Ten days of theatre in London on the trail of the Bard

by David Remondini and Mila Boeri

After a smooth journey flying from Milan Orio al Serio to London Stansted, we arrived with the bus at Liverpool street station. We decided to walk towards our Hostel Clink 78 so we could have a first look of the city passing near important buildings and cultural places we wanted to visit.

One of them was the Barbican Centre where we went to study the variety of artistic proposal and where is located the famous Guildhall School of music and drama. An inspiring cultural centre where people can sit and discuss, see a theatre show or an art exhibition, go to a concert, or simply have a cup of tea and a slice of cake while reading a book. A world-class arts and learning centre in which we learnt how it is possible to combine together in one big cultural centre all major art forms including dance, film, music, theatre and visual arts.

At the level G we experienced also several interesting hi-tech installations in the public spaces.

An other place we discovered is the amazing National Library where they provide information services to academic, business, research and scientific communities.

People can comfortably find anything they need for a research and spend the whole day through free-access workstations, reading rooms, business and IP centre, exhibitions, shops where to buy books or interesting items and games about learning and education.

Here we spent some time planning our show learning tour we would have done while proceeding with our studies.

We had the chance to meet one of the first members of this amazing reconstructed Globe Theatre, Glynn Macdonald, master of movement who took us through the building, backstage and on the stage. We did all together a special training with her coming from the inner stage, walking under the heavens (a specific point of the ceiling under this roof painted with clouds and the sky) and working in circle on the main stage. 

We experimented how an anthropometric building such is the Globe permits the actor to constantly be in contact with the audience. There are no points in which one can feel separated from it. There are no barriers nor any kind of distance. It was in fact a unique experience for David to play some of Shakespeare’s speeches in different points of the stage with people attending in the yard: the centre of the proscenium, where to speak to a group of people sitting or standing in front of you, or from where the actor can step on stage coming from the yard making his way through the people standing; the left side of the stage where the actor could speak with a small group of people or with someone in particular, maybe to tell a secret or something that worries him, or a plan; and the right side of the stage where the actor exposes the left side of his body, which means his heart. That is in fact a point where a character normally expresses his feelings. And especially this was the point in which David had a physical proof of what means to play in an anthropometric theatre. A very special and moving experience, and an important test of his skills on the Shakespearean speech.

The second part of our learning experience at the Globe was important as the first one. In fact everything we saw and experienced in the first place on stage, we then had the chance to see it happening on the other side of the theatre, as an audience during the shows. The first show we saw was The merry wives of Windsor

Performed by an absolutely marvelous cast. It has been a precious opportunity to learn from their interaction skills with the audience. There it was clear how the actor could breathe together with the people watching and gather energy from them being there. We also noticed the extreme capability of playing with a perfect rhythm flowing out of theiambic pentameter, always feeling the beat passing from one scene to the other. Each actor was specific and powerful in his role and no one was anyhow neither overacting, nor emphasizing too much the musicality of the verse, but not even suffering its structure. Everything was authentically coming to life in front of us in that moment, although one could recognize weeks of rehearsals and training. 

So what we have noticed as an audience was certainly the talent and the skills of single actors who were always playing as one orchestra with passion, dedication, humor and honesty towards the author and the audience. And the story was absolutely clear from every point of view. Even if we sometimes didn’t understand something because of the sixteenth century English spoken, the action was in all cases clear and the music given by the words highly poetic and fascinating.

What a surprise it was then to see an extremely young and international cast playing The comedy of errors. We are pretty sure most of them were younger than us. But how they were confidently acting, brilliant and sensitive! In both shows there were very few features onstage, thanks to the actors who were clever enough to create all the dynamic it was needed through the speech, their relation on stage and the interaction with the audience.

The same cast we had seen in TheComedy of Errorswe then saw performing in the Twelf night. And it was an audience choice. A special democratic theatrical experiment where it was up to us people in the audience to vote for which of these three plays we wanted to see: Pericles,Twelfth Nightor The Comedy of Errors.

The rules are simple: the loudest cheer wins. Actors call it ‘terrifying’, audiences say it’s exhilarating. So we had to scream and shout as loud as we could for the play we wanted to see. And that was the Twelth Night. 

It was interesting to take part to such an event. Especially because the actors were then going to start immediately with the show that was chosen. The themes of all three the plays were of refuge and displacement, performed as a touring production which would have been staged in the 17th century, with a stripped back set and a small, versatile troupe of actors. Taking on multiple roles across all three plays, this talented international cast unraveled the timeless tale of the Twelth Nightof those who have crossed seas and lost their families, are seeking new homes, and finding out what belonging truly means to them.

After this second section at the Globe we wanted to see other open air theatres in London, so we went to Regent’s Park. A stunning and very wide park where there is a meticulous care of all the green areas, gardens and sports pitches. The theatre inside the park is called Open air theatre: with one of the largest auditoria in London, the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park is the oldest, professional, permanent outdoor theatre in Britain. It offers a range of theatre, music, comedy and film events each year from May to September. The theatre is located within the Inner Circle of the park and its has a capacity of 1500 people. 

To stuck on the refugee theme, which is one of the burning issues in the international debate, we wanted to see  Voice in the Dark: Presented by the British Red Cross Young Refugee Service and Compass Collective. Inspired by Shakespeare’s explorations of home, refuge and displacement, this devised piece celebrates the stories and skills of young people from across the globe. The British Red Cross Young Refugee Service runs weekly Life Skills Projects sessions in five London boroughs for unaccompanied refugees and asylum seekers aged 15-21 who have arrived in the UK within the last year. The workshops represent an invitation to these young people to find a cultural space for themselves in their new communities through theatre. The team at Compass Collective have experience in working in over 50 refugee centres across Europe and the Middle East. They specialize in bringing refugee and asylum seekers together in London, to share stories and build communities. Considering our task as actors participating to a social growth this was a show we couldn’t miss.

Wanting to expand our knowledge of this multicultural metropolis on a Sunday morning we decided to go visit old Spitalfields and Brick Lane market, an area where after the Jewish presence diminished in the late 20th century it was replaced by an influx  of Bangladeshi immigrants, who also worked in the local textile industry and made Brick Lane the curry capital of London. It was in fact full of people from the whole world, a very lively district where there were also free entrance photographic exhibitions.

Something we felt was also important for our cultural growth, a part from doing our show learning tour, was to make the most of the impressive offer there is in the museum of the City. We spent several hours at the Tate Modern Gallery, which is just a few minutes of walk from the Globe Theatre. A very welcoming place where we had the chance to see the works of various famous artists such as Umberto Boccioni, Georges Braque, Paul Cézanne, Marc Chagall,  Salvador Dalí, Giorgio de Chirico, Paul Gauguin, Paul Klee, René Magritte, Henri Matisse, Joan Miró, Amedeo Modigliani, Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Vasily Kandinsky, etc. And we also visited the Nation Museum and the British Museum, incredibly full of masterworks and precious artifacts from the whole world.

In our show learning tour we also decided to go see some shows in one of the most important theatres in Great Britain: the National Theatre.The first show we saw was performed in one of the theatres there are in the massive building  of the National, the Lyttlelton theatre.

The show called Top Girls, by Caril Churchill is awildly innovative play about a country divided by its own ambitions. We were able to follow this intense contemporary debate also thanks to the fact that we prepared our selves reading the play in English, so that we could follow better the fragmented speech typically used by Carol Churchill.

So, making our way through the evolution of the English language in the British theatre and wanting to investigate further in all genres we decided to go to see also a show of the Unicorne Theatre, UK’s leading theatre for young audiences, producing an eclectic and surprising programme of work year-round for children aged 6 months to 18 years.
What we immediately noticed is how the aim of this theatre is clearly to connect artists and audiences through a broad range of work that is honest, refreshing and international in outlook, across a range of disciplines. This theatre is able to present and tour around twenty shows each year, at home and abroad, to around 90,000 children and their parents and carers. Practacly two thirds of the whole amount of people going to theatre in Milan, known as the most lively city for theatre in Italy. And a part from the number of tickets sold, what we consider even more important and inspiring is the fact that they work extensively with schools and in the community to invite children from all cultures into a constant conversation about art and the world we live in.

The show we went to see is Aesop’s fables, a contemporary re-writing of ancient and timeless fables made by a few of the theatres writers. The version we saw is the one aged 8-12, also because adults weren’t allowed in in the version for younger children. The actors were really good in keeping up the rhythm and maintaining the kids attention and interest. And the kids, who were roughly 300 were clearly listening actively. In fact, during the show it wasn’t unusual that one or more than one child would honestly answer to a question the character would ask to himself, trying to help him to find a solution to his problem.

A creative and honest celebration of young and old, ancient and new – a tribute to how fresh, bold and vibrant the classics remain today. 

Seeing this show we realized how we can reach even a higher level in children’s theatre shows we play in in Italy.

Our research continued also at the National Theatre where we planed to see “Connections Festival” an annual, nationwide youth theatre festival. Each year the National Theatre commissions ten new plays for young people across the UK to perform. 

Bringing together the work of leading playwrights, as well as exciting collaborations with top choreographers and composers, National Theatre Connections 2019 featured work by seriously brilliant artists. 

Ten young companies coming to the National Theatre to perform their productions of plays written by contemporary playwrights who’s attention is on current topics talking to all audiences.

We were absolutely impressed by the acting skills of these young boys and girls who had seemingly just started off with their career. We think this depends on the fact that in Britain there’s a very efficient system of education for teenagers who aim at earning their living in the theatre. Starting at a young age they quickly become highly skilled performers perfectly able to act as well as sing and dance. We also appreciated the fact that the scripts were all well balanced giving everyone the opportunity to work through their own limits so to improve. In fact within an average of 16 actors per show, all of them were aware, powerful, measured and effective in the role they were playing. Last but not least, joyful! 

The festival lasted a week with 10 shows in 5 days. We decided to buy tickets for 4 shows in two different evenings, so we could spend time and budget for our study on other shows of other London theatres too. 

The two shows we appreciated most are:

Variationsby Katie Hims and Fleshby Rob Drummond.

In Variationsa Thirteen-year-old Alice wishes her life was completely different. She actually wakes up one morning to find that her life is different. In fact, it’s so different that all she wants to do is get back to normality. But how does she do that? 

A play about family, string theory and breakfast.

Performed by Outwood Academy, Hemsworth. A group of extremely high skilled young actors who could perfectly play the same scene in loop with different casts always the same way, with renewed energy and with clear intentions.

InFleshagroup of teenagers wake up in a forest with no clue how they got there. They find themselves separated into two different teams but have no idea what game they are expected to play. With no food, no water and seemingly no chance of escape, it’s only a matter of time before things start to get drastic. But whose side are people on and how far will they go to survive? 

This is a play about human nature, the tribes we create and cannibalism.

Performed by Rare Studio Liverpool: all the students were smoothly handling quick dialogues, monologues,  a scene in 18 with no hesitation at all, acting, singing and dancing in such a confident way you couldn’t tell if they were mainly actors singers or dancers. Everything was perfectly mixed. A very moving show thanks to the themes, the interpretation and the beauty of it.

At this point we had the precise feeling that we absolutely had to see a musical. A genre on which we’ve often felt a preconception in Italy, probably because of it’s recent outburst, not being a kind of theatre that has a real tradition in our country (but that has had indeed an interesting development in the past 10 years especially in Milan), not like in Britain at least. Just to have a slight idea of how successful and acclaimed are musicals in London, The Mousetrapis the longest running-play musical in the West End (a distinct region of Central London, west of the City of London and north of the River Thames, in which many of the city’s major tourist attractions, shops, businesses, government buildings and entertainment venues, including West End theatres, are concentrated) and it has done 27,672 performances since 1952; Les Miserable is the second longest running-play musical and it has reached 13,785 performances since 1985. Les misérablesand The lion kingare the most financially successful productions in the history of the West End. Last year this production distributed a further 280% return of profit, giving the original investors a total return of over 3500% on their original investment – an unprecedented feat for any musical in its fourth decade. Les misérablesis definitely a global stage sensation: seen by 70 million people in 52 countries and 22 languages around the world it won over 100 international awards.

Speaking of which, a recent but multi-award winning musical whose production we found being on the trail of the bard and that we were sure of seeing is Matilda. In fact it was none other than the Royal Shakespeare Company that produced this absolute breathtaking show inspired by the beloved book by the incomparable Roald Dahl.

We decided to invest an other part of our budget buying the original version of the book. So we patiently read in English the story of this extraordinary little girl who, armed with a vivid imagination and a sharp mind, dares to take a stand and change her own destiny.

We did well to prepare ourselves, because the show was obviously a reduction of the story, but it was so dense, quick and full of different elements, this way we managed to better appreciate all the nuances of Dahl’s beautiful language condensed in a skillful dramaturgy. And how intense, creative and powerful it was staged! All the actors were gifted, just like the protagonist of this novel. Especially the ten year old child stars of the show! They were acting, singing and dancing so smoothly and as if it was the most natural thing in the world. We were crying for the beauty of this show, for it’s enchanting energy, for songs and the music  played live, and for the fact that everything was perfectly conveying the message of the novel. You could tell there was a wise and expert eye behind all this, a long tradition of excellence gained literally galloping on the path of the Shakespearean blank verse and his universal stories.

And as it happens to all actors, singers, dancers, playwrights, directors, or artists in general to live hard moments starting off a career and trying not only to make a living out of it, but also to enjoy it and somehow be recognized as a good actor, singer, etc., we thought it would have been necessary for us to go see also something different from the top shows, trying to take a good breath also out of the main stream and into the exciting land of the fringe. So we went to see the New Diorama Theatre: an 80 seat theatre based just off Regent’s Park in the heart of central London. Unique for it’s development and support of early and mid-career theatre companies and ensembles. In the eight years since they opened they have welcomed over 150,000 audience members to productions by the best theatre companies making work in the UK today.

Soon after opening, New Diorama was recognized as a “must visit destination for London theatre-goers” (Time Out) and awarded two consecutive prestigious Peter Brook Awards for the first two years of their programming. In 2018 they were awarded the main Peter Brook Empty Space Award, and were named Fringe Theatre of The Year 2017/19 at The Stage Awards. Productions created for and with New Diorama Theatre have transferred to festivals, and countless venues around the country and internationally.

What also interested us was that as well as supporting and developing high-quality theatre (especially early and mid-career companies), New Diorama Theatre works extensively with their local community, creating projects, workshops and productions as well as ensuring the theatre space is somewhere their neighbours can come and be creative themselves. A task both us are working for in the long and short term.

So within all the shows we could go see, we exactly chose Bost-uni plus, which was part of the Incoming festival 2019 ,one week of the best emerging theatre companies from across the country with all tickets sold just at £5.

Based on the true experiences told by graduates, played by three wonderful clowns, as they leave the comfort of student life behind and enter the real world (a world in fact full of expectation, proper jobs, and council tax), Bost-Uni Pluswas for us a real surprise. Although the New Diorama Theatre was a good reference, we weren’t sure we would like the show, especially after we had seen 3 of Shakespeare’s plays at the Globe theatre, 5 shows at the National theatre and an international awarded musical produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company. On the contrary it was an explosion of energy, honesty, dance, physical theatre, techno, and plain silliness that explores post-graduate life through the good, the bad and the ugly also touching considerably poetical levels. 

At this point of our show learning tour, we had the experience to understand why practically all the shows we saw in London were excellent (a part from the show Saltin the Connections Festival played by a company of only girls of an Arts school based in South Wales which we found weak and poor in its preparation).

London is without doubt one of the first theatre capitals of the world. From the bright lights of the West End and their thriving fringe, to the rise of immersive theatre in the unlikeliest of places, the quality, variety and breadth on offer there is unrivalled. 

A report published by the Society of London Theatre today and commissioned by the National Theatre,  has revealed that, in 2012/13, employing thousands of people and bringing in almost £620 million a year London theatre made more money than cinema, and was more popular than Premier League Football. With its 231 theatres, with a seating capacity of 110.000, and a record of 22 million people attending.

No wonder standards here are very high!

We thought they were so high we decided to see again the first show with which we started our inspiring journey through some the best theatre shows played in the world.

We bought two other tickets for the Merry wives of Windsor at the Globe theatre where we still had a study section planed with Giles Block, one of the Globe’s directors.

We wanted to feel again the rhythm of the blank verse, the music of that beautiful and creative speech at the basis of English language. We wanted to study deeper the actors skills, how would that new audience react to their characters’ affairs, to the gags, to the blank verse’s gallop, to the wordplays. There was and still there is so much we feel we can learn from Shakespeare’s works and from the immeasurable experience and love they have for it at the Globe.

How far an actor can go into the Bard’s words was clear being at the Globe and studying with Giles Block. David had prepared himself to work with him on all the parts he does in the show Shakespeare the great rapper(the prologue in Henry V, Sonnet 145, Sonnet 18, To be or not to be, Romeo and Juliet’s first meeting and the nurse’s monologue, the witches in Macbeth, the page’s song in As you like it) adding also other monologues he learnt such as Edmund’s in King Lear  (Thou nature art my goddess..) and Gloucester’s famous opening monologue in Richard III (Now is the winter of our discontent). 

It has been a very important meeting in which David has further realized that his work on the original texts, that was sincerely appreciated by Giles, can continue and can still grow. Through personal studies, making the most of this summer experience, on Giles’s book Speaking the speechand maybe in the future, if there will be a new occasion going back to the Globe for workshops, and who knows…The blank verse is written as if one can naturally breath through it, galloping in a poetical world where the actor can enlighten and be enlightened by a creative power. Such an experience is theatre at its purest. That is why this ten days show tour and working sessions has been certainly important and extremely stimulating in our life long learning path. This is why we’ll keep on working, studying and researching always remembering to consider and work on contemporary plays as well as on the classics.

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