Monday, 5 January 2015

Re awakening Faith.

Last day at the Lodge. The day started with a fascinating tour of the building, led by the principal Ed Newell. It's been a royal residence since the restoration and is traditionally the home of Windsor Great Park's ranger. Shortly after the second world war King George and Queen Elizabeth handed it over to the formidable Amy Buller, who set it up as an education and research centre, focused on reconciliation.

We ended the tour in the cosy oak panelled dining room has it's own ghosts and history as it was here for three days that Stanley Baldwin met with the King's Private Secretary Charles Hardinge to try and find a resolution to the abdication crisis. When you look out of the windows into the park, you're seeing the same view as Baldwin and Hardinge saw as they collected their thoughts in-between, what would have been the most delicate of exchanges.

We broke into our seminar groups and were given the task of putting together a conceptual plan for our own production of The Winter's Tale. It kind of serves us right as this is exactly the same task as Tina and I set for the Creative Thinking module, last semester.

Inspired by the tour I decided to set my Sicillia here in 1936. With the country on the brink of a cataclysmic event. The rest of the production rolls out neatly from this point. The return of Perdita sixteen years later occurs in 1952, to a country still on rations, but about to celebrate a coronation and the optimism of a new Elizabethan age.

This precise time frame offers some other interesting ideas and images. Would the oracle be a crackling World Service broadcast or would it be a hastily arranged private cinema show a fuzzy pathe news report?

Would Time, who takes it upon himself  'To use my wings.' and asks us not to misunderstand his reason for jumping ahead with the action

'Impute it not a crime
To me or my swift passage, that I slide
O'er sixteen years and leave the growth untried'

be a shell shocked air man, unwilling to share his stories with us.

Bohemia seems to naturally translate to America in the early fifties. A land physically untouched by the war, but still bearing knowledge and scars. Was Time at Pearl Harbour?

The sheep shearing festival with all its connotations of rebirth, spring and new hope seems to work well if seen as the initial stirrings of a culture that will eventually invent the teenager, rock and roll, contraception, even civil rights and the space age.

Autolycus becomes a ballad offering, beat poet, hitting the road, looking as much for a new world as for purses to cut. In this version he is an avant-garde figure. The future, in the medium term, is his.

Camillo represents another form of poet. Like Auden he escapes the War, but pines for his homeland and driven by a 'desire to lay my bones there' begs Polixenes to allow him to return to Sicilla

There are lots of other nuances here that would have to be revealed in rehearsal. Who is Paulina? Who is Hermione? But I sense they would find themselves once we began to explore the text.

Just wish I had Time to actually do it...

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Forcing the Issue.

After breakfast we all set off across the Great Park to All Saint's Chapel adjoining the Royal Lodge.for Matins. The Lodge itself was the Queen Mother's residence for over fifty years and now belongs to Prince Andrew and his family. He's not had the best of weekends himself, with hugely damaging allegations about his private life splashed across all the papers, but you wouldn't know from the calmness with which the Estate is running. Cheerful policemen checking our passes, welcoming clergy, and friendly waves from members of the household driving their small gleaming cars up the drive on their way to work.

I'd half expected us to run into a barrage of paparazzi, but either they knew that Andrew, due back in the country from a skiing trip, was holing up elsewhere or the security ring began on the outskirts of the park and we were well within it's embrace.

The congregation was an intriguing mix of Cumberland Lodge guests and members of the royal staff. There was deference to rank and age, a couple of brimmed hatted ladies in waiting escorted to front row pews, cookers, cleaners, rangers and game keepers filled in with us. I sat next to a dapper kilted Scot, with perfectly slicked back grey hair. The pride he seemed to have in his position almost burst through his chest.

The service was short and sweet, beginning with a stirring singing of the National Anthem and supplemented by some perfectly pitched choral singing from the male choir, cherubs of all ages, squash nosed boys and plump ruddy angels.

We wandered back to the Lodge for more sessions. My afternoon was spent with Rowan Williams looking at some of the dilemmas that our initial discussions have raised. We began to look carefully at the ending, which works a little like a bonus track. In earlier work Shakespeare may well have been content to end the play with the reunion of Polixenes and Leontes, the reconciliation of Polixenes and Florizel and the recovery of Perdita, but he choses in 'The Winter's Tale' to simply report this. In the moment there is a sense of anti-climax here, the audience denied the reunion that the flight and chase from Bohemia had promised, but it soon becomes clear why as we move beyond the orthodoxy of the well made play and are led, with Leontes, by Paulina into her gallery.

The final scene is one of the most astonishing in the whole of Shakespeare and has to be played as if Hermione were simultaneously frozen statue and an accomplish in Paulina's elaborate therapeutic experiment. It's such a tender scene with Paulina coaching both Leontes and Hermione into an embrace, what happens next is left beyond the final curtain, but enough is revealed for the possibility of a reconciliation of sorts.

Before dinner Rowan delivered a fascinating lecture focusing on the idea of bringing something to issue. He pointed out that the play begins at a moment of high expectancy. Polixenes is leaving Sicilia, finally, after a nine month stay. Hermione's pregnancy is also in its final stage, but, instead of allowing time to bring these two events to their natural conclusion, Leontes, in pain and fear at what they may mean, forces the issue, tearing up his world before Polixenes can leave and his daughter can be born.

It's an empty defiance, an act of self destruction as much as anything else.The baby is born regardless, and his best friend flees.

There is a physical cycle to the play. It's Leontes disgust of a perceived physical intimacy between Hermione and Polixenes that drives the opening action of the play and it the physical reconnection between Leontes and Hermione - no words are exchanged - that ends the action, although even in his final speech Leontes is still trying to orchestrate the action match making Paulina and Camillo and asking each of the play's protagonists to 'answer his part' in the preceding action. He is seeking to creatively dramatise the action of the play back, but, this time in collaboration with his fellow players.

We touched briefly on the theme of hospitality. The play starts in generosity and the sheep shearing festival is clearly a bountiful celebration with the Shepherd scolding Perdita for not working hard enough as the hostess by comparing her day dreaming and dancing with the energetic and robust performance of his dead wife, who clearly kept everybody's glass topped up.

By the end of the play Leontes is, perhaps, ready to be hospitable again - or at least to try a mutual experience with others. It's this that makes love possible. The ability to place oneself in a position of vulnerability, a position where change and all the pain that comes with change is possible, fully knowing that you can't go back, but rather must bravely face the future, denying your own denial of connectedness and dependence. It's both a chilling and beautiful provocation.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Unspeakable Comfort.

We began our first full day the day on The Winter's Tale by watching Greg Doran's late nineties production RSC version with Tony Sher, Alexandra Galbaith and the brilliant Estelle Kohler as Paulina.

It's an amazingly fresh production given it's over a decade old, and despite a few problems - Mamillius is unreasonably sickly and wheelchair bound - made a clear fist of telling the story and unpicking the multitude of problems thrown up. It also featured our old friend Ian Hughes in high octane spirits as Autoclyus.

As with all Tony Sher performances the psychological research into his role gave us a naked portrait of the various stages of Leontes' breakdown and this really became the theme for the day, as our first study group, led by Sally, delved into the opening encounters.

When Gielgud played the role he couldn't find either moment or reason for Leontes to become jealous and so created a backstory which enabled him to be suspicious from his first entrance.

There are other clues and perhaps Leontes is less concerned about Hermione's perceived infidelity and more traumatised by the approaching departure of his true soul mate, Polixenes? This fear of separation is exacerbated by Hermione taking moments to convince the King of Bohemia to stay, when Leontes' himself failed so spectacularly.

 There is an awkward passage in the aftermath to this where Leontes' suggests this is the second time Hermione has 'said well.' Hermione, playing for the court, begs to know the first time and Leontes' reveals

'Why, that was when
Three crabbed months had soured themselves to death
Ere I could make thee open thy white hand
And clap thyself my love; then didst thou utter
'I am yours for ever.''

It strikes me that the time scale is important here. The ease with which Polixenes and Hermnone arrive at agreement feels complicit when compared with the 'three crabbed months' of Leontes' wooing.

Mamillius himself is a fascinating character. Leontes keeps looking at him as if he were a looking glass in these opening sequences, projecting himself onto his son, reminding himself of his desire to be 'boy eternal.' In the very first scene, before we're introduced to the play's main protagonists, the Sicillian Lord Camillo discusses Mamillius's national importance with his Bohemian counterpart Archidamus. Archidamus suggests that the young prince has given 'unspeakable comfort' to the people.

Leontes is at the height of his powers at the top of the play. He has a doting wife, an heir, security in power and has had his best friend on an extended royal visit. Perhaps the unspeakable part of all of this is his desire to destroy the perfection of this world? Perhaps his is a pre-emptive attack. to control a decline that is inevitable from this moment. In doing so he challenges the Gods, time and nature itself.

It's Paulina who will need to help him put things back together, but this won't happen onstage and it'll take sixteen years.

Friday, 2 January 2015

Thou Metest With Things Dying I With Things Newborn.

It's been a couple of year since I regularly blogged and so I've made a new year's resolution to try and get back into the habit. It was a useful exercise in trying to order my thoughts about Drama at St Mary's and certainly think helped to unify the huge amount of activity that goes on day to day for the students and staff here.

We're still incredibly busy - one of the reasons the blog fell by the way side a little, along with personal revolutions brought about by both birth and death, and my own appointment as Academic Director - but looking back now across the last two years it's clear that Drama St Mary's is in a strong place to face the future and it's probably interesting to begin the chart the next chapters.

We've developed a strategy to take us through to 2020 and increasingly are looking to focus our resources on actor training rather than academic study. Of course we want our students to be as sharp as pins and much of our curriculum looks in depth at learning how to problem solve, evaluate, analyse and take responsibility for the creative decisions you make, but we're also very much in the business of developing physical and vocal technique, offering students the opportunity to perform in a range of production and with a range of directors. From September of this year we're bringing on board a Technical Theatre BA to complement the training programmes.

Our MAs are also developing. The Physical Theatre degree has blossomed and is now regularly producing successful touring companies who have picked up a handful of awards at fringe festivals across the world from San Diego to Rome.

The MA Directing is being redeveloped in partnership with The Orange Tree Theatre, which will enable these students to train at the theatre itself. They'll also have their final performances showcased at the theatre in the Spring.

We're back to work fully next week - but before the day to day kicks in again my colleague Tina Bicat and I have taken ourselves for a couple of days retreat with a study group at Cumberland Lodge in Windsor Great Park to do some focused reading on 'The Winter's Tale.'

The retreat is being led by novelist Sally Vickers, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams and the eminent Shakespearians Stanley Wells and Paul Edmondson.

Tonight, after settling in, we had an introductory session from Stanley and Paul, who performed a great double act reminding us of the key themes and moments in the play.

We looked at Leontes' great rebuttal to Camillo where he spews rhetorical question after rhetorical question at his attendant Lord. It's a speech that always challenges actors. How in control is Leontes' here? Are the words coming from thought or are the thoughts racing ahead of the words? It's a destructive and flamboyant moment and it's hard to understand the sheer recklessness of his accusations.

There was comparison between this play and 'Othello', Shakespeare's other great tract on jealousy. Although there it's Iago's careful seeding that ensures the agony grows. Leontes' wrath, by contrast, is sudden and although he goes on to rehearse his feelings, firstly to his non understanding son Mamillius and then to Camillo himself.

There are a few mysteries in the play mostly around Paulina and her role in the resurrection of Hermione. Does Hermione die or is she squirrelled away into hiding for sixteen years? Is the statue real? Does it come to life? When does Paulina conceive her plan? Or is it simply Time that controls events? What has the relationship between the two women been in the interim sixteen years?

It's these and some of the other themes and moments that we're going to explore over the next couple of days.