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Steven Pacey in Much Ado About Nothing - Report by Hugbot
Theatre Royal Haymarket, 18th February 2017
My trip started in rainy Flensburg. After the train ride from Hades, I arrived in foggy Hamburg, and after a smooth flight I finally reached sunny London and my aptly named hotel for the weekend: the Avon Hotel. (Come to think of it, Tarrant Hotel would have been even more suitable.)
Much as I hate flying, it is always great to finally relax in a genuine English pub among the natives and to enjoy genuine English cuisine. I sat there with my fish and chips and my sticky toffee pudding and said to myself, ‘Woo hoo! I’m really here! How great is that?’
The ceiling of the pub I visited on Friday evening was decorated with the flags of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, and when I looked up, I realised that I was sitting under the Welsh flag. I took the opportunity to raise a glass to Gareth.
Next morning, after a hearty English breakfast, I set out for Picadilly (now being a proud owner of an Oyster card after my no-cash-on-the-bus disaster at Cygnus Alpha 2 last year). I arrived more than an hour before our scheduled meeting and used the time to do a little sightseeing. A few minutes to 12 o’clock, I got to the Planet Hollywood where a long queue was waiting. Scott, who arrived at the same time, had already spotted Annie inside, so we simply jumped the queue to join her. A few minutes later, the rest of our group arrived and we were escorted to our table.
Although it was within spitting distance of the Theatre Royal Haymarket, Planet Hollywood turned out to be not the ideal choice for lunch. The loud music made conversation a bit tricky. The food, on the other hand, was good, and we found some very interesting items on the menu: First, there was a cocktail called Alien Resurrection that Travisina simply had to test despite my warning that it might burst out of her stomach. It looked very... alien. But hey, our heroes drink green washing-up liquid and blue fabric softener!
Then we witnessed a waitress carrying the mother of all sundaes to a neighbouring table. ‘That was a Volcano Surprise’, Annie suspected. Studying the menu, we found out that this giant dessert was actually the Chocolate Brownie Super Sundae served in a Giant Martini Glass - MADE FOR SHARING! - and so we ordered one to share. (When a friend of mine enters an ice cream parlour, he invariably asks, ‘What is your largest sundae?’ I bet he would have attacked even this one on his own!)
But of course we had not only met to eat and to booze. Well, at least half of us. After lunch, four of us went to the theatre. Richard was on his own in the gallery, while Clare was stuck with Scott and me, a rose between two thorns. During the interval, we also met the Supreme Commander. Being the Supreme Commander, she was of course seated in the Royal Circle. Noblesse oblige.
It was February, but there was still a Christmas tree on stage! The theatre staff seem to be even lazier than me when it comes to taking down the Christmas decorations! Joking aside, of course the tree belonged to the play. This production of Much Ado About Nothing was set at the end of WWI, which worked remarkably well. Shakespeare’s stories are timeless, so it does not matter in which era they are set. Besides, his Roman and Greek plays do not take place in ancient Rome or ancient Greece, but in an Elizabethan fantasy of Rome and Greece, and the same holds true for his ‘Italian’ comedies. English madrigals are out of place in Italy, anyway; so there is no reason why you can’t exchange them for Ragtime. It surely makes for a refreshing change. Steven Pacey later told us that the WWI setting makes even more sense when you watch both plays of this production: The background story of Love’s Labour’s Lost is the start of the first world war, while in Much Ado the veterans come home at the end of the war. In this production, the plays are set in 1914 and 1918, respectively.
For me, Much Ado About Nothing is one of Shakespeare’s most ‘modern’ plays. Beatrice with her sharp and nearly Avon-esque wit is a very modern heroine, and the rapid-fire verbal exchange between her and Benedick doesn’t sound as if it had been written 400 years ago.
There are one or two elements in the story that may cause a modern viewer to think, ‘Did people in former times really behave in these strange ways?’ But actually, they still do. Claudio talks much about loving Hero, but he doesn’t seem to have any confidence in her and immediately falls for Don John’s evil scheme to disgrace her. He does not even bother to ask her about the seemingly compromising scene that he had witnessed. How can anyone be so gullible and unsupportive to the woman he claims to love? Well, just imagine this scene took place neither in Elizabethan times nor in 1918, but today. Don John would have simply posted an ambiguous (or even photoshopped) picture on social media, and everyone would have expressed their disgust for Hero and shared the photo in no time. Yes, Much Ado is a very modern play.
The other strange element is the fact that Hero is still eager to marry Claudio after he has shown his complete lack of trust in her. But unfortunately, these things happen all the time. The only difference is that in Shakespeare’s day no-one would have used the term ‘abusive relationship’.
When I embarked on this adventure, I wondered how much of the play I would be able to understand. I had seen Much Ado only once before, and that was ages ago (the Kenneth Branagh film, and the German translation into the bargain). I had no problem following Volpone in 2015, but Ben Johnson’s language is much more accessible than Shakespeare’s. However, it went surprisingly well. Or maybe it was not surprising at all? After all, professional actors and directors do their best to transport Shakespeare’s plays to a modern audience. As most plays are written for watching and not for reading, it is also much easier to follow the action on stage than trying to read the text. Also, actors and directors relish in finding opportunities to add a bit of physical comedy. When Benedick is overhearing a discussion by his friends, you could simply put him at the edge of the stage. But that would be boring, wouldn’t it? In this production, he hides behind a curtain, poking his head through the gap and moving it up and down in surprise about what he hears – a simple and yet hilarious amendment to the eavesdropping theme. The police station was small and overcrowded and thus paradoxically gave much room for comic effects. For instance, the policemen had to (literally) turn the table so that their visitors could get out, but ended up turning it 360 degrees. Sometimes, the constable’s slapstick antics were a bit over the top for my taste; however, even he got a slight tragic twist to balance this. Of course, the comic effect of the constable does not only stem from the added physical comedy, but mainly from his scripted use of malapropisms; which were a source of confusion for me at first. When hearing him talk, I thought, ‘What did he just say...? Now, that’s strange! Have I always used this word incorrectly...? No way! I’m sure this means something different! Argh! Of course! That is the joke! Think Mrs Quickly!’ (Thought process exaggerated for clarity, but you get my meaning.)
After the performance, the famous five who went to see the play met up with the rest of the gang in the foyer to wait for Steven. The Café Nero near the theatre was overcrowded, so we went to the next one, Ole & Steen. A Danish café – I nearly felt at home! By the way, the fans of a certain B7 character will be pleased to know that Ole & Steen written out in Danish without the ampersand is ‘Ole og Steen’. The problem was that this café was also nearly full to bursting with customers. We were told that there might be a larger table for us in the basement. When we arrived downstairs, there were coats draped on two of the chairs at this table. Other patrons in the room informed us that they belonged to two girls who had just gone upstairs to fetch a coffee. But that did not prove to be a problem; after all, we had the Supreme Commander with us. Regally, she requisitioned the table by moving the coats to a smaller table. When the girls came back and ventured to protest, they were simply informed that they had been relegated to the other table. They looked a bit dumbfounded but accepted the facts. After all, you don’t mess with the Supreme Commander. Servalan would have been proud!
Steven did not have time for an extended coffee break, but he did take the time to meet with his fans, to have a chat and to sign a few items. That was the moment when I realised that I had (once again) forgotten to bring my DVD sleeves. Instead, I now have a signed theatre ticket. Steven had met me only once before, and that was about a year and a half ago; and yet he remembered me and even knew my name! I think we are really blessed to have stars who care so much for their fans. He asked me about my experience with Shakespeare, and I told him that my first encounter with the Bard was in my teenage days when the BBC productions were shown on German TV – in the original, not dubbed or even subtitled, just with a few explanations from a scholar or a theatre critic between the acts. Of course I did not understand every word, but I was hooked for life. ‘Even the English don’t understand every word,’ Steven comforted me.
I now have a much better understanding than 35 years ago when I was struggling with my school English. I really enjoyed the play and felt very well entertained. By the way, there is one thing that is even harder to understand than Shakespeare’s Elizabethan English, and that is the classic German translation by Schlegel and Tieck. First, it is 200 years old, and second, it seems that when they did their translation, Schlegel and Tieck did not have a play in mind but a closet drama (a play to be read rather than performed). They tried to be as ‘poetic’ as possible but managed to be as unintelligible as possible.
Steven soon had to leave us, and as there were long queues at the counters, we decided not to try to get coffee at Ole & Steen, but to find another venue. Eventually, we relocated to the Comedy Pub, which seemed only apt after having watched a comedy. We shared German chocolate and mini halva from Israel, drank tea or beer and engaged in lively conversation. This was more cosy and less noisy than the Planet Hollywood, and I really enjoyed chatting with all the wonderful people that I meet all too rarely. Conversation was further fuelled by the fact that both Scott and the Supreme Commander ordered a Guinness for me, so I ended up with two pints.
All good things must come to an end, and we finally said our good-byes. I still had Sunday at my disposal to do a little sightseeing. After a day filled with cultural impulses and Blake’s 7, I decided to visit Somerset House for even more cultural impulses. I had no idea that I would also stumble upon some things that made me immediately think of Blake’s 7!
Somerset House boasts impressive architecture (albeit rather harsh without any green patches) and offers many exhibitions free of charge. There was an exhibition of the works of a famous hairstylist, but I did not visit it; when you have seen Soolin, you have seen everything on this subject. But I visited an exhibition about fashion all around the world. This is not a special interest of mine, but I thought it might be inspiring for future sci-fi or fantasy stories. However, most of the exhibits didn’t show genuine clothing from other countries but pieces of art (partly made by wannabee artists – you know the type: the people who think they are artists when they don a black sweater). There were some reeeeally strange costumes! I will never again call a June Hudson or Nicky Rocker costume ‘over the top’. Anything you have seen on B7 (including in Killer) looked decent and reasonable in comparison to some of these creations.
Another highlight of Somerset House is the Courtauld Gallery. It was great to see many famous paintings in their full glory and also getting to know artists and paintings I had never heard of before. Many people complain about violence in modern entertainment and who go on about the good old days of the past. But in the Renaissance and Baroque paintings, you will notice a disturbing fascination with the Crucifixion, the entombment of Christ and the death of martyrs, all depicted in gory detail. Even portraits look dark and sinister with their black backgrounds! And then you walk through the door into the rooms of the Impressionists, and suddenly the sun rises! The same type of critics who condemn today’s TV entertainment rejected the light-hearted art of the Impressionists as being frivolous (e.g. Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass, a former, less famous version of which is being shown in the Courtauld Gallery).
After this second dose of arts and culture on the same weekend, I was longing for the outdoors and went to Regent’s Park. Although I had not sacrificed a ram, Thor was with me and I could bask in the sun while enjoying the scenery and watching the waterfowl. Strangely enough, I heard more people speaking German in Regent’s Park on a Sunday than in the city centre of Flensburg on a Saturday, when half the population of southern Denmark come to do their weekly shopping. I also witnessed a strange spectacle: hordes of people in groups of eleven chasing a ball; but when they finally reached it, they did not keep it but kicked it away! The same people who look down on sci-fi fans, cosplayers and model builders judge this to be normal behaviour! Strange, isn’t it? No ball-chasing session could give me the joy that I get from being with me fellow Horizonists as this lovely weekend proved once more.
What with Cygnus Alpha, Blake-con, the Space concert, live performances by Stephen Greif, and Josette Simon starring as Cleopatra, there's a lot going on in this year. So, much as I'd have loved to see Much Ado, the price of another London West End theatre ticket was beyond my budget. I was keen to meet up with the B7 gang, though, so decided I could stretch to lunch at Planet Hollywood and to meet up again with everyone after the show. Annie, Mistletoe12 and Mistletoe Minor were of a similar mind, and it was lovely to spend the afternoon with them while the others were at the theatre.
I'd never been to Planet Hollywood before, and it was quite an experience. The food was good, the service exemplary, but the music was way too loud and I ended up with an S Club 7 earworm for the rest of the week. Annie said that a cocktail at Planet Hollywood was one of the items on her bucket list, so I couldn't resist following suit with their Alien Resurrection. The combination of Peach schnapps, Bailey’s and grenadine looked appropriately alien, and despite Hugbot’s dire warnings, tasted wonderful. No aliens or humans were harmed as a result of its consumption, though it would have been ironic if a face hugger had emerged to hug the Hugbot!
After the theatre goers departed to see the play, Annie the Mistletoes and I made our way to the National Gallery – Mistletoe12’s choice for a venue that was free, warm, interesting and caffienated. After the first few galleries - Dutch realists and Paul Delaroche's huge, heartrending depiction of the Execution of Lady Jane Grey - we split up again; the Mistletoes to feast their eyes on more Art, Annie and I to the cafe for coffee and in-depth discussions about Avon. Well now, it was a B7 outing after all!
Meeting up with the others in the theatre foyer, we trooped like ducklings behind Steven (he really is very tall) first to Nero’s and then to Ole & Steen. The Supreme Commander commandeered a table for us, and we had a brief but enjoyable chat with Steven. Kudos to Annie for commenting knowledgeably about the play without actually having seen it. However, we were hugely amused when she came over all hot and bothered, blushing like a teenager when Steven mentioned doing audio recordings at home in his pyjamas! Clare, on the other hand, was the very model of decorum.
The lights in the cafe were low – literally. Both Mistletoe Minor and Steven banged their heads on the lamps as they stood up. “So that’s how Tarrant met his end!” Steven quipped.
After a quick group photo, Steven had to return to the theatre for the evening performance, while our merry band went in search of a venue with fewer queues. We ended up at the Comedy Pub, and once again a certain amount of furniture requisitioning took place in order to get us all seated. This is becoming something of a habit with us rebels - we did it at the Cat Show, too!
Despite not seeing the play, it was a wonderful day out, and lovely to see everybody. If I ever return to Planet Hollywood, I must try one of their other cocktails - the one called 'The Terminator' looks interesting. And who knows, maybe even another of their awesome Sharing Sundaes...
Production photo by Manuel Harlan
Photos by Hugbot, Travisina and Scott