Stratford-upon-Avon and an RSC workshop

On the third day of the LAMDA Shakespeare workshop we piled into a coach and headed to Stratford-upon-Avon for a three-day trip. The itinerary included three plays and an RSC workshop, so was a highlight of the course for many of us. Having never been to Stratford before or seen the RSC in action, I was pretty excited!

The first of the plays we saw was Twelfth Night – as I’m playing Viola in the SSA production of the play this coming autumn I relished the opportunity to see the pros show me how it’s done. However, it served more as a lesson of what to avoid. As part of the ‘Shipwreck Trilogy’, it had the same cast as The Tempest, which we saw the following day. Although the actress played a fitting Miranda, her Viola left me wanting more. The main issue was that everything was delivered on the same level of energy and, crucially, with no discernible difference between Viola and Cesario. This is something that often, I feel, gets overlooked, but I’m determined to get it nailed for my Viola. Easier said than done, I know!

The ridiculous height difference between the two actors playing the twins was perhaps my main beef with this production. In the text itself Sebastian says that: ‘it was said she much resembled me’, and at one point Antonio mistakes Viola, dressed as Cesario, for her brother, however with easily a foot between their heights there would be no way you could mix up this Viola and Sebastian, unless perhaps every other character in the play is going blind, but I’m pretty sure there’s no mention of that.

Despite these issues I did enjoy the performance, especially the raucous moment when Malvolio entered in bright yellow women’s stockings with black bows and suspenders, much to both the delight and horror of the audience. Another highlight was a foppish Aquecheek, channelling Hugh Grant, and playing a hilarious drunk and hapless conspirator. The set was another favourite – with a pool in one corner, a piano also serving as a bar in another, and a bed set onto a looming curved wall at the back, it beggars description here, but suffice to say that it had me wondering and asking questions from the moment I saw it.

This set was altered but retained several elements for The Tempest, including the dark wooden boards splintered here and there, obviously linking to the shipwreck, and also introduced new intriguing pieces such as a box which could go opaque or transparent, depending on the light shone through it. I think I enjoyed The Tempest the most out of the three plays we saw, perhaps partly because I wasn’t very familiar with the play so it was all new and fresh, but also in a big way due to a wonderful Ariel, played by Sandy Grierson. Haunting, inquisitive, beautiful, innocent and child-like, yet also quite creepy, he was just perfect. I could have watched him all day and never given a care for the other performances, and that’s not because they were bad, but he was just so much better. Of course, you can only work with what you’re given, and the character of Ariel holds so much possibility to play, whereas perhaps some of the others do not, but I do feel if any of the other actors had played Ariel it would not have been so magical or magnetic.

Richard III was a very different experience, and not one I was over-keen on. Although I found it very entertaining, several individual performances were rather weak, and Lady Anne had an unfortunate and rather chronic dribbling problem, which managed to gross out our entire group. The best of us spit occasionally when projecting, but this was running down to the floor in rivulets, leaving the poor lady with a modest puddle and a glistening chin. I didn’t envy my course mates sitting on the front row.

Aside from the plays, we took part in a workshop run by the education branch of the RSC, which I have to say was an absolute delight. Run by a charming older couple, the session explored rhythm, using a song, and clarity of speech, focusing on repetition exercises. Concentrating on The Tempest and Twelfth Night, we also delved into the themes and characters of the plays, working in two groups to create montages, but more on impulse rather than planning anything together. It was a real privilege for us to be able to learn from the experience and wisdom of these two lovely people.

Stratford itself completely charmed me in the brief time we were there. Sadly, what with doing the workshop, seeing the plays, and going on trips round Shakespeare’s birthplace, Anne Hathaway’s cottage and finally Warwick Castle on our way home, we didn’t have much time to explore the town itself. Pubs and cafes are themed on Shakespeare and his plays; in fact everywhere you look there is some subtle, or not so subtle, play on Shakespeare’s words. Down every street in the town centre I was delighted to find beautiful old buildings, black and white, crooked, leaning and totally magnificent. I’ve never been anywhere like that, where you can find this beautiful listed building, its timbers proudly on display, sitting on top of WH Smith. Warwick Castle was mightily impressive, and we soon discovered even three hours there wasn’t enough time to see everything!

The trip taking place in the first week was a brilliant idea on LAMDA’s part, as it allowed us to mix and mingle with everyone socially before we got down to the hard work. I also met loads of people not in my scene study group, in the lifts, over my scrambled eggs at breakfast, even dodging the puddles as we sprinted through the rain back to the hotel. Yes, predictably it did rain, but only on one day! The chance to see the RSC doing their thing was also fantastic, and a great learning opportunity. My only beef is the disappointment I felt at the quality, or lack thereof, of certain actors’ performances. As one caught in the magic of Shakespeare’s words, I expected the Royal Shakespeare Company to be the definitive example of how it’s done, but I was left feeling a little short-changed. But I’d sit through it all again just to see Sandy Grierson as Ariel – thank you for bringing this wonderful character to life and honouring the magic of Shakespeare.

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