Do you know, I think back when I started this project I thought it might be a nice achievement to tick off, and I’d write a set of intellectual reviews to look back on and remember what I saw and when in greater detail than I would otherwise recall with the passage of years. And then I started writing* and emoting** and then the next thing you know, the whole world has gone very strange and you’re going to see Henry V when there is an actual war on.
So that’s my upfront, big message, OK? It is hard to enjoy Henry V when you know that as you sit in the theatre seeing people pretend to die in battle that Ukrainians and Russians are losing their lives and there’s a credible risk of nuclear war. Credit where credit is due – this was not a production that glorified either war or the people who made it happen, even if I’m not entirely sure what it was trying to be about.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
This is my first proper Taming of the Shrew – it’s pretty rare, six years in, that I manage to get a new play, so there is that*. Still, it has big, massive boots to fill in terms of telling the story of 10 Things I Hate About You. If you know a better modern Shakespeare adaptation tell me**.
Another year, another Much Ado. Yay! And I was particularly thrilled to be catching a production from the Shakespeare Tobacco Factory, a Bristol-based company about whom I have repeatedly heard excellent things but have never managed to see “in the wild” as it were.