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When the Lights Went out: The Merchant of Venice, Castle Theatre, Farnham – 1972.

Shylock

In the winter of 1972 I was a spotty, clumsy, bespectacled and thoroughly ungracious 15 year old.  The establishment tasked with trying to cram a rudimentary education into my recalcitrant brain was The Convent of Our Lady of Providence at Alton in Hampshire.  As part of their on-going campaign to introduce us to ‘culture’, we were occasionally dragged off to various theatrical productions and concerts by Sister Therese-Marie and made to sit quietly in darkened auditoria, presumably in the vain hope that something would sink in.

How we reacted to the news that we were being treated to a performance of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice at the Castle Theatre in Farnham I don’t remember, but as it meant an afternoon out of school I imagine that – like all schoolkids – we considered it the least worst option.

The Castle was a tiny theatre in a converted 16th century barn off Castle Street in Farnham.  So tiny was it, indeed, that the stage was actually bigger than the 180-seater auditorium, which must occasionally have made life interesting, if not positively perilous, for the actors.  The lighting was a motley collection of spotlights, some of which I could almost swear were old car headlights, attached to a beam which was slung across the auditorium, just above the audiences’ collective head.

I recall that I was sitting right at the back in a less than comfortable alcove seat with a bird’s eye view of the stage and – as it turned out – in the exact spot where the actors, when delivering a speech to the middle distance, fixed their gaze.

In the winter of 1972, the miners were on strike and Britain was suffering under a regime of rolling power cuts – which meant that for stretches of 6 to 9 hours whole communities lost their electricity.  The schedule of cuts was published in the local papers, so those affected had a chance to prepare/emigrate/stay in bed.   The Castle Theatre thus knew that it was due to lose its power somewhere towards the end of the Third Act.

Right on cue, the lights went out:  and that’s when the magic began.

Somewhere in the distance, a generator kicked in and the Heath Robinson lighting rig flickered into subdued life.  The courtroom scene was played out in the half-light, with both William Whymper’s Antonio and Ian Mullins’ Shylock directing their big speeches straight at me, almost pinning me in my dark little alcove.  I remember them both as being superb, the latter in one of the trickiest roles in the whole canon, but unfortunately I have almost no memory of anyone else in the production (sorry!) except Lorenzo and Jessica, who delivered the lyrical ‘In such a night’ scene at the beginning of Act 5 with an intensity I’ve never forgotten.

Was I simply seduced by the whole “the show must go on” thing or is it that when Shakespeare’s plays are stripped down to their basics – when the scenery and the costumes are no more than shadows and you are forced to concentrate on his words – the unalloyed genius of the man shines through?  I don’t know.  All I can say is that my love affair with Shakespeare started on that day and, although it has waxed and waned over the years, it continues undiminished nearly 40 years later.

In the intervening time I have seen (and suffered through) countless versions of Shakespeare on the stage, both amateur and professional, but none has ever come close to rivaling – in my memory at least – that extraordinary production of the winter of ’72. The Castle Theatre is, alas, long gone;  but I remember it with fondness and gratitude as the place where something magical once happened, and I carry its legacy with me to this day.

I think Sister Therese-Marie would probably be pleased …

(The top illustration is Charles Buchel’s 1917 portrait of Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree as Shylock, from Wikimedia Commons.  I believe the photograph of the Castle Theatre was scanned from an old theatre programme and could be © Alan Chudley.  If it is, I hope he doesn’t object to me using it because it appears to be the only extant photograph of the theatre.)

13 comments on “When the Lights Went out: The Merchant of Venice, Castle Theatre, Farnham – 1972.

  1. annebrooke
    November 16, 2010

    Fabulous, Moira! I do think it’s only when you see a Shakespeare play live that the thing really comes into its own, but then again I’m a huge theatre fan. And it’s funny that in my 30-odd years plus of seeing the great man’s plays, it’s the oddball theatres (or even in two glorious cases, the amateur theatres) that totally make him sing.

    I think the best interpretation of The Taming of the Shrew I ever saw was in a tiny student production in Durham, where the sexual tension between Katherine and Petruchio made everything come alive, but perhaps that’s a post for another year!

    Coming back to Merchant however, I know everyone does the “in such a night” scene lyrically these days (and to marvellous effect), but at my heart of hearts I still believe it’s written to be spoken flirtatiously and with great amusement by those two characters – but I know I’m in a minority of three when I say that!!

    🙂

    Anne
    xxx

  2. Moira
    November 16, 2010

    Thank you, Anne! So the other two would be – um – Our Will and who else? 😀

    I can sort of see how it would work flirtatiously, but I always read it as a lyric piece, so I’d have to see or hear it done before I could judge …

  3. Anne Brooke
    November 16, 2010

    Tee hee, true! And the two were The Shrew (as above!) and a production of Much Ado I saw at The Electric Theatre in Guildford last year, which had the best Benedict I’ve ever ever seen – he was an utter revelation and we were all gripped and deeply moved by it all!

    🙂

  4. Jackie
    November 16, 2010

    That sounds like quite an adventure & a wonderful memory. I like the thought of seeing part of the play in low light, it would feel more authentic.
    That Shylock portrait is splendid. I don’t know if it’s the rich green of the robe or something else, but I’ve spent awhile studying it & really like it.

  5. SilverSeason
    November 16, 2010

    See Shakespeare while young and the effect may be permanent. My first play was a Midsummer Night’s Dream done by college students in a garden setting. My next was the Lawrence Olivier Henry V, with its opening in the Globe and magical transfer to the fields of France.

  6. Hilary
    November 16, 2010

    Gorgeous piece, Moira! I wonder when the Castle Theatre in Farnham disappeared? I worked in the town briefly in the late 80s, and I think it must have gone by then. It’s a beautiful town. And all of us have our power cut memories, but yours is vastly more wonderful than any of mine,

    And what is it about The Merchant? It’s the first Shakespeare play I ever saw – at Stratford, when I was about 14. It has always meant a huge amount to me, ever since. Would I have imprinted on any other of his plays in the same way, I wonder, at that age? It’s also the latest of his plays that I’ve seen, again at Stratford. (Sadly, Jessica and Lorenzo made the biggest horlicks of ‘On such a night’ as I have ever heard. Neither lyrical, not flirtatious, but reading the crib written on their respective cuffs. But Angus Wright’s Shylock was unforgettable.

  7. Moira
    November 17, 2010

    I’m afraid I have to say that most of the REALLY bad acting I’ve had inflicted on me of late has been at Stratford. I know they have a policy of taking youngsters and training them up within the company, but really, if drama schools are producing students who apparently couldn’t act their way out of a paper bag, you do rather despair …

    The Castle Theatre closed in 1974. It’s now an Italian restaurant. The Castle closed because it was being replaced by The Redgrave – but that, too, has closed and Farnham is without a theatre.

  8. Nikki
    November 17, 2010

    Merchant is one of the plays that I would dearly love to see on stage. I’ve only seen the film with Joseph Fiennes and Al Pacino (which I thought was really good) and a filmed stage production, which didn’t quite cut it for me. I watched those because I was writing an essay at uni about Shakespeare’s depiction of minorities (possibly the most interesting essay I’ve ever written, though sadly lost when my external hard drive when kablooey).

    I wish I could have seen this play. Certain plays stick with you and I totally understand why this one stuck with you.

  9. Itsthatmanagain
    November 17, 2010

    Moira: The very worst performance in a Shakespeare play that I’ve ever seen was in a local production of TWELFTH NIGHT. In the scene where the cross- gartered Malvolio attempts to court Olivia, the actor playing Malvolio made a camp little gesture. This got a laugh from the audience, encouraging the poor wretch to mince and posture and go completely limp wristed in order to replicate the original laugh. Try and imagine Larry Grayson crossed with Graham Norton and you may just get an inkling of that performance. It was nearly 30 years ago and I can still remember it!

  10. Haydn
    October 8, 2012

    Hi Moira I came upon this post by chance when looking for info about the old Castle Theatre. In 1972 I was a young actor straight out of drama school playing my first big part – Lorenzo. I too vividly remember the day the lights went out. You’re quite right, there were car headlights strung on a beam above the audience. They were the emergency lights that kicked in when the mains power went off. You concede that you were an ungracious 15-year-old and some of your classmates certainly were. As Jessica and I dallied lovingly on the grassy bank beneath the flickering headlamps, I recall that there were some decidedly ribald, unromantic comments from the gloom at the back of the auditorium. Oh happy days! On a serious note – it was a great joy to stumble upon this and to discover that our efforts made such an impression. Thank you.

  11. Moira
    October 8, 2012

    Haydn … How lovely the hear from you! And gosh, I’m glad I said something nice about you even if I couldn’t remember your name (or find it anywhere – I did look). Thank you for confirming that they WERE car headlights … I was reaasonably certain they were, but it was so long ago I did wonder if my imagination was playing tricks with me. I promise I wasn’t one of the urchins in the gloom. I was a good girl, I was and I don’t believe I uttered a sound. But it was a truly magical performance for me – as you must have realized reading this. It’s also nice to have some proof that I don’t actually make all this stuff up! I know the Castle Theatre was technically a nightmare, but I have such fond memories of it.

  12. Anne Cooper
    July 7, 2019

    Is it too late for me to include a passage from your wonderful account of Shakespeare’s ‘Merchant’ in our forthcoming brief history of Farnham’s Castle and Redgrave Theatres? Bill Whymper still lives in Farnham, but Ian Mullins died in New Zealand some years ago. The Redgrave Theatre was demolished in March this year.

  13. Moira Briggs
    July 7, 2019

    Hello Anne. I’m glad you enjoyed my reminiscences and of course you can use a passage of it in the forthcoming history, which I’d love to read in due course. And thank you also for the update on William Whymper and Ian Mullins.

    Best regards, Moira.

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