Shakespeare’s swans

DSCN2370Over the past few weeks my husband Richard has been keeping an eye on a pair of swans, nesting just downstream of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon. Stratfordians are quite protective of their swans, not least because of their connection to Shakespeare, the “sweet Swan of Avon”. It’s particularly fitting that this next is so close to Shakespeare’s Church, yet in a quiet stretch of river where it is to be hoped they will be relatively undisturbed.

To his delight, on Wednesday, the mother swan had moved off the nest to reveal four fluffy cygnets. The next day there was no sign of the babies, the mother bird protecting them just as Shakespeare describes:
DSCN2340So doth the swan her downy cygnets save,
Keeping them prisoner underneath her wings.

Swans are just one of the species of birds Shakespeare mentions, and many of them are singing their hearts out at the moment. Along the river, wrens “with little quill” are often seen are seen and heard as are blackbirds with their “orange-tawny bill”, sparrows, dunnocks (or hedge sparrows), swallows, the lark “that tirra-lirra chants”, the croaking raven, and many more. With songbirds in decline it’s heartening to see they are still around, but how many more there must have been in Shakespeare’s time.

On Friday 27 May the swans were seen out on the river with now, six cygnets. It’s great to see these beautiful birds thriving.

I’m including a few of his photographs, all taken, I hasten to note, from quite some way away to avoid worrying the birds. Enjoy your Bank Holiday, however you choose to spend it!

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Commemorating Shakespeare in metal and print

Garrick Jubilee medallion

Garrick Jubilee medallion

Whenever we come to commemorating a Shakespeare anniversary, the question is always about how this should be done, that perhaps comes down to what exactly we are celebrating. This year we are marking 400 years since Shakespeare died, but should we be doing so by thinking about the man’s life, about his written work, about the work on stage, about his reputation or some kind of abstract idea of what Shakespeare means in our twenty-first century world. 

I’ve been thinking recently about the earliest Shakespeare celebrations, and how they developed over the period from the mid-1700s to the mid-1800s. David Garrick’s 1769 Shakespeare Jubilee in Stratford was the first major celebration of its type, and it’s been interesting to see how much what David Garrick did influenced the celebrations that followed, and, more strangely, still do. In The Making of the National Poet Michael Dobson called Garrick’s a “strictly metropolitan triumph”, and so it was, importing actors, musicians, workers and even pastry cooks from the capital. Garrick did more than that, however, as he found many of his ideas for the Shakespeare Jubilee in the world of the London theatre, and the attractions offered by the great pleasure gardens of Ranelagh and Vauxhall. Here the genteel could walk in specially-created groves, listen to musical recitals, eat and drink, watch fireworks, enjoy the spectacle of illuminated transparencies and paths lit up by thousands of lanterns. Many of the same elements would appear in Stratford, as did controlling the natural landscape: the trees on the far bank of the Avon were cut down because they spoiled the view. While composing this man-made scene, he did not take into account the fact that the Avon, is capable, after rain, of breaking its banks, changing from being the “soft-flowing” river of Garrick’s Ode into a powerful, swift-moving flood. 

One of Garrick’s innovations, that quickly caught on, was the creation of a Jubilee medal. Unlike almost everything else, these were from the Midlands, being made in Birmingham, a centre for metal-working, and the rainbow-coloured ribbon with which the medals were worn was made in the nearby city of Coventry in which ribbon-making was one of the most important industries. After Garrick’s, each Shakespeare Celebration had its own medal: one was struck in 1816 (the bicentenary of Shakespeare’s death), and several appeared in the 1820s when celebrating Shakespeare’s birthday in Stratford became quite an obsession. The medal-wearing obsession reached a peak in 1830 when the Committee of the Shakespeare Club rode on horseback, in the procession, “each wearing a scarf of rainbow-coloured riband, and a medal suspended from the neck by the same silken material”. 

The Royal Mint's two-pound coins

The Royal Mint’s two-pound coins

The medals usually featured a portrait of Shakespeare on one side, with perhaps a quotation. “We shall not look upon his like again” , from Hamlet, was the quote on the Garrick medal, and on the reverse wording describing the event being commemorated. Nowadays most of the medals we see are worn by members of the armed forces, by  civic dignitaries or by sportsmen. Most of us show our allegiance to particular causes by the wearing of pins, or, informally, T-shirts. It doesn’t mean, though, that commemorative objects are no longer being made which show our interest in anniversaries. Three new £2 coins have been created by the Royal Mint to mark the Quatercentenary. The coins illustrate Shakespeare’s comedies, histories and tragedies. John Bergdahl chose for his designs props, tools of the actor’s trade: “I hope I have conveyed that sense of them being abandoned but for a moment, ready to be brought back to life as the play goes on, just as his work is brought alive time and again”. A Jester’s hat and stick symbolises Comedy, a sword thrusting through a coronet as it topples to one side for History, and the skull, combined with a rose, to capture the sense of doomed romance for Tragedy. An additional commemorative five-ounce coin, designed by Tom Phillips features a version of the Droeshout Engraving from the First Folio, with the quotation “Put money in thy purse” around the circumference. The commemorative coins are all available from the Royal Mint now, and the two-pound coins will enter circulation soon.

One of the Royal Mail's commemorative stamps for 2016

One of the Royal Mail’s commemorative stamps for 2016

I’ve been interested to see the approach of the Royal Mail when it came to issuing commemorative items. Postage stamps have been issued bearing the face of Shakespeare, of his characters, and of actors in famous roles. For this year, the stamps have gone back to Shakespeare’s words, and they’ve come up with some lovely ideas. Famous quotations, in a variety of decorative fonts, selected for their relevance to letters and cards. How about a birthday card sent in an envelope bearing a stamp that reads Beatrice’s line “There was a star danced, and under that was I BORN”, a Valentine’s Day card with a stamp quoting lines from Romeo and Juliet, “Love is a smoke made with the fume of sighs”, or a letter to an old friend with the stamp “But if the while I think on thee, dear friend, all losses are restored and sorrow’s end”, from Sonnet 30. They’re delightful, and remind us that, in fact, whenever we’re marking a Shakespeare anniversary what we really have to celebrate is his uniquely memorable words.

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Theatre Before Shakespeare

BeforeShakespeareA few weeks ago a new website launched, the public face of a project run by academics Andy Kesson and Lucy Munro with the aim of “rethinking the start of the public theatre in Britain”, that is “the playhouses that open in and around London in the second half of the sixteenth century”. The project, inevitably, is called Before Shakespeare. Although it will provide additional research into the background to Shakespeare’s career (he’s called one of the second generation of people working in the playhouses) and the buildings in which his plays were performed, he will not be its focus. To quote the website again:

Those playhouses feel new in their architectural specificity, their sheer number, their investment in the problem of how you make money from a building primarily devoted to performance and how you entertain thousands of people with fictional or semi-fictional stories. Above all they feel new in their position in the class structure of their time: these buildings and the playing companies are run by working people trying to pull in other working people to come and see their shows. Whilst historians of this period get nervous of the term ‘working-class’, this seems a distinctively working-class movement at a time when most people had little access to the stories, ideas and characters the playhouses were committed to exploring.

One of the resources to be used by the project is the archaeological discoveries being made by Julian Bowsher and his fellows at Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA). And by a terrific coincidence, just this week there has been some fascinating news of one of those excavations, that is already forcing academics to have a bit of a rethink. It was announced on 17 May 2016 that the excavations of London’s Curtain Theatre in Shoreditch, north of the Thames, show the building to have been oblong rather than circular, as had been assumed. Shakespeare’s company used this theatre for a while before the Globe was ready to move into, and Henry V is thought to be one of the plays that might have premiered there.

Some of the newly-discovered walls of the Curtain Theatre

Some of the newly-discovered walls of the Curtain Theatre

You will remember that at the start of the play the Chorus encourages us to imagine that we are not in a playhouse, but on the battlefield.
Can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
The Guardian, in its report, reports on Julian Bowsher’s consternation at finding that the foundations and wall are unmistakeably not those of a circular structure. “There is going to have to be a certain amount of revision of the chapter on The Curtain in my book,” Bowsher said. “It now seems clear that the playhouse was a conversion of an earlier tenement – essentially a block of flats – and was later converted back into a tenement again.” Perhaps, he speculates, the prologue was written specially for performances at the new Globe Theatre. The whole story is set to provide academics with masses of food for thought and discussion. This is all great fun, and if you want to find out for yourself they are offering free public tours of the site on Fridays until 24 June. Places must be booked at the MOLA website.

The Before Shakespeare project isn’t just about theatres, but about the plays and the people who worked in them. There is already online a list of plays from the period, a timeline and a bibliography, so much to explore. This blog, from the Illuminations team, highlights the plays by John Lyly, and includes links to several performance videos and interviews on the subject. Lyly is just one of the first generation of writers for the playhouses, whose work is very much, and unjustifiably overlooked in the obsession with the writings of Mr Shakespeare.

A view of London and the Thames

A view of London and the Thames

And finally, in another great piece of timing given the Curtain discovery, on Saturday 21 May Shakespeare’s Globe is hosting a symposium on the subject of another of those early London playhouses, the Rose, on the 400th anniversary of the death of Philip Henslowe, who build and managed the theatre. Uniquely, his accounts and papers, known as his “Diary” still survive. It’s sure to be a fascinating day in which the latest discoveries will be shared.

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The Gibraltar Stone: Shakespeare and the Royal Marines

The Gibraltar Stone

The Gibraltar Stone

Shakespeare is so pervasive that no matter where you go you are likely to find reference to him or his works. I was surprised, though, to find one on a piece of heathland in Devon, known as Woodbury Common. Here, a white stone is visible on high ground looking over a scrubby valley marked on the map as a disused firing range. Approaching it, I found it was the Gibraltar Stone, dedicated in only 2015. It reads:

This stone commemorates all the Royal Marines, Royal Marine Commandos, and All Arms Commandos who since 1940, have trained here at Woodbury Common and gone on to serve their Crown and Country around the Globe “Per Mare Per Terram”.

This piece of the Rock of Gibraltar was generously donated by the People of Gibraltar in 2014 to mark the 350th anniversary of the formation in 1664 of the Duke of York and Albany’s Maritime Regiment of Foot, from whom today’s Royal Marines are descended, and the 310th anniversary of the capture of Gibraltar in 1704 by a joint force of 1900 British and 400 Dutch Marines.

The badge of the Royal Marines

The badge of the Royal Marines

In 1827, the battle honours of the Royal Marines being so numerous, King George IV directed that the “Great Globe” itself should form their cap badge and that the single battle honour “Gibraltar” be selected as representative of all the others worn by the Corps. “Gibraltar” remains today the sole battle honour shown on the Regimental Colours of the Royal Marines.

In the valley to your front lies part of the Endurance Course, one of the Commando Tests, and the remains of a World Ward II firing range.

Anyone visiting the eastern side of the Exe estuary will notice the Commando Training Centre Royal Marines at nearby Lympstone  The Royal Marines, the UK’s amphibious light infantry force, were originally the Royal Navy’s infantry troops.

The plaque on the back of the Gibraltar Stone

The plaque on the back of the Gibraltar Stone

On the back of the stone is another plaque, showing the badge of the Royal Marines in greater detail. It’s made up of a number of elements, each marking a point in the history of the Royal Marines: the Lion and Crown at the top of the badge denote a Royal regiment, conferred by George III in 1802 ” in consideration of the very meritorious services of the Marines in the late war.” (the War of the Spanish Succession, one of many European wars).  The Laurel wreath honours their gallantry at the capture of Belle Isle in 1761 (a conflict with France). The anchor, incorporated in 1747, shows that the Corps is part of the Naval Service. The motto, Per Mare Per Terram (By Sea By Land) dates from 1775.

The capture of Gibraltar in 1704 was the most famous of many successful campaigns, but was chosen to represent them all, alongside the image of the Globe and the latin motto. Surely, though, the “Great Globe”, with the following word “itself”, is a quotation from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, where Prospero speaks of “the great globe itself” (Act IV Scene 1, l 153). The dedication records that it was King George IV, in 1827, who awarded the Royal Marines this badge.

King George IV's Coronation portrait

King George IV’s Coronation portrait

King George was a great lover of Shakespeare, history and pageantry so it isn’t surprising that he came up with a Shakespearean reference in order to recognise their outstanding service. Nothing could be more appropriate or more patriotic than to link them with the words of the national poet. George was interested in regalia and the symbolism relating to it, as can be seen from the coronation portrait he commissioned showing himself magnificent in his furs and jewels, including, very prominently, the Order of the Garter, the oldest and highest order of Chivalry. The Order is celebrated on St George’s Day, 23rd April, which George adopted as his official birthday, and is also Shakespeare’s Birthday. George was often mocked for his love of show, and his ability to spend vast amounts of money on projects like the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, but he was also a cultivated and intelligent man. His love of Shakespeare was sincere, acquiring a copy of the First Folio for the Royal Library at Windsor.

There are probably few Shakespeare fans among the Royal Marines today, but it would be nice to see the connection between the regiment and our greatest writer acknowledged. The virtues taught to every Royal Marine, “courage; determination, unselfishness and cheerfulness in the face of adversity”, are also those displayed by Shakespeare’s King Henry V.

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Stratford’s Shakespeare Club celebrates

Club members at their luncheon

Club members at their luncheon

Saturday 7 May 2016 was a special day for Stratford-upon-Avon’s Shakespeare Club: a double celebration of Shakespeare’s Birthday/ 400th anniversary of his death, and the 192nd anniversary of the foundation of the Club in 1824. If we used the Old Style Julian calendar used when Shakespeare was living, we would almost be on the right day, but the date was actually selected in order not to clash with the extraordinarily busy Birthday weekend this year.

The Club celebrated with a luncheon, held at the Falcon Hotel where it had been founded by a small group of locals, most of them tradesmen. To begin with the Club’s modest intentions were simply to hold a “periodical meeting, and to pay an annual tribute to [Shakespeare’s] memory by a public dinner on his birth-day”. With this as its starting point, it’s perhaps strange that for many years the Club has not had a meal together, its monthly meetings instead consisting of lectures, given by visiting speakers on subjects relating to Shakespeare. One of the recurring themes in the Club’s history is that it has taken a good idea, pursued it successfully, and then been overtaken by it. The Club’s dinner has in fact morphed into the grand luncheon that his now held on the Birthday: Club members often attend, but now have no role in its organisation.

Robert Lister

Robert Lister

After the Club’s foundation, it was only a year before the Club became more ambitious, “with an understanding that some public and honorary exhibition should be occasionally displayed by them commemorative of their patron”. This resulted in great celebrations in 1827 and 1830, organised by, and mostly paid for, by the Club itself, and the Club was central to these annual events until well into the twentieth century.

The luncheon was, then, a reminder of the Club’s past glories as well as allowing members the opportunity to join in marking this important anniversary. After enjoying lunch, the members were treated to a series of entertainments, almost entirely delivered by the Club’s talented members. Mr Robert Lister, dressed in Victorian splendour, was the Master of Ceremonies and Toastmaster, also delivering Prospero’s valedictory speech from The Tempest.

Tasha Moss

Tasha Moss

Roger Taylor and Tasha Moss sang one of Shakespeare’s songs as well as leading the singing of the National Anthem and songs including Garrick’s Warwickshire Lad, first sung in Stratford in 1769. There were readings from the Chairman of the Club, Jean Lawrance, from Jane Taylor and, most inventively, from James Stredder who impersonated the early documenter of the Club, the enigmatic, snobbish Captain James Saunders. Without Saunders we would know much less about the club and Stratford’s history in the 1820s, but he clearly thought himself above the rest of the Club’s committee, who he mercilessly poked fun at.

Stephen Sharp with his book

Stephen Sharp with his book

A small display of items relating to the Club’s history was put on display for members to look at, and it was delightful to see one of the Committee members, Eileen Geldard, wearing a medal from the Garrick Jubilee of 1769, when Stratfordians were first given the idea of celebrating Shakespeare. A book on the history of the Club, by Sylvia Morris and Susan Brock, is currently being prepared and information about its publication will be located in due course on the Club’s website where you will also find information about joining the Club. Looking to the future, Stephen Sharp has recently created and bound a memorial volume for the Club, in which members were encouraged to sign their names. It’s hoped that it will be used to gather inscriptions from visiting speakers, and it will eventually join the other archives of the Club.

Thanks are due to all who took part, and all those who attended, in particular to the Club’s Secretary, Susan Brock, so self-effacing that she does not even mention herself when crediting the organisers on the programme for the day. Thanks too, to Richard Morris who took the photos so that this event, unlike the dinner in 1824, is properly recorded. The question now, is will we do it all again next year?

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Shakespeare 400 continues

Shakespeare's monument in Holy Trinity Church

Shakespeare’s monument in Holy Trinity Church

Following the fabulously successful but exhausting weekend celebrating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and his 452nd birthday, I’ve had a few days rest from the blog, but it doesn’t mean I haven’t been busy researching and writing a book on the history of the town’s Shakespeare Club, an organisation that is much more intimately linked with the history of Shakespeare’s heritage in the town and with national and international connections, than I would have guessed when I started. The book is to be published in the autumn. On publication the price will be £12.99, but as long as orders with payment for £10 are received by 7 May subscribers will receive a copy of the book on publication signed by the authors, and the name of the subscriber will be printed in the List of Subscribers within the book. The price above does not include postage, so if you are unable to collect the book from Stratford-upon-Avon the subscription price will be £12.99 (UK only). Full information is at the end of this post. *

Gertrude and Hamlet in the Kosintsev film of Hamlet

Gertrude and Hamlet in the Kosintsev film of Hamlet

After the massive media coverage of the last few days, the BBC continues to cover the anniversary, but in a quieter way, with a number of programmes that are worth drawing to your attention. On Sunday 1 May BBC 4 is screening the 1964 Russian film of Hamlet directed by Grigori Kosinstev. With its atmosphere of claustrophobia and suspicion, set on a spectacular clifftop fortress, it can be seen as an artistic response to the repressiveness of the Soviet regime. It’s much more than that though: Innocenti Smoktunovsky gives a terrific performance as Hamlet, and the Financial Times described it as “arguably the most intelligent and certainly the most contemporary interpretation of Shakespeare for the screen”. It’s on at the late hour of 10.45pm but will be worth staying up for (and Monday’s a Bank Holiday). Leading up to the film is another Shakespeare-related programme, Redefining Juliet in which six actors each present their portrayal of Shakespeare’s tragic heroine.

The treats continue on the radio: Sunday evening, 1 May, on Radio 3, there is a performance of The Winter’s Tale, with parts taken by many familiar names such as Eve Best, Karl Johnson, Susan Jameson, Sean Baker and Brian Protheroe. On Tuesday 3 May a production of Julius Caesar, divided into three parts, begins, with Tim Pigott-Smith as Caesar, Robert Glenister as Brutus, Sam Troughton as Cassius and Jamie Parker as Antony, a really strong quartet to lead this great political drams. Again on  Radio 4 every weekday beginning on Monday, at 1.45 until 2pm there is a series in which Yasmin Alibhai-Brown explores Shakespeare: Love across the Racial Divide, beginning, not surprisingly, with Othello.

The Hollow Crown 2

The Hollow Crown 2

I can’t help feeling that this week’s programmes, interesting as they will be, will be overshadowed by next weekend’s major launch of The Hollow Crown 2, taking the plays from Henry VI up to Richard III. Like the first series right back in 2012 that focused on Ben Whishaw as Richard II and Tom Hiddleston as Henry V, the second series is led by a hugely popular TV star, Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III, also starring Judi Dench, Hugh Bonneville and Sophie Okonedo.

Over the past few days BBC4 has been screening the first series again to set the scene for the second, and these are available on IPlayer for a few more days. The second series has a lot to live up to: the first, aimed at people who might be new to Shakespeare, gained a real following: on Twitter the Hollow Crown Fans group  @HollowCrownFans was formed as a result. They now have 13,700 followers on Twitter and stage a regular invitation to tweet on a particular subject with #ShakespeareSunday.

The Hollow Crown 2 will begin screening on Saturday 7 May, for 3 consecutive weeks. As with many stage adaptations, the three Henry VI plays will be conflated into two episodes.

*TO SUBSCRIBE to the history of The Shakespeare Club please send a cheque for £10 (£12.99 to include UK postage), payable to The Shakespeare Club together with your name as you wish it to appear in the book, your address, and a stamped addressed envelope (if you wish a receipt to be mailed to you), before 7 May 2016, to Dr Susan Brock, Secretary, The Shakespeare Club of Stratford-upon-Avon, Daisy Cottage, Front St., Ilmington, Shipston-on-Stour CV36 4LA.

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Shakespeare 400 continues in Stratford-upon-Avon

bards masqueAs I’m writing Radio 4’s Sunday Worship is coming from Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon, just one of the many special events that are marking the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death on 23 April 1616.

I took part in the traditional procession, starting from the town centre and walking down to Shakespeare’s grave yesterday through streets packed with thousands of people. I was marshalling, which means I was partly responsible for making sure people got to their flagpole positions, pulled their flags, and moved off for the walk to the Church. The groups I was looking after included one delegation from China, girls from the Stratford Girls Grammar School and an unofficial group of Russians.

Later in the day I returned to the church to find, hours after the procession had ended and the chancel was full of flowers, that there were still queues of people waiting to view the grave, and I was told it was the same at Shakespeare’s school, full to bursting.

I’d like to congratulate everybody who took part in the organisation of the Birthday Celebrations, including the Town and District Councils, King Edward VI School, and Shakespeare Birthplace Trust: this is a huge event for a small town to organise and I can’t remember a happier Birthday.

The big event of the day was of course the RSC/BBC collaboration Shakespeare Live, a star-studded evening featuring a huge range of actors and performers including many of our most well-known Shakespearean actors. I particularly loved the piece, scripted I imagine by the wonderful Tim Minchin, on Shakespeare’s “To be or not to be” that featured a wealth of Hamlets past and present (and some who should have been), and a real live prince. Too many lovely things to mention, but I really enjoyed the short films shot at the Birthplace properties with smashing script delivered by the smashing Joseph Fiennes (Anne Hathaway’s Cottage and Mary Arden’s Farm looking glorious), and Henry Goodman and Rufus Hound performing the wonderful double-act “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” from Kiss me Kate. Many, many other highlights, and the great news is the whole thing is available on IPlayer here.

Meanwhile the celebrations continue: just one of many treats is going to be a new play: A Play for the heart: the Death of Shakespeare, on Radio 3 at 9pm tonight, recorded at Mary Arden’s Farm.

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Shakespeare’s Birthday: the Garrick Ode and Edward’s Boys


I’m writing this on the eve of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and 452nd anniversary of his birth, having just begun the weekend of celebrations in the best possible way with a wonderful concert in the church in which Shakespeare was baptised and buried.

The concert was Shakespeare Odes, by Ex Cathedra. I was most excited about the performance of Garrick’s Ode to Shakespeare, performed on 7 September 1769 in the Jubilee Pavilion Garrick had build rather too close to the banks of the “soft-flowing Avon”. The words of the Ode and the airs that punctuated it were published many times, but much of the music written by Arne, and conducted by him on the day, has been lost so Sally Beamish has written new music to make the concert possible. The performance of the Ode, in particular Garrick’s delivery of the poetry, was the highlight of the Jubilee. For this performance we had one of our finest actors taking the role of Garrick in the shape of Samuel West.

The final lines of the Ode, sung by the Chorus, are particularly appropriate for the celebrations of Shakespeare’s Birthday:
We will his brows with laurel bind,
Who charms to virtue human kind:
Raise the pile, the statue raise,
sing immortal Shakespeare’s praise!
The song will cease, the stone decay,
But his Name,
And undiminsh’d fame,
Shall never, never pass away.

The second half of the evening was an unexpected delight: the world premiere of A Shakespeare Masque, music written by Sally Beamish to words by Carol Ann Duffy, the Poet Laureate. This, delightfully, brought performers to all corners of the church, including schoolchildren from three local primary schools: Wilmcote, Snitterfield and Loxley. A fabulous evening, well deserving of the standing ovation given it by the audience of the packed Holy Trinity Church.

The performances are being repeated at the Town Hall Birmingham, on Sunday 24th April, Hereford Cathedral on 6 May, in Wolverhampton on 7 May, London of 12 May and Southwell Minster on 28 May. The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, and filmed by BBC Arts where it can be watched on demand, worldwide, at, and, in the UK, via the BBC iPlayer.  More information about the other concerts are available on the Ex Cathedra website.

The Schoolroom, King Edward VI School, Stratford

The Schoolroom, King Edward VI School, Stratford

On the 23rd April there is to be complete Shakespeare overload, with BBC Radio 3 and BBC TV broadcasting too many programmes to mention, and many, many events in Stratford. The traditional procession is very well known and the town is expected to be even busier than usual. One series of new events that people might miss is a number of free performances of Unperfect Actors: a 30-minute celebration of sonnets, songs and extracts from the works of Shakespeare, performed by the all-boy theatre company Edward’s Boys, in the newly-restored Shakespeare’s Schoolroom and Guildhall at 1pm, 2pm and 3pm.

I hope you’ll enjoy your day, whatever you are doing, and raise a glass to the Immortal Memory of William Shakespeare.

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Stratford-upon-Avon springing into action for the big day

DSCN1207editedThe last few days in Stratford-upon-Avon have been warm and sunny, but with a chilly wind reminding us that winter’s not quite lost its grip yet. In anticipation of the big day on Saturday many preparations are in hand and it’s also good to see that the natural world of the river, the trees and the swans are also getting ready. I’ve been out taking a few photos that include the building of the special pavilion for the lunch, swans optimistically creating a home for their new brood, a new arch to greet visitors to Holy Trinity Church, the arrival of the BBC outside broadcast units, and Titania meeting Bottom in a newly-planted grove outside the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. I hope you enjoy them, even if you’re not able to get to see the weekend celebrations yourself.

I recently found this little rhyme, part of an impromptu written and recited by Mr James Bisset at the very first celebration of Shakespeare’s Birthday two hundred years ago, in Stratford’s Town Hall, on 23 April 1816.

Revered be the season a Shakespeare appear’d,
Revered be the date of his birth.
Ever sacred the day, which two centuries since,
Snatch’d “the pride of  all nature” from earth.

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Memories of Guy Woolfenden

Guy Woolfenden

Guy Woolfenden

I’ve just heard the sad news that the great Guy Woolfenden died on 15 April. For anyone who attended the Royal Shakespeare Company’s productions from the 1960s to the 1990s Guy’s music was very often the soundtrack to the play. I believe he achieved the distinction of being the only person to have composed music for all of Shakespeare’s plays, some more than once. His website, Ariel Music, contains masses of information about his work. There is a YouTube channel devoted to it.

Songs of Ariel, 1978

Songs of Ariel, 1978

Music for Shakespeare of course includes all those songs that are included in the plays: “It was a lover and his lass” often ends up as a sort of production number, contrasted with quiet, unaccompanied songs like the Welsh song in Henry IV part 1, or Ophelia’s songs in Hamlet. Many of Woolfenden’s songs had lovely melodies, like the luscious Philomel song in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.What a composer writes for a singer in a play depends partly on the abilities of the actor, and he must have been thrilled when a young Ian Charleson was cast as Ariel in The Tempest in 1978. Charleson had the most glorious, ethereal voice, and in response Woolfenden wrote a series of beautiful, and demanding songs that were recorded and sold in the theatre, and have become very well known in their own right. There is an added poignancy to the songs because Ian Charleson, an actor who seemed to have everything, died tragically young. A version is available on YouTube with some photographs of the production. Looking at them just now reminds me that the late Alan Rickman, who died just a couple of months ago, was also in this production. Playing on this recording is another much-loved RSC musician, the wonderful Michael Tubbs, who also died almost a year ago.

The Comedy of Errors 1976 with Judi Dench and Richard Griffiths

The Comedy of Errors 1976 with Judi Dench and Richard Griffiths

Woolfenden’s work, inevitably, was extremely varied. He must have written dozens of fanfares for entrances and loud pieces to be played during battle scenes, of which there are so many in Shakespeare’s plays, as well as dances for ball scenes in Romeo and Juliet and Much Ado About Nothing. The music he wrote for Trevor Nunn’s musical version of The Comedy of Errors in 1976 was very much of its time, but songs like “Beg thou or borrow” are still fun, and a reminder of the cheeky inventiveness of the whole production. I must have seen it at least half a dozen times (the filmed version does not do justice to it). Even Michael Billington says this is his favourite production of the play, recalling the twin Dromios Nikolas Grace and Michael Williams leading the musical finale “Let’s go hand in hand”.

His music rightly takes its place in a selection Sweet Swan of Avon, consisting of music for Shakespeare written from the eighteenth century onwards. It was recorded in 1995 by English Serenata, a group consisting of musicians who have worked at the RST in Stratford, and conducted by Guy himself.

In May 2015 Guy’s life and achievements was celebrated at a special concert at the Swan Theatre, which he was able to attend, at the end of which he made a touching appearance on stage, blowing kisses. It was a wonderful opportunity, rarely given, to be able to thank an outstanding creative artist for the pleasure he had given.

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