Dedication – Shakespeare & Southampton
Written by Nick Dear
Directed by Samuel Hodges
Designed by Alex Lowde
Nuffield Theatre, Southampton
Wednesday 14th September 2016
Tom McKay as William Shakespeare
Tom Rhys Harries as Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton
Simon Kuntz as Lord Chief Justice (not seen)
Peter Bridgewood – choir leader
Grace Curtis, Lucy Grant, Jonathan North – choir
On the Nuffield website, the director comes above the writer, which is not the normal way to do it, still it’s fine on the posters … and that extends to a billboard on the road coming in from the M27. They’re making a lot of publicity effort. Their normal meagre audience had changed to quite full tonight as a result. I always wish the Nuffield well, as we so enjoyed the theatre throughout the 70s and 80s, when I remember it as packed to the doors.
There is a question about reviewing previews. Should you? The programme is the full script for £3.50 even though £9.99 is printed on the back. I am always delighted by the fashion for issuing the full script as the programme, but it also implies that the text is fixed absolutely before the first performance. With actual Shakespeare, it is not rare to cut lines after previews. With modern writers and the text set in stone, or rather Times New Roman, there seems no room for manoeuvre. With our ELT videos we would never have dreamt of finalising and printing text before filming. Actors generally come up with little tweaks in lines or interpretation, often accidentally because the words fall more naturally, and I incorporated the good ones. Here though they felt sure enough to print in advance, so we are looking at a final text.
Portrait of The Third Earl of Southampton
The play is about Shakespeare and the 3rd Earl of Southampton (1573-1603), rather than the port city on the South coast, which is where it is being performed. You have to remember that the Duke of Norfolk lives in Sussex, the Duke of Devon lives in Derbyshire and the Earl of Pembroke lives in Wiltshire. Actually, this takes place in London and the Earl’s home in Titchfield, between Southampton and Portsmouth, so unusually close to the city of his title for an English nobleman.
Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece were written while the theatres were closed by plague in 1595, and dedicated by Shakespeare to Henry Wriothesley, The 3rd Earl of Southampton. The dedication to The Rape of Lucrece runs:
‘The love I dedicate to your lordship is without end … What I have done is yours; what I have to do is yours; being part in all I have, devoted yours’.
Southampton has been suggested as the “fair youth” of the Sonnets. They’re dedicated to “Mr W.H.” which could be HW backwards. Or it could be the Earl of Pembroke, whose initials were WH, and it is known that Shakespeare acted at Wilton House, Pembroke’s home just outside Salisbury. Pembroke was dismissed in one article supporting the “WH is HW, or Southampton’s name backwards” theory because you don’t address an earl as “Mr” but hang on, they were both earls.
The introduction to the programme / text quotes director Samuel Hodges, who notes the ‘gloriously salacious’ speculative theories about the “fair youth” of he sonnets and the dedications:
When I asked Nick (Dear) which version he wanted to write about, his reply was “all of them.”
I so wish I’d read that before I went in, but you don’t devour a play text in the same way as a conventional programme, and I missed it. See below.
The revolving stage, as lit
For a one month run, they have converted the Nuffield into the round, an enormous task, with all different seating. The acting area is dramatically lit, and looks superb. How far is that worthwhile for a one month run in a reduced size theatre? When the Old Vic did it, it lasted a season, and I guess once they’d done it, it was easy to re-do (as it will be here). I have doubts. The Nuffield used to use a thrust area over the front few rows in the 70s and 80s, and it’s easier to act to three sides than four. The new central stage for this is shiny black with mirrored pillars with strips of light running up them, over the stage and back down. There are two contra-rotating areas, one within the other, and a rectangle in the centre that can be flush, raised a foot or so, and raised much higher (but just the once).
This was a preview, the last but one, so several shows in. They have some technical issues. One is glaring, and so much so that it undermines the whole thrust of the play. The concept is that we see scenes repeated in three different versions of the story. So, in one, Southampton goes looking to employ Shakespeare. In the next, Shakespeare is working while “resting” when the theatres are closed by the plague as a schoolmaster in Tichfield. In the third, Shakespeare has sent an unsolicited manuscript to Southampton. It brings up all sorts of questions. Who is the predator? Who is the prey? Is Shakespeare an opportunist? Is he a trickster? Is he truly smitten with desire? That we could grasp, but then it just got confused, though we grasped that we were seeing different views of incidents. After about 50 or 55 minutes, I glanced up (we were in the front row, so the lowest row) and there was VERSION C on the small TV monitor high up next to the ceiling. I nudged my companion and pointed upwards. She hadn’t seen it before either. Later we saw a VERSION B.
First fault. It’s vital. The monitors are way too high, and too small. I noticed that the man with a clipboard (presumably the director) was sitting in the top row opposite us. From the top row, you might notice the monitor. Lower down you won’t. Worse, they flash up VERSION B then revert to blank. Blink and you’ve missed it. It needs to stay on, be on a larger monitor and lowered. It’s so vital to the concept, and of course on a three sided stage it could be large and at the rear. After the show, I look at the program, and see that scenes are labeled Scene 7:A, Scene 7: B. I think that the placing of the monitors was disastrous for the alternate versions in the text. At various times the strip lighting was blue, green or orange or white. We noticed the monitors too late to trace a pattern, but maybe the colour indicated the versions. If so, total failure. Of course, if you are going and have read this first, you’ll know what to look out for.
At first sight, the lighting is state of the art brilliant … BUT … The lighting plot was inept in the Star Chamber scenes at the start and end, when Shakespeare is being interrogated by an unseen Lord Justice … a recording, I’d assume. At the corners, people were being blinded by spotlights straight in the face. They had to move, stand up and retreat. It’s an intrinsic issue with a stage in the round. You can’t light across the actor without hitting the audience. You have to light above, below, and angled so that the lights never spill off the acting area. The lighting director has an illustrious biodata too. I can’t understand how such a fundamental error can have been made, then continued for several minutes.
From where we were sitting, in a central position, the mirrored pillar obscured 90% of Shakespeare in the opening scene. That will have been repeated on all four sides, as each has a pillar. Later the pillars were constantly moving, so not a problem, but five minutes in, completely unable to see the actor, with people trying to escape the blinding lights in the corner, I contemplated walking out, and might have done if our only exit had not been blocked by the four piece choir dressed as monks.
The “in the round” has seating and access issues . We were in the “on stage” block, and had to enter through the stage entrance and along behind the seats. It was awkward … I saw an employee exit from the area by just squeezing through / half jumping over the narrow gap between the stage row and stage right row at 90 degrees to it. Remove one seat to widen that gap, and you could have taken everyone in through the main entrance.
Front of house was disorganized too. We had seats A4 and A5 and followed the sign to the right (the “gents” side) to seats 1 to whatever. That was closed off. Everyone else had made the same mistake, so we all turned round and trailed back round to “the ladies” side to find two entrances … the normal one, and the one going backstage which was ours.
At the end, we were first up and walked through to find our way along the backstage area through two closed doors and there were no ushers. I’m confident of my memory and found my way out, and two people near said “we’d never have found that exit.” My companion went into the loo, and as I was waiting someone scurried along to that exit to open the doors, I presume. It was a good two minutes after the play had ended … and as well as getting very good applause, we all clapped for quite a long time hoping for a well-deserved second curtain call for the actors, so staff should have realized it had ended.
So there are technical faults … another was that when the central platform reached its full height, it descended with one loud jarring bang … not nice for the actors standing on it.
The sword fight: Southampton in white. A “blue” scene
During the sword fight, we thought it very well done but a tad ambitious for a shiny black stage with four intrusive mirrored pillars. I guess we were right, because Tom Rhys Harries nicked his hand and got blood on his costume.
The play itself suffers inadvertently from the Mrs Beethoven issue … Monty Python did a sketch with Mrs Beethoven and Mrs Mozart. I don’t recall the lines, but let’s imagine it was something like I need an aspirin. My head’s pounding. Ludwig’s working on a new symphony. / Ooh, hasn’t he done four already. / Yes. Awful. I can’t hear myself hoover. / What’s he going to call this one? / I don’t know. Just the 5th I suppose. That may not have been it (we used to do a sketch along the same idea in our sketch shows and changed it a lot) but it’s the archness of the knowing reference … My house in Henley Street … that play about the Jew in Venice … Oh, right. You mean The Merchant of Venice. What happens to the others? Your young men? / They vow to shut themselves away for three years, hunt and read and shun the company of women … Oh, right. You mean Love’s Labours Lost.
I noticed one man near us who got every reference with a knowing chuckle of delight. My knowledge always stopped short before the poems and the sonnets, so I probably missed a few.
The main fault is that the alternative histories plot, a great basis for a biographical story where no one has ever worked out the “truth”, gets muddled by lack of signposting. That can be remedied, though the “in the round” makes it a puzzle how to do it. In the extremity you could have a monk with a board rotate once. That would slow the fluidity badly though. Given the dramatic high tech look, projection would be an answer, though onto what I don’t know. Or they could flash the lights dramatically and have that Chief Justice voice intone VERSION A over the speakers.
The play is redeemed by the high quality of the performances from Tom McKay as Shakespeare and Tom Rhys Harries as Southampton. It’s a two man show. They’re never less than riveting, dance well, good sword fight too. The physicality of the first dance was highly praised by my companion, who thought it superbly choreographed and executed and reminded her of Versailles and of course that has the male to male sexual aspect too.
Hopefully the issues will be resolved. It’s great to see a local producing theatre (with a fine history) back to commissioning original works with a strong sense of set design and lighting and first-rate actors.
I won’t add a rating in deference to the probability of tweaks. But I will add that the very low seat backs (only about a foot high) have left me with a very sore lower back this morning.
OTHER REVIEWS ON THIS BLOG:
Julius Caesar – Globe 2014 (Brutus)
TOM RHYS HARRIES
Mojo by Jez Butterworth, Harold Pinter Theatre, 2014