York Shakespeare Project, Sit-down Sonnets, Holy Trinity churchyard, Goodramgate, York, until September 12, 5.45pm and 7pm daily, plus 4.15pm on Saturday. Box office: yorktheatreroyal.co.uk
YORK Shakespeare Project’s last production was Antony And Cleopatra in October 2019, leaving only two to complete the 20-year cycle of presenting all of his plays.
Next up should have been Macbeth, but sure enough, if anything could de-rail the stately progress to the finishing post, it would have to be the Scottish play, the one afeared by the theatre world at large.
Lo and behold, its curse struck again, only a week to go to opening night for Leo Doulton’s production, when the Covid-19 lockdown put a stop to everything. Who knows when to expect the return of the Mac, but in the meantime YSP keeps busy with Zoom play readings each month, under the guise of the Quarantine Players, and now with the Sit-down Sonnets, a variation on YSP’s Sonnet Walks around York.
The Churches Conservation Trust is keen for Holy Trinity to play host to more outdoor performances amid its gravestones, mown grass, five benches and trees, and tucked away from the Goodramgate shoppers, it is a delightful haven for theatre or music.
YSP has frequented the churchyard previously, as a stopping point to deliver a Sonnet Walk, but now comes a full-scale 45-minute production to a seated audience, spread out with social distancing in “ten social bubbles or 20 souls, whichever maximum we reach first”.
Producer Maurice Crichton’s invitation to review came with a covering note and a request: “As always we think part of the delight of live theatre is surprise,” he wrote, and he is right on that score, along with his advice to bring a rug, a cushion, a camp chair, maybe a flask and a packet of biscuits.
“The conceit of this show is that it is a selection of Shakespeare’s characters in the present day paired with a sonnet. I wonder which character will be next? I wonder which character would be dressed like that? I wonder which sonnet this character is going to have? Who is [YSP founder] Frank Brogan playing this time?
“These are questions we want to be a part of the show. For that reason, we are holding back our [printed] ‘programme’ to the end. It’s a memento that confirms what the audience has seen, not a spoiler of what they are about to see.
“Our polite request is that you don’t spoil everything by publishing everything we have.”
Your reviewer could not have put it better than the ever-eloquent former solicitor Mr Crichton, m’lud. Covid-19 has done so much spoiling already in 2020 that another killjoy would not be appropriate.
Suffice to say, director Mick Taylor, bearing a rod as if he were Prospero, guides the audience into the fast-flowing performance of ten sonnets, pointing out how Shakespeare himself was blighted by pandemics, with theatres being closed for more than six years between 1603 and 1613.
He makes way for 11 YSP luminaries to take on the guise of familiar Shakespeare characters but now in a modern context, be they a grave digger or a nurse, as they reflect on lockdown, isolation, masks, social distancing and the NHS.
The shadow of Covid hangs heavy over their apposite sonnet choices: ‘mourn’ ‘fever’ ‘absent in the spring’ and ‘epitaph’ all leap out from the titles, but so do ‘summer’s day’ and ‘love’ and, in turn, a love of theatre. Sadness, resilience and grave humour sit side by side as resonance and relevance abound in this pandemic-blighted contemporary context.
How else could Mick Taylor end but with Puck’s epilogue, If We Shadows Have Offended, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream – the very play that would suit a Holy Trinity churchyard staging.
In deference to the YSP request, I shall remain muzzled – an alternative to the de rigueur mask worn by Shakespeare on the show poster and programme cover – as to who each actor plays, but step forward for a closing burst of applause: Di Starr, Emily Hansen, Emilie Knight, a tartaned Helen Wilson, Mick Liversidge, Frank Brogan, Phyllis Carson-Smith, Nigel Evans, Sue Harris, Judith Ireland and Margaret Hillier, Will quill in hand.
The rest is silenced.