Shakespeare within the Abbey

Shakespeare within the Abbey: Mark Rylance

★★★★★

All Places that the Eye of Heaven Visits 

(The Globe at Westminster Abbey, 22 April 2017)

Waiting outside Westminster Abbey with mounting excitement, my mum said that she really didn’t mind what this evening involved as long as she got to see Mark Rylance. We were about to experience his brainchild: an extraordinary promenade performance which brought a company of Globe actors over the river for a magical evening among the pillars and monuments of this splendid church. For two nights only, you could wander in the Abbey and be surprised at every turn by an actor ready to share a soliloquy in front of a tomb, or to stare into your eyes and declaim a sonnet. It’s entirely thanks to my parents’ efficiency that we’d been able to get tickets and so I was keen that Mum should have her moment. And she did, though not as any of us had expected.

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Hamlet: Globe to Globe: Dominic Dromgoole

★★★★

Taking Shakespeare to Every Country in the World

I’m going to end the year with a recommendation for your reading lists in 2017. Although it won’t be published until April, this book offers an optimistic note of hope to banish the darkness of what has, by any stretch of the imagination, been a bleak year. The context is this. Back in 2012, Shakespeare was at the heart of the cultural festival that accompanied the London Olympics. The main feature was the ambitious Globe to Globe festival, during which every one of Shakespeare’s plays was performed, each by a company from a different country, each in a different language. Buzzing from the success of that project, the team were looking for their next big adventure. And it was Dominic Dromgoole, then director of the Globe, who came up with a crazy idea during a genial away day. Why not tour Hamlet to every country in the world?

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Comus: John Milton (1634)

Milton: Comus

★★★

A Masque in Honour of Chastity

(Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 26 October 2016)

Comus is the first of several productions I’ll be seeing at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse this season and it proved to be a curious kettle of fish. It was commissioned from John Milton by the Earl of Bridgewater, who had just been appointed Lord President of Wales, and was performed on Michelmas 1634 at the Earl’s new seat of Ludlow Castle. The three main roles of the Lady and her two Brothers were performed by the Earl’s own children, and the masque trumpeted the family’s honour, virtue and chastity. Of course, such trumpeting only hints that there was something to hide, and this production cleverly puts Comus back into context. But even the excellent team at the Globe can’t overcome the issues of the text, and Comus never quite stops feeling like a historical curiosity.

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream: William Shakespeare

Titania (Meow Meow) on her flowery bed

★★★★

(Shakespeare’s Globe, 30 April-11 September 2016)

This Midsummer Night’s Dream had its work cut out to create the appropriate ambiance. The skies of London were weighed down with white clouds, biting winds swept down the streets and, all in all, the mood was more fit for Twelfth Night. Wrapped up against the cold, I came with some trepidation, and not only because of the weather. I’d been wondering what Emma Rice’s tenure as Globe Director would bring.

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Orpheus: Luigi Rossi (1647)

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★★★★

(Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, in collaboration with the Royal Opera, 8 November 2015)

Hot on the heels of Ormindo comes another partnership between the Globe and Covent Garden, which offers another treat of early Baroque opera in the unique ambiance of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. This time it’s Orpheus, directed from the gallery by Christian Curnyn with a select force of musicians from Early Opera.

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The Heresy of Love: Helen Edmundson

Edmundson: The Heresy of Love

★★★★

(Shakespeare’s Globe, 28 August 2015)

I saw Helen Edmundson’s play The Heresy of Love over a month ago and, since the run finished in early September, there may be little point posting on it now. However, in recent days I’ve been turning it over in my mind again, thanks to the novel I’m currently reading: Flow Down Like Silver, about Hypatia of Alexandria. The parallels between these two brilliant women are obvious and crushing. Both were rich in intelligence and wit; both were faced with a new and unforgiving religious regime, which couldn’t tolerate that which it couldn’t control; and both were punished because they strayed beyond the confines of what was considered acceptable for a woman to know. Both stories provoke me to anger. Both deserve to be better known.

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The Oresteia: Aeschylus

The Oresteia

★★★★

(The Globe, London, 6 September 2015)

Seeing this the day after Hamlet, I definitely feel that I’ve met my Great Tragedy Quota for this month. Written in 458 BC, when Aeschylus was in his late sixties, this feels like the Dane’s ancient counterpart: if Hamlet is the great modern exploration of the self, then the Oresteia is a monument not just to human nature, but to civilisation itself. Continue reading

All the Angels: Handel and the First Messiah: Nick Drake

All the Angels: Handel and the First Messiah

★★★

(Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, directed by Jonathan Munby, 3 July 2015)

The Globe’s increasing involvement with early music has been one of the unforeseen consequences (for me) of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. As I’ve said before, its intimate atmosphere and warm acoustics have encouraged some truly exciting developments over in Southwark. There’s the exciting collaboration with the Royal Opera House to produce lesser-known early Baroque operas; there are concerts; and, least foreseen of all, new plays which explore the history of music. Last season we had Farinelli and the King, which will transfer to the West End this autumn and which has done so much to introduce a general audience to countertenors (and hopefully, for Iestyn Davies’s sake, to the difference between a countertenor and a castrato).

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Research in Action: Performing Gender on the Indoor Stage

Performing Gender: Shakespeare's Globe

(Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 7 May 2015)

We all know that in Shakespeare’s day women weren’t allowed on the stage. Recently several productions have tried to recreate the flavour of those original performances: Mark Rylance’s Twelfth Night and Richard III productions come to mind. But even these don’t give an accurate flavour of what Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences would have seen. Female roles were played by young boys aged between 12 and 22 years old, highly skilled actors who would specialise in playing women until at a certain stage they were no longer able to convince with the illusion (many ended up transitioning across the gender divide and took on male roles within the company).

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Ormindo: Francesco Cavalli (1644)

Cavalli: Ormindo

★★★★★

(Royal Opera House at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, February-March 2015)

In writing about Cavalli’s Ormindo, it’s hard not to feel that everything has already been said. (But I’m going to say it again anyway.) This production made its immensely successful debut in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse last year, blending the musical expertise of the Royal Opera House with the theatrical immediacy of the Globe. It is, quite simply, a match made in heaven: Cavalli’s operas, which predate the swaggering show-off arias of the high Baroque, feel like exuberant plays that just happen to be set to music. Naturally there’s nowhere in London more skilled at bringing such things to life than the Globe.

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