Hamlet – A Battle For Science?

How to read Shakespeare? That’s a question that has been debated through the years by scholars, literary critics, actors – and secondary school students staring in horror at page after endless page of unintelligible gobbledygook that they’ve somehow got to interpret for their English coursework. The daunting legacy of the Bard can strike as much fear into the hapless schoolchild as quadratic equations and geometry. But unlike the fixed rules of mathematics, there are seemingly no end of ways in which to analyse a piece of literature, and Hamlet is no exception.

Tom Hiddlestone in the recent production of Hamlet at RADA

The most common themes are the obvious – love, power, jealousy, obsession, madness – all have their part to play in the tragic tale of the young prince. But one take on the play diverts the story from the path of human emotion and immorality and places it in the realm of science – or to be more specific, the clashing of two scientific worldviews – geocentrism and heliocentrism.

Before we get into the reasoning behind this analysis, some historical light may need to be shed. Until 1543, the prevailing cosmological theory of astronomers and other scientists was the geocentric model put forth by Claudius Ptolemy, one of the intellectual giants of the Greco-Roman world. Formulated during the second century AD, this model placed the Earth at the centre of the universe (as had other geocentric theories beforehand) and for more than a thousand years, Ptolemy’s work was accepted as the authoritative voice in the field of astronomy.

Claudius Ptolemy

But in the sixteenth century, all that changed. A newcomer had arrived on the astronomical scene, promoting the idea that the Sun, not the Earth, lay at the centre of the universe. That individual was Nicolaus Copernicus, described by Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince in The Forbidden Universe as having “developed his radical new theory in the first decade of the sixteenth century, but refrained from going public for many years.” Copernicus, “reticent…because of the academic controversy his theory would generate” was encouraged by colleagues to share his discovery, which he finally did in 1543, when he published his seminal title On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres.

So began a decades-long dispute on the question of which theory of cosmology was the accurate one. Although much has been made of the Catholic Church’s eventual hostility to the findings, they were by no means alone in their disbelief and opposition. Copernicus’ discovery wholly upended the scientific knowledge of the day – Martin Luther was said to ridicule the theory not out of any religious objections but because he couldn’t believe that astronomers could have been so wrong. “Scholars”, write Picknett and Prince, “were disturbed for another reason…since it implied that human understanding of the order of the universe, and the way one part influenced another, was seriously lacking. If Copernicus was right, then everything changed. The uncertainty – some accepted Copernicus’ new order, others stuck to the old system of Ptolemy – meant that chaos reigned, and not merely in the academic discipline of astronomy, but in the world at large.”

Nicolaus Copernicus

Shakespeare, then, would have grown up in a culture in which these opposing cosmological models were locked in an ideological struggle. He would certainly have been aware of the debate and it is said that he was familiar with Hermeticism (a spiritual-philosophical system which favoured heliocentrism, as it attached great importance to the Sun.) He was also personally acquainted with Thomas Digges, one of the leading proponents of Copernicus’ theory at the time, and it is in part due to this connection that astrophysics professor Peter Usher has maintained that “Hamlet is an allegory for the competition between the cosmological models” – the heliocentrism that was by this point being expounded by Digges and a Ptolemy-influenced geocentric theory that was being advanced by Tycho Brahe.

Perhaps the most glaring reference to this clash of worldviews is in Hamlet’s words to Ophelia – “Doubt that the stars are fire; Doubt that the sun doth move.” Usher’s reading, however, finds more to support his theory. Claudius, he argues, is named for Ptolemy and therefore represents geocentrism, whilst rightful heir to the throne Hamlet represents the Sun (heliocentrism.) It is no coincidence, he believes, that “Hamlet is a student at Wittenberg, a centre for Copernican learning.” Furthermore, he suggests that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are named after two of Brahe’s relatives (Frederick Rosenkrantz and Knud Gyldenstierne) and that their deaths, as well as Claudius’s, are a metaphorical slaying of the old way of understanding the universe. Shakespeare, Usher continues, nailed his colours firmly to the mast as a supporter of Copernican theory:

“The climax of the play is not the death of any of the chief protagonists; it is Fortinbras’ triumphal return from Poland and his salute to the ambassadors from England. Here Shakespeare praises the merits of the Copernican model and its Diggesian extension. Thereby he defines poetically the new universal order and humankind’s position in it…While the last year of the sixteenth century saw the martyrdom of Bruno, the first year of the seventeenth century sees the Bard’s magnificent poetic affirmation of the infinite universe of stars.”

Sir Laurence Olivier as Hamlet

But perhaps Hamlet does more than simply showcase the battle between two scientific worldviews; perhaps, in its violent ending it is also lending a voice to the academic and cultural upheaval that comes whenever a ground-breaking discovery throws centuries of study and knowledge into doubt. To leave the final word on the matter with Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince, we may follow them in wondering –

“What was Shakespeare trying to convey about the big heliocentric debate? After all, the play sees the demise of all of its leading characters…So although Shakespeare seems to be championing the new Copernican system, his major emphasis is really the uncertainty that was overturning the world and throwing everything into chaos.”

By Guest Blogger Michelle Gibson 

A mischievous day out to the theatre…

Since Mischief Theatre’s rise to prominence with The Play that Goes Wrong, the company has been soundly riding the wave of success. Two further plays – Peter Pan Goes Wrong and The Comedy About a Bank Robbery have helped cement the group of LAMDA graduates as a fixture in the current West End and dispelled any suggestion that they might have been a flash in the pan.

My first exposure to Mischief Theatre was on a club trip to see The Play that Goes Wrong in February 2015. Delighted with the non-stop hilarity, chaos and robust youthful energy, I insisted that my friend (who had at that point never been to a theatre in his life) accompany me to see it again. It might be a tad excessive to say that I pinioned his arms and frogmarched him into his seat, but ‘fan’ is abbreviated from ‘fanatic’, after all, and I’m sure my cajoling at times took on the tenor of an Evangelical preacher. (As it happens, the friend in question is glad that I got him to go.)

So I already had an idea of what to expect when I went to see The Comedy About a Bank Robbery last month. Although I anticipated a great show, I had to brush back the niggling concerns that I think we all experience when returning to the work of any kind of artist – “what if they’re not as good this time?”, etc.

Any vague doubts I might have had were groundless. The Mischief Theatre actors exploded into action with a verve that I’d been looking forward to. The play charges forward at such a frenetic pace that it can be hard to keep up with every single bit of action (part of the joy of such plays is that you’re sure to spot new things upon a second or even third viewing) but the story introduces us to a the eccentric staff of a Minnesota bank (upon which is soon to bestowed a priceless diamond) and the efforts of a jail-busting bunch of ne’er’-do-wells to execute a robbery (one of whom happens to be the daughter of the bank manager.) Also in the mix is the neighbourhood’s conman/petty thief who begins a relationship with aforementioned daughter, which leads to him being dragged into the diamond-snatching escapade.

The Comedy about a Bank Robbery is a ridiculous farce through and through, delivered with all the outrageousness that I’d seen in The Play That Goes Wrong. For me, particular scenes of note included a Fawlty Towers-esque sequence in which Sam Monaghan (impersonating Mr Freeboys) is forced to stumblingly deliver a potted history of Freeboys’ life, based upon his attempts to read the miming of Caprice. Later in the play, there are no fewer than three Freeboys (minor tongue twister there) – the real one and two impostors – whose multiple run-ins with the police officer and fellow bank staff are a source of much confusion and amusement. There is also a clever segment in which Freeboys and his lackey Warren are conversing in an office – suspended sideways on the wall, allowing the audience a bird’s-eye-view of the scene.

Performances were strong all around, but two that I especially favoured were Sean Kearns as the greedy, self-important bank manager and Tania Mathurin as Ruth Monaghan. Kearns seemed to fairly revel in his role as he barked orders at staff, butted heads with his daughter’s boyfriend and screamed and stomped his way around the stage in a verbal to-and-fro with Officer Shuck. Mathurin at first added a more low-key humorous warmth to the show, but as time stretched on, revealed her character to be just as conniving and corrupt as everybody else. Adding to the show’s charm was the interspersing of short doo-wop songs (performed by the cast) between scenes – matching the time-period of the play, which is set in 1958. Above all, just as with The Play That Goes Wrong, you knew that the cast were having the time of their lives, and their exhilaration and glee spread like a welcome virus through the audience.

If this hasn’t yet convinced you, I’ll leave the final word with theatre critic Dominic Cavendish, who failed to be impressed by Mischief Theatre’s first effort and declared The Play That Goes Wrong to be one of the “worst shows of 2014.” After reluctantly allowing them a second chance, Cavendish emerged from The Comedy About a Bank Robbery with an entirely new outlook. “This is the funniest show in town,” he raved, as though apologetic for his earlier dismissal of Mischief Theatre’s abilities. “The jokes, visual and verbal, are piled skyscraper high…there’s such youthful relish to the playing and so much surrounding theatrical invention that even the hoariest gag earns its keep.”

Glad you finally came around, Mr Cavendish – what took you so long?

By Guest Blogger Michelle Gibson

How To Complain…

I’ve recently been reading a humorous book called ‘How to Complain’, which does exactly as it promises – offers advice on how to go about venting your feelings any time you are the unfortunate recipient of bad service. With dry humour, the writer – sports lawyer Mel Stein – regales the reader with tale after tale of the woes he has suffered from airline companies, misleading travel agents, poor restaurants, and various other businesses that, at some time or another, have failed to deliver the standards that customers have come to expect. It got me to thinking of trips to the theatre, and the irritations that can stand in the way of enjoying the experience to the fullest – and as I progressed through the book, I saw that Stein does indeed cover this area with a chapter of his complaint letters to several theatrical venues.

So what calamities might be in store for the unwitting theatre-goer? The play itself might not be to your taste, but you pretty much have to take that into consideration when you book. Perhaps some of the performers might not be up to par, but with something as subjective as acting, that again might be down to the individual alone. What you perceive as the most wooden of actors, someone else might believe to be Hamlet material. Luckily, if you like to complain, you’ll possibly run into some more undeniable annoyances that put a spanner in the works of your evening’s entertainment.

This might be best illustrated by a story. Put yourself in the shoes of your average theatre-goer. You’ve been waiting several months to see a play you’ve high hopes about. Perhaps you’re familiar with the playwright or there’s an actor or two that you really like. You’ve got a decent seat and paid somewhere in the range of £60-£70. You arrive at the venue in good time, buy yourself a drink and a programme, pre-order a wine for the interval, and settle into your seat.

Other people filter through, and that’s when you become aware of them. An obnoxiously loud group just beginning to make their way in. You can hear them from the other end of the auditorium. Two couples – in their forties. One pair look like they’ve just emerged from a tanning salon. You dub them Mr and Mrs Fake Tan. Mrs Fake Tan must be 45 but still dresses like she’s 21. She’s wearing clothes you’d see at a nightclub, not a London theatre. Their friends look like they’d be more at home in your neighbourhood’s grubbiest dive of an alehouse. You nickname them Mr and Mrs Boozer. You hope they won’t be sitting anywhere near you.

Your hope is in vain. They plonk themselves into the empty seats beside you. They are laden down with endless bags of shopping, which look to be in danger of spilling into your leg space. “Mind if we dump this lot here?” asks Mr Boozer, then dumps it around your feet before you’ve had a chance to respond.

You hope that might be the end of it, but it turns out that they’re Talkers. Mr Fake Tan explains that they don’t usually go to the theatre, but he and the wife won some tickets and thought it might be fun. Mr Boozer thinks acting is “poncy” but Mrs Boozer persuaded him to go along because it was a free night out, and there’d be drinks. You nod and smile through gritted teeth

Finally, the lights dim and the play is about to start. Ah! Relief! But your celebration is short-lived – as if on cue (really, it’s as though they time this) the crinkling and rustling of paper bags is heard as the actors say their first lines. The Fake Tans and Boozers have loaded up on snacks for their night out and have chosen this time to break into them.

Your heart is sinking fast. You try to concentrate on the performance, but not only is the crackling of food wrappers a distraction, these four are also some of the loudest eaters you’ve come across. The squelchy, slobbery cacophony emanating from their mouths resembles a herd of cows gnawing in unison. By now you’re experiencing the beginnings of panic, the sense that you are trapped for the entirety of the show with audience members dragged from the lowest echelons of hell. You start to sweat, your pulse quickens. The first ten minutes have already elapsed and you’ve barely heard any of it.

This can’t go on. But it does. You try to cling to a vague hope that this is a set-up, a trick, that you’re secretly being filmed for one of those prank TV shows. Any minute now Peter Dulay and Arthur Atkins will jump out and reveal that you’re on Candid Camera. But it doesn’t happen. Your neighbours have now flipped open the first of their beers and continue to munch their way through what seems to be an entire week’s groceries.

To make matters worse, they’re still talking to one another. Mrs Fake Tan pulls out her mobile phone and starts sending a text message. “What’s this play called?” she asks her husband. None of them are bothering to keep their voices particularly low. You tap her husband on the arm and give him your best icy glare. “This is not a dinner party,” you hiss. He doesn’t understand. He thinks you’ve given him the name of the production and repeats what you’ve said to his wife. Natter, natter, natter. On it goes.

If you thought the interval might be your oasis of peace, you were wrong. There’s been a mix-up and the wine you pre-ordered has been given to another member of the audience instead – Mr Fake Tan, who you know had in fact ordered a cider, and is now enjoying your prosecco. Although you’re aghast at his nerve, you don’t bother to confront him. You angrily join the lengthy queue to the bar. There are eight people still ahead of you when the usher announces that the performance will recommence in two minutes. There’s no chance you’ll be served in time. Wearily, you force yourself back to your seat, though you’ve by now resigned yourself to the fact that your whole evening will be a thoroughly miserable experience.

You get the point. Many people have had their enjoyment of a play or a film considerably curtailed by noisy eating and chin-wagging spectators. While I’m not one who thinks that a complete ban on food and drink should be implemented, there are others (such as Imelda Staunton) who feel it’s warranted. At the very least, it’s an interesting discussion. One which the understandably crotchety Mr Stein might feel obliged to weigh in on, given what he witnessed at an RSC production of The Taming of the Shrew:

“Just as the action had started for real a family, obviously tourists, took up the seats next to me. A mother, father, elderly relative, two children of about nine or ten and, to my horror, another child so young it had to sit on its mother’s lap. Now, unlike W. C. Fields, I have nothing against children in the theatre…these kids next to me, however, were not devotees and they were never going to be as far as I could tell. The elder one wriggled throughout and the younger one steadfastly refused to go to sleep and had to be placated by the mother with a bag of sweets throughout. I’m not sure if the rest of the family got the point either as they chomped their way through the goodies as well, to the point that not only could I not concentrate, but I wanted to scream.”

Stein’s advice for such scenarios is to “complain on the spot and complain quickly before you make yourself into a martyr.” And again, for those of us who love to complain he provides a checklist of potential theatrical disasters:

“Broken or uncomfortable seats – Restricted view – Inability to hear – Noisy neighbours – Dirty theatre – Warm interval drinks – Poor access to the bar – Insufficient toilets…”

Enjoy your next show!

By Guest Blogger Michelle Gibson

Pushing & Pulling – A Director’s Workshop

Investment in the future has been a theme of 2017 so far for the club. After being forced from our ‘home’ by the closure of the Commemoration Hall we’ve been set the challenge of being more creative than ever – mounting productions in non-theatre venues such as Shakers and The Crucible which will take place in the Town Hall. A very generous grant from the Huntingdon Freemen’s Trust has allowed us to invest in a brand new portable lighting rig which will ensure that we can be seen wherever we perform! We’re now looking ahead to 2018 for venues and plays.

Earlier this year we sponsored committee member Rae to attend the RSC’s Big Backstage Weekend (which you can read about here on our blog) and this week I spent a day at London’s Lyceum Theatre for a directors workshop with Lisa Spirling – artistic director of Theatre 503 in Battersea. The aim of these two ventures was to learn from the professionals – to develop new skills and techniques that we can use to improve our own productions. Rather than go into too much detail here I’ll try instead to give a flavour of the day & hopefully adapt some of it into a future workshop of our own.

The Lyceum Theatre

As we sat in the swanky Ambassador’s Lounge waiting for some late-comers held up on the Tube, Lisa decided to take us through for a quick look into the Lyceum’s stunning auditorium – the home of the long-running ‘The Lion King’. Lisa mentioned two things here that would later resonate during the workshop. The first involved the dreaded subject of blocking – actors who join the cast of The Lion King are subject to what sounds like a human game of chess or Battleship. There are so many moving parts in the show that the stage is divided into a grid system – if an actor stands in A6 as opposed to A5 he may be run over by a scenery truck. Less rigorous blocking methods would be discussed later. Second point on The Lion King – a big part of it’s success was down to it’s theatrical language. The director decided against simply carbon-copying the animated movie onto the stage and instead delivered a piece of total theatre that still plays to packed houses eighteen years on.

Back down to earth. Why were we there? What did we want to get out of this day? We started with some very basic but important considerations – who is your audience? How big is your venue? What’s the size of your cast? From here we moved to choosing a play and once it’s chosen, how do you prepare to direct it? Several readings of the play are essential – an initial reading to discover the story and further readings from the points of view of the characters. Asking questions of the play is crucial – who, what, where, why & how? One of the key things in any play is – does it make you want to find out what happens next??


This discovery of the play continues into the first days of rehearsal with the cast. Rather than just a straightforward table reading, the cast & crew read through the text, fine-combing it for FACTS, OPINIONS & QUESTIONS. This approach ensures that everyone is equally familiar with the script & has an equal understanding of it. During a read through of our current production of Shakers we discovered that our four cast members had no clue who Alan Whicker was – they do now!

Up on our feet we played around with a series of ‘push & pull’ excercises, designed to inject a physical intention into the lines. Lisa explained that dialogue is never just people talking – in every scene there are WANTS and INTENTIONS. (Remember the old adage “what’s my motivation”?)
We continued with a ‘thought through’ reading of a scene. In this, the actors must vocalise the thought that motivates each line and then speak the line. Another approach is an ‘action through’ or ‘tactic through’. This concentrates on the doing words, the actions in a scene that motivate the words. This forensic analysis allows the cast & director to really get under the skin of the text for a greater understanding. As amateur theatre people we may feel that we don’t have the luxury of time for this kind of work but I felt that two rehearsal sessions dissecting the text in this way would pay big dividends later on in the process.

We approached the subject of ‘blocking’ with some caution. It seems to be a real hot potato, both in the amateur & professional worlds. In Nick Hytner’s book ‘Balancing Acts’ he mentions renowned stage actors who were often relieved to work with directors who literally told them where to stand, where to sit and when to speak. Others like to find their own way. Ultimately it’s a case of ‘horses for courses’ – whatever works for the truth of the moment – as a director you must create the best possible environment for the actors to work in.

Lisa Spirling

Lisa mentioned two things that must ALWAYS be choreographed – sexual or romantic scenes (snogging, basically) and stage combat. Those two things are never left to chance. Other tips Lisa mentioned for blocking included putting something interesting on the fourth wall (a mirror, a window…), working actors into diagonal rather than straight lines and something which had never ever occurred to me before – because we are used to reading from left to right on the page, entrances from stage right have more visual impact than stage left. It’s true what they say – every day’s a school day.

For me directing becomes more and more enjoyable the more experience you have of doing it. As you find your style & become more familiar with the rudiments, your confidence grows and with that your imagination has more freedom to be creative. It’s a passion that you never stop learning from and this day was invaluable. Thank you to Lisa Spirling & to Ambassador Theatre Group for the opportunity!

The RSC Big Backstage Weekend

During the weekend of 6th – 7th May, HDC sponsored me to attend the Big Backstage Weekend; an event organised and facilitated by the Royal Shakespeare Company to provide training to amateur theatre companies across the UK. Needless to say, I was extremely excited at the prospect of learning from such a reputable theatre company and the experience did not disappoint!

Day 1

The weekend began in the Studio Theatre in The Other Place with a welcome meeting hosted by the RSC’s Project Producer, Ian Wainwright. It was lovely to bump into some of our friends from Shakespeare at The George who were also in attendance for the weekend.

We stayed in the Studio Theatre for a sound workshop lead by the RSC’s Head of Sound, Jeremy Dunn, who was ably assisted by technicians Nathan and James. For the first part of the workshop, Jeremy explained the various different types of sound equipment the RSC use in some detail; demonstrating how to assemble and use a basic sound system with a microphone. He also talked us through troubleshooting different sound issues we might face e.g. feedback. For the second part of the workshop, Jeremy and his technicians rigged up a sound desk and, using the sound system installed in the space, showed us how to operate the sound desk as well as use software package QLab on a laptop to create a soundscape.

After a delicious buffet lunch, we took a leisurely stroll down the road to the Clore Learning Centre for a set construction workshop led by freelance set designer Alex Marker. During his career, Alex has designed for a wide variety of West End, fringe, touring and regional productions. The first half of this workshop was an introduction to scale model making. A scale model can be an incredibly useful tool in set construction as it can be used to identify and solve potential problems before the set build commences. Alex talked us through the basic equipment and materials needed before challenging us to create a 1:50 scale model based on technical drawings. I partnered up with Julie, a fellow Drama teacher, from the Wirral and we set to work. Thankfully, Alex provided us with a few time-saving handy hints which we took on board and a short while later we successfully presented our scale model.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The second half of the workshop was dedicated to set construction. Alex talked us through the essential toolkit for building a set as well as the various health and safety considerations that have to be made when designing and constructing a set. After divulging some helpful money-saving ideas regarding the use of different materials, Alex introduced us to some tricks of the trade; demonstrating how to create a variety of paint effects and successfully create textured surfaces.

Following the set construction workshop, we had the opportunity to visit The Play’s the Thing exhibition. For the exhibition, the RSC have opened their archive to display a variety of artefacts spanning one hundred years of theatre-making at Stratford-Upon-Avon. There were plenty of interactive activities to engage with but it was the costumes that really sparked my interest; particularly Vivien Leigh’s costume from the 1955 production of Titus Andronicus and Anthony Sher’s hat and nose from his portrayal of the Fool from the 1982 production of King Lear. However, my personal highlight of the whole exhibition has to be seeing a copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio.

 

 

Then it was off in search of a bite to eat before attending the evening performance of Anthony and Cleopatra. The production forms part of the RSC’s Rome Season which includes Julius Caesar, Titus Andronicus and Coriolanus to name but a few. The production was presented in traditional Roman dress and used some clever staging ideas; making effective use of hydraulic lifts to change scenes. The two leads, Josette Simon and Antony Byrne had a real chemistry on stage and gave engaging portrayals of their characters. It was interesting watching the performance having participated in the workshops earlier in the day; I definitely had a heightened awareness of the use of sound and was able to recognise and identify the different types of sound effects being used throughout.

After the performance, we popped over the road to The Black Swan – more commonly known as The Dirty Duck and a regular haunt of RSC actors – for a nightcap before retiring to our B&B and, sure enough, as we were leaving we bumped into the cast of that evening’s performance enjoying a well-deserved drink.

Day 2

We were privileged to be taken up to The Other Place rehearsal room for our stage management workshop which was led by Julia Wade, Company Stage Manager of the RSC’s Mischief Festival. The room was being used to rehearse the productions taking part in the Mischief Festival and provided an interesting insight into the rehearsal process at the RSC. Julia explained the different types of roles and responsibilities involved in stage management as well as giving us a forum to discuss our own experiences of stage management. We were shown examples of the different types of paperwork produced by a stage manager e.g. rehearsal notes, show reports. We were given advice on how to mark up a script as well as the opportunity to look though the stage manager’s copy of the Antony and Cleopatra script.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The final part of our stage management workshop was a behind-the-scenes tour of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre which took us into the control rooms of the lighting and sound operators so we could see what kind of environment they work in during a performance. We were also taken backstage to see the quick-change areas, prop store area and stage manager’s desk. It was fascinating to wander around the back of the cyclorama that had been used during the previous evening’s performance of Antony and Cleopatra and also see the props up close. Another highlight of the tour was discovering an RSC tradition: one of the corridors backstage was littered with illustrations and signatures of the actors involved in different productions.

For the final workshop of the weekend we were taken into the auditorium of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre – where we had sat the night before watching Antony and Cleopatra – for a lighting design workshop with the RSC’s Head of Lighting, Vince Herbert and his talented technician Claire. On stage was a rug, armchair and table with a small lamp. We were given a very brief four scene synopsis to light as a collective which incorporated the opportunity to explore practical, character and surreal lighting states. As the ideas flowed, Vince explained – whilst Claire demonstrated – how to use different types of lights to achieve a variety of effects. Vince also demonstrated how to layer the lighting; focusing on practical lighting before establishing the mood. We were given some very useful tips: if an actor is entering the stage during a blackout they should close their eyes a few minutes before to adjust their eyes to the darkness and, when working with thrust staging in particular, find the ‘sweet spot’ where all of the audience can be addressed. Claire gave us an interesting insight into the complexities of follow spot operating; having recently performed the task for the RSC’s innovative production of The Tempest which combined the use of a digital avatar with live actors.

Following the request of another attendee, Claire treated us to a tour underneath the stage of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre to Sub Level 1. Claire explained how the stage could be rearranged to meet the needs of different productions and also gave us a brief outline of the RSC’s technical rehearsal process. We were also given an insight into how the RSC create the effect of flooding the stage with blood when Caesar is stabbed by Brutus: a crewmember on a stepladder with a pump and a bucket of fake blood; reassuring to know that not all of the methods in professional theatres are high-tech!

All in all, it was a thoroughly enjoyable and informative weekend. I’d like to take this opportunity to say a massive ‘thank you’ to HDC for enabling me to participate in the Big Backstage Weekend and I look forward to passing on what I have learnt to other club members as well as putting it into practice for future productions. Watch this space!

by Guest Blogger Rae Goodwin 

In Defence of Freedom of Expression…

If I were to propose a single essential requirement for a democratic state, it would likely be the right to freedom of expression. For, when stripped of the ability to express ourselves unhindered, what do we become? To deprive a person of this right is to steal away their personhood: to consign them to the divergent cognition of the nonhuman animal. One difference between humans and other species is our ability to reason and self-reflect, and self-expression is a result of such. When someone is robbed of this right, they might as well – at least in cerebral affairs – be a slug.

Thus, freedom of expression is a danger to the totalitarian ruler – and with the arts being one of the most inspiring, influential and universal means of expression, a savage clampdown on creativity is one of the first attacks on liberty that an autocratic state will undertake, as evidenced by the behaviour of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and Communist China.  In 1966, at Chairman Mao’s behest, the Cultural Revolution – in which remaining elements of historical Chinese culture were forcibly purged – sprang into action in a storm of violence and abuse, a period which led to the persecution and deaths of prominent Chinese playwrights such as Wu Han and Tian Han.

So the question of how theatre – and the arts in general – both suffers and survives under totalitarianism is potentially of educational interest to the average Westerner, unaccustomed to the censorship that has prevailed in other countries and cultures. Prior to the Nazis’ rise in Germany, Expressionism (or Epic Theatre) had taken hold as an artistic movement, and was particularly associated with themes of individualism and rebellion against authority. Unsurprisingly, the architects of National Socialism were not at all pleased with the influence of such drama, and quickly directed their jackboots towards the stage. While plays sympathetic to nationalism and militarism were encouraged, Goebbels enforced regulations to obstruct “ecstatic theatre amateurism”, whilst Hitler snarled that expressionistic art forms were “sickly aberrations of the insane and depraved.”

As a result of the anti-Semitism at the heart of Nazi ideology, the Third Reich was also determined to remove all traces of Jewish contribution and influence to cultural life; of the many “anti-Jewish decrees”, one passed in 1934 banned all Jewish actors from performing on stage or on screen, temporarily aborting what had been a rich theatrical presence in Germany from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. With further draconian regulations on the content of plays – and other depictions of art – the creative evolution of German theatre was inevitably interrupted and stifled.

Their Russian cousins were not faring any better. The Bolsheviks arguably brought as much oppression to Russia as the Tsarist regime they had replaced, and the beginning of Stalin’s reign precipitated severe restrictions on artistic freedom.  The propagation of Socialist Realism as the only acceptable art form, and the intolerance towards contrasting philosophies, led to mass repression and purging of all art deemed undesirable. Novelist and dramatist Daniil Kharms – whose creative proclivities favoured the avant-garde, surrealism and absurdism – was arrested in 1931 and branded “anti-Soviet” due to his unwillingness to allow his work to become propaganda for the state’s materialistic ideology. Mikhail Bulgakov – closely aligned to the Moscow Art Theatre – found a number of his plays banned throughout the 1920s, the final nail in the coffin coming at the end of the decade, when the government decreed a prohibition on the publishing or staging of any of his work. In an act of desperation, Bulgakov wrote to Stalin, pleading with his leader to allow him to emigrate if the USSR had no use for him as a writer. Describing himself as “doomed to lifelong silence”, he spoke plaintively of the effect such censorship had on his health –

“overtaxed, unable to survive any longer, hounded, knowing fully well that I shall no more be printed and staged in the USSR, driven to nervous breakdown…I appeal to the humanity of the Soviet Government and request that I, the writer, who could be of no use to his country, be magnanimously set free.”

One of the most lengthy expositions on the state of art under Soviet oppression was written by Isaiah Berlin, who returned in 1945 for a visit, having not been in the country since leaving as a child. ‘The Arts in Russia Under Stalin’ is a fascinating insight into the withering of culture under a dictatorship. “State control was absolute,” observes Berlin. Next came the purges – instigated by Nikolai Yezhov in the late 1930s – in which many writers were killed. Some of those who managed to escape exile or state murder were so internally tormented by their situation that they committed suicide – including poet Marina Tsvetaeva.

“The most eminent survivors,” writes Berlin, “sit silent and nervous for fear of committing some fatal sin against the Party line…it left behind it painful and humiliating memories from which the survivors of this terror are never likely completely to recover.

Yet Berlin’s screed also contains pockets of hope for an eventual evolution of theatre and writing, noting that the Moscow Arts Theatre “nevertheless preserves a remarkable standard of individual acting and of inspired ensemble playing”, and praises the performances from smaller city theatres in Moscow and Leningrad, which “perform classical plays with verve and imagination.” He also expressed hope that the Russian public’s “child-like eagerness and enthusiasm” for literature and theatre could possibly foster a future in which the arts could again run unrestricted:

“If, therefore, political control were to alter at the top, and greater freedom of artistic expression were permitted, there is no reason why, in a society so hungry for productive activity, and in a nation still so eager for experience, still so young and so enchanted by everything that seems to be new or even true, and above all endowed with a prodigious vitality which can carry off absurdities fatal to a thinner culture, a magnificent creative art should not one day once again spring into life.”

Perhaps above all else, this analysis by Berlin can stand as a testament to the power of theatre and other arts to incite innovative thought and ideas, and as an example of the ubiquitous human need for creativity to run free and unfettered. We invest our very being into works of art; as writing, acting, music and painting act as necessary liberators from physical ‘reality’, thus an unconstrained cultural environment is synonymous with personal liberty.

By Guest Blogger Michelle Gibson

A Day At The Donmar…

HDC’s social calendar normally includes at least one or two excursions to London per year, and the first of these took place last Saturday, when a group of us headed out to attend a two-hour workshop at the Donmar Warehouse, followed by Steve Waters’ new play Limehouse.

Any of the club’s social outings is of course something to be looked forward to, but this occasion particularly stood out for me because of its workshop component. As a group that takes pride in its resolution to maintain a professional approach to our work, this was an opportunity for us to learn directly – and borrow inspiration from – those working in the field of theatre.

If weather can be taken as an augur of what’s to come, then the sunshine and unusually warm temperature (for April) heralded a fantastic day out. Our workshop leader started with a few preliminary ice-breaking exercises aimed at establishing some social rapport between attendees, which served as another reminder of what a communal effort acting really is – without the foundations of mutual cooperation and give-and-take, a performance is sure to suffer. In a professional setting, she explained, such social practices would be a lot more in-depth.

This was followed by some historical background to the occurrences leading up to the subject of Waters’ play; the media-dubbed ‘Gang of Four’ (David Owen, Bill Rodgers, Shirley Williams and Roy Jenkins), and their issuing of the ‘Limehouse Declaration’, which marked the formation, two months later, of the Social Democratic Party in March 1981. Suitably educated on the political atmosphere of early 1980s Britain, we were next divided into groups to experiment with naturalistic and non-naturalistic approaches to acting, which we then transposed onto short sections from Limehouse.

There is a limit to how much can be imparted over the course of just two hours, but I felt that the workshop was adequately broken into sections so as to give us reasonable insight into the approaches used during rehearsals. Their perspective seemed to me to offer an open, experimental method infused with pragmatism, a process in which innovation is pursued, but encouraged to conform to the parameters of the play. While choosing to stage a play unconventionally is something to be admired, there is the potential for such inventiveness to deteriorate into egoistic self-indulgence; my impression of the Donmar Warehouse was that they sought to promote a disciplined and streamlined creative endeavour. What was also striking was the informality of the atmosphere – reflected in their recognition of the necessity to craft an environment which facilitates cast affinity and communal spirit.

Following on from this, we had the production of Limehouse itself, which I thought to be a mentally-energising and thought-provoking play. Performances were very good, especially from Roger Allam (as Roy Jenkins) and Debra Gillett (as Shirley Williams), but I was also impressed with how amusing I found much of it to be. I’d been rather expecting a lofty screed on civic matters, and not being one to overly acquaint myself with political knowledge, I’d been imagining that a fair amount of dialogue would be over my head. That wasn’t the case: whilst certainly providing much to consider intellectually, both in the framework of the 1980s and our current climate, Limehouse is also accessible to those with only a modicum of interest in the affairs of government. The action taking place in a kitchen setting served to further extend the broad appeal of the play; the characters seemed less like politicians – isolated and removed from the public’s general vision of everyday experience – and more like a group of impassioned friends, into whose intimate gathering we were stealing a glimpse.

I think we all came away entertained and having learned a thing or two – and in keeping with our aim of emulating professional, high-quality artists, I expect the club will make use of such experiences in further ventures. In the meantime, we look forward to the next trip out!

by Guest Blogger Michelle Gibson

The Tortured Artist

The tortured artist. It’s a well-known concept that’s become something of a stereotype, and in consequence has perhaps taken on its own mythology. But the idea is so bitterly and touchingly romantic that it’s easy to understand its appeal. Van Gogh may be the poster boy for this vision: the tormented creative who produced great art in spite of – or maybe because of? – his battles with his inner demons.

I’m not someone who thinks that emotional agony is a prerequisite for creativity. Many talented people have made their artistic mark and, in so doing, have suffered no more or no less than the average person. But I think that the notion of the suffering artist is more than just a stereotype, that it’s based on the experiences of many whose interests and inclinations have taken them into creative fields, and that there is an undeniable correlation between depression and the arts.

There’s a passage from J. D. Salinger’s Seymour: An Introduction which describes the artist as an “unmistakably ‘classical’ neurotic, an aberrant who only occasionally, and never deeply, wishes to surrender his aberration…a Sick Man who…gives out terrible cries of pain, as if he would wholeheartedly let go both his art and his soul to experience what passes in other people for wellness.”

That was in 1959. Nearly 60 years later, the subject still holds sway – out of ten job categories in which workers were most likely to report an experience of major depression, the performing arts ranked fifth on the list, with mental health counsellor Deborah Legge stating that “depression is not uncommon to those who are drawn to work in the arts.” A Wikipedia list of public figures diagnosed with major depressive disorder reads at times like a laundry list of actors, musicians, writers and painters. In his autobiography Lucky Man, Michael J. Fox relates that his school drama teacher would make a habit of reminding the cast of every school production, “We are all here because we’re not all there” and goes on to dispel the myth that all performers are brash extroverts. Not so – “Actors don’t become actors because they’re brimming with self-confidence. For those of lucky (or unstable) enough to become professional performers, the uncertainty about who we really are only increases.” The death of Robin Williams in 2014 brought more attention to the propensity of a creatively-endowed individual to go through internal mental struggles.

There are of course many artists who never experience an episode of severe depression, but I believe there is plenty of evidence suggesting that the arts are more closely linked to emotional trauma than many other fields. Why might this be? As is usually the case, the answer can’t be found from any one specific source and is most likely contingent upon varying factors that may raise themselves. Employment in the arts is something that is often unsteady and unstable, with no guarantee of another job following the next one. This unreliability of consistent work and income is bound to take its toll. There’s also the question of whether many actors, musicians and writers are highly sensitive people, whose emotions may exist in a more heightened state than what is ‘normal’.

What about the very act of putting yourself and your art in display? By doing so, you not only invite praise, but criticism. For every lauded film or theatrical performance, there will also be a more scathing take on the actor’s talents. And for many artists, whom I suspect may view their work as a congenital part of who they are as a person, an attack on the quality of their output may be construed as an attack on the quality of themselves.

We could also consider that by their very nature, the arts may be an emotional repository for people who are unhappy to begin with. I find acting to be a means of great therapy, a sentiment which I’ve often heard others express. As a channel for one’s personal sensitivities – and an escape from the common experience of ‘real life’ – I think it’s second to none. Acting affords the performer the opportunity to establish contact with something distant and impalpable, and seemingly with neither thought nor effort, our consciousness is swept into a world beyond the five senses, a world in which perhaps the artist feels at their most free.

So the vision of the tortured artist will undoubtedly continue to permeate our cultural philosophy. There is too much truth behind it, and it’s too beloved as an attractively painful emblem, I think, for it to be abandoned. I think acting and other arts offer a psychological lifeline for those of a depressive disposition – another reason why the importance of the arts in society should not be so readily dismissed. It’s one of those tragically ironic paradoxes that the creation of something beautiful – art – should so often go hand in hand with the most ugly kind of mental suffering, erhaps best summarised in this short statement:
“Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or will not be at all”
Nadja – Andre Breton

by Guest Blogger Michelle Gibson 

Educate or entertain?

During a recent discussion in which I expounded on the virtues of a favoured TV show, my companion retorted that it was “mindless fodder” that neither “challenged nor educated.” I accepted that his tastes were different and that particular subject ended there.

But my thoughts kept returning to his remarks. I disagreed with his assessment that the programme in question was mindless fodder, but what really struck a nerve was the implication of his attitude (one that’s not all that uncommon) to acting (and all art) in general: namely, that in order to be of any value, it needs to be educative, intellectually stimulating or carry some kind of political or social message.

There’s a particular breed of people who hold this opinion – some might call it artistic and cultural snobbery – who voice their disgust at their presumed intellectual redundancy of TV and film, who turn their noses up at the majority of Hollywood offerings because the material doesn’t stretch their minds, who even chastise other people for committing the deadly sin of enjoying what they feel is such mind-rotting guff.

To these people, I’d pitch several questions: Since when did it become a cardinal rule that ALL artistic endeavours MUST be built around some educational or social narrative? What’s wrong with pure entertainment? What about creativity for creativity’s sake?

It’s a wonderful thing when a play or a film excites the intellect, leaves the audience thinking or drives home a message. But it’s also a wonderful thing when a play or film simply gives the audience a good time. I’ve very little patience with the risible notion that if something is less worthwhile if it’s just fun.

It’s hard for me not to see these consternated critics as a monolithic movement that’s trying to suck all the joy out of the arts. The great thing about film, TV, stage plays and other art forms is the variety; there’s something for everyone. There’s intellectualism, there’s high culture, there’s politics – and there’s also good entertainment: action films for the adrenaline junkies and rip-roaring comedy for those who like to laugh.

I’ve always loved the childlike playfulness that blossoms when working on a play that’s plain good fun. Artistic expression should be diverse and pleasurable, not shoehorned into someone’s rigid sense of what has value. So the next time these stuffy killjoys splutter with indignation at your fondness for comedies or romantic flicks, remember that you’re doing your bit to uphold the ethos of creativity.

 

Q&A With Richard James

richard-james_249We caught up with professional actor & playwright Richard James to find out what life is like on the road. Richard is currently touring in the stage adaptation of David Walliams’ Gangsta Granny and while at home for a well-earned Christmas break took some time out to talk to us…

How long have you been touring with Gangsta Granny now and how many performances have you done?

Gangsta Granny has been on the road since November 2015. Touring to a different town each week, we’ve played 416 performances in 46 different venues. By the time we finish in the West End next year, we will have performed the show over 650 times.

Have you missed any performances for any reason?

Whilst other cast members hajs78314461ve been off with various illnesses over that time, I’m lucky enough not to have missed a single show so far.

Of all the theatres you’ve played in so far, do you have a favourite? And if so, why?

Touring can be quite monotonous, especially with two shows a day, so any venue or town with something different to offer is always welcome. I particularly enjoy towns with a bit of history to them so I think Canterbury would be a firm favourite. I also enjoy seaside venues and Bournemouth in the summer was fun. Whilst we may not have a great deal of time to explore, it’s sometimes worth the effort to travel a little further afield if possible. With an evening show on our first day in Belfast, a number of us hired a car and drove to the Giant’s Causeway for the afternoon.

Can you give us an idea of what a typical day on Gangsta Granny is like? And how do you fill the time between shows?

A typical day would start with the cast and crew assembling on stage at 9.30am for notes and warm-up. Then it’s into costume for our first show of the day, usually at 10.30. This is typically a school’s matinee so the curtain often rises late as we wait for coaches to arrive. Morning shows often have a very different feel to evening performances as we could find ourselves performing to a thousand lively school children. The curtain comes down at around 12.45, and it’s time to head out to the High Street for some lunch. Following this, I might try and get some writing done (I’ve almost completed my third play this year), catch up on some correspondence, do a little sightseeing or join with some cast members to catch up on some TV together. At 7pm the curtain rises on the second show of the day followed by a bus home to my digs or a quick drink in a local bar.

Do you still have to rehearse at all or does the show look after itself now?

The show looks after itself in the main. We may run a couple of sequences as we arrive at each new venue as the dimensions of the stage or wing space may alter slightly but there is no ‘tech run’ as such. In addition to this, we have understudy rehearsals each week, usually on a Friday. This in effect means we are doing three shows one after the after, making for a very tiring day!

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Of all your professional engagements, which is the most memorable and why?

I’m lucky enough to have worked on a variety of projects, from tv and film to theatre and radio. I’ve worked with some heroes along the way too, whether it be on a Doctor Who adventure with Peter Davison or with Burt Reynolds on a movie. I was lucky enough to have some scenes with Helena Bonham Carter on a film version of Great Expectations and I learned a lot from watching her work. I suppose my most formative experience was spending a year under prosthetic makeup to play an alien police officer in Gerry Anderson’s last live-action sci-fi series, Space Precinct.

You started off in amateur dramatics, would you say that it’s a good starting place for someone interested in theatre as a career?

I have never been as busy as when I was an amateur actor! As a man on the amdram circuit you are always in demand and I remember going from production to production. In one year I might have appeared in productions with SIMADS, Huntingdon Drama Club, Brampton Park Theatre Club and Shakespeare at the George. As a professional actor, work is much harder to come by as the talent pool is so much larger. I found my experiences in amateur theatre to be invaluable. It allowed me to grow as a young actor and improve my stage craft. As a company member it is imperative that you do the work with a professional attitude, that you are disciplined in your approach and do your best to get on with those around you – particularly if you’re on the road with them for the best part of two years!

Find out more about Richard’s work by visiting his website www.richardjamesonline.com  and follow him on Twitter @RichardNJames

Find out more about the Gangsta Granny tour here.