(Image edit by Vineeta via the Shakespeare In Action blog)
Wednesday 23rd April 2014 marks the 450th birthday of England’s most famous playwright William Shakespeare. It is incredible to see how important his work remains today and I wanted to mark his birthday by looking back at my own Shakespearean theatre highlights. I admit up front that I have yet to see them all (I have nine left on my list) and I have only the last few years to draw from, but the wonder of Shakespeare is that there is something in his work for everyone and you are never to old or too young to start. So many themes in his work are relevant today and it is crucial that we continue to encourage children to experience Shakespeare (through for example the RSC’s Stand Up For Shakespeare campaign) and learn by doing rather than simply reading. Far too many adults feel Shakespeare is off limits as they view it as too difficult or dry. For those of us who are already passionate about his work, we need to encourage those people to give it a try – a well directed and performed production can change your whole attitude to the Bard if you are open to the possibilities.
I am also a firm believer that anything theatre companies can do to draw new audiences to Shakespeare can only be a positive step. I am always disappointed when, on the announcement of a famous TV/film actor, it is criticised by some as stunt casting. This frustrates me for many reasons but principally – most such actors have long theatrical backgrounds and the fact they are now known more widely for film or TV does not and should not belittle their casting or subsequent performance. Plus if such casting brings a fan base to Shakespeare not usually there then surely that is something we should applaud?! It’s incredibly insulting to suggest that all such people will never see anything else. I say this as one of them! Although I enjoyed the theatre and saw a few shows a year, it was David Tennant as Hamlet that prompted me to return to Stratford-Upon-Avon for the first time since school and reacquaint myself with Shakespeare’s work. Six years later and I am a passionate theatregoer and proud supporter of various theatres. I also know so many people whose love of Shakespeare grew from such a start and I think that’s fantastic!
So, as his birthday slips away (being out for World Book Night means this post is a little delayed!), here are my special Shakespearean moments so far. I have no doubt that there will be plenty more to come!
My first live Shakespeare – Romeo & Juliet (RSC, 2000)
It’s only right I start with my first live Shakespeare, which was Michael Boyd’s 2000 production starring David Tennant and Alexandra Gilbreath (isn’t that a coincidence?!). As an A-Level English trip, it was fantastic to visit his birthplace and see his work live for the first time.
The closet scene – Hamlet (RSC, 2008)
It took me eight years before the next Shakespeare play, which brought me back to Stratford-Upon-Avon to see a familiar face as Hamlet. This will always be a special production to me. It reignited my love of theatre and led me to meet so many wonderful friends. Directed by Greg Doran, it was a wonderful ensemble of actors, each perfect in their roles. Every Hamlet I’ve seen since there has always been something I’ve not liked, whether a performance or setting and that’s why this remains the benchmark for me. It was also clear and accessible and funny (something I never realised about Hamlet). I could have picked many moments but I’ve gone with the scene that I always looked forward to on each visit to the show and that’s the closet scene. I found it thrilling each time and the power, pace and emotion invested by David Tennant and Penny Downie was superb.
The female Bastard – King John (RSC, 2012)
I wasn’t familiar with King John before my visit to the Swan and had no idea what to expect. This production was simply fantastic and was like no other History play I have ever seen (and with a soundtrack like no other either!). Set in a world I wouldn’t have expected, it was fun and exciting to watch. Alex Waldmann was excellent as John but it was Pippa Nixon as the Bastard who impressed me the most. Her performance in a traditionally male role was incredible and planted her firmly on my “must see” list.
Pizza and shots anyone? – Twelfth Night (Filter Theatre Company, Tricycle Theatre, 2010)
The Filter theatre company has a unique way of presenting its work, whether for example, Shakespeare or the use of sound or water, to introduce its audience to ideas they may not have explored before. My first Filter production was their unique interpretation of Twelfth Night. It was modern, quirky, dared to be different and made its audience sit up and pay attention and opened Shakespeare up to a whole new audience. Plus the inclusion of pizza for the audience seemed to go down very well indeed!
Mercutio dazzles – Romeo & Juliet (RSC, 2010)
After studying this play at school and then seeing it performed often, as well as screen outings, I’d started to become a little bored of it. Then along came Rupert Goold’s production to remind me how a production can make all the difference as to how we view a play! From the opening scene in which Benvolio is doused in petrol and almost set alight, this was clearly going to be something special. Sam Troughton and Mariah Gale’s relationship as the tragic lovers was a wonderful and modern interpretation. For me however, the shining star was Jonjo O’Neil’s bleach blonde Mercutio. He was magnetic on stage and burned so brightly I couldn’t take my focus from him.
Mark Rylance returns to the Globe – Twelfth Night (The Globe, 2013)
After missing it the first time around it was fantastic to see Mark Rylance’s revival of his all male Twelfth Night at the Globe last year. Although I enjoy trips to the Globe, I always find myself getting distracted by other audience members and my own fidgeting on the bench seating. This is still the only production during which I have been totally absorbed. Ryalnce’s Olivia, gliding around the stage was a joy, as was all the cast, but especially Johnny Flynn as Viola and Stephen Fry as Malvolio. It had a genuine magic in the Globe’s setting that I won’t forget in a hurry.
Loyalty and loss for Aumerle – Richard II (RSC, 2013)
As the production marking his tenure as Artistic Director of the RSC, Greg Doran should be proud of this production. I don’t think it was David Tennant’s finest work on stage (it’s still Hamlet for me), but this version of Richard II was brilliantly conceived and performed by everyone involved. As I find with most of Greg’s productions it was clear to understand and all the friends I took to see it had no problem following the story. As well as bringing another opportunity for me to see one of my favourites on stage, this production also included the Shakespeare master Oliver Ford Davies, a superb Michael Pennington and lots of new faces. The standout performance for me though was that of Oliver Rix, whose Aumerle was beautifully realised, and developed in depth and character over the course of the run. Oliver’s own understudy performance as King Richard was also a privilege to see and highlighted to me once again the importance of the role of understudy (see my previous post for more on this).
The power of evil Spacey – Richard III (Old Vic, 2011)
From one Richard to another, I was very excited at the time to see Kevin Spacey’s interpretation of evil Richard and although some aspects of this production disappointed me, his performance was not to be missed. He was a convincing Richard (although I admit to thinking about The Usual Suspects every so often when watching him!). It was a dramatic production with some interesting artistic choices. I loved the use of the projection screen for a scene and also the simple turning off of a bare lightbulb when someone was killed.
The partnership of Rory Kinnear & Adrian Lester – Othello (NT, 2013)
This was my first Othello and I think I’ve been spoilt! The relationship built between Kinnear’s Iago and Lester’s Othello was thrilling to watch and the whole production had an energy about it that drew me in from the start. I was very pleased Rory Kinnear was recognised for this performance at this year’s Olivier Awards.
Never has paint been used better! – Much Ado About Nothing (Wyndams, 2011)
Yes it’s another Tennant one (so what?!) and yes this was all a bit silly, but it was a production filled with fun and memorable moments. I thought the Gibraltar setting during the 80s was perfect for the style and tone chosen for this version and due to their already strong friendship, David Tennant and Catherine Tate were able to create a sparkling dynamic between as Benedict and Beatrice. I also loved the addition of Adam James to the cast as Don Pedro. He was younger an more playful than others I’d seen, but still carried an air of loneliness that, although subtle, was I thought clear to all. The moment has to be the paint scene. It still makes me laugh every time. David Tennant has excellent comic timing, which is on full display here and Adam, Tom Bateman (soon to be the Bard himself in Shakespeare In Love) and Jonathan Coy did fantastic jobs enhancing the utter farce of the moment.
A beautiful friendship – Henry IV (The Globe, 2010)
I will always be sad that I missed this production live, but thanks to The Globe’s DVD releases I was at least able to catch up and soon understood why everyone I knew who had seen them talked about them so much. There isn’t enough praise for Roger Allam’s Falstaff – funny and tragic, the loyal friend who is left behind for the greater good and every emotion felt genuine. The relationship with Jamie Parker’s Prince Hal was lovely and made the end so much more powerful. Although I enjoyed the current RSC Henry IV, this version is still the best for me so far.
Derek Jacobi as Lear – King Lear (Donmar, 2010)
The title says it all really! I’m not a huge fan of this play (I know I know that’s bad right?) as it’s always such an emotional slog for me, but I couldn’t miss Derek Jacobi in the role and this will no doubt be my favourite production of this play for some time. It was clear he was giving everything he had to the role and in such a small place like the Donmar, the power and emotion of the story seemed all the more vivid.
Corporate greed and excess as written 400 years ago! – Timon of Athens (NT, 2012)
Simon Russell Beale is a master of Shakespeare and is currently doing a brilliant job as Lear at the NT. The performance that makes my list though is this 2012 production. Set in a very modern world of corporate excess and greed, the play felt as if it could have been written in the modern day. This highlighted again how Shakespeare is not meant for a world of the past but will continue to be relevant for any age.
Berowne and a tree! – Love’s Labour’s Lost (RSC, 2008)
It may have been Hamlet that drew me to the RSC in 2008, but Love’s Labour’s Lost was perhaps the bigger surprise for me. Another unfamiliar play at the time, the ensemble created a vivid, colourful world on stage and the scene in which David Tennant’s Berowne eavesdrops on the other men whilst sitting above in a tree was a definite highlight. I’ll always remember Sam Alexander’s huge book from within which he produced his musical instrument and began to sing! Priceless!
Flying books – The Winter’s Tale (RSC, 2009)
My highlight of the RSC’s 2009 season was this production of The Winter’s Tale. I loved the staging with its polished wood floor and towering bookshelves and Greg Hick’s performance as Leontes was excellent (my favourite of all the ones he did at the RSC that season). The moments before the interval as the books fly from the shelves and the bookshelves themselves start to crash down was something I’ll always remember.
Glastonbury-style fun – As You Like It (RSC, 2013)
I always think this is a strange play as there really isn’t much plot in the second half (Greg Doran made this point at a talk last year too!). Therefore for me to enjoy it, it has to be a strong production and my favourite so far is last year’s RSC one starring Alex Waldmann as Orlando and Pippa Nixon as Rosalind. It was engaging and entertaining and the strength of the two leads was clear, whose chemistry shone. The Glastonbury-style woodland setting was quite beautiful, adding to the fun and magic of the dancing at the end.
So those are my Shakespearean highlights. Not bad for only a few years of theatre trips! I’d be interested to hear about the productions you’ve loved over the years and I sincerely hope that people are still enjoying Shakespeare’s wonderful work in another 450 years time!