Camshax Michaelmas 2001
Michael Grosvenor Myer

Grosvenor Myer, Michael. "Camshax Michaelmas 2001." Early Modern Literary Studies 7.3 (January, 2002): 14.1-9 <URL:

  1. A young German student enquired of me anxiously at the interval at the Mumford Theatre if The Tempest was always like this or were there usually more than two characters. Well might he ask. Prospero, in AJTC's production, was an elderly patient in a 50s-furnished bedroom, Ariel his male nurse helping him in his fantasies of command and control; or perhaps, it appeared at the end, just dozing off and dreaming of fantasising along with his sleeping patient. They played all the others too, with the assistance of some Punch and Humpty Dumpty dolls who did for Trinculo and Stephano, some voices from the wireless as the courts of Naples and Milan, and a cabinet photo of a 50s beauty who represented Miranda. Ariel became Caliban when he put on a school cap and Prospero was Ferdinand when he changed his voice a bit. With a bit of audience good will, it worked--well, sort of; though, if you didn't know the play, as my young German showed (and he knew quite a lot of Shakespeare, he assured me, but not The Tempest), it could be a bit puzzling; and I doubt if many of the year-8 schoolchildren who made up the bulk of the audience the night I was there knew it that well. All the same, Mick Jasper and Iain Armstrong spoke the verse like angels, and within the constraints of the concept they managed many moving moments.

  2. There were even younger school children at the ADC Theatre for Cambridge University American Stage Tour's Romeo and Juliet. Their headmaster told me they had come all the way by coach from Welwyn Garden City because they had been studying the play in year 6, so he and his staff had searched the Internet for a reasonably accessible production to go to all the organisational hassle of bringing them to. I thought that was wonderful. Think of all the effort and dedication. And think of the company's having just completed a tour of half-a-dozen campuses in NY, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Maryland. I thought that was wonderful too. Then the play started. Now think of all those poor children and American freshers and sophs bored out of their skulls with the worst that Cambridge could offer. We crept out as the man-in-drag (aaarrrgh!) Nurse stopped poncing about and heartying on and Mercutio started playing skill-lessly with a Q Mab puppet and everyone else droned inaudibly: just couldn't stand it any more. Oh, those poor children, where will it leave them for life, Bardwise? I cheer myself up with the thought that a school which can organise all this for them should be able to find means to undo the damage. But even so… I thought at first that I would say nothing, leave ill alone, not notice it, lighten up, let the dead bury their dead, only students, world before them, don't be too heavy... But then I thought, here's a group of the nation's notional intellectual finest having the nerve to travel thousands of miles in the name of the University of Cambridge when they haven't even got the comprehension to bring the words of the world's greatest versifier to any sort of life after weeks of touring; the wit to know that a bare stage works better for touring than tons of clumsy blocks-on-wheels that have to be pointlessly trundled about, slowing everything down between scenes; or the technique to articulate to be heard in an auditorium the size of the ADC. In the name of any sort of standards, anyone with any outlet to do so has got to protest. It's my university, dammit. I don't like to see this sort of worthily well-meaning but horribly self-satisfied and un-self-critical ineptitude suffered to represent it worldwide.

  3. An art critic wrote in The Spectator recently about how he is always being accosted at dinner parties by people who assure him what rubbish modern art is and dispute his right to defend it. David Daiches once wrote wisely of F R Leavis that his advocacy of authors he admired was usually cogent and admirable but that "in denouncing writers of certain kinds of literary entertainment for not doing what they never set out to do he is at his most tedious". Rudyard Kipling in The Conundrum Of The Workshops describes Adam's delight at having created the world's first picture by scratching with a stick in the earth of Eden: it "was joy to his mighty heart, / Till the Devil whispered behind the leaves, / 'It's pretty, but is it Art?'" Ah, the critic must always keep in mind Professor Daiches' wise words, and resist the blandishments of the Devil behind the leaves.

  4. These reflections are in response to a lateniter back from Edinburgh at the ADC, Lear: American Pie. Varsity said it was terrible, and I wondered whether to bother to turn out at 2300 hrs to watch a reworking of King Lear in terms of modern presidential politics, especially as I suspected (though I must admit I hadn't yet seen it) that the American Pie, with which it appears from the title to be linked, is not Don McLean's classic 60s song lately covered and reworked by the delectable Mrs Madge Ritchie, but a recent trendy Hollywood wankfest beloved of rebellious teens and the sort of saddos who went wild over Todd Solendz's flashy and meretricious (and wholly obnoxious) Happiness. But then an ADC press release informed me that Lear:A.P. had been almost entirely reworked following the events-of-11-September (or 911, as I gather New Yorkers laconically call them--their equivalent of 999 of course: referential or what?), and altogether made it sound worth the effort of a look. So, keeping firmly in mind that Devil behind those leaves, off I dutifully trotted on a chilly Autumn night to see what delights might be afforded by such an enterprise.

  5. Well, the Lear connection was tenuous, though more than the McLean/Madonna/ teeny-grossout-film one at that (or the 11 September one for that matter), in that part of a diffuse expressionist sort of narrative did appear to concern a president who was not too happy with being an ex-president: but the theme wasn't really followed through in any coherent or meaningful way. There was an interpolated poem about a poet and a banana which amused by its verbal felicity and ingenuity, but it didn't have any evident Shakespearean connection so I'm not quite sure why I mention it here--pity to waste it, perhaps? Proceedings ended with a recitation of Percy Bysshe's best-known sonnet, not sure why except maybe that Shelley starts with the same two letters as you-know-who. I suppose that for my present purpose the main interest lies in the fact that they considered it worth their while to invoke the name of Lear at all -- though it seemed really to have not a lot more rationale than another such attribution I came across about the same time: the credits to Carry On Cleo, rerun one autumn Saturday afternoon on ITV1, included the claim, "From an idea by William Shakespeare". Nuff said.

  6. After all these somewhat self-indulgent fringe and student goings-on, the arrival of a proper, honest-to-god professional Shakespeare at the Arts, in the shape of Roy Marsden's production of Twelfth Night for the New Palace company, was keenly anticipated. One can surely expect more exacting standards, even if they are not invariably delivered: as Damon Runyon reminds us, the race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong, but that is the way to bet.

  7. Well, the good things were very good. There was an agreeable lute track played as entr'acte, with Peg-a-Ramsey and Praetorius and suchlike appropriate delights; echoed onstage by some fine court guitar ("food of love") by John Mackay, who also gave an unusually moving Antonio. The acting standards were high throughout indeed, with Sarah Mowat's energetic and personable Viola, Stash Kirkbride's sweet-voiced Feste, Terence Hardiman's stiff and pompous Malvolio and Antony Edridge's melancholy Orsino (a fit study for Robert Burton) all excellent, and Elizabeth Elvin's wistful and wilful, vulnerable but hearty-despite-herself Olivia outstanding. The production's faults were sins of omission. Literally: some peculiarly injudicious cuts. Not just the spinsters and knitters in the sun unaccountably fell by the wayside, together with the information that Sir Toby had married Maria as reward for her trick on Malvolio (though we saw them stealing off together in the rain at the end with her carrying his luggage); but the vital lines which give the key to the play's rationale all for some reason got the chop. "Twelfth Night" doesn't just refer to the date of the first performance, but to the medieval version of the Roman Saturnalia: the Feast of Fools, when roles were reversed and nothing could be taken for granted. It is par excellence the comedy of misperceptions and reality-shifts, of now-you-see-it-now-you-don't, of nothing being as it appears; of "Now the tailor make thy doublet of changeable taffeta for thy mind is a very opal", the fabric and the stone whose colours change as the light falls; of the Fool's complaint, at being repudiated by the man who claims he isn't who the Fool knows he is (but we know he's not), climax of the key scene of mutual incomprehension through the epitome of Feast-of-Fools mistaken identity, "Nor this is not my nose neither--nothing that is so is so". And--would you believe it?--every one of those lines, together with the whole of that pivotal scene, was cut. Every single one. You'd think Marsden had wanted to rob the play of its full impact. But, for crying out loud: Why? Why? Oh why!

  8. Talking of Twelfth Night, a tourist production of a 'reworking' of it came to our village school shortly after. Interesting genre, these reworkings: not just straight and acknowledged musicalisations, like West Side Story or Kiss Me Kate (back in London, hey-ho) or The Boys From Syracuse (Veronese, Shrewish and Erroneous respectively, for the exceptionally youthful among you), the MacDermot-Guare-Shapiro Two Gentlemen of Verona, or the Twelfth Night one all those years ago with Twins in the title (I think - or was it Illyria? or something? Couldn't find it even in my trusty Oxford Guide to Popular Music, though my wife and I both remember it happening on some Fringe or other, probably in the 60s)--and perhaps one should add at this point Branagh's Love's Labour's Lost movie; nor yet such as Wesker's Merchant which purports to look at the play from the Jewish p.o.v: but I'm thinking of movies like Forbidden Planet (sort of Tempestuous), Joe Macbeth and Kurasowa's Throne of Blood (kind of Scottish Playful), Jubal (notionally a western Othello), Ten Things I Hate About You and Bullwhip (both somewhat Shrewish - this last another western from 1958 which I caught recently on Beeb 2 one afternoon [afternoon movies a great privilege of the retired]: fairly amusing at first, with Rhonda Fleming Kateing along the trail and a title song from Frankie Laine about "a tongue that could lash like a bullwhip", but outstayed its interest unfortunately, and the Shrew-factor was much slighter than you might have thought to hear Radio Times tell it. Bard-name used yet again as a come-on.

  9. So anyway, back to this reworking, Meat And Two Veg--"Version of Twelfth Night set in 1950s backyards," summarised The Guardian Guide section when it was at Blandford Forum earlier in the tour, which was all I knew in advance, really, except that it was being done by a company who called themselves, for some reason, Cartoon de Salvo. I get a bit put off by fancy foreign names for native groups: Theatre de Complicité are often very good (their Winter's Tale a few years ago one of the best ever), and I know they got early inspiration from Jacques Lecoq, but they're not French and I think it's silly and pretentious to come on as if they were - though not quite so much so as a very so-so amdram outfit in a town hereabouts who rejoice in the ringing moniker of Teatro Artistico and I'm not making it up. Anyway. There seemed to be a certain arbitrariness in CdS's fifties setting for the tale of Violet dressing up in her twin brother's clothes after he was lost at sea and taking her new friend Orson's poems to Olive who thought they were crap but liked her/him, brother meanwhile having joined an Italian skiffle group. (Were there any? Oh well...) That seemed to be the rationale (if that's the right word): programme acknowledgments to Lonnie Donnegan and Chas McDevitt suggests they just like skiffle and worked outwards from there. As one who (though you might not believe it to look at me now) once played washboard and three-chord guitar in the Easy Riders Skiffle Group at the Princess Louise in High Holborn, I could relate to that: and also to the appropriate interpolation of the opening dozen lines of Twelfth Night into one of their skiffle numbers, complete with washboard and teachest bass: what a nostalgia trip. But the best of it were the performance skills of the three young actors, David Bernstein, Brian Logan and Alex Murdoch, with their superb mime and body language, and their devised script's use of shadow play and magic realism. They even integrated the tea interval and raffle into the performance. Total theatre. Shakespearean? Up to a point, Lord Chamberlain.


Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2002-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).