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Play-reading report – Twelfth Night, Edinburgh, 12th Oct, and Hamlet.

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I have just had a busy Shakespeare week-end. Friday night I went to Hamlet directed by Dominic Hill in Glasgow at the Citizens, with Brian Ferguson playing Hamlet. On Sunday we had a play-reading of Twelfth Night in the afternoon.

 This post is a report on that play-reading, but I’m afraid that the two plays have got a bit muddled in my mind, so you’re going to get a bit of both. Not that that is wholly inappropriate. The two plays were written within a year or so of each other, so perhaps the same problems were of interest to the writer, and are addressed to a greater or lesser extent in the two very different plays.

 I wasn’t expecting to enjoy Hamlet. The last production I saw was Nicholas Hytner’s production with Rory Kinnear as Hamlet. That was, for me, such a definitive version, that I couldn’t imagine anything else living up to it. By providing us with a modern surveillance state background, complete with “the paraphernalia of a modern dictatorship: security men with mobile phones; bugged bibles; surveillance cameras; etc” ( see review at: Review of NT- Live – Hamlet ), the security paraphernalia made Hamlet’s paranoia understandable. Brian Ferguson’s Hamlet shows the same mixture of paranoia and sanity, but in the context of a ‘normal’, dysfunctional, Glasgow family. Within a few minutes of the play starting, I was gripped again by the well-known story, but told in such a different way, and enhanced by the strong Scots and Irish accents, more vigorous and appropriate than Received Pronunciation. An extraordinary evening.

 On Sunday, with Hamlet still buzzing in my brain, we prepared for a play-reading of Twelfth Night, using our MFFE edition of the play, with roles allocated by our castcards. For the first time we had more readers than planned – two more, though only one more than the castcards support. A moment of panic ensued, before improvisation came to the rescue. Two readers shared one part (Feste) each taking one half of the play. (Afterwards both individually told me that they had rather enjoyed only reading for half the play – it left them free to listen, with no pressure.)

 So who are the people who come to our play-readings. I guess they’re a fairly standard mix for play-readers everywhere. There was an ex-English Literature professor in her 80s who had played Sebastian at school (this time she played Fabian for a change), and our youngest was just under 18. (She’d played Viola when nearly 16 in our Community Theatre production, and got a ‘Performer of the Week’ award from Joyce McMillan – the doyenne of Scottish theatre critics. This time she played Olivia). Then we had three or four professional actors, keeping their Shakespeare hands and hearts in, as well as a number of amateur Shakespeare lovers.

 We run the playreading over a Sunday afternoon. People arrive around 2:00pm and the Twelfth Night reading got underway by 2:20 and was over just after 5:00pm, with a 15 minute interval. Not bad, maybe two and a half hours running time. Pace, pace, pace.

 The reading went well. In a good reading, the readers become engaged with the play in two ways. They play their parts, but they are also the audience who listen to the performance. This can create a very special atmosphere where the readers are laughing at, or being moved by, the play, and are still playing their parts seriously.

 For this readthrough, we had a Scots, female Malvolio. I’ve always thought that there’s more than a touch of the Scottish Presbyterian about Malvolio, so this went well.

 We also had a singer reading Feste who knew the traditional version of  ‘When that I was a little tiny boy’ so our readthrough ended with the closing song beautifully sung.

 This year, after each playreading we finish with some tea and sandwiches and a bit of a discussion. After Twelfth Night, a vigorous debate broke out. Everyone had their own view or question as to what the play was about. Despite Gertrude’s advice to Polonious “More matter with less art”, verbatim notes of that discussion would be likely to confuse. Perhaps the following quotes will give a feel for the discussion:

 “What I want to know is what this play says about reality”;  At the very start, Viola says she’s going to be Orsino’s Eunuch – whatever happened to that?”; “Of course the main theme is of the conflict between Catholic and Protestant views.”; “There’s a feel of time slipping by – “Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty. Youth’s a stuff will not endure.”  Were the Lord Chamberlain’s men getting a bit past it?”; “What does the dark prison represent?”;  “Sir Andrew is always saying ‘Me too’ to comic effect, but then his ‘I was adored once too’ can move us.” “Why doesn’t Feste like Viola?”; “What would an all-female Twelfth Night be like?”; “All the people in love are suffering from delusional love – except Sebastian and Antonio”; “All is subjective”.

 Three things stick in my mind from the play and the discussion.

 There is a conversation between Feste and Viola in A3S1 about the nature of language:

FESTE.
… To see this age: A sentence is but a chevril glove to a good wit, how quickly the wrong side may be turned outward.

VIOLA.
Nay that’s certain: they that dally nicely with words, may quickly make them wanton.

FESTE.
I would therefore my sister had had no name Sir.

VIOLA.
Why man?

FESTE.
Why sir, her name’s a word, and to dally with that word, might make my sister wanton: But indeed, words are very Rascals, since bonds disgraced them.

VIOLA.
Thy reason man?

FESTE.
Troth sir, I can yield you none without words, and words are grown so false, I am loath to prove reason with them.

 Now we don’t hear Shakespeare’s voice very often in his plays, but I wonder if there is more than a touch of his thought about the nature of language in this exchange.

 And I’m not quite sure why, but it reminds me of Hamlet. In his paranoia, he doesn’t trust anyone, but he does seem to like the players, who are always playing a role, and in particular, he compares himself unfavourably to the Player:

 Hamlet.

Oh what a Rogue and Peasant slave am I?
Is it not monstrous that this Player here,
But in a Fiction, in a dream of Passion,
Could force his soul so to his whole conceit,
That from her working, all his visage warmed;
Tears in his eyes, distraction in’s Aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole Function suiting
With Forms, to his Conceit? And all for nothing?
For Hecuba?
What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her?

And a final thought from the discussion. The letter that Maria writes to trick Malvolio, is subtle. Using every bit of her knowledge of Malvolio, she writes a letter which encourages him to discover what he most desires in the letter, and fall into the trap that she has set him.

This seem to me to be similar to what Shakespeare and The Lord Chamberlain’s Men do in the plays, though without the intent of tricking us. The writing encourages us to find meaning in the plays.

 Next month (9th November) we read King Lear, provided I’ve finished editing the MFFE version of the script and produced that castcards.

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