Thursday, 2 April 2015

Postcard from Nottingham and Stratford-Upon-Avon

Mermaid at the Nottingham Playhouse; Love’s Labours Lost and Love’s Labours Found at the RSC

On Friday morning after the final Complicité workshop, I head to Euston to catch the 2.15 to Nottingham. A week after seeing the final rehearsal of Shared Experience’s Mermaid, I’m going to opening night at the Nottingham Playhouse.

When I arrive it’s colder than London, and feels bleaker too. There’s less evidence of cultural diversity, and despite the famous castle and obligatory statue of Robin Hood, the streets and architecture have a rather forbidding air. In fact the town is traditionally something of a bastion of authoritarian reaction. Apart from being associated with the tyrannical King John and the notorious Sherriff, it was a Royalist stronghold for Charles I, and the castle itself was razed to the ground after his execution. Later the palace built in its place by the Duke of Newcastle was burnt down after he opposed the passage of the Reform Act. So perhaps it’s no wonder the place gives me a bit of a chill.

I check into my hotel and wend my way up the cobbled street past the castle for for fish and chips and a real ale at a rather grand but friendly local corner pub. It’s packed with a Friday-night middle-class crowd – as is the Playhouse just up the road. In the foyer I catch sight of the show’s writer-director Polly Teale, who welcomes me warmly and tells me there have been a few changes since the runthrough I saw last week. As I settle into my seat, I overhear someone behind me saying their daughter is in the onstage chorus of local teenage girls.

In the event, the show is much as I remember it. Certainly there’s an added pleasure in seeing it fleshed out in production; but perhaps inevitably some of the immediacy and freshness of the rehearsal room is gone. The performances are broader, partly in response to the larger venue and audience, more elaborate set and costumes, and busier lighting and sound. The chorus are briefly involved in the opening teenage party scene, but otherwise remain sitting and watching below the platform-stage on either side. Their presence lends an extra dimension to the story, but they don’t contribute significantly to the action.

In terms of content I find I still have trouble with the contemporary scenes, which feel a little token. The performer playing the teenage narrator is left physically high and dry during the Andersen scenes, which she continues to narrate but which occupy the bulk of the play. A simpler solution, it seems to me, would have been for her to play the Mermaid as well – much as one feels Andersen did in his imagination (and perhaps also as a storyteller-performer). The royal family scenes have become more cartoon-like in performance, perhaps because they straddle both worlds, contemporary and fairytale, so it’s unclear what kind of genre they belong to. To be sure, there’s a pathos to the character of the Prince when he goes off to a modern war (perhaps in Iraq or Afghanistan) and returns traumatized. Dramaturgically however it feels like another story, which after interval threatens to eclipse that of the Mermaid herself. In fact the play now ends with the Prince suffering an emotional breakdown and being dragged offstage, while the narrator finally unites with the Mermaid, as if both stories have merged in a kind of delirium shared by all three central characters. For me, however, the change of form comes too late in the piece to be dramatically satisfying. In fact, I prefer Andersen’s original ending, for all its unfashionable moralism and underlying perversity. No doubt, the change of medium from literature to theatre demands a corresponding change of form; but as for the content, I can’t help feeling that – whether for political, social, cultural or artistic reasons – one ‘improves’ on a great (if twisted) original at one’s peril.


On Saturday morning I get the train via Birmingham to Stratford-Upon-Avon. I’m meeting up with an old friend for a Shakespeare marathon: a matinee of Love’s Labours Lost followed by an evening performance of Much Ado About Nothing – which for the purposes of this season has been redubbed Love’s Labours Won. It’s known that Shakespeare wrote a ‘lost’ play with this title; RSC artistic director Gregory Doran believes that this play is Much Ado and has programmed them together accordingly. They’ve been conceived as a single event in two parts, with the same director (Chris Luscombe), designer (Simon Higlett), composer/musical director (Nigel Hess), and ensemble cast (led by Edward Bennett as Berowne/Benedick and Michelle Terry as Rosaline/Beatrice). The set is a grand Edwardian country house (modelled on an actual stately home, Charlecote Park, just a few miles from Stratford itself) just before and just after the First World War. It’s a clever idea (and piece of marketing), and I can’t resist checking it out.

Love’s Labours Lost is one of my favourite plays. It’s not often performed, perhaps because of its highly formal and even rarified nature. In form and content it’s related to the Sonnets, with which it’s thought to be contemporary (both even suggestively share a ‘Dark Lady’). More generally, the play is a satire on the limits of language (including professions of academic learning, vows of chastity and faith) in the face of the disruptive power of love.

Much Ado is a very different kettle of fish, and in my view, despite some superficial similarities between the two central relationships, linking the two plays together on this basis is drawing a long bow. However the idea of using the advent of war as a fulcrum is inspired. Love’s Labours notoriously ends with a sudden change of mood from comedy to sorrow with the announcement of the king’s death and the postponement of marriage between the lovers; while Much Ado is premised on the billeting of soldiers – and more profoundly by a kind of universal mistrust between men and women (and indeed between men and men) which is not dissimilar from the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

In the event, Love’s Labours proves to be a brilliant production of an unfairly neglected play. Staging and performances are witty, touching and occasionally hilarious, but maintain an integrity that makes the mood-change at the end all the more effective. When the men make their final exit in uniform, we know the holocaust that awaits them, and the implications it has for their promise to return in a year’s time. When Berowne utters his last line –  ‘that’s too long for a play’ – there’s scarcely a dry eye in the house, even onstage. It’s also the final performance of both shows, which adds to the sense of poignancy. The whole thing is beautifully scored by Hess, who conducts a live accompaniment ranging from autumnal Elgarian plangeny to sparkling Gilbert and Sullivan-style operetta.

After such a strong precursor, Much Ado perhaps surprisingly proves to be less effective. In my opinion it’s a trickier play than many productions give it credit for, this one included; in particular there’s an underlying bitterness that can’t be accommodated by adopting a generalised tone of sentimental pantomime, as here. I’m struck by how the same actors (especially Bennett as Benedick) fail to deliver performances that match the integrity of their work in the earlier play (Terry as Beatrice is more successful at embodying Beatrice’s underlying rage) In general, it’s as if the whole show baulks at the implications of its own post-war conceit. Outstanding performances of the night for me come from David Horovitch as a hilarious and touching pedant Holofernes in Love’s Labours and an understated and vulnerable father/uncle Leonato in Much Ado.

Overall, I’m won over by the tiered thrust configuration of the recently renovated Royal Shakespeare Theatre, and by the consistency and clarity of playing style from the ensemble. To a greater degree than any mainstream company I’ve seen in Australia (including Bell Shakespeare), every actor seems to know what they’re doing and to be ‘on the same page’.

More reflectively, I’m also struck by the different meaning that the First World War seems to have for an English audience, as opposed to an Australian one. There’s no false invocation of national glory, pride or rite of passage. There’s just a sense of damage, futility and loss. As the ‘fantastical Spaniard’ Don Armado says in the last line of Love’s Labours: ‘The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo.’ It’s a sobering reminder of the dividing line drawn by death – and all the more so by the putative ‘war to end all wars’, which instead ushered in a new era of mass annihilation.


Humph’s Postcard from Glasgow follows next week.

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