Finding a place for Philip Larkin in Poet’s Corner

Philip Larkin

Philip Larkin

On Friday 2 December a ledger stone bearing the name of Philip Larkin will be placed in Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey, alongside writers such as Thomas Hardy, Edmund Spenser and of course William Shakespeare. There has been quite a lot of discussion about his being “welcomed into the bosom of Britain’s cultural establishment”. Some of his beliefs (and some of his poetry) were controversial,  but in one poll he was voted the most popular poet of the last 50 years, and a spokesman for Westminster Abbey has said “The Dean feels now is the right time to memorialise Larkin. Whatever rows have taken place about his view the bigger picture is his poetry and what shines through is that he’s one of our greatest poets and should be recognised as such.”

It will be exactly 31 years since Larkin died, but it’s not unusual for it to take a long time. Poet’s Corner was established in 1556 when Geoffrey Chaucer’s remains were interred there, over 100 years after he died. It was this that created a fashion for other writers to be buried there, including Spenser, Francis Beaumont and Ben Jonson, but many others are remembered with some kind of memorial. With the walls full of statues and plaques, nowadays a simple stone is laid in the floor.

Ledger stones set into the floor of Poet's Corner

Ledger stones set into the floor of Poet’s Corner

Shakespeare’s memorial was placed there in 1740, and is one of the most instantly-recognizable images of the man, endlessly copied. The statue on Stratford’s Town Hall, placed there in 1769, is based on it. It was designed by William Kent and executed by Peter Scheemakers. The Latin inscription above the head of the statue, in gold on a panel of dark marble, can be translated : “William Shakespeare [erected] 124 years after [his] death by public esteem”. A group of ladies, admirers of Shakespeare, put pressure on for there to be a memorial to Shakespeare in London and the cause was taken up by others including Alexander Pope. Money was raised by a benefit organised by Charles Fleetwood of the Drury Lane Theatre and John Rich of Covent Garden Theatre. The monument was indeed put there by public esteem as the public contributed towards the cost, and no fee was charged by the Dean and Chapter for erecting it.

Shakespeare had died and was buried in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon in April 1616. Some time after this date, William Basse wrote a poem suggesting that Shakespeare’s remains should be reinterred in the Abbey:

The Shakespeare monument in Poet's Corner

The Shakespeare monument in Poet’s Corner

Renowned Spenser, lie a thought more nigh
To learned Chaucer, and rare Beaumond lie
A little nearer Spenser, to make room
For Shakespeare in your threefold, fourfold Tomb.
To lodge all four in one bed make a shift
Until Doomsday, for hardly will a fifth
Betwixt this day and that by Fate be slain,
For whom your Curtains may be drawn again.
If your precedency in death doth bar
A fourth place in your sacred sepulchre,
Under this carved marble of thine own,
Sleep, rare Tragedian, Shakespeare sleep alone;
Thy unmolested peace, unshared Cave,
Possess as Lord, not Tenant, of the Grave,
That unto us and others it may be
Honour hereafter to be laid by thee.

But by the time of the publication of the First Folio in 1623 the monument to Shakespeare had been put up in Stratford’s church, and Ben Jonson, writing his dedication to Shakespeare in that book, dismissed the idea with some direct references to Basse’s poem.
My Shakespeare, rise; I will not lodge thee by
Chaucer, or Spenser, or bid Beaumont lye
A little further, to make thee a roome :
Thou art a Moniment, without a tombe,
And art alive still, while thy Booke doth live,
And we have wits to read, and praise to give.

Shakespeare’s family were keen to make sure that Shakespeare’s connection with Stratford was maintained by putting up a bust in his memory inside the church in which he had been baptised and worshipped. As Jonson noted, and as has been said endlessly since, it is his writings that are Shakespeare’s real monument. It’s a sentiment echoed again in that quotation about Larkin that “the bigger picture is his poetry”. It’s to be hoped that the monuments in Poet’s Corner are not simply admired for themselves, but encourage people to read what the writers commemorated there  wrote.

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The Story of the Shakespeare Club is launched

Stratford-upon-Avon Mayor Juliet Short

Stratford-upon-Avon Mayor Juliet Short

On Monday 28 November 2016 we held the official launch of the book The Story of the Shakespeare Club of Stratford-upon-Avon 1824-2016: Long life to the Club call’d “Shakspearean”, written by Susan Brock and Sylvia Morris.

It was an opportunity to celebrate the way the Club’s story is entwined with the history of the whole town and of some of its most important organisations. Several of them, including King Edward VI School, the Shakespeare Institute, and even the Swan of Avon Masonic Lodge were represented. The launch itself was held in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s bookshop, where the book is now on sale. The Club’s closest link historically is with the SBT, as it first suggested the Birthplace should be protected by being taken out of private hands, then helped to fundraise for its purchase, and took responsibility for the building for nearly twenty years.

Our most honoured guest was Juliet Short, the current Mayor of Stratford-upon-Avon. It’s appropriate that she should have been there: she follows in the footsteps of Annie Justins, Stratford’s first woman mayor and ex officio president of the Shakespeare Club, shown on the cover of the book carrying the Club’s wreath in 1930.

From the earliest years of the Club, a number of members had also been on the Council, and it became the norm that the Mayor of the town should also be the President of the Club, this tradition only being abandoned in 1941 when it was decided that Presidents should be elected who were distinguished in the field of drama or literature.

dscn3403town-hall-reducedClub was also associated with the Council through the use of the Town Hall. Just two years after its foundation at the Falcon Inn, in 1826, the Club first held its grand dinner to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday in the Town Hall, the main room of which was known as Shakespeare’s Hall. The Hall continued to be used for this purpose until well into the twentieth century, and monthly meetings were also held there from 1845 until 1874.

Being situated centrally in the town centre, the Town Hall was always highly visible during the Birthday Celebrations organised by the Club. During the early years of the twentieth century elaborate street decorations were put up in the main thoroughfares, the Town Hall being decorated with cartoons of the Seven Ages of Man in black and gold frames. These were painted by the young Bruce Bairnsfather who went on to be a hugely successful artist during World War 1.

In 1908 it was reported that “The chief incident of the day was, of course, the floral procession, …headed by the Grammar School boys, the Mayor of Stratford,…the members of the Shakespeare Club, and the visitors… in the afternoon the members of the Shakespeare Club held a reception in the Town Hall to which the visitors were welcomed by the Mayor”.

So the book may help to reconnect the Club with the other venerable organisations in Stratford-upon-Avon that together made the town the centre of the worldwide celebration of Shakespeare’s life and works. To find out more, go to the Club’s website  . Copies are available via the SBT bookshop or may be purchased directly from the Club.

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The Trial of Hamlet

Dorothy Tutin in The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, 1960

Dorothy Tutin in The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, 1960

Shakespeare knew that trial scenes made great theatre, often putting them at the heart of his plays. Probably the most dramatic courtroom scene is the trial of Antonio in The Merchant of Venice, but the trials of Queen Katherine in Henry VIII and that of Hermione in The Winter’s Tale are also memorable, as are scenes that follow the same format like that which ends Measure for Measure. Today we continue to be fascinated by trials both fictional and real, with all the procedures reported in detail including the giving of evidence, cross-examination of witnesses, the summing up and the delivery of the verdict.

ssf_trialrectangleOn Sunday 27 November at 7pm a different sort of Shakespearean trial will be staged at Wyndham’s Theatre in London. This time Shakespeare’s most famous character Hamlet goes on trial for murder, treason and regicide, and best of all the entire audience have the opportunity to give their verdict. The aim of the evening is to raise money to support the annual Shakespeare Schools Festival which helps 30,000 young people around the country. A tremendous cast of actors, comedians and lawyers are coming together to make it happen. Actors playing the leading roles will include John Heffernan as Hamlet, Meera Syal as Gertrude and Tom Conti as Claudius. Comedian and actor Hugh Dennis will be the jury foreman who will return the audience’s verdict and stand-up comedian Lee Mack will play the Player King. It is promised that there will be other familiar faces among the jury. Lady Justice Hallett, a court of appeal judge, will be in charge with four QCs, John Kelsey-Fry, Jonathan Laidlaw, Shaheed Fatima and Ian Winter doing the interrogating. Jonathan Myerson has written the piece, and Elayce Ismail is directing, with young people from Shakespeare Schools Festival also taking part. 

As well as raising money for a great cause, the lawyers taking part hope to demonstrate the similar skills required onstage and in the courtroom. It’s hoped that mock-trials like this one will stimulate an interest in the law and Lady Justice Hallett has said “I relish the opportunity to combine my two loves of the law and the theatre on the West End stage and will ensure Hamlet gets a fair trial.” It will centre on Hamlet’s fatal stabbing of Polonius, with John Kelsey-Fry arguing for an acquittal.  

The outcome is by no means certain: 2015’s similar mock-trial of Macbeth featured Christopher Eccleston as Macbeth and Jeremy Paxman as the Jury Foreman, and the not guilty verdict must have surprised many of those taking part. There’s more information on the Shakespeare Schools Festival site and that for the Criminal Bar Association. Last year’s trial was a sellout and it would be surprising if this year’s was not equally successful.

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Explore Your Archive week

exploreyourarchiveThis week is Explore Your Archive week, an annual celebration of archives across the UK and Ireland. It’s organised jointly by the National Archives and the Archives and Records Association. We are fortunate in this country to have not only amazing history but a wonderful record of documenting it. Books, TV documentaries, plays and the popular series Who Do You Think You Are? all rely on archives and the archivists and staff who help people find the materials they need to consult, and answer their questions. Rather than being the dusty places characterised by the media, Libraries and Records Offices, as Explore Your Archive explains, “excite people, bring communities together, and tell amazing stories”.

I’ve been exploring some of these archives myself as I researched my new book, co-authored with Susan Brock,  The Story of the Shakespeare Club of Stratford-upon-Avon 1824-2016, and have indeed been surprised and excited by some of the stories we have uncovered. The Club’s surviving archives are kept at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s Collections Department where we carried out most of the work. As a result I have been invited to write a couple of blog posts for the blog run by the Department, Finding Shakespeare. The first one has now been published and a second will be posted later in the week. Do follow the link to take a look, and if you’re not familiar with Finding Shakespeare, do read some of the other excellent posts about the Collections and the work being done there. 

If you’d like to find out more about what’s going on in your own area, go to the Explore Your Archive website where you will find information about events, and on Twitter you can follow #explorearchives to get news about what’s going on.

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Women taking power in Shakespeare’s plays

Glenda Jackson as King Lear

Glenda Jackson as King Lear

2016 seems to have been characterised by women staging a takeover of traditional male roles, at least as far as Shakespeare is concerned. While planning this post I was hoping to be able to link this trend to the election of a woman President of the USA, but, as we all know, we will have to wait for the shattering of that massive glass ceiling.

In the mean time we can perhaps take comfort from what seems to be a real movement on stage, though in fact Shakespeare originally wrote all his roles to be acted by men. Women began to perform on the public stage just a few decades after his death, though only after the national trauma of the Civil War and Commonwealth.

It’s been noticeable how many of the male roles being taken over by women are the powerful ones. In previous years it’s been the contemplative roles of Hamlet and Brutus, but this year we’ve seen Prospero, King Lear, Coriolanus and Cymbeline all taken by women. It will be interesting to see what kinds of parallels academics will find in years to come between the real political turbulence of the year and Shakespeare on stage.

Audiences have been watching the RSC’s Cymbeline for several months now, first in Stratford and now at the Barbican. Cymbeline is often seen as an ineffectual leader who allows others to dominate, leading to division and discord, but I found Gillian Bevan’s strong performance effective, particularly when, with the finding of her lost sons, her family and her country are reunited.

Heartstring Theatre's Coriolanus

Heartstring Theatre’s Coriolanus

On the other side of the world, the new Australian Heartstring Theatre has been created “to actively address the shortage of strong female acting roles”, and they are to be applauded for launching into the subject with Coriolanus, as they put it a tale of “bloody tale of war, power and pride”, quite a challenge for an all-female cast. Elsewhere there was an all-female nude The Tempest performed out of doors in Brooklyn and an all-female The Taming of the Shrew in Colorado. In the UK the cycling touring company Handlebards launched an all-female team to perform Romeo and Juliet and The Taming of the Shrew.

In London, though, two great female actors have been taking male roles during the autumn. Phyllida Lloyd, who previously directed all-female versions of Julius Caesar and Henry IV at the Donmar Warehouse has now completed a trilogy with The Tempest. All three are being performed at the tiny King’s Cross Theatre. As before, one of our leading Shakespeareans, Harriet Walter, plays Brutus and Henry IV as well as Prospero. All three plays are performed in the setting of a women’s prison, their common theme of power, ranging from the getting of it, the holding onto it, or the letting it go. Reviews will be posted after the trilogy day on 22 November.

There has though been a great deal of advance publicity, not least Harriet Walter’s Open Letter to Shakespeare published in The Stage. Most of the letter is not in fact addressed to Shakespeare, but here’s a bit that is:

Despite the fact that the world has changed enormously since your day, the stories we tell about ourselves still tend to follow your template, with male protagonists whose thoughts and actions matter – and females who matter only in as much as they relate to those men.

I feel churlish for saying this, but many of us feel excluded, and I would love you to come back and do some rewrites.

Nowadays we are challenging all preconceptions about gender, both in terms of personal identification and public roles, so I hope you don’t mind but I have been playing men recently. I am only following your own example. It seems as legitimate for women to play men as it was for boys to play women.

Most recently Glenda Jackson, who first rose to fame in the 1960s, is back on stage after a gap of 25 years at the age of 80 playing King Lear at the Old Vic. One review claims she has “pulled off one of those 11th-hour feats of human endeavour that will surely be talked about for years to come by those who see it”.

Don Warrington as King Lear

Don Warrington as King Lear

There have certainly been plenty of other performances of this massive role to compare her with this year. A couple of weeks ago the BBC presented a documentary 2016: The Year of King Lear, noting that five major productions of the play had been put on, and questioning why the play resonates so deeply with contemporary audiences. Those interviewed include Tony Sher and Don Warrington, and features speeches beautifully delivered by another Lear, Michael Pennington. It’s half an hour long and available on Iplayer until towards the end of November 2016.

Finally, again for those wanting to investigate King Lear, Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory is running a week-long residential course for adult readers on the play from 21-25 November at Mousehole in Cornwall. An actor from the company and the Company’s Artistic Director Andrew Hilton will guide the participants through the text, bringing their theatrical perspective to the discussion. It sounds like a fascinating way of spending a week at the darkest time of the year!

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Celebrating Ben Jonson’s First Folio

Ben Jonson

Ben Jonson

As well as being the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, 1616 is also a significant date for anyone interested in the theatre and writing of the period. Between 6 and 25 November 1616 Ben Jonson’s Workes was published, a monumental 1000-page volume whose title promised serious literature, but, unusually, included nine of his plays. Shakespeareans are keen to note that this book gives us evidence of Shakespeare’s own acting career, since he appears in the cast lists for Every Man in his Humour and Sejanus. But Jonson’s Folio is more significant that this, its publication sometimes being described as a watershed. Up to this time plays were seen as ephemeral, published (when they were) as flimsy, unadorned texts, and Jonson suffered no little teasing for his presumption. After Jonson’s book was published others could follow his lead, particularly in the case of the 1623 Shakespeare First Folio. Jonson had taken a close interest in the production of his Folio, a possibility denied to Shakespeare and bemoaned by John Heminges and Henry Condell, who took the work on themselves. After Jonson’s death a second folio was published, including a great deal of extra material, and in 1647 Beaumont and Fletcher’s work was also gathered into Folio form.

On 12 November a day conference is being held to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Jonson’s Folio, at the University of Sheffield’s Centre for Early Modern Studies. The conference brings together specialists from a range of disciplines both to explore the text of the Workes and to consider Jonson in relation to the wider social and cultural forms of his day. These include music, the visual arts, clothing, and drinking, as well as the multimedia performance that was his 1618 walk to Scotland. The day is being split into three parts: the first on Jonson, books and editing, the second on Jonson and other media (music, dress, painting) and the third on Jonson and sociability that will look at the Ben Jonson’s Walk to Scotland project that I’ve written about before, and another that I haven’t heard of,  entitled “Intoxicants and Early Modernity”.

Places seems still to be available (only £15 including lunch) from the University of Sheffield’s Online Store where you will also find more details of the speakers. It sounds as if it will be an enlightening day!

One thing they seem not to be tackling, perhaps because it’s such a large subject, are the plays themselves and their afterlife on the stage. Jonson’s plays have proved popular, especially in Stratford where a great many have been performed. In 1937 Everyman in His Humour was presented in the new Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, and Volpone was staged in 1944 and 1952 (with Ralph Richardson in the title role). The Other Place too proved a successful venue for Jonson, especially Volpone with Richard Griffiths. The opening of the Swan Theatre in 1986 brought in a golden period for the exploration of the plays of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, particularly Jonson. Everyman in his Humour formed part of the Theatre’s opening season and since then there have been successful productions of The Alchemist, Bartholomew Fair, Volpone, Eastward Ho!  and many others.

The cast of Pan's Anniversary, 1905

The cast of Pan’s Anniversary, 1905

Predating all of these, though, was a production of Jonson’s masque Pan’s Anniversary, given an outdoor production on 24 April 1905 on the Bancroft Gardens. It was written around 1621, too late for Jonson’s 1616 Folio, but was published for the first time in the 1640 posthumous edition.

The masque is set in Arcadia, in a classical pastoral setting, featuring nymphs, a shepherd and a swordsman. With much music and dance, the masque contrasts the pastoral setting of Arcadia with warlike Thebes. As with many masques, Jonson’s aim was the flatter King James I, seen in the guise of Pan, and his pacifist sentiments.

The performers were amateurs, joined by a few actors from Frank Benson’s acting company, but Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst, no less, were brought in to write suitable music. The Stratford Choral Union provided the chorus and orchestra and the Bidford Morris Men, dancing to their own music, were cast as the warlike Thebans. Forgotten today, this was a significant national cultural event, promoting the idea of “Merrie England” and the new interest in English folkdance and music that was soon to be taken up by Cecil Sharp. The ambitious performance was organised by Stratford’s Shakespeare Club, the brainchild of Mr F W Evans who was one of the committee, and other members of the Club took part: for instance Henry Hickling, the Club’s Secretary, played the Shepherd.

You will find much more about this and the rest of the Shakespeare Club’s surprising history in the new book The Story of the Shakespeare Club of Stratford-upon-Avon, 1824-2016: Long Life to the Club call’d Shakspearean, written by Susan Brock and Sylvia Morris, now available through the Club’s website.

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The Russ McDonald Memorial Seminar

mcdonald-100Regular readers of this blog may remember, back in July, that I wrote about the death of the distinguished Shakespeare academic Professor Russ McDonald. At 5.15- 7pm on 7 November a special event is being held to commemorate his life and work, at the Senate Room, Senate House, University of London. It is being run by the London Shakespeare Centre. 

The speakers at the Russ McDonald Memorial Seminar will be as follows:

Dr. Hannah Crawforth (KCL) : ‘Shaping the Language: Words, Patterns, and the Traditions of Rhetoric’, in Shakespeare and the Arts of Language (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 30-46.

Dr. Gillian Woods (Birkbeck) : ‘Planned Obsolescence or Working at the Words’, in Teaching Shakespeare: Passing It On, ed. By G. B. Shand (Oxford: Blackwell, 2009), pp. 27-42

Dr. Eric Langley (UCL) Shakespeare’s Late Style (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 39-41 and 43-52. 

A group discussion about the legacy of Russ’s work will follow the speakers’ presentations, and drinks will be served after the papers.

london-shakespeare-centreIf you wish to keep informed of the events organised by the London Shakespeare Centre, including these seminars, they have their own Facebook page, or you can ask to be put on their mailing list by emailing

The London Shakespeare Centre is to be thanked for putting on this event, providing as it does a great opportunity to find out more about both the subject of the papers and the work of this much-missed gentleman and scholar.


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Publication Day for the Shakespeare Club’s story


November 1 2016: the official publication day for The Story of the Shakespeare Club of Stratford-upon-Avon, 1824-2016, the book on which Susan Brock and I have been working for the last eighteen months. While researching the history of the Birthday Celebrations we became intrigued by the forgotten side of the Club’s history. Up to that point we knew the bare facts of the Club’s early existence: it had been founded at the Falcon Inn, and had originated the Stratford’s Shakespeare Celebrations.

We uncovered much more. We hadn’t realised how instrumental the Club had been in forming some of the Shakespeare organisations we now take for granted, nor that it had overseen the first major restoration work on Shakespeare’s monument in the Church. Its members had sponsored the town’s first permanent theatre – not the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre that opened in 1879, but the Shakespearian Theatre, that opened in 1827.

The 1907 Celebrations showing the top of Bridge Street

The 1907 Celebrations showing the top of Bridge Street

Most interestingly, the early members of the Club who set all these things in motion were not the gentry but regular townspeople. Most of them were local tradesmen: butchers, grocers, bakers, stationers, with a few teachers and one or two landowners. After a period of stagnation, in the early years of the twentieth century numbers grew as local people were drawn in to organising the Birthday Celebrations organised by the Club. Ordinary people, including, I found, some of my own ancestors, used their talents to help celebrate the Birthday of the town’s local poet in their own way. It was their unacknowledged commitment, through the efforts of the Club, that made the Birthday Celebrations so successful. The discovery of these stories encouraged us to refer to the book as “an alternative history of Stratford-upon-Avon”.

To find out more, including details of how to buy a copy, visit the Club’s website,, and this page on my website.

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Discord and dismay

Mark Rylance

Mark Rylance

It’s been a bad-tempered sort of week for those who take an interest in Shakespeare. On Sunday 23rd October actor and former Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe Mark Rylance launched into an attack on business sponsorship of the theatre in general and on the RSC’s acceptance of sponsorship by BP in particular. It seemed like an old-fashioned sort of argument, with Rylance recalling what it had been like when he was in the RSC during the 1980s and expected to go along to corporate events. I remember being upset when the RSC first accepted sponsorship, with discussions about the probably effects on artistic standards and repertoire, preventing artists from pursuing their own visions. I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that state sponsorship of the arts has, over the centuries, been the exception rather than the rule. Shakespeare’s own theatre only survived because it was popular, and his plays were ruthlessly adapted to make them appeal to the current fashion for centuries after his death. The theatres in Stratford were built because of the enthusiasm and generosity of the Flower brewing family and at least to begin with could only support a few weeks of theatrical activity a year. Maybe there is less opportunity to experiment, but at the RSC, BP has allowed the company to set up its scheme offering 16-25 year olds tickets for only £5 each. The arguments over BP date back a number of years but began in earnest with a letter in August signed by 214 public figures demanding the cancellation of BP’s sponsorship of the arts.

The RSC is not the only major arts organisation to receive sponsorship from BP: it also supports the British Museum, the Royal Opera House (which has been in a relationship with them for 28 years), and the National Portrait Gallery. BP have also sponsored sport: in London and Rio the company supported both the Olympics and Paralympics.

Rylance’s  interview starts about 26 minutes into the programme.

Emma Rice

Emma Rice

Then on Tuesday it was announced that Emma Rice would be leaving Shakespeare’s Globe in Spring 2018, having taken over from Dominic Dromgoole only at the beginning of 2016.This has been the Shakespeare story of the week, and again there is a feeling of déjà vu about the arguments: is the Globe a museum, a theatre, or a kind of laboratory for academic experiments? Like Mark Rylance’s discussions about sponsorship, it’s all been said before, and here are a sample of the pieces that have been written this week.

From the BBC , The Spectator, The StageThe Guardian, and The Telegraph.

Emma Rice's 2016 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream

Emma Rice’s 2016 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream

What’s shocking about this announcement is that Rice has been pushed out after only a few months, when any Artistic Director needs time to settle into working in a completely new environment. Her first season, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream, has been very successful at the box office, but the Globe board seem to have fallen out with her over her use of lighting and sound, while they wanted to retain the stress on historical authenticity. This is a puzzling development, since, surely, it must have been apparent from her work at Kneehigh that she was not going to take the Globe in this direction.

In response to both of these events, on Broadcasting House on 30 October we heard Bury the Bard, a piece written and performed by playwright Adriano Shaplin. His deliberately provocative and probably tongue in cheek piece attacked Shakespeare as the “zombie general”, “crushing the arts with his dead arm”, a misogynist capitalist pig who “would take the money and run”. It starts about 36 minutes in.

Adriano Shaplin

Adriano Shaplin

Shaplin’s piece comes over as a bit of a rant, but he’s a much more interesting and thoughtful artist than this might suggest. From 2006-8 he was the International Playwright in Residence at the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon, seen by Artistic Director Michael Boyd as a “free-roaming provocateur, stirring up debate, raising the bar on just what could be said in the pub and rehearsal room”. In 2008 he was involved in this discussion at the Royal Society while the RSC were performing his play The Tragedy of Thomas Hobbes, on the subject of the development of science and the foundation of the Royal Society.

Maybe we’re all in need of a bit of a break at the end of the year in which the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death has been celebrated so vigorously. Everyone is certainly entitled to express their opinion. But the very fact that Shakespeare and the performance of his plays can provoke such interest and outrage means he’s not dead yet.

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Howard Davies at the Royal Shakespeare Company


Howard Davies outside The Warehouse, 1978

Howard Davies outside The Warehouse, 1978

On 25 October 2016 theatre director Howard Davies died at the age of 71. He had a full and successful career working in theatres around the country, but for me he is associated with the Royal Shakespeare Company during what Sally Beauman called “an explosion of vitality”.

Although I’d visited the RSC a number of times in Stratford, it was while living in London in the late 1970s that I became a real RSC enthusiast. I loved the productions at the Aldwych Theatre but the Warehouse, newly converted into a studio theatre by the RSC, was the most exciting venue I’d ever been to. It was run by Howard Davies. The Warehouse (now the Donmar), received productions that had started at The Other Place in Stratford and also put on new productions, and here Davies brought in a policy of producing plays by contemporary British writers as well as work by more established political authors.  Among those showcased by Davies were Peter Flannery (Savage Amusement), Howard Barker (That Good Between Us), Barrie Keeffe (Frozen Assets) and David Edgar (The Jail Diary of Albie Sachs).  He built a particular relationship with Edward Bond, and at the RSC he directed many of Bertolt Brecht’s plays (Man is Man, Bingo, The Days of the Commune, Mother Courage). His first Shakespeare production on the main stage was Macbeth, with Bob Peck. When he directed Henry VIII the following year with Richard Griffiths as Henry, John Thaw as Wolsey and Gemma Jones as Katherine, it was not surprisingly described as “Brechtian”. Rather than presenting a series of magnificent tableaux Davies’s Henry was an intelligent, temperamentally withdrawn man moving, as Robert Cushman put it, “from dependence to despotism”.

At least part of the Company’s vitality was created by Davies’s work at the Warehouse. Writing in the 1978 RSC Yearbook at the end of the first Warehouse season he commented on the need to “demonstrate the range and versatility of our present acting company, and engender the excitement that comes from juxtaposing new and untried work with the well-tested, well-assimilated work of the previous season”, a process he described as “cross-fertilization”. Again quoting Sally Beauman, “Davies…wanted …to encourage writers to be part of the rehearsal process, so that plays might be considerably changed by rehearsal discoveries…. The Warehouse was to be a workshop as much as a showcase, and this first season was remarkably innovative…. It was an unapologetically Socialist season of new work that was a considerable break with anything the RSC had attempted in the past”. The company’s studio work had a direct effect on the rest of its work that only subsided when the Swan Theatre, with its completely different feel and aims, began to take over from 1986.

The cover of Edward Bond's play featuring the RSC's production

The cover of Edward Bond’s play featuring the RSC’s production

For me, as a member of the audience, mostly interested in the classical repertoire, the Warehouse work was a real eye-opener. Here it was possible to see top-notch acting at very close quarters and I well remember the excitement of seeing Jane Lapotaire and Zoe Wanamaker in Piaf, a transfer from Stratford’s Other Place of Pam Gems’ play on the sometimes grimy life of Edith Piaf, Peter McEnery in Jail Diary, and most excitingly Mike Gwilym, Patrick Stewart and Bob Peck in Edward Bond’s powerful play The Bundle, specially written for the new theatre. The plays put on at the Warehouse tended to examine social, eithical and political issues of the day. Jail Diary was based on the experiences of a man imprisoned in South Africa in the 1960s, and The Bundle, set in medieval Japan, looked at the moral dilemmas raised by the issues of poverty, social inequality and revolutionary violence.

Davies was clearly also an actor’s director, managing to get together astonishing casts for his plays. After his time at The Warehouse he continued to work with the company, directing one of its most successful productions, Les Liaisons Dangereuses at The Other Place in Stratford in 1985. From there the production went to London where it continued to be performed for several years, and to the USA (where a new production from the Donmar is coincidentally being staged in October 2016). The stellar cast included Lindsay Duncan, Alan Rickman, Juliet Stevenson, Fiona Shaw and Lesley Manville. In the same year Davies also directed a remarkable production of Troilus and Cressida on the main stage in Stratford with many of the same actors: Juliet Stevenson as Cressida, Rickman as Achilles, Lindsay Duncan as Helen, and another favourite, Anton Lesser as Troilus. Both productions featured elegant, unfussy sets and beautiful costumes that complemented rather than drawing attention away from the actors.

Troilus and Cressida - 1985 Royal Shakespeare Company Royal Shakespeare Theatre Directed by Howard Davies Designed by Ralph Koltai

Troilus and Cressida – 1985
Royal Shakespeare Company
Royal Shakespeare Theatre
Directed by Howard Davies
Designed by Ralph Koltai

The production divided the critics, but I loved it. Criticism centred around Stevenson’s Cressida, “a human being torn between love and survival, rather than a flirtatious plaything”. This interpretation might seem unexceptional today, but at the time it felt revolutionary. According to Michael Billington “Gone is the usual wanton flirt. Her love for Troilus is real and urgent, their enforced separation leads to hysterical breakdown and the famous scene where she is kissed by the Greek generals is tantamount to rape… Ulysses’s description of her as a daughter of the game becomes the violent reaction of a man humiliated by being expected to beg a kiss”.

Davies’s last work for the RSC was The General from America in 1996/7, but it’s his earlier, extraordinary work for the Company that many will also remember with admiration.

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