The Genius of Michael Grandage

With the Michael Grandage Company’s season at the Noël Coward Theatre, Michael Grandage has come up with an idea so obvious that it’s amazing nobody has done it before.

It’s a shame that it’s how the world works, but marketing a season purely around its headline stars is a sure-fire way to ensure its commercial success. It doesn’t matter what the play is, or how good the production, if it stars Daniel Radcliffe or Jude Law people are going to go. The teenage girls sitting next to me when I saw The Cripple of Inishmaan spent the interval looking at the programme’s opening double-page spread (featuring a line up of all of the season’s stars), stroking Daniel Radcliffe’s face and swooning over Jude Law. Looking down into the stalls it was striking how many programmes were open at this page!

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But crucially, the stars that Grandage has chosen (also including Simon Russel Beale and Judi Dench) have not only commercial appeal but also the talent to give a quality performance. Alongside Grandage lending his name to the company, the reputation of its stars will surely make the season as appealing to theatre buffs as Harry Potter or Jude Law fans. This is backed up by the array of four- and five-star reviews received by the season so far. What could have been a gimmick is instead the foundation for a serious season of quality drama.

By removing any direct reference to each individual play (other than the title) the Grandage season has created coherent and distinctive marketing for a season of unconnected plays. It’s impossible to know what any of the plays are about from the posters, but they are certainly striking. And while I find it a bit depressing that star casting is almost a necessity for any West End play, it’s undeniably beneficial if it makes the staging of more obscure plays viable, and introduces audiences to something new.

The Hollow Crown: Richard II

Although I’ve been working long hours at Wimbledon for the last week and therefore haven’t had much time for watching TV,  I managed to find two and a half hours to watch Richard II, the excellent first episode of the BBC’s The Hollow Crown series comprising of televised versions of Shakespeare’s history plays. The production was beautifully shot and constantly engaging, and made excellent use of both stunning scenic shots and of intimate close ups in which the actors commanded attention. The production is full of symbolism, both religious, with references linking Richard and Jesus, and otherwise, for example Richard’s name in the sand being erased by the waves. Incidentally, Ben Wishaw (who plays Richard) would make an excellent Jesus with his long hair, beard and robes.

While this interpretation of Richard II was gripping and entertaining, more prosaically (and equally importantly as someone who was unfamiliar with the play) it was also easy to follow, with all of the performances enhancing the viewers’ understanding of the play. The issue of clarity of meaning and emotion when performing Shakespeare is picked up on in the excellent documentary Shakespeare Uncovered with Derek Jacobi which followed the BBC production.

Jacobi discusses the play with actors (the excellent Jamie Parker and James Garnon) at the Globe as they take on the play. There are also interviews with Richard Gould, who directed the BBC production, and Ben Wishaw. Gould says that he’s thought of Richard II as a “sort of Michael Jackson figure; sort of sexually ambiguous, separate, playful, capricious, diva”, and retrospectively I can see a semblance of Jackson in Ben Wishaw’s portrayal of Richard. There are certainly parallels, with Richard swept up in the pomp, rigmarole and “celebrity” of kingship. The documentary highlights the timeless relevance of the play, citing modern examples, from Gaddafi to Thatcher, of people who have met with Richard’s fate.

All of the BBC’s recent programming centring on Shakespeare has been interesting and informative, but I think that this Shakespeare Uncovered benefitted from accompanying a performance. It’s almost the equivalent to the articles in a theatre programme which give background information and explore the themes of the play, and means that the viewer doesn’t need to have any previous familiarity with the play to get the most out of the documentary. Yet I believe that all of the Shakespeare Unlocked programmes have met their target of making Shakespeare more accessible; a letter this week in the Radio Times is from a lady who has been converted after 56 years of not “getting” Shakespeare by the BBC’s Shakespeare season. As Ben Wishaw states, “I get irritated when you’re made to feel like it’s [Shakespeare’s] something difficult and a bit beyond you. I really hate that. People are so stuffy about it, but it’s really easy”. Wishaw’s Richard II certainly made Shakespeare seem easy, and the production was easily accessible. Programmes such as these open up Shakespeare to a whole new audience; they are the sort of programme that the BBC is best at, and a worthy addition to the Cultural Olympiad. I’m definitely looking forward to the next three instalments of The Hollow Crown.