The company en masse, outside the great yellow palace of a theatre where they played in Zagreb. There is a cast of 23, ten production people, three musicians, four drivers to escort the set round Eastern Europe, and sundry wives and children. If you look hard, they are all in the picture. Going round the front group from left to right are: Hugh Keays Byrne (Snug), black hair and beard; Jack Moore (Starveling) in a long Afgan; Zhivila Roche (Hermia); Philip Sayer (Lysander) in red; Alan Howard (Theseus/Oberon) in a short Afgan; Gemma Jones (Hippolyta/Titania); the Meyer twins (Demetrius and a Fairy); Jennie Stoller (Helena); Robert Lloyd (Puck) kneeling; Philip Locke (Egeus/Quince) with his hand on Puck's shoulder; Barry Stanton (Bottom) bearded, in blue denim; Hal Rogers (who managed the tour) in a cap immediately behind........
The English actor has longish hair, and shaded spectacles. He is wearing extremely faded blue denim jeans and jacket and a white peasant Rumanian blouse. On his feet are baseball boots with the laces undone, and around his neck three silver chains, from one of which is suspended a cornu, an animal's tusk worn to ward off evil spirits, such as Sicilian fishermen suspend from their boats. He is regarded with a nice mixture of contempt, humour and indulgence by the Bulgarian waiter of the Hotel Hemus, Sofia, who is wearing a dinner jacket and a bow tie, and who has just been explaining that out of the 100 or so dishes on the resplendent menu in front of him, only one main course and one pudding is actually available. The Bulgarian waiter leans forward with a confidential air and the supreme assurance of those who speak fractured English to those who speak no Bulgarian. Mansel, he says, firmly, indicating the chains, jeans and baseball boots. Mansel? Mansel family, he says, waving his arms in the air. Charles Mansel family. The light of international understanding slowly begins to dawn. Charles Manson? says the English actor, doubtfully. The waiter nods energetically, a broad grin from ear to ear. It is by no means clear whether this is an insult, a conversation opener, a compliment, or merely a triumphant demonstration of the waiter's familiarity with contemporary Western culture. The English actor smiles the polite smile of one who has been outmanoevred on foreign territory, and an old line from a Paul Newman movie bounces into my head. What we have here is a failure to communicate. If this is what happens with waiters, what is a Bulgarian audience going to be like?
The English actor is with the Royal Shakespeare Company, in Sofia to give four performances of the Peter Brook production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. The production is on a world tour of a year's duration, and has already played in Southampton, Bristol, Berlin, Munich, Paris, Venice, Belgrade, Milan, Hamburg, Budapest, and Bucharest. It is going on to Zagreb, Cologne, Helsinki, and Warsaw before returning to another season in London, Stratford and the provinces. It also goes to America for a three-month tour of the West Coast, and is then scheduled to run for another three months, in Japan, and in Australia.
There are some formidable logistics involved here: a cast of 23, plus three musicians, 10 technical and production people, various wives, mistresses and children, two complete stage sets, eight sets of costumes, two large pantechnicons, driven by four drivers to get the equipment around Eastern Europe - a total of 73 performances of the same play in just this first, European, three-month leg of the tour.
It is the longest and most extensive tour with a single play that any major English company has ever made - longer and more gruelling than any previous RSC tours which have taken such productions as the Brook/Scofield King Lear (around Europe and behind the Iron Curtain) and the John Barton Troilus and Cressida (America) on similar expeditions.
In recent years, the RSC's foreign tours together with television and film work have contributed greatly to their revenue. For the year 1971/72, for example, defecit on providing live theatre in Britain was £76,412; income from foreign tours and other work was £73, 356.
This production had received invitations from theatres all over the world: there was even a rumoured coup de grace - the company was negotiating/praying that, thanks to the recent Sino-American thaw, they might even take it to Peking. Peking! Listen, after you've watched two English technicians explain to an ex-Olympic Bulgarian weight-lifter-now-turned-stage-hand how to operate a trapeze cued by closed circuit television, via an interpreter who has no knowledge of technical stage terms whatsoever, even the People's Republic of China sounds like an easy bet.
It had all started in Paris, where Peter Brook has his own experimental theatre company, and where the almost new cast of A Midsummer Night's Dream had just five weeks rehearsals in which to re-create the original production (seen here earlier at Stratford and the Aldwych, and in New York), and also to explore it in new ways with new people. Rehearsals were held in the Mobilier National - a great echoing barn of a place on the Left Bank. Only five people in the cast remained at that point from the original production: Alan Howard, playing Theseus/Oberon; Barry Stanton, who now plays Bottom; Hugh Keays Byrne who now plays Snug; Terry Taplin, playing Lysander; and Glynne Lewis who played Demetrius on the early stages of this tour. The rest of the cast were new to the play and from widely assorted theatrical backgrounds: Jennie Stoller who plays Helena, had never played Shakespeare before, and had been working with the experimental group, The Freehold; Gemma Jones, who plays Titania/Hippolyta had come from two successful West End runs and much work on television.
At the start it looked as if there was a jinx on this production. Terry Taplin jumped off the set onto a concrete floor and broke both heels; he was out of the tour until America. Jennie Stoller broke her toe; The original Egeus/Quince dropped out through ill health to be replaced, in the fourth week of rehearsals by Philip Locke, who played the part originally. All this before the tour even started. Once it did the pace took an even harder toll. In Venice, Barry Stanton fell a victim to the chills of the lagoon and almost lost his voice - spending much of the rest of the tour fortified by liver injections. In Bucharest Gemma Jones was off for a week with bronchitis. In Cologne several members of the cast and some technicians contracted salmonella after a British Council reception. In Paris Alan Howard narrowly escaped a 20-foot fall, when his trapeze broke during rehearsals. Before they even left England people were jumpy, but after a few weeks of touring the slightest stiff joint or runny nose were enough to make everyone nervous.
The tour is being managed by Hal Rogers. He is slight
and fey and Australian. He also has a small ulcer and much patience. When, at
an airport, three of the company members have failed to turn up, some luggage
is missing, the plane is grounded by fog, and Lufthansa airlines are proposing
to charge every vociferous actor for overweight hand luggage, Hal has a
Schnapps and appears to be enjoying himself. He is assisted by only two people
- Jean Moore, who is married to Richard Moore (Starveling in Europe), and who
is equally unfazed in the face of 23 actors all demanding a detour to the
off-duty shop when the flight has already been called, and David Rees, who has
the unenviable job of organising the freight, the daily subsistence money, and
the company's hotel bookings. He is the one who makes sure that the set
actually gets to the Fenice theatre in Venice by barges from the docks, and
checks that a hotel in Zagreb or Budapest or Cologne can come up with the right
number of single rooms, double rooms, rooms with long beds (for Philip Locke,
who is 6ft 4ins. and dangles his feet over the ends of most continental beds),
and rooms with adjoining beds for children (Barry Stanton was accompanied on
the tour by his wife and two young sons). David Rees is small, red haired, and
Hal Rogers has worked with the RSC with only one break since 1953, and when not managing the Aldwych, has organised all their tours except one since 1958. With the exception of the theatres in Zagreb and Sofia, he had visited every single theatre on this first stage of the tour at one time or another in the past. Hal is responsible not only for much of the initial organising of the tour, but also for its day to day running. He supervises all the travelling, the get-ins and get-outs of the set in each theatre. He takes the curtain up every night, and personally pulls on the ropes for some of the complicated trapeze flying sequences between Oberon and Puck.
Before the company started rehearsals in Paris, Hal had been working on plans of 60 per cent. of the theatres to be visited, establishing exactly what size of set would best fit the majority of the places to be visited, and working out the highly complex schedule of shifting the sets and actors around Europe. The sets being used on the tour are larger than the one used in the original production at the Aldwych, and constructed out of Meccano-like interlocking pieces of steel, rather than the original wood. Hal also organised the working permits for all the actors, needed in every country except France and Germany; he had supervised the customs lists which have to be presented at every border post, and which list everything the company is carrying, right down to the numbers of pairs of stockings, and the bolts that hold the set together.
Once on tour, David Rees goes on ahead of the company in each place by one or two days, to double check all arrangements, and Hal and Jean Moore, wadges of tickets in hand, shepherd the company from place to place. Hal's attention to detail is nice. "I carry a medical kit, love," he told me. "Collis Brown and Beecham's powders. If they're ill in a foreign place they want something familiar." And he weaves his way through the piles of luggage all meticulously labelled with RSC labels. "Wait till you see me in the theatre," he says laconically. "When I'm on a stage I start to relax."
The theatre in Sofia is the opera house, gaunt and huge and smelling of moth balls. The company arrive on the Sunday morning. The set, packed in two 40ft containers arrives by lorry from Bucharest on Monday morning. The first performance is on Tuesday night.
On stage on Monday are the RSC technical staff, and a lot of Bulgarians in grey coats. Half the set is up, and one Bulgarian stage hand sits in the middle of the stage, disconsolate. In front of him is a pile of assorted screws and bolts, which he regards with an air of worshipful mystery. The red feather which is Titania's bower lies in the wings looking a little threadbare since an overzealous fire officer in Paris sprayed it with a fire-proofing liquid; close up, it now has the appearance of a nibbled bony kipper. Among the technicians, much backslapping and energetic sign language: This ...... there. "Illuminez the grid," says Mick Murray to the electricians rather desperately.
Bulgaria, it seems, has its share of officialdom and union problems. The fire officer was unhappy about letting the set into the theatre at all, because it had not been fireproofed: someone gave him a match which he ran enthusiastically over the steel support-work before permitting the set through the theatre doors. One lot of technicians could carry the set to the wings, but another lot had to carry it on to the stage. The carpet had to be laid by a different set of union men altogether. Hal is there, clearly made buoyantly happy by such skirmishes.
Here, as in every other theatre, the performances are completely sold out, although "sold" is perhaps not the operative word in this case, since only 100 seats were made available through the box office, and the rest were distributed by the Party .... Hal thinks that there might be a recurrence of a situation they met in Bucharest, where, on the last night, Rumanian students who had been frustrated from getting tickets, tried to force their way into the theatre, and were hauled in through dressing-room windows by the company, to watch the performance from the wings. There is also some worry about the kind of reception the play will get. In Rumania, alone out of all the countries visited, where the reviews have been uniformly rapturous, the critics took a stern dislike to the production. The freedom between the pairs of lovers on stage, the giant clenched-fist phallus that waves between Bottom's spreadeagled legs were denounced as degenerate and pornographic, improvisations of the actors that surely could not have been countenanced by Peter Brook. (Brook, when he heard this, was enormously amused.)
And, indeed, the audience on the first night in Sofia look as if they might well be shocked too. They are mostly middle-aged, the men in suits, the women in plain dresses. "My," says a British Embassy wife, sitting in the same box with me, "I've never seen so much long hair. The intellectuals must be here in force." I scan the audience closely for any hair that so much as reaches the ear lobe, never mind the collar, but fail to find any. However, the Embassy wife is more used to Bulgaria than I am, and if she says that this is long hair by Bulgarian standards I'm prepared to go along with her. But it seems inevitable, once the house lights go down, the brilliant white set lights up, the drums roll, and the company swirl onstage in their white velvet capes, that some kind of culture shock must afflict the audience. What are they, any more than the waiter at the Hemus hotel, going to make of these bra-less Western girls, of a duke and young noblemen with hair like pop stars? And what of a production of Shakespeare - in a country that has seen no English actors for 35 years - in which the actors climb ladders, sing and somersault, speak the "I know a bank" speech while sitting on a trapeze and spinning a silver Chinese juggler's plate, woo and quarrel with kisses, hugs and karate chops? How many people in this audience even speak English?
For the first two scenes there is a total stunned quiet, then, just as has happened in every other country, the strange magic of direct response starts to ripple through the theatre, towards the stage. Bottom's egoism, Flute's aspirations as an epic actor, Demetrius shaking off a clinging Helena, Titania and Oberon meeting in a clash of thunder and flashes of silver foil lightning thrown across the stage - all these short-circuit the impediments of language, looks, culture, and politics. The current of a play 400 years old starts to flow perceptibly from stage to stalls.
At the end, the drums roll again, the actors jump off
the stage and shake hands with the audience - just as they have in every other
performance - but here, there is another custom ..... The Bulgarians like to
present flowers, and like to let the audience know where they have come from. A
lady in an electric-blue evening dress appears, plus a translator. They carry
on stage some vast and elaborate baskets of carnations and chrysanthemums.
From the National Theatre ... it is announced by the electric-blue lady,
From the Actors' Union of Bulgaria .... From the Committee for
Friendship and Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries ..... The
audience, by this time all on their feet, buzz with annoyance. Something, the
informality, maybe the warmth of the performance, has undermined such
traditions. When the last bouquet has been announced there is a sigh of relief,
and the stamping, the slow handclapping (a mark of approval in Eastern Europe)
and the cheers start again. And go on for a long time.
The play is the tip of an iceberg. If you look at Hal
Roger's schedule for the company, it looks at first as though - performances
apart - the company's time is its own. Visions of long peaceful days exploring
the streets, cafes, galleries, museums, markets of many European cities. Time
to rest and recharge for another performance, of what is, after all, a
physically exhausting play, requiring stamina not only to continue night after
night an exploration of the text, but also to cope with the athletic demands of
this production. In reality, especially in Eastern Europe, where the company is
under the auspices of the British Council, and its members are for a few weeks
cultural emissaries, the days are filled with diplomatic functions. There are
Press conferences, naturally: there are also talks and recitals with students,
lunches and parties with consuls, ambassadors, British Council officials, local
mayors, government officials. All this, coupled with the fact that every four
or five days there is another long and exhausting journey to another new town,
another hotel, another theatre, makes for a schedule that is, in fact, a
In Sofia, it goes something like this: Tuesday afternoon - a technical rehearsal, to try out the acoustics, and run through the flying sequences. Tuesday night: the first performance. After it is over everyone bundles into a bus to go to a party given by the Bulgarian Actors' Union in the Actor's Club. A lot of vodka: spirits correspondingly high. Wednesday morning: spirits correspondingly low. Lunch at the British Embassy with Bulgarian guests. What looks like a plate of pterodactyls turns out to be quails. I sit next to a man who is a Bulgarian skin specialist. Noy only does he speak perfect English, he is also formidably acquainted with Shakespeare, and has written a long article about Shakespeare's interest in dermatology. Long talk about lesions, warts, and bulbukes over the ice cream. Everyone seems very friendly, but later the Ambassador explains that in fact these people would be unlikely to accept more than one invitation a year to the Embassy: being socially too pro-British is still frowned upon. What had been a pleasant meeting takes on a sour aftertaste: how genuine is this "communication"?
Wednesday night: another performance. Thursday afternoon: Shakespeare readings and a discussion period with students from the theatre school in Sofia (where all Bulgarian actors train for four years) and the English school (where pupils concentrate on English studies, and have all their lessons in English). A theatre full of 700 stamping, cheering people, aged from about 13 to 20. Six actors from the company give solid Shakespearean readings - the St Crispin's Day speech, Lady Macbeth's letter speech, Hamlet's "How all occasions do inform against me ..." The English school students wear black overalls with nun-like white collars, speak fluent English and are familiar with these texts. one little girl sits in tears. No hesitation over asking questions, in perfect, unaccented English. What is your favourite pop group? (Some confabulation before Hugh Keays Byrne says firmly "Blood, Sweat and Tears"). A girl in the front row with the pale face and hennaed hair of a latter day Chelsea pre-Raphaelite asks what they think of the Living Theatre. Vague noises from the obviously startled actors. I feel guiltily parochial. Somehow I do not expect a Bulgarian schoolgirl to have heard of the Living Theatre.
Thursday night: last performance in Sofia. The theatre is packed. There are people standing in the side aisles, watching from the wings, crammed in defiance of all fire regulations into the flies and walkways around the proscenium arch. You cannot see much from the wings, because of the set's boxlike construction. Stanley Mackenzie, the deputy stage manager, a man of shadowy, quiet, utter efficiency manages not only to give the cue calls, fetch the props and generally supervise the show, but also periodically to extricate young Bulgarian fans, who edge closer and closer to the stage, blocking the exits and entrances. One young girl, transported at the sight of Gemma Jones about to make her entrance, darts across to ask for an autograph - which she gets, later. In the dressing-room in the interval, Alan Howard rehearses with Roumiana, the Bulgarian interpreter, how to say: "Goodnight, see you again, sweet dreams" in Bulgarian. He can now say this in about seven different European languages, timing it for the moment of the curtain call when the applause looks as if it's going to go on all night. It is not easy to say "Good night, see you again, sweet dreams" in Bulgarian. I tell him to write a crib on his wrist and am treated with proper professional scorn.
After the performance, a solid block of autograph seekers parry the route from the theatre to the company's bus. Even when almost everyone is on the bus, and the engines are revving they still don't leave. The company are laden with carnations, which they tuck behind their ears. Some young Bulgarian girls lean against the windows, misting them up, and waving their programmes; one has an expression of bated orgasmic bliss on her face: the pop star retinue expression. The bus drives off.
The British Embassy again. Like a pretty English country house, with the guests in evening-at-the-opera long dresses. The company erupt in, bizarre in the clothes of umpteen different countries - some the spoils of the tour - Rumanian blouses, Hungarian shirts, King's Road velvet jackets, djelabahs, caftans, Cossack boots, funky Fifties Zapata shoes .... The Ambassador plays Bulgarian folk records, and everyone stands poised in the middle of his impeccable drawing room, sipping cups of hot consomme, a British tea party madly transposed. The other guests appear to eat about one stuffed egg apiece: the company guiltily pile their plates in the throes of post-performance starvation: salmon mousse, ham, beef, salads, Champagne! Someone starts on hotel stories: the one in Paris with two feet of space between the baronial bed and the monstrous wardrobe .... the one in Rumania where the waiter brought the breakfast boiled eggs in the palm of his hand, minus eggcup, spoon, salt and pepper. About 2 am the bus takes the company back to the hotel.
Friday morning: early packing to get all the baggage outside the rooms by 9.30. Midday, and a final reception given by the Committee for Friendship and Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries. Another buffet, more vodka, more speeches. Three o'clock, and the bus leaves for the airport. Everyone's hand luggage has swelled to enormous proportions; the women are laden with the booty of Eastern European markets. To this are now added beautiful and cheap Russian books on icons, boxes of cut price East European records. All of which are extremely heavy. Hal issues an ultimatum. No more company excess luggage will be carried in the company skip with the props and costumes. The plane leaves late.
At Belgrade airport, where there is a connection for Zagreb, the flight is delayed because of fog at Zagreb airport. Hal announces that if the flight does not leave, the British Council have laid on a bus. As the bus from Belgrade to Zagreb takes at least six hours, this generous gesture is received with something less than euphoria. John O'Mahoney, a technician who is bearded, fortyish and Irish, and Roshan Seth, an actor who is clean-shaven, thirtyish and Indian, enliven the proceedings by going through passport control on each other's passports. The official regards each in turn extremely closely and lugubriously stamps the passes. Heigh ho. The plane finally leaves, reaches Zagreb, which is indeed blanketed by fog, at about eight that evening. Luggage is hauled into the bus. Another drive: "Please," says the driver, suddenly, "here is theatre." And on the right, the next theatre of the tour looms up from the fog, a gigantic yellow palace. It is stared at a little blankly. By 9pm everyone is into the hotel. Robert Lloyd and Pauline Munro establish that not only does it have a restaurant, but also marvellous Yugoslav wines and, caviar. Spirits lift a very little. Gemma Jones has already discovered that there is another clothes market in Zagreb. The set is still being driven across country in its pantechnicons. To bed very late. There is a Press conference the next day at 11.30.
Put this way it sounds fun. And indeed, for an outsider, with no responsibilities towards a performance, a tour like this one, though exhausting, can seem very enjoyable. But for the company of actors, technicians and production people, a tour of these dimensions presents a quite different situation. For them, it is a journey in triplicate. There is the tough physical reality of putting a play on in ten different countries in three months, but there are also two other journeys which happen simultaneously. A journey into the heart of a play, and a journey into their own heads. What happens to a group of people, thrown constantly together under conditions of much stress, cut off from their friends and in some cases their families, whirled around Europe, meeting new people in each new place, but committed to playing the same part in the same production for a year out of their lives?
For a start, it presents certain difficulties professionally. For an actor, the decision to be out of the country for a year, even in a production as prestigious and celebrated as this one, is not an easy one to make.
"As far as my friends are concerned", said Gemma Jones, in Zagreb, "I'm just doing something out in the sticks."
"What happens," said Pauline Munro, who plays
Mustardseed, and understudies Hermia, "is that people ring your agent with work
for a couple of months. You're away. They ring again. You're still away. After
a bit, they stop ringing, and when you get back to London you find you have to
start scavenging for work all over again.
More important, there is the monotony problem. This tour is a break with RSC precedent, in that it is the first major tour the company has ever mounted of a single production, not in repertory with another. Geoffrey Reeves, an English director now working in Cologne, who saw the company perform there in November, said that he had never seen a touring production as fresh and zestful as this one - and certainly up until that point it did seem to have grown and developed amazingly.
"But what has been cementing it," said Alan Howard, "has been the stimulus we've had of a new country, a new audience every week, sometimes twice a week. When we get to America and start eight performances a week in one theatre in Los Angeles for six weeks then the problems are really going to start." "I think," said Richard Moore, who eventually decided to leave the tour after the European leg, "that we're only just beginning to sense the potential monotony of it. It's similar to a West End run, but in a way it's even more difficult. People are only just realising that they've committed themselves to a whole year, not only of working, but also of living, with the same group of people."
Richard Moore's wife was with him on the tour, and
since she was also concerned with the production, the work was shared. But for
many other members of the company the strains of the tour are compounded by the
fact that they are separated from wives, girlfriends, and children. Lynn Hope,
the costume mistress, who is in her early seventies, used to be costume
mistress at the Aldwych before she retired and has worked on all the RSC tours
since 1955. Lynn had married at the end of 1970, and came on the tour partly
because she loves the work, but also because her husband's ill health imposed a
financial necessity on her: "I had had no intention of going away on a tour
again," she said, "and it was a difficult decision to make. It's impossible for
my husband to come with me, and to take a year out of our lives, when you're
our age - well, it wasn't an easy thing to do." George Sweeney, who plays
Flute, was accompanied as far as Venice by his wife and their two young
children. But after Venice, when the pace of the tour accelerated, and the
company were visiting two countries a week, it became impossible for them to
travel with him. "It was much easier for me," he says, "when they were all with
me. Then I had them all day and went to the theatre at night to work. But now
they've gone I get depressed much more easily, there's been a kind of reversal.
The theatre has become my base, my home, because outside of that I haven't much
to go back to."
For the majority of the company these gaps have to be filled in other ways: they make alliances within the company, and they make contacts sporadically with outsiders encountered on the tour - with foreign actors, writers and critics, sometimes with students encountered through the myriad of diplomatic and official functions. In the early stages of the tour, when overall energies were pitched higher, this process was undoubtedly easier: there was, for instance, a good confrontation with the actors of a small experimental 400-seat Marxist theatre in West Berlin, who took the line that all theatre was a political act, and who disapproved heartily of Brook's sending a company of actors the previous year to act at the Shah of Persia's Shiraz Festival. The Marxist actors turned out to receive an annual subsidy considerably larger than that received in England by the entire RSC, both at Stratford and the Aldwych. That was a fierce but genuine exchange: what seems to have happened as the tour has progressed, is that such meetings have become more and more elusive - partly through language problems, partly through exhaustion. Inevitably, after the third diplomatic function in three days a kind of social glaze begins to set in.
"It's like being at an exhibition of pictures," said Pauline Munro. "Now we're into the fifth room, and you can't take anything in any more. You can't answer a single other question about what you think of their country, or how the audiences seem to be."
"After a bit," said Hugh Keays Byrne, "everything unnecessary starts to fall away, because that's how you preserve yourself. You forget the trappings of good manners. You don't worry about being polite to the Ambassador, and you stop letting yourself be pinned in corners and asked how you learn your lines."
Hugh Keays Byrne is, in fact, extremely polite to
ambassadors. But there do seem to have to be channels for every member of the
company to siphon off the pressures. If rudeness is not overtly used much,
drink and gossip certainly are. If they fail, the last resort seems to be that
particular kind of bonhomie bred of any tightly knit group, but especially
perhaps of a group of actors. Campy jokes; a subversive Michelin-style guide to
the hospitality of European embassies - "knives and forks for the food, stars
if they seem to be trying"; routines about hotel beds, physical health, local
food, spotty complexions .... the repertoire is a wide one. "Keep on trucking,"
Barry Stanton roars from the back of the bus at particularly trying moments.
And they do.
In the midst of sll this, there is one constant, the play. At bad moments it seems a Moloch, scrunching up the energies of 40 people and spitting them out, chewed remnants, at the end of a performance. At good moments, well, at good moments it still does that, but it seems worth it. Physically, the production looks much as it always did: the costumes, the set, even most of the blocking remain the same from the original production.
What changes there have been have come from the injection of a largely fresh cast, and their own subsequent development within the play. No changes have been enforced from the outside, from the pressures of playing to foreign audiences; from the first, Brook's insistence was that his actors try to preserve their vision of the inner play, and not allow that conception to be diverted by audience response. So this production makes no special concessions to the fact that it is being watched by audiences who don't speak English and aren't even (with the exception of the Paris audiences) equipped with simultaneous translator radio sets. The laughs come in different places, which can make adapting difficult - "In Bucharest," said Malcolm Rennie, "we were still leaving the gaps for laughs that we'd got from earlier audiences." And it can make individual actors slightly alter the tenor of their performances - Philip Locke, for instance, said he felt always conscious that he was playing to foreigners and therefore had to make everything much more physical - but on the whole the play's shape remains controlled by the actors who have to resist the blandishments of the spectators: "In Germany," said Jack Moore, "when we were just starting the tour, I think we did sometimes lose the overall balance of the play. The audience response to the mechanicals was so strong, that there was a great temptation to play to it, and go over the top. Then the second half of the play ran into trouble. The audience were disappointed because they weren't laighing so much. We were in danger of losing them."
Yet everyone cares very much what the audience is like. "What kind of house do you think it is?" runs the question in the dressing-rooms, trying to suss out some general characteristics from a sea of faces. And general characteristics do seem to emerge. The Germans, clearly speaking good English (they laugh at puns) responded most strongly to the broadest humour in the play, had to be coaxed into its more difficult annexes. The Parisians - at least until the rave reviews came out, putting the seal of chic on the production - understood far less English, and seemed frosty: their belief in the ultimate superiority of the Alexandrine dies hard ......The Venetians, arrived up to 40 minutes late for the curtain. The Bulgarians were warm and responsive. Most people thought the Rumanians hostile. How much of all this is subjective, how much objectively accurate is impossible to say. But actors seem to have a seismographic sixth sense when it comes to assessing audiences, which is usually extremely reliable. They know when the bridges are built.
Give me your hands if we be friends ..........
Of all plays, A Midsummer Night's Dream is one of the most perturbing
and subversive to take before foreign audiences. It is, after all, a play about
the barriers between people; about the walls between lovers, between classes,
between the rational world of Athens and the anarchic world of imagination in
the wood outside that city's walls. It ends in a triple marriage and a
difficult resolution: "The wall is down," says Bottom, "that parted their
fathers." What of this, in West Berlin, when the day after their opening
performance, the company took the surreal journey across Checkpoint Charlie,
through an actual wall, complete with all the ugly paraphernalia of
searchlights, watchtowers, sentry-points, barbed wire ..... visas to go 200
yards? What of it in Rumania, among Rumanians who need official permission to
visit the house of an English or American resident? What of the fact that
certain countries, like Czechoslovakia, were, for political reasons, totally
unable to see the production at all? On this razor's edge, where fact is still
so remote from ideal possibility, the production rides with an added
The last time I watch it is in Cologne - most super-materialistic of metropolises. At a reception a dumpy middle-aged British Council lady says, "I only came, you know, out of social duty - I've always hated A Midsummer Night's Dream. It seemed such a frilly play when you saw it tricked up with all that gauze and all those fairies. But tonight, you know, I saw the shape of the play for the first time." And she circulates off among her guests ordinarily enough, but with the air of someone holding hard onto something nonetheless, some nugget in the palm of the hand, or a glass she did not want to spill over.
The next night, energies seem in danger of ebbing. A matinee already over; the thought of another journey the next day. Ham and eggs in the canteen in the midst of pancaked ladies from the opera house chorus next door. A full house of enthusiastic Germans. From the wings, one hears the play in its entirety, but catches only glimpses of the way the words are bodied forth. The backstage impedimentia of a production: cue calls, prop fetchings, exits and entrances. The play moves to its close. By the time the actors have stripped to their all white costumes for the closing lines, the technicians are already coiling the ropes in preparation for the getout. If we shadows have offended..... The drums roll, and the applause starts. Many curtain calls, "Gute Nacht, süsse Träume," says Alan Howard. One more call, then a quick curtain. Charlie Kenton and Mick Murray are unscrewing bolts. Teams of white-hatted German technicians appear from nowhere; front of house, the audience climb into their Mercedes Benz. A few minutes ago there seemed a communion. Now there is the bickering, the bustle, the costume sorting, the rush for a restaurant. The morning call is for 10.30.
A bus to the airport, and a plane to Helsinki.
Sunday Telegraph Colour Supplement 9.3.73