Michael Coveney: On Stratford and Siracusa, Am-Dram, live music and Tommy Cooper
Our chief critic reflects on a busy week for the RSC, plus looks at a new ITV drama and the use of live music in theatre
Tom turns British on Shakespeare's birthday
Congratulations to Tom Siracusa, popular general manager of the Menier Chocolate Factory, for acquiring British citizenship this week. Actually, he became "one of us" yesterday, on St George's Day and Shakespeare's 450th birthday, so it's only appropriate that he celebrated by going straight from Lambeth Town Hall - where he swore allegiance to Queen and country - to Stratford-upon-Avon. There, in the company of veteran producer Thelma Holt, he watched Henry IV, Part One, and enjoyed the fireworks display the RSC laid on especially for him (and the Bard). Tom, who hails from Buffalo, New York, first came to London on a work visa with a musical touring company and has lived here for almost 25 years, serving as manager of the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, as an independent producer, as a co-producer with Bill Kenwright, and now as the stabilising influence behind David Babani's jaunty throne in the Southwark powerhouse. He's proud to be British – and has Union Jack underpants to prove it – but even more pleased to have two passports, which makes travelling anywhere in the world, and certainly between London and New York, a whole lot easier.
No such thing as a free lunch
I'll join the Stratford birthday shindig this weekend when I catch Henry IV, Part Two, and try and improve my time in the Shakespeare half marathon. And, who knows, I might even watch a sword fight, listen to a sonnet on the "penny ferry" and get my face painted. It's that sort of a wild weekend. Guest speakers at the Shakespeare Luncheon on Saturday in a large white marquee on the banks of the Avon are Joan Bakewell, Hilary Mantel and Nicholas Hytner; last year's experiment of spreading the event through the town's restaurants to save money (a measly £14,000) was a social disaster. I've not been invited back to the lunch since I made a speech proposing the health of Shakespeare while putting the boot into the dying days of the Adrian Noble regime. The great scholar Stanley Wells denounced me as a traitor but, as he's no longer vice-president of the RSC, and quite likes putting the boot in himself these days, we get along just fine.
Am-dram's all the rage, even at the RSC
One of the most enticing projects on the RSC's schedule is next year's A Midsummer Night's Dream in a touring version for which Bottom and the mechanicals, as well as Titania's train of fairies, will be cast from local amateurs in whichever town the show visits. This not only complies with the true spirit of Shakespeare's play – though Bottom, I fear, should really be played by an expert, on the sound principle that you can't play the trumpet badly unless you can play it well in the first place - but also with the RSC's almost maniacal obsession with cultural care in the community. Still, the Mail's Quentin Letts is getting into the am-dram spirit: he not only judged Britain's Best Am-Drams for Sky TV two years ago (with Bill Kenwright and Miriam Margolyes) but has also just directed his Herefordshire village church's Easter Mysteries play. No sign of a Lyn Gardner one-star review yet, though.
Is music the food of love and war horse?
One of the consistently good things about both the RSC and the National is that live music features in almost every production. This is good use of taxpayers' money. Canned music is always a curse except in certain Eastern European productions. The RSC is releasing a CD, and for download from iTunes, of Paul Englishby's music for the Henry IV plays, with speeches, part of an ongoing project to capture all RSC music for all the plays. The National, meanwhile, has won a court case brought by the five musicians who played for four years in the West End on War Horse. The musos have been replaced by a cost-cutting soundtrack and wanted to be reinstated. The judge made reference to the witness statement of Nick Starr, the NT's executive director, who said that the producers and directors of War Horse did not believe that the musicians could contribute positively to the play - and that it was "better off without them". Can you believe this? When did they decide that, I wonder? Not while the show was on the South Bank, I wager.
Threlfall does a shameless Tommy Cooper
David Threlfall's performance on Easter Monday night television as the bloated, drunken comedy genius Tommy Cooper was truly outstanding, a triumph of prosthetics, big boots and oversized costumes, with Threlfall's unambiguously unpleasant clown oscillating helplessly between his wife (a vindictive Amanda Redman) and his mistress (a translucent Helen McCrory). But, oh dear, the play itself, by Men Behaving Badly writer Simon Nye, was terrible, and terribly slow. Outside of Stephen Poliakoff and David Hare, television drama now seems to consist of pointless biographies of flawed dead comedians. Threlfall himself, best known for his ten-year stint as disgusting Frank Gallagher in Shameless on Channel 4, made his name in a Mike Leigh television film, Kiss of Death, before being plucked by Trevor Nunn to play his sensational Smike for the RSC's Nicholas Nickleby; and what marvellous "live" music (by Stephen Oliver) that show had, and I hope kept, in the West End and on Broadway.