Getting out and about does you a power of good – and these days there is that exciting extra frisson of uncertainty; about everything. I was going to see Richard III at the RSC in Stratford, a place which could easily have become an international cultural hub, but didn’t, as it lacks good transport connections. It’s not even possible to get a train or bus back after an evening performance, so we always go to matinees.
My train from Oxford was on time but a voice on a tannoy called out that passengers should ‘head to the north of the station.’ Compasses out, we moved up the platform hoping for the best. I had booked a seat in carriage C. Although I moved fast, I wasn’t quick enough to reach that carriage and on board my way was blocked by first class. Never mind, I’d got a table seat booked for the way back.
A bracing walk into Stratford to reach the theatre, where we found our seats, £49 each but right at the back, and we couldn’t sit together. The rows below were empty and I wondered if we could move down but was told a firm no, as they were ‘expecting latecomers.’ The play started although the famous opening, ‘Now is the winter of our discontent’ was somewhat lost as the stage filled with young people, there was no one in the cast over forty, and Richard, played by Arthur Hughes, hardly projected it. He could have really been discussing the weather. As he ran about the stage with the others, I had a feeling of apprehension as I noticed he’d got no hump.
This was Richard ‘Crookback’ with no cruck, the ‘poisonous bunch-backed toad,’ as his sister Queen Margaret called him, or ‘Bent Dicky’ as he was called by relatives in Henry VI, was not in the least bit bunched or bent. Hughes significantly does have a deformed arm and is being hailed as the RSC’s first disabled actor. It was finally proved in 2012 when Richard was dug up in a car park, that he had Scoliosis and a damaged arm.
According to the rules of Woke, an actor who does not have those problems cannot play that part because acting is now all about, ‘the lived experience’ of the actor. There was probably no actor with both a twisted spine and a damaged arm available, but this was near as possible. It’s doubtful that any of the great, able-bodied actors who once took the role, Laurence Olivier, Antony Sher, who was married to Greg Doran the director of this version, Ian McKellen, would ever be allowed near it now. Their memory must be consigned to our shameful past. It’s questionable whether this rule applies in reverse, as actors in the ‘protected categories’ seem to be able to have it both ways.
The impact of woke culture has changed the theatre so that I can barely recognise it. In my 60s childhood, theatrical drama, still present on TV as well as on stage, was a way of bringing chaos into our somewhat rigid lives. We still lived by codes of propriety and stoicism, imposed from infancy. Writers started telling us that with a little courage we could break free of family and class restraints and live as self-fulfilled hippies.
New writing now says the opposite; trying to replace our unruly thoughts and behaviour with controlled, respectable thinking, telling us exactly what we should think, say, and see. We can see black actors in white roles, women playing men, and nothing too unpleasant, racist or sexist, lest we be corrupted back into the fiendish, entitled white folks we once were. Representing this new ideology and promoting minorities appears more important than finding talent or respecting an original script. The action on stage seemed fragmented, lines were thrown away, poetry and rhythm ignored and no character stood out, even the king. I began to feel bored and this was once one of my favourite plays.
Women are increasingly important in British cultural life, taking most directorial and curatorial jobs and leading male roles, but in this they were dull as mice. Richard III is a good play for feisty feminists as Richard is ‘hag-ridden’ as he might have put it, surrounded by females who hate him and make their feelings plain through searing, wounding speech. Queen Margaret, who Crookback calls a ‘foul, wrinkled witch’ looked about twenty-five in a sexy red evening dress, but she limped about as if she was old, which was confusing. The lines on her face were invisible and from her mouth were almost inaudible. Worse, Richard’s mother, played by a cosy looking black actress in a bandana, rather than bitter loathing for her son which usually adds another layer of brutality and complexity to the play, expressed as much ire as if he’d failed to tidy his bedroom.
Drifting off in that unpleasant way where your eyes get heavier and your head keeps snapping up as you struggle to keep awake, I was roused by the ‘latecomers;’ without waiting for a break in the performance school children surged through, like a mini army waiting to attack, but rather than bows and arrows their weapons were packets of crisps and large bottles of Coca-Cola. They didn’t talk; just stuffed themselves.
The attendant who’d told me I couldn’t move seat went into action and I had to keep standing up to let her go by as she desperately tried to identify the loudest crisp eaters. Another one worked along another row, trying to stop the Coke quaffing, but the picnicking noises went on until the interval. I spoke to some of the children, from Southam College, in Warwickshire, rated highly by Ofsted. They were charming, and slightly bewildered. Their teachers had just not told them that when you go to the theatre, you eat before, after, or in the interval, not during the play. The duty manager apologised and gave us even more expensive seats in the stalls, where we were much closer to the actors with no escape into furtive slumber.
I could see that the set held a facsimile of the London cenotaph and the play limped on, not even enlivened by the usual sex and violence. All deaths, even of Clarence, drowned in a butt of wine happened off stage. Richard ran about looking as peevish and forceful as Pike in Dad’s Army. One critic referred to him as not so much a tyrant as ‘A slightly naughty boy.’ The cenotaph was used to project two faces from the eleven ghosts who visit Richard before the battle of Bosworth, what happened to the other aggrieved spectres is anyone’s guess.
We did get to hear, ‘My kingdom for a horse!’ but not in a way that I thought the school children, now largely quiet with only the odd crunch and swig, would remember. A wreath was for some reason laid on the cenotaph and I emerged into the evening air saddened that all those children would take away was the discovery of some rules about eating in the theatre, and probably not be too bothered, as it’s doubtful they’d be back.
On the train way home, I found my booked seat, not the one I’d chosen, on a table crowded with young people using PCs who glared when I approached, so I moved to sit by myself, feeling tired. I was back by 6pm and got the bus, usually a twenty-minute journey. As we left the centre of town and reached the Cowley Road the driver called out, ‘I can’t stop where you want due to traffic lights, get off now if you want to.’ It was a long way on foot from there so I decided to stay on until we reached the bus stop after the usual one.
Unfortunately, she didn’t say that the road ahead was one solid traffic jam, party due to the recent introduction of LTNs, ‘Low Traffic Neighbourhood’ bollards blocking off all the side roads, so motorists have to stay on the main road. First tried out in Jeremy Corbyn’s constituency and bringing in a large revenue from fines, they’re now a cherished tool of Labour, LibDem and Green politics. We sat there, unmoving. I asked if she could let me get off so I could walk. ‘No’ she said, ‘I gave you three warnings,’ (untrue) ‘I’m not allowed to let anyone off except by a statutory bus-stop.’
We went on sitting there for half hour, some arguing weakly with her, all enviously watching motorists shooting through red lights to escape. It had been a long day of woke in myriad forms, which I at my great age am unable to appreciate and longed to get home to mull over what I’d gained from a day out and seeing Shakespeare again. Like the school children very little, except that Merrie England is now a baffling place, much more likely to glower and tut tut at your expectations than smile and wave you on your way.