Donald Trump and Shakespeare

A scene from the New York production of Julius Caesar

Shakespeare’s fascination with politics can be seen in many of his plays, not only those directly based on British history. The Roman plays too examine the workings of power, looking at how countries have been governed and how those who do the governing take control. The late plays are often called romances, but question authority and how it is wielded: in Pericles Marina, a victim herself, demands of the ruler of the city how he can tolerate and even participate in corruption by visiting a brothel.

Do you know this house to be a place of such resort,
And will come into ‘t? I hear say you are of honourable parts,
And are the governor of this place.  

If Shakespeare was alive today he would certainly be watching the worldwide political scene with interest. As long ago as January the Times Literary Supplement was publishing articles relating the then-new President to characters and episodes in Shakespeare’s plays.

Shakespeare would probably have made the most of the 140-character limitation, and would be writing beautifully-crafted tweets. President Trump’s tweets are more spur of the moment, and many subsequently are repeated in other media as well as on Twitter. One now-famous tweet featured the word “covfefe”. President Trump may have been half asleep while writing this one, and lots of people have had fun with it including writing humorous definitions of the new word. Pretty quickly somebody came up with another tweet suggesting this was actually a word used by Shakespeare. It would have been lovely if this had been true, but a bit of digging around shows it to be, inevitably, fake news.

The first clue was that the word was said to be in the First Quarto of Hamlet, published in 1603 and known as the “Bad” Quarto, “bad” being a word often used by the President. Rather than being buried in an obscure corner, the word appeared in the most famous speech in the play “To be or not to be”, one of the most corrupt sections of the text. Just to make it more convincing the tweet included a photograph showing the word in the quarto, a terrific bit of photoshopping. I had a look at online facsimiles of the Quarto and found that the word which had been replaced by “covfefe” was, appropriately, “vanity”. I take my hat off to the imaginative individuals who created this bit of clever light relief at a time when we’re much in need of it.

The President Trump/Shakespeare issue that has really hit the headlines, though, is the news that a production of Julius Caesar, staged in Central Park, New York, has created outrage. The actor playing Caesar has blond hair and dresses very much like the current President. There have been protests at performances, and it is reported that after Donald Trump’s son questioned it, two major funders, Delta Airlines and Bank of America, have pulled their funding of the theatre.

Stephen Greenblatt wrote an article on the subject, including the story about Queen Elizabeth’s own objections to a royal deposition, for the Washington Post.The Trump family shouldn’t fight Shakespeare

And this article in the Guardian documents the whole story.

Rather alarmingly, the Boston Globe has noted that theatres with Shakespeare in their names are now being targeted.

The theatre has of course defended itself, and the play: “Our production of Julius Caesar in no way advocates violence towards anyone. Shakespeare’s play, and our production, make the opposite point: those who attempt to defend democracy by undemocratic means pay a terrible price and destroy the very thing they are fighting to save.”

Trump is not the first President or leading politician to be represented in this way, and he certainly won’t be the last. The extreme reaction to the impersonation, though, indicates the sensitivity of the current administration. In a recent tweet, Greg Jenner wrote “remarkable that a play written 400 years ago, about a man murdered 2000 years ago, is the focus of political debate in 2017 #JuliusCaesar”. Shakespeare himself knew how powerful the bloody murder of the ruler would be, with Cassius stepping out of the moment to consider its historical significance.

             How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents yet unknown!

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Before Shakespeare at the Shakespeare Institute

A summer of great events for those interested in Shakespeare and his theatrical background is just getting under way. From 12-30 June 2017 the fifth play-reading marathon will be held at the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon. Up to now, these have focused on the development of a single creative writer. Subjects have been John Fletcher, Thomas Heywood, Philip Shirley and Thomas Dekker. As in previous years students, staff, alumni, and friends of the Shakespeare Institute will take part in unrehearsed, round-the-table readings organised by Dr Martin Wiggins.

Quoting from the Institute’s website, “this year we have decided to concentrate on all of the extant plays of a particularly fruitful and important period of the emerging English theatre. Not only do these works give an invaluable insight into the theatrical world in which the young William Shakespeare began his career as actor and writer, but they also reflect a significant moment of cultural change and creativity in which the theatre became a powerful and frequently controversial form of public art.” The period covered is 1581-1591, the eleven years immediately before Shakespeare became a fully-fledged playwright for the public theatres. Many of them are plays that Shakespeare must have seen himself, and must have inspired his own work. Only forty-one plays have survived from this period, and every one is being read, in chronological order.

This year’s marathon is being run in association with the Before Shakespeare project that is currently exploring the early plays and playhouses of the Elizabethan era, run by Andy Kesson.

Later this summer Before Shakespeare is running a conference at the University of Roehampton, London, from 24-27 August. It will cover a wide range of subjects including the playhouses themselves, writers, the plays that were performed, stagecraft and theatrical companies. The full schedule and details about how to apply are available here.

Also related to Before Shakespeare is a series of readings at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe, including Fedele and Fortunio by Anthony Munday on 18 June, the anonymous play Mucedorus on 16 July and, timed to coincide with the conference, John Lyly’s Sappho and Phao on 27 August.

A Read not Dead reading at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Another event that readers of this blog might be interested in will be taking place at the Shakespeare Institute on the afternoon of Thursday 6 July: the first performance since the seventeenth century of a recently discovered play The Dutch Lady. It’s a Restoration comedy that will be introduced by the discoverer of the play, Joe Stevenson, and followed by a panel discussion with scholars of the drama of the period. More information is available here.

Here is the full timetable for the marathon:

The Fifth Annual Shakespeare Institute Play-Reading Marathon


All readings take place in the Reading Room; live-tweeting will be displayed on screen.  The readings will be recorded for archival purposes.


10.30: Robert Wilson, The Three Ladies of London

2.30: Love and Fortune


2.30: John Lyly, Campaspe

7.00: Anthony Munday, Fedele and Fortunio, and George Peele, The Arraignment of Paris


10.30: John Lyly, Sappho and Phao

2.30: John Lyly, Galatea, and The Famous Victories of Henry V


2.30: Thomas Kyd, The Spanish Tragedy

7.00: Christopher Marlowe, Tamburlaine


10.30: Robert Greene, Alphonsus, King of Aragon

2.30: Christopher Marlowe, 2 Tamburlaine


10.30: John Lyly, Endymion, the Man in the Moon

2.30: Suleiman and Perseda


10.30: Thomas Lodge, The Wounds of Civil War

2.30: Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus (A-text), and George Peele, The Battle of Alcazar


2.30: The Wars of Cyrus, King of Persia, and John Lyly, The Woman in the Moon

7.00: Christopher Marlowe, Dido, Queen of Carthage


10.30: Robert Wilson, The Three Lords and Three Ladies of London

2.30: Robert Greene, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay


2.30: George Peele (?), The Troublesome Reign of John, King of England

7.00: John Lyly, Mother Bombie


10.30: Christopher Marlowe, The Jew of Malta

2.30: Robert Greene and Thomas Lodge, A Looking-Glass for London and England


10.30: John Lyly, Midas

2.30: King Lear and his Three Daughters


10.30: The True Tragedy of Richard III

2.30: John Lyly, Love’s Metamorphosis, and Fair Em


2.30: Robert Greene, James IV

7.00: Arden of Faversham


10.30: Jack Straw, and Anthony Munday, John a Kent and John a Cumber

2.30: George Peele, David and Bathsheba


2.30: Robert Greene, Orlando Furioso, and Mucedorus

7.00: George Peele, Edward I


10.30: Locrine

2.30: William Shakespeare, The First Part of the Contention between York and Lancaster

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The power of poetry

In the last few months I’ve been finding it hard to concentrate on Shakespeare: it’s all seemed trivial compared with the important issues that confront us like deciding how England relates to the other countries of the UK, Europe and the world, how we are governed and what sort of country we aspire to be. This week’s awful bombing in Manchester, specifically targeting young people out enjoying themselves at a long-anticipated concert, has been followed by a raising of the security level to critical, the highest possible level.

Ironically this comes during a week in which the UK is enjoying the warmest weather of the year so far, our towns and countryside looking at their most beautiful. Like many people I’ve been taking refuge in early-morning walks, making the most of the peace of Stratford and the River Avon. And as I’ve been walking, Shakespeare’s words have come back to me. It is usually supposed that he immersed himself in the natural world during his childhood in Stratford-upon-Avon, knowledge that he repeatedly brought in to his poetry and plays throughout his career.

I often find the mood of the sonnets rather gloomy, even self-indulgent, but Sonnet 18 is more optimistic than many. It’s a celebration of the beauty of nature, defiantly life-affirming, bringing comfort even in the face of death. It reminds us of the importance of love and memory. As one of the most beautiful, it’s also probably the best-known and most often-quoted of them.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st;
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

We have seen the power of words and poetry to express emotion and meaning very powerfully in the last few days. In Manchester we have heard heartbreaking accounts of the events of Monday night and the despair of parents who have lost their children. It’s been amazing to hear them speak so bravely, and, at a time of their own terrible grief, for them to be able to think about the larger need to bring people together in a spirit of love.

Poets are uniquely skilled in putting feelings into just the right words. At the vigil held in the city the poet Tony Walsh delivered his ode to Manchester, its achievements and its spirit, an uplifting moment during this sober event. The link to the Telegraph report, including both his reading and the text of the poem, are both here.

The photographs and the video on this post were taken today, 25 May 2017, on Shakespeare’s Avon. I hope you enjoy them. Special thanks to James Stredder and, as ever, to Richard Morris who took the wonderful video of the new swan family.

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Bram and the Guv’nor: Henry Irving and his manager onstage together

Henry Irving as Hamlet

Through his novel Dracula and the numerous adaptations of it, writer Bram Stoker is probably now better known than the man who was his “Guv’nor”, the great late-Victorian actor Henry Irving. The two men had a working relationship that lasted almost thirty years, during which time Bram was Irving’s business manager at the Lyceum Theatre in London. Although Irving performed a wide range of plays, it was Shakespeare that was the heart of his career, and it had been Shakespeare that brought them together.

This week the relationship is being dramatised in a play, Bram and the Guv’nor, specially written by playwright Jefny Ashcroft and inspired by the Bram Stoker Collection which is cared for by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust on behalf of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Bram Stoker was a compulsive collector, and the Bram Stoker Collection consists of many boxes of material that he kept relating to the career of Henry Irving encompassing his work at the Lyceum Theatre and many tours. The play is part of the Arts Friendly Archives project funded by Arts Council England that brings people into contact with archive material by creating fact-based dramas. It’s a fascinating approach, that will be even more special because before and after the performances audiences will be able to view an accompanying exhibition of the original material that inspired it. Even better, tickets are free.

Bram Stoker and Henry Irving met in 1876 when, as a young civil servant who wrote short stories and theatre reviews on the side, Stoker went to see Irving’s Hamlet in Dublin. Impressed by his review, Irving invited Stoker to dinner and later treated him to a private reading. Later Stoker wrote “So great was the magnetism of his genius, so profound was the sense of his dominancy that I sat spellbound. Outwardly I was as of stone…The whole thing was new, re-created by a force of passion which was like a new power.”

One of the few photos of Henry Irving (in the top hat) and Bram Stoker (a few steps behind), leaving the Lyceum Theatre

So began one of the most extraordinary of theatrical partnerships, explored by Michael Kilgarriff of the Irving Society here. He describes how “Irving provided the star power and the driving force, Bram a bottomless well of loyalty and the administrative capability to keep the show on the road.” Bram was also “genial, the ideal Front-of-House meeter and greeter”, and some of the most intriguing items in the Bram Stoker Collection are hand-written seating plans for dinners hosted by himself and Irving. The Collection contains lots of printed material relating to performances including reviews, programmes and illustrations, but these little scraps are particularly telling. Stoker obviously took considerable care to place people around the table, these dinners being the places where business was done and plans made. Together he and Irving were what Kilgarriff calls “a matchless team”.

The Bram Stoker Collection contains little personal material, and, disappointingly for Dracula fans, hardly anything relating to Stoker’s most famous creation. There has been much speculation, though, about whether Irving’s stage presence as Faust was the inspiration for Count Dracula. It is not surprising that Jefny Ashcroft has chosen to focus on the writing of Dracula and the effect that it may have had on the relationship of the two men. This extract comes from the press release:

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth 1889 John Singer Sargent 1856-1925 Presented by Sir Joseph Duveen 1906

“the play is set in 1897 and showcases Bram’s career as a business manager to Sir Henry Irving (played by Barrie Palmer), acclaimed actor-manager of London’s Lyceum Theatre. Irving, also known as the Guv’nor, was the doyen of the Victorian stage particularly applauded for his Shakespearian roles and performed alongside his leading lady, Ellen Terry (played by Jo Price). Unbeknown to them, Bram (played by David Reakes) is also writing a strange new book, Dracula and attempts to persuade Henry Irving, who he idolises, to play Count Dracula. But all is not what it seems, as friendship and professional pride come into conflict and sparks fly. “

By 1897 Irving had passed the peak of his success. With his leading lady Ellen Terry he had performed many of Shakespeare’s greatest plays including Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, King Henry VIII, The Merchant of Venice and Much Ado About Nothing. He had made acting respectable, was favoured by Queen Victoria, and in 1895 was the first actor to receive a knighthood. Although Bram Stoker always remained out of the spotlight his talent was occasionally recognised. In 1888, on tour, the Chicago Daily News wrote ‘We know of no manager more vigilant, more indefatigable, more audacious than he. He knows how to make friends, how to keep them, and how to utilize them… In the manipulation of Mr Irving’s intricate and enormous business he exhibits a coolness, a shrewdness, and an enthusiasm that are simply masterful…Irving is fortunate in having so able and so loyal an associate.’

Bram and the Guv’nor is great opportunity to explore the relationship between these two extraordinary characters. Performances, lasting an hour, are free but people are asked to order tickets in advance. There are performances on 16, 17 and 20 May at the Shakespeare Centre in Stratford-upon-Avon.


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Shakespeare in the Gallery, Library, Archive and Museum

Fuseli, Henry; Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers; Tate;

Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums, known collectively as GLAMs contain many examples of the way in which Shakespeare has inspired creative people ever since his plays and poems were written. Paintings may be inspired by either a great performance of a play or by Shakespeare’s powerful words, characters and scenes. Writers have adapted Shakespeare’s plays into novels, television programmes and films. And there are representations of Shakespeare in all media from music and ballet to sculpture and glass. To me one of the greatest benefits of the internet is the increasing number of websites where, free of charge, people are able to gain access to both images and content relating to collections from around the world that remind us of our common humanity and the power of the imagination. 

The Art UK website is a fantastic resource for paintings held in public collections in the UK. To celebrate Shakespeare’s Birthday they have published an edition of their newsletter containing seven paintings inspired by Shakespeare from the cerebral, almost monochrome portrait by Blake to one of my favourites, the wonderfully eccentric Apotheosis of Garrick in which the great actor is raised to Mount Olympus where he is greeted by Shakespeare. Content Creator Molly Tresadern does a great job of putting the paintings in context and helping you look at them in detail. There are also lots of links to other bits of this brilliant site.  

A more quirky take on things inspired by Shakespeare is to be found on Culture 24’s Museum Crush site, another wonderful website. They’ve just published a lovely article in which Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Collection Librarian Mareike Doleschal picks some of her favourites in the Trust’s eclectic collection. The Secret Life of Shakespeare’s Books examines some of the intriguing and unexpected stories behind the historic books and documents cared for by the Trust.   

Both these sites contain loads of links to fantastic short articles where you can happily spend an hour or two, and bring together items you’d never be able to see in person. Have fun browsing!

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Celebrating Shakespearean stage actors

Judi Dench and Ian McKellen with the Gielgud blue plaque

On 27 April 2017 Dame Judi Dench unveiled a blue plaque on 16 Cowley Street in Westminster where Sir John Gielgud had lived from 1945 to 1976. It has taken a long time to appear since Gielgud died in 2000 aged 96 and most modern theatregoers will never have seen him onstage. Judi Dench met him in 1957 and worked with him a number of times including a hugely successful production of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard in both Stratford and London. She has given a number of interviews in which she recalled Gielgud’s ability as a speaker of Shakespeare. In BBC Radio 4’s Front Row from 26 April she said his strength was in presenting “the whole arc of the speech”. “John was sublime at being able to tell you exactly what it meant”, and she likened his ability in speaking Shakespeare with Frank Sinatra’s ability to phrase a song.

The clips of recordings of him sadly serve mostly to remind us how much fashion in verse speaking has changed, but Dench took the opportunity to highlight the need for modern actors, mostly trained to work on film or TV, to use their voices. In The Stage she commented   “If you’re not going to be heard, then stay at home and do it in your living room. It doesn’t require shouting, it requires learning about it and learning where your voice comes from, where your diaphragm is and how to use it.” Here are links to a couple of articles reporting her comments from the Independent and the Guardian.

Although late in life John Gielgud acted in many films, she suggested that he was “entirely a stage actor”, loving the camaraderie of the theatre as well as the immediacy of working with a live audience.

Shakespeare on Stage 2

I’ve recently been enjoying a new book that looks specifically at performances of Shakespeare. Entitled Shakespeare on Stage Volume 2, it is compiled by actor Julian Curry from interviews with twelve leading actors. Most of them are performances I’d seen and admired: Alan Rickman as Jaques, in As You Like It in 1985, Fiona Shaw as Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew in 1987, Harriet Walter as Imogen in Cymbeline in 1987, Michael Pennington as Timon in 1999 among others. All these were Royal Shakespeare Company productions, as was the famous Peter Brook A Midsummer Night’s Dream which Sara Kestelman, doubling Hippolyta/Titania, remembered so vividly from 1970.

I thought I would find myself drawn to the performances I remembered, but I found the ones I hadn’t seen just as compelling. Julian Curry is a skilled interviewer who has clearly done a vast amount of preparation before each interview. Maybe being an experienced actor himself also helped in getting frank answers to some of the questions.

I was fascinated by Eileen Atkins’ account of playing Viola at the Old Vic in 1961. She explained how she didn’t want to play her like Dorothy Tutin who she had understudied a few years earlier: “I couldn’t bear her pleading waiflike-ness. I found it all too coy and too cute. It wasn’t my kind of Viola”. It’s extraordinary how much these actors remember of the playing of these roles even decades later, and in the case of Alan Rickman, fortunate that the interview took place at all. Interviewed in 2012, he died early in 2016.

Although I saw it, I remember little of the detail of Simon Russell Beale’s Cassius in Julius Caesar at the Barbican in a cast that also included Anton Lesser as Brutus, John Shrapnel as Caesar and Ralph Fiennes as Mark Antony. Like many people I was puzzled that Beale was playing Cassius rather than Brutus, but he explains how director Deborah Warner persuaded him: “I think you have the psychological wherewithal to deal with a man who is neurotic”. He goes on “I’d always seen Cassius as a cold, successful political manipulator. But gradually…I realised that he’s not very good at manipulating…He panics again and again”. It’s fascinating to read how Beale came to the conclusion that it is the disappointed, sad and lonely figure of Cassius, not Brutus, who is the play’s most tragic figure.

The book also features a wonderful foreword from former Artistic Director of the National Theatre, Nicholas Hytner, in praise of actors. “Plays are by definition incomplete. They are instructions for performance, like musical scores, and they need players to become music”. Literary critics who have struggled to make sense of  Shakespeare’s characters are missing the point: “The solution is the actor. The playwright writes from the premise that the dots can’t be joined on the page, and writes with the confidence of an actor who knows that…his colleagues will do the rest of the job for him”. Several of the interviewees talk about this phenomenon, particularly Fiona Shaw who describes the experience of speaking Katherine’s part, “I had to play in the gaps” in the language.

An actor himself, Shakespeare wrote for other actors. Congratulations to those actors and theatre professionals working today who help to keep that heritage alive.

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Shakespeare and St George in Stratford-upon-Avon

14th century Russian icon of St George and the Dragon

23rd April is celebrated as the special day of St George, the patron saint of England. He’s one of the most popular of saints, venerated in Romania,  parts of Greece, Catalonia and Egypt, among many other places. Perhaps because of our current concerns about nationalism there seem to have been even more articles written and images posted on the internet than ever, many suggesting George is to be celebrated because he is a truly multicultural figure. The actual facts about his life and parentage are confused: he may have originated in Turkey, Syria or even Northern Africa, becoming a Christian martyr when executed for his faith by the Romans. He is associated with Lydda, which is now the town of Lod in Israel. 

The image of the warrior George as a knight on horseback spearing a dragon became widespread in the medieval period. Shakespeare mentions St George’s role as patron saint of England, most notably in Henry V’s rallying cry before the battle of Agincourt “Cry God for Harry, England and St George”. In a recent talk to Stratford-upon-Avon’s Shakespeare Club, Tim Raistrick, the Chairman of the Friends of the Guild Chapel, suggested that Shakespeare may have had his imagination fired by the paintings in the building, which included a magnificent representation of St George and the Dragon.

St George and the Dragon in Stratford’s Guild Chapel. From an 1804 drawing.

The illustration here comes from an 1838 publication, based on drawings made in 1804 by Thomas Fisher, and sadly does not represent what the paintings look like now, though the Chapel and its newly-restored wall-paintings are very much worth visiting. 

The wall paintings were placed there around the time the Chapel was largely rebuilt by Sir Hugh Clopton, in 1496. After the Reformation, all paintings in churches were obliterated, and the story has often been told that it was while John Shakespeare, William’s father, was the town’s Chamberlain, that this had been carried out. Crucially this was between 1563 and 1565, too early for William to have seen the paintings. But Tim suggested that at least some of the paintings may have survived for several decades as they are referred to in passing in contemporary documents. It’s a tantalising prospect, but rather a long shot.  Several years ago I wrote a post about the chapel before the restoration had taken place.

Another possible connection between Shakespeare and St George is through the Ascension Day pageant which took place in Stratford-upon-Avon. In his 1814 Guide to the town local historian Robert Bell Wheler interrupts his description of the Guild Chapel painting of St George with the note  ‘There was formerly upon Holy Thursday a procession of St George, whose armour or harness was placed upon one man, and the dragon was borne by another’. For him to mention it some two hundred and fifty years after it last took place it must have been very well-known. There are written references to the pageant and this harness going back to 1541, payments were made for the maintenance of George’s harness and bearing the dragon in 1556, and for the painting of the harness in 1557, when it was also noted that gunpowder was used in the portrayal of this fearsome beast.  

Then, on the accession of the Protestant Queen Elizabeth in 1558, just a few years before Shakespeare’s birth, the pageant seems to have been abandoned. All was not lost, though, as the harness was stored in the town’s Guild Hall where the rest of the town’s regalia and arms were kept. The Hall was directly below the schoolroom where Shakespeare was educated. Townspeople must have remembered these pageants, and would surely have shown off the harness to the pupils at the school, perhaps even have re-enacted how it was done.  

When Stratfordians eventually began to mark Shakespeare’s birthday for themselves, they also made the connection with St George. Stratford was a loyally patriotic town and, with a King George on the throne they immediately made the link between Shakespeare and England’s patron saint. At the first procession of Shakespeare’s characters, in 1827, the procession was led by the figure of St George, in armour and on horseback. Although most of the procession followed the plans set out by Garrick in 1769 (which was aborted because of the weather), St George was an addition. It’s even possible that his inclusion was a reference to those earlier pageants. St George featured again in 1830, this time represented by the upcoming young actor Charles Kean, son of the celebrated Edmund Kean.

Re-enacting St George’s battle with the dragon, 2017-style

This 1915 silent film clip from the British Film Institute notes that the Shakespeare Birthday Celebrations, here led by actor-manager Frank Benson, coincided with St George’s Day. Perhaps the connection was made particularly strongly because the Great War was raging at the time. It continues today with Saint George becoming an even more popular figure: this website lists some of the events that took place in 2017 including re-enactments of St George’s battle with the dragon, traditional feasting, and the decoration of Trafalgar Square in red and white. In Stratford, Shakespeare of course is given pride of place, but the flag of St George is flown at the top of Bridge Street and the link is still made between England’s national poet and our patron saint.  

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Shakespeare Birthday Celebrations 2017 in Stratford-upon-Avon

The band at the head of Bridge Street

In 2017 I am more aware than ever how lucky I am to live in Stratford-upon-Avon, able to take a full part in the whole weekend of the Birthday Celebrations, not just the day itself. So many events take place it isn’t possible to follow more than a few as many organisations run their own jollifications. We were particularly busy because we have also been promoting the Story of the Shakespeare Club of Stratford-upon-Avon, the organisation which originated the regular celebrations for Shakespeare’s Birthday almost 200 years ago.

I like to help out at the Celebrations by being a volunteer marshall, a role that mostly consists of guiding people to the places where they are supposed to be, and making sure they pull their flags at the right moment. Because of this and the Shakespeare Club’s historic role in the town I was invited to a reception at the Town Hall on Friday evening hosted by the Town Council. This included entertainment from a Rock Choir, the introduction of a new William Shakespeare, a gentleman by the name of Paul Workman, who appeared in the procession for the first time on Saturday, a birthday cake and confetti along with gracious speeches from our Mayor Juliet Short.

The quill is held high by the Head Boy of KES, with William Shakespeare standing by

On the day itself we helped get the parade into order in the beautiful gardens of New Place before setting off for Bridge Street where the Head Boy of KES was presented with a quill by William Shakespeare, flags of the nations and cultural organisations were flown, bands played and the national anthem was sung. The parade, led by the pupils of Shakespeare’s school,  then set off for Holy Trinity Church where Shakespeare is buried, for the handing over of floral tributes. The Shakespeare Club was allocated space in Bridge Street and members marched under their brand new banner, all in glorious sunshine.

After the parade, many different events take place and this year we opted to take part in the traditional grand luncheon, for the first time held in the Crowne Plaza Hotel. The hotel stands on the bank of the river and guests were able arrive at the luncheon by boat. The 500 diners drank a number of toasts including “The Immortal Memory of William Shakespeare” which dates back to the very first celebrations, and the award of the Pragnell Award for outstanding achievement, this year won by Sir Antony Sher.

The Shakespeare Club wreath

The celebrations do not end on the Saturday, as the Shakespeare service at Holy Trinity Church is always held on Sunday morning. Another colourful, if relatively short, parade, is led by one of the bands on duty on the Saturday. I watched the parade, and later on visited the Church to enjoy the sight and scent of the flowers left on Saturday. I spotted the Shakespeare Club’s laurel wreath on a special stand across the chancel from Shakespeare’s monument.

If you want to think about visiting for the weekend next year you can already save the date, with the big parade taking place on Saturday 21st April 2018. The website Shakespeare’s Celebrations will in due course reveal what is being planned: all we know so far is that it’s going to be very different, with much more participation from local groups and a real carnival atmosphere. Perhaps you might even like to take part, or to help.

The following photographs were all taken by myself or my husband Richard Morris over the course of the weekend. I hope they convey something of the festive atmosphere and perhaps encourage you to join Stratford-upon-Avon’s unique celebrations next year.

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Directing Shakespeare

Michael Bogdanov

With the sudden death of Michael Bogdanov this week theatre directors and their importance in the staging of Shakespeare’s plays have been on my mind in the build up to Shakespeare’s birthday. Shakespeare was the first director of his own plays: he above all people must have known how he wanted roles to be played, and how scenes were to be staged. Given Hamlet’s advice to the players, “Let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them”, we might assume he didn’t appreciate adlibs from his comics, but Shakespeare also gave actors space within the plays giving them choices to make about movement, gesture, emphasis, breathing.

From what I’ve heard about Michael Bogdanov he allowed his actors to be creative and even anarchic. The first scene I saw that was directed by him was in the John Barton production of Measure for Measure in 1970. While Barton took the serious scenes between Angelo, Isabella, and the Duke, he gave Bogdanov, his Assistant Director, the job of setting the scene in the prison. The character Pompey, who has previously worked in a brothel, is given the job of assisting the executioner Abhorson. This scene, in the prison, at night, was played as a riotously funny number, a major shift in mood from the serious discussion of power and corruption to the black comedy of a discussion about execution. Yet on the page there is hardly anything there at all. It was the first time I’d been aware of those spaces that actors can fill with life.

The ESC’s Wars of the Roses

I became a fan of his work having seen three Shakespeares at the Young Vic followed by The Taming of the Shrew in 1978/9 at the RSC. At the RSC he worked with actor Michael Pennington on The Shadow of a Gunman, a partnership that led in 1986 to the pair forming the English Shakespeare Company. This was at least partly born out of frustration with the RSC for whom Bogdanov had only just directed a modern and controversial Romeo and Juliet (the one with an Alfa Romeo). The ESC’s greatest achievement, though not the only one, was a touring seven-play cycle of Shakespeare’s history plays The Wars of the Roses. You can hear him speaking himself in 1987, as his company began to define itself, in his Desert Island Discs interview. This week his publicist described his Shakespeare productions as “political, accessible, joyous and transformative”.

A WINTER’S TALE by Shakespeare, , Writer – William Shakespeare, Director –
Declan Donnellan, Designer –
Nick Ormerod
, Cheeck by Jowl, 2015, Credit: Johan Persson/

I was reminded of Bodganov’s approach when watching Cheek by Jowl’s live-streamed production of The Winter’s Tale. I admired so much of it: the modern, clear and uncluttered trajectory of the first half of the play, the physicality of the performances, the inventive set and lighting, and the energy of it. The production seemed less sure of itself in the second half, coming up with a number of parallels for Bohemia that reminded me only what an unpleasant and violent world we live in. Autolycus as the Jeremy Kyle type host of a chat show for unhappy people was at least funny, but Shakespeare’s conman uses nothing more violent than threats to extort bribes: here Autolycus changed into a border guard who viciously beat up a traveller for failing to supply documentation. Was this meant to make a point about the normalisation of violence? In just a couple of minutes I felt alienated from a production I had wanted to love, by a director, Declan Donnellan, I’ve always admired. It’s still a production very much worth watching, skilfully filmed from a live performance, and is available until 7 May 2017.

We’ve also been hearing more about the troubled Artistic Directorship of Shakespeare’s Globe in London. The outgoing Artistic Director, Emma Rice and her predecessor Dominic Dromgoole have both written open letters to whoever will be the new appointee, expressing their opinions of the job of being Artistic Director, and pointing out the shortcomings of the process at the Globe.  Both insist that the Artistic Director must be allowed a free hand in the creative running of their theatres. The letters are written more in sorrow than in anger, talking with passion about the great opportunity of running this theatre, while warning the new Artistic Director about obstacles placed in their way by the Board. It will need to be a brave person who steps into Rice’s shoes, knowing what a difficult time she has had. But all credit to the Globe for publishing these critical letters on their website.

Bringing Shakespeare’s plays to the stage has probably never been easy: the man himself may have had frank discussions with his fellow-shareholders about what he wrote, and he probably argued that he needed a free hand too.

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The Winter’s Tale live streaming: a play for our times

A scene from Cheek by Jowl’s The Winter’s Tale

The Winter’s Tale, with its theme of the pain of loss followed by the joy of resurrection, is a play that is particularly appropriate around Easter and Shakespeare’s Birthday, while the portrayal of mental illness makes it very much a play for our troubled times.

As Pat Tatspaugh points out in her excellent Shakespeare at Stratford study in The Arden Shakespeare series, it’s a play that has proved more popular on the stage than in the study where it has tended to be seen as “too complex or too crudely constructed” with a whole list of “problems” including “Leontes’ sudden and apparently inexplicable jealousy; the abandonment of his infant daughter; his public humiliation of Hermione… the abrupt leap forward sixteen years [and] Hermione’s restoration and reunion with Leontes and their daughter”.  Yet audience’s rarely seem bothered by these, and the play’s conclusion is one of the most moving scenes in Shakespeare.

The brilliant international company Cheek by Jowl is currently touring their highly-praised production of The Winter’s Tale and on Wednesday 19 April 2017 it is being live streamed from the Barbican Theatre in London.  With audiences from around the world, the play will be screened with French and Spanish subtitles, and with the option of English access subtitles. This multi-camera screening will be free, and streamed to your computer, made possible due to the support and partnership of the Barbican Centre, The Space, Arts Council England, the BBC, Spain’s El País, France’s Télérama and The Sydney Morning Herald in Australia. Although it will be very special to watch it live, it will be available until midnight on 7th May, on

A scene from Cheek by Jowl’s The Winter’s Tale

Start time will be 19.30 (BST) and the live link for the show is here on the British Council’s site. The running time will be 2 hrs 40 minutes including a 20 minute interval.

The production, directed by Declan Donnellan, has been described as “an original masterpiece” that “pairs irreverence and inventiveness with emotional clarity and power” (Reviews from Le Figaro and The Stage), and I’ve received more tweets praising it than for any production I can remember. More information about the play is also available at the Barbican website at the moment. It centres around the figure of the King, Leontes “a delusional and paranoid king who tears his family apart”.  This link leads to an interview with Orlando James who plays the role.

Antony Sher as King Leontes in the RSC’s The Winter’s Tale, 1999

I particularly remember Antony Sher’s portrayal of Leontes in the RSC’s 1999 production. On a set that included billowing black cloths, claustrophobic walls and unnatural perspectives, he lurched, wild-eyed, downstage at one point, clearly in the grip of some kind of delusion. Tatspaugh includes extracts from an interview Sher gave to critic Charles Spencer in which he explains that he visited a number of psychiatrists who offered diagnoses of Leontes’ condition. Sher decided the closest match was “psychotic jealousy”, which “descends from a clear blue sky. The patient becomes irrationally convinced that his partner is betraying him and it causes wildly obsessive behaviour, morbid fantasies and paroxysms of rage and violence followed by periods of intense remorse”. Sher’s performance accurately reflected these symptoms, but how, four hundred years ago, did Shakespeare know about them?

This year’s recipient of the annual Pragnell Award, given on 22 April 2017 at Shakespeare’s Birthday Luncheon to someone who has achieved great success in the world of Shakespeare, will be Sir Antony Sher. His most famous roles include Richard III, Macbeth, King Lear, Falstaff and Prospero but my favourite over the years has been Leontes, the relatively unknown, psychologically complex King of Sicilia in the flawed but magnificent  The Winter’s Tale.

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