First Rehearsal of ATC’s new show The Golden Dragon

This Monday was the first day of rehearsals for Roland Schimmelpfennig’s The Golden Dragon.  After a busy meet and greet and read-through of the play, Ramin (Gray), our director, introduced a special guest to the company: Zenghui Qui.  Zenghui is a professional musician who specialises traditional Chinese music, and bought into the rehearsal a veritable coterie of different instruments for the company to play with.  She seemed a dab-hand at everything she demonstrated: from the gorgeous clay ocarina-like ‘Xun’ to the more familiar Chinese flute. 

The company’s hushed appreciation of Zenghui’s calm, masterful playing was soon broken by loud crashes and general uproar from the cast, each trying to copy what she’d shown (see some brilliant footage of them here).  What was great about this, and what was perhaps purposefully intended by Ramin in this session, was how the company became affected by this demonstration.  As the cast tried to imitate the sounds Zenghui produced, and were confronted by the technical difficulty, everyone instinctively switched back into techniques of playing from their own backgrounds, creating a tangible and at times amusing, cultural clash.  Internalised cultural behaviours we do not notice on a daily basis were suddenly exposed.  Kathryn (O’Reilly) picked up the flute and managed some gorgeous sounds, but sounded and looked more like she was playing the recorder.  She looked so concentrated but a bit ill-at-ease as she strained to find the perfect pitch and timbre.  Give them a little time I think they’ll all sound superb! 

But it was this feeling of slight cultural embarrassment which made the afternoon a perfect way of starting rehearsals.  Ideas of cultural inclusivity and identity strike at the heart of The Golden Dragon.  The five actors do not just play a single role in the production, but a series of different characters with different genders, ethnicities and widely different ages.  Ann (Firbank), royalty of ATC having appeared in a wide range of productions before this one, has the unimaginable task of playing “The Granddaughter, Asian Woman, The Ant and The Shopkeeper”!  The play constantly confronts expectations of identity and sense of self: how far are cultural or differences of age insurmountable?  Are there areas of experience which will inevitably create understanding between even the most unlikely of people?  How far is personal identity fixed in the first place?

The eponymous restaurant itself is continually called a ‘Thai/Chinese/Vietnamese fast food’ joint in the script, like the characters in the play is never pinned to one coherent identity.  I am really looking forward to seeing how things progress (and whether the Chinese instruments will become a feature of the performance – I certainly hope so).  Whatever, I wish the cast good luck on the venture and look forward to following them!

Richard III at The Tower of London

I had the opportunity on Saturday 2nd April to see Love and Madness’s production of Richard III at the Tower of London.  This show has already been successfully mounted at the (now sadly ex-ACE funded) Riverside Studios, but after negotiations with the tower, the company was given the right to perform in one of the tower’s large halls in the heart of its premises.

The walk up to the location was perhaps one of the best ‘avant-theatre’ experiences I’ve ever had: the setting sun cast long shadows, making the Spring daffodils look beautiful, and the eerily empty cobbled paths echoed our footsteps as we negotiated our way to the play’s location.  I’d never been to the tower before and way completely amazed by the sheer size and number of buildings within the tower’s outer walls. 

But walking up, I wondered how this production would use these amazing surroundings to its benefit, especially seeing as the whole show had not been designed and constructed with this location in mind.  How would they use this history and space to inform the production?

There were some basic problems which kept coming back to me.  Ask any Shakespeare scholar about the historical accuracy of Richard III and they will laugh at you.  Richard III, written around 1592, almost a century after it Richard’s reign, is shot through with Elizabethan myth-making about the glory of the Tudor dynasty, and their grand work setting England at peace after the civil wars.  Richard III’s characterisation is brilliantly malevolent and wonderfully demonised: Shakespeare’s scene depicting Richard’s wooing of Lady Anne over her dead husband’s body, who he readily admits to have murdered, is an unforgettably sinister scene but completely invented by Shakespeare (this scene does not appear in any of Shakespeare’s sources).  The play can be fascinating if you was to explain Elizabethan ideology and late-C16th fascination with the Wars of the Roses, but does not help provide an historical analysis of the real Richard III. 

Surely setting Richard III in the tower is like playing the Merchant of Venice in the C16th Venetian Ghetto in Venice (see the recent film starring Joseph Fiennes) , or Romeo and Juliet in Verona (where the tourist board have delightfully found a balcony of the mediaeval home of the Cappello’s and decided to licence it for wedding ceremonies!)

These plays were written for Early Modern theatres for which the idea of a ‘historically accurate’ production was as yet an alien concept.  From the little source material we have, it seems that historical period and setting was created by specially placed props and parts of costume to signify period: see the gorgeous Peacham drawing of Titus Andronicus to the left from the period.  If this is a depiction of an actual scene then Titus’s Romanness (he’s the one third from the left) is shown by a small toga draped over his very Elizabethan armour.  Tamara, Queen of the Goths, also has Elizabethan dress but with her hair worn down, probably indicating her goth-like otherness.

So setting Richard III in the tower, and the implication that this will give the production new level of historical authenticity, seems flawed.  But entering the room where the production was to be set, it was clear that historical authenticity was neither claimed nor actively sought by the company.  The production was set in modern dress and in the round, with a small cast of actors doubling many of the roles both of the York and Lancastrian tribes.  The production culminated in the final battle where the cast essentially had to fight themselves: a brilliant metaphor for civil war, but not played with enough candour to stop some smirks from some parts of the audience.  The only obvious use of the location was when the tower was mentioned in the dialogue the actors pointed towards the main part of the tower through one of the windows.  The players ran around the space, spoke soliloquies from behind the rows of seating, and created an intimate feel to the proceedings of the story. 

Simply put, Love and Madness’s Richard III was set at the present moment, at the present location of the tower’s history, in amongst its modern fixtures, its mock-antique roof beams and its helpfully placed metal place tags at locations throughout the site.  During the interval the audience were moved to the tower’s cafe, where chocolate kings and queens of England and ye olde ale could be purchased.  The audience were not shielded from the fact that history has been commoditised in some parts of the tower, just as in any modern ‘historically connected’ tourist site. 

My experience of the event was that the production bought a lively and enjoyable text to life, which consciously mixed a modern design, an early-modern script and staging techniques which are timeless in their ability to create effects of intimacy.  Rather than faux-historical reconstruction, we were treated to something more interesting: the stage space, and the empty tower itself, became for me a place of imagination and freedom.  It became a place of the now.

[Thinking about history and site fits in nicely with my research aims: how does the site of a theatre create a sense of place?  How are classical plays successfully reinterpreted or explored in the contemporary world? In actual fact, Royal Holloway’s Department of Drama and Theatre (and their excellent Theatre History Group) has a planned conference in June 2012 which will include papers about staging theatre in historical settings.  Part of their ‘What Signifies a Theatre?’ research.  I think I’ll  go along and take a look!]

Cultures of Spectatorship

The header picture for my blog is taken from Renoir’s La Loge (The Theatre Box), painted in 1874.  I love it because it encapsulates in one image what my PhD research is about: that the behaviours of theatre audiences can be as fascinating as what is going on on stage.

In the painting, a well dressed couple sit in their box.  The lady expectantly looks out towards the stage space, while her partner’s gaze if fixed more resolutely elsewhere, somewhere up in the higher reaches of the auditorium.  He leans back into the shadows of the box and points his black binoculars up towards the back of the theatre.

The theatre industry dominated Parisian culture towards the turn of the century.  This boom was due in part to the rapidly-growing middle class: these newly-wealthy citizens now had the capital to hire out theatre boxes, where before only those from high society had resided.  People were as eager to be seen at the theatre – and by this, to be seen to have the disposable income to do so – as much to see the art on the stage.   (It was not until just after the turn of the new century that the work on the Parisian stage, particularly with Diaghilev’s visiting Ballets Russes company, demanded a different kind of attention from the watchers).

But the painting’s complex interplay of gazes also suggests something more intricate is going on.  Although the lady is in the forefront of the painting, the viewer’s eyes are drawn to the man’s movement behind.  The man’s strained movement looks inappropriate and strangely strained against the relaxed finery of his surroundings.  Is he viewing other citizens attending the theatre, or looking at something illicit and even more eye-catching?  He is clearly looking the ‘wrong’ way; we can only guess at what.

And here is the brilliance of the painting: Renoir manipulates the viewer of the painting into repeating what the man is doing, staring at the edges of the artwork rather than focusing on what seems to be the main subject.  The viewer is implicated in the man’s act.

Through this blog I hope to keep a regular journal of contemporary theatre productions I watch, and other thoughts on subject I feel relevant to my research.  I want to know what engages an audience, how you can measure audience reactions and how the interaction between audience and stageplay/space can work.  Working as part of the theatre company ATC I will be focusing on ATC’s productions as my position gives me a great insight into the development of their work, but I also want to see how this specific experience informs my research into wider London theatre.  And (funding pending) theatre of the wider UK and beyond …