An historical festival and an interesting question

Not books this time, rather; theatre. We go to the theatre a fair bit and not least because we live in reasonably close proximity to Stratford-upon-Avon. The RSC which is based there provide a veritable cornucopia of treats and some of which are not Shakespeare. In late 2013 / early 2014 they delivered dramatisations of Hilary Mantel’s Booker prize winning novels: “Wolf Hall” and “Bring up the Bodies”. At the time the tickets were released I could not commit to spending another £160 on theatre tickets and I had to leave it. By the time I felt confident enough to go looking for tickets, the plays were sold out. I was therefore ecstatic when I was informed that it would be transferring to the London stage at the Aldwych theatre. Having RSC membership proved extremely useful as I was able to book tickets prior to them going on general sale. Rather bizarrely I booked the tickets after returning home from a visit to another theatre. I was also able to secure tickets for both plays on the same day, making it possible to achieve a showing of both plays on a single trip to London. It would have been considerably cheaper had I sorted tickets for Stratford but it was still very worthwhile

I have not read the books and knew very little of the history of this period. My wife is extremely knowledgeable in this respect and had read “Wolf Hall”.

First of all I have to congratulate the RSC, Hilary Mantel, Mike Poulton and Jeremy Herrin for delivering a gripping, understandable and engaging production. At no point did I feel ‘lost’. This was due, in part to the modern language used. This made it possible to follow the play in much the same way one would follow any TV or film production. The direction was superlative and the clever scene changes made the play flow smoothly and allowed every moment to be used for furthering the plot. Having characters merely move to another corner of the stage whilst others exit and more move on from other doors, made the ‘scene reset’ seamless. A new location was merely told by who was on the stage and how it was lit. I know this is very much the current paradigm for the RSC but here it seemed to have reached a new pinnacle. 

For instance, determining we are in a boat in the middle of the Thames by arranging the actors in a pattern and having them move back and forth gently displays pure innovation. I knew exactly what they were doing without complex props and backgrounds. There were so many aspects of the direction that were a joy to behold that I could go on forever but I have a question and this is almost the only reason for me writing this ‘review’.

After the plays we met with a fellow theatre-goer who attends up to 4 plays per week. During our discussion of the play I happened to mention that I was particularly impressed with the scene where Lady Worcester reveals the secrets of the court to Cromwell in a series of flashbacks and recollections. On stage this was elaborated by the playing out of the recollections in the foreground, whilst Cromwell and Lady Worcester were still on stage. This “scene in scene” seemed so novel to me, that I declared it quite unparalleled. Our friend stated that this happens in Shakespeare quite a lot. At the time I let it pass and thought I might like to find out where and when this occurs. If anyone has any idea I would be most grateful. I’m thoroughly aware that Shakespeare has plays within plays (Hamlet, Midsummer nights dream etc), but this type of ‘flashback’ does not seem to have crossed my nose when watching other RSC productions…

The actors in this production delivered their performances to the full. Nathaniel Parker was a thoroughly believable Henry VIII and Ben Miles can’t have been off stage for more than a few mins in the whole 6 hours we were there. There were no weak links but the portrayal of Jane Seymour seemed a little too caricatured and that is only a minor criticism in what was a superlative pair of productions.

Another minor point was the cultural clash between the stark and angular stage set and the interior of the Aldwych and I can only regret not having seen these productions on the Swan stage in which the set would have seemed less awkward. Given the differing dimensions of the two stages I also wonder how many changes were required to make the production work, surely a massive challenge for the director?

Another very small peeve was the fact that a programme is £4 at Stratford but the same programme design delivered in London is a swingeing £6 and NO member discount!

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