Shakespeare in the sunshine – The Taming of the Shrew

What wonderful weather we’ve been having! Perfect for a spot of Shakespeare in the sunshine. It’s that time of year again when the Globe Theatre on tour visits Portsmouth to put on a show in the City Museum Gardens, in association with our very own New Theatre Royal. As usual, they didn’t disappoint…

Enjoying Shakespeare in the sun

An all-female cast seemed an interesting and ironic choice for a play whose patriarchal tones often challenge a modern audience. I have always struggled with this play. Brilliantly written and highly entertaining, it is nonetheless the story of a woman’s submission to her husband. I’ve never known quite how to take Katherina’s speech where she submits to Petruchio. Is she playing a game, or is it truly how she feels?

Using an all-female cast gave the performance an extra edge – seeing Petruchio beating down Katherina’s resolve when played by a man, it is easy to feel angry at him, and associate this anger with the fact that he is a man, the historical oppressor of women. But when Petruchio is played by a woman, this raises the notion that the abuse Katherina suffers could be inflicted as easily by a woman as by a man. It had an almost cannibalistic feel, the woman turning on her own kind.

However, one wonderful element to this production was the fact that you completely forgot these were women playing men. A brilliant and beautiful Leah Whitaker strode around with an air of arrogance as Petruchio, and it wasn’t long before you simply forgot she wasn’t a man, striking looks aside. Right from her first strut onto the stage, all long leather coat and clompy boots, she fostered an essence of testosterone and masculinity that I’m sure one would be hard pressed to find if they met her out of character.

Strong performances all round

A particularly memorable Kathryn Hunt gave a strong performance as Baptista Minola, perfectly capturing the intricate mix of self-assuredness and growing confusion and exasperation he feels towards his situation as father of such an unruly daughter. She was equally brilliant, and charmingly hilarious, as Grumio, and at all times seemed to have a wonderful command of Shakespeare’s language. Not one utterance seemed strained or unnatural.

Joy Richardson also played a male part convincingly and with admirable gusto. Her Gremio seemed to at times creep and others skip across the stage – an excellent use of the body to convey character and emotion.

The infamous speech where Katherina submits to Petruchio’s rule over her had the audience silent and transfixed. Not an eye wandered from the outstanding Kate Lamb, as silent tears rolled down her Katherina’s face. You felt drawn into her performance, into her resignation, and I felt tears on my own cheeks responding to hers.

Last summer I had the pleasure of seeing The Taming of the Shrew at the Globe Theatre, and the Katherina there, played by Samantha Spiro, was much more feisty, rather than simply angry. This was something I missed in Lamb’s performance, but as the play went on I realised this was a more sensitive performance. Both Katherinas were equally valid interpretations, and both brought something to the part that made it enjoyable for the audience to watch.

A perfect Saturday afternoon

There wasn’t a weak link in this performance – staging was excellent, costume was fitting and diverse, helping to build on each character’s traits in subtle, or in Petruchio’s case, not so subtle, ways. As is the company’s custom, most of the actors played several parts, and a range of dialects were excellently employed to easily define one character from another.

Live music and songs with the odd bit of dancing added an element of fun to the whole thing, and put a smile on the sea of faces sitting in the sun watching.

Diction was clear and the storytelling coherent to the point that my boyfriend, who has sat through many a Shakespeare performance for my benefit, said he understood the whole thing perfectly, and it was in fact the most enjoyable Shakespeare performance he’s ever been to. Kudos to director Joe Murphy for pulling together such an amazing performance from a wonderfully talented cast.

The weather was perfect, the company excellent and the performance a delight. If only every Saturday afternoon could be spent this way!

Rite of Spring signals theatre’s rebirth

As the Rite of Spring reaches its centenary, what better piece to mark the rebirth of a theatre than one so rich with regeneration and the creative power of spring.

Rite of Spring rehearsals

Rite of Spring rehearsals

Choreographers across the country are reviving the ballet that caused such controversy with its first performance in 1913, and which some say still holds the power to shock and unnerve. One performance, in a cosy Portsmouth theatre last week, was particularly significant.

Over 100 young musicians and 40 local dancers brought this infamous piece to life. It is perhaps fitting that these were the final notes to fill the auditorium of the New Theatre Royal before it closed its doors for redevelopment. It will reopen in 2014 as a theatre reborn. Just as spring finally comes after the long winter, so the day has finally come, after 40 years of tireless work, when the regeneration of the theatre can finally begin.

Caroline Sharman, Director of New Theatre Royal, says: “the symbolism couldn’t be more apt.”

“To mark the centenary of the composition that totally challenged the music conventions of 1913 and is so rich with expressions of rebirth and regeneration chimes perfectly with our own story of rebirth.”

Construction work began this month as part of a £12 million joint project between the theatre and the University of Portsmouth to restore the backstage area and stage house, increase seating numbers and add much-needed workshop and office space. The theatre currently uses a temporary thrust stage after the original stage, orchestra pit and backstage area were completely destroyed in a fire in 1972.

The rebuild is also set to include a new Creative Learning Space where film, television and drama students from the university can train and perform, and where new practitioners and companies can develop and show their work in a cultural hub at the heart of the city.

Collaboration is key

Last week’s performance of the Rite of Spring was a truly collaborative project, involving the Hampshire County Council’s Music Service, local schools, community dancers and the Hampshire County Youth Orchestra, with the assistance of players from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.

Caroline highlights the importance of creative collaborations like this: “It is only through collaboration that great art can be created and will be sustained. Our collaboration with the University of Portsmouth is enabling us to rethink and restore our theatre, and our partnership with Hampshire County Council’s Music Service enabled a 100-piece youth orchestra and 40 dancers to create such a great event together.”

“Partnerships, in my view, only work if both sides really want it and are prepared to work at it as much as each other. Saturday’s performance was testament to this collaboration’s success.”

Conducted by Carl Clausen, over 100 members of the Hampshire County Youth Orchestra performed the classic score live. A company of local dancers, choreographed by Jamie Roberts of Jam Jar Dance and Donna Bish, brought to life the story of an ancient society deciding which maiden to offer as sacrifice to the gods. The dancers, aged from early teens to mid seventies, came from local schools as well as community dance groups, including the Misspent Youth dance company, Fred and Ginger group, and the Aging Disgracefully dance group.

Students from two local schools worked with Fraser Trainer, an internationally renowned composer whose work has been performed at the BBC Proms, to produce music inspired by Stravinsky’s original score, which they performed on the night. A University of Portsmouth student production team, fondly referred to as ‘Laura’s Angels’, was involved in the costume design and stage management of the project, and also included the assistant creative producer and assistant choreographer.

A shared experience

Lead choreographer Jamie Roberts, of Jam Jar Dance, was keen to involve the local community in the project. “We decided to use community-based artists to make up our cast. Working with school and colleges as well as dance artists and over 50s was imperative to the success of our ‘Rite’. The collaboration between these groups leads to a wider bank of experiences on which to draw in the choreographic process. Using a range of people with a selection of ages provides them with a shared experience that helps bring the community together.”

Jill Larner, Head of Hampshire County Council’s Music Service, can see the benefits for the young people involved, of the different artistic disciplines working together. “It’s rare for the instrumentalists in the orchestra to have dancers there,” she says. “Suddenly the music isn’t just music, it’s being performed in the way it was meant, and the audience has a visual stimulus as well as the sound of the music itself. The dancers added a new dimension for our young musicians, and enabled them to experience the excitement of a different outlook on the music.”

“Equally, most of the dancers are probably used to dancing to a recorded track, so to perform to live music created by a 100-strong orchestra was hopefully a great new experience for them too.”

Looking to the future

So with the final performance of the season over and the doors firmly closed until next year, are the theatre staff confident of this being a success story, where so many regional theatres have failed?

Caroline is mindful of the challenges they face, but optimistic. “I still have much to do to embed our partners into our future plans so as to ensure the theatre’s sustainability. My challenge now is to find the balance between making and touring great shows to attract new audiences, providing a space to experiment as we nurture artistic talent of all ages and, importantly, providing excellent skills development opportunities for our local community. A tall order, but we certainly have the ideal place to offer it and some excellent partnerships already in place, so I feel optimistic too.”

Following on from its sell-out performance at New Theatre Royal on Saturday April 20, the Rite of Spring was performed at Anvil Arts, Basingstoke on Saturday April 27.