Theatrical bonanza fit for a QueenDate: 5 June 2012
Sixty years a Queen, and twice she has visited the National Theatre on the South Bank. The first occasion was to see a disastrous opening production of Goldoni's Il Campiello in 1976, the second to see War Horse.
So it was fitting that the most theatrical moment of the weekend's rain-drenched flotilla on the Thames came when the Queen joyfully recognised Joey the war horse prancing, courtesy of his puppeteers, on the roof of the National and raising his hoof in a royal salute.
The music was good, too, though it was played at the end of the afternoon in the worst of the weather. I presume our old friend Nick Kenyon, head honcho at the Barbican Centre, was involved in choosing the programme, for there he was, with Lady Kenyon, chatting away in the background on the royal barge.
The most amazing thing was that Her Majesty stayed standing for over four hours throughout, not once taking the weight off her 86 year-old feet, except for a couple of discreet trips below for a royal excuse-me and, who knows, a discreet gin and dubonnet. And when the London Philharmonic played the sailor's hornpipe, it was rather wonderful to see the royal party visibly jigging up and down in pleasure.
One of the things people like about the Queen is that she doesn't pretend to be enthusiastic about the theatre (although she and Prince Philip did go and see the first London production of Oklahoma! soon after their marriage in 1947).
Another thing people like, as David Hare pointed out in a bracingly caustic article that led page one of the Guardian on Saturday, is her quiet, unchanging dignity above the stink of politics and the bidding of market forces: "What was in happier times the Queen's greatest weakness - that she does not in the circumstances of her life resemble her subjects - has paradoxically, at this point in our history, come to be her greatest strength."
The monarchy, wrote Hare, was the third of three institutions in Great Britain which have continued to command solid levels of respect throughout the world since the second world war; the others were the BBC and the NHS, both of which have been continuously under attack by politicians and some sections of the media for some time now.
The BBC, alas, did itself no favours with the quality of its television commentary, which was pitiful. So big has been the general outcry at the ignorance and inadequacy of the flotilla broadcast that the BBC, which has lost ground badly in recent years in the areas of live sport and new drama, suddenly finds itself stumbling disastrously where once it walked tall: in the reporting of great state occasions.
Luckily, the Monday night concert outside Buckingham Palace was a wonderful surprise, with stand-out contributions from Tom Jones, Stevie Wonder, Alfie Boe, the American soprano Renee Fleming, and a pretty good new song - "Sing" - composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber and concert arranger Gary Barlow (good job, Gary). But the weekend's witty masterstroke was Suggs and Madness performing "Our House" on top of the palace, which was lit up as a block of council flats.
Our country's national poet has done his bit, too, through the good offices of the Globe to Globe festival that concluded at the weekend with two absolute corkers: a charming and truly delightful Much Ado About Nothing in French, and a Lithuanian Hamlet that has been one of the most acclaimed Shakespearean productions in Eastern Europe these past fifteen years.
Clement Poiree's Compagnie Hypermobile is one of several troupes based in the Cartoucherie de Vincennes, on the edge of Paris, home, too, to Ariana Mnouchkine's Theatre du Soleil. The fluent translation was easy to follow, probably made easier by the fact that 70 per cent of the play is written in prose (only The Merry Wives has a higher percentage of prose in relation to verse).
The actors used the stage extremely well, importing circular benches around the two main pillars, thus creating extra seats and perches for the "overheard" scenes of lover-gulling, and Claudio sang beautifully; I can never now imagine the play without a Claudio who didn't.
I happened to bump into the Leonato actor - Jean-Claude Jay - near the old Clink prison on my way to the next day's matinee and congratulated him on a wonderful performance. He told me that he enjoyed playing Leonato as much as he'd once enjoyed playing Gloucester (to Michel Piccoli's King Lear); and that Much Ado was infrequently performed in France because, traditionally, Benedict was a role that defeated most leading French actors.
Well, Bruno Blairet was hilarious in the part, slightly absurd in his purple kilt, discovering the crunch moment of truth about himself in the play, as must all good Benedicts, when commanded to kill Claudio by Beatrice.
The season's programme, with a fine essay on the Globe's internationalist connections by Heather Neill, reveals that Poiree's production is set among the chaos of an Italian restaurant, but, like any sensible visiting company to the Globe, they ditched all that and played to the architecture of the stage and auditorium, and did so brilliantly.
The Lithuanian Hamlet, directed by Eimuntas Nekrosius, imported its intimidating steel boot tips, steel machinery and serrated chandelier in defiance of the Globe, but was so strong and so vivid, they triumphed. Like all great Eastern European productions of the play that I've ever seen, this was a poetic and political response to Hamlet rather than a literal reading.
Gertrude spoke very little (no willow grew askant the brook for her), Ophelia was a pipe-smoking psychotic doll, the Ghost popped up in the "play" scene and again at the end to wrest a symbolic drum of regime change from his own dead son's grip, Polonius was asphyxiated in a terrifying steel cabinet (not stabbed behind the arras), and the play was accompanied throughout by some plangent piano music, played live, ranging from Soviet martial and lyrical folk tunes to Italian opera.
Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Osric and the Players were all rolled into a versatile factotum trio of clowns, and the final scene duel was represented by an ensemble swishing number, brutal and ineluctable. Andrius Mamontovas, an actor of immense technical and emotional presence, played Hamlet as if for the first time, though palpably ageing fast and curiously resembling Ed Balls after a drastic haircut.