Occasional Thoughts and Musings on Theatre History

Salome at the Southwark Playhouse, presented by Lazarus Theatre

This modern version of Salome presented by Lazarus Theatre at the Southwark Playhouse features in a bonus episode on the main podcast. It was an exhilerting evening of theatre where we also had an opportunity to hear the actors thoughts on the play in a Q&A session after the performance.

You can see more information and production photos on the Lazarus Theatre website https://www.lazarustheatrecompany.co.uk/salomé

The Cast:

King Herod – Jamie O’Neill

Prince Salomé – Fred Thomas

Jokanaan – Prince Plockley

Queen Herodias – Pauline Babula

The Page of Herodias – George Ray-Turner

The Young Soldier – Omi Mantri

The Creative Team:

Adapted and Directed by Ricky Dukes

Set and Costume Design by Sorcha Corcoran

Lighting Design by Ben Jacobs

Sound Design by Will Thompson

Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley

Aubrey Beardsley (21st August 1872 – 16th March 1898) was a leading member of the Aesthetic movement. His art was influenced by the traditions of Japanese woodcutting and tended towards decadence, the erotic and the grotesque. His black and white poster style drawings were a major contributor to the Art Nouveau movement of the time. His most famous erotic illustrations concerned themes of history and mythology; these include his illustrations for a privately printed edition of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata and his drawings for Oscar Wilde’s play Salome. Other major illustration projects included an 1896 edition of The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope.

He died of tuberculosis aged just 25.

The images above are two of his portraits of Wilde and his illustrations for Salome.

He was commissioned for just one illustration based on the original French publication of Salome. He chose the image of Salome enjoying the sight of the severed head of John the Baptist, but it was far too grotesque and daring for the magazine and it was rejected. Later the same year a new art publication included the drawing in its first edition. When Wilde saw it he was so impressed that he offered Beardsley a contract for ten full-page illustrations and a cover design for the English edition.

Wilde said of Beardsley’s drawings that they were like “the naughty scribbles a precocious boy makes on the margins of his copybook”. Which was something he meant as a sincere compliment.

Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetes in Punch Magazine

Punch Magazine was first published in London in 1841 and despite a slow start and financial difficulties for it’s first twenty years was influential in the creation of modern satiric humour. The term “cartoon” became used to refer to comic drawings that were first used in Punch. At the time “cartoon” meant a finished preliminary sketch on a large piece of cardboard, or cartone in Italian. When the Houses of Parliament were to be decorated with murals, and “cartoons” for the mural were displayed for the public Punch appropriated the term to refer to its political cartoons, and the term was soon taken into popular use. Wilde and the Aesthetic movement proved fertile ground for the Punch cartoonists. As a well known figure in London society the illustrators and satirists picked up on his foppish looks, extravagant dress sense and love of lilies and sunflowers.

Rosslyn Chapel (26th July 2021)

There is no theatrical connection to Rosslyn Chapel, near Edinburgh, but when I was there recently it really struck a chord with everything that I had been talking about on the podcast recently.

The chapel was founded in 1446, so right in the heart of the medieval period, and was constructed to more or less what we see now* over the next two generations. Today most visitors know of it because of the connections with the Knights Templar and through the associated legends around the order and the Holy Grail to Dan Brown’s ‘The Da Vinci Code’ and the Tom Hanks 2006 film of the same name.

However, the most interesting thing about the chapel is definitely not the connection with that book or film. A scene toward the end of the film located in the chapel was filmed there, so when you see the protagonists entering the crypt it is the actual site, but with a false star of David added to a lintel curtesy of the props department. Where they enter a secret chamber off the crypt they were, we were reliably informed, at Pinewood studios.

But whatever the merits of the book and film (or not) we should not be too grumpy about the film as the funds it generated did help with the completion of the badly needed restoration work well ahead of schedule thanks to additional visitor numbers and, no doubt, a big fee paid for the privilege of filming there.

No, for me what stood out was the incredible amount of effort that craftsmen of the day put into the construction and decoration of the chapel. You can see from the pictures that it is highly ornate, and this work was being done by masters and apprentices of the stonemasons, carpenters and other guilds, the same people who were working on the stage sets and special effects for the cycle plays. Seeing the skill and effort they were prepared to put into constructions for a religious purpose shows, I think, that we really can believe that they were capable and willing to construct the most elaborate sets, props and stage machinery.

The pillar in the picture is a particularly fine example and the legend is that it was carved by an apprentice. His master had completed one pillar of a pair, but lacking inspiration for the second he went abroad in search of good ideas. He was absent a long time and his apprentice found his own inspiration and took it upon himself to carve the decoration on the pillar. When the master returned he was furious because of the apprentice’s audacity, but also because he realised that he could not better the work himself. In a rage he struck the apprentice with his hammer and killed him. He fled but was caught and hung for his crime. Master and apprentice are commemorated in gargoyles that adorn the chapel, with the master directly opposite the pillar, staring at his pupil’s work for eternity.

The chapel is only the completed half of the church that was planned, which would have been very grand, but the subsequent generations of the family were unable to complete the project, so the planned church became a chapel. That also mirrors the demise of the cycle plays where the religious impetus for the plays was removed and church finances were no longer what they were at the height of the period.

It is a great place to visit.

You can see more details and pictures from the chapel on their own website www.rosslynchapel.com

The York Cycle Plays

As featured in episode 54: The Home of the Cycle Plays: York, Chester, Coventry and Wakefield. Released 19th July 2021

This list represents the cycle plays as they were presented in the third quarter of the fifteenth century.

The Bakers – The Fall of the Angles

The Plasterers – The Creation

The Cardmakers – The Creation of Adam and Eve

The Fullers – Adam and Eve in Eden

The Coopers – The Fall of Man

The Armourers – The Expulsion

The Glovers – Cain and Able

The Shipwrights – The Building of the Ark

The Fishers and Mariners – The Flood

The Parchmentmakers and Bookbinders – Abraham and Isacc

The Hosiers – Moses and the Pharoah

The Spicers – The Annunciation and Visitation

The Pewterers and Founders – Joseph’s Trouble About Mary

The Tilethatchers – The Nativity

The Chandlers – The Shepherds

The Masons and Goldsmiths – Herod and the Magi

St Leonards Hospital – The Purification

The Marshals – The Flight into Egypt

The Gridlers and Nailers – The Slaughter of the Innocents

The Spurriers and Lorimers – Christ and the Doctors

The Barbers – The Baptism

The Smiths – The Temptation

The Vintners – The Marriage at Cana

The Curriers – The Transfiguration

The Ironmongers – Jesus in the House of Simon the Leper

The Cappers -The Woman Taken in Adultery & The Raising of Lazarus

The Skinners – The Entry Into Jerusalem

The Cutlers – The Conspiracy

The Bakers – The Last Supper

The Cordwainers – The Agony and the Garden

The Bowers and Fletchers – Christ Before Annas and Caiaphas

The Tapiters and Couchers – Christ Before Pilate (1) & The dream of Pilate’s Wife

The Litsters – Christ Before Herod

The Cooks and Waterleaders – The Remorse of Judas

The Tilemakers – Christ Before Pilate (2) & The Judgement

The Shearmen – The Road to Calvary

The Pinners – The Crucifixion

The Butchers – The Death of Christ

The Saddlers – The Harrowing of Hell

The Carpenters – The Resurrection

The Winedrawers – Christ’s Appearance to Mary Magdalene

The Woolpackers and Woolbrokers – The Supper at Emmaus

The Scriveners – The Incredulity of Thomas

The Tailors – The Ascension

The Potters – Pentecost

The Drapers – The Death of the Virgin

The Linenweavers – The Funeral of the Virgin

The Woolenweavers – The Assumption of the Virgin

The Hostelers – The Coronation of the Virgin

The Mercers – The Last Judgement

 

 

Ian McKellen’s Hamlet: A Return to Theatre (28th June 2021)

Last Monday night marked a return to the theatre for me, socially distanced and masked it’s true, but I had the privilege of doing it in the company of Sir Ian McKellen and his fellow cast members who have taken up residence in my local theatre for most of the rest of the year.

My last full on theatre experience had been in February 2020 to see Caryl Churchill’s strangely haunting short piece ‘A Number’, and before that we had had a golden few months at the theatre for some sixties kitchen sink nostalgia with ‘A Taste of Honey’ and the musicals ‘Come From Away’ and ‘The Girl From The North Country’, two very different shows, but both innovative and hugely enjoyable. But then the pandemic shutters came down. Stoppard’s ‘Leopoldstat’, postponed and perhaps most painfully the stage version of the excellent Shakespeare comedy ‘Upstart Crow’ was gone just a few days before we were due to be there. So apart from a couple of semi-staged readings locally last October during an abortive attempt to open up again, the in-person theatrical experience was denied to us and we could only do our bit through The Shows Must Go On and the NT Live archive, to try and help out struggling actors and creatives. We were not alone in this of course so last night was quite a night for us and, I’m sure, for all concerned.

And Ian McKellen doing Hamlet. At 82 he is the oldest Hamlet seen in the UK. Something not to be missed, surely. The pre-show publicity has revolved around this being an age blind production, but it’s also gender blind and colour blind. One very notable thing about the production that is worth mentioning up front is the young and diverse cast that Sir Ian and director Sean Mathias have gathered around them. But the big question is, of course, what is an octogenarian Hamlet like? Does it work?

Inevitably perhaps the answer is yes and no, but, for me, the yes outweighs the no. McKellen is one of the best, if not the best, Shakespearean actor of his generation and he is that primarily because of the way he speaks the bard’s verse. He somehow creates a speech pattern that carries with it his years of experience, yet also manages to sound, well, casual. He goes for meaning and understanding rather than strict adherence to the metre and cadence of the prose and poetry, but the effect is much more subtle than that makes it sound. He doesn’t ignore or loose the rhythm of the piece at all, but makes it sound quite natural, which his quite an achievement.

Some lines, some of the most famous lines, are almost thrown away. ‘To Be Or Not to Be’ is delivered into the back of a high chair. Nothing wrong with deciding to make this an intimate speech, just between Hamlet and Horatio, but it is a central speech of the play for a reason, the moment we really begin to close to Hamlet’s thoughts, and it deserves more than it is given here. Having said that it is in keeping with the character of Sir Ian’s Hamlet, portrayed here as a very intimate and casual man. He avoids the Hamlet who wears his innermost life on his sleeve, where his melancholy can veer to the melodramatic, and that is a good thing. Hamlet has fascinated down the centuries precisely because he is a complex human being full of confliction despite his quick mind and clever quips. He is, after all, the spoilt son of a King who expects to be the centre of attention. He can, and does, frequently tell his friends and the other courtiers to leave him alone and they comply.

And it is not only Sir Ian’s ability with language that makes him stand out. He moves around the stage with a fluidity that belies his years and makes younger men, including myself, quite jealous. In this production the representation of Elsinore castle is a suitably dark and brooding affair, it is explicitly for Hamlet a prison, and that is certainly the vibe here. A metal framework of stairs and walkways that clang with every step creates a cold atmosphere. We can feel that there is little love to be had in this dark and misty place and on the occasions that the set is more brightly lit it is with cool and starkly bright strip lighting that does nothing to lift the atmosphere. McKellen’s Hamlet may run up and down the staircases and across the gallery more easily than some of the younger cast manage to manage, but he is a man trapped by the events that precede the action of the play, which he has no control over, until he manages to change that.

I first saw McKellen on stage in 1988, when he was still just under fifty, in Alan Ayckbourn’s ‘Henceforward…’. He still has the same wirery frame and moves around the stage with an ease that I remember he had more than thirty years ago. Apart from a rather truncated fencing bout at the end of the play there is no apparent concession to age. The recognisable traits are there – the hands thrust deep into the pockets, the shoulders that rise and rise until you wonder if they will ever stop – but, wisely, never a hint of Gandalf or Magneto.

The other time I have seen Sir Ian on stage is much more recent. He played an early night on the tour of his one man show to celebrate his eightieth birthday in this same local theatre – a tour that got extended repeatedly and ended with an originally unplanned west end run at the Harold Pinter Theatre, thanks to its, and his, popularity – and I was lucky enough, well, quick enough on the ticket website, to be there. It was undoubtedly one of the best evenings in the theatre that I have ever experienced. To see an actor of such experience and still at the top of his game was truly an event. He held us captivated with a structured jaunt through his life and career with chucks of Shakespeare, Tolkien, the X-Men and more. At one point he gets out an old schoolbook where he wrote about his hobbies and said ‘Yes, anything to do with the theatre pleases me’. He certainly continued to express that love in spades that evening. You could have heard the proverbial pin drop in the auditorium and given more than a few squeaky seats that we usually have to contend with, that was quite something. There is a filmed version of the show from the West End running on Amazon Prime at the moment and you really should watch it if you have the chance.

I digress, back to Hamlet.

As the play opened, we were of course all watching to see how the age differentials work. Perhaps an odd directorial choice was to have Hamlet deliver the second scene of the play and the lines about ‘too too solid flesh’ while pumping away briefly on a static exercise bike, that smelt a bit of the gentleman protesting too much and jarred, but once we got further into the play the ageing was mostly truly blind as we were swept along by the language. Any oddness in this respect is reduced to moments, like greeting his clearly much much younger student friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, or after the killing of Polonius when he gets up close and personal to his much younger mother.

The ghost played by Francesca Annis is more gender neutral than female and good use is made of some ghostly miking-up. For the other smaller parts, the gender of the casting is truly irrelevant.

There were some other directorial choices that niggled. Jenny Seagrove’s Gertrude spoke with a Danish accent but was the only cast member to do so and I found it rather distracting and Steven Berkoff’s Polonius, while not out of character for the fussy, pedantic old man, was maybe rather too free with pauses, elongations, and repetitions within his lines. I have to admit though he did get the biggest laughs of the evening, so maybe it was just me who took against him.

After the killing of Polonius, behind a tightly packed rail of dresses and coats rather than the traditional arras, we get to the inevitable spiral of the revenge tragedy when we know that the body count is going to be high by the end of the play, and Hamlet is the orchestrator of all this. The arrival of the players is a high point. They are a lively and diverse troupe who made the rather repetitive dumb show and play within the play enjoyable to watch. As the first half closes Hamlet descended through the stage floor, leaving in no doubt as to his ultimate destination.

We, on the other hand only descend to the bar to collect a pre ordered drink and scurry back to our seats, no lingering allowed. While we drink and nibble a crisp or two and discuss the play we are allowed to be relieved of the mask, but they are soon back on. Behind us in the mid-stalls (that’s the Royal Stalls as they are known here, after all the queen is sitting at home just across the street from the theatre) is an empty row and beyond that a family outing of parents and two teenagers. Both youngsters are enthusing about the play and checking plot points with their parents – it’s good to hear lively debate about theatre again.

The second half opens with breezy intent. The first half of the play is inevitably rather long, something that feels more acute here thanks to the slightly lacklustre pace of the first few scenes, but now we are on the roller coaster to the end. Ophelia is a striking presence whenever she is on stage. Her singing is strong and the arrangements of her songs of madness, always a difficult part of Shakespeare in my book, are modern and catch the moment and her declining spirits well. Yorick’s skull is pulled from the earth again and the grave digger reminds us that Hamlet is about thirty, with a wry smile. With Ophelia buried Claudius, played with masterful command by Jonathan Hyde, lays his last plan for Hamlet and we get the final, brief, fencing match. All the following deaths are suitably dramatic, verging on the comic. We end with Horatio wishing the angles to sing Hamlet to his rest, missing the confirmation of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s deaths at the hands of the English and the final entrance of Fortinbras as he sweeps in to take control of the situation and the country. That omission gives the ending quite a different tone, confirming the story as rather personal. More a drama of family disfunction than one of the corruptions of the powerful, by removing the political overtones that a different production would pick out.

An inevitable and deserved standing ovation for Sir Ian and the cast.

The theatre capacity is usually eight hundred and fifty people, but of course until mid-July the restrictions mean the capacity is much reduced – at least halved I would guess, but as we spilled out of the building, trying to keep some distance from each other, the overwhelming feelings were of gratitude that we had been part of that evening and hope that this was indeed the start of a true return to the theatre and that this latest round of plague closure was indeed coming to an end. It is a thought-provoking production, but not for the reasons one might expect and I, for one, think that Sir Ian has done his reputation no harm at all and say a hearty ‘bravo’ to him to taking this on. Roll on September when we will be treated to the same company playing The Cherry Orchard where, I sincerely hope, we will be crammed into the theatre, one of eight hundred and fifty, just like we used to be. Sir Ian will be playing the age-appropriate family servant. Something to look forward to.

Welcome back theatre. It’s been too long.