Shakespeare in Cambridge, Lent Term 2001

Michael Grosvenor Myer

Myer, Michael Grosvenor. "Shakespeare in Cambridge, Lent Term 2001." Early Modern Literary Studies 7.1/Special Issue 8 (May, 2001): 20.1-3 <URL:>.

  1. Passing over a peculiarly uninspired and inept Twelfth Night by a company of supposed professionals which had me creeping out of the ADC in the middle of I.iii, and a well thought of Tempest which the fogs and frosts of January sadly kept me away from, we started the Lent Term with a Pericles. Now, you don't get many of them; I only remember one other in the almost 50 years I've been going to plays in Cambridge. So I hoped for a good one. And got it: the best sort of undergraduate theatre, where intelligence and sincerity, together with a blessed ability to speak the verse to communicate full comprehension of every single word which a lot of professionals might envy (Duncan Thomas, for instance, bringing life to the not all that promising part of Cleon by the purity of his verse speaking), overcame any slight deficiencies of technique - and indeed these were but few. The somewhat intransigent Playroom studio space was creatively used, and there was not a dud performance in a lively, fast rendering: a genuine two-hour passage (including an interval, which the original Globe R&J wouldn't have had). It was a clever idea to replace Gower's plodding chorus by a trio of pretty young women who doubled (trebled?) as various sailors, whores, pirates or whatever as occasion demanded. The problem of some of the romantic absurdities was overcome by not being afraid to play them for laughs (Ben Jewell's witty Simonides and Adam Seddon's straying but brought-back-to-princely-virtue Lysimachus were particularly effective); while retaining the poignancy of moments like Robert Donnelly's Pericles' lament over his supposedly dead wife"s 'terrible childbed', or the subtle, wordless smiles-and-tears of Joanna Hickman's sad Thaisa's reunion with her lost daughter, the forcefully, and for once convincingly, virtuous Marina of Camilla Cope. Chloe Nankivell's Dionyza was a beautiful but wicked queen worthy of Snow White. The tableau which replaced the final chorus, of her and her weak husband tormented by devils in hell, formed a fitting climax to an inventive and pacy production which proclaimed Rebecca Mills a young director to keep a careful eye on.

  2. The Lent Term means the Marlowe Society at the Arts. Recent policy, says the Senior Treasurer's programme note, of seeking out 'relatively unperformed plays in verse or in a non-realist mode ... was rewarding artistically but not financially'. (So what else is new?) Back, then, this year, to Shakespeare: the Society's first Romeo and Juliet since 1952, when Dadie Rylands directed John Barton, Peter Hall, Tony Church, Tony White, Mark Boxer... Well, they couldn't quite match that lineup forty-nine years on. Nor, alas, could they emulate that Pericles, whose bright ideas worked. This was one of those well-meaning student efforts whose ideas were not quite bright enough, tackled gamely but vainly by a company without the technique quite to bring them off. Too much was cut: I feel ripped off without the Nurse's wormwood on the dug and falling backward and saying ay. The production had its moments - some well-arranged fights (though with more elbow work and kicks in the bollocks than one feels the true duello could comprehend) - and some fair performances: a Mercutio with energy and attack, and not as much of a bore as he can be; a dignified, if rather youthful, Friar; a convincing Romeo, and a lively and personable Juliet who will be a good actress when she learns to keep head and hands still. The Prince, for some reason, was a young lady whom one expected to pronounce Romeo's banishment with the information that he had been voted Verona's Weakest Link.

  3. The last Love's Labour's Lost most of us saw was probably Kenneth Branagh's Porter-Gershwin-Berlin-Kern film musical, which was a lot of fun but only at the expense of a grievously attenuated text; and whose climaxing Courageous Statement Against The Horrors Of Modern Warfare would have had more impact if that triumphantly distinguished Eyre-Loncraine-McKellen Richard III hadn't been quite so fresh in the memory from only three years before. I had hoped that Stephen Unwin's LLL for English Touring Theatre would have taken the opportunity to go back to tradition just for a bit of contrast; but it had, in fact, a disappointing number of points in common with the movie: a female curate to match Branagh's female pedant, for instance, and a top dressing of modern state-of-the-art technology. But, despite a programme defence of Modern Dress Shax, cogent enough but a bit otiose and behind-the-fair at this time of day surely (when did you last see a doublet-and-hose or a farthingale, eh?; and can they really describe such a venture these days as 'an experiment' without their fingers crossed? - though the linking of 'early modern' and 'postmodern' should have a certain resonance for readers of EMLS), and despite all the mobile-phones and ghetto-blasters, high-speed lifts and karaoke, this was, as so often happens, a straightforward, fluent and intelligent reading of the text (the 'About the Play' section of the programme highly commended); though it is a shame that one or two of those formulations one awaits with pleasurable anticipation went for little or nothing: 'Stand aside the true folk and let the traitors stay' dropped out of sight behind an unnecessary property tree-in-a-pot, and 'A jest's prosperity lies in the ear Of him that hears it, never in the tongue Of him that makes it' likewise went down a black hole; and these despite a satisfactorily sardonic Costard from Stephen Casey (a richly comic Pompey in the Nine Worthies Masque), and Syan Blake's skilful slinkily and sexily tormenting Rosaline. One of the production's virtues was the tension between the romantic late-adolescent court of Navarre and the fly French totty-troop who ran rings right round them. The standout performance was, as it should be, Nick Fletcher's fastidiously euphuistic Berowne; though what most haunts me in retrospect is the momentary bittersweet poignancy of Anwen Hughes-Roberts' Catherine, recollecting the death of her deceived sister for love of her own dearest friend's current suitor.

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© 2001-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS)