Hall, Barton and Goodwin: three grand old men of the RSC

Peter Hall as he was when taking over the RSC, circa 1961

At the end of August it begins to feel that summer is coming to a close and autumn is on its way. While this can feel like the time when things start to close down for winter, for many people it’s a time of renewed energy. That’s certainly my hope as during this summer I’ve found it impossible to concentrate on the Shakespeare blog, owing to the combination of sweltering temperatures and a building project that has taken twice the time originally intended. Being without a kitchen for a full two months, having running water only in the bathroom, has made me appreciate the convenience of modern kitchens and plumbing. Having to carry every drop of water for cooking, washing up and watering the garden has certainly made me aware of the difficulties that faced our Elizabethan ancestors. More regular posts will, I hope, resume in October.

Over the summer there has certainly been no shortage of Shakespearean action, but most of it has passed me by. In the last couple of weeks though a series of bits have news have emerged to remind me of some of the outstanding people in the Shakespeare world who have died.

Foremost of these is the great theatre director Peter Hall, who died in 2017, and has been described as ‘the undoubted architect of the entire edifice of modern theatre’. His last great project was the running of the Rose Theatre in Kingston-upon-Thames, and such were his outstanding achievements that the conference being held there on 8 September 2018 quickly sold out. The same conference also celebrates the life and work of theatre director John Barton, who Hall invited to work at the Royal Shakespeare Company when he was first appointed in the early 1960s. Barton died earlier this year having spent over 50 years working closely with the company in Stratford-upon-Avon. Those contributing on the day include actors Michael Pennington, Janet Suzman, Andrew Jarvis and Judi Dench, director Trevor Nunn and a host of leading academics.

The tree planted for John Barton, outside the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, 2018

The conference is followed by a service of thanksgiving for the life of Peter Hall in Westminster Abbey at noon on 11 September 2018, exactly a year since he died. Tickets for this event were also taken up very quickly. John Barton’s life was celebrated earlier this year by the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon, and a tree in his memory has now been planted near the entrance to the Swan Theatre. Barton never sought the limelight for himself, and it’s appropriate that this modest memorial has been dedicated to him.

Peter Hall’s success depended on the help of a great many people. John Barton is an outstanding example, but among the others was another man who died this week. John Goodwin was Hall’s press officer while he was at the RSC and joined him at the National Theatre, editing Peter Hall’s diaries for publication in 1983 and remaining a lifelong friend. I began caring for the RSC’s archives after Goodwin had left the Company, but his reputation for toughness endured. During its early years the RSC had to fight to establish itself and Goodwin played a significant role in its success. In the Guardian obituary Michael White comments,

Short of money and under frequent attack from politicians, the press and sections of the profession, Johnny proved a highly effective operator. A master of the well-judged defence and judicious leak, he helped consolidate public support for the “subsidised” theatre against complaints of unfair competition from the commercial West End.

These three grand old men promoted the cause of Shakespeare onstage in his own town. In their own ways, each helped to make the RSC the phenomenon it has become, established and famous around the world, keeping Shakespeare’s work alive in the theatre.

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Shakespeare and the People’s Vote

While the Stratford4Europe group were waiting for the coach back from the People’s Vote March on 23 June 2018, somebody asked “Which way would Shakespeare have voted in the Referendum?” One of the party checked Google and pronounced that most sites said he would have voted Leave. This casual approach has damaged the whole debate, so here are a few thoughts about why the group is right to use Shakespeare’s head on their logo!

Looking at some of the sites, they predictably quote speeches like “This England” from Richard II where the island is described as having a defensive moat to repel invaders. In it, John of Gaunt lists the virtues of the country. But the point of the speech is to criticise the King and his hangers-on who are bringing the country down, not foreign powers.

In fact, in most of the history plays, the troublemakers are British. Seeing a difficult time ahead, the newly-crowned Henry V is recommended to “busy giddy minds with foreign wars”. This is a distraction technique: blaming foreigners for our problems has always been  easier than trying to actually solve them.

But looking at individual speeches for support is a pretty superficial way of thinking about the question. Shakespeare nearly always puts both sides of every argument. Speeches that directly contradict each other can be found within the same scene, like the Forum Scene in Julius Caesar. Shakespeare’s not writing a lecture, he’s writing a drama, at the heart of which are arguments, disagreement and conflict. It’s the reason why he portrays so few happy marriages.

So how might we get closer to deciding what Shakespeare’s own views were? Rather than looking at individual speeches, it might be better to look at the subjects Shakespeare chose to dramatize, and how he handles them. Many of the history plays are about the civil wars that according to the Tudor version of history stopped with the death of Richard III. That play ends with the observation that “England hath long been mad, and scarred herself”, and a promise that this will change. We have seen riots, petty crime, and most disturbingly fathers and sons fighting each other. This comes to a head in Henry VI part 3 where in a bloody battle Shakespeare brings onstage a son who has killed his father, and a father who has killed his son. In this moment Shakespeare brings the appalling cost of civil war directly before us.

This came to my mind when, after Saturday’s march, two women asked if they could photograph my friend’s banner. The younger one told us that her partner of 10 years was German, that they had met on the European Erasmus program, but they now worry about the future. Her mother is European, her father English. Since the vote, she never speaks to her father or his family who voted Leave. The older woman, her mother, has lived here for decades but immediately after the vote people began to ask when she was going home. The conversations were polite, she said, but no less upsetting because of that.

Shakespeare might have felt himself to be British, but this never meant being isolated. As a growing trading nation ties with neighbours had to be maintained, especially through marriages. When the English win at Agincourt and Henry V has all the bargaining chips, his “capital demand” is marriage with the French princess. Both sides want peace and the prosperity it can bring.  The Duke of Burgundy describes the effect of war on the people:

Our selves and children
Have lost, or do not learn for want of time,
The sciences that should become our country,
But grow like savages, as soldiers will
That nothing do but meditate on blood.

It’s in Cymbeline that Shakespeare makes most clear that being friends with your neighbours is more important than winning. The play is set in the Roman period, and when Britain refuses to pay the tribute (taxes) demanded by Rome, war is declared and a Roman army invades. The plucky British army wins the battle. But then, the King does the most surprising thing. He decides, after all, “to pay our wonted tribute”. All is peace (a word repeated three times in the last eight lines of the play), with Roman and British flags waving “friendly together”. It’s much better to be friends even though you may not always agree.

Over and over again, it’s division that’s the real enemy. Romeo and Juliet doesn’t end with the tragic deaths of the young lovers, but with the reconciliation of Capulet and Montague whose mutual hatred created the circumstances in which it happens. “All are punished”, says the Prince, including himself who turned a blind eye to the conflict.

King Lear sets out to avoid conflict by splitting his kingdom between his daughters “that future strife/May be prevented now”. Instead the division of the kingdom leads to civil war, the deaths of Lear and all his daughters, and a future full of uncertainty.

All plays usually end with some sort of resolution, but for Shakespeare the moral is surely that we’re stronger together. Nothing is more damaging than division, especially from those closest to you.

And now, a request. The point of the march on Saturday 23 June 2018 was to demand a People’s Vote on the final deal with Europe. When we see what we’re being offered, we should be allowed to choose if we want it. To achieve this, they need lots of signatures, so if you want to support it, follow this link.

 

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Shakespeare and the strangers: Refugee Week

This week, 18-24 June 2018, has been Refugee Week in the UK . This is its twentieth year, timed to coincide with the worldwide Refugee Day, 20 June. The need to remember the plight of refugees is just as acute, if not more so, than it has ever been.

Quoting from the website,

Refugee Week is a nationwide programme of arts, cultural and educational events that celebrate the contribution of refugees to the UK, and encourages a better understanding between communities.

Refugee Week started in 1998 as a direct reaction to hostility in the media and society in general towards refugees and asylum seekers. An established part of the UK’s cultural calendar, Refugee Week is now one of the leading national initiatives working to counter this negative climate, defending the importance of sanctuary and the benefits it can bring to both refugees and host communities.

One of Shakespeare’s collaborations was the play Sir Thomas More. Shakespeare was brought in to write a scene containing More’s persuasive speech pleading for his fellow Englishmen to be compassionate to refugees, referred to as “strangers”.

The speech contains the lines:

‘Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation.’

The events in Sir Thomas More took place in 1517, so were already well in the past when Shakespeare wrote the scene. But the argument was just as relevant to Shakespeare’s time as it is to our own. This year British Black and Asian Shakespeare, based at the University of Warwick, have collaborated in making a short film entitled The Stranger’s Case featuring an updated version of the scene. It’s a contemporary take, showing that Shakespeare’s thoughts and writings are as relevant today as ever. Do watch this powerful film that is now freely available on YouTube, even if you normally don’t like to see Shakespeare modernised.

The speech continues by asking the listener to put him or herself in the place of the refugee:

Say now the king
Should so much come too short of your great trespass
As but to banish you, whither would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbour? go you to France or Flanders,
To any German province, to Spain or Portugal,
Nay, any where that not adheres to England,
Why, you must needs be strangers: would you be pleased
To find a nation of such barbarous temper,
That, breaking out in hideous violence,
Would not afford you an abode on earth.

In London, Shakespeare’s Globe has been running events all week. Michelle Terry, Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe, talks about the importance of the arts today in increasing sympathy for those who appear to be not like us:

“with knowledge and information at our fingertips, does the power of imagination and empathy have a place in our Global Community, and what collective responsibility do we have to use them, if they do?

In many of Shakespeare’s plays people are displaced and left vulnerable, needing the assistance of others: think of Viola in Twelfth Night, the Antipholuses and Dromios of The Comedy of Errors, Pericles and his family, and Perdita in The Winter’s Tale.  Most of the Globe’s events have passed, but on the evening of 23 June there is to be a panel discussion at the Globe entitled “Whither would you go?”.

Shakespeare was asking us to imagine a world 400 years ago that is still too strikingly familiar today. It is our capacity to imagine that keeps us free, allows us to step into other worlds, others’ shoes, others’ lives – at its most basic, to empathise; at its boldest, to take action. This panel will use the context of theatre and art to connect to the themes of Refugee Week.

On the 24th there are more sessions including storytelling.  If you’re not able to get there but would like to find out more there are links to lots of material here.

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Donmar’s all-female Shakespeare Trilogy comes to TV

I’ve written a number of blog posts, over several years, about Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female Shakespeare trilogy that began at the Donmar Warehouse theatre in London. One’s here, and here’s another. It wasn’t an obvious trilogy, starting with Julius Caesar, then Henry IV, and finally in 2016, The Tempest.

Now the whole trilogy is being made available on iPlayer, and is being given a great start with the screening on BBC 4 of Julius Caesar. After 17 June 2018 all three will be available for six months as part of the BBC’s Hear Her season, a great opportunity to see these extraordinary productions. Here’s a quote from the webpage:

Described by Susannah Clapp (Observer) ‘As one of the most important theatrical events of the past 20 years’, the Donmar Shakespeare Trilogy began in 2012 with an all-female production of Julius Caesar led by Dame Harriet Walter. Set in a women’s prison, the production asked the question, “Who owns Shakespeare?” Two further productions followed: Henry IV in 2014 and The Tempest in 2016, all featuring a diverse company of women. The Trilogy enthralled audiences in London and New York and was shared with women and girls in prisons and schools across the UK. The film versions were shot live in a specially built temporary theatre in King’s Cross in 2016, and now offer screen audiences a unique access to these ground-breaking productions.

Lots more information is available, for instance here is a discussion by Jackie Clune and Phyllida Lloyd about how the company explored gender in the rehearsal room.

And there are a lot of related links here.

It’s great to have a really long time to take it all in. The productions are challenging, not at all glamorous or decorative, but worth the effort. I’d go so far as to say they could change the way you think about Shakespeare.

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Philip Massinger re-read: #MassiMara

Philip Massinger

It’s become a tradition now for the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon to spend most of June reading the surviving works of writers contemporary with Shakespeare. In 2018, beginning on 11 June, it’s the turn of Philip Massinger, one of the less well-known of them. His plays are rarely staged, but academics have given them more attention.

Massinger was born in 1583 and as the Institute’s site notes, “he began to write plays at around the time Shakespeare retired, and by the end of the decade he was acknowledged as a technical master of the art.  He was also one of the most politically and constitutionally engaged dramatists in a period of deepening crisis in England; with their trenchant critiques of landed wealth, official corruption, and inappropriate government policies, his plays frequently ran into censorship difficulties.”

Massinger’s another of those writers who collaborated with many different people in order to create plays for the stage and it’s thought that he wrote part of around fifty plays. He worked particularly closely with John Fletcher. The Globe has a description of his career:

“Thanks to payment for his plays, pensions and gifts from his patrons, Massinger became prosperous. In the early 1620s, he began establishing himself as an independent playwright for the Lady Elizabeth’s Men at the Cockpit, for whom he wrote his romantic tragicomedies The Maid of Honour, The Bondman and The Renegado. But Massinger’s main theatrical association was with the King’s Men at the Globe and the Blackfriars, succeeding Fletcher as their ‘house dramatist’ in 1625. Massinger’s first play for the King’s Men was the complex tragedy The Roman Actor, which Massinger called the ‘most perfit birth of my Minerva’ (the Roman goddess of wisdom). Massinger’s contemporary Sir Thomas Jay praised his A New Way to Pay Old Debts – possibly Massinger’s best play – for ‘the sweet expressions, got neither by theft, nor violence; the conceit fresh, and unsullied.’

A New Way to Pay Old Debts, surprisingly, was one of the most popular plays of the early nineteenth century. The famously intense actor Edmund Kean discovered in the leading character, Sir Giles Overreach, an ideal vehicle for his talents. Kean’s Richard III was renowned, and he made this role “a Richard III of common life”. In his hands the play, probably never a particularly funny comedy, became a melodrama. Overreach is a wealthy man who tries to buy his way into the aristocracy, using a combination of explosive rage and threats of violence.  Kean’s interpretation was called “the most terrific exhibition of human passion” ever seen on stage. In the end, though, he is defeated by the members of the upper class which he aspires to join, and loses his mind.

Emrys James as Sir Giles Overreach, A New Way to pay Old Debts, 1983. Photo by Donald Cooper

The play was staged by the RSC in 1983 at its studio theatre The Other Place in a wonderfully-cast production which featured Emrys James in the leading role. James never became a household name but he was a powerful stage actor and ideally suited to the role. Irving Wardle wrote “He begins as a classic image of the wicked squire; but as soon as the intrigue gets under way he outdoes the surrounding menagerie in grotesque behaviour…his face working through a malevolent bestiary from snarling dog to smiling crocodile…When he finally goes mad, he caps a bedlam shriek with a still terribly lucid monologue”. The production, directed by Adrian Noble, was criticised as a “grotesque pantomime” and a “nightmare children’s party”, though I remember enjoying it enormously, in particular Emrys James’s performance.

Massinger died in March 1640 during the build-up to the Civil War. He was buried in St Saviour’s, Southwark, now Southwark Cathedral. He is said to have been buried in the same grave as John Fletcher. A slab is in the Cathedral but this was probably put in place during the nineteenth-century renovations. At the same time stained glass windows were installed, dedicated to a number of famous people associated with the church. These included Shakespeare and Alleyn as well as Massinger, but all were destroyed in 1941 as a result of wartime bombing. In 1954 a brand new window to Shakespeare was created, but not, sadly, those to other people of note.

The slab to Philip Massinger in Southwark Cathedral

There’s a lot of information about the history of the church here.

If you wish to join in, you’re welcome but if you’re not already known to the Institute you should contact the organizer, Dr Martin Wiggins (m.j.wiggins@bham.ac.uk).

The website giving all the details is here.  Incidentally the website also includes links to online texts of the plays, and anyone wanting to tweet about the session should use the hashtag #massimara.

The full timetable is also reproduced below.

 

 

Week 1

 

Monday 11 June

10.30: The Honest Man’s Fortune

2.30: Love’s Cure

7.00: Beggars’ Bush

 

Tuesday 12 June

2.30: The Queen of Corinth

7.00: Rollo

 

Wednesday 13 June

10.30: Thierry and Theodoret

2.30: The Elder Brother

 

Thursday 14 June

2.30: The Knight of Malta

7.00: The Fatal Dowry

 

Friday 15 June

10.30: Sir John van Oldenbarnevelt

2.30: The Custom of the Country

 

Saturday 16 June

10.30: The Laws of Candy

2.30: The Little French Lawyer

 

Week 2

 

Monday 18 June

10.30: The False One

2.30: The Virgin Martyr

7.00: The Duke of Milan

 

Tuesday 19 June

2.30: The Double Marriage

7.00: The Prophetess

 

Wednesday 20 June

10.30: The Sea Voyage

2.30: The Spanish Curate

 

Thursday 21 June

2.30: A Very Woman

7.00: The Bondman

 

 

Friday 22 June

10.30: The Renegado

2.30: The Parliament of Love

 

Saturday 23 June

10.30: The Fair Maid of the Inn

2.30: A New Way to Pay Old Debts

 

Week 3

 

Monday 25 June

10.30: The Unnatural Combat

2.30: The Roman Actor

7.00: The Great Duke of Florence

 

Tuesday 26 June

2.30: The Picture

7.00: The Maid of Honour

 

Wednesday 27 June

9.15: LECTURE: Believe As You List and the New World Order

10.30: Believe as You List

2.30: The Emperor of the East

 

Thursday 28 June

2.30: The City Madam

7.00: The Guardian

 

Friday 29 June

10.30: The Lovers’ Progress (revised)

2.30: The Bashful Lover

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Rehabilitating Shakespeare’s “she-wolf of France”, Margaret of Anjou

 

Margaret of Anjou

For many years attempts have been made to establish that Richard III was not the out and out villain that Shakespeare presents to us, a difficult task since Richard III is one of his most compelling characters in a highly successful play. But he’s not the only character Shakespeare blackened who turns out to be much more complex and interesting when the facts are presented. The Radio 4 programme In Our Time on 24 May 2018 was all about Margaret of Anjou, born in 1430 who became Henry VI’s Queen.

Shakespeare was following the Tudor version of history that insisted the civil unrest and divisions of the Wars of the Roses were ended only by the accession of Henry VII in 1485. In the final speech of Richard III the new king proclaims “England hath long been mad, and scarred herself”, predicting that its citizens will now enjoy “smooth-faced peace,/With smiling plenty and fair prosperous days”. The published accounts by Hall and Holinshed promoted these views.

The Margaret of Anjou we see in Shakespeare’s Henry VI trilogy is a bad woman, vindictive, and violent. On our first sight of her, at the end of Henry VI Part 1 where the Duke of Suffolk captures her in France and at the age of 15 there is little sign of her character, picked up as a political pawn whose existence immediately causes dissention between Suffolk and the Dukes of Gloucester and Exeter.

Margaret, however, would not be told what to do for long. Suffolk praised “Her valiant courage and undaunted spirit” and Edward Hall describes her personality: “This woman excelled all other, as well in beauty and favour, as in wit and policy, and was of stomach and courage, more like to a man, than a woman”. Politically the marriage was “both unfortunate and unprofitable” as “the lords of his realm fell in division among themselves”. When King Henry VI became unable to rule Margaret took over. Although talented, “often time, when she was vehement and fully bent in a matter she was suddenly like a weathercock, mutable and turning”. Hall judges that the villains of the piece were the “venomous serpents, and malicious tigers”, the warring nobles, rather than Margaret who they exploited.

Unlike Richard III, it is still only through Shakespeare that most people have come across her at all, in Richard III. By then an old woman, described as a “hateful withered hag” she is accused of inhumanity at the Battle of Wakefield, when she killed York’s youngest son, taunting York by placing a paper crown on his head, wiping his face with a napkin soaked in the child’s blood before stabbing the father. The others in the scene agree with his judgement: “’twas the foulest deed to slay that babe”, “Tyrants themselves wept when it was reported” and “No man but prophesied revenge for it”. The shocking scene is dramatized in Henry VI Part 3, where she is also given the title by which she has become known:

She-wolf of France, but worse than wolves of France,
Whose tongue more poisons than the adder’s tooth!

Donald Sinden as York and Peggy Ashcroft as Queen Margaret, RSC 1963

A contributor to the Radio 4 programme pointed out how badly Shakespeare gets this wrong as Margaret wasn’t even present at the Battle of Wakefield.  As with Richard III, it isn’t fair to put all the blame on Shakespeare, taking his information from Edward Hall’s The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancastre and Yorke. It’s Hall who places Margaret on the battlefield, making her responsible for the merciless beheading of prisoners and setting their heads on poles at the gates of York. The detail about the paper crown is also in Hall, though it’s Clifford who does this after York and his son have been killed. Hall gave Shakespeare the cue from which he created one of the most memorable scenes in all his plays.

The programme drew a connection between Margaret and Helen of Troy. Both were portrayed as the cause of long, bloody and ultimately pointless conflict. Like many in his time, Shakespeare was haunted by the Trojan War, the subject of his own dark play Troilus and Cressida. There’s a reference to the war here too, at a particularly interesting moment. After the King has agreed to marry Margaret against the advice of others, Suffolk likens himself to Paris, who kidnapped Helen sparking off the war between Greece and Troy. These are the final lines of Henry VI Part 1:

Thus Suffolk hath prevail’d; and thus he goes,
As did the youthful Paris once to Greece;
With hope to find the like event in love,
But prosper better than the Trojan did.
Margaret shall now be Queen, and rule the King;
But I will rule both her, the King, and realm.

Shakespeare’s audience would have picked up the reference and understood its meaning, though Suffolk underestimated Margaret. In Our Time, containing much more about the life of this extraordinary women, is still available to the listened to again.

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Anthony Hopkins’ King Lear

Anthony Hopkins as King Lear

The Shakespeare event of the Bank Holiday weekend is the new version of King Lear to be screened by BBC2 on Monday 28 May 2018. And hopefully people won’t be too tired after a day having fun to tune in, as it promises to be terrific.

Anthony Hopkins plays the King, supported by an amazing cast that includes Emma Thompson as Goneril, Emily Watson as Regan, Jim Carter as Kent, Jim Broadbent as Gloucester, Karl Johnson as the Fool and Andrew Scott as Edgar. Even Christopher Eccleston is in there, playing the relatively small role of Oswald.

The film is directed by Richard Eyre, whose award-winning production of the play at the National Theatre starred Ian Holm. Apparently Hopkins said he would only take part if directed by Eyre.  He has played the part before in a production by David Hare about thirty years ago but felt he was too young for it. Lear rather oddly claims to be “A very foolish, fond old man, four score and upwards, not an hour more nor less” and at 79 himself, the fit-looking Hopkins feels he’s now the right age.

Ian McKellen, KING LEAR
photo: Simon Farrell

Many actors have several cracks at the role, including Laurence Olivier who played it both on stage and, at 76, on film, as did Paul Scofield, on both occasions directed by Peter Brook. At the moment Antony Sher (aged a mere 68), is reprising Gregory Doran’s production first seen in 2016. Later this summer Ian McKellen, also 79, is playing the role again in London in a revival of a 2017 production, having first played the part for the RSC in 2007.

For centuries the horrors of the play as Shakespeare wrote it were thought to be impossible to stage, meaning that only a sanitised version with a happy ending was performed, but over the past sixty years it has undergone a reassessment. As this article points out “Remarkably, King Lear has been performed more times in the past 50 years than in its entire prior performance history of 350 years. It speaks with special power to a world of global conflict and a sense of impending apocalypse.”

Antony Sher as King Lear, RSC 2016

This depiction of a world gone mad includes scenes of suffering and dreadful cruelty as well as tenderness and loyalty, at all levels of society from royalty to the homeless. At its heart is a family falling apart. Eyre’s earlier production, staged in a studio space, focused on the domestic crisis. “One of the reasons I was fascinated by the play is that it takes the family as a microcosm of the state, and of course all parents have the potential for tyranny”, he says in an interview in the Radio Times, and Hopkins has picked up on the idea, saying in his interview in the same journal “I wanted to do him as a fast, furious old man who is incapable of love…I felt that in his early life, he was deeply hurt and savaged by some awful emotional calamity and he turned his ire on the human race and his three daughters…You don’t have to like your family. Children don’t like their fathers, you don’t have to love each other”.

The play isn’t, though only about one family, no matter how important they might be. In his introduction to the Arden Edition, Reg Foakes sums up its significance for every age: with its “astonishing imaginative range of its action, its language and its imagery” we can see the play “in terms of universal values, as a kind of objective correlative for the spiritual journey through life of suffering Man”.

King Lear is never an easy play to watch, but it’s worth it. Even if you’ve never seen it before, give this version a try as it should be outstanding. And even if you miss it, it will be available on Iplayer after transmission.

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The Old Vic at 200

The Old Vic, London

11 May 2018 is the 200th anniversary of the opening of one of the most important theatres in the UK, known as the Old Vic. It was originally named the Royal Coburg Theatre, after Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg and his wife Princess Charlotte of Wales, who laid the foundation stone.

Situated on the then-unfashionable south side of the Thames, the theatre was always an alternative to the famous London theatres Drury Lane and Covent Garden. Its broad audience was attracted by a repertoire of  mostly melodrama and pantomime. The theatre’s connection with Shakespeare, though, goes back to these early days. In 1831 the great, if unconventional actor Edmund Kean performed Richard III, Othello, Macbeth and King Lear there. Kean had performed on tour all round the UK, but he lost patience with the theatre’s audience, proclaiming:  ‘In my life I have never acted to such a set of ignorant, unmitigated brutes as I have before me’.

The interior of the Royal Coburg Theatre

Shortly afterwards the theatre was renamed the Royal Victoria after the then Princess, later Queen Victoria. It remained though a theatre for the common people, and after attempts to turn it into a music hall , in 1880 social reformer Emma Cons made the Old Vic respectable by renaming it the Royal Victoria Hall and Coffee Tavern, a ‘cheap and decent place of amusement on strict temperance lines’. The word theatre, with its disreputable associations, was dropped though plays were occasionally performed.

In 1898 Emma Cons appointed her young niece Lilian Baylis to run the building and on the death of her aunt Baylis acquired a theatrical licence. While Emma Cons had thought most theatre was incompatible with temperance, Lilian Baylis embraced Shakespeare’s plays as being instructive and a good influence on the behaviour of audiences. The Old Vic Shakespeare Company was formed under director Ben Greet, and their first big project was to perform all the plays in Shakespeare’s First Folio over 7 years. This had never been done before and it resulted in the Old Vic becoming the London home of Shakespeare’s plays. The theatre created its own stars, particularly Edith Evans, Sybil Thorndike, Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Michael Redgrave and the young John Gielgud who went on to lead the Company.  

The Old Vic in 1931

Lilian Baylis died in 1937 during rehearsals of Laurence Olivier’s Macbeth. Two years later the second world war broke out and in 1940 the theatre was damaged by bombing. Undaunted, the Company went on tour until 1944 when it was felt that it should establish itself in London again at the New Theatre. It was not until 1950 that the Old Vic reopened with a production of Twelfth Night and from 1953 to 1958 director Michael Benthall oversaw another complete cycle of Shakespeare’s plays beginning with Richard Burton playing the title role in Hamlet. Rising star Burton had turned down a Hollywood film contract in favour of performing at the Old Vic. Later in the cycle a very young Judi Dench made her Shakespearean debut. The connection between Shakespeare and the Old Vic was once again established, particularly for young audiences, creating in many of them an enthusiasm for Shakespeare that lasted a lifetime.

In 1946 as the country came out of war the Joint Council of The Old Vic and National Theatre was established, reviving the idea of a National Theatre. When Laurence Olivier was appointed the National Theatre’s first director in 1962 the Old Vic became its temporary home until the South Bank theatre was completed. During this decade or so young actors like Albert Finney, Maggie Smith and Peter O’Toole built up their reputations.

The Old Vic’s fortunes have been more mixed since then but there have always been  Shakespeare productions: in the late 1970s Derek Jacobi performed his Hamlet there with the Prospect Theatre Company. On the Wikipedia page about the theatre you will find on the right hand side a link to a podcast of Jacobi talking about the theatre. In 2000 the Old Vic Theatre Trust was formed and since then there has been much exceptional Shakespeare work including Kevin Spacey’s Richard III, Simon Russell Beale in The Winter’s Tale, Imogen Stubbs and Ben Whishaw in Hamlet and Glenda Jackson as King Lear. The theatre retains its royal connections and focus on young people, in 2017 Prince Charles becoming a patron and creating a partnership with the Prince’s Trust.

Old Vic at 200

There’ll be no Shakespeare in the birthday season, but current Artistic Director Matthew Warchus says “To honour The Old Vic’s 200th birthday we are celebrating it partly as a treasured historic icon but mostly as an adventurous, youthful, hub of creativity with a vibrant future ahead of it… The Old Vic will… continue to mix pertinent revivals and refreshed classics…, but for this birthday year we are allowing ourselves to focus on new work. 

Over the weekend events will include, at noon on Saturday, a procession complete with marching band from the National Theatre to the Old Vic, which will include some Shakespeare as an acknowledgement of the part he has played in the history of this great theatre.

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Shakespeare’s spring

Bluebells

One of the greatest pleasures of spring in England is watching life returning over weeks or even months, beginning in gardens and parks with the blooming of snowdrops, moving on to daffodils, apple blossom and bluebells, to the mighty trees, the oak being one of the last to unfold its leaves. Not so this year, 2018, when after a particularly long, cold and wet winter everything is happening in a rush. Some years daffodils are long gone before Shakespeare’s birthday but this year they were at their peak, and now even the oaks are coming into leaf.

We can’t know a lot about Shakespeare’s preferences in many matters, but we can be sure that he was very interested in plants and gardens, his plays showing a familiarity that he didn’t get just from books. He was a close observer of weather, and of the seasons as they changed. Spring was his favourite time of year, associated by him with the human emotions of love and joy.

In As You Like It, Rosalind makes the connection “Men are April when they woo, December when they wed: maids are May when they are maids, but the sky changes when they are wives”.  And in Much Ado About Nothing Benedick compares Beatrice with Hero: she “exceeds her as much in beauty/ As the first of May doth the last of December”.

Radio 4’s Today programme on Thurs 3 May came, as it happens, from Kew Gardens and I caught the last section where it was asserted that the herb rosemary has been scientifically proved to help those with memory loss and is sometimes taken into care homes for the elderly. This would be no surprise to anyone of Shakespeare’s period. Herbals not only describe plants but include sections in which their medicinal uses are explained. The Friar in Romeo and Juliet is first seen gathering medicinal herbs and Ophelia’s reminder that rosemary is for remembrance can now be seen as more than just symbolic.

Leaves unfurling against a blue sky

Shakespeare takes the comparison further, comparing the husbandry of a gardener to the failures of King Richard II that led to his deposition.

We at time of year
Do wound the bark, the skin of our fruit-trees,
Lest, being over-proud in sap and blood,
With too much riches it confound itself:
Had he done so to great and growing men,
They might have lived to bear and he to taste
Their fruits of duty: superfluous branches
We lop away, that bearing boughs may live:
Had he done so, himself had borne the crown,
Which waste of idle hours hath quite thrown down.

It’s appropriate that the next meeting of Stratford’s Shakespeare Club, on Tuesday 8 May, will be a talk by Glyn Jones, the Head of Gardens for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. His role is to help visitors “gain a greater understanding of Shakespeare’s life and works through both period and contemporary horticulture”, and he will be explaining what is planned for the five gardens associated with Shakespeare’s life.

A peaceful place for contemplation

The gardens surrounding the Shakespeare houses could be designed in many different ways. They could be made into settings in which the houses look beautiful, perhaps in the style of the quintessentially English cottage garden. They could be “authentic”, growing only plants that were known to Shakespeare, using methods practiced at the time and favouring wildlife. They could even bring to life a landscape from one of the plays, such as Olivia’s garden in Twelfth Night or the forest in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Or they could be places in which contemplation and calm enjoyment are encouraged. The Radio 4 Today programme again noted that gardens and outdoor spaces are now being valued as therapeutic in their own right. Shakespeare would certainly have recognised the idea. At the end of the late play Henry VIII he conjures up a rosy vision of life under Elizabeth 1 using the image of a garden:

In her days every man shall eat in safety,
Under his own vine, what he plants; and sing
The merry songs of peace to all his neighbours.

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Roger Howells remembered

Roger Howells

Monday 23 April 2018 was the 402nd anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. By coincidence it was also the day that a very special man, a great Shakespearean and man of the theatre, Roger Howells, died at the age of 88.

Most people won’t recognise his name or face because Roger was a man who worked behind the scenes. He began his career at the Royal Shakespeare Company working backstage as a Stage Manager in 1962, progressing to be one of the RSC’s most important members of staff as Production Manager at the RST and the Swan Theatre. When he retired in 1994 he had worked for the company for over 30 years, during which time he had helped to establish the RSC’s high standards of production, thereby contributing to both the RSC’s international reputation and the enjoyment of thousands upon thousands of theatregoers.

After taking a short break, in retirement Roger was ready for something else and he was invited to volunteer to work with the RSC’s production archives kept at the Shakespeare Centre Library in Henley Street. These were my main area of responsibility so Roger and I worked together. His first job was to process thousands of photographs recently cleared out from the RSC Press Office that had been delivered in about 15 large A4 filing boxes. He set about processing the photographs with gusto, filling up several new filing cabinets. His intimate knowledge of the productions meant he could identify details with ease and he showed himself to be happy to  follow our procedures for stamping, labelling and creating envelopes. His work ensures that the photographic records of RSC productions are fully documented for the benefit of future researchers.

Roger then move on to a more complex area of the RSC archives, but one he knew intimately, the Production Records. These miscellaneous documents were rarely if ever consulted, on arrival being ticked off on a checklist then tied into a bundle and stored on shelves. They were obscure: lighting plots, photos of backstage details, lists of props. But there were also gems: rehearsal notes written by stage managers, scripts in different stages of development, and the reports written by the stage manager after each performance giving details of the unusual events that inevitably happen during live shows. Identifying and sorting these items was a perfect job for Roger, and in time a team of volunteers was formed to rehouse and catalogue them. It’s because of Roger’s work that these items have been made accessible for researchers, but what was even more valuable was Roger’s presence as he generously assisted researchers to make sense of them.

His expertise was much in demand with the Shakespeare at Stratford series, published by the Arden Shakespeare in 2002-3. Each volume took one Shakespeare play and examined all the productions of it by the RSC between 1945 and the date of publication. The authors exploited the theatre’s archives in more detail than any others have done before or since, five of the six volumes acknowledging his help, Gillian Day in her Richard III volume noting his “acute recollection of production details”.

Personally, Roger was a delight to work with, cheerful, enthusiastic and endlessly fascinated by Shakespeare and theatre. He was  amused to be occasionally mistaken for Professor Stanley Wells, another grey-haired, bearded elderly gentleman who worked in the Shakespeare Centre. Roger might not have been a public figure, but word of mouth made him well known and readers often requested a special meeting with him, which he always granted. He was genuinely interested in other people’s research projects, his knowledge finding its way into countless essays, papers and books. His contribution to the reputation of the RSC and its productions has been considerable.

After I retired from the Library and Archive we most often met there while I was working as a researcher myself, but I also began to make sound recordings of people’s memories of RSC productions. I recorded Roger twice, and clips from our conversations have featured on several of my blog posts. In this one he talks about Love’s Labour’s Lost, 1973, this one The Tempest from 1951 and 1982, and this one the 1965 Hamlet.

Roger Howells, like Pyramus “a most lovely gentleman-like man”,  will be remembered fondly by the many people who knew him, but there are also many who have benefitted from his expertise and will continue to do so without ever knowing his name.

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