Writers: Garry Merry and Penelope Dimond
Director: Gary Merry
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
2016 marks two important anniversaries, 400 years since the death of Shakespeare and 100 years since the Battle of the Somme; ways to mark both simultaneously are few and far between. On 11 August 1916, exactly a century ago, The Shakespeare Hut was opened on the site of what is now the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), as a “home from home” for New Zealand’s soldiers on leave in London. To mark the occasion, LSHTM reimagined the opening day’s events in a show that takes the audience from behind-the-scenes preparations to a recreation of the official opening ceremony.
Accompanying an exhibition on the origins and use of the Shakespeare Hut, Garry Merry and Penelope Dimond’s show is more than a standard commemoration event. Instead, it is a detailed and thoughtful attempt to immerse an audience in the kind of revue show soldiers would have enjoyed 100 years before, with audiences seated at cabaret tables and performers utilising the whole room to bring the story closer to the viewer. It opens with a group of dedicated YMCA volunteers preparing the room for the performance and awaiting the arrival of the various dignitaries on the programme. Using a Noises Off-like approach, this gives a valuable context about the effect of war on those at home and the efforts to support returning servicemen.
There’s a slightly wooden budding love story between a New Zealand soldier Ned Butler, played by the Australian Timothy Hofmeier, and student Eleanor Adams (Heather Lai), while some rather more well-to-do ladies fuss about flowers and who should step into the breach if Princess Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein fails to appear. Nansi Hywel-Davies is very affecting as Edith Craig who speaks of the loneliness she feels without her husband, while Miles Gallant’s Israel Gollancz exudes kind authority as one of the brains behind the creation of the Hut. These small vignettes are full of meaning about the huge community behind the creation of facilities for combatants, giving valuable context on the wider effect of war on the people left behind.
Soon the platform party has arrived and the show within a show can get underway. Patricia Hammond provides beautiful and period-appropriate renditions of Roses of Picardy and Now is the Hour, a traditional Maori song translated into English, while Gary Merry dons a third hat to play the part of Field Marshall French emphasising the role of New Zealand troops and concern for their care in England – nicely integrating historical facts into a narrative frame. Back in the 21st Century, but maintaining the fiction, the audience is served with High Tea in the interval from an original menu that included Victoria sponge and ANZAC biscuits.
In the preparatory chatter, Miss Elliott (Penelope Dimond) mentions a group of actresses coming to perform Shakespeare to the troops, and the second half is entirely given over to her “Shakespeare Salon” with scenes and sonnets organised by The Mustard Club. All-female Shakespeare is big news in London this summer with an acclaimed Henry V in Regent’s Park and a Donmar season at the King’s Cross Theatre next month but is clearly something that was happening a century ago as men went off to war.
The audience was treated to 10 short readings from new and established performers. Linda Marlowe opened proceedings with an ill-prepared version of Hamlet’s address to the players which felt out of context and rushed, but Lizzy Drive stole the show with an affection piece about a dog from Two Gentlemen of Verona and one of Falstaff’s speeches from Henry IV Part I. Excellent work too from Harriet Barrow performing from Twelfth Night while Debbie Korley gave an intense and determined Cleopatra, rivalled by Annie Firbank’s calmly powerful Macbeth.
The accompanying exhibition, which runs until 23 September is cleverly curated and full of stories that emphasise the human aspect of a highly mechanised war. This and the one-off launch show celebrate the huge Home Front effort of YMCA volunteers and others to prepare and staff places of refuge and entertainment for colonial soldiers, as well as the memory of the men who served. Resurrecting the Shakespeare Hut was no conventional celebration, but variable acting ability could not detract from one of the most meaningful commemoration events so far.
Runs until 11 August 2016 (The exhibition runs until 23 September 2016) | See here for further information | Images: Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham