Do you smell a fault?

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Reading the interview with Harriet Walter in today’s Guardian reminded me of seeing her superlative performance in the Donmar Warehouse all-female Shakespeare Trilogy and how utterly star-struck I was when she sat (briefly, in-character) next to me, and how good she smelt.*

It made me think how surprisingly few are the times theatres rely on senses other than sight and hearing to keep us entertained. Taste is an understandable absence of course – even pre-COVID I don’t think licking the set or the cast would have been popular with stage managers. Although one of my earliest theatre-going memories does involve being fed snacks while on stage and I suspect tie-in treats could go a lot further than flavoured popcorn at premieres.

Equally, touch is tricky when we are all stuck in seats, although I note that no less than twice I have been hit in the face by flying bits of prop – a balloon in The Tempest and a poster in Julius Caesar.

But smell? In the closed space of a theatre – and in modern times when the audience is hopefully bringing fewer odours of their own with them – it feels like this should be a possibility.** And not just the smell an ovine cast might bring with it, but real, intentional smells which seek to bring us further into the action.

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse has its own distinctive scent of beeswax candles – but has experimented with key moments and the Globe has occasionally got in on the action. Outside of the Shakespeare – I recall the Bridge Theatre giving us Karl Marx frying bacon in its opening play, entirely appropriate for a space whose interval snack of fame is the Proustian madeleine.

But what more could there be? How immersive would a beery Cheapside be in Henry IV, or a musty Verona tomb in Romeo and Juliet? And could it work in practice – with modern AC (or just wind, for the Globe) to take away the smell as the scene changed?

I’d love to know if any of you have smelly theatrical memories of your own…


* I don’t think I included it in my review at the time – I was trying to be semi-serious back then.

** It does rely on the absence of mothballs.

Much Ado About Nothing

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Dean’s Yard (Westminster Abbey)

Well of course my first Shakespeare in over a year was Much Ado. Are you even remotely surprised?

Such excitement there was too about this show – two helicopters hovering overhead, and the Houses of Parliament even put on a firework display near the end. The chaos (both scripted and additional) was ably managed by a cast who were universally excellent at making themselves heard and felt*. Not only that, but they were naturally funny – managing to get a laugh out of the audience when urging us to buy programmes before the play had even begun – and Beatrice’s corpsing when Benedick stopped mid-scene was entirely forgiveable, and didn’t hold the action up since we were waiting for that damn helicopter to move off in any case.

Not now, Parliament, not now!
Not now, Parliament, not now!
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I am to blame to be thus waited for

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What a year (and a bit) it’s been. I have tickets booked for an actual play in an actual theatre for the first time in – ooh – eighteen months? And the hope that that might actually happen has made me realise that I have been hanging on to reviews of the few shows I did get to in 2020 for far too long – so here they are, if somewhat truncated!

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A plague upon you all

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Strange time, people, strange times.

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I owe you all two reviews – one of &Juliet and one of Upstart Crow, both of which I saw earlier this year, back when going to theatre was still a thing (remember that?). But then things happened, and things happened, and a few more things happened, and here we are – I almost don’t want to write them in case they turn out to be the last actual theatre shows I review.

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2)

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Bridge Theatre

Oh my giddy aunt. I have had a most rare vision, past the wit of man to say – except that that’s the job I’ve set myself! It was a wonderful shared vision too – the delight of promenading at the Bridge Theatre (not lessened over time) is at least partially in its communality.

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The very mould and frame

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A recent Guardian article on Aardman Animations revealed they had apparently produced a short film about Shakespeare – which was a startling revelation to me as a Shakespeare and an Aardman fan. How had I missed it?!?

A very little googling turned up a version on YouTube and it is a delight – an almost wordless canter through all of the plays with the charm of Aardman and the trappings of traditional Shakespearean productions (the music is a delight). I’m a bit of a quiz nerd and I absolutely loved trying to work out which play was which from the tiny fragments we see. I think I identified Much Ado About Nothing – but it’s much harder to spot than, say Julius Caesar or Titus Andronicus! And I haven’t gone through with a checklist and the pause button to see if they are all included – I’m far too busy marvelling at the skill (both craft and intellectual) that has gone into it.

The youtube link is here – do let me know what your favourite bit is. Lord what fools these mortals be indeed!