It was at the beginning of the Wars of the Roses that someone shot my senior colleagues. I’ve always wished he’d shot me too.
The gardener was the one who did it. His victims were in Stratford-upon-Avon at the time. Row D to be precise.
It was that scene in Richard II where his Plantagenet plantsman, tending the red and white roses that are to become the brand-marks of Lancaster and York, complains about “the noisome weeds which without profit suck the soil’s fertility from wholesome flowers.” Armed with a modern spray-gun, the actor pointed the weapon at The Guardian’s Michael Billington and Charles Spencer of The Daily Telegraph in the stalls, and let them have it.
It was a clear evidence of their superiority to the rest of us, the pair officially picked out as the prime specimens of genus criticus.
How I wished I had Billington’s judgement, Spencer’s turn of phrase. There were other professional critics in the audience that night, of course, but it made me realise I was one of the hangers-on, the bunch of amateur scribblers without any credentials except to turn in 300 words or so, on time, or so, and without spelling the names wrongly.
That production was 20 years ago, in March 2000, and since then I’ve seen and reviewed just about everything at the RSC in Stratford, and quite a few before, going back to Two Gentlemen of Verona two years earlier. I still remember Mark Hadfield from that, and his dog.
Like many of my colleagues writing for pleasure, I began as a trainee reporter sent to cover everything from am-dram to professional theatre and opera with little background knowledge of what was on show, and few instructions from the newsdesk. I do however remember another editor who insisted that the reviewer included the name of every participant in amateur shows, down to the programme sellers.
It was a challenge to phone over an intelligible piece from one’s notebook within minutes of curtain down, or sometimes before it, to beat the deadline. And I’m afraid I might not have done full justice to the undoubted talents of the Alwoodley Players when, hesitatingly approaching the end of my review, I was interrupted by the copy-taker who enquired, “is there much more of this because I’ve got Leeds United on the other line.”
Those reviews mercifully are no longer with me, but the current lockdown has given me the opportunity to go through a scrapbook of those 20 years and more of RSC reviews and illustrations.
Individual moments come to mind first. There was Robert Lindsay as Richard III flinging himself onto his back in rage—bang!—with an apparent violence that would have condemned a lesser man to life-supporting machinery. Even that was surpassed by Tamsin Greig who, when an astonished Beatrice secretly overhears that Benedick loves her, turned a perfect backward somersault.
But it’s the depth of understanding that turns a fine performance into a great one, and I’ve been lucky enough to see many—David Tennant (as Steve Orme reflected here recently) returning not only to play Hamlet but Berowne in Love’s Labour’s Lost and Richard II, Guy Henry’s King John, Patrick Stewart and Harriet Walter as Antony and Cleopatra, F Murray Abraham’s Shylock, the comic brilliance of Jonathan Slinger and Ian McKellen giving (and showing) it all as Lear.
Early highlights for me tended to be outside the Shakespeare canon, including Martin McDonagh’s darkly funny The Lieutenant of Inishmore; but the RSC took a huge step forward when Michael Boyd took overall control of the company in 2003, bringing an intellectual rigour to productions and greater ambition to its seasons, notably staging the full works from 2006.
Now we are incredibly fortunate to have Greg Doran—whose productions give full value—and partner Anthony Sher, surely one of the world’s great theatrical pairings. If I had to choose just one evening to put on permanent loop it would be Sher’s magical The Tempest performed with John Kani and the Baxter Theatre Centre of his native Cape Town.
OK, you say, those were the highlights. What of the stinkers?
Do others remember Tales from Ovid—which reminded me of those classes where the teacher says, “right children, I want everyone to be a tree” or Back to Methuselah which seemed to last as long as its namesake but died much sooner. And two monsters arrived in one week during the 2012 world festival: an awesomely awful Troilus and Cressida by the American Wooster Group and a Russian production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that had everyone wondering if they had entered an insane asylum.
Of course, critics get it wrong more often than the thespians. I tipped Rupert Penry-Jones for stardom unaware that he was a star already, and was very sniffy about the RSC introducing all-family Christmas shows, a venture that turned out a series of terrific hits like Matilda.
Sadly, after Michael Billington’s retirement this year, I no longer have either of my heroes whose reviews I can check after despatching my own. It was always troubling when they took an opposite view of a production, a relief when my verdict reflected theirs, however palely. But there was always something that made me ask: why didn’t I think of that?