The Play-House

Victoria and Albert Museum

Not quite a review, not quite a news item: Howard Loxton reports on his experience of a single night multi-event at the V&A on 25th March, 2011.

To the V & A tonight for this month's Friday Late. Each month one Friday evening the museum stays open late and mounts free events all over the museum around a particular theme or the work of a particular department. This time it was the turn of the Theatre Collections and from 18.30 through to 21.30 pm the museum was buzzing with people attending everything from cabaret at the bar set up in the front entrance hall to a masterclass on Shakespearean verse given by Janet Suzman.

Theatre company Zecora Una were holding a session on audience responses to last year's staging of their all-night long production Hotel Medea, museum experts were giving talks on Victorian marionette theatre, on set design and a general introduction to the Theatre & Performance Collections. You could learn theatre make-up techniques (and have a head shot taken of the result), join in an interactive dance game, take part a musical theatre sing-along, preview a new film about the Ballets Russes star Ida Rubenstein or watch Dancing with Demons, a new play about Serge Diaghilev and his contributors presented by Brighton Theatre, inspect the mechanical theatre of automata - or try to build them.

You could experience the thrill of being a star by walking the red carpet amid the flashbulbs, inspect the private lives of celebrities and the 'low lights of high flyers' in Lab Theatre Collective's In the Wings, see a performance by the Guerrilla Dance Project and catch a number of scratch performances and theatrical surprises that might appear around any corner. Since everything was going on at the same times as something else there was no way you could catch everything, even if you are the most adept of programmers. Except for a glimpse of some of the individual performers - including the diamante covered head (over 1,000 gems!) of Philip Levine sitting on his plinth personally Making Bald Sexy, I didn't manage any of the things I've mentioned.

It is not easy to sort out exactly where everything is going on - locations are given by room number and trying to work out the numbering system on the museum's maps is not exactly easy; with multiple floors and staircases, some routes inaccessible and rooms leading off rooms it is quite a maze and there is no automatic sat nav. I was specifically invited to the Hotel Medea event but it wasn't on the official list and by the time I found some members of the company also trying to locate it I'd lost too much time and had to move on.

What I did catch was the beginning of The Factory's promenade performance of Hamlet which continued through the whole evening moving around various museum spaces. This is a company of (unpaid) actors who form a pool from which individual performances can be cast. No one knows who will be playing which role until just before the show begins (they all learn several parts) and they make use of props (appropriate or not) brought by the audience. It began with Horatio and the palace guards, all played by women, and Old Hamlet's ghost emerging through the audience holding a Danish flag aloft. When they moved on to the next scene the crush was great and unable to press to the front (you don't have to be very tall to block my view), I moved on to another show, intending to catch up with some of this performance later, though I never did.

In the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries I found the Seven Sisters Group work-in-progress A Small Study of Troubled Souls, or rather I discovered where it took place, as nothing seemed to be happening. I was wrong: exploring behind an altar from a Florentine church I found a narrow black walled apse and there a woman in a gold lame dress was clearly getting in quite a state on the other side of a display cabinet. Soon she was joined by a dark suited, moustachioed young man with bare feet and a third exotic Latin-American looking man appears later. The wall is like the whispering gallery in St Paul's with its interesting acoustic and you can listen in on what they are saying and watch their complex and sometimes supine choreography. The first man beckons, then he tells you you must leave. Encountering him again he asks to be stood on as he lies before you. It is an odd engagement that defies explanation.

Just time after this to make the beginning of a one-man performance of First Knight presented by Little Lights Theatre in which Clive Greenwood as Sir Henry Irving's dresser Stanley regales you with descriptions of 'the Guv'nor' being given the accolade, including a lively impersonation of Her Imperial Highness, and bits of gossip, such as the suggestion that Bram Stoker (Irving's business manager) invented Count Dracula in his boss's likeness in revenge for one of their disagreements. As he read the description it certainly sounded as though he was thinking of Irving.

Next a rush across the museum to find where Roughhouse Theatre were presenting The Sneeze, three short episodes from Chekhov adapted by Michael Frayn - but I had not secured a ticket in advance and it was a full house. So now there was another zigzagging through the museum's maze to find the theatreland exhibit. A cardboard city laying out London's streets with the locations of all 50 or so of its theatres, each with a question linked in some way to that particular playhouse. It was quite a difficult quiz: the theatre buff who knows all about Frank Matcham might not be so well informed on Madonna, nor might the West End addict be up to date about the repertoire at the Landor. I certainly didn't get them all right - indeed I didn't find all the theatres before it was time to move on to an event for which I had already arranged a place.

My evening ended with a reading by father and son team Timothy and Sam West for which their text was the near four century old 1623 Shakespeare First Folio. As Sam explained to those who weren't aware, neither typography or punctuation are what you might find in a modern edition and trying to interpret f for s and other differences or spelling oddities is not easy - as very amusingly proved the case. These impediments however were little hindrance to some delightful playing of Falstaff and Hal scenes from Henry IV Part I - the tavern episode when they improvise a conversation between Hal and his father, and a Justice Shallow and Silence scene from Part II, Timothy West's shallow sounding even more ancient than Laurence Olivier's make-up looked.

They also played the scene when Hamlet meets his father's ghost. There was a special thrill when, Old Hamlet having moved away with the injunction 'Remember me!', his real son, following the text exactly, repeated the line in a voice that had inherited the quality of his father's.

They went on to answer questions about verse and playing Shakespeare and fielded suggestions that Shakespeare might one day become as remote as Chaucer seems today. It certainly won't if there are actors like them around to keep it fresh and living and young people get the chance to enjoy it before schoolteachers make them think it is difficult - and they had stories to prove it!

I would have loved to pack in more but the nature of these occasions is that you have a plethora of things to choose from. I think only three of the presentations were actually ticketed. Those who don't want to plan their time rigidly could sample at random and take pot luck.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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