Thursday, 23 June 2016

If you go down to the woods today…

Peter Cockerill (Bottom) – photo by Topher McGrillis/RSC

Swift as a shadow, short as any dream,
Brief as the lightning in the collied night,
That, in a spleen, unfolds both heaven and earth;
And ere a man hath power to say “Behold!”
The jaws of darkness do devour it up:
So quick bright things come to confusion.

Perhaps it was a conjunction of sorts – Tim Peake, like a celestial spirit, descending to Earth; just as the ‘strawberry moon’ (longingly hunted for by Puck – the enchanting Lucy Ellinson – in pyjamas) heralded the summer solstice; and the opening (as Erica Whyman reminded us) of a portal (real or mythical) between the fairy kingdom and the land where us gentle mortals dwell… – or perhaps it was simply meeting Mephistophilis himself (the impish Oliver Ryan), and being granted several wishes all at once… – but, whatever it was, yesterday, for me, was an intensely magical day. And in so many intensely magical ways! And all thanks to the RSC….

It signs well, does it not?
– Shakespeare: Antony and Cleopatra (IV.iii.14)

Last night’s performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was a British Sign Language (BSL) interpreted one – although “interpreted” seems far too weak a word for the way the warm, winning, wonderful Caroline Ryan gathered us up in her eloquent arms and carried us through the evening. [If you want to see some of this wonderment in action, then I suggest you watch her fantastic signed introduction to the play and its characters.]

Initially aloof from the mortals, onstage, it soon became apparent – her coloured Puck-like quiff and red stockings were hints; but Chu Omambala’s generous embracing of her as part of his (Oberon’s) entourage was the giveaway (later, at the post-show Q&A, confirmed by Whyman) – that here was another cheeky, otherworldly sprite – Robin Goodfellow’s shadow; or perhaps antithesis – commenting on, and laughing at – with wonderful expressiveness – the foibles of those silly humans; and yet fully engaged with, and involved in, the fairies’ songs, dances and tricks! You didn’t have to understand BSL (as I don’t – yet…) – although many of her descriptive gestures so clearly enriched the action for everyone… – to be immediately enraptured by her skill, and her (and the language’s) inherent ingenuity and power. Each character was somehow rendered differently, individually; and she moved around the stage not as an adjunct to the action, but as a completely integrated and important part of it: creating a rich, interwoven layer of insight and enjoyment.

Even though I don’t currently use BSL, there are two main reasons why I am so interested in such presentations: firstly, of course, because of my own hearing loss; but, secondly, that I find – as with the earlier “interpreted” The Jew of Malta – them to be immensely, amazingly moving (as I know did Jasper Britton, who played the eponymous Barabas). They are such wonderful, inclusive undertakings (especially when, organizationally, they add another layer of complexity to already convoluted proceedings) – not only because they expand the magnificent, immersive experience that is theatre to those who may otherwise not be able to partake; but also (a little selfishly, perhaps) because – although I need to substantially increase my lip- and caption-reading abilities first… – as my deafness continues to grow, I may, some day – to put it crudely and simplistically – have to (enthusiastically) rely on them.

Having said that, though, BSL is no simple replacement for the spoken word. As you may have gathered from my description of Caroline’s performance, above, it is so multidimensional a language that I can see how it deeply enriches its users’ lives – as well as empowering them (never mind giving them the ability to talk in busy, cacophonous environments – something I struggle with intensely, at the moment: and therefore envy massively…).

Such qualities readily became apparent during the afternoon’s BSL-interpreted pre-show theatre tour that I was invited on by the RSC. Fortunately – for me – I was the only attendee; although I initially felt a bit of an impostor, not actually using BSL. Yet Clare Edwards, the extremely patient and thoughtful BSL guide, and Lesley Frampton, the extremely knowledgeable and accommodating RSC guide, took this in their stride, and made me feel extremely welcome.

Because I already knew some of the theatre’s history and workings – although Lesley was mesmerizing in her ability to continually deliver fresh gems of information and detail, and make me feel truly involved – a small part of the hour was spent investigating the mechanics (if that’s the right word) of a signed tour; and from all our perspectives. This was fascinating in itself; but, again, watching Clare in action was truly engrossing; and, whilst in the quieter parts of the theatre – where I no longer needed to concentrate on reading Lesley’s lips – I began, I believe, to truly get a taste of just how powerful BSL is. (Clare’s expertise and generosity certainly gave me incentive to explore the process of learning it myself… – despite being conscious of the fact that it is no easy achievement being as beautifully fluent and absorbing as both her and Caroline.)

Although, in so many ways, it was great to have such a ‘private’ tour, I really would encourage anyone who wants to go to the theatre, but worries about accessibility in any form, to take advantage of the RSC’s welcoming, intelligent, responsive and courteous (and, in my experience, somewhat unusual) approach. As someone who struggles with mobility, as well as hearing, I find them incredibly keen to ensure that the whole experience of visiting them – whether for a drink, a meal, an exhibition, a theatre tour, or fully engaging with their riveting productions – is made as easy and friendly as possible for everyone. They also appear happy to adapt to, and accommodate, each person’s needs – stating on their Access webpage that…

We want to make everything we do accessible to all our audiences, and are constantly seeking to find new and effective ways of breaking down barriers to enable attendance by the widest range of people.

By the way – if you want yet more proof of this policy – Clare also keenly (and seemingly inexhaustibly) signed the post-show talk: again meaning that none of the audience were excluded. [A brief note of thanks to the RSC’s sound technicians, here. Although I simply turned up my hearing aids a notch for the play itself – I know it pretty well, and was sat centrally, very near the front… – I connected to the theatre’s super-duper induction loop for the Q&A: and every word from those onstage was crystal clear. Wonderful!]

Yet more of the day’s sparkling magic emanated from – for me – a new set of Mechanicals. Based in Barnard Castle, County Durham, The Castle Players have been “delighting audiences since 1989”; and, in the programme, they tellingly state that Shakespeare “just ‘gets’ the stuff that makes us human”. Doesn’t he just!

Ayesha Dharker (Titania); Peter Cockerill (Bottom) – photo by Topher McGrillis/RSC

Having – as with all the non-professional groups – been given licence to thrill us in their own way: i.e. to develop their own interpretation of their company’s rôle in the play, it was quite astonishing to see how distinctive the end result was (and it so warmed the cockles of my heart to hear their warm Northumbrian inflections…)! Peter Cockerill was a Bottom with a knowing smile and a great big heart – and definitely an ego to match… – wonderfully growing further in confidence as the comedy grew in rudeness! His temporary love affair with Ayesha Dharker’s tender Titania (Sarah Fells, in rehearsal), though, was both moving and joyful (despite, or maybe because of, his stupendous Elvis routine…) – and I actually blubbered a little when the fairies introduced themselves to him in BSL (a beautiful touch – as was getting the craftsmen, later, to do the same for us…). However, Pyramus’ death scene was utterly impeccable in its hamminess; and therefore brought the house down… – twice!

Andrew Stainthorpe (Flute) – photo by Topher McGrillis/RSC

Andrew Stainthorpe, as an initially timorous Flute, was his match, though. Light on his feet – and heavy on the innuendo – his totally inappropriate casting as a fantastically flirtatious Thisbe just kept piling on the laughs. Never have I seen embarrassment so superbly portrayed… – well, apart from Ben Pearson’s tinkering Snout: whose self-conscious, confused Wall was not only tickled by his, er, brush with Pyramus, but was incredibly rib-tickling in itself!

Ben Pearson (Snout) – photo by Topher McGrillis/RSC

Graham Fewell’s reticent Snug was a wonderfully pathetic, almost cowardly, lion: his hangdog expression producing as much sympathy as it did jollity! Likewise, with Ian Kirkbride’s Starveling, and his disobedient dog (he’d do well in The Two Gentlemen of Verona…) – although there was a canny undercurrent of stern belligerence in his portrayal of Moonshine that gave the part real import.

Ian Kirkbride (Starveling) – photo by Topher McGrillis/RSC

With all that lot strutting their stuff, it’s no wonder cat-herder Quince – a companionable Harry French – always looked on the verge of a meltdown; and yet, somehow, managed to keep (some form of loose) control. That his beaming smile shone as brightly as Starveling’s lantern when things all came together demonstrated just how rewarding the boss’ job can be! I only hope Jill Cole – The Castle Players’ genial director – had as much fun! (I’m sure she did!)

Ben Goffe (Mustardseed); Harry French (Quince) – photo by Topher McGrillis/RSC

This was another extraordinary group of players: happy in their own skins; and comfortable and confident in each other’s mind-boggling abilities. That they so obviously meshed with the professional actors – with monumental mutual (and well-earned) admiration all-round – says a great deal about every single one of them; and I fear my words cannot give such a joint enterprise the praise it truly deserves….

Talking of which, in her original programme note – before the production went on tour – über-director Whyman wrote that…

This Dream has been built on long-standing partnerships nurtured by the RSC for many years, and we will continue to work with those partners long after it has ended. It is a project on an almost unimaginable scale, but it is also a very simple idea: to make a new production of a great play hand-in-hand with good colleagues. If it works, it will make visible a truly national passion for theatre.

…and I noticed, yesterday, that, in the revised version (produced for the return to the RST), this last sentence has been replaced:

It has been a privilege to watch the play reveal itself on so many stages and a great honour to bring it back to Stratford, to celebrate a truly national passion for theatre with all of you. I hope you enjoy it.

Of course it worked! And of course everyone enjoyed it! In fact, I don’t remember – apart from say Wendy & Peter Pan – seeing so many of the audience, especially in the galleries, leaning in quite so hard, as if to get even closer to the action: wanting to be even more wrapped up in this thrilling, mesmerizing triumph!

Man is but an ass, if he go about t’ expound this dream. Methought I was – there is no man can tell what. Methought I was, and methought I had – but man is but a patch’d fool, if he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was.

Before I finally shut up… it occurred to me – reflecting on my original review – that I had omitted one fundamental component of this ingenious production: an unbroken, braided strand of feminism. Not promoted in an over-the-top, shove-it-in-your-face sort of way (that is, one that can be self-defeating); but interwoven by skilful and subtle – therefore equally powerful, yet more arresting and enduring – means: successfully engendering (sorry) equality; and brought into play (ahem) in what I can only define as a very Whymanesque manner (consistent, for example, with the parity of professional and non-professional players; and the now-RSC-typical colour- and gender-blind casting…).

So doth the woodbine the sweet honeysuckle
Gently entwist; the female ivy so
Enrings the barky fingers of the elm.

Take Hippolyta’s evident, developing (initially cynical) love – on her own terms – for Theseus; and her prominent disproving glare (one of a series) when Egeus proclaims that his daughter must yield “either to this gentleman, Or to her death”. This queen looks and acts anything but defeated; and is no passive captive, but the king’s forthright counterpart. Her firmer belief in the lovers’ adventures, and her sympathy for, and (intermittent) defence of, the Mechanicals – Well shone, Moon. Truly, the moon shines with a good grace – are, as a result, cogently rendered. Additionally, Hermia – though she be but little, she is fierce – and Helena are more than a match for (nitwits) Lysander and Demetrius. However, I still find it disconcerting that, in the text – as Peter Holland writes in the programme – “so talkative through much of the play, [they] speak not a single word after their weddings” (although the girls, in total, do get around a hundred more lines than the boys – By all the vows that ever men have broke (In number more than ever women spoke) – so there…). In this production, however – and yet another sign of that praiseworthy equality – quite a few lines are transferred to them in Act V; and they are therefore as important a part of the commentary on the play-within-a-play as their spanking-new husbands.

You could say – and I wouldn’t disagree (apart from that last scene, maybe…!) – that Will himself is partly responsible for this balance: despite the male characters – especially Egeus – As she is mine, I may dispose of her – starting out with atrociously antediluvian patriarchal and chauvinistic attitides. No single part (somewhat unusually) is given a disproportionately large number of lines to deliver; and the Bard’s perceptive portrayal of the female characters – I know not by what power I am made bold – I believe, provides a forceful foundation of equal opportunity on which to build such emancipation.

By the way, having re-read the play, a couple of days ago, I suddenly grokked Tom Piper’s – cunning devil that he is…! – use of those two ‘revolving’ doors. I’ll therefore leave you with a couple of Will’s stage directions from Act II…

Enter a Fairy at one door and Robin Goodfellow (Puck) at another.
Enter the King of Fairies Oberon at one door with his Train, and the Queen Titania at another with hers.

…before tripping away.

…and I do not doubt but to hear them say, it is a sweet comedy. No more words. Away, go, away!

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