Monday, 31 October 2016

Thou met'st with things dying, I with things newborn

Favourite play?

I was often asked by students to name my favourite Shakespeare play or poem or sonnet. I have always found it an impossible task because each work contains moments of sublime stagecraft, astonishing language, profound thematic concepts and fundamental ideas about human existence. And most of the plays contain at least one bit of tatty old rubbish: clumsy characterization, an underwritten scene, some impenetrable phrases, images that no longer make sense and, of course, Shakespeare was writing for a stage with particular constraints (the most glaring being the inability to employ living breathing women as actresses, so female roles are fewer than they should be.) It surprises some people that I am happy to talk about the rubbish bits in Shakespeare, but, for me, it makes his work all the more wonderful for its raggedy unevenness. What I do know is that the best way to experience Shakespeare is to see it or hear it – always my philosophy as a teacher. Simply reading Shakespeare is only a fraction of the experience.

Exit, pursued by a bear - the famous stage direction from The Winter's Tale

Favourites at certain times

A good production can make any play feel like a favourite during its two or three hours length. My first Hamlet and my first Love’s Labour’s Lost were experienced at Bolton Octagon when I was a student in Manchester. I remember the Hamlet starred Douglas Hodge as the Prince and Ophelia’s dead body was brutally zipped up in a body bag on a pile of ruins in a war-torn “Denmark.” Love’s Labour’s Lost was directed by Ian Judge and set in an Oxbridge quadrangle, anticipating the designs for Kenneth Branagh’s film of the play. In both cases the plays were sparklingly clear for me and I became convinced that Shakespeare plays could survive being set anywhere anytime. Whenever I directed students in productions of the plays, each play became a favourite for the time I was working on it. But some plays have always been in the top five and The Winter’s Tale is one of them. Sally and I therefore travelled over to Bolton Octagon to renew my acquaintance with that theatre and had a great evening in Sicilia and Bohemia.

Sicilian scenes in David Thacker's The Winter's Tale at Bolton Octagon. Photographs by Ian Tilton

David Thacker’s production

The cast were uniformly strong:
  • Rob Edwards brought Leontes’s morbid jealousy and consequent grief and remorse to blistering life 
  • Amy Nuttall was a heartbreaking Hermione, dignified and queenly
  • Margot Leicester created a Paulina that was compassionate as well as formidable and determined 
  • As Polixenes, Christopher Wright personified humility (and later paternal rage after some comedy capering) 
  • Christian Edwards’s Young Shepherd and Eric Potts’s Old Shepherd were delightfully unpretentious and endearing 
  • Colin Connor was an engaging and appealing Autolycus 
  • The young lovers, Harry Long as Florizel and Leila Mimmack as Perdita, were direct, vivid and vigorous 
  • Most touching of all, I found Marc Small to be a compelling Camillo; both on and off text the actor was a brilliant listener and reactor to every nuance of every line spoken by every other character.
James Cotterill’s set and costume designs were clear in revealing the play’s moods and David Thacker’s direction was masterful in controlling the pace and the strange changes of tone in this extraordinary play.

Bohemian scenes in David Thacker's The Winter's Tale at Bolton Octagon. Photographs by Ian Tilton

Favourite lines

As well as being one of my favourite plays, The Winter’s Tale contains some of my favourite lines, spoken by Florizel to Perdita at the sheep-shearing festival after she has distributed flowers. The best way to appreciate Florizel’s sentiment is to say the words aloud (gently and calmly) and appreciate how the sound of the words echo the contents of the speech, so that “move still” and “still so” sound (to me anyway) like the “wave o’ the sea” in the previous line….
                        What you do
Still betters what is done. When you speak, sweet,
I'd have you do it ever: when you sing,
I'd have you buy and sell so, so give alms,
Pray so, and, for the ordering your affairs,
To sing them too. When you do dance, I wish you
A wave o' the sea, that you might ever do
Nothing but that: move still, still so,
And own no other function. Each your doing,
So singular in each particular,
Crowns what you are doing in the present deeds,
That all your acts are queens.
Florizels and Perditas from the net. Main picture = by Ian Tilton of Harry Long, Eric Potts and Leila Mimmack at Bolton Octagon