All for your delight: Shakespearian summer treats

Table top Shakespeare

Table top Shakespeare

Now July has arrived, and some summer weather, it’s time for a round-up.

Already well under way is the Complete Works: Table Top Shakespeare project being run by  Forced Entertainment, a theatre company based in Sheffield, UK. Over 9 days at the Foreign Affairs Festival, Berlin, Forced Entertainment performers will retell Shakespeare’s complete canon, making their way through a series of 36 forty minute works played out on the one meter stage of a table top. This comical and intimately retold Shakespeare season presents the works as hand-made miniatures using a collection of everyday unextraordinary objects as stand-ins for characters. Each play will be live streamed, for free, on our website – inviting audiences around the world to tune in and watch from a distance each evening (GMT), starting June 25 through to July 4More information can be found here.

festival players as youAlso touring in the UK and indeed as far away as the Netherlands and Norway is the well-established Festival Players Theatre Company. They are celebrating thirty years of professional touring with a summer programme of As You Like It and Henry IV (a conflation of both parts), directed by Michael Dyer. They are performing at a  huge number of impressive venues that will see them going right through until September.

Shakespeare enthusiasts looking for summer reading might enjoy a new book that’s to be published by Publicious in paperbook and ebook on 4 August, My Stratford Friend by Dominick Reyntiens.

It’s the story of Shakespeare’s childhood told through his fictional friend Tom Wickham, a stable boy and son of a livery steward. It weaves known facts about Shakespeare with speculation such as the possibility he worked as a tutor in Lancashire in a “radical and entertaining interpretation of Shakespeare’s adolescence”. “The boys embark on a riotous and decadent, journey of self-discovery. At once My Stratford Friend presents a new side to Shakespeare the man and also reveals our shared need for enduring friendship, nostalgia, and good old-fashioned fun.” Dominic Reyntiens will be presenting the book at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival from 8 August. The author will be presenting a performance version at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.



Also at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, as part of their UK tour, HandleBards are off again. Their tour began on 24 June.
They’re an eccentric cycling Shakespeare troupe, praised by Sir Ian McKellen as ‘outrageous’ and ‘uproariously funny’, and they’ve got something a little bit different to offer at this year’s Fringe. They’ll perform a limited run of secret shows (18, 19, 25, 26 August) in secret locations across Edinburgh. Meeting their audience at Bedlam Theatre, they’ll provide each and every one of them with a bicycle, and together actors and audience alike will pedal off on a spectacular adventure “over hill, over dale, thorough bush, thorough brier”. They’re also performing Hamlet (21, 23, 28, 30 August) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (20, 22, 27, 29 August) in the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, where last year they won the Edinburgh Fringe Sustainable Practice Award.

Over in the USA there is as usual a crop of outdoor Shakespeare. Just to draw attention to a small selection: the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory will be performing both As You Like It and an all-female production of Henry IV part 1. Performances take place outdoors at the Evergreen Museum and Library.
As You Like It
 begins performances on July 17, 2015. Chris Cotterman, who recently played Bassanio in BSF’s critically acclaimed production of The Merchant of Venice in original pronunciation, will direct. BSF continues to break ground with an all-female cast in Henry IV, Part I. Performances begin on July 31 and run until August 23. It will be directed by Founding Artistic Director, Tom Delise. 

The Manhattan Shakespeare Project’s all-female production of The Taming of the Shrew, directed by Kate Holland is already under way, and playing from 9-26 July in Morningside Park, Manhattan. Performances are free and the running time is 75 minutes.  THE TAMING OF THE SHREW uses the company’s unique “reverse-theatre-in-the-round” staging and a surprise framing device. Fun and engaging for all audiences and pets alike, the all-female cast takes on the questions of gender voice, rights, and duty. And with a talk back after each performance everyone is part of the conversation.   

In Chicago, First Folio Theatre is producing The Winter’s Tale as this year’s play in its outdoor Shakespeare Under the Stars series from 8 July to 19 August. The production will be “filled with wonder, magic and mystery”, and directed by First Folio theatre’s Artistic Director Alison C Vesely. This will be the 19th Annual production.

First Folio Theatre is concluding its 19th season of bringing high-quality performances of Shakespeare and other classics to the stage. During that time, the theater has expanded from an annual summer production to a year-round operation with three separate and distinct stages at the historic Mayslake Peabody Estate. The Chicago Tribune raved that their Shakespeare Under the Stars summer series “offers something Navy Pier can’t…plenty of greenery, gentle breezes and the chance to stretch out on a blanket with family and friends while being transported to Shakespeare’s otherworldly romance.” 

Here’s hoping your summer will be full of Shakespeare treats.

Posted in Shakespeare on Stage | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

When Parliament almost came to Stratford-upon-Avon

The Palace of Westminster

The Palace of Westminster

On 18 June 2015 a report was published concerning the need for major restoration on the Houses of Parliament in London. It outlines a number of possible options for the work and for what might happen to Parliament in the mean time.

This piece suggests possible alternative venues and while most of them involve staying in London the possibility of moving the centre of government to the midlands or north of England has been raised: both the new Library of Birmingham and Manchester’s Town Hall have been suggested, not entirely seriously. This isn’t the first time it has been proposed that Parliament might move out of London, and Shakespeare was involved.

Shakespeare Memorial Theatre nearing completion, Stratford-upon-Avon

Shakespeare Memorial Theatre nearing completion, Stratford-upon-Avon

At the outbreak of World War 2 in 1939 it was possible that the capital would be bombed and large parts of London would be destroyed. Contingency plans were accelerated for Parliament to move elsewhere, and the chosen venue was the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. The SMT was a new building: the auditorium could seat around 1200, and adjoining it was the first theatre, known as the Conference Hall (now the site of the Swan Theatre). Stratford offered both these and a reasonable amount of accommodation for Lords and Members of Parliament in an area that was unlikely to be a target for bombs. Planning proceeded swiftly, and on 12 June 1940 Sir Victor Goodman, the Clerk to Parliament, completed a document on Billeting at HK (the code name for Stratford-upon-Avon). A copy of this is in the Shakespeare Centre Library and Archive, ordered from the House of Commons Library by Marian Pringle while researching her book The Theatres of Stratford-upon-Avon 1875-1992. In this document Goodman refers to several additional reports he has prepared, and it’s clear that this plan was based on detailed investigations. The Theatre would become the House of Commons, the Conference Hall the Lords. The whole building would be commandeered and dressing rooms, the Museum and Library would become into offices. The theatre staff would be kept on: technicians, porters and cleaners would be needed, and staff from the House of Commons kitchens would take over the facilities at the theatre. The Shakespeare Hotel had already been commandeered and was to be used by the Parliament Office and the Lord Chancellor’s Department, and would provide rooms for ministers, shorthand writers and a teleprinter. New telephone lines had been installed and appropriate furniture brought in. Peers were to be billeted at the Falcon Hotel, and three large private houses some five miles away “should be reserved for special individuals”.  Other staff were to be billeted in boarding and private houses graded A, B and C depending on their comfort and distance from the Theatre.

In his blog, volunteer at the SCLA Phil Spinks ponders whether these plans were such an open secret that the whole thing might have been an elaborate hoax, but there have been a number of articles written on the subject and no alternative plan has been revealed. A few years later when a German invasion was no longer a threat, the Manchester Guardian (26 April 1945) reported on the plans for moving Parliament in the days of the blitz. “Now it can be told that arrangements were made to transfer the two houses together with the Parliamentary journalists, to Stratford-on-Avon, where the Memorial Theatre was to furnish the necessary accommodation for the two chambers”.

The aftermath of the bombing of Parliament May 1941

The aftermath of the bombing of Parliament May 1941

Goodman’s document was written three months before the start of the London blitz , that  continued for 57 consecutive days, then intermittently until May 1941. The Guardian piece explains why the plans came to nothing.  In September 1940 the “dreadful bombing …never reached the level anticipated and after then the plans were dropped”.  Parliament was damaged during a number of raids, and ironically on the last day of the Blitz on 10 May 1941 the Commons Chamber was completely destroyed. The war continued to rage until 1945 and it was just five years afterwards, in October 1950, that the new chamber was officially opened.

In this piece Steve Fox outlines how plans for evacuating the government and civil service had been under consideration since 1936. This site considers the discussions about moving parliament before the war and the bombing raid in May 1941, and here the damage to the Palace of Westminster during the war is explored.

It’s interesting to contrast the work in the late 1930s with current procedures. A report was commissioned into the need for refurbishing Parliament in 2012 and as a result of this the Independent Options Appraisal was carried out by an independent consortium from December 2013. Now a joint select committee will be formed to decide which of the options is to be recommended before the question comes under further discussion in Spring 2016. Rebuilding is unlikely to start before 2020. If Parliament moves completely out of the Palace of Westminster the work will take 6 years, and cost £3.5-£3.9 billion. If they take a halfway-house option, moving out in stages it will take 11 years and cost £4.4 billion. And if they don’t move out, it will take 32 years and cost £5.7 billion.

And what would Stratford have become like if the planned relocation of Parliament had taken place? With the theatre closed for years, and all the accommodation in the town taken over by the government, would tourism in Stratford have ever recovered? In fact during the war the theatre continued to put on performances, entertaining among others many American GIs stationed in the area, and ensuring that Shakespeare’s work was firmly linked to the struggle for the future of Britain.

Posted in Legacy, Stratford-upon-Avon | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Is King John Shakespeare’s most unloved play?

Jo Stone-Fewings as King John (Shakespeare's Globe, 2015)

Jo Stone-Fewings as King John (Shakespeare’s Globe, 2015)

This weekend the Globe’s production of King John (co-produced with Royal & Derngate, Northampton, directed by James Dacre), closes. It’s the very last play in the canon to be produced by the Globe (though it has been staged there).  This article suggests “There’s a reason why the past four centuries have ignored King John”.

But is that fair? In this article Michael Billington asks “What’s your favourite King John?, and although he didn’t get many responses the play clearly does have its fans. It was recently enthusiastically reviewed in the Financial Times and the Independent and in this blog by Michael Gray.

Alex Waldmann as King John, RSC 2012

Alex Waldmann as King John, RSC 2012

Nothing is known about the reaction to the play in Shakespeare’s day, But Marc Morris’s article in History Today (based on his new book King John: Treachery, Tyranny and the Road to Magna Carta) notes that Shakespeare’s initially sympathetic treatment of John might have owed something to Thomas Cromwell’s attempt during the reign of Henry VIII to transform John’s reputation : “John was an English king who had stood up to the pope”. Around 1536 “John Bale penned a play called Kynge Johan and thereafter performed it around the country… The first play to present an English king on stage, …the righteous King John defends England against the machinations of the pope and the king of France.” The Kynge Johan “travesty” did not replace John’s reputation as a bad king, and after the first few scenes Shakespeare’s king shows himself to be an out and out villain.

This play became popular around two hundred years ago. J P Kemble’s production coincided with the wars with France: this week is the bicentenary of the battle of Waterloo at which Napoleon was defeated. In his production Constance, the grieving mother of Prince Arthur was played by the leading tragic actress of the day, Sarah Siddons. The introduction in the RSC Edition of the plays notes that in 1811 Jane Austen surprisingly complained in a letter that the performance of King John which she had hoped to see was replaced by Hamlet.

King John playbill 1823 promising "Habit of the period"

King John playbill 1823 promising “Habit of the period”

In 1823 Charles Kemble planned a production of the play in collaboration with antiquary James Planche who designed historically accurate costumes and sets. In his Recollections and Reflections Planche wrote “When the curtain rose, and discovered King John dressed as his effigy appears in Worcester Cathedral, surrounded by his barons sheathed in mail, with cylindrical helmets and correct armorial shields, and his couriers in the long tunics and mantles of the thirteenth century, there was a roar of approbation, accompanied by four distinct rounds of applause, so general and so hearty, that the actors were astonished.” Thus began the fashion for splendidly ornate productions that could become a series of magnificent tableaux rather than dramas. These included those by Macready in 1842, Kean in 1852 and Herbert Beerbohm Tree in 1899, after which the play declined in popularity. There’s a full performance history here.

There’s been a distinct increase in the play’s popularity over the last 20 years or so. It’s strong on the observation of politicians and others in power, and through the character of The Bastard it pokes fun at the pretensions of those who govern us. And the Bastard is honest enough to admit that he is as corruptible as anyone else. His famous speech is about “commodity”, what we would call self-interest or greed.
And why rail I on this Commodity?
But for because he hath not woo’d me yet:
Not that I have the power to clutch my hand,
When his fair angels would salute my palm;
But for my hand, as unattempted yet,
Like a poor beggar, raileth on the rich.
Well, whiles I am a beggar, I will rail
And say there is no sin but to be rich;
And being rich, my virtue then shall be
To say there is no vice but beggary.

James Dacre is interested in the way the play explores how power works, in private and in public. The production aims to “say something meaningful about the relationship of politicians to the public, and the difference between the conversations politicians have with the electorate and the conversations politicians have behind closed doors”. (The Independent).

Charles Kemble as the Bastard, 1804

Charles Kemble as the Bastard, 1804

The Bastard has often been played by the leading actor. Completely invented by Shakespeare, he speaks directly to the audience, and appears to be a straight-talker in a world of political deception. He also speaks the final, patriotic lines of the play:
This England never did, nor never shall,
Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror,
But when it first did help to wound itself.
Now these her princes are come home again,
Come the three corners of the world in arms,
And we shall shock them.
Nought shall make us rue,
If England to itself do rest but true.

In the Globe’s production the Bastard has been played by Alex Waldmann,  the King in the RSC 2012 production, while the King is played by Jo Stone-Fewings, the Bastard in another RSC production back in 2002. How interesting it would be to hear their views on performing these two contrasting but complementary roles.

Posted in Legacy, Plays and Poems, Shakespeare on Stage | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Julie Taymor’s phantasmagoric film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream

A-Midsummer-Nights-Dream-Julie-Taymor-Julie Taymor’s film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was released in the UK, perhaps predictably, on Sunday 21 June 2015. And from the trailer, it looks amazing (see the end of this post). As a director she’s worked around the world on film, stage productions of opera, straight plays and of course the musical The Lion King.

Much of her work demonstrates her interest in the mythology and folklore of different cultures, probably owing to the fact that she spent much time in the far east when young, learning about mime and puppetry. She’s noted for her love of spectacular visual effects.

mnd taymor3She’s also got a great love of Shakespeare and has directed several of his plays on stage. Her previous Shakespeare films, Titus and The Tempest, started, as did A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with stage productions. Both those, though, were made on location, whereas this one is based on the New York production by Theatre for a New Audience from 2013, and firmly rooted in the theatre. The audience are clearly visible in at least some of the shots. It’s not just a filmed version of the stage show though. In Broadway World she describes is as “a new hybrid of film and theater where the best of both worlds has the opportunity to join forces and create a unique new form of entertainment”

We’re only just getting used to live streaming of plays from theatres into cinemas, and there are still those who don’t like the practise. There are worries that it will harm audience figures and reduce the number of productions being put on. And there are ongoing discussions about how it could change stage productions. How might the knowledge that the production was to be made available as a live relay and ultimately for sale on DVD affect the director, the designer and even the initial casting of the roles?

I imagine Taymor planned to make the film from the start, and used all her knowledge to create a film far more spectacular than the stage production can have been for the audience. In this interview she explains “if you just film a [theatre performance], you don’t get to put the camera on stage or use a handheld camera for close-ups of speeches, which I’ve done here … My big belief about Shakespeare on film is that, if you can show close-ups of mouths moving and reaction shots of other actors in the scene, you have double the understanding.”

It’s obviously much more sophisticated than the versions of productions filmed for TV in the 1970s and 1980s, like Trevor Nunn’s The Comedy of Errors where moments that had been subtle onstage were embarrassingly clumsy on film.

mnd taymorShe describes her method and what she hopes to achieve in What’s on Stage: “I had 16 camera positions over four performances. I got those cameras in the best seats in the house for every moment. It took me a month to go through all the material just to select the best shots, but I feel it was worth it, because film is forever, while our initial production only ran for 12 weeks.”

“I much prefer productions on film that have been edited this way… When you edit it live there’s only so much preparation you can do – plus you don’t have camera movement, you don’t have cameras on stage. With this approach there’s a closeness to the actors that brings a liveness. You still get a connection with the audience – after all, the actors are still projecting to the live audience. So it’s not false in that sense. But there’s a wonderful level of intimacy to it”.

mnd taymor2She’s certainly chosen the right play to try this out. Broadway World, again, calls the play “phantasmagorical”, and Taymor’s film “visually breathtaking, funny, sexy and darkly poetic”.  You can also hear Taymor on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row, broadcast on 19 June. In the interview she talks about some of the ideas and motifs behind her visual inspiration for the film, and about her interest in work that transcends culture. I was pleased to hear her saying she wanted  to help the understanding Shakespeare’s words. For me the proof of the pudding will be whether the speaking of Shakespeare’s words are overwhelmed by the glorious special effects and music. The words are, after all, rather good.

The film is to be shown at the Picturehouse in Stratford at 1.30 on Sunday 28 June, and at other cinemas at different times on the same day.  The trailer is below: if you receive posts by email click on the link at the end of the message to go to the blog to play the video.



Posted in Legacy, Plays and Poems, Shakespeare on Stage | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Not Shakespeare, and not Blackfriars

Andrew Marr interviewing Trevor Nunn

Andrew Marr interviewing Trevor Nunn

It’s always tempting to speculate on what might have happened if things had been different, and in the Artsnight programme Not Shakespeare, broadcast on 19 June Andrew Marr looked at the world of the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre, and what we might now make of the playwrights of the time if Shakespeare had not existed.

Quoting the programme description “Andrew Marr…wants to champion some great Renaissance dramatists whose stories have been neglected because they worked at the same time as William Shakespeare. Andrew believes our obsession with the Bard of Avon has fatally distorted our view of the Tudor and Jacobean period.”

Edward's Boys production of The Lady's Trial

Edward’s Boys production of The Lady’s Trial

Those coming under discussion were John Webster, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson and John Ford. It’s a good moment for this investigation as productions of their work are currently on stage, or in preparation. John Ford, in particular, has  been the subject of The Ford Experiment at Shakespeare’s Globe. On 26 September a study day takes place where scholars and theatre practitioners share thoughts about Ford, culminating in The Lady’s Trial being performed at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse by Edward’s Boys from King Edward’s School in Stratford-upon-Avon (also on 27 September).

Another play by John Ford, Love’s Sacrifice, has its last performances at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon this week, so you’ll have to hurry to catch it. Marr’s programme includes an interview with Catrin Stewart who plays Bianca in this production, talking about the strength of Ford’s heroines. His interest in women and psychology have often been compared with Shakespeare’s.

Marr also interviews Trevor Nunn, under whom the Swan Theatre opened in 1986 with the specific aim of investigating “Non-Shakespeare” plays. Nunn’s production of Ben Jonson’s Volpone is in preparation. Christopher Marlowe’s play The Jew of Malta is currently playing at the Swan Theatre, but Marr seems obsessed by Marlowe’s death, promoting the completely unsubstantiated idea that he might have faked his death and gone on to write plays under the pseudonym of Shakespeare. Thankfully Justin Audibert the director of the current production of The Jew Of Malta pointed out the enormous differences in style and substance between Marlowe and Shakespeare.

Eion Price has written a thoughful post on the programme on his Asidenotes blog. He notes that in spite of the aim, Marr’s programme did little to remove Shakespeare from the equation (though it did at least ask the question). Much of the discussion centred around the personalities of the different writers as seen in their work.: Marlowe the brilliant maverick, living fast and dying a violent death while still in his twenties, and Jonson the abrasive Londoner with a chip on his shoulder, always drawing attention tot his intellectual superiority. These comments shed light on Shakespeare’s own character: gentler, more countrified, less obsessed with the minutiae of everyday life, but commenting on big events in a subtle way. And, it has to be said, writing it in words that stick in the mind and speak to the heart.

Another “what if” question about the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatres has come under examination in Chris Laoutaris’s book Shakespeare and the Countess: the Battle that Gave Birth to the Globe. Laoutaris recently addressed the Hay Festival on the subject of the book, attracting new attention.

Elizabeth, Lady Hoby, nAe Elizabeth Cooke (1528-1609), Late 18th cent.. Artist: Bone, Henry (1755-1834)...DE718R Elizabeth, Lady Hoby, nAe Elizabeth Cooke (1528-1609), Late 18th cent.. Artist: Bone, Henry (1755-1834)

Elizabeth, Lady Hoby, nAe Elizabeth Cooke (1528-1609), Late 18th cent.. Artist: Bone, Henry (1755-1834)…DE718R Elizabeth, Lady Hoby, nAe Elizabeth Cooke (1528-1609), Late 18th cent.. Artist: Bone, Henry (1755-1834)

Laoutaris’s research over several years investigated the role played by the elderly, belligerent widow Lady Elizabeth Russell, who succeeded in preventing Shakespeare and his company from moving into the Blackfriars Theatre in 1596. She appears to have done so by sheer force of personality, intimidating many of the right people. The Lord Chamberlain’s men were left in the position of having no secure home for their company, hence their building in 1599 of the Globe Theatre. Intriguing questions are raised by the book: what would have happened if the company had moved into an indoor theatre so much earlier? How would it have affected Shakespeare’s writing, and that of other playwrights such as Jonson if the Globe had never existed? And how would it have affected the finances and status of Shakespeare and his fellows?

Russell was a Puritan, and although her main motive was NIMBYism, she would have been happy to see the players disappear completely. Their move across the river to the south bank, home of bear-baiting pits and brothels, enlarged this centre of entertainment. Most interestingly, the innovative way the Globe was funded made Shakespeare a wealthy man. To quote Laoutaris’s article, “To fund the enterprise the Burbage brothers hit on an entirely unprecedented business model. They offered a larger interest in the venture to Shakespeare and four other actor-sharers than had ever before been negotiated. Each paid £100 towards the cost of completing the playhouse. In exchange they became part-owners of the Globe, able to reap 10 per cent of the profits. Elizabeth Russell had unwittingly secured Shakespeare’s long-term success and his indelible association with the Globe.”

There’s a full discussion of the book in this review from last year, and this link is to an article on the book by Laoutaris himself in April 2015.


Posted in Legacy, Shakespeare's World | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

John Gerarde’s History of Plants and other herbals

SIL30-05-002, 3/9/04, 11:25 AM,  8C, 3912x5768 (2016+1119), 100%, WILKES,  1/50 s, R41.3, G27.2, B41.0

John Gerarde, in the Herball

A valuable aspect of the debate about the proposed new lifetime portrait of Shakespeare is the interest it has raised in John Gerarde’s Herball.

The previous Director of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Roger Pringle, and his wife Marian (Senior Librarian then Special Collections Librarian)  built up the Trust’s already significant holdings of herbals. They reflect Shakespeare’s clear interest in gardening and plants as well as the professional expertise of his son in law Doctor John Hall, who used plants in many of his medicines. More than two dozen early herbals and books about gardening are now held in the Shakespeare Centre Library and Archive, including no fewer than five original copies of Gerarde’s Herball.  After reading the articles by Mark Griffiths in Country Life, I went to look at some of them.*

Illustration from The Grete Herball

Illustration from The Grete Herball

The earliest is The Grete Herball  from 1529, and although it’s in English it’s mostly a translation from the French Le Grand Herbier. Printed in Gothic or Black Letter, it’s (at least for us) difficult to read and its crude woodcuts don’t identify the plants, though the book has a lovely title page illustration showing an industrious couple harvesting their grapes while to the side Adam and Eve stand awkwardly before their banishment from Eden.

Gerarde has often been criticised for simply translating the Herbal written by Robert Dodoens. Dodoens published several books on plants and his work was made available in Dutch, French, Latin and English. The SCLA has a copy of the 1578 translation by Henry Lyte, and other books on plants from 1553, heavily annotated in Latin and English, perhaps by the Robertus Cockram who signed them in 1600. It’s interesting to see how much and for what the books were valued by their readers. Next to the entry for Wild Germander is the note that it “is good to be layd to the bytings of venemous beasts”.

The first Herbal to be written and published in England was by the Doctor of Physic, William Turner, in 1568, and dedicated to Queen Elizabeth. Turner’s book, including many illustrations, was a serious attempt to make information about plants and their uses more widely known.

John Gerard, The Herball (London, 1597) Oats

John Gerard, The Herball (London, 1597) Oats

John Gerarde’s Herbal was published almost thirty years later, and in his introduction he acknowledges “that excellent Worke of Master Doctor Turner” as well as Lyte’s translation of Dodoens. But what a difference there is in the appearance of Gerarde’s book. Printed using a clear Roman font, with around 1800 high quality engravings that show what the plants look like, this book has much more immediate appeal than Turner’s.  And although Gerarde may have taken details from Dodoens, his additions are readable and entertaining. For Gerarde, plants are to be enjoyed:
Talke of perfect happinesse or pleasure, and what place was so fit for that as the garden place wherein Adam was set to be the Herbarist? Whither did the Poets hunt for their sincere delights, but into the gardens of Alcinous, of Adonis, and the Orchards of the Hesperides?…Easie therefore is this treasure to be gained, and yet pretious…nothing can be confected, either delicate for the taste, dainty for smell, pleasant for sight, wholsome for body, conservative or restorative for health, but it borroweth the rellish of an herb, the savor of a flour, the colour of a leafe, the juice of a plant, or the decoction of a root.

Gerarde modestly acknowledges the book’s inaccuracies and hopes that others would improve it. And although I don’t go along with the idea that Shakespeare helped write it, there are phrases in the introduction reminiscent of his work:
Lastly my selfe, one of the least among many, have presumed to set forth unto the view of the World, the first fruits of these myne owne Labours, which if they be such as may content the Reader, I shall thinke my selfe well rewarded… The rather therefore accept this at my hands (loving Country-men) as a token of my goodwill, and I trust that the best and well minded will not rashly condemn me… But as for the slanderer or Envious I passe not for them, but return upon themselves any-thing they shall without cause either murmur in corners, or jangle in secret.

I particularly like the way that Gerarde gives as much room to weeds as to more refined garden plants. Walking last week along part of the Camel Trail in Cornwall where dozens of species of grasses and wild flowers flourish, I was reminded of Cordelia’s speech about how the mad Lear is found, crowned with the commonest of plants:

John Gerard, The Herball (London, 1597). Couch Grass

John Gerard, The Herball (London, 1597). Couch Grass

Alack, ’tis he!
Why, he was met even now
As mad as the vex’d sea, singing aloud,
Crown’d with rank fumiter and furrow weeds,
With harlocks, hemlock, nettles, cuckoo flow’rs,
Darnel, and all the idle weeds that grow
In our sustaining corn.  A century send forth.
Search every acre in the high-grown field
And bring him to our eye.

The illustrations on this page are from a beautifully coloured copy held at the University of Oklahoma.

*Microfiche copies are available to all readers, but access to the originals is restricted.

Posted in Legacy, Shakespeare's World | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

David Suchet, Oscar Wilde and Shakespeare

David Suchet as Lady Bracknell

David Suchet as Lady Bracknell

Next week a production of Oscar Wilde’s most famous play, The Importance of Being Earnest, opens in the West End of London. The production stars one of best-loved actors, David Suchet, in the leading role of Lady Bracknell. A few days ago I caught the production at the last stop on its tour, the Theatre Royal in Bath.

The theatre is an ideal venue for this brightly-polished, very funny play. The three-act structure fits perfectly, the velvet curtains rising to reveal to the audience the elegant sets designed by Peter McKintosh. Wilde wrote the play for just such a stage and it was normal for the leading actors to “get a round” from the audience on their first appearance. There’s a nod to this theatrical tradition when Suchet sweeps in for his first entrance through a pair of double doors upstage centre, above a short flight of steps. Particularly for those used to seeing him on TV as Hercules Poirot, his transformation alone merits the round of applause with which he is greeted.

Suchet already had a thriving career before Poirot, and he has continued to act in other roles throughout the twenty or so years in which he has played Agatha Christie’s Belgian detective. I first saw Suchet playing the small but striking role of Pompey in Peter Brook’s 1978 Antony and Cleopatra, and remember being impressed by him even then. I next saw him at the Aldwych in 1979 playing a range of lighter roles: Sir Nathaniel the curate in Love’s Labour’s Lost, Petruchio’s servant Grumio in The Taming of the Shrew and Glogauer in Once in a Lifetime. Later roles in Stratford included Bolingbroke in Richard II in 1980, Shylock in The Merchant of Venice in 1981, and Iago in Othello in 1985. His Bolingbroke in Richard II was a man shaken by the prospect of banishment:
O, who can hold a fire in his hand
By thinking on the frosty Caucasus?
Or cloy the hungry edge of appetite
By bare imagination of a feast?
Or wallow naked in December snow
By thinking on fantastic summer’s heat?

David Suchet as Timon

David Suchet as Timon

He also memorably played Timon in a modern dress production directed by Trevor Nunn at the Young Vic. No wonder that, as he recounted in Poirot and Me, his reaction to being offered the role was not positive: “I was astounded. Me, the serious Shakespearean actor, portrayer of men with haunted souls, playing a fastidious, balding detective?”

Watching him playing Lady Bracknell it occurred to me: surely I’d seen David Suchet playing a woman before? In the prologue to The Taming of the Shrew did he not play the unfortunate servant who has to dress up as Sly’s wife? The part is often played by a slim young man but in this case Suchet was a well-built “wife” who came near to punching Jonathan Pryce’s Sly when he became too amorous.

The comedy then depended on the fact that Suchet was such an unlikely woman, and his Lady Bracknell is not a female impersonation in the Mrs Doubtfire mould. It’s a lovely performance that picks up the social demarcations within the play. One of her most famous lines is “Never speak disrespectfully of society, Algernon – only people who can’t get into it do that”. Her admission that she married money rather than inheriting any of her own is the mistake of an unguarded moment, and Suchet stifles a laugh at the idea of Jack being found in a handbag, but is outraged by his being left in a public cloakroom.

The play’s a frothy confection, as full of famous quotations as one of Shakespeare’s plays, like Gwendolen’s “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train”. The young foursome are a sparky group, though Imogen Doel’s eccentric Cecily often steals the scene.

As a Shakespeare-obsessive I couldn’t help noticing moments that might have been inspired by Shakespeare. The quartet of lovers reminded me of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in particular when Gwendolen and Cecily swear affection to each other one moment and hate each other the next. Then there are the mistaken identities, the two boys discovered to be brothers after several unlikely coincidences. I was struck by the scene in which the learned Miss Prism (Michele Dotrice) and Canon Chasuble (Richard O’Callaghan) talk in the garden rather as Holofernes the schoolteacher and Sir Nathaniel the Curate do in Love’s Labour’s Lost.

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde

Wilde wrote about Shakespeare’s work in The Critic as Artist and in his essay The Portrait of Mr W H. The play was hotly anticipated and its first performance in 1895 did not disappoint, but not long afterwards Wilde was convicted of homosexuality. The play was never performed again in his lifetime. It has since become one of the most-quoted of English plays owing to Wilde’s brilliant writing and the creation of Lady Bracknell, one of the best-loved roles for actors of both sexes, rather, again, like Shakespeare’s.

Posted in Legacy | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off on David Suchet, Oscar Wilde and Shakespeare

British Shakespeare Association Education Network

bsaIt’s been a while since I wrote about the British Shakespeare Association, and in particular its Education Network. Membership of the Association usually drops a bit between the organisation’s biennial conferences (the 2016 conference will be at the University of Hull).  But the organisation continues to be active, and I’ve recently been catching up on the very varied posts to the Education Network blog in the extremely capable hands of Dr Sarah Olive of the University of York. The following refer to just some of the recent blog posts that have appeared on the site.

How-to-teach-childrenA series of short reviews of books on the subject of Shakespeare in education have appeared. Teaching Shakespeare, particularly in school, is found particularly challenging, so it’s a great idea to suggest how useful books might be for those who have to deliver it. So the blog includes a review of Adrian Noble’s book How to do Shakespeare, a very brief one on Liam Semler’s book on Teaching Shakespeare and Marlowe, and another by Ken Ludwig on How to Teach your Children Shakespeare aimed at parents and those who teach small groups.

There’s a discussion of Lyn Gardner’s Guardian article unfavourably comparing the RSC’s provision aimed at younger audiences with that of Sadler’s Wells, raising questions about what sort of educational offerings theatres should be making to audiences of the future.

There’s news of a workshop being held at the University of York on Saturday 27 June, on the teaching of two plays popular in schools, Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth. It will look at human rights issues raised by the plays and offer some active approaches to teaching the plays. The workshop is free to members of the British Shakespeare Association and just £5 for others.

It feels a long way ahead, but there has been a call for papers for a conference being held in April 2016 at the University of Brighton. RSC Education and the Cambridge Schools Shakespeare will be taking part and the subjects under discussion are wide-ranging. Abstracts for consideration have to be submitted by the second week of July 2015.

Finally for those of you interested in the live relays of theatre performances one of the blogs is a report of the discussion on the subject by RSC Chief Gregory Doran and John Wyver. This was part of the conference that marked the conclusion of the AHRC-funded research project “Screen Plays: Theatre Plays on British Television”, held in London during February 2015. It’s a very full account written by Dr Sarah Olive who is in overall charge of the BSA Education Blog, and the post itself includes additional links.

All of the above posts have been posted within the last few months and show off the range of the BSA Education Network’s interests. For the rest of the 2014-5 academic year (not long now) membership of the BSA is free for primary and secondary teachers. Although aimed at teachers the Education Network blog contains lots of material that anyone with an interest in Shakespeare would enjoy, and is freely available for anyone to access. It’s a great resource and I’d recommend signing up for it to pop into your email inbox.

Posted in Legacy | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on British Shakespeare Association Education Network

The James Shirley Marathon

James Shirley

James Shirley

Next week, beginning on 15 June, the Shakespeare Institute at Stratford-upon-Avon is embarking on another marathon reading of the complete work of a playwright of the sixteenth or early seventeenth century. Last year it was Thomas Heywood, the year before it was John Fletcher, but this year it is the turn of James Shirley. Dr Martin Wiggins is in charge again, and quoting from the website, “The exercise enables us to observe, in concentrated form, the development of a single dramatist’s imagination and technique, and to experience a large number of neglected plays by a significant talent of the Shakespearian era”.

John Fletcher and Thomas Heywood are already well-known, but this is your opportunity to get to know more about this neglected playwright and his varied plays. The following profile is also from the Institute’s website: “Shirley was the most substantial professional dramatist of the generation after Shakespeare.  He was born in 1596, at around the same time as Shakespeare was writing The Merchant of Venice, and he began writing plays nine years after Shakespeare’s death, initially doing so part-time in parallel with his day-job as a schoolmaster. In the late 1630s he was the principal dramatist for the first commercial theatre in Dublin, and in 1642 his last full-length play, The Court Secret, was being prepared for its London premiere when the outbreak of Civil War closed the theatres; but he continued writing shorter work for private performance during the Interregnum, and The Court Secret was eventually revised for production after the theatres reopened in 1660.”

Hyde Park title page

Hyde Park title page

James Shirley dominated the last generation of English Renaissance drama with an industrious fluency unapproached by any other playwright during the reign of Charles I. Others, notably John Ford, wrote plays of greater power and more enduring interest; Shirley’s taste was too sure to attempt anything as memorable or extreme as ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore. His instinct for experiment and innovation was slight, and the general ethos of his plays is the official gentility of the Caroline court: cleverly risqué but fundamentally conservative in its sophisticated decorum. But by the same token, none of Shirley’s thirty-odd plays fall below a high level of artful competence. The capable heir to greater predecessors, he absorbed their lessons into a skillful conventionality that showed how natural a certain kind of theatrical deftness had become for the English stage.

The Poetry Foundation describes him as “Cleverly risqué but fundamentally conservative”, and he lived during, and survived, one of the most turbulent periods of English history. He took holy orders at the age of 24, and five years later converted to Roman Catholicism. He began writing plays in 1625, the year of the accession of Charles 1, and became a leading dramatist of the Caroline stage, moving to Ireland for a time before becoming the main playwright for the King’s Men in 1640. He lived to see the monarchy restored and the theatres reopened under Charles II, but wrote no new plays, though some of the older ones were revived. He continued to live in London and it is said that he died in 1666 of fright and exposure following the Great Fire of London.  There’s a fuller biography here on the Luminarium site.

It’s been noted that his plays often feature stronger female characters than those of his contemporaries, anticipating the change to the theatre post-1660 when women appeared on stage for the first time. The Luminarium site comments: “in his time he was considered a significant exponent of “cavalier” drama; he wrote for court audiences and developed a new kind of comedy which suited that clientele, something both intellectual and refined. Shirley is a comedian of wit, and may be thought of as a precursor to the great age of Restoration comedy”.

Charles Lamb, writing in the early eighteenth century, suggested that Shirley was the last of his kind: Shirley “claims a place among the worthies of this period, not so much for any transcendent genius in himself, as that he was the last of a great race, all of whom spoke nearly the same language and had a set of moral feelings and notions in common.”

Currently a ten-volume edition of Shirley’s plays is being prepared, to be published by Oxford University Press, and the Marathon is taking place with the cooperation of the editors. The edition is the main outcome of the Arts and Humanities Research Council funded James Shirley project, directed by Prof. Eugene Giddens, Dr Teresa Grant, and Prof. Barbara Ravelhofer. Others have commented on just one aspect of Shirley’s work, but Barbara Ravelhofer describes him as “An innovative dramatist specializing in tragedy, comedy, tragicomedy, masque, pastoral, entertainment, morality, and neo-miracle… Critics still appreciate his elegant craftsmanship, his fast-paced, witty dialogues, and his detached portrayal of social manners.” The James Shirley Marathon will be an interesting investigation into the work of this neglected playwright.

Anyone is welcome to attend the readings, but members of the public not already known to the Institute should make arrangements in advance by contacting Dr Martin Wiggins (  The complete list of plays being read is as follows:

Monday 15 June

2.30: The School of Compliment

7.00: The Maid’s Revenge

Tuesday 16 June

10.30: The Wedding

2.30: The Witty Fair One

Wednesday 17 June

10.30: The Contention for Honour and Riches

2.30: The Grateful Servant

Thursday 18 June

2.30: The Traitor

7.00: The Humorous Courtier

Friday 19 June

10.30: Love’s Cruelty

2.30: The Changes

Saturday 20 June

10.30: Hyde Park

2.30: The Ball

Monday 22 June

2.30: The Bird in a Cage

7.00: The Young Admiral

Tuesday 23 June

10.30: The Gamester

2.30: The Triumph of Peace & The Example

Wednesday 24 June

10.30: The Opportunity

2.30: The Coronation

Thursday 25 June

2.30: The Arcadia

7.00: The Lady of Pleasure

Friday 26 June

10.30: The Duke’s Mistress

2.30: The Royal Master

Saturday 27 June

10.30: The Constant Maid

2.30: The Politician

Monday 29 June

2.30: St Patrick for Ireland

7.00: The Gentleman of Venice

Tuesday 30 June

10.30: The Doubtful Heir

2.30: The Imposture

Wednesday 1 July

10.30: The Brothers

2.30: The Cardinal

Thursday 2 July

2.30: The Sisters

7.00: The Court Secret

Friday 3 July

10.30: Honoria and Mammon & The Triumph of Beauty

2.30: Cupid and Death & The Contention of Ajax and Ulysses

Posted in Legacy | Tagged , , | Comments Off on The James Shirley Marathon

Anticipating Macbeth on film

Macbeth_2015_posterIt doesn’t often happen that a Shakespeare film is dubbed “The “Most Anticipated Film” of the year, but this is how the adaptation of Macbeth directed by Justin Kurzel and starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard has been described. The film was previewed at the Cannes Film Festival a few weeks ago in May 2015 and since then the internet has been buzzing with articles, most of which have also received many comments and shares.  The film is scheduled for release in the UK on 2 October. No date has been finalised for release in the USA, but it is likely to be some time in the fall.

The Australian director is best known for his first feature film, Snowtown, based on the true story of the Snowtown murders. Michael Fassbender has had a varied career in films from action movies to an adaptation of Jane Eyre and the award-winning historical drama 12 Years a Slave, and Marion Cotillard has a distinguished reputation in both French and American films. Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays and this film, although heavily cut (all the humour has been removed), does follow the plot of the play and uses Shakespeare’s words. Fassbender’s name alone is likely to guarantee a hit, but it isn’t just the cast or the reputation of the play that has got people excited.

macbeth filmThe film is variously described as a “grim and bloody adaptation”, a “jaw-dropping vision” and “a hell of a film”, set in “a blasted netherworld of feral violence.” Here’s an extract from the BBC’s preview: “Obliterating any trace of stage-bound stuffiness, he replaces it with the mud and gore of an anti-war movie and the stylised immediacy of a graphic novel: the slow-motion blood-spurting recalls a previous Fassbender film, 300, except with jagged wounds in place of washboard stomachs. Kurzel does whatever he can do make every scene more nightmarish, whether that means including a procession of zombies (you read that correctly), or giving an inspired, apocalyptic twist to the Birnam Wood prophecy. At times, it seems as if he has shifted the action to a forbidding alien planet: Duncan and the royal court favour Jedi-like dressing gowns, while the witches’ cosmetic facial scarring makes them appear half-Klingon.”

In case you’re groaning at this description, you might like to note that several eminent Shakespeare academics have come out in the film’s favour, based on a viewing of the trailer. The Washington Post includes interviews with Stephen Greenblatt and James Shapiro. Greenblatt said: “The trailer seems in touch with several features that make the play attractive to contemporary audiences: lots of blood and gory battle scenes; a strong, erotically charged relationship at its center; an intense interest in the costs of masculinity; a way of imagining the link between sex and violence.”

Marion Cotillard and Michael Fassbender in Macbeth

Marion Cotillard and Michael Fassbender in Macbeth

And Shapiro commented: “The play is full of special effects, and theater directors have to struggle to convey the spectral presence of daggers, the ghostly presence of the slain Banquo, and the play’s sheer murkiness. These are a lot easier to convey in a film…The trailer — which hints at a battle scene that’s a cross between ‘Braveheart’ and ‘Game of Thrones’ — makes use of technology that was simply unavailable to Shakespeare. If he had it, he would have used it.”

If you’d like to take a look at a range of stills from the film, this article from Mail Online contains lots of images.

Macbeth has been adapted for film many times, memorably by Orson Welles in 1948 and Roman Polanski in 1971. Polanski’s film, reviewed here when it was released on Blu-ray in 2014, was also more violent and bloody than many viewers expected, but expectations have changed. This new film is clearly drawing comparisons with the realities of modern warfare: Scottish castles are replaced with tented encampments, for instance, and the Daily Mail article referred to above describes Fassbender’s Macbeth as a “traumatized war-hero”.

Mike D’Angelo’s review notes that no film adaptation alters the meaning of Shakespeare’s play, and suggests “Macbeth has been adapted for the screen a number of times since 1971, but not memorably; we’re long overdue for a contemporary version by a major director.” By the end of October we’ll know if this is it.

Posted in Plays and Poems | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment