Anniversaries are always a time for reflection. Today marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, the Bard of Stratford On Avon (as Cole Porter put it).
Shakespeare has long been a source of wonder, joy and fascination for me. Apart from studying his plays at school, at University and in rehearsal rooms, I played some of his great parts. And I saw some terrific, inspiring productions, both live and on the screen, big and small.
This anniversary has made me think about which productions, over the years, have stayed with me the most, which I remember as if I saw them yesterday and which, if I could sit and watch them again, would be the ones devoutly to be wished.
So many great performances by individuals, so many clever directorial conceits, so much laughter, so many tears. But, overall, which productions were my favourites?
Actually, the top of the list was a no brainer for me, but getting to that production…so many to choose from. Inevitably, though, no more than nine had to be chosen.
It was no trouble to discard terrifically bad productions such as Much Ado About Nothing (Old Vic, with Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones, 2013) or The Taming of the Shrew (RSC, with Lisa Dillon, 2012) or Twelfth Night (RSC, with Jonathan Slinger, 2012).
But, the truth is, it is easy to produce middling to good Shakespeare: the trick is to make Shakespeare really great in modern performance.
Out of the race, in the end, after much procrastination, were quality productions such as King Lear (RSC, with Ian McKellen, 2007), Othello (Donmar, with Chiwetel Ejiofor, Ewan McGregor and Tom Hiddleston, 2008 ), The Merchant of Venice (The Globe, with Jonathan Pryce, 2015), A Midsummer’s Night Dream (Rose Theatre, Kingston, with Judi Dench and Oliver Chris, 2010), Coriolanus (RSC, with Toby Stephens, 1994), The Merchant of Venice (Broadway, with Al Pacino and Lily Rabe, 2011), King Lear (Queensland Theatre Company, with Warren Mitchell, 1978), Much Ado About Nothing (Wyndhams Theatre with David Tennant and Catherine Tate, 2011), Hamlet (Grandage Company, with Jude Law, 2009) and Henry V (Grandage Company, with Jude Law, 2013).
And there are the productions I never saw but wished I had: Judi Dench and Anthony Hopkins in Anthony and Cleopatra, the Hamlets of Ben Whishaw and Simon Russell-Beale – just to name a few.
So? Which productions were in my top ten live Shakespeare productions? Here goes:
10. Richard II RSC 2013
My reasons for placing this production in tenth place are here: Richard II
9. The Merchant of Venice Almeida 2014
My reasons for placing this production in ninth place are here: The Merchant Of Venice
8. Love’s Labour’s Lost RSC 2007
This was a delightful, and very, very funny production. Possibly the best comedy I have seen Gregory Doran direct. A lovely, talented cast, led by the irrepressible David Tennant at his mischievous and mercurial best.
I can’t recall Stratford Upon Avon audiences laughing so loudly or long since this sparkling gem. It had its sombre moments too and Nina Sosanya in superbly delicate form.
7. King Lear Donmar 2010
Michael Grandage really showed the Donmar Warehouse Theatre at its very best in this intimate production of an epic play.
Sir Derek Jacobi, his magnificent voice fully engaged, was a marvel as Lear and I still can feel the shivers that his remarkably poignant Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! speech achieved; so startling because it was so quiet, delivered in the eye of the storm.
A breath-taking achievement.
6. Hamlet RSC 2007
The central quartet of David Tennant, Patrick Stewart, Penny Downie and Oliver Ford-Davies anchored this production, Gregory Doran’s supreme achievement in Shakespeare performance. It was classical and modern at once, moved at a cracking pace, found all of the humour, while perfectly charting the destruction of the Prince of Denmark.
The soliloquies were quite marvellous, with Tennant’s powerful O that this too too solid flesh would melt a masterclass in poetry wrapped in howling, wracked misery.
Many tears were shed during the course of this production and Stewart’s Don’t Drink! was as extraordinary a theatrical moment as one could hope for, followed immediately by another – Downie’s eyes flashing with horror and acceptance. Ford-Davies is the funniest Polonius I have ever seen, but also the one whose death seemed the saddest.
The excitement in the auditorium was as palpable as Osric’s hit.
5. Hamlet RSC 2016
My reasons for placing this production in fifth place are here: Hamlet
4. Twelfth Night Globe, Broadway 2014
I saw this production three times in London and loved it every time. But a significant cast change for Broadway elevated this Tim Carroll helmed, all-male, period costumes only, Globe Theatre production from first class to stellar.
Samuel Barnett was promoted from Sebastian to the other twin, Viola, and his performance, its depth and commitment, transformed every aspect of the play. He brought the very best work out of Mark Rylance’s hysterically funny Olivia (that scene with the pike – gold!) and also Liam Brennan’s lovesick Orsino.
Equally, Joseph Timms brought a fresh, very masculine authority to Sebastian and all of those scenes worked better too. Together, these changes brought balance to the production, matching, supporting and improving the performances of Rylance, Stephen Fry, Paul Chahidi (the best Maria ever!) and Angus Wright.
Broadway had never seen Twelfth Night anything like this – and neither had I. Impossibly, unfeasibly funny. Irresistable and memorable – for all the right reasons.
3. As You Like It RSC 2013
As You Like It is a play often done, and often done poorly. But not here. Maria Aberg’s production was thrilling and extraordinary in all the right ways. At the end of it, I felt exhausted and exhilarated in equal measure – as if I had actually been to three weddings.
I also felt like I had never seen the play properly before. Aberg’s vision made the words come flaming into life, vibrant, glistening and full of ardent passion. Despite the difficult language, there was a purely contemporary feel to everything said and done. Meaning took flight in whole-hearted, honest performances that were charming and utterly beautiful.
Alex Waldmann was outstanding as Orlando and so good was he that Pippa Nixon’s memorable Rosalind was not able to steal the show, as Rosalinds are wont to do. The strength of all of the romantic leads was remarkable.
It’s not every day that this comedy can bring tears to the eye – tears of unmitigated joy – but this production did it over and over again. For the first time, As You Like It seemed an impossibly perfect play.
This was a complete triumph for Maria Aberg.
2. The Winter’s Tale 2015
My reasons for placing this production in second place are here: The Winter’s Tale
1. Twelfth Night RSC 1994
Even now, more than twenty years later, the cleverness and unrelenting joy of this production of Twelfth Night still overwhelms me. Whenever talk turns to things Shakespearean, this is the production that springs to mind, the bench-mark to which, for me, all other productions should aspire.
Directed with clarity and care by Ian Judge, it bubbled with sensuous and comic flair. There was an inspired bit of business involving a kiss which threaded through the intricate plot and which had the audience hooked and spellbound, as they waited to see who would next be kissed, and by whom.
But it didn’t shy away from the darker, more desolate, aspects of the stories of Malvolio and Sir Toby. Judge ensured full value was given to all of Shakespeare’s intentions, which served to make the comedic aspects that much funnier.
The verse was handled with assiduous skill by a gifted ensemble of players who were all terrific. Emma Fielding was particularly memorable in a truly impeccable cast.
This was Shakespeare at its most alive.
Of course, this list is very subjective and everyone will have their own favourite production.
Mark the anniversary – tell us what your favourite Shakespeare productions are and why they captured your imagination.