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Shakespeare on tour

by Richard HOWARD

The world's best-known dramatist in any language must surely be the English playwright William Shakespeare, the excitement of whose works is matched only by the drama of the times in which he lived 400 years ago, during the reigns of Queen Elizabeth I and James I. Shakespeare's plays brim with heroes and villains, lovers and tyrants, soldiers and shopkeepers, tragic and comic figures whose doings still interest audiences even today. In the country of his birth virtually all his plays are still performed, and generally fill the theatres where they are put on. In part, of course, this is because they are studied in schools, and teachers like to show their classes how the words on the page come to life as soon as they are spoken by flesh-and-blood actors.

In Britain the state-funded cultural organisation, the British Council, long ago realised that schoolchildren and students in many countries abroad also read Shakespeare, and that live performances of his works are an exportable asset with a ready market wherever Hamlet or Othello, Richard III or Prospero, Romeo and Juliet are familiar names. However, Shakespeare's plays are on the grand scale: some of them have more than 30 characters, mostly clothed in gorgeous historical costumes, and the texts call for stages set as castles, town squares, palaces, magic forests and islands, tombs, shipwrecks... A literal staging would cost a fortune to transport around the world.

Fortunately, however, there is a way round this economic problem, and it lies in the plays themselves. In Shakespeare's time they were done on a bare stage, by actors wearing the clothing of their own day and using only a minimum of props. The same practice can be followed today, as the language is so full of expressive imagery that expensive sets and elaborate accessories are not actually needed. And by putting each actor in more than one role, as the structure of the plays allows, a skilful director can reduce the manpower needed to much more manageable proportions without affecting the audience's enjoyment of the story.

In fact, with judicious pruning of the text, a mere handful of actors can tour to distant countries with full versions of several Shakespeare plays. The British stage and television actor Richard Howard, a veteran of Britain's National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company, here describes his experiences working with the surprisingly small London Shakespeare Group in many different parts of the world.

The London Shakespeare Group was created by the British actors John Fraser, Gary Raymond, Delena Kidd and Susan Farmer in 1976, when, in association with the British Council, it began sending companies of four to eight actors throughout the world to perform Shakespeare's plays. It is still run by one of the founder members, Delena Kidd, from an office in London as a successful commercial entreprise which employs top actors from all areas of the theatrical profession who enjoy the challenge of travel and the prospect of performing in unexpected venues and before people of all ages and nationalities. Packing the entire set and costumes into one or three trunks (depending on the number of actors taking part), the company has performed in venues as diverse as a school-room in Mafeteng, Lesotho and a bat-infested courtroom in Batticaloa, Sri Lanka; from the Japanese city of Hiroshima to the theatre at Rose Hill, Mauritius; in a beach garden in Oman or at universities in Addis Ababa and Seoul. On a visit to India, we once had to go to work on horseback to reach the Gaiety Theatre in Simla.

For the 1978 tour of East and Southern Africa, showing five Shakespeare plays, the company comprised Ian Talbot playing Shylock (a Jewish merchant), Bottom (an Athenian weaver) and Brutus (a Roman general - wearing a pair of purple boots as there were no standard-issue black Army boots available); Ian McCulloch as Macbeth (King of Scotland and psychopath) and Mark Anthony (another Roman general), and playing music;

Delena Kidd in the roles of Portia (a Venetian lady) and Lady Macbeth (Queen of Scotland, the evil genius behind her husband) and wardrobe mistress; and Richard Howard performing Cassius (a Roman politician) and Bassanio (a Venetian gentleman) and directing the plays. All we took was one trunk full of costumes and props, the ass's head from the production of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' performed in the open air in Regent's Park in London, a guitar and our personal baggage. The trunk itself was the set. For 'The Merchant of Venice' it became the dock behind which Antonio stands accused by Shylock, for 'Macbeth' it stood in for the ramparts of Dunsinane Castle and for 'Julius Caesar' it was the corpse of Caesar himself. In one of the plays about King Henry IV, it served as the mock throne which the drunken knight Sir John Falstaff sits on to impersonate the King; and for 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' it was just ... a trunk.

This is how each performance started. The trunk was placed on the floor with a few chairs in a semi-circle behind it. As soon as the audience (anything from 100 to 1000 people) was in, the trunk was opened and a piece of chalk taken from inside. A circle was then drawn on the floor and, while three of us set props and pieces of costume in pre-arranged positions on and around the chairs, Ian Talbot would deliver a prepared speech which included the business of jumping in and out of the circles saying: 'Now I'm acting - and now I'm not.' The audience could usually tell the difference!

At a school in Livingstone, where the audience moved us greatly with their singing of the Zambian national anthem before the show, we performed 'Julius Caesar'. After the trunk, as Caesar, had been stabbed to death and covered with a blood-stained toga, Brutus walked forward and spoke to the citizens of Rome: 'Who is here so vile that will not love his country? If any, speak; for him have I offended. I pause for a reply.' 'None, Brutus, none,' replied the entire audience, unprompted and unrehearsed. It was a moment when we could just imagine what it must have been like to have performed the play for the first time when it was written in 1600, at a time when the story was familiar to the audience but the drama brand-new. In performances of 'The Merchant of Venice', there was always a gasp of shock in the court-room scene where Shylock is about to cut out his adversary's heart in settlement of an unpaid debt, when Portia, speaking as a lawyer, advises Shylock that he is legally entitled to do it only if he spills no blood in the process: 'Tarry a little, there is something else. This bond cloth give thee here no jot of blood; The words expressly are a pound of flesh.'

In Livingstone, by the way, we stayed in a hotel called 'The Smoke that Thunders', the local name for the Victoria Falls, and were lucky enough to have the author of the plays with us... It was, in fact, the British Council representative and head of English teaching in Zambia, who, with his bald head and beard, looked exactly like Shakespeare.

Selibe Pikwe in Botswana is a place to which we often returned in order to change aircraft and once had to switch seats as a company of soldiers fighting for the independence of what is now Zimbabwe commandeered the rear of the plane. Our chartered aircraft to Maun, which lies to the north of the Kalahari between the Okavango swamps and the Makgadikgadi salt pans, was just big enough for us, our luggage and the pilot, and we had an exhilarating flight as we shadowed herds of zebra across the desert. The return journey was less thrilling as the pilot of our scheduled flight was a one-man band who also checked us in and stowed the luggage. And there was an extra passenger. The pilot was unwilling to take the trunk as it would make the plane too heavy and a storm was brewing. In the end and after a lot of shoving and heaving, he agreed and we took off. The storm broke, the plane was thrown about very badly and we had to make for an airstrip beyond Gaborone. There we saw some children waiting to see who was arriving, so Ian put on the life-like ass's head before climbing out of the plane and, with ears flapping, eyes winking and jaw snapping, he appeared before the crowd. As the children backed away with a mixture of fear and fascination we discovered exactly how to play the scene from 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' where Bottom appears before his friends having been magically 'translated' into an ass by the fairy Puck.

During a tour of the romantic comedy 'Twelfth Night' to Uganda in 1984, we were invited to a performance of a local play which had elements of another Shakespeare play, 'Pericles' (princes competing for the hand of a beautiful princess) and of the fairy story of 'Beauty and the Beast' (the most hideous competitor winning the princess's hand). We expected the play to end happily but unbelievably in the 'kiss a frog, reveal a handsome prince' manner, but it ended more grimly and true to life with the monstrous hero claiming the princess according to her father's promise. Real life came on stage in another way in Uganda when President Obote came to the show. Two of his soldiers were posted in the wings, and during the heroine Viola's soliloquy, after Malvolio has left her alone with Olivia's ring, one of the fully armed soldiers entered upstage left and, from the back of the stage, took his time to survey the audience. Viola's only complaint afterwards was that she had got fewer laughs than usual.

As testimony to the unending popularity of these plays, I am at present in England rehearsing the role of Peter Quince for a production of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' to be performed in Sheffield to mark the 21st birthday of the Crucible Theatre; and the London Shakespeare Group is preparing another production of the play to tour the Gulf early in 1993.