Last week, Lauren emailed me and asked whether I wanted to “see a whole load of Shakespeare” – four plays, on three consecutive days, for £20. Of course, I said yes please, and looked it up.
The RSC is concluding its residency at the Barbican with King And Country: Shakespeare’s Great Cycle of Kings, to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. The cycle we saw began with Richard II on Tuesday 12th January, followed by Henry IV Part I on the 13th, Henry IV Part II as a matinee performance on the 14th and ended with Henry V that evening.
I love the Barbican. I love the incredibly ambitious architecture, even if it didn’t quite work out as hoped. I love the way that space is created and used, and all the blurred lines of pitted concrete that make it seem both solid and ethereal. I don’t hate the way I always seem to get lost round there, but I’m getting better at it the more I go. My earliest memory of visiting the Barbican is passing through on one of our city walks, and seeing Jeppe Hein’s Distance – an art installation in the Curve space, in which a metal ball rolled down a track round the room. Since then, I have only been a couple more times – for the Rain Room installation with a friend on a chilly winter’s day, to see Flying Blind in its cinema, to see Fiona Shaw in the mind-blowing Testament of Mary, and for Richard II in 2013.
When I was at school, I was taught Shakespeare in a way that took all the fun out of it. It was serious, and worthy, and Art. It frightened and intimidated me, and getting a D on an essay about A Midsummer Night’s Dream, despite doing well the rest of the time, really didn’t help. I didn’t get it. I didn’t get the point of it, or why people would ever want to study or see it, or what I was supposed to get out of it. I was scared of Shakespeare because everything I was taught about it seems to have missed the point entirely. Richard II was the production that showed me that, actually, Shakespeare is funny. I didn’t know that Shakespeare is funny. Serious Worthy Art is not funny, and yet, as I sat looking up David Tennant’s nose, I laughed.
So when I realised that that same production of Richard II was the first of the plays we would be seeing, I was even more excited about going. And as we sat in the middle of row M (not bad for a fiver), I was delighted and enthralled. I had forgotten how great the lighting and set design were – curtains of something that looked like beads or fine chains, with backdrops projected onto them, and clever use of steps and a gantry. I confess I had also forgotten a lot of the plot, though it came back to me. I forgot about David Tennant kissing boys (during which Lauren had to resist leaning over to whisper “Harold, they’re lesbians!”). I missed Nigel Lindsay, who played Bolingbroke in the original cast of this production, and was replaced by Jasper Britton – although Britton was good, and his hair was fantastic, I found Lindsay easier to relate to and sympathise with. I engaged much better with it this time around – perhaps being further away helped (I was in the front row the first time – someone my dad worked with couldn’t use a ticket so I bought it from them), and also the familiarity of seeing it a second time. I left the theatre elated, and very much looking forward to Henry IV Part One the next night.
I saw the Donmar’s all-female Henry IV in 2014 (still cross with myself for missing their Julius Caesar), and really enjoyed it. I found it funny, and clever, and while much of my enjoyment came from the delight in seeing a cast of women and a smart adaptation, the plot itself was exciting and engaging. So I expected to enjoy this production as much. Unfortunately, it left me restless and disengaged. Lauren fell asleep at least once, and I found myself wishing I had a watch to glance at to see how long was left. I enjoyed Antony Sher’s Falstaff, and the levity that his character brought to the production – the tavern mock trial was particularly funny. But other scenes dragged, and coming out at the end to find that it had been longer than Richard II, not shorter as we expected, was not a surprise, but was maddening – an already late night made later, by a production I didn’t much enjoy.
As I work in a school, I couldn’t take a day off to see the matinee of Henry IV Part Two, which is what Lauren did. She’d disliked Part One so much that she ended up not going, and had won tickets for a basketball game so decided to go that instead of Henry V (she bought this amazing hat while she was there). I was exhausted – I have to get up at 6 for work, and had got in at 11.30pm – so I looked up reviews of Henry V to see whether it was worth staying up for. Unfortunately, none of them convinced me, and I went to bed at 9pm instead.
I wondered, when we booked, whether it would be too much Shakespeare. I don’t think it was. Certainly, it was too many late nights for me, because of the hours I work, and the time it takes me to get home. And I felt sorry for anyone more dedicated than me, who wanted to see all four but couldn’t, because of the matinee. But I don’t think it was fundamentally too much Shakespeare. It had the potential to be exciting, and I’m sure some people got a lot out if it. I am glad that we tried it, and that the Young Barbican scheme (for 14-25 year olds) enabled us to do it – the total price for the cycle was £20 each, and for very good seats.
Ultimately, I got to see again a production that I loved, to attend an exciting event, and I am gradually losing my fear of Shakespeare.