It was just over a year ago that Zubin Varla’s Thersites, dressed in red sequinned miniskirt and boob tube, frenziedly steering his wheelchair around the stage in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, proved the tipping point for many audience members, who left the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theatre well before Hector’s last gasp. Despite its relatively recent refurb, Stratford’s Swan remains an austerely uncomfortable venue where strangers’ hips softly jostle, buttocks touching in wordless middle-class embarrassment in a futile attempt to get comfortable.
Before this performance I didn’t see how lacrosse sticks and a tribe of native Americans could possibly have anything to do with the play. Afterwards, I was none the wiser.
That August evening in 2012 had been eagerly anticipated. Troilus isn’t often staged. We “needed” to see it because, since the late 1980s, my husband and I have been trying, with the redoubtable zeal of completists (and interruptions such as marriages, births and bereavements notwithstanding), to see a professional performance of every single Shakespeare play.
The idea of a completist is a rather unflattering one, of course. Its connotations are of a nerdy and indiscriminate obsession that can lead to evenings like that one at the RSC.
We’ve seen many of the plays more than once and have enjoyed many superb Hamlets (Michael Sheen, David Tennant, Jude Law, John Simm), Lears (Greg Hicks, Ian McKellen) and Beatrices (Eve Best, Meera Syal, Catherine Tate).
Sometimes “that man off the telly”’ can do quite brilliantly – Kevin Spacey’s Richard III, for example – or embarrassingly badly: a globally respected thespian’s Lear in Salford was Shakespeare-by-numbers, making for a flat, emotionally void performance. The completist project has led to some exciting encounters, too. I rate Richard Wilson’s Malvolio more highly than Derek Jacobi’s or even (sacrilege!) Stephen Fry’s, but that might be because of how charming Wilson was when we chatted to him in his dressing room in Stratford in 2009. (My husband, also called Richard Wilson, had previously dropped the actor a line bewailing the fact that for years he’s often been greeted by a certain extruded-voiced expression of disbelief whenever he says his name.)
Depending on whose list you consult, almost exactly one year after that disastrous Troilus and Cressida, we were 31 down with seven to go. We bagged three over the August bank holiday weekend, however, so now have just four to go. Our authority on the Shakespearean canon isn’t generally recognised in scholarly circles. It’s a fridge magnet set. We did, however, buy it at the RSC, so I suppose that lends it some kind of authority, and its purchase has led to a kitchen-centred record of the plays we’ve seen. For every performance, there’s a small ritual of selecting the appropriate fridge magnet and pinning it up like a tiny escutcheon. According to the RSC, then, we had only 1, 2 and 3 Henry VI, Cymbeline, Pericles, The Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Two Noble Kinsmen to go. (Our completist desire means that we watch developments in the authorship debate with a pecuniary as well as a scholarly interest: we didn’t go to see Cardenio because the magnet oracle did not decree that it counts.)
And so we ended up at the Globe for a whole day of Henry VI (by the end of which, the ushers, kind-hearted pensioners in maroon tabards, felt like old friends). The plays are a trilogy in name only. In many ways they don’t hang together coherently, but seeing all three in one day does make for a satisfying theatrical experience, watching various characters’ fortunes radically wax and wane.
The Globe Henry VI triptych involved about six hours’ traffic of the stage. The texts have some exquisite moments and here, in Nick Bagnall’s version, they were sympathetically cut, which is good news for those of us with Globe Attention Deficit Disorder (GlADD). For the venue – as Liz Schafer recently remarked in these pages – is full of distractions, and is my least favourite theatrical space (the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester is my favourite, in case you were wondering).
As an adult, I do manage to get through most days without finding aircraft, seagulls or sirens urgently demanding of my attention. I even manage to hold down a day job. But at the Globe, the seagulls win every time. Key moments – Cranmer solemnly blessing the “unspotted lily” infant Elizabeth at the close of Henry VIII, for example – have passed me by because the sudden swoop of an insistent seagull has distracted me. Within the sacred wooden O, I find myself with the attention span of a toddler, utterly unable to “piece out” any “imperfections”. Bagnall’s cuts were not intrusive – in fact, they were necessary to maintain the day’s momentum – and, speaking as a GlADD sufferer, they were very welcome indeed.
The fact is that however much one loves Shakespeare – and I do love him – a dragging production is painful (at one Othello, in Liverpool, it was all I could do not to hiss “Smother her, already”). It must be the same for the actors, too. The endurance shouldn’t cancel out the enjoyment of watching or acting: Shakespeare shouldn’t feel “good” for us, like wheatgrass juice or bran. The Henry VI actors had performed all three plays just the day before on a rain-soaked Barnet battlefield, so could have been forgiven for being less than energetic, but they entered into their roles with an almost faultless dynamism. (Graham Butler’s Henry, for example, really played on Exeter’s portentous statement that “Sceptres are in children’s hands” and, for much of the trilogy, was an ineffectual hand-wringer of a king whose azure robes were the only faintly regal thing about him.)
Our day at the Globe, then, middle-class buttock-proximity squeamishness aside, was wonderful – not only were three more magnets earned, but there was some truly impressive drama on display. We could, of course, have “cheated” last year, and gone to Dominic Dromgoole’s stupendous accomplishment of vision and organisation, the Globe to Globe festival, and seen all of the plays (and the Isango Ensemble’s Venus and Adonis). But the prospect of Cymbeline in Juba Arabic, what with those seagulls and that unsolicited thigh-rubbing to contend with, was too much, as was the thought of a Greek-language Pericles. And I’m honestly not sure whether that makes me a purist or a philistine.
I recently received the exciting news that, for the first time in my lifetime, the RSC is staging The Two Gentlemen of Verona in full production on the Royal Shakespeare Theatre stage in summer 2014. The fridge door awaits.
Yet these theatre trips aren’t just about box-ticking or fridge-decorating; they’re also about a more profound engagement with beautiful language, and a realisation that, in live theatre, one can never see the same play twice. Some plays become favourites and the excitement lies in seeing how new actors and directors revivify increasingly familiar plots. With others, though, familiarity has bred if not contempt, then at least tedium. I’d go in a heartbeat to a new production of, say, Antony and Cleopatra, but I have self-diagnosed and am unquestionably suffering from Romeo and Juliet fatigue. And it currently feels as though a positively Achillean effort would be required for me to go and see another production of Troilus any time soon.