Michael Billington’s criticism of the standard of Shakespearean acting and directing in British theatre is baffling. I recently attended a brilliant and innovative production at London’s Bridge Theatre of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with an audience of young and old alike.
Nicholas Hytner’s idea of using the stalls for promenading extended the performance space into the centre of the theatre and it clearly engaged the promenaders as well as the rest of us comfortably seated in the galleries.
In Shakespeare’s day when each of his plays was performed, the audiences wouldn’t have sat in silence, but would have engaged with the performers and often raucously. Spicing up productions for the 21st century is no bad thing.
I’m sure Shakespeare would approve.
At Shakespeare Schools Foundation, we’re proud that Judi Dench is our patron. She’s right: to appreciate Shakespeare you need the appetite. How do you give young people an appetite? We believe one of the best ways is to give them the opportunity to perform.
Our charity’s flagship project is Shakespeare Schools Festival. A primary school student who performed in our 2018 festival told us: “I used to think Shakespeare was scary but now I understand it. I enjoy making the audience laugh. It makes me feel good.”
Performing Shakespeare is transformational. It enables young people to think deeply and creatively. They grow in confidence, resilience and empathy. Students, and their teachers, tell us they do better in class and make new friends.
This autumn, 20,000 young people will perform Shakespeare on 118 UK stages. We work with young people from primary, secondary and special schools, as well as pupil referral units. Over a third of these schools are in the top 30% of the most deprived areas of the UK.
But we’re concerned many young people are missing out. A survey by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport found children’s engagement with theatre is shrinking. Funding cuts and a focus on core academic subjects mean the arts are being squeezed out.
We’d love for more young people to have the experience of performing Shakespeare.
Chief executive, Shakespeare Schools Foundation
Today’s actors seem to be good at conveying Shakespeare’s poetry. There is always the odd gimmicky production, but I haven’t come across the audience participation that offended Michael Billington. There were two exciting immersive productions at London’s Bridge theatre but they were hardly panto style.
David Benedict’s column seems typical of our (so-called) industry paper (‘Can we be more inventive than just adding ‘the musical’ to original titles?’, September 26, p7). The ignorance of reporters and critics is overwhelming and shows a lack of understanding about how to finance and market such shows that help keep so many actors, musicians, stage management and creative designers employed.
As I’m sure you appreciate. getting potential audiences to feel comfortable enough to get their plastic out in exchange for a ticket is no easy task. You will have heard of the phrase “it does what it says on the tin” and therefore to give clarity to our potential punter we make it as clear as we can that it is the musical not the film or DVD that is being shown at the theatre (which was a cinema many years ago).
It’s important and beneficial to the appeal of the show, especially when the brand is known across the globe, to make it clear as succinctly as possible that Big is a musical. In fact it’s a new musical because all three authors, John Weidman, Richard Maltby and David Shire, have been working with the director and choreographer Morgan Young to rewrite, edit and replace material since the Broadway version of 1996, and it has a British creative team that has taken the challenges that overwhelmed the show 23 years ago and made it better.
The show has been completely re-orchestrated by Stuart Morley – although experienced as a supervisor and musical director this is his first time as an orchestrator on a large musical – with 15 in the pit. Even the composer admitted the score sounded better than on Broadway.
The show was built for the West End and tested three years ago in Plymouth, directly followed by a five-week Christmas season in Dublin. It’s too big in its present form to tour.
What is sad to read in Benedict’s article is the omission of any acknowledgment of the quality of the production, which has sat neatly on the large, new Dominion stage – ironically responsible for its short eight-week run that initially was offered a run starting in July this year. So forgive me for not cutting back the budget or reducing the cast or orchestra size. I used every commercial trick in the book to assure the audience about what they may potentially spend their hard-earned cash on.
Forgive me for trying to maximise the box office over the eight weeks we were left to play, in what is traditionally a very difficult time of year (not least this year because of Brexit) and forgive my “lousy laziness” as Benedict calls it – for trying to sell as many tickets to benefit the children’s charity Make a Wish.
How can he refer to the production as a retread when everything about it is new, from its creative team to the writing and composition of its book and score? Maybe the laziness he refers to is in his lack of research and knowledge towards this West End premiere.
If musicals used to be based on books – which many were – that changed with the popularity of the cinema and film – and with it the need to distinguish what form that title or brand is being presented in.
Thank goodness you don’t rule the world, Mr Benedict, but if I did I’d make you produce a musical in the West End and then ask you to put your name once again to your cynical and ignorant article – I wonder if you would be so quick to take ownership.
“Journalists are always talking about my fucking hair! You’d never say that about a female director. When I was starting out, someone, who’s since become a very important person in the entertainment industry, said to me, ‘I think it would help you if you got your hair cut.’ I just don’t know why people give a fuck about it!” Almeida artistic director Rupert Goold (The Times)
“I am always drawn to understanding both how savage and how luminous we can be to one another as humans.” Director Yaël Farber (Evening Standard)
“I had a chat with a director in the Dorfman after Jellyfish one night, who could not believe I had gone to a state school and can ‘still write like that’. He said this to my face. He actually gasped. ‘You went to a state school?! And you can still write like that? Fuck me.’ ” Playwright Ben Weatherill (Twitter)
“Gosh there are a lot of ‘working class’ folk in theatre with a private school education.” Actors Touring Company artistic director Matthew Xia (Twitter)
“Live performance. Live audience. Real person. Person that I care about. Person who’s meant a lot to me and millions, through generations.” Renée Zellweger on the difference between playing Judy Garland for the film Judy and Roxie Hart in Chicago (Observer)
“I get annoyed with plays where they’re trying to get me to feel something. My favourite theatre experience is an experience where some people are laughing – and some are crying.” Playwright Clare Barron (Guardian)
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