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Springing the Mine, 250 Years

by on 9 June 2019

A Magnetic Mine

Springing the Mine

celebrating 250 years since Garrick’s Shakespeare Jubilee of 1769

by Keith Wait

SMDG at Garrick’s Temple to Shakespeare, until 8th June

Review by Eliza Hall

“It was a sunny and blustery afternoon in early summer”, so the Narrator, played by director, Helen Smith, introduced the audience to hear and watch Keith Wait’s latest piece of writing come magically alive.

Springing the Mine was presented by the multi-talented and amazingly versatile SMDG (St Mary’s Drama Group). Each member of the group of twelve actor-readers held the audience spellbound and amused throughout the performance. In anticipation of a good afternoon’s entertainment, enlightenment and ‘Fun’ – the final word chorused by the entire company of actors – the small audience filled the Garrick’s Temple situated in the lawns leading down to the River Thames in Hampton.

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Indeed, the director had appropriated the opening script to fit the moment of the imagined scene in June 1769, for it was indeed the sunny afternoon in early summer. It was here that the audience as invited to imagine two figures on the lawns outside, deep in conversation. One, the wife of David Garrick, La Violette, a ballerina of some distinction, played by Norma Beresford, and her companion, a friend, diplomat and successful dramatist, Richard Cumberland played by William Ormerod. The two are discussing both the successes and disappointments of both his and her husband’s writing. Almost immediately we are led to believe that Garrick’s writing, though influenced by his acting, may not have been as successful as his acting.

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Whilst the characters discuss the wit of Mr Garrick, it is the writer of our play, Mr Wait who mocks jocundly the work of the famous actor and the ambiguity of the rivalry between business propositions in London’s theatre world, as well as a hint at plagiarism – or was it merely successful collaboration? By cleverly narrating the placement of character roles the players lead us into a taste of several Garrick plays. This is a clever and seamless manoeuvring by writer and actors both. The lively cameos woven into the narration illustrate to the audience both the style and humour of our Mr Garrick as well as the skill of both the playwrights, not to mention the actors.

The bawdiness and, more than a touch of, the restoration phase of English theatre are not lost, indeed they are played out in front of us, as the wit of the 18th century playwright mingles with the present narration and commentary on Garrick’s writing and his entrepreneurship rather than directly on his acting – this has been left to the talent of the present company to show us.

We, the audience are taught about the context and the complexities of writing in the 1760s, how Sheridan was influenced by Garrick’s writing of Mrs Heidelberg, played by Sue Birks, for his later creation of Mrs Malaprop, whose wit shines through,  “I purtest there is a candle coming … and a man, too” as mor7 SMDG 08-06-2019e comic characters are introduced. The romp and bawdiness follows, where people are in the wrong place with apparently the wrong persons, one loves another who cannot reciprocate. It all foretells not only the work of Feydeau a hundred years later, but, as the narrator Graham Beresford reminds us, of the Whitehall farces of Brian Rix that were to become so popular two centuries years later. So through these vignettes we are informed of the collaborative elements of Garrick’s work, his creative developments, interests and motivations to write as well as act. “This is Georgian Romance at its most charming, over half a century before Jane Austen began to epitomise the style” the narrator tells us.

Another explains that his solo writing forays are not as successful as his collaborative endeavours. It is through his own merits and skill as an actor that he made Shakespeare’s characters known and loved. Through these performances he had become famous by bringing to public notice the exemplary and valued work of Shakespeare, but it also publicised his own creativity. His theatre in Drury Lane had been the venue for audiences to learn to love the bard. A shrewd businessman, indeed, to have won the public’s acclaim, as well as its money. It is later when we learn of the washout of the Jubilee Festival that we are told how Garrick is able to recoup his loss of money and to turn his fortunes around.

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Keith Wait’s ability, beautifully brought alive by the actor-readers, weaves us through several more examples of David Garrick’s plays, whilst guiding us on a journey to Garrick’s Jubilee Celebration of Shakespeare in the market town of Stratford upon Avon, as somewhere almost unknown by London folk according to Richard Cumberland, in his conversation with La Violette.

So, having met other characters, including Mr Fribble – so foppishly portrayed by Graham Beresford – yet another excerpt of a play is introduced, so if the audience is lagging behind and has paused to contemplate, then onto the ‘stage’ bounces yet another loud and enthusiastic person played by this time as Captain Flash, played by Ron Hudson, with his several military metaphors and at last we are enlightened as to the title of this piece.

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William Ormerod, who moves from being Cumberland and Garrick with such ease,
then explains that the term “springing the mine” was used by Garrick used to describe his acting method. “He himself is surprised by an upsurge of emotion in performance” , Garrick continues, “until circumstances and warmth of the scene has sprung the mine, as it were, as much to his own surprise as that of his audience”.

A narrator, Diana Bucknall, takes up the main question of the performance when she asks whether Garrick did succeed in “springing the mine” of his writing genius. We are informed that Garrick wrote some two dozen or so plays, and very few were performed. We are given several, but tiny, glimpses and certainly not enough for us in the audience and those attempting to critique this performance, based on some of his writing would dare to judge.

Once again we are directed back by the narrators, not to a discussion of his success as a writer, nor his undisputed skill as an actor, but to his entrepreneurial adventure that was the Shakespeare Jubilee, to be held in Stratford upon Avon. We are given another glimpse of another setting as description of the magnificence, pomp and the disastrous circumstances that befall those who travelled to this three day Shakespeare Festival. It is hard to separate the man from his creation, as we are informed of the 170 Shakespearean costumes – and characters, the prominence of David Garrick, the portrait painting of him in roles, transparencies painted on glass, the specially commissioned music and, of course, his recitation written for the occasion An Ode in Honour of Shakespeare, or “The Bard of Avon” as we are told by Mrs Garrick is the name he gives to The Playwright.

So, the audience is left with the question, whilst there is no doubt David Garrick’s acting filled with emotion, sprung the mine for both him and his 18th century audiences and gave them a love for the Bard of Stratford, his plays have their place in the history of the theatre and the development of English drama, but did we see that “springing of the mine” in his writing? Certainly we did in the SMDG performance.

We were enthralled by the presentation, and if some of us were sometimes lost in the weaving of the words, the multiplicity of characters, intricacies of plot and its focus, the production was a delight and a perfect way to spend a sunny June day by the river, away from the wind and the noises and bustle of 21st century England, to learn, be amused and be delighted by the local talent of acting and writing seen today, as well as 18th century Hampton.

Eliza Hall
June 2019

Photography by Lewis Lloyd

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