Thursday, 14 April 2016

Not for me: Chris Thomson on Shakespeare, Wotsits & creating Twelfth Night

I’m semi-excited.

Chris Thomson in rehearsals for Twelfth Night
I’m sitting in a temporary pre-fab English block that might conceivably be made out of quite thick paper, there is no heating, and it’s January sometime in the late 90’s. We have to endure a double period of English before lunch, sat in our hats and coats, under the jurisdiction of Mr Harrison; a six and a half foot, lanky, sad-sack of a man whom is visibly terrified of the modern teenager and always wears a look on his face that is very similar, I would imagine, to that of a balding and particularly melancholy basset hound. The present mood, in this room of under-insulated 12 year olds, is that of ‘not-excited’. However, the rank of the excitement is promoted to ‘semi’ (ooh-er) when Flop-Sweat Harrison hauls the VCR and TV set into the room, rattling along on its crappy little trolley.

We have been studying the Scottish play. Lanky Harrison has been doing his best to get us to engage and understand some of the text but he’s struggling. We have been particularly focused on the scene involving the drunken gatekeeper, which is supposed to be comic relief apparently, but I can’t see it at all, I don’t understand it. In fact, I don’t really understand much of the play at all, we have been looking at it for two months and I’m still not quite sure what the whole plot is. I know there are witches though, Big-and-Long Harrison has tried to push the witches; ‘Witches are cool right?’ In a presumably desperate attempt to get us to engage with the play, he has found a video of it in the school library and he’s whacked it on before slumping down behind his desk in a clammy crumple. We sit through it, because anything is better than doing actual work. We are all agreed that it seems terrible; the gatekeeper scene is still not funny, probably because we still don’t understand what the hell is going on. It finishes, Mr Tall-and-Moist heaves himself up from his chair ejects the cassette.

“So, what did we think of that then?”

“Well Sir”, Danny Wiggum, class anarchist, “I thought it was wank.” A giggle arises from the small hoard of his mates through a heady haze of pre-pubescent sweat and Lynx Africa.

“And why is that Danny?”

“It’s just not for me, Sir.”

‘It’s not for me.” Well, isn’t that the problem? 400 years since Shakespeare started writing, with the intention of entertaining everyone, and here we are at a point where the world has skewed the intention to the point where Shakespeare seems to be perceived as for the academic, artsy and privileged audience. Looking back at that classroom I can see it starts right there. I don’t know how it is approached in school now, but if it hasn’t moved on then I’m sure the young teens of today are on the back foot about the whole thing, just as I was. Now, in fairness to Sop-Flop Harrison, that version of Macbeth was crap. I have seen it since and it is still ‘wank’. But look at that gatekeeper scene now and I can see it as no other thing than an absolute gift. A gift for me; the actor, and for everyone else; the audience.

Richard Soames as Feste in Twelfth Night
Grassroots open with Twelfth Night today. It has been nothing but an absolute privilege to watch and help our company build this show from the text up. I am slightly sad; as many of the moments I have seen flourish over the past few weeks I probably won’t be seeing again, as I will probably be neck deep in card games and Wotsits in the dressing room. I won’t get to see Toby drunkenly dancing along to Feste’s love song again, or to watch Malvolio pondering wittily through his letter, or to appreciate Olivia chasing Cesario around the room with abandon. I shall have to enjoy them all in an audio manner. What I can promise you from all of this is that Grassroots do not do theatre ‘for them’, which is certainly what seems to happen more often than not, I have seen enough heavily conceptualised Shakespeare to know. They take Shakespeare right back to its roots, where the highest priority was the audience and to tell them a story.

Emily Jane Kerr as Maria in Twelfth Night
Jim Conway brings you a pompous yet charming Malvolio. Darrel Davy has built you an Antonio in the form of a tender gentle giant. Richard Soames’ Feste is a wonderful pondering puppet master. Emily Kerr’s Maria is ballsy and endlessly energetic. John Pickard brings to you a brilliantly bumbling and oblivious Sir Toby Belch alongside Benjamin Bonar’s precision comic delivery of the tragic underdog, Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Kit Lloyd has found a Sebastian that is curious and impulsive with an infectious energy that is a joy to behold. Tamaryn Payne’s Olivia is clever and refreshingly light and an excellent match for Ellie Nunn’s fearless Viola. Duke Orsino appears in the smouldering form of Louis Labovitch. I’m there as well, lolloping around, playing the Priest and the Captain, both of which I’m told are passable incarnations at the very least.

We made it for you. All of you.

Twelfth Night runs at Leicester Square Theatre from the 5th April to the 14th May.

Come and see it. It is really quite good.

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