at the Swan and Royal Shakespeare Theatres, Wednesday 15th December
The Royal Shakespeare Company are certainly firing on all the engines at the moment. Not a day seems to go by without some event to showcase the new theatres. On some days audiences are treated to more than one, and the brilliant thing is they could not be more different.
Roger Rees’ one-man show What You Will is a cross between stand-up and traditional performance, mixing anecdotes about Shakespeare with some of his most famous speeches. Rees has condensed some of the most memorable and entertaining moments of his professional life into a ninety-minute show which stretches from laugh-out-loud funny to deeply moving.
We start with Rees joining the RSC with his friend Ben Kingsley, telling us how he was given non-speaking roles, essentially playing a “mime-artist”, before moving on to greater things. We hear mention of Olivier, Richardson and Dench among others, and hear fleeting moments of greatness. Another structuring method is the use of reference to Rees’ four favourite actors, providing anecdotes on each to strengthen our understanding of the trials and tribulations faced by the Shakespearean actor.
But it is not all storytelling. Inserted throughout are references to the views of Dickens and Shaw on the Bard and advice to actors from the 1940s. Most engaging are the answers given by pupils about the works of Shakespeare, providing nuggets of hilarity at regular intervals, such as “Shakespeare was born in the year 1564, supposedly on his birthday” and “He wrote in Islamic pentameter.”
Most successful are the famous speeches, however, and the rest of the performance pales in comparison when Rees utters the Bard’s immortal words. We are treated to Sonnet 18, the Prologue to Henry V and Romeo’s address to Juliet on her balcony. Some of the most famous words in the English language spoken afresh. It sometimes seems that the rest of Rees’ show is simply a vehicle to showcase this enormous talent, but this shouldn’t sound like a criticism. Most would be happy to sit through dirge to see these lines spoken by such a wonderful actor.
Following What You Will we can kill a few hours exploring the new theatre complex. The insults chair and tower are worth a look, and one has to keep an eye and ear out for quotes projected onto various walls and spoken from small crannies. The Swan exhibition room seems somewhat lacking at the moment, concentrating on the transformation project, but will no doubt take on a life of its own when hosting new installations.
The day finishes with a demonstration of the tech in the new Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Lights, Sound, Action. We are introduced to the lighting, sound and automation managers for the company before being treated to a demonstration of each. At times there are a few too many in-jokes to be funny to outsiders, but what is said is interested nonetheless. The real treat comes at the end of the evening, when the lighting, sound and automation departments put their skills together, turning the theatre into a Disneyland-ride-cum-disco. Sound rumbles through the floor, lights swivel rapidly and levels are raised and lowered from the gods. A simple idea, but one which truly showcases the scope of the new space. A director’s dream.