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“Do you ever see any Shakespeare?”

Brush up your Shakespeare? Well yes, Cole Porter, I had plenty of chances to do just that last week when I attended Shakespeare performances on three consecutive evenings: The Winter’s Tale at The Globe on Wednesday, Richard III courtesy of Shakespeare at the George in Huntingdon on Thursday and Ring of Envy aka Othello at Inter-mission Theatre in Knightsbridge on Friday.

I remember, a few years ago, telling someone remote from the performing arts industries that I review a lot of theatre. “Oh” he said, ferreting about for something appropriate to say. “Do you ever see any Shakespeare? I saw a play of his once”. I had to pitch my answer carefully to avoid being unintentionally rude. I thought about that man again as I worked through last week and wondered what he’s make of it.

The interesting thing, for me, about seeing three diametrically different takes on Shakespeare within 72 hours is that it serves as a ringing reminder of the versatility of the material. He really can be made to work for everyone – because I sat in three very different sorts of audiences too.

I didn’t actually like Blanche Macintyre’s understated The Winter’s Tale which featured, I thought, some pretty weak acting, alongside good performances, and became rather wordy and tedious. Several  critics (including Dominic Maxwell in The Times) agreed with me although others admired it and the audience at the time seemed pretty taken with it.  The Globe of course attracts a mixed audience – including theatre buffs, tourists, students and I was amused to see a couple in their 30s amongst the groundlings with a tiny baby in a front sling. You can’t start too young, as the RSC often reminds us.

Shakespeare at the George is, of course, a different kettle of fish. It’s an amateur company – established for 60 years, recalled in fondness by many pros who once cut a few teeth there and well respected locally. I’ve seen maybe 10 of their shows in recent years but I think Richard III, directed by Lynne Livingstone is probably the best yet. She and her company have found a commendable Gregory Doran-esque knack of making the verse sound new-minted so that the story telling never flags. It features several strong actors too which is even more of a feat when you remember that most of them also have completely unrelated day jobs. Who are the audience? Local people of all ages, theatre lovers, Shakespeare buffs along with friends and family of the cast who come from far and wide. SATG has a significant follower base of people who come to the shows regularly too.

And so to Inter-mission theatre and their version of Othello, in many ways the most interesting of the three evenings. The cast for Ring of Envy is a mixture of current Inter-mission youth theatre (IYT) members and former members many of whom are now working professionally. IYT is a arts-based youth mentoring programme which works with 16-25 year olds from all across London. Some are ex-offenders or at risk of offending. The inspiring Darren Raymond, himself an ex-offender who discovered Shakespeare while he was in prison, is a working actor as well as IYT artistic director and writer/director of the plays which develop from workshops with the young people. It’s not just a “worthy” venture. The standard of acting is very high. Ring of Envy is fine, moving, impeccably acted theatre and I had a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

And as for the audience? Lots of actors and directors (and I suspect an agent or two), friends and family including the four year old daughter of the actor playing Emilia along with Mark Rylance who’s a patron and is about to play Iago at The Globe – and lots of others  Another gloriously mixed bunch.

QED. Shakespeare really is a everyone’s playwright. He can – if allowed to –  speak to every man, woman and child irrespective of background, class, education, race, gender or anything else. It’s good to be reminded of that occasionally.

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Susan Elkin
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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