Two casts, both alike in dignity

Francesca Vella-Bonnici delves back into the star-studded history of the Cambridge Arts Theatre show and the Marlowe Society

by Francesca Vella-Bonnici (Varsity)
January 26 2018

Tom Hiddleston as a young Romeo

As a young Classics undergraduate, Tom Hiddleston’s rendition of Romeo in the Cambridge Arts Theatre Show was reviewed in a Varsity article back in 2001. The actor is pictured staring lovingly into his Juliet’s (Lydia Fox) eyes and his performance was praised as being “polished and unobtrusive”. While Hiddleston clearly impressed the reviewer as “a Romeo who really can vault over orchard walls as if on the wings of love”, Lydia Fox (also now a professional actor) seemingly left a lot to be desired. The reviewer appeared to find her performance over zealous and almost comical as she wrote of her “chasing Romeo round the bed after their night together”; a line normally laden with emotion, “wherefore art thou Romeo?”, apparently elicited a titter from the audience.

Star of The Night Manager, Thor and The Avengers films, Hiddleston began his acting career at Cambridge. This week, 17 years later, the Cambridge Arts Theatre again hosts a student performance of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. This performance is led by the Marlowe Society, which was founded in 1907 and has produced many distinguished renditions of Shakespeare plays over the years, including a Romeo and Juliet which was watched by Winston Churchill and an Edward II in 1958 which was broadcast by the BBC. The Marlowe Society also boasts several noteworthy alumni such as Sir Ian McKellen, Rachel Weisz and James Norton, all of whom have lent their voices to a recorded reading of the play’s prologue for next week’s production. This year’s directive team have opted for a performance influenced by Carmen and Lorca; no doubt the 2018 rendition will prove as “imaginative” and “effortless” as Hiddleston’s did 17 years ago.

As the European Theatre Group swings into its 60th year, it is perhaps time to trace the humbler origins that paved the way for success. Set up in 1957, ETG has not only produced high-quality renditions of Shakespeare’s plays throughout the continent, but has also served as the starting point for some of the most prolific actors both in the UK and the world.

Diving into the archives at Varsity I was able to uncover a review of one of the company’s first productions starring Derek Jacobi as Hamlet. Jacobi has gone on to feature in Gosford Park, The Golden Compass and The King’s Speech, alongside numerous RSC appearances.

Then called the Experimental Theatre Group, the company performed Hamlet in French universities and schools in 1960. The show was hailed a great success with Jacobi being compared to a “teenage idol” and the reviewer describing the audience as “entranced by the poetry and the music of the blank verse”.

While some of the comedy scenes were clearly lost on the French schoolchildren, the actors were nonetheless elevated to popstar status and were “besieged in the dressing rooms by dozens of schoolgirls”.

Over the years, ETG has attracted talents such as Miriam Margoyles and Stephen Fry, and continues to be a fixture of the Cambridge theatre scene. With so many years’ experience already under their belts, the ETG’s latest choice of Much Ado About Nothing will no doubt prove to be another triumph and is currently running at the ADC. Who knows what the current members will go on to achieve in the world of theatre?