It’s not always the case that a play’s plot is summed up by the title alone, but A Bunch of Amateurs is exactly that: the story of an amateur theatre group in their quest to stage a production of King Lear, the lead role of which has been given to a fading Hollywood star. Whilst most of the Stratford Players are thrilled to be treading the boards with a celebrity, the star in question is initially dismayed to discover that, contrary to his expectations, he has not joined the cast of a well-known professional outfit.
Ian Hislop and Nick Newman’s script takes a comical look at the personalities and pitfalls of amateur dramatics. As many involved in am-dram would admit, it’s easy to poke fun at the subject – both the types of individuals you come across and the mini disasters that are liable to raise their heads when you have neither the luxury of paid professionals or owning your own theatre. Whether it’s star-struck Mary fawning over her Hollywood idol, pomposity-exuding Nigel fuming over losing out on a lead role that he believes should be his by rights, or director Dorothy’s flustered attempts to keep her cast in order, the drama involved in staging a show is laid bare.
Affectionate mockery of amateur theatre is commonplace, with one of the funniest takes on the matter being Michael Green’s 1964 publication of The Art of Coarse Acting (Or How to Wreck an Amateur Dramatic Society). Green, himself an amateur performer of many years, based the title on his experiences with Northampton Drama Club and the Questors Theatre, exposing the mishaps and mistakes which the public holds as stereotypical of the field. A coarse actor, Green explains, “is an actor who can remember his lines but not the order in which they come. An amateur. One who performs in Church Halls. Often the scenery will fall down. Sometimes the Church Hall may fall down. Invariably his tights will fall down.” How to tell when we have fallen victim to the scourge of course acting? Green informs us – “one of the infallible signs that Coarse Drama is going on is the fact that the traditional roles of actor and audience are reversed. The actor is being himself while the audience are playing a part, heavily pretending to enjoy the show, struggling to laugh at unfunny jokes and so on.”
But it is inaccurate to conclude that Hislop and Newman’s play is purely a facile lampoon of amateur acting. Much of what makes the story so endearing is that, suffused amongst the laughter and ridicule, is obvious affection for am-dram and its virtues. Whatever their failings, the characters are quite sincere in both their passion for theatre and determination to keep their small but dedicated group in business. As well as drawing humour from the follies of the non-professional performing world, A Bunch of Amateurs reflects the less well-known truths of amateur dramatics; that such groups often draw enthusiastic, talented and dedicated individuals whose commitment to upholding the arts in their communities is to be admired.
Japanese novelist Natsume Soseki summarised the importance of all art in a passage from Kusamakura. “If this best of worlds proves a hard one for you, you must simply do your best to settle in and relax as you can, and make this short life of ours, if only briefly, an easier place in which to make your home. Herein lies the poet’s true calling, the artist’s vocation. We owe our humble gratitude to all practitioners of the arts, for they mellow the harshness of our human world and enrich the human heart.”
In an age in which significant reductions have been made to public spending on the arts, the presence of amateur performers is perhaps more keenly felt than ever. While we laugh at the antics inside the drama society of Stratford-St-John, we are simultaneously reminded of the cultural blessings such outlets provide, and the hard work, vigour and diligence of all those who come together to ensure their communities can enjoy the gift of artistic exhibitions.
By Michelle Gibson (this piece will also appear in the programme for A Bunch of Amateurs)
When it comes to theatre, be it acting, directing or working behind the scenes – you never stop learning. And I love the opportunity to learn more, especially from professionals working in the industry right now. And so a Directing Studio at Shakespeare’s Globe over a weekend in May sounded too good to miss! Located on London’s Bankside (which can you now reach by train directly from Huntingdon to Blackfriars – assuming the trains aren’t cancelled) the Globe has become an increasingly important centre for theatre in London since it opened in 1997. Seeing several productions at the Globe in the last few years (Henry V, As You Like It, The Merchant of Venice, Doctor Scroggy’s War) I was struck by the unique atmosphere. Standing in the yard as a groundling literally inches from the stage watching Jonathan Pryce as Shylock or Jamie Parker urging us once more unto the breach as King Henry for just £5 is not only the sale of the century but also the most exciting way I’ve seen Shakespeare performed.
Having somehow persuaded the Shakespeare at The George trustees to allow me to direct A Midsummer Night’s Dream for their 60th anniversary production in 2019, this Directing Studio was perfect for me – I haven’t directed any Shakespeare for a number of years and was eager to be as well-equipped as possible for the first get-together and rehearsals with the cast. What I was eager to discover was how the Globe infuses it’s productions with such vitality and energy, engaging the audience to come along for the ride – several hundred of whom will be on their feet for the 2 to 3 hour running time.
We started on Saturday morning with introductions from our course leader Craig who gave us an overview of the two days before we launched straight into the first session – An Actor’s Perspective with director and actor Phillip Bird. Using a scene from The Tempest we had the opportunity to deliver a few lines on the stage of the beautiful Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, the Globe’s indoor venue. Here the challenge is the same as in the far larger main venue next door – the audience are all around you – above, below, to your left and to your right. How do the actors manage to engage all sections of the audience? One way (which I tried hard to use in Richard III) is to be very specific with your delivery – to point lines to different members of the audience, to engage them with eye contact and make them feel involved – as if you are talking directly to them. It reassures the audience that, no matter where they are watching the action from, they will be involved. As an audience member watching an actor who stares somewhere into the middle distance, directing their lines to nobody in particular, it’s easy to become disengaged and lose interest.
Moving across the road to the Globe’s wonderful rehearsal studios, director Rob Swain took us through session two – A Director Prepares, which I found invaluable and could’ve easily spent a whole day on! Rob starts with what he calls ‘the clean read’. He opens the text and reads the play straight through from start to end, with no note taking or mental analysis – to make the play fresh in the mind of the director and erasing (if possible) previous readings or viewings. Then he starts to ask questions – anything that springs to mind. It could be “why does a bear suddenly appear?” or “have Hamlet and Ophelia consummated their relationship?” And after this first ‘clean’ read – note down your reactions and questions. Importantly – think about what your audience will NOT understand and start to think about how to solve those problems.
Rob talked about the ‘three worlds’ of the play; The First World – the time and place in which the play is written. The Second World – the world in which the play is set and the significance that brings to the story. And finally, The Third World – the world in which we live, and how the play engages with our audience. He encouraged us not to ‘impose’ upon the play but to have an on-going dialogue with it. Don’t worry about ‘concepts’ or ‘making it relevant’ but instead to be true to the play and in doing so ‘releasing it’s relevance’ to the audience.
Research is an important part of the directing process and this was broken down into three different types; Imaginative Research– what does the play say to me? Why should I do it? What is the play actually ABOUT? What actually HAPPENS during the play? What is trying to do to the audience? (This could be as broad as, with a comedy, ‘make the audience laugh’). Factual Research– are there different versions of the play? How do they differ? Why are certain passages in prose? (Very relevant to the Mechanical scenes in A Midsummer Night’s Dream). Why are certain lines longer or shorter than others? Historical Research– the place & time in which the play is set. How does this influence the story?
We also discussed the internal architecture of the play and the difference between ‘dramatic’ and ‘real’ credibility. How does the play deal with the distance between places and the time-span of the action? Pericles, for example, takes place over a course of some years, whereas A Midsummer Night’s Dream happens in one day. Decisions made in the play by characters have a ripple effect on the story – if Lysander and Hermia hadn’t run away from the court then Demetrius & Helena would never have fallen in love. Above all Rob encouraged us not to be too ‘well-learned’ at this stage but to allow a ‘creative mess of ideas’. By the time rehearsals begin, the director should be able to give the actors enough to think about that they will come back with their own questions and suggestions.
The third and final session on day one was again with Phillip and drilled down into the text of classical theatre. Line lengths, verse versus prose, pauses, etc. He urged us to look at the direction of scenes – who’s chasing? Who’s running? What does the character want from the scene? What are they trying to get from the other character(s)? I was reminded of a tip from a book by the American director Harold Clurman where he talked about ‘the nice and the nasty’ and how it relates to movement or blocking in a scene. When characters say nice things to each other they tend to move towards each other. When they say nasty things they tend to move apart. Quite simple but effective!
Returning on Sunday morning we started with a movement session led by Simone Coxall – a director and movement specialist who has worked extensively in the UK, USA & Australia and also teaches at the Fourth Monkey Actor Training Company. A good movement session can really open actors up and free them from the trappings of their own mental and physical habits. It’s a discipline I used to wrestle with at drama school (having two left feet and being a big fan of lying down) but I’ve come to embrace as an incredibly useful way to work through problems in rehearsal or on difficult scenes. (A Laban movement session at a Donmar Theatre workshop was invaluable during rehearsals for The Madness of George III– finding a different physicality for the ‘mad’ scenes). It’s not dance and the two shouldn’t be confused. It deals a lot with tempo – changing your inner and outer tempos and seeing how combining, for example a fast inner tempo with a calm, slow outer tempo can give an actor a unique physical place to work from. Very often in rehearsal we see that the tempo an actor brings with them when they arrive at the first rehearsal (their own tempo) will soon become the characters tempo which in turn dictates the pace at which they move around the stage & deliver all their lines. In life, our bodies are attuned to react in different situations – to laugh if we’re amused, to run away from danger. In rehearsal we need to unlock that in the actors body. It’s interesting, rewarding and something which the cast of A Midsummer Night’s Dreamwill benefit from. Simone has agreed in principle to come down to Huntingdon and run a session with us!
Next up we were back in the Playhouse with Yvonne Morley for a session on voice. Yvonne was head of voice at LAMDA as well as being an associate of the National and Globe theatres. She has also recently been working on a project to create a ‘voice profile’ for Richard III, which you can learn more about here. Yvonne began by telling us the three things she requires from actors – (1) that you can be heard, (2) that you can be understood and (3) that the audience believes you. If any of those three elements are missing then we don’t have a real, full performance. Yvonne took us through an invigorating and energising vocal warm-up, before running us through a number of exercises focussed on breath, tone and pitch. It’s a lovely feeling as an actor when you’ve had a great warm-up and the voice is really resonating! On the playhouse stage we added exaggerated movements to the lines of a children’s story, to see how the body can combine with the voice. Another very useful exercise helped us to maintain the energy through to the very end of a line – avoiding the pitfall that actors fall into where they tail off at the end of a li…
We reconvened at the rehearsal studios for a final session with director Rob Swain – essentially a Q&A and feedback on the course. I was loaded with questions for Rob & probably asked three times as many as anyone else! So, what did I learn that I can take forward into A Midsummer Night’s Dream next year? Well, as Rob neatly put it, “if it’s outside then it needs to be bigger, bolder, louder & brighter. And invite them to bring food & booze and make it a party atmosphere!” The voice and movement sessions will help my cast to be heard and understood and hopefully to move more freely and with intention. The text work we did will enable me to guide the actors through their lines, helping to understand and to mine the lines for clues on story and motivation. You can never know it all and that’s why theatre-making is most rewarding when it’s a truly collaborative exercise – the cast, crew & director all driving towards the same goal – to create the best production they can.
Thank you once again to the Trustees of SaTG for this wonderful opportunity & I look forward to putting all of this and more into practise for next year’s anniversary production!
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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!
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.
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!
Shakespeare at The George 2017 summer production will be Pericles: Prince of Tyre – directed by Richard Brown. The production will be performed from Tuesday 27th June to Saturday 8th July.
Shakespeare at the George is an ever-evolving company of actors and new People are always welcome.
Open auditions will be held at The George Hotel, Huntingdon on Saturday 19th and Sunday 20th November between 10am and 4pm. To book an audition please contact the Director by email: email@example.com
List of principal characters
(Please note that it is the intention at the moment to use considerable doubling to cover the wealth of minor characters and give the production the feel of a fairy tale performed by a company of actors)
Pericles – Prince of Tyre
Helicanus – elderly lord of Tyre
Cleon – Governor of Tarsus
Simonides – King of Pentapolis
Pandar – Owner of a brothel
Boult – Servant in the brothel
Lysimachus – Young Governor of Mytilene
Thaliard – a lord of Antioch
Dioniza – Wife to Cleon the Governor of Tarsus
Thaisa – Daughter to Simonides & wife of Pericles
Lychorida – Nurse to Marina
Marina – Daughter of Pericles
Bawd – Wife of Pander & joint owner of the brothel
Roles which will be either male or female:
Cerimon – Lord or Lady of Ephesus
3 Lords & Ladies of Tyre
3 Fishermen (or women)
Sailors, pirates, whores and others
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!
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.
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.
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.
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…?
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.
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.
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… !
One thing you can guarantee should you choose to partake in any type of outdoor activity over a British Bank Holiday weekend – it will rain. FACT. But such are the peculiarities of our climate that it’s also very possible that a grey, relentless, soaking drizel can stop completely during the time it takes you to wander through the Shakespeare’s Globe foyer, buy a poncho & take your place as a Groundling in the yard for the afternoon. And so it proved for a select band of HDC members for Saturday’s sell-out performance of ‘As You Like It’.
There’s something really special about the Globe – a combination of it’s fabulous location overlooking the Thames, the unique look and feel of the theatre itself, the smell of ale & barbeque that wafts over from the bar and the warm & friendly welcome afforded by the staff – far less informal than you’d expect from a London theatre. This uniqueness can also be felt amongst the audience – if you can bear to stand for the duration of a play then buy a £5 ‘groundling’ ticket – it’s how plays at the Globe should be experienced and gives you the best view of the action.
This was my fourth production at the Globe – I’ve yet to see a bad one. In fact, they have all been excellent. ‘As You Like It’ was no exception. It’s not my favourite Shakespeare – the play takes a long time to resolve itself in the second half as seemingly endless pastoral characters are being paired off. Touchstone is a difficult part to get right (as arguably are all Shakespeare’s clowns) but Daniel Crossley plays it enjoyably straight. It also features one of the Bard’s greatest speeches and James Garnon as a low-key Jacques delivers it with freshness & clarity. As ever at the Globe, the whole cast perform with an energy & vitality that is a marvel to watch and fills this huge open space – no mean feat, as anyone who has ever acted in an open air space will know.
Michelle Terry is outstanding as Rosalind – a firecracker of a performance made all the more impressive in the knowledge that this would be the first of two performances she would give that day. Her mastery of the language, vocal power & control and combination of verbal wit & physical comedy were a wonder to behold. But plays at the Globe are never about ‘star turns’ – they are company shows in every sense. Even Jonathan Pryce as Shylock in this season’s (also excellent) ‘Merchant Of Venice’ comes across as another member of the troupe, not an expensive star addition to the billing. Throw in a wrestling match (with the fight instructor replacing an injured actor at the last minute) and Touchstone leading the funniest dance routine I’ve ever seen in a classical play and the 3 hours of ‘As You Like It’ whizzed by.
As is becoming traditional, we retreated after the show to the nearby Porky’s BBQ for dinner & drinks before heading back to Huntingdon & home. Our next theatre outing is planned for July – Alan Bennett’s ‘The History Boys’ at the Cambridge Arts Theatre. It’s a really good way to get out and see more theatre and so much nicer (and invariably cheaper!) to go with a group of like-minded folk, so do try & join us next time. Watch this space for details!