Laura and I travelled to Stratford on Wednesday, changing trains at Birmingham in what turned out to be a pretty straightforward journey. After dumping our heavy bags at the hostel (which took us a while to get to as we accidentally got off the bus a mile away from the hostel instead of the stop right outside it - something I admit was entirely my fault, but did at least mean we discovered a load of blackberries), we headed back into Stratford to get our bearings a bit. Stratford, to those of you who haven't been there, is a gorgeous, old little town in the Midlands, with a lot of very pretty old buildings, some of which now have tenants that seem rather ironic - hence the collection of "Ironic Buildings" photos that we decided to take, such as this one...
The Ironic Costa
We also found the TARDIS! (in the window of a pewter museum)
After having a drink at the famed Dirty Duck pub and finding the Courtyard Theatre, we carried on walking down the river and soon came across the church that contained Shakespeare's grave. Since it had just started raining, and they were only charging 50p for entry, we decided to go and have a look and worship at the graveside of a genius.
Good friend for Jesus' sake forbeare,
To dig the dust enclosed heare
Blest be the man who spares thes stones
And curst be he who moves my bones
It was rather a pretty little church, and the guy on the door was really friendly. After grabbing a pizza for tea, and with the weather continuing to get worse, we decided to head back to the hostel quite early as we were both knackered from all the travelling.
Thursday morning also dawned shittily wet. We got to the bus stop to get into town only for me to realise that I'd left my phone back up in my room - not a good start! Despite this, we got into town in good time and headed off to the Courtyard early to get a cup of tea and avoid the crowds. We also got rather well aquainted with the pretty pictures on the wall.
Me molesting one of the pictures of Tennant as Hamlet.
And then, at long last, we could go into the auditorium! I have to say I absolutely adore the Courtyard's layout. I went to the Globe theatre in London a few years ago and the Courtyard, despite being indoors and fully seated, had a similarly intimate kind of feel to it. The thrust stage meant that people sat in the stalls were right in the thick of the action, and even the people in the upper levels were close to the stage. Laura and I were sat in seats N5 and N6, the back row of the stalls, which I had expected to be a bit crap considering they were fairly cheap, but they actually commanded a great view of the stage without the need to crane one's neck, and were also close to one of the aisles that the actors ran up and down.
The rather crap picture above (taken without flash because photography wasn't allowed) is the view from where we were sat. That pillar occasionally got a bit in the way, but it wasn't such a big deal.
And on to the play itself - WOW. I was expecting it to be good, but as it turned out I was completely and utterly blown away by the whole thing, so much so that I even forgot to touch the mountain of chocolate I'd brought with me. To say that I spent the whole of the play completely transfixed and barely moving is not an understatement.
Hamlet is my favourite Shakespeare play anyway, but to see it actually performed live by such an accomplished group of actors (there was not a single poor performance out of the entire company) was absolutely mind-blowing. A lot of the humour of the play that is lost in the text is brought out by the live performance and I thought that they managed to get the balance between humour and dark angst just right - to have the entire three and a half hour show very dark and gloomy would have been far too intense. Oliver Ford Davies was absolutely superb as the doddery, fussing and interfering Polonius, who was definitely one of the funniest characters along with the gravedigger. Mariah Gale was also incredible as Ophelia - the scene where she goes completely insane, in contrast to many of the other deliberately humourous insanity scenes involving Hamlet, was geniunely chilling.
Patrick Stewart - I have to admit, I was very nearly as excited about seeing him as I was about seeing Tennant. He was fantastic as both the Ghost and Claudius, and despite playing the villain he didn't camp it up at all but was rather quietly menacing. Penny Downie was incredible as Gertrude... I could go on gushing about every single actor as they were all superb in their respective roles. I absolutely loved Horatio as well.
As for Mr Tennant, well, in his first couple of scenes I was a bit unconvinced by his accent, which was a slightly more whiny version of the one he uses when he's playing the Doctor, but with hindsight it was fitting considering that Hamlet is something of a little lost boy at the beginning of the play. Tennant's performance was just so energetic and engaging. As usual, he got the scenes of insanity spot on - he really is superb at playing completely crazy characters. In some of the more manic moments I was reminded of the Doctor, and also Campbell from Takin' Over the Asylum, but at the same time I didn't feel like I was seeing any character other than Hamlet.
Also, Tennant's magnificent head of hair had its own special role in the play. It started off slicked down at the beginning, getting more and more ruffled and messy as Hamlet got madder and madder. Just a little thing, but really effective.
The fairly modern (though still slightly ambiguous) setting of the play really worked. Obviously I wasn't complaining about Tennant wearing the black tux that he occasionally dons in Doctor Who, but the costumes in general seemed to fit the mood of the play. The mirrored stage and minimal props also meant that the audience was focused on the action rather than the setting, which I think was really important. The outfits were great - Gertrude had some incredibly glamourous dresses, Ophelia had a mix of cutesy casual outfits and pretty dresses and I absolutely adored Hamlet's red t-shirt, jeans and bare feet combo during the "To be or not to be..." soliloquy (at this point in the play, the entire audience seemed to be holding its breath).
Probably the most stunning visual effect during the play was the scene where Hamlet kills Polonius. In keeping with the more modern setting, he shoots rather than stabs Polonius, and as he knocks the lamp over as he reaches for the gun, the whole auditorium was plunged into darkness for a split second, during which time the mirrored panels at the back of the stage shattered fantastically. I discovered how this was done when I went on the tour of the theatre the following day (rotating the panels very quickly) and it looked absolutely incredible.
The closing scenes, where everyone starts killing each other, were fantastic. I was actually on the edge of my seat, heart beating fast, even though I knew exactly what was coming. I really can't remember the last time my attention has been held in such a way. There was a huge amount of applause at the end (it's also worth mentioning that I was a bit surprised at the composition of the audience - I think we've been led to believe that most people who got tickets were teenage fangirls, but most of the audience were in fact much older people).
Once the actors had finally left the stage, Laura and I legged it out of the theatre and round to the stage door.
It wasn't that busy at the stage door - perhaps twenty to thirty people were waiting there. It had also stopped raining sometime during the performance which was a bonus. We didn't have to wait long for the man himself to make an appearance - he came out only a few minutes after we arrived, having evidently come straight off the stage, pulled on a hoody and gone to face the fangirls.
The man himself! *dies*
I nearly dislocated my shoulder leaning into the crowd to get him to sign my programme, though people who'd had theirs signed already moved back to let Laura and I in. And he signed my programme! And (this really does make me sound like an insane fangirl, but I don't care) HE SPOKE TO ME! HE LOOKED RIGHT AT ME! *dies* I just told him how much I'd enjoyed his performance and he thanked me in that gorgeous Scottish accent of his, and looked at me with those beautiful eyes (yes, I am a member of the Facebook group "David Tennant's eyes have stolen my soul"). It was all over so fast.
I have to say, despite the saying that you should never meet your heroes, I wasn't disappointed at all. He was an absolutely lovely guy. He took the time to sign everyone's programme, and was chatty and friendly and polite and just generally so lovely and snuggly in that hoody. He is also astonishingly beautiful in the flesh - not as tall as he looks on the telly, though still really really skinny, and the hair! The hair! It was magnificent.
For the pervier fangirls amongst you (OK, all of you then!)...
Laura and I spent the rest of the evening flailing and squeeing, ringing our mothers from Starbucks and squealing rather incoherently that we'd just met David Tennant, getting high as kites off chocolate and chai lattes and just generally grinning like insane idiots. The play was incredible, and meeting David was the icing on an already very tasty cake.
Laura and I parted ways on Friday. Laura was heading to her boyfriend's in London, and I was heading to Oxford for an overnight stay before heading to London myself for a Stop the War meeting on Saturday. The hitch in travelling to Oxford was that I learned, after arriving in rainy Stratford at 10am, that there wasn't a bus going anywhere near Oxford until 2.15pm. So after seeing Laura off at the Railway Station, I headed back to the Courtyard and tagged along on the tour around the theatre.
I'm really glad I went on the tour - not just because it was free. The lady who was our tour guide told us about how the Courtyard is made from recyclable materials so that everything can be reused when it's demolished after the Royal Shakespeare Theatre is rebuilt. As part of the tour we got to sit in different parts of the theatre - right at the top, in the middle, and right by the front. I still think I preferred the seats we actually sat in for the performance - I don't think my neck would have liked being sat at the front, because it wasn't easy to see the entire stage from there.
We also got to go backstage. Sadly, there were no actors around (although Laura and I saw the actor who played Guildenstern in town while we were seeking out coffee on Friday morning), but we did see quite a few of the props and got to see what the theatre looks like when you're standing on the stage (pictured below).
After the tour, I had to dash off to the bus stop and eventually made it to Oxford, changing buses in a very, very wet Chipping Norton (home of Jeremy Clarkson), and had a nice evening at Sue's. It was great to see Sue again. She'd made some soup and even sorted me out a hot water bottle for when I went to bed - I slept like a baby that night. After a breakfast of tea and cookies on Saturday morning (God, was that only yesterday?) I headed back into the centre of Oxford and caught a bus into London.
Although yesterday was a very tiring day, I'm really glad I made the effort to go to the Student Stop the War meeting as I've been feeling a bit disheartened about the Stop the War movement recently, but it was really good to hear about other students being active and doing worthwhile things, and I came out of the meeting with a few contacts, a bag full of free t-shirts and posters and loads of ideas for events and stunts once I get back to uni.
The train journey back was slightly less evil than I was expecting, as I managed to catch the train an hour earlier than I was expecting. The coach journey from Northampton to Birmingham was pretty horrible, though at least warm, and on arrival at Birmingham airport I found a Subway which cheered me up a lot. I was starving by that point and a tuna and red onion sub went a long way towards making me feel better. Arriving at Birmingham International earlier than expected also meant that I didn't have to change trains at Crewe, but instead was able to catch a direct train to Preston. Just as well really, as I'd fallen fast asleep by the time the train got to Crewe.
All in all it was a very tiring few days, but I can't remember the last time I enjoyed myself so much. I'm now trying to get tickets to see the RSC's performance of Romeo and Juliet, which tours later this year and is playing a few nights at the Lowry Theatre in Salford during November. I also nearly bought a Complete Works of William Shakespeare whilst in Blackwell's in Oxford, before realising that I wouldn't be able to carry it!
You can see the rest of my photos here in my Facebook album.