Nicholas Hytner on One Man, Two Guvnors

Nicholas Hytner on One Man, Two Guvnors. Image: Getty Images (Cindy Ord) via Blouin.

Image: Getty Images (Cindy Ord) via Blouin

This September the National Theatre return to us with One Man, Two Guvnors. Seen by more than one million people worldwide, the show is a glorious celebration of British comedy. The National’s Artistic Director, and director of this production, Nicholas Hytner looks back at how it all began.

In 2011, we had a very grim repertoire – it was serious with no laughs. This seemed like a bad idea, particularly during the summer months.

It’s always been the National Theatre’s aspiration, and certainly mine, to have a repertoire that covers the whole spectrum of what the theatre can offer and something purely entertaining seemed like a necessity. None of my colleagues were up for looking for something purely entertaining and comic and I rather enjoy doing that kind of thing so I volunteered myself for that slot.

I remembered an old play called The Servant of Two Masters by the Italian commedia dell’arte playwright Carlo Goldoni. The reason I knew the play so well was that I played Truffaldino (the character who eventually turned into Francis Henshall) at school.

I was very bad. I can remember being required to somersault because the director of the school production wanted it done in classic commedia style.  He was determined that the harlequin should be acrobatic and I was a very fat, clumsy child and teenager and absolutely couldn’t cartwheel or somersault. I nevertheless had to, and these elaborate arthritic somersaults were part of a performance which had its moments but was essentially not very good and not very funny.

So I read the play again and thought it had funny bones but was not in any of the faithful translations funny enough.  I also thought that the way to bring it alive was to get James Corden to play the central role. James had been in The History Boys at the National and in Gavin and Stacey, but had fallen out of favour and was lost in TV quiz show land. James agreed to be in it and I asked the playwright Richard Bean to make a version because I knew that one thing that would not interest me was a production in the old eighteenth century Italian commedia dell’arte style.

I had this hunch that the traditions of low Italian comedy were essentially the same traditions of low English comedy. I think that probably pratfalls and low physical comedy about the traditional comic subjects of greed, money and sex are global.  They spring spontaneously from what the human race finds funny. There is no tradition, particularly no low tradition, which doesn’t find lust, drunkenness and greed funny.

So I asked Richard Bean to transfer it from eighteenth century Venice to post-war Brighton. I reckoned Brighton and Venice, as far as this play was concerned, were interchangeable. A lot of the Italian comedies take place in Venice which was a very louche city – a city you went to for a dirty weekend.  It has been a party city longer than any other European city. It ceased to be an influential and significant centre for European trade in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and became a tourist or carnival city.

Gavin Spokes as Francis Henshall and Emma Barton as Dolly in One Man, Two Guvnors. Photo by Johan Persson.

Gavin Spokes as Francis Henshall and Emma Barton as Dolly in One Man, Two Guvnors. Photo by Johan Persson.

In The Servant of Two Masters, the protagonists escape from Turin, the big city, and hole up in Venice where inevitably funny and complicated things happen to them. Brighton’s relationship to London is much the same. It’s a place with lots of hotels, far enough away from London that you might easily disappear into it if you are on the run from the law. It’s a place with seedy picture comic post-cards.

Brighton felt right, as did various English comic traditions like variety, end-of the pier farce, Ealing comedy and Carry On films. They all felt like they were coming from the same place. So I floated all these ideas to Richard Bean. I’m not quite sure if we were talking 1940’s Brighton, 50’s Brighton or 60’s Brighton. He eventually alighted upon the early 60’s Brighton – around the time that sex was invented…according to the Philip Larkin poem. 1963 was the year he suggested – between the Lady Chatterley trial and the first Beatles LP.

And right from the first draft it felt like it would work brilliantly. We had various readings. The first reading was quite sketchy, but lots of ideas from the very first reading ended up in the play. They came from a group of very funny actors sitting around a table reading and discussing the text and working out what to do with an ancient waiter (Alfie) who behaves like a rubber ball.

Alfie was there in Richard’s first draft, and everything else that happens in the play’s climactic first act where Frances has to serve dinner to both his masters emerged in that first workshop reading. The other thing that emerged was that we needed someone to take care of the physical comedy and that was never going to be me. It’s not my area of expertise. I can’t even turn a somersault. So I asked Cal McCrystal, who is a great master of physical comedy to come on board and help come up with the great physical routines in the play.

I was also able to give the designer Mark Thompson a very clear brief – the style of the show was going to be out of variety and end-of-the pier comedy.

Even though the production was originally created around James Corden, there have now been several brilliant casts who have made the play their own – this now includes Gavin Spokes and our touring company.

One Man, Two Guvnors is at The Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury from Monday 29 September – Saturday 4 October. A limited number of discounted Discovery Tickets are available for anyone aged 16-26 years or full-time students (over 16 years).

Goodbye from our Arts Marketing Trainee, Nadia Newstead

The Marlowe Theatre's Arts Marketing Trainee Nadia Newstead

Arts Marketing Trainee Nadia Newstead

Each year at The Marlowe we take on three trainees in Arts Marketing, Arts Management and Technical Management. These are full-time paid positions where you become fully integrated in the teams – learning on the job and taking on your own responsibilities over the year.

Our current trainees are coming towards the end of their contracts, and our colleague Nadia, Arts Marketing Trainee, is leaving in just two weeks time. We’re so sad to see her go but also thrilled for her to be taking up the position of Marketing Assistant at Soho Theatre. She takes us through her experiences as a trainee ahead of saying her goodbyes…

How do you distil 10 months of your life into just a few hundred words? It’s impossible, no? Well I’ll do my best for you.

Let’s start at the beginning. When I got the call to say that I had got the job of Arts Marketing Trainee at The Marlowe I was nothing less than thrilled. It was exactly what I wanted to do and I knew it would give me that elusive one year’s experience needed to secure a permanent job in theatre administration, which is what I had been trying to achieve since graduating, without much success.

What I didn’t know was it would give me was the confidence and skills to plan and execute my own marketing campaigns, the chance to be a valued member of a dynamic and hard-working team, and some of the best laughs of my life.

I know that at the end of an experience it’s easy to see everything with rose-tinted glasses – to say that everything has been amazing and that it’s hard to pick a stand-out moment so I will try to be realistic.

There have been days where my stress levels have been higher than I would have liked, times where I have disagreed with colleagues and moments where I have wanted to go out to the yard and dance my frustration out, but there has never been a day where I have not wanted to come to work, not even when it’s been a 4.30am start or a Sunday.

Nadia adjusting costumes during a photo shoot for our pantomime Aladdin.

Adjusting costumes during a photo shoot for our pantomime Aladdin.

I have learnt about marketing different genres of shows, different marketing techniques – both traditional (posters around town) and modern (harnessing the power of social media), the importance of brand, press relations, planning and executing external events, how to lift many, many boxes, how to drive a van (!), how to work in a team and across departments, how to be flexible in the way that I work and how to get the job done.

The traineeship is brilliant because it gives you the chance to work alongside professionals and be part of a functioning theatre for a whole year; you can experience the successes and failures with your team – you can actually get to know your team properly!

This isn’t an internship, or at least not in the way that we have come to understand internships, as one, three or six month unpaid stints where you hope against hope for a job at the end. This is a paid position, where you are given basic tasks at the beginning but build up to running your own projects.

On my first day I was tasked with creating an inventory of all the print in the building. Now, I manage all incoming print and its distribution across the region, I send all the emails to our 30,000 strong database, I’ve managed two show campaigns, I’ve run external events, I’ve been the monster at Canterbury Children’s Festival (if you met Big Blue, that was me) and the back end of the pantomime cow!

Each week I have learnt something different about myself and theatre marketing.  I’ve been allowed to make mistakes and see how to rectify them. I can honestly say that I have laughed every day – even the bad ones. The Marlowe Theatre is one of the largest and best regional theatres in the country, where better to learn about theatre marketing?

I know that the scheme works because I am moving on to be Marketing Assistant at Soho Theatre in London. Not only do I have that elusive one year’s experience, I have new skills, great memories and fantastic colleagues and friends.

So apply, you know you want to.

Applications for our Arts Marketing, Arts Management and Technical Management traineeships close on Tuesday 22 July. Click here for more information on these positions.

The Marlowe meets…Ben Elton (writer of Tonight’s The Night)

Ben Elton with cast of Tonight's The Night: Andy Rees, Jade Ewen, Jenna Lee-James , Ben Heathcoate, Michael McKell  and Tiffany Graves. Photo by Phil Tragen.

Ben Elton with cast of Tonight’s The Night: Andy Rees, Jade Ewen, Jenna Lee-James , Ben Heathcoate, Michael McKell and Tiffany Graves. Photo by Phil Tragen.

Ben Elton is the protean talent whose career has spanned plays, novels, and a feature film, in addition to 30 years as one of the most successful comic writers and performers on the British television and stand-up circuit. But Elton, 54, has always reserved a special place in his heart for musicals, having written three that feature music from such diverse talents as Andrew Lloyd Webber, Queen, and Rod Stewart.

The last-named rocker was the inspiration for Tonight’s the Night, the West End show that is currently touring the UK, and is coming to Canterbury this July. He talks to theatre critic Matt Wolf about his love of the stage, and why jukebox musicals deserve a far better rap than they sometimes receive.

It’s been over a decade now since Tonight’s the Night played the West End. What’s your feeling about the show as you return to it in a fresh production this many years on?

I’ve always loved this show for the same reasons that I have always loved the theatre. It’s wonderful to be a part of this community of artists who dedicate themselves to their art. Backstage they may be rinsing their socks out in the sink or whatever and then they go out and make everybody in the audience feel like champions. What we want to say with this show, in particular, is that there’s nothing wrong with theatre being a fantastic night out that makes you feel great so that you go home feeling better than you did when you arrived – that’s what people are paying for and that’s what the theatre can do.

In fact, you were exposed to the theatre as a youngster before you were ever exposed to Rod Stewart.

Absolutely. I played the Artful Dodger [in Oliver!] twice as a kid and my first real musical theatre experience came when I was about 12 or so and I was taken as the guest of a school friend to see Grease at the Dominion Theatre – where [Elton’s Queen musical] We Will Rock You is playing now!

I love musical theatre and always have done, whereas it took some time in my own life before I started going to gigs the way that my own children [14-year-old twins and a 12-year-old] do now. Going to gigs then was nothing as prevalent as it is now; I don’t think I went to any until I got to Manchester University and saw The Talking Heads and Dire Straits

What was the impetus behind a show that tethers an original story by you to Rod Stewart’s songbook?

Well, let’s face it. It’s difficult to think of anybody more famous in the world of pop music than Rod Stewart. There may be people as famous like Bono and Paul McCartney but there aren’t many out there who can surpass what Rod has achieved. And what’s great is that when you listen to Rod’s music and then look at his life, he always seems so fabulously good-humoured, so I thought what would work might be a story that brought to the stage his grace and good humour and something of his devilish side while also recognising the fact that he sings about heartache as well as anyone ever has.

Tonight's The Night ensemble

Ensemble cast of Tonight’s The Night

Your script for Tonight’s the Night involves Satan and a so-called “soul swap” and a geeky young mechanic from Detroit who is none-too-accidentally called Stuart. How did the idea for the story come to you?

I spent a week listening to Rod’s music intensively, which of course was no hardship at all, and as I listened and listened and listened, I tried to identify the overriding spirit of the songs, which were all about love and good times and winning and losing girls and all the things that quite frankly make for good stories!

So I sat down and tried to think of something that would do justice to Rod’s own gift for storytelling and came up with a story that reminds us of that thing we’re always been told over and over again in drama – “to thine own self be true.”

How does a quote from Hamlet apply to Tonight’s the Night?

[Laughs] Our show is really about a shy kid in Stuart who wishes that he could be like Rod. He learns that you’ll do better in life if you try and build on your own strength and personality rather than being jealous and wishing you were somebody else – that’s to say, nobody but Rod can be Rod just as nobody but you can be you and nobody but me can be me: it’s a simple story, which I think is perfect for a musical.

Were you worried about what Rod would think?

I first sent a synopsis of the script to Arnold [Stiefel, Rod’s manager, and a co-producer on the show] and fortunately he loved it and said that he was going to say that to Rod and hoped that he would love it, too. To this day, I’m not sure whether Rod ever read the synopsis or not but what happened was that he came to our workshop and turned to me at the end and said, “Well, you’ve made me a legend, haven’t you?” – which was of course hilarious because he’s been a legend all along!

Still, it must have been heartening to have so strong a seal of approval. Did you have an intuitive sense that his music would translate well to the musical theatre stage?

Tonight's the Night Tour

What’s great is that Rod writes songs from the heart like Maggie May or he will choose to cover exquisite material like The First Cut is the Deepest, the Cat Stevens song, but they always tell the story of somebody going through some set of emotions – be they pride and joy and heartache or from love to hate or hate to love.

They’re all about being a guy, really, I guess – they’re guy songs – but obviously they appeal to women as well because they’re written with such sensitivity and they come with emotions that concern us all, which are love, pride, hope and the dream that tomorrow will be a better day than today.

You’ve had success with the songbooks of Rod Stewart and, of course, Queen, with We Will Rock You roaring into its second decade at the Dominion Theatre on the West End. Are there some popular singer-songwriters whom you don’t think would lend themselves to this approach?

There are. I’m busking here as I say this but I don’t think Bob Dylan’s music would necessarily work in this way; his music is too eclectic in that you can’t sit down and say, “What’s Bob’s vibe”? It’s just too crazy. And for my part at least, I’m just not that interested in writing the biography of someone set to their music. I was approached to do that as regards the genius of Tina Turner but what I prefer to do is write an original story embodying the spirit of the artist or the band.

Since Tonight’s the Night, jukebox musicals have continued to proliferate both sides of the Atlantic; a new one drawing on the songbook of Carole King and entitled Beautiful has recently opened on Broadway.

I’m not surprised and I will argue to anyone who wants to listen that jukeboxes are not something to be ashamed of! They are filled with memories and dreams and love and laughter and they are good, fun things, and the theatre can be good fun, as well. In my view, it’s a perfectly legitimate and honourable thing to seek to entertain the public with music that they love, and the fact that the music is old and the story is new strikes me as no more reprehensible than attaching new music to an old story, as with The Lion King and Billy Elliot.

One last question for now: was Tonight’s the Night always the obvious song title for your show as a whole?

No and the jury’s still out as to whether this was the right one; Phil McIntyre, our producer, still thinks it should be called Hot Legs!

Tonight’s The Night plays at The Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury from Monday 28 July – Saturday 2 August.

A day in the life of… Andrew Dawson, Creative Projects Officer

Creative Projects Officer Andrew Dawson at The Marlowe Theatre

Andy leading a session for our adult acting class, The Marlowe People’s Company.

In this series we’re going to take you behind the scenes at The Marlowe to find out about our staff. Whether you’re looking to work in the arts (but not sure what’s out there) or you’re just curious about what goes on within our building, we hope you’ll enjoy getting to know our wonderful team.

Our first colleague under the spotlight is Andrew (Andy to us) Dawson, our Creative Projects Officer. Having joined us just over a year ago, Andy’s schedule has been pretty full on.

From working with local schools on the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Learning and Performance Network, directing The Massacre At Paris at Canterbury Cathedral and our community production The Garden Of England, to more recently leading a “monster hunt” during Canterbury Children’s Festival, there’s never a dull moment!

What does a typical day for you look like?

The days are very varied and that’s what I enjoy: the variety of the job. One day I might be writing a new plan for a project or a script, speaking to teachers or partner organisations, rehearsing with a company or our creative classes. Inevitably there’ll also be the more mundane tasks such as getting through emails and admin. There’ll be coffee (to help with the admin) and there are bound to be meetings.

What inspired you to work in theatre?

Let me take you back to 1994…Oasis had just released Supersonic and television had four channels: I was a suburban teenager full of righteous indignation at the way the world didn’t work. One day, probably when my Public Enemy and Rage Against The Machine tapes were wearing thin, I signed up for a trip to see a young Michael Sheen as Jimmy Porter in Look Back In Anger at The Royal Exchange, Manchester.

What I saw was raw angst resonate in that theatre – vital and defiant. It was a play, forty years on from its opening, that still managed to rip off the smothering pall of establishment respectability, of manners and mannerisms, and scream “I won’t do what you tell me!”.

To me it sounded like Rage Against the Machine, Chuck-D or punk rock but looking and sounding a bit more like me and still grappling for a purpose. It was still shocking, still uncertain, a blow to the stomach…and I was hooked.

I’d slightly distrusted theatre at school. It was something you did for a pat on the head – being told to walk on stage, stand in the right place and say your lines nicely so your parents could clap. I now had a very different model. I auditioned for the school plays and got the lead. I kept doing plays, started directing my own and discovered Shakespeare, Arthur Miller and Harold Pinter: ruining my parents’ hopes for me of a steady, respectable career.

So how did you get to where you are today?

It’s a long and winding road…I was an actor, teacher and freelance director. I won’t regale you with too many stories of selling buttons, baking bread and all the other jobs I did between acting gigs!

I was always in search of a better sort of theatre that was is in genuine conversation with a community: listening, challenging and debating; championing aspirations and dreams; celebrating its culture and opening its embrace.

Theatre is a vitally communal experience – it must be about people and how we relate to each other. It is live, in the flesh, unmediated by technology or governed by authority. I wanted to find space to make theatre that was interested in truth as well as beauty and doesn’t reduce art, artist, audience to mere commodity. The Marlowe was a new theatre – or at least a new incarnation of a theatre – with a new space in The Marlowe Studio. I strive to make theatre like that here.

What is the best part of your job?

Seeing the work come together: the actors, participants and audiences delight in the experience.

What would you say has been your proudest moment since working at The Marlowe?

Our community production The Garden Of England in April this year saw a gargantuan task realised. It was great to see our professionals, participants, partners and volunteers working together to create an eloquent conversation on important ideas that involved so many in our community, from the very young to the very young at heart. Seeing that come together was a moment of tremendous pride, relief and also excitement at the possibilities this suggested for the future of The Marlowe.

Seeing the performances grow and develop within that week was particularly gratifying. It was engaged with serious issues that affect us all yet simultaneously managed to be fun and playful.

Favourite production you’ve seen at The Marlowe?

The Paper Birds Theatre Company’s Blind (back this Autumn) moved me to tears but Soho Theatre and nabokov’s Blink was breathtakingly beautiful. Both of these have been in our Studio.

And the production you’re most looking forward to?

That’s a tough one. There are some great things coming up such as Matthew Bourne’s Lord Of The Flies and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Henry IV Parts One and Two (two of Shakespeare’s finest and most underrated plays).

It’s The Marlowe Studio that really excites me as it’s where the new, bold writers, performers and artists get to develop their work and share it with an audience. Our new season will be announced soon…

Any advice for someone looking to get into theatre and education work?

Always strive to do the work that excites you but remember as far as everyone else is concerned, it’s not about you and that’s how it should be.

Click here to learn more about our writing and acting workshops, and our work with schools. The Marlowe Teachers & Schools Programme is supported by The Samuel Feldman NEC Fund.

The Marlowe meets…Derren Brown

Derren Brown's Infamous at The Marlowe Theatre. Photo by Seamus Ryan.

Image by Seamus Ryan.

Next week Derren Brown takes to our stage with his new show Infamous. It’s been picking up great reviews on tour and it seems you’re in for quite an evening: What’s On Stage gave it ★★★★★, calling it an ‘experience you will never forget’.

We’re excited to have this enigmatic performer with us for a week, and were lucky enough to get to know him a little better ahead of his arrival…

Infamous has been very well received by critics and the general public alike. How does criticism, good or bad, affect you when you’re performing?

It doesn’t. The only advice I really listen to is my director in the first instance, my producer, and occasionally my manager or the guys that come on tour with me make a point that I think is worth taking on board. It was clear quickly via Twitter that the show was being well received, and it’s lovely to have that backed up by the press, but aside from the relief that no-one’s complaining about it I don’t think it has any effect on the show.

It’s been well documented that you love touring. What’s the fatal attraction?

Performing the show is a huge delight. It doesn’t matter what sort of day I’ve had, the show picks me up and leaves me buzzing with adrenalin. Normally I’m fairly quiet and perhaps a little isolated, so that in itself is a lovely feeling and provides a healthy balance. But aside from that, I get my days free to read or write and am able to travel round the country with a bunch of friends, all of us knowing we’re putting on a great show every night. I can’t imagine anything nicer.

Are there any downsides to being on the road for six months of the year?

It’s tricky when you’re in a relationship. It’s a common thing with performers – you don’t see your partner for months and then it takes a while, especially for the one who’s been at home, to get used to being back together again. And if big things are going on in your partner’s life and you’re not around to support them, that’s hard too. We’re both very independent and have our own creative things going on, which helps a lot, but we’re going to make more effort next year to see each other on the road.

Will there be a new show for 2015? And any plans to tour abroad?

Hopefully there’ll be a new show, certainly. As for taking it abroad, I’ve no huge drive to, other than to see some countries I otherwise wouldn’t. So I’m in no rush, and currently don’t have the time that would be needed to go abroad and promote it and so on.

Are you pleased with how your latest TV special, The Great Art Robbery, has been received?

Yes, it seemed to go down very well. I wanted to do something less ‘dark’ than Apocalypse, and it felt like I had exhausted the hidden-camera stunt genre. You can’t do much more with an unwitting participant than end the world for him! So this was very different – quieter in some ways but a real pleasure to make.

A lot of people are saying how the recent shows have become warmer and less ‘self-orientated’. Would you agree with this? 

I’d hope so. I’m sure some people miss the mind-reading tricks but as I’ve grown up and felt less need to impress, I’ve enjoyed moving into an area where I can shift the spotlight to other people. It’s surely much more interesting watching real people steal a painting than a magician. In the latter case you’re never sure how much to believe or where his abilities are supposed to end, in which case the potential for drama is very limited.

By putting the focus on members of the public and taking a behind-the-scenes role, I can work with clear drama and story-telling. And it doesn’t have to be huge: some old people swiping a painting can hopefully be every bit as compelling as a guy fighting post apocalyptic zombies.

There are still a lot of trickery and illusions on show. Would you say that your magic roots remain as important as ever?

I seem to be in a lucky position now with TV where I can deal with a wide range of subjects. If I had been stuck with only ever being a ‘mentalist’ or magician I’d have lost interest by now. I like to use some of the knowledge I have as a magician and as a person with a keen interest in the fringe areas of psychology and apply them in ways I find more interesting than appearing to read someone’s mind. But then stage is different from TV: it’s more enjoyable for me and a much more natural home for that sort of performance. In fact it’s a huge joy. And it’s theatre, which opens up a new kind of relationship with an audience that doesn’t happen with TV.

I think it’s important in life to do what’s fun, rather than what you feel you ought to be doing, and for me now at 42, that means I have less interest in trying to impress people in real life or on TV with magic tricks, but a greater delight in trying to create these theatre shows. It might be that there’s a different unspoken contract with an audience that know they’ve come to see a show, or perhaps more selfishly it’s the adrenaline of doing it every night. Or more likely it’s a bit of both.

Either way, secular magic – and its related arts – can provide a very special experience and I’m enjoying finding ways that suit me as a grown-up of trying to provide that.

Derren Brown's Infamous at The Marlowe Theatre. Photo by Seamus Ryan

An intense moment during Infamous. Photo by Seamus Ryan.

What can we expect next in terms of TV?

Most likely the next TV show will be the televised version of Infamous. Sadly a lot always has to be cut to fit these two-hour-plus shows into about an hour of actual TV time, so the TV version never compares to seeing the shows live. Beyond that, who knows? If people retain interest, then perhaps it’s time to try something very different.

You are also writing another book. Fact or fiction?

I’m taking my time with the current book. And not fiction – I’m not sure if I could write a novel, as I don’t really read them.

What are you reading at the moment?

Schopenhauer quite avidly, while re-reading Anthony Storr’s Solitude and Darrin McMahon’s The Pursuit of Happiness. And when upon the loo, David Thorne’s The Internet is a Playground, which is truly hilarious.

Are there any plans for a new exhibition of your paintings?

Yes, hopefully at Rebecca Hossack’s London gallery late in 2014. I haven’t painted for two years so am hoping to get a chance to start again later this year.

Is there anyone left you greatly admire that you haven’t painted yet?

I moved away from painting famous people, particularly because I now only work from photographs I’ve taken myself, which was a good thing. Now I think I can return to painting known people but bring something more mature to the process.

And finally…you have 1.6 million followers on Twitter but who are you currently following?

Ha – I only follow 60 or so people. It’s a mix: Alain de Botton for my daily aphorisms, a handful of friends who use Twitter very well or make me laugh, and a few liberal intellectual types. More than that I couldn’t keep up with.

Derren Brown’s Infamous is at The Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury from Monday 30 June – Saturday 5 July. Limited tickets available. Click here to watch Derren’s past TV specials on 4oD.

From Stratford to Stratford – A Day at The Royal Shakespeare Company

The view of Stratford-Upon-Avon from the Royal Shakespeare Company.

The view of Stratford-Upon-Avon from the RSC.

One thing our job involves is seeing productions before they reach us on tour. While an enjoyable task these trips help give us a sense of the production: how it will fit into the space of our theatre, who potential audiences might be, and allowing us to meet production and marketing teams.

Last month our Arts Marketing Trainee Nadia Newstead got the chance to visit Stratford-Upon-Avon to watch the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Henry IV Parts I and II, both with us this November. Here’s how she got on…

Shakespeare’s History plays make me nervous. There’s always the slight concern that towards the interval I will get very twitchy or will have fallen asleep, despite my best efforts to try to prise my eyes open. You’re in a warm dark space, with actors reciting wonderful language – worryingly perfect conditions for a small snooze!

So when myself and Katherine, the Arts Management Trainee, headed up to Stratford-upon-Avon from Stratford (London) extremely early a couple of weeks ago I was more worried than usual. I was already very tired and I needed to be able to talk confidently to staff about the plays.

Katherine as we arrived at the RSC.

Katherine as we arrived at the RSC.

First things first – coffee, followed by a lovely discussion with Jeremy Adams, the producer, and Owen Horsley, the assistant director. They both talked about the plays warmly, emphasising the fact that they were not your typical history plays, there were some very funny moments and that there’s no need to see them in order or even both: they stand alone as separate pieces of drama.

I was rather sceptical. I know that when you are involved in a production you see it differently to an audience member, no matter how much you try to put yourself in their shoes. So after a re-fuel (lunch) and a chat with some of the staff (who were all absolutely lovely) we headed into Henry IV, Part I.

For the first ten minutes, the typical Shakespeare History play format played out: between two-four men enter stage and discuss the state of affairs in England and then exit, followed by a different two-four men from the opposite side, who enter, discuss the same affairs and then exit, and so on and so forth.

However, the mood quickly shifts when we enter the world of the Elizabethan tavern with Prince Hal, played by Alex Hassell, and Sir John Falstaff, played by Antony Sher. I smiled, I giggled inwardly, I laughed out loud. They weren’t lying – it was really funny!

Quite a large part of both plays is a slanging match of various Shakespearean insults between the tavern characters. ‘[Thou] leathern-jerkin, crystal-button, knot-pated, agatering, puke-stocking, caddis-garter, smooth-tongue, Spanish pouch!’ is just one of many from Henry IV Part I.

Reading through my programme during the interval I discovered why these tavern culture scenes exist in what could otherwise be an extremely serious and classic history play.

The history was fascinating. Henry IV took the throne from Richard II who was forced to abdicate and then murdered in prison by Henry. Taking the throne from the rightful king was something that did not sit well with Elizabeth I. She even imprisoned a historian in the Tower of London for writing a book about Henry IV. As a woman on the throne, the need to cling onto power was paramount and to have someone circulating a precedent for effectively stealing the crown was something that she couldn’t abide.

And so to avoid trouble but still make a point, Shakespeare focused on the tavern culture of the time, and the father-son relationship, with Henry IV despairing of the company his wayward teenage son was keeping. The on-stage chemistry between Hassel and Sher is lovely to watch and through the lack of scenes with his royal father, you really get a sense that Falstaff has become a father figure to the young prince, although perhaps not leading him in the right direction.

Antony Sher as Sir John Falstaff and Alex Hassell as Prince Hal in Henry IV Part I. Photo by Kwame Lestrade.

Antony Sher as Sir John Falstaff and Alex Hassell as Prince Hal in Henry IV Part I. Photo by Kwame Lestrade.

Antony Sher as Falstaff is sublime. His comic timing and way with the language makes every line perfectly understandable and engaging. His scenes with Oliver Ford Davies in Henry IV Part II are both funny and moving as two older men try to battle on in life, with the civil war raging on in the background.

As with most Shakespearean comedy, the laughter rarely exists without pathos and these scenes between the two older gentlemen, and also those at the end between the dying King and his son, are filled with emotion.

This is not high-brow Shakespeare where you can only grasp every other speech; this is accessible to all and displays true human feeling.

And so, I have to swallow my words and agree with those who know the play best – these productions are accessible, they are funny, they are not your typical history plays and you don’t need to see both to grasp the narrative. I would thoroughly recommend them to sceptics and Shakespeare addicts alike, and encourage them to relish in the throwing off of any pre-conceived ideas and just enjoy the plays!

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Henry IV Parts I and II come to The Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury from Tuesday 11 – Saturday 15 November.

Part II will be screened at the Gulbenkian on Wednesday 18 June. Check out this video trailer.


Our Aladdin launch day

Our Aladdin cast, left to right: Scott Maslen, Lloyd Hollett, Ben Roddy, Bentley Kalu, Masashi Fujimoto, Phil Gallagher, Christine Allado and David Albury.

Our Aladdin cast, left to right: Scott Maslen, Lloyd Hollett, Ben Roddy, Bentley Kalu, Masashi Fujimoto, Phil Gallagher, Christine Allado and David Albury.

It may only be June, but Sunday was all about panto! Our annual launch is the first time our pantomime cast get to meet each other (if they haven’t already done so) and is also our chance to say hello to the people who will share our theatre for two months over Christmas.

It wasn’t all about the niceties though – it’s always a busy day and this year seemed even busier. Somehow – and with the help of lots of water (it was hot!) and Ben Roddy’s jokes – we managed to do a photo shoot, film our green screen moving posters, interview cast members, film our television advert (you’re in for a treat), and record the radio ads. Phew.

Thanks to everyone (especially the cast) for making it such a productive and fun day. If we’ve started as we mean to go on, it’s going to be some show!

As you can see, pantomime isn’t just for Christmas. The launch is just one of the many activities that take place throughout the year, from casting to curtain up. Read more about this at a later date.

So, here’s Ben Roddy saying hello and introducing you to our wonderful cast.

And now for a glimpse behind the scenes…

Aladdin at The Marlowe Theatre 2014 David Albury and Christine Allado as Aladdin and Jasmine.

A costume adjustment during a photo shoot with our Aladdin (David Albury) and Jasmine (Christine Allado).

Ben Roddy and Lloyd Hollett (Aladdin at The Marlowe Theatre 2014)

Ben and Lloyd chat to a journalist in The Green Room.

Aladdin at The Marlowe Theatre Canterbury, television advert filming on press launch day

Filming for the television advert begins with a dance number from our ensemble cast.

Ben Roddy, Lloyd Hollett and Phil Gallagher in Aladdin at The Marlowe Theatre. Press launch day.

A break between filming for Ben, Phil and Lloyd.

Masashi Fujimoto as the Emperor of China.  Aladdin at The Marlowe Theatre 2014.

Masashi Fujimoto as the Emperor of China, striking a pose. Masashi has had a varied acting career but you may remember him as host of Channel 4’s Banzai!

Scott Maslen in Aladdin at The Marlowe Theatre. Press launch day.

Scott enjoying the glitter storm.

Ben Roddy in Aladdin at The Marlowe Theatre Canterbury 2014. Press launch day.

Ben really enjoying the glitter storm…

Christine Allado in Aaddin at The Marlowe Theatre 2014. Press launch day.

A happy end to the day for Christine Allado (Princess Jasmine) and Paul Hendy.

Ben Roddy in Aladdin at The Marlowe Theatre 2014. Press launch day.

And a clumsy one for Ben.

Aladdin plays at The Marlowe Theatre from Friday 28 November – Sunday 11 January. All photos by Tim Stubbings.