Macbeth at the Royal Shakespeare Company

We’ve been away most of last week visiting family and going to Stratford-upon-Avon to see Macbeth at the transformed Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

Watching a live performance of any of Shakespeare’s plays is a special treat, one that we manage less frequently now that we’ve moved so far away from Stratford, but combining our visit with a family occasion made it possible this year. The new auditorium is impressive with a huge stage thrusting into the audience, seating around 1,000 people on three sides of the stage. Our seats were in the stalls, very close to the stage, with a group of school children seated in front of us, whose reactions were highly amusing.

The set design was dramatic and atmospherically dark, shattered stained glass windows in a ruined church with defaced images of saints and piles of rubble on the floor. At one point in the play Macbeth and Banquo erupted onto the stage through holes in the back wall. There are no weird sisters in this version of Macbeth; the prophecy is announced in suitably ghost-like tones by three children (the children of Macduff) suspended in the air above the stage as though they have been hung on meat hooks.

It was the children and Seyton the porter who stole the show for me, although the other actors all gave excellent performances. The murder of the children had me gasping and almost in tears as Macduff’s little daughter was taken away to her death. Jamie Beamish as Seyton was fantastic and his pyrotechnics really shocked me. Jonathan Slinger portrayed Macbeth as an frenetic lunatic who made me decidedly edgy and I never knew how close to me in the audience he was going to get – I was glad I wasn’t on the front row.

A hugely enjoyable performance.

Favourite Places – Stratford-upon-Avon

On Sundays Margot at Joyfully Retired writes about one of her favourite places. Here’s one of mine – it’s Stratford-upon-Avon.  

We went there last August to see Julius Caesar at the Courtyard Theatre. I wrote about that here. We stayed at this hotel  

Alveston Manor

 in the room on the first floor next to the entrance (in shadow in the photo). This is the view through the window  

Bedroom window

The hotel is not far from the River Avon

River Avon

Whilst there we visited various houses connected with Shakespeare. We’ve been to Stratford many times but had never been in Shakespeare’s birthplace, so that is where we started.  

Shakespeare’s Birthplace

There is a display at the entrance which I found to be claustrophobic because the doors were locked behind us as we went in, but I enjoyed the tour of the house.  

Shakespeare’s Birthplace

We then went to Nash’s House and New Place. New Place was Shakespeare’s home for the last 18 years of his life. It was pulled down in the 18th century. Nash’s House, next to New Place belonged to Thomas Nash who married Elizabeth, Shakespeare’s granddaughter. 

Shakespeare Nash’s House & New Place
The Site of New Place

New Place Trellis-work Tunnel
New Place Knot Garden seen through the Tunnel

On after that to visit Hall’s Croft. John Hall, a physician, married Susanna, Shakespeare’s oldest daughter. The house has a small room furnished as John Hall’s consulting-room would have been and the garden contains many of the herbs mentioned in Hall’s medical notebook.   

Hall’s Croft

There is so much to see in Stratford – these are just a few of my photos! There are more on Flickr

Julius Caesar

jc-progOur last visit to the RSC in Stratford was in 2007. We try to go for my birthday in August but last year left it too late to book tickets to see Hamlet; with David Tennant in the lead role tickets went very quickly!

This year we went to see Julius Caesar, at The Courtyard Theatre. (Work on the new auditorium is well underway but performances there still seem a long way off.) The RSC’s production emphasises how brutal, dangerous and violent the world of ancient Rome was.  As we entered the theatre and took our seats two scantily-clothed, dirt-streaked actors were fighting on stage like wild animals, portraying Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome – a dramatic addition to Shakespeare’s original text. This was followed by the Roman fertility festival of Lupercal – Lupercal is a cave on the Palatine Hill believed to be where a wolf suckled Romulus and Remus. I thought this was a most effective beginning, with the statue of the wolf suckling the twins projected on the backdrop, and showing a Rome full of violence, panic and hysteria. The cast was aided by video scenes of the crowd projected onto screens. It was actually very clever, if rather distracting but as we were sitting to one side of the stage I was able to ignore most of it.

The performance has stayed fresh in my mind. It was certainly a most entertaining production, and I enjoyed it even though it was slightly marred because I found most of Brutus’s dialogue inaudible. This may be because for his quieter speeches Sam Troughton had his back to our side of the stage, and yet I had no difficulty in hearing the other actors. His portrayal of Brutus emphasised the flaws in Brutus’s character – is Brutus really an “honourable man”? Clearly not, as Troughton’s “scared rabbit”, hesitant portrayal of Brutus came over as weak in complete contrast to Greg Hicks’s Caesar and particularly to Darrell D’Silva’s brutish and battle-scarred Mark Antony. As Cassius reveals, Brutus is easily persuaded over to the conspirators’ cause.

Julius Caesar is a play that has never convinced me that Caesar’s actions were so ambitious, nor of the justice or otherwise of the conspirators’ cause and this performance didn’t help. The conspirators came over as self-seeking and just as autocratic as Caesar, although strangely I found myself sympathising with Cassius, a character I didn’t take to when I read the play, with his “lean and hungry look”. Maybe this Cassius was just not that hungry, but nevertheless he was dangerous and Caesar would have done well to follow his own advice and avoid him.

The play draws attention to difference between the idealised image of Caesar and his infirmities – he is deaf in one ear, a weak swimmer and epileptic and Greg Hicks’s performance was powerful, if rather over-emphasised. However, Mark Antony’s vigorous and convincing devastation at Caesar’s death probably swung me over to his side. Darrell D’Silva’s performance was by far the best of the night.

Stratford and Twelfth Night at The Courtyard Theatre

D and I have been away for a few days. We went to Stratford to see Twelfth Night at The Courtyard Theatre. Although we have stayed in Stratford several times over the last 10 years and watched several plays performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company we had never been to The Courtyard Theatre before. We were quite surprised that it was some distance away from the main theatre and in what looks like a large rusty metal box. Fortunately the inside is nothing like the outside and the auditorium is impressive, seating over 1,000 people, with the audience seated around three sides of the stage. We were in the stalls and had a really good view of all the action on the stage.

On previous visits to Stratford it has been crowded with tourists and we’ve never visited Shakespeare’s birthplace. We didn’t make it this time either, but when we walked up to The Courtyard theatre in the morning before the matinee we followed the signs to Holy Trinity Church where Shakespeare was baptised in 1564, where he worshipped and where he is buried. Holy Trinity Church is a beautiful church dating back to the 13th century, set in a lovely, peaceful position by the River Avon. Perhaps next time we’ll manage to visit Shakespeare’s Birthplace and the Shakespeare Centre.

We stayed at the Alveston Manor Hotel. We’ve stayed here before, as it is just a few minutes walk from the River Avon and the RSC Theatre and also because the original timber-framed house is a beautiful Tudor building, full of atmosphere – leaded Elizabethan windows, panelled walls lined with paintings of Shakespeare and characters from the plays and photographs of old playbills. It is set in gardens with an ancient Cedar Tree under which, it is rumoured, the first performance of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ was given.

Twelfth Night

We went to the matinee performance. The theatre was full and as we waited for the play to start we overheard from the seats behind us: ‘Well Mother, this is going to be different. I’m hoping a lot of this will pass you by.’

At the end of the performance we overheard a conversation from a couple following behind us as we walked away from the theatre: ‘I thought Feste and Malvolio were the best.’ ‘Oh no’ came the friend’s reply ‘I didnt like Feste at all – ‘far too modern and the microphone! Her friend: ‘I didnt like Sir Toby, a woman doesn’t have enough stature to play a man.’ The cross-dressing was not to everyone’s liking, although I think the teenage element of the audience found it hilarious.

This was the second performance of Twelfth Night that we’ve seen by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford. The first time was in the RSC theatre, now closed because a new auditorium is being built (due to be completed in 2010). That was a traditional performance, complete with Feste, the fool dressed in motley, playing a lute, an Elizabethan set and was very colourful and funny. This performance was different. The setting was black; nearly all the actors were dressed in black Edwardian costumes and not a box-tree in sight. Feste was a dissolute musician in evening dress, playing a grand piano, and using a microphone into which he drawled at the opening of the play ‘Twelfth Night – or What you Will ‘ –  and the scene was set. On came Viola, shipwrecked, barefoot and in a nightdress and shawl, and obviously a man.

The play continued – Viola, believing her twin brother, Sebastian has drowned in the wreck ‘disguised’ as a boy, Cesario, goes to the court of the Count Orsino, who is besotted with unrequited love of the Lady Olivia, who repels his wooing as she is in mourning for her dead brother. Everything is topsy-turvy in this play and this performance certainly demonstrated that, with Sir Toby Belch (Olivia’s uncle), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (a foolish foppish knight) and Fabian (a servant) all played by women, giving a pantomime performance and reminding me somewhat of the hobbits in Lord of The Rings – small in size but yet full grown and different from adult men. I could suspend my disbelief to enjoy their performance, even though I found it a bit bizarre, but I’m sorry to say that I found the performance of Viola/Cesario (Chris New) was just not convincing – even though I know that originally women’s roles were played by boys, there was no way that I could conceive he was a woman disguised as a boy, nor that Olivia could possibly find such an effeminate young man attractive, let alone fall in love with him and this grated and irritated me throughout the play.

I did like Feste (James Clyde); his foolery, his bored condescension and his singing were superb. I also liked Olivia (Justine Mitchell) and her housekeeper Maria (Siobhan Redmond) who both gave spirited and convincing performances. Malvolio (John Lithgow) was magnificent in his portrayal of the ridiculous steward driven into seeming madness, wearing cross-gartered yellow stockings and smiling grotesquely. The grand piano had to stand in for the box-tree, so that this was where the tipsy Sir Toby (Marjorie Yates in tweeds) and the others hid to watch Malvolio find the letter written to fool him into believing Olivia loves him and it worked quite well, as the actors popped up and down commenting on and sniggering at Malvolio’s conceit and self importance.

Twelfth Night relies on the use of language and wit and is essentially a comedy about deception and disguise, about illusion and reality, about what is sane and what is rational and above all about love, the irrationality and unruliness of love.

Like the lady behind me I thought Feste and Malvolio were the best and I’d add Maria and Olivia as well – they were all excellent and made the play one that I enjoyed and will remember.

An added bonus was that whilst in Stratford I bought a hardback copy of Peter Ackroyd’s Shakespeare: the Biography for the bargain price of £3.35.