[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).

Nadhim Zahawi, Tory landlords, Grenfell Tower

Because I want to make this point in as many places and ways as I can: here is the list of landlord Conservative MPs who voted against making homes habitable under the Homes and Planning Bill. On the list is Nadhim Zahawi, the millionaire Tory MP for Stratford-on-Avon, who during the expenses scandal was revealed to have spent the most on energy bills of any sitting MP, including heating his horses’ stables. Evidently, he was far more concerned about those animals than he was the human beings living in places like Grenfell Tower.

I am singling out Zahawi because I am ashamed that he is MP for my beloved hometown, and because the contrast between a man who lavished money on animals but wouldn’t vote to save people is so disgusting. Of course, today he’s busily retweeting all the condolences and the fundraising links. But I think everyone should know the part he – along with the rest of the landlords, Boris Johnson, and everyone who ignored the Grenfell Tower residents’ campaign – played in the tragedy.

Teachers from Kensington Aldridge Academy (one of them known to me), the school closest to Grenfell, have begun this fundraising page for victims. Please donate there.

Advent Calendar Day 9: Hamlet!

Marcellus:
[…]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 dare 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.

Horatio:
So have I heard and do in part believe it.
[…]

Hamlet, I.1.181-188.

2009 filmed version of the RSC production of Hamlet dir. Greg Doran; I.1. Peter de Jersey as Horatio; Keith Osborn as Marcellus; Ewen Cummins as Barnardo; Robert Curtis as Francisco.

Copyright RSC / Illuminations / BBC.

(when I worked in FOH for the stage version of this production, Keith Osborn and Peter de Jersey’s delivery of these lines were one of my favourite moments in the play – it was the mixture of chill and comfort)

n.b. I am not suggesting anyone should have A Very Hamlet Christmas. It would not end well.

[REVIEW] Shakespeare’s Shrine: The Bard’s Birthplace and the Invention of Stratford-upon-Avon

https://i2.wp.com/www.oxonianreview.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/shakespeareshrine-e1353084043362.jpgMy review of Jane Thomas’s Shakespeare’s Shrine: The Bard’s Birthplace and the Invention of Stratford-upon-Avon was published in the 18 November issue of the Oxonian Review. You can read it online here.

Apart from the legitimate book-reviewing part, there’s a healthy dollop about the time your own correspondent was a guide in the aforementioned Birthplace (2010). Let’s just say that my mother cannot recall the sight of me in costume without hysterical laughter. I talk about that too. I also go on a bit about Oscar Wilde and French nudity. As ever, any excuse.

Britgrad 2011 and a summer of conferences…

On Sunday, I returned to Oxford from the Britgrad 2011 conference, where I was part of the Victorian Theatre Practices panel with the fragrant Jem Bloomfield.

KENDAL 4 LIFE. Or similar.

Jem was talking about mid- and late-Victorian productions of The Duchess of Malfi, while my paper was entitled ‘”Marriage of Orlando and Rosalind”: Madge Kendal and Victorian Shakespeare”. The conference organisers charitably having given us a panel in which to get REALLY EXCITED to the bemusement – and, thankfully, amusement – of our colleagues, we waved our arms and talked actresses to our hearts’ content.

A large proportion of the delegates at our panel had strong interests in performance; sometimes both as scholars and practitioners. I’d hoped one of the main points of my paper – that our current theatrical historiography is problematic in its accommodations for women, as evinced by Madge Kendal, acclaimed and central Victorian actress, falling through the gaps of history – might be disproved by someone bouncing up to say they, too, are a ridiculous enthusiast/horrified onlooker at the fireworks of her life. But no. While this does tell me I’m probably on the right track (conference full of excitable Shakespeare postgrads = not a flicker of recognition, but much interest), it’s such a shame!

Overall, a productive three days. Having swotted up on posts from (all I really need to know, I learn from) Thesis Whisperer, I made myself ask questions at most panels. I usually struggle to think of them (and am slightly allergic to Q&As as it is), but found that if I went in determined to ask, it made me a more proactive listener and I ended up with genuine queries. So hurrah for that. My only Britgrad regret is that there was a girl in my panel who asked a really fascinating question about Victorian theatrical fan literatures. I’d hoped we’d get more of a chance to talk afterwards (Victorian fan literatures are honestly one of the most exciting, and weirdest, things on God’s earth), but sadly I didn’t see her again.

My conference schedule for the rest of the summer is ridiculously busy. Should you have an inexplicable yen to see a short girl in glasses talk about Victorian actresses, you can catch me at any of the following:

10 June 2011: Oxford English Graduate Conference, University of Oxford: “The Famed and the Forgotten”.

7-9 July 2011: Universities of Birmingham and Lancaster, The Storey, Lancaster: “Politics, performance and popular culture in nineteenth century Britain”.

18-19 July 2011: Victorian Popular Fiction Association Conference, University of London: “Sex, Courtship and Marriage in Victorian Popular Culture”.

If you’re attending any of these events, please let me know! It’d be great to make some new conference-friends beforehand…

Happy Birthday, Shakespeare!

Liz Woledge of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust invited me to be involved with this project.Liz Woledge of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust contacted me, asking me to participate in Happy Birthday, Shakespeare: the SBT’s 2011 project inviting bloggers to write about Shakespeare’s impact on their life and work. I was delighted to get involved. #hbws 1564-2011.

I exist because of Shakespeare. Hyperbolic though that may sound, it’s less an assertion of Shakespeare-as-self-help (although, if you’re in the market…) than a statement of historical fact.

Ben Kingsley and Niamh Cusack, 1985.

My parents worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company; my mother was a Senior Wig and Make-Up Artist, my father a Deputy Stage Manager. They met during the RSC’s production of Othello in 1985, started dating in previews, were living together by press night, and got engaged five months later. They’ll celebrate their silver wedding in July.

Although Stratford babies have yet to start gurgling in iambic pentameter, my experience of Shakespeare has always been inseparable from my experience of Stratford. This sense of ownership has, quite naturally, engendered a sense of belligerent, smug parochialism that would put the inhabitants of Royston Vasey to shame. Although wildly partisan about the glories of Stratford, from the Singing Man Of Henley Street to the architecture of the new theatre (which still looks quite a lot like a 1930s power station, but, good, I like it that way), I can, for the sake of argument, admit there might be an objectively equal town somewhere on planet Earth. The great thing about Shakespeare is that I have never needed to recalibrate my smugness. Shakespeare is the best, and the glorious thing is that the rest of the world seems to agree.

Growing up in Stratford, with theatre-loving parents and the RSC on my doorstep, I was guarded from the horrific slow death that can be a first encounter with Shakespeare at school. Instead, I saw my first production aged eight (Josie Lawrence in The Taming of the Shrew ) and benefitted from a drama teacher, Ali Troughton, who made Shakespeare’s language the birthright of seven-year-olds. The first speech I ever learned was the seven ages of man, and the first scene was the Witches in Macbeth. We were never taught that Shakespeare was difficult, boring or remote on some plain of exaltation; instead, he was immediate, exciting and ours.

I went on to take a degree in English, write a Masters thesis on Shakespeare performance history, and am now writing a doctorate on Shakespeare’s heroines at the Victorian fin de siècle. I’ve also directed and acted in Shakespeare productions, playing my way through his illustrious back catalogue of Women Who Are Short and Boys Whose Voices Haven’t Broken.

(c) Alastair Muir, 2003
Alexandra Gilbreath and Jasper Britton, 2003.

If Shakespeare has led me to some strange places, I can only apologise to my fellow-travellers. Special and fervent self-recrimination should be laid at the feet of one Jasper Britton, who had the misfortune to become the object of my schoolgirl adoration when I was fifteen, and he was in The Taming of the Shrew. Everything in my feminist, liberal, pinko-Pankhurst heart quite rightly rebels against Petruchio and all he stands for. Nothing can excuse the day I chased Mr Britton across the Bancroft Gardens to the cackling approval of a dozen other fifteen-year-old girls. Somehow, I went on to be the sort of Front of House staff member who could safely usher the Patrick Stewart/David Tennant Hamlet season. I also apologise to the student actress whom I forced to climb furniture around the edges of my college room, refusing to let her touch the floor in a “freeing” exercise to “help her find” Puck.

I, too, have suffered for Shakespeare. Part of my summer job with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (who bravely commissioned this blog post) involved me dressing as the first act of The Crucible in tropical temperatures while 3,000 visitors poured through the Birthplace each day. The upside is that I can now can now say “glovemaker” in Korean. Aged twelve, I wore a purple, gold and sky-blue blazer (I want you to take a moment to imagine that. Use this bracketed space to fully contemplate sixty eleven-year-old girls in purple, gold and sky-blue blazers. With shoulder pads) to represent my school in the Birthday Celebrations and lay flowers on Shakespeare’s tomb.

Christopher "Kit" "too cool for school but got stabbed in the eye" Marlowe. Not quite as good as Shakespeare.

As an undergraduate, my Oxford tutors tried their best to vary my literary diet of Women, Gayness, Shakespeare and Death. I studied conceptions of masculinity, attended with joy to the thrusting passion of Heathcliff and Cathy, acknowledged Middleton and swapped John Donne’s self-burying sermon for… no, I still read about Death. For a term, I even followed the cool kids by pretending I preferred Marlowe to Mr W. S.

However, while a BA is a time for experimenting with bad haircuts and all kinds of textual identities, grad school is different (for one thing, you no longer have money for a hairdresser). Critics in feminism, from Sandra M. Gilbert to Anette Federico, have described how academic research increasingly becomes “a kind of re-search into our own lives”. This is true for me: my own experience of Shakespeare is equally inseparable from my experience of theatre, and of my hometown.

Today, my academic research explores performances of Shakespeare’s heroines at the end of the nineteenth century, a time when Shakespeare was simultaneously the planet’s most idolized and most contested playwright.

Reading the writings of our most famous Shakespearean performers – then and now – convinces me that however we encounter Shakespeare, whether as readers, scholars or performers, we have always used his plays to help us understand ourselves, and to articulate our own experiences.

Responding to the Arts Council England cuts, I wrote a polemic on the value of theatre, trying to express the ways in which theatre teaches confidence, creativity, self-belief and, above all, communities in which diversity, trust and risk-taking can flourish together. Everything that is true of theatre is especially true of Shakespeare. No other writer that I’ve found so consistently challenges and empowers all those who encounter him.

(c) www.bustledress.com
Lillie Langtry, c. 1880.

Back in 1882, Lillie Langtry, by then a sidelined Royal mistress with a bankrupt husband and illegitimate baby, turned to acting largely out of financial necessity. The result was artistic liberation. Staging Shakespeare she was, for the first time “my own master, my own mistress, and freed from unaccustomed control”. Generations of performers have felt the same freedom.

If this sounds too much like Bardolatry, I should say there are some plays I absolutely hate – King Lear is always about seven hours too long, and as one very famous Shakespeare scholar noted in my hearing, consists chiefly of “all those men going mad”.

This August, I’m thrilled to be seeing Catherine Tate and David Tennant in Much Ado About Nothing. I hope the combination of superstar actors and one of the world’s most-visited cities brings a new generation of theatregoers to one of Shakespeare’s best-loved, sharpest comedies. I hope seeing their first play encourages them to track down a second – and a third, and a fourth. Happy Birthday, Shakespeare.

Arts Council Cuts: the Midlands and beyond

I’ve followed the Arts Council England cuts today with deep sadness and anger. Our society – not the Big Society, but the place(s) we really live – is under threat, and in this time of economic attack from our coalition overlords, the arts’ position is especially contested. There are lots of issues here, most of which I don’t feel qualified to speak on, but I did want to discuss the following.

The myth of the press officer class

Quentin Letts scoffed at the sufferings of what he calls the “press officer class”, i.e. those in arts admin (some of which could, perhaps, be more accurately known as arts bureaucracy). I have no animus against arts administrators whatsoever, and I hope that as few administrative roles as possible are lost. But what I hate most about Letts’s argument is the way it elides all the other people who work in the arts. At least if you’re an administrator or other office-based professional, you have transferrable skills! God knows there are few enough administrative and management posts available at the moment, and it’s appalling when people have to take skills and wage cuts, but for many people in theatre, that kind of transition just won’t be possible. If you’ve spent twenty years as a followspot operator, how many other roles can you step into? Stage carpenters are stage carpenters. A career in automation (formerly known as “flying”) doesn’t allow you to move between different kinds of organisation in the same way as a background in development or HR. These technicians are also incredibly skilled professionals. What will happen to them?

Creatives, technicians, and artisans don’t have the same prominence or vocality in the anti-cuts movement as doctors and teachers, and for good reason. But there’s a new body of workers who’ll be badly affected by these cuts, and Letts’s argument ignores them completely.

Audiences and young people: a manifesto

I am lucky: I’ve seen a lot of theatre because my parents were willing and able to make theatregoing a priority throughout my life. I also had inspired, discriminating and proactive teachers. A few weeks ago, the RSC (who have themselves taken a 15% hit) opened a Facebook discussion on why it was so important for young people to see theatre. I’d like to say that theatre is important because not only because it enriches our cultural lives, our imaginations and our intellects along with the rest of the arts, but also because it builds tribes, encourages acceptance, and creates communities with dignity. When a young person becomes involved with theatre, in any capacity, it changes how they see themselves, and how they see the world. Theatre prioritises the development of physical, mental and emotional stamina, of confidence, of self-worth and the capacity to take risks. Theatre offers to chance to step into a different kind of life, where people are valued in new ways, and where personal and professional relationships are based on immediacy, intimacy and trust. Unlike almost everything else in popular entertainment, theatre demands that people come together in the same room and listen to each other. Theatre demands that audience and performers treat each other with respect and generosity. When you make theatre, you have the unbelievable privilege of making your thoughts come alive around you, of creating a private world that then becomes gloriously, unbelievably public. Around the world, wherever there have been struggles for freedom, dignity and equality, theatre has been there somewhere. The defining figure in British culture, for better or worse, is not a statesman, a musician, a sportsman or a surgeon, but a playwright. On personal level, theatre has, again and again, created and changed the course of my life. When you take theatre – performance, stagecraft, design, text, activism – away from young people, you are denying them the chance to be the best they can be.

The Midlands

A ROUGH GUIDE TO THE CUTS: if you have “Birmingham” in your title, get stuffed. Foursight Birmingham: 100% funding lost. Birmingham Repertory: 11% cut. Birmingham Royal Ballet: 15% cut. City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra: 11% cut. Birmingham Contemporary Music Group: 11% cut. Big Brum: 11% cut. Also in and around Birmingham; the Ikon Gallery and the Midlands Art Centre will each lose 11% of their funding, while Ixia (visual arts) loses 15.2%. Another big loser in the West Midlands is Multistory, which loses over 43% of its funding. Recent work by Multistory involved developing original work by primary school children in Coventry. Simultaneously, the Coventry Belgrade is losing 14.9% of its funding, meaning that pretty soon the only thing in Coventry will have to offer is IKEA. Oh, and the West Midlands disability arts user-led organisation DASH loses 38% of its funding. Of course. Nationally, two other major, brilliant companies with investment in disability arts are DV8 (whom I was privileged to see as a sixth-former) and Zinc. DV8’s losing 11.7%, Zinc’s losing 100%. Yes, you did just read that – the Arts Council are cutting all funding for the largest disabled-led arts organisation in England. That must be the most disgusting thing I’ve read all day.

In the East Midlands, the Theatre Writing Partnership loses 100% of its funding. God forbid that Leicestershire, for example, should produce another playwright like Joe Orton or Sarah Kane. Leicester Theatre Trust are losing 11% of their funding, as are the Nottingham Playhouse. Two East Midlands companies who made unsuccessful applications for funding are the participatory community theatre company Hanby & Barrett, and Metro Boulot Dodo.

Warwick Arts Centre, responsible for all the experimental theatre I saw before uni, loses 11%. The Royal Shakespeare Company loses 15%. I love the RSC beyond all reason and am partisan to the point of incoherence in its favour, so I find this… painful. I have faith that they can take it, nevertheless.

Whichever way you look at it, the Midlands has suffered horribly today: we’ll feel the repercussions for years. It’s not just the arts, of course – I heard today (from my mother, who taught me feminism and liberalism and exactly why you never ever vote Tory – I only wish everyone else’s mothers had done the same) about some of the other services being axed in the West Midlands. Dudley Council closes Meals on Wheels next week, meaning that 120 Stourbridge pensioners will no longer receive a cooked meal each day (total saving: £32,000). The voluntary organisation Birmingham Tribunal, which provides a free welfare benefits legal advice for the city, is also shutting soon. But it’s another, depressing, regressive nail in the UK’s coffin, helping to push our society and its citizens further into unemployment and suffering. Forget the cultural value if you can, or even if it doesn’t matter to you: so many jobs and families will be threatened by these cuts. Even if you think the arts are elitist (although how anyone could think Clean Break, the theatre company working with women in prisons, is elitist… they’re taking an 11% cut), recognise that this is yet another sector in which workers are being threatened.

What next?

I have no answers. I urge everyone who can to focus on supporting their local arts organisations and services, and to keep voicing their displeasure. I offer my deepest sympathies to all the organisations mentioned in this post, and indeed to all who’ve been adversely affected by the decisions today. If anyone reading this is affiliated with an organisation attempting an appeal or looking for fundraising in the light of the Arts Council’s choices, please comment: I’d be delighted to add your links to this post.

early televised shakespeare

(Currently the idea is that) My doctoral research will look at Shakespeare performance history, focusing on stage performances of the Late Plays from about the 1860 to about 1933. I could go on, but the ideas are still as full of parentheses and italics as the King James Bible. But a post discussing television theatre before the war on the excellent Illuminations blog, makes me wonder how far I should include filmed performances. I’d thought about this in a leisurely way before, only been able to recollect one silent version of The Tempest (watched for interest, as an undergrad) and danced a mental jig, before shelving the thought again.

I’m not much further on (this post is just a placeholder), but reading John’s article made me realise how excited I am to be working on performance history in the first half of the twentieth century. Part of my Masters was a course on British Theatre 1850-1900 and 1950-2000, but 1900 (well, 1910-) to 1950 is something new. What I know so far hangs off (mostly) the later work of Terry, Achurch, Robbins and the Bensons – a heterogenous group.

Anyway, yes. It’s a sunny afternoon and I’ve spent it by the river, face-painted and reading stories to the under-5s, as part of the Stratford River Festival. Tomorrow, I’m going to see a friend perform his first Mass. My brain is enjoying a weekend off from work, and a chance to go ‘ooh, that’s interesting’ rather than dash between jobs. I’m also spring-cleaning and revisiting my teenage CD collection; without exception, anything that anyone could class as ‘good’ was burnt/bought for me by somebody else. This hasn’t changed.

P.S.: Happy Pride!

REVIEW: Theatre Set-Up: The Merchant of Venice

The garden at Hall’s Croft first came to my attention when I learned you could get married, or have a civil partnership in the grounds – it’s a shame you can’t do the same at the Birthplace, but we’re a lot closer to traffic and you’d run the risk of your wedding being papped by 60 ecstatic Japanese tourists. One of the great things about the garden at Hall’s is the potential for outdoor theatre – a couple of weeks ago, some friends and I went to see Theatre Set-Up’s latest production of The Merchant of Venice.

Half an hour before it opened, I was sitting on the steps opposite, staring in fascination as the elderly rich of Stratford (so elderly! So rich!) carted the contents of (what they probably call) their sun lounges, conservatories, drawing rooms and breakfast bars into the green and pleasant land of theatre. There were cloches. There was cutlery. Chairs were de rigeur, and in one party of six septuagenarians, I distinctly saw a snowy tablecloth receive, on platters, two cheeseboards and a quiche.

The sheer stamina on view impressed me. People whom the uncharitable might regard as nearly dead were acting as their own pack mules, deckchair in each hand as they trekked through an Old Town heatwave, determined to live the dream of eating an excellent dinner, while watching mediocre Shakespeare.

Antonio opens the play saying that, in sooth, he knows not why he is so sad, and by the end of the play, I was still none the wiser. Generally, the characterization was unfocused and the relationships undefined. I didn’t know why Portia loved Bassanio, or why he reciprocated – Salanio’s claim that Antonio ‘only loves the world for’ Bassanio describes an intensity of emotion that nobody onstage seemed to feel. The most interesting thing about the production was their use of the text. Not so much individual line-readings; in fact, the performance was characterized by inaccuracies; but with the ingenuous system of doubling and cuts. With a cast of only eight actors, it’s a tribute to editorial skill that the only felt losses were Gratiano’s mocking repetitions of ‘a Daniel’ in the court scene, and a few choppings from Nerissa and Jessica.

The production’s heavy cutting of the ‘salads’ (Salanio and Salarino) should be a model for directors – they weren’t missed. My friends and I were divided on the success of the Lorenzo/Shylock doubling. I, personally, was a fan of both performances, but felt the company wasted an opportunity of shedding any light on the (as ever) under-directed Jessica. As Shylock’s daughter, the actress began with startling vitriol against her father, spitting as she resolved to become ‘a Christian, and [a] loving wife’ to the Gentile Lorenzo, only to transform into a sulky madam the second she actually got him. Perhaps the doubling was meant to show Jessica exchanging one identical set of problems for another, but there was no suggestion that the amorous lover was as difficult as the father.

Only one moment in the production really disturbed me, and it was the audience who caused me unease. It’s always nice when a play by Shakespeare can show you the mass of anti-Semitism eating Eton Mess in an audience. At the end of the trial scene, Antonio (still alive, still fully-fleshed) gets his penultimate kick by demanding that his Jewish adversary ‘presently become a Christian’. Most of the audience laughed.

There’s no humour in that line; no context or delivery could make it funny. There had been nothing in the production to suggest that a presentation of Shylock as cartoonish or laughable was what Theatre Set-Up intended. It makes me wonder, though, how often that line gets laughs, and where. Anyone else who’s seen a production of Merchant, did this happen to you? What’s the most shocking or upsetting audience reaction you’ve seen?

My sudden enforced awareness of the Merchant audience reminded me of Kate Woods’s Britgrad paper on Sophonisba (1605). The play was performed at Blackfriars where, for the first time, the lighting conditions of indoor theatre directed an audience’s attention right away from each other, towards the stage. Before that, daylit productions in the playhouses meant that audiences were completely aware of each other. It was a point I’d never really considered before – funnily enough, my research into theatre spaces really starts with Aphra Behn and discovery spaces. Today, open-air productions are our closest link to that kind of atmosphere, and it made me wonder what other audience are hidden by the comforting darkness of the stalls.

Britgrad 2010

I started a write-up of Britgrad on Sunday, the day after it finished. I didn’t know where to begin – certainly, the quantity of booze consumed with the good people of Exeter University on Saturday night (why has Plymouth overtaken you as the party college of the UK?) didn’t help me separate out the memories of excellent research and fabulous speakers from the nagging conviction that my head was on fire and my eyes too big for their skull.

To make Clamorous Voice a time capsule, just for a moment – if you find this post while deliberating on whether to attend Britgrad 2011, do it. For anybody daunted by the prospect of launching their paper-giving, or even just their conference-attending career, do it in Stratford. The diversity of papers is such that, even if you’re technically a nineteenth-century scholar looking exclusively at performance histories post-1860 (…for example), there will be plenty of research that speaks to yours, and plenty of similarly obsessive geeks who can spot Irving’s intonation in Laurence Olivier’s Richard III, or draw parallels between the situation in Cold War Germany and the tumult of the 1843 Patents Act (…for example).

I can only hope Writing About Women In Shakespearian Performance is as successful, and I know I’ll be mining the (excellent, extensive) Britgrad committee for help & advice over the next couple of months.