Richard III’s final journey

Richard III

Richard III

It’s almost two years since it was announced live on national TV that the skeleton discovered under a car park in Leicester was indeed that of King Richard III, killed at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. I watched the whole of the press conference at which a series of experts gave their evidence. It is one of the most exciting of recent stories relating to any period of history, and has been a triumph for academics from a number of disciplines including archaeology, forensic science and DNA analysis. It’s unusual for medieval historians and scientists to receive so much public attention but this “missing persons case” combines our love of detective stories with the fascination with Richard III himself.

In December 2014 additional information was released based on the DNA analysis.  This page includes links to a 12-minute video summarising the findings and a one-hour podcast including a discussion between some of those most intimately involved.

Last year the University of Leicester, which had carried out the investigation, put together a MOOC (a free online course) on the subject of England in the time of Richard III, which is now being re-run by FutureLearn.  Deirdre O’Sullivan, Lecturer in Medieval Archaeology at the University, who is in charge of the course, explains “To mark these new events in Richard’s story, we have updated the course to reflect the latest research… The next run of the course starts on 16 February, and most excitingly, during the final week of the course Richard III will be reinterred within Leicester Cathedral. I will be attending the burial service [on Thursday 26 March 2015] and I’ve managed to get exclusive interviews with the Dean and others involved: plus you’ll be able to follow events live, as they build up to the service within the Cathedral.”

All the information you might want to know about the reinterral can be found here. The DNA analysis suggests that Richard had fair hair and blue eyes, and although the evidence that the skeleton is Richard III’s is overwhelming, the video and podcast explain that there are breaks in the DNA chain, “a false-paternity event”, which questions the legitimacy of perhaps the Plantagenet or Tudor monarchs.

Here’s a link to the full journal article published in Nature Communications, and this is the abstract:
In 2012, a skeleton was excavated at the presumed site of the Grey Friars friary in Leicester, the last-known resting place of King Richard III. Archaeological, osteological and radiocarbon dating data were consistent with these being his remains. Here we report DNA analyses of both the skeletal remains and living relatives of Richard III. We find a perfect mitochondrial DNA match between the sequence obtained from the remains and one living relative, and a single-base substitution when compared with a second relative. Y-chromosome haplotypes from male-line relatives and the remains do not match, which could be attributed to a false-paternity event occurring in any of the intervening generations. DNA-predicted hair and eye colour are consistent with Richard’s appearance in an early portrait. We calculate likelihood ratios for the non-genetic and genetic data separately, and combined, and conclude that the evidence for the remains being those of Richard III is overwhelming.

shakespeare and the remains of richard 3Like it or not, the huge interest in Richard III would not be so great without Shakespeare’s great play and its exciting protagonist. Philip Schwyzer’s book Shakespeare and the remains of Richard III was published in 2013 and is about to be released in paperback. It too looks at the subject from a variety of viewpoints, considering where Shakespeare found his information, the intellectual history of the period, and the discoveries in Leicester. According to the publishers “The final emphasis is not only on what Shakespeare does with the traces of Richard’s reign but also on what those traces do through Shakespeare – the play, in spite of its own pessimistic assumptions about history, has become the medium whereby certain fragments and remains of a long-lost world live on into the present day.”

With King Richard III finally being found some of the questions  surrounding him have been answered. But even if it is proved that he was not the murderer portrayed by Shakespeare, it seems unlikely that the play Richard III will lose its hold on public imagination.

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Italy and the Italians in Shakespeare

The Gentleman in Pink

The Gentleman in Pink

The English have been fascinated by Italy for centuries, never more so than during the period in which Shakespeare lived. Sir Henry Wotton, who represented King James as the English Ambassador to Venice from 1604, was more knowledgeable than most. Wotton brought back to England glorious paintings of the Venetian Doges that are still in the Royal Collection, and a birds-eye view of the city painted in 1611 which he proudly donated to Eton College and still hangs there.

Doctor Carol Rutter is researching Wotton’s life in preparation for a full biography of the fascinating man. The surviving comprehensive archives of the city contain much information about its organisation and the confidence of its rulers, but Venice was also a place of questionable morals, as in Othello and The Merchant of Venice.

It wasn’t just Venetians who were rich and fashionable, as the paintings of the Italian artist Giovanni Battista Moroni testify. Little is known of Moroni, who is thought to have been born between 1520 and 1524, and to have died in 1579 or 1580 in the little north-Italian town of Albino. Unlike more famous painters who headed for the main cultural centres in Italy he worked within a fairly small area between Bergamo and Albino, an area governed by Venice. The recent exhibition of his work at the Royal Academy has brought new attention to his portrait paintings, and I caught it just before it ended.

When establishing himself Moroni moved to Bergamo where he painted members of the local aristocracy. Rich and fashionably dressed, the painting show the sitters, many of whom are anonymous, full length. Moroni doesn’t flatter them, and they sometimes look rather awkward: perhaps they’re not as sophisticated as their clothes make them look. Their gorgeous costumes, complete with jewellery and expensive accompaniments like swords, gloves, fans and books, are all exquisitely painted. Some of the paintings tell us more about the wealth and status of the sitter than their identity and character.

The Lady in Red

The Lady in Red

The aristocratic ladies have the wealth of Shakespeare’s Portia, wearing their glorious clothes slightly self-consciously, and seem confined by their wealth just as Portia is by her inheritance. The young men seem like her suitors, looking as impressive as they can in order to make a good marriage.
In Belmont is a lady richly left,
And she is fair, and, fairer than that word,
Of wondrous virtues…
Nor is the wide world ignorant of her worth,
For the four winds blow in from every coast
Renowned suitors, and her sunny locks
Hang on her temples like a golden fleece…
And many Jasons come in quest of her.

Moroni’s most perceptive paintings come from the period after he returned to the smaller town of Albino, where he had been brought up.

Portrait of a Doctor

Portrait of a Doctor

Many of these people are middle-class: doctors, lawyers, even a tailor.  Moroni increasingly moved away from elaborate backgrounds to concentrate on the faces and upper bodies of his sitters, including their hands. These people seem more comfortable: they’re not trying so hard to impress. Here are confident, humorous young men like Benedick and older people with faces full of character. My eye kept on being drawn to the portrait of the old man below, apparently a lawyer, though it was the likeness to Paul Scofield’s King Lear that kept me looking. Moroni’s old man, “disgruntled” according to Sarah Dunant, gives the viewer a challenging look.

Portrait of an Elderly Man Seated with a Book

Portrait of an Elderly Man Seated with a Book

Moroni’s paintings were highly valued in London during the nineteenth century, when his style was admired by other creative artists. The exhibition catalogue quotes George Eliot’s description from Daniel Deronda of the character Grandcourt “the chair of red-brown velvet brocade was a becoming back-ground for his pale-tinted well-cut features and exquisite long hands: omitting the cigar, you might have imagined him a portrait by Moroni, who would have rendered wonderfully the impenetrable gaze and air of distinction; and a portrait by that great master would have been quite as lively a companion as Grandcourt was disposed to be”. The sitters are both mysterious and familiar, like so many of Shakespeare’s characters are.

If you want to immerse yourself in Shakespeare and Italian Renaissance Culture, the second summer school organised by Shakespeare in Italy will be perfect. Last summer’s two-week school was so successful they are repeating it, once again in the beautiful city of Urbino, a walled city in the hills further south. The City is a World Heritage site, the birthplace of the painter Raphael and the setting for Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier. Director Bill Alexander and actors Josie Lawrence and Michael Pennington will be leading studies on Othello, The Taming of the Shrew and Coriolanus and the school is organised by actors Julian Curry and Mary Chater.

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Shakespeare in London

Tower of London

Tower of London

With the ending of the RSC’s London season of the two Henry IV plays, performances of Shakespeare’s plays in the capital are currently a little few and far between. Shakespeare’s Globe is taking its winter break, and the new Sam Wanamaker Theatre isn’t (yet) performing any Shakespeare.

Time Out’s listings include the West End version of the film Shakespeare in Love, a production of The Merchant of Venice and a production of Othello. All the links are on their site. Later in the year the capital will see Shakespeare’s Globe’s Justice and Mercy season, beginning with The Merchant of Venice starring Jonathan Pryce, a production of Hamlet directed by renowned Japanese director Kurosawa, the much-anticipated Hamlet starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Cheek by Jowl’s Russian Measure for Measure. The National Theatre’s season has just been announced under its new Artistic Director Rufus Norris with no Shakespeare on the timetable for the summer though a production of As You Like It is promised for the autumn.

shuffle2If you’re wanting some Shakespeare on stage now, there’s at least one option that Time Out isn’t listing. Over the last few years a number of small companies playing Shakespeare have emerged, and I’ve been told about a collaboration between four of them. Shakespeare Shuffle will be a production of Macbeth at the Greenwich Theatre on 30 and 31 January. The participants are the Handlebards, Smooth Faced Gentlemen, The Merely Players and Permanently Bard. The companies have been performing Shakespeare successfully in their own style, and on this occasion each one will take an act of Macbeth before coming together as a shuffled ensemble for the fifth act. It’s the first time they’ve worked together, but they are planning more collaborations over the next couple of years. They’re all inventive and energetic companies and it definitely sounds like one to catch!

Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon

Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon

Time Out suggests that London is “the Bard’s spiritual home”, so what else might the keen Shakespeare fan do for the next couple of months? As a Stratfordian I’d suggest that Londoners will always get nearer to Shakespeare’s spiritual heart in Stratford-upon-Avon, so they could always visit his own town to take in a Shakespeare play or two (strong productions of Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing are playing until the beginning of March). Then are loads of places in Stratford and the surrounding villages where you can get a real feel for what life was like in Shakespeare’s England. The Shakespeare Houses, The Guild Chapel, King Edward’s School and the almshouses, Holy Trinity Church containing his monument and grave, to name just a few. It’s a town best appreciated on foot and there are excellent walking tours around the town.

Most of the London Shakespeare knew is long gone, destroyed by the Great Fire in 1666, by the Blitz in the second world war, and by subsequent massive building developments. Recently archaeological digs have rediscovered remains of some of the early theatres dating back to the 1590s. These are astonishing survivals given that they were not exactly well-built in the first place. That amazing medieval fortress, the Tower of London, is the most obvious London building that Shakespeare knew still to be seen today. The Tower is a threatening presence in a number of plays, particularly Richard III. Here Clarence is murdered, Lord Hastings executed and the little princes Edward and Richard meet their end. “I do not like the Tower of any place” says Edward, and his brother worries that “I shall not sleep in quiet at the Tower”.

It is still possible to rediscover other bits of Shakespeare’s London. As in Stratford, it’s best found on foot. The London Cultureseekers Group are holding two “Shakespeare and his London” Guided Walks on the afternoons of 14th and 15th February, lasting 2 hrs 15 minutes. You’ll have to click on “More meetups” to get the details.

The London Cultureseekers Group – Meet People in London!

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If you’re interested in exploring London’s history & culture with other like minded people, then this is the group for you!We meetup 2-3 times a week to explore museums, art …

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There are also regular guided walks to Shakespeare’s London. Every Friday there is a 90-minute walk called Shakespeare in the City run by a guide who performs speeches from Shakespeare’s plays during the walk. The Museum of London takes walking tours around Shakespeare’s London, led by their own guides. This commercial company takes a number of different London walks including, on Wednesdays, a Shakespeare and Dickens Walk. If you’re interested in reading about Shakespeare and London take a look at the British Library page.

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Shakespeare in stamps

DSCN507813 shakespeare stampA few weeks ago the Royal Mail launched a celebration of fifty years of “special stamps”. They claim “Before 1965, ‘Commemorative Stamps’ were issued occasionally and mostly for Royal and Postal events and anniversaries. New Postmaster General Tony Benn revised the criteria for stamps and in 1965 key decisions as to the future scope and design of regular ‘Special Issues’ were made”.

TV historian Dan Snow introduces the subject in this video.

But hold on just a cotton-picking minute! What about the Shakespeare Quatercentenary in 1964, for which a whole series of pictorial stamps were created? Our Will was the first commoner ever to appear on a British postal stamp, and let’s not forget it or sweep it under the carpet just because they want an anniversary. As Stamp Magazine explains, at the time the Post Office fudged the whole issue:

“The Post Office’s long-standing refusal to countenance stamps in honour of famous people gave it a problem in 1964 when there was agitation for a special issue of stamps to mark the 400th anniversary. But it found a way around its discomfort. It argued that its special issue was to celebrate an event of international importance (the annual Shakespeare Festival at Stratford), rather than the man himself. Nevertheless, this was a real break with previous policy, in that the four lower denominations featured the first portrait of a commoner to appear on British stamps.”

The highest denomination stamp showing Hamlet and the skull

The highest denomination stamp showing Hamlet and the skull

This post from the British Postal Museum and Archive agrees: “Surprisingly, given the importance of Shakespeare’s contribution to world culture, requests to commemorate the 400th anniversary of his birth on stamps were not immediately approved. At the time the Post Office would only mark Royal or postal anniversaries, and current events of national or international significance.”

In his Memoir, Levi Fox, the Director of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, notes that he suggested a special issue of stamps to the Postmaster General on 14 January 1961, only to be told that the Post Office “had never issued stamps to commemorate the birth, death or achievements of individuals, however distinguished or admired”. No person other than the Queen was allowed to be shown on stamps, and if an exception was made, it would then be impossible to turn down similar requests. He began lobbying vigorously, eventually arranging for the issue to be raised at Question Time in the House of Commons after which he was informed that the decision had changed. The commemorations did amount to “an outstanding event fully warranting a special stamp issue”. The stamps were phenomenally successful. By the beginning of December 1964 195 million single stamps had been sold and stocks were almost exhausted. Mr Fox writes with some satisfaction :“A successful precedent having thus been set, the issue of special stamps to commemorate national figures and events subsequently became a regular feature of Post Office activity”.

Getting a set of stamps was a really big deal at the time, particularly as unusual stamps were so rare. Those 195 million stamps flew everywhere in much the same way as messages on social media go viral today. The British Postal Museum and Archive explains:

An envelope posted in Stratford on the first day of the Shakespeare stamps

An envelope posted in Stratford on the first day of the Shakespeare stamps

“From 1952 to 1964…there were only 20 commemorative issues and 16 of these were in the last five years. Postage stamps, by their very nature, are distributed all over the world, and when it came to the international celebration of the Quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s birth, in 1964, nothing would have a bigger impact than a special issue of postage stamps by the British post office.“

The 1964 stamps were of simple, striking design. The main ones were designed by David Gentleman, each one depicting a scene from one of Shakespeare’s plays: Henry V kneeling before battle, and the Balcony Scene from Romeo and Juliet, for instance. Gentleman went on to design 32 covers for the Penguin Shakespeare and he has created murals for the London Underground. The two-shillings and sixpence stamp was by brothers Christopher and Robin Ironside and showed Hamlet contemplating Yorick’s skull. Christopher Ironside has since spent much of his career designing coins. David Gentleman later noted that the representation of Shakespeare’s head on the stamp alongside the Queen’s “caused a fuss that would be unimaginable now,”.

c walter hodges globe stampA further set of special stamps is particularly notable. The 1995 set of stamps celebrated Shakespeare’s theatres as the Shakespeare’s Globe reconstruction reached completion. These were little objects of beauty in their own right, by C Walter Hodges, a Shakespearean scholar as well as a terrific artist. I’m indebted to the author of this website  for pointing out “along the bottom of the se-tenant strip of five are some of Shakespeare’s best known characters…In the enlarged version of the [1599 Globe stamp]…Shakespeare himself at bottom left, then…Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Richard III, Falstaff and Bottom”. All the stamps are equally worth examining under magnification, so detailed are Hodges’ designs, and they are all to be found here. They haven’t announced the 2016 crop yet but let’s hope there will be special stamps to commemorate the Quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s death.

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Speaking Shakespeare’s tragic verse

Richard Burbage

Richard Burbage

Last week Professor Tiffany Stern spoke at Stratford-upon-Avon’s Shakespeare Club on the subject of tragic performances on Shakespeare’s stage. She was struck by the way that writers tended to describe tragedies differently from other dramatic genres.

Her thoughts on tragic speaking were particularly interesting. We know about the theatre being hung with black curtains, and have some idea what actors wore, but how can we know if they adopted a particular tone when speaking in a tragic role? Sound recordings has been around for a relatively short time and the human voice is the most elusive element of performance. The great actor Henry Irving was one of the first actors to be recorded in 1888 with the opening lines of Richard III.

She illustrated the point about the lack of recording techniques by showing an illustration of a musical notation of David Garrick’s delivery of “To be or not to be” in the eighteenth century. Instead of single notes corresponding to syllables, it indicated that Garrick’s voice swooped up and down the scale as he spoke whole phrases.

Romeo and Juliet 2004, the first OP performance

Romeo and Juliet 2004, the first OP performance

Professor Stern regretted the modern loss of musicality in speaking poetry on stage. In her jointly-edited book Shakespeare’s Theatres and the Effects of Performance many of the essays refer to performances at the reconstructed Shakespeare’s Globe, in particular to their “original practices” productions.  She noted that although music and pronunciation are reproduced as authentically as possible, they have not experimented with the musicality and lyricism of the poetry. Original Pronunication (OP) has been promoted by father and son team David and Ben Crystal, who have written books and given many lectures and demonstrations. OP productions have become quite fashionable. Here’s a link to a production of The Merchant of Venice in OP being performed at the end of March 2015 at the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory, the first in North America. If you want to experience OP, now’s your chance.

But when David or Ben perform a speech from Shakespeare, for me there is something missing. David is not an actor so it isn’t surprising that his delivery of a heroic speech from Henry V is a bit pedestrian. But although Ben, a professional actor, is much more theatrical, I’m still left longing for the poetry. The OP delivery is fast and conversational, lacking in big gestures or soaring poetic sound.

Nobody expected OP to be popular, but perhaps the reason why modern audiences like it is because it lacks that musical swoopiness that we, used to the “naturalism” of TV and film, find a bit hammy. It’ll be interesting to hear how it works in Baltimore.

It’s dangerous to project backwards from John Gielgud’s poeticism or David Garrick’s musical delivery to that of Shakespeare’s own stage. But there is internal evidence in the plays. Hamlet famously advises actors not to “tear a passion to tatters”, but then, “be not too tame neither”. Actors have to be convincingly emotional to convince their audiences they are in a “very torrent, tempest, and…whirlwind of …passion”. Richard Burbage, Shakespeare’s leading actor, was said to have “weighted every word, and measured every pace” and it’s fair to assume that where appropriate he used the “majestic” tragic voice.

To illustrate Shakespeare’s musical writing Tiffany Stern used the example of Prospero’s speech that is almost an incantation. Even reading it, you can feel how the sound is intended to rise and drop, become louder and softer, like a series of waves.



Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves,
And ye that on the sands with printless foot
Do chase the ebbing Neptune and do fly him
When he comes back; you demi-puppets that
By moonshine do the green sour ringlets make,
Whereof the ewe not bites, and you whose pastime
Is to make midnight mushrooms, that rejoice
To hear the solemn curfew; by whose aid,
Weak masters though ye be, I have bedimm’d
The noontide sun, call’d forth the mutinous winds,
And ‘twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set roaring war: to the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire and rifted Jove’s stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake and by the spurs pluck’d up
The pine and cedar: graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ‘em forth
By my so potent art. But this rough magic
I here abjure, and, when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.

Nothing seems to change more quickly than how we speak, and fragile sound archives document our history. The British Library is currently trying to raise £40 million in order to digitise the 6.5 million recordings they hold, which include many performances of Shakespeare plays. Here is a link if you would like to find out more.

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Vivien Leigh, Shakespeare’s lass unparalleled

Vivien Leigh

Vivien Leigh

In the theatre gardens in Stratford-upon-Avon is a silver birch tree planted in memory of Vivien Leigh, one of several dedicated to people who have worked at the theatres. At its base is a stone tablet, with her dates of birth and death (1913-1967) and the Shakespearean phrase “a lass unparalleled”. Over Christmas somebody has placed an artificial red poinsettia there, and it’s lovely that somebody still remembers her stage career.

Vivien Leigh became an international star in 1939 with the film of Gone With the Wind for which she was awarded the Oscar for Best Actress. She and Olivier married the year after. They became the most famous acting couple of the era, and for many it was Leigh who was the bigger attraction.

She appeared in Stratford for just one season, in 1955 when she played a varied threesome: Viola in John Gielgud’s production of Twelfth Night, Lady Macbeth in a production directed by Glen Byam Shaw, and Lavinia in Peter Brook’s Titus Andronicus. Olivier too was in all three: playing Malvolio, Macbeth and Titus.

It was by far the biggest theatrical event in its history: the couple were like royalty, and Leigh’s cocktail parties became legendary. According to Sally Beauman’s book on the RSC “The box-office was immediately besieged for tickets: 500,000 applications arrived for the 80,000 seats available in the opening weeks of the season.” Neither actor had recently played in Shakespeare, but they had worked together in Antony and Cleopatra in London and New York during the Festival of Britain year, 1951. Here is a short sound recording from this production.

Vivien Leigh as Lady Macbeth, 1955. Photograph by Angus McBean

Vivien Leigh as Lady Macbeth, 1955. Photograph by Angus McBean

The season was a guaranteed commercial success, but critically it would have been difficult to be anything other than an anti-climax after the amazing pre-publicity. The season opened with Twelfth Night, by most accounts somewhat disappointingly. Macbeth, the third of the five plays in the season, was the one everybody was really waiting for, a chance to see this famous pair playing as a couple. Olivier had already  played Macbeth at the Old Vic in the 1930s. His masterful performance this time dominated the play and the reviews, but in the photographs, it’s Leigh who draws the eye. Her costumes were created by leading designers, in particular the figure-hugging green dress she wore as Lady Macbeth, and her great friend, the photographer Angus McBean brought all his skills to bear.

The final play in the season was maverick director Peter Brook’s production of Titus Andronicus. It was the first time this unplayable play had been performed in Stratford. Some years earlier a production in London had been greeted with laughter. Brook spent months preparing for the production, taking total control over the set and costume design, and the music, as well as directing. Sally Beauman again: “With every means at his disposal Brook played on the nerve-endings of his audience, but he played subtly;…there was no visible gore; when Lavinia’s hands had been chopped off she came on to harp music, her wrists spouting not blood but long red velvet ribbons…certainly audiences did not laugh, though many among them fainted.” All the critics wrote about Olivier, ignoring the fact that Lavinia is an impossibly difficult part, having to express the agony of her situation with no words, and no hands.

In other places Leigh had successfully played complex roles: Scarlett O’Hara, Cleopatra, Blanche DuBois (for which she won another Oscar). Suffering from recurrent bouts of tuberculosis, as well as a variety of mental illness that made her appear unreliable and difficult, and her marriage in trouble, Stratford probably did not see the best of Vivien Leigh.

Director George Cukor called her “a consummate actress, hampered by beauty”, and many people commented on the difficulty she had in being taken seriously.  She was known to work ferociously hard. Gielgud suggested her problem was “timidity”, “she hardly dares at all and is terrified of overreaching her technique and doing anything that she has not killed the spontaneity of by overpractice”. Influential theatre critic Ken Tynan’s belittling of her, while consistently praising Olivier, was very damaging to her confidence.  It was only after her death that he admitted he had been wrong, particularly about her Lady Macbeth.

Vivien Leigh as Cleopatra, 1951. Photograph by Angus McBean

Vivien Leigh as Cleopatra, 1951. Photograph by Angus McBean

In 2013 her personal archive was sold to the Victoria and Albert Museum. It contains thousands of items including diaries and scrapbooks. The British Library also contains many of her letters within the Laurence Olivier archive. Work on these archives is already allowing new assessments to be made of this glamorous but troubled woman. On 9 February one such event is to be held: a lecture is to be given by the University of Exeter’s Dr Lisa Stead, at Henley Business School, entitled ‘Vivien Leigh as Creative Labourer: Archives, Gender and Visibility’. For anyone wanting to know more about Vivien Leigh, Kendra Bean’s site is a treasure-trove.

The phrase on the stone comes from the very end of Antony and Cleopatra, when Charmian describes her dead mistress. The lines are appropriate:
Now boast thee, death, in thy possession lies
A lass unparallel’d. Downy windows, close;
And golden Phoebus never be beheld
Of eyes again so royal!

Update: on 29 January 2015 it was announced that the catalogue of the Vivien Leigh Archive is now available online. Here’s the link:

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Setting Tudor-fans hearts a-fluttering: Wolf Hall and Shakespeare again

hilary-mantel-with-wolf-hallOn 21 January 2015 the BBC’s 6-part adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker Prize-winning novels about Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, begins. Jane Garvey, in Woman’s Hour, said it had “set Tudor-fans hearts a-fluttering”, and publishers and broadcasters have been falling over themselves to produce material on the subject.

At the beginning of 2014 the Royal Shakespeare Company stole a march on the TV series, demonstrating theatre’s greater nimbleness over the juggernaut of a full-scale TV costume drama series. Mike Poulton’s adaptations are being staged in New York in March 2015.

Ben Miles in the RSC's Wolf Hall

Ben Miles in the RSC’s Wolf Hall

Theatre tends to concentrate on people and their relationships and the RSC’s stripped-down production matched the dark interiors and uneasy atmosphere of Mantel’s books. Filmed on location the TV series looks as if it will be physically sumptuous.

Saturday’s documentary presented by Lucy Worsley and David Starkey had an obvious Wolf Hall theme. Britain’s Tudor Treasure: a Night at Hampton Court, celebrated the 500th anniversary of the royal palace with a re-creation of the procession for the baptism of Henry VIII’s only legitimate son, Edward VI. Wolf Hall is set a little earlier, when Henry, obsessed by the need for an heir, divorced his first wife to marry Anne Boleyn, in the process getting rid of Cardinal Wolsey and the Catholic church. Many of the events are covered in the play Henry VIII, but Shakespeare had to portray Anne, Queen Elizabeth 1’s mother, as blameless, whereas Mantel’s Anne is much more complex.

A Night at Hampton Court PalaceRe-creating a spectacular event in the place where it happened cast an interesting light on the two presenters, both historians who seemingly for the first time, saw the palace in a new light. “It’s a bit like being at the opera” said Lucy Worsley, “It shows how much is missing from Hampton Court just as a building. It needs its inhabitants”. David Starkey was similarly impressed: “Normally as historians we don’t actually think of how things worked, and this is all about how they work”. “I’ve had to think about how various things connected with each other in a way which I’ve never done before… All of these questions that are theoretical now actually become vigorously practical”. The christening took place in the Chapel Royal which was transfigured into a kind of theatre stage to ensure complete visibility. I was amazed that this seemed such a novel experience for them, with costumed interpreters now so common. They could learn a lot from theatre directors and movement coaches, skilled at staging processions such as that at the end of Henry IV part 2, about how to introduce activity into a series of gorgeous but static rooms.

Moving on, Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour examined an element that is often overlooked: the music. Debbie Wiseman talked about the challenge of writing music for the series. She quoted Hilary Mantel “Our past is their present”, and explained that it was important that the music should at times sound modern, mirroring both Hilary Mantel’s novels and the style of the series as directed by Peter Kominsky. “They are living their lives… we could be them”.

The most serious of the programmes was Start the Week on Radio 4, in which Tom Sutcliffe discussed the Tudors, asking the question “is a gripping story line a betrayal of historical realities… or the only way we can understand history?”. His interviewees were author Lady Antonia Fraser, composer Claire van Kampen (from Shakespeare’s Globe), Peter Kosminsky (the director of the new TV series) and historian Dan Jones whose new book is The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses and the Rise of the Tudors.

Study by Henry Arthur Payne for his painting Plucking the Red and White roses in the old Temple Garden.

Study by Henry Arthur Payne for his painting Plucking the Red and White roses in the old Temple Garden.

Inevitably, Shakespeare came up. He is often cited as giving Richard III a bad name, and here he was held responsible for simplifying the Wars of the Roses into a battle between two warring factions (actually Shakespeare does convey more complexity than they gave him credit for). The brilliant early scene in the Temple Gardens where arguing nobles each choose roses, the Yorkists a white rose, the Lancastrians a red one, is pure fiction. Apparently the House of Lancaster did not use a red rose as its emblem until it was adopted as a piece of Tudor myth-making, but we “can’t get past the lens of Shakespeare”.

Shakespeare reinterpreted the past for the benefit of his present just as much as Hilary Mantel does for us. Antonia Fraser made the point that the play and film of A Man for all Seasons led to great admiration of Sir Thomas More (a view now contradicted by Mantel), and biographies of Oliver Cromwell written in the 1930s show the influence of Hitler and Mussolini. Hilary Mantel is already influencing historians writing today. Shakespeare’s genius was to telescope real events into a shape that worked brilliantly on a stage and could be performed in a few hours. The TV series, split into six hour-long episodes, will have a very different structure from the stage play written by Mike Poulton, and from Hilary Mantel’s original novels.

For more information here are links to a few articles:
An interview with Peter Kominsky
An interview with Mark Rylance
A review of  the programme about Hampton Court

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Holding the mirror up to nature: acting for a living

richard moore memoirShakespeare knew a thing or two about acting: he observed the struggles of the inexperienced as well as writing guidelines for professionals. In real life the amateur prince Hamlet’s advice might have been unwanted, but as author, actor and theatre shareholder Shakespeare was able to lay down exactly what he wanted from his performers:
Suit the action to the word, the word to the action; with this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature: for anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature; to show Virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.

We don’t get much sense from Hamlet of what it was like to be one of that touring company, and more recently it’s mostly leading actors, like John Gielgud and Kenneth Branagh, who have got their autobiographies into print. But for every actor who plays Hamlet with a major company there will be hundreds who play smaller parts, understudying the leads. We don’t often hear what the career of acting is like from one of them.

Towards the end of 2014 actor Richard Moore published part 1 of his memoirs, Living to Please: a British actor’s life, as an ebook*. He’s an actor whose face is better known than his name, having appeared many times on TV as well as on stage. During his considerable career he has accumulated many stories and insights, which he tells with a lovely turn of phrase.

richard moore photoOne of his first jobs at the Royal Shakespeare Company was, in the 1966 season, to understudy the sensationally-successful David Warner as Hamlet in its revival in Stratford (no pressure then). On that occasion he never had to take the lead, but this wasn’t always the case and he describes the experience: “Going on as an understudy sometimes feels like flying a small plane through a violent storm with every warning light in the cock pit flashing at the same time”.

He was given a three-year contract with the RSC and made an Associate Actor during the late sixties, giving him security in a profession full of uncertainty, but he remained helpless when it came to the casting process. A few years later he was given the job of taking over the part of Mr Ford in The Merry Wives of Windsor from Ian Richardson:
“When an actor takes over an acclaimed performance in a long-running production, his/her choices are limited. It’s impossible within the framework of the production to strike out on an entirely different performance. Therefore, one tries to respect the original concept and accommodate actors who’ve been in the production for a long time…whilst at the same time trying to develop your own performance”.

During several spells with the RSC Richard Moore had the opportunity to go on both UK and foreign tours, from the early days of visiting schools with Theatregoround to the excitement of touring Russia with a large-scale production of Macbeth starring Paul Scofield, already adored by Russian audiences.

The book contains insights into decision-making at the RSC, where pragmatism could be more important than purely artistic concerns: despite its success, the RSC decided against taking Troilus and Cressida to the USA because its setting, the endless Trojan War, would be uncomfortable when many US servicemen were dying in Vietnam.

Richard Moore has worked with and admired many of the great Shakespeare actors of the second half of the twentieth century: Ian Holm, Paul Scofield, Eric Porter, Ian Richardson, and his book contains descriptions of some of their working methods, observed from the rehearsal room and the stage itself. In such an overcrowded profession there is still much solidarity between actors, and the book chronicles the vulnerability and insecurity that can torment even the most successful.

michael penningtonThis theme of insecurity is also explored in another actor’s memoir which is to be published on 15 January, Let me play the Lion Too. How to be an actor, by Michael Pennington. The two men are almost contemporaries, Pennington also spending long periods with the RSC, though there was little overlap. In a radio interview on 8 January, he describes how actors are sustained by the fellowship of being “a tribe”. Pennington did get to play Hamlet with a major company, and later went on to run the English Shakespeare Company with director Michael Bogdanov. Reinforcing Moore’s comments, Pennington claims to have suffered from insecurity as well as feeling compromised as an actor by having to see issues from both sides. Here is the Independent’s preview.

Richard Moore’s memoir is a great read, conjuring up the world on the other side of the curtain without being salacious or gossipy. Even without seeing any of the performances he describes (roll on Volume 2), I’ve found it offers a fascinating insight into some of our best-loved companies.  Costing, as he points out, less than a pint, it’s a snip.

*If you don’t have a Kindle, you can now download ebooks using Kindle Cloud Reader as long as you have an Amazon account.


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Standing up for freedom: the Library of Birmingham and Charlie Hebdo

Malala Yousafzai opening the Library of Birmingham

Malala Yousafzai opening the Library of Birmingham

In September 2013 Malala Yousafzai opened the brand new Library of Birmingham with a speech which has since been quoted many times. “And let us not forget that even one book, one pen, one child and one teacher can change the world.” “Pens and books”, she said, “are the weapons that will defeat terrorism”. Global peace could only be achieved by educating “minds, hearts and souls”. After being shot by the Taliban in her native Pakistan in an effort to prevent girls being educated Malala received medical attention in Birmingham, which has become her second home.

The Library of Birmingham, unofficially christened the “People’s Palace”, is the largest public library in Europe and a flagship for the city and what it can offer to its young, ethnically diverse population. Malala, who has since become the youngest-ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, was inspired by the futuristic new Library, a learning space open to anyone free of charge.

Marchers in Paris hold a giant pencil

Marchers in Paris hold a giant pencil

This afternoon, 11 January, I have been watching the scenes in Paris following the horrific attacks on free speech as journalists and cartoonists were gunned down on Wednesday at the offices of the magazine Charlie Hebdo, on a police officer, and on the Jewish community at a supermarket hold-up. Cartoons published in this morning’s press have focused on the idea that the pen is mightier than the sword, and among the crowds in Paris many people are holding giant pencils aloft.

Writers have a strong role to play in our democracy: journalists report on serious political events and sometimes put their own lives at risk by doing so. Shakespeare himself lived at a time when freedom of speech was not allowed, and writers were often forced to conceal their real meanings, even within seemingly innocuous plays. There has been much debate about Shakespeare’s own politics, and this speech of Shylock’s is often quoted as evidence that Shakespeare sided against Shylock not because of his ethnic or religious background, but because of his fanaticism.

Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is?

library of birminghamOne of the glories of the Library of Birmingham is its Shakespeare Collections, its Victorian Shakespeare Room perched on the top of the building, the golden icing on top of the cake. The Shakespeare Library symbolised Birmingham’s international importance for intellectual achievement and idealism as well as industry.

Now massive cuts in opening hours and in staffing are threatening this world-class building and its services. It feels like a betrayal of Malala’s inspirational ideas. Shakespeare Institute Librarian Karin Brown and Fellow of the Shakespeare Institute Professor Ewan Fernie have written passionately about this subject and explain how to protest about these cuts. The official date for the end of consultation is tomorrow, 12 January so please, if you care about the Library of Birmingham, follow up the suggestions in her post.


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Shakespeare, King John and Magna Carta in 2015

Melvyn Bragg coming face to face with Magna Carta at the British Library

Melvyn Bragg coming face to face with Magna Carta at the British Library

Listening to Melvyn Bragg’s series on Radio 4 celebrating the history of Magna Carta, 800 this year, I realise how little I know about the document and the historical background to Shakespeare’s play King John. By the end of 2015 there will be no excuse for any of us to be ignorant about it.

Created in Runnymede on 15 June 1215 Magna Carta is known as the foundation of democracy. Its most important features are outlined on this BBC site.

  • Magna Carta outlined basic rights with the principle that no-one was above the law, including the king
  • It charted the right to a fair trial, and limits on taxation without representation
  • It inspired a number of other documents, including the US Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
  • Only three clauses are still valid – the one guaranteeing the liberties of the English Church; the clause confirming the privileges of the City of London and other towns; and the clause that states that no free man shall be imprisoned without the lawful judgement of his equals

Melvyn Bragg tells the complicated story by examining original documents with the guidance of experts and archivists. I love the way you can hear his excited anticipation as he waits for a copy of Magna Carta to be brought from the vaults of the British Library. Four copies of the 1215 document still exist, two at the BL, one in Salisbury and one in Lincoln, and the document was adapted and reconfirmed a number of times in subsequent years. All the programmes can be downloaded here.

A nineteenth-century engraving showing a grumpy King John signing Magna Carta (in fact it was not signed)

A nineteenth-century engraving showing a grumpy King John signing Magna Carta (in fact it was not signed)

Magna Carta was created in order to end the conflict between King John and his barons who were in revolt. They insisted on a meeting at which he was forced to agree to their demands, though he almost immediately reneged on them. These disputes with his subjects get barely a mention in Shakespeare’s play, which focuses instead on a series of alliances and betrayals between England and several European Catholic states, including the papacy. Shakespeare makes connections between these events and those of Elizabethan England, repeatedly threatened by France. There were parallels between King John and Queen Elizabeth: both were excommunicated by the Pope, and John sees himself as a plucky hero standing up to Rome:
“Yet I alone, alone do me oppose
Against the Pope, and count his friends my foes”.

Cardinal Pandulph, the Pope’s representative, responds by isolating him:
Then, by the lawful power that I have,
Thou shalt stand cursed and excommunicate,
And blessed shall he be that doth revolt
From his allegiance to an heretic;
And meritorious shall that hand be call’d,
Canonized and worshipped as a saint,
That takes away by any secret course
Thy hateful life.

No wonder Shakespeare ignored Magna Carta. He could not suggest that Queen Elizabeth might be responsible crimes committed by John such as treachery or killing an heir to the throne. The scene quoted above is a great example of Shakespeare’s complete disregard of the facts in favour of telling a good story. Act 3 Scene 1 of King John is historically impossible with Prince Arthur alive (he died around 1203), John being excommunicated (around 1207) and Cardinal Pandulph’s involvement (1211).

The most famous lines of the play, are a plea for unity in the face of foreign aggression, spoken by a character with no historical basis:
This England never did, nor never shall,
Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror,
But when it first did help to wound itself.

We’re not seeing many productions of King John in 2015, but the principles of Magna Carta certainly influenced Shakespeare. Over and over again, he shows what happens when the rule of law is ignored. Richard II, for instance, arbitrarily banished his subjects and confiscated their property. But despite this, it’s the unlawful killing of Richard that reverberates through the history plays: Henry IV is wracked by guilt and Henry V tries to make amends before going into battle in France.

During 2015 many events are planned all round the country:

The official Magna Carta 800 website contains lots of information

Magna Carta Trails includes six countrywide trails.

King John's effigy in Worcester Cathedral

King John’s effigy in Worcester Cathedral

The Heart of England trail is from Oxford to Hereford via Evesham, the site of a battle in 1265 where Simon de Montfort, responsible for the first elected parliament, was killed, and Worcester Cathedral where King John was buried. His is the oldest royal effigy in England. For those in the Stratford area, here is a link to Worcestershire events.

Parliament in the Making is a year-wide programme of UK-wide events and activities, launching on 20 January which is being called Democracy Day. This will the the 750th anniversary of the parliament introduced by Simon de Montfort.

The BBC’s Taking Liberties season has already begun with Bragg’s radio series, but there will be many other events during the year.

Over a few days in February all four existing copies of the 1215 document will be brought together in what’s being called a unification, first at the British Library, then at the House of Lords. Later, exhibitions will be held at the BL, Salisbury and Lincoln, as well as other places.

And as a more permanent reminder of the anniversary, in Autumn 2015 the Magna Carta Doctoral Centre for Individual Freedom is to be opened at part of the University of London, Royal Holloway, which is situated two miles from Runnymede where the document was sealed.

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