Life as a voracious theatregoer can seem pretty bleak when you’re living on a student budget, and feels desperate if you’re not a Londoner. However, all is not lost, for hiding amongst the rolling fields and sleepy rural villages of the West Midlands, where I live, lies Stratford-upon-Avon, birth-place of William Shakespeare and my spiritual home. The Royal Shakespeare Company offers young people between 16 and 25 fantastic seats for £5, therefore you are able to see world class theatre for the price of your average sandwich. So this summer I set off to see four plays for £20, and first up on the Shakespeare marathon was ‘Hamlet’.
The talented yet somehow underrated Jonathan Slinger took the title role in David Farr’s production, offering us an intelligent, melancholic and anguished portrayal of the famous suffering student. His isolation from those he loves and loathes was palpable, so that the audience felt like his only ally. It is a tricky part to invoke absolute pathos in the final scene, but Slinger achieved some of the ‘psychological truth’ he was aiming to find in the character, and I sympathised immensely as he gasped out finally, and famously, that ‘the rest is silence’. Despite Hamlet’s bitter alienation, he also brought great moments of black comedy to the role. The audience howled with laughter and gasped in shock when he entered the stage, moments after killing Polonius, looking serene and pensive, covered in blood and sipping a cup of tea. Such a famous play has a tendency towards cliché, a burden which rests on the shoulders of the actor playing Hamlet, but somehow he managed ask ‘To be or not to be – that is the question’ as if it had never been asked before. It was a truly mesmerising and powerful production, all the more because of its simplicity.
The mood lightened with the next production, when the RSC went to Glastonbury, in a festival-themed ‘As You Like It’, complete with bunting, fairy lights and music by Laura Marling. It was an inspired design and suited the play perfectly, bringing it up-to-date for a modern audience comprised mainly of school pupils and students. The actors who played Ophelia and Horatio transformed into the witty Rosalind and bashful Orlando, bringing great chemistry to the relationship. I began to appreciate the interesting dynamics created by repertory theatre, and to value the talents of the actors who can perform such contrasting yet fully formed characters within the space of a few hours. Pippa Nixon brought real passion and joy to Shakespeare’s most famous heroine and exploited the comedic potentials of her disguise as Ganymede without losing sight of her spirit. You couldn’t help but leave the theatre beaming from ear to ear and the production certainly proved that although Shakespeare might be 450 years old, his plays are still as relevant today.
The most bloody, deadly and notorious of all Shakespearean tragedies is ‘Titus Andronicus’, and I admit I was feeling a little tentative when taking my seat. On the blood and gore front they did not disappoint, and it did cross my mind that if Quentin Tarantino were to direct Shakespeare, it would look something like this. However, I think the mastery of the production lay in that they went beyond the terrifyingly high death count and grim revenges to probe deeper into questions of duty and morality. The image which remained with me days later was the mute Lavinia, a pillar of defiance and strength after being raped and mutilated by Tamora’s sons. Titus’ revenge (he cooks them in a pie which he then feeds to their mother) is suitably shocking, and must be the greatest example of dramatic irony in all of theatre.
‘All’s Well That Ends Well’ was the final of the four, and luckily it did end well, with a clever and haunting production of one of the rarely performed ‘problem plays’. I felt neither happy nor sad at the close of Act V, and although I initially wished for the catharsis of ‘Hamlet’ or the euphoria of ‘As You Like It’, I soon realised that the power of the performance was to create the confused and unsettled feeling in the audience, as we identified with Helena and Bertram, both of whom have compromised themselves and their happiness. It was fascinating to see the chameleon Alex Waldmann take on his third leading part, especially as Bertram, selfish and frustrated, and very far from the loyal Horatio or affectionate Orlando I had previously seen him play. The RSC had delivered, and did so in style. That all four plays cost a grand total of £20 to see is fantastic, and I urge any theatre lover to take advantage of these unmissable opportunities.
Photo Credit: Imogen Potter