A Midsummer Night’s
Dream. The title alone informs the audience that they are entering a world
quite unlike their own, one in which conventional rules do not apply. Fleeting
and whimsical, dreams are a happy respite from the stultifying order of
everyday existence. Similarly, the play creates a realm in which different laws
are at work. Laws that are predicated around the reality of magic and the
existence of fairies.
Gentle and humorous, A
Midsummer Night’s Dream weaves its spell so subtly that an audience can
believe fairy interference to be the most natural thing in the world. We all,
of course, suspend disbelief when viewing a work of fiction, but my experience
of watching the play goes beyond that: I feel myself fully inhabiting a world
in which a magical worldview is the norm and the mild, teasing uncertainty of
what is and is not real pokes, like tendrils, into my life engagement at large.
Just like the play itself, what is ultimately “reality” is in question. One
lesson I take away from A Midsummer
Night’s Dream is that, in some cases, if we can never know for sure what is
real and what is not, it doesn’t matter. What’s important is the possibilities
to be explored, the ideas to be considered and the creative and intellectual
stimulation provided from an open approach.
Some have noted the disparity between the use of magic in
the play and societal attitudes at the time of its writing. Since the
decimation of the witchcraft-practicing communities of Pagan Britain and the
establishment of the Church as the single spiritual authority, attitudes
towards the practice of magic had typically been hostile: it was regarded as
innately sinister and performed only for evil intent. Shakespeare’s use of
magic, however, is much more benevolent; Puck is pure mischief, with no real
malice, and the spells used, while creating confusion and chaos, ultimately
cause no real harm. Any potential disaster – such as the suggested duel between
Lysander and Demetrius – is averted by the fairies, and all is restored to
rights in the end. Shakespeare even has the fairies use magic explicitly for
good; in the final stage of the play, they perform a blessing for the human
characters. This reflects a more nuanced view of magic than is commonly
accredited to the time period – that magic is morally neutral and can be used
for both good and bad. It can cause harm but also repair harm. Or it can simply
be light-hearted and fun.
This perspective may seem incongruous when looked at in the
context of the prevailing views of the time, but exceptions existed even within
that narrow way of thinking. Cunning folk, or folk healers, who essentially practiced
spells and other forms of witchcraft, were common throughout Britain, and it
was not unusual for people to turn to them for their health needs or for
positive magical acts such as protection spells. John Dee, adviser to Elizabeth
I and therefore one of the most powerful individuals of his age, was heavily
involved in the practice of occultism, including attempts to contact and
channel disembodied entities – his famous scrying equipment can still be seen
on display in the British Museum. It has also been suggested that The Tempest’s Prospero may have been
inspired directly by Dee. If you
searched hard enough, you could find pockets of society that not only tolerated
magic but actually celebrated and practiced it – was this what Shakespeare was
drawing upon when he penned A Midsummer
Ultimately, I believe that the magic is a large part of what
makes A Midsummer Night’s Dream so
popular and enduring – its prodding and twisting and bending of what is
possible, its acting as instrument for delivery from the impersonally
structured sequences of everyday living. The ambiguous nature of the tale is a
reflection of some of the deepest philosophical questions – some things, people
can never know for sure, and that is perfectly all right.
Over two and a bit days I’ve auditioned 40 people for next year’s Shakespeare at The George production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. On every other amateur production I’ve directed I’ve held ‘group’ auditions. Fairly informal, everyone has a chance to read several parts over the space of a couple of hours, sat in a semi-circle. You know the drill. This time, as I believe is the norm for SaTG, we held individual auditions, one actor at a time, 20 minutes each.
Auditioning is an unavoidable part of the process. In the professional world of acting it’s far, far worse. For the majority of the time you don’t even get a reply, let alone any feedback on how your audition went. This is changing slowly – the National Theatre have made a commitment to give every actor it auditions at least a yes or no reply. During my very limited experience as a professional actor the rule of thumb was “if you don’t hear anything, assume you haven’t got it”.
The actor Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) writes about auditions in his book A Life In Parts; “… focus on process rather than outcome. I wasn’t going to the audition to get anything: a job or money or validation. I wasn’t going to compete with the other guys. I was going to give something. I wasn’t there to get a job. I was there to do a job. Simple as that… Of course I didn’t always get the job, but that wasn’t my intent any more. What was important was I always left that room knowing I did everything I could do.”
Auditioning all those actors and thinking of Mr Cranston’s wise words I started to think about some tips of my own for auditioning actors. And before you read on – please let me be clear that this is not some “follow my advice for success every time” mantra. I don’t know enough about the business to do that and anyway, there are no hard & fast rules. And this advice is for amateur theatre, which I have far more experience of than the professional world. What I can tell you is what I, as an auditioning director, would expect and if that helps with your auditions in the future – great. So, here’s a few pointers (in no particular order)…
You’re auditioning before you enter the room
I had instructed each actor to prepare (preferably learn!) one of a choice of pieces from the play and to bring along their audition form containing all their vital information. Roughly one third forgot to bring their form. My immediate thoughts? They can’t follow instructions. A bit harsh, you might think, but you’ve put yourself at a disadvantage before you’ve uttered a word of the speech you’ve learned. What’s that? You haven’t learned it? Okay…
Reputation goes a long way
Every production I’m involved with – I’m quietly auditioning people. “He’s good”, “She’d make a great (insert character name here)”, “he’s fun to work with”, “she’s a very generous actor”. On the other hand, there’s also “he’s never on time”, “she misses lots of rehearsals”, “he never learns his lines until the last minute”, “she’s selfish & very high maintenance”. You’re auditioning ALL THE TIME.
If you can’t make it to an audition, for whatever reason – let the director know. Three no-shows in one day is an hour of wasted time that could’ve been spent seeing other people. And if you can’t let me know that you’re not coming to audition, then how many rehearsals are you also going to miss without notifying anyone?
Bring some energy into the room. Smile! Look happy to be there! An audition panel that have spent 2 solid days in a windowless room listening to the same words over and over again will appreciate it.
We want you to be great!
Every actor that walks through the door is potentially an answer to a casting problem. Directors are rooting for you – they want you to be good because they want to put together the best cast possible. A decent director is not there to put you off or catch you out. They are mentally willing you on!
Look the part
Either dress neutral or make some effort to resemble the part you’re going for. It helps to visualise you in that role. If you’re going for the role of the pantomime cow then you may want to discount this piece of advice.
Then of course there’s the actual ‘meat’ of the audition – the prepared speech, the sight reading, etc etc. I deliberately haven’t discussed this because I wanted to emphasise how important all the other stuff is before you’ve even begun your two minutes of Iago/Viola. When I was training at LAMDA, I spent a day helping out at auditions for new students. On this particular day we had four kids from Wales who had all travelled together to try and get a place at drama school. My acting teacher said to me during our lunch break that he’d love to offer them all places, simply because they were so nice. For a director on an amateur production (with all that entails!) things like reliability, dedication, punctuality, enthusiasm, hard work, commitment, team spirit & generosity are all equally important as talent.
Finally – it’s also worth remembering that this is your opportunity to assess the director. Are they someone you want to spend two or three evenings per week with for the next three months? Something to think about!
It’s not always the case that a play’s plot is summed up by the title alone, but A Bunch of Amateurs is exactly that: the story of an amateur theatre group in their quest to stage a production of King Lear, the lead role of which has been given to a fading Hollywood star. Whilst most of the Stratford Players are thrilled to be treading the boards with a celebrity, the star in question is initially dismayed to discover that, contrary to his expectations, he has not joined the cast of a well-known professional outfit.
Ian Hislop and Nick Newman’s script takes a comical look at the personalities and pitfalls of amateur dramatics. As many involved in am-dram would admit, it’s easy to poke fun at the subject – both the types of individuals you come across and the mini disasters that are liable to raise their heads when you have neither the luxury of paid professionals or owning your own theatre. Whether it’s star-struck Mary fawning over her Hollywood idol, pomposity-exuding Nigel fuming over losing out on a lead role that he believes should be his by rights, or director Dorothy’s flustered attempts to keep her cast in order, the drama involved in staging a show is laid bare.
Affectionate mockery of amateur theatre is commonplace, with one of the funniest takes on the matter being Michael Green’s 1964 publication of The Art of Coarse Acting (Or How to Wreck an Amateur Dramatic Society). Green, himself an amateur performer of many years, based the title on his experiences with Northampton Drama Club and the Questors Theatre, exposing the mishaps and mistakes which the public holds as stereotypical of the field. A coarse actor, Green explains, “is an actor who can remember his lines but not the order in which they come. An amateur. One who performs in Church Halls. Often the scenery will fall down. Sometimes the Church Hall may fall down. Invariably his tights will fall down.” How to tell when we have fallen victim to the scourge of course acting? Green informs us – “one of the infallible signs that Coarse Drama is going on is the fact that the traditional roles of actor and audience are reversed. The actor is being himself while the audience are playing a part, heavily pretending to enjoy the show, struggling to laugh at unfunny jokes and so on.”
But it is inaccurate to conclude that Hislop and Newman’s play is purely a facile lampoon of amateur acting. Much of what makes the story so endearing is that, suffused amongst the laughter and ridicule, is obvious affection for am-dram and its virtues. Whatever their failings, the characters are quite sincere in both their passion for theatre and determination to keep their small but dedicated group in business. As well as drawing humour from the follies of the non-professional performing world, A Bunch of Amateurs reflects the less well-known truths of amateur dramatics; that such groups often draw enthusiastic, talented and dedicated individuals whose commitment to upholding the arts in their communities is to be admired.
Japanese novelist Natsume Soseki summarised the importance of all art in a passage from Kusamakura. “If this best of worlds proves a hard one for you, you must simply do your best to settle in and relax as you can, and make this short life of ours, if only briefly, an easier place in which to make your home. Herein lies the poet’s true calling, the artist’s vocation. We owe our humble gratitude to all practitioners of the arts, for they mellow the harshness of our human world and enrich the human heart.”
In an age in which significant reductions have been made to public spending on the arts, the presence of amateur performers is perhaps more keenly felt than ever. While we laugh at the antics inside the drama society of Stratford-St-John, we are simultaneously reminded of the cultural blessings such outlets provide, and the hard work, vigour and diligence of all those who come together to ensure their communities can enjoy the gift of artistic exhibitions.
By Michelle Gibson (this piece will also appear in the programme for A Bunch of Amateurs)
One of the wonderful things about theatre is that – weather and other factors permitting – it is an experience that can be enjoyed in a multitude of settings, something which is especially relevant to the club in the period following the closure of our previous performing space. Our venues since then have included our Town Hall courtroom and a church, and we frequently keep our eyes peeled for other potential locations.
The spatially transitory nature of the performing arts not only abets our creativity but also enriches the overall experience for both the actors and the audience. Imagine attending a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the depths of the woods, with all the mystery and mysticism that environment conjures. As the evening sun casts shadows – or could they be spectres? – upon the leafy forest bed, the sound of the breeze amongst the trees almost sounds like a ghost rustling its way through the undergrowth. The setting enhances the reality of the play; surrounded by the density of the trees, the audience may wonder what hidden secrets lie just beyond their sight. As twigs snap beneath the feet of a performer – or was it something else? – a spectator might feel that nature spirits such as Puck and Titania may well be lurking in the background. Everything is possible, everything is real.
This intertwining of art and nature manifests itself in various open-air theatres, one of which I recently visited. Located in Cornwall is the village of Porthcurno where, nestled amongst the cliffs, lies the Minack Theatre, founded during the first half of the twentieth century by local resident Rowena Cade. Inspired to do so by watching a local production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Cade built the theatre with the assistance of her gardener Billy Rawlings. Completed in 1932, the newly-opened theatre welcomed its first performance – The Tempest – that same year. Miss Cade’s determination to maintain the venue was such that she worked tirelessly over the winter months to preserve the theatre so that it could be continuously used each summer.
In 1944, the theatre temporarily became one of the locations used for the film Love Story (which starred Stewart Granger and Margaret Lockwood) until poor weather no longer made this feasible. Eleven years later, its first dressing rooms were added and in the following decades, the Minack has continued to be a theatrical delight of Cornwall and is currently open for business between the spring months and September. Boasting attractive views of the surrounding coastal area, in the absence of a performance, the theatre is well worth visiting in its own right – though in the height of summer, when the sea is at its clearest turquoise and most inviting, you may have to fight the urge to dive straight from the clifftops into the waters. Bedecked with stretches of grass and flowers, the natural beauty of the setting lends a special romance towards the experience. Carved into some of the stone slabs is the history of the numerous performances the theatre has witnessed over the years, some of the most recent performances including The Crucible, Much Ado About Nothing and The Producers.
A quote from Paul Cezanne reads thus: “Art is a harmony parallel with nature.” Exploring the twists and turns on the slope of the Minack Theatre, it was easy to see just how true his words were.
When it comes to theatre, be it acting, directing or working behind the scenes – you never stop learning. And I love the opportunity to learn more, especially from professionals working in the industry right now. And so a Directing Studio at Shakespeare’s Globe over a weekend in May sounded too good to miss! Located on London’s Bankside (which can you now reach by train directly from Huntingdon to Blackfriars – assuming the trains aren’t cancelled) the Globe has become an increasingly important centre for theatre in London since it opened in 1997. Seeing several productions at the Globe in the last few years (Henry V, As You Like It, The Merchant of Venice, Doctor Scroggy’s War) I was struck by the unique atmosphere. Standing in the yard as a groundling literally inches from the stage watching Jonathan Pryce as Shylock or Jamie Parker urging us once more unto the breach as King Henry for just £5 is not only the sale of the century but also the most exciting way I’ve seen Shakespeare performed.
Having somehow persuaded the Shakespeare at The George trustees to allow me to direct A Midsummer Night’s Dream for their 60th anniversary production in 2019, this Directing Studio was perfect for me – I haven’t directed any Shakespeare for a number of years and was eager to be as well-equipped as possible for the first get-together and rehearsals with the cast. What I was eager to discover was how the Globe infuses it’s productions with such vitality and energy, engaging the audience to come along for the ride – several hundred of whom will be on their feet for the 2 to 3 hour running time.
We started on Saturday morning with introductions from our course leader Craig who gave us an overview of the two days before we launched straight into the first session – An Actor’s Perspective with director and actor Phillip Bird. Using a scene from The Tempest we had the opportunity to deliver a few lines on the stage of the beautiful Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, the Globe’s indoor venue. Here the challenge is the same as in the far larger main venue next door – the audience are all around you – above, below, to your left and to your right. How do the actors manage to engage all sections of the audience? One way (which I tried hard to use in Richard III) is to be very specific with your delivery – to point lines to different members of the audience, to engage them with eye contact and make them feel involved – as if you are talking directly to them. It reassures the audience that, no matter where they are watching the action from, they will be involved. As an audience member watching an actor who stares somewhere into the middle distance, directing their lines to nobody in particular, it’s easy to become disengaged and lose interest.
Moving across the road to the Globe’s wonderful rehearsal studios, director Rob Swain took us through session two – A Director Prepares, which I found invaluable and could’ve easily spent a whole day on! Rob starts with what he calls ‘the clean read’. He opens the text and reads the play straight through from start to end, with no note taking or mental analysis – to make the play fresh in the mind of the director and erasing (if possible) previous readings or viewings. Then he starts to ask questions – anything that springs to mind. It could be “why does a bear suddenly appear?” or “have Hamlet and Ophelia consummated their relationship?” And after this first ‘clean’ read – note down your reactions and questions. Importantly – think about what your audience will NOT understand and start to think about how to solve those problems.
Rob talked about the ‘three worlds’ of the play; The First World – the time and place in which the play is written. The Second World – the world in which the play is set and the significance that brings to the story. And finally, The Third World – the world in which we live, and how the play engages with our audience. He encouraged us not to ‘impose’ upon the play but to have an on-going dialogue with it. Don’t worry about ‘concepts’ or ‘making it relevant’ but instead to be true to the play and in doing so ‘releasing it’s relevance’ to the audience.
Research is an important part of the directing process and this was broken down into three different types; Imaginative Research– what does the play say to me? Why should I do it? What is the play actually ABOUT? What actually HAPPENS during the play? What is trying to do to the audience? (This could be as broad as, with a comedy, ‘make the audience laugh’). Factual Research– are there different versions of the play? How do they differ? Why are certain passages in prose? (Very relevant to the Mechanical scenes in A Midsummer Night’s Dream). Why are certain lines longer or shorter than others? Historical Research– the place & time in which the play is set. How does this influence the story?
We also discussed the internal architecture of the play and the difference between ‘dramatic’ and ‘real’ credibility. How does the play deal with the distance between places and the time-span of the action? Pericles, for example, takes place over a course of some years, whereas A Midsummer Night’s Dream happens in one day. Decisions made in the play by characters have a ripple effect on the story – if Lysander and Hermia hadn’t run away from the court then Demetrius & Helena would never have fallen in love. Above all Rob encouraged us not to be too ‘well-learned’ at this stage but to allow a ‘creative mess of ideas’. By the time rehearsals begin, the director should be able to give the actors enough to think about that they will come back with their own questions and suggestions.
The third and final session on day one was again with Phillip and drilled down into the text of classical theatre. Line lengths, verse versus prose, pauses, etc. He urged us to look at the direction of scenes – who’s chasing? Who’s running? What does the character want from the scene? What are they trying to get from the other character(s)? I was reminded of a tip from a book by the American director Harold Clurman where he talked about ‘the nice and the nasty’ and how it relates to movement or blocking in a scene. When characters say nice things to each other they tend to move towards each other. When they say nasty things they tend to move apart. Quite simple but effective!
Returning on Sunday morning we started with a movement session led by Simone Coxall – a director and movement specialist who has worked extensively in the UK, USA & Australia and also teaches at the Fourth Monkey Actor Training Company. A good movement session can really open actors up and free them from the trappings of their own mental and physical habits. It’s a discipline I used to wrestle with at drama school (having two left feet and being a big fan of lying down) but I’ve come to embrace as an incredibly useful way to work through problems in rehearsal or on difficult scenes. (A Laban movement session at a Donmar Theatre workshop was invaluable during rehearsals for The Madness of George III– finding a different physicality for the ‘mad’ scenes). It’s not dance and the two shouldn’t be confused. It deals a lot with tempo – changing your inner and outer tempos and seeing how combining, for example a fast inner tempo with a calm, slow outer tempo can give an actor a unique physical place to work from. Very often in rehearsal we see that the tempo an actor brings with them when they arrive at the first rehearsal (their own tempo) will soon become the characters tempo which in turn dictates the pace at which they move around the stage & deliver all their lines. In life, our bodies are attuned to react in different situations – to laugh if we’re amused, to run away from danger. In rehearsal we need to unlock that in the actors body. It’s interesting, rewarding and something which the cast of A Midsummer Night’s Dreamwill benefit from. Simone has agreed in principle to come down to Huntingdon and run a session with us!
Next up we were back in the Playhouse with Yvonne Morley for a session on voice. Yvonne was head of voice at LAMDA as well as being an associate of the National and Globe theatres. She has also recently been working on a project to create a ‘voice profile’ for Richard III, which you can learn more about here. Yvonne began by telling us the three things she requires from actors – (1) that you can be heard, (2) that you can be understood and (3) that the audience believes you. If any of those three elements are missing then we don’t have a real, full performance. Yvonne took us through an invigorating and energising vocal warm-up, before running us through a number of exercises focussed on breath, tone and pitch. It’s a lovely feeling as an actor when you’ve had a great warm-up and the voice is really resonating! On the playhouse stage we added exaggerated movements to the lines of a children’s story, to see how the body can combine with the voice. Another very useful exercise helped us to maintain the energy through to the very end of a line – avoiding the pitfall that actors fall into where they tail off at the end of a li…
We reconvened at the rehearsal studios for a final session with director Rob Swain – essentially a Q&A and feedback on the course. I was loaded with questions for Rob & probably asked three times as many as anyone else! So, what did I learn that I can take forward into A Midsummer Night’s Dream next year? Well, as Rob neatly put it, “if it’s outside then it needs to be bigger, bolder, louder & brighter. And invite them to bring food & booze and make it a party atmosphere!” The voice and movement sessions will help my cast to be heard and understood and hopefully to move more freely and with intention. The text work we did will enable me to guide the actors through their lines, helping to understand and to mine the lines for clues on story and motivation. You can never know it all and that’s why theatre-making is most rewarding when it’s a truly collaborative exercise – the cast, crew & director all driving towards the same goal – to create the best production they can.
Thank you once again to the Trustees of SaTG for this wonderful opportunity & I look forward to putting all of this and more into practise for next year’s anniversary production!
What comes to mind when you see the name of Thomas Edison? Visions, perhaps, of a wild-haired inventor, pacing his laboratory. Or maybe we imagine him hunched over paperwork, fraught with nervous tension, his eyes sandpapery and raw from lack of sleep. When recalling figures that have influenced the film industry, this great American inventor, hero of the scientific world, would not be the first name to roll off the tongue. But in the early days of the business, Edison made his mark – and, some believe, may have even played a part in inspiring companies to set up base in Hollywood.
First, the obvious – technology. Thomas Edison is credited, among other things, with the development of the motion picture camera – the Kinetograph, as it was otherwise known. Whilst Edison was responsible for the electromechanical work, his employee William K. L. Dickson – who, it is thought, was more influential in creating the finished product than Edison himself – tackled photographic and optical development. Completed in 1891, the Kinetograph was originally placed inside penny arcades and was first exhibited to the public in May of that year.
What may be less well-known is that Edison himself created and owned a film company. In existence from 1894 until 1918, Edison Studios made over 1000 short films and even a few feature-lengths. Examples include 1896’s The Kiss, notable for being the very first example of a kiss shown on film, 1903’s The Great Train Robbery (the first Western) and the earliest adaptation of Frankenstein in 1910.
But his relationship with the film industry was not always a positive one. Towards the end of 1908, Edison formed the MPPC (Motion Picture Patents Company), a trust which included Eastman Kodak (at that time the largest supplier of film stock) and many of the then major film companies. Although the MPCC did bring some benefits – such as introducing a standard rental rate for licensed films – Edison’s trust was to become an overbearing and heavy-handed force, to the point where it is sometimes referred to as “Edison’s plot to hijack the movie industry.”
How was this plan set into shape? Edison’s idle daydreams of holding court over the increasingly popular film business were actualised by the MPCC establishing a monopoly on the features of filmmaking. As a member of the trust, Eastman Kodak agreed to only sell film stock to other members, which meant that independent companies were frozen out. Additionally, as the trust controlled the patents on motion picture cameras, this resulted in only MPCC studios having permission to film.
The MPCC built a rigid system of rules and was not timid about taking swift legal action against independent companies and filmmakers who were using their equipment without authorisation. It has been claimed that this was one of the reasons that led to numerous companies bolting to Hollywood – California not only gracing them with an agreeable climate but also being a safe distance from the vengeful Edison’s New Jersey home. Setting up base in California made it more difficult for the MPCC to sue or otherwise bother the filmmakers who did not wish to abide by their stringent codes.
It has been written that were Thomas Edison to have succeeded in his endeavours, “he would have killed the motion picture industry or at least delayed its flowering by a generation”. Not satisfied with a tight grip on the industry technology-wise, the inventor was also prone to regulating content, maintaining that “nothing is of greater importance to the success of the motion picture interests than films of good moral tone”, which gave him a common cause with the moral enforcers of the era. One such self-proclaimed upholder of all that was decent and respectable, wrote scathingly of the droves of wide-eyed cinemagoers, complaining that “I would have been more comfortable on board a cattle train than where I sat…what is hardest to swallow is that the tastes of this seething mass of human cattle are the tastes that have dominated, or at least set, the standard of American moving pictures.”
Thankfully for the flowering of the motion picture industry, many independent companies and distributors chose not to get with Edison’s program, and the MPCC ultimately floundered into decline, with the final nail in the coffin being a federal court’s decision in 1915. In the case of United States vs Motion Picture Patents Co it was determined that the MPCC’s actions were “far beyond what was necessary to protect the use of patents or the monopoly which went with them.” The company officially came to an end three years later, but its steady waning in power had been ongoing for some time. “What finally did the Edison monopoly in,” wrote Matthew Lasar in a business article titled Take Heed, Tech Giants, “was the assumption that its legal/technical dominance over the trade, and its moral stance, would trump the public’s demand for ever more creative motion pictures…they didn’t. Instead, they flocked to Carl Laemmle and his fellow independents’ ‘illegal’ movies.” By the time a federal court pronounced that the MPCC had terrorised exchangers and exhibitors and described its methods as “arbitrary, oppressive and high-handed”, Thomas Edison’s reign over films had already stuttered to a halt.
Sunday 10th April 1955 – Easter Sunday to be precise. Bleary-eyed Britons were wakened by the peal of church bells. Christians reflected upon the resurrection. Slavering children avariciously attacked their hordes of Easter eggs. And in South Hall Park, Hampstead, a woman armed with a 38. Calibre Smith and Wesson revolver fired four successive bullets into her lover.
The woman was Ruth Ellis, the lover David Blakely. Ellis had a chequered history, beginning with her childhood experience of rape at the hands of her father. Thus, the first Ellis ever knew of sexual relationships not only took place at a hideously inappropriate age, but was informed by domination, pain and abuse. This unhappy pattern was to continue into her adult life, resulting in a short-lived marriage to an aggressive alcoholic.
It was in 1953 that Fate would entwine the lives of Ellis and Blakely, leading to the two-year courtship which would end in tragedy. From its inception, their relationship was beset with problems, a dangerous mixture of passion and jealousy. Both possessed powerful feelings for the other, but neither seemed able to commit. They continued to see other people and their own relationship increasingly descended into patterns of envy and physical violence – one such interaction leading to Ruth suffering a miscarriage after David had punched her in the stomach. And so went the unhealthy cycle, until – on that unsuspecting Easter evening – there came the dramatic denouement, when Ruth Ellis approached David Blakely outside a pub and shot him dead.
At this point, capital punishment was still the sentence passed down for murder. There is an understandable, if cold, logic to this train of thought; the idea that intentionally taking a life – and the grief this causes for many – should be met with the forfeiture of the culprit’s own life. But its history goes farther than that; capital punishment had in the past been the sentence for other crimes, some much more minor by comparison, to the extent that the term “Bloody Code” is a modern term for Britain’s legal system as it stood in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. By 1800, there were no fewer than 220 crimes which could be punished by death, including the act of being in the company of gypsies for a month and the theft of goods valued at as little as 12 pence – roughly £12.60 in today’s currency.
Unsurprisingly, the harshness of the system brought calls for reform, beginning in 1808 when Sir Samuel Romilly had the death sentence abolished for minor offences such as pickpocketing. From this, a series of further changes spurred; in 1861 the number of offences liable to result in capital punishment stood at just five, treason and murder being amongst them.
At the time of Ruth Ellis’ trial, the death penalty for murder was still more than a decade away from being abolished. However, there was discussion amongst the media and the public over whether her case warranted such punishment, or even whether she should have been charged with the lesser crime of manslaughter. The violence she had suffered at the hands of David Blakely was suggested as grounds for a reprieval from hanging, with many feeling that a custodial sentence would have been more appropriate. It is often said that by the standards of the law today, Ruth Ellis would have been charged with manslaughter rather than murder.
However, the trial must be viewed through the lens of the law at the time – and within the framework of the legal system then, it can be argued that there was no other option but to find her guilty of murder. It must also be said that Ellis herself did little to help her case; she herself stated that she did not want a reprieve from the death sentence and seemed to believe that her punishment was just. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” she remarked. In light of this, there has been speculation that, after killing her lover, Ellis willed death upon herself so that she might continue to be with him, that perhaps even the murder itself was her way of ensuring that she and Blakely would never be parted.
In a letter to Blakely’s grieving mother, Ellis wrote, “I have always loved your son and I shall die still loving him.” Could this hint at the agenda behind the events of that fateful Easter Sunday? Was David Blakely’s death just the first tragic act in a greater drama? Had Ruth Ellis already chosen the conclusion when she pulled the trigger? Could she have intended all along for the chain of events to close in the way that she wanted – her own consignment to death – her delivery back to David Blakely for eternity?
By Guest Blogger Michelle Gibson. This piece will also appear in the programme for ‘The Thrill Of Love’.
What do the Covent Garden tube station and the Adelphi Theatre have in common? Other than both locations being in London, one would be hard pressed to think of much else that might connect them. Yet there is a link – in the form of a gentleman whose life, due to its premature end, came to include themes of jealousy, insanity and murder.
The man in question is William Terriss, a nineteenth century actor whose first outing on the stage took place in 1868 at Birmingham’s Prince of Wales Theatre. Over the ensuing years he became strongly associated with the swashbuckling hero character type and his star began to rise in the 1870s. Additional dramatic and comedic roles – including parts in The Shaughraun and The Rivals – saw him gain even greater prominence. In 1880 he joined Henry Irving’s company at the Lyceum Theatre and it was during this decade that he made his first appearances at the Adelphi. By now, he had become a highly regarded performer, described by the New York Dramatic Mirror as “one of the greatest and next to Henry Irving, undoubtedly the most popular actor in England.”
William Terriss would undoubtedly have continued to draw acclaim into the new century – but sadly, tragedy intervened to dictate otherwise. For several years, Terriss had helped acquaintance-cum-struggling actor Richard Archer Prince, to find work in various productions. Despite a falling-out, he maintained his loyalty by sending him money through the Actors’ Benevolent Fund and persisting in finding him jobs. Prince, however, was becoming increasingly mentally unstable and dependent upon alcohol. By 1897 his overall health had deteriorated to the extent that he was virtually unemployable.
On the evening of 16th December 1897, Prince hid himself in a doorway close to the Adelphi stage door. As Terriss entered to prepare for his evening’s performance, Prince attacked and stabbed him to death. Due to Terriss’s popularity, the murder created a sizeable media stir. The following trial found Prince guilty but also insane, so he was incarcerated at Broadmoor Asylum until his death in 1936. What was seen – by the standards of the time – as a rather lenient sentence led Henry Irving to complain, with some justifiable bitterness, that “Terriss was an actor, so his murderer will not be executed.”
But does Terriss’ story end there? Some might claim not, since this is where we come to the association between the Adelphi and the Covent Garden underground. Following alleged sightings, rumours have persisted that Terriss’ ghost maintains a presence at both places, the first of such reports taking place in 1928. A young actress – referred to as “June” – claimed that while sleeping in her dressing room, her bed began to shake, followed by an appearance of green mist, whereupon she was seized by an unseen entity. She also reported hearing two knocks on the dressing room door – this reputedly having been a communication used by Terriss to inform his girlfriend, actress Jessie Millward, that he had arrived at the theatre. Since then, other performers have asserted that they have seen Terriss walking around the Adelphi.
Similar stories at Covent Garden are professed to have taken place up to as late as 1972. One such tale is recorded in Peter Underwood’s book Haunted London, which relates the experience of ticket collector Jack Hayden, who, whilst “making a final check that the platforms were deserted, suddenly noticed a tall and distinguished-looking man walking along the west-bound subway and climbing the emergency spiral stairs. Hayden quickly telephoned upstairs and told the booking-office clerk to apprehend the man…Hayden himself took the lift up and met a puzzled clerk, who said no one had emerged from the stairs.” This was followed by a sighting of the same man days later. Upon being shown a photograph of William Terriss, Hayden was adamant that this was the person he had seen.
So Terriss transitioned from being one of the most highly acclaimed actors of his age to a figure of ghostly lore. Does his story end at the moment of his murder? Or could we potentially be witness to a sad phantom sweeping the stage of the Adelphi – or hear the spooky clatter of a cane upon Covent Garden’s lonely corridors? No one can know, and perhaps it doesn’t matter. Maybe what is more important is that the name of a gifted performer has, in some form, survived. Like so many talented people, William Terriss could have fallen into the abyss of theatrical history, overshadowed by the passage of time. Instead, his presence has persisted in the excited whispers of Adelphi performers and railway employees. And the next time I find myself at Covent Garden station – or the Adelphi Theatre itself – I’ll make a point of nodding my head to him.
In 2017 we presented three plays in three different venues – quite an achievement! The Spring production of Alfie was the last to take place at the Commemoration Hall before its closure for major refurbishment works and also went on to represent the Club (in an abridged version) at the Cambridge Drama Festival. Probably best known from its big screen incarnation starring Michael Caine, Bill Naughton’s play premiered in 1963 and pictured a London still in an austere post-war hangover and yet to explode into the vibrant, swinging 60s. Alfie became our biggest selling show on record (beating previous record holder Outside Edge by one ticket!) & drew high praise for an ‘energetic & entertaining production’ from the Festival adjudicator. The cast & crew worked incredibly hard on this production to make the many transitions between scenes & locations as seamless as possible, giving the production a slick & pacy edge – a genuine team effort. Combined with an evocative soundtrack & period wardrobe Alfie was a tragi-comic affair for our audience with a central character you either love to hate, or hate to love.
Finding an alternative venue for our following two productions was a big project for the committee. We felt it was essential to stay in Huntingdon, preferably not too far away from the Commemoration Hall so as not to inconvenience our audience too much. We also wanted to keep our excellent front of house experience in place so facilities for a bar were also a must. The Town Hall offered two spaces which lent themselves to different styles of theatre, it was close by and the dates we wanted were available. The Town Hall it was. The Assembly Room on the top floor of the building would be our venue for Shakers, the comedy by John Godber (Bouncers, Up N Under) & Jane Thornton. Vicky Spurway made her debut in the director’s chair and assembled a talented cast, half of whom were brand new members. The four actresses faced the challenge of playing multiple roles, switching instantly between the many & varied customers as well as the long-suffering waitresses of Shakers cocktail bar. The cast & crew pulled it off superbly – drawing an excellent review from our NODA rep Julie Armstrong who commented “I left the performance with a smile on my face and the 1980’s soundtrack ringing in my ears. Shakers was a fabulously fun piece of theatre!” Thanks to a grant from the Freemen’s Trust of Huntingdon we were able to light the show with a brand new portable lighting kit which has enabled us to perform in ‘non-theatre’ settings.
As soon as we reached the decision to present Arthur Miller’s The Crucible in the Town Hall’s historic Court Room for our Autumn play, we strongly suspected that we would have a commercial & critical success on our hands. And so it proved, as all five performances went on to sell out long before opening night. Under Rae Goodwin’s meticulous direction & with an exceptionally strong cast & crew on board (many making their debuts for the club), this production felt like the culmination of a lot of hard work over the last 3 or 4 years. It was bold, daring & powerful, presented within the intimate confines of a venue where the audience were just inches from the action. A glowing NODA review ended “with a wonderful and atmospheric setting, inspired use of music, great direction and an excellent cast, HDC’s The Crucible was a triumph!” Indeed, The Crucible has been nominated for Best Play at next May’s NODA district awards.
As well as all the on-stage activity there was a busy social calendar in 2017, including theatre trips to see new plays – Fracked at the Cambridge Arts and Limehouse at the Donmar Warehouse in London, where we also took part in an open workshop on the rehearsal process. We enjoyed a fabulous acting workshop with actor David Hall, where we covered aspects of movement & voice & learned a great deal. The Crucible director Rae Goodwin attended the RSC’s Big Backstage Weekend to go behind the scenes at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford Upon Avon & learn some tricks of the trade that we can feed into our productions. I also attended a workshop on directing hosted by Theatre 503 Artistic Director Lisa Spirling – an opportunity to learn from a professional director, which was invaluable – lots of techniques & ideas that will find their way into our rehearsal room. And of course to cap it all off there was our fantastic Christmas Party in December. A great opportunity to let our hair down after a challenging & ultimately rewarding & satisfying year. Here’s to 2018!
Some people might scratch their heads at a modern setting of The Crucible and wonder what relevance it might have for today. But it is often the case that our past and our oldest fables will lend meaning to the currents of the present – such is the cyclical nature of human experience.
In 2017, there are thousands of people in Britain who practice witchcraft. There is an annual ‘Pagan Pride’ festival – currently in its eighth year – where attendees can purchase wands, incense, crystals, and various other ingredients for their pursuits. They can be open about who they are without fearing execution. Modern-day Salem is now a haven for contemporary witches and professional psychics, with many a metaphysical business lining the streets. Its first ‘witch shop’ – founded by Boston-born practitioner Laurie Cabot – opened its doors in 1970. Described as the “grande dame of witchcraft” in the USA, Cabot is “proud of the fact that her witch shop and openness turned Salem into something of a safe space for practicing witches.” But however much we may like to think that we’re a universally tolerant society, there is still very much a cultural prejudice towards the idea of witchcraft. In some respects, little has changed.
Antipathy to witchcraft can be traced to the rise of Abrahamic monotheism, especially traditional Christianity. In the preceding polytheistic pagan cultures, the practice of magic was a natural and popular way of participating in an individualistic spiritual experience. However, the traditional Church frowned upon personal spiritual experimentation and insisted that the only valid way of exploring such matters was to submit to their organised hierarchy. Witchcraft was deemed demonic and those who practiced it – witches – were denounced as the most abhorrent type of evil, traffickers with Satan.
Those who practiced witchcraft were forced to do so in secret – the alternative being to suffer brutal capital punishment. Instead of understanding such customs, society was steadily gripped by a climate of fear, misconception and suspicion. Slowly, insidiously, this collective fear produced an unstable culture of finger-pointing, a world where no one was safe, in which monsters were skulking in the shadows and prowling the streets in search of fresh victims.
So people saw witches everywhere – and anything from a run of bad luck to a death in the family could be blamed upon maleficent workings. Huntingdonshire itself was home to what was described by George Kittredge as “the most momentous witch-trial that had ever occurred in England.” This case – known as ‘The Witches of Warboys’ – involved a plethora of accusations against local resident Alice Samuel – and her family – over a period of several years.
The initial allegations came about in 1589. Alice Samuel – then 76 years old – was accused by 10-year-old Jane Throckmorton (whose father Robert was Squire of Warboys.) Jane had become ill and was suffering from seizures; she proclaimed herself the victim of malevolent sorcery. On an occasion when Mrs Samuel had come to visit the ailing child, Jane is reported to have cried out, “Grandmother, look where the old witch sitteth – did you ever see one more like a witch than she is? Take off her black thrumbed cap, for I cannot abide to look on her.”
A number of the Throckmorton family’s maidservants became similarly ill, as well as Jane’s sisters; this led to further accusations against Alice Samuel. Robert Throckmorton’s friendship with Sir Henry Cromwell (grandfather of Oliver) led to a personal visit from Lady Cromwell, in which she interviewed Mrs Samuel about the pronouncements that had been made against her. This took place in 1590, after which Lady Cromwell maintained that Alice was deliberately appearing in her dreams to inflict emotional torture. Coupled with the now numerous allegations from the Throckmorton family, this was enough to indict the Samuel family in the eyes of the public, if not yet the law. After Lady Cromwell’s death in 1592, Alice Samuel was pressured into confessing to witchcraft and, along with her family, was tried in Huntingdon in 1593 – all were found guilty and subsequently faced death by hanging.
When so many are caught in the throes of fear, misunderstanding and prejudice, such travesties of justice are the order of the day. The history of Britain’s witch trials is filled with such stories; innocent people convicted on testimonies derived from ignorance or personal grievances. Hundreds sent to their deaths – all in the name of putting to rout an imaginary wickedness, concocted in the minds of the intolerant and the uninformed, and stoked by the fires of fanaticism.
Britain’s modern-day witches may no longer live in fear of the noose or the stake, but many are still subjected to a cultural alienation stemming from prejudice. There are many things that The Crucible can still teach us, and I’d suggest that one of them is that we might consider applying fair-minded appraisal and comprehension to individuals who are perceived to be following an unconventional route in life. There is an alternative to whipping up a panic and that is the opportunity for open dialogue and a willingness to learn.
by Guest Blogger Michelle Gibson
An abridged version of this piece was published in ‘The Crucible’ programme