‘Dad, it’s three hours long,’ says Boy, worriedly.
‘Yeah. And whose bloody fault is it we’re going?’ I want to reply but don’t because I know, as a dad, you’re not supposed to say discouraging things when your child has asked you to take him to see his first ever Shakespeare play at the RSC.
Still, I can’t pretend I’m happy with the arrangement. Partly it’s the cost of the tickets: £50-plus each, with no student discount for Boy because the show has long since sold out and you don’t get special deals on last-minute returns. Partly it’s just that, well, it’s the theatre and I’m not that keen on going to the theatre.
The killer for me were the years I spent first as a showbiz diarist for Daily Telegraph. Sometimes you’d be doing as many as three first nights a week, at least two and three quarters of them guaranteed to be toe-curlingly awful. I still have nightmares about the African-themed musical so trite, inept and gratingly right on that I couldn’t even last till the interval. You can imagine the tutting you get from your fellow audience members when you creep out of a show on its first night, the seats packed with backers and friends and luvvies. But God it felt good to be out of that theatre: like a condemned man granted an 11th-hour reprieve.
Obviously they weren’t all duds. Over the years I’ve enjoyed Journey’s End; Flare Path; the Ben Whishaw Hamlet; and since Tim Rice’s From Here To Eternity the other day, I’ve scarcely stopped humming the standout song ‘Fight The Fight’. But the fact that I can name them says it all: the shows I’ve loved are etched in my memory because I found the experience so gratifying and surprising. Rare occasions when I went to the theatre and — almost incredibly — it did not suck.
There’s another thing too. Boy has elected to do Drama as one of his GCSEs and I don’t approve of that either. I know why he wants to do it. It’s because of all those amateurs from ‘School’ — Damian Lewis, Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, Harry Lloyd — who’ve gone on to be global megastars. And also, probably, because it’s non-academic and therefore a doss. Still, if that’s what he wants then I’m happy to make him suffer. I’m not saying I necessarily loathed all the renaissance drama I saw at Stratford when I was at school. But I do remember that the actual plays, for me, came a very poor second to the moment in the interval when you could dash off for a quick pint at the Dirty Duck. And even the ones I did enjoy — The Witch of Edmonton, I remember, had a particularly fine devil dog character in it — were almost all punctuated by long periods of bum-numbed, restless-legged tedium.
We turn up early enough for a pre-show dinner at Carluccio’s. Boy keeps checking the time on my iPhone, anxious that we’ll be late. ‘Look,’ I say, ‘We’re going to be in our seats for over three hours. Let’s not arrive any sooner than we have to.’ But Boy is right to agitate. If we’d left it as last-minute as I would normally, we would have missed the three girls’ beautiful cod-medieval singing which precedes the show.
First good news (apart from the singing, which really is lovely): it’s in gorgeous period costume — rather than, say, more ‘relevant’ 21st-century Brixton streetwear — with something of the shimmery, filigree, refined aesthetic of the Wilton Diptych. I like the set design too. Luckily, encouraged by Boy, I have boned up beforehand on what happens in each scene. (Sure, I studied the play at Oxford but that was — yikes! — almost 30 years ago.) This means I’m aware of tensions I might otherwise have missed: like the fact that the reason the various courtiers are so circumspect about how the Duke of Gloucester met his end is that King Richard himself had a hand in it.
From that point on I’m lost. Not lost — as per usual — in daydreams, and work worries and calculations of how much longer we’ve got before the interval. Lost, as in completely immersed and utterly entranced. Richard II is one of Shakespeare’s more extravagantly lyrical plays, but I’d forgotten — if indeed I’d ever properly appreciated it before — just how perfectly exquisite almost every line is.
David Tennant — as one of my old girlfriends, ex-RSC, used to say — really can ‘speaka da verse’. And not just Tennant. Not just the old stalwarts like Oliver Ford Davies — but on this occasion the whole cast. Which means that besides witnessing a fine and gripping drama, beautifully acted, thrillingly close to you in the intimacy of this superbly designed theatre, you’re also experiencing an extended masterclass in some of the finest poetry ever written.
From John of Gaunt’s tribute to our ‘sceptred Isle’ (familiar from all the anthologies — and also Danny Boyle’s Olympics opening ceremony) to ‘tell sad stories of the death of kings’ and beyond, it’s like being simultaneously caressed by succubi and drowned in ambrosia. Even more delightful and moving than the verse, though, are those insights Shakespeare offers into the sweet agonies of the human condition.
‘I wasted time and now doth time waste me.’ It’s one of the more obvious ones, but God, how perfectly and painfully does it capture how it feels to have reached a certain age. I was going to say maybe Shakespeare is someone you don’t truly get till you hit middle age. But then I remember the wonder and joy and excitement on Boy’s face as he turns to me at the end and says, a slight catch in his throat: ‘I wasn’t bored for one second.’
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