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Bard on the run

The Independent, 3rd April 1991

Michael Pennington, actor/manager of the ESC, pauses before the last lap of an international tour

The English Shakespeare Company was playing ‘Coriolanus’ in Helsinki when the US deadline to the Iraqis ran out and the war began. The Finns remained neutrally aloof, their attention on Lithuania: even after 74 years of independence, Finland is wary of where Russia’s westward eye may settle next. For us the major chords sounded as Volumnia came to plead with her son to spare Rome:

Thou know’st great son,

The end of the war’s uncertain,

That if thou conquer Rome the


Which thou shalt thereby reap

is such a name

Whose reputation will be

dogg’d with curses…”

Deep in the purdah of touring, how could we gauge the news? Selfishly, did it mean we shouldn’t leave for India in 10 days time? Identified by the British High Commission in Delhi as a “relatively high-risk terrorist target”, we nevertheless took the view and went: after all, it wasn’t Pakistan.

Nothing prepares the novice for India, as everyone knows: the affronting heat, the battered buses, the persistent air of 1947. The ride in from Bombay airport is a fair summary – row upon row of men defecating by the side of the road, wretched lean-tos made out of billboards declaring that “Surf Washes Whitest” or bearing blandishments from American Express. The code of the road encourages a speed too fast for safety, too slow for progress (James Cameron’s words, not mine); since a pedestrian casualty could lead to the driver being lynched, his vehicle burned and the police stoned, this is high ante. Through the confusion and pity of it all, images of blazing beauty suggest an infinite world beyond these horrors.

The biggest theatre tour to visit India in 30 years, we played a week in Bombay at the Homi Bhabha Auditorium, named after the greatest physicist who, in the splitting of the atom, dreamed of the rapid modernisation of India. The place is falling apart. Then Bangalore, where we worked around a family of rats, under a cluster of bats hanging in the flies, and in spite of a chipmunk that on one occasion dropped on to the stage at the feet of Tullus Aufidius. In Delhi, the incoming audience could, while being vigorously frisked by security, ponder at leisure a large poster announcing out hotel, daily schedule, and details of our ongoing flight. Finally in Calcutta, a beggar described by Geoffrey Moorhouse in his magnificent book on the place is still on his mat on Chowringhee Lane 20 years later, his helpless cheek to the pavement as if listening to the earth, his four stumps quivering. Vultures wheel above him

Meanwhile the war escalated. Aufidius continued to tear up the proffered peace treaty over the dead body of Coriolanus; in ‘The Winter’s Tale’, the deluded intransigence of Leontes seemed characteristic of all parties in the conflict. Movie-star portraits of Saddam Hussein, a visionary gleam in his eye, began to appear in the Indian street-markets and one or two of us got spat on. We got used to this; observed ‘Coriolanus’ becomingly slightly the more popular of the two shows, came to love the audiences paying a maximum of 30 pence a ticket and discussing the play throughout, not bothering to applaud at the end despite their evident excitement. We were phlegmatic when an interviewer from ‘India Times’ demanded to know why we had dressed the Volscian army as Muslim fundamentalists – was this quite a tactful thing to do? – and left this astounding country with our minds thrown open but also with a seductive feeling of have done some minute good. After an overnight stop in Bangkok on the day of the military coup, we flew into Australia for a more sedate four weeks in temperatures of over 100 degrees – by which time the war was over and the struggle to win the peace beginning: a sequel to ‘Coriolanus’ that Shakespeare never wrote.

In a way, he barely finished ‘Coriolanus’ – a masterpiece that explains why idealism may be incompatible with good politics and how dangerous it is for a man to change, but which is then allowed by certain faltering in the last act to drop just short of ‘Macbeth’. ‘The Winter’s Tale’, on the other hand, demands change – towards personal candour: its acceptance of sexuality as the basis of all behaviour anticipates psycho-analysis by centuries, and in its unflinching description of jealousy it even dares to do without a Iago.

Doing these plays, we are once again finding that there is no such thing as two unrelated Shakespeares: even two such diverse pieces show more links than differences. Once again, we are assuming that the plays were written specifically for us – perhaps even by a Shakespeare who is somewhere in the company, working for us alone. The sense of taking the plays direct from the pen, unprocessed by time, is our necessary aim, since Shakespeare’s vocabulary needs to be preserved not just as an icon but as a common coin. At the same time, these breathing works that are our articles of faith are in ours, as in all productions, subject to certain distortion, more the result of historical eddying than any calculated intervention of our own.

Our company is five years old next month and the pleasure of coming into the Aldwych for our new season is great. There are signs of acceptance in unexpected quarters: we are challenged less these days about the rights and wrongs of modern-dress Shakespeare – what a relief to be rid of this chestnut, since there can be nothing more classically Elizabethan than to do the plays thus, as Shakespeare’s own company would have done. We ourselves seem to be getting terser meanwhile, more determined, less brazenly vociferous about our aims, which is also good, since there is less and less time to talk.

Grim resolve, in any case, seems to be the key to adapting again to English life – what with a dearth of new plays in the West End; the Almeida, King’s Head and Greenwich theatres hit by Council grant cuts and a new VAT rate which (unless seat prices are hoisted once more) will probably cost the ESC £2,500 a week in lost income, and the British theatre at large up to £5 million in the next year. But that a tour such as ours could hardly be described as lotus-eating, we might feel a guilty sense of advantage, since the crisis biting theatre companies with expensive buildings to maintain leaves a light-footed troupe like ours strangely free – and able to pursue a frankly optimistic dialogue with the Arts Council that encourages us to plan at full throttle.

As we expand, we hope for a deepening achievement and more commitment – also for houses as full as those midweek nights in Bradford last November when ‘The Winter’s Tale’ suddenly seemed more popular than football.

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