The Merchant of Venice, RSC 2008 (7th June 2008, 8th October 2008, 25th October 2008)

The Merchant of Venice (Royal Shakespeare Company) Courtyard Theatre, Stratford Upon Avon.)The production of The Merchant of Venice, which we saw in Newcastle, raised many interesting questions about the play. It was a production which asked the audience to make meanings. It raised questions about the character of Shylock, the differences between Belmont and Venice and the rashness of decisions which other productions do not address. It was a slow paced first half, but a very fast paced second half. The first half was very serious and the second half after the tension of the trial scene highlighted some of the comedy in the play. The set was interesting and asked us to use our imagination as the audience. Maybe the designer had the current Rothko exhibition in mind when she was thinking about the set. How did the set make you feel?On its opening at The Courtyard Theatre in Stratford Upon Avon, the critics tended to be very negative about this production. Robert Gore Langdon in The Telegraph [1] described the production as a “cold-fish RSC production, which seems to go out of its way to avoid any sense of passion and racial hatred”. John Peter in The Times was even less impressed saying “Tim Carroll opens the RSC’s new season with the dreariest and most sloppily directed account of this play I’ve ever seen.”[2] The Evening Standard reviewer felt “ANY Shakespearian newcomer watching Tim Carroll’s awesomely bland, emotionally stunted production of The Merchant of Venice would be forgiven for thinking the comedy a mere, romantic fairy tale, in which Portia proves the value of true love and mercy at the expense of a mercenary Jew.”[3] Have you got some thoughts regarding these comments? As a member of the audience do you agree or do you think the critics have not taken the audience’s reaction into account.If a production does not receive critical acclaim, would it be possible to gain any understanding of Shakespeare’s text from watching it? I think we can. I think we can think about the decisions the director and the actors have made and decide whether they work for us or not. If they do not work we can think about the reasons behind the decisions and that very process may lead to us considering aspects and interpretations which are new to us. Tim Carroll’s production was asking the audience to do a lot of work and rather overlaying the production with too many images and meanings, it asked the audience to bring their own interpretations. In many ways it is the antithesis to the other 2008 productions, such as Doran’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hamlet, in its approach.It is important to remember that the critics review productions early in the run and as the production works through the season, actors and directors have opportunities to change things in response to audience reactions and their feelings about how things are going. We did see some changes from the Stratford production and mainly because of the different playing spaces. There was shift from a thrust sage to a proscenium arch theatre which meant much of the direct contact with the audience was lost. In Newcastle we did watch at a distance, but I felt this didn’t spoil our viewing.I think this production did some very interesting things. The dance at the beginning immediately connected the audience with the action. The dance at the end mirrored the one at the start but reflected the fragmented relationships which had resulted by the events of the play. The rhythm which runs through the play in the beat of the language is set in motion by this dance.What is the impact of having a young Bassanio and Antonio in the production? Does it give the actors some freedom to work with the text in a way that older actors can’t? For example, I felt that there was a rashness about some of the decisions because they were made by younger characters. This effect might not have been the same with a mature Antonio and Bassanio.

[1]Sunday Telegraph, The (London, England)-April 20, 2008Author: Robert Gore-Langton
[2] Sunday Times, The (London, England)-April 20, 2008Author: John Peter
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Hamlet (August 21st 2008, 29th October 2008, 30th October 2008, 17th December 2009, 5th January 2009)


Thoughts written at the time, I saw Hamlet for the first time.

On thinking about the Doctor Who Hamlet….When I visited Stratford in August to see David Tennant’s Hamlet, I was as much interested in the experience – before and after – as well as the production itself. What I mean by this was that I wanted to think not just about the production but the overall experience of being in the audience and what I brought of my own knowledge and cultural references to the production long before that ‘who’s there’ moment. I had questions about how Tennant would play the part and wondered whether there would be any Doctor Who references. I went to the production prepared to construct my own intertextual references between the two texts, even though Greg Doran had made it clear in an interview in that he did not watch Doctor Who and had made no references to the TV programme in this production’s conception. It wouldn’t have been as much fun if I couldn’t have had a Doctor Who moment.I was enormously anxious about whether I would actually make the performance, though this was silly because why wouldn’t I? I think part of my anxiety was due to all those stories that tickets had sold out and were going for hundreds of pounds on eBay. My ticket started to feel like it was priceless and a little Willy Wonka like. Pre-performance paranoia set in. I kept checking the ticket to see if it was there and for the performance I thought it was for. I started planning the time before ‘curtain up’, and wondering if something would happen to stop me getting there.When I did get to the Courtyard, I really wanted to ‘engage in the whole experience of going to see the production. I loved observing the audience before the performance began, and revelling in watching from the dress circle bar as the audience start to enter the auditorium or have their photos in front of the large performance images decorating the bars. I started to wonder whether those in the returns queue would get in. I noticed the screen showing the stage area was not on, and as it had for the other plays, I wondered whether it was to stop fans watching the production from the foyer. As I had spotted, the day before, that actors in The Merchant of Venice had entered and exited from the foyer area, I started to reflect on what this production of Hamlet would look like to someone sitting in the Dress Circle bar (a Noises Off version) – this might be another blog. I didn’t do the stage door thing before or after the performance. Not having a child at the age where the child was the (poor) rationale for going to the stage door, I think I would have been rather conscious of myself. Never mind, I have experienced this through a lens on You Tube and seen the many mobile phone versions of the two to three minutes Tennant spends each night signing autographs and shadowed by his bodyguard.I had done the back-stage tour the day before and that had given me a sense of the Hamlet set (even though it was The Merchant set that was up), and I felt I had been let into a few secrets which made sense as the production revealed it self. Was I better off knowing how the gunshot in the Polonius’ death scene worked? I felt I did, but it might have spoilt the effect, a little, seeing it with the technical knowledge. It was just as much fun after seeing A Midsummer Night’s Dream the next night to spot the props from Hamlet positioned around the back of the stalls. How superior it felt to know that the office chair was the one where….(well we don’t want too many spoilers here).I found out from the Talk Back after A Midsummer Night’s Dream that the theme of Greg Doran’s 2008 productions was the idea that the actors hold up a mirror to nature. In both Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream the audience is confronted with a set that acts as a mirror. As the audience enter the Courtyard Theatre they see themselves entering in the set itself which acts as a series of mirrors. The idea is that the play is reflecting the audience to themselves. Tennant’s Hamlet holds up the visiting actors mirror to the audience and reflects light across it like a Mexican wave to empathise this point. A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hamlet are of course very different plays, but by linking with the theme of mirrors, as a member of the audience, I couldn’t help starting to make connections. Both plays consider imagination, creativity, dreams, sexuality, and order/disorder. There’s the funny scene in A Midsummer Night’s Dream where characters bump into each other and fall out, and in Doran’s production this is highly manipulated not just by Puck but by the fairies, the lovers have no way of fighting back in this highly managed scene. Hamlet is a play where characters bump into each other all the time, and where characters manipulate each other. Polonius and Claudius try and manipulate Hamlet, but this is reciprocated by Hamlet. Doran’s production of Hamlet really emphasises the backstabbing and this is played out through Tennant’s Hamlet’s clowning. In playing the role with an emphasis on comedy, Tennant seems to make the audience compliant in what he’s does and doesn’t do.Where Hamlet really differs from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is that Hamlet is a play about death and in the play characters are on a course to their deaths. This is why when Patrick Stewart’s Claudius takes the poisoned drink at the end works so well, because in this production, Claudius really knows his offence is ‘rank’ spitting out this word in his soliloquy scene. He is physically sick thinking about what he has done and this is partly through fear of the consequences, beautifully played out in the final scene. In contrast to Claudius’ death, I think Hamlet really didn’t expect his. Tennant’s Hamlet went into the final scene in his clowning mood. The scene was well practised and discussion around the production says that Tennant and Edward Bennett (Laertes) rehearsed the fight for a considerable amount of time. The fight that started as fun just got really serious and actually the play is over very quickly at this point (though it takes over 3 and half hours to perform).The second scene is a guessing game for some members of the audience. As Hamlet tends to dress in black, stand apart from the rest of the cast, and not speak straight away, it is part of the watching experience to spot him and then observe him through the scene. In this production, Tennant stands on a traverse looking on. His hair is slicked back and he is dressed in a dinner suit (his inky cloak). In this scene, Claudius moves towards Hamlet as if he is going to address him first then turns to Laertes. An act Claudius knows miffs Hamlet and a gamble that he has the upper hand with Hamlet to pull it off. This act also makes Claudius a bit like Hamlet in their sense of humours. Maybe this Hamlet is his uncle’s nephew rather than his father’s son. When Claudius talks about old Hamlet to the court, Penny Downie’s Gertrude watches Tennant’s Hamlet for a reaction, as if she worries that he is unnerved about the ‘over hasty marriage’. The slick suited appearance does not set the tone for the rest of Tennant’s performance. The scene is a formal moment and Tennant moves into his first soliloquy, where he falls to the floor and speaks his soliloquy to the mirrored floor. Is the idea here that he is speaking to his own reflection? Unfortunately, the effect is that the soliloquy sounds muffled. This is probably the low point of the production both literally and metaphorically and it really moves on from there.The antagonism between Hamlet and Laertes is clear, and this is a wonderful contrast to Hamlet’s relationship with Hora
ti
o (Peter De Jersey). Horatio is Hamlet’s companion, though he doesn’t travel with him, he is beside him the rest of the time. They bounce of each other and Hamlet plays to Horatio. There is a wonderful moment when they play ‘Three blind mice’ on recorders. I have seen this somewhere before, but that didn’t spoil the fun of it in this production. The relationship between Horatio and Hamlet really brings poignancy to Horatio’s final scene. His heart is really breaking and he wants to die as well, but he has to live to tell the story. No story telling to save Hamlet like the Doctor in ‘Here comes the Drums’ episode, it is a story about Hamlet’s death that this companion will tell. Hamlet and Horatio mock poor Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Gulderstern’s face (or was it Rosencrantz’s) was wonderful when Tennant places the player king’s crown on his head. In this production you don’t feel sorry for Rosencrantz and Guldenstern as they are hoisted with their ‘own petards’. In placing the crown on his head, you realise that Tennant’s Hamlet is acting his part well, but we are not sure if this is a challenge to Claudius, a signal that he thinks he should be king. I think it is a mixture of all these things.I had convinced myself that it was the hair gel which changed the tone of this production. Once Tennant had spiked his hair to aid his ‘antic disposition’, there he was allowing himself to reveal some characteristics that he brings to the Doctor Who character and I couldn’t help make connections between the two texts. When he spots the two way mirror that Polonius and Claudius spy on him through he circles it and a ‘O God of mercy’ comes straight out of a Russell T Davies script rather than a Hamlet moment. The jumping up and down in bare feet in excitement is, for me, a Doctor Who moment. I could easily imagine the recorder becoming a sonic screw driver the way it I brandished with glee. When he’s with the ghost of his father you feel he is accustomed to meeting beings from out of this world. Hamlet is awed by his observation ‘what a piece of work is a man’, and this is reminiscent of all those times Doctor Who speaks in praise of the human race.Was my viewing spoilt by reading the myriad of reviews before seeing Hamlet? Most of it was fine, and I did find it a funny production and the fact the reviewers said this didn’t spoil this aspect. The reviews seemed to agree that what made this production was the very strong cast and I think I had to agree with that. I liked the way Patrick Stewart play the politically astute Claudius and agreed with reviewers. A fan of Oliver Ford Davies, I loved his portrayal of Polonius and I was really pleased I had seen this as well as his Leonato earlier this year. Mariah Gale’s Ophelia isn’t a weak character, but as with any portrayal, there is that really difficult transition from the ‘mousetrap scene, where Tennant’s Hamlet really stresses the first syllable of ‘country’ to the mad scenes. Shakespeare doesn’t give characters anything to go on and this often gives the impression that Ophelia just gives up. However, in this production Ophelia’s strength is shown by the contrast between the Laertes goodbye scene, where she is sparky to her mad scenes where she’s stripped to her underwear metaphorically representing her stripped down mind.The way the play was structured really kept the momentum going, but I think knowing when the interval was before I went in was a little too much. Newspaper reviewers tended to say it was in an exciting place, but John Carey on Radio 4’s Saturday Review couldn’t help blurting it out. If you don’t know, close your eyes and ears to any hints to where the interval is and enjoy what Doran has done here.The RSC are getting used to the Courtyard space. I felt that the production of Hamlet made much better use of the thrust stage than A Midsummer Night’s Dream in that the actors could interact with the audience and move around. The first time I saw this production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream I was sat at the end of the row (beautifully reflected to the rest of the audience in the stage mirrors), and I did watch the backs of many actors. Not that the company don’t use the space, but they just haven’t quite got the idea that you need to move round to address the audience on all sides of you, you can’t stay just in one place.Tennant’s Hamlet isn’t a moody teenager, or someone too self observed. He is funny and he is sad at the same time. It’s because of this human side that when he dies in the midst of the tomfoolery, I genuinely wanted to cry. Hamlet dies, Doctor Who will never die, unless the broadcasters kill him off of course. However, like Doctor Who, a theatrical role is like the regeneration process and a character can come back with a different face, and approach to the part. This Hamlet has an afterlife. It’s constantly in the press, and the story about sold out tickets is constantly perpetuated the publicity for the production, acting as a more than gentle nudge to remind us that this is a popular show. The commotion around whether a celebrity should play Shakespeare only helped promote the play and the fact the reviewers liked it meant that more people felt Shakespeare could be accessible to a wider audience. My collection of links to reviews and stories surrounding the production grows daily, thanks to Google Alerts.

Street Art, Tate Modern (2nd August 2008)

The Tour is free and you get a map of where to go, so we decided to give it a go. It was interesting and not always easy to find the works, though I must admit sometimes we couldn’t see for looking. The Tour takes you along the back streets around the Tate, and you go under railways, past the amazing Red Cross cottages, over main roads and to a basket ball court. We did it in about an hour and I liked seeing parts of London, I might not have actually seen if I hadn’t done the Tour.
One of the things that the guide says is that the works will change in the environment. They might get damaged by weather (or humans) and will just change through normal wear and tear.
I felt that the tour could be more interactive. It would have helped to have had a little bit about the works as we went round. I know that this takes away from the ‘urbaness’ of them, but it is an exhibition at the end of the day.
It’s interesting to compare though to the Grand Masters in York. Maybe this exhibition was more ‘lux’ than the Grand Masters, but it is moving art outside the Gallery and into the public domain.

Romeo and Juliet (21st and 22nd January 2009) Courtyard Theatre

Romeo and Juliet is not my favourite play and I think that it is because I get so frustrated with Romeo and the way he constantly changes his mind. It’s this lack of focus which ends up with Metruchio being killed. I found this production a little too fussy. Firstly, there was a sense of stopping the action for asides and soliloquies. Characters would click their fingers the lights went down and other characters froze. Secondly, the men wore stylish Italian suits and brought out flick knives when they were feeling threatened and wanted to start fights. This was so much of a cliche. Thirdly, the set was very dark with a black wall and stage. This meant the darkness ran through the whole production and the comedy was played down. Peter had to work very hard for his laughs and the nurse wasn’t really funny as she was too much like Lady Capulet.

The bed became a recurring motif. It was the balcony, the marriage bed and then the death bed. Finally the bed became the monument where Juliet was buried.

The theatre, on the nights I went, was full of young people and there was a real buzz. This production was clearly part of the ‘Stand up for Shakespeare’ promotion and there was an attempt to present the play in such a way that would grip younger theatregoers. I felt that the director tried to hard, and maybe there were too many gimmicks when Shakespeare’s language does the job perfectly well.

RSC Resources: http://www.rsc.org.uk/explore/plays/romeo.htm

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