Shakespeare Slam

Part of my effort to see every Shakespeare play.

One of the things that I try to see more of is puppetry for adults. Not that kind of puppetry (although I have seen that, great show). And so, when I went up to Edinburgh this August to see a friend and take in some shows, I was scrolling through the listings for puppets and found “Puppet Richard II”. I hadn’t had a great experience the last time I saw Richard II and thought, “well, why not go see it again? It’ll be some silly adaptation, no doubt, mainly sock puppets to entertain, let’s have a look”. 

I think there are few things about which I have been so wrong.

Puppet Richard II is one of the greatest plays I’ve ever seen.

Gregory Gudgeon is a serious actor with a list of credits that include both the Royal Shakespeare Company and The Globe and decided to do Richard II as a puppet show in order to break up what he considered to be a very dialogue-heavy play, so that people could appreciate it.

“It’s very gestural … it transmits the feeling of what’s going on even if the words are a bit archaic. … The movement of a puppet takes on what you’re doing and speaking the lines becomes secondary to the ballet.”Gregory Gudgeon

And it works. I really works. Using a variety of spoons and other common household objects (The Duke of York is a shoehorn), Gregory imbues these puppets with greater and greater life, manipulating them with life-like gestures until you barely notice his face above or next to them, delivering the lines of the play. As far as you are concerned in that moment, the character *is* a stuffed toy. One reviewer praised “THE most moving John of Gaunt death, played by a glove”.

Award-winning performance of a shoe-horn.

As the play goes on, and Richard loses his throne to Bolingbroke, soon to be Henry IV, the puppets are used to emphasise the shift in power – Richard goes from being played by Gregory in a yellow crown to a soft toy stuck to a chair to becoming a wooden figurine carved to look like Gregory himself, emphasising the continuity of the character. Similarly, Lucas Augustine, who plays Bolingbroke, initially begins just by voicing what looks like a ping-pong bat with a picture of Lucas’ face on it. By the end, he has become the character and sits in the throne at the end of the room.

On that: the room that we were in could sit a maximum of fifteen people who were quite fond of each other. The second half of the play, as it becomes more dramatic, moves from the puppetry set to the middle of the room, where there is no room to store props, so the audience are abruptly handed various puppets to hold while the play unfurls.

I had happened, because we were late arriving, to find myself sitting next to the throne in which Gregory-as-Richard-II sits to deliver his final soliloquays. Less than a foot away from me, delivering a performance fit for any RSC stage. It was intensely marvellous.

Unfortunately, if you’re right next to them, they’re right next to you, and as it happened, my friend that I was visiting had left during the interval, and I was worried that he was waiting for me outside and kept checking my phone, which prompted a rebuke from Richard the bloody II, whoc asked if I had somewhere to be. A mortifying moment. I quickly explained that I was going to send one text to let my friend know what was happening, and he seemed to think I was politely covering up being bored, so I had to say, “No, mate, this is fucking incredible, you keep right at it”, and he smiled and snapped back into character.

As I wrote to another friend, afterwards:

“Honestly, you don’t appreciate what someone can do with puppets to convey emotion when all you have to go on is comedy.

The guy was playing a three inch stuffed cloth tied around the wooden knob at the top of a chair with all the intensity of an RSC performance, it was riveting.”

Richard II, literally clinging to the throne.

There is possibly no greater compliment I can pay a performance than to go and see it again immediately. I went again the next day, so I could see it from the beginning through to the end without interrupting, and it was just as good. I do therefore have to conclude that the first performance I saw at the Sam Wanamaker was just really not that good.


Henry Bolingbroke, taking the crown as Henry IV.

Puppetry appears to be one of the rarest performing arts, and if you aren’t around for the London Puppetry festival, it can be difficult to find performances for adults that aren’t weird avant-garde experimental theatre. Gregory and Lucas have produced a play that is funny, tragic, and moving in all the right places. With puppets.

I just wish I could go again. Apparently they do private performances, and I have a thirty birthday to plan…


Puppet King Richard II/Edinburgh from Gregory Gudgeon on Vimeo.

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Part of my effort to see every Shakespeare play.

I pitched The Globe to my friends as “this theatre that was made by a mad American who decided to recreate a sixteenth century theatre in its entirety and then put on Shakespeare plays as they would have been performed then, complete with audience participation and dance numbers”. They agreed to come to the midnight matinee of Midsummer Night’s Dream.

And it was, uh, not quite as Shakepeare would have performed it, though I imagine if he had had the budget it wouldn’t have been too far off. I wasn’t the only one who thought it a bit much:

“The entire show is pitched somewhere between a first-week freshers’ party and the birthday celebration of a really spoilt five-year-old. There are piñatas, streamers, glitter face paint, pink hair, loads of deely boppers, audience interaction on the level of a Christmas show and giant balloon letters. ” –

Titania and Bottom (as donkey) in a wheely bin.

Midsummer Night’s Dream is a fantasy story, with two lovers running off to the woods to be together and getting caught up in a lover’s tiff between the King and Queen of the fairies. Love potions are pulled out, identies are mixed up and amid it all, six trademen are trying to practice their amateur dramatrics to be performed at the upcoming wedding. It is ridiculous, it is touching, and it is very funny, and remains one of Shakespeare’s most performed plays.

And perhaps because of that, Midsummer Night’s Dream is the only Shakespeare play that I had in fact seen before starting this project, though my memories of it are very dim (it was an outdoor performance, and I was eight years old, and spent much of the time sitting in a pillow feeling very uncomfortable). Nonetheless, I was still fairly ignorant of what happens and there were quite a few changes to the play that I could not appreciate until looking up the reviews afterwards, particularly of note:

“One of several inspired choices by Holmes is the way the character of Puck is shared around the cast, adding momentum to his sometimes sluggish soliloquies and laughs where often there are none. He also gets an audience member to play Starveling, turning this normally insignificant mechanical into a star turn and adding a useful foil to the buffoonery of Bottom (a show-stealing Jocelyn Jee Esien).” – Time Out

I didn’t actually realise that the role of Puck had been dished out among several people until reading this review afterwards – I just thought there were a band of fairies in the play and Puck was the famous one. I suppose that as one of Shakespeare’s best known plays, directors are able to take risks and assume their audience will understand what is being played with, but I personally was just a bit lost.

However, please do not take this as a negative review. I very much enjoyed this performance. The Hackney Colliery Band were the orchestra, and opened with their own ska performance with tuba, drums, trumpet, trombone and saxophone. The two lovers at the centre of the comedy were very good, if very eccentrically dressed. It’s an extremely high energy performance, with all of the actors hurling themselves around stage, into the audience, towards each other, on the floor, etc., with the exception of the Duke of Theseus/Oberon, who is played by an actor in his seventies, I think, and spent most of his time standing in a costume that sadly I can find no publicity photos of but which made him look like some kind of psychedelic oyster.

The main plot however, was quite overshadowed by the mayhem of the “rude mechanicals” trying to rehearse their play. As in Henry IV Part 2, Shakespeare in creating the role of Bottom created a role for a great comic actor and wow, the woman who played Bottom was amazing. Her comic timing was genious. For this performance, they picked a random member of the audience to play one of the players, who was apparently not briefed beforehand, and performed the play around him. They did his best to direct him and give him lines, but there was one moment where Bottom rushes on stage, head transformed into a donkey’s head, and all of the bickering performers run away, while Steve (I think he was called) continued to stand on the edge of the stage.

Bottom: “Why do they run away?”

[Sees Steve]

Bottom: “Run away, Steve!”

Steve then suddenly looked terrified and ran away out the back of the stage, before being sent, head hanging, back into the audience by the cast members. I cried with laughter.

Absolute master of comedy.

Steve also ended up riding some bicycle powered machine at the end that I can’t remember the purpose of, but personally I was more taken with Titania’s buggy that she enters the yard in for about twenty seconds for no particularly good but quite visually impressive reason:

Titania’s cart stashed away at the interval in the grounds.

The midnight matinee performances were set up as a gimmick that went so well that The Globe kept doing them. Practically, because everyone turns up at midnight fairly sloshed to begin with and keeps drinking, it means that the groundlings in the yard are pretty well-disposed to be entertained and inclined to express their entertainment loudly, which made for a cracking atmosphere. They laughed, they booed, they ahhed, which kept me going at the play isn’t cut short for the late hour. It did mean I got home at 4am, so I don’t think I will be repeating it, but I’m glad I went.

I think I may have to go and see another Midsummer Night’s Dream though. That passed by in a bit of a, well, a dream…


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