The Melbourne season of the Pop-up Globe has been a resounding success; so much so that it has been extended to the start of February 2018. I recommend you get there as fast as you can; to all of the plays if possible. They are all wonderful; full of energy and humour. Every student who is forced to do Shakespeare would benefit from this introduction to the famous bard. This was a highlight of the year for me, not least because it got me re-reading Shakespeare; such wonderful language, such insight into human hearts!

It’s only the second season for the two New Zealand based troupes that make up the Pop-up Globe Theatre Company; the King’s Company that performed As You Like It and Henry V and the Queen’s Company that performed Much Ado About Nothing and Othello. All of the acting is first rate, with all of the actors playing parts in two plays; a comedy and a drama. And within a single play, many of them performing in a number of different roles.

The actors come from all over the world. Iago is played by Haakon Smestad, a Norwegian-Turkish actor based in London; Jacque Drew who plays Beatrice is an American, trained in Portland; London based Jasmine Blackborow is Desdemona and another London based actor, Jonathan Tynan-Moss plays Rosalind. Touchstone is Irishman Michael Mahoney. There are only two Australians, Paul English as Exeter in Henry V and Duke Senior in As you Like It and James Haxby as Westmoreland in Henry V and Oliver in As You Like It.

However mostly they come from New Zealand. When I booked I thought this was a production from the English Globe. Not so, the whole enterprise is a New Zealand one; from concept to it’s realisation. Two enterprising New Zealanders found the Pop-up Globe and it is New Zealand actors who take on most of the major roles, Chris Huntly-Turner is Henry V; Regan Taylor is Othello, Semu Filipo is Benedick and Roimata Fox is Emilia. There are lots of Maori influences across the whole four plays; lots of Maori actors including the last three mentioned above, and there is a strong Maori flavour present in some of the costumes, blending in seamlessly to the Elizabethan ones and also in the songs sung, music played and the dances that were part of all of the plays. There was music to start with, and each play concluded with an exuberant dance which meant we always left the theatre in a happy frame of mind.

We started our Shakespeare run with As You Like It near the start of the season on 30 September. This was a night time performance starting at 8pm so our first view of the extraordinary Pop-up Globe was in the dark. Here was our first glimpse of the theatre which has been erected next to the Myer Music Bowl, across from the NGV. It’s a small walk across the grass to reach the entrance.

This is the first full-scale temporary working replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre; the second one that they built after the first one burnt down. That occurred in 1614, so the company’s marketing line is Shakespeare Like It’s 1614, sort of catchy. The founders of the Pop-up have done lots of research and reckon this structure, all metal instead of wood, is built to the same dimensions as Shakespeare’s theatre although they do not claim complete certainty. It’s based on contemporary sketches and the foundations that have been uncovered. This gorgeous building, right next to the Myer Music Bowl, looks very similar to pictures you may have seen of the Globe.

According to the program this research has resulted in it being quite small, giving a very intimate theatrical experience; it’s imposing roof covers the stage and part of the centre or yard as it was called where the groundlings stand. Two stage posts support the roof and there is a cute onion dome on top of the entrance. Some of this research was undertaken by the University of Sydney Department of Theatre & Performance Studies.They have looked at lots of historical documents, including illustrations of contemporary Elizabethan theatres, stage directions for hundreds of plays and records of props and sets to get the interior right. The stage in this version is tapered rather than rectangular which they used in New Zealand, and they are ambivalent about which works best.

Whatever the accuracy, the round structure is great and gives you interesting perspectives from all directions, although the best seats are those directly in front of the stage, those in the middle gallery. We also sat on the side, even right beside the stage, where despite one of the pillars obstructing some of the view, you felt very close to the action. On this my first night I did not take any photos of the performance, although it was made clear, it was fine to do so, so long as you didn’t use a flash. So here is a photo of the stage.

The play itself was full of energy and milked for as much bawdiness as possible. I had read it beforehand, as I’m not familiar with it at all. This helped me understand lots of references that would otherwise have escaped me. The great Shakespearean critic, Harold Bloom thinks that Rosalind is the most admirable personage in all of Shakespeare; he calls her exuberant … vital and beautiful, in spirit, in body, in mind. As he says, the meaning of the play is in the title, everything comes out as everyone likes. Almost exceptionally for Shakespeare, no harm befalls anyone in the forest of Arden where the action takes place. All of the characters run around in varying states of confusion but everyone gets what they want in the end. The right couples marry, the good Duke gets back his kingdom, and the bad Duke is redeemed.

Reading it I loved the witty repartee about relations between men and women, which given the state of my hearing, I would not have understood so well from the stage; no fault of the actors. Both Rosalind, and her cousin Celia, are played by men. So well, that by play’s end you have to remind yourself that this is the case. Rosalind is a feminist in her critique of attitudes to women, and to marriage. It was funny to see this in the middle of the same sex marriage debate.

I’m all for equality, but not marriage; like Rosalind. A wife, she says, will do as she will; The wiser, the waywarder. Make the doors upon a woman’s wit, and it will out at the casement; shut that, and ’twill out at the keyhole; stop that, ’twill fly with the smoke out at the chimney. And this: You shall never take her without her answer, unless you take her without her tongue. O that woman that cannot make her fault her husband’s occasion, let her never nurse her child herself, for she will breed it like a fool. She is also disdainful of the suggestion that men have ever died for love; men have died from time to time and worms have eaten them, but not for love.

The love story between Silvius and Phoebe allows for some fun with actors dressed as sheep and Touchstone’s duplicitous courting of Audrey leads to much bawdy tomfoolery. Bloom reckons most commercial stagings vulgarise the play because directors fear audiences won’t be able to follow the debates between the different characters: the wit of Rosalind, the rancidity of Touchstone the bitterness of Jaques. This production proves him right.

But we still get the famous soliloquy, spoken by the gloomy Jacques, played by Stephen Papps, who did it well, I like it so much I’m putting it all here:

All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players. / They have their exits and their entrances, / And one man in his time plays many parts, / His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant, / Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms. / Then, the whining school-boy, with his satchel / And shining morning face, creeping like snail / Unwilling to school. And then the lover, / Sighing like a furnace, with a woeful ballad / Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier, / Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard, / Jealous in honour, sudden, and quick in quarrel,/ Seeking the bubble reputation / Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then, the justice, / In fair round belly with good capo lin’d, / With eyes severe, and beard of formal cut, / Full of wise saws, and modern instances, / And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts / Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon, With spectacles on nose, and pouch on side, / His youthful hose well sav’d, a world too wide / For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice, / Turning again toward childish treble, pipes / And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all, / That ends this strange eventful history, / Is second childishness and mere oblivion, Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

It was great fun seeing the God of Love, Hymen descend from the roof above the stage to usher in the final tying up of all the loose ends: ‘Tis I must make conclusion / Of these most strange events. / Here’s eight that must take hands / To join in Hymen’s bands…

Our next play was Othello that we saw in the afternoon on 14 October 2017. It was nice seeing the theatre in the full light of day, and on a very warm afternoon. Still looking lovely.

Each play starts with people on stage playing music. This commences some time after people are let in the doors and gradually takes precedence as the tiers of seats and the centre full of groundlings fills up.

I didn’t re-read this play as I’m very familiar with it, having studied it and seen various performances, both live and on film. I love it, and Othello, the noble Moor. So much so, that I couldn’t bring myself to read again of his downfall and was wary of seeing it acted out in front of me. Bloom is right when he calls this Shakespeare’s most painful play. I’ve always found it so. He says it’s Othello’s tragedy, even if it’s Iago’s play. Iago speaks eight soliloquies, Othello has only three. So, Iago has the better part of the play and Haakon Smestad in the role strutted and swaggered his way through it with elan. How I hated him!

A key to maximising the tragedy at the centre of this play is to ensure the initial nobility of Othello is writ large. But, as with the start of King Lear, you don’t get much time to do it. This is a problem in all productions. But in this one Othello’s majesty in the initial scenes was somewhat undermined by the smaller physical stature of Regan Taylor who played Othello. In every other capacity his performance was terrific. I thought perhaps the comparative sizes of the two leads could have been counterbalanced by more overtly splendid costuming for Othello, but this wasn’t done. Othello only ever wore his warrior tunic.

Another general criticism of the play, not just this production, is how rapidly Othello falls for Iago’s scheming, and how quickly he doubts Desdemona. I don’t feel that is a flaw; it demonstrates Iago’s genius for evil. Bloom says Iago’s passion for destruction is the only creative passion in the play. He is the most evil of all of Shakespeare’s villains. I’m not what I am he says. Indeed he is not, and we never discover what he is and why he is intent on Othello’s complete destruction. In the tragic concluding stages of the play Othello asks; Will you, I pray, demand that demi-devil / Why he hath thus ensnared my soul and body? to which Iago says; Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. / From this time forth I never will speak word.

Othello on the other hand is quite transparent. As Iago says; The Moor is of a free and open nature / That thinks men honest that but seem to be so. He is the quintessential outsider, made more so by his marriage to Desdemona. Until then he is lauded as a military commander; but taking the fair hand of a Venetian noble is a step too far. Othello represents the possibility of the purity of arms according to Bloom, and Desdemona is the most admirable image of love in all of Shakespeare. All of the actors are great. Othello’s rapid descent into madness is brilliantly portrayed; with something reminiscent of the Haka in his bodily movements as his trust in Desdemona is frayed. Jasmine Blackborow plays the innocent Desdemona as playful and trusting even as her world is being destroyed. Tragic to watch her in the final scene. Roimata Foz is a strong and practical Emilia, bravely standing up for her mistress’ reputation even in death. As Bloom points out, it is only Emilia who betters Iago in all of the play; although it ends in her death. The death scene was neatly staged, with the big four poster bed pulled centre stage with white curtains billowing. I wept when Desdemona died.

Then I cried again, at Othello’s beautiful final soliloquy: Soft you, a word or two before you go. / I have done the state some service, and they know’t: / No more of that. I pray you, in your letters, / When you shall these unlucky deeds relate, / Speak of me as I am. Nothing extenuate, / Nor set down aught in malice. Then must you speak / Of one that loved not wisely, but too well; / Of one not easily jealous, but, being wrought, / Perplexed in the extreme; of one whose hand, / Like the base Judean, threw a pearl away / Richer than all his tribe, of one whose subdued eyes, / Albeit unused to the melting mood, / Drops tears as fast as the Arabian trees / Their medicinable gum. Set you down this, / And say besides that in Aleppo once, / Where a malignant and a turbaned Turk / Beat a Venetian and traduced the state, / I took by th’ throat the circumcised dog / And smote him – thus!

Once again at the end, we had a character swinging aloft from the roof above the stage, although in this instance it was a bloodied Iago, being lifted, crucifix like to be tortured. After which, to break the sense of desolation from this tragic tale, the whole troupe took to the stage to dance. Which was lovely.

We saw our third play, Much Ado About Nothing on 28 October 2017. This was another night time show, commencing at 8pm although it was still light enough when we walked to the theatre.

This time we were situated in one of the stately rooms alongside the stage; almost directly opposite where we sat for As You Like It and where Eleanor and a friend were sitting. We were in the Sydney Room, complete with portrait. It was fun, although our view of the stage was interrupted by one of the columns holding up the roof. I liked being able to see all of the crowd.

This is another of the plays that I’m not particularly familiar with although I have seen, and enjoyed the Kenneth Branagh film. So I read it again. It’s great fun. And another one filled with feminist moments. Here the debate about marriage is much more direct than in As You Like It. Neither Beatrice: I would rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he love me, nor Benedick: prove that ever I lose more blood with love than I will get again with drinking, pick out mine eyes, with a ballad-makers’s pen, and hang me up at the door of a brothel-house for the sign of blind cupid.

Jacque Drew, playing Beatrice with a broad American accent, had of the most powerful lines of the night when she stormed to the front of the stage and O God that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the market-place. The full speech, which is her response to Benedick when he asks whether Claudio is her enemy is very powerful: Is a not approved in the height a villain, that hath slandered, scorned, dishonoured my kinswoman? O that I were a man! What, bear her in hand until they come to take hands, and then with public accusation, uncovered slander, unmitigated rancour – O God that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the market-place.

She said it with uplifted clench fists with such fury that she certainly supports Bloom’s contention that this line in Shakespeare goes well beyond gender politics in authentic savagery. Made all the more potent because it comes in the midst of much banter and frivolity as she and Benedick try to work out whether the one truly does love the other, as indicated by their friends. Beatrice is determined to test Benedick to the full, when after he asks her what he needs to do to prove his love for her; Kill Claudio!

The gulling of both Beatrice and Benedick by their friends is done really well. Beatrice, lounges on the balcony overhanging the stage when she overhears Ursula and Celia talking about how, despite appearances to the contrary, Benedick really loves her. Benedick, played by Semu Filipo, is seated on a swing, swigging from a can of Sprite, above Don Pedro and Claudio when they speak of Beatrice’s, well hidden, love for him. A visual joke, reinforcing the joke being played on him. Both Beatrice and Benedick were very engaging in their initial hostile bantering and then the confusion arising from the joke and the audience is certainly hoping that they will truly fall for each other. Their final kiss, which as Bloom points out, serves to silence Beatrice, she speaks no more in the play, is met with huge applause.

I tend to agree with Bloom who says Dogberry is one of Shakespeare’s few failures at comedy, with his malapropisms constituting only one joke which is repeated too often to be funny. Except that in this production, Dogberry, is played exuberantly, by Kieran Mortell, with lots of slapstick moments. He is the conduit between the audience and the action and does it very well. At the end, he makes off to get married with one of the other policemen, to loud applause, in a funny and fitting gesture of support for the same sex marriage survey currently underway.

The plot involving Claudio and Hero is pretty silly, and Bloom reckons it demonstrates that Shakespeare was not that interested in plotting his plays, being more interested in human psychology. It’s interesting to contemplate whether Shakespeare intended Claudio and Hero to be the starring roles, rather than Benedick and Beatrice, which from the start were regarded as more interesting. Either way in this production, as in all others, the major focus is on the latter two.

Nevertheless Theo David as Claudio, and Victoria Abbott as Hero, did as much as they could to make their roles sympathetic and believable. Hero’s anguish at being falsely accused of betrayal was heart breaking, her acceptance of Claudio with him thinking she was someone else was not. Lots of scenes, especially the ball where Don Pedro presses Claudio’s suit on Hero and the final wedding scene had a very strong Maori flavour. The masks at the ball, the men’s traditional skirts, the flowers in the women’s hair and the use of woven mats all contributed. All very well done. The audience was invited to turn our mobile phone lights on to light the way of Don Pedro and Claudio when they sneak up to watch, what they believe is Hero being unfaithful. It looked great, looking out at everyone. These photos give you a strong sense of what it was like being in the round.

Again, Harold Bloom, tells us, the play’s meaning is in it’s title. This is all much ado about nothing very much!

Our final play was Henry V on what was originally going to be the final day of the Pop-up Globe’s Melbourne season, 12 November 2017. This has now been extended to 2 February. We saw this play at 6pm. I’m familiar with it having seen it both on stage and another Kenneth Branagh film, which was great. So I didn’t read it beforehand. Success or failure largely depends upon the casting of Henry I reckon. And in the role, Chris Huntly-Turner was everything you wanted him to be.

I didn’t take my phone, but here are a couple of pictures I took on Joe’s; during the great St Crispian’s Day speech, which was satisfactorily stirring. This gives you a feel for the close interaction with the audience.

It’s a great speech: We few, we happy few, we band of brothers, / For he to-day that sheds his blood with me / Shall be my brother, be he ne’er so vile / This day shall gentle his condition: / And gentlemen in England, now a-bed, / Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here, / And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks / That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

All of the war bits were very satisfactorily done. Lots of sword fights, storming of the castle, bits of fire whizzing through the air. Some poignant bits. Fluellen questioning the value of war. The part provided in the play for a chorus was replaced by a single cleaner who kept us all up to date with what was happening; ingenious and effective.

After seeing the play I read a bit about some of the political uses to which it has been put. It’s a natural for patriotic exhortations for the English, and perhaps for Empire. During World War II Churchill prevailed upon Laurence Olivier to leave out from his film of the play, the traitorous dukes – no room for traitors in England during a world war. And both Olivier and Kenneth Branagh removed reference to Henry’s furious order to kill all the French prisoners; which has been found to be a war crime according to the rules of warfare pertaining at the time. No such sensitivities here; both were included as set out in the play itself.

All of the plays were terrific. The whole theatre experience – set design, costumes, staging and tone – was perfect. The acting from everyone was spot on. While the lead roles were critical in all of the plays the whole ensemble worked perfectly together. There was a sense of joie de vivre about each performance. As well there were lots of really inventive touches, the sheep in As You Like It, the use of the bed in Othello, using Dogberry as a sort of conductor to the action of Much Ado About Nothing, replacing the chorus in Henry V with a cleaner, the use of the stage balcony at different times to great dramatic effect, Hymen descending and Iago ascending through the roof. Comic moments in all of the plays were milked for all they were worth, also to great effect. There was lots of interaction with the audience, lots of it off the cuff in response to current events, the Grand Final, the same sex marriage survey (always supporting a yes vote), anything that happened in the theatre, for example a fork being dropped from one of the upper tiers. The actors leapt into the groundlings often and bantered with audience members, who all rose to the occasion! Plus spraying them with various liquid; there were signs saying that all the blood, urine and champagne being thrown around were fake! All of this gave the plays an impromptu, lived in feel that you don’t often get. This feeling was enhanced by the shape of the theatre. You did feel as though you were experiencing it as Shakespeare’s contemporary audiences would have done. The exuberant dance at the end of each play, involving all of the actors involved, was a great touch.

While we experienced the theatre from different angles, we at all times had cushioned seats under cover. Eleanor decided to experience the full set of options and went as a groundling on 24 October 2017, which just so happened to be one of the wettest nights experienced in Melbourne for some time. She got wet through. I’m not sure that the little poncho’s would have been much protection. Nevertheless she says she enjoyed the experience very much.

Going to and from the theatre we ran into members of the casts from time to time. They were very obliging to patrons, standing around to be photographed after the show. Henry V was a popular subject. Once, crossing the Yarra at Princes Bridge we had a conversation with Stephen Butterworth who played Alice, Katharine’s lady in waiting and Montjoy, the swarmy French courtier. He told us it was bedlam behind the stage during Henry V. At one stage he came on without his veil as Alice, revealing his grey goatee beard! On the evening of the results of the same sex marriage survey, Eleanor snapped this picture which includes Henry V and Rosalind, at the celebratory party at the VTHC. She got to speak to Henry. Nice to have the troupes as part of the Melbourne community. They’ve been with us a long time.

[Note: The quotes from Harold Bloom above are taken from Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Fourth Estate, 1999. A great book in which he provides background, context and deep analysis of all of Shakespeare's plays.]


2 Responses to Shakespeare In The Round

  1. Pauline says:

    Great read…we loved Othello and Henry V. I’m not that fussed on Shakespeare’s comedies so didn’t book for those. Looking forward to Macbeth which starts in NZ soon – maybe a trip is in store!

  2. Books 2017 says:

    [...] Shakespeare In The Round [...]

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