RSC Open Stages – Hall for Cornwall (The Second Night)
The Jolly Lion returned to Hall for Cornwall for the second of two evenings of Shakespeare produced by amateur theatre companies. Across the two evenings nine of eleven invited groups performed twenty minute excerpts of productions they have staged in the last twelve months or will be performing in the coming weeks.
It fell to the Hood Players to open the evening, who had tidily tailored ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ to fit the twenty minutes allowed. They offered a lively Kate who was a joy to watch throw herself and be thrown around the stage. For those not wanting to get to caught up in the action, there was a suitably distracting seagull on a stick flying around the rear of the stage bothering the performers not taking part in scenes. The players reacted to the seagull splendidly, who had a starring moment as he/she swept in to steal the meat offered to Kate.
The Elysium Theatre Company brought something particularly special to the evening, being more than just an amateur company, as a collection of drama students from Exeter University showing what three years of training can do. In ‘The Wars of the Roses’ they delivered no fewer than eight of Shakespeare’s kings in varying forms. The music, song, movement and visuals were a cut above anything else on display over the two night showcase. It was polished, well executed and worthy, a showcase not of amateur theatre – as this is not material I would expect to see from the groups I tend to frequent – but of the talent the professional world can expect to receive soon enough.
I am a firm advocate of amateurs watching student theatre to learn more about performance, and this was a group of young adults dividing up the key roles and speeches between them so that no one performer stands out above the others. Most importantly, as someone at a Shakespeare showcase, I believe these were only the second group to tackle the histories (‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare’ had a lovely delivery of the St Crispin’s speech last night from Henry V) giving the greatest hits from ‘once more unto the breach dear friends…’ to ‘now is the winter of our discontent’. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in the audience who was cheering inside as each was ticked off the familiar speeches checklist. Great stuff.
From their May production at Fowey Town Hall, The Troy Players presented ‘Wyrd Sisters’, giving a performance that I could happily see being produced by every amateur company I know. It had everything from large costumes and make up, enormous characters, props recognisable from all of our store rooms and a delivery with humour and a real sense of fun.
I have a soft spot for any group who can dig out an adaptation of a Terry Pratchett novel and bring it to Open Stages as a Shakespeare theme, as the production was not out of place at all. It helped that their offering was a complete section of the story rather than a composite of scenes. The three witches were very funny, but it was the actor playing the actor playing death that stole it for me. This is a production I would like to have seen, and will be keeping an eye out for in the schedules of other groups.
As if to discredit everything I have to say about the divide between amateur and student theatre, the End of the Line Theatre Company managed to bring art to the table and bridge the gap between the two in ‘A Splash of Shakespeare’. There’s something lovely about the programme note, repeated in their spoken introduction, that the production was set to be performed at a location where water meets the sky so that the audience can see how Shakespeare’s characters work after being brought together by nature and the elements (a very awkward and inaccurate paraphrasing on my part – with apologies), but that, for whatever reason, they weren’t allowed to use the desired venue, but bring the work to the public as best they can. That sense of making the best of things when we can’t quite have the desired effect is a mainstay of the amateur stage.
Still, with just two black cubes on set, Lady Macbeth meets Hippolyta and they argue over Shakespeare and who is the more deserving of his attention. There’s something very dark in the thought of dead characters watching our performances, measuring their own importance by who plays them – the differences between getting Dame Judi Dench in a BBC Shakespeare or a schoolgirl in her bedroom recording the lines and sharing with the world on YouTube. Poor Hippolyta, a thankless part that often has her few good lines cut from productions, is only too aware of her standing, but seems to have accepted her lot and quite rightly stands up for the characters in the background of plays.
Hippolyta is a voice for any who have had the sword carrier number three role, reminding those with the larger parts that without the minor characters they would not be so big, whilst Shakespeare is clearly torn between both ladies, having a love for all of his characters.
This is taken a stage further when Juliet takes a fancy to Hamlet, much to the annoyance of Romeo and Ophelia. As dead characters they complain that she made her choice and must spend her afterlife with Romeo. In the argument they fail to see how human they have become, leading Juliet to kill Romeo with Hamlet’s sword, Romeo now properly dead. It’s all very black and white, with a lovely performance which has more to say about life and Shakespeare than the material I would expect to see on the amateur stage.
The Open Stages was closed by SPACE, the Hall for Cornwall’s adult theatre group. They played ‘ A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ at the Keay Theatre St Austell in May this year and they were the real highlight of the night. They brought a straightforward section of the play, from the mechanicals finding Bottom with the head of an ass, through to the end of the lover’s argument.
They had set the production in the world of 1920s movieland, covering the stage with film and making use of a projected film. There was energy, there was youth, there were stunning visuals and there was an awful lot of comedy. Anyone would think that they starting by sitting down with the script and decided how to get a laugh from every line. If you’ve got your audience laughing at a Shakespeare comedy, you must be doing something right and this was the one performance of the night where it seemed the whole audience were united in their appreciation.
Each character was so very well drawn and again, everyone had plenty to do. Puck had so much material the part was split between two actors, presenting different facets of the same character. The stage was busy with activity, you could look anywhere and see somebody’s story being told. As fairies threw lovers around the stage and controlled their every action, it was thrilling and it looked like a lot of fun to be a part of. This was the production I would pay good money to see.
Across the two nights Ian Wainwright of the RSC opened by talking about the vast numbers of us out there involved in amateur theatre (they reckon there’s a million of us) and Open Stages being a two way experience of learning for the amateur and professional worlds. These two nights showed the variety of groups that exist around the South West and I wish whichever group heads to Stratford every success in their performance.
Look out for ‘A Splash of Shakespeare’ at the Acorn Theatre, Penzance in November 2012.
The Elysium Theatre Company will be performing at Buckland Abbey on 11 and 12 August 2012.
Read the Jolly Lion’s thought’s on the first night of RSC Open Stages.