King Lear

I visited a sadly empty theatre to see Michael Pennington as King Lear. Perhaps the tour had the mischance to be in Cornwall very close to its live screening on the local cinema – at of course cheaper prices. I hope it is not because people just didn’t want to come to see that particular play.

Of course, it’s not the easiest of Shakespeare’s plays in any sense: hard to stage and not a barrel of laughs either. I have seen many versions over the years, some [like Donald Sinden as Lear] were painful; Timothy West  starred in a very straight version, outstanding in its clarity. That was a success. I once said it was not a play for amateurs, but had to eat my words last year, when I saw the Winchester College Players perform it at the Minack Theatre. There, it was the female Fool who stole the show, bringing a poignancy to Lear’s ‘O, I have ta’en too little care of this’. But last night’s offering, for power, poignancy and horror was excellent, well night faultless. If you can’t see it live, please at least see the Live Screening [despite my opening paragraph!]

The most disgustingly realistic removal of Gloucester’s eyes, and Edmund’s savagely bleeding thigh, contributed to the horror. I was sitting three rows from the front and Cornwall’s ‘Out, vile jelly!’ after which he threw the offending gory lump onto the floor was genuinely dreadful.

The ensemble were all excellent. It is hard for actresses to build the evil sisters’ jealousy of each other and lust for Edmund out of not much in the script – but they managed it successfully, just as the turn from nice civilised people into the monsters their father accuses them of being was excellent.

The Fool [Joshua Elliott] too, was different – closer to a traditional coxcombed entertainer, but with an edge of vulnerability from the start. His transition from court jester to sick, dying dependent was well done. It  clearly conveyed the point of Lear’s gradual learning curve from foolish man to self-knowledge and more – knowledge of what he should have been as a King, a father and a human being. That journey begins with the fool’s trembling plight in the storm, which awakens a new tenderness in the ageing king.

Edgar’s random madness is where Lear’s awakening conscience and awareness of the world is taken to next. Gavin Fowler managed these mad speeches admirably. They are fiendishly difficult because almost completely nonsensical. Edgar is using the words as a disguise, a jumble of craziness, which muddies sense and throws people off the scent of who he may really be as effectively as the mud plastering his face and limbs. I particularly admired the way Edgar in this production reacted every time his father, Gloucester, came in, with frenzies and twitches, all designed to keep his face from being recognised.

The main plaudits must go to Michael Pennington, whose Lear was a towering performance throughout. His irascibility at the beginning already had the seeds of unreason surfacing through it; the whole arc of Lear’s life-on-stage was a masterly trajectory through dementia. Having recently lost my mother to Alzheimers, I recognised the fits of anger and aggression, the fear and the sad vacant-eyed portrait of lost wits in the scene where Lear is pushed in on a wheelchair. Tears pricked my eyes at moments where I had never felt sorrow in previous productions. This Lear took us, the audience, with him and we were all firmly on his side. Every thought process was clearly shown – the knitting together of disparate images or ideas popping into his head – so that we saw how his mind worked, how his obsessions surfaced in different random ways – to make perfect sense. Thank you Mr Pennington.

The themes of sight/blindness, folly/wisdom were pointed clearly too. And [not for the first time] I was again struck by the extraordinary archetypes the play offers us, Beckett-like in their unforgettability. The Fool, the Beggar, the Blind Man,thrown together in a surreal landscape,  stamp themselves on our consciousness and haunt our dreams.  I am so very glad to have seen a King Lear that feeds into that imagery and reminds me of it. I shall remember it for a long time.

Hangmen

Well it’s been over a week, but  a very busy one, so I haven’t had time to blog about Hangmen, which I wanted to do in the first flush of excitement after the screening. Strangely, I couldn’t persuade anyone to come with me, always a problem because bouncing thoughts off another person helps crystallise my own.

First impressions: the set. It so cleverly and exactly captured the colour schemes and style of the ’60s. The bleak institutional green and cream of the prison. Then after the shock of this opening the darkness through which the lights of the pub began, slowly, to pierce the dark, menacing like watching eyes. They brightened to a pinkish glow and I was there! Then! Back in one of those ghastly pubs of the time with their permanent proppers-up of the bar by the old men, the lonely and down-and-outs, for whom this is the closest thing they have of home and family.

This chorus of pub-goers is masterly. At times it is almost poetic in the Greek way, with the repetition of lines needed because of the deafness of the oldest [and most malicious] of them. A rhythm is established, a humorous near orchestral blend of voices with their different timbres and paces.

Often the play reminds us of Joe Orton. It shares a similar black humour, always hovering on the edge of the tasteless, the taboo. Sometimes the humour is so black as to make us feel guilty that we still laughed. I love that! That blend of nervous laughter, belly laughter and guilt.

As if it is an homage to the ’60s genres as well as atmosphere and setting, we have already doffed a cap at Orton and now we have the Pinteresque advent of the stranger, humorous, attractive, unsettling. Oh, and I loved his look – his rather greasy-looking tousled-blond hair, his maroon-pink shiny suit [I can’t define the colour and yet it is so reminiscent of that time]. He looked like a member of a band of that time, say Herman and the Hermits. He immediately comes over as slightly seedy – you wouldn’t want your daughter to go out with him – slightly untrustworthy, in a car-salesman-y kind of way. And what happens? The bar-owners’ daughter does appear to have run off with him – or not.

It is a comedy. It is a thriller. It swings our emotions. And it manages to be a serious debate about hanging, just in case any of us should want to bring it back. Starting with the hanging of a man who swears he is innocent, this is gradually cast more and more in doubt by our sleazy stranger, who appears to be hinting that he was the murderer and that maybe he has struck again – the innocent under-age over-weight but far from stupid daughter of the publicans. Strung up, to get the truth out of him, by the publican, who happens to be also the retired hangman [since hanging has recently been banned] of the original accused, our suspicion of the stranger is tested to the extreme. It is rare that there is real tension in a live theatre thriller but this is an exception. As we live through the delays and growing suspense, knowing that a young man is dangling behind a screen, his interrogation interrupted by a visitor to the pub, we start to question everything about death by hanging. This might actually be happening. The theatre is silent; the audience holds its breath. And when the visitor finally leaves, having drawn out the buttoning up of his coat to the nth degree, we are rooting for the young man’s life, even though he may indeed be a murderer. And then the daughter, safe and sound, walks in! But the stranger is dead.

The last lines of the play ask us to consider how often such miscarriages of justice may have occurred. We are left uncertain. The opening of the play is brought back to mind. That victim of the hangman had protested his innocence. This second hanging was also for a crime he did not commit. Had he been guilty of other crimes? We don’t know. The question is left open. The whole difficulty of proving guilt or innocence is called into question.

I’ve strayed into story-telling. How else has the play managed to be a debate about hanging? By having the main character [played excellently and at furious speed by David Morrissey] as one of the last hangmen, now turned publican. His great rival was Pierpoint, who became famous [in real life] for hanging many ex-Nazis after the Nuremberg trials. They have an ongoing competitiveness about their fame, the numbers they have dealt with, their style of hanging and efficiency. It is Pierpoint who, incensed by a boastful newspaper article in which his rival slates him, has come to the pub to have it out with him. It is he who castigates Morrissey-as-Harry, his rival, while the stranger behind the screen is hanging, probably dying. The rivalry between the two men causes the death by hanging of yet another innocent [of this latest crime at least], after hanging itself has become illegal! Masterly!

As You Like It and the screening phenomenon

Just saw the National Theatre’s As You Like It in the local cinema in Falmouth. What an extraordinary boon to us hicks who live out in the sticks. Of course, doing what I do, I try to see as much good live theatre as I can, but it’s often a long way. Even the wonderful theatres in Plymouth are a two hour journey. So this screening phenomenon is wonderful.

Of course, this isn’t the first one I’ve seen. There have been a variety of good things – the one that sticks out most in my mind being the excellent A View from the Bridge, with Nicola Walker and  Mark Long. The first production I have seen which makes sense of all the allusions to Greek theatre and presents the play in all its tragic inevitability, as effectively a Greek tragedy, complete with flawed tragic hero.

So – As You Like It. An exuberant production with a lot of very funny touches [such as the sheep] and an energetically scampering cast chasing each other around the set in pursuit of love.

The set! I can see what they were trying to do. They made a brightly coloured office-type setting for the opening which was ugly and which I found off-putting. It did not suggest a Duke’s court in any way but rather a corporate enterprise. Then the desks, tables and chairs rose up and became the Forest of Arden. That worked very well [though I’ve seen the idea before]. Not that that matters … there’s nothing new…etc.etc. It did suggest a forest, with clever pools of mysterious lighting, and the green notes attached to the trees which were partly Orlando’s love letters to Rosalind and partly leaves, The recurring idea of falling leaves/notes was nice, almost confetti-like and certainly joyful, I did find myself asking, however – was the office setting for the first scene simply there to justify the furniture used again for the forest? Hmm. A dubious reason. Though I did try to justify it in my mind: the unnaturalness of the Duke’s court against the natural Forest where lives the banished Duke. False against true, so that somehow everyone, even the bad Duke, now transfigured into hermit-guise, is dissolved in the natural setting of Arden. Everyone, even the brash office furniture is made anew and softened at the edges by a softer light?? Well, maybe that’s what they meant. But that opening was a shock and took a bit of getting used to. At one time I had a sinking feeling that the office would become the Forest less pleasantly, since all the desks had miniature tree plants on them – the wildness of Arden – which threatens the Duke’s reign, always lapping at the edges of his kingdom, shrunk and contained perhaps, imprisoned – and I feared that a more prosaic forest of these miniature trees held by the busy chorus of extras, would be the way Arden was done. Thank goodness no! The Forest did work, managed to retain threat and mystery as well as encouraging, as the spring fever of love enters it, a softening, a place where sheep and goats might frolic and love blossom unharmed by wolves. This softening of the forest under the magic of love was nicely done and I ended up carried along by the fun and the charm. And as always, food for thought. Vive live screening!

ISBNs

One examining board – and others will follow – has decided to exclude all plays without ISBN numbers from their AS/A level exams. I have argued at length that having an ISBN number is no guarantee of quality which is I presume why they have done it. The number is merely a tracking device. For my plays, which can only be ordered as hard copy or as downloads through this website, putting a tracking number on them would have been a waste of time and money. But I’ve had to bite the bullet, since this board won’t give in and others have indicated they will follow. To start with, I’ve picked plays that would be suitable at this level, 18 of them. That’s 36 numbers, since the download version of each play has a different number to the hard copy! Arrgh! Well, on the plus side – the number may mean that bookshops etc might order them now? Who knows!

Just to reassure you. The plays concerned, which you’ll find on the Playshare page and which will be obvious because the numbers are under them, conform to the other proscriptions in the specs. They are at least one hour long, have been published by a registered publisher – DramaWorks – and in addition, many of them were commissioned by youth theatres or theatre companies before coming to me. All have been tried and tested in front of paying audiences. Have a look!

ENCHANTING IBSEN

Working once again on Hedda Gabler to update page references and quotes so that they fit with the newest requirements, I’ve been enchanted once again by what a master Ibsen is. How in a few words from a character he’ll prepare you for the entry of another and give us a good idea of what makes that character tick too – he’s so succinct and subtle. Even just reading you don’t feel that there’s anything ham-fisted about what he’s doing. You are unaware of it – as unaware as a member of the audience would be. He never labours symbolism either [except maybe in The Wild Duck, which is a play I love, but where the symbol of the wild duck itself can be somewhat hammered home!] The symbol of Hedda and Loevborg both as loose cannons [no pun intended – well perhaps the smallest of intentions!] who might explode into violence at any time is wonderful, and her playing with the gun creates a physical tension as we realise how dangerously bored Hedda is. Oh I wish I could write like him!

As for Sophocles, well! I’ve nearly finished updating Antigone for the same reason and have been struck anew by the modernity of its themes now, in an age where religions and dictators impose their will on people, just as they did in Sophocles’ time. Antigone can be likened to so many courageous individuals who stand up for what they think is right without counting the cost to themselves and their own safety. Wow! It just goes to show that plus ca change plus c’est la meme chose. Sorry about lack of accents in the French – I haven’t mastered how to do that yet!

I’ll have finished Antigone in a couple of days and then Hedda and Antigone will be up on the website as updated downloads.

More soon…

Hedda Gabler and Our Country’s Good

I’m now half way through updating Hedda Gabler to comply with the edition specified by Edexcel – the translation by Richard Eyre, published Nick Hern Books. Since I’d already written a full resource on it using two other editions [Methuen and Penguin] this simply means adding page references from this latest edition and, where necessary – since it’s a translated play – new wording to the quotations I use. It does not mean that if you are using the script for AQA or another exam board you will have any difficulty; I have simply added the NHB version to what I already have. This and Our Country’s Good will be ready very soon as downloads or hard copy with these revisions. Keep an eye on the blog page. Our Country’s Good, though the new specification quotes the ISBN number for the Methuen Student edition, is using the same imprint text-wise. The page numbers of the play text are identical.

As soon as I’ve finished Hedda, it’ll be the turn of Antigone, again adding the wording and Page numbers from the Don Taylor translation specified by Edexcel to the resource I’ve already written. And as for Hedda, if you’re working from another edition for another board [e.g. OCR or AQA both of whom have the play on their lists] you will still be able to find your way around using the edition you have before. Yerma will be the last I have to trawl through in this way before starting on entirely new text resources. I shall be a very busy bunny for the foreseeable future!!

Working on Hedda again I am struck anew by Ibsen’s amazing craftmanship. How concise he is at preparing the way for a new character through just a few comments made by other characters. How he can hint at a wealth of subtext with so few words, or by a character floundering, or through punctuation. How the funeral parlour feel of the house, filled to the brim with too many flowers, acts as a symbol for Hedda’s feelings of being stifled, her death-in-life, her boredom. How potent a symbol the gun that Hedda plays with so dangerously is for her character, which is destructive to others and ultimately to herself. He is wonderful, lending himself to the Naturalism of Stanislavski, but equally to more symbolic interpretations. It’s a pleasure to be revisiting it.

New A level specs

I’ve been reading all the new specs with interest, and of course with a view to plugging some holes in my list of playtexts through practice. I’m pleased to see that some texts are the same [and in the right editions.] For Edexcel, Dr Faustus, Lysistrata and Woyzeck are already done using the proscribed editions and for AQA, Antigone, Hedda Gabler and A Servant to Two Masters are already in place. I have written resources for Yerma and Our Country’s Good already, but the editions differ. I have already ordered the right ones and will alter the page references etc accordingly. For Edexcel My Hedda will also be altered to match the edition required – [I suspect that’ll be the edition many AQA teachers will also be using.] All these changes will be in place very soon; I have bought the new editions and am working on them as we speak. For OCR there are also a number of playtexts through practice in place already: Oh What a Lovely War!, Antigone and The Crucible are available already.

I will try to get three more resources done before September [and of course more still after that, but I’m only human. Three is realistic!]  I shall start with Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Cloud Nine and Glass Menagerie. Next on the list [i.e. all being well by Christmas] will be Metamorphosis, followed by Equus and the Caucasian Chalk Circle in the following year. I’d like to be able to promise more by the end of the first year, but I suspect that would be superhuman. If you have any comments on these choices, please e-mail me: [email protected] or contact me through facebook or twitter under my name – Jeni Whittaker – rather than Dramaworks

I might be the worst person to accompany to the theatre

I think it might be so many years as an examiner – seventeen of them and then several more as a University external examiner and more still as a festival adjudicator – but what that taught me is to have eyes that constantly swivelled around the playing space noting everything: costumes, props, lighting, set, sound and, of course the acting. Going to the theatre is still a huge part of my life… HUGE. But I can’t help myself. Old habits die hard. The eyes swivel. The fingers twitch to manipulate the pen on the no-longer-existent notepad. Does it get in the way of enjoyment? Not a bit! With most productions it enhances the experience, allowing me to dwell lovingly on the attention to detail many of them bring to the design elements but just occasionally …!!

Let me digress a little. I was a latecomer to opera. With a Mozart fan for a father, I was familiar with the music of most of those, but somehow, every time I turned the radio on [we’re talking many years ago] it was always some fruity-voiced soprano with festoons of vibrato that I caught singing something from one of the heavier Wagner operas. From these small experiences, I got the idea that opera was not for me. Imagine my wonder, then, when a friend took me to Glyndebourne. We saw Janacek’s Jenufa and it was the most exciting experience in years. Seeing my face, my friend often leant in to ask was I enjoying this? Was I?! I wanted to tell him to stop bothering me! I wanted to be in a bubble and immerse myself totally in sight, sound and feeling! It was Total Theatre. How could I ever have thought I wouldn’t like opera? Done well, it’s the ultimate theatrical experience!

So whenever I could I started to go to operas and, of course, learned that they vary enormously. And sadly, far more than most theatre companies, it is the details, the design, and worse – too often the acting – that is below par. I get it that great singers are not always great actors and can make allowances for the conventions of opera, which are different from the conventions of theatre, BUT…. and this is the point of this blog – what I can’t forgive, what makes me grind my teeth in the audience, is when you pay vastly inflated ticket prices and hardly any of those important details of design and acting are attended to. I find it, frankly, insulting.

Don’t get me wrong – this has never been true of Glyndebourne productions, which I catch regularly on tour. Even if I haven’t liked the opera itself, the design and the direction has been stunning. But over the years I have sat through professional touring operas with wonderful singing but wobbly amateurish sets, poor use of staging space, dreadful dark lighting, in short no overall directorial vision for the piece. And it has spoiled my enjoyment. More than that, I have ranted all the way home in the car at my poor theatre companions!

Then last week I went to see Strauss’s Die Fledermaus done by Ellen Kent Productions. I didn’t expect it to be moving or uplifting, to speak to my soul; I knew it would be light, frothy. But I did expect glamour, spectacle and humour. Especially since I had paid a lot for my ticket – nearly as much as for Glyndebourne on tour. The sets were fine and gave some of the necessary glamour. In fact, the design elements were mostly good. In this production, it was the acting that had me cringeing in my seat.

No direction worth its salt had been given to the mainly very young chorus. They simply stood around the stage and pulled the occasional face at each other. Their dancing was of the sidestep and kick variety – in fact that was their principal dance step – and in a line. Think village hall pantomime. I have seen better work from many amateur companies. [And actually many good and fun village hall pantos.]

The cast could sing – no question. Most of the cast came from the Ukraine or Russia – and there’s nothing wrong with that. So why did they elect to perform in English? Opera goers are used to reading translations above the stage. In this case their English was, in many key cases, so bad – wrongly stressed, laboured and slow because they did not understand what they were saying – that, presumably for this reason, they had to put the English translation up anyway!  Reading the notes in the programme, it says that Kent worked from an old Russian translation of the text – 40% of which is spoken not sung – so why not sing in Russian, since the translation had to be there for the audience in any case!? One character in the final act was a non-singing comedy part. He mugged exaggeratedly to the audience, trying to achieve laughs with his face at least, struggled through the lines, often read them from a couple of carefully placed props, could not point the lines properly or put over any of the humour because he did not understand the English words! Poor man! And poor audience. I found myself wincing every time he came forward to speak. If I hadn’t been with others, I’d have walked out. I felt by this time so angry. There’s no excuse for this in today’s professional theatre surely!

Now you know why I might be the worst person to accompany to the theatre…

IN PRACTICE

It’s been a marathon, but I’ve now trawled through every resource and play on the website and put up more and clearer extracts. It should be easier to see, with the plays, the storyline, style and characters. For the resources. there should now be enough sample pages to have a genuine idea of the flavour of each one. There are examples of the theories of every practitioner and, more importantly, sample practical work to test them. That is the key to how I have worked for the last twenty years on EVERYTHING I do. Isn’t it true that students remember what they try out for themselves? Of course they need to know the facts; that goes without saying. But testing those facts through practical work means that they will remember it and more importantly, they will remember it in a personal way. This means that an exam question will be answered, drawing on their own experiences. They will not be churning out the dry old theories learned in the classroom behind the desk. They will have felt how it is to experiment with each theory and will come to their own opinion from the realisation of how it worked for them … THROUGH PRACTICE.

This is not just true for practitioners, of course. Everything is explored ‘through practice.’ Every text – and as you can see, there are many of them – whether it’s a classic like Shakespeare or Chekhov – or a more recent play – such as ‘Playhouse Creatures’ or ‘Our Country’s Good’ – are approached through the same spirit of practical experimentation. Practical work is suggested line by line, or speech by speech throughout the entire play – no skimping! And that practical work does not force a particular interpretation or physical approach. There are ALWAYS many possibilities of ‘seeing’ a play and translating it from page to stage, which is what we are expecting our A level exam students to do. I commonly suggest exercises which include a naturalistic approach, a political’epic’ one and a physical theatre one AT THE VERY MINIMUM – always at least three entirely different ways of approaching a character, a set design, the direction of the whole script, and often more than three.

I believe totally in this practical approach and I know it works! Try out some of the exercises in the sample pages and see for yourself…. Jeni

Playshare and Treepress

When I first started Dramaworks I already knew that I wanted to run a scheme which allowed teachers to reuse the plays they had written for their own students and share them with other teachers. Why did teachers have to write their own plays? Because there were so few out there that allowed for the particular quirks of different groups – 1 boy and four girls, for instance, with good parts for each person. Or large-cast plays that are all female or heavily-weighted that way. And many other permutations, of course. Few teachers had the time to write plays for their groups so there was a pressing need for more short suitable exam scripts and plays that give multiple meaty roles for the school play. The answer I came up with was the Playshare scheme. It started small but I quickly managed to add more, particularly exam scripts. It was hard turning some hopefuls down, but I knew I had to select the best plays for the task.

Ten years on not much has changed. The need is as great, if not greater. And now an enterprising couple of young women have come up with Treepress and have invited me to put the Playshare plays up there on a microsite, flatteringly because they recognise the quality of the Dramaworks stamp and want to add it to their own newer brand. Hopefully this will mean even more choice for the hard-working drama teacher. The Treepress site is already large, and growing,  and covers a large range of plays of different styles designed for differing uses. I am sure it will make a difference.

For those loyal followers of Dramaworks, this doesn’t mean Playshare has stopped – it just means that the plays are on two sites, the Dramaworks one and the microsite within the Treepress one. Do keep sending plays to me – you have two chances now of their being picked up by beleaguered teachers. Note that prices between the two sites are largely comparable. It is just that Treepress breaks down the prices into smaller components while I have always lumped the prices of script, production notes, technical cues, performance rights and photocopying rights into one figure.

If you visit the Dramaworks site, you will notice that the plays have been reorganised to make it easier to access them. I have been working hard on it for the last ten days. There are longer extracts and more of them, to give you more of a sense of the story within each play and the performing opportunities. This should make choosing easier. The plays will also soon be downloadable, as the teaching resources already are. And of course, you can still order hard copy from me, as many teachers prefer. Do have a look at the whole site and what it has to offer and tweet your comments if you belong to twitter.