A friend rang me a few days ago. “I bet you’re excited about BBC4 tonight,” he said. “It’s a real Shakespeare night!”
“No,” I said. “I’m not.”
He was shocked. How could I not be excited? After all, there’s been a real lack of Shakespearean productions in the NE since the pandemic and not exactly a surfeit before, but I’ve feasted on Shakespeare whenever I could.
I’ve seen the RSC and the English Shakespeare Company (I even created a website for the ESC); I’ve seen Ian McKellen in Romeo and Juliet in Newcastle; I helped with PR for the RSC’s visit to Sunderland Empire with Alan Howard in Coriolanus (1997, long before the Newcastle residency); I’ve seen open-air productions and productions in theatres; I’ve followed a production of Macbeth around the streets of Edinburgh and, also, in Edinburgh, watched and enjoyed a production of Richard III in a romper suit on a bouncy castle and a production of Titus Andronicus played entirely in nude suits!
Both of these rather strange productions were by Malachi Bogdanov (whose father started the ESC with Michael Pennington), and I remember seeing him as I emerged into the Pleasance Courtyard after the Richard III, and with my jaw still scraping the ground, asked, “What the f*** are you playing at, Mal?” He just laughed and said, “Think about it!” I did, and I realised why he’d done it – and then I realised that I really liked it!
(Richard III is really melodramatic. Look at it that way.)
His pièce de résistance was probably his 2003 fringe production Bill Shakespeare’s Italian Job, in which he told the story of the Michael Caine film The Italian Job through Shakespeare’s words. I can tell you, it was a lot funnier than either the film or any of Shakespeare’s plays!
I’ve acted in a number of Shakespearean productions in this country and abroad; I’ve been house manager for open-air productions; I’ve directed site-specific productions and I’ve devised and directed touring shows of themed extracts.
I actually first fell in love with Shakespeare at the age of 14 when a teacher took a group of members of the school drama club to see a student production of Macbeth in the courtyard of Durham Castle. About a year later the same teacher introduced me to The People’s in Newcastle where I had a small (but speaking!) part in Julius Caesar (Young Cato) and then cast me as Mark Antony in our school production when I was 17.
So I have lived with and loved Shakespeare for 64 years. So why was I not excited about seeing a production from the RSC on television?
For the same reason that my friend, who is an artist and an art historian, would much rather look at an actual Turner (his favourite painter) picture than a photograph of that picture. If the production had been conceived as a film and was not a recording of the stage production, I would have felt differently.
But even that is a not very good substitute for sitting in a theatre watching a play where you experience so much more: the ambience of the theatre itself; seeing, both above the stage and front of house, the lighting bars and their lamps; being aware of the mechanics of the theatres such as the changing of the scenery by flying or any other way; the living and breathing presence of others around you; that indefinable but very real contact between the individual in the audience and the actors on stage; the sense of occasion, of being part of something; the atmosphere in the interval, whether in the auditorium or the bar; the buzz of conversation and comment both in the interval and at the end.
The very travel to and from the theatre is part of the experience, of the pleasure.
Many years ago I travelled into the depths of the North Riding, staying overnight, to see a play based on the work of Jake Thackeray, of whom I was a fan) and I loved it. Later the producers sent me a professional video recording which had been made on the night I was there – and I was so disappointed! I showed it to some friends who were equally committed Thackeray and theatre fans. Their reaction?
“Well, it’s OK, but from what you said I expected a lot more.”
That’s it. Video recordings of stage shows always disappoint because everything else that comes from being there at a live show, in a theatre or out of doors, is missing and the whole experience is diminished.
And that is why I didn’t bother to watch that BBC4 night of Shakespeare.