Much Ado About Nothing online

LovesLaboursWon-Review-Image-243x317Today 2 March 2015 the RSC’s first Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) begins, on the play Much Ado About Nothing. Previous courses I’ve done with Futurelearn have remained open for a few days so if you’re not already enlisted I’m pretty sure there is still time if you want to join in. It’s a collaboration between the RSC, The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and the University of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Institute. The course is open to anyone, anywhere, and it’s free so there is nothing to lose. It’s primarily aimed at 16-19 year olds, but don’t let that put you off as there will be plenty to enjoy regardless of your age or level of knowledge.

As an introduction, here is a link to the blog posted by Jacqui O’Hanlon, RSC Director of Education, where she explains about the creative choice made in rehearsal, and why this process is so important when looking at any of the plays. It helps students understand that there is no right way of performing any of Shakespeare’s plays, and that rather than seeing the plays as distant and fully-formed, today’s students can make perfectly valid choices about Shakespeare’s plays.

The MOOC is closely related to the RSC’s current production of Much Ado About Nothing (currently under the title Love’s Labour’s Won in the RSC’s schedules). The play remains in the repertoire until 14 March, and will be shown in cinemas as a live relay on 4 March.

Even if you’re not able to see the current RSC production there will be much to enjoy in this 4-week course. In week one, Nick Walton from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s education team will be talking about how the play would have been staged originally, and how it reflects the time in which Shakespeare lived. In the second week Dr Abigail Rokison from the Shakespeare Institute will look at the stage history of the play with a particular focus on its more serious side.

The final two weeks will focus on the RSC’s production, interviewing Edward Bennett and Michelle Terry (Benedick and Beatrice), and the director of the show Christopher Luscombe who knows the play inside-out since he performed as Dogberry in a previous production of the play for the RSC. Scenes from the current production will also feature.

The MOOC will aim to highlight how creative choices are made for productions, and how different decisions can be arrived at for each and every production. Photographs of past productions make very clear the differences from one production to another, depending on a whole lot of variables: creative team, actors, and external factors such as what is happening in the world. The current production has been heavily influenced by the centenary of the outbreak of World War 1. At the start of the play, Benedick and his friends are returning from a usually unidentified war. In this production they are clearly coming back from the trenches, and some are damaged physically or psychologically. Pinning it down to this particular time has a real impact on how the play has been interpreted, as well as providing inspiration for the costumes and sets.

Michelle Terry as Beatrice and Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Hero in Love's Labour's Won. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

Michelle Terry as Beatrice and Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Hero in Love’s Labour’s Won. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

Much Ado About Nothing is one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies, and one which has been associated with the theatre in Stratford ever since 1879: it was the first play ever performed in the original Shakespeare Memorial Theatre. Although it’s a comedy the play contains its fair share of serious scenes, and its treatment of women has made it controversial over the last 40 years or so, giving those studying the play much to discuss.

Like over 3,500 other people I’m signed up for the course and look forward to four weeks of enjoyable exploration of Much Ado About Nothing. There will be lots of opportunity for learners to interact with each other during the course, so maybe I’ll see you there!

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Conferences 2015: Shakespeare and others

The fortress in Famagusta, Cyprus

The fortress in Famagusta, Cyprus

2015 may be seen as a breathing space between the major years of 2014 (450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth) and 2016 (400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death), but there are a goodly crop of academic conferences coming up this year that Shakespeare-lovers will be interested in. Here’s a roundup: some are still open for the submission of papers, and others already have their timetables up in case you fancy attending some of the sessions. Most, and many others, are listed on the admirable Renaissance Diary site.

At this time of year we’re all in need of a little sunshine, and the first takes place in the exotic setting of Nicosia in Cyprus. It’s the Third Annual Conference of the Byzantine, Medieval and Renaissance Periods, with the title Othello’s Island, taking place from 20-22 March. It intends to combine academic debate with time spent discovering and exploring the remarkable Mediterranean island of Cyprus, where the main action of Othello takes place.

The next isn’t actually a Shakespeare conference, but who wouldn’t like to know more about the great poet John Donne in the lovely surroundings of Oxford? The conference, Reconsidering Donne, is at Lincoln College, Oxford on 23 and 24 March.

In April Shakespeare’s Globe is holding its Spring conference, entitled The Halved Heart: Shakespeare and Friendship, from 17-19 April. The conference will consider  the place of friendship in early modern drama and theatre culture, and will conclude with a staged reading by a company of Globe actors of The Faithful Friends (Anon., King’s Men, c.1614).

The University of Lodz, in Poland, is hosting Shakespeare Recreated: New Contexts, New Interpretations, from 22-23 April. This is going to be a wide-ranging conference including Polish explorations of Shakespeare, filming Shakespeare and Shakespeare in pop culture.

Also on 23 April is a one-day Conference at the British Institute in Florence, entitled  Arcadia: Gender, Genre and Wordplay in Early Modern Comedy. The conference will focus on comedy in early modern texts, and on how humour is produced in language and plot, what purposes it serves and how it can be related to issues of gender and genre.

Back in England, the 17th Britgrad conference is being held at the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon from 4-6 June. This is an opportunity for graduate students to contribute on subjects relating to Shakespeare, Early Modern, and/or Renaissance studies. Those attending will also be able to attend the RSC’s eagerly-anticipated production of Othello.

Full details haven’t been released yet but the one-day conference on Matter and Materiality in Early Modern England that is being held at the University of Cambridge on 12 June 2015 will be a treat, if the sumptuous images on the website are anything to go by.

The International Spenser Society will be holding its fifth Conference at Dublin Castle, Ireland, 18-20 June. The conference will address Edmund Spenser’s places – domestic, urban, global, historical, colonial, rhetorical, geopolitical, etc. – but also the place of Spenser in Renaissance studies, in the literary tradition, in Britain, in Ireland, in the literary and political cultures of his own moment.

There will be a conference on one of Shakespeare’s contemporary playwrights, John Fletcher, in a conference at Canterbury Christ Church University from 26-27 June, with the title John Fletcher: A Critical Reappraisal.

ESRA Shakespeare conference flyer

ESRA Shakespeare conference flyer

From 29 June to 2 July the European Shakespeare Research Association Congress’s Biennial conference will take place at the University of Worcester European Shakespeare under the title Shakespeare’s Europe – Europe’s Shakespeare(s). Shakespeare’s plays invite spectators and readers to travel to different places, imagined and real, within the continent of Europe. “Within the confines of one play, Hamlet, too, maps Europe: from Elsinore, Laertes requests permission to return to France; the Mousetrap is set in Vienna, which will become the setting for Measure for Measure; Hamlet is sent to England, and on his way encounters the Norwegian army marching across Denmark on its way to Poland.”

For others with an interest in theatre archives, a conference entitled Performing the Archive is being held at the National University of Ireland, Galway, from 22-24 July. Speakers will include Professor Tracy C Davies from Northwestern University. It’s based on the digitization of the archives of the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, and ” will gather together scholars, artists and archivists engaged in working with archival materials on research and performance projects to explore the uses and possibilities of the archive today”. The conference will also coincide with the Galway Arts Festival, bringing together practitioners, audiences and academics “to facilitate a national and international conversation about the place of archives in not only theatre and performance research and teaching, but arts practice and perception of theatre history more broadly.”

Samuel Johnson, by Joshua Reynolds

Samuel Johnson, by Joshua Reynolds

From 7-9 August a conference on Johnson and Shakespeare will be celebrating the 250th anniversary of the publication of Samuel Johnson’s edition of The Plays of William Shakespeare in 1765. It’s being held at Johnson’s College, Pembroke, and will reassess Johnson’s achievement as a critic and textual editor. It was an important event for both Johnson and Shakespeare, as, following a number of other competing editions, Johnson acknowledged the contribution of other editors in his notes, creating the first variorum edition.

Finally a conference on Shakespeare’s great contemporary, Christopher Marlowe. From 7-8 September the University of Exeter will be hosting The International Christopher Marlowe. Much current and historical scholarship has tended to consider Marlowe’s plays, poems and translations from an English cultural and literary perspective and this conference seeks to explore him in the context of non-English cultures.

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Alan Howard: remembering the Dream

Alan Howard as Oberon and John Kane as Puck, A Midsummer Night's Dream

Alan Howard as Oberon and John Kane as Puck, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Alan Howard, who died on 14 February 2015, came from a family of actors and writers, and following in the family tradition, became the most theatrical of actors. Many have concentrated on the partnership he developed with RSC director Terry Hands from 1975 to 1981. But before that Howard had worked with RSC directors Trevor Nunn and John Barton, and in 1970 he was chosen to play Oberon and Theseus in the production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream under the directorship of Peter Brook.

It was not at all obvious that Brook’s production would be successful. His rehearsal methods were experimental: “Always, an ever-finer form is waiting to be found through patient and sensitive trial and error… A concept is the result and comes at the end”. David Selbourne’s book The Making of A Midsummer Night’s Dream documented rehearsals, but the joyous energy of the stage performance seems to make few appearances in rehearsals.

For Brook, writing in 2013,  “The life of a play begins and ends in the moment of performance. This is where author, actors and directors express all they have to say. If the event has a future, this can only lie in the memories of those who were present and who retained a trace in their hearts”. From this, you would think he kept no physical records of his work, but this seems not to be the case. In 2014 the Victoria and Albert Museum acquired Peter Brook’s personal archives, including his 1970 Dream, which had become the most influential and famous Shakespeare production of the second half of the twentieth century.

Evidence for how the production worked is to be found in the RSC archives at the Shakespeare Centre Library and Archive. They are very full for the Dream: programmes from the different theatres it visited on its long tours, reviews, including many from abroad,  many sets of photographs of both rehearsals and performances, several different prompt books from 1970-1972, technical scripts, production records, and sheet music. From these it’s possible to see how “Brook’s Dream”, evolved over its three-year history. Published books include a version of the prompt book and Selbourne’s rehearsal diary.

Other sources of information include accounts by actors: Sally Beauman, in her history of the Royal Shakespeare Company, quotes John Kane (Puck). Instead of making a play fit a concept, Brook “wanted the play to do things to them. You must act as a medium for the words…The words must be able to colour you”.  Richard Moore has recently written about the production in Living to Please: A British Actor’s Life, available as an ebook.

John Kane as Puck, Alan Howard as Oberon, A Midsummer Night's Dream

John Kane as Puck, Alan Howard as Oberon, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Moore played Starveling in the International Tour in 1972. Moore found Brook trying. He was “a parent that one could never please”. He provides details of the tour not found elsewhere, describing the endless technical rehearsals, and the dangers involved in such a physical show. He explains how in one venue Howard, on his trapeze, narrowly missed being dropped 18 feet to the stage floor He notes a charming detail: at the end of the curtain calls Howard closed each performance with “Goodnight. See you again. Sweet dreams” delivered in the language of whichever country they were in. The tour was gruelling, and took its toll both physically and psychologically. “How Alan coped, I’ll never know. He’d been playing Theseus/Oberon since the opening night in Stratford and was still giving wonderful performances and leading the company by example”.  Since Howard’s death was announced I’ve read many tributes from actors and backstage workers, all affectionately praising him.

Howard never wrote memoirs, and in Coriolanus in Europe, another book about an Alan Howard tour, David Daniell reports a conversation with Howard that explains how he approached a role: “I don’t write about it. I act it”.

In the past two years John Wyver has managed the RSC’s Live from Stratford-upon-Avon broadcasts, so it’s interesting to find him writing in the Illuminations blog post referred to below, “Whisper it softly, but could it be that by transferring theatre to the screen we risk killing (with kindness) the very thing we love so much?”. To film or not to film (and how to film) has been a hot subject for years, but it’s hard to argue against relays to cinemas when they successfully take Shakespeare to people who would never see a live performance.

Decades ago, Alan Howard led massive tours around the world that massively enhanced the prestige of the RSC: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Henry V, Coriolanus. The 1972-3 tour of Dream performed 307 times in 31 cities to an estimated 450,000 people. These are impressive figures, but the effort was enormous compared with a live relay.

This extract  from an educational programme, on YouTube, includes several clips.

Jan Pick’s website contains many links to articles and images of the Brook Dream.

No matter how ephemeral theatre is,  directors, actors, designers and composers want to access the past. Audiences certainly want to remain connected to their memories. John Wyver trekked to the Aldwych in 1971 as a sixteen-year-old and still remembers: “I do want to bear witness” he says “that it was my cultural epiphany”.

In 2007 I attended the last performance at the RST before it was rebuilt. At the end the audience wandered around the stalls, looked up at the balcony, remembering, perhaps, their own epiphanies. When the theatre re-opened, the project “Ghosts in the walls”, projected images of past performances onto the old walls.
Ay, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe. Remember thee?

It isn’t merely sentimental to honour the past. If Shakespeare’s plays are capable of endless exploration and reinterpretation, then those who perform his plays, and the productions they appear in, are also worth recording and remembering. It would be tragic if Alan Howard, a giant of an actor, was not memorialised in the building he made his own.

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“Go ply thy needle”: embroidery in Tudor England

Cromwell and Henry from Wolf Hall

Cromwell and Henry from Wolf Hall

One of the great pleasures of the BBC series Wolf Hall, adapted from Hilary Mantel’s novels, has been to admire the costumes worn by the king and his court, from the scarlet robes of Cardinal Wolsey and the magnificence of the king to the fur collar worn by the otherwise sober Cromwell. Rich tapestries hang in the background and the ladies of the court are shown plying their needles. The Tudors loved to decorate every possible surface and even the grandest ladies were expected to be skilled needleworkers.

During the medieval period English embroidery was much in demand at home and abroad. An inventory taken at the Vatican in 1295 lists over 100 pieces of English embroidery, known as Opus Anglicanum. Royalty and the nobility also commissioned secular work, but the only examples that still exist are pieces of ecclesiastical embroidery from the 13th century onwards.

The medieval cope at Ely Cathedral

The medieval cope at Ely Cathedral

There’s just time to see a unique exhibition of Ecclesiastical Embroidery in Ely Cathedral until Saturday 28 February. Over sixty items of needlework are on display, including items from the Cathedral’s own collections and some lent by the Royal School of Needlework from Hampton Court Palace. One of the objects on display is a medieval cope from Ely, an amazing survivor, and there are also a couple of events to accompany the exhibition this week.

During the medieval period most of this work was produced by professional embroiderers in workshops. Vestments, like the cope illustrated, were gloriously decorated, often with biblical scenes or saints. They included gold and silver thread, and even precious stones, and standards of workmanship were high.

An Elizabethan embroidered jacket

An Elizabethan embroidered jacket

After the Reformation existing embroidered garments were often plundered for their gold and silver and demand for ecclesiastical robes plummeted. During Elizabeth’s reign there were major disagreements about whether priests should wear vestments at all. Professional workshops adapted to the fashion for more secular designs, and woodcuts in books such as herbals and bestiaries were used as patterns. At the same time, it became much more common for wealthy women to create embroideries, decorating their homes and clothes. A huge variety of items were embroidered, including night-caps, gloves and shoes as well as the more obvious items of clothing. In portraits the sitters can be seen wearing bodices, caps, sleeves and even smocks, beautifully embroidered at the neck and cuffs.

Embroideries also added beauty and comfort to domestic items, and decorated sheets, boxes, and books complemented sumptuous textiles such as table-carpets and tapestries.

In Shakespeare’s play Othello the Moor gives Desdemona a handkerchief  embroidered with strawberries. When he finds it, Cassio asks another woman, Bianca to “take me this work out”, or copy it. Othello attributes the handkerchief with supernatural powers: “there’s magic in the web of it”, and Desdemona’s fate is almost sealed by the loss of this little object.

One of Mary Queen of Scots' embroideries

One of Mary Queen of Scots’ embroideries

Considering their vulnerability, it is surprising how many embroidered objects of the time survive. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has an amazing collection, and there is an excellent guide to the history of embroidery on their website. They hold many panels embroidered by Mary Queen of Scots during her captivity. The one illustrated is on linen, embroidered in silk, silver and silver-gilt.

In 2014 The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford was given the Feller collection of seventeenth-century English embroideries, complementing those already held by the museum. The Eye of the Needle, the exhibition celebrating the gift, ended in October 2014 but the English Embroideries Trail to some of their treasures on display is still being publicised.

I’ve discovered some wonderful sites that include information about early embroideries:
This website includes some glorious portraits, including close-ups of embroidered details, and this page is devoted to sixteenth and seventeenth-century coifs (close-fittings coverings for the head).  This site includes a history of needlework and technical information.

Shakespeare seems to have been suspicious. In Henry VI Part 3 when the King wishes for the simple life rather than the treacherous life of court, full of “care, mistrust and treason”, he uses the image of a piece of embroidery:
Gives not the hawthorn-bush a sweeter shade
To shepherds looking on their silly sheep,
Than doth a rich embroider’d canopy
To kings that fear their subjects’ treachery?

The act of sewing itself is associated with femininity. Before they fall out, Helena and Hermia had sewed together. They:
Have with our needles created both one flower,
Both on one sampler, sitting on one cushion.

As well as being valued for their beauty, perhaps embroideries were prized by the women of the family who made them as heirlooms symbolising precious female friendships.

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Farewell to Alan Howard, the “great spirit” of the RSC

Alan Howard as Coriolanus

Alan Howard as Coriolanus

Tributes have been pouring in following the death on 14 February 2015 of the great Shakespearian actor Alan Howard, who did his best work at the Royal Shakespeare Company from 1966 to 1981. Although this was a golden period for the RSC with many great productions and actors, Alan Howard was the most dominant actor. It’s a great sadness that few of his stage performances were recorded apart from sound recordings now held by the British Library.

Howard’s voice was unmistakeable, but as Terry Hands said he had “the voice, the presence, the looks, the charisma and the intelligence”, making him unmatchable. Hands, former Artistic Director of the RSC, interviewed on Front Row on 19 February, chose three as his best performances: Oberon in the famous A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1970-73, Henry V, 1975-77, and Coriolanus, 1977-8. (The interview begins about 10 and a half minutes in). But as has been pointed out time and again his major achievement was to play all Shakespeare’s Plantagenet kings from Richard II to Richard III with the exception of Henry IV (he was playing Prince Hal at the time), with the same director Terry Hands and designer Farrah. After leaving the RSC Terry Hands took on Theatre Clwyd in North Wales, revitalising the theatre. As it happens his final production before leaving the company, Hamlet, is playing until 7 March.

A few clips give a flavour of Alan Howard’s style: This South Bank Show special

is a great example, in particular the section where Howard and Michael Pennington go through a scene from Troilus and Cressida. (About 1hr 10 mins in)

This video is a clip of his tackling a speech from Coriolanus.

This clip shows Alan Howard and Sinead Cusack working on Richard III, in which they appeared together in 1980.

Sadly no clips of him performing scenes from Peter Brook’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, though filmed by the BBC, are available online: his hypnotic delivery of the poetry was magical and completely different from how he performed these more aggressive roles.

Offstage, Howard didn’t draw attention to himself. He was shy, bespectacled, and in contrast to his virile on-stage presence, was diabetic. He appeared on the radio programme Desert Island Discs in 1981 while playing both Richard II and Richard III, making no attempt to perform for the listeners.

At the time when he came to work at the RSC, the late 1960s, the company was undergoing major changes as Peter Hall handed over to Trevor Nunn as Artistic Director, later sharing the role with Terry Hands. In her book about the RSC Sally Beauman (Howard’s partner and later wife) described the change. “Before RSC actors had been remarkable for poise, balance, weight, rationality; now, although the insistence on communicating the sense of the text remained unchanged, the approach was very different. Its characteristics were unpredictability, the permitting of inconsistency, the relish of ambiguity, the willingness to take risks; it was rather as if a generation of high-wire walkers had taken over from a team of superb civil engineers”.  Howard was one of these high-wire walkers.

In 2011, Rupert Christiansen wrote Howard seemed “to stand at a slight angle to the universe, wry, sardonic and sceptical.”  His interpretations were often unconventional. His Hamlet followed by just five years David Warner’s gentle prince, and his was described by Peter Roberts as “an intelligent and not insensitive neurotic”. In 1975 he took on Henry V, often viewed as jingoistic, in his hands a complex, tormented man. Harold Hobson reviewed it: “out of the depths of his anguish he utters some of the most ringing and thrilling calls to valour ever heard in a theatre”. His Richard III was a tour-de-force of villainy: “he weaves his verbal spells around his victims with the cunning of a snake and the devilish impishness of a medieval Quilp”.(KPC, Gloucester Citizen).

Richard Pasco and Alan Howard in The Forest

Richard Pasco and Alan Howard in The Forest

Few of the commentators have recalled that Alan Howard was also a superb comic actor. In Wild Oats he played Jack Rover with “elegance and swagger” and in 1981 performed in Ostrovsky’s The Forest at The Other Place playing a grand tragedian down on his luck with Richard Pasco as his down-trodden side-kick. In C P Taylor’s play Good, hardly a comedy, “he has the long, lean, worried face of a comic actor”, and he showed he could take a joke in the RSC’s panto, The Swan Down Gloves. The whole company let their hair down with a series of in-jokes including Howard as George, the Silent Dragon, moping about the stage entirely encased in armour until the very end when he removed his helmet and regained his voice.

George the Silent Dragon in The Swan Down Gloves

George the Silent Dragon in The Swan Down Gloves

It delighted RSC regulars who knew Howard’s ability to dominate any stage he appeared on. We shall not, indeed, look upon his like again.

Here are links to a few of the articles that have been published: The Guardian’s first announcement, and an obituary, and The Telegraph

If you’d like to find out more about Alan Howard I wholeheartedly recommend Jan Pick’s website that documents his career in fantastic detail (I’m grateful to it for the quotations from reviews, and for photos).


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Chinese Shakespeares

Celebrating the Chinese New Year in London

Celebrating the Chinese New Year in London

Thursday, 19th February is the Chinese New Year, the Year of the Goat, Sheep or Ram. The biggest celebrations outside China are held in London, which testifies to the internationalism of the English capital. The main festivities will take place over the weekend, particularly on Sunday February 22 when there will be a parade, traditional acts from China and dragon dances weaving their way through the crowds.

During Shakespeare’s lifetime people in England must have had only the vaguest knowledge of China. Exotic Chinese luxuries such as porcelain were imported but few Europeans actually visited. The country was not entirely unknown, however, and Ortelius’s little atlas, The Epitome of the Theatre of the World, published in 1603, shows China on its world map as well as giving it a map of its own and a description of the way of life of the population. Shakespeare barely mentions the country, but Michael Dobson noted in a lecture a year or so ago that a masque, performed at Hampton Court Palace in 1604, contained a “flying Chinese magician”, signifying a high level of interest in the exoticism of the east.

China became more fashionable later in the seventeenth century, being represented on stage and even integrated into productions of Shakespeare, but the country remaining isolated from outside influence for centuries. In the second half of the nineteenth century things began to change. In his 2008 PhD Thesis Shakespeare in China, Yanna Sun comments that “In a broad sense, Chinese Shakespearean criticism began with the diaries of Guo Songtao, the first Qing minister to be stationed in a western country, when he served as an ambassador to England and France between 1877 and 1879″. Songtao visited theatres to see Shakespeare’s plays, but in China itself there were no translations, or productions. Stanley Wells notes in his book Shakespeare For All Time, “a translation of ten of the Lambs’ Tales constituted the first public appearance of Shakespeare in China”, in 1903.

Yanna Sun carefully documents the history of translations, noting that “the first translation of a Shakespearean play in the original dramatic form in 1921 [was] that of Hamlet by Tian Han. From the 1930s onwards Cao Weifeng, Liang Shiqiu, Zhu Shenghao, and Fang Ping each worked on their own translations, aiming to complete all the plays.

Yellow Earth's Shanghai production of King Lear

Yellow Earth’s Shanghai production of King Lear

Shakespeare was the first writer whose complete works were translated into Chinese: “What was of great significance for the history of Shakespearean translation in China, and Chinese literature in particular, was the publishing of The Complete Works of Shakespeare by the People’s Literature Press in 1978, for this marked the very beginning of Chinese translations of a foreign writer’s complete works.” Thirty-one were translated by Zhu Shenghao, the rest, and the poems completed by others .  Liang Shiqiu was the first to translate all the plays himself. He began his work on mainland China but completed them while living in Taiwan, where they were published by the Taipei Far East Publishing House in 1967. For political reasons his translation of The Complete Plays of Shakespeare made its appearance in mainland China only in 1996.

In China, the plays were known only as texts, opinion on them heavily influenced by Marxist criticism, and it was not until after the death of Chairman Mao in 1976 that the plays could be performed. It’s hard to conceive how much things have changed within the past forty years, and last year it was announced that the British Government was to sponsor a new translation of all of Shakespeare’s plays into Mandarin, and to pay for the RSC to tour a number of productions to China. Shakespeare is an essential figure in this international cultural exchange, in which the arts are expected to boost economic activity.

The RSC’s connections with China go back to 2002, when they took a production of The Merchant of Venice to Beijing, Shanghai, and other far-Eastern venues. And in November 2006, during their Complete Works Festival the company Yellow Earth, with Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre, performed an unconventional King Lear in Chinese. It features in this 8-minute video by Alex Huang, the author of Chinese Shakespeares, that showcases modern versions of Shakespeares plays in China.

Shakespeare is genuinely popular in China. In June 2011, Chinese premier Wen Jiabao started his three-day trip to Britain with a tour of the house where William Shakespeare was born.

Wen Jiaboa visiting Shakespeare's Birthplace

Wen Jiaboa visiting Shakespeare’s Birthplace

What’s refreshing is that the influences are running both ways. The 2012 World Shakespeare Festival brought the world’s Shakespeare to England. The Globe to Globe project is currently taking Hamlet around the world, reaching China in August. For a view of how life-changing a visit can be, read actor Michael Wagg’s 2014 account of his experiences touring Macbeth to China.

The MIT Global Shakespeares project contains lots of examples of Shakespeare in Asia, and the Folger Shakespeare Library’s website also contains lots of content on  Shakespeare in China. It’s a subject we’ll all be hearing much more about in the next few years.

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William Blake and creativity in science and the arts

The title page of Songs of Innocence, 1789

The title page of Songs of Innocence, 1789

What is creativity and where does it come from? Is there a place for creativity in science?

Shakespeare was one of the most creative of people, but the mysteries of his talent are impossible to pin down. William Blake, (1757-1827) was hugely creative, but his wild visions and strange visual style classed him as eccentric if not actually lunatic. But whether or not you are drawn to his poetic and artistic creations, he was a brilliantly skilled and innovative craftsman.

The Ashmolean Museum’s current exhibition, William Blake, Apprentice and Master, reviewed on the Wordworth Trust’s blog here, focuses on his long apprenticeship as an engraver, his early work and technical skills. Blake could have had a perfectly respectable career as an engraver had he followed the conventional route, but he developed a whole new method of engraving and printing. This enabled him to retain control over the whole process of creating books from the first sketch to finished object in which poetry and images appeared in colour on the same page.

It can be hard to fathom Blake’s mind through his images and poems, so the approach of the exhibition, looking at processes as well as ideas, offers a way into his thinking. It contains a mock-up of his studio, complete with press, to show him as a practical craftsman, not just a man with his head in the clouds. He didn’t care that his methods were too expensive and difficult to be commercially viable, rejecting, as did others in the Romantic movement, the idea that making money was important.

Blake's image of Pity

Blake’s image of Pity

All creative people take inspiration from the work of others. It’s certainly true of Shakespeare, and Blake was inspired by poetic images such as Pity, based on Macbeth’s consideration of act of murder:
And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubim, horsed
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind.

The great imaginative writer Philip Pullman, author of the Northern Lights trilogy, is President of the Blake Society, and wrote a brilliant piece about Blake to coincide with the Ashmolean exhibition. He describes Auguries of Innocence as “one of the greatest political poems in the language, for the way it insists on the right to life and freedom without qualification, uniting large things and small, and shows the moral connections between them”. It contains unmistakeable echoes of Shakespeare’s King Lear. These lines are from the beginning of the poem:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
A Robin Red breast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage
A dog starv’d at his Master’s Gate
Predicts the ruin of the State
He who shall hurt the little Wren
Shall never be belov’d by Men
The wanton Boy that kills the Fly
Shall feel the Spiders enmity

You can’t help hearing Lear’s “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods./They kill us for their sport”, but here too are “mine enemy’s dog”  and the little wren, all mentioned towards the end of the play.  Pullman’s essay is a plea for the imagination, vision, and energy. “We need to be able to see contrary things and believe them both true…, despite the scorn of rationalists whose single vision rejects anything that is not logically coherent”.  “No symphony, no painting, no poem, no art at all was ever reasoned into existence.”

Urizen creating the world

Urizen creating the world

Hating war, Blake called Science “the Tree of Death”, and his visions were often apocalyptic. Artists and scientists have often seemed to have little to say to each other, but there is common ground. Recently we have seen less of the Dr Strangelove “mad scientist” and more people with normal though troubled lives. On film, Eddie Redmayne has played Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, and Benedict Cumberbatch has played Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, and currently on stage John Heffernan plays J Robert Oppenheimer “the father of the atom bomb”. Oppenheimer focuses on the excitement of shared discovery and ends as Oppenheimer’s tragedy.

BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week on 26 January was a terrific discussion between scientists and artists on Organising the Mind. Apart from the “Eureka” moment, scientists tend to play down the importance of creativity in favour of logic and proof. But the “primordial soup” of ideas from which poet Frances Leviston’s poetry emerges during a period of intense concentration was agreed to be not so different from the way in which scientists develop theories. Mozart and Shakespeare were both cited as people whose creativity was supported by the rules and boundaries within which they worked, as did Blake, and as do scientists.

Frances Leviston talked how she prepares to write a poem, doing research but not in an organised way, and while detail can be interesting “I can’t be inhibited by the truth”. The author of Oppenheimer, Tom Morton-Smith, researched the science, but is not a scientist and admitted in discussion that it was good not to know too much, as “anything that’s interesting and enlightening to me will probably also be interesting and enlightening for the audience”, a thought for anyone contemplating how Shakespeare might have known so much about law, the sea and so on.

Advertisement for Oppenheimer

Advertisement for Oppenheimer

The radio programme is there to be listened to for months, but Oppenheimer is almost completely sold out until the end of its run on 7 March. The Blake exhibition closes on 1 March.

Blake’s visions continue to influence our imaginations and our understanding of science. The image now being used to promote Oppenheimer is a direct take on Blake’s famous vision of Urizen creating the Universe.

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Stratford-upon-Avon projects 2016: a new collaboration

The Courtyard Theatre, formerly The Other Place

The Courtyard Theatre, formerly The Other Place

Earlier in the week I wrote about some of the projects in Stratford-upon-Avon timed for completion at the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in April 2016. The Royal Shakespeare Company and Birmingham University have also announced a five-year collaboration centred on The Other Place.

People whose memories of the RSC go back a decade or more will be delighted to hear that the RSC’s Studio Theatre is to be reinstated. The new 200-seat flexible theatre will be built within the shell of the Courtyard Theatre, along with two new rehearsal rooms and a home for the Company’s Costume Store. The auditorium will be used for festivals as well as providing space for community and local groups.

Samuel West as Richard II

Samuel West as Richard II

It can’t be the same as the original 1970s Other Place or even the 1990s replacement, but hopefully it will retain something of the spirit of the old theatres. The Courtyard Theatre itself, built as a temporary home during the rebuilding of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, played host to a number of distinguished productions including the full History Cycle in 2006-7, the David Tennant Hamlet, Ian McKellen’s King Lear, Tony Sher’s Tempest and the original production of Matilda. This temporary building proved to be, in Michael Billington’s words “a bit of a smasher”. Quite an achievement for a building that was only in regular use for 5 years.

The original Other Place had an extraordinary history: there audiences could see the same actors who were playing on the main stage one night close-up the next, often in completely different roles. Harriet Walter played Viola on the big stage, Imogen in Cymbeline at TOP, Michael Gambon played King Lear and Antony, among many examples. Great performances continued in the second Other Place, and whenever I’m there I still think of Sam West’s Richard II in the late Stephen Pimlott’s brilliant 2001 production.

The RSC are also beginning a five-year collaboration with the University of Birmingham that sounds really exciting, and hopefully not just for those directly involved. “The collaboration, which sees the University become a Founding Partner of The Other Place, is rooted in the vision of the theatre as a centre for creative and academic exchange. Benefits for the University will include the opportunity for students to access creative and teaching spaces at The Other Place, with RSC artists and practitioners providing input to undergraduate and postgraduate courses, while the RSC will have the chance to work closely with internationally renowned academics at the Shakespeare Institute.”

The Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-upon-Avon

The Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-upon-Avon

Here’s Professor Michael Dobson, Director of the Shakespeare Institute: ‘One reason the University of Birmingham established its Shakespeare Institute in Stratford in 1951 was so that it could both benefit from the presence of a great classical theatre company and contribute to that company’s work. More than 60 years on, we are thrilled that this collaboration, centred on the RSC’s ideas department, The Other Place, is being reborn in a form that will bring renewed creativity to the theatre and to the academy alike.’

Professor Ewan Fernie, Chair of Shakespeare Studies and Fellow at the Shakespeare Institute, said: ‘We at the University of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Institute share the RSC’s passion for making The Other Place a driver for alternative ways of doing Shakespeare and contemporary art, and we’re passionate about sharing that with our students as well.

‘Everyone involved with this project is keen for The Other Place to be a unique hub for creative and academic exchange that will make a fresh and lasting contribution to cultural life in the UK and beyond.’

The RSC have also just announced their autumn and winter season. It will feature Gregory Doran’s production of Henry V that will coincide with the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, while Euripides’ great play Hecuba will play at the Swan. Still remembering World War 1, the two plays “provide very different perspectives on war, essentially from a male and female point of view”. And it’s been announced that in the summer of 2016 Antony Sher will play King Lear. It’s the most fitting play for the anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and is seen as a companion piece to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman opening at the RST soon. Public booking for the 2015-6 Winter season will open in a few weeks.

The final proposal for Stratford in 2016 is a new statue of Shakespeare which may stand at the top of Bridge Street. Personally I’d find a quieter spot: people are sure to want to get close to it and it will be on the traffic island at the town’s busiest junction. It could also be said that Stratford is not short of public sculptures of Shakespeare, most of which are not terribly well looked-after. Pigeons find his bald head irresistible, with the inevitable consequences, and nobody ever seems to give the poor chap a wash.

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“Let me see your archery”: from deadly conflict to courtly leisure

The French Princess and her ladies, Love's Labour's Lost, London 1936. Photo from the V&A

The French Princess and her ladies, Love’s Labour’s Lost, London 1936. Photo from the V&A

More than one scene in the TV series Wolf Hall has shown gentlemen and ladies of the court of Henry VIII practicing archery as a pastime. And in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost the Princess of France and her ladies take aim with their bows as part of a deer hunt, incidentally reminding us of that mischievous mythological archer, Cupid. Archery had become a symbol of genteel love rather than an essential skill for fighting.

A couple of centuries before, English archers had been renowned: they were responsible for important victories against the French, particularly the Battle of Crecy in 1346 and the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, the decisive battle in Shakespeare’s Henry V. Shakespeare understood that archers were usually kept separate from the main battle. In Henry VI Part 1, Talbot:
wanted pikes to set before his archers;
Instead whereof sharp stakes pluck’d out of hedges
They pitched in the ground confusedly,
To keep the horsemen off from breaking in.

On 3 February the BBC screened The Mary Rose: a Timewatch guide (available on Iplayer). The programme examined the history of the raising of Henry VIII’s flagship that sank at Portsmouth in 1545. The wreck has provided many surprises, including 137 intact longbows and 3,500 arrows. Before this discovery only five longbows survived. The programme showed the investigations into how the bows work, testing some of them to destruction. They now think that the draw weight could have been up to 160lbs, as opposed to 60 lbs for a modern bow.

The face of the archer found on the Mary Rose

The face of the archer found on the Mary Rose

The men on the Mary Rose were elite soldiers. “The skeleton of an archer reveals he was in his early 20s and 178cm (5ft 10in). He was taller than many of the crew and well built, with strong legs. The middle of his spine is twisted, making one shoulder lower than the other – a feature is seen on other skeletons found with archery equipment. One of his right finger bones has grooves on the inside, forming a ridge. This could have been made by repeatedly pulling a longbow string. He was wearing a leather jerkin and a longbow was found nearby.” A reconstruction has been made of his face based on his skull, and more information is here.

The Mary Rose’s archer had spent years developing his skills and strength, but  everybody was supposed to be useful with a bow. Even in Shakespeare’s time the populace were to follow directions like this from 1363: “that every man in the same country, if he be able-bodied, shall, upon holidays, make use, in his games, of bows and arrows… and so learn and practise archery.”

In his Survey of London, published at the end of Elizabeth’s reign, John Stow gives a history of the city of London and its suburbs. He is not pleased that in 1498 at Moorgate, north of the city walls, gardens were destroyed “and out of them made a plain field for archers to shoot in”. By 1570 the Worshipful Company of Bowyers, originally the medieval Bowyers’ Company, was in decline, styling themselves “the “decayed Companies of Bowyers and Fletchers, Stringers and Arrowhead makers”. They petitioned Lord Burleigh who in the same year supported them by granting a commission for the “maintenance and exercise of shooting in the longbow and the debarring of unlawful games”.

King Charles 1 shooting in Finsbury Fields

King Charles 1 shooting in Finsbury Fields

The Company’s website contains lots of information about the history of archery, including an extraordinary map dated 1594 of the area around Finsbury that shows the 194 permanent archery marks or targets in use in the area.

Stow also notes that just nearby, the area which had once been “inhabited, for the most part, by bowyers, fletchers, bow-string makers, and such like occupations, now little occupied; archery giving place to a number of bowling-alleys and dicing-houses.”

This part of London was well known to Shakespeare. The Theatre and the Curtain,  where he first worked, were both further north and beyond the city’s jurisdiction Shoreditch was dodgy and dangerous. The Moorfields area by contrast seems to have been marshy land unsuitable for buildings, but could be turned into productive or pleasant gardens.

Archery was practised all over the country. Alison Plowden, in her book Elizabethan England, notes that “archery …was still, in theory at least, compulsory for all able-bodied Englishmen between the ages of 17 and 60, and the inhabitants of every town were supposed to maintain the butts, or practice ground”.

Shakespeare would have learned to use a bow and arrow himself. In Stratford there was an area known as “The Butts”, marshy unproductive land near to Clopton Bridge, where men would practice archery. Nick Fogg, in his book about Stratford, notes that a document dated 1617, just after Shakespeare’s death, records a ditch being dug to enclose Butt Close. But as Alison Plowden says, in reality “the age of the long-bow was passing into history, and by Elizabethan times archery had become little more than just another leisure activity” suitable for Shakespeare’s princess and her ladies.

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Celebrating 2016 in Stratford-upon-Avon: preparations begin

Big School at KES

Big School at KES

2016 will be the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and preparations are well under way to celebrate in the town where he was born and died. Projects are afoot everywhere, and I’m going to write a couple of posts giving up to date information about them.

The first project, and I think the most exciting, is that being led by King Edward VI School,  where Shakespeare almost certainly received his education. The project, ‘Shakespeare’s Schoolroom and Guildhall’ has been well-received, and the School is preparing its full bid to be submitted in March.

The press release explains: “The Guildhall, described by historian and broadcaster, Michael Wood, as ‘one of the most atmospheric, magical and important buildings in the whole of Britain’, was built in 1418-20 and is famous as the place where William Shakespeare was educated and where he first witnessed professional theatre. It served as the centre of civic life and governance in Stratford for over 400 years and was the building in which Shakespeare’s father, John, served as the town’s bailiff. Shakespeare’s Schoolroom, on the upper floor, is still used to teach students at King Edward VI School today.”

The Guildhall as it was in 1830

The Guildhall as it was in 1830

The upper part of the building, known as Big School, is still used for lessons today. But below it on the ground floor of the building, the Guild Hall (or Feast Hall) and the adjoining Agreeing Room, are to be restored and opened. A great stride was taken a couple of years ago when the ground floor rooms, which had for many years housed the school’s library, were emptied, allowing them to be seen properly. Both these and the adjoining medieval Guild Chapel indicate that Stratford was a town of some substance. In the 1550s, the Guild was dissolved and replaced by a Town Council that continued to govern the town, holding its monthly meetings in these rooms. The schoolroom above was added at about the same time.

The Headmaster, Bennet Carr, explains the aims of the project: “This is a building of global significance yet the last major restoration of the building took place in 1891 and it is now in urgent need of repair and conservation. Our £1m project will restore the Guildhall and enable us to share this wonderful building with the Stratford community and the thousands of tourists who visit Stratford each year.”

There will be two great opportunities in the next few days for the public to see the plans to restore and open the Guildhall on Tuesday 10th February from 2.00pm to 4.00pm and Saturday 14th February from 12 noon until 2.00pm.

Another of the School’s projects currently in the news is Edward’s Boys, a troupe of boy actors who specialise in rarely-performed plays originally written for the boys’ companies. They have attracted much academic attention and have just released tickets for their latest production The Lady’s Trial, by John Ford. A collaboration with Globe Education, performances will be in Oxford on 12 March, Walsall 13 March, and Stratford-upon-Avon 14-15 March. Apparently tickets are going fast, so see the Edward’s Boys site for information.

If you’re in town to see the KES plans you could have a look to see what’s going on just across the road from the Guild buildings on the site of the house in which Shakespeare died. This is sure to be at the centre of much attention in 2016. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust explains “Now the site of Shakespeare’s New Place, his last home, is set to become a major new landmark attraction, thanks to a confirmed grant of £1,815,400 from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF)”.

The model for the site of New Place

The model for the site of New Place

“The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust aims to re-imagine the internationally significant site, creating a place where visitors can discover the story of Shakespeare at the height of his success as a writer and prominent citizen of his home town. The project will also be a catalyst for involving the communities of Stratford and the wider Midlands region with the world-famous heritage on their doorstep”.  Work is due to start in March 2015, and Shakespeare’s New Place is scheduled to open for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death on 23rd April 2016.

The project will include a new entrance, landscaping, a deep illuminated pool and new artworks and displays. As you can see from the illustration the design is contemporary, a bold choice for this sensitive part of the town. I find the design rather stark as a memorial to a man whose love of the natural world was so strong, but at least the knot garden, which has been there for around a hundred years, and the Great Garden containing its historic mulberry tree, will remain.

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