Shakespeare up close

One recent afternoon, I took the opportunity to visit the newly reconstructed Royal Shakespeare and Swan Theatres in Stratford-upon-Avon, as well as to watch a performance of King Lear. Since my last visit in the mid-1990s, the Cotswolds town where William Shakespeare was born and is buried has come more than ever to have the feel of a theme park, with local hotels and restaurants offering "Hamlet" brunches and "Cleopatra" lunch specials -- or so it can seem at times.

The new theatre complex has been built so as to attract even those who have no interest in seeing the Royal Shakespeare Company, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, at work. There are new restaurants and riverside cafés, exhibition and gallery spaces and a 36-metre-high tower -- "That Tower", as some locals call it -- which allows for fine views over the surrounding countryside and delighted my young son. The red-brick and glass interiors are attractive, though some friends who live close to the town and know the theatre well are unhappy about the way the old and new structures have been remodelled to create a hybrid of architectural styles. I listened to their objections but could not agree.

The Elisabeth Scott-designed Royal Shakespeare Theatre was opened in 1932, replacing the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre of 1879. To watch a play in that space was not unlike going to the cinema to watch a film: the audience was lined up in neat rows, impassively facing the action on the main stage. The reconstructed theatre isn't at all like that.

A thrust stage extends deep and directly into the audience. The intention, even in a theatre with more than 1,000 seats, is to create a sense of greater intimacy, of confrontation and interaction between the watched and the watchers.

I had an excellent seat in the stalls and relished the experience of closely observing the strain and concentration on the faces of the players. Lear is such a visceral play, and this latest production was thick with blood and water and perspiration. I left the auditorium at the end of a long evening, exhausted yet thrilled by the spectacle and the grandeur of the setting.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 02 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The Firm

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Broken and The Trial: From Sean Bean playing a priest to real life lawyers

A surprisingly involving depiction of a clergyman provides the saintly contrast to the sinner being judged by a real jury.

I was all set to scoff at Broken, Jimmy McGovern’s new series for BBC1 (30 May, 9pm). A drama about a Catholic priest and his impoverished parish in a “major northern city”, it sounded so hilariously McGovern-by-numbers (“Eh, lad, give us the collection bowl – the leccy wants paying”) that on paper it could pass for a spoof. Even funnier, Sean Bean, late of Game of Thrones, was to play the clergyman in question.

Naturally, I adore Bean, who comes from the major northern city that is Sheffield, as I do, and who is so terribly . . . virile (though when I interviewed him in a car park behind King’s Cross Station a few years ago, and a security guard in a high-vis jacket approached us furiously shouting the odds, he ran and hid in his trailer, leaving yours truly to face the music). But let’s face it: he’s not exactly versatile, is he? The idea of him in a cassock, or even just a mud-coloured cardigan, made me laugh out loud.

Settling down to watch the series, however, I soon realised that no scoffing would be taking place. For one thing, Broken is hugely involving, its Dickensian plot (no spoilers here) as plausible as it is macabre. For another, in the present circumstances, its script seems to be rather daring. Not only is Father Michael Kerrigan shown – cover my eyes with the collected works of Richard Dawkins! – to be a good and conscientious priest, but his faith is depicted as a fine and useful thing. If he brings his besieged parishioners solace, he is sure to be carrying vouchers for the food bank as well.

The flashbacks from which he suffers – in which his mammy can be heard calling him a “dirty, filthy beast” and a spiteful old priest is seen applying a cane to his hand – are undoubtedly clichéd. But they are also a device. Forty years on, he is happy to nurse his dying mother, and his love for God is undimmed: two facts that are not, of course, unrelated. How weirdly bold for a television series to set its face against the consensus that denigrates all things Christian as it never would any other faith.

I don’t for a minute buy Anna Friel as Christina, the gobby, broke single mother Kerrigan is determined to help. Even when covered in bruises – a bust-up at the betting shop – Friel manages to look glossy, and she never, ever quits acting (with a capital A), which is a drag. But Bean is such a revelation, I was able to ignore the voice in my head which kept insisting that a Catholic priest as young as he is – in this realm, “young” is a couple of years shy of 60 – would surely be Polish or African (I’m not a Catholic but I am married to one, for which reason I occasionally go to Mass).

He plays Kerrigan, whose overwhelming desire to be kind sometimes makes him cack-handed, with great gentleness, but also with an uninflected ordinariness that is completely convincing. Part of the problem (my problem, at least) with Communion is the lack of rhetorical passion in most priests’ voices, something he captures perfectly. One other thing: Line of Duty fans need to know that Adrian Dunbar – aka Ted Hastings – can also be seen here wearing a dog collar, and that he looks almost as good in it as he does in police uniform.

On Channel 4 The Trial: A Murder in the Family was an experiment in the shape of a murder trial in which the defendant – a university lecturer accused of strangling his estranged wife – and all the witnesses were actors but the lawyers and “jury” were real. Over five consecutive nights (21-25 May, 9pm), I found it pretty tiresome listening to jury members tell the camera what they made of this or that bit of evidence.

Get on with it, I thought, longing again for the return of Peter Moffat’s Silk. But I adored the lawyers, particularly the lead ­defence barrister, John Ryder, QC. What an actor. Sentences left his mouth fully formed, as smooth as they were savage, his charm only just veiling his mighty ruthlessness. Drooling at this performance – which was not, in one sense, a performance at all – I found myself thinking that if more priests came over like barristers, our dying churches might be standing room only.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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