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Doctor Scroggy’s War – Shakespeare’s Globe

100 years ago, men found themselves fighting in the early battles of WW1 and women were staffing the field hospitals, receiving the first casualties of mechanised warfare. Men either died, or were left permanently disfigured. Medical techniques of the time were woefully inadequate for repairing the damage caused by shelling and machine gun fire, particularly to the face. A century later, we live in a world where plastic and reconstructive surgery is widely available, innovative, versatile and generally safe – for that, we can thank pioneering medic, Harold Gillies.

It’s 1915: the play follows Jack Twigg (Will Featherstone), a working class lad bright enough to go to Oxford who signs up along with his university friend, Lord Ralph Dulwich (Joe Jameson) as a young officer. Both bright eyed and bushy tailed, with illusions of going off to “smash the Hun”. A chance meeting at a party at the Ritz sees Jack accidentally take Ralph’s promotion (and has a night of passion with Ralph’s friend, Lady Penelope Wedgwood – a rather feline Catherine Bailey) and sets both men on 2 different courses.  We see many sides of Jack throughout the play: his initial gusto, his outspoken nature when he sees a flaw in the plan of the smug Field Marshall John French (Paul Rider) when planning the ill-fated Battle of Loos, his fear that to press the issue may cost him his position, and his discomfort amongst the upper classes.

James Garnon as Harold Gillies. Photo by Mark Douet.

We also meet the affable and slightly eccentric Major Harold Gillies (James Garnon – a regular face at Shakespeare’s Globe), a surgeon trying his best to find a way to repair the terrible facial wounds of injured soldiers brought back from the front. He is wonderfully flippant – he knows that the men he treats are so gravely injured that if he doesn’t operate, they’ll die anyway, so he might as well try to repair the damage and give them a chance at life – although his early attempts are unsuccessful as he tries to do too much at once. He slowly refines his technique, but survival brings other repercussions in the form of mental trauma. So at night, the mysterious kilted and bearded ‘Doctor Scroggy’, (Gillies’ alter ego) tiptoes through the wards, dispensing jokes, mischief and Champagne to the convalescing soldiers.

The play snaps in and out of little asides to the audience. There are occasional moments where it’s not exactly clear whether they’re speaking to us or to another character, and it often darts between the two – but it is seamless. It’s a great way to convey the inner thoughts. There’s something haunting when Jack kneels down to say “you all know what’s going to happen to me, don’t you?”, the sense of dread that he too will have his face shattered beyond recognition. The nurses (Holly Morgan, Catherine Bailey and Daisy Hughes – all slightly squeamish to begin with) graphically describe the process of hot, spinning shrapnel taking off a man’s jaw, ear, nose…. and Jack is whisked away to Gillies’ hospital.

Rhiannon Oliver as Catherine Black and Will Featherstone as Jack Twigg. Photo by Mark Douet.

There is a perfect illustration of ‘before and after’ of the healing process, which made me want to laugh and cry simultaneously. As the wounded Jack is wheeled in, mumbling that he wants them to end his life, the heartbreaking devastation is broken by 3 bandaged patients in fancy dress boisterously chasing each other through the ward. There is hope. There is life after trauma. But it is a slow process. One of my favourite lines was Gillies asking Jack “what sort of nose do you want?… I’m going to give you a new one, so you might as well be happy with it.” The play is smattered throughout with black humour and little gems like this.

But Gillies knew that it was not enough to repair the face – he had to heal the psychological damage as well. James Garnon is delightfully impish and warm as Doctor Scroggy, with a real tenderness when attending to the soldiers experiencing disturbing flashbacks and as he counsels them through the catharsis of admitting that they miss the fear, the bodies, the dirt and the horror.  That they would do anything to go back, the feeling that the opportunity to do their duty has been snatched away from them.  The play is very poignant, partly because these issues are still very present today; as young men and women return from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan with physical and mental scars, medicine moves forward. The advances in identifying and treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as well as micro-surgery. But overall, it is the fortitude of the human spirit that shines through. Well worth a watch if you can catch it.

Dr Scroggy’s War is playing until Friday 10th October 2014 at Shakespeare’s Globe, 21 New Globe Walk, Bankside, London, SE1 9DT. Contains strong language.  For tickets and more information go to http://www.shakespearesglobe.com/theatre/whats-on/globe-theatre/doctor-scroggys-war

The Knight of the Burning Pestle – Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

When Shakespeare’s Globe was built in the 1990s, the plan was always to have 2 theatres on the site – one of course being the open air Globe Theatre – but their budget fell short of being able to cover the costs of building an indoor candlelit Jacobean-style theatre, so space was left and the empty shell was used as a rehearsal room for over a decade.  But for the last few years, they’ve been fundraising (I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve put in a fiver here and a tenner there) and building the sort of theatre that Shakespeare and his contemporaries would’ve been familiar with – and I finally got to see it in all its glory last week for a performance of The Knight of the Burning Pestle.  It is BEAUTIFUL.  With its oak framed U-shape and seating for just 340 people, it is wonderfully cosy and intimate – and right now, it contains the silliest play in all of London Town.

Rather than ‘a play within a play’, this is almost a play outside of a play.  We the audience are gathered to watch The London Merchant but there’s a commotion in the front row; Citizen (Phil Daniels) stands up to complain that plays are always about the nobility and that there should be more plays about ordinary people, so he suggests that the players include his apprentice, Rafe (Matthew Needham) as a knight in their story.  The Citizen and his busybody Wife (Pauline McLynn, best known as Mrs Doyle in Father Ted) then spend the evening upstaging the players by noisily eating roasted nuts out of a paper bag, offering them around their nearby audience, talking over the actors and interfering with the plot when Rafe has been off stage for too long.  It is utter mayhem and you never quite know what situation they’ll dream up next.

Pauline McLynn and Phil Daniels

The players valiantly try to carry on with their tale of The London Merchant in spite of the frequent interruptions – the Merchant’s headstrong daughter, Luce (Sarah MacRae) is engaged to be married to wet blanket Humphrey (Dickon Tyrell), but instead she has fallen in love with the devil-may-care Jasper (Alex Waldmann), the son of Mr Merrythought (Paul Rider), a rather Falstaff-like character, and his moralistic wife Mistress Merrythought (Hannah McPake).

Each scene is bookended with a traditional Boy (Samuel Hargreaves) who gracefully presents placards and plays the lute.  It seems that two stage hands, Tim and George (Dennis Herdman and Dean Nolan), have been enlisted as squires on Rafe’s great quest, much to their annoyance.  But it is these two who provide endless amounts of comedy, shuffling about rather like the little men you’d see on a cuckoo clock, falling over, turning the Boy into a human maypole, almost strangling him with ribbons.

It’s occasionally confusing to watch, but you can tune into the language very quickly and there is so much slapstick that it almost doesn’t matter which plot we’re in – when the Merrythoughts and their precocious son Michael (Giles Cooper) set out to rescue Luce, they enlist Rafe and his companions to fight Jasper, which soon descends into chaos as various character flail about with swords, clamber through the audience and tear around the outer perimeter of the auditorium (there’s a wonderful moment when a face slides down a window) and tumble back onto the stage in a mess of shouting limbs.  Brendan O’Hea also plays a variety of increasingly ridiculous characters (as requested by the Citizen’s Wife) including a pirate and a grotesque giant.

Matthew Needham, Brendan O’Hea and Dean Nolan

But in total contrast, there are some darker moments of drama where a candlelit venue really comes into its own; all of the candelabras can be raised and lowered on ropes – so during one scene they were brought right down, hovering just a foot off the stage floor – the total change in atmosphere was incredibly effective, to the point that you’d almost forgotten that you were watching a comedy.

At times the whole thing descends into utter nonsense – but very entertaining nonsense.  Yes it is far-fetched, but this is a zany satire on badly behaved audiences, a problem which remains in theatres today with mobile phones, chattering and rustling.  If you are happy to put realism on hold for an evening, this rebellious comedy will have you grinning from ear to ear all the way home.

The Knight of the Burning Pestle is on at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe, 21 New Globe Walk, Bankside, SE1 9DT until Sunday 30th March 2014.  For tickets and information, go to http://www.shakespearesglobe.com/theatre/whats-on/sam-wanamaker-playhouse/the-knight-of-the-burning-pestle 

The Tempest – William Shakespeare (Shakespeare’s Globe)

I am a long term fan of Shakespeare’s Globe.  I bought a brick for £5 when it was being built in 1996, and having now seen 8 excellent productions on its stage, I’d say it was a great investment.  If your back, legs and feet can handle it, standing in the yard with the groundlings is the best ‘seat’ in the house – you get a great view of the stage and can always move if someone tall stands in front of you.  At just £5.00, it’s also the cheapest theatre ticket in London.

tempest

Prospero, the usurped Duke of Milan was banished by his brother Antonio and 12 years later, he still wants revenge.  When Antonio’s ship sails near the island, Prospero uses his magic to conjure a tempestuous storm.  The play opens with its iconic shipwreck scene, with all sound effects provided by the percussionists in the gallery – the matinee sunshine is a little at odds with the sounds of rolling thunder and howling wind, but the men onboard the ship become separated in the storm and each in turn wash up on the island.  There we meet Prospero (Roger Allam), his daughter Miranda (Jessie Buckley), his spirit companion Ariel (Colin Morgan – Merlin in the BBC TV series of the same name) and his deformed feral servant Caliban (James Garnon).

Roger Allam gives a great performance as a man whose bitterness has been reignited by the reappearance of his brother and he proceeds to play tricks on the shipwrecked men, aided by Ariel.  Colin Morgan imbues his character with an almost childlike mischievousness and proves himself more that worthy in a stage role.  Jessie Buckley gives Miranda a glow of naivety, almost drunk with joy when she first encounters the strangers arriving on the island.  But it is James Garnon whose wronged simian-like Caliban steals the show at times with his vocal gymnastics, swinging from deeply guttural to high pitched squeaking.

The highlight of the play is a typical Shakespeare slapstick scene; drunken jester Trinculo (Trevor Fox – last seen in The Pitmen Painters) stumbles ashore, wrings out his oversized codpiece and hides under a blanket waiting for the storm to pass, only to find Caliban underneath and the two proceed to get tangled up in the fabric.  The writhing, shouting mass of limbs is found by Stephano (Sam Fox, a regular face in Shakespeare comedy roles) a drunken steward from the shipwreck who believes it to be creature that is either ill or possessed: “four legs and two voices: a most delicate monster!”  Shakespearean comic acting at its best.

The Tempest runs on selected nights up until Sunday 18th August, however it forms part of the ‘Season of Plenty’ at the Globe which includes A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Macbeth which are running until Sunday 13th October.

Shakespeare’s Globe, 21 New Globe Walk, Bankside, LONDON, SE1 9DT

http://www.shakespearesglobe.com/

Shakespeare’s Globe is currently building a traditional indoor Jacobean theatre which will be open for its first performances in January 2014.  To be named the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, after the Globe’s visionary founder, this will be an exquisite candlelit venue in which Shakespeare would have felt right at home.  They have so far raised 94% of their £7.5million target.  If you would like to contribute towards this exciting new venture, you can do so by clicking this link.