We arrived at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, England, on a sunny Monday morning. The palace is a world heritage site, the birthplace of Winston Churchill, and currently one of two homes to Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre (The other being York—where the company’s first season in 2018 drew audiences of over 78,000 people and where they are back for a second summer).
The award-winning Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre is the brainchild of Lunchbox Theatrical Productions CEO James Cundall—yes, the producer who brought shows like “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Wicked,” “Cats,” “Mamma Mia!” and “West Side Story” to Manila.
In both York and Blenheim Palace, the company constructed pop-up replicas of the Rose, the first Bankside theater that was built in 1587 (12 years before The Globe was built by Shakespeare’s playing company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men) where William Shakespeare’s early works were staged. The theaters were borne out of the desire to let people enjoy The Bard’s plays in an immersive and intimate setting just like his first audiences did more than 400 years ago. Blenheim’s sprawling palace grounds are a more than fitting location since, according to Blenheim CEO Dominic Hare, Shakespeare’s Way (the route that people believe the famed playwright took from his birthplace Stratford-upon-Avon to The Globe in London) runs through Blenheim Park.
Adding to the experience are the Tudor villages they put up, which were complete with wagons, animal pens, a pond and reed-thatched huts where people can buy food, drinks and merch.
Eight Shakespeare plays
Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre is the only company in the world to rehearse eight Shakespeare plays at the same time. And these shows are in their repertoire this year: “Hamlet,” “Henry V,” “The Tempest” and “Twelfth Night” in York and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Macbeth,” “Romeo & Juliet” and “Richard III” at Blenheim Palace.
We explored the village, wood chips beneath our feet, and walked through the groundlings entrance in time to see the actors warming up onstage—a much-needed exercise, since they do not use mics in the open air theater. We stood in the courtyard and looked up at the three-tiered balconies of the 13-sided Elizabethan theater as the actors chanted tongue twisters together. “Unique New York, New York unique, unique New York, New York unique.”
“The actors are tasked with becoming super-fit vocal athletes, able to work through the length of the season without effort or injury,” said Yvonne Morley-Chisholm who leads company voice and text work.
Lunchbox Theatrical Productions is bringing this same cast to Manila in September to stage “Macbeth” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at The Theatre at Solaire. Well, except for Claire Cordier who plays Oberon and Hippolyta in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and Hecate/Gentlewoman/Messenger/Seyton in “Macbeth” and who was 26 weeks pregnant at the time of our visit. “This is why I’m not coming to Manila. I think jet lag and heat and everything will be too much at that stage,” she said, touching her belly as we launched into a chorus of awws.
Yes, Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” has a female king of fairies, something that wasn’t uncommon in 19th century stagings of the show. But “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” director Juliet Forster’s reason for the switch is of the moment. Claire said, “We have a male Titania and a female Oberon in this version. Theseus has won Hippolyta, the queen of the Amazons in battle. She’s a prize of war and then Oberon crushes Titania and gets her to do what he wants… it’s pretty misogynistic if you think about it. Juliet wanted to put a new spin on it.”
Juliet wrote in the program, “… gender inequality and conflict between the sexes are prevalent throughout the play… with the growing momentum of the #metoo and #timesup campaigns, it is difficult not to find echoes of our own shifting times within the play. These contemporary reflections have had a strong bearing on my vision for this production.”
Claire said, “So in the beginning, Hippolyta is a spoil of war and then she falls asleep onstage and the play becomes her dream where she becomes the king of the fairies and teaches Theseus as Titania a lesson. Hopefully they both learn something about what it is to wield power, about what it is to be subjected to power. It’s an interesting take. I think it works pretty well.”
In Manila, Amanda Ryan, who did the roles in York last year, will play Oberon and Hippolyta.
Gender swapping is nothing new in the world of Shakespeare actors. After all, during his time (and until 1660 when Margaret Hughes made history as the first woman to perform on an English stage when she played Desdemona in “Othello”), all the roles used to be played by men. “That’s theater isn’t it? You can get away with it if you just believe it,” said Claire.
Suzy Cooper who plays Lady Macbeth in, duh, “Macbeth,” and Peter Quince in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” said, “There have never been enough parts for women in Shakespeare. Over the years, women have taken their own female parts, but they’ve also taken parts that could be played by women. In my mind, my Peter Quince is Petra… the female version. I think it doesn’t matter. It’s just a great character.”
And yes, the same group of actors act in both plays, often on the same day (just like the cast of Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre’s “Richard III” is also the cast of “Romeo & Juliet”)—an interesting challenge, said Suzy. She told us, “It’s quite tricky, because normally when you play one role, you get your rhythm. But with this, we play sometimes two ‘Macbeths’ and then a ‘Dream’ and then another ‘Macbeth’ and then three ‘Dreams’ and then a ‘Macbeth.’ We’re in the dressing room at the end of the day going, ‘What’s our next show? What hat do I have to put on tomorrow?’”
A lovely coupling
Claire said, “It’s exciting. I mean, actors always want to be working. To do one Shakespeare play is great, to do two is fantastic.”
“Macbeth” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”—tragedy and comedy—are a good match, said Suzy. “This is a lovely coupling, because you’ve got the dream and the nightmare. And that works really really well.”
For us, it was going to be murder and madness first and then a forest full of fairies.
We wanted to watch both productions with the groundlings. “Are you sure?” asked Sam Sewell, TicketWorld Inc.’s VP for PR and marketing.
Traditionally, groundlings (a term coined during the first production of “Hamlet”) were theatergoers who were too poor to purchase seats so they’d hand over a penny to stand in the pit. Not glamorous, yes, but that’s where the action was and that’s where we wanted to be. We reached a compromise: we’d watch the first half of “Macbeth” in our seats and decide at intermission if we still wanted to move.
The beating of drums signaled our descent into Macbeth’s world of ambition run amok. Suzy was phenomenal as Lady Macbeth and Alex Avery’s portrayal of Macbeth was nuanced, conflicted, moving.
Treachery and trickery
We were swept into the dark tale of treachery and trickery, an experience intensified by the heat of the angry afternoon sun. At intermission, we made our way to the open pit and joined the other groundlings. But they weren’t standing. Many of them had spread out blankets. A woman had taken off her shoes and was lying on her back, waiting for Macbeth to continue as if she were watching the show from the comfort of her bed. The atmosphere was casual and relaxed (and yet respectful) which we found fascinating, considering the material is viewed as daunting by many.
Two actors wandered onto the pit in full costume—Tom Kanji (who plays Old Man/Priest/Siward in “Macbeth” and Theseus/Titania in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”) and Adam Slynn (Captain/Apparition/Servant in “Macbeth” and Philostrate/Mustardseed/Fairy King in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”)—talking to audience members. They stopped by our group (interaction with the cast is one of the perks of being a groundling), we talked about how their costumes were very “Game of Thrones” (we discovered later on that Adam actually played a Lannister soldier on the hit series) and they told us how excited they were to go to Manila. They were in the middle of asking about Philippine weather when the sound of drums interrupted them. They said quick goodbyes and we were once again immersed in a world of clashing swords, blood spill and disintegrating sanity.
Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre’s version of “Macbeth” is one that’s devoid of the supernatural. Claire said, “The witches are people who work in the palace and are run by the gentlewoman who’s called Hecate, a malevolent servant. They are completely oblivious to the fact that I’m causing chaos. There’s something quite interesting about being very publicly all powerful as Oberon to secretly manipulating everyone and observing silently. They’re completely different and both incredibly influential.”
The company’s productions of “Macbeth” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” felt so entwined and the passion of the cast for both shows so strong that to us, it would feel incomplete seeing one and not the other.
At curtain call, Paul Hawkyard, who was magnificent as Macduff, invited people to get tickets to that evening’s performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” “If you do, I promise you will see my bottom,” he joked. And by that, he meant Nick Bottom, his hilarious character in the comedy.
Droplets of blood
After the show, we spoke to Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre season artistic director Damian Cruden who directed “Macbeth.” There were droplets of blood on his white shirt and chin—the result of the postperformance hug he gave Alex. Damian said, “(Someone told me) how wonderful it was that we have rewritten it so it was understandable to an audience. We haven’t rewritten any of it. That’s how easy it is to understand.”
Alex, who jumped and twirled as he joined our growing circle, said, “The key is inviting them and making them realize that it’s not unapproachable.”
“Sadly it takes little imagination to see how relevant Macbeth’s tale remains to us in our modern, civilized existence,” said Damian.
The Telegraph has lauded Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre for taking “the stress out of Shakespeare.” We agree.
Suzy said, “All of Shakespeare’s plays are very much emotionally driven. And emotions don’t change over the years. We are the same human beings. We just have different constraints, you know, politically and culturally, but it’s really about people. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, they’re like the Brad Pitt and Angelina… I just think his work stands up today because it’s brilliant.”
“I genuinely find the role emotional and the idea of doing it in this theater, when Shakespeare has written it so clearly as a theatrical experience. It’s quite emotional to think that 500 years later, it’s still running,” Alex said, stressing how necessary it is for him to portray Macbeth’s humanity. “There’s no interest in a villain who has no empathy.”
“I just like killing people while wearing leather,” said Paul, making everyone laugh.
And once again, comparisons to “Game of Thrones” were made. “The first thing I said to the designer was ‘Game of Thrones.’ But ‘Game of Thrones’ has been inspired by ‘Macbeth.’ That’s the reality,” said Damian.
The role of the audience
In Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre’s productions, audiences play a part too. Tom said, “Shakespeare talks a lot about persuading the audience to use their imagination. You have to sit there and be with us and work with us to tell the story.”
Damian added, “You become part of the construction of the story. We ask of you as an audience to be immersed in it. You will imagine darkness, you will imagine death, you will imagine journeys.”
“If we do our job, you should be able to,” said Alex.
That evening, we returned to the pit, drinks in hand, eager to fulfill our role as we watched “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” “In this production, it’s comedy all the way through,” Suzy had said. She wasn’t kidding.
We laughed at the difficulties of love and the magic and mischief of the fairies. We laughed at the comical confusion of the poor lovers who couldn’t catch a break. We laughed as Helena (Elexi Walker) chased her beloved Demetrius (Mark Peachey) through the throng of groundlings, amazed that she managed to avoid our shoes and drinks in those towering platforms. We laughed as Suzy’s brilliant Peter Quince handed out roles to the mechanicals. We laughed at Hermia’s (Francesca Zoutwelle) increasingly disheveled appearance. We laughed at Bottom making a literal ass of himself (well, Puck helped).
A couple of times during the show, it started to rain but it didn’t matter. We just moved closer to the stage, our eyes glued to the actors, swimming in the beauty of the language.
At intermission, a playful and nimble fairy (Adam Kane, who also plays Malcolm in Macbeth) spent a solid half hour (maybe more), having fun with the crowd without using any words. He climbed the scaffolding, initiated games, made strange fairy noises and ate a little girl’s ice cream. we offered him our Pimm’s lemonade and he sniffed it and took a solid sip before tumbling over. Then he came back for more. It was absolutely delightful.
People of all ages were captivated by both shows that day—something we are looking forward to seeing when Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre comes to Manila for their only season outside the UK. There will be nine shows from September 17 to 22. “Just one week, no extension,” said Lunchbox Theatrical Productions’ PR executive Anna Yulo.
We asked Damian what his concerns are about bringing the productions to Manila. He smiled and said, “I have no concerns whatsoever. Everybody’s going to have a lovely time and enjoy it. It’s a real treat and honor to be able to take our culture and share it. It’s better to import and export narratives and stories than war.”
“It is always a pleasure to bring homegrown work to an international audience. It’s intriguing to see how Philippine audiences will receive Shakespeare,” said Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre artistic designer Sara Perks.
At Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre Blenheim Palace, we experienced darkness in the day and light at night and we will never forget it.
“Relish the spectacle, laugh at the jokes and listen to the poetry if you can. But, above all, enjoy!” said Sara. We did, we really did. And you will too.
Watch “Macbeth” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at The Theatre at Solaire from September 17 to 22. Visit www.ticketworld.com.ph or call 8919999.