Sunday, 19 June 2011

Opening Doors to Shakespeare.

A day off and so I headed West to Stratford upon Avon for a father's day meal, a lovely afternoon walk around Mary Arden's farm house in Wilmcote and a quick look round the new RSC theatre, topped out last year.

Watching a show in Stratford has always had something magical about it, particularly on hot summer evenings when the audience seem to float home across the Bancroft Gardens in a balmy dream, mesmerised by heroic stories, musical heraldry and the poetry itself. The old art deco theatre felt well suited to its situation, perched on the banks of the Avon. Peaceful, restful, unshowy in itself, but swelling with the history of remarkable performances and the anticipation of more to come. I was keen to see how the new build would work. Could it suggest buried treasures in the same way?

The most striking difference is in how welcoming the new theatre is. Glass fronted with many doors opening up into a spacious foyer which, mirroring the aesthetic principles of artistic director Michael Boyd's productions, soars and carries the eye upwards to embrace the full height of the building. The Elizabethans understood their world on this plane: heaven, earth and hell every bit as clearly as we, trained in tableaux, the printed text and fixed image read from left to right.

An even more vertiginous experience can be had by going up the viewing tower which, adjacent to the main house, gives theatre goers an opportunity to look beyond the rooftops of the town to the fields and hills of Warwickshire. The shape of the land has little changed since Shakespeare's own deer rustling, romantic youth.

Some critics have questioned the wisdom of a second thrust stage in Stratford and the lack of a proscenium arch does make a very clear statement about the way plays will be staged here in the future, but early reports suggest that both actors and audiences are revelling in their mutual proximity.

For the first time I'm going to be teaching a Shakespeare module at Drama St Mary's from September to a group of nearly 100 and so I'm beginning to explore ways in which we can supplement a weekly lecture with more interactive approaches to the plays. One thing I'm sure of is that learning by heart and publicly reciting the text gives students a chance to marvel and enjoy the particular muscularity of the language, so I'm going to call for scenes to be be memorised and performed each week. If the class buy into that we can work as co-educators using the performed excerpts as the basis for our lessons, rewinding them, adapting them, focusing in on key moments, phrases or metaphors. I don't think it's enough to just read a synopsis of the play as homework. I want to bring students much closer to Shakespeare's words so they can begin to sense how much they belong to them. There are riches behind comprehension for those who make the investment.

In a similar way perhaps the new thrust theatre will help to further democratise Shakespeare by asserting a relationship between the stage and auditorium. Will this offer a helping hand to those who struggle to commune with the plays? I hope so.


No comments: