Acid house Shakespeare: Sex, drugs and do-si-dos

I have never seen such a druggy, cannabis-hazed, acid-housed production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Meanwhile, Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones are failing to earn a standing ovation for their Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing.

Could Michael Grandage’s exposition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream derive from a misreading of a single line? When Oberon asks Titania to “take hands with me/And rock the ground whereon these sleepers be”, Shakespeare intends a dance so gentle that it will rock the mortals to sleep, as in a cradle. This Dream (runs until 16 November), however, is a rock opera, with pumping pop music, festivalgoers stripped to their underpants, and whole lot of loving goin’ on under the most dilated of full moons.

Obviously the forest police have announced an amnesty on narcotics for the summer solstice. Although the play’s whole plot rests on opiates – the juices of a “little western flower” being sprinkled on Titania and Lysander – I have never seen such a druggy, cannabis-hazed, acid-housed production of this comedy.

The conceit works beautifully well but the play was almost bound to succeed in any case, thanks, as it were, to its “dream” cast. They consistently surprise. Pádraic Delaney is an unashamedly Irish Theseus but returns as Oberon, looking and sounding like a public school-educated Russell Brand. Sheridan Smith, who once said she had a “common face”, starts off dead classy as Hippolyta, with a tight blonde perm, a Thirties wool suit and a clipped, Anna Neagle accent. As Titania, she’s a punk vamp, a Toyah Willcox with work at the rougher kind of cowboy bar on her CV (she can toss a leg over the rail of a spiral suitcase as impressively as Mae West).

Thanks to her TV work as Mrs Biggs and on Jonathan Creek, Smith is a box-office draw. Even more so is David Walliams, who does a lovely, deep-voiced, overeager Bottom, with a habit of dripping his outstretched hand slowly down the faces of his fellow amateur comedians. He makes an aria in many registers out of his death throes in the rude mechanicals’ play, ending them by pressing Thisbe into his groin, fellatio ad absurdum. Funnily enough, though, the actor I enjoyed most was Katherine Kingsley as a sexually aggressive and self-dramatising Helena. Such a danger is she that Demetrius (a buff Stefano Braschi) has to prise her legs together during one attempted female-on-male rape.

The play’s usually interminable first scene passed in about five minutes. After an early interval, we resumed at Act III, Scene Two with Puck’s summary of the action. Given his willingness to dress Walliams in Up Pompeii gear to get a laugh out of his resemblance to Frankie Howerd, I wondered if Grandage considered prefacing this recap with “Previously . . .”. Although the period details skid between 1930 and 1990, this is a version directly aimed at 2013 attention spans.

Grandage’s production may have psychedelic inspirations, but the director’s great gift to Shakespeare, and to us, is to make him line for line, and plotline by plotline, completely clear. There is a risk, particularly with this play, that by doing so, more elusive magic evaporates, and yet so much is gained by clarity. For one thing, you get the jokes.

Over the river at the Old Vic something else extraordinary is happening. Vanessa Redgrave, 76, and James Earl Jones, 82, are failing to earn a standing ovation for their Beatrice and Benedick in Mark Rylance’s Much Ado About Nothing (runs until 30 November). In many ways this is an admirable production. Rylance relocates the action from Renaissance Messina in Sicily to 1944 and Home Counties England, where an airbase is welcoming home an all-black USAF squadron, over here and, after the deprivations of war, oversexed. The nightwatch becomes an elderly Dad’s Army home guard, augmented by Boy Scouts and led by the terrific Peter Wright as one of theatrical history’s few tolerably funny Dogberrys (he is even better playing the Friar).

However. People come to Much Ado for Beatrice and Benedick, the prototypes of every romcom couple who start out hating and end in lurv. Here, our enjoyment is jeopardised by a terrible anxiety that they will forget their lines. On the first night, after some touch-and-go moments, my feeling was merely of relief that they had got through it.

Redgrave looks great, shirted and trousered like a land girl. She has a conversational way with Shakespeare that still works but it is a low-key, autumnal performance and Beatrice’s change from merriment to seriousness is not really marked. Jones, whose fine baritone voice has become muffled with age, speaks many of his great speeches sitting down, and at dictation speed. These two, so well paired a few years ago in Driving Miss Daisy, invent a whole delivery style – ponderous repartee.

Yet what’s most annoying is that the production makes no particular point of the casting. When Benedick concludes that the world must be peopled this surely is the moment for a sly, sarcastic tilt at his future girlfriend’s age. But nothing is made of it. Leonato customarily refers to Beatrice as “niece”. Could Michael Elwyn not put some spin on that? There is much to be said for colour-blind casting. Age-blind, not so much.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Much Ado About Nothing are playing at the Noël Coward Theatre, London WC2 and the Old Vic, London SE1

Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones, so well paired in Driving Miss Daisy, are failing to earn a standing ovation. Image: Getty

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 07 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Nelson Mandela

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BBC Two’s The Hollow Crown and the tricky question of staging the Henry VI plays

The War of the Roses plays are great crowd-pleasing popular hits. So why are adaptations so hard to get right?

This week sees the arrival of the second series of BBC Two’s The Hollow Crown, subtitled “The Wars of the Roses”. It’s nearly four years since the first, commissioned and screened as part of the “Cultural Olympiad” that ran in parallel with the London Olympics. Both series were executive produced by Oscar winner and James Bond director Sam Mendes, but largely directed by people who chiefly work in theatre, rather than television or film. The 2012 run won four Baftas, including for Ben Whishaw and Simon Russell Beale’s performances.

The plays that comprised series one (Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 and 2, and Henry V) are universally acknowledged to be a prequel tetralogy to four plays from earlier in Shakespeare’s career, Henry VI parts 1, 2 and 3, and Richard III. It’s these four later-set, earlier-written plays that are being adapted into the three episodes of the second series.

Of these plays, Richard III, twice made into successful and important British films, is by far the most famous and frequently performed, attracting star names like Martin Freeman and Ralph Fiennes to London stage productions in the last three years alone. Indeed, its title character is so important in British culture it's hard to tell where the historical figure ends and Shakespeare’s character begins, as discussion surrounding that King’s reinternment in 2015 demonstrated.

The least well-known of the plays is Henry VI Part 1. The initial commissioning announcement for this series implied the first episode would consist of Part 1, with the second conflating Part 2 and Part 3. While believable in terms of the content of the plays, it’s not practical in terms of their respective lengths, and the first episode covers both Part 1 and Part 2.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Not only is Henry VI Part 1 performed least of these history plays, it’s even less often performed in full. The first recorded production after Shakespeare’s own lifetime was on 13th March 1788 in Covent Garden: a good 170 years after the author’s death. The next was when Sir Frank Benson staged it in 1906, another century-and-change later. After those gaps, the mere 47 years until the next production, at Birmingham Rep in 1953 (starring Judi Dench as Joan of Arc), is nothing. For the first time in nearly 400 years it was possible for someone to have seen two productions of the whole play in one lifetime. I wonder if anyone did?

Next was Terry Hands’ 1977 RSC production (with Helen Mirren as Queen Margaret and Alan Howard as the King – the actors saw their characters’ marriage’s foundation as “bondage in the chapel”) followed by another RSC production in 2000 (which has been revived more than once since) and one at The Globe in 2012/13.

The plays that make up The Hollow Crown series two work less effectively than those that formed series one when asked to standalone. Not only do they work better as a cycle, but they depend on the others within their own tetralogy to a greater extent than Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V do. Even the often-performed Richard III works better with the Henry VI plays behind it: The Hollow Crown’s Richard, Benedict Cumberbatch, has noted that you really need the Henry VI plays to understand the Richard who comes on stage and announces a winter of discontent, and both cinema versions incorporate pieces of Henry VI Part 3 to set the scene.

Accordingly then, a few scenes from Henry VI Part 1 are often excerpted and combined with Part 2 to create a composite play even in ‘Complete’ stage runs of Shakespeare’s Histories (e.g. the RSC in 1963 or Michael Bogdanov’s radical 1980s productions). One such scene is the moment when the various nobles pick either white or red roses from a bush to indicate their respective loyalties (while not the origin of the phrase “The Wars of the Roses”, this scene is what prompted Sir Walter Scott to coin it). The Red Rose of Lancaster, unlike the White Rose of York, is not contemporary to this stage of the conflict, being invented by Henry VII after his victory in 1485.

Other scenes, such as the funeral of Henry V or Plantagenet having his rights to the Crown explained to him, almost always make it through. Mostly, though, the play is dumped, much if not all of the material featuring Joan of Arc removed due to concerns about her portrayal as a witch. These traditionally came from a religious, rather than a feministic perspective, particularly in the years around Joan canonisation in 1920. Although Shakespeare must get points for having the play’s Dauphin predict that La Pucelle would one day be a Saint.

The Hollow Crown’s director/adapter Dominic Cooke has kept much of the Joan of Arc subplot, but interestingly cut the sub-plot featuring the peasant rebel and pretender Jack Cade, which forms a fair chunk of Henry VI Part 2. This is usually included, as it’s considered an important counterpoint to the aristocratic rebellion happening elsewhere in the play.

Almost always lost are the scenes featuring the English soldier Talbot (played in The Hollow Crown by Philip Glenister), usually because someone involved in the production considers the rhyme scheme in which they are written to be lacking. In context, this is rather odd, as not only was Henry VI Part 1 a massive hit when originally performed, but Talbot was regarded as the play’s most notable and successful element.   

For much of Shakespeare’s career he wrote exclusively for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (after 1603 renamed The King’s Men) the theatrical company for which he acted and wrote, in which he owned a one-eighth share, and which performed, over the years, at various venues across London built or owned by Shakespeare’s fellow actor, Richard Burbage, and/or Burbage’s brother Cuthbert or their Father, James.

Very few records related to this company survive. Earlier in his career, however, Shakespeare wrote for a variety of companies, including for those performing in venues owned and run by Philip Henslowe, the bear-baiter, financier, social climber and public official. Extensive papers related to Henslowe’s business dealings were deposited in the library of Dulwich College, the then poor, now private, school founded by Henslowe’s son-in-law, the actor Ned Alleyn. From these we learn that a play “Harey Vj” was performed on 2nd March 1592 (Henslowe’s spelling is non-standard, perhaps eccentric even in the 1590s: at one point he renders Shakespeare’s play Titus Andronicus as “Titus &ondronicus”, something which has always given me great joy.) “Harey” or Henry, was  marked “ne”, usually taken to indicate that the play was new, and the box office takings are indicative of a premiere: that that afternoon it took 3s 16s 8d. As admission to the Rose was a penny a head for groundlings, rising to up to 3d if you wanted to sit in the galleries, and its capacity was around three hundred, this a full house. The play was performed more than a dozen further occasions over the next few months. The practice of the time was to rotate plays, allowing people to see a large repertory in very quick succession, rather than the modern practice of long runs.

There are also few surviving documents in which people record their own responses to theatrical events of this period, but for Henry VI Part 1 we have one: The writer Thomas Nashe’s ‘Piers Penniless’, which was registered with the Stationer’s Office (the 1590s equivalent of copyright registration) in August 1592 sees Nashe praise the play, saying:

How would it have joyed brave Talbot, the terror of the French, to think that after he had lain two hundred years in his tomb, he should triumph again on the stage, and have his bones new embalmed with the tears of ten thousand spectators, at least, who in the tragedian that represents his person imagine they behold him fresh bleeding.

Henry VI Part 1 has been made for television by the BBC three times before, always as now as part of a longer sequence. An Age of Kings (1961) reduced it to an hour, and The War of the Roses (1965) was a version of the RSC’s 1963 productions, retaining their cuts. Only in 1983 did it play (practically) uncut, running for nearly three hours.(It was cut into two 90m episodes for the American market.)  This magical production directed by Jane Howell contained within a single set representing a children’s playground, which she later utilised for parts 2 and 3 and Richard III as well, is an abstract, defiantly unrealistic staging of the play about as far from The Hollow Crown’s mimetic, shot-on-location style as it’s possible to imagine. The rival dukes arrive on hobby horses, and at one point its Talbot, Trevor Peacock, does what we’d now recognise as a “Miranda Hart Look To Camera”. It’s quite a lot to live up to.

The new BBC version has an exception cast (I mean, look at it), and the production standards of the first series can’t be faulted. It’s hard to argue that first series of The Hollow Crown didn’t draw on richer and more complex plays than the second, but the Henry VI plays particularly showcase an earlier Shakespeare, whose work is more boisterous and direct; simplifying hugely, they have a little more action and a little less introspection. They’re exciting dramas of civil strife and internecine warfare, with quite a lot of sex and violence: great crowd-pleasing popular hits.

There’s no reason at all why they can’t be again.