On Sunday, I returned to Oxford from the Britgrad 2011 conference, where I was part of the Victorian Theatre Practices panel with the fragrant JemBloomfield.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
According to local media reports, the BNP will contest Stratford-upon-Avon’s seat on 6th May. The candidate is Stratford-born George Jones, now living in Kenilworth. Anti-fascist blog Norfolk Unity has the following scary detail on Jones, from when he unsuccessfully contested the Lawford & New Bilton local election in 2006:
George has a long history in extreme right wing politics. In the late-1970’s he was a member of the British Movement, then run by “Mad Milkman” Michael McLoughlin, but somehow became associated with former members of the National Party splinter group in Coventry and Warwick – notably with Michael Cole, the National Party’s hyperactive (and not entirely trusted) Warwick organiser, and also with Robert Relf, the Leamington “race rebel” imprisoned for displaying a sign declaring his house for sale to “English people only”.
Relf had long been associated with the British Movement and Colin Jordan (who lived in nearby Coventry), while Cole, who – like Relf – made no secret of his Nazi views, eventually found his way to Denmark to help in the running of a now forgotten Nazi organisation.
Jones, Cole and Relf were also close associates of the hardline elements within Coventry National Front, who followed John Tyndall into the BNP’s New National Front predecessor.
Like most of the racists in the Coventry/Warwick area, keen rambler George had an abiding interest in all things Nazi. We feel pretty sure that if George’s interest in such dubious matters is on-going then he may well have neglected to mention as much to the electors of Long Lawford and New Bilton – as he may well have neglected to mention the contents of a letter published by the Leamington Courier all those years ago, still existing as yellowed archival hard-copy, wherein George suggested that the release into the air on a favourable wind of a few grammes of a certain noxious substance would solve the problem of Third World overcrowding at a stroke.
A man like this cannot represent Stratford. Home to the world’s greatest theatre company, and birthplace of a man whose plays – whose writings on humanity – transcend gender, race and time, we’re not a town for racists and fascists. By its nature, its economy and its history, this town survives by welcoming international visitors & international residents. I’m so embarrassed that the BNP think they stand a chance here, but after the racist responses to Nadim Zahawi, I’m not surprised.
The BNP website has no definite news on Jones’s campaign, as yet (and to be honest, I’m not ecstatic about checking back too often). This blog (from May 2006) seems to contain an example of George Jones’s 2006 campaign literature. I’ve reproduced it below: if accurate, then Stratford’s non-fascist, non-racist, non-lunatic residents perhaps have little to worry about…
Whose idea was the picture? It makes him look like an effeminate Dr Crippen.
Obviously, much has changed since 2008. The BNP has learned to use Blogspot, for one thing, and – apparently – developed a spectacular sense of irony. West Midlands BNP Press Officer James Whittall said the BNP was “certainly not targeting ethnic minorities”, in a press release equalled only by papal claims of being “not even a bit Catholic” and the Bear Council of Great Britain’s assertion that members “no longer shit in the woods”. I have a nasty feeling this might be BNP ‘rising star’ James Whittall, celebrated by various far-right Midlands blogs (to which I’m unwilling to link). Doubtless we shall hear more from him in due course.
I’d like the chance to vote Labour, but was beginning to doubt the Labour Party even had a PPC for Stratford. It seems they do: Rob Johnston. A man who doesn’t have a personal website, a significant online/news presence, or any obvious policies.
Perhaps I should be grateful. Apart from attending one save-the-fire-stations rally, Johnston’s total lack of visibility may help swing the small Labour vote towards the Lib Dems. In combination with the fact the Stratford Tory vote will now be split between two (or potentially three) candidates, this might be enough to help the Lib Dems outrank a weakened, disparate Tory party.
One point in Johnston’s favour: he does appear to be UNISON Area Organiser for Birmingham (not sure how he does that, from Derbyshire, or how it sits with the comrades that his FB photo shows him sitting next to Mandy). And he’s probably a perfectly nice bloke. But there’s still no way he can do significant damage to either of the other parties if he doesn’t make himself known in South Warwickshire.
Friends, I am unemployed. But not, please God, unemployable. This week has brought not one but TWO (count ’em) job rejections, to add to the small but perfectly-formed pile of guarantees that I spend my whole life on JSA, at least until David Cameron gets in and harnesses me to some sort of moat-draining, cash-burning chain gang. It is almost as if two (count ’em) Oxford degrees do not magically guarantee one a life of affluent joy.
I am not dismayed (this is a lie). I have until 1ST JULY to find paid work. This is sort of a lie too, actually. Gather round. My lease, in a total departure from undergraduate Oxford leases, which force you out every holiday, runs from now until September 10. This is standard for one-year-Masters leases, because most Masters degrees have dissertation deadlines in September; mine, however, is due in mid-June. You have to give one month’s notice to break your lease. When I leave Oxford, I will return to the West Midlands, official home of the worst unemployment figures in the country. Now, I bow to noone in my love for the West Midlands, or indeed the Midlands in general. Only today, I engaged a Regents fresher in conversation because in her dulcet tones I detected the LAND OF MY MOTHERS, i.e. Netherton and/or Dudley (home of the amazing castle/zoo combo of Soviet-like depression). My great passion for Stratford-on-Avon is also well-documented. It contains my wonderful parents. My charming cat. The best theatre company on the planet. Any number of beloved schoolfriends are there, being gainfully unemployed at their parents’ expense.
However, there’s one bus an hour and everything closes. If I go home and don’t get a job offer/Distinction/DPhil funding/Lotto win, I will be there forever and I can’t even fall back on the safe Shottery standby of marrying a KES boy and getting a flat north of the river. I can’t do it.
The current plan is that, should I still be jobless and hapless by 1 July, I will give notice on my lease, and go home on 1 August. I am of course returning to the bosom of parents and rent-free living, which of course twists me into the twisty knots of middle class guilt, because it really does take a very special snowflake to worry about dole-penury when she’s got the promise of a warm bed, a stocked fridge and any number of paperbacks set in Cornwall about A Family And What Happens To Them (mother’s preferred reading. I do have sneaking fondness for same). Then again, I do have a friend who shops at Toast then complains she has no money (CHLOE) without spotting any kind of connection, so.
I intend to document my struggle. It will be stirring. It will be inspiring. It will doubtless become very obvious where I’m going wrong. Please tell me when it does. Tomorrow is for an eight-week TEFL contract, based in Oxford. I am hopeful, not to say desperate, and if I tell you all my hope is founded on the fact that the administrator was once an ASM in my biggest Oxford show, you’ll realise just what sort of situation this is. I have also just applied for a tutoring job in – of all places – California.
We shall see.
In the meantime, job tips! Websites! Inspiring stories of how you were once unwaged hopelessness, but are now smug and wealthy! If only in the noble coinage of job satisfaction etc etc etc. Also, please give me a job. I am good at all sorts of things. And I have only once had a job which paid double figures per hour.
In other news: The Costcutter across the road has stopped selling Haribo, and started selling ‘Last Will & Testament’ kits. I don’t want to believe that the two are related.