Vault Winner: Theatre Archives

AllsWell1981

Originally written for The Stage.

Think of the archive and the images that typically jump to mind are of dusty vaults and painstakingly catalogued documents. This picture could not be further from the ephemeral immediacy of performance, which for many is defined by its liveness. But what about the traces that theatre leaves behind?

After the final curtain call, a production leaves in its wake a whole swathe of material: costumes, scripts, director’s notes, programmes, set designs. For many theatres and companies, collecting and saving these objects is a central part of their work, establishing huge archives for future practitioners, students, researchers and theatregoers. How these archives are assembled, managed and disseminated can therefore have a significant impact on the theatrical influences passed down to the next generation of artists and audiences.

For theatremakers, the archive can be an invaluable source of research and inspiration, as well as a reminder of the tradition in which they are working. Geraldine Collinge, Director of Events and Exhibitions at the Royal Shakespeare Company, places the emphasis on “seeing the archive and the collection as part of our ongoing body of work”, positioning their current productions within the context of the company’s history. She also explains that the archive forms an important part of the creative process, often acting as a first port of call for directors starting work on a new production.

Similarly, the archives at Shakespeare’s Globe are a vital part of the ongoing life of the theatre. As Head of Courses and Research Dr Farah Karim-Cooper explains, supporting the creative team in the researching of new productions is one of the key roles played by the theatre’s archival material. “The main thing about the archive is that it’s not just a repository,” she stresses, “it’s a place where research is actually produced and feeds into the work of the organisation.”

And theatre archives are not just a useful resource for practitioners. Kate Dorney, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Performance at the Victoria and Albert Museum, notes that the appeal of their collections is surprisingly broad. “It’s a fairly even split between practitioners and researchers,” she tells me. “Directors and actors often come in to see videos to prepare for shows or auditions, designers come in for inspiration, we get lots of students, academics, TV and film researchers, family historians, authors – all sorts.”

With the advance of ever more sophisticated digital archiving systems, however, the way in which this material is accessed is shifting. Although Collinger thinks the move to digital has not affected archives quite as dramatically as it has other areas of the theatre industry, she says that “what is transformational is that more people will have access to them and they won’t be so rarefied”. As archives gradually become digitised, the information that they contain is increasingly accessible without the need to go to a physical archive, which often involves a complex registration process.

Dorney equally points to a “process of democratisation” around the online archive and to new opportunities for engagement. The V&A, for instance, recently produced Played in Britain: Modern Theatre in 100 Plays as an iPad app, collecting material from its archives in an interactive format. “The idea of the app was to give you the experience of coming into the reading room but having everything at your fingertips,” says Dorney. “It’s our attempt to make people understand how you can relate the different areas of the collection to something that you’re interested in.”

For other organisations, digital now sits at the heart of their archiving project. Sarah Grochala joined Headlong as an Associate Artist in August 2012 to work with the theatre company on their online presence, both around the shows they are currently producing and their production archive. The idea, Grochala explains, is “about giving people who didn’t have a chance to see the show a chance to look at some of the material that went into it, above and beyond a script, and to be able to create an idea of it in their head”. This material might include production images, programme notes, set designs or lists of research used by the creative team. The aim is to “give people a sense of the ingredients, not the cake”.

Continuing in that spirit of democratisation, Grochala is also clear that Headlong sees this material as having a potentially wide reach. Talking about making information “immediate and easily accessible” through the web, Grochala identifies the production archives as being of interest to audiences as well as to practitioners and academics. “It’s a sort of deepening of audience engagement and making sure that that engagement can exist both before and after the show as well as during it,” she explains.

However, the digitising of the archive brings challenges as well as opportunities. Grochala emphasises that Headlong’s project is a slow one, involving a painstaking process of recovery and curation, while Dorney doubts that another app will be produced by the V&A in the near future simply because of how time-consuming it is. Money is another issue, as the process of digitising is not cheap. As Karim-Cooper explains, it’s a project that “requires huge amounts of funding”, which for a non-subsidised theatre like the Globe forms a significant barrier. The desire to digitise is clear; it is simply a case of time and funds.

Despite all these digital developments, though, Collinge is doubtful that digitised archives will ever fully supplant the real thing. “That moment when an archivist pulls the First Folio out and you’re looking at those pages – there’s something very special there,” she says. “Admittedly having a digitised First Folio would be wonderful, but I think it would be a different and a new experience rather than one that would replace physical archives.”

Photo: RSC Archive. From the 1981 production of All’s Well That Ends Well.

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As You Like It, Royal Shakespeare Theatre

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In The Forest and the Field, Chris Goode identifies the forest in Shakespeare as an inherently liminal space. It’s an area where identities blur, gender becomes fluid and appearances deceive; the usual rules are suspended and all bets are off. In an age of concrete jungles, director Maria Aberg has looked around for the equivalent contemporary space for her modern Forest of Arden and landed upon the inspired setting of the festival. In this context – usually with the aid of a few illicit substances – inhibitions drop away, social rules are bent and the real world is momentarily distant. And so it is in Aberg’s joyously liberated As You Like It.

This Forest of Arden is both transporting and transformational. Leaving behind the stylised monochrome claustrophobia of the court, illuminated by harsh fluorescent lighting and presided over by a particularly thuggish Duke Frederick, the transition into the woods is almost a Wizard of Oz moment – a sudden blooming into technicolour. Upon contact with the forest and its merry band of hippies, led by an ageing rocker of an exiled duke, characters experience a sudden, disorientating shift. By establishing this transformational space, Aberg effortlessly navigates some of Shakespeare’s more abrupt plot swerves; here, anything can happen. The only thing that’s hard to believe is why the characters would ever want to leave this woodland paradise.

By offering us Shakespeare’s play in all its untrimmed, anarchic glory, Aberg’s version (running at over three hours but feeling more like one) allows the Forest of Arden to make a strange sort of sense through its stubborn refusal to follow logic. Characters fall in love at first sight or shed personality traits like winter coats, in a plot full of swift handbrake turns. This slippery structure can prove problematic for interpreters, many of whom snip away at the more preposterous elements of the narrative, but Aberg’s approach makes one suspect that those heavily edited productions are sort of missing the point. Arden, this production convinces us, is not meant to make sense. It provides a magical, freeing contrast with the restrictions of the court, its power such that it can remould personalities within moments.

While more extreme reversals occur elsewhere, Pippa Nixon’s captivating Rosalind provides perhaps the most compelling example of the force exerted by the forest’s intoxicating freedom. In court, a gloomy and sinister space succinctly captured in Ayse Tashkiran’s brilliantly unsettling choreography, the exiled duke’s daughter is forced into a role as restrictive as her floor-length black dress – which even in this dark environment has an irrepressible sparkle akin to that of its wearer. In Rosalind’s early scenes and her first encounter with Alex Waldmann’s petulant, hoodie-wearing Orlando, Nixon keeps the character tentative, reined in despite her clear passion. It’s only in the Forest of Arden, where evening wear is exchanged for jeans and bare feet, that she is exhilaratingly freed and her immediate crush for Orlando is allowed to blossom into dizzying, mind-altering love.

Every last element of the production is harnessed to create this sense of giddy liberation that occurs as soon as the characters step through the trees. The wooden frame of Naomi Dawson’s beautifully simple set design initially shuts out the light, fiercely boarding up the court from the natural world outside, before a stunning transformation brings us amid the trees and earth of the forest. James Farncombe’s lighting makes an equally dramatic transition from the stark and anaemic confines of civilization to the warm glow of the wild, while the performers rapidly shed starched suits and rigidly inherited roles. And then there’s the music. Laura Marling’s murderously catchy soundtrack crashes together the folk traditions of an ancient rural England and the messy euphoria of the modern day music festival – two things which, according to Aberg, aren’t all that different. (“I have a hunch that the rural English rituals that are now long forgotten fulfil the same kind of need that we satisfy when we go to Glastonbury,” she says. “I think on some profound level those things are connected”)

While the play is every inch Rosalind’s (and, in this production, Nixon’s), right up to the playfully delivered epilogue, the tangle of interweaving plots offers plenty of work for a strong ensemble. It’s a joy to see Nicolas Tennant on stage again after Three Kingdoms, here embracing another kind of anarchy with his wryly shambolic take on Touchstone and even briefly breaking out of the text to deliver a bit of deadpan stand-up. Waldmann’s initially sulky Orlando offers another dazzling transformation, moving through vain posturing and wide-eyed bemusement before arriving at a true appreciation of Rosalind, while he and Nixon have fizzling chemistry from the off. There’s also impressive support from Oliver Ryan’s other-worldly Jacques and a scene-stealing moment of tenderness from David Fielder as faithful servant Adam.

Yet there remains, for all the sheer joy, a hint of darkness. The frenzied pitch of emotion feels unsustainable, a high that has to be followed by a crashing low – maybe upon return to the court, which this production establishes as a particularly unappealing reality. Given the clear reference point of the festival, it’s tempting to see such events as similar escapes from a bleak and hostile world, hinting at the efforts of a disillusioned generation to ignore the injustice of their society through a haze of drink, drugs and music. I’m not sure this social critique is quite as prominently foregrounded as Matt Trueman credits it with being, but perhaps that’s just because my experience of the production was helplessly dominated by the infectious fun of the closing scenes, to which I found myself willingly surrendering. Maybe it’s just nostalgia for the blissful abandon of the festival, but it was tough to resist the urge to leap around on stage with the cast by the end.

At its fiercely beating heart, As You Like It is really about falling in love, and this version offers us a Rosalind and an Arden to tumble head over heels for. Aberg’s chaotic production might not offer us any answers beyond the space of this ecstatic, muddy celebration, but that’s the essence of the forest. It’s a magical place apart, full of gorgeous anarchy, but – just like the festival – it is essentially a transitory state. While the music lasts, however, it’s impossible to do anything but dance.

Photo: Keith Pattison.

The Taming of the Shrew, Richmond Theatre

Ah, that old problem of the Shrew. This most irksome of Shakespeare’s plays is itself resistant to being tamed, often refusing to bend to directorial interpretations that try to smooth its rough, arguably misogynist edges. It is not a play that I can profess to having much personal fondness for and one that I doubt I will ever come to love, but the Royal Shakespeare Company’s latest attempt certainly has a spirited if slightly over-enthusiastic stab at it.

In director Lucy Bailey’s vivid vision of this troublesome play, the battle of the sexes boils down, ultimately, to sex. Bed is not just the setting for consummation of marriage, but the location for Petruchio and Kate’s entire twisted courtship, with Ruth Sutcliffe’s triumphant, sheet-draped set denoting both subtext and end point. The sparring couple’s struggles are, in this context, simply a bizarre and extended form of foreplay. The bed is also the seat of dreams, making it an appropriate stage for the fantasy drunkenly dreamed by Christopher Sly, another man with sex on the mind who is kept present amongst the action throughout in the humorous form of a gamely slurring, staggering and burping Nick Holder.

But this interpretation is not all about crude gestures, winks and nudges and a tumble between the voluminous sheets. Sex is intriguingly associated with money and, by extension, power. When Baptista, after marrying wild Kate off to Petruchio, offers younger daughter Bianca’s hand in marriage to the man who can make the highest offer, her suitors illustrate their wealth and ‘hangings’ with sexually suggestive actions indicative of their generous endowments – financial or otherwise. Meanwhile, the very crudeness of making the bed a public arena stresses the crudeness and cruelty of the marriage market, in which women and sex become commodities. By breaking away from these rigid, narrow-minded practices, Petruchio and Kate finally reach, by comparison, a more natural union.

The central relationship between ‘shrew’ and ‘tamer’ is of course the focus, carrying the burden of the piece. The sparky, wild dynamic between Lisa Dillon and David Caves bears this burden with attitude, as the pair constantly dance around once another, grapple and come to blows. Bailey has cultivated a particularly physical pairing, presenting us with two misfits who can barely stay still; Caves’ Petruchio paces, struts, fidgets and at one point even drops into press-ups, while Dillon’s hands yo-yo from hips to dishevelled hair in conveying Kate’s anger and agitation. Thus, when rare moments of forgetful stillness do arise, a strange sort of understanding seems to leap the gap between them, eventually bringing them together.

For all its bold and sexy swagger, however, Bailey’s production does not quite surmount the hurdle of this play’s undeniably tricky gender politics. Although Dillon delivers Kate’s final submissive speech in mockingly sarcastic tones, she cannot overcome the meaning behind the words, which are not sufficiently explained away by the relationship that Bailey has crafted. To negotiate the plot’s inherent difficulties we are sold a messed up love story, but despite the sexual chemistry it is a romance that struggles to be credible. Both Kate and Petruchio are certainly screwed up outsiders, but their behaviour in this production is often so outrageous that it becomes difficult to care too deeply for them.

This is sexy, brash, vigorous and often very funny fare, but it fails to fully redeem a play that still feels more than a little unpleasant. In the end, Bailey’s striking if not all that subtle bed concept says it all, in a production that gives us a lot of lust without very much love. As Petruchio and Kate finally, ecstatically jump beneath the sheets, we are left in little doubt that the sex will be great, but the morning after looks to be on rockier ground.

The Taming of the Shrew runs at Richmond Theatre until 24 March then continues on tour.