Category Archives: Shakespeare

Race and the history of theatre criticism

I’m quoted in playwright Naomi Obeng’s lengthy article for The Stage‘s special issue on theatre and race this week, guest edited by Naomi with actor Emmanuel Kojo.

You can read the article here – although The Stage is usually subscription-only, a free registration will let you read all the new articles on race. It was great to talk to Naomi about Ira Aldridge, nineteenth-century women theatregoers, and the astonishing contradictions of some people’s make-believe: Oberon has just made himself invisible yes, King Duncan has a black son no. You can find Naomi on Twitter here.

I’d love to hear what you think about the article, and the special issue in general – do let me know!

Searching for Juliet

I should have posted this sooner, but I’m so pleased to share that my book, Searching for Juliet, will be published by Sceptre in April 2023. They have worldwide rights and there will be an announcement about the US publication very soon! Here’s the Bookseller blurb for those who don’t subscribe (I do now subscribe – you can probably guess when I narcissistically started! – and really recommend it. I’m gradually building a list of 2021 reads):

Sceptre has acquired a cultural, historical and literary exploration of the birth, death and legacy of Shakespeare’s Juliet Capulet.

Searching for Juliet is authored by Dr Sophie Duncan, a fellow in English at Christ Church, University of Oxford, and expert on Shakespeare in performance and in the broader fields of theatre history.

In the book, according to Sceptre, she takes readers from the Renaissance origin story behind Shakespeare’s 13-year-old child bride, to the sexual revolutionary of ’60s film and theatre, fromthe African slave girls named after a fictional teenager to the legacy of the beautiful dead girl trope in everything from Shakespeare to contemporary TV series such as “13 Reasons Why”.

Associate publisher Juliet Brooke bought world rights from Georgina Capel, commenting: “I obviously have a certain bias with this subject that proves to me quite how much Juliet’s legacy reaches beyond literature into our social mores. What makes Sophie’s proposal so exceptional is the incredible range and depth of her exploration: the legacy of a heroine such as Juliet encompasses everything from feminism to scholarly insight on Shakespeare’s text, from a portrait of the Shakespeare industry in Stratford to questioning gender norms. It’s also fantastically sharp and witty and a total joy to read.”

Duncan said she was bowled over by the enthusiasm and vision of the team at Sceptre and remarked her new editor’s name was “a great omen”

read the full article here

Coronavirus and help for A Level/GCSE English students

Are you a GCSE or A Level English Literature student, teacher, or homeschooling parent? If so, please feel free to get in touch with me, either via this website or on my email (sophie dot duncan at chch dot ox dot ac dot uk). I’m very happy to help with resources/discussion for either Shakespeare, 19th century literature, or 20th century drama.

If you’re in need of help with other texts, don’t hesitate – if it’s not my area, I’ll find you someone who can. Similarly, if you’re preparing an Oxbridge English application, I’d be glad to talk about that! I should have been lecturing at the UNIQ Easter school – if you were meant to be coming to UNIQ for English, let me know! We can chat!

Meanwhile, I’m (as per) trying to write a book, work with a Mutual Aid group, and grow a lot of vegetables from scratch in our living room. At the last count, our flower pots included repurposed Pringles tubes (halved), a Lurpak pot, an apple juice carton, and a bottle. Our watering can is a former oil drizzler. I hope you’re all keeping well, and please, stay at home.

[CFP] Infinite Variety: The Older Actress On Stage 1660–Present

Dame Judi Dench as Titania (2014). Photo by Nobby Clark.

Infinite Variety: The Older Actress on Stage 1660–present

A two-day symposium on 18–19 October 2019, taking place at Christ Church, University of Oxford, UK. 

Symposium Directors are Dr Sophie Duncan and Professor Mary Luckhurst 

The event is jointly convened by the School of Arts, University of Bristol and Christ Church, University of Oxford, with support from The Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities (TORCH). 

Confirmed keynote speakers include Professor Gilli Bush-Bailey (Central School of Speech and Drama), Professor Jacky Bratton (Royal Holloway) and Dr Fiona Gregory (Monash University). 

We welcome proposals for 20-minute papers from scholars and practitioners in theatre and related disciplines. Suggestions for topics include, but are not limited to:

  • older actresses on and off stage: as performers, managers, stage-managers, playwrights, producers, directors, and teachers, 1660–present.
  • older actresses – their approaches to acting and their creative and career strategies
  • older actresses and the one woman show
  • older actresses – stage v. film and television
  • older actresses on ageism and the politics of transgression
  • writing by older actresses, e.g. memoirs
  • genealogies of female performance and concepts of female ‘succession’
  • retirement and its alternatives
  • ‘canonical’ roles for older women; repertoire and ageing
  • older actresses and non-traditional casting
  • the depiction of older actresses and/or fictional older actresses in criticism, journalism, literature, the visual arts, and film
  • ageism, ageing, and the body in casting, rehearsal, performance, and reception
  • older actresses with additional marginalised identities, including LBT older actresses, BAME actresses, and actresses with disabilities (including age-related disabilities); the intersection of age with other kinds of marginalisation
  • the older actress in theatre historiography and as theatre historian
  • retrospectives, gala performances, honours lists and becoming a ’national treasure’.

Proposals, which should be 300 words long and accompanied by a brief biography, should be sent to the symposium’s directors, Dr Sophie Duncan (sophie.duncan@chch.ox.ac.uk) and Professor Mary Luckhurst (mary.luckhurst@bristol.ac.uk) by May 31 2019. 

[REVIEW] This Is Shakespeare & What Blest Genius

my Met Gala moment

I am very over-excited to have my first Literary Review byline this month, reviewing two brilliant books: Emma Smith’s This Is Shakespeare (calmly revolutionary take on 20 of the plays) and Andrew McConnell Stott’s What Blest Genius? The Jubilee That Made Shakespeare (Blackadder Goes Stratford; blissful).

You can read my review here, or – even better – pick it up in hard copy from W.H. Smith etc, while issues still remain unpurchased by my delighted extended family. Best of all, buy the books: This Is Shakespeare (Pelican, £14.79) and What Blest Genius? (W.W. Norton & Company, £14.43).

PODCAST: Women and Power

Whether or not you’re joining us in Oxford for the Women & Power conference next week, I hope you’ll check out the National Trust’s Women & Power podcast series. The five-episode series is presented by Kirsty Wark, and features a whole host of great stories from across the Trust, and contributions from lots of different historians. I pop up in all five episodes, talking about Victorian Manchester and the Contagious Diseases Acts (Episode 1), force-feeding (Episode 2), Octavia Hill, violence in Oxford, and the NUWSS pilgrimage (Episode 3, with genuine piano underscoring), the suffragettes as terrorists and the myth of why women really got the vote (Episode 4), and the Six Point Group (Episode 5).

(c) Bodleian

The series is ace, with brilliant on-location sequences at beautiful Wightwick, Killerton, and Osterley (plus some very energetic Incidental Radio Acting), and I haven’t given it the blog love it deserves.  It’s been a lovely soundtrack to writing my keynote for next week’s conference at St Hugh’s, here in Oxford. I look forward to seeing some of you soon. 

P.S. the book of the Women & Power project, with all the info from the series and more, plus pictures, is still available online. You can also check out my episode of Radio 3’s The Essay on Shakespeare and suffrage, and my 2018 podcast episode on suffragette Emily Wilding Davidson and Oxford’s suffrage histories for Women In Oxford’s History. There’s yet more about Shakespeare and the suffragettes in my first book, Shakespeare’s Women and the Fin de Siecle. A trove.

Shakespeare’s Props – out now!

My new book – Shakespeare’s Props: Memory and Cognition – is out now in Routledge’s Studies in Shakespeare series! You can buy Shakespeare’s Props here (via Routledge), and in all the usual places (at the time of writing, Blackwell’s seems to have the best price).

I hope you’ll see a lot of this book on this blog (and elsewhere) over the coming months – in some ways it feels as though it’s been a long road to publication, and in others as if it’s been a whirlwind.

Many thanks to everyone who’s contributed to Shakespeare’s Props in whatever form – obviously there are acknowledgments within, but I’m mindful of the extraordinary amount of luck and support I’ve had, at both Magdalen College, where I researched and wrote this book, and Christ Church, where I finished it (why am I always proofreading during admissions season?!).

I don’t know if I’ll ever again have the chance to write a book combining Shakespeare with Call The Midwife, or caption a chapter on Early Modern corpses with a still from The Graham Norton Show, but I can heartily recommend the experience. Obviously, in a book about Shakespeare and props, all the big hitters appear – handkerchiefs, skulls, and an accumulating obsession with torn letters – but there’s also the joy of wittily-inscribed chewing gum wrappers, Dido’s oars, and a coda re: the iniquities of HS2 and its impact on London’s props quarter.

Clearly, Shakespeare’s Props is the perfect Valentine’s gift for the Shakespearean in your life. And/or your favourite hoarder-in-training. And/or your beloved institutional library.

I don’t yet have a physical copy in my hands, but when I do, expect picturespam (note: I also welcome spam from readers. This picture of TV’s Own Matt Lacey reading Women and Power made my week).

Of course, if you’d like to review the book for a journal or other publication, please email me, or comment below – thank you!

Shakespeare’s Props: Memory and Cognition

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Ask not for whom the bell tolls

My new book, Shakespeare’s Props: Memory and Cognition, will be published on 14th February 2019 by Routledge. How very romantic.

 

Advent 18: 5 Steps To A Spooky Christmas

girl-reading-ghost-story

I can’t tell you how happy this picture makes me.

Christmas horror and Christmas ghost stories were once integral to Christmas in Britain and Ireland. Luckily for us, we can partly blame the Victorians (our great Ur-parents, from whom society inherited a mass need for therapy). From the 1855 cessation on paper tax onwards, Britain saw an explosion of periodical magazines, with the mass marketing of ghost and vampire stories. These stories were generic, sensational, and exploited both Victorian fears of the past, in all its disquieting, revenant, primitive messiness, and anxieties about the future: Dracula (1897) imagines a terrifying Eastern European immigrant who wants to suck the life force out of the rising generation of imperialists. Spirit photography supposedly captured ghosts, while homes became the sites of seances. Stories literally domesticated the Gothic, bringing the ghost story into fireside and domestic reading. Christmas, with its profusion of annuals, gift books, reading-aloud, and superstition, is the ideal vehicle for a bit of horror. European mythology has much to answer for – I’ve already blogged about the Icelandic Yule Lads. But if you want to get into a thoroughly spooky Christmas spirit, here are the five things you need. Why not listen to my Spooky Christmas Playlist while you browse?

  1. Fearful folklore

We’ve met Spoon Licker and the child-catching Yule Cat, but many other countries have mythical and malevolent winter monsters. Check out the malicious Karakoncolos who, in Serbia, disguises his voice as that of your loved one, lures you out into the snow and jumps on your back. Then there’s the Greek Kallikantzaroi, a group of demons who steal any babies born between Christmas Day and Twelfth Night. Fancy some winter sun?

victorian-ghost-story2. Spine-tingling short stories

‘A Strange Christmas Game’ (1865) by J. H. Riddell is a charming story of fun, games, counting thirteen people when only twelve are present – and of a girl with a broken neck. Christmas games can seriously damage your health, so be warned: don’t end up like the heroine of this 1884 poem, the bride in Thomas Bayly’s ‘The Mistletoe Bough’. Or there’s Algernon Blackwood’s ‘The Old Kit-Bag’ (1908), a heart-warming seasonal tale of suicide and severed heads. Feliz Navidad. Bringing us nearly up to date, there’s Jeanette Winterson’s ‘Dark Christmas’ from 2013, where awkward festive plans (‘We had borrowed the house from a friend none of us seemed to know’) turn into an Edwardian horror story. M.R. James has, perhaps undeservedly, become king of the Christmas ghost story even though his tales are rarely set at Christmas – the BBC is broadcasting a dramatisation of one story on Christmas Eve, starring Greg Wise.

3. Frightful films

‘Holiday horror’ is a genuine subgenre. Whether you want to see Joan Collins bury a fire iron in her husband’s head before being stalked by a psychotic Santa (Tales from the Crypt, 1972) or watch a snow-covered New York  reunion turn fatal as the kiddiwinks start murdering their parents (The Children, 2008), there is a Christmas horror film for you. A clip of Tales from the Crypt is on YouTube: warnings for bright red poster paint.

4. Chilling culture

Not everything was the Victorians’ fault. The plays of William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe tell us that supernatural fictions also kept the Early Moderns warm on winter nights. In Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (1589), Barabas recalls a tradition of seasonal scares: ‘Now I remember those old women’s words/Who in my wealth would tell me winter’s tales/And speak of spirits and ghosts that glide by night.’ Poor little Mamilius in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (c. 1610-11) has clearly had similar experiences, confidently telling his mother and her attendants ‘A sad tale’s best for winter’. There are also cheerier Christmas superstitions in Shakespeare’s plays: at the end of the first scene of Hamlet, Marcellus gets one of the play’s simplest and most beautiful speeches:

MARCELLUS:
It faded on the crowing of the cock.
Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dares stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.

The rest of English Literature tends not to share Marcellus’s view: spirits, witches, and fairies abound in our Christmas heritage. Sorry, Marcellus.

dickens-of-a-christmas-800-x-400_snow-800x400

5. Ghoulish gifts

Buzzfeed has a handy list of 21 Gift Ideas For The Goth In Your Life, and you can also buy a haunted doll from Ebay (because of course you can), sometimes very specifically so (‘This doll is haunted by Stacey, 16‘). But if you want something moderately rather than traumatically scary, there’s the Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories, with tales by Arthur Conan Doyle and Walter Scott, or the Folio Society’s illustrated edition of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Or, because in the vernacular of those hideous Facebook posts, The Greatest Gift We Can Give Each Other Is Time, why not cuddle up with a friend and follow this Rookie Magazine tutorial on how to make Victorian hair-based mourning jewellery? Amazing Christmas gifts!!

Oh wait. Everything is the Victorians’ fault.

Have a spectacularly spooky Christmas. And, yes, making Victorian hair jewellery is something I desperately want to do.

 

 

[REVIEW] Twelfth Night, dir. Simon Godwin, National Theatre

twelfth-night-doon-mackichan-as-festetamsin-greig-as-malvolia-image-by-marc-brenner

Doon Mackichnan as Feste, Tamsin Greig as Malvolia. (c) Marc Brenner.

Appropriately for a play that begins with a shipwreck, Simon Godwin’s Twelfth Night at the National Theatre left me with a lingering sinking feeling. The production is a watershed (I’ll stop) in cross-gendered casting, with Tamsin Greig’s Malvolia creating a mannequined Miss Hardbroom that kicks over the traces of Sir Donald Sinden, Richard Briers, Sir Nigel Hawthorne, et al. Less prominently, Doon Mackichnan plays Feste as a principal boy-turned-raver, and Imogen Doel carries equal opportunities to its logical conclusion by having to make the best of Fabia[n] – which she does very well, despite dialogue like ‘Sowter will cry upon’t for all this, though it be as rank as a fox’, a line so bad it merits mention in The Art of Coarse Acting. My problem is that this production, lauded for its celebration of race, sex, and gender, inadvertently uses cross-casting to tell a deeply homophobic story.

 

twelfth-night-doon-mackichan-as-festeimage-by-marc-brennerOn the surface, there’s much to like. Soutra Gilmour’s inventive set unfolds from a ship into an endlessly rotating pyramid that’s somewhere between Illuminati shout-out and a tomb by Canova. There’s a jacuzzi in which Phoebe Fox’s Olivia becomes a floozy (mourning garb replaced by a red bathing suit), any number of zooming cars and motorbikes, and a salmon-pink fountain that delights the audience by spurting symbolic jets on cue. The costumes are similarly witty, with Mackichnan’s Feste flaunting a sea-green tribute to Princess Beatrice’s pretzel-themed millinery.

twelfth-night-daniel-rigby-as-sir-andrew-aguecheek-tim-mcmullan-as-sir-toby-belch-image-by-marc-brenner

Daniel Rigby as Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Tim McMullan as Sir Toby Belch. (c) Marc Brenner.

There are also some excellent performances. Excluding Greig, chief of these is Daniel Rigby’s pink-suited Andrew Aguecheek, who, as Bertie Wooster with a manbun and an energetic vogue for disco, overshadows Tim McMullan’s Sir Toby, a rat-bitten roué.

Oliver Chris’s Orsino is the first truly loveable one I have seen, a superhero Prince Charming whose spoilt temper is sublimated into boxing, and who takes the audience into his confidence with winning ingenuity. He tussles readily with Tamara Lawrence’s Viola, an unusually even-tempered, cheerful heroine whose tendency to take all the verse at full pelt robs her bittersweet dialogues with Orsino of all their self-concealing pathos. She calls her situation a ‘barful strife’ but laughs her way through the first two acts, until the joy of being mistaken for a still-living Sebastian (‘Prove true, imagination, O, prove true’) yields the first moment of emotional connection.

Twelfth Night - Oliver Chris as Orsino, Tamara Lawrance as Viola, image by Marc Brenner.jpg

Oliver Chris as Orsino and Tamara Lawrence as Viola. (c) Marc Brenner.

This is a production where love electrifies and mobilises: Olivia gyrates to the onstage musicians’ elevator music, while Viola wriggles and hoots after Orsino gives her a kiss to deliver to Olivia. Ultimately, these are twins whose highest priority will always be each other; Daniel Ezra’s pugnacious, sexually opportunistic Sebastian (an excellent performance) seems bemused by both Antonio and Olivia’s devotion, but adores his sister.

 

Twelfth Night - Tamsin Greig as Malvolia, Tamara Lawrance as Viola, image by Marc Brenner.jpg

Tamsin Greig as Malvolia and Tamara Lawrence as Viola. (c) Marc Brenner

And then there’s Greig’s Malvolia. Every time she takes centre-stage, she brings with a consummate skill in verse-speaking that is sometimes absent elsewhere. Godwin’s production seems uneasy about the text: switching pronouns and honorifics in line with gender leaves characters ‘lady’-ing each other in the manner of vintage Coronation Street, but more important is the overriding feeling that the text is an impediment to the evening; a struggle to be overcome. One oddity is that Lawrance plays Viola with a London accent, while Ezra sounds West African; while they can’t be visually or acoustically identical given their biological sex, giving them such different accents is a baffling test of audience credulity.  Monologues are largely galloped through, Belch supplies ad-libs (Maria is a ‘dirty little girl’) but loses lines that illuminate, including Olivia’s revealing reluctance to ‘match above her degree’ by marrying the count Orsino. This is key to the psyche of the only Shakespearean heroine who uses her last line to insist she pays for her own wedding. Greig gives an electrifying performance, beginning as an obsessive-compulsive spinster, all angular bob, geometric gestures and gym shoes.

Every sympathetic Malvolio incurs tragedy when his passion is mocked; Greig intensifies this, partly by being pitched against an unusually unlikeable gang of ruffian sots, and partly through her bewitching incredulity when she believes her love for Olivia is returned. Her cross-gartered yellow stockings are tights with a pierrot jacket, the latter removed to reveal a primrose bodice and hot pants. Blindfolded and bound, her bare skin increases her vulnerability, and the denouement completes her humiliation – worse than her imprisonment is the realisation that her employer does not, after all, share her feelings – something this single-minded Olivia reveals with remarkably little sympathy.

Twelfth Night - Oliver Chris as Orsino, Daniel Ezra as Sebastian, image by Marc Brenner.jpg

Oliver Chris as Orsino and Daniel Ezra as Sebastian.

Greig is an accomplished comedian, whose wit and timing provide all the necessary laughs before the swoop to tragedy: she is an hilarious and heartbreaking Malvolio, and this Olivier production a worthy forum for her talents. Simply making Malvolio’s desire for Olivia same-sex does not necessarily make Twelfth Night a homophobic production, or even a more homophobic play: poor old Antonio must necessarily watch his beloved pair off with Olivia. And there are some genuinely gender-queer moments of light-hearted comedy – Orsino, on his last lines, accidentally snogs a cheerfully acquiescent Sebastian.

twelfth-night-tamsin-greig-as-malvolia-phoebe-fox-as-olivia-image-by-marc-brenner

Tamsin Greig as Malvolia and Phoebe Fox as Olivia.

The wider tone disturbed me. Antonio is probably textually gay; this Malvolia pines for her mistress. But Twelfth Night stages a third great losers in love: Antonio, Malvolio, and Sir Andrew – and in Godwin’s production, Sir Andrew is also queer-coded, from his pink clothes and long, frizzy hair to his penchant for cuddling up to both Sir Toby (much to the latter’s disgust) and to the teddy bear Orsino gives Olivia. This is troubling not because it queers a Shakespearean icon, but because it does so via unimaginative stereotypes, as if Agucheek’s incompetent flirting and cowardly duelling mean only one thing. Rigby is an accomplished comic, but the net result is a production with three queer characters, who are also the three to end up humiliated and alone.

Also disconcerting is Orsino’s suddenly-averted gay panic when Viola turns out to be a girl, not a boy: a common moment in productions, but especially jarring when Oliver Chris’s Orsino had shown so little sign of desire for his page. In a production more sensitive to queer identity, the denouement might feel more ambivalent, but clichés abound. The Elephant (an Illyrian tavern, and Antonio’s intended lovenest) appears as a gay nightclub, in which understudies for The Village People hear a black drag queen perform Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ speech as a torch song. This showcases Emmanuel Kojo’s considerable singing talent, and provides an enchantingly funny moment when Rigby’s Aguecheek instantly corrects his ‘Now, sir’ to an ad-libbed ‘Sorry, miss’. But the interposition of another play’s text only reiterates this production’s discomfort with its own, and the gratuitous, glamorous drag queen affects an inclusivity the production doesn’t really possess. Elsewhere, the straight characters’ homophobia is largely played for laughs, and despite Greig’s brilliant, innovative performance, this ‘genderfluid’ Twelfth Night ends up feeling straighter than ever.

 Twelfth Night will be broadcast live as part of NTLive on 6 April. For more information, including the programme of education events, see the National Theatre website.