Northern Ballet’s Dream Production

Having recently finished Gillian Lynne’s atmospheric autobiography, A Dancer in Wartime, it seemed apt timing as last week I immersed myself in Northern Ballet’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream – set around a 1940s touring production of Romeo and Juliet. This ‘ballet within a ballet’ also seems a fitting plot device for a company so committed to touring frequently and as widely as possible.

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 Lynne writes in her autobiography about the shortage of male dancers during the Second World War and the diversity of talent that this generated – dancers that weren’t technically brilliant but were consummate performers and exuded stage presence. Diversity is an ethos that Northern Ballet seems to embrace. They aren’t a cookie-cutter company, and each dancer brings something unique to their performances. The diversity of the company, and the strength of their ensemble, makes Northern Ballet productions alive with a character often lacking from companies such as the Royal Ballet.

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 A Midsummer Night’s Dream really allows the dancers to act – Act 1 features minimal dancing, with a strong emphasis on scene setting and storytelling (and even some dialogue). As I’ve come to expect from Northern Ballet productions, the David Nixon choreography was inventive, eloquent and witty.  A rehearsal video showing the dancers improvising dialogue, establishing the emotions and intentions of their characters, perhaps explains why Northern Ballet’s choreography is so articulate and its dancers so expressive.

 Kenneth Tindall and Martha Leebolt gave excellent performances as Lysander and Hermia, but Tobias Batley and Pippa Moore really stole the show as comedy double act Demetrius and Helena. Nicola Gervasi also brought a delightful mischievous energy to the role of Puck.

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Unfortunately I was sat in front of the kind of elderly audience members who give a stream of consciousness commentary to their lives. Before the performance started I was treated to a range of overheard pearls of wisdom: they were very concerned about the future state of one dancer’s hips as he performed some particularly impressive stretches, and I learnt that one apparent upside of Alzheimer’s is the ability to watch old productions with a fresh perspective.

Once the performance had started it did get rather wearing. The set was indeed ingenious, but comment could probably have waited until the interval. They particularly enjoyed the Act 2 ‘dream’ sequence – finding the underwear, cross-dressing and casual bestiality hilarious. I have to agree that while the whole ballet was strong, Act 2 stood out as a sublime mini-ballet in its own right. And by the interval the ballet had obviously grabbed the imagination of one little girl as she skipped and pirouetted down the aisle.

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 The general atmosphere was of energetic enthusiasm, and it clearly wasn’t a staid balletomane audience – we had to be repeatedly prompted to applaud the conductor at the start of each Act (I still don’t get why the orchestra gets a special round of applause just for making it to the theatre) – but there was much whooping and cheering at the curtain call.

 This is one of the strengths of Northern Ballet – its ability to attract regular loyal audiences but also to diversify away from the traditional ballet audience. Northern Ballet’s Dream is touring into 2014 and I’d highly recommend it!

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Blue Stockings

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 Blue Stockings at the Globe focusses on the fight of a small but determined group of female Cambridge students, fighting for the right to graduate. In a break with the worryingly common response to Blue Stockings – disbelief that women could be treated so appallingly – I was genuinely surprised at quite how surprised even some well-educated people were at the position of women in the nineteenth century. I realise as a History graduate I’ve probably had access to a wider range of periods and topics than the standard Tudors, Victorians and World Wars that seem perennially prescribed by the National Curriculum. Yet I was still taken aback that people found the depictions in the play such a revelation.

 Jessica Swale’s play at the Globe is therefore hugely important in raising awareness of not just the plight of Cambridge students but of social inequality in general. While I’m glad that the general consensus is so vociferously against the misogynistic views of the nineteenth-century establishment, with audience boos, cheers and catcalling in the yard, the play should spark a serious debate about social inequality and its continued effects on our society. And from a historical standpoint, this means taking a step back from the initial outrage at these offensive views.

It’s anachronistic to impose contemporary moral standards onto a past society. While it can seem particularly distasteful to hear vehement misogyny in such a relatively recent period, it is surely more useful – and fairer on those we are judging – to try and understand these views within the context of their time. The play is set in 1896 – Victorian society and law had very different ideas about morality and the structure of society.  In 1831 a 14 year old boy was executed for murder, and in 1833 a nine year old was sentenced to death for housebreaking – although this was later reprieved under public pressure. Slavery was not abolished in Britain until 1833 and public executions continued until 1868.

 The position of women in general society puts the challenges women faced at Cambridge, serious as they are, into perspective. It was not until 1870 that women were allowed to be the legal owners of the money they earned and to inherit property. It was not until the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882 that wives possessed a legal identity; previously courts didn’t recognize a wife as a separate legal entity to her husband.

 The play briefly touches on the Women’s Suffrage movement, and the complex political implications of political involvement on those campaigning for smaller victories. It was a long fight, and women didn’t receive the vote until 1918. Even then this was only for those over the age of 30 who met minimum property qualifications – it was not until 1928 that women received equal voting rights to men. Yet perhaps more surprisingly, and often overlooked, until 1918 forty per cent of adult males were also disenfranchised.

 There was clearly a large element of self-interest in the barring of female students from graduating, as with the withholding of universal suffrage and the amalgamation of a wife’s legal identity with that of her husband. The views these men espouse can seem ridiculous to our modern sensibilities, and were certainly often received with laughter by the audience of Blue Stockings, but it’s important to remember that many men (and women) will have genuinely believed that the mental taxation of study could be not only mentally but also physically damaging to women. If you believe this, and that women’s collective vocation is to be mothers and wives, then you probably think that you’re doing them a favour by discouraging them from studying.

And access to education has not always been seen as a right. Compulsory education was not introduced in Britain until 1880, and then only for children of five to ten years – and it was ineffectively enforced. The women with the education, talent and resources to make it to Cambridge were still privileged in comparison to the majority of the population.

 The general disparity in education continued well into the Twentieth Century, as the play’s final scene points out. Before the Second World War less than 2% of 18-year olds went to University. Oxford and Cambridge were still very much finishing schools for gentlemen. In 1939 women constituted less than a quarter of the university student population, a proportion which remained fairly stable until the late 1960s, when it began slowly to rise – real change did not begin until the 1970s.

And it’s also important to point out that the play is set in Cambridge, traditionally a bastion of the British Establishment. Conditions were better elsewhere in the country: if the women in Blue Stockings had wished, they could have graduated from the University of London, which in 1878 became the first UK University to admit women to its degrees. In 1881 two women obtained a BSc, by 1895 over 10 per cent of the graduates were women and by 1900 the proportion had increased to 30 per cent. As is the case today, not all universities were the same, and the situation in Cambridge, and the views of its inhabitants, do not necessarily reflect the country as a whole. In any society there will always be thinkers ahead of their time and those clinging desperately to the past, and the social elite that populated Cambridge have always tended towards conservatism.

Jessica Swale only alludes to some of the more violent protests against the bluestockings, which in real life included burning effigies of the female students. While the outright misogyny found in Blue Stockings is thankfully unacceptable in contemporary Britain, the example of Malala Yousafzai (to whom Blue Stockings is dedicated) serves as a reminder that for some the fight for a right to an education continues.

Closer to home, with the introduction of £9000 tuition fees, it seems as if the economic educational divide will grow. And it’s not just financial restrictions that affect your experience of university. Laura Wade’s Posh may be set in Oxford, but it demonstrates the rigid social hierarchy that still supports the upper echelons of our society. The play’s popularity demonstrates that our interest in the educational elite is as strong as ever.

And it seems that discrimination, of a subtler sort, is still hampering access to a Cambridge education – earlier this year it was reported that people applying to study medicine at Cambridge with three A*s at A-level are more than 20% more likely to be given an offer if they are white than if they are from an ethnic minority. On a personal note, studying History at University the majority of my peers were female. Looking at my tutors, the majority of teaching staff (and the vast majority of the older tutors) were men. It seems that in academia, as in so many areas of life, historical institutional sexism has left a noticeable legacy.

And the pay gap between men and women persists, with female law graduates, for instance, earning 28% less than men at the start of their careers.  Sitting in the audience at the Globe it is easy to feel smug, and to deride the ‘villains’ of Blue Stockings as antiquated relics of another era. But perhaps we should take a minute to look at our own society before we condemn theirs.

The Globe – A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest

On Saturday I took advantage of the sun and spent a day on the Southbank at the Globe with a Shakespeare double bill. I’m not normally a fan of A Midsummer Night’s Dream but, as with Twelfth Night last year, the Globe’s production has led me to reassess my preconceptions. It featured some excellent performances, and really drew out the comedy of the play. Joshua Silver as Demetrius and Luke Thompson as Lysander wrung the comedy out of their characters infatuations with Hermia and Helena, Pearce Quigley as Bottom had the audience in stitches, and Michelle Terry delivered a strong performance as Titania and Hippolyta.

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The programme talks about the bawdy nature of the play, and how modern conceptions of the play are based on sanitised Victorian editions, altered to meet with contemporary sensibilities and establish the play as particularly suitable for children. The Globe’s version certainly re-establishes the play’s sexual elements, although not to an extent shocking to a modern audience.

After A Midsummer Night’s Dream I had two and a half hours to wait before The Tempest, and decided that the groundling queue was as good a place as any. I therefore found myself settled unwittingly amongst some very excited Merlin fans, waiting to see Colin Morgan’s performance. They were very friendly and sociable though, entertaining themselves for the whole 2 hours we were queuing with animated discussion of Merlin and Doctor Who.

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Although tough on my feet, cramming two Shakespeare plays into a day meant that by the second my brain was already attuned to the language and I got into it a lot quicker than for some productions I’ve seen. Seeing the plays back to back, I was struck by the physicality of both productions.  A Midsummer Night’s Dream featured Oberon and Puck rope climbing, and a hilarious slapstick performance of the ‘play within a play’, while in The Tempest we saw Colin Morgan cartwheeling, monkey-barring and generally climbing around the set. It’s the visual spectacle of the Globe’s productions, alongside the excellent performances, that give them a sense of life – the Globe always manages to avoid academic, wordy renditions of the Bard’s works.

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While all the performances were excellent (with Roger Allam as Prospero and Jessie Buckley as Miranda), the performances of Colin Morgan and James Garnon really stood out. As Ariel, Morgan demonstrated a surprising physical dexterity and brought a captivating, ethereal quality to the part. While I’m usually a fan of Garnon for his interpretation of Shakespearean language, the role of Caliban allowed him to demonstrate his versatility, with a physical and vocal performance redolent of the creature in the National’s Frankenstein.

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Both productions are strong, and are representative of the high standard the Globe consistently demonstrates. With £5 groundling tickets for those who can stomach three hours of standing, and the opening of the Sam Wanamaker indoor theatre at the end of the year, the Globe is steadily establishing itself as a must for London theatre fans.

King Lear

It feels like summer has started, now that I’ve made my first visit of the year to the Globe to see King Lear (even if it was a bit chilly…).

A couple of years ago, working Front of House at the West Yorkshire Playhouse while at Uni, I wondered how I would cope with seeing their production of King Lear (3 hours and 10 minutes) three times in a fortnight. But the production kept my attention for all nine and a half hours. It featured an amazing cast, led by Tim Piggott-Smith as Lear. James Garnon, as Edmund, had a natural way of conveying Shakespeare that I’ve only seen surpassed by David Tennant. And as Edgar, Sam Crane’s physical and vocal transformation to Poor Tom was astonishing. I also found it a useful undertaking. The first time of watching I had to concentrate on following the plot, while the second and third viewings allowed me to focus more on the performances and appreciation of the language.

It also gave me a good grounding from which to see the Globe’s touring production. The multiple roles taken on by each member of the cast made it slightly hard to follow, and I imagine if I was coming to the play for the first time I would have relied heavily on the synopsis in the programme. Despite this, the production was full of committed and energetic performances, and the actors dealt well with their transitions between characters. They also made the most of minimal props and set, although inevitably the touring production wasn’t as well suited to the space as the Globe’s normal output.

The impact of the play’s tragic finale was somewhat undermined by the customary song and dance at the end of the performance, but the audience certainly enjoyed it and the play received enthusiastic applause. While perhaps not as in-depth as the WYP version, this is a solid and engaging production.

Shakespeare: staging the world

The Shakespeare: staging the world exhibition, coming to an end this month at the British Museum, is an intriguing look at Tudor Britain. The exhibition is grouped by theme, relating artefacts to Shakespeare’s work – although some of these links are rather tenuous, and it is only the first section that is wholly about Shakespeare.

The exhibition does give an intriguing insight into life in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the concerns of the people living at this time. It also looks at changing ideals during this period, for example the ideas of nation and kingship forged by previous kings and the way that the modern preoccupation with the monarchy and succession were played out on stage through historical figures from Richard II to Cleopatra.

There is also a fascinating look at Venice during this period, and having studied Venice in depth at University it was nice to see some artefacts in person, from ducats to chopines (high platform shoes). It took me two and a half hours to get around the exhibition, and by the end my attention did start to wander. But my main gripe (with an otherwise excellent exhibition) is the recordings of actors reciting extracts of Shakespeare, loudly and enthusiastically, which were played on a loop in the middle of the exhibits. They were very good, but at certain points you could hear two or three at a time while you were trying to concentrate on reading the text that accompanies the exhibits.

Apart from this, the exhibition proves a very interesting summary of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century life in Britain. The connections made to Shakespeare’s works not only demonstrate the relevance of his works but ground them in reality and locate them within the ideas and influences of the time.

Timon of Athens

The National Theatre has produced Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens as part of the London 2012 Festival and, as with the BBC’s Shakespearean offerings, has provided a lot of extra material that makes the play more accessible. In the Olivier Exhibition Space The Making of Timon has been produced in association with the British Museum, who is also holding an exhibition of its own – Shakespeare: staging the world. The National’s exhibition covers both the world that Shakespeare was writing in and the processes involved in the making of the new production.

While the section on Shakespeare’s world was interesting, what really caught my attention was the part of the exhibition focussing on the National Theatre’s production. It was fascinating to see how props were constructed, the designs for the set, as well as rehearsal schedules and annotated scripts. It was also interesting to hear from those involved in different capacities in the production and see their perspectives on the play and their jobs.

National Theatre programmes are always informative and good value, but the Timon programme is particularly good. There is an article by Peter Holland on the play, an extract from Simon Russel Beale on acting Shakespeare and a collection of views on Timon from contributors including Karl Marx. All were helpful, not presuming that you already know anything but not dumbing-down either.

While I have nothing but praise for the content accompanying the production, I have to admit that I was less taken with the performance itself. I found it all a bit soulless and emotionless. Perhaps the play’s focus on materialism, and the shallowness of the characters’ lives and friendships, made this inevitable. I’m not sure that the problems I had aren’t intrinsic to the play; none of the characters are especially likeable and there isn’t really much action. The National’s production, set in the modern period, was nicely designed with minimal but expensive-looking sets and Simon Russel Beale did give a good performance as Timon, with the presence to carry the production.

I think that more theatres should follow the National Theatre’s example in providing extra support material for their productions. The Globe is also very good at this, and always has excellent articles in its programmes. As someone who has only been attending the theatre for a few years, and is eager to learn more about the productions I see, I am always grateful for informative programmes. Programmes and exhibitions such as the National’s are invaluable in ensuring that everyone in the audience gets as much from the performance as they can.

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.