The Importance of Performance

This weekend marks Lawrence Sterne’s 300th birthday, and to celebrate the Laurence Sterne Trust’s Good Humour Club put on The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman – adapted and performed by Stephen Oxley. It was a consummate performance with Oxley taking on many roles – Shandy, Uncle Toby, father, mother, maid  and many more – to great comedic effect. It’s a testament to Oxley’s performance that he managed to string Sterne’s rambling novel into a coherent and easy to follow production.

The show brought home to me the value of the performance of written works – especially when they were written in a different time or culture with the consequent obstacles to appreciating the meanings and nuances of the text on the page. This seems obvious in regards to plays, yet many people seem to have been put off Shakespeare for good by turgid lessons at school, and consequently miss out on the pleasures of a good Shakespeare production on stage.

However, hearing the words spoken aloud isn’t necessarily a beneficial experience. I’ve sat through a painfully dull and wordy Twelfth Night, but thankfully wasn’t put off from seeing the outstanding Globe production – a performance that was truly hilarious and needed no ‘education’ in the play or Shakespeare to enjoy. A director and performers who are passionate and educated about their material make even ‘challenging’ work surprisingly accessible and are invaluable for suggesting new interpretations and ideas to both knowledgeable audiences and newcomers.

While Gatz was quite a marathon (an eight-hour word-for-word rendering of The Great Gatsby onstage), lacking the leisurely pleasure of reading The Great Gatsby at your own pace and leaving me slightly sketchy on the finer points of the plot, Scott Shepherd’s obvious devotion to the book and his animated performance left me with a much greater appreciation of the language than I could have hoped to glean from simply reading the book myself.

The Tristram Shandy performance was equally revelatory. Although I enjoyed reading the novel it was perhaps more down to my love of the eighteenth century than a genuine literary appreciation of the book and I did find it a bit hard going. Stephen Oxley’s performance brought to life the humour in the novel and emphasised Sterne’s mastery of digression. With today marking the tercentenary of the birth of Laurence Sterne, Oxley and The Laurence Sterne Trust have provided me with a timely inspiration to reread Tristram Shandy, and I’m sure that having seen the performance the book will now make very different reading.

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.

Twelfth Night at the Globe

When I saw Twelfth Night at the National Theatre last year, I didn’t really get it. I understood the plot, and there were some good performances, but it wasn’t funny. The play got laughs, but they sounded half-hearted. To me it seemed like people were laughing just to prove that they knew it was funny, rather than as a genuine response to the rather staid action. I thought maybe Twelfth Night just wasn’t for me; this was Shakespeare at the National, directed by Peter Hall and starring Simon Callow and Rebecca Hall, so it should have been amazing. But recently I thought that I’d give the play another try at the Globe, and I’m glad that I did.

Hall’s production was skilfully played out, but slightly dull; in contrast the Globe’s production really captured the spirit of the play. It featured an outstanding all-male ensemble cast; Samuel Barnett, Liam Brennan, Paul Chahidi, Johnny Flynn, Stephen Fry, James Garnon and Mark Rylance all gave great performances although Rylance as Olivia tended to steal the scene. The decision to have an all-male cast, a replication of the Globe’s production 10 years earlier (which featured many of this cast), gave an extra dimension to the idea of dissemblance and gender. Viola is now a man, dressed as a woman, disguised as a man – as she would have been in Shakespeare’s day.

The dialogue and physical comedy were honed to perfection, really bringing the play to life. The Globe was packed, and the atmosphere really added to the experience. It really demonstrates the importance of a production; last year I was ready to give up on Twelfth Night as a rather dull Shakespeare “comedy” but the Globe’s version has converted me; it’s laugh-out-loud funny and deserves the West End transfer it will receive this Autumn.

Kids Week, and A Night Less Ordinary

Having spent the best part of an hour this morning attempting to navigate the very busy Kids Week booking system, as well as my equally busy diary, I am now looking forward to seeing Les Mis and Singin’ in the Rain with my younger sister this summer. Kids Week (which offers free theatre tickets to children accompanied by adults paying full price, as well as events and activities) is a great example of the continuing interest in engaging a new generation in theatre.

Although some of my friends attend the theatre sporadically, and one of my best friends is as addicted to theatre as I am, there are also lots of young people who don’t consider theatre as something that could be relevant to them. Many are intimidated by the prospect of attending the theatre, which is something I can relate to; even as an avid theatre-goer I was somewhat intimidated by the Royal Opera House’s grand décor and smart-looking clientele when I visited aged 18 to see Romeo and Juliet. But once inside the production was amazing, and if people dared to venture inside a theatre a new world would be opened up to them (also, most theatres are not as posh as the Royal Opera House!). The National Theatre has an inviting atmosphere and is home to a café, bars, and there is always an exhibition or musical performance to enjoy (although it is a bit of a maze). As the National Theatre turns Inside Out this summer its outside festival programme is bringing free and accessible entertainment to the South Bank. The outside venue creates an informal atmosphere and is sure to attract passersby.

As ticket prices continue to rise cost is also a barrier preventing many young (and older) people from attending the theatre. Yet many theatres have schemes offering cheap tickets for under-25s. The National Theatre’s Entry Pass scheme offers £5 tickets for all of its productions and often these are excellent seats. Although I think that this is the most generous scheme, especially considering the number of productions staged each season, there are many other theatres offering cheaper seats to young people, including The Old Vic, The Barbican and the West Yorkshire Playhouse. C145 is a brilliant scheme which not only offers under-18s the chance to see productions for £5 but in doing so also encourages them to attend a wider variety of performances than they might otherwise have done.

As well as these schemes there are also opportunities for everyone to have affordable access to quality productions. The Globe’s standing tickets are only £5, while the National Theatre’s Travelex season offers £12 tickets for many performances. Many West End theatres also sell day tickets which can be an affordable option for those with the time to queue.

A Night Less Ordinary (the Arts Council’s 2009-2011 pilot scheme to encourage theatre attendance among the under-26s by offering free tickets) demonstrates the importance of attracting a younger audience. The evaluation report found that while the majority of tickets were given to young people who said that they would probably not have visited the theatre had it not been for ANLO 92% of participants enjoyed the experience and 88% said they would pay to go again and would recommend theatre to friends and family; this clearly demonstrates the potential audience that young people offer.

Furthermore, participating venues believe that taking part has helped them to engage with young audiences and 41% of venues said the scheme had brought them commercial benefits through tickets sold to those accompanying free ticket holders and extra merchandise sales. The report suggests that ANLO is also partly responsible for the continuing development of the many membership and discount schemes for young people. The high success rate of ANLO demonstrates the importance of these discount schemes in developing and retaining an audience for the future.