Meet The Author!

We recently caught up with Richard Brown who has adapted the five short plays by Anton Chekhov that we will be presenting in May 2022 as Five Farces.

HDC: Richard – it’s fair to say you’re a bit of a renaissance man! Directing, acting, writing and of course chairman of Shakespeare at The George. How did you first get involved with drama & when did you start acting & directing here in Huntingdon?

RB: I was first exposed to drama at Cambridge University where I joined the Footlights Club, but not as a performer more as a film maker. My ability at acting was simply dreadful! However, afterwards, Sue Limb, now author & radio broadcaster, took pity on me and offered me a part in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and off I went into a world of over-acting from which I probably have yet to emerge. In Cambridge I acted regularly for Combined Actors (for whom I was Chairman on several occasions) and BAWDS. Roz and I then moved to Godmanchester in 2004 and I managed to grab a part in the 2005 production of Much Ado About Nothing at The George. This wonderful company has rather become my theatrical home ever since, as actor, director and Chairman. However Shakespeare is not my be-all and end-all and I have enjoyed being part of the Brampton Park Theatre Club and of course working with the Club on A Bunch of Amateurs in 2018.

Richard (left) in A Bunch Of Amateurs (2018)

HDC: Your adaptation of Chekhov’s Five Farces was originally performed at Brampton Park Theatre Club. What drew you to these plays (one of which I believe the author never finished?) and how did you go about adapting them?

RB: I was introduced to them by my father, who arranged a production of several of the farces for Combined Actors of Cambridge. They were such an enjoyable treat that they stuck in my mind as potential for another airing, achieved ten years ago for the Brampton Park Theatre Club. However, although designed as quick-witted farces, the 19th Century world of Chekhov saw comedy in a very different way to ourselves who have been brought up with the pace and rhythm of television sketches. I therefore wanted to experiment in a much less literal adaptation than the traditional ones, to use the basic themes of the sketches but freely adapt them to tune to a modern ear, brought up on Fawlty Towers, Morecambe & Wise, The Two Ronnies, etc. This allowed some bonuses for me, such as changing the sex of characters to allow a wider variety of female roles, and, yes, cheekily taking on the challenge of completing The Night Before The Trial (which Chekhov abandoned after setting up the characters). My favourite alteration has to be Swan Song, originally a slightly heavy duologue between an elderly actor and his male prompt, into a wistful aged story of unrequited love.

HDC: Do you go and see a lot of professional theatre? Is there anything from that world that you’ve found particularly inspiring for your own work?

RB: I don’t go and see as much as I should! In fact I like “making” theatre more than necessarily going to see it (when I do go, I am always angry at myself for not seeing more). Much of the stuff that should have inspired me I never saw, beginning with Peter Brook’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Instead I fell head over heels for his great written essay The Empty Stage, and that formed my manual for directing theatre. I think my love is finding ways to tell stories. I have quite a low boredom threshold so I always want things to be exciting and challenging. One of the great turning points for me was when the French Cultural Attaché asked us in Cambridge to celebrate the bi-centenary of the French Revolution by producing a version of a little-known French play called 1789 – a telling of the early days of the Revolution using jugglers, puppets, multiple stages and more adrenaline than you could fit into the warehouse of a theatre they used. Despite the fact that no printed script existed, we were shown a film of the original production and set to re-inventing it and re-writing it. It was a wonderful experience of unadulterated freedom of ideas to entertain which has stuck with me since. This thing about amateur and professional theatre came to a head some years ago when Shakespeare at The George joined an Open Stages experiment provided by the Royal Shakespeare Company, a way of us sharing their professional techniques and they our amateur enthusiasm. It resulted in my being able to play Shylock in a short extract from a production of The Merchant of Venice directed by Jacqueline Spencer (who, I am delighted to say, is organising & directing these Farces) at both the Swan Stage and the main stage at the RSC. The very strong conclusion of the experiment was just how similar the amateur & professional world can be.

Richard (left) as Peter Quince in SaTG’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2019)

HDC: You directed Pericles in 2017 for SaTG – a Shakespeare play that perhaps isn’t so familiar. What prompted you to choose that one?

RB: Well, in the first place, the fact that it wasn’t so familiar. I love reading plays on holiday. Either I read a few pages only or I get transported. I took Pericles to Sicily and fell in love with it. It was a rather magical telling of stories that more appropriately lie in the realm of fairy tales. It was also a play I could fiddle with! I know critics regard it as a lesser play for its language, but the audience loved the magic of it and I loved the invention it required to be produced.

joust scene from Pericles
Richard’s 2017 production of Pericles with SaTG

HDC: If you could direct one play with any group of actors, past or present, what would it be, where would you stage it and who would be in your cast??

RB: I think I might just duck this one! If I had the ideal cast in the ideal play, at the ideal location, my contribution would undoubtedly be to bugger it all up! My greatest happiness in directing has always been to work on what looks to be problematical material with a cast more full of commitment than necessarily top talent. Having said that, if Lin Manuel Miranda was stuck in Huntingdon with nothing to do, I might just try to squeeze him into some modest role… I also once acted alongside Tom Hiddleston and I would happily give it a go again.

HDC: And finally – tell us why we should book tickets for Five Farces??!

RB: Because we all desperately need cheering up! It is a perfect set of plays for just sitting back, relaxing and laughing at absurd characters in impossible situations. With the talent available both in my fellow directors and the actors performing with Huntingdon Drama Club, you really are in safe hands, so forget Omicron or the on-going adventures at Downing Street and instead indulge in this rather naughty delight.

Five Farces – Online Play Reading

An enthusiastic group of Zoomers joined us on Thursday January 20 for a thoroughly enjoyable read-through of Five Farces, our May 2022 production. With all 5 directors in attendance it was a chance for wannabe cast members to familiarise themselves with the 5 plays before auditions in February. The plays (adapted by Richard Brown) are a real hoot and sure provide a great night of entertainment for audiences when the production runs from May 12 to 14. If you’d like to audition or help out backstage or front of house or in any other way then head to the Get Involved page to find out how.

The personalities and pitfalls of amateur dramatics…

Fear not. All amateurs are not the same,

Some Little Theatres higher standards claim

And hold with fervour nigh obsessional

That amateurs are better than professional

– Michael Green – ‘The Art of Coarse Acting’

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.

Michael Green’s book on ‘coarse acting’.

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.

Burt Reynolds in the 2008 movie A Bunch of Amateurs, with Imelda Staunton, Alistair Petrie & Derek Jacobi.

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)

A Weekend At Shakespeare’s Globe – Director’s Studio

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.

Jamie Parker as Henry V, Shakespeare’s Globe

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.

Day One

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.

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

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.

Shakespeare’s Globe

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!

Day Two

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!

Jonathan Pryce as Shylock in The Merchant Of Venice at Shakespeare’s Globe

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!

Dean Laccohee, Artistic Director

The Ghost of William Terriss

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.

by Guest Blogger Michelle Gibson

A Workshop with David Hall

As a club that is dedicated to producing drama of high quality, we frequently look for opportunities in which to develop and improve as performers. It was with this in mind that we arranged for professional actor David Hall to present a workshop with a focus on vocal work and physical theatre. Being alumni of the Bristol Old Vic, as well as having over twenty-five years’ experience, he was an ideal individual from whom to learn.

David Hall

We were treated to an illuminating and immensely enjoyable four hours. In a sense, teaching a class or workshop is like a performance itself; the teacher needs to demonstrate their passion, or they will inevitably elicit a subdued and bored response from the students. David possessed an infectious enthusiasm which quickly spread and invigorated those of us still bleary-eyed from rising so early on a Sunday.
I think we often forget the extent to which our body affects our communication, and with an extended and embellished form of communication such as acting, it becomes an even greater mechanism for effective portrayal. The merest change in posture can tell an audience a lot about a character’s mood or status. I have always viewed acting as a primarily mental exercise – which it undoubtedly is – but the workshop served as a reminder of the neglected physical aspect and the use of our body to convey as much as we do from the words we deliver from the script.


An exercise which I think everyone found of interest was our work with character archetypes; these being various models of certain kind of personalities which are all, to a degree, drawn upon in literature and drama, and which are all present in human identity. In Jungian psychology, archetypes are thought to be “universal patterns and images which derive from the collective unconscious.” Jung expounded on this in a 1934 publication, in which he argued that:
“…the content of the collective unconscious is made up essentially of ‘archetypes’. The concept of the archetype, which is an indispensable correlate of the idea of the collective unconscious, indicates the existence of definite forms in the psyche which seem to be present always and everywhere.”
Such archetypes include models of ‘The Mother’, ‘The Trickster’ and ‘The Fool’ and one activity included performing a piece (poem, speech, etc) using a mixture of archetypes in our speech. I had a lot of fun delivering a verse of Philip Larkin’s cynical and unhappy poem ‘This Be the Verse’ using the archetype of innocence, which turned his work of pessimism into one of satirical comedy.
I believe that one of the marks of a successful workshop is when the individual teaching it is enjoying themselves as much as those attending, and this was clearly the case with David. It was a day of great fun for everyone fortunate enough to be there, and provided much for us to reflect upon when determining the progression of our approach to performance. We anticipate more of such events in the future, which we’re already looking forward to.

by Guest Blogger Michelle Gibson

To contact David Hall about drama workshops visit his website http://www.davidhall.info/contact.html

 

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 

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!

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

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