School is a terrible place to encounter Shakespeare for the first time. Especially if it’s an all boys school and you’re studying Romeo and Juliet; alternating between watching 2 classmates awkwardly deliver the lines to each other in a flat, honking, adolescent monotone, and watching sections of the Zefferelli film adaptation, patiently waiting for the legendary nanosecond flash of Juliet’s nipple.
I’ve seen many excellent productions over the years, but these plays have been performed so many times its hard to find one that does anything new, that actually surprises you.
Last month I made a rare exception to my no-acting rule (I carry heavy scars from years of teenage am-dram) to take part in Guerrilla Shakespeare (not Gorilla Shakespeare, although that is something I’d pay to see): a performance of Twelfth Night, entirely unrehearsed, free to attend, with a cast who’ve had their scripts for about a week. It’s an idea from British Touring Shakespeare that’d been banging around the brain of its Director, Andrew Hobbs, for a few years before the Westminster Hub gave him the space and opportunity last year for the first Guerrilla Shakespeare. He describes it as “an experiment to see what happens when you remove all the conventional layers of rehearsal from a performance and just let actors go with their instincts”. This time we are in a former boxing gym in Limehouse, with improvised seating and scenery being hurriedly assembled around us.
I’m not on stage ‘til quite late so I take a seat in the audience. The cast attack the script gamely, although inevitably a few scripts start appearing in hands as the famous monologues start taking their toll. There is an interesting, uncertain energy to the performances. The show carries some of the charge that you get from watching improv: the knowledge that this performance will never be seen again, balanced with the possibility that it might just fall apart at the seams. The first Guerrilla Shakespeare, King Lear, was something of a glorious mess by all accounts, but Twelfth Night holds together thanks to some deft improvisation. The audience seem to appreciate the risk the actors are taking on their behalf and reward them with a positive atmosphere and some hearty laughs.
I stand in the entrance, cramming over my lines one more time. I’m not worried. Those am-dram war-wounds left me immune to stage-fright. Once you’ve done 5 performances of a painfully unfunny and slightly racist children’s play dressed as a bookworm, 8 lines is a walk in the park. I hear my cue and walk on. But as the stage lights touch my foot, I receive a solid ball-kick of adrenaline and it all changes.
Oh good Christ that’s actually a lot of people, what’s my line again? Wait, who am I arresting? That chair’s in an awkward place, how do I get around that? Would anyone mind if I just ran across the stage, out the door and all the way home…..
I am told later that I muddled through quite well.
The next Guerrilla Shakespeare will be Romeo and Juliet this Sunday at the Roundhouse in Camden. I would recommend that you seek out tickets but it sold out well over a week ago. If you see it advertised again move quickly!