RSC Live from…, ’71 style

29th July 2014

Helen Mirren and Sheila Burrell in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, RSC, 1970-71; photograph by Donald Cooper

Today I went, by appointment, to what they call a carrel in Rare Books and Manuscripts at The British Library. My carrel was a little room with a glass wall, rather fierce air-conditioning and some headphones. An immensely helpful librarian explained that I should put on the headphones and she would start the playback I had requested. There had been, she admitted, a bit of a panic earlier when they discovered that the tape had been recorded more than forty years ago on a reel-to-reel machine at a very eccentric speed. But all was well. So I closed my eyes, opened my ears, and was transported back to the Aldwych Theatre on the evening of 2 January 1971. Playing out in my head was an ‘as live’ recording of The Two Gentlemen of Verona.

Back in the day the RSC archived its shows as sound recordings (they do it today on video). The collection of these, dating back to 1964, is housed – along with many other audio treasures – at The British Library. Anyone with a reader’s ticket can make an appointment with the Listening and Viewing Service and have their own little moment of theatrical time travel. Listening to these tapes is a remarkably vivid experience, even though (or perhaps exactly because) they were recorded in a very basic way with (I think) a single mic hung above the stage during a performance.

Extracts of the recordings have been made available on two CD collections The Essential Shakespeare and The Essential Shakespeare Encore, as selected by current RSC Artistic Director Gregory Doran. But listening to a whole play is rather different, not least because you hear the not-so-great (I wasn’t taken by Thurio/Terence Taplin’s cod Italian accent) along with the marvellous. There’s another important difference too, but first let me explain why it was this recording I wanted to hear.

On 3 September Live from Stratford-upon-Avon broadcasts to cinemas the RSC’s new staging of The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Simon Godwin’s production is a true treat which apart from anything else is gloriously surprising. At least it was to me, since I had not previously seen the play staged. I suspect that most of the hugely enthusiastic Stratford audiences are coming to it fresh too, since this is the first main stage presentation of the full play by the company since, well, 1970 and the recording I listened to with such pleasure. Here’s the new trailer for that production.

Back in 1970 (the show premiered in Stratford on 23 July that year) director Robin Phillips assembled a to-die-for cast including Peter Egan as Valentine, Ian Richardson as Proteus, Helen Mirren as Julia and Patrick Stewart as Launce. The play has a key role for a dog (although you don’t hear much of him in the recording), and according to the BUFVC’s essential Shakespeare web site, Blackie ‘was discovered by Patrick Stewart at the Avon Dog Service who saved him from a destruction centre after he had been picked up as a stray’. (There is a full cast list, together with a selection of Donald Cooper’s production photographs, here.)

From the tape you can appreciate the exquisite comic timing of Patrick Stewart, the bracingly intelligent verse-speaking of Helen Mirren and the very matter-of-fact, only-just-short-of-cynical performance of Ian Richardson. You marvel at how fast much of the text is taken – without a word being lost or an understanding missed. But inevitably there is a lot of comic business that remains inaccessible. Act I Scene 3 with Antonio and Panthino seems to take place around a bath, with a good deal of sploshing and a lot of audience hilarity, but from this distance with only the audio trace remaining it’s hard to join in the fun.

Of course to help us recreate imaginatively this production there are photographs to supplement this tape (a good selection of Donald Cooper’s work is on the AHDS Performing Arts database). There are contemporary reviews, including this informative one by Robert Speaight included in a later book. The RSC archive in Stratford will have the stage manager’s production book and probably other materials too. But of course this is theatre, and its ephemerality is all part of the medium’s essence. Except that it was until moving images came along – and especially until live cinema broadcasts began to multiply significantly the number of recordings made in theatres.

What I found especially interesting about the RSC ‘live from…’ recording from back in 1971 was the way it captured the audience response to the play. By which I mean not just the level of laughter but its quality, its shades of complicity or distance from the play.

Let me other just one example. In Act III Scene 1 Launce has the line, ‘To be slow in words is a woman’s only virtue.’ Today in Stratford’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre, the laughter has a slightly shocked and most definitely disapproving tone – but that seemed to me entirely absent from the approving jollity of the audience forty-three years ago. Here, in just a single moment of this low-res record of an evening’s fun, there was a sense of how society’s attitudes have changed – and of how, because of us, Shakespeare’s words are as protean as this play’s central character.

Image: Helen Mirren and Sheila Burrell in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, RSC, 1970-71; photograph by Donald Cooper; reproduction permitted for non-commercial, educational use.

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