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Michael Coveney: Grandage water babies flood the stage, Bate celebrates Worcester

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Michael Grandage
© Dan Wooller

One of the key elements in the Michael Grandage Company's occupancy of the Noel Coward Theatre, coming to a close this weekend, has been the MGCfutures scheme of apprenticeships and a youth theatre project involving 15-to-25 year-olds creating work alongside the major productions.

These youngsters - bolstered since November by a senior cadre recruited through Age UK London - have met once a week, and at weekends, this past year or so, under the leadership of Dominic Francis and Samantha Lane, to work on all aspects of theatre production and write and perform their own responses to the season's core plays; the last of these short dramas, Flood Town, a response to Jude Law's Henry V, was performed last Sunday afternoon on stage at the Noel Coward. They've been mentored, too, by professionals including Grandage himself, producer James Bierman, designer Christopher Oram, lighting designer Paule Constable, and publicist Kate Morley.

Until, given the current weather conditions, the aptly named HighTide Festival opens in April, this is the first topical drama for the new nationwide wet look. Toby Smith's text is probably too short and elliptical for its own good, but it creates a community web of ghosts and crises as memories of war come flooding back in a small Gloucestershire town under siege.

At the Q&A afterwards, the playwright said he was inspired for the idea of a returning dead boy soldier by the brilliant Grandage touch in Henry V of having the boy who goes to war with Pistol and co as the Chorus; he's killed, and becomes a vocal ghost. So, the day of the floods coincides with a Crsipin's Day choral celebration in the village of the dead at Agincourt. And that concert is threatened by the weather in the same way as it is bounded by a few local stories and tensions, too.

And, right on cue, here come the details for HighTide this year: a new play by highly promising Thomas Eccleshare; Diana Quick leading Michael Boyd's cast in The Big Meal, co-produced with the Theatre Royal, Bath; an interview with David Hare; a reading by Harriet Walter and husband Guy Paul; six new writers on attachment; and Michael Billington quizzing Michael Gambon.

Billington's name flashed by last night as I flicked through a handsome new book published to coincide with the launch of Worcester College, Oxford's tercentenary celebrations in the National Gallery; he had written a university newspaper review of a production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona in the college gardens in 1960 ("The play, as Dr Johnson in a fit of politeness said, is not indeed one of Shakespeare's most powerful effusions.")

The director, Richard Proudfoot, had erected an Elizabethan stage in the gardens to test some theories of the scholar Leslie Hotson: a Wooden O for a wooden play, opined young Billers. Proudfoot would grow up to be a leading Shakespearean scholar himself, and yet another, Jonathan Bate, has co-edited this marvellous volume (Worcester: Portrait of an Oxford College), as befits the new Provost of three years standing, a governor and board member of the RSC and indeed the author of Simon Callow's Being Shakespeare, returning to the West End at the end of this month.

In his introductory speech, Bate invoked the legendary 1949 Nevill Coghill production of The Tempest in which Ariel appeared to run across the lake in the gardens (there were duckboards placed just under the surface); Coghill had produced a version of the same play in 1934 in which the whole cast departed in a galleon across the lake leaving Ariel and Caliban behind.

Bate quoted the great producer Michael Codron, an honorary fellow of the college, as well as a new knight, as saying, after the 1949 production, that he could never imagine being as happy in his life again. I'm sure he has been, but he remained as inscrutable as ever in the milling throng of the gallery's Sainsbury Wing (so named after the Sainsbury brothers Lord John and Sir Timothy, both graduates and great friends of Worcester; hence the party in their precinct).

Other Worcester theatricals include the Joe Orton biographer and New Yorker critic John Lahr, the children's playwright David Wood (also in attendance last night), poet and dramatist Glyn Maxwell, theatre architect and historian Iain Mackintosh and the former arts editor of The Times, John Higgins, who reviewed Leonard Bernstein's Wonderful Town at the Proms in the last week of his life in 1999; way to go.

And our way to go was through the Sainsbury Collection of Medieval and early Renaissance art that is a feast of beautiful masterpieces, some of them such as the Boticelli Venus and Mars, or the Leonardo cartoon, even greater for being so gloriously familiar.