Shakespeare London Excursion 2019 — Recap

This indenture made twixt 25th July and 2nd August 2019…

This year’s SLE saw a blend of gender-benders and gender-swaps, infused with immersive audience participation and some (not always) spot-on ad-libbing that fearlessly incorporated noisy passing-by trains into a romantic balcony scene. We also learnt to read the tide schedule and stepped onto the shores of the Thames River to dig out treasures of a different kind.

The theatrical experience

We started our theatrical journey with Iris Theatre’s Hamlet (Daniel Winder’s last production with Iris Theatre — we will certainly miss him!). This outdoor promenade production threw its audience into a modern version of England (rather than Denmark), with a political agenda of an unforgiving and cruel dictatorship. Hamlet, played by non-binary, transgender actor Jenet Le Lacheur, explored the meaning of power, life and death, but mostly of gender. And it is this exploration that dominates the production. While the rest of the court continuess to refer to Hamlet as male, Horatio embraces Hamlet’s female gender and refers to Hamlet as “My Lady.” This approach offered different readings of Hamlet’s internal struggle (“To be or not to be” offers new interpretation within gender-fluidity), yet it felt as if it wasn’t thought through to the end and added very little to the external struggle, the political and social conflicts. Other weaknesses were that the soliloquies felt oddly misplaced and rushed through, the question of Hamlet’s relationship with Ophelia, his mother, his father — all became less significant.

The next production took us to the Globe: Henry V, starring Sarah Amankwah as Henry. Her androgynous rendition of a fairly young and inexperienced king renders Henry’s war-driven and power-hungry action as plausible, yet the supposed fear that the French experience when the English army invades their country, could not be traced — the English King does not live up to this mightiness that the text calls for. This production, too, played with gender-bending elements, so the French princess, Katherine, is played by Colin Hurley, at least twice as old as Amankwah. While it takes the audience a few seconds to adjust to this bizarre moment, it actually works because one focuses more on facial expressions, gestures, body language — all of which gives meaning to the scene between Katherine and Henry. The swift scene changes that often brought equally swift costume changes with it (on stage!), due to the reduced cast number, were stunning and breath-taking.

From this we moved to the next Globe show, the Merry Wives of Windsor. This production intended to entertain, and they did indeed. Falstaff, played by Pearce Quigley, pulled all stops to keep the audience on his side. The setting and costumes neatly played along, all in all — a light-hearted, entertaining evening. Shame though that the buck-basket scenes weren’t played out to their full potential (as the Globe did in its previous productions).

We then moved indoors to for Midsummer Night’s Dream at Bridge Theatre, with a star cast and many enchanting and hilarious moments. This production swapped Titania’s and Oberon’s parts — it is thus Oberon who falls in love with the Ass, which gives Titania a more vicious and devious character. The double casting of Oberon/Theseus and Titania/Hippolyta worked well and added much to the production, it also had a nice side-effect to Theseus’ overruling Egeus in the woods when all four lovers are found after their intriguing night-out in the fairyland. Theseus, having flashbacks of Oberon’s affair with Bottom, rejects pre-arranged and forced marriage and advocates free choice of whomever you want to love. A plausible thought, yet: If Theseus/Oberon agrees that the “course of true love never has run smooth” and thus the lovers should be able to choose whomever they want as their partners, why then were the scenes between Oberon and Bottom in every detail of their affair overstereotyped and thus exposed to ridicule? All in all, the production was enchanting, lively and never dull — we were pushed around by the hosts (i.e. ushers) and made way for fairies and other lost characters in the woods. In the end we even joined in with the actors, dancing in the forest of Athens.

The final show was Romeo & Juliet by Open Bar Theatre. Neatly situated in a pub garden, this show’s four actors engaged their audience with this romantic tragedy. The audience was entertained, the scene changes swift and effective as always with Open Bar Theatre — but the question of whether a tragedy can work in this surrounding, in this atmosphere, with trains going by loudly and seemingly taking forever must be answered with a hesitant “not quite.” It worked well as long as everything in the play itself was light-hearted and all game, so the first half was simply brilliant. Yet when it turned dramatic, when corpses were strewn over the stage, the four actors struggled a bit to pay homage to the narrative. Nevertheless, an entertaining, lively and hilarious finale to the excursion!

Other treasures

Watching the plays and engaging in acting/directing workshops is only one side of the coin. To dive into 16th- and 17th-centuries daily life, we also retrace the original sites of the playhouses. For that, our participants transcribe the original documents that pertain to Shakespeare and his time, both at the National Archives and at Dulwich College. With all the clues, we embark on a treasure hunt, pinpointing early modern playhouses in 21st century London. No google maps!

This year, we also were able to look at the draft of Shakespeare’s request for a Coat of Arms.

And one highlight was marked by a special moment on the shores of the Thames river: mudlarking. Our focus was set on clay pipes, some even came prepared with the right booties — and clay pipes we did find!

As a summary, five thought-provoking shows, many fresh and inspiring ideas on how to bring Shakespeare into the classroom (and make it FUN!), lots of exposure to original material (and SHAKESPEARE’s SIGNATURE!), many good memories and many a clayed treasure to bring home. Thank you, SLE 2019 for making this another memorable trip — I am already looking forward to 2020.