Sunday, 15 February 2015

Muse of Fire at The Globe.

Off to The Globe this evening, with our Applied Theatre Programme Director, Julie Spencer, to see the dress rehearsal of Muse of Fire, a specially commissioned immersive theatre experience for children, which takes them round the exhibition space and ends up with a sensational fire breathing finale in the main auditorium.

The show won a heap of awards the first time it played earning rave reviews in The Guardian and What's On Stage.

It's been brought back for this half term and Julie had managed to get audition calls for several Drama St Mary's students which has, in turn, resulted in no fewer than eight of them taking key performance roles as tour guides, puppet masters and a pair of terrified builders who disappear mysteriously. Our job, as audience is to find out where they've gone before confronting and driving back whatever it was that took them in the first place.

We're quickly split into four teams, each of which guided by a leader heads off in different directions to look for clues and possibly an escape. My team, led by the very able Emma, are taken into a tent like tiring house where we're introduced to an Elizabethan stage hand. The very man responsible for setting off the cannon that four hundred years ago set fire to the thatched roof of the original Globe during a performance of Henry VIII. Terrified that we'll blame him for this new disaster he presents us with risk assessment documents - Tudor style, a series of weather reports and news of an unusual siting, in the theatre's roof.

We move on a meet an archivist sitting in room filled with dancing books and self opening draws. Pulling clues from these he begins to piece together a synopsis for Julius Caesar, told by a storytelling puppet, who describes the supernatural events that seemed to occur after the murder of the emperor.

On we go to a dark, dank cave, to find the very foundations of the theatre. Here a voice from a glowing furnace deep beneath the city speaks to us. She is Muse, the last spirit of fire, and is reawakening after four hundred years of rest.

Our mission is clear now as we head of to meet two more tour guides, who, having heard that all the staff of The Globe have now disappeared, are busily trying to rehearse a two man Romeo and Juliet for this evening's performance. We agree to help out and are quickly cast as Montages and Capulets, biting thumbs and taunting each other.

But time is pressing and we're rushed into a magical forest for our final stop to meet a very modern magician dressing in a boiler suit who introduces himself as an 'ethereal exterminator.'

'Ever seen a flying pig, madam?' he asks one of the audience members.

'No,' she says 'I can't say I have.'

'That's right.' he replies 'And that's been the case since 1993.'

Finally all four groups, each of whom has ordered their journey differently, are led back into the auditorium, beautiful and eerie on this cold February night, ready for the final battle...

Half an hour later Julie and I are in the bar with the students who are really buzzing. The dress has gone well and there's a real anticipation about the week ahead. The Globe are happy as well, full of praise for the talent and professionalism of the Drama St Mary's students, who have picked up the roles so quickly and are doing themselves and St Mary's proud. They aren't just spear carrying or playing extras in a crowd scene, but vital components in a very engaging and exciting theatrical event.

It's going to be a big week for them.

Monday, 5 January 2015

Re awakening Faith.

Last day at the Lodge. The day started with a fascinating tour of the building, led by the principal Ed Newell. It's been a royal residence since the restoration and is traditionally the home of Windsor Great Park's ranger. Shortly after the second world war King George and Queen Elizabeth handed it over to the formidable Amy Buller, who set it up as an education and research centre, focused on reconciliation.

We ended the tour in the cosy oak panelled dining room has it's own ghosts and history as it was here for three days that Stanley Baldwin met with the King's Private Secretary Charles Hardinge to try and find a resolution to the abdication crisis. When you look out of the windows into the park, you're seeing the same view as Baldwin and Hardinge saw as they collected their thoughts in-between, what would have been the most delicate of exchanges.

We broke into our seminar groups and were given the task of putting together a conceptual plan for our own production of The Winter's Tale. It kind of serves us right as this is exactly the same task as Tina and I set for the Creative Thinking module, last semester.

Inspired by the tour I decided to set my Sicillia here in 1936. With the country on the brink of a cataclysmic event. The rest of the production rolls out neatly from this point. The return of Perdita sixteen years later occurs in 1952, to a country still on rations, but about to celebrate a coronation and the optimism of a new Elizabethan age.

This precise time frame offers some other interesting ideas and images. Would the oracle be a crackling World Service broadcast or would it be a hastily arranged private cinema show a fuzzy pathe news report?

Would Time, who takes it upon himself  'To use my wings.' and asks us not to misunderstand his reason for jumping ahead with the action

'Impute it not a crime
To me or my swift passage, that I slide
O'er sixteen years and leave the growth untried'

be a shell shocked air man, unwilling to share his stories with us.

Bohemia seems to naturally translate to America in the early fifties. A land physically untouched by the war, but still bearing knowledge and scars. Was Time at Pearl Harbour?

The sheep shearing festival with all its connotations of rebirth, spring and new hope seems to work well if seen as the initial stirrings of a culture that will eventually invent the teenager, rock and roll, contraception, even civil rights and the space age.

Autolycus becomes a ballad offering, beat poet, hitting the road, looking as much for a new world as for purses to cut. In this version he is an avant-garde figure. The future, in the medium term, is his.

Camillo represents another form of poet. Like Auden he escapes the War, but pines for his homeland and driven by a 'desire to lay my bones there' begs Polixenes to allow him to return to Sicilla

There are lots of other nuances here that would have to be revealed in rehearsal. Who is Paulina? Who is Hermione? But I sense they would find themselves once we began to explore the text.

Just wish I had Time to actually do it...

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Forcing the Issue.

After breakfast we all set off across the Great Park to All Saint's Chapel adjoining the Royal Lodge.for Matins. The Lodge itself was the Queen Mother's residence for over fifty years and now belongs to Prince Andrew and his family. He's not had the best of weekends himself, with hugely damaging allegations about his private life splashed across all the papers, but you wouldn't know from the calmness with which the Estate is running. Cheerful policemen checking our passes, welcoming clergy, and friendly waves from members of the household driving their small gleaming cars up the drive on their way to work.

I'd half expected us to run into a barrage of paparazzi, but either they knew that Andrew, due back in the country from a skiing trip, was holing up elsewhere or the security ring began on the outskirts of the park and we were well within it's embrace.

The congregation was an intriguing mix of Cumberland Lodge guests and members of the royal staff. There was deference to rank and age, a couple of brimmed hatted ladies in waiting escorted to front row pews, cookers, cleaners, rangers and game keepers filled in with us. I sat next to a dapper kilted Scot, with perfectly slicked back grey hair. The pride he seemed to have in his position almost burst through his chest.

The service was short and sweet, beginning with a stirring singing of the National Anthem and supplemented by some perfectly pitched choral singing from the male choir, cherubs of all ages, squash nosed boys and plump ruddy angels.

We wandered back to the Lodge for more sessions. My afternoon was spent with Rowan Williams looking at some of the dilemmas that our initial discussions have raised. We began to look carefully at the ending, which works a little like a bonus track. In earlier work Shakespeare may well have been content to end the play with the reunion of Polixenes and Leontes, the reconciliation of Polixenes and Florizel and the recovery of Perdita, but he choses in 'The Winter's Tale' to simply report this. In the moment there is a sense of anti-climax here, the audience denied the reunion that the flight and chase from Bohemia had promised, but it soon becomes clear why as we move beyond the orthodoxy of the well made play and are led, with Leontes, by Paulina into her gallery.

The final scene is one of the most astonishing in the whole of Shakespeare and has to be played as if Hermione were simultaneously frozen statue and an accomplish in Paulina's elaborate therapeutic experiment. It's such a tender scene with Paulina coaching both Leontes and Hermione into an embrace, what happens next is left beyond the final curtain, but enough is revealed for the possibility of a reconciliation of sorts.

Before dinner Rowan delivered a fascinating lecture focusing on the idea of bringing something to issue. He pointed out that the play begins at a moment of high expectancy. Polixenes is leaving Sicilia, finally, after a nine month stay. Hermione's pregnancy is also in its final stage, but, instead of allowing time to bring these two events to their natural conclusion, Leontes, in pain and fear at what they may mean, forces the issue, tearing up his world before Polixenes can leave and his daughter can be born.

It's an empty defiance, an act of self destruction as much as anything else.The baby is born regardless, and his best friend flees.

There is a physical cycle to the play. It's Leontes disgust of a perceived physical intimacy between Hermione and Polixenes that drives the opening action of the play and it the physical reconnection between Leontes and Hermione - no words are exchanged - that ends the action, although even in his final speech Leontes is still trying to orchestrate the action match making Paulina and Camillo and asking each of the play's protagonists to 'answer his part' in the preceding action. He is seeking to creatively dramatise the action of the play back, but, this time in collaboration with his fellow players.

We touched briefly on the theme of hospitality. The play starts in generosity and the sheep shearing festival is clearly a bountiful celebration with the Shepherd scolding Perdita for not working hard enough as the hostess by comparing her day dreaming and dancing with the energetic and robust performance of his dead wife, who clearly kept everybody's glass topped up.

By the end of the play Leontes is, perhaps, ready to be hospitable again - or at least to try a mutual experience with others. It's this that makes love possible. The ability to place oneself in a position of vulnerability, a position where change and all the pain that comes with change is possible, fully knowing that you can't go back, but rather must bravely face the future, denying your own denial of connectedness and dependence. It's both a chilling and beautiful provocation.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Unspeakable Comfort.

We began our first full day the day on The Winter's Tale by watching Greg Doran's late nineties production RSC version with Tony Sher, Alexandra Galbaith and the brilliant Estelle Kohler as Paulina.

It's an amazingly fresh production given it's over a decade old, and despite a few problems - Mamillius is unreasonably sickly and wheelchair bound - made a clear fist of telling the story and unpicking the multitude of problems thrown up. It also featured our old friend Ian Hughes in high octane spirits as Autoclyus.

As with all Tony Sher performances the psychological research into his role gave us a naked portrait of the various stages of Leontes' breakdown and this really became the theme for the day, as our first study group, led by Sally, delved into the opening encounters.

When Gielgud played the role he couldn't find either moment or reason for Leontes to become jealous and so created a backstory which enabled him to be suspicious from his first entrance.

There are other clues and perhaps Leontes is less concerned about Hermione's perceived infidelity and more traumatised by the approaching departure of his true soul mate, Polixenes? This fear of separation is exacerbated by Hermione taking moments to convince the King of Bohemia to stay, when Leontes' himself failed so spectacularly.

 There is an awkward passage in the aftermath to this where Leontes' suggests this is the second time Hermione has 'said well.' Hermione, playing for the court, begs to know the first time and Leontes' reveals

'Why, that was when
Three crabbed months had soured themselves to death
Ere I could make thee open thy white hand
And clap thyself my love; then didst thou utter
'I am yours for ever.''

It strikes me that the time scale is important here. The ease with which Polixenes and Hermnone arrive at agreement feels complicit when compared with the 'three crabbed months' of Leontes' wooing.

Mamillius himself is a fascinating character. Leontes keeps looking at him as if he were a looking glass in these opening sequences, projecting himself onto his son, reminding himself of his desire to be 'boy eternal.' In the very first scene, before we're introduced to the play's main protagonists, the Sicillian Lord Camillo discusses Mamillius's national importance with his Bohemian counterpart Archidamus. Archidamus suggests that the young prince has given 'unspeakable comfort' to the people.

Leontes is at the height of his powers at the top of the play. He has a doting wife, an heir, security in power and has had his best friend on an extended royal visit. Perhaps the unspeakable part of all of this is his desire to destroy the perfection of this world? Perhaps his is a pre-emptive attack. to control a decline that is inevitable from this moment. In doing so he challenges the Gods, time and nature itself.

It's Paulina who will need to help him put things back together, but this won't happen onstage and it'll take sixteen years.

Friday, 2 January 2015

Thou Metest With Things Dying I With Things Newborn.

It's been a couple of year since I regularly blogged and so I've made a new year's resolution to try and get back into the habit. It was a useful exercise in trying to order my thoughts about Drama at St Mary's and certainly think helped to unify the huge amount of activity that goes on day to day for the students and staff here.

We're still incredibly busy - one of the reasons the blog fell by the way side a little, along with personal revolutions brought about by both birth and death, and my own appointment as Academic Director - but looking back now across the last two years it's clear that Drama St Mary's is in a strong place to face the future and it's probably interesting to begin the chart the next chapters.

We've developed a strategy to take us through to 2020 and increasingly are looking to focus our resources on actor training rather than academic study. Of course we want our students to be as sharp as pins and much of our curriculum looks in depth at learning how to problem solve, evaluate, analyse and take responsibility for the creative decisions you make, but we're also very much in the business of developing physical and vocal technique, offering students the opportunity to perform in a range of production and with a range of directors. From September of this year we're bringing on board a Technical Theatre BA to complement the training programmes.

Our MAs are also developing. The Physical Theatre degree has blossomed and is now regularly producing successful touring companies who have picked up a handful of awards at fringe festivals across the world from San Diego to Rome.

The MA Directing is being redeveloped in partnership with The Orange Tree Theatre, which will enable these students to train at the theatre itself. They'll also have their final performances showcased at the theatre in the Spring.

We're back to work fully next week - but before the day to day kicks in again my colleague Tina Bicat and I have taken ourselves for a couple of days retreat with a study group at Cumberland Lodge in Windsor Great Park to do some focused reading on 'The Winter's Tale.'

The retreat is being led by novelist Sally Vickers, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams and the eminent Shakespearians Stanley Wells and Paul Edmondson.

Tonight, after settling in, we had an introductory session from Stanley and Paul, who performed a great double act reminding us of the key themes and moments in the play.

We looked at Leontes' great rebuttal to Camillo where he spews rhetorical question after rhetorical question at his attendant Lord. It's a speech that always challenges actors. How in control is Leontes' here? Are the words coming from thought or are the thoughts racing ahead of the words? It's a destructive and flamboyant moment and it's hard to understand the sheer recklessness of his accusations.

There was comparison between this play and 'Othello', Shakespeare's other great tract on jealousy. Although there it's Iago's careful seeding that ensures the agony grows. Leontes' wrath, by contrast, is sudden and although he goes on to rehearse his feelings, firstly to his non understanding son Mamillius and then to Camillo himself.

There are a few mysteries in the play mostly around Paulina and her role in the resurrection of Hermione. Does Hermione die or is she squirrelled away into hiding for sixteen years? Is the statue real? Does it come to life? When does Paulina conceive her plan? Or is it simply Time that controls events? What has the relationship between the two women been in the interim sixteen years?

It's these and some of the other themes and moments that we're going to explore over the next couple of days.

Friday, 2 May 2014

Refreshing The Robben Island Bible.

I’ve just had two very interesting days working with actors Jack Klaff and Jeffrey Kissoon on a revised version of my colleague Matthew Hahn’s play The Robben Island Bible. We prepared a rehearsed reading to open the 20 Years of South African Democracy conference at St Anthony’s College, Oxford and then had a follow up gig in front of the deputy President of South Africa Kgalena Molanthe at South Africa House, as part of his country’s freedom day celebrations

Matt’s play focuses on a banned edition of The Complete Works of Shakespeare, owned by the then prisoner Sonny Venkatrathnam which was surreptitiously passed around the cells on Robben Island camouflaged as a Hindu religious book.  Sonny asked each prisoner to sign next to their favourite passage. The choices made, with hindsight, reveal the thoughts, fears and hopes of the men, many of whom would go on to take leading political roles in the formation of the new South Africa.

Matthew spent several years traveling to Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg to interview the surviving signatories about their choice. The raw verbatim material gathered in this process has formed the core of the work.

The first sharing of this material happened at St Mary’s. RSC actor and former St Mary’s lecturer Ian Hughes led a student and staff reading here, in the theatre.

A few weeks later the great South African actor John Kani, who was, at the time, playing Caliban in a touring RSC production of The Tempest, agreed to take part in a further reading at the Richmond Theatre. Matt and I travelled up to Stratford upon Avon to meet John in-between shows and talk through the project and we were amazed by the additional biographical detail he was able to give us about the prisoners, many of whom he’d met through his own participation in the anti-apartheid struggle.

Since then the play has had several readings at The British Library as part of the Cultural Olympiad Restless World exhibition, at the Festival Hall as part of the London Literary Festival and at the Folger Shakespeare Institute in Washington DC.

Matt himself has just returned from directing a production at Montana State University and there are further plans afoot for a reading in Glasgow as part of this summer’s Commonwealth Games celebrations and a tour of South Africa.

It’s been a while since I worked on the material and I’d not met Jack or Jeffrey before we hooked up to rehearse in Oxford on a glorious spring morning. They knew each other of old, Jack played Iago to Jeffrey’s Othello at the Bristol Old Vic in 1990 and they worked together again on The Free State, Janet Suzman’s South African take on The Cherry Orchard, which I remember seeing at the Birmingham Rep in the late nineties.

We spent the morning clarifying the text and finding the rhythm of the new version. Jack’s knowledge of his native country was invaluable and he prompted us to dig underneath the literal meaning of the lines to help grasp the emotional context of the men’s stories. Jeffrey was superb with the Shakespeare - thoughtful, methodical and always looking at the passages with a fresh, almost forensic eye.

They have contrasting approaches. Jack was full of broad brush strokes, keen to demonstrate the men behind the stories. He attacked each section with guts, fury and an impressive range of native accents. Jeffrey’s work is more internalised, he draws you to him and makes you listen carefully to each word. Early on I wondered if I’d be able to pull them into the same play, but as the day developed they began to complement each other, bringing colour and texture to the exchanges and creating the necessary variation in pace needed to keep an audience engaged for the full forty five minutes.

By the afternoon we’d settled down, making final decisions over line readings and working with more precision to try and communicate our understanding of some of the meanings behind the men’s choices.

We began to see that often a contemporary English understanding of a key passage transforms completely when it’s juxtaposed with the biographical detail of the Robben Island prisoner who signed next to it. The most remarkable example comes in Wilton Mkwayi’s choice of the forged letter used to trick Malvolio in Twelfth Night. A traditional reading of this letter would focus on Malvolio’s gullibility and naivety. We laugh along because we’re in on the trick and want the steward’s Puritan pedantry revenged. However, when you realise that Wilton became engaged just before his incarceration and had to wait 23 years before he was released and could finally marry his fiance the end of the letter - ‘Farewell, She that would alter services with thee, The fortunate unhappy’  - takes on a completely different poignancy.

The last words of the play are Nelson Mandela’s choice from Julius Caesar 

‘Cowards die many times before their deaths;

The valiant never taste of death but once.’

Instinctively I’d given these to Jeffrey, based partly on the fact that he brilliantly played Caesar in Greg Doran’s acclaimed East African production at the RSC two years ago. When it came to it he was uneasy about picking up the lines again and gently protested that he’d find it very difficult to deliver them in any other way than he’d learnt for that run.

Jack was happy to take them up and delivered a pitch perfect Mandela impersonation which was spookily life like. For a moment I wondered whether the impact of having a bearded white man voice, so accurately, the former president might surprise the audience to such an extent that the prophetic impact of the lines would be lost in astonishment but both Jack and Jeffrey were, perhaps for different reasons, enthusiastically endorsing this new ending with wide grins. We kept it in. In the theatre it’s sometimes a very thin line between parody and goose bumps.

The reading itself was strange. Jeffrey worked deliberately, but, in the limited time we’d had to prepare, struggled a little to find some of the lighter touches. Jack tried to compensate for this and, towards the end, began to speed up. The balmy evening made the lecture theatre airless and the delegates, straight from an agreeable College dinner, seemed attentive rather than enthusiastic. Afterwards in the Senior Common Room everybody was incredibly complementary and several of the audience seemed genuinely moved by the work. In truth, I think, it dragged a bit.

Next day we met early in the sumptuous library at South Africa house. Overnight I’d made some cuts to try and streamline the narrative.

The prisoners who signed the bible fall into two main categories. There are the original Rivonia trialists and their associates who came onto the Island in the mid-sixties and a second wave, the black consciousness prisoners, who were incarcerated after the Soweto uprisings in 1976.

The cuts fell mostly on the passages nominated by the former group who tended use their choice to outline a philosophical or even metaphysical position about life as a prisoner. The new version I presented to Jack and Jeffrey focused instead on the more overtly political readings chosen by the second generation. Sadly, some of the humour went too.

As always there were some well-meaning  grumbles of favourite passages lost but, in the main, both actors embraced the streamlined text and set about renegotiating the transitions from section to section.

The reading itself went very well and was warmly received by the Deputy President and the hundred or so invited guests, esteemed South Africans now resident in London.  The play had a special resonance for Molanthe as he was sentenced to  ten years on Robben Island in the late seventies and early eighties, under the terrorism act. It’s the first time we’ve played the show in front of a former prisoner.

In the Q&A afterwards Dillon Woods, the son of the legendary campaigning anti-apartheid journalist Donald Woods, noted that the prisoners highlighted in the play had come from a range of political organisations, some oppositional to the now ruling ANC, he wondered whether the time had come to recognise that the struggle for democracy in South Africa involved many different voices and opinions beyond Mandela and Molanthe’s own party.  Amazing that twenty years on from the first democratic elections in South Africa we’re sitting in the High Commission listening to these conversations take place.

What greater value can a piece of Drama have than to provide the stimulus for a debate of this nature, asking difficult questions of those in power, keeping authority in check, whilst reminding us of the sacrifices and battles that have allowed us to be here in the first place?



Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Are You Ready?

Today sees us launch our pre-induction website for students heading to Drama St Mary’s in September. It’s a new initiative that we’re trying out to try and ease our new recruits into the way in which we think and work. We hope that if students engage with the website they’ll feel slightly more familiar with us on arrival and hit the ground running. The link is here.

It’s part of a bigger project to overhaul the whole of our induction process, moving away from the idea of the induction week, with days spent between long meetings of information overload and nights of hedonistic revelry, to consider the process as starting when a student first accepts a place and continuing on until they’re safely established on the course. This might be at the end of the first semester, it might be longer. The work here is very important, so anything we can do to help students focus on being in the rehearsal room, motivated and moving forward, we will. 

Graduation is only a couple of weeks away now and inevitably that means we’re beginning the process of looking for new students to join us in September 2014. This year we’re taking a pro-active approach and taking our auditions out beyond campus, visiting, schools and FE colleges to try find the 100 or so most talented and exciting young actors in the country. We’re also looking to expand the international aspect of our work. Former student Leone Hanman is touring the States in the Autumn looking to find the best American students to attend Drama St Mary’s auditions in New York in November.

Our campaign is running under the slogan ‘Are You Ready?’ and already we’re receiving some pre-UCAS applications.

Drama St Mary’s will only ever be as good as the students we recruit and we know that the synergy of a really powerful group of young actors, working alongside the excellent staff here, can lead to remarkable work. We’re ready for that to happen at St Mary’s.