Category Archives: Theatre

Shakespeare Theatre

Treading in the footsteps of Shakespeare

Today I spent the day with historian and author Adrian Tinniswood at Hampton Court, one of the most astonishing historical royal palaces in England. Originally acquired by Cardinal Wolsey in 1514, the palace became home to Henry VIII, who began major building works in 1529. It has been closely connected with  English monarchs ever since. However, for me, perhaps the most interesting aspect of Hampton Court, is its connection with Shakespeare. In 1603-4, Shakespeare and his players, the King’s Men, attached to the Globe theatre on Bankside, were summoned to Hampton Court to provide entertainment during the royal Christmas celebrations. They were lodged at the palace for three weeks and performed seven plays in the Great Hall built by Henry VIII. It is likely Shakespeare would have overseen the productions of his own plays, and perhaps even have acted on stage. The Great Hall is, aside from Middle Temple, I think the the only surviving theatrical space in which Shakespeare’s plays were originally rehearsed and performed. A large room with a raised dais at one end for the King and his family, the plays were probably staged at the opposite end, above which is a musicians gallery beneath a vast window.

 The Great Hall at Hampton Court

So if you’d like to stand in the one of the only remaining theatrical spaces in which Shakespeare’s plays were performed during his lifetime, hie thee along to Hampton Court Palace.

The lovely detail above, from the Tudor Garden, was restored by historical paint expert Patrick Baty. You can see more of his work at Hampton Court here.
© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved
Shakespeare Theatre

Much Ado about Nothing

Yesterday I was lucky enough to see a new production of Much Ado at Wyndham’s theatre on Charing Cross Road. It is one of two productions of the play on stage in London (the other is currently on at The Globe). The Wyndham production pairs Dr Who star David Tennant with comic actress Catherine Tate as the bickering couple Benedick and Beatrice. Several critics have dismissed the production as populist, clearing preferring the more traditional production at The Globe which I have not yet seen.

In my view Wyndham’s theatre production offers much for a modern audience to enjoy. The setting for example, Gibraltar in the 1980s, is inspired, since it lends the play a sexy, contemporary feel which helps to locate the audience within the action itself. So many productions of Shakespeare alienate the audience by attempting to recreate the authenticity of the Elizabethan theatre. For many who already find Shakespeare hard going, this can further distance them from what is happening on stage, thus reinforcing the perceived elitist theatricality of a Shakespeare production. In contrast, the Wyndham production, directed by Josie Rourke, invites the audience to participate, to become visitors to the island, to be part of the crowd.

The set too helps to draw the audience into the drama. A plain central circular rotating stage with four classical arches, backed by white washed shutters, reinforces the beach hut simplicity of the production. As the drama progresses we see a poolside hotel, a lobby, a nightclub, a cafe, an office, and a church, all supported with cleverly interchangeable props. The costumes reinforce this relaxed inclusive environment. In the opening scene the cast flop about on sun loungers, smoking cigarettes in bikinis and dungarees. David Tennant arrives on stage in a golf buggy, handing out beers with all the nonchalance on someone who’s just arrived from the airport duty-free. Even his starched white military uniform is slightly camp and witty, reminiscent of those uniforms worn by Wham in their Club Tropicana video.

The first half of the play is laugh-out-loud knockabout comedy. Beatrice and Benedick bicker, Hero and Claudio fall in love. Everyone gets drunk at a masked ball, including David Tennant, dressed in a denim mini skirt and red patent Doc Marten boots. Beatrice hides on stage under a dust sheet, Benedick sips from a can of coke containing cigarette ends and runs about in a Superman t-shirt. Even the villain Bastard plays it for laughs. The second half sobers up. If the first half of the play is the night before, the second half is the hangover. Everyone gets serious. Hero is supposedly dead, and Benedick shifts from clown to gentleman. As the action progresses the audience is forced to confront the dark side of the island. We see a funeral, Claudio’s desperate night of remorse, Borachio’s arrest and confession, and Leonato’s anger. But the humour and light touches don’t vanish. Rourke supports flashes of comedy; in Dogberry, in Benedick’s attempts at a love song, in the declarations of love between Benedick and Beatrice. But these don’t overshadow, rather they provide gentle light relief. And as the play draws to a close, the party atmosphere returns; the action ends with a traditional jig, played for laughs by the cast as they dance and sing to a pulsing Hey Nonny Nonny.

I’m conscious of the many Shakespeare purists squirming in their seats at the idea of sequinned dresses, disco beats, and cocktails. But it works. This production really works. It relocates Shakespeare in a contemporary world we can all relate to. It drags him from the clutching arms of elitists. This is a production everyone can enjoy. Children will enjoy the slapstick physical comedy, teenagers will enjoy the disco beats and cool relaxed atmosphere, and grown ups will enjoy the sparkling dialogue and clever staging. And this, at the end of the day, is what Shakespeare should be about. Productions should be fun, engaging, entertaining. Shakespeare wasn’t writing for grave academics in the universities and Inns of Court. He was writing for everyday Londoners. A trip to the theatre was open to anyone who had a penny in their pocket. In 1598-9 when Much Ado was likely first performed, its audience would have consisted of people from all walks of life, and Shakespeare’s task was to write a play which appealed to just such a wide cross-section. Some went for the jigs, some for the lovers, some for the songs. Others went to listen to the language. But what every single audience member wanted was the same thing: to be entertained.

So ignore the stuffy critics who dismiss Rourke’s production as ‘populist’. The audience may be full of children who all want to see Dr Who, but does that really matter? Surely the fact a Shakespeare production can not only draw in children, but actually make them laugh out loud, as I witnessed yesterday, is a very good thing indeed. This production is witty, sexy, and clever. Nothing is lost in the setting. The acting on the whole is superb; David Tennant is a delighful Benedick, and Catherine Tate a wonderfully contemporary Beatrice. Rourke’s production has everything a good Shakespeare production should have, but it excels where others fail, simply because the audience are invited guests rather than unwanted observers.

To overlook this production because it appeals to the masses does a huge disservice to Shakespeare. We need more productions like this. We need to stop revering Shakespeare and start enjoying him. In my view, this production helps to place Shakespeare firmly back where he belongs: at the very heart of popular culture.

The show runs until 3rd September.

© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved

Biography Playwrights Theatre

Enters the devil, murder.

These fragments form an overview of the life of one of Jacobean England’s most intriguing playwrights, John Webster. Famously depicted as the bloodthirsty young actor in the film Shakespeare In Love, Webster was the author of two of  the most successful Jacobean tragedies of all time, The White Devil, and The Duchess of Malfi.

John Webster was born c.1578 in London, son of John and Elizabeth. The family lived in the parish of St Sepulchre, Newgate, in a home which John would have shared with his parents and five siblings. John’s father ran a successful business in Cow Lane, Smithfield, loaning carriages and wagons, and became a well-respected member of the Guild of Merchant Taylors.

No complete school records for the period survive but as a result of his father’s membership of the guild, John may have attended Merchant Taylors’ School. Like most boys of the period, he would have received a classical education, and a record from the Middle Temple, dated 1st August 1598, refers to the admission of ‘Master John Webster, formerly of the New Inn, gentleman, son and heir apparent of John Webster of London, gentleman’. The Inns of Court, often referred to as the Third University, attracted many young men who lived and studed at the Inns as an addendum to their education. There is no evidence Webster studied the law, although it is possible, and legal references are scattered through his plays, but given his father’s business background it seems likely Webster trained at the Inns of Court in order to join the family business. Whether he worked alongside his father and brother in the coaching concern is impossible to determine, but a famous reference to Webster as a ‘Play-wright, Cart-wright’ suggests he spent some time at least toiling away on Cow Lane.

Middle Temple today

An entry in Henslowe’s diary, dated 22nd May 1602, marks what was perhaps Webster’s first foray into theatrical composition: £5 ‘unto antoney monday & mihell drayton webester & the Rest mydelton in earneste of A Boocke called sesers ffalle’. The following week, £3 was paid to‘Thomas dickers drayton myddellton & Webester & mondaye in fulle paymente for ther playe called too shapes’. The entries refer to the same play, which is now lost, but is thought to have been based on the fall of Julius Caesar. In October of the same year, Henslowe paid Chettle, Dekker, Webster, Heywood and a ‘mr smythe’ £5.16s for two parts of a play entitled ‘A playe called Ladey Jane’, and a month later, another £7 for ‘a playe called cryssmas comes but once A yeare’. Collaboration was a common element of playwriting, and Webster is clearly serving an apprenticeship in the theatre, perhaps with one of the more experienced playwrights acting as his tutor.

In 1604, Webster was involved in two city comedies with Thomas Dekker, Westward Ho! and Northward Ho!, plays which were performed frequently and proved very popular with audiences. However it is not until 1612 we have evidence of Webster’s first solo effort, The White Devil. A gap of seven years does not indicate Webster turned his attention away from the theatre after 1605, indeed it is possible he continued to write but those those plays have simply not survived. He may have chosen to return to work for his father in order to support a growing family. We know from existing records Webster married in March 1606 in Islington, to a woman named Sara. A marriage outside the family parish may have been the result of a rushed celebration, for only two months later Sara gave birth to their son, John, baptised on Fleet Street in May. John and Sarah went on to have at least three more children.

Title Page: The White Devil (1613)

Webster returned to the theatre (if indeed he ever left) in 1612 with The White Devil. It was first performed by Queen Anne’s Men at the Red Bull in Clerkenwell. It was not a success, as evinced by Webster’s rather bitter address to the reader in the printed edition of the play, ‘most of the people that come to that Play-house, resemble those ignorant asses (who visiting Stationers shoppes their use is not to inquire for good bookes, but new bookes)’. The Red Bull was known for its low-brow, rather bawdy entertainment, and Webster’s complex and lyrical play was clearly not to the audience’s taste. In the same year Webster also wrote A Monumental Column in response to the death of Henry, Prince of Wales.

Webster’s second great tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi, was performed in 1614 at the Blackfriars by Shakespeare’s company, the King’s Men. Its reception was far more positive, perhaps because audiences at the Blackfriars, and the Globe, where it was subsequently performed, were more sophisticated. The death scene in The Duchess of Malfi has been heralded as the climax of Webster’s writing career, and one of the most powerful moments in Jacobean tragedy.

Title Page: Duchess of Malfi (1623)

In the same year audiences were enjoying The Duchess of Malfi, Thomas Overbury’s satirical The Wife appeared in print, becoming a runaway hit. Overbury, who had died in the tower a few months before, was later suspected of having been poisoned by Francis Howard (for further reading, my post on the Overbury Affair is here). The Wife went through eleven editions by 1622, and Webster made significant contributions to the text in 1615. Some scholars have suggested Webster may even have been Overbury’s literary executor, since they both attended Middle Temple at the same time and probably knew each other well.

Webster continued to write for the theatre. His last solo play was The Devil’s Law-Case, after which he returned to collaboration with other London playwrights. The rather vicious caricature painted of Webster as a ‘Play-wright, Cart-wright’ describes him as a man who:

‘drawes his mouth awry of late,
How he scrubs: wrings his wrests: scratches his Pate
and as a critic:
Heer’s not a word cursively I have Writ,
But hee’l Industriously examine it.
And in some 12. monthes hence (or there about)
Set in a shamefull sheete’

Countering this, his biographer insists Webster worked successfully and harmoniously with his fellow playwrights. He had a good relationship with the companies which performed his plays, particularly the actor Richard Perkins, and he praises his fellow authors in his introduction to The White Devil

‘I have ever truly cherished my good opinion of other men’s worthy labours, especially of that full and heightened style of Mr. Chapman, the laboured and understanding works of Mr. Johnson, the no less worthy composures of the both worthily excellent Mr. Beaumont and Mr. Fletcher; and lastly (without wrong last to be named), the right happy and copious industry of Mr. Shakespeare, Mr. Dekker, and Mr. Heywood, wishing what I write may be read by their light: protesting that, in the strength of mine own judgment, I know them so worthy, that though I rest silent in my own work, yet to most of theirs I dare (without flattery) fix that of Martial’

The date of Webster’s death is uncertain, as is his place of burial. An entry in the parish register of St James, Clerkenwell, states ‘John Webster was buried’ on 3 March 1638 which may plausibly refer to the dramatist. As his biographer states, the ‘parish of St James adjoined that of St Sepulchre, and it was there that both Dekker and Rowley were buried. There would be nothing surprising in Webster, in his last years, living close to old friends and colleagues.’

St James, Clerkenwell

Webster’s literary output was modest in comparison with playwrights like Shakespeare, Fletcher and Middleton, but his lyricism remains second only to Shakespeare.

‘O that this fair garden
Had with all poisoned herbs of Thessaly
At first been planted, made a nursery
For witchcraft; rather than a burial plot
For both your honours.’

The White Devil (1.2.263-269)

Source: Multiple, especially David Gunby, DNB.
For further reading see John Webster: Citizen and Dramatist by M C Bradbrook – an excellent book on his life and works.

© 2009-2012 All Rights Reserved

Actor Highway Robbery Theatre

Thou hast a good presence upon a stage

  Elizabethan actor & clown Will Kempe (1600)

These fragments come from a curious account of an accidental meeting between the notorious highwayman Gamaliel Ratsey and a group of travelling actors.  During the encounter, Ratsey, who was executed in 1605, offers some acting advice to the players. Although his only qualification for doing so appears to be the fact he had spent time attending the London theatres, the account reveals some fascinating glimpses into the life of the itinerant 17th century actor.

Gamaliell Ratsey and his company, travailing up and downe the Countrey (as they had often times done before), came by chance into an Inne, where that night there harbored a company of Players.  Ratsey, framing himselfe to an humor of merriment, caused one or two of the chiefest of them to be sent for up into his chamber.  I pray you (quoth Ratsey) let me heare your musicke, for I have often gone to playes more for musicke sake, than for action.  For some of you are not content to do well, but striving to over-do and go beyond yourselves, oftentimes (by Saint George) mar all.  Yet your Poets take great paines to make your parts fit for your mouthes, though you gape never so wide.  Others I must needs confesse, are very well deserving both for true action and faire deliverie of speech, and yet I warrant you the very best have sometimes beene content to go home at night with fifteen pence share a peece.  Others there are whom fortune hath so well favoured, that what by penny sparing and long practise of playing, are growne so wealthy that they have expected to be knighted, or to sit with men of great worship, on the Bench of Justice.

Well, musicke was played, and that night passed over with such singing, dancing, and revelling, as if my Lord Prodigall hadde beene there in his ruines of excesse and superfluitie.  In the morning Ratsey made the players taste of his bountie, and so departed.  About a weeke after, he met with the same Players, although he had so disguised himselfe with a false head of hayre and beard that they could take no notice of him, and lying as they did before in one Inne together, he was desirous they should play a private play before him, which they did.  Ratsey heard their play, and seemed to like it, and very liberally out with his purse and gave them fortie shillings, with which they held themselves very richly satisfied, for they scarce had twentie shillings audience at any time for a Play in the Country.  But Ratsey thought they should not enjoy it long, although he let them beare it about till the next day in their purses.  For the morning beeing come, and they having packed away their luggage, and some part of their companie before in a waggon, he discharged the Inne, and followed them presently.

Ratsey, having learned which way they travailed, he being very well horsed, and mounted upon his blacke gelding soone overtooke them.  And when they saw it was the Gentleman that had beene so liberall with them the night before, they began to do him much courtesie, and to greete his late kindnesse with many thankes.  But that was not the matter which he aimed at: therefore he roundly tolde them, they were deceived in him, he was not the man they tooke him for.  I am a souldier (sayth he) and one that for meanes hath ventured my fortunes abroade, and now for money am driven to hazard them at home.  I am not to be played upon by Players: therefore be short, deliver me your money. They began to make many faces, and to cappe and knee.  He bade them leave off their cringing and complements, and their apish trickes, and dispatch, which they did, for feare of the worst, seeing to begge was bootlesse.  And having made a desperate tender of their stocke into Ratsey’s hands, he bade them play for more, for (says he) it is an idle profession that brings in much profite.

And for you, sir (says he to the chiefest of them) thou hast a good presence upon a stage, methinks thou darkenst thy merite by playing in the country.  Get thee to London, for if one man were dead, they will have much neede of such as thou art.  There would be none in my opinion, fitter than thyselfe to play his parts: my conceipt is such of thee, that I durst all the mony in my purse on thy head, to play Hamlet with him for a wager. There thou shalt learne to be frugall (for Players were never so thriftilie as they are now about London) and to feed upon all men, to let none feede upon thee; to make thy hand a stranger to thy pocket, thy heart slow to perform thy tongues promise. And when thou feelest thy purse well lined, buy thee some place or Lordship in the country, that growing weary of playing, thy money may there bring thee to dignitie and reputation: then thou needest care for no man, nor not for them that before made thee proud, with speaking their words upon the Stage.  Sir, I thanke you (quoth the Player) for this good counsell, I promise you I will make use of it; for I have heard indeede of some that have gone to London very meanly, and have come in time to be exceeding wealthy.

Gestures for miming (1644)
© 2009-2012 All Rights Reserved
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