whatsonstage: “Mark Rylance took his final bow as Richard III yesterday, and posed for this rather wonderful pic”
Mark Rylance (Olivia) and Stephen Fry (Malvolio) in Twelfth Night, dir. Tim Carroll at Shakespeare’s Globe, London 2012 (photo by Simon Annand)
For the rain it raineth every day
I have spent more time at the Globe theatre watching plays (and later volunteering and freelancing) than is reasonable. I first visited the theatre in 1996, and saw the opening production of Henry V the following year. On that fateful August day, Mark Rylance walked on stage, recited the play’s opening lines (O for a muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention), and kicked open a door somewhere inside me I didn’t even know existed. That open door led me to some strange countries, not unlike Illyria - an oxymoronic land of merriment and Puritanical condemnation, of mistaken identities and willful pretence, of cruel jokes and harmless witty foolery. A place where people fall desperately in love at first sight, or long for lovers they cannot have.
I watched theatre nearly seven days a week, for years. I moved to England, went to drama school, directed plays. I worked and lived in and for the theatre. Then something broke. I became frustrated with career options that offered hard labour but little reward. I turned bitter, critical and exhausted; there was no more joy in it for me. I remember reading a line in a Lorca play that hit me right on the head: you have to destroy the theatre or live in the theatre! It’s not fair to boo from backstage! I don’t how I ended up there, but there I was: booing from backstage. So I opted out, cut theatre out of my life. I went to the cinema. After a while I fell in love again - this time with an equally thrilling, rich and challenging art, but one that is at the same time safer, more distant: nobody looks back at you, nobody can touch you from a silver screen.
Last night I went to see Twelfth Night at the Globe. It’s a production I have seen many times before, because it was originally performed by the Globe company at Middle Temple Hall in February 2002 on the 400th anniversary of the play, and later transferred to the Globe for the summer season that year. Mark Rylance reprised his hilarious, intense Olivia; Paul Chahidi was again a perfectly savvy Maria, and Liam Brennan a muscular yet refined Orsino. New cast member Stephen Fry (!) played Malvolio – the most sympathetic and believable Malvolio I’ve ever seen, a joy to behold. Johnny Flynn and Sam Barnett were (impressively similar-looking) Viola and Sebastian: both eloquent, sensitive, courageous survivors. And my favourite actor from the original cast, Peter Hamilton Dyer, returned as Feste (make no mistake: Feste is the core of the play; with his tenor voice and sharp sense of humour PHD was born to play this part).
This new cast is extremely well-balanced, and all parts are fully characterised through costume and smart, inventive performative touches that feel really grounded in the world of the play. The minimal but effective direction allows each cast member to play his part to the full, using the beautiful setting of the Globe-turned-Elizabethan-mansion, as well as the very lively audience, as a perfect foil for jokes and confessions, really drawing on the energy of the live, open air experience so essential to the magic that the Globe can create.
Globe productions can incorporate so many external agents into their ebb and flow - weather, accidents, audience response - and the best Globe shows are organic, sensory events. In Shakespeare’s times people spoke of ‘hearing’ a play rather than ‘seeing’ it, and while great attention was paid to visual comedy (for example in the scene where a confused Orsino realises he feels attracted to Cesario/Viola and, transported by the music, nearly kisses him - observed by a watchful Feste), this show is primarily an extraordinary aural experience. The combination of the text being spoken so clearly and accurately that every word makes sense, and an inspired use of music to accompany so many scenes (and pre-show, interval, final jig and curtain call), creates a world of sounds and sighs – breath made song for the purpose of laughter, lament, and nourishment alike (If music be the food of love, play on is, after all, the opening line of the play).
It is a production full of fun and joy – the physical joy of beautifully ornate language being articulated for the pleasure of our own ears and hearts, of gorgeous garments that swish and flutter as characters move (Orsino does wear changeable taffeta!), of bodily enjoyment in dance, love, drink and food – the purest joys there are. It may not be the darkest, most sophisticated interpretation of the play, but for me it was simply the definitive production my favourite Shakespeare comedy.
I can’t remember where I read something that Mark Rylance said about Olivia being like a country that’s moving from winter to spring thanks to the experience of love. Last night under a pouring, cold autumn rain, something inside me thawed. Like the last piece of wood on the fire after a long, merry evening drawing to its melancholy end, it warmed me up and reminded me why I loved the theatre. And why you can’t forget your first love, no matter how much it hurt, no matter how far away from it you travel.
Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize - My portrait of Mark Rylance shortlisted for this years final four.
I’m really pleased to announce that I have been selected as one of this year’s final four in the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize at The National Portrait Gallery.
I still can’t believe it and I feel really lucky. So keep everything crossed until the 5th of November.
Dear Spencer Murphy, this photograph is perfect. I hope you win all the awards now and in time to come.
(For all the Rylance fans, there’s more here).
“I am Isambard Kingdom Brunel. I am an engineer from the Victorian age, and I am here to recite some Shakespeare”, said the Northern Irish Knight of the Realm. Because London’s all about fine poetry, crap weather, industrial revolutions, class systems, and, most of all, exquisite contradictions.
So, last night was a heck of a party. Some of it was delightful, some of it cringeworthy; all of it just so accurately representative of the way my adoptive country sees itself. It was a fine show, and for the first time I felt a glint of excitement about this great big corporate monster of a thing that’s taken over our city.
Even more amazingly, the opening ceremony of the Olympics reminded me of all the reasons why I came here and why I stayed for so long. Truth is, I came here because of Kenneth Branagh. And because of Mark Rylance, the actor Branagh replaced in the ceremony when he was forced to pull out following a family tragedy. Talk about twists of fate: it was these two men who brought Shakespeare into my life; then theatre as a whole, and poetry, literature, cinema, and everything followed from there. They put down the cornerstones at base of my life as an adult. And then they forced me to come here and complete the rest: bricks, mortar, windows, facade, furniture. They provided the material to build me.
London can be a stressful, harsh, depressing place to live. But last night at a great theatre party where minor and major celebrities were just hanging out, drinking free Pimm’s, cheering for Kenneth Branagh and the NHS (!?) and Team GB - and especially the parachuting Queen! - it all felt rather special.
Even better than that; BT and I cycled home - wind in our hair - across a deserted Waterloo Bridge, and caught sight of the lights and the skyline, the fireworks and the flags. Oh my, it was beautiful. An epiphany struck me: once upon a time a true Londoner was certified solely by the accident of having been born within hearing of the sound of the Bow bells. Nowadays London is something else, and after twelve years which were in equal parts exciting and maddening, I feel like a Londoner through and through. This is where I belong.
2012 is the year I finished my PhD, and I may be about to embark on a proper, non-academic career. This week, between the celebrations of our third wedding anniversary and the beginning of the Olympics, BT and I purchased our first apartment together. It’s on the 22nd floor of an imposing, austere Bauhaus/brutalist building in EC1, and it has sweeping views over London that can only be described as awesome.
Turns out that Samuel Johnson’s overly-quoted line, “who is tired of London is tired of life” may actually be true. I have been so tired of so many things, but I think I have fallen in love with London again. I am not tired of life. Bring it on. More London. “More life.”
J.D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey (Buddy Glass’ letter to Zooey 3.5)
I went to see The Cherry Orchard at the National Theatre last night and remembered these words. The production was competent, smart, energetic; it was genuinely funny and very enjoyable, but yet something of the balance Chekhov carefully wrote into it was lost.
Many critics had trouble with Andrew Upton’s translation, which updated the language of the play with some modern expressions and phrasing, particularly in Lopakhin’s dialogue. Not my problem, I have to say I thought that worked quite well: Lopakhin represents a practical, necessary, somewhat crass future that leaves no space for the flourishing language of well-educated aristocrats like Ranyevskaya or hopeless intellectuals like Trofimov. Lopakhin’s business-like manner and reduced vocabulary inevitably failed him when it came to discuss his feelings, and were accountable for both his inability to propose to Varya (whom he doesn’t love) and to confess his atrocious, unrequited love to Ranyevskaya.
Chekhov weaves into the play a very subtle, delicate, painful conflict between Lopakhin’s desire for social ascent (his grandfather was a serf, his father was a servant, and now he gets to own the estate!) and his emotional attachment to the estate and its people (embodied in the Countess, whom he calls his “mistress”). But more than half of what Lopakhin’s character is about is deliberately subtextual, and must be questioned in production: why does he buy the cherry orchard? Was it a scheme from the start? Is it a grand gesture to gain Ranyevskaya’s love? Does he know that she is intending to return to Paris anyway? Does he deliberately lead Varya on to believe he is interested in her? What is it in him that she loves? Howard Davis’ production made great use of Chekhov’s written humour, but slightly missed his great unwritten depth of emotion. It’s bizarre because usually British productions of Chekhov fail the other way round - too much melancholy and gloom and not enough comedy.
In thinking about this I was also reminded of a great lesson in balancing dramatic swings I once got from watching Mark Rylance play Cleopatra - not his best role and a questionable project in many ways, but he pointed out to me how, before a great tragic moment such as the death of Antony in Cleopatra’s arms, Shakespeare writes in some rather farcical stuff - the bearing of Antony’s body aloft to the monument, and Cleopatra’s line “how heavy weighs my lord!” It is the juxtaposition of the ridiculous and the sublime, if you will, or simply of comedy and tragedy, that generates drama or emotion, the thing that literally moves the spectator.
Chekhov writes high comedy but doesn’t write high tragedy. The comedy is outlined in great detail in his stage directions and dialogues to be rough, loud and visual; on the other hand, the tragedy in his characters’ lives is always subdued, simmering under the surface, and therefore the balancing act is more difficult to pull through. But all the material is there for an actor to juggle, and when it does work (and I have seen it work, particularly in Russian productions) its power is devastating.
A written play is only the tip of an iceberg, really it should be a user’s manual, a guide to an unfamiliar place, but it is not the whole picture. So while some of Chekhov’s plays are practically perfect from a dramaturgical point of view, his great talent as a dramatist can only be put to its intended purpose when it is lifted from the page and onto the stage. We keep going back to watch his plays in the hope that the potential of the page is realised, that its beauty explodes like the cherries in bloom.
Maybe like Zooey I demand too much from art, from theatre in particular. Maybe it’s why I had to get out.
‘Anonymous’ Photocall at the Studio Babelsberg in Potsdam, Germany: (L to R) Mark Rylance, John Orloff, Vanessa Redgrave, Roland Emmerich, Joely Richardson, Rafe Spall, David Thewlis, Rhys Ifans
The Shakespeare Authorship Blockbuster is really happening. Oh dear lord. (How is Roland Emmerich going to direct a film without explosions? Oh no wait, the Gunpowder Plot…)
(Forgive my bluntness, but I believe that in the list of last things we need a blockbuster about the Shakespeare authorship question directed by Roland Emmerich comes second, immediately after wasps.)
PS: Lawson, Mark Rylance and won an Olivier Award for his performance as Olivia, not Viola. And he was incredible.