Camb & Fenland Springshax 2002
Michael Grosvenor Myer
Grosvenor Myer, Michael. "Camb & Fenland Springshax 2002." Early Modern Literary Studies 8.1 (May, 2002): 15.1-7 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/08-1/grosmyer.htm>.
Talking of reworkings, did you see that C21 gloss on Othello on ITV1 over Christmas? My hopes were not too high when I saw that it was the brainchild of the egregious Andrew Davies, much adulated tv adaptor who had previously got up my nose (mind you, don't they all?) with his unshakeable and tiresome conviction that he could write dialogue better than Jane Austen and construct plots better than Anthony Trollope while masquerading under the aegis of their names and titles. This time though, his tale, of Commissioner John Othello of the Met, promoted for PC reasons over Deputy-Commissioner Ben Jago's head, having his marriage to Dessie Brabant screwed up through jealousy of Superintendent Michael Cass, was just flagged as a "Based on" (like Carry On Cleo, you remember?). With praiseworthy performances from Eamonn Walker and Christopher Eccleston, lovely atmospheric music by Debbie Wiseman, and some ingenious twists in the writing -- DNA mix-up to replace strawberry-patterned handkerchief as envy-inducer; final, cynical non-canonical twist whereby the insidious Jago makes the top job after all and the establishment is left eggy-faced -- undoubtedly good telly, despite post-modernly subverting the true cathartic tragic pattern of order restored to the commonwealth after expunging of something rotten. Two cheers from the ranks of Tuscany...
When I was a student here 50 years ago, colleges used to put on their productions in their medieval or renaissance halls, often giving a stimulating impression of the characters going about their business in their natural environment. This tradition has become moribund of late, with most colleges having incorporated purpose-built theatres into their new buildings or adapted defunct lecture-rooms or old libraries. The more welcome then to Trinity College Dryden Society's rare shot at Henry VI part 3. It was played in front of Carter and Chapman's astonishing oriental-style screen and gallery, with their "barbaric profusion of strap-panels, caryatids, etc" (Pevsner); well-costumed and colourful, with helpful red or white roses sported (and sometimes, as with Clarence, changed back and forth) to help remind who was who as the bloodthirsty work of Clifford, Gloucester, and all such, went forward. One had, too, that satisfaction that comes from a company of sufficient technique who knew what the words meant, how to speak the verse, what the historic and dramatic motivations were. The production was mercifully straight -- inventive enough to be sure, as in the final tableau of Crookback Gloucester (a nice sinister characterisation from the able director Nick Clark), having lagged behind his brothers, sprawled on brother Edward's throne with the dead Henry still lying at his feet, dreaming on the end of the Winter of Discontent and the rise of the Sun of York - but without any of those willful gimmicks which student directors out to make their marks have been known to perpetrate. Not every student production, naturally, will give earnest of the rise of one of the theatrical knights who have burgeoned in Cambridge over the period (think Hall, think Jacobi, think McKellen): but we had pleasing efforts here from Andrew Wrenn, doubling as York and King Lewis; from the sensitive Henry of Alex Winckler; from Rachel Wilkinson as a confused and out-of-her-depth Lady Grey; and from a majestic-aggressive Queen Margaret by Laura Coffey - who, though, suffered most from the main acoustic disadvantage of a space not built for the purpose, of the fortissimo bits losing articulation as they echoed into the cavernous vaults and hammerbeams above. No sour downsides to end on, though: this was one of those intensely satisfying Cambridge theatre evenings that one remembers with nostalgia.
Some Webster, the ADC's The White Devil, was welcome for a change. For some reason there seems to be less of "the others" at Cambridge than there used to be. Twenty, thirty, forty years ago, we had Bussy d'Ambois, The Shoemaker's Holiday, A Chaste Maid in Cheapside (at least twice), The Alchemist (uncountable), Women Beware Women, x2, A Mad World My Masters, several Duchesses of Malfi (Tilda Swinton one of the best three I've ever seen, along with Peggy Ashcroft and Anastasia Hille), Tamburlaine, Faustuses and Changelings galore... but the practice has died out over the last few years, apart from a Ford last year whose publicity was so great that I didn't know it was on till it was off. Still, like I say, here's a welcome White Devil.
Not that it was that good. Student theatre is a hit-or-miss affair. At its best you get performances that live with you for ever, usually from young actors who go on to be someone on the stage: I recall as such Tony Church as Vanya, John Grillo as The Father, Morwenna Banks as Widow in The Alchemist, Jenny Hall in The Trojan Women... But there were no future Jacobis or McKellens, Thompsons or Lauries, in the Webster. They tried very hard, but too much was gabbled/garbled. Lighting was patchy, technique dodgy, the modern costuming a mess. The Cardinal spoke well but moved his hands about too much. Only the scenes with the Conjurer (nicely conceived, and with Zanche coming on as a charming magician's moll) and the trial of Vittoria (she not bad but not always too audible) really grabbed the attention. Praise, though, for the excellent programme, with its intelligent and intelligible synopsis and helpful rundown reminder of who was who. And of course it was gratifying to see it on at all; to know that there are still casts and audiences - the theatre was pleasingly full - in Cambridge for theatre like this: "Onlie to keep the memory alive..."
One of the privileges of having spent quarter of a century as Cambridge theatre critic for a national paper has been the chance to see so many of those whose early efforts I praised go on to make it. The new Director of the National Theatre and two Oscar winners, Emma Thompson and Sam Mendes, are among those whose earliest national reviews in their cuttings books will be Guardian notices under my byline - assuming them to keep cuttings books: I never really believe such luvvies as swear they never read reviews; and neither, he told me recently, does Clive Anderson (another of that select band) whom I met again because he's taken over the Magnus-slot in the current series of Mastermind (in which, I hope it will enhance reader-confidence in these roundups of mine to learn, I scored 11 out of 12 on the Works Of Will - and no passes!).
Darren Tunstall, whom I remember from 20 years ago as a dignified and heartbreaking undergraduate Oedipus at Colonus , turned up in a touring RSC Merchant of Venice which came to earth in the small Fen town of Littleport, near Ely. His Launcelot Gobbo seemed to me to have been overdirected to amuse, which led to some gabbling loss of clarity in his delivery. In this, he differed from everyone else, who had been suffered to over-articulate in near-identical c-l-e-a-r tones: whether it were whichever "Salad" it was going on about alabaster grandpaternal statuary or Shylock urging normal semitic response to stimuli or Lorenzo postulating Pythagorean theory of the Music of the Spheres, all was delivered with a plonking emphasis which made one suspect that director Loveday Ingram was determined that, this being a touring production, it must be as apprehensible to audiences in Shanghai and Kuala Lumpur as to those at the Swan or the Carolinas. The result, though often effective in the more dramatic episodes, was a certain inevitable monotony of register unsuited to quieter moments. Within this constraint, it was some of the unspoken reactions which came off best: I recall with respect the heartstopping grief of David Peart's Old Gobbo when he really thought his son was dead, and the turning away of Ian Gelder's pathetically clinging Antonio so that Bassanio shouldn't see how sorrowfully he responded to his encomia on Portia's beauty and desirability. The characterisations best served by the overall style were Hermione Gulliford's downright Portia, a particularly convincing brisk and peremptory young advocate; and Michael Gardiner's grotesquely comic Morocco, not quite in control of his vowels but very much in control of the scimitar which he brandished to symbolic effect as he swore upon it. Productions of The Merchant these days all seem to illustrate the inevitability with which yesterday's original insight will become today's unavoidable PC cliche. I think it was Jonathan Miller all those years ago who came up with the brilliant idea of ending with the Jessica Who Wished She Hadn't. Now it's become a sort of orthodoxy. I bet there are pupils doing the play for exams who get taught it as textual fact. How, oh my ears and whiskers how, one wishes, just once in a way, to see a Jessica Who's Glad She Did.
- If this is the end of the Lent Term, it must be the Marlowe Society at the Arts. This year, Macbeth. And a very good one too. Beginning with a well-judged battle, it played an unusually full text, even including Hecate whom you don't see that often [which presumably explained the programme's attribution of the play to William Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton, which I've never come across elsewhere: the programme is silent on it, and there are no references to such a collaboration in Oxford or Cambridge Guide/Companion to Eng Lit, nor in the Mermaid intro to The Changeling nor the World's Classics one to A Mad World, My Masters: can anyone out there provide any enlightenment?]. The witches' broth, though, lacked a few of the usual ingredients (not, one hopes, for PC reasons; they can't, surely have feared foyer demos of banner-waving, "hands off our organs," Turks, Tartars and Jews). Dan Stevens' thane was young, new to his inheritance of Glamis and just proving himself in battle, a sensitive, introspective youth never quite in control of the forces he unleashed: well characterised but sometimes a bit too confidential in delivery - I worried about his audibility to those further back who might not know the text as well as me (the auditorium was gratifyingly full of school parties, fortunate in their first Scottish Play). The central performances otherwise were Rebecca Hall's Lady Macbeth and Tom Noad's Macduff, whose scene in the English court with Ivo Stourton's excellent, masterful Malcolm was as good as I've ever seen, and climaxed in just the right tear-inducing mode at the news of Macduff's loss. Miss Hall played Lady Macbeth to match her husband, very young, determined to grasp life to the full and enjoy it. The murder was a game to her: she was more amused than angry at him for forgetting the rules in bringing the daggers from the place, and more embarrassed than angry at his spoiling the fun of their party by seeing ghosts. Doubling as Hecate, she made the Queen of Darkness into Gruach's true alter-ego, her looking angerly an adolescent sulk at the witches' beginning the equivocation-with-Macbeth game without waiting for her when she was supposed to be Captain. Robert Thorburn's Seyton (resolutely pronounced as Satan) was also the Porter and the mysterious Third Murderer, a brooding, subversive presence, left onstage at the end with the Weird Sisters to grimace triumphantly at the havoc he had helped to bring about. With atmospheric contributions from Christian Ashby's lighting and Katy Tuxford's subdued, sub-fusc costumes, this was a thoroughly satisfying student production, a credit to all concerned; in particular, of course, director Ben Naylor. A term which began with that Henry VI and ended thus was a real bonus for maintaining faith in the best of Cambridge student theatre.
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.
© 2002-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).