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Everyone’s a critic: a short course for graduate students at the University of York

By Sarah Olive

Last week, I finished running a free short course I’d devised for graduate students at the University of York, regardless of discipline, for fun rather than credit. In the event, seven students came from programmes as wide-ranging as the MA in Renaissance Literature, the MSc in Bioarchaeology and a PhD in Plasma Physics. The promotional text I wrote for the course suggested:

You might have an existing love of the arts and arts journalism, or want to develop your knowledge of these fields (particularly the British theatre scene, with a focus on Britain’s national playwright, William Shakespeare), or want to enhance your employability through learning a professional writing skill and gaining a publication to put on your CV. There will be expert guest speakers, a free theatre ticket, popcorn and drinks along the way.

The course was funded by the Graduate Students Association after a competitive funding process open to staff and students at the university. It was co-run with Julia Erdosy, a PhD student from the English department. Its premise was that students would learn to write and publish theatre reviews, with all students welcome: no previous experience required. Reviewing was Shakespeare performance was the focus, in keeping with our research specialisms. However, we stressed the applicability of reviewing methods and some resources to non-Shakespearean productions, and sometimes drew on discussion of such shows.

Underpinning the course was research I’ve engaged with as an academic which suggests that educators in the UK, Japan, Korea and Vietnam perceive some involvement with theatre to benefit students’ critical abilities, ability to take informed and responsible action, social and moral responsibility, community involvement, awareness of complex topics such as identity and diversity, and facility with English (given the plays and sessions in this research were English language ones). I’ve written about these in editorials for previous issues of teaching Shakespeare, but other fascinating projects and their resultant writings are available such as Tawell, Thompson, Daniels, Elliott, and Dingwall’s 2015 report on ‘Being Other: The Effectiveness of Arts Based Approaches in Engaging with Disaffected Young People’. (Oxford University Department of Education).

In developing the course, I sought a theatre activity that would be accessible to those without drama backgrounds, with less confidence performing or speaking in front of others, but with experience in analysing and writing, that would appeal to students wanting to master a new skill for their CVs, that could be valued internationally (unfortunately, not always the case with drama). My choice of reviewing was driven by past experiences and some assumptions, rather than informed by sustained reading about reviewing and informal education. I’ve tried running series of playreadings and screenings in the past, with colleagues from related departments. However, I /we struggled with attendance and multidisciplinary appeal. This isn’t to say I wouldn’t try them again. Rather, I felt like trying something new for comparison. I also wanted to take advantage of the drama expertise on our doorstep: the biennial York International Shakespeare Festival.

The course ran over four weeks, with the following activities scheduled:

4 May Welcome to Everyone’s a Critic! ‘How to write a theatre review’ expert panel

What is the purpose of theatre reviewing? What makes a great review? How do you get published as a theatre critic? These questions – and more of your own – will be answered by our expert panel featuring Sara Marie Westh (Misfit Fellow at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and Assistant Editor at and York’s very own reviewer, director and GSA Vice President.

11 May – Introduction, screening of the Globe’s a Midsummer Night’s Dream, & Q&A

Chomp some popcorn while watching this riotous, Bollywood version of Shakespeare’s most famous comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Emma Rice (whose departure from the Globe earlier this year made newspaper headlines), performed and broadcast by the BBC as part of the Shakespeare 400th anniversary celebrations in 2016.  The screening will be followed by a 15-minute Q&A. Put last week’s expert advice into practice as you try your hand at writing a review over the week.

(N.b. We did hit a slight glitch here. The BBC had made the broadcast of this production available throughout 2016. I checked it was still available in March. Around Shakespeare’s birthday celebrations in 2017, and a year after it had been posted, the programme was taken down. Julia lit on the idea of screening an instalment from the BBC Hollow Crown instead. This serendipitously meant that we diversified away from Shakespeare’s comedies to include an English history, although we lost the engagement with Asian Shakespeare and intercultural adaptation that Rice’s production had promised.

18 May Watermill’s Twelfth Night at York Theatre Royal

Meet at the York Theatre Royal at 7.15pm latest to collect your free ticket to this hot production by an acclaimed UK company as part of the York International Shakespeare Festival. Then rattle off a review over the coming week for publication in a British Shakespeare Association blog post. A chance to get your first publication!

25 May Critics’ Circle: sharing your experiences of Twelfth Night 

Meet up for casual conversation based on last week’s production and your efforts to put the experience into writing. A chance to find out just how many different views can exists on the same show!

Three of the students agreed to the publication of their Twelfth Night reviews here –  my thanks are due to them firstly for their participation and secondly for their generosity in sharing their work. The reviews offer an intimate insight into the range of reviewing styles, focal points, experiences with Shakespeare, and diversity of thoughts on the same production that the students ably demonstrated. What the reviews can’t capture is the students’ considerable ability to support and encourage each other in practising their reviewing skills while being unafraid, as panellist Sara Marie Westh put it, to ask visiting experts the really hard questions such as ‘what is a good review’?

Twelfth Night, Watermill, dir. Paul Hart, York Theatre Royal. 19 May 2017.

Chen Geng

 Thank you very much for the opportunity. This is not a serious review, because I myself neither is a literature-based student nor a Shakespeare acquaintance. This was the first time I actually watched a real commercial Shakespeare play. When I was young, I once read a simplified (and also translated) script from the play The Merchant of Venice and watched the film Hamlet, and that might be my only knowledge on Shakespeare. Before watching the play, I searched the background of the traditional version on Wikipedia. And to my surprise, the Watermill Theatre adapted the show in such a modern jazz performing. And this gave me quite a lot inspiration.

I personally prefer a lot this adaption. I once heard some discussion why the young do not fancy traditional literatures. I think the performance form might also be one of the reasons. I personally like relaxing and popular entertainment more than serious and rigid show even if the topic is serious. And for the comedy Twelfth Night, I think Watermill Theatre did a very great work at this point.

Another highlight was that there was no interlude. I watched some other musicals before such as Harry Potter and they’ve got a lot of interludes to change the setting of stage. However, on Watermill’s Twelfth Night, the stage properties are used at the highest efficiency and are changed very clever. I am not sure about the original performance, but I praise the Watermill’s stage setting, as music is flowing, the stage must be better without interruption.

Above all, I think this musical Twelfth Night is highly recommended.

Michele Learmouth

Watermill Theatre company has brought to the stage a Twelfth Night that places music, the very food of love, firmly at its core. If the text is sometimes sacrificed for the musical numbers, when they are performed as well as these, both vocally and instrumentally, this can be forgiven. The very young, very talented cast brings a lively exuberance to all aspects of their performance. The comedy is superbly played. Lauryn Redding, as Sir Toby Belch, is a veritable scene-stealer: a real master of comic timing and expression. The physical comedy is quite outstanding. The garden scene is a riot of laughs with a double bass standing in for the box tree to great effect (its case having earlier served as a tomb). This is of course a play which features cruelty and injustice amidst the laughter. Malvolio, so well played by Peter Dukes, moves through the gamut of different moods. The wearing of the yellow stockings and cross garters is taken to a whole other level here, much to the delight of the audience!

The chemistry between Orsino (Jamie Satterthwaite) and the disguised Viola (Rebecca Lee) could perhaps have been given more time to develop but this is a small quibble, this is a wonderful rendition of one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays.

This set on two levels is very versatile with scene changes being marked by the use of revolving doors, and its scaffolding serving as a ship’s mast and for stairs. It is all the more impressive for this being a touring production. The lighting design allows the very successful use of light and shade, particularly effective in the prison scene.

The play opens in the Elephant Jazz Club, with the players trying to entice members of the audience onto the stage. Typical British reticence held most people back. Had these entreaties been repeated at the end, I think the whole audience would have been up on stage so well was this performance received. This is a company that need not be afraid of greatness, they have already achieved it with this production.

Elliot Beck

The Watermill Theatre’s production of Twelfth Night spares no time at all in engaging the audience with its lively interpretation of Shakespeare’s play. There is perhaps hardly a silent or dull moment throughout the performance, in which the stage is designed as a smoky jazz club, an atmosphere maintained and made effective throughout.

Besides the occasional abundance of musical theatre school-smiles, the music and song aspects of the production were handled tastefully, and never did the digressions feel excessive. The use of song choice in reflecting characters motives and feelings in the scene was very well done and a creative addition, excusing any questions as to why non-jazz songs were reinterpreted into the 1920’s setting, because, frankly, having Malvolio sing Lorde’s ‘Royals’ works so well.

Viola [Rebecca Lee] was portrayed as quasi-articulate, accidently charming the fantastically portrayed Olivia [Aruhan Galiev] making their storylines very endearing, comfortably standing-up against the comic hijinks of the play’s subplot.

Unfortunately, the Watermill Theatre production of Twelfth Night failed to capitalise on the complexities of the final scene. One of the most significant aspects of Shakespeare’s comedies is that they leave a slight imbalance, an often dark and intangible question at the end, one that is left open for interpretation by productions. Why is Isabella silent after the Duke’s proposal in Measure for Measure? Is Caliban to be freed from Prospero’s servitude in The Tempest? In the case of Twelfth Night, the audience are left to consider how humourous has Malvolio’s ‘abuse’ really been? What do we think of the characters that tricked him and of ourselves for gleefully accompanying them? In this case, it suffered from a lack of emotional cohesion. Malvolio [Peter Dukes] had tread carefully between sympathetic and pathetic throughout the performance, building up to his deeply impassioned final speech, delivered with a heavy emotional charge. However, this was met by a muted response from his peers, leaving the whole scene confused and ineffective.  This was immediately followed by the play’s final song, again disrupting the potential for an emotional focus towards Malvolio’s ‘abuse’. It seems the director, Paul Hart, wanted both a jubilant ending, and one that makes us consider Malvolio’s plight, but regrettably, this did not mix well. Nevertheless, Watermill Theatre’s Twelfth Night is a boisterous, fun, and smart performance – very Shakespearean.

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