Do events ever happen to you and you feel as if you’ve dreamed it? Well, that happened to me the other night. Will (the fourteen year old) and I are doing an exploration of Shakespeare and comedy this summer. Firstly, we are watching three different versions of “Much Ado About Nothing” to compare and contrast them. We have watched David Tennant and Catherine Tate at the Wyndham Theatre ( Turning Teenagers Onto Shakespeare) and also watched Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson in Kenneth Branagh’s film version. (Shakespeare – Sexy Or Strangely Funny?) The other night we went to see an outdoor professional production – or so we thought before we went.
Over the years, I have been to many glorious outdoor theatre productions. I thought I was going to something similar. At this point I must say that I think there are times when I am a bit dense. In the past, all the ones I have been to have been in the grounds of stately homes. This one was in the grounds of a school but me being me; I simply thought that it was a way of getting people to watch more theatre.
I had bought my tickets over the internet not chancing buying at the gate, in case of large crowds and a sell out. My suspicion was aroused when I was given the shooting arrow eyeball look for buying tickets over the internet. Four ladies, positioned like sentries, guarded the table that held the cash box. There was a certain amount of disdain in the chief’s voice as she said “so you’ve been on the internet for your tickets.” All their eyes were on us and I began to feel like a pervert to say the least for buying my tickets in that manner.
Once we were inside and passed the bouncers, I was beginning to see what we had actually come to. We were on a school playing field, the stage was a small platform which resembled a sheep pen but could have been set up for a hanging gallows and there were about sixty people sitting around it eating from their Tupperware boxes. We set up our chairs and Will mentioned that this really was like going to a performance from the past.
I bought a programme from one of the actors and Will and I settled down to look at it. Instantly, we were approached by a white haired, extremely well spoken lady. She asked me if she might look at my programme. So I handed it to her. She then says “You don’t mind if I go off with it, do you?” Will and I stared open mouthed as she sauntered off to her seat and started reading our programme.
In front of us was an elderly man and his wife tucking into their picnic. A hairy, round man in an Hawaiian shirt approached the elderly couple. “George, you need to go up there and thank the town council, the Lions and the Ladies Guild. Oh and tell them where the toilets are.” George put his sandwich quickly into his Tupperware box and shouted “What?” Hawaiian shirt then replied, “You’re the chairman – you have to go up and make a speech.” George shouted “What do I have to say?” After a lot of whating and whoing – it was then suggested that George wrote his speech down. At this point, I was beginning to wonder if that was part of the entertainment. George frantically scribbled on his scrap of paper and Hawaiian shirt kept repeating town council, The Lions and toilets.
The actors announced that the play was about to start and Hawaiian shirt bustled back to his seat. George looked flummoxed, he half stood up, hesitated and then landed heavily back into his seat. I wondered if his moment of glory had passed. White haired lady rushed over and handed me back my programme.
This version of the play was set in World War II with Beatrice and Hero as land girls and Dogberry and Verges as the Home Watch. Incidentally, Beatrice and Hero doubled up as Dogberry and Verges with strong Welsh accents. The play started and the audience had to sing “We’ll Meet Again.” Well actually, “Much Ado About Nothing” didn’t start, it was a sub play which was about Land Girls waiting for Harold to come home from the war. The sub play was performed intermittently in “Much Ado About Nothing” to give the actors time to change as there was a lot of doubling up going on. It was a bit like having advertisements whilst watching the television.
“Much Ado About Nothing” began and my heart sank as I watched Beatrice and Benedick in their movements. For those who don’t know, to get a play ready for performance, the movements of the actors have to be worked out. This is called “blocking”. There was an obvious choreographed blocking sequence which was meant to look comical but it simply wasn’t rehearsed enough and it looked like a clumsy rehearsal. Other times, actors were standing like spare parts waiting for their turn to speak. Beatrice is one of my favourite Shakespearean characters but this one thought she was playing a principal boy in a pantomime. All the way through the play, I expected her to heartily slap her thigh.
The interval arrived and the white haired lady rushed up to my seat and asked “You don’t mind if I take your programme again, do you?” and off she went with it. This time she was standing behind the audience talking to another elderly lady and wafting my programme about proprietorially.
George rushed for the stage and very politely asked the audience not to use the trees or the grass as there were toilets in the school. I think that was meant to be a joke.
In the past, I had always sought out very good productions for us to watch. However, to help Will’s critical skills, I had told him that we will be going to all sorts of productions as I feel that it is as helpful to see bad productions as it is good ones. I always feel it is helpful for children to go to live theatre if it is at all possible. They have to study plays at school and it is a whole lot easier to write critical essays about drama if the teenager has been to quite a few performances to make it real for them.
Will’s eyes were wide during the performance. He is very serious about both Shakespeare and acting. His first words when we came out were “I thought we were going to a professional performance.” It wasn’t irony; he thought that I had forgotten to tell him that we were going to an amateur performance. He was happy to be there because he said that he had learned something very important. He is appearing in a comedy on Saturday night and had been worrying about his comic timing. He could see how off the actors were in their timing and that made him realise that he doesn’t need to worry about his comic timing because he obviously understands it.
The play did not get any better in the second half but I am glad I went. There was a certain charm to sitting in the field watching the actors in the play and the people in the audience. I never did discover what George was chairman of, but to be honest, none of it seemed real – it was more like a dream. Maybe I went to see the wrong play.