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.

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

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 

The RSC Big Backstage Weekend

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

Day 1

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

Day 2

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

by Guest Blogger Rae Goodwin 

Theatre and The Country House

During the summer months, many of us enjoy a day out at a stately home (and a cream tea!), and the most interesting visits are often those that bring historic houses to life. As someone who studies country houses and is a new-ish member of the drama club, I thought it would be fun to combine these two interests to explore the theme of ‘theatre and the country house’.

Since Shakespeare’s day, the British country house has been a venue for theatricals. Queen Elizabeth I didn’t build any new royal palaces during her reign, preferring instead to tour the country staying at the grand rural residences of her courtiers, on what were known as ‘progresses’. Those who were honoured with a visit from Her Majesty frequently put on extravagant and expensive theatrical entertainments, or ‘masques’, to amuse and pay tribute to their sovereign. From the moment the Queen arrived, she would assume a starring role, surrounded by players in allegorical or mythological guises, in a production that might include music, dance and poetry, as well as lavish costumes and scenery.

During the Georgian and Regency eras, the country house saw quite a bit of amateur theatre. When the weather was bad, and outdoors sporting pursuits on the estate out of the question, residents and houseguests staved off boredom by putting on plays. For example, in Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park, the younger characters rehearse a performance of Lovers’ Vows by Elizabeth Inchbald, although the main character Fanny disapproves of the choice, as she fears her host, the house’s owner Sir Thomas Bertram, would object to its subject matter!

A wonderful example of a country house - Cambridgeshire's Wimpole Hall.
A wonderful example of a country house – Cambridgeshire’s Wimpole Hall.

Ancestral castles and elegant classical mansions have also inspired many locations for plays. The country house has been the setting of choice for a number of playwrights, from Agatha Christie with The Mousetrap to Noel Coward and Hay Fever. The imaginary surroundings of a country house can make for rich, visually engaging scenery in a theatre production, as a production of Hay Fever I saw in 2011 at the Theatre by the Lake in Keswick proved. Costume designers and actors must relish the opportunity to indulge in lavish period costume. As with murder mystery novels and TV period dramas, the country house makes a great setting because it’s easy to assemble a diverse cast of characters – lords and ladies ‘upstairs’, servants ‘downstairs’ and all sorts of guests and visitors, leading to endless possibilities for character study and (often quite comical) interaction.

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A wonderful example of a country house – Cambridgeshire’s Wimpole Hall.

Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia, which I was lucky enough to see at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London in 2009, is set in Sidley Park, a country house in Derbyshire. The play moves between the early nineteenth century and the present day (1993, when the play was written), but the set and props remain the same, blurring past and present – a central theme of the play. The timelessness of the country house setting works perfectly here. The nineteenth-century characters include the daughter of the house, a tutor, a landscape gardener, and the famous Romantic poet Lord Byron (who remains unseen throughout the play). The audience are also aware of a hermit who apparently resides in the grounds – and whose identity is later revealed – showcasing just how many eccentric characters the country house effortlessly accommodates!

Today, one can still encounter some drama on a visit to a country house – and not just if they run out of scones in the tearoom! As part of their programme of events, many National Trust places now invite theatre groups to put on plays. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men are touring a number of historic houses this summer, including Oxburgh Hall and Holkham Hall in Norfolk, to put on outdoor performances of Much Ado about Nothing to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. And even closer to Huntingdon, open-air theatre returns to Wimpole Hall this August with a performance of The Tempest, where the audience will be partaking in a tradition that dates back centuries, enjoying theatre in these unique surroundings.

By guest blogger Amelia Smith 

Can the arts not take us to great heights…?

It’s a common story – as soon as schools endure budget squeezes, it’s the creative arts subjects that get the cuts, and in some cases, are removed altogether. I’m not one to judge educational authorities too harshly for this; when money is tight, changes need to be made – and certainly the core subjects of English, Mathematics and Science must be given particular importance.

That said, I feel there’s an unfortunate propensity by some to undervalue the role of the arts in the scholastic environment. I agree that schools are primarily – but not entirely – places to nourish the pupils’ academic leanings, and I would argue that a subject like Drama is as academic as anything else on the curriculum. The modern world – and, by extension, modern academia – can sometimes appear to perceive the arts and humanities as the poor relation to technology and scientific logic, regarding the former two with intellectual contempt. Never having held with this view myself, I’ve sometimes found myself in the position of giving a spirited defence of drama and the arts in education and society.

Firstly, Drama’s qualifications as an academic subject – in addition to acting, drama lessons include regular study and evaluation of plays, giving it a lot in common with English Literature – and indeed, some of my Drama teachers doubled as English teachers and vice versa. As someone who took both GCSE and Drama A-Levels, I can confirm that the notion that Drama classes are just a chance to mess around is inaccurate. Many’s the time I can recall sitting at my desk, head bent, poring over an Ancient Greek or Shakespeare play, employing the handy skills of textual analysis.  A thorough knowledge of the historical, cultural and social influences upon the playwright was often required, which meant broad avenues of research and investigation. An education in Drama can give a student a decent grounding in literature, history, politics and religious/philosophical thinking, as all of these can somehow feed into the process by which a play is written.

Voice workshop

I also believe that Drama lessons potentially serve as a source of personal development when it comes to students who struggle with confidence and social situations. A naturally socially anxious individual, I well remember being a painfully shy and timorous child, very much one to sink into the background. In those days, I would have bolted from the room screaming at the suggestion of taking on anything as terrifying as acting. In my first year of secondary school, when Drama classes were a mandatory, if minor, part of the schedule, I grudgingly trudged to the obligatory one lesson per week, sure that when it came around to any ‘proper’ acting, I would sputter and flounder in true awkward fashion.

But something changed in my second year. I could never quite pinpoint it, but all of a sudden, I found that it wasn’t so difficult to slip into the persona of another character. Furthermore, I discovered that upon shedding my own identity, I could temporarily forego my social awkwardness and transform into someone who was loud, bold and confident. What’s more, I liked it – the creative challenge of adopting the traits and emotions of someone else, the positive response from my peers (inducing laughter was always a nice touch for my ego) and the ability to really step outside of myself and look at the world from another perspective. I credit my Drama classes with inculcating in me a greater appreciation for teamwork and improving my self-belief.

Finally, Drama, as a creative endeavour, allows students to give greater reign to their imaginations, something I think is essential in the development of a well-rounded intelligence. As a creatively-minded person, I’ve always sung the praises of the gift of imagination, and I believe that opportunities for creative expression are important in environments, such as schools, which are mostly very regimented in their structure. Drama, as with other arts, exercises the mind and exposes the pupil to alternative avenues of thought.

That’s why I uphold the role of Drama in schools. Can the arts not take us to great heights…?

By guest blogger Michelle Gibson 

Another side of Stratford…

Cervantes & Shakespeare died with eleven days of each other in 1616. The 400th anniversary of the death of Britain’s most celebrated playwright is marked with a vast timetable of events around the country, which you can read more about here.  Cervantes is arguably best known as the writer of ‘Don Quixote’ and so it seems apt that a production by the RSC of this fantastical comedy, newly adapted by James Fenton, has opened to rave reviews in Shakespeare’s home town of Stratford Upon Avon. And what a production it is. The brilliant David Threlfall (probably best known as Frank in TV’s “Shameless”) plays the knight errant as a sword-wielding Spike Milligan meets King Lear, twinkling eyes that convey a man at the tipping-point of madness who refuses to give up on his quest, no matter how many slings and arrows rain down upon him. He provides many of the (many) laugh-out-loud moments in this vibrant and energetic production which blends puppetry, dance, music, song and, from Rufus Hound’s hilarious Sancho Panza, stand-up comedy. Quixote stands alone as the hero of his own story, with the supporting cast inviting the audience to join them on the journey – addressing us directly in places. One highlight involves Rufus Hound requesting that the audience cheer wildly when they hear mention of a certain place later in the play. And when we do, it works brilliantly. A simple trick that for a moment breaks down the fourth wall and brings audience and cast together. I knew very little of the story before seeing the show, other than the stuff involving windmills (another stand-out moment!) and Terry Gilliam’s ill-fated movie, which ended up as the subject of a fascinating documentary on a movie that was never finished. But in the hands of the RSC the story is told in such an engaging and entertaining way that you can’t help but be swept along with it.

Buzz Goodbody
Buzz Goodbody

The Other Place has just re-opened in Stratford and one of its many functions is as host to a fascinating guided tour entitled ‘Page To Stage’. The Other Place was the RSC’s third venue for many years, beginning life as a tin shed rehearsal room before, in 1974, becoming a home for the company’s more experimental works & new writing. Actors loved the space – intimate, with no fixed seating and always within touching distance of the audience. One of the many landmark productions held here was Sir Ian McKellen’s Macbeth, with Dame Judi Dench as his Lady M. The venue was the brainchild of Buzz Goodbody, the RSC’s first ever female director at just 20 years old, whose idea it was to make this rehearsal room into a performance space. Goodbody tragically took her own life shortly after her production of Hamlet opened in 1975, which The Times’ Irving Wardle described as “an astounding revelation of the most excavated play in the world, ranking with Peter Brook’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream as the key classical production of the decade”. It starred Ben Kingsley in the title role and also featured Charles Dance & Bob Peck in supporting roles. Photos of Buzz Goodbody feature prominently and fittingly in the foyer and café.

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The RSC production of ‘Don Quixote’

The venue became The Courtyard Theatre for a short while, providing a temporary home during the RST’s redevelopment work. Now it is open again & encompasses several huge rehearsal spaces and a studio theatre which can used by the community and amateur theatre groups as well as the RSC itself. The building will also house the costume store, where thousands of pieces from past productions will be available to hire. Our tour guide Robert did an excellent job, providing a perfect blend of information & entertainment. He took us through the process involved in bringing an RSC production to the stage, from choosing the play (sometimes 2 or 3 years in advance), selecting a director, marketing, casting, rehearsing and right up to opening night. The tour also provides a (literal) window into one of the rehearsal spaces where you can see the company at work. If you’re looking for something with a little more insight than your bog-standard backstage tour, then this is it. Recommended.

I always come home from a good theatre trip feeling inspired and excited about the future of the club and heading in new directions. The question now is – when shall we hire The Other Place and take Huntingdon Drama Club to the birthplace of Shakespeare? Watch this space… !

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