On a bright May morning we gathered in the foyer of The Marlowe Theatre and then made our way to The Marlowe Kit, where the Chairman, Professor Ken Pickering, informed us that Marlowe would have walked past the former Poor Priests’ Hospital, as his only extant signature was found in the building next door. Ken then read one of Marlowe’s lesser-known but charming poems: ‘I walk’d along a stream, for pureness rare.’ This was very fitting as The Kit is next to the river Stour, and we later threw flowers and rosemary into the water in his memory.
One of the highlights of the day was listening to sections of Purcell’s ‘The Faerie Queen’ by the Marlowe Consort led by John Perfect. The libretto is an adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but the music was used independently of the play during scene changes, as they didn’t normally raise the curtain between acts. The fairies were originally played by 8-year olds, and it was possible to imagine them dancing on the stage to the lively melody.
Acting Shakespeare by Frank Barrie
It was a real treat and a great pleasure to hear Frank Barrie give a talk about some of the highlights of his long and distinguished acting career. Frank has worked with the most iconic names in British theatre, starred in 36 productions of Shakespeare plays in 67 countries, was a leading member of Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre Company at the Old Vic, and has made over 200 TV appearances.
Frank said that he admires Shakespeare because he expresses every emotion in the most beautiful and exact language, and his characters are so alive and real, more so than many people we meet. He particularly enjoyed playing Hamlet because everyone can identify with him. Similarly, the story of Macbeth’s rise and fall has connected with audiences in many places over the last 400 years. For example, Frank told us about his performance of Macbeth in Baghdad during the rule of Saddam Hussein. At first, the audience did not take the play very seriously; they were shouting, joining in, walking in front of the stage and responding to impressive acting points. However, when they realised what the play was about and how it related to their own lives, they went quiet and there was a huge applause at the end. The next day crowds of people arrived to see the performance, as word of its significance had spread quickly. Unfortunately, the secret police were in the audience this time, and the company was forbidden from performing the Scottish play again because it was considered to be too dangerous – a sign of the extraordinary power of Shakespeare to communicate with modern audiences.
On a lighter note, Frank gave a series of fantastic performances and entertaining anecdotes about an onstage swordfight that went wrong, a bomb exploding outside the theatre, and a collapsing bed!
Lunch was served at an excellent restaurant in a peaceful riverside setting.
Grotowski directs Dr Faustus by Professor Paul Allain
Paul Allain started his informative talk by describing the different phases of the Polish film director’s career and the ideas behind his work, in particular ‘Poor Theatre’, which focuses simply on the relationship between the actor and spectator. Actors trained in this method concentrate less on techniques and more on revealing their true selves through the role.
Paul explained that people were astounded by Grotowski’s ground-breaking production of Doctor Faustus in 1963 and it received mixed reviews, with one British critic finding it ‘uncomfortable’. The 9 minute film of the play helped us to understand why it was so challenging: the rehearsals and performance were clearly very physically and emotionally taxing for the actors, and the spectators were in an intimate space with the protagonist, for example sitting at tables at Faustus’ Last Supper. Faustus was played as a blasphemous, Christ-like figure. The film captured the sinister atmosphere in the theatre, and many of us were struck by the way Mephistopheles was presented as an ambiguous mixture of male and female, good and evil. It is clearly still a very thought-provoking production!
Directing Edward II – a discussion with Ricky Dukes and Dr Geoff Doel
Ricky Dukes is the Artistic Director of the Lazarus Theatre Company and he recently directed Edward II at venues including the Greenwich Theatre. Many members of the Society had seen the performances, but there were photos for those who hadn’t. Ricky talked us through how the company made decisions about the staging of Marlowe’s history play, for instance the creative ideas they considered and rejected and the conversations about which sections to cut or include in the 90 minutes running time. They decided on a Brechtian design, set in the context of harsh, masculine, brutal England, and the relationship between Edward and Gaveston was portrayed in a sympathetic light.
Geoff Doel started the discussion by asking Ricky to explain some of his directing choices. Geoff disagreed with many of those choices, and this sparked a larger, robust debate with Ken, Jo and members of the audience. The discussion was essentially about ‘modern’ vs ‘traditional’ staging and interpretations, and it continued well after Marlowe Day had finished! Drama is based on conflict, so this was a very apt end to the day!