Floral offerings for Shakespeare’s Birthday

DSCN8751croppedShakespeare’s Birthday has been celebrated in Stratford-upon-Avon for very nearly two centuries. Over this period there have been many changes, but the floral procession from the centre of the town to Holy Trinity Church remains their central feature.

It is headed by boys from King Edward VI School because the school initiated the custom of carrying flowers to be laid on Shakespeare’s grave out of respect for their fellow-pupil, a ceremony carried out every year since 1893. Much of the story has been reported by the Stratford-upon-Avon Herald, but I’m indebted to the School’s archivist, Richard Pearson, for sharing a newly-discovered volume of the School’s magazine, The Stratfordian, dating back to that first event.

The idea of a special procession for Shakespeare began with the Garrick Jubilee in September 1769 though plans had to be abandoned because of torrential rain. Processions were a popular, if not regular, feature of Birthday celebrations from 1826 onwards. The Shakespeare Memorial Theatre opened in 1879 with the first professional production of a Shakespeare play on 23 April, that overwhelmed the town’s homegrown efforts to mark the big day.

The main event, though, took place behind closed doors. Ordinary people were not expected to participate, and had little to look at. In 1893 there was a concerted effort to do more, with the Mayor inviting townspeople to decorate the streets with flags and festoons, and as it was a Sunday special church services were held to which the town’s Shakespeare organisations formally walked in procession. The Birmingham Daily Post gave a full report, ending with this additional observation:

An interesting ceremony took place in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-on-Avon, on Saturday evening[22nd]. The head master (the Rev R S de C Laffan), the assistant masters, and the pupils of the Grammar School entered the church bearing a magnificent wreath, composed of arum lilies and stephanotis, which they desired to lay upon Shakespeare’s grave…. Mr Laffan, addressing the vicar (the Rev G Arbuthnot),…begged him to accept the wreath which they had brought as an affectionate tribute and token of reverence for their great and distinguished schoolfellow.

The school magazine described the scene and went on: It was …a very pretty ceremony. It is to be hoped that every anniversary of the day will see it repeated. But as we filed past the grave, and saw the costly flowers lying on the slab, we could not but think how much more in accordance with what we know of the tastes of Shakspere, our offering would have been if it had been composed of simple wild flowers.

The Chancel of Holy Trinity Church with floral offerings

The Chancel of Holy Trinity Church with floral offerings

The procession was repeated the following year, during the day. As well as carrying a floral wreath, “The boys walked from the school two by two, each carrying a bunch of primroses” which they arranged on the poet’s grave in the form of a cross. In a sermon the Headmaster enlarged: “He had been in Frankfurt on Goethe’s birthday where streams of people brought flowers to deck his house. He should like to see the Birthplace and the tomb in that glorious church made beautiful with flowers on the day”.

The Rev de C Laffan’s idea for a procession of children and ordinary people, not just officials, carrying offerings of wild flowers took off immediately. Although not originally intended as a public display by 1895 it was reported that people were coming to watch, combining spectacle and public participation. All the schools took part, and in 1898 the Vicar of Holy Trinity announced he would receive floral offerings in the Church from anyone who wanted to bring them. “Long before the hour appointed a large crowd had assembled…and…many could not get inside the building”. It was even bigger in 1899. “The nave, north and south aisles, and part of the transepts were filled with a congregation”.

The Stratford-upon-Avon Herald noted that it was the inclusiveness of the ceremony that made it so successful:  The custom of depositing floral tributes on the tomb of the great Poet is one that deserves encouragement. In years gone by the ceremony was a very perfunctory one, and was generally performed by half a dozen people. The Birthplace Trustees have invariably sent a wreath of bay leaves, and it was laid upon the tomb without anything approaching formality…Saturday’s function was a most impressive one. The tributes came from great and small. The former brought their wreaths, artistically fashioned, the latter their little bouquets of flowers, and some, perhaps, only a single bloom. One evinced quite as much reverence as the other. Lovers of his works are to be found amongst all classes, and now that it is the fashion to honour Shakespeare’s memory it is right and proper that the humblest student of literature and admirers of the Poet should have an equal opportunity with the greatest in the land of putting a posy on his grave on the anniversary of his natal day.

The 2014 Celebrations

The 2014 Celebrations

With the church overflowing, in 1901 the Shakespeare Club (responsible for organising the celebrations) arranged for a procession to start at the Town Hall. The Club realised that its success relied on the informal charm of the school’s input. “Led by the boys of the Grammar School who revived this ceremony some years ago, many hundreds of people walked to the church”. This tradition took hold with the procession being headed at the Guild Hall by the headmaster and boys. In 1909 the Stratford-upon-Avon Herald noted that not long before it had been marked “by a dozen school boys making their way from the Grammar School to the church with a wreath and out of that simple act of homage …has grown the present long procession of pilgrims to the grave”.

The sight and smell of the chancel of Holy Trinity Church carpeted with floral offerings is still to me the most touching part of Shakespeare’s Birthday Celebrations. If you would like to help ensure the long-term future of these events, why not join the new organisation Shakespeare’s Celebrations? Membership begins at a modest £7 and would make a very acceptable Christmas present for any Shakespeare-lover.

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Catching the plague


Medical staff treating an Ebola victim

Medical staff treating an Ebola victim

The outbreak of Ebola in West Africa has been one of the most alarming continuing stories of 2014. Seven thousand people have died and the West has been accused of being slow to respond. It is heartening to hear that medical staff from the UK will be working in Africa over Christmas.

Ebola has been called the modern plague. A terrible disease itself, it also wipes out families and communities, the affected sometimes being shunned by their neighbours. We are hearing stories reminiscent of the last great outbreak of bubonic plague to hit Britain, the Great Plague of London in 1665, where houses containing a victim were boarded up, condemning the rest of the inhabitants to almost-certain death. There was little medical treatment.

The Plague Doctor's costume

The Plague Doctor’s costume

Nowadays those responsible for caring for victims of Ebola wear a distinctive enveloping costume that completely hides the person’s identity. It’s similar to the costume worn by the plague doctors of the seventeenth century, an all-covering cloak of waxed leather, with boots, gloves and a distinctive head-dress with a beak-like covering for nose and mouth. This was designed to be filled with herbs and even straw to help prevent infection. Modern uniforms are routinely cleaned and sterilised, but these costumes may themselves have spread infection. No wonder that Plague Doctor costumes, rather than being reassuring, have become frightening symbols of death.

For Shakespeare and his contemporaries plague was a continuing threat. The Black Death took place during the 1340s and 1350s, centuries before Shakespeare lived, but with about a third of the population of Europe and Asia dying the effects were long-lasting.

Between The Black Death and the 1665 Great Plague of London there were recurrent outbreaks. One occurred in Stratford during the year Shakespeare was born, 1564. The words Hic incepit pestis (here begins the plague) were written in the church’s burial register on 11 July.  William, just three months old, was lucky to survive: people often escaped to places of safety and it’s thought his mother may have taken him to her home village of Wilmcote. During 1564 around 250 people died in the town compared with fewer than 60 the year before.

Later he had other brushes with plague. In 1592, when Shakespeare’s career as a writer was just taking off, one in twelve Londoners died. Bills of Mortality were published giving details of who had died, parish by parish. The closing of the theatres because of plague could have damaged his career, but instead Shakespeare took the opportunity to find a patron and write his two long poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece.

An even more serious outbreak occurred in the summer of 1603, the year James 1 came from Scotland to succeed to the throne, and Shakespeare and his company became the King’s Men. It was so serious that the King’s grand procession into London had to be postponed. One in five citizens of London, about 25,000 people died. In the radio programme Shakespeare’s Restless World, Neil MacGregor talks about documents of the time, plague orders that gave people advice on how to cope: counting the infected, burying the dead, covering the costs. The Folger Shakespeare Library’s website contains illustrations of some of these documents.

Collecting bodies during the Great Plague of London, 1665

Collecting bodies during the Great Plague of London, 1665

Playwright Thomas Dekker’s pamphlet, The Wonderful Year, likened the outbreak to a battle against the adversary, Death:
Imagine then that all this while, Death (like a Spanish Leagar, or rather like stalking Tamberlaine) hath pitched his tents, (being nothing but a heape of winding sheets tacked together) in the sinfully-polluted Suburbes: the Plague is Muster-maister and Marshall of the field: Burning Feauers, Boyles, Blaines, and Carbuncles, the Leaders, Lieutenants, Serieants, and Corporalls: the maine Army consisting (like Dunkirke) of a mingle-mangle, viz. dumpish Mourners, merry Sextons, hungry Coffin-sellers, scrubbing Bearers, and nastie Graue-makers.

Plague must have been powerfully in Shakespeare’s mind too, but it’s rarely mentioned in his plays – perhaps because one of theatre’s functions was to offer escapism. It is plague that means Friar Lawrence’s letter to Romeo doesn’t get through, leading to his suicide in Juliet’s tomb. And in King Lear, the King likens his daughter Goneril to the plague, which can not be got rid of:
But yet thou art my flesh, my blood, my daughter;
Or rather a disease that’s in my flesh,
Which I must needs call mine: thou art a boil,
A plague-sore, an embossed carbuncle,
In my corrupted blood.

The Great Plague of 1665 killed between 70,000 and 100,000 people, something like 15% of London’s population. Without a major outbreak anywhere in the world for the last 60 years, bubonic plague is no longer thought to be a major risk. A recent Radio 3 programme, A Cultural History of the Plague draws links between pandemics including the current Ebola crisis, and is available as a download.

To find out more, the Medecins Sans Frontieres page contains information about Ebola, the outbreak, and action being taken to bring this modern plague under control.

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Plays and performances in Shakespeare’s theatres

shakespearestheatreand the effects of performanceI recently wrote about how Shakespeare leaves gaps within the text which actors are able to fill using their own imaginations. I’ve been reading a book that describes how theatres themselves contributed to the writing and performance of plays, an extension of the idea that the author’s text is only one element of a play.

The 2013 book Shakespeare’s Theatres and the Effects of Performance, edited by Farah Karim-Cooper and Tiffany Stern and now available in paperback, looks at the theatres for which Shakespeare’s plays were written and how their features are represented in plays of the period. It owes much to the existence of the reconstructed Shakespeare’s Globe, which since its opening nearly 20 years ago has provided opportunities to examine the practicalities, as well as the symbolism, of the theatres themselves.

In the introduction the editors pose a number of questions for the essays to answer: “How did Elizabethan and Jacobean acting companies create their multi-faceted effects and how did this shape the plays written for them? What materials and technologies were available to early modern players, and how did these impact on staging? What role did the senses play in the reception of theatre and in what ways did texts acknowledge them? How was being the audience in the early modern theatre a multi-sensory experience, and where can that experience be traced in the plays that survive?”

Before the opening of Shakespeare’s Globe in the mid-1990s there were many debates about the shape and size of the original theatre, even the orientation of the stage. There was little hard evidence on which to build. In recent years archaeological digs in the built-up areas of central London have revealed fascinating details about the playhouses themselves. And the growth of interest in material culture has fuelled work on buildings and objects and their importance in cultural history. The work done in Shakespeare’s Globe has helped to emphasize the relationship between the plays in performance and the conditions for which they were written. In her chapter, Tiffany Stern observes “What is clear throughout Shakespeare’s writing is that, as is to be expected, he wrote for the places in which his plays were performed, sometimes wrapping their features into his fictional world, sometimes wrapping his fictions around their features.’ The book’s chapters are in three sections, the first on how the theatres themselves contributed to the experience; the second on the human body and how wounds, fights, executions, and disguises were represented, and the third examines the elusive experiencing of the five senses: the smells, acoustics, touch and taste, and spectacle bound up with the playhouses.

The title-page of The Tempest in the 1623 First Folio

The title-page of The Tempest in the 1623 First Folio

The connections between the plays and the buildings make these essays compelling. Without Shakespeare’s manuscripts, how are we to interpret the simple stage directions in the First Folio for the first scene of The Tempest?  “A tempestuous noise of thunder and lightning heard. Enter a Ship-master, and a Boatswain”. Later in the scene there are directions for noises and at one point “Enter mariners wet”. Did these appear in Shakespeare’s manuscript, were they added to describe what had happened in performance, or were they an attempt to explain to readers the text that followed?  I particularly enjoyed Gwilym Jones’ chapter Storm Effects in Shakespeare which looks at this question, comparing this scene with the storm in Julius Caesar, written for the outdoor theatres where fireworks were used more often than in the indoor Blackfriars for which Shakespeare imagined The Tempest. Nathalie Rivere de Carles’ chapter on curtains on the early modern stage closely scrutinises the multiplicity of uses, including symbolic ones, of these humble and usually-overlooked pieces of cloth.

Laura Rees as Lavinia in Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare's Globe 2006. Photo by Donald Cooper

Laura Rees as Lavinia in Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s Globe 2006. Photo by Donald Cooper

In the second section Lucy Munro tackles the intriguing issues around the representation of blood and dismembered body parts. Her detailed survey answers questions about what was used, and how. It was, and still is, difficult to make scenes requiring false body parts convincing.  Many of us will have seen modern productions that struggle: Imogen’s discovery of the decapitated body of Cloten, which she thinks to be her husband Posthumus, should be a moment of high emotion, but can easily turn to comedy. So can the appearance of dismembered heads in Shakespeare’s history plays, though the scene in Titus Andronicus in which Lavinia enters after her hands have been cut off is always shocking.

There is much more to enjoy in this book, and while it’s accepted that theatrical conditions affected writing, it’s frustrating not to know if playwrights were able to advance theatre design and technology. Not much is known about how the theatres developed  between the building of the first permanent stage in 1576 and the closing of the theatres in 1642, nor how the plays were adapted for performance at court or at touring venues. Shakespeare must have been frustrated  with the limitations of the theatre, that could not present the scenes as he imagined them.
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

Maybe he hoped that in the future they would be fully represented on stage. They have certainly given countless artists and designers for stage and screen much to inspire them in the four centuries since he died.

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Old December’s bareness everywhere

winter carIt’s December and winter is definitely on the way. Heavy snow has already been causing chaos in the USA, and in the UK we are bracing ourselves for violent storms.  In Stratford the ways are certainly foul with mud and the river has been swollen. The last of the leaves have been clinging damply to the trees.  I always enjoy being able to see the branches of the trees against the sky, and walking through fallen leaves has been shown to boost our mood.

As the days get shorter, the old year is dying to be reborn after the festivals of the winter solstice. In Sonnet 97 Shakespeare describes the negative aspect of this time of year:
How like a winter hath my absence been
From thee, the pleasure of the fleeting year!
What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen!
What old December’s bareness everywhere!

In As You Like It  Rosalind suggests “men are April when they woo, December when they wed”.

DSCN1262 croplondon plane winterBut there’s another side to December too: not just “limping” and “ragged”, but “rough”, “angry” and “wrathful” too. Thomas Tusser wrote about activities appropriate to each month in his 1580 book Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry, and his descriptions of December are dominated by the weather, with “Hyems boisterous blasts, and bitter cold”, and “At Christmas the hardness of winter doth rage”. For Shakespeare in Sonnet 13 “the stormy gusts of winter’s day /And barren rage of death’s eternal cold” are challenges to humans, requiring an active response. Sure enough, in mid-December the weather in the UK is set to turn aggressively windy though the midlands will miss the worst of it.

The banished Duke in As You Like It the banished Duke finds there’s real honesty about winter weather compared with the smoothness of life at court.
as the icy fang
And churlish chiding of the winter’s wind,
Which when it bites and blows upon my body,
Even till I shrink with cold, I smile and say ‘
This is no flattery; these are counsellors
That feelingly persuade me what I am.

December from Spenser's Shepherd's Calendar

December from Spenser’s Shepherd’s Calendar

One of the songs also suggests that winter weather can be enjoyed:
Blow, blow, thou winter wind,
Thou art not so unkind
As man’s ingratitude;
Thy tooth is not so keen,
Because thou art not seen,
Although thy breath be rude.
Heigh-ho! sing heigh-ho! unto the green holly.
Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly.
Then, heigh-ho, the holly!
This life is most jolly.
Freeze, freeze, thou bitter sky,
That dost not bite so nigh
As benefits forgot;
Though thou the waters warp,
Thy sting is not so sharp
As friend rememb’red not.

And at the end of King John, the poisoned and dying king pleads for the coldness of winter to relieve his burning pain:
Poison’d,—ill fare—dead, forsook, cast off:
And none of you will bid the winter come
To thrust his icy fingers in my maw,
Nor let my kingdom’s rivers take their course
Through my burn’d bosom, nor entreat the north
To make his bleak winds kiss my parched lips
And comfort me with cold. I do not ask you much,
I beg cold comfort; and you are so strait
And so ingrateful, you deny me that.

Winter doesn’t have to be all bad. In As You Like It again, old Adam, surely one of Shakespeare’s best-loved minor characters, and said to be a part he wrote for himself, describes how “my age is as a lusty winter,/Frosty, but kindly.” Let’s hope there will be some kindness in the weather this winter.

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The Swan Wing takes flight

The Swan Wing of the RST in Stratford

The Swan Wing of the RST in Stratford

Last week the Royal Shakespeare Company announced the start of a major project to restore what is now called the Swan Wing, the most historic part of their complex of buildings. From January work will begin on both the exterior and interior, and when the building reopens in April 2016 a new exhibition will document the RSC’s history and work.

A full press release is available here, and here is an interview with Geraldine Collinge, RSC Director of Events and Exhibitions  broadcast on BBC Coventry and Warwickshire on 2 December. Scroll to 2 hrs 5 mins into the programme.

I’m delighted to see so much attention being given to this part of the building. As Marian Pringle points out in her definitive book on the buildings, The Theatres of Stratford-upon-Avon 1875-1992, what is now called the Swan Wing was originally the Library and Picture Gallery. When the competition brief was written these features were included, and had to be incorporated into the design. The building was not just for theatrical performance, but would also allow its patrons to see fine paintings and engravings, to read books about Shakespeare, his plays, biographies, and stage histories. In The Shakespeare Memorial Theatre Ruth Ellis explained: “the idea in Mr Flower’s mind was of an eventual development into a school for dramatic and scholastic study of Shakespeare”.

Donations were requested, and the Library and Art Gallery were soon receiving large numbers of items. For many years these were seen as of enough interest to be listed in the Stratford-on-Avon Herald.

Now a bar, this room was originally the Library at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre

Now a bar, this room was originally the Library at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre

On a Saturday afternoon in March 1926 a fire was discovered in the theatre.  According to Brown and Fearon in  Amazing Monument, “Volunteers were called for and quickly responded. A human chain was made across the road from the interior of the Museum to the Memorial Lecture Room. Books, pictures, and relics were transferred from hand to hand and finally deposited in safety well away from the flames….The first Four Folios, the Droeshout portrait, numerous large oil paintings, hundreds of valuable books, relics of famous Shakespearean actors…and a hundred and one other exhibits” were all saved. Then the wind changed and “the flames no longer threatened the treasure-house”.

The Library remained on the ground floor of the building until 1964 when it was amalgamated with the Shakespeare collections of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in the new Shakespeare Centre, where they have remained, the SBT acquiring other collections that complement the theatre’s. Combined, they are of national and international importance, as described by Robert Smallwood, the General Editor of the Shakespeare at Stratford series: “the theatre archive housed in the Shakespeare Centre Library here in Stratford-upon-Avon is among the most important in the world; for the study of the performance history of Shakespeare’s plays in the twentieth century it is unsurpassed.”

These collections include books, paintings, sculptures and ephemeral material such as engravings and playbills as well as major collections such as the Bram Stoker Collection of material relating to Henry Irving and items relating to the Benson Company. The records of the theatre itself were added, growing exponentially as the brief annual celebrations evolved, becoming in the RSC an international organisation performing for most of the year in five different auditoria in Stratford and London.

Paul Kummer's bas-relief showing a scene from King John. It was given by the architect of the building, Unsworth.

Paul Kummer’s bas-relief showing a scene from King John. It was given by the architect of the building, Unsworth.

The work on the Swan wing “will include the sympathetic cleaning of the brickwork, lead windows, and roof lights, together with the restoration and interpretation of the three exterior bas reliefs by Paul Kummer, which depict stories from Shakespeare of comedy, history and tragedy, and the original stained glass windows which line the Swan Theatre staircase and illustrate the famous lines of the Seven Ages of Man from Shakespeare’s As You Like It.”. The fabric of the building, and some of the features which in themselves represent the history of the productions performed in the theatre, are to be preserved.

But going back to the original function of this building, what about the items which it was designed to house and make available for use? The theatre’s library, archives collections, paintings and museum objects are of as much importance as the bricks and mortar, and just as much in need of care and conservation. There is to be “a new exhibition documenting the RSC’s history and showcasing how the Company makes its productions”. And while I’m delighted to hear  that “previously unseen treasures from the RSC’s internationally renowned Archive and Collection will feature in the exhibition, including costumes, set designs, props, photographs, paintings, drawings, audio and video recordings, and much more”, there seem to be no plans to assist with the long-term care of the hundreds of thousands of items in the RSC’s collections.

The stained glass window in the Swan Wing commemorating the members of the Benson Company who lost their lives in World War 1

The stained glass window in the Swan Wing commemorating the members of the Benson Company who lost their lives in World War 1

The Heritage Lottery Fund awarded a £2.8 million grant to the Swan Wing project, and the RSC’s fundraisers have worked hard to raise £2 million from a number of charitable foundations to safeguard the future of this historic building. Is it too much to hope that the next stage of this process will be to raise a similar amount of money to help conserve, care for, document and make accessible the whole of the RSC’s Library and Archive?

The following are posts I’ve written previously on  features of the Swan Wing:

The SMT and the fire

Memory and stage performances

The seven ages of man glass panels

The stained glass panel devoted to Janet Achurch

The stained glass Benson windows

The stained glass window devoted to George Weir.

The glass panel of Shakespeare’s coat of arms

The Bas-reliefs on the exterior of the building

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Shakespearean acting: achieving greatness

Tom Hiddleston as Coriolanus

Tom Hiddleston as Coriolanus

Four hundred years on, Shakespeare has lost none of his appeal for actors and directors, with Tom Hiddleston recently winning the Evening Standard Best Actor award for his charismatic portrayal of Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse in London. Only 33, this was his third nomination, and second award, for acting in a Shakespeare role onstage, despite much other more modern work. He’s already a very good actor, and in time may achieve greatness.

Back in 2013 Nicholas Hytner wrote a perceptive piece for the Guardian about what makes Shakespeare so eminently actable. It was entitled With Shakespeare, the play is just a starting point, and went on to talk about how the plays ” are instructions for performance, like musical scores, and they need players to become music.” As an actor himself, working with professionals, at least some of whom were better actors than he was, Shakespeare knew he could rely on their imagination, creativity, and skill.

Writing about directing Othello, Hytner comments ” The desire of literary critics over four centuries to solve Iago as if he were a puzzle seems to me to be 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, if they are any good, his colleagues will do the rest of the job for him.” And again, writing about Iago’s lack of proper motivation, “What Shakespeare has done, of course, is to pay his fellow actor the compliment of trusting him to complete Iago for himself.”

It’s a compliment that isn’t always forthcoming. With the playwright (and nowadays the director) in charge, actors may not be treated as creative artists themselves. Writers have often underestimated actors: in Robert Greene’s 1592 Groatsworth of Wit, which has a go at Shakespeare as a mere actor, he described actors as “puppets…that spake from our mouths”.

Laurence Olivier as Coriolanus and Sybil Thorndike as Volumnia, Old Vic 1938. Photo from the Collections of the V&A

Laurence Olivier as Coriolanus and Sybil Thorndike as Volumnia, Old Vic 1938. Photo from the Collections of the V&A

As Hytner suggests, Shakespeare’s roles are great for actors because they allow them the freedom to express themselves. I recently heard the eminent Shakespeare academic Professor Stanley Wells giving a lecture based on a forthcoming book, entitled “What makes a great Shakespearean actor?”  Inevitably, he attempted to define “great”. He is well-qualified to judge, having been one of the first academics to write seriously about acting Shakespeare and having memories of performances going back to the 1950s, some of which are still vivid.

He went through the sort of attributes great actors have: the ability to convey feelings using body language, to communicate with the audience by using their eyes, to know how to listen and react to other actors, to have great timing. He used the example of Laurence Olivier’s Coriolanus, who at times used his voice and dynamic movement to dominate the stage, but when it came to the great scene with his mother, was able to draw all eyes to him by remaining silent and still. The analysis of desirable skills reminded me of Olivia’s list of her features: “I will give out divers schedules of my beauty. It shall be inventoried, and every particle and utensil labelled to my will. As, item: two lips, indifferent red; item: two grey eyes, with lids to them; item,: one neck, one chin, and so forth”.

Definable techniques are not what turn excellent acting into great acting any more than possessing normal facial features guarantees beauty. Professor Wells commented that actors are indeed creative artists with an “imaginative identification” with the role being played. Perhaps Hytner’s image of an actor filling in the gaps in the text is equivalent to Wells’s idea of an actor identifying with the part.

Judi Dench as Viola, Twelfth Night, RSC 1969

Judi Dench as Viola, Twelfth Night, RSC 1969

I’m both a keen reader of Shakespeare and a lover of his plays on stage, and for me what makes a great performance is one that makes me feel that I’ve experienced the play, or maybe just a couple of lines, for the first time. It’s a big ask, to make some of the most familiar words in the language sound fresh, but it can be done. Professor Wells talked about the inflexion that Judi Dench, playing Viola, gave the word “brothers” in the line “I am all the daughters of my father’s house, and all the brothers too”, a tiny but telling detail. There’s a lovely example of this, too, in Nicholas Hytner’s article, where he writes about the actor David Calder rehearsing the role of Polonius.

At the Shakespeare Club’s Presidential evening in November Jeremy Irons talked about his own approach to acting Shakespeare. Instinctive rather than intellectual, he tries not to get in the way of the text. He likened the actor to a trumpet: the writer blows in at one end and the actor lets the air come out in the character at the other. 

On a related subject, I’ve enjoyed reading Ralph Myers’ lecture on the arts in Australia, Let’s keep the dreamers in charge of the arts, published in the Guardian online. It’s a passionate plea for the promotion of highly creative people in arts organisations, because “People want to come and see the most exciting, the most thrilling, the most moving, the most daring performance they can find.” Some of them are likely to be Shakespeare’s plays, performed by actors of imagination and outstanding creative ability.

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Cheek by Jowl and Shakespeare’s Globe in the news

Tom Hollander as Celia and Adrian Lester as Rosalind, As YOu Like It, Cheek by Jowl, 1991

Tom Hollander as Celia and Adrian Lester as Rosalind, As YOu Like It, Cheek by Jowl, 1991

Two theatre companies which have made their mark by performing Shakespeare have recently made announcements about future programming and projects. First, Cheek by Jowl. Since they were formed in 1981 by Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod the company has done over thirty productions. Shakespeare has always been key: they’ve put on 15 Shakespeare productions and are an Associate Company at the Barbican, once the RSC’s London home.

Touring has always been at the heart of the company’s work, but they have taken it a stage further by working in French and Russian as well as English and touring to over 300 cities in 40 countries. The Guardian defined their style: they “bring life to the classics using intense, vivid performances like a laser of light to set the text ablaze”.

Now they are bringing their Russian-language production (with English surtitles) of Measure for Measure to London and the Oxford Playhouse in April 2015. It’s already been nominated for a number of awards. Booking is now open, and here is the trailer for what looks like an amazing production.

I’m also delighted to see the announcement that Cheek by Jowl are now making parts of their archives available on their website. This is due to a gift from Sophie Hamilton, a founder-Director of the Company in 1981 who died leaving a generous legacy to the Company. It has given them the opportunity to digitise and make accessible much valuable material that will enable more people to find out about the rich history of this Company and the stage history of the plays. For example, the play scripts for some productions have been digitised in full, as well as programmes and there are transcripts of the reviews and full cast lists. All this material is extremely useful particularly for the early productions that took place before the rise of the internet.

Work is continuing and more of the archive will be online by the end of the year. Apparently some of the photographs on the As You Like It page have never been seen before. This production is probably the Company’s most famous, with all all-male cast including the very young Adrian Lester as Rosalind and Tom Hollander as Celia. Originally dating from 1991 it was revived a few years later when it was filmed by the National Video Archive of Stage Performance, kept by the V&A Theatre Collections, where it can still be seen.

The company’s archives from the years 1981-99 are also kept at the V&A Theatre Collections. There’s information here from the V&A and here from the Archives Hub. Records of theatre productions don’t turn into archives unless an effort is made to keep them and it is good news that Cheek by Jowl are making plans to ensure that all new work is digitised and made available worldwide. In the Eyewitness section of the site they are also asking for online feedback about past productions to help enhance the records.

Dominic Dromgoole at Shakespeare's Globe

Dominic Dromgoole at Shakespeare’s Globe

Meanwhile, at Shakespeare’s Globe the 2015 summer season, Dominic Dromgoole’s last, has been announced. Ambitious as ever, the theme of the season will be Justice and Mercy.”The season will probe the strengths and weaknesses of judicial law and the various tugs-of-war between family, state, religion, love, sex and duty that have defined human morality for centuries.” Nine Shakespeare plays are on offer including The Merchant of Venice, Measure for Measure and Richard II.

By the end of 2015 the theatre will have staged every one of the 38 plays written entirely or substantially by Shakespeare on the kind of stage for which the dramatist wrote. The final play will be a touring production of  King John, marking the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. Interviewed by the Guardian, Dromgoole explained ” “This is a very significant moment for us….Doing the play that naturally attaches itself to Magna Carta, King John, is finishing a very big jigsaw puzzle that has been growing for 20 years.” The production will be a collaboration between the Globe and the Royal & Derngate Theatre, Northampton, and it will visit two wonderfully historic and atmospheric venues, the Holy Sepulchre Church in Northampton (visited by King John), and the Temple Church in London.

Like Cheek by Jowl, Shakespeare’s Globe has both toured extensively overseas and welcomed foreign productions of Shakespeare to the UK. Richard III is to be performed in Mandarin by the National Theatre of China, and Macbeth, by Tang Shu-Wing Theatre Studio in Hong Kong will be in Cantonese. It will be interesting to see where Shakespeare’s Globe goes next after a number of exciting and fulfilling years.

Finally, I’m indebted to Pat Tatspaugh and Tony Boyd-Williams for drawing my attention to the announcements in this post.

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Shakespeare in France: the St Omer First Folio

The St Omer First Folio

The St Omer First Folio

There was good news for those interested in the history of Shakespeare’s plays last week. On Tuesday 25 November, it was announced that a First Folio had been discovered in a public library in Northern France. Many libraries must be checking neglected corners just in case treasure is there: a folio, even an incomplete one, is worth a lot of cash. You couldn’t really call First Folios rare though:  this one brings the tally still in existence to 233, from a print run of between 750 and 800.

Professor Eric Rasmussen, by chance researching in the British Library at the time, was called in to validate the French copy. His 2012 book The Shakespeare First Folio: A Descriptive Catalogue describes all the then known 232 surviving copies. He calls it an “immeasurably important book” and comments that his new catalogue lists ” a remarkable 72 more than were recorded in Sidney Lee’s census over a century ago. A research team … examined every copy in situ worldwide and prepared full bibliographic descriptions of each.” Each copy is subtly different from all other copies, and this listing includes the variants found in each one.

First Folios are the most famous of printed books, second only to Gutenberg bibles of which 50 still exist out of a print run of around 180. What makes the discovery of this Folio so exciting is the thought hat there are still things to discover: letters, poems, a manuscript of an unknown play, a portrait, a book owned by Shakespeare. Who knows? The problem is that until proven otherwise all such items are assumed to be forgeries. William Henry Ireland’s forgeries in the late eighteenth century are only the most notorious: he did it to impress his father, but knowing how much a Shakespeare connection might inflate the price of any item it’s no wonder people are still claiming Shakespeare connections with books and other objects. The most convincing are those that don’t claim to be Shakespeare’s like that which is discussed in Shakespeare’s Beehive.

The folio is different: published seven years after Shakespeare’s death the one thing we can be sure of is that Shakespeare never saw it!

Part of the Library at St Omer

Part of the Library at St Omer

More details will come out in due course, but it seems that the book was found by chance by the Librarian in St Omer near Calais. Saint-Omer’s is no ordinary library. The small town has a population of 15,000, the settlement growing up around  the monastery founded in the 7th century. The whole area has been fought over for centuries between France, the Flemish, England and Spain, with sieges and fighting in the streets. It’s been part of France only since 1711. Just one section of ramparts remain from the medieval fortifications, but the parts of the cathedral, parts date back to the 13th century. The Abbey of St Bertin is long gone, its books finding their way to the town’s library which contains among its rare books a copy of the Gutenberg bible and the recently discovered Folio. Back in August a blog post suggested “This library though has a stunning secret “. The secret they were talking about wasn’t the Folio, but the Library’s collections as a whole. Now it’s even more stunning.

Given the turbulent history of this part of northern France it is astonishing that the Library still exists at all. As conflict raged all round presumably the doors of the Library were kept firmly closed and little interest was taken in it by those at war. The book has remained unknown because it was wrongly catalogued. Finding it with no title page or the famous frontispiece, a librarian at some time in the past thought it dated from the eighteenth century when numerous editions of Shakespeare’s works were published. They must now be wondering what else might be wrongly catalogued among the 50,000 volumes in this library, and academics are likely to be queueing up to find out.

The St Omer First Folio

The St Omer First Folio

It’s the neglect of this library by investigators that seems to have ensured the book’s existence. Sadly in Stratford there’s little chance of finding anything with a personal connection to Shakespeare. Any object that might have been left in his house or his father’s would have fallen prey to those who from around the 1750s showed his house to the public, allowing visitors to cut pieces off the furniture for a fee.

This discovery doubles the tally of First Folios in France, the only previously-known copy being in the Bibliotheque National. There must be much rejoicing among the many French Shakespeare scholars and fans. The book does have interesting features: some markings in the text of Henry IV, and thirty pages missing. Questions about the book’s ownership and usage are already being asked. Current thinking is that it arrived there in the 1650s with an English Catholic escaping the repressive Cromwellian commonwealth. Claims are already being made suggesting that its discovery supports the idea that Shakespeare was a Catholic, a tricky one to prove. It’s going to be interesting to see where this new discovery might lead.

4 December additional information in this article includes information from Dr Martin Wiggins of the Shakespeare Institute who challenges the suggestion that the discovery strengthens the theory that Shakespeare was a Catholic:“He was admired and studied by English Catholics. We already knew that. Now we have more evidence. That doesn’t mean that Shakespeare was himself a Catholic sympathiser,”  And Dr Wiggins deduced some years ago that there had been a First Folio in St Omer: “The discovery of the Saint-Omer First Folio was a personal vindication for Dr Wiggins. In 2005, he wrote an essay, after studying the text of a play performed at the Saint-Omer college in the 17th century. He said that it contained so many verbatim passages from Shakespeare that the college must have owned one of the 800 copies of the First Folio.”

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The British Shakespeare Association, Education and reality TV

bsa logoAlmost every Shakespeare-related cultural organisation puts education high on its agenda, in particular offering to help teachers engage their students. While many are in effect promoting their own services, the British Shakespeare Association “is a professional association and registered charity devoted to promoting the study, practice and enjoyment of Shakespeare throughout the United Kingdom. Founded in 2002, the BSA is committed to bringing together scholars, students, teachers, theatre practitioners, community workers and other professions with a shared interest in Shakespeare.”

The BSA recently held its AGM in Stratford, reporting on the success of its major event, the conference held in Stirling earlier in 2014. The committee were also able to report on the successful revamp of the BSA website and the larger profile now being given to the organisation’s educational work. So important is this strand that from September 2014 – August 2015 free membership is being offered to primary and secondary schoolteachers. As well as its conferences the BSA periodically runs special events for teachers and membership is a great way of keeping up to date with these opportunities.

The website itself provides helpful material for teachers. There’s a page of links to teaching resources including the excellent Times Educational Supplement Shakespeare hub, back issues of the biannual Teaching Shakespeare magazine, and the Education Network blog which offers “a more flexible and responsive format for discussing Shakespeare in education”. Contributions are always welcome, and can take many forms: “articles, lesson plans, reviews, notice of relevant events and more”. It’s great to see international posts like that about using visual aids when working with Chinese students as well as a support pack for teaching Romeo and Juliet.

The editor of Teaching Shakespeare is Sarah Olive, from the University of York, who teaches Shakespeare and education and puts together a collection of lively articles in every issue. Her profile on the University of York’s Research Database lists her  prolific output and, even better, provides links to the full text of some of it.

A couple of her articles are published in a resource new to me, the open access scholarly journal Alluvium. In Shakespeare on Television, This Millenium, she comments on how “television in the twenty-first century is casually saturated with Shakespeare….The bard features as a person, a myth, a quotation, in myriad, often hugely popular, programs: drama, documentary, mocumentary, quiz shows and satire. His presence on the small screen may not steal the show, but as a figure or a fistful of phrases he is part of the texture of daily life in Britain and beyond”.

David Harewood in Macbeth, the movie star and me

David Harewood in Macbeth, the movie star and me

I recently attended her lecture at the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford in which she looked at Televised teaching and learning Shakespeare. As she makes clear in the quote above, popular culture is another of her interests, and her talk looked at the genre that seems to be taking over our TV channels, reality TV. She chose three examples that featured Shakespeare: When Romeo Met Juliet, in which two ethnically different schools were chosen to present the Montagues and Capulets in a joint production, Macbeth, the movie star and me, with David Harewood taking a week to teach reluctant schoolchildren from his old school how to perform Shakespeare, and Off By Heart: Shakespeare, in which teenagers competed against each other to perform a speech from Shakespeare, judged by an expert panel. Some of these are also discussed in her article in Alluvium. In each, the experience was sold to the participants as an exceptional opportunity to encounter something difficult and precious, not the message many educators would like to put across to their students. And although it is always suggested that Shakespeare in some way can transform lives, as with many reality TV series it’s the learning of new skills and the need to work together towards a group achievement that makes for compelling viewing.

For another view of Shakespeare and reality TV, including an analysis of the selectivity involved in making these programmes, look at Bailey Gleason’s essay A New Reality: Appreciating Reality TV Through Shakespeare. The examples are, like the author, from the USA, the argument is the same. Reality TV is defended from the usual charge of being “trash”, claiming that its contrivances are similar to the artificiality of a Shakespeare plot, and that the makers are simply, like Shakespeare, story-tellers.

TV is how most people make their first acquaintance with Shakespeare so it’s appropriate that those involved in the British Shakespeare Association, with its aim of inclusivity, should take reality TV seriously. If nothing else it offers a way of engaging with people who have thought that Shakespeare is not for them.

Not reality TV, but The BBC is currently celebrating television drama with a two and a half-minute advertisement that consists of Benedict Cumberbatch reciting Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man speech over appropriate clips from drama productions of the last three decades, including some still to come. Cumberbatch’s massive popularity as Sherlock performing one of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches may encourage viewers to tackle the less popular areas of the TV schedules. Definitely worth a look if you haven’t seen it already.


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Witchcraft on page and stage

The image from the title page of The Witch of Edmonton

The image from the title page of The Witch of Edmonton

The Royal Shakespeare Company is currently staging the multi-authored play The Witch of Edmonton, first performed in 1621. It’s easy to see how attractive the play is since its subject relates so closely to Macbeth. In Shakespeare’s play the weird sisters are evil just because they are: there’s no sense of them as real people, no explanation of why they do what they do. Their appearance is sinister:
What are these,
So wither’d and so wild in their attire,
That look not like th’inhabitants o’ th’ earth,
And yet are on’t? … You should be women,
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
That you are so.

And their powers make them dramatic, disappearing magically, cooking up a potion from grisly ingredients and conjuring apparitions. Mother Sawyer in The Witch of Edmonton  is labelled a witch because she is poor, old and ugly, and decides that she therefore might as well become one. Excluded and isolated from her community she turns to the devil in the shape of a black dog, Tom.

Witchcraft was of compelling interest in Shakespeare’s day. Witch trials had been held in Europe, particularly in Germany, for some decades before the first Acts of Parliament to control witchcraft came into force in 1542. Beliefs about witchcraft and the supernatural were encouraged by written and published work. Opinion was divided, but Reginald Scot’s 1584 book The Discoverie of Witchcraft was an attempt to prevent the persecution of vulnerable old women. He described them: “One sort of such said to bee witches, are women which be commonly old, lame … poor, sullen, superstitious … They are leane and deformed, shewing melancholie in their faces, to the horror of all that see them”, very like Mother Sawyer in fact. If Scot hoped to calm down the hysteria, he failed.

Shakespeare used as his main source book for the story of Macbeth Holinshed’s history of Britain, the Chronicles, but Shakespeare’s witches owe more to Scot’s description than to the image of the weird sisters that appeared in the first, 1577 edition. These three are rather well-dressed “nymphs”, and modern interpreters of the witches have often chosen to make them attractive or at least trustworthy: I’ve seen them played as children, as pretty girls, and, most chillingly, in the Patrick Stewart film, as hospital nurses. However they are interpreted they are unforgettable.

Jay Simpson as Dog, Eileen Atkins as Mother Sawyer in The Witch of Edmonton, 2014. Photo by Stewart Hemley

Jay Simpson as Dog, Eileen Atkins as Mother Sawyer in The Witch of Edmonton, 2014. Photo by Stewart Hemley

The Witch of Edmonton itself drew on a pamphlet by Henry Goodcole,  The wonderful discoverie of Elizabeth Sawyer, Witch, the real-life model for Mother Sawyer who had been executed on 19 April 1621. Goodcole’s Mother Sawyer, like that in the play, is a bit of a disappointment by contrast with Shakespeare’s witches. As Peter Kirwan comments in his review of the play in The Bardathon, “The Witch of Edmonton is an odd play to choose as a star vehicle”. It isn’t the fault of the excellent Eileen Atkins that in the play she appears infrequently, and isn’t given the opportunity to do  anything very interesting. In both productions I’ve seen, at TOP in 1981 and the one currently at the Swan Theatre, it’s the devil in disguise as a Dog, played by a young man wearing black body make-up and little else, who steals every scene.

Writing Macbeth just a year or two after the Gunpowder Plot, Shakespeare was inspired by King James 1’s known interest in witchcraft. James had been personally involved in the 1590 Berwick witch trials and his own book on the subject, Daemonologie, was published in 1597. A fervent believer himself, he used his book to promote the practice of witch-hunting. He claims “The fearefull aboundinge at this time in this countrie, of these detestable slaves of the Devil, the Witches or enchaunters, hath moved me..to resolve the doubting…both that such assaults of Satan are most certainly practised, and that the instrument thereof merits most severely to be punished”.

The subject remained high in the public consciousness. Middleton’s play The Witch was performed some time between 1609 and 1616, and elements of it illustrating the practice of witchcraft were inserted into Shakespeare’s play, no doubt to make it even more exciting.

Lancashire witches

Lancashire witches

In 1612 the most infamous of witch trials took place in the north of England, mostly in Lancaster. Of twenty people accused of being witches eleven were eventually hanged. One of their supposed crimes was plotting to blow up Lancaster Castle, a charge thought to be a complete invention by the investigating magistrates.

Thomas Potts, the clerk to the court, was commanded to write an official account of the trial published in 1613 as The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the countie of Lancaster. It seems that Potts’ account, extraordinarily detailed as it is, was designed to confirm the justice of the court system and to meet with the approval of the King. Some years later Potts, who had been brought up in the household of Thomas Knyvet who apprehended Guy Fawkes,  apparently received Royal favour.

At 6.30 on 27 November, at Lancaster Castle, there will be an event entitled “Beyond the Lancashire Witches: Writing and Freedom” that will include a dramatization of the womens’ testimonies as well as looking at contemporary writings inspired by the prison and the Castle.

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