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A SHAKEY PRODUCTION

15-03-2007

When Laurence Inman was a schoolboy, “it was the love that dared not speak it's name.” Not unless you wanted a blazers down “scrap, scrap, scrap” with the cock of the playground. Now, at last, he can confess everything.

I've always loved Shakespeare.

Even when it was dangerous to say so, like at school.

Mind you, I went to a rough, tough boys' school, where if you said you ‘loved' anything, even if it was Ansells Bitter, Woodbines, fighting and throwing people's satchels onto a passing No 18 bus, you would be forever after regarded with furtive suspicion.

I loved the stories, the compression and beauty of the language, the subtlety, the passion and the sheer grandeur of it all. Throughout my mid to late teens, the time of life when most of us see ourselves as the central figure of a romantic tragedy, I used his plays as a fantastic, fertile other-country, to which I could escape whenever I felt like it. And, most important of all, it was free. (Well, once you'd parted with the capital outlay for your Collected Works.)

But there comes a time when playing them through in your head is no longer enough. You have to see a performance.

I was lucky. The very first Shakespeare I ever saw on stage was Hamlet with David Warner, at Stratford in 1966. I wasn't present at one of those famous nights when members of the audience answered his questions and Warner spoke back to them using Hamlet's words, but the performance I saw was still brilliant and I've never forgotten it, even though it's not really one of my favourite plays. I realised then that one of the keys to a successful production is establishing a sort of complicity with the audience, even if it is unspoken.

Last Saturday I watched a play for the last time in the old theatre before it closes for a complete refit. It was Coriolanus.

As a professional actor, I am not going to criticise my fellow-practitioners. They brought all their years of training and experience, and their wealth of accumulated talent, to bear on the task in hand and I gave them a good sturdy clap at the end.

But in reality it gave me only two moments of real satisfaction.

One was when someone dried, lost ten important lines and I was able to congratulate myself that I had noticed and even knew some of the text which we hadn't heard. Nothing beats the smugness you feel when that happens.

The other was the fact that one of the other people we go with, Brian, had forgotten to bring his Dummy's Guide to Shakespeare with him. He doesn't read it; he just sits there with it on his lap. He does it to annoy me. I'm going to start booking his seat six rows behind the rest of us. I doubt he'll notice, because as soon as he sits down he falls asleep.

There were none of those lovely moments of audience-complicity which we'd enjoyed in the brilliant version of Much Ado About Nothing at The Swan last year. I think there are two reasons for this.

First, Coriolanus is not a great, or even a particularly interesting play. It has only one plot. It seems mostly to consist of one enormous speech after another. There's no subtlety in it. The previous performance I'd seen, with Greg Hick, was more spectacular, but only because he was decked out like a Samurai warrior and spent most of the play drenched in blood.

The fact is that Shakespeare is only the best writer who's ever lived if you pick the right plays. Of the thirty-eight he wrote or had a hand in, you might pick ten to support the claim that he's the greatest. But if you picked another ten, the wrong ten, and they had been the only ten to have survived, he would cut a very mediocre figure in literary history.

It's worth remembering that he is mentioned only as a poet on his gravestone in Holy Trinity Church, and that it was well into the 18th century before he was even considered for the Number One spot.

The second reason, of course, is that theatre. Opened in 1932 by the Prince of Wales (the one who later chucked his job in and who couldn't even stay for the second half of the very first performance) it is an ideal auditorium for the style of acting which people associated with Shakespeare in around 1880. That's where actors flail about a lot and shout their speeches to the back of the gods.

Which is exactly what was happening last Saturday. Nobody talked to the person who was supposed to be listening. They seemed to queue up to deliver a separate, self-contained rant, then drift upstage until it was their turn again.

We can't be doing with this now. TV and film enables actors to do things quietly, to concentrate on acting and not bellowing.

Let's hope the new theatre will allow this. In the meantime, I'm looking forward to Ian McKellen in King Lear at The Courtyard.

Check out Paula Elenor's review of Coriolanus here. And if you want to add a comment, got to the Musicy, Arty bit of our messageboard.

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