On Saturday I went to see our local am-dram group, Southside Players, perform a modern, mobile phone themed Julius Caesar, much to the disgust of my Shakespearean actor friends. ‘Amateur? And alternative?’ they chorused, ‘You’ll never make the second half.’ A catalogue of avant-garde, mostly flawed, productions followed: Macbeth minus witches, Macbeth in Bosnia, the mud-wrestling Midsummer Night’s Dream, the cockney gangland As You Like It peopled, inexplicably, by French ex-pat hippies, Romeo and Juliet in outer space, the Hamlet, set in an asylum, currently at the National to name but a few. I had to agree that some directors seem so worried that the bard might be boring that they fling in naked jugglers, drag acts, soap stars, any gimmick to distract the audience from the text in case it’s too difficult. They forget that, directed with clarity, Shakespeare’s beautiful verse and insights into the human condition have a universality that transcends the centuries and the occasional linguistic obscurity.
My thespian friends’ abhorrence of am-dram is understandable. A. Unpaid labour could put them out of work. B. We’ve all sat in draughty community halls watching wobbly scenery and performances which rely on banging the furniture about in order to convey emotion. But Southside Players are a class act (this is gentrified Balham after all). The sets are professional, the costumes credible and the plays diverse – they’ve done Sartre’s No Way Out as well as Priestley’s Dangerous Corner. The acting is sound, even if the woodcutter in Lorca’s Blood Wedding, as portrayed by Chalk tutor Anthony, was more phlegmatic Reading than passionate Andalucía.
Anyway, suffice it to say that by the interval on Saturday, I was totally gripped rather than ready to fake a sudden illness. The opening scene, with uniformed officers policing a demo in Trafalgar Square AKA ‘the market place,Rome’, grabbed the audience from the off. The parallels between modern political conspiracies and the machinations of the Roman Senate were underlined by the contemporary setting; the Twitterfall projected on the back wall of the theatre rammed home the speed at which events shift in a power struggle with tweets like ‘Roman Reporter: Cassius seen talking to @Brutus #btiom’(#Beware The Ides of March). You could see that the director, Deborah Mason, had been inspired and influenced by the Arab Spring and the role played by social media.
Some of the audience Twitter participation was a bit too jocular for the play’s themes but it kept the latter-day Groundlings awake. The carefully built tension was jeopardised when, after Caesar’s assassination and the outbreak of civil war, a comms blackout was announced but joker Ava1183 tweeted: ‘shoot urself’. Mind you I did enjoy: ‘Loving Octavius rocking the Lara Croft look’ as the black combats-clad actor aimed her assault rifle at us (cross-gender casting worked well too.)
The second half built in pace with the big ‘Lend me your ears’ speech beautifully spoken by Charles Golding, playing an athletic, track-suited Mark Anthony. The production as a whole redeemed alternative approaches to Shakespeare by enhancing the text not distracting from it: Think Ian McKellen’s seminal Richard III set in 1930s England with Nazi overtones or RSC’s Merchant of Venice appropriately transported to a 1980s City trading floor. Southside Players, under the auspices of RSC Open Stages, should be proud. So next time you get a chance to see some am-dram don’t be a snob or a luvvie, you might be pleasantly surprised.