Monday, July 16, 2012

'Baba Shakespeare' by Emmeline Winterbotham

16 July 2012

As I entered the auditorium of the Courtyard Theatre inStratford-upon-Avon on Friday evening I was listening carefully to the pre-show chatter. Two RSC front-of-house staff were deep in conversation with one saying clearly to the other “no, the rules about photography and video recording are same as for any other show”. Someone at the back of the stalls was asking his neighbour “which workshop are you going to tomorrow? I thought I would do the voice one”. And to the side of me someone else was carefully explaining “yes, some amateur theatre groups do light, easy plays but others do really ambitious things”. This was RSC Open Stages: some of the country’s best amateur theatre had come to town. 

It was fitting that the RSC Open Stages National Showcase should begin in the Courtyard Theatre. This was the setting, in November 2009, for the creative planning weekend at which we designed the Open Stages project. More than two and half years ago Voluntary Arts brought 65 representatives of national voluntary arts umbrella bodies to Stratford-upon-Avon for a weekend to work with RSC staff and actors to develop ideas for the 2012 World Shakespeare Festival. Now, at the end of a journey that has included skills-sharing workshops that have brought together amateurs and professionals across the UK, national competitions and more than 260 amateur productions, some of the best RSC Open Stages shows have been given the opportunity to perform in the RSC’s own theatres in Stratford-upon-Avon, alongside professional productions from across the world, as part of the World Shakespeare Festival.

The first National Showcase performance, on Friday, was by the Tower Theatre Company from London. They performed ‘Baba Shakespeare’ – a new play written and directed by Emmeline Winterbotham, suggested by the Merchant Ivory film ‘Shakespeare Wallah’, which itself was based on the real life experiences of Felicity Kendal’s father’s company ‘Shakespeareana’. Set in 1961, ‘Baba Shakespeare’ tells the tale of a troupe of British actors touring an India that no longer values their Shakespearean productions as it once did. The Tower Theatre Company’s production was ambitious and impressive, encompassing a variety of set-piece scenes that included puppetry, Bollywood dancing and excerpts from a range of Shakespeare plays. The cast of 26 included a high proportion of young Asian actors and dancers and the standard of performance was uniformly high. Ian Recordon and Simona Hughes as Tony and Clare Buckingham, Lizzy Barber as their daughter, Lizzie, and Cael King as Sanju Rai, with whom she falls in love, were all excellent – as was Llila Vis as the Bollywood film star Manjula (played in the original film by Madhur Jaffrey). The ensemble playing was very slick, with some great comedy, particularly that involving Ankur Chopra as Gupta. 

The Tower Theatre Company felt at home in the large Courtyard Theatre and the measure of their success was that there were times when I genuinely forgot I wasn’t watching the RSC and had to remind myself that this was an amateur theatre production. ‘Baba Shakespeare’ was a great way to start the RSC Open Stages National Showcase: it is a play about theatre, and about Shakespeare, and there are references within the text to maybe playing upon the stage at Stratford one day. Looking at Shakespeare in an Indian context also emphasises his global reach: this was a fitting first contribution from the UK’s amateur theatre sector to the 2012 World Shakespeare Festival.

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At 2:38 pm, Blogger said...

I thoroughly enjoyed the play but felt that the puppet scene and the dances did not really add much to the story and, if kept in, should have been a lot shorter. The dancers were beautiful to watch but were effectively unecessary padding.
The 'millions' of scene changes, sometimes for a scene klasting only a minute, were again unecessary and caused the pace and energy to drop in my opinion.
The acting of the principals, especially the daughter, was fantastic though.

At 4:26 pm, Blogger Robin Simpson said...

Thanks Susan. I can see your point I'm not sure I share your opinion: I felt these interludes demonstrated a confidence and impressive scale of ambition but I guess this is a subjective judgement. I spoke to the RSC Artistic Director, Michael Boyd, after the show and he made the point that the participants must have learned a huge amount from working with these different disciplines. Amateur theatre is both about creating a wonderful show for the audience and helping the participants to develop their skills and understanding. This was performance was certainly a long way from many people's cliched perceptions of amateur theatre and I am sure you would join me in celebrating that.


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