As part of its support for the arts, Global Geneva asked director Paul Stebbings to explain how the TNT travelling theatre company have managed to re-establish its traditional touring in the face of COVID-19 with the staging of Shakespeare’s Othello in castles of Switzerland, Denmark and Germany.
Produced by ADG Europe, TNT has been touring Switzerland and other parts of Europe for decades. Each summer we perform a Shakespeare play in the courtyards of Lake Geneva’s wonderful castles of Chillon and Prangins. This year, we are offering Othello, but it has been a near miracle that we are able to perform at all in the midst of a global pandemic.
In March 2020, the company had six productions touring from Mexico to Poland. Yet in one vile week, we had to cancel all of them. We also had to move fast to bring actors back from across the globe, sending them into unemployment. Black Friday, 13 March, saw the last of our tours cancelled.
Since then, we have struggled to keep the company alive. We have done so primarily through the generosity of our supporters rather than state aid. We are now preparing for an autumn season across Europe. Our first tour consists of this tragic Shakespearean masterpiece. Without question, Othello must rank as one of the finest plays ever written.
Our initial production closed after only six performances in March. However, we re-opened again last week using castles in Germany and Denmark as our stage settings. Our heroic actors have come back together to sail on these choppy seas, no longer packing shelves in supermarkets or isolating in rural France, but taking to the stage once again.
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The tour runs until mid-October with planned performances at over thirty 30 castles and palaces in five countries. The Chateau de Chillon, at the end of Lake Geneva near Montreux, and Prangins, just outside Nyon, have been on the annual castle tour for decades. We have built a loyal following who will hopefully return to support us.
The production was originally scheduled to be performed in our usual June slot with audiences often sipping wine and aperitifs in the courtyards or gardens before settling down to enjoy the performance. We are particularly grateful to the authorities at Chillon and Prangins for rearranging the dates to allow us to return this autumn.
I have a personal attachment to the Château de Chillon , as my family parked our caravan nearby when I was a child. I was swept away by the romance and grandeur of what might be the most sensational castle on the planet. Years later, while directing Shakespeare in Shanghai, I passed a two-metre high wall painting of Chillon on a busy Chinese street. The world knows Chillon.
However, our two Swiss venues are marvellously different: Chillon is powerful and medieval; Prangins is elegant and Baroque. And behind both lies the stunning lake of Geneva and the Alps beyond. During the interval, I always go to stare out across the lake, a lake that has hosted so many notable British artists such as Byron, Mary Shelley and a personal hero of mine: Charlie Chaplin. A truly inspiring place.
I have been directing Shakespeare across the world for over 25 years, and Othello is one of my favourites. Our production aims to shed light and to elucidate the original rather than impose a simple interpretation. And our setting is historical. This must rank as Shakespeare’s best constructed play, an extraordinary romantic thriller and a profound examination of the nature of evil. It’s exciting and accessible with clearly defined characters and a plot that drives forward with relentless energy.
Our version includes a live score by composer Thomas Johnson. The actors themselves play cello, guitar, percussion and sing four-part harmony throughout – so that the music operates almost as a film score – heightening the emotion and suspense of this sensational thriller. The play also contains one of Shakespeare’s most heart-breaking ballads, The Willow, sung by the betrayed and doomed Desdemona.
Shakespeare, as usual, offers no easy answers or polemics. The Bard asks us questions that are relevant and pressing in today’s troubled world. Why does Iago spend so much energy destroying Othello and those who surround him? Iago seems to have little to gain or even truly understand his own motives. I think that there is a lesson here as we view our own troubled times: populist politicians and misled electorates seem hell bent on self-destructive courses from which, if they only stood back, we would surely think again.
TNT and our producer Grantly Marshall of ADG Europe face an uncertain future, hemmed in by the coronavirus and Brexit. But we will not surrender to these forces of nature or man. We have managed to be back up and up and running before (we think) any other international touring company. What is it to be human if our lives can only be lived in separation or digitally? We are social animals and theatre is the most social of arts. So we hope to welcome our audience back to the castles of French-speaking Switzerland and reaffirm or humanity in the company of the greatest playwright (and poet?) whoever graced this planet: William Shakespeare.
Times and locations for Othello in the Lake Geneva region.
25 September, 2020: 18.00 hrs (6 pm) Château Chillon
26 September, 2020: 18.00 hrs (6 pm) Château de Prangins
Tickets on the door or from: firstname.lastname@example.org or Tel. 00-49 89 343803
British-German Paul Stebbings was born in Nottingham in the UK, but lives in Munich. He studied at the Bristol University Drama Department and is now artistic theatre director of TNT and the American Drama Group Europe. He is an associate director of Teatro Espressivo de Costa Rico, a regular director at the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre and has toured his productions to over forty countries worldwide.