On Wednesday, we're due to give a one-off, live, online performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream, starring Dan Stevens, Rebecca Hall, Luisa Omielan, and Wendy Morgan and I'm cautiously excited about what we're making here!
My cast of 20 is sprinkled across the world, and we meet on Zoom to rehearse, mostly in the evenings in order to accommodate different time zones, but not too late, because our fairies get sleepy and have school in the mornings.
We've been rehearsing since mid-January for this performance at the end of March. Why so long? Firstly because some of our young actors needed to learn verse speaking, which is not an overnight job, and second because our leading actors have many commitments with filming, virtual film festival premieres, comedy shows and press appearances. Watching my sister Rebecca and Dan Stevens working up their readings of Titania and Oberon has been an exhilarating masterclass.
This is the third time I've directed online since last October. So far it's always Shakespeare because that's where I felt safe to start. My late father Sir Peter Hall was called a titan of British theatre, so you could call me very foolish to attempt such a thing. But I miss rehearsals, I miss Shakespeare, I miss actors, I miss theatre, as so many people do. So I figure why not? There's no law against it. We had a good-sized audience for The Tempest, starring Geraldine James and my sister Rebecca, and they responded really warmly.
Next came a short Christmas entertainment called Sonnets and Carols with Harriet Walter and Janet Suzman. I chose A Midsummer Night's Dream next because, like The Tempest, I know it well. I first appeared in the Dream aged eight, when my father made a film of it starring a barely clad Judi Dench, Ian Richardson, Ian Holm, Diana Rigg and Helen Mirren. I was a fairy, along with most of the kids of the Royal Shakespeare Company at that time, smothered in green pancake and leaves. I popped up at the end between Oberon and Titania: "Hand in hand with fairy grace, Will we sing and bless this place". Then just before going up to Cambridge to read English I played Helena in a student production directed by Cordelia Monsey (later to become my father's deputy). I next played Helena this time professionally at Northcott Theatre Exeter, then again at Nottingham Playhouse, and finally in a gloriously successful National Theatre production directed by Bill Bryden and starring Paul Scofield, Susan Fleetwood and Jack Shepherd.
I think if you wound me up and set me off I might be able to recite the entire play. And yet, directing it now on Zoom, I am astonished to find incredible riches I never knew were there. I can recommend mining Shakespeare's verse as a failsafe antidote to every kind of COVID-19 malaise, anxiety, terror... Working with a bunch of the best actors and comedians also helps enormously. Even the Mechanicals' parts such as Wall and Lion are here played by masters. I'm having the best time, and I think we all are. I spin yarn and weave textiles in between rehearsals. It helps me think.
It's not entirely inevitable I should be doing this. But in the grieving after my father died, I committed to passing on the secrets of verse speaking that he taught me when I played Miranda in his production of The Tempest. I give verse workshops wherever people want me - my old school, Reading University, King's College Cambridge, The Cut arts centre here in Suffolk. On the basis of these workshops I was invited to start a new festival called SHAKE. That went really well and gave me confidence - and then came lockdown. I have always turned to Shakespeare for advice, even about dressing for the English climate: "Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May" is worth remembering. I realized that Shakespeare would be our best pilot and guide for whatever the virus had in store for us. It was time for me to direct The Tempest.
After Geraldine James agreed to play Prospero, everything fell into place. I'm so grateful for her commitment to our project, and for her marvelous work. I learned a lot from watching her sculpt and shape and hone her performance. She's like a hound routing out both the meaning and the emotional truth.
I am surprised by how effective Zoom performances can be. Because there are so many technical limitations - we can't have a set or costumes, props or effects - it forces you to keep it simple and to focus attention on clear storytelling, the words and the actors' faces. And when it's Shakespeare and actors of this quality, the results can be electrifying.