RSC, South Bank Show (ITV 1, 28th December 2009)

Though I enjoyed the South Bank programme about the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC)  because of my interest in the Company and its work, I did start to feel that it was more like a promotional DVD, than an in-depth study.  It is sad to see a long running show axed and I hope other shows take its place, and that we see Melvin Bragg in other slots.  I think I need more of the wonderful Culture Show with its weekly mix of short pieces and specials, such as the recent programme focusing on Michael Jackson.  However, though entertaining, this episode of the South Bank show  was not really challenging and it didn’t reveal things about the RSC, that I didn’t know already from reading interviews with Michael Boyd and from the RSC’s own publicity material.  Maybe the overall description of the programme was ‘on message’ as far as the RSC was concerned.

I found the trip to Russia and the background to The Grain Store very interesting.  I also thought that it was great to see actors in rehearsal and to watch the  bit on how the new theatre is progressing.   I thought it was amusing that Mariah Gale and Katy Stephens practice their speeches in funny voices.   However, alongside all this interesting nuggets of information, I felt that the main purpose of the programme was to promote the RSC’s current vision.  The programme highlighted the committment to the ensemble idea and the rationale behind the new theatre space.  Michael Boyd reiterated his distaste of celebrity culture, which he has mentioned in other places.   The programme also gave us the reason why the RSC are committed to  performing new writing and linked all this back to Peter Hall’s vision for the RSC.  What the programme didn’t seem to do was critique the new direction or really place this in the context of other ways that the RSC could evolve and develop.

The idea of the ensemble brings massive benefits, and of course The Histories project is used to as an example to support this approach.  It will be great to see this year’s ensemble at work in new plays next year.  However, it is also very exciting to see new actors and new approaches.  I have written in previous places on the blog that I feel that the ensemble is not making enough of the opportunity to take ideas across more than one play as Greg Doran did in the 2008 season with his utilisation of the mirrored set for three productions.  This ensemble company had been split into two and are in effect, until the Russian plays, two separate companies as far as I could see in the way they approached The Winter’s Tale, As You Like It and Julius Caesar.   Only having the one theatre has meant that there isn’t as much productions.  in 2010, this year’s productions will be repeated and joined by new productions, but with the same actors.   There are benefits of seeing the company play in different spaces and though I love The Courtyard, I  miss smaller spaces like The Other Place and I would love to see a production at The Swan again when it reopens. 

In addition, to the commitment to the ensemble, the new theatre space, the RSC do embrace other approaches.  They do bring in new companies during the ensemble run such as the wonderful Twelfth Night this autumn.  I have also written about how well the RSC productions transfer to the proscenium arch space and maybe it is a positive thing that the RSC can work on the thrust stage as well as in the traditional theatres it also uses.  Finally, I know that some actors had built up a reputation in the theatre before becoming celebrities due to television work, but actors such as David Tennant and Richard Wilson bring enormous benefits to the RSC as does the current RSC ensemble approach.


What’s On Stage review

Between the Acts – Review of 2009

This is the first year of my blog.  I found time to write about some things more than others.  Here are my cultural moments  and events of 2009 ?

Theatre (Shakespeare)

  1.  The Tempest (RSC) – Courtyard Review and again on revisiting it in Sheffield
  2.  Hamlet (RSC) at the Novello
  3.  All’s Well That End’s Well (National)
  4.  Othello (Northern Broadsides/West Yorkshire Playhouse)
  5.  The Winter’s Tale (RSC) and on revisiting it in August
  6.  The Winter’s Tale (Old Vic)
  7.  As You Like It (Globe)
  8.  Julius Caesar (RSC)
  9.  Twelfth Night (RSC)
  10.   As You Like It (RSC) and Mariah Gale as Rosalind on seeing it again in Stratford and yet again on seeing it in Newcastle
  11.   Twelfth Night (York Theatre Royal)
  12.   Twelfth Night (Donmar)
  13.   Hamlet (Donmar)
  14.   As You Like It (Curve)
  15.   A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Globe Touring)
  16.   Romeo and Juliet (RSC)
  17.   The Comedy of Errors (Globe Touring)
  18.   Troilus and Cressida (Globe)

Theatre (not Shakespeare)

  1.  A Streetcare Named Desire (Donmar)
  2.  A Doll’s House (Donmar)
  3.  The Hounding of David Oluwale (West Yorkshire Playhouse)
  4.  Pitman Painters (National)
  5.  Phedre (National Theatre)
  6.  The Cherry Orchard (Old Vic)
  7.  Sizwe Banzi is Dead (Stephen Joseph Theatre)
  8.  Waiting for Godot (Newcastle Theatre Royal)
  9.  Haunted (Manchester Royal Exchange)
  10.   Oresteia (belt Up, York Theatre Royal)

Art Exhibitions

  1.  Picasso and the Masters (National Gallery)
  2.  Rothko (Tate Modern)
  3.  Futurism (Tate Modern)
  4.  Waterhouse (Royal Academy)
  5.   Sacred Made Real (National Gallery)
  6.   Gay Icons (National Portrait Gallery)
  7.   Beatles to Bowie (National Portrait Gallery)
  8.   Turner and the Masters (Tate)
  9.   Richard Long (Tate Britain)
  10.   Rodchenko and Popova (Tate Modern)

and my cultural moments of 2009

January  David Tennant return to the role of Hamlet in the RSC production (January).

February seeing the stunning The Tempest at Stratford upon Avon.

March Seeing The Damned United.

April –Waiting for Godot in Newcastle.  Also,  Interviewing Juliet Foster about her lovely York Theatre Royal production of Twelfth Night.

May –seeing the Specials in Manchester.

June – NT live an interesting experience and I think I prefered to see productions live and then at the cinema.  I did Phedre at the cinema first, but saw All’s Well That End’s Well live  at the National first.

July –Priscilla Queen of the Desert and the wonderful National All’s Well That End’s Well at the National.

August – attending the RSC Summer School and seeing Julius Caesar, The Winter’s Tale and As You Like it on consecutive nights.

Septemberalmost seeing Mother Courage at the National and actually seeing the theatre event of the year A Streetcare Named Desire.

November –moving from Miching Malicho to Between the Acts and being kissed by Feste in the RSC’s Twelfth Night.

Decemberthe BFI screening of the RSC/Illuminations Hamlet


Other Reviews

 Bardathon Blog 

The Independent Theatre Review of 2009

Turner and the Masters (Tate Britiain, 14th December 2009)

‘Yes, atmosphere is my style’.

This quote from Turner was refered one of the final rooms of the exhibition and I found it very apt in summing up what I felt about this exhibition.  Turner embodies the awesome and sublime that is the aesthetic of the Romantic movement.  I think what interested me most about this exhibition is not how like the Masters that Turner’s work is, but how different it is from them.  The Claudes and Poussins are very much more precise in the detail.  It’s as if Turner has observed the technical aspects of the paintings that he was influenced by and then decides to add atmosphere to the narrative by an impressionistic approach to the subject matter.  Captured in Turner’s work is that sense of the powerful expressiveness of nature. 

It is those streaks of yellow, gold and pink that makes Turner’s work so attractive to me.   I particulary like  the paintings of the sun rising and setting and reflecting on the water.   The 1798 image of Durham Cathedral is amazing showing the light coming through the windows and doors across the columns the gothic cathedral is a fantastic example of Turner using light and colour to bring atmosphere to his work. 


Solkein, David (2009) Turner and the Masters. London: Tate Gallery

Further Information

Tate Gallery web site and exhibition information

Reviews and Previews

Turner and the Masters (New Statesman)
Turner and the Masters (The Guardian)
Turner and the Masters (The Telegraph)

The Sacred Made Real (National Gallery, 12th December 2009)

This is an amazing exhibition of Spanish Art, displaying  artists and sculptors who attempted to bring the human and physical elements to the scared.  What is really exciting about this exhibition is that normally many of the exhibits are in situ.  I really liked the way that the exhibition tended to juxtapose painting and sculpture.  There are some striking examples such as Juan de Mesa Head of Saint John the Baptist which was fascinating and horrific at the same time.  Juan Martinez Montanes The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception was extremely beautiful and Juan Martinez Montanes Saint Bruno Mediating on the Crucifixion was so strikingly mesmerising.


Bray, Xavier.  (2009).  The Sacred Made Real. London: The National Gallery

Reviews and further Information

Sacred Made Real (Telegraph review)
The Sacred Made Real in the Independent

Hamlet (BFI, 14th December 2009)

I felt that I was privileged to be able to attend the premiere of the Illuminations/BBC TV film version of Greg Doran’s RSC Hamlet at the BFI  (British Film Institute).  This blog is about the experience of being there at the screening, and I’ll wait until after the Boxing Day, when it is aired on TV, to blog about the detail of the production.  Here I am interested in discussing the evening, the atmosphere and responding to seeing the film version for the very first time.

My initial thoughts are around how the film and stage versions might differ and whether the memory of the film version might start to erode that of the stage version.  I thought that the stage production of Greg Doran’s RSC Hamlet (2008-09), was particularly engaging  because I felt that the audience was part of the production itself.  As the audience entered the auditorium, they could see themselves in the mirrored set and as the play progressed audience members became  guests at the funeral/wedding, and the audience for the ‘Mousetrap’.  I was lucky to see the stage version five times through the run, and I was fortunate to see it in the different theatre spaces at the Courtyard and Novello theatres.  What made revisiting the production and sitting in different parts of the Courtyard really interesting was to be able to see the production from lots of different perspectives.  Following experiencing the stage version in Stratford, seeing it at the Novello presented another perspective as it was viewed through the frame of the proscenium arch.   So when I watched the film version, I was fascinated in the way that the camera seemed to direct he viewer to watch characters in specific ways rather than let the eye wonder as it does in the theatre.   It felt that watching the film was the antithesis of watching on stage where the eye can wonder to look at character reactions, watch actors waiting to come on stage, watch the action from behind, above or in front.   The film becomes very directive in the way the viewer is positioned closing down possible viewing options available in the theatre, but emphasising others.  The camera directs us to moments that maybe became noticeable after a second or third visit to the theatre.  For example, Polonius mouthing Laertes lines in 1.2  to make it clear that this is a staged Polonius family moment, or replicated later when Hamlet mouths the Player King’s lines making it really clear this is the bit her wrote.  What I found fascinating was that the film version  takes us onto the set and we become part of the court.  In 1.1, I thought the camera was using all those conventions of horror film and we were looking through the ghost’s eyes, but it was us that looked over Horatio’s shoulders.  In the Q&A session after the screening, Greg Doran talked bout how he found editing and had made a conscious decision to direct the viewer in certain ways.

The other thing that was so different from the stage production ws the way space was used.    The stage is so open at the Courtyard, there is just the back wall, and it’s the language and a few chairs etc that creates the sense of place,  but in the film we have a sense of a building and the action moving from room to room.   I felt at the end of the film, I could actually find my way round this building.  In the Q &A session, Mark Lawson commented that the location was clearly important and Greg Doran talked about getting the sense of a place that felt claustrophobic.  It felt strange suddenly going outside for the gravedigger’s scene, but this does reinforce that idea of the building and space smothering Hamlet.  I think it has been a good decision not to just film the stage version, but to move the play onto location and to think about the kind of place that Hamlet has to deal with as well as the psychological torment that he was dealing with.

The stage version was concerned with metatheatre and this is still very present in the film with the entrance of the player, John Woodvine’s wonderful Priam speech with the actors joining in as if they’d done this so many times like this before and the hilariously funny dumb show as part of the play within the play.  In the film, Greg Doran has also introduced lots of references to film and there are echoes of Michael Almereyda’s 2000 Hamlet all the way through including the dramatic moment of Polonius’ death which is retained from the stage version.   In contrast to the film version, there’s an interesting shift in mood at ‘Now I am alone’ and a twist which I’ll discuss after Boxing Day, but this is an aspect the film could take forward that the stage production didn’t.

David Tennant plays Hamlet as a self harming, hot-tempered intellectual, and it is very unnerving that he carries such sharp knife around with him.  As well s being so intense,  David Tennant’s Hamlet is very witty and funny.  However, it was  Oliver Ford Davies’ Polonius got the most laughs of the evening.  I think that this was highlighted by being able to bring the camera right up to him as he presents his view of the events which is often at odds with everyone elses .

Mark Lawson chaired the Q&A session really well and asked some very perspective questions.  The session will be on the BFI website soon, so we can all watch again.  I asked the first question which was about the camera placing he viewer on stage.  There wasn’t a Doctor Who question and maybe this was a relief to Mark Lawson, especially as had he’d written on the problems of seeing Hamlet through the lens of Doctor Who at the end of last year.  For me, part of the interest in this production is making connections between these two  roles, and that is why I am writing on length on this in other places.  However, the film both distanced  David Tennant from the Doctor Who role, while on the other hand reinforced some of those readings of the two texts.

In the Q &A session, Greg  Doran admitted to cutting the entrance of Fortinbras at the end.  This did lead to a rather abrupt ending.  Maybe we did need a little time to ponder on Hamlet’s death even though we had been watching for over three hours by then.  After the screening, there was a discussion about whether Hamlet was mad or not in this production.  I don’t think he is mad, but I think that Greg Doran’s point about Hamlet going over the edge in Getrude’s chamber was an interesting one.  The reason that I don’t think that David Tennant’s Hamlet has gone mad is because he manages to interact so differently with the different characters.  We see him play the clown in scenes with Polonius and then turn to Horatio and have a serious conversation.

When I decided to go to the screening, it felt a bit extravagant booking to see a film that would be on television in a week’s time.  However, the experience of being there was just an exciting as seeing the film.   I found it absolutely fascinating to be sat behind Patrick Stewart watching himself playing Claudius watching Hamlet who is watching Claudius in the ‘Mousetrap’.   Even though this was three hours and three minutes long, it  felt that the time went by really quickly and the audience clapped at the end of the film expressing their delight in what they had just seen.

Greg Doran talked about productions he’d seen years ago still being in his head.  I think that I worry a little that the stage memory will be eventually erased from my memory by the film version as I can still keep watching the DVD.  However, that’s the transience of theatre, the joy of being one of many  who saw and felt that they were part of the stage production, in contrast to the possible millions who will experience the watching this on DVD.  The great thing about the film version is that it is different from the stage production, but it does retain so much of the blocking from the stage versions.  Some to the key elements of the stage production are there in the film such as the ‘real’ skull, the red T shirt, the two-way mirrors, and the player king’s crown. 

As Patrick Stewart said in the Q&A session, the cast had been ‘rehearsing’ this for a year, so the film can only be a very polished performance.   Yes in the film there were jerky moments and bits were cut and it does end a little abruptly, but it is a lovely version of Hamlet, which presents an engaging interpretation of the text and I think will make Shakespeare more accessible to a wider audience.

The BBC spokesperson said the BBC wanted this to have a long life after the production had been screened on Boxing Day and after seeing the film production, I think it will.

Further Information

BFI question and answer

BBC web site tie in

Hamlet BBC Open Learn with reference to the production.

George Entwistle’s BBC Blog on the BFI screening

Illuminations reviews blogs tweets etc about the production

Illuminations Blog

Interview with David Tennant in Observer

Mark Lawson on the TV version in The Guardian

Mark Lawson on Hamlet for The Guardian discussion about the Doctor Who Hamlet?

RSC Countdown to Hamlet site

The Times on Hamlet at Christmas