AngliaShax Summer 2001
Michael Grosvenor Myer

Grosvenor Myer, Michael. "AngliaShax Summer 2001." Early Modern Literary Studies 7.2 (September, 2001): 17.1-10 <URL:

  1. The Northern Broadsides company came to Bury St Edmunds: purveyors of Barry Rutter's no-nonsense north-country Shakespearean concepts that always remind me of the Boddington ad, of the beauty in the gondola where the camera pulls back to show the Manchester Ship Canal as she addresses her 'gondolier' in demotic Salford. Broadsides' Antony and Cleopatra of a couple of years ago is one of my happiest memories. This time they came with Merry Wives and King John. I was disappointed in the Merry Wives: one of those over-busy versions, all gesturing and mouthing till they gestured and mouthed the play to death; and this despite fair performances trying to get out from the two wives and their husbands, Anne Ford, and the MCC-tied Falstaff (who was also one of the o.t.t. joint directors--oh, what the hell, it was Rutter himself on a bit of an off-day). The only characterisation which really rose above the general feeling of desperation was Adam Sunderland's lovelorn Slender: wet and wimpish but oddly dignified, and providing a merciful still centre amidst all the prancing. All credit to this fine actor, but what does it say about a Merry Wives when one remembers Slender as the standout performance?

  2. The last Merry Wives I had seen was a very good one in last year's Cambridge Shakespeare Festival, an annual half-dozen college garden productions in the Summer vacation, straightforwardly presented to appeal to an audience of locals, tourists, and the language students who throng the city while the university is away. Within these constraints they maintain a high standard, with experienced professional actors and directors, though there is occasionally some compromise for clarity--or indeed, for economy: Fabian got conflated with Feste in a Twelfth Night a couple of years ago, for instance (though why not? I've always been a bit mystified as to where Fabian suddenly appears from, when Maria's original idea was to use Feste as the third witness to Malvolio's finding the letter [II.iii.174]: now where did I come across the theory that Shax wrote Fabian in as an afterthought because he fancied a part for himself?).

  3. This year, their Merchant of Venice was not open-air for once in a way, but in the Festival's only regular indoor venue, the Queen's Building at Emmanuel. It started a bit coarse acting, with air-sawing and hearty horseplay from Antonio and his young friends, and a Portia who could have done duty for Miss Hoyden in The Relapse. But things came alive with Andrew Stephen's still, sinister, quiet-spoken Shylock, a chilling but perversely sympathetic characterisation: when Antonio, in return for his pardon, insisted that "he presently become a Christian," a palpable gasp of horror came from the audience, something I have never known before. Richard Hasnip, a comic but restrained Gobbo, was worth watching (his Duke wasn't too bad either, but he could never have passed for Tubal). I enjoyed Kate Thornbury's sexy Nerissa also, but thought the pratfalls the director imposed on her as Balthasar's clerk were misconceived (hearty horseplay threatening to undermine things again). Otherwise the trial scene was effectively suspenseful, with the most horrifically shudder-inducing near-fleshectomy I have ever seen. An up-and-down production, then. I was irritated by some of the cuts: no Aragon or Morocco, no patines of bright gold or young-eyed cherubins. Pity.

  4. David Rowan, who last year directed that Merry Wives, came up with a highly enjoyable As You Like It: from a terrifying, haka-dancing, Oz Charles the Wrestler (Rob Carroll, given added frisson by being seen the day after the first Ashes test debacle and the very day of Pat Rafter's narrow defeat at Wimbledon), to a sex-mad Celia (Kelly Goody) vanishing offstage with Oliver during the Hymen-masque and staggering back blissed right out a few minutes later just in time to chuck herself at the Second Son, a charmingly irreverent reading with the most convincingly comic Touchstone I've ever come across (Jeremy James). Altogether a hearty, merry, slap-and-tickle version (specially slap!--scarce a bottom survived unspanked in court or forest--save, strangely, Phebe's, surely the prime candidate).

  5. David Rowan also revealed himself as an accomplished actor by taking over when needed as an excellent Gremio in Taming of the Shrew. Amanda Fleming and Andy Joyce contended well as tamer and tamed: her flashing eyes could terrify back to an open-air third row. Good servant-work was notable from Tessa Hatts and Rachel Howells. If the trick on Vincentio was inevitably cut, not much, in the circumstances, was the worse for that; and though I like the C. Sly Induction when offered, the play can obviously work perfectly well without it.

  6. The second part of their season let us see most of the same players in other roles to give rise to some interesting comparisons. How would that distinguished Shylock shape as Macbeth? What would the excellent Touchstone make of Berowne? Aussie Charles ought to make an effective Macduff, surely? Would the Shrew's comically icy Bianca make a good Lady Macbeth, and that sexy Nerissa a Hermia to note? How would Gobbo transmute to Don Armado? Such are the joys of rep seasons.

  7. Simon Bell directed a highly satisfying Scottish Play. Emma Christer's neurotically driven Lady was nevertheless as nervy and insecure as Andrew Stephen's ambitious, witch-ridden Thane: her masterly invocation to the Powers which tend on mortal thoughts made my blood run cold. There was an odd final fight: perhaps the decision to have Macbeth play it without harness, or anything else for that matter, on his back, was to be taken as a sign that he had finally, totally lost it and turned into a Poor-Tom-type naked wretch; in any event one certainly felt for the actor late on one of those chilly early-August evenings. Charles the Wrestler seemed strangely to have taken over from Macduff as Rob Carroll flung away his sword and finished off by breaking Macbeth's neck after a couple of well-executed throws. But, oh, the joy of a properly blood-boltered Banquo's Ghost, rising in all his horror from under the table; how I hate it and feel ripped off when they chicken out with just a spotlight and a bit of forced reaction from the threatened host.

  8. A relief to see a (more or less) in-period Love's Labour's Lost, after all that 30s musical stuff (Branagh) and City hitec (Stephen Unwin). Some felicities--good, eccentric Armado (Richard Hasnip) and funny courtiers' revelation scene (never misses): but an occasional strained, trying-too-hard feel about the production. Blind Constable, Jewish Clown, ciggy-smoking Court Lady, pissed Princess, all with no textual or (worse) thematic warrant; no objection, of course, to a bit of directorial inventiveness, but it seemed in total to be over-egging things a bit. The come-uppance for all this business came, the night I was there, when the climactic coup-de-théâtre of the news of the King of France's death actually got a laugh, so that final, vital change of mood just didn't happen, leaving the Words of Mercury floundering in a vacuum.

  9. Ben Gove's sexy, witty Midsummer Night's Dream had Ellen Callender's delightful Titania consulting her Kama Sutra before pursuing Andy Joyce's bouncy Bottom with handcuffs to her bower, where a riding crop came in handy to coy his amiable cheeks (geddit?). The fairy queen's court seemed to be suffering most from the horrible weather induced by her quarrel with her husband. They needed green wellies with their gossamer gowns, but things were obviously better in Oberon's neck of the woods; his attendants were dressed for the beach, in Hawaiian shirts and shorts and glitterframe sunglasses, while the King himself was resplendent in a spiderweb shirt. Hermia and Helena (Kate Thornbury and Sally Gardner) had to work hard to be Cobweb and Peaseblossom too, as well as missing their own wedding to take part in the play as Wall and Lion; but they tackled the resultant complications with conviction and aplomb. Tessa Hatts' furry Puck skillfully emceed the intrigues. A fun evening this, finishing off an altogether worthwhile and enjoyable season on a pleasant note.

  10. Unfortunately I couldn't make Broadsides' King John. Until lately this would have worried me immeasurably. The theatre's pre-publicity asserted that it is "the rarest performed of all Shakespeare's dramatic work"; and until a year or three ago it was so, and I'd never seen it, and I'd have kicked myself at missing one so near to home. But suddenly King John is like the number 16 bus--you wait all your life, and then four come along at once. Four? Yep! Four! I caught my first at the ADC in Cambridge three or four years since. Now there's this Northern Broadside one doing the rounds, and another at the RSC. And, to end the Easter term, in honour of the octocentenary of the city's charter granted by that monarch, the Cambridge University Marlowe Society brought another to the ADC. So, count 'em: four. And this last one I did catch. A reasonably competent undergraduate production, effective in its good moments (John was forceful, the Cardinal devious, a lively Faulconbridge did well with the 'commodity' speech and Constance's grief for her absent child moved us as it should), but intermittently inaudible, and oddly anomalously dressed: modern dress is all very well, especially for what the programme implies are budgetary considerations; but if casting constraints mean that King Philip has to be (not at all badly, at that) played by a young woman, why on earth dress her in a knee-length skirt?

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2001-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS