Ben Jonson, Shakespeare and Burbage: Volpone on stage

Henry Goodman as Volpone

Henry Goodman as Volpone

When Ben Jonson delivered his new comedy Volpone to the King’s Men in early 1606, Richard Burbage must have cheered. Jonson would have written the leading role with Burbage in mind, as Shakespeare also wrote roles for his most popular and talented actor. But Shakespeare had been producing tragedies like King Lear and Timon of Athens, and those odd comedies Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well. Lear is certainly one of the greatest roles in English drama, but for an actor of the skills of Burbage, in particular with the ability to engage an audience directly, the greedy, calculating, disguise-loving Volpone must have been a great gift.

This only occurred to me recently, after seeing Henry Goodman play the role in Trevor Nunn’s RSC production. I’ve never seen the title role acted with such energy and flair. It’s usually Mosca, the endlessly inventive servant, who overshadows Volpone particularly where his master is reduced to lying almost motionless in bed. Volpone himself is rarely attractive, but Goodman suavely charms his audience from the moment we first see him.

Orion Lee as Mosca, Matthew Kelly as Corvino, Henry Goodman as Volpone

Orion Lee as Mosca, Matthew Kelly as Corvino, Henry Goodman as Volpone

Having spent much of the first part of the play prone in bed, Volpone suddenly has the chance to be outrageously funny in the mountebank scene, and Goodman grasps this opportunity, as, we can imagine, Burbage did, turning into a market-trader to sell his miracle health-oil with much banter and singing. In past productions I’ve found this scene tedious, but thinking of it as the opportunity for the greatest actor of his generation to show off, it makes sense.

This makes it even more of a shock when in the scene with Celia, with whom he claims to have fallen in love, he shackles her to the bed and threatens her with rape. It’s a step you feel Shakespeare would not have taken: our liking for Volpone suddenly evaporates, replaced by feelings of doubt. It made me think of Marina’s plight in Shakespeare’s Pericles, written a few years later, when faced with being raped, Marina is given the words to talk herself out of her dangerous situation. This and the scene where she tells Pericles her story, are some of the most powerful Shakespeare ever wrote, but here Celia has to be rescued by the clumsy device of a virtuous young man appearing on stage and whisking her away from Volpone.

In the talkback that took place after the performance on Tuesday evening many of the questions, and the resulting discussion, centred on the “rape scene”. Rhiannon Handy, playing Celia, had been uncertain how to play it: surely she should put up a fight? The actors had already explained that Trevor Nunn justified everything through the text, and in this case he had insisted that unlike some of Shakespeare’s spunky heroines, Celia has been abused to the extent that she has little fight left in her. Just before this scene, her husband, hoping to be the inheritor of Volpone’s wealth, threatens her with violence to make her agree to stay alone with him.
I will drag thee hence home, by the haire;
Cry thee a strumpet, through the streetes; rip up
Thy mouth, unto thine eares; and slit thy nose.

After the rape scene the audience may agree that Volpone deserves the punishment meted out to him, but Volpone, or the actor playing him, has the last word. In the epilogue we can imagine Richard Burbage, the audience’s favourite, speaking as himself:
The seasoning of a play is the applause.
Now, though the Foxe be punish’d by the laws,
He, yet, doth hope there is no suffring due,
For any fact, which he hath done ‘gainst you;
It there be, censure him: here he, doubtfull, stands.
If not, fare Jovially, and clap your hands. 

Rhiannon Handy as Celia, Henry Goodman as Volpone

Rhiannon Handy as Celia, Henry Goodman as Volpone

Another question at the talkback was an observation that Volpone seemed uncertain during the rape scene. Was Goodman implying that Volpone had doubts about raping Celia? Well, no. The bed, intended to come up through the trap from below the stage, had stuck, and Goodman had had to fill in. What the perceptive member of the audience had detected was “chaos and fear”. The audience, Goodman noted, would always seek for meaning, even when there was none.

There would have been no such problems on the early modern stage as beds must have arrived by more straightforward routes. If you’re intrigued by the significance and staging of bedroom scenes in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, you could go to the Research in Action event at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe, in London on Thursday 6 August. Entitled Beds and Bedroom Scenes, Dr Will Tosh and Elizabeth Sharrett will explore how playwrights exploited the intimacy of the indoor playhouse to highlight moments of seduction and delight, sexual violence and sexualised murder.  Actors will play out scenes from Beaumont and Fletcher’s The Maid’s Tragedy, John Ford’s Tis Pity She’s a Whore and James Shirley’s Love’s Cruelty, under the direction of James Wallace.

The RSC’s production of Volpone, is on at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon until 12 September 2015. Sadly it is not one of the RSC shows that is to be live streamed to cinemas.

All photos of the RSC’s production are by Manuel Harlan and copyright of the RSC

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Bidford-on-Avon and the Shakespeare legend

Back in June 2015 a farm vehicle struck the fifteenth-century stone bridge at Bidford-on-Avon, a few miles downstream from Stratford. Bidford was once, as Stratford still is, a market town and its bridge marks a crossing that goes back to Roman times. During the Civil War it was partially demolished by Royalist troops retreating from Worcester to Oxford. More recently it’s been damaged by flood waters, but this time “significant damage to the… stone parapet, spandrel wall and central pier”, means the bridge will be closed to motor traffic for some months, though pedestrians and cyclists are able to use it.

Bidford-on-Avon bridge

Bidford-on-Avon bridge

The narrow bridge is governed by traffic lights to make it one way, while people on foot cross carefully taking shelter in the refuges on the side. In Stratford, Sir Hugh Clopton’s bridge of the same age has always been grander, and has been enlarged over the years: it still carries much of the through traffic including enormous lorries though there are currently discussions going on about restricting traffic using it. Bidford’s little bridge always feels like a relic of a quieter past.

It’s a town with Shakespearian connections, mentioned in a piece of doggerel verse that is reputed to have been written by Shakespeare himself.
Piping Pebworth, Dancing Marston,
Haunted Hillboro, Hungry Grafton,
Dodging Exhall, Papist Wixford,
Beggarly Broom and Drunken Bidford.

A print of Hillborough Manor from 1943

A print of Hillborough Manor from 1943

The villages mentioned in the rhyme: Pebworth, Long or Broad Marston, Hillborough, Temple or Arden’s Grafton, Exhall, Wixford, Broom and Bidford, are all situated to the west of Stratford, roughly in a triangle formed by Stratford, Alcester and Evesham. It’s not certain whether the villages ever merited their descriptions, but Papist Wixford could be a reference to the Catholic Throckmorton family, and the tiny hamlet of Hillborough contained an ancient manor house that might have been reputed to be haunted.

Bidford, the only place of any size, could well have been described as drunken. It had and still has several licensed premises, though the one in which it is reputed Shakespeare drank, the Falcon Inn, is now flats, still containing some sixteenth-century features. Bidford held markets, where farmers and those who came to buy and sell would need refreshment and maybe accommodation, and the river at Bidford, as in Stratford, was a working river, though little remains now. Gradually as Stratford became larger and busier, Bidford’s market declined. This article published in the Birmingham Post by Chris Upton gives lots of details.

Bidford’s reputation as a good place to go for a drink was undoubtedly promoted by the local innkeepers, and the connection with Shakespeare wouldn’t have done them any harm either. The rhyme quoted earlier relates to a drinking match in which Shakespeare is said to have taken part with other local lads, and the crab-apple tree under which he is said to have slept it off. I’m going to look at the legend of Shakespeare’s Crab in a later post, but I’ve been searching around to try to establish where the legend and the rhyme might have come from.

The fullest account comes in Samuel Schoenbaum’s book Shakespeare’s Lives (1970), which he wrote as a preliminary volume to his larger book William Shakespeare: a Documentary Life (1974). In it he investigated the myths and legends of Shakespeare’s life, bringing some much-needed clarity to a subject complicated by the sheer number of forged and semi-fictional accounts.

The Falcon Inn, Bidford, from a postcard

The Falcon Inn, Bidford, from a postcard

Schoenbaum finds that Sir Hugh Clopton, the eighteenth-century owner of New Place, told the story to the local schoolmaster Joseph Greene. Greene mentioned in a letter dated 1758 that he did not believe it. Then “an anonymous traveller, writing in The British Magazine in 1762 tells of putting up at the White Lion in Stratford, and being taken by the landlord to the village of Bidford, about seven miles below Stratford”. A version of the story was told by the notoriously unreliable John Jordan, who collected and elaborated many of the anecdotes relating to Shakespeare, but Jordan did not invent any major part of the story. Instead it seems to have been promoted by landlords both in Stratford and Bidford. Schoenbaum again: “A scene for the revelry would be found in a large building at Bidford once called the Falcon Inn; not only would the room be pointed out to admiring callers, but also the actual chair in which Shakespeare sat”.

One of the accounts of the drinking story, from The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1794, is available online. In it the author comments that “Shakespeare’s bench, and the half-pint mug out of which he used to take very copious draughts of ale at a public house either in Stratford-upon-Avon, or the neighbourhood of the town, are well-known to all our English Antiquaries”. All these spurious relics, like “Shakespeare’s chair” at the Birthplace “are melted into air, into thin air”, leaving not a rack behind”. Yet the legends that surround them are some of the most enduring stories about Shakespeare’s life.


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Alas, poor Yorick: the spell of Hamlet

The title page of the Hamlet First Quarto

The title page of the Hamlet First Quarto

On 26 July 1602 Shakespeare’s play Hamlet was registered with the Stationers’ Company in London. It’s an important date, but has done little to settle the burning question of when Shakespeare’s most famous play was first written and first performed. The Stationers’ Register sets out the details: “James Robertes. Entred for his Copie under the handes of master Pasfield and master Waterson warden A booke called the Revenge of Hamlett Prince Denmarke as yt was latelie Acted by the Lord Chamberleyne his servantes”.

Books had to be registered with the Stationers’ Company before they could be printed, but entry didn’t guarantee this would happen. Sometimes books were entered just to stop anyone else publishing first. This time something went wrong. In 1603 the play appeared in print without any reference to James Roberts. It’s assumed that there was such a demand for Shakespeare’s brilliant play that a publisher got a bootleg copy out quickly. This so-called “bad quarto” was intended to satisfy those who had seen it performed. The title page claimed “As it hath beene diverse times acted by his Highnesse servants in the Cittie of London: as also in the two Universities of Cambridge and Oxford, and else-where”. It’s the one that includes the lines “To be, or not to be, I there’s the point./To die, to sleepe, is that all? I all”. Only two copies survive, the first being discovered as late as 1823.

The comparison between the 1603 “bad quarto”, the 1604 “good quarto” and the 1623 Folio has challenged scholars ever since. The 1604 quarto appeared, printed by James Roberts who had registered the play two years earlier, but without the information about the performances outside London. Those early audiences had no way of reminding ourselves of the hundreds of quotable lines and phrases it contains, other than to go ad see it again. Hamlet is often said to be a play made up of quotations. The British Library’s Treasures in Full contains an article covering the whole subject.

Many people have undertaken detective work to date the play and Gabriel Harvey’s note in a book published in 1598 provides a clue. He wrote “The Earle of Essex much commendes Albions England…The younger sort takes much delight in Shakespeares Venus & Adonis: but his Lucrece & his tragedie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke, have it in them, to please the wiser sort”. With the Earl of Essex being executed in February 1601 this means that the play was being performed in 1600, and it would be more than four years before a reliable text would be made available.

David Tennant as Hamlet, RSC 2008, with the skull used by Edmund Kean

David Tennant as Hamlet, RSC 2008, with the skull used by Edmund Kean

Every performance of Hamlet requires probably the most famous theatrical prop of all, a human skull. Modern productions are able to use one made of a material such as fibre glass, but for centuries there was no alternative to a real one. The RSC Collection contains the skull used by the great actor Edmund Kean in 1814. In 2008 this object, that had lain quietly in a box in a museum store for probably a hundred years, made an unexpected reappearance, not just on stage but in the photographs of the RSC’s production. It’s a wonderful if unintentional example of the continuity of Shakespeare in performance.

It wasn’t meant to be like this: David Tennant was the first Hamlet the RSC had engaged who was happy with the idea of using the skull of a man whose dying wish was to appear onstage as Yorick. Gregory Doran, directing the production, published his diary entry for 26 July 2008, an early preview. His entertaining account of this bizarre story was published in his 2009 book The Shakespeare Almanac. Doran clearly appreciated the Shakespearean resonances raised by events, and I hope he will not mind me quoting part of it.

“In 1980* [sic], William Lockwood, the head of properties at the RSC, received a very strange parcel. It was a human skull. It belonged to Andre Tchaikowski, a pianist and composer, who had died of cancer in Oxford aged 46. He had bequeathed his skull in his will to the company to be used in a production of Hamlet, as Yorick. Apparently, the funeral directors handling Andre’s cremation had baulked at removing his head, and permission had to be sought from the Home Office. The head was removed and processed by medical staff at the hospital, but by the time William Lockwood received it, it still stank… And so far it has never been used. Roger Rees was painted for the poster of the 1984 production holding this skull, and Mark Rylance had used it in rehearsal in 1989, but Andre had never actually got on stage in performance. Tonight was to be his night”.

The reason why the skull was not used for the first performances, and a substitute had to be found at short notice, was that the special license required to go ahead had not been received. There was no such problem with the skull Kean had used, so this one was back in the spotlight again. The official license was received shortly afterwards and Andre’s skull was used for both the Stratford and London runs. His wish had been granted.

*Tchaikowski died in 1982.

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Shakespeare: fighting history

The Boyhood of Raleigh, by Millais

The Boyhood of Raleigh, by Millais

This summer Tate Britain is mounting an exhibition entitled Fighting History, on the subject of history painting, a rather unfashionable and neglected genre.   From Ancient Rome to recent political upheavals, Fighting History looks at how artists have transformed significant events into paintings and artworks that encourage us to reflect on our own place in history.

From the epic 18th century history paintings…to contemporary pieces … the exhibition explores how artists have reacted to key historic events, and how they capture and interpret the past. Often vast in scale, history paintings engage with important narratives from the past, from scripture and from current affairs. Some scenes protest against state oppression, while others move the viewer with heroic acts, tragic deaths and the plights of individuals swept up in events beyond their control. 

History painting had been regarded as the most prestigious branch of painting for hundreds of years before it became really popular in England in the late eighteenth century. The interpretation of real events like Benjamin West’s The Death of General Wolfe were perhaps the most important, but painters also depicted events from the more distant past, or imaginary events. The Victorian painter William Frederick Yeames painted the famous painting set during the English Civil War And When Did You Last See your Father? as well as The Death of Amy Robsart, that questions the mysterious death of Robert Dudley’s wife during Queen Elizabeth’s reign.

Inevitably, given the need for dramatic subjects, Shakespeare’s plays have often been the inspiration for English history painters. The Boydell Shakespeare Gallery was the largest and most ambitious project in which one hundred and sixty-seven paintings were created by thirty-three artists between 1791 and 1805, from which prints and an edition of Shakespeare’s works were also made for sale. In the introduction to Pape and Burwick’s book The Boydell Shakespeare Gallery, Burwick calls theatre painting “a genre in the process of defining itself”. Artists were allowed the freedom to decide what aspect of the play they wanted to focus on. Some of the paintings depict moments only described, or that must have happened, such as Northcote’s paintings of the killing of the little princes in the tower in Richard III. Burwick notes that Henry Fuseli “was undoubtedly the most bold in his experimentation, frequently choosing to represent the mental psychodrama rather than anything that might possibly be realized on stage”. Rather than looking for off-stage moments, as Northcote had done, Fuseli “sought out scenes which would allow him visually to externalize subjective experience”.

Fuseli's painting of Henry V, Royal Shakespeare Company Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Fuseli’s painting of Henry V, Royal Shakespeare Company Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

For instance in Henry V, Fuseli chose to depict the revelation of the conspiracy of Henry’s friends at Southampton: “Hal’s growth as wise and capable monarch comes into its final maturation in this scene”, and Fuseli captures the essence of the scene and of the play with its emphasis on the monarchy’s role in the nation. The Chorus reminds us why it is significant:
O England! model to thy inward greatness,
Like little body with a mighty heart,
What mightst thou do , that honour would thee do,
Were all thy children kind and natural!

Fighting History has received a number of unfavourable reviews from the newspapers, including The Guardian and the Telegraph. Spear’s found it “disappointing and baffling”, at least partly because the exhibition refuses to define what it means by history painting. The Arts Desk impatiently tells us: “it is surely quite easy to define. Didactic and preoccupied with grand narrative, showcasing the accomplishment and learning of the artist, it expounds themes from classical history or the Bible or immortalises pivotal, historically significant moments from the more recent past”.

Henry Wallis's painting The Room in which Shakespeare was Born

Henry Wallis’s painting The Room in which Shakespeare was Born

There’s not much room here for Fuseli’s psychological paintings of Shakespeare. I haven’t been to the exhibition but from the descriptions, theatre paintings seem to be have been excluded. Strangely, though, the exhibition does include one painting that has Shakespeare relevance. It’s Henry Wallis’s The Room in Which Shakespeare was Born, from 1853, that I happened to write about in May. The Arts Desk complains that with no “grand narrative” this is “miscast as history painting”. The FT disagrees, enjoying the way that history paintings can be “coded political comment”, (just as plays, especially Shakespeare’s plays, are and were), and congratulating the exhibition’s curators for including “peaceful scenes such as Henry Wallis’s serene [painting of the birthroom]” rather than solely the “pivotal, historically significant moments”.

For Culture 24 the aim of the exhibition is to “celebrate the emotional power of history painting and show its persistent place in art”. You’ve got until 13 September 2015 to see for yourself if it has succeeded.

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Shakespeare and graffiti

Patrick Stewart as Shakespeare and Richard McCabe as Ben Jonson in Edward Bond's play Bingo

Patrick Stewart as Shakespeare and Richard McCabe as Ben Jonson in Edward Bond’s play Bingo

Stories that portray Shakespeare as a real person, particularly one who didn’t always behave impeccably, are always appealing, whether or not they are true. One of the earliest and most persistent of legends relating to Shakespeare’s life is the deer-poaching episode supposed to have taken place at Charlecote when he was a young man. Another is the lovely story of how Shakespeare and Richard Burbage competed for the favours of a female playgoer, and how Shakespeare got in first, sending Burbage the witty message that “William the Conqueror came before Richard III”. And don’t we all rather like the fact that Anne Hathaway was several months pregnant when she and Will were married?

Last week I spotted a new post in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Shakespeare Unlimited podcasts on the subject Shakespeare and the Tabard Inn. It’s presented by Martha Carlin who has discovered, among papers at the University of Edinburgh, a reference to Shakespeare and his friends carving their names into the wooden panelling of the Tabard Inn in Southwark, from which Geoffrey Chaucer’s pilgrims began their journey in The Canterbury Tales.  She tells the full story in the podcast, but it was also published in 2014 by the Times Literary Supplement.

The reconstructed Tabard Inn during the 1800s

The reconstructed Tabard Inn during the 1800s

An anonymous antiquary, writing around 1643, described the borough of Southwark, in his “Some notes for my Perambulation in and round ye Citye of London for six miles and Remnants of divers worthie things and men”. The twenty-seven pages of manuscript are now kept at Edinburgh University Library (MS La. II 422/211). The author mentions “those Stews so long a source of profitt to ye Maiers of London and Bishopps of Winchester ye Bear Gardens and Playes”. At the time he was writing The Tabard was a respectable inn, frequented by the Mayor, Sherriffs and Aldermen of the City when on official business, and he writes “The Tabard I find to have been the resort Mastere Will Shakspear Sir Sander Duncombe Lawrence Fletcher Richard Burbage Ben Jonson and the rest of their roystering associates in King Jameses time as in the lange room they have cut their names on the Pannels.”

John Faed's Shakespeare and his Contemporaries, 1851

John Faed’s Shakespeare and his Contemporaries, 1851

This certainly sounds plausible, though history is littered with forged Shakespeare documents and caution is always needed. The subject is a familiar one: John Faed, in 1851, painted a fanciful group portrait of Shakespeare and his contemporaries at the Mermaid Inn, another popular drinking place. The rather proper group could hardly be called “roystering”, nor do they look as if they might have been carving graffiti on the panelling, but actors and other theatrical people have always gathered sociably in bars after performances. The Tabard Inn suffered the same fate as many of London’s buildings, burning down in 1676 when Southwark had its own fire just ten years after the Great Fire of London. Although subsequently rebuilt the panelling did not survive.

For now, Martha Carlin is clearly on the trail of the mysterious antiquary who wrote the manuscript. Who was he, and why was it never completed? There’s no explanation of how it came to be at Edinburgh University Library, but as the obvious resources have been exhausted documents that mention Shakespeare are occasionally turning up elsewhere, found by people who are looking for something else. This was the case with this one.

The manuscript featured in this podcast episode will be exhibited January 20 – March 27, 2016, at the Folger Shakespeare Library, as part of Shakespeare, Life of an Icon.

And if you haven’t come across them yet, do take a look at the Shakespeare Unlimited podcasts. They’ve been appearing for about a year, and cover a wide range of subjects, discussed by a variety of academics and Folger Shakespeare Library staff. These include Shakespeare and Punk Rock, The Shakespeare Moons of Uranus, Shakespeare’s Street Fighting and Shakespeare’s France and Italy.

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Archaeology: uncovering Shakespeare’s England

An archaeologist at work on the Bedlam graveyard

An archaeologist at work on the Bedlam graveyard

I always used to think of archaeologists as people who dug up the remains of Roman settlements and prehistoric burial chambers, but in the last few years they seem to have been examining a much wider range of sites, working with specialists from other disciplines to tell us much more about the relatively recent past. In so doing they are explaining not just the progress of invaders, or the rich and powerful, but about ordinary people.

I’ve been fascinated by the work done by Museum of London Archaeology to find the remains of the playhouses of Shakespeare’s London, and even evidence of the activities of the audiences. These have been outlined by Julian Bowsher in his book Shakespeare’s London Theatreland. At least partial remains of the Rose, the Globe, the Theatre, the Curtain and the Hope have all been found as well as bear-baiting rings. These provided entertainment of a different kind, though the fact that they existed in close proximity is a reminder of the options available to Elizabethans in exchange for their pennies.

London's lost graveyard

London’s lost graveyard

Now archaeologists from Museum of London Archaeology have been at work on a different sort of project that is revealing much more about the lives, illnesses and deaths of Londoners from 1569 onwards. At 8pm on Sunday 19 July Channel 4 will screen the documentary London’s Lost Graveyard: the Crossrail Discovery. The huge excavations for the Crossrail project has uncovered the Bethlem Burial Ground, thought to be lost forever, beneath Liverpool Street Station. The burial ground itself may have been known by Shakespeare: it seems likely that he visited Bedlam, the asylum for the mentally ill, as Edgar in King Lear describes how he will disguise himself:
My face I’ll grime with filth,
Blanket my loins, elf all my hair in knots,
And with presented nakedness outface
The winds and persecutions of the sky.
The country gives me proof and precedent
Of Bedlam beggars, who, with roaring voices,
Strike in their numb’d and mortified bare arms
Pins, wooden pricks, nails, sprigs of rosemary;
And with this horrible object, from low farms,
Poor pelting villages, sheepcotes, and mills,
Sometime with lunatic bans, sometime with prayers,
Enforce their charity.

This page contains a link to the trailer and here’s the account in the Daily Mail.

The burial ground’s main function was to bury plague victims. Plague nowadays makes us think of the medieval Black Death and the 1665 Great Plague in London, but there were sporadic outbreaks for centuries. There was one in Stratford-upon-Avon in the year Shakespeare was born, and in Romeo and Juliet it is an outbreak of plague that prevents Friar Laurence’s letter to Romeo getting through. Audiences would have recognised what happened:
The searchers of the town,
Suspecting that we both were in a house
Where the infectious pestilence did reign,
Seal’d up the doors and would not let us forth.

The 1665 Great Plague killed 75000, around a quarter of London’s population, and they have excavated a staggering 3000 of the 20000 skeletons thought to have been buried at Bethlem. It’s been described as “a vast poor man’s graveyard from the era when modern multi-cultural Britain was born”. Archaeologists have been working with microbiologists and palaeontologists to analyse the bones and test DNA, comparing results with the historical parish records to reveal the names and life stories of some of the victims. Matthew Symonds explained “Historical records will be from the more educated and better-off sections, but this is something that tells us how everyday people lived their lives.” Reassuringly for my preconceptions, the archaeologists have also found the remains of a Roman road.

Excavations at Coventry

Excavations at Coventry

Also in the news this week has been the discovery of archaeological finds during restoration work at Coventry Cathedral. Stonework from a thirteenth century chapel has been found, and rubble dating from after the destruction of the Cathedral in 1940 when the whole city was subject to ferocious bombing. Masonry has been uncovered, and to quote the Coventry Observer, “For the first time in 75 years, the original stone floor of the medieval Cathedral – made up of memorial stones dating back to the 18th century – can be seen alongside the burnt wooden base of the Rood Screen which was destroyed in the fire following the 1940 bombing.”

Their Facebook page also contains additional information, and the excavation will remain open until 23 July.

Coventry was the nearest place of any size to Stratford and was an important city, enjoying a measure of self-government. We can’t be sure that Shakespeare ever visited Coventry himself but he was certainly aware of its history, as he refers several times to events that happened there. Act 1 Scene 3 of Richard II, the great formal scene where the court assembles to witness the fight to the death of Bolingbroke and Mowbray, is a dramatisation of a real event that took place in Coventry in 1398. Parliament met in Coventry on a number of occasions from the reign of Henry IV to Henry VI making the city the temporary seat of government, in particular during the Wars of the Roses. During Shakespeare’s lifetime Queen Elizabeth herself stayed in the city.

The discoveries being made by archaeologists are reminding people of Coventry’s distinguished past, as well as the no less interesting, lives of Londoners from Shakespeare’s period and beyond.

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News about Shakespeare’s School

The Schoolroom, King Edward VI School, Stratford

The Schoolroom, King Edward VI School, Stratford

Last week the news broke that Stratford’s King Edward VI School (Shakespeare’s School) has won its bid for £1.4 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund. This is excellent news: this money will enable  the school to carry out much-needed conservation work as well as opening the building up for visitors to the town to enjoy, and developing activities for schoolchildren.

The upstairs room was used as a schoolroom during Shakespeare’s day so is where Shakespeare would have learned his Latin as well as becoming acquainted with the classics including Virgil and Ovid, and learning the art of rhetoric which he would put to good use later. The downstairs room was where the Town Council met, including, for most of Shakespeare’s childhood, his own father, and it was in the Guild Hall where professional players performed. This is, then, almost certainly where Shakespeare saw his first plays. There’s a real sense of history in these rooms and the schoolroom is to me the most impressive of Stratford’s half-timbered spaces. It never fails to impress, but until now it’s only been able to open it occasionally, and there must be many regular visitors to Stratford who have never had the chance to go inside. I’ve been told that the schoolroom can claim to be the oldest room in continuous educational use anywhere in England. Indeed, it has been little altered since it was build around 1420, though the wooden desks are considerably more modern.

The Guild Hall, Stratford

The Guild Hall, Stratford

King Edward VI School has more to be proud of than its Shakespeare claims. The connection between that room, the downstairs Guild Hall, the Guild Chapel and the Alms Houses demonstrate the priorities of the medieval town to govern itself, to respect religion, to educate the young and to care for the elderly, all within one small area.

Primary school children from the area will learn about the school and its history through hands-on educational visits and there will be interactive displays to explain the use of the rooms at different times. As well as conserving the timber structure, conservation work will be carried out on some wall frescoes that have been only recently fully uncovered.  Here’s the link to the press release. The project is due for completion to mark the four-hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in April 1616.

Edward's Boys in Dido, Queen of Carthage

Edward’s Boys in Dido, Queen of Carthage

Importantly, the school room remains in use, and KES continues promotes a wide range of activities. In Shakespeare’s day, most lessons were completely different from today, with much learning by rote, and there are several scenes in Shakespeare’s plays that refer back to his schooldays, especially one scene in The Merry Wives of Windsor, and the portrayal of a schoolmaster in Love’s Labour’s Lost. However like other grammar schools pupils would have put on plays, and today the drama group Edward’s Boys present the repertoire of the boy players of Shakespeare’s time. They have built a fine reputation, and this year’s production of John Ford’s The Lady’s Trial is to be performed at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe on 26 and 27 September. The group performs challenging plays, some of which, like The Lady’s Trial, have been neglected since the 1630s. The founder and director of Edward’s Boys,  Perry Mills, explains the background to the play in this newly-released trailer, which also features clips of the cast delivering lines from the play.

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Roger Rees: good night, sweet prince

Roger Rees and Michael Williams in The Comedy of Errors, 1976

Roger Rees and Michael Williams in The Comedy of Errors, 1976

On Saturday 11 July 2015 it was announced that the actor and director Roger Rees had died aged 71. Better known for his more recent TV and film work in the USA, he spent many years in his early career with the Royal Shakespeare Company. I first saw him play Malcolm in the RSC’s Macbeth, then Benvolio in Romeo and Juliet at the Aldwych in 1977, but it was Trevor Nunn’s The Comedy of Errors a few weeks later that made me a real RSC convert. Roger Rees took the leading role of Antipholus of Syracuse, a performance that in his contribution to the Guardian obituary, David Edgar described as “unmatchably brilliant”.

A few years later Edgar was invited to adapt Nicholas Nickleby and Rees was cast in the leading role. After a slow start, the production became a triumphant success. It remains a high point in the history of the RSC, not least because of his “electrifying” performance.

In between, though, Rees had impressed in both Shakespeare and other plays. In 1979 he had played Posthumus in Cymbeline, Semyon in Erdman’s farcical satire on Stalineque bureaucracy The Suicide and Tusenbach in Chekhov’s Three Sisters. His versatility was apparent: Michael Billington described his Posthumus as “not the usual romantic stick but a knotted junior Leontes, driven into a lather of sexual frenzy by the thought that Imogen had been false to him”, whereas in the Erdman play he was “Chaplinesque” and  a “Hamlet-like ditherer in outsize jacket and Buster Keaton hat.” Then his awkward, doomed Tusenbach, hopelessly in love with Emily Richard’s Irina.

David Threlfall as Smike, Roger Rees as Nicholas, Nicholas Nickleby 1980

David Threlfall as Smike, Roger Rees as Nicholas, Nicholas Nickleby 1980

Rees could always be charming, engaging and witty in performance, but these roles increased his emotional range, and demonstrated a growing interest in psychology. Later the same year he took part in the unconventional rehearsal process for Nicholas Nickleby, an experience which affected his view of acting as collaboration.  In the RSC’s 1980-81 Yearbook he described how “We started to recognise and make friends with compromise, and to understand it as a strengthening and forceful arbiter in our work.”

Edgar’s adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby allowed Rees “to chart the growth of an angry young man into a moral hero”, rescuing the part from the priggishness which Dickens’ Nicholas has been accused of. He also wrote the play with the idea that ” the actors would shift effortlessly from narrating the story to commenting on their character to playing it”.  Rees proved adept at these shifts, allowing him to be both the leading actor in the play and to step outside it, addressing the audience with Dickens’ own comments. Edgar notes that Rees used this to great comic effect. In his review, James Fenton noted ” It was a good move to cast such an engaging actor in the part of young Nickleby, not because his personality closely resembles that of the Dickens hero, but because a striking character was required to add savour to the original”.

It’s hard to define Roger Rees’s on-stage personality, but those who have tried agreed on the energy of his performances. Michael Coveney, in his Obituary, calls it “vibrancy and emotional fizz”, Irving Wardle said he was “feverishly restless”, and Ros Asquith said he had “towering nervous energy”. This sounds exhausting, but Rees’s performances were also emotionally rich. James Fenton again “The nervous activity of face and limbs is evidence of an extreme attentiveness to whatever may be happening around him. Experience has taught him that all is not going to be well. Indeed, I can think of few actors who are better of conveying, through facial expressions alone, a frank acquaintance with grief.”, and Coveney defined it as “a quickness and charm that could move an audience to tears or laughter, often both, at the speed of light”.

This serious connection with the audience was used most effectively at the end of Nicholas Nickleby. The death of Smike was the heartbreaking climax of the play, but in the final moments of the production Rees encountered the curled-up body of another abandoned boy. He stooped and picked him up, and fixing the audience with a sternly challenging stare.

Programme image of Roger Rees as Hamlet, 1984

Programme image of Roger Rees as Hamlet, 1984

Rees’s last season with the RSC was 1984-5, when he played Berowne in Love’s Labour’s Lost and Hamlet. While making the most of the comic opportunities of Berowne, it was noted by Irving Wardle that “nothing is more memorable in the show than the sight of …Roger Rees… coming to rest among his silent companions and launching with sober passion into the great speeches on the inspiration of women, and the renunciation of artificial language”. The Hamlet was not a star vehicle but a study of troubled families. Frances Barber as Ophelia, Kenneth Branagh as Laertes and Nicholas Farrell as Horatio, each had their own weight. Meanwhile Rees gave a study in psychology: “A Hamlet who plausibly enough was in retreat from strong emotion as well as a Hamlet possessed of this actor’s air of boyish, fretful bafflement… he also brings intelligence and profound melancholy to the part” plus “mercurial quickness and sweet-souled delicacy”. “Good night, sweet prince”, indeed.

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Hugh Quarshie looking for the Moor

Hugh Quarshie as Othello

Hugh Quarshie as Othello

I wrote last October about the news that the distinguished actor Hugh Quarshie was to take on the role of Othello, with another black actor, Lucian Msamati, playing Iago. The story is that in an essay Quarshie wrote some years ago, he seemed to count himself out of playing the role, but was eventually persuaded by the Artistic Director of the RSC, Gregory Doran, who suggested that this was the right time for him.

The reviews of Iqbal Khan’s much-awaited production are now out and are universally favourable. Dominic Cavendish in the Daily Telegraph called the production “electrifying” and remarked: “it feels as though history is being made. A blow is struck for diversity without at all diluting the play’s perturbing power. The concept burns with molten intensity into the flesh of the evening. At a stroke we move beyond black-and-white ideas of racism as a motivator for Iago, and racial difference as the reason for Othello’s ruinous suggestibility. In this version, they’re both outsiders and that makes for a fascinating psychological dynamic. ”

Hugh Quarshie and Lucian Msamati in Othello, RSC 2015

Hugh Quarshie and Lucian Msamati in Othello, RSC 2015

With a black Iago as well as a black Othello, the production seems to be making the play less about racism and more about psychology. In an interview with the Stratford Herald Quarshie suggested that audiences come to hear “the Othello music”, ” They are less concerned with the psychology than the magnificence of the emotion.” For Quarshie, though, “the problem for any actor playing Othello is marrying the two halves – in the first half he is mellow, astute and assured, but in the second half he becomes obsessive, insecure, riddled with jealousy and violent – this massive switch occurs in just one scene.” This production tries to find a reason for this sudden change other than the usual explanation that relates to Othello’s genes.

On 12 July 2015, that’s this weekend, Radio 3’s Sunday Feature at 6.45pm is entitled Looking for the Moor. It’ll be available on IPlayer after broadcast. This is the description from the Radio Times:
The actor Hugh Quarshie read Shakespeare’s Othello at secondary school. He was delighted to have a black man at the centre of the drama when he began the play, but felt that Othello was debased, a caricature of a “typical” black man – unpredictable and violent – by the end. Quarshie has enjoyed a successful acting career but has always turned down the role of the Moor, until now, agreeing to play it for the first time for the RSC. This highly personal feature has Quarshie ask other black actors, including Lenny Henry, Adrian Lester and James Earl Jones, how they square Othello’s sudden transformation from admirable hero to murderous wretch. They have all found a way. It’s a tragedy about a man – his ethnicity is immaterial.

In an interview with the Guardian, Quarshie suggested that “the play’s history on stage uncovers as much about the societies in which it appears as the play itself. “What we make of it tells us more about ourselves than it does about Shakespeare,” says Quarshie. He laughs: “I’m sure our production will be no different.”

Lucian Msamati as Iago, RST 2015

Lucian Msamati as Iago, RST 2015

There’s a further interview with him on the Afridiziak website. Most of the media interest has been in Quarshie, but this production sees both Othello and Iago as outsiders, so here’s a link to one of the few interviews with Lucian Msamati, incidentally the first black Iago for the RSC.

At the RST on Sunday 9 August from 11-12.30 a debate is being held asking “Is Othello a racist play?”, which given the current production should be a terrific discussion.

The production is on until the end of August and will be broadcast Live from Stratford-upon-Avon to cinemas on 26 August 2015. Don’t miss it!

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The Wars of the Roses at the Rose, Kingston

Trevor Nunn

Trevor Nunn

In an interview published in February 2014 Trevor Nunn explained that it was his aim to direct all of Shakespeare’s plays “before I hang up my boots”, with only seven left to go. “I’m very keen to do a particular production of King John but what I’ve got to try and do is set up the War of the Roses sequence.” Since then he has ticked The Two Gentlemen of Verona off his list with a student production, and later this year will be working on Pericles with Theatre for a New Audience. And that Wars of the Roses sequence is on track for later on this year with a run at the Rose Theatre, Kingston-upon-Thames. Previews begin on 16 September and the productions will run until 31 October.

Casting is just being announced: Joely Richardson will play Queen Margaret, and others in the case include Rufus Hound (Bedford, Bolingbroke, Cade and Rivers), Robert Sheehan (Richard III), Kare Conradi(Edward IV), Oliver Cotton (Winchester, Clifford and Hastings), Laurence Spellman (Young Clifford and Richmond), Alex Waldmann (Henry VI and Tyrrell) and Susan Tracy (Margery Jourdain and Duchess of York). As well as over 20 professional actors, a local community chorus will complete the ensemble. It will be the largest company to perform at the Rose since it opened in 2008.

WOTR_936x433-EdwardThe Wars of the Roses consists of a conflation of the three Henry VI plays into two parts, plus Richard III, so if one was to be pedantic it could be claimed that they are not “proper” Shakespeare plays, but there are other reasons why it is so appropriate for Nunn to revisit this trilogy. It will reunite Nunn with designer John Napier, with whom he worked on many of his most successful productions including Nicholas Nickleby. Their design will “transform the Rose’s auditorium”.  It’s also a way of paying homage to those who created the original production. In a recent interview about this project he talked about what this particular production will mean to him: “doing a revival of that text, of that adaptation, is one way that I can celebrate the astonishing careers of Peter Hall and John Barton… I hugely admire both of them and their achievements and I was lucky enough to have them both as mentors.”

It’s also appropriate because of the connection between Peter Hall and the Rose Theatre in Kingston: “He was its founding father – it was his last artistic directorship before he retired. I remember visiting the venue with him when it was still a building site, and several times since then, so it’s a very emotional place for me. And it’s modelled on the original Rose on the south bank, which is where the Henry VI plays and Richard III were first performed. So they’re coming home. ”

Poster for The Plantagenets, 1988

Poster for The Plantagenets, 1988

The Wars of the Roses, first staged in 1963 and revived in 1964, was the first major success of the newly-formed Royal Shakespeare Company founded by Peter Hall, and began the RSC’s close association with these plays. In 1977 Terry Hands proved that it was possible to stage all three parts of Henry VI in  a cycle starring the great Shakespearian actor Alan Howard, with his favourite designer Farrah. The English Shakespeare Company (founded by long-term RSC stalwarts Michael Pennington and Michael Bogdanov) produced The Wars of the Roses in the late 1980s, comprising all the history plays from Richard II to Richard III, with the Henry VI plays edited into two with the titles King Henry VI – House of Lancaster and House of York and Adrian Noble’s 1988 Plantagenets was also based on the Hall/Barton cycle.

Katy Stephens as Joan la Pucelle, 2006

Katy Stephens as Joan la Pucelle, 2006

Most recently for the RSC Michael Boyd directed all three Henry VI plays at the Swan Theatre in 2000, then revived them as part of the whole history cycle at the Courtyard Theatre in 2006-7, with Tom Piper who is now RSC Associate Designer. It’s notable how often directors and designers forge long-lasting collaborations during the creation of these challenging history cycles.

In his programme note to The Plantagenets, Alan Sinfield noted that each of these cycles took a slightly different view of history and the “innate destructiveness in human affairs”. In 1963 “Hall invoked the Tudor idea of order….[and] drew upon fashionable attempts to understand human behaviour by comparing it with that of animals, suggesting than man has an instinctive will to dominate”. In 1977 the programme notes suggested “that people are innately aggressive,…the implacable roller of history crushing everyone and everything. The idea…encourages us to put up with things the way they are otherwise it will all get out of hand again”. The Plantagenets had a much less political message, showing “a specific moment in the disintegration of feudal chivalry, as a precarious social arrangement succumbs to contradictions in its structure”. For Nunn, “The reason is that they remain urgent and relevant and capable of making us think ‘oh god, we’re still doing the same things, we’re still resorting to battle and bloodshed’. The plays really investigate that instinct of why we resort to war.”







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