Celebrating Shakespeare with Kenneth Branagh

Kenneth Branagh

Kenneth Branagh

Kenneth Branagh is best known as one of his generation’s finest Shakespearean actors and directors for both stage and film, so his latest project, a sweetly traditional film of the fairy tale Cinderella, comes as something of a surprise. It boasts some of our top female actors with Cate Blanchett playing the evil godmother and Helena Bonham Carter the Fairy Godmother, and it’s already yet another success for Branagh.

This piece contains a recent video interview with Branagh in which he discusses Shakespeare as well as the world of fairy tales. If there is one thing that characterises Branagh’s career, it’s the diversity of work he takes on.


Kenneth Branagh as Macbeth

Kenneth Branagh as Macbeth

Cinderella is a long way from Branagh’s last big success onstage, Macbeth, produced in Manchester and screened by NT Live in 2013. As well as starring in the production it was co-directed by him with Rob Ashford. Michael Billington, in his Guardian review, wrote that it “reminds us what an intemperately exciting Shakespearean actor he is”. Dominic Cavendish wrote that he “shows us the vestigial civilisation beneath the martial exterior. He is first full of amicable disbelief, paces alone in breathless cogitation, falters before the act of betrayal – here bloodily shown on the altar itself, snuffing out surrounding candles – and becomes more unhinged and volatile as events are set in unstoppable motion.”

The thrillingly atmospheric production transferred to New York in Branagh’s rather overdue US stage debut. Now there are rumours that he will team up with Martin Scorsese to make a film of the play based on this production. Branagh has said agreement is close: “The fingers are hovering above pieces of paper. Everyone wants to do it; it’s just a question of schedule. I’m very, very hopeful it’s going to happen.” If those pages are signed the film will be a big event whenever it happens.

Lily James and Richard Madden in Cinderella

Lily James and Richard Madden in Cinderella

Branagh’s next stage project is a trilogy of plays later in 2015 at the Garrick Theatre in London. The season will include Romeo and Juliet, starring Richard Madden and Lily James (the prince and Cinders in Cinderella), followed by The Entertainer  written by John Osborne in 1957 in which Branagh will take the famous role of aging vaudeville performer Archie Rice, written for Laurence Olivier, and The Winter’s Tale. Ever since his first RSC season Branagh has been compared with Olivier, and even played him in the film My Week with Marilyn. Branagh will direct both Shakespeares.

This piece in the Telegraph describes how:
Branagh wants to combine his love for Shakespeare with his newly-found affection for fairy tales. “Until now I hadn’t thought about making a fairytale as a movie but now I realise I am being drawn to them. So a Shakespeare play that I have been interested in working on for a long time is The Winter’s Tale which I see very much as a fairytale. Later on this year we will do The Winter’s Tale on stage in London and in terms of films, it’s always in my thoughts.”


Kenneth Branagh in the film of Henry V

Kenneth Branagh in the film of Henry V

It’s hard to imagine a more varied career than Branagh’s, first acting in modern plays and Shakespeare onstage, at 23 the youngest Henry V who has ever performed in Stratford. After the RSC he ran his own theatre company, Renaissance, for whom he also performed, inviting distinguished actors such as Derek Jacobi and Judi Dench to direct Shakespeare for him. Many people have been introduced to Shakespeare by Branagh’s films, beginning with Henry V, followed by Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, Hamlet, Love’s Labour’s Lost and As You Like It. His stage production of Twelfth Night was later adapted for television. His TV and film credits are too many to mention, and he was knighted in 2012.

In Stratford it’s just been announced that Kenneth Branagh is to lead the town’s celebrations of Shakespeare’s birthday, receiving the Pragnell Shakespeare Birthday Award during the luncheon on Saturday 25 April.  The award has been presented every year since 1990, when the great actress Dame Peggy Ashcroft was the first recipient. It is sponsored by Pragnell Jewellers of Stratford-upon-Avon, and is made to someone who has made an outstanding contribution to Shakespeare studies or on the stage. Others who have received it include director Peter Brook, actors Judi Dench and Simon Russell Beale, academic Professor Stanley Wells and reviewer Michael Billington. In the Stratford-upon-Avon Herald’s report, Branagh said “I am honoured to be this year’s recipient of the distinguished Pragnell Shakespeare award. To be in the company of such illustrious predecessors is both touching and meaningful. I look forward very much to returning to Stratford, a town I love”.

Branagh’s presence is sure to generate excitement about the Celebrations, not just for those who know him from his Shakespeare work. Will there be large numbers of small girls dreaming of becoming a princess among the crowds of onlookers?

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Museums of the future, engaging with the past

Museum-Week-01This week, 23-29 March 2015, Museums have been celebrating Museums Week, and promoting their collections and services. By coincidence the big news for lovers of culture has been the reburial of the remains of King Richard III, making a strong connection between the distant past and the present. The finding of his skeleton, the forensic work leading to a positive DNA match, the drama of the legal challenge have made for a gripping story, and events have been given a huge amount of airtime including live screenings, coverage that cultural events never normally receive.

Recently the cultural temperature of the country was taken and the results were published in the Arts Index 2015. This showed that attendance and participation in the arts has risen, though overall funding in England has fallen further and faster than at any time in history.

Many people are questioning why we visit museums and galleries, and how usage in changing. In this article, four influential people in the museum world suggest what they think museums will look like in five years time. David Anderson, from National Museums Wales wants them to be centres for “public creativity and local enterprise”. Christoph Vogtherr, from the Wallace Collection sess his principle aim as “safeguarding the artworks and making them available” and museums should be wary of the “overpowering voice of digital mediation that suggests instant gratification”, connecting us to the past. Maria Balshaw from the Whitworth Art Gallery wants museums to “allow us to see beauty and fill us with wonder. They should be sociable spaces, which quietly undo social hierarchy and inequality”. Robert Hewison, critic, curator and academic, thinks “Museums are much more than repositories of objects; they are meeting places for people and ideas.” Culture in general, it is hoped, can help to solve the challenges of our time: intolerance, inequality and social isolation.

None of these responses suggests how technology might be used. The Wellcome Collection is trying to create a digital experience to last longer, and have a deeper impact, than the quick dive-in that most people experience online.

In the USA the Smithsonian’s recently reopened design museum the Cooper Hewitt is focusing on involving visitors’ interaction with the collections, rather than on events. As a design museum it explains the design process, but they believe “the heart of the museum is in its collection and its visitors”, and are offering them “something that can’t be found anywhere else” based on the museum’s unique items. They have brought in touch-screen tables that allow people to examine objects, immersion rooms that allow visitors to create their own designs based on the collections, and digital “pens” that provide information about objects, allowing people to save material about their personal choice of items.

oculusAnother approach is virtual reality, and the use of machines like the oculus, developed for playing immersive 3D games. These might allow people to “visit” museums in the future, and this post on Europeana includes some suggestions of how they might be used. It’s not my idea of a museum visit, and I can’t imagine it would do much to promote the idea of museums being social spaces, but might encourage larger numbers of virtual visitors.

museum selfieAt the other end of the scale, an issue that has attracted much attention over the past year has been the decision of many museums and galleries to allow photography, including the taking of selfies. In fact in January 2015 the second Museum Selfie day took place, intended to be a fun way of encouraging museum visits. On Sunday of Museum Week, people are being told to be creative by taking a selfie with a favourite work of art (some, like this, quite witty).

Many galleries and museums have relaxed their rules about photography, and London’s National Gallery was one of the first major collections to do so with early warnings that it would become “selfie central” being unjustified.  John Wyver defended the practice in his Illuminations blog.

selfie stickThen just when the issue had quietened down the selfie stick appeared on the scene.  Nick-named “the wand of narcissism” these have been banned by organisations that welcomed selfies, such as the Smithsonian Museums in Washington, DC. By encouraging groups to pose near artworks there’s more potential for damage, as well as disturbing other visitors.

But for some this shows museums to be out of touch: “If their mission is one of service to the public, then they should be doing everything they can to encourage attendance and engagement with the artworks”.  Most UK museums and galleries haven’t made a decision yet.

hamlet selfie hamlet todayThis post hasn’t had a lot to do with Shakespeare, but experiencing the crowds in Leicester for Richard III’s reburial was a reminder that what people really respond to is some kind of real experience. Watching events unfold on the TV, looking at artworks online, or seeing a theatre production relayed live to a cinema are great substitutes, but aren’t the same as being there. Like people taking a selfie next to a famous painting, people take photographs in the auditorium of the theatre before the show begins: it’s a modern equivalent to keeping a diary. The next stage is to dream up ways that collections and performances can offer more satisfying experiences and deeper levels of understanding about ourselves and our shared humanity.

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Still looking for the truth about Richard III: who did kill the princes in the tower?

The coffin of Richard III in Leicester Cathedral

The coffin of Richard III in Leicester Cathedral

Like many thousands of others I visited Leicester on Monday 23 March 2015 to file past the coffined remains of Richard III before they are reinterred in the Cathedral on Thursday. People waited up to four hours, and many in the queue held white roses, the symbol of the house of York, others wore boar-shaped brooches. We met people from Ludlow, Norfolk, the North East, and South Wales, and although they had followed the excavation, they seemed to be compelled as much by witnessing a unique event as by the honouring of a long-dead monarch. We also visited the Richard III Visitors’ Centre and the Guildhall, all close together. Even after Thursday there will be much to see in the city and at the site of the Battle of Bosworth where Richard died, just a few miles away.

In the exhibition, apart from the fascinating forensic and archaeological investigations relating to the finding of the body, I was particularly interested in the discussion of Richard’s achievements as a king, and the section about Shakespeare’s play. After 500 years in which we have been told Richard was a monster they are understandably keen to emphasise the positive side of his life. Richard brought in laws to protect the rights of his subjects, such as the right for those accused of crimes to be considered for bail instead of being imprisoned until trial. I may have missed it in the crowded exhibition, but I didn’t notice a reference to the other side: Richard ignored the law of the land by summarily executing Lord Hastings, a member of his council, without any form of trial.

In his play Shakespeare makes much of this dramatic event, writing a whole scene (Act 3 Scene 4) around the downfall of Hastings. In the play, Hastings’ reluctance to accept Richard’s coronation is enough for Shakespeare’s Richard to condemn him, but although the scene is in essence correct, the truth was probably more complex. The historical facts seem to confirm Richard as an opportunist, not above acting ruthlessly in the face of a threat, rather than Shakespeare’s plotter.

The statue of Richard III at Leicester Cathedral, with white roses

The statue of Richard III at Leicester Cathedral, with white roses

In the middle of Henry VI Part 3 Shakespeare gives Richard a wonderful speech about his ambition to be King. Here’s an extract:
And yet I know not how to get the crown,
For many lives lie between me and home….
Why I can smile, and murder whiles I smile,
And cry “Content!” to that that grieves my heart,
And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,
And frame my face to all occasions…
Can I do this, and cannot get a crown?

The worst crime of which Richard is accused is the murder of the little princes in the tower, the sons of Edward IV aged 12 and 9. A Channel 4 documentary Richard III: The Princes in the Tower was screened on Saturday evening.

In Shakespeare’s play Richard is of course guilty. “Shall I be plain?” he says: “I wish the bastards dead”. The documentary considered other possibilities, but it’s a pity it was, as this review put it, “all spectacle and no substance”.

Richard III: the Princes in the Tower

Richard III: the Princes in the Tower

Specialists and academics gave their opinions, but there was no discussion, no comment on what anyone else said, held together by some unconvincing dramatized sequences. The programme did at least clarify the sequence of events, and noted that Shakespeare was only repeating the contemporary view of events promoted by, among others, Thomas More. The conclusion of most of those who were consulted was that Richard probably had been responsible for the murder, possibly persuaded by Buckingham.

With breathtaking political naivety one of the speakers suggested Richard had no motive for the murder, since once the princes had been proclaimed illegitimate and Richard was crowned, he had no need to fear them. He should read Richard II, where the king considers the fragility of anyone’s hold on the crown:
For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d.

In another investigation, The Daily Mirror asked a retired Scotland Yard detective, Peter Kirkham, to review the evidence. Although he doesn’t go into all the alternatives, he concludes: “As a professional investigator, my favoured hypothesis is that the princes were murdered on the orders of Richard III. He was the only individual with the clear motive and the opportunity.”

Antony Sher as Richard III, RSC 1984

Antony Sher as Richard III, RSC 1984

One of the results of the reconsideration of Richard’s character could be a reluctance to perform Shakespeare’s play. On Monday, actor Antony Sher, who played a full-blooded Richard in 1984, was interviewed on Radio 4’s Today programme. He insisted we must never stop doing it. Richard is “a fantastic, powerful, charismatic figure” in one of Shakespeare’s great plays. “It’s exciting, it’s funny, it’s dangerous”. And although we “must not come to Shakespeare’s play expecting a history lesson” it’s a politically important play because it is a “study in tyranny”. He also performed part of the famous opening speech in the play. It’s right at the end of the broadcast, 2 hrs 55 minutes in.

We’ll probably never know the truth about the disappearance of the princes in the tower, or exactly what sort of a man Richard III really was. But Shakespeare’s play has helped to ensure that, 500 years on, we’re still talking about him.

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Shakespeare and the Greeks

Helen McCrory as Medea, National Theatre 2014

Helen McCrory as Medea, National Theatre 2014

Every few years the tragedies of ancient Greece seem to come back into fashion, and just now, in 2015, several theatres are staging revivals or adaptations of these powerful ancient plays.

On 24 March the Almeida’s new season goes on sale with productions of several Greek tragedies. It begins in May with Aeschylus’s Oresteia trilogy, an “apocalyptically bloody family feud”, adapted into a “leaner modern reading”. This will be followed by an adaptation of The Bacchae, with Ben Whishaw as Dionysus and a new production of Euripides’ tragedy Medea with Kate Fleetwood.

One of the reasons for the current popularity of these plays may be the great dramatic roles they provide for women. The Almeida’s follows an acclaimed production of Medea at the National Theatre last autumn featuring Helen McCrory as Medea. This production of this story of a mother’s murder of her children was highly acclaimed.

Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra

Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra

Also at the end of last year Kristin Scott-Thomas played a powerful Electra at the Old Vic. The Guardian review wrote: “Drained to a dust grey, rigidly held, eyes fixed wide, it is the face of an obsessive. She is both galvanised and ground down by her terrible purpose, of avenging her father’s death by arranging the murder of her mother… It is hard to watch Electra without thinking of Hamlet. She is the prince without vacillation. The avenger who acts. She is also the proof that we don’t need to cross-dress Shakespeare to give a woman a mighty role.”

At the Barbican until 28 March Juliet Binoche is playing Antigone in a production that will then go on international tour and will be filmed for BBC4. It’s a pity then that the production has not been more positively received.

Later on this year, from the end of August to October, Shakespeare’s Globe is also doing a version of the Oresteia in which “the original trilogy will be distilled into one thrilling three-act play”.  The trilogy relates the story of how Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter before leaving for the Trojan War, triggering a whole series of other murders over many years: Agamemnon is killed by his wife Clytemnestra on his return, and their son Orestes has to avenge his father’s death by murdering his mother. The unfolding of this unending cycle of revenge is one of the greatest of stories.

There are a number of parallels between Hamlet and Orestes. Both lose their fathers by murder, and both are denied their father’s throne. In their revenge both their mothers and their new husbands are killed. But whereas a resolution is found at the end of the Oresteia, Hamlet ends with the violent death of nearly all the main characters.

Bronze statue of a Greek actor in female dress

Bronze statue of a Greek actor in female dress

Public booking has just opened for the RSC’s production of Hecuba, another play about the Trojan War being staged at the Swan Theatre in autumn 2015. It’s to be another new adaptation, directed by Erica Whyman.
Troy has fallen. It’s the end of war and the beginning of something else. Something worse.  As the cries die down after the final battle, there are reckonings to be made. Humiliated by her defeat and imprisoned by the charismatic victor Agamemnon, the great queen Hecuba must wash the blood of her buried sons from her hands and lead her daughters forward into a world they no longer recognise. Agamemnon has slaughtered his own daughter to win this war. But now another sacrifice is demanded… In a world where human instinct has been ravaged by violence, is everything as it seems in the hearts of the winners and those they have defeated?

Shakespeare’s play about the Trojan War is Troilus and Cressida, but rather than using any of the original plays, or indeed the Iliad or Virgil’s Aeneid as sources, Shakespeare took his story from medieval writings such as Caxton’s Recuyell of the Historyes of Troy, Robert Henryson’s Testament of Cressid, and Chaucer’s version of the story in Troilus and Criseyde that focuses on the love story rather than the war itself.  Troilus and Cressida is quite a late play, but the story appears in one of Shakespeare’s earliest works, The Rape of Lucrece. References to the Trojan War are scattered through Shakespeare’s plays. In Henry IV Part 2 Pistol calls Doll Tearsheet a “lazar kite of Cressid’s kind”, and the sack of Troy itself provides the speech which Hamlet asks the First Player to perform.
One speech in’t I chiefly lov’d. ‘Twas AEneas’ tale to Dido, and thereabout of it especially where he speaks of Priam’s slaughter… ‘
The rugged Pyrrhus, like th’ Hyrcanian beast-‘ ‘
Tis not so; it begins with Pyrrhus: ‘
The rugged Pyrrhus, he whose sable arms,
Black as his purpose, did the night resemble
When he lay couched in the ominous horse,
Hath now this dread and black complexion smear’d
With heraldry more dismal. Head to foot
Now is be total gules, horridly trick’d
With blood of fathers, mothers, daughters, sons,
Bak’d and impasted with the parching streets,
That lend a tyrannous and a damned light
To their lord’s murther. Roasted in wrath and fire,
And thus o’ersized with coagulate gore,
With eyes like carbuncles, the hellish Pyrrhus
Old grandsire Priam seeks.

If you would like to read more on the subject, there’s an introduction to Greek tragedy on the National Theatre’s website.

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“These late eclipses”: the moon, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and happiness

Solar eclipse

Solar eclipse

On the morning of Friday 20 March the UK will experience a near-total eclipse of the sun. Even where skies are not clear, the sky will darken and we will experience a sort of twilight. The birds will fall silent until the light returns. The moon, travelling across and partly or totally obscuring the face of the sun is one of the most powerful of events. In many cultures eclipses were terrifying. Vikings believed that wolves were eating the sun, the Chinese thought they predicted the death of the Emperor, and the ancient Greeks thought eclipses were signs that the gods were angry, and about to visit destruction on humans.

We don’t know that Shakespeare ever experienced a full solar eclipse. There was a partial eclipse in 1590 and a more major one on October 12 1605, which is probably what he refers to in King Lear, where the Earl of Gloucester predicts “These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us… Love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide. In cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond crack’d ‘twixt son and father.”

After killing her, Othello suggests Desdemona’s murder was an act so serious that:
Methinks it should be now a huge eclipse
Of sun and moon, and that the affrighted globe
Should yawn at alteration.

It’s not the only celestial event: at the moment there is a “supermoon” which means the moon is close to the earth making it appear larger than usual. Othello also refers to this phenomenon, blaming the moon’s influence for the rash of murders.
It is the very error of the moon,
She comes more near the earth than she as wont,
And makes men mad. 

This weekend is also the spring equinox. Throughout the play it’s plain that Othello is superstitious, claiming the handkerchief he gives Desdemona has magical power. Apparently some Christian ministers believe the conjunction of these three events predict the beginning of the end of the world. Superstition, it seems, is not dead.

Starveling from the Austrian Burgtheater production in 2007

Starveling from the Austrian Burgtheater production in 2007

The moon is mentioned many times by Shakespeare, in many different contexts, and no play is more full of references to it than A Midsummer Night’s Dream. One of the Mechanicals, Starveling, represents the Moonshine by which the lovers Pyramus and Thisbe met. “This lanthorn doth the horned moon present”.  At their first meeting, Oberon addresses Titania with the bad-tempered “Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania”, and even before that Hippolyta has made the link between the moon and marriage.
And then the moon, like to a silver bow
New-bent in heaven, shall behold the night
Of our solemnities.

In one of the last speeches of the play, where the fairies bless three newly-married couples, Puck reminds us of the moon’s more malign influence:
Now the hungry lion roars,
And the wolf behowls the moon,
Whilst the heavy ploughman snores
All with weary task fordone.

New-Intl-Day-HappinessIn spite of this, no play has a happier ending than A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Friday 20 March 2015 is also International Day of Happiness. The focus this year is on the importance of human connection, and the isolation felt by many in modern society. Most of Shakespeare’s comedies leave at least one character out of the celebrations: Malvolio in Twelfth Night, Jaques in As You Like It, Shylock and Antonio in The Merchant of Venice. It’s hard to find real happiness in the ending of The Taming of the Shrew, though that is at least partly down to modern sensibilities. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, though, leaves all the couple married, Oberon and Titania reconciled, and, presumably, the Mechanicals rewarded for their play.

A boisterous Bergomask dance is followed by the fairies’ blessing.  Nothing helps to promote a happy mood more than music, in Shakespeare and elsewhere. We all know how much music influences how we feel, Cleopatra calling it “moody food /Of us that trade in love”. In the theatre it has long been used at the end of a play to leave the audience happy. Happiness-inducing songs have been featured on Radio 4 this week along with a discussion about the power of music over our moods.

While on the subject of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, there’s a great opportunity coming up for someone to pursue a fully-funded PhD on A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play for the Nation. It will be a collaboration between the Shakespeare Institute of the University of Birmingham (located in Stratford) and the RSC, with the aim of studying the nationwide tour of the play that is one of their 2016 projects. A different set of local amateur actors will impersonate the “rude mechanicals” at each venue. Partner theatres are all round the country from Truro and Canterbury in the south to Belfast, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Glasgow. The student will “research this rich and complex artistic and social event. Granted access to planning meetings, rehearsals, documentation and performances, the student will study the methods and processes of the RSC and its amateur partners and produce a PhD thesis about their interactions: at the same time the student will be trained in academic theatre history and cultural studies by the university.” Full details are here: applications must be in by 17 April.

Have a wonderful, happy day!

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Shakespeare Week 2015

shakespeare weekWe’re right in the middle of Shakespeare Week, running from 16-22 March. There have been Shakespeare weeks before, but last year, in 2014, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust embarked on a mission to give primary school children a great first encounter with Shakespeare. Jacqueline Green, Head of Learning and Participation, explains “We chose to engage with primary-school aged children as it is at that age that we are most open to new experiences and we describe it as a celebration because, for us, the key to sustaining a life-long interest is enjoyment.” As Tranio puts it in The Taming of the Shrew:
No profit grows where is no pleasure ta’en;
In brief, sir, study what you most affect.

The SBT’s role was to coordinate events run by schools and organisations around the country, hosting a dedicated website on which events were posted and where online resources could be posted. It was aimed squarely at primary school children, and it’s been a great success, reaching half a million of them at over 2,500 schools in its first year. In 2015, 7087 primary schools are signed up.

Lyn Gardner of the Guardian has just asked “Are children are well-school’d in the Bard?” (Judging from the responses to her article, the answer is, mostly, no). Too many children are bored, or worse, made to feel stupid by not understanding or enjoying Shakespeare. Reading round the class is unanimously given the thumbs down, but people who get to love Shakespeare at school often credit an enthusiastic teacher.

The great pity is that if children have a negative experience at school, the feeling remains with them for the rest of their lives, and as one respondee put it, “Shakespeare only gets better as you get older”. After people have left school they may be lucky enough to encounter a good production of a play that will awaken their interest in Shakespeare, and this article in the Daily Telegraph suggests where to see performances this week. The live relays of productions to cinemas take Shakespeare to audiences who might never go to a theatre, and the online MOOC courses can provide an easy, free alternative way of thinking about the man and his work.

All the more reason, then to be pleased that the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust have this year expanded their reach beyond the schools and into libraries. Libraries welcome people of all ages and backgrounds to go in by themselves or as a family, providing a pleasant, safe and free environment. They might read a book, borrow a DVD or find out about a club or event they would enjoy. Jacqueline  Green again: “What more natural partner could there be for a project that aspires to reach out to everyone than public and school libraries? They are at the heart of every community and the portal to so many journeys of discovery. The Society of Chief Librarians lent their support to Shakespeare Week from day one so we are particularly delighted to be working with them, the Association of Senior Children’s and Education Librarians, the Reading Agency and CILIP to bring Shakespeare vividly to life in communities nationwide.”

Shakespeare Week display at Windermere Library

Shakespeare Week display at Windermere Library

On holiday a couple of weeks ago I found that libraries in Cumbria, although  not putting on events, are promoting the week by a series of displays drawing attention to items available to borrow.  You can find how libraries up and down the country are responding to Shakespeare Week by looking at the interactive map or the list on the website. They all look enjoyable, many promoting their collections or offering reading activities and discussion. Here are a few examples:

  • In North Yorkshire, at Thirsk Library, they are encouraging children to contribute to a comic strip version of Hamlet throughout March.
  • Essex Libraries are running drop-in events at several of their branches including a short film about Shakespeare as a young boy.
  • There’s a coffee morning at Wombourne Library, Near Dudley, this morning, 18 March on the subject of Shakespeare, aimed at adults as well as children
  • On Saturday 21 March at Manchester Central Library there is an opportunity to follow a murder mystery trail Murder Most Foul, with clues to examine and suspects to interrogate
  • At Grimsby Library on Saturday morning Shakespeare Chatterbooks will feature reading, crafts and quizzes for 6-11 year olds and their families.
  • You can follow the Shakespeare Trail at St Thomas Library, Exeter.
  • Lots of activities are taking place in libraries on Merseyside, for example there are quizzes for adults and children at Parr Library all week.

In Stratford of course the houses associated with Shakespeare are all bursting with activities (see the events list), and many other places are staging events: at an interactive recital at Tatton Park in Cheshire on Saturday morning participants can hear Elizabethan songs, take part in a jig, and look at the sort of musical instruments used at the time. On Sunday morning in Basing House, Basingstoke, a professional storyteller will be staging “a fully interactive re-telling of The Tempest”. There’s still time to take part so check out what’s going on locally, especially at your own public library.

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Votes for women: Shakespeare and the suffragettes

Miranda, painted by Frederick Goodall

Miranda, painted by Frederick Goodall

Last time I looked at the suffrage movement in Stratford, and its connections with the Shakespeare festivals. Both in Stratford and elsewhere in the early twentieth century Shakespeare’s plays provoked discussion about the suffragette cause.

Not all of Shakespeare’s women are good role models, but in the nineteenth century many of them were seen as ideals of womanhood. Illustrations in The Graphic Gallery of Shakespeare’s Heroines, and books like Mary Cowden Clarke’s The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines (1850-52) concentrated on Shakespeare’s younger, modest heroines including Juliet, Ophelia and Miranda.

Later, it was Shakespeare’s more troubled women who became the focus of attention. In her posthumously-published lectures, Ellen Terry, who sympathised with the suffragettes, wrote “Have you ever thought how much we all, and women especially, owe to Shakespeare for his vindication of woman in his fearless, high-spirited, resolute and intelligent heroines?”

Lecturing to Shakespeare Club on 10 March, Sophie Duncan talked about some of these female characters and how the suffrage movement associated themselves with them. Here is a link to her podcast on the same subject.

Shakespeare was seen as a pillar of the establishment, enormously popular in the UK and a symbol of its values in the Empire. Being able to say that Shakespeare was on their side was a great plus for the suffragettes, struggling to be taken seriously by the political establishment.

One reason why Shakespeare’s women appealed to the suffrage movement was the strong bond of friendship that is portrayed between many of them: Rosalind and Celia, “whose loves /Are dearer than the natural bond of sisters.” Nerissa and Portia have a closer relationship with each other than with their husbands, and before they fall out even Helena and Hermia “grew together,/Like to a double cherry, seeming parted,/But yet an union in partition;/Two lovely berries moulded on one stem”. In Much Ado About Nothing the outspoken Beatrice stands up for Hero when she is wrongly accused, but needs the intervention of Benedick to challenge Claudio: “O that I were a man!”

In her essay Suffrage Critics and Political Action, Sheila Stowell documents how theatre became a focus for suffragette protests. They formed their own theatre groups, and here is a history of the Actresses Franchise League and biographies of many of its members.

In The Winter’s Tale in particular Shakespeare seemed to be firmly on the side of the suffragettes. Paulina takes matters into her own hands to preserve Hermione after she has been accused of infidelity. For the 1912 production of the play at the Savoy Theatre, directed by Harley Granville Barker, Lillah McCarthy played Hermione and Esme Beringer Paulina. All three were known suffragists, and the review in the The Suffragette noted:“the dauntless, potent, unflinching Paulina – the eternal Suffragette whom all the greatest geniuses of all ages have loved to portray. Paulina, penetrating to forbidden chambers and telling tyrants to their faces of the wronged woman and the helpless child; Paulina turning full on the unjust king the flood of her fierce eloquence, while his attendants fawn and cower for fear of his insane wrath… The real heroine of The Winter’s Tale is the woman who makes things happen – the militant Paulina, just as the real heroines of the twentieth century are the women who make things happen – the militant Suffragettes”.

Mary Kingsley as Joan of Arc

Mary Kingsley as Joan of Arc

One of Shakespeare’s less popular women, Joan la Pucelle in Henry VI Part 1, became a symbol of the suffragette movement. According to Nick Walton in his blog for Blogging Shakespeare, “Joan’s clamorous voice sets Shakespeare’s play afire, and her commanding characterization made her a natural feminist icon for the women’s campaign for universal suffrage before the First World War.” Mary Kingsley, a professional actress and active suffragette, played Joan in Stratford in 1889, and a portrait was painted of her in the role at the height of suffragette activity in 1914. This photograph shows her as a warrior dressed in gleaming armour, holding a sword, her long hair flowing to her shoulders, an inspiration to other women.

Katherina, in The Taming of the Shrew, is a violent woman more difficult to reconcile with the view of Shakespeare as a supporter of votes for women. In Stratford, Constance and Frank Benson had established a long tradition of playing Kate and Petruchio. Their verbal sparring was accompanied by knockabout farce, with Kate being thrown unceremoniously over Petruchio’s shoulder and carried off stage. It was a wildly popular production performed at most of the Shakespeare Festivals. By 1912, though, changes were occurring at the Memorial Theatre and for the two performances of the play the well-like suffragist actress Violet Vanbrugh took the role of Kate. For the first performance Arthur Bourchier, Vanbrugh’s real-life husband, played Petruchio, but for the final performance of the Festival, she played the role opposite Benson himself. There’s a full account in Susan Carlson’s essay The Suffrage Shrew.

Vanbrugh’s performance was much lower in key than Constance’s, with Kate giving Petruchio no excuse for violence. Some of the critics noted that faced with this Kate, Petruchio came over as a loud-mouthed bully. It was certainly a view of the future.

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Shakespeare, suffrage, and Stratford-upon-Avon

The suffragettes' march in Stratford 16 July 1913. Photo from Windows on Warwickshire

The suffragettes’ march in Stratford 16 July 1913. Photo from Windows on Warwickshire

This week, 8-13 March, International Women’s Week has been celebrated around the world with an examination of the achievements of women and progress towards gender equality. Amanda Vickery’s three-part television series Suffragettes Forever! has documented the history of the struggle of women in the UK for the right to vote, ending with her assessment that, 100 years on from the era of the suffragettes, there is still a long way to go. The series has been an uncomfortable reminder of the force-feeding of imprisoned women and the violence which the suffragettes felt they were forced to use because promised new laws repeatedly failed to materialize.

This week too the Shakespeare Club in Stratford heard a lecture by Dr Sophie Duncan on Shakespeare and the Suffragettes. Shakespeare was adopted by the suffragettes and suffragists because of the independent outspokenness of some of his heroines, women who make things happen, particularly for other women in the plays. There will be more of this in a future post. She included in her talk a description of the suffragette movement in Stratford. We tend to think of Edwardian Stratford as an old-fashioned backwater, and certainly before the First World War Frank Benson was promoting Stratford as a centre for traditional English folk culture, looking back rather than forward.

Violet Vanbrugh as Portia

Violet Vanbrugh as Portia

Whatever Benson’s personal feelings might have been about the suffragette movement, the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre and its Festivals provided a focus for it. Actresses were outspoken, eloquent, attractive, often financially independent and unconventional. Ellen Terry was the most famous actress of the time and a supporter of the suffragette movement as well as being closely involved with the Memorial Theatre. The Actresses’ Franchise League was formed in 1908 and was supported by many of the actresses who appeared at the Shakespeare Festivals: Margaret Halstan (Imogen 1909), Lena Ashwell (Rosalind 1911), Constance Collier (Juliet 1908, Portia 1909, 1911), Gertrude Elliott (Ophelia 1908), Violet Vanbrugh (Portia 1907, Beatrice 1910, 1911, 1913, Kate 1912). Having actresses involved in the suffragette cause playing Shakespeare’s women made a powerful statement about womens’ rights.

Stratford itself was not without suffragists. A branch of the Women’s Suffrage Society was formed in the town in 1907, but it was a by-election in the town held in 1909 that brought the question of women’s right to vote into focus. Suffragists gathered under a yellow and black banner bearing Shakespeare’s most famous line “To Be or Not To Be”, suffragette badges could be bought in the town and public meetings were held every day. The suffragettes ceased to campaign on 23 April in honour of Shakespeare’s birthday and took part in the parade, but on the following day Christobel Pankhurst addressed two packed public meetings in the town. On 1 May the International Woman Suffrage Alliance came en masse to Stratford to see Cymbeline in which Margaret Halstan was appearing as Imogen. The election followed just three days later. From 1909 to 1913 suffragettes were regularly seen in Stratford at the time of the Birthday Celebrations, and there were other events. In the autumn of 1909 two plays were presented at the Corn Exchange starring Edith Craig, the daughter of Ellen Terry, entitled A Woman’s Influence and How the Vote Was Won. At the time of the 1911 Festival Ellen Terry spoke on  Shakespeare’s heroines and Mrs Leo Grindon gave a lecture entitled Othello from a Woman’s Point of View.

The suffragettes meeting in Stratford, 16 July 1913

The suffragettes meeting in Stratford, 16 July 1913

In June 1913 Emily Davison was killed at the Epsom Derby, and just a month later on 16 July a march of 56 suffragettes from Carlisle to London came through Stratford, accompanied by supporters from other places including Birmingham. The marchers visited Shakespeare’s grave before holding a public meeting in Rother Market. The photographs seem to have been taken before the disorder began, following the first speaker’s address. Nicholas Fogg describes it: “Unruly spirits in the crowd began a barrage of continuous heckling. The mob surged towards the platform and several ladies were jostled. Arrests were made, but the cacophony was irrepressible. The crowd was clearly organised to prevent the speeches and the meeting was abandoned, but from another platform the formidable Mrs Despard…awed the remnant of the crowd into silence”.  He also notes that the vicar, Mr Arbuthnot, spoke up for the suffragists who “whether we agree with their views or not, are peaceable citizens and entitled to that free speech, which, within the rights of the law, is the birthright of every Briton”.

The outbreak of war in 1914 ended, at least temporarily, most of the protests of the suffragettes. It’s pleasing, though, to find that almost exactly 100 years before Sophie Duncan’s visit, in November 1915, Mrs Edgar Scriven addressed the Stratford Shakespeare Club on Shakespeare – Women – Human Nature, arguing that Shakespeare would have supported women’s claim to full citizenship.

As well as Sophie Duncan’s talk, and information from newspaper reports, I’ve found many details in Nicholas Fogg book Stratford-upon-Avon: Portrait of a Town and the recently-published update Stratford-upon-Avon: the Biography. Susan Carlson’s excellent essay The Suffrage Shrew is available to read online here as pages 85-102 of Shakespeare and the 20th century: the selected proceedings of the ISA World Conference, Los Angeles, 1996.

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Laying King Richard III to rest in Leicester

The planned tomb of Richard III

The planned tomb of Richard III

The remains of King Richard III will at last be reburied at Leicester Cathedral on Thursday 26 March 2015. Over 100 events and activities will begin on Friday 20 March and will continue over the weekend following the ceremony.

It’s over two years since the King’s remains were found, the story turned into the documentary The King in the Car Park. There have been hiccups along the way: a judicial review followed a legal challenge fought by some of Richard’s descendants to get him a state funeral and burial elsewhere, but nobody can now deny that Leicester is doing King Richard proud. There has been interest from around the globe and to quote the official website “Organisations across the city and county will be inviting people to joint them for what promises to be a momentous week for the area, as the eyes of the world focus on the final journey of the last King of England to die in battle.”

The skeleton of Richard III

The skeleton of Richard III

The ceremony itself will be shown live on Channel 4 (more details here) and they are expecting huge crowds, most of whom will watch via two giant TV screens in Leicester city centre. The remains have been kept at the University of Leicester where the forensic and archaeological work has been done, and on Sunday 22 March it will be taken to the battlefield where Richard died, to nearby villages where soldiers killed in battle were buried, and from there, echoing his last journey, back to Leicester where the coffin will lie in state for three days before the interment.

Portrait of Richard III

Portrait of Richard III

In the past two years the city has invested in sites related to the Richard III story. The Cathedral has spent £2.5 million on a re-ordering of its interior including a new site for the tomb, a new high altar and a new cathedra or seat for the bishop. The Guildhall contains new displays explaining the medieval history of the city and the new Richard III Visitor Centre focuses on the King and the story of his discovery. There are town trails, recitals, lectures and many other events all of which will make Leicester a leading tourist site for those fascinated by England’s medieval past, and those wanting to find the truth about Shakespeare’s villainous king. Unwilling to forget Richard’s murderous reputation as promoted by Shakespeare, during the week of the reburial Channel 4 will be screening a new drama/documentary entitled Who Killed the Princes in the Tower?

Some people, naturally, aren’t happy and even seem to fear that the proceedings in Leicester might reignite the Wars of the Roses. You can read more here 

Again, quoting from the excellent website, “King Richard’s remains will make their final journey, returning to the Battlefield and thence back to Leicester, this time accorded proper dignity and honour as befits him both as man and King, and laying to rest old enmities.”

I’ve found it really interesting to read how the key organisations in the Leicester area have pulled together to form the Cathedral Quarter Partnership, creating the dedicated website and working in partnership to respond “to the unique opportunities presented by the discovery of the remains of King Richard III in Leicester. It’s a great example of collaboration and cooperation, existing “to enable visitors and local people of all ages and backgrounds to get the most from all the Cathedral area of the city will have to offer.”

The members of the partnership are: The University of Leicester, Leicester Cathedral, The Diocese of Leicester, Leicester County Council and Bosworth Battlefield Heritage Centre, and Leicester City Council.

Leicester Cathedral

Leicester Cathedral

Here are some other links:
The main website

News about Channel 4 coverage

The events page

Leicester City tourism site

Things to see and do

University of Leicester

Leicester Cathedral

Richard III Visitor Centre

Bosworth Battlefield Heritage Centre

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Shakespeare, culture, and a policy for the arts

elections1Knowing the exact date in May 2015 of the next General Election has provoked discussions on topics that don’t get an airing during the usual month of campaigning before the big day. Recently, the arts has been the subject of these debates.  The Guardian noted that it was 50 years since Jennie Lee, then Arts Minister in a Labour government, published a White Paper, A Policy for the Arts – First Steps. It argued that everyone should have access to the arts, and they need to be embedded in the education system.

Ed Miliband, the leader of the opposition, has now made his first statement on the arts (leader of the Labour Party since 2010).  He said he aimed “To put policy for arts and culture and creativity at the heart of the next Labour government’s mission.”, and echoed the aspirations of Lee’s report “to guarantee every young person, from whatever background, access to the arts and culture: a universal entitlement to a creative education for every child”.

It can be no coincidence that the Warwick Commission on Cultural Value has just reported after a year examining the creative arts sector “from film, theatre and dance to video games, pop music and fashion”. The report found a striking drop in the number of students studying arts subjects including drama, and a downward trend in participation in cultural activities by children. Other results relate to  audiences: publicly funded arts “are predominantly accessed by an unnecessarily narrow social, economic, ethnic and educated demographic that is not fully representative of the UK’s population”. Only 8% of the population make up nearly half of live music audiences and a third of theatregoers and gallery visitors, and Richard Eyre commented on the “absolute divide” between those who enjoy the arts and those who feel excluded.

The Front Row debate on 23 February, “Are Artists owed a Living?”,  brought together a range of people for a discussion at Hull Truck Theatre, including some involved in the Warwick Commission. The aim was “to open a national conversation exploring the relationship between the state and the arts”.  It examined the broad issue of funding for the arts and those who create them.

The 1741 statue of Shakespeare in Poet's Corner

The 1741 statue of Shakespeare in Poet’s Corner

Shakespeare, inevitably, got a mention. Not only are his works key to our culture, but economist Philip Booth suggested that public funding for the arts is unnecessary, since Shakespeare successfully worked in a commercial environment. Perhaps Mr Booth hasn’t noticed the many ways in which life has changed in the last 400 years.

Shakespeare is in a privileged position: his work is popular around the world, helping to attract tourism and business to our shores. Last year, 2014, Fin Kennedy wrote a piece proposing that theatre must take risks with new work, even in a time of austerity.

Shakespeare too can be controversial, and recently there has been an outbreak of disagreement about staging Shakespeare. Mark Rylance seems to have a particular knack for making odd remarks, suggesting it is “disrespectful to the author” to study the plays in school. The event where he made this comment was the UK viewing of the St Omer First Folio, discovered last year in France. The Folio was the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays, and the only printed source of about half of them so it was particularly unfortunate for him to suggest that reading the plays was “the last thing the author intended”. Heminges and Condell, Shakespeare’s long-term fellows, didn’t think so: “Read him, therefore, and again, and again” they say in their preface.

Rylance suggests that Shakespeare should be cut onstage to remove offensive remarks, in particular anti-semitic lines. It’s a reasonable concern, with the recent terrorist massacres in Paris in our minds, though the whole “I am Charlie” movement was aimed at upholding the right to freedom of expression, including the making of offensive remarks.

Dominic Cavendish, responding to Mark Rylance’s comments, notes that “there’s almost limitless opportunity to take offence at Shakespeare if one chooses”, not least by some of his remarks about women.

Being experimental with the text is the theme of a Times Educational Supplement article. “My advice to teachers who are looking to introduce a more creative approach to teaching Shakespeare is simple: be fearless. Encourage play, questioning and experimentation.”. Professor Tony Howard, for British Black and Asian Theatre: “Historically “Shakespeare” has meant, and too often still means, “exclusion”. Every time we open up Shakespeare to more young people we shall make Shakespeare better − truer and more diverse.” This way Shakespeare, can help young people “develop their sense of identity by also seeing people of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds working together to make art.”

Surely this was behind Jennie Lee’s White Paper 50 years ago, a document still waiting to be put fully into practice. Erica Whyman, RSC Deputy Artistic Director, has written a post on the value of the arts at this important milestone.

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