From Henry V to Harry Potter to Huntingdon

There is some incredible talent behind the scenes at Huntingdon Drama Club. We spoke to Sarah Stammler, wardrobe supervisor on Five Farces about her incredible career in costume for theatre, TV and film. A journey that has gone from the wooden ‘O’ of Shakespeare’s Globe to Leavesden Studios to dressing Hollywood royalty.

You’re heading up our wardrobe department for Five Farces – that must be quite a challenge with five different plays and almost 20 cast members?! (and no budget!!!)

To be honest, it has been quite an easy one.  We managed to get quite a bit from the Drama Club costume store and miraculously what we picked was suitable and fitted the actors.  Also having a very proactive wardrobe department on the case, making hats and various bits for the show has helped immensely.  Having no budget does make a difference and if the look and Director’s vision is right then we can be more flexible regarding the design side of things.  This is my first production with Huntingdon Drama Club.  I had costumed Oh, What A Lovely War! for the 2018 remembrance show where I met Kerry MacCuaig who became an HDC member and asked me if I would help costume Five Farces. so here I am.

You’ve worked at one of London’s most illustrious theatres – Shakespeare’s Globe. Tell us what that was like – you were involved from the very beginning? 

Yes, my neighbour in the Borough Market, Jenny Tiramani was the Theatre Designer and close friend of Mark Rylance and when I said I was at college studying costume making at London College of Fashion she asked me if I wanted to do some work experience at the Globe Theatre, which was still under construction, we worked in a portakabin on the roof of what is now the museum building.  The first shows we worked on were Henry V and The Winter’s Tale.  The theatre was full of artisan builders creating it around us as we worked. (I still have a piece of oak that was used as a door stop).  Luckily we got to sit and watch the rehearsals whilst sewing the costumes.  It is an amazing space.     

Costume fitting for Mark Rylance at the Globe

At the time the Globe was being run by one of our greatest actors – any special memories of working with Mark Rylance? 

Yes, we all worked very closely together and were like a big family. He is a really gentle and lovely man, and mesmerising when you are in his presence.  He was very committed to the authentic practice for costumes and it was such a learning curve for all of us.  He said he loved the costumes made by hand and in the shape and fabrics of the period as they made him act and move in a different way to modern costumes.   

I understand the Globe at the time was very keen to present everything as close as possible to Shakespeare’s original practises. Was there anything you had to find or create that sticks in the memory? 

It was Jenny and Mark’s vision to recreate everything authentically, and over the 10 years cottage industries developed from this.  Even to a breed of sheep being reared in Wales that had been around in Henry VIII’s time for their wool.  No sewing machine was used, everything sewn by hand.  My fingers were bleeding from handsewing a leather doublet and hose for Charles,the wrestler in As You Like It.  The shoes were all hand-made, stockings hand knitted, braids and buttons hand twisted and made.  Willow branches, we had to soak in a bath, were used to made the hoops in the farthingales.  Only linen, wool, leather and silk fabrics were used. We had a lot of vintage fabrics that we used to make the costumes from and often you would be given the smallest piece and told to make a doublet out of it.  Which is what they would have done in the time, repurposed garments and patched them to make the next one.  It was an amazing place to work.  We even got to visit the V&A clothing archives and to take apart a 16th century robe to see how it was put together, that is how authentic it was.  I worked for 10 seasons there and it was hard work and long hours but the camaraderie, quality of work and costumes produced were amazing. Unfortunately, when it was taken over by the next artistic director, this practice was stopped and costumes were not the same, although we did often wonder how appreciative the audience actually were of our handiwork!  

Sarah at the Globe with the theatre still under construction

Away from the theatre world – what have been some of your most memorable experiences costuming for TV & film? 

I worked on the set at Leavesden Studios with three tiny unknown actors Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson on the first two Harry Potter movies.  I altered Prada suits for Tom Cruise on Mission Impossible 2, I made Oliver Cromwell costumes for Tim Roth in To Kill a King.  I spent 9 months on the TV series Band of Brothers and met Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks when they came to visit Hatfield Studios where we worked.  but the pinnacle of my career was when I went to Provence to fit Angelina Jolie with a wedding dress I had made for a film called A Mighty Heart and became her personal dresser for the week at the chateau and even got to meet Brad Pitt!

Angelina Jolie in A Mighty Heart

Is there a particular style or period of costume that you prefer to work with?

I do prefer using a sewing machine if possible.  Pantos are great to costume and make. They are fun and don’t have to last long.  I prefer period costumes rather than modern fashion to make and every type of costume for film, TV and theatre.    

When have you been really blown away by costume design in a show you’ve seen? And is there a show that would be your dream to costume? 

For costume design, recently, I have to say the series Bridgerton.  The designer, who is an American, has designed the most colourful and amazing costumes, which are unlike any of your usual period film designs.  The show I think would be fun to costume is Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert – for the drag queen costumes!

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.

Cathy’s ongoing legacy

There is a human detritus swirling around in the backwaters of the welfare state which nobody seems able to do anything about. Society and its public servants want passionately to do something – but somehow they can’t.

Cathy Come Home review – The Guardian, 17th November 1966

If part of art’s power is its capacity to draw attention to issues faced in contemporary society, if a portion of its purpose is to throw a lens upon those on the margins, if – in egalitarian spirit – it can explore the emotions and experiences of people from all backgrounds – then plays like Cathy are fitting and timely. Following the financial crisis of 2007-2008, the UK government enacted austerity measures which, though perhaps made in good faith, have come at a cost. Reductions in government spending have seen social services struggling under increasing pressure and those on low incomes have found it all the more difficult to get by.

Cathy (Kerry MacCuaig) and Reg (Les Roberts) discuss Cathy’s new living situation. Dress Rehearsal photography by Christopher Buckenham Photography

First performed in 2016, Ali Taylor’s play is actually a modern re-telling of an older drama. The inspiration was Cathy Come Home, a 1966 made-for television play written by Jeremy Sandford and directed by Ken Loach. Over thirty years later, it was still recalled as an important piece of TV; in 1998 a Radio Times poll declared it to be the “best single television drama” and two years later an industry poll voted it as the second best British programme ever made.

Still from Cathy Come Home, 1966

The story follows the lives of a young couple, Cathy and Reg, who initially have a good standard of living due to Reg’s well-paying job. Circumstances soon turn against them, however, as an injury sustained in the workplace leads to Reg’s unemployment and Cathy’s pregnancy means they can no longer stay in their flat, since the building does not permit children. With the loss of Reg’s income, the couple are now unable to find affordable accommodation. Despite periods of alleviation, their luck continues to spiral, and the growing family eventually finds themselves squatting in an abandoned building.


Still from Cathy Come Home, 1966

At that time, subjects such as homelessness and unemployment received very little in the way of media attention. This may have been partly due to the post-war economic boom which ushered in an age of prosperity for Britain, with the 1950s and 1960s seeing wages and living standards rise for many. It is estimated that wages rose by approximately 40% between 1950 and 1965. Luxury items were no longer only the preserve of the wealthiest; those on lower incomes could afford them. In 1959, Queen magazine announced that Britain had “launched into an age of unparalleled lavish living” and historian R J Unstead’s appraisal was similarly positive. “Opportunities in life, if not equal, were distributed much more fairly than ever before and the weekly wage-earner, in particular, had gained standards of living that would have been almost unbelievable in the thirties.”


Still from Cathy Come Home, 1966

This era of general prosperity perhaps led to nationwide complacency when it came to regarding the problems of those who still fell between the cracks. Even in times of unimagined growth, there will still be a minority who, sometimes through no fault of their own, fall upon hard times. Subsequently, those who struggled to get by in the post-war decades found their plight largely ignored – but Cathy Come Home changed that. Watched by approximately twelve million people (which at the time was roughly twenty-five percent of the country’s population) it prompted telephone calls to the BBC from viewers who had been impacted and caused discussion of homelessness in Parliament. As a result, Conservative MPs William Shearman and Iain Macleod led a publicity campaign which drew even more attention to the experiences of the homeless and the charity ‘Crisis’ was formed the following year.

Jay (L. T. Hewitt) serves Cathy (Kerry MacCuaig) with some unwelcome paperwork.
Dress Rehearsal photography by Christopher Buckenham Photography

Fifty years later, Ali Taylor’s Cathy is just as hard-hitting and thought-provoking as the play it is based upon. It does not shy away from the lengths to which some people are forced to turn towards in order to shelter and protect themselves – the squalor and hardship that Cathy and her daughter experience are unapologetically spotlighted, providing an unsettling window into the harsh and dismal circumstances into which their lives descend. But for all the depiction of unpleasantness, a grain of hope runs throughout the tale, barely visible at times, but always present in the minutest sense – serving, perhaps, as a reminder that in our darkest moments, hope is our single sustainer, and is possibly the only thing that the homeless can really call their own.

by Michelle Gibson, November 2019

Originally published in the Cathy programme 

The Magic of A Midsummer Night’s Dream

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 Night’s Dream?

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. 

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

Ruth Ellis

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.

Ruth with her lover David Blakeley at the Little Club in 1955

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.

 

The Magdala pub in Hampstead, the scene of the shooting

 

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’. 

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

Looking Back… 2017 in Review

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.

At the Donmar Warehouse for a workshop on ‘Limehouse’

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!

Dean Laccohee (Artistic Director) 

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