Two Gentlemen of Verona, Royal Shakespeare Company, dir. Simon Godwin, RSC Schools, 20 November 2014.
Reviewed by Sarah Olive, University of York
Yesterday, I watched Two Gentlemen of Verona in a seminar room in the University of York’s Law and Management Building with colleagues and students from Santiago, Shanghai and Montana. Perhaps surprisingly, this wasn’t in the context of a Shakespeare for leadership workshop or a Shakespeare-in-small-and-unusual-spaces touring production, but an RSC schools’ broadcast. Such broadcasts have been a feature of RSC Education since the schools’ broadcast of Tim Crouch’s Julius Caesar spin off, I, Cinna (the poet) in 2012. Without being explicitly framed as educational broadcasts, but undoubtedly watched by school students, the BBC broadcast the company’s 2008 Hamlet after the production closed and 2012 Julius Caesar during its run.With new collaborators and improved technology, ‘during the 13/14 academic year 45,000 students from 610 primary and secondary schools across the UK joined… the Schools’ Broadcasts of Richard II, Henry IV Part I and Henry IV Part II’. Each production is accompanied by a teacher’s resource pack to prepare students for the broadcast. It is this school-specific framing of the production that I want to think about here. Readers seeking a detailed focus on the show itself could look at Peter Kirwan’s review for his Bardathon blog.
Weirdly, Kirwan and I are writing about the very same performance, months apart, with me seeing it weeks after its run ended (or are we? Philip Ausslander, Emily Linnemann, Kirwan, and Erin Sullivan have all fruitfully explored notions of liveness and the communality/individuality of such experiences). Implausible as this may sound, Kirwan watched the ‘Live from Stratford upon Avon’ broadcast of the performance in a Nottingham cinema on September 4 this year – a collaboration between the RSC and Picturehouse cinemas which sees productions screened nationwide, in near real-time, from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. This performance was recorded and a ‘specially edited version’ live-streamed from Ravensbourne College, London – the pre-show introduction cut to media students slaving, and waving, away in an editing suite – to around 16,000 teachers and students in 300 UK schools on Thursday 20th November 2014.
If you’re finding my explanation of this a bit convoluted, I’ve only just sorted out the live wheat from the recorded chaff (pardon the facetiousness of that binary) myself. I’m writing twenty-four hours after the end of the event, having made copious reference to RSC webpages and twitter conversations with @veldaelliott. At the time, I struggled to answer my fellow viewers’ questions about whether the performance was a ‘live’ one. It could be that I’m slow on the uptake. The fact that the run had ended; there was no Two Gentleman performance evident on the bookings section of the website; the clearly visible typical RSC audience of silverspherians, rather than the children the company attracts to schools’ productions; the presenter’s (Sonali Shah) introduction of the broadcast as coming live from Ravensbourne in London , and later mention that the performance ‘was broadcast in cinemas around the worlds’ should have been explanation enough of the scope of ‘live’. Alternatively, I could attribute my befuddlement to the copious and varying definitions of ‘live’ (not to mention ‘real’ versus ‘virtual’). At least I wasn’t alone – two students asked via twitter ‘how does it feel to perform to 16 000 people live stream’? In our favour, the broadcast was promoted on the ‘Live from Stratford upon Avon’ section of the company’s website and an RSC Live logo was displayed in the top left-hand corner of the broadcast throughout both halves of the play. This may be a remnant of the theatre-to-cinema broadcast: NTlive uses a similar device. Whatever the case, the RSC certainly contributed (wittingly or otherwise) to the sense of occasion through such ambiguity.
The RSC achieved not just a sense of witnessing an occasion – but shaping and investing in it, through interactive media and student participation. There were a select few students involved in the technological aspects of the broadcast and two co-presenters interested in media careers – who gave brief, and generally confident, overviews of the plot. One, Catherine, was wise and polished far beyond her years. Later on, they provided additional commentary and read out questions for the actors off iPads – evoking the knowing enthusiasm of Match of the Day pundits or Dimbleby at a royal wedding. Less fortunate students were encouraged to email questions for the post-show discussion with the actors, to tweet @RSC_Education and to use the hashtag #TwoGents. Selected questions scrolled across the bottom of the screen before and after the show, and during the interval, displaying students’ first names and institutions. That this anchored attention, at least to the banner, was shown when @CityofHerondxle tweeted ‘we were all screaming when our question came up’. More passive students, teachers, and a certain university lecturer, got their kicks from spotting themselves on the map that showed how many schools were watching and their distribution across the UK or seeing their institution listed in the closing credits (photographing these and then tweeting them seemed a reasonably popular way of affirming your involvement).
Repeatedly requesting students to email in questions (or to use the form on the website), stressing that only questions received that way would be asked, avoided the scenario experienced with I, Cinna where the RSC set up a live-chat post-show discussion, from which to draw questions, but which was rather inundated with scatological jokes, unreasonable dissing of the event, and students taunting their classmates online for all users to see. Those sorts of responses still happened here: notable ‘joke’ tweets ranged from a benign picture of a potato (presumably to test what was being published/ignored) to bestiality, masturbation and sex jokes. Some tweeting students gratuitously mocked the production, play and Shakespeare, while others rated the actors’ sex appeal. Others still flaunted bigotry, with tweets about the actors and other tweeters including abuse against women, those with learning disabilities, and sizeism. The tweets arguably provide evidence that ‘lad’ culture and, to a lesser extent, online abuse is prevalent among school-age Twitter users of both sexes. At least, from the RSC’s viewpoint, on this occasion, such ‘banter’ didn’t appeared in any material hosted by them (probably a necessity given that Two Gentlemen aimed to attract a primary, as well as secondary, school audience).
Conversely, there was plenty of evidence of genuinely engaged opinions (largely poor, of Proteus – played by Mark Arend– and of what many students saw as Julia taking him back) and questions. More than anything else, students asked about actors’ experiences (with the play, with becoming an actor) and attitudes (towards their costumes, characters, learning lines, and the ‘old-fashioned language’). Students evinced a demonstrable thirst for professional advice on acting and directing, spanning methods and careers, and a curiosity about the choice of play. Tweeting Shakespeareans/Early Modernists might have witnessed myself and @andykesson discussing costume and set updatings or anachronisms (in relation to the Sam Wanamaker theatre) – specifically thinking about what sorts of audiences notice them and engage in making meaning out of them. To further that discussion here, a raft of students here asked about the modernisation, distinguishing capably between modernised setting and Shakespearian language, asking about the rationale for, and practicalities of the combination. One eagle-eyed student asked whether the actor playing Launce (Roger Morlidge) had chosen to wear Crocs, and whether they were his own beforehand. Much of this ‘sensible’ question-asking was clustered around particular schools – suggesting the teachers had submitted a pre-assembled, carefully screened, list of questions. A final point, regarding interaction, was the way in which the RSC made participation possible through a concerted attempt at widening access: this was a free broadcast available in a wide-range of educational settings – including home schoolers and universities in addition to schools – with a (BSL) signed version available at the click of a button. Moreover, it gave students a vastly better view of the action than the seats that schools and parents can usually afford to occupy in the theatre.
But, in opposition to the RSC’s mantra ‘start it earlier’ and agreeing with Dame Helen Mirren (both of us firmly tongue-in-cheek), can too much access to Shakespeare, too soon, be a bad thing? I want to consider the suitability of the play for school students. The production – intended by the director, Simon Godwin, to highlight the youthfulness of the central characters and the idea of turbulent young love – foregrounded the play’s parallels with others which school students may have encountered. Similarities with Romeo and Juliet were striking: a young girl with a funny, more matronly, confidante; a mean and watchful father; a sympathetic ‘friar’; the hatching and failing of runaway schemes. Additionally, in this production, an Italian 1950s setting recalled West Side Story and RSC Mafioso style productions of Romeo and Juliet and there was even a balcony (rather than the tower which the characters referred to Silvia – Sarah McRae – being shut up in). The emphasis of the production on the play’s messages of forgiveness and reconciliation may have felt familiar to students of Taming of the Shrew and Much Ado, the boy-disguised girl seeking a lost male at the home of a wealthier woman to those of Twelfth Night. Such students are likely to be in secondary school – and the RSC acknowledged on its website that it had KS3 students in mind when planning a teacher’s pack focussed on rehearsal room techniques used by the director.
As regards its suitability for younger students, I am torn. Those in KS2, ages 7-11, were specifically targeted by this production; although the RSC advised teachers that students unused to viewing Shakespeare should watch only up until Julia meets Silvia; suggesting the RSC itself perceives the need to caveat its schools’ manifesto. The feminist in me baulked at impressionable students’ exposure to Launce’s misogynist catalogue of desirable female traits – compounded by commendatory or complicit laughter from the older audience who viewed it live. But, by the same token, I enjoyed the female solidarity shown between Silvia and Julia (Pearl Chanda) and the ambiguous ending: although most students writing in read it as reconciliation, Chanda explained that the audience is meant to decide whether to embrace or slap Proteus. Personally, I could take or leave the mimed masturbation and sex gags: they (along with Julia’s bandaged but still prominent breasts) would probably have been appreciated by older school students, and lost on younger ones, but elicited silence from the adult audiences caught on camera and watching with me, because they were painfully obvious. The Mary Whitehouse in me worried about the potentially distressing effect on primary school students of the blood on Proteus’ arm, the gun and knife. These weapons seemed rather superfluous, since the director instead opted to have Valentine repeatedly dunk Proteus’ head in a water butt: something the RSC also used in the 2009 Comedy of Errors Young People’s Shakespeare. If this is supposed to be a ‘soft’ form of violence suited to children, because (as staged by the RSC) it leaves no visible damage on the victim, I’d urge directors to consider that holding classmates’ heads under the flush has been a staple of changing room bullying in schools and waterboarding appears to have been prevalent enough at Guantanamo Bay for the US to ban its use with detainees in 2009. As Kirwan has pointed out, the staging almost entirely lost Proteus’ change of heart. Proteus’ attempted rape of Silvia felt helpfully less out-of-the-blue than when reading the text, due to the second half’s pronouncedly darker edge to than the first (it kicked off with the outlaws’ snaring Speed – Martin Bassindale – and Valentine – Michael Marcus – in the forest). But I still wondered how primary school age children would react to this depiction of sexual violence, what questions they would ask their teachers and how well their teachers were equipped to discuss the play’s sexual and other violence with children. Kirwan didn’t find this production sinister enough for an adult audience, but it certainly didn’t shy away from presenting dark matter to primary students – including in the post-show discussion, where Gerard-Martin (Turio), elucidating the play’s theme of forgiveness, rather chillingly argued that ‘the people you love can hurt you the most’.
In terms of cinematography and technology, during, pre-, and post-show, the broadcast was superb. There were impressive graphics to hand which, along with the RSC’s red and white colour theme strongly evoked BBC news programming. So it feels unfair but necessary to mention a glitch which came at such an awkward and critical moment (hyped up as such by the actors’ emphasis on the theme of forgiveness in the Q&A) that it jeopardised the production’s ending and take-away message (or perhaps I’m just easily distracted – at the Globe’s superb Tis Pity last week, an audience member noisily fleeing the house on Putana’s entry post-gouging, a dramatic faint in the gallery and craning to see Nicole Kidman on a bench meant I nearly missed the Cardinal’s eponymous closing speech). Julia, stripped to the waist save for her bindings, had just touchingly spoken the lines‘It is the lesser blot, modesty finds,/ Women to change their shapes than men their minds’ (V.iv.109-10), when the broadcast cut to photographs of grinning (sometimes gurning) students submitted by schools. The tech crew quickly realised their mistake, rewinding to and partially replaying the opening scene of the second half, before fast-forwarding, to Valentine’s reconciliatory ‘Come, come, a hand from either’ (V.iv.117). The glitch meant that Proteus’ acknowledgement of his errors was cut (thus exacerbating the production’s already muted sense of the exchanges between him and the other characters in this scene). Not obviously bereft at this loss, Twitter responded with sarcastic comments such as ‘Well done, great quality’, ‘Please have a word with your technical team’, and the probably incidental double-entendre ‘IT FROZE HAHA’, so I can only imagine the work teachers had to do to settle students down again (three hours after the broadcast commenced and seconds away from the forecast finish time).
This blip was an unfortunate accident, perhaps momentarily causing the RSC to ponder whether they really should work with children and animals (we heard tales aplenty of Crab’s – Mossup –mischief from the interviewed actors). Overall, it was an engrossing production of a problematic text. The sharp, designer suits and luxe slippers caused this to be the only theatre production where menswear has ever caught my attention more than women’s (excepting, perhaps, The Romans in Britain). The reworking of the popular song ‘Tu Vuo fa l’Americano’ as ‘Milano’ in an opulent house-party-cum-club scene also survived the transmission particularly well. This (mainly) slick, still-novel schools’ broadcast format, of a rarely-performed play, in a production for a general audience, appealed to (most) teachers and students. Moreover, it did so largely without manifesting a quality I’ve noted elsewhere in RSC productions explicitly designed for young audiences (and for which reviewers, not exempting myself, are sometimes noted): condescension.