John Hutton’s Shakespeare characters in glass


John Hutton’s Hamlet mirror on the Antiques Roadshow

One of the first objects on the Antiques Roadshow on Sunday 17 March was a Shakespeare item that I found very familiar, a framed and mirrored glass panel by the artist John Hutton featuring the character of Hamlet. Hutton’s work is instantly recognizable in style, but this particular panel was even more unmistakeable because the final version of this piece decorates the front hall of the Shakespeare Centre in Stratford-upon-Avon that was the entrance to the Library where I worked for over 25 years.

The Shakespeare Centre was intended to celebrate Shakespeare’s 400th birthday not by attempting to recreate anything “olde worlde” but by featuring work inspired by Shakespeare by outstanding contemporary artists. It was a bold decision and very much of its time. John Hutton’s glass panels were some of the most admired features, each one showing a character or characters from the plays rather than portraits of any particular person. In this light it was interesting that the lady who owned the mirrored panel said that her husband had been the model for Hamlet.

John Hutton’s Hamlet panel at the Shakespeare Centre in Stratford-upon-Avon

Hutton was chosen because he had just created the glorious glass west wall of Coventry Cathedral, completing this in 1962 immediately before this new commission. Hutton was a New Zealand-born artist who had lived in England since 1935. Dissatisfaction with existing techniques led him to experiment with new engraving methods which he used at Coventry and perfected at the Shakespeare Centre.

The Cathedral is also completely modern in character and execution, replacing the medieval building that had been bombed during World War 2. The Coventry Cathedral panels showed prophets, saints and angels, well above head height. One of the great attractions, and challenges, of the commission for Stratford was  that the panels would be seen close-up and, until they had to be protected by shatterproof panels, could even be touched.

It was important that non-specialists would be able to identify the characters and the list was as follows: Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Hamlet and Ophelia, King Lear and Cordelia, Romeo and Juliet, Othello and Desdemona, Antony and Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, King Richard III, Falstaff, Titania and Bottom, Portia and Shylock.

The John Hutton panels showing Titania, Bottom and Falstaff

I’ve always particularly liked the A Midsummer Night’s Dream panels, representing Bottom with his ass’s head and Titania. Hutton described how when there were two figures he had “chosen those which are strongly related by emotional tension…In portraying Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, I have shown the hallucinations that their imaginations conjured up – in Macbeth’s case the dagger, and in Lady Macbeth’s the blood on her hands”. One of his most successful panels was also one of the most elusive: he beautifully captures the despair of Ophelia as she “hovers on the edge of sanity falling into madness”.

For him these were not abstract, but figures with “humanity and passion”. His aim was to “try and pay tribute to the extraordinary variety of interpretation offered by Shakespeare’s characters”.

The late Marian Pringle made a study of many of the works of art in the building. She describes how the artist worked:

“Each design demanded different techniques that Hutton developed as he worked. He used a modified dentist’s drill with a small grinding wheel and a series of larger stones. Dust was controlled by a small damp sponge resting lightly on the glass, with a vacuum cleaner nozzle alongside. First drawings were created by chalk on black paper, and on the glass Hutton sought to retain the effect of chalk, with a variation of depth to the engraving. In this way Caesar’ s face was chiselled out of the glass, Falstaff’s fleshy folds were achieved by vigorous polishing with emery papers, and a coarse grinding wheel deeply modelled and created the rough textures for Richard III. The artist was always intrigued by the way light worked on glass, and how the changing background as the viewer moved would alter the impression of the character. Occasionally he needed to adjust details to be sure that, for instance, a smile did not become a smirk when seen from a different angle.”

John Hutton’s Ophelia panel

It was a difficult technique. Rubbing out was not possible, though some panels were revised as work progressed. But his preparation was thorough, involving an outline sketch, a finished drawing, and a life-sized drawing in chalk that was the blueprint for the actual engraving. In the case of the Hamlet panel it seems that a small version of the final glass image was also created. The panels were created in the artist’s studio in Maida Vale and installed at the centre just weeks before the building was opened in April 1964. They remain some of the most attractive features of the Henley Street building and although they are no longer easy to view several of them can be seen from outside. As you will be able to see, they are very difficult to photograph!

Note: The late Dr Levi Fox, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s Director, commissioned John Hutton’s work. Hutton’s quotations are taken from correspondence between the two men and appear in Fox’s 1997 book The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust:  A Personal Memoir.  The episode of the Antiques Roadshow is available on BBC IPlayer until the middle of April 2019, the section on the glass just 4.5 minutes from the start.

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Shakespeare and the Europeans in Italy

Shakespeare and Italy Summer School

With the equinox now passed and spring firmly under way here in the UK it’s time to look forward to the warmth of the summer. How better than to celebrate it with the charity Shakespeare in Italy’s wonderful annual Summer School?

This is the fifth year that these summer schools have been organised by British actors Julian Curry and Mary Chater. In 2019 the venue will be the British Institute in the beautiful and historic city of Florence, from 6-19 July, and they have as usual secured a wonderful line-up of actors and directors to tutor the participants. This year they will be joined by RSC and Shakespeare’s Globe directors Lucy Bailey and Chris Luscombe, on Julius Caesar and Romeo and Juliet respectively, and actor/director Philip Franks on The Two Gentlemen of Verona.


There’s general information on the Shakespeare in Italy website, and specific information about the Summer School in the Education section. There’s also a very active Facebook page if you want really current information. Attending the summer school is a really effective way of immersing yourself in Shakespeare and in the culture of this country with which he seems to have been obsessed. And even if you can’t make it yourself their website is worth taking a look at as they run many other events during the year.

For centuries people have speculated that Shakespeare might have visited Italy but there’s no evidence that he did. He was not alone in setting his plays in Italy, and many of his contemporaries wrote about or illustrated this fascinating country, not only those from Britain but from elsewhere in Europe.

I’ve recently been taking a look at the British Library’s website and have been intrigued to find not just books on Italian subjects like John Florio’s language manual but a couple of Friendship Albums or Album Amicora which were created by the German Moyses Walens from Cologne and Austrian student Gervasius Fabricius from Salzburg. Both date from the early 1600s. They feature on informative pages by Andrew Dickson on Shakespeare’s Italian Jouneys and John Mullan on Shakespeare and Italy. Glorious colour images are reproduced from these books, and include Italian scenes such as a gondola cruising past St Mark’s Square in Venice as well as many others with mythological, biblical and social subjects. One shows a performance taking place in a wealthy house by a small troupe of actors, the sort of scene that Shakespeare probably took part in himself, and that he wrote about in Hamlet and The Taming of the Shrew.

These books remind us how broad a range of sources were shared by people all over Renaissance Europe, and how relatively easy it would have been for Shakespeare to access information about Italy even from these distant shores.  

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Giving Emilia Lanier her own voice

In 1973, historian A L Rowse declared in Shakespeare the Man that he had solved the greatest mystery in Shakespeare’s life, the identity of the Dark Lady of the Sonnets. She was, he said, Emilia Lanier (Aemilia Lanyer). Rowse’s starting point had been the references to her in the diaries of the physician Simon Forman, and other facts about her such as her Italian parentage, court connections, musical background and poetic writings all clinched it for him. While Rowse’s claims ensured publicity for her, it wasn’t all positive.  Rowse was dogmatic and eccentric, and could be rude towards his fellow academics ensuring there was little love lost between them. He was also rather cavalier with the facts, and it’s obvious that when Professor Stanley Wells found some basic errors in Rowse’s argument he took some pleasure in correcting him.  So although Rowse can be credited with shining a spotlight on Emilia Lanier, it was also quite easy to dismiss her.

The search for the Dark Lady had been a long one, beginning in 1797, when George Chalmers suggested the sonnets were addressed to Queen Elizabeth, and since then there have been many candidates including one of Queen Elizabeth’s maids of honour and the Abbess of Clerkenwell. Away from London, Jane Davenant, the wife of Oxford Vintner John Davenant, was another candidate. When their son William became a playwright gossipy John Aubrey noted that he “seemed contented enough to be thought [Shakespeare’s] son”.

This heated chase has taken up a huge amount of energy over the years, so it’s worth remembering that not only is there no evidence that any of these women actually knew Shakespeare, there is no evidence that there ever was a Dark Lady: her existence is pure supposition based on an autobiographical reading of the sonnets. The search however has shown how many interesting women did live in and around the royal court during Shakespeare’s lifetime.

This is particularly true of Emilia Lanier. We know that she was a talented writer because some of her poetry was published, she was a musician, and we know she had a complicated personal life. The dedications of her poems to several noble ladies show she had ambition and self-confidence. She lived through the turbulent years of 1569 right up to 1645, outliving all the men in her life. As she’s emerging out of the Dark Lady claims it’s becoming much easier to assess her in her own right.

Michelle Terry, now Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe, has long been fascinated by Lanier and one of her first acts was to commission a play about her. Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s play Emilia reached the Globe in the summer of 2018, performed by an all-female cast with three actors playing Emilia at different times of her life. Shakespeare does make an appearance but is a minor figure in what is very much her story.

Now the play is being given a significant run from March to June 2019 at the Vaudeville Theatre in  London.  There are reviews here and here of the original Globe performances. On 4 March the Radio 4 Today programme interviewed Morgan Lloyd Malcolm and the Globe’s Will Tosh here (2hrs 54 mins from the start of the programme).

Lanier’s book of poetry, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, was published in 1611 and several copies still exist. Here are links to it and to an article about her poetry from the British Library.

This assessment of her importance is from the Poetry Foundation:

Aemilia Lanyer was the first woman writing in English to produce a substantial volume of poetry designed to be printed and to attract patronage. The volume comprises a series of poems to individual patrons, two short prose dedications, the title poem on Christ’s Passion (viewed entirely from a female perspective), and the first country-house poem printed in English, “The Description of Cooke-ham,” which precedes the publication of Ben Johnson’s “To Penshurst” by five years. Lanyer’s poetry shows evidence of a practiced skill. The volume is also arguably the first genuinely feminist publication in England: all of its dedicatees are women, the poem on the Passion specifically argues the virtues of women as opposed to the vices of men, and Lanyer’s own authorial voice is assured and unapologetic.

The Description of Cooke-ham is a less serious work than the rest of the volume, but these lines, celebrating the beauty of springtime, are appropriate for this time of year:

The little Birds in chirping notes did sing,
To entertaine both You and that sweet Spring.
And Philomela with her sundry layes,
Both You and that delightfull Place did praise.
Oh how me thought each plant, each floure, each tree
Set forth their beauties then to welcome thee!
The very Hills right humbly did descend,
When you to tread vpon them did intend,
And as you set your feete, they still did rise,
Glad that they could receiue so rich a prise.

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Ben Elton’s Shakespeares

Ben Elton

Shakespeare seems to have haunted writer Ben Elton. He was always hovering in the background during Blackadder 2, the superb Elizabethan TV series. His current sitcom Upstart Crow, based around Shakespeare’s plays and life,  has had three series and he’s now written a feature film, All is True, that examines Shakespeare’s retirement to Stratford. This interview with him was broadcast in December 2018 on Radio 4’s Front Row. 

In it Elton explains that it was seeing one of Branagh’s films that really sparked his fascination with Shakespeare, and it was after Branagh had appeared in the Christmas Special of Upstart Crow that Elton was asked to write the script for All is True. It’s easy to see why: Elton’s love of wordplay and the exuberance with which he invents words and phrases is terribly rare, and reminiscent of Shakespeare’s own writing. A book containing some of the scripts is available  and you can still catch episodes of Upstart Crow on BBC Iplayer.  

Judi Dench and Kenneth Branagh in All is True

I went to see All is True a few days ago and while I felt puzzled by it at first I’ve found myself thinking about it many times since. The mood is sombre, the pace slow. Everything about the film is thoughtful, deliberate, planned. It feels a world away from the charming nuttiness of Upstart Crow in which Shakespeare regularly rants about the inefficiency of the transport system.

Some have called the film Branagh’s vanity project, directing himself as Shakespeare after playing so many of his most compelling characters. But the Shakespeare Branagh plays is not the great creative writer, or the performer revelling in his fame, rather the man who goes home to face the reality of what really matters, his home and family.

It feels like a farewell, but with Branagh still in his 50s there is plenty for him still to do. His co-stars Ian McKellen and Judi Dench, as the Earl of Southampton and Anne Hathaway, also show no sign of stopping. McKellen this year is celebrating his 80th birthday with a year of touring to theatres up and down the country. 

The film encourages us to think about the gap between life and art. The aging aristocrat the Earl of Southampton comments on the little life that Shakespeare has actually lived while writing his extraordinary poems and plays, and Shakespeare acknowledges that he has lived through his imagination sometimes at the expense of real life.

Without giving anything away about the plot, it’s the death of Shakespeare’s son Hamnet that dominates Shakespeare’s final years. While his wife and daughters had to cope with his loss Shakespeare carried on, Anne noting that he went straight off to write The Merry Wives of Windsor. In Upstart Crow Shakespeare’s rustic family, especially his father, can be a bit of an embarrassment to a man trying to prove himself. In All is True it’s Shakespeare himself who has to acknowledge he’s failed the people closest to him.

There are many issues unresolved in this dysfunctional family: Anne still resents her husband writing love poems to another woman, Susannah lives in a loveless marriage, and Judith has never got over being the less valued twin. Shakespeare’s way of resolving the loss of his son is to create a garden – another way of avoiding the conflicts within doors. We’re reminded that in the plays gardens are orderly, and outdoor scenes tend to be open and optimistic, while indoors can be claustrophobic and full of conflict.

Not everybody will enjoy this film, but I thought there was much to admire in it. The trailer is here, and an interview with Kenneth Branagh here

David Mitchell as Shakespeare with Hamnet in Upstart Crow

It’s a very different style for Ben Elton, but he’s always been able to blend comedy with serious stuff. The final scene of Blackadder with soldiers going over the top in World War 1 is probably his most famous. In the last episode of Series 3 of Upstart Crow, Elton also tackled the death of Hamnet and here too he moved from the comic into the tragic in just a few lines. Watching All is True, I wondered why we didn’t hear the lines from King John in which a parent mourns her child, but of course he’d already used it. There it is, the final moment of Upstart Crow, as William and Anne settle down by the fire together, the speech in which he did recognise the loss of his own precious child.

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form;
Then, have I reason to be fond of grief?

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Emma Rice at Stratford’s Shakespeare Club

Emma Rice

This week’s meeting of the Stratford-upon-Avon Shakespeare Club promises to be quite a departure from the Club’s usual lectures because the speaker, Emma Rice, this year’s President, has gone on record as saying that she doesn’t really understand a good deal of what Shakespeare wrote. Her talk will be entitled “The Trouble with Shakespeare”.

Her only previous Shakespeare work in Stratford-upon-Avon was Cymbeline at the Swan Theatre in 2006 as part of the RSC’s Complete Works Festival. Rice directed her own “freely adapted” version which was notable for containing very few of Shakespeare’s own words. I didn’t enjoy it though I thought it was a genuinely imaginative effort to explore the strange fairy-tale quality of the play, and didn’t warrant Michael Billington’s verdict of being “coarsely reductive”.

Rice built her reputation with Cornwall’s Kneehigh company before being appointed to lead Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. At the time the Daily Telegraph described her as “not so much a breath of fresh air on the London theatre scene as a one-woman tornado.” Her plans for the Globe included swapping the genders of Shakespeare characters, welcoming noisy members of the audiences and promised to “chop out bits of Elizabethan language which don’t make sense to modern audiences”.

It wasn’t long before her approach was challenged by the Globe’s board, though her first productions were popular and her best work described by the Observer’s Susannah Clapp as “exuberant, rambunctious, joyful”. “I don’t know who the Globe thought they were appointing” she continued. But following a disagreement with the board, Rice resigned.

Rather than allowing the unhappiness at Shakespeare’s Globe to deflate her, Rice has moved on. In June 2017, while still nominally running the Globe, her next project was announced. She has founded a new company based in Bristol, Wise Children, that will produce ensemble work to tour nationally and internationally. Its first production also called Wise Children is now onstage. An article in Inews noted that the play “Stuffed with twins, disputed parentage, near-incestuous romances, lost relatives and big reveals, …is gloriously, irreverently Shakespearean.

Like other members of the Shakespeare Club I’m looking forward to hearing Emma Rice’s unorthodox opinions of our favourite dramatist. I hope she will be challenging, frank and refreshing. But will we all need the smelling salts?

Emma Rice will be talking to the Stratford-upon-Avon Shakespeare Club at the Shakespeare Institute, Church St, Stratford-upon-Avon at 7.45pm on Tuesday 11 December. Doors open at 7.15 and tickets for visitors will cost £5. They are not available in advance.

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Shakespeare on the centenary of the Armistice

Beyond the Deepening Shadow, Tower of London Nov 2018

The progress of the 1914-1918 Great War has been closely followed in the UK over the past four years. Radio and TV programmes, and major events have ensured we could not forget the dreadful events of 100 years ago. In 2014 the poppy installation Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red marked the outbreak of war and in 2018 Beyond the Deepening Shadow, in which thousands of torches are lit in remembrance of the armistice, has captured the public’s imagination.

While the focus has been on London, parts of the poppy display have been seen around the country, and on 11 November 2018 villages, towns and cities will hold services at their war memorials mirroring those at the cenotaph in London’s Whitehall.

In Stratford-upon-Avon during the morning bells will ring out, a red light will be lit on the RST’s tower and a civic procession will be held followed by wreath-laying. During the evening a beacon will be lit in the town’s Garden of Remembrance. The final event will be, perhaps inevitably, a series of performances of Shakespeare’s Henry V in an acclaimed production by Antic Disposition to take place at Holy Trinity from 12-16 November. The production includes original songs inspired by the poetry of A E Housman, shifting between 1415 and 1915 to create a tribute to the soldiers in conflicts centuries apart. Some tickets are still available and more information is to be found here.

I’ve written before about Shakespeare in World War 1, here looking at the stained glass panels in the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, and here looking at how the war directly affected townspeople.

What has been striking is the amount of documentary evidence that tells the stories of ordinary soldiers. While most never spoke of their experiences, many wrote things down. Diaries, letters, memoirs, provide harrowing testimonies that complement the still and moving images and the bald reports that appeared in newspapers. This website includes a section on Memoirs and Diaries as well as published Poetry and Prose.

It’s a sad coincidence that the generation who went off to fight were also some of the first to benefit from universal free primary education and the creation of Local Education Authorities under which schools were funded from local taxation. This ensured that from the beginning of the twentieth century literacy became almost universal. The soldiers at the front could write their own letters home and record their own daily struggles. 5.7 million British soldiers were issued with a New Testament.

There’s an account here, on the Australian Bible Museum’s site, of how, on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, in which 60,000 British troops were killed or wounded, many bodies were found with their bibles in their hands. As they lay dying, soldiers brought the book out from their breast pockets to gain some comfort from their words.

Shakespeare too was expected to provide solace for soldiers who had been severely injured. The Lord Kitchener Memorial Fund provided these men with a copy of Shakespeare’s works, “a source of pride and satisfaction, …of genuine and personal solace”. In Stratford in September 1918, 41 disabled men were presented with these volumes. It’s impossible to know what they made of the gift. If they were to read even Henry V, the most jingoistic of the plays, they would have found uncertainty. In his discussion with Williams and Bates in the “night scene”, the disguised king hears the voices of the ordinary soldiers, their fears and questioning of the actions of their leaders. These same feelings have surely been felt by soldiers in every conflict around the world.

Henry V. Methinks I could not die anywhere so
contented as in the king’s company; his cause being
just and his quarrel honourable.

Williams. That’s more than we know.

Bates. Ay, or more than we should seek after; for we know
enough, if we know we are the kings subjects: if
his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes
the crime of it out of us.

Williams. But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and
arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join
together at the latter day and cry all ‘We died at
such a place;’ some swearing, some crying for a
surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their
children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die
well that die in a battle.

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Cicely Berry, Head of Voice for the RSC

Cicely Berry

Cicely Berry’s name rarely appeared on any of the publicity for the RSC theatre productions in which she’d been involved, normally being tucked away towards the bottom of the cast list as Head of Voice. Unlike the contributions of designers and composers you couldn’t see or exactly hear her work, and at the end of the play there was certainly nothing left behind. Universally known as Cis, over nearly six decades she was regarded with admiration bordering on reverence by actors at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and her death on 15 October 2018, at the age of 92, is being marked with an outpouring of respect and affection.

Physically tiny, she was an unlikely-looking revolutionary but her influence was immense. At the beginning of her career speaking was all about elocution, and there was a strong link between the speaking of Shakespeare’s words and singing, seen most strongly in John Gielgud’s much-admired technique. For many years from 1936 the theatre in Stratford employed Denne Gilkes, a distinguished performer and teacher of music to teach both voice production and singing. Denne too was something of a legend, working with actors including Ian Richardson, Diana Rigg and Paul Scofield.

In the sixties, though, everything was changing. Cis Berry’s approach must have come as a shock to those who were trained more traditionally. She championed the idea that there wasn’t a right way or a wrong way of speaking, but that each actor could find his or her own voice. The public sessions I attended gave a flavour of how she worked with actors, making us all run across the room, walking in different directions, always doing something physical and freeing the words from preconceived ideas about making a beautiful sound or wringing the meaning out of each syllable.

Generations of Voice Directors have taken on Cis’s ideas, and she wrote down and published them in a series of books including Voice and the Actor, The Actor and the Text, and Your Voice and How to Use It. There is even a series of DVDs now available under the title The Working Shakespeare Library.

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Artistic Director Gregory Doran has written a piece about her that appears on the RSC’s website here, and just a couple of years ago the Independent published an interview with her that captures her character, ideas and spirit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Shakespeare and the People’s Vote

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Shakespeare and the strangers: Refugee Week

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

Quoting from the website,

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

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

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

The speech contains the lines:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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