what works about it.

In Such Tweet Sorrow Mercutio is stabbed at a football match. How much does the adapted plot relate to contemporary concerns?
It wasn’t about this is a world where stabbings are happening on the street, but it was about this is today’s world and they will be drinking, they might be taking drugs, they will be having sex. So the setting is contemporary, it’s not a kind of political choice. I was glued to Twitter with the death of Mercutio, it sounds weird but I found that totally compelling. We were thinking a lot about how to handle the deaths because we really wanted to make sure that we protected young followers. A friend of mine lost their son sadly when he was seventeen, and his friends had celebrated his life very much through Facebook and YouTube. When I was at school we would have made scrapbooks or graffiti, but the internet is definitely how young people are communicating and articulating their feelings.

What early theatrical experience can you remember having an impact on you?
My family aren’t theatregoers. Reading was my escape when I was young and was how I discovered theatre. I remember being sixteen and I saw an all black Macbeth at Haymarket in the Studio, it was amazing and had a real influence on me. I’m sure it was because of the race politics and the fact that it was an all Black cast. In the eighties when there were race riots it was a powerful political statement in itself.  I think theatre was definitely white dominated and it still is now. That was a very exciting thing to see, but sadly I suspect sadly we still might find that powerful.

If Shakespeare was alive now would he be tweeting? If so, what would he tweet?
He would be tweeting, without a shadow of a doubt. I think he would have tweeted Romeo and Juliet on Twitter. I’m sure he’d be experimenting and trying things to reach broad audiences just as he was when he wrote the plays originally.

Follow Such Tweet Sorrow on Twitter, or watch the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Romeo and Juliet at the Courtyard Theatre, Stratford Upon Avon.

Romeo and Juliet, at the Courtyard Theatre

hug a hoodie

If Baz Lurhman’s Romeo + Juliet was the production for the MTV generation of the nineties, then Rupert Goold’s Romeo and Juliet is the production for the Skins generation now. It is young, fresh, and incredibly sexy. We all know that the play is one of the greatest love stories ever told, but it is often forgotten that it is also full of lust and Goold does not shy away from exploring just that with the teenage couple.

The play begins with the famous lines, “two households both alike in dignity” retold in several different languages, which emphasises the story’s relevance across cultures and time. The set is full of heavy symbols, from Egyptian gods to Catholic emblems, conveying how tradition and religion can sometimes divide rather than unite. And in a celebrity obsessed society where self-harming and suicides amongst the young and famous are seen as anything from tragic to glamorous, it is Romeo and Juliet who are the early instigators.

Here we have peeping-Tom meets teenage angst in Romeo, he has a camera and takes pictures of the audience and walks around with his headphones on. As for Juliet it is Lily Allen circa 2006 meets an emo, she chews gum and wears Converses. The costumes work perfectly, it is only Romeo and Juliet who are wearing modern day clothing, which highlights how they are similar and unlike their family members. Sam Troughton and Mariah Gale play the young couple perfectly, and Jonjo O’Neill’s Mercutio is the crowd pleaser. A hit.

Runs till 27 August.

To see or not to see: * * * * *

King Lear, at the Courtyard Theatre

why does it always rain on me?

Gestapo outfits, military marching, and long rifles. No it’s not a Second World War drama, but the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new production of King Lear. The play remains a popular choice for the company, as this is their fourth version in ten years, this time with Greg Hicks playing the title role and David Farr directing.

It tells the story of the ageing Lear who decides to step down from power and divide his kingdom amongst his three daughters. He puts them through a test asking each of them how much they love him, whilst the two eldest flatter his ego, Cordelia simply says she loves him “according to my bond, nor more nor less.”  Lear is enraged and disowns her, in an almost reverse of the Prodigal son parable he soon learns that his rash decision has set in motion a string of tragedies.

The opening is uncertain and arduous; it is set in a warehouse, but the characters shift from military garb to medieval gowns. As the chaos ensues, however, so too does our captivation. The war-like imagery works well reflecting Lear’s inner turmoil. “See better Lear”, he is told by Kent, but the subtle sound of taps dripping, the flickering lights, and fog convey how it is difficult for Lear to see both physically and metaphorically. Jon Bausor’s design is taken one step further to create one of the strongest moments of the play, as Lear delivers the climax to the first half under a spotlight, rain, and thunder, Hicks gives a powerful performance of Lear’s madness.

In Hicks we have a Lear who is commanding over the language and the stage, and empathetic in his anger and his misery. Kathryn Hunter, who once played Lear, creates a great doll-like, doe-eyed, and direct Fool. And Samantha Young’s Cordelia is played with the correct devotion, but her delivery is rehearsed rather than emotional. The production almost takes over the performances, it’s King Lear meets Band of Brothers.

Runs till 26 August.

To see or not to see: * * *

Spotlight: Dharmesh Patel, Actor

Dharmesh is starring in his first Shakespeare role as Hamlet in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Hamlet. He originally studied to become a Drama teacher and trained at the Hope Street Physical Theatre School. He has starred in the BBC Asian Network’s Silver Street and theatre including Happily Married, Silent Cry, and Satyagraha.

What performance of Hamlet can you remember having an impact of you?

The truth is I didn’t see a production of Hamlet until last year when I found out I was doing it. The first one I actually saw was with Jude Law. I didn’t enjoy it personally, it did nothing for me, but the rest of the audience loved it. For me he wasn’t dark enough and I really wanted my Hamlet to be dark. I was starting to be more critical of how I would play the character, so there was part of me that didn’t enjoy watching it as I knew that would be me in a couple of months. It made me more nervous because it was my first Shakespeare part and it was a big deal for me. I wish I could watch it again now.

You have been performing Hamlet in schools across London for young children. Are there any specific experiences that stood out?

In Lampton school in Hounslow we had a question and answer session, and one of the questions was: “Who do we think the villains are?” Early on one of the kids in a primary school went: “It’s Hamlet.” He then went onto say that because of him five people died. I remember being blown away and thinking that’s the kind of response I want. During the same session someone said Claudius, because he killed King Hamlet and his action infected the whole of Denmark. We don’t even say something as deep as that in rehearsals. If you think about what he said, he was ten years old, he knows that the death of a good kingdom was destroyed because of Old Hamlet’s death. Sometimes when we’re playing the character you don’t really think beyond the play, I was so in my own world that I never for once even thought about that.

What play have you seen recently that you would recommend?

I think it’s really important to watch bad theatre as well as good theatre. When I was growing up we were ridiculously poor and theatre was for the elite during the Thatcher days. I always feel like I missed out as an actor not being able to watch enough theatre as a kid and it was weird going to the theatre as an adult for the first time. Nowadays you get tickets for five pounds for under twenty-fives, there’s so many venues that do great ticket offers, and schools are doing more trips to the theatre. I would recommend seeing everything to a young person, but personally I like to watch bad theatre.

Are there any different obstacles facing black and ethnic minority actors?

For me the biggest obstacle I have is not being seen as an actor. You don’t want to be seen as a colour. It really pangs and hurts everytime. I want to be the best at what I do, and I’m sure every other person does regardless of what it is that they do. You often feel that what you’re being judged on isn’t your ability as an artist, you’re seen as a tick box, and you don’t know whether you’re good enough because of the colour of your skin or because of your ability. So now I don’t care about it, I’ve kind of given up on the whole colour thing because it sets you back. You want to better yourself whatever colour you are.

You starred in Silver Street on the BBC Asian Network. Do you think that specific Asian programs help or hinder progress?

It depends how it’s done. If it’s a poor job then of course it’s going to hinder it, if it’s a great job then who knows. But then if that’s what we’re showing to the rest of our society, is that a good thing or a bad thing? It’s a real catch-22 situation. I’ve seen some all-Asian casts where I was so disgusted that I walked out, but then you can say the same thing about any other play. It depends on how you do the piece of work, not the colour of your skin. I suppose it’s because I’m getting older and I’m starting to realise what my beliefs are and what’s worth fighting for I feel like that.

Hamlet joins the repertoire in The Courtyard Theatre from 1 May 2010.