February in our church is a month of mixed frustration, curiosity and wonder. It's the month when the Guildford Shakespeare Company moves in and transforms the building into a theatre. For three weeks the vestry is full of velvet and lace and metal crates, choir practice happens in the parish hall, huge lights appear in unexpected places, and half the church is inaccessible. Seventeenth century English crops up a lot. Depending on the sort of church you're used to, some of that might be normal. Some of it, not so much. It is all par for the course when every day of those three weeks, Sundays excepted, is going to see a performance of some Shakespearean tragedy.
Anyway, I do make a point of going to the performances. (I keep meaning to go to GSC's summer performances, too, which are outdoors, but I've never yet got round to it.) This year's tragedy is Richard III, a play I had a passing acquaintance with. (Read it twice, spent a couple of hours teaching time on it at university, seen the Ian McKellan film.) This was a convincing performance, set in goodness knows when (Richmond appears in desert combats and a pristine white trench coat crawling with gold braid, sometimes both at the same time) and that not mattering at all.
What struck me particularly this time round was the extent to which Richard makes the audience complicit in his plot - and it is his plot, in more ways than one. He is the only person who seems to be able to tell us what is going on in this twisted mess of Woodvilles and Plantagenets, and so we cling to him almost gratefully, no matter that we know exactly who he is and what he's in it for. (Except, of course, we don't.) Because, to tell the truth, none of the other characters is a paragon of virtue, not until they're dead. Even the young Duke of York is a horrible little brat.
And then Richard loses us. He has to, and then poor old Richmond has to do his best not to look like a deus ex machina. In this performance it happened in the scene with Buckingham and the crowd (enter Richard between two priests and all that). It was clever. They made us the crowd. It's all very well to watch other people being manipulated, but when it's happening to you, and you can see it happening, they tend to lose your sympathy.
If it sounds as if this was all about Richard, well, it was, really. He was made, as I've hinted, a very engaging character - a relatively young actor, with a wonderfully twisted sense of fun about him. After him Queen Margaret stands out most in my mind, and then Elizabeth Woodville. (There is, after all, a small advantage to female underrepresentation, and those two really are fantastic characters. I would love there to be more about Margaret.)
The church setting lends itself very well to use as a theatre. Though it's two hundred years later than Shakespeare, the subtle (and occasionally not so subtle) use of the church fixtures and decorations works helpfully to frame the action within the Christian-centric society that Shakespeare portrays. (I will be impressed, though, if they ever do Antony and Cleopatra in there.)
In other news, I've just received the programme for the retreat I'll be going on in March. It looks good. And I had a solo verse in a responsorial psalm on Sunday.