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).
[…]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.
So have I heard and do in part believe it.
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.
My 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.
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.
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 Vaseyto 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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.
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.
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.
WRITING ABOUT WOMEN IN SHAKESPEARIAN PERFORMANCE: The Shakespeare Centre, Stratford, 11-12 Sept 2010.
Join a gathering of writers, Shakespeare scholars, theatre critics, actors and fellow enthusiasts as we explore this fascinating theme. Confirmed speakers include Penny Downie (RSC Associate Artist), Professor Laurie Maguire, John Peter, Professor Carol Rutter and Anne Ogbomo. This two-day conference also includes a performance of 1623 Theatre Company‘s production on Ellen Terry, and a drinks reception.
This conference will also be available online as ‘webinar’: log on and experience our event virtually, wherever you are in the world.
How do we write about women in Shakespearian roles, past and present?
What is the impact of the female presence on the Shakespearian stage?
Why are there so few women reviewers?
What is the place of single-sex companies in a culture which outlaws sex discrimination?
Do men and women see the same show differently and what difference does this make to an audience’s response?
What is today’s experience for female actors on the Shakespearian stage?
Registration: £65 (£60 concessions); £57 for Friends of the Trust; £50 students. Please note: ‘webinar’ attendance costs 25% off your appropriate registration fee.
For more information, or to book, email education1 [at] shakespeare [dot] org [dot] uk. Join the conversation now at Blogging Shakespeare, and follow @ShakespeareBT for the latest updates.
Going out on a limb here: this is the most exciting conference in the world. I’m delighted to be working with Paul Edmondson to promote the conference, which has to be absolutely the best place IN THE WORLD to be on September 11 & 12. The conference (to quote my friend C, ‘BEST LINE UP EVER’) will tie in with SBT’s exhibition on artefacts relating to Women & Shakespeare, which runs from 3 July.
Modernism and High Theory did their very best to destroy the relationship between the actress and the academy – L. C. Knights’s first named target in How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth? was Ellen Terry, for daring to lecture on Shakespeare to (as I discovered) “packed houses of women”. Scholarship and stage histories have (largely) privileged tragedy over comedy and male over female, which is why conferences like this are so important, and so exciting. And, er, why I’m writing my DPhil.
I’m especially interested in the women of the Late Plays, but my favourite Shakespearean heroine will always be Kate, from The Taming of the Shrew. I’m hoping the conference includes lots of discussion of the comedies – the best parts in them, like the romances are female. Would you rather play Rosalind or Orlando? Orlando gets to wrestle, but nobody remembers As You Like It for the wrestling. Innogen or Posthumus? Viola or Orsino? Helena’s much too good for Bertram in All’s Well That Ends Well, and although Leontes is one of Shakespeare’s most fascinating characters, Paulina and Hermione can act him off the stage in Act V.
Miranda rarely outshines Prospero, and it’s hard to choose between Beatrice and Benedick, but even in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the best-beloved ‘festival comedy’ of British theatre, Helena and Hermia shriek, scratch and claw their way through Act 3 – Lysander and Demetrius, too often, are left behind.
You can expect to hear a lot more from me between now and September, sharing preparations for the Conference, and the Trust’s experiments with new media. I sometimes wish I could Tweet from the Birthplace, while guiding – we get the most amazing (and often hilarious) comments from visitors. I’m slowly expanding my French/Italian/Japanese/Armenian (no really) vocabularies by working with group bookings and their interpreters. I think I’d look pretty good wielding a Tudor Blackberry. My favourite languages to date are Indonesian and Armenian, neither of which sound ANYTHING like you’ve EVER heard before (unless you’re Indonesian or Armenian, obviously). I’m always pushing people to sign the guest book – they date back to 1812, and 20 to 30 nationalities sign every day.
The Trust will soon release another, even greater piece of news. It’s huge. My scruples (read: direct orders) prevent me saying more, but it’s stunning, exhilirating, don’t-talk-to-the-press-about-this stuff. Shakespeare geeks and Stratfordians (no overlap there, then), get ready. I just hope the press release arrives soon, so I can gloat…
I’ve published my first piece on the Alligator! It’s a review of the RSC’s new production of Julius Caesar, featuring local actors Sam Troughton and Hannah Young, as well as Greg Hicks (left) in the title role. You can read my review here.
In other & exciting news, my friend Elizabeth (who writes Oxford, Abridged) just told me that we’ll be graduating on the same day – her from her M.St, me from my BA. So I’m really pleased about that.
In Michael Boyd’s new production of As You Like It, the action moves from the frozen monochrome of a court in crisis to a forest less welcoming than a Siberian tundra. The comedy of Rosalind following her father into exile in the Forest of Arden is often portrayed as a play of riotous thigh slapping and lurid green sets, with plenty of opportunity for flowers, straw, and a strutting “Ganymede” (Rosalind’s male alter-ego; this being Shakespeare, she exchanges her skirt for trousers for much of the play). Instead, the latest Royal Shakespeare Company production finds both savagery and beauty in this beloved Shakespeare play. The result is a compelling exploration of the comedy’s dark heart.
Returning from the Histories season, Boyd and designer Tom Piper create a new aesthetic for the new RSC ensemble. From the blue-ochre blaze of the Histories sets, Piper has moved to a starker, colder look. Initially, the stage is spare, the back of the courtyard dominated by a gleaming silver-white structure of square panels. Its metallic sheen provides a static backdrop to the glittering, inhospitable court that Duke Ferdinand, Orlando and Adam, Rosalind, Celia, and Touchstone successively flee.
But then Boyd and Piper unleash destruction on the set: the wrestling bout between Orlando and Charles smears the panels with blood; an enormous ball of straw bursts through double doors—quite literally the forest of Arden. Inside is Richard Katz’s Touchstone, a man with the frizzy grey hair of a clown, with his legs strait-jacketed together. The square panels are opened, battered, or removed altogether, revealing a casual abattoir (a deer hangs from a meathook, coat glistening), dead branches, or a dusty, yellow light. Instead of elegant poems on parchment, Orlando’s sonnets are big black letters on scrappy placards, enormous cardboard panels suspended from the flies or pinned to the pillars and set. In this production, the concepts As You Like It usually conveys with charm—clown, forest, poetry—are pushed to their limits, creating visual shocks that alternately amuse and surprise.
At the end of the interval, Geoffrey Freshwater as Corin guts and skins a real dead rabbit onstage. Detractors may find it too gory, but even the decapitation (a flash of the cleaver while the audience braces itself) is remarkable more for its efficiency than for its horror. The moment is an effective metaphor for a production fighting audience assumptions about this cosy comedy. Boyd’s As You Like It refuses the notion that a big-budget staging has to look safe or beautiful.
Where other productions gloss the play’s darkness to foreground the comedy, Boyd and his cast address the psychological impact of the characters’ experiences. Katy Stephens’s Rosalind is, above all, a woman who has just lost her father, and her performance has the sharpness of raw grief. Rosalind’s love for Orlando is as painful as it is instantaneous, and in the intimacy of the courtyard, it’s a shock to see her stand on the stage with tears in her eyes after the first wooing scene. Rather than looking the part of a wriggling schoolboy, when Stephens cross-dresses to become Ganymede, she turns into a dashing young man. She is the only Rosalind I’ve seen who convinces in the fainting scene, when Rosalind has to endure news of her beloved Orlando’s tussle with a lion, herself dressed as the male Ganymede (a slightly spivvy aesthete in Barbour and moustache). Usually, Rosalind keels over at the briefest flash of Orlando’s blood-stained handkerchief; here, she is forced to stand with the gory white scarf around her neck until the proximity of the blood becomes excruciating. Both of them are fighters, the extent of the blood indicating just how much Orlando had to bear.
Mariah Gale’s Celia is Rosalind’s junior, a princess full of an enthusiasm that renders her vulnerable. Celia is a problematic role: she tends to disappear into the trees as the Rosalind-Orlando relationship takes over. Her own last-minute love plot with Oliver is conveyed in a couple of sentences. Nevertheless, Boyd fleshes out the role with a bizarre, but enjoyable, dream sequence and a well-cast Oliver. As Oliver, Charles Aitken, a veteran of physical theatre companies such as Headlong and Frantic Assembly, echoes Stephens’s Rosalind by rooting his performance in trauma, which stems from a father’s death.
The most memorable performance comes from Forbes Masson as Jacques, the melancholic courtier who masterminds the utopian project of Duke Ferdinand’s exile. Masson plays a gin-soaked Goth with sneering blacked eyes and a purple velvet blazer, faintly ridiculous with his Cuban heels and ginger hair ruffled to the ends. Masson sings with intensity. His tenor is disarmingly icy, like Rufus Wainwright turned malevolent choirboy. There’s a hint of the jilted lover in his sneering, bitter relationship with Clarence Smith’s Duke Ferdinand, the exile who sets out to find “sermons in stones, books in the running brooks”. Ferdinand raises Jacques’s hopes of a utopia in Arden, but by the end of the play, those hopes are dashed. When Duke Ferdinand’s crown is miraculously restored, the company drops to their knees, while Jacques stays standing. His sense of contempt as Ferdinand takes the crown—the lure of power is just too strong for the exiled duke—is palpable; their sylvan dream is shattered. Jacques skulks offstage alone, leaving the festivities he can no longer enjoy.
The members of Boyd’s new ensemble have, in As You Like It, created an almost flawless conception of a fiercely flawed world. This company will perform together until 2011, opening the New Royal Shakespeare Theatre currently being built. Traditionally, acting contracts are much shorter, forcing actors into hothouse collaborations lasting only for the few weeks of rehearsal. The Long Ensemble, together since January, has time to develop intense relationships with one another and with the roles they will reprise in future seasons. The visceral emotion and fierce intelligence of this production suggests that summers in Stratford will be hot for years to come.