Heritage Open Days 2016

heritage-open-daysThursday 8-Sunday 11 September are once again the annual Heritage Open Days when historic venues open their doors to the public, free of charge. Sometimes they put on special events in spaces that open regularly, but the real pleasure of the weekend is to get a look at places and items that we can’t normally see.

I’ve been checking the website to see what’s on offer for Shakespeare-lovers and delighted to find some real treats on offer. In Stratford-upon-Avon I must put in a special word for the free pop-up exhibition being put on using the collections of the SBT’s world-class library, archive and museum collections in the Queen Elizabeth Hall of the Shakespeare Centre. This year the theme is plants, gardens and gardening in Shakespeare’s time and nature as it is represented in the performance of his plays. This drop-in event includes children’s activities and talks from the Trust’s gardens team each day.

Stratford Town Hall

Stratford Town Hall

Elsewhere in town there will be Heritage pub tours (sounds unmissable) linking up with a display in the Town Hall on Flower’s Brewery. As well as being a major local employer the Flower family were enormously influential. In particular Stratford owes the building of the 1879 and 1932 Shakespeare Memorial Theatres to the Flower family. The brewery is no longer in existence. Flowers regularly served on the Town Council and over the weekend serving Councillors will welcome visitors into this beautiful and historic building.

I’m particularly excited to see that tours to Washington Irving’s parlour are to be organised on Friday and Sunday. In 1815, and on several subsequent visits, Irving, the most famous American writer of the day, stayed at the Red Horse Inn in Bridge Street. His room became a tourist destination for eager fans in its own right. In the early 1980s all but the frontage of the hotel was demolished to make way for the M&S store. About a year ago I heard that tucked away inside the building there was  a room in which some of the furniture and memorabilia relating to Irving was kept, but that it is not in a position where it can be simply opened to interested visitors. So this is quite special. Timed tours have to be pre-booked at The Old Slaughterhouse behind Sheep Street, and take place on Friday and Sunday.

Coventry Guildhall

Coventry Guildhall

Outside Stratford there are lots of interesting places to visit including the medieval guildhalls of King’s Lynn and Coventry, in which Shakespeare probably performed when his company was on tour. We are all familiar with the idea of professional theatres in London but academic work is now revealing much more about how much time companies spent in the regions in venues like these. Both would be worth seeing in their own right: the King’s Lynn building is the largest surviving guildhall in England and St Mary’s in Coventry, built in 1340, is one of the finest surviving examples of a medieval guildhall.

Another historic venue linked to Shakespeare is the Crown Tavern in Cornmarket, Oxford. It was rumoured that this was where Shakespeare stayed when journeying between Stratford and London, and the building contains some remarkably well-preserved Elizabethan wall paintings. Also open over the weekend is the church in which Shakespeare’s last descendant, his grand-daughter, was buried in a vault beneath the Lady Chapel at Abington in Northamptonshire. Elizabeth, the daughter of Susanna, became Lady Barnard by her second marriage but she had no children so, dying in 1670 she was the last of Shakespeare’s direct line.

Abington Church

Abington Church

There will be exhibitions of Shakespeare-related material at the David Wilson Library at the University of Leicester (including the 15th century bible used at the re-interment of King Richard III in 2015), and at the Library of King’s College, Cambridge. And there will be floral displays commemorating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death at the church in Westbourne Road, Eccles, Greater Manchester.

Finally there are performances and activities to enjoy. At the Smithy Heritage Centre, Eccleston, Merseyside, they are holding a weekend of Tudor-style fun for all the family, with outdoor games, costumes, music and crafts. At Astley Hall in Chorley, Lancashire there will be the opportunity for hands-on musical moments from the past when visitors can handle period instruments or try a Tudor dance with a company of players in the setting of a garden filled with Shakespearean plants.

St Mary de Crypt Church, Gloucester is the atmospheric location for Twelfth Night, performed by  Tyger Productions, and Shakespeare songs will be performed as part of a programme at St Johns Church, Stamford, Lincolnshire. A medley of Sonnets and extracts from the plays will be performed on the lawn at Westbury Arts Centre, Milton Keynes, with an Elizabethan house providing the backdrop. At St. John the Evangelist Church in Leeds Trio Literati perform a selection of sonnets and other works under the title Sonnet Lumiere.

Organisers are to be congratulated for making so many efforts to put on such a variety of events. Wherever you are there should be something to take your Shakespearean fancy.

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New digital projects for all

Kenny Meadows' illustration for Twelfth Night

Kenny Meadows’ illustration for Twelfth Night

New digital projects relating to Shakespeare keep on being launched, even during the summer break.

I’m particularly interested in Shakespeare illustration, so I love the Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive that features over 3000 illustrations from four major Victorian illustrated editions of Shakespeare. There is a full description of the project in this post by Johann Gregory at Cardiff University. He notes “Michael Goodman, a PhD candidate at Cardiff University, has painstakingly scanned, tagged and prepared these images and made them available under a creative commons license for others to play around with.” Gregory notes how differently the artists concerned have interpreted Shakespeare’s characters and scenes. Given that most people in the nineteenth century encountered Shakespeare as a writer to be read, rather than a playwright, these illustrations must have been influential, giving readers clues about how to interpret characters and scenes.

The Dalziel brothers' version of the scene from Twelfth Night

The Dalziel brothers’ version of the scene from Twelfth Night

Take the illustration of Aguecheek, Toby Belch and Maria from Twelfth Night in the 1846 engraving by Kenny Meadows. While Maria looks like a spirited girl who can look after herself, Toby Belch leers at her in a lascivious way that makes me feel uncomfortable. The image of the same trio twenty years later in 1867 by the Dalziel brothers shows Belch sozzled rather than lecherous, and Maria more genteel, cautiously leaning away, a very different interpretation of the same scene. 

At about the same time from 1864-68, H C Selous was creating dreamy, almost religious, painterly illustrations like the one of Prospero in The Tempest. You can see how, at around the time of the Shakespeare Tercentenary, the plays and the man himself became more respectable, celebrated up and down the country with elaborate festivities. An interview with Michael Goodman about the archive and why it’s important is at this website.

Prospero in The Tempest by Selous

Prospero in The Tempest by Selous

One of the issues for Goodman has been the debate about how far the images, scanned from books over 150 years old, should be manipulated and cleaned up. It’s a question that those digitising historic material have to ask, and one that is worth thinking about for anyone using these online resources. Goodman has strong feelings about it, so if you want to find out more here’s a link to a discussion about the project and its methodology. It’s worth noting that the images that make up the project are available to be freely used though, writing as someone who is happy to follow the rules as long as it’s easy to do so, I wasn’t at all clear what kind of credit was required for the images. I, clearly, aim to give publicity to the site so am including links, but I wish it was easier to understand the Creative Commons licensing system.  Goodman’s archive is designed to bring to light thousands of little-known images, for anyone to use but particularly for the academic community.

Global Shakespeare Explorer

Global Shakespeare Explorer

Another more light-hearted project has also been launched recently: Expedia’s Global Shakespeare Explorer. This allows you to take a look at Shakespeare’s life, his plays and his legacy through a series of nifty interactive maps, each of which is marked with quill pens to show places of Shakespeare importance. Boxes then open that  contain snippets of information. There are lots of ways the Shakespeare enthusiast could find this jolly site worth a visit. If you want to get a sense of where Shakespeare set his plays, you’ll get the visual representation of the map to show you where Shakespeare set which plays. And you can find out where Shakespeare festivals are held: Yerevan International Shakespeare Festival in Armenia, for instance, or the Summer Shakespeare Festival in Auckland, New Zealand are not among the best-known but show up on the map.

Being from the travel company Expedia it’s only to be expected that after the information about the place you’ll be offered the chance to find out about hotels nearby. So if the maps and information have whetted your appetite you can carry on to book somewhere to stay.

The site is far from exhaustive: where are the references to Paris, a city that features in several plays (All’s Well That Ends Well, Henry V, Hamlet among others), or to Cyprus, the location for much of Othello? Both of these are heaving with places to stay, though Milford Haven, the setting for the end of Cymbeline,is a more understandable omission. There must be dozens of other Shakespeare festivals and locations mentioned in the plays that would be more than happy to be added to the site for the publicity it would bring. Having said all that this is a fun site that those who are looking for somewhere unusual to go with a Shakespeare connection will enjoy.

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Late summer in Stratford-upon-Avon

New Place sculpture

New Place sculpture

The summer holidays are coming to an end, but that doesn’t mean that Shakespeare-related attractions are winding down. In fact Stratford-upon-Avon is a destination that thrives all year round and in all weathers. 

In the year marking the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death there are a number of facelifts and new developments that make the town even more attractive to visitors and one, the re-imagination of New Place, Shakespeare’s home, has just opened. The site has been open to the skies since the 1750s when the existing building was demolished, and from the early 1800s there has been a general agreement that it should remain unbuilt-on. For many years it has been accessed through the house next door, Nash’s House (where Shakespeare’s granddaughter Elizabeth lived with her first husband Thomas Nash). The site of Shakespeare’s house has been visible only as a sunken bumpy area centred round a well, while further back there has been a colourful knot garden, and behind that the Great Garden, with its mulberry tree, said to have been grown from a cutting of the tree planted by Shakespeare. 

The SBT have set themselves a series of challenges: to show off the results of the archaeological excavation, to explain what the house was like and how people lived in it, to help people “meet the man behind the work”,  and to investigate how Shakespeare’s genius still inspires artists today. There are certainly successes. For years visitors have had little sense of the building that was once there, so now they enter through a magnificent gateway that stands where the front door once was. Once inside it’s possible to trace the outlines of the walls and to imagine it as a house. The circle of pleached hornbeams, with its wooden seating, provides a focal point and a place to contemplate Jill Berelowitz’s His Mind’s Eye, the bronze wind-blasted tree and sphere suggestive of the storm from King Lear as well as the force of the imagination.   

The Great Garden with the Mulberry Tree

The Great Garden with the Mulberry Tree

The gardens themselves are lovely. It’s good to see the knot garden again, apparently returned to the plan originally devised by Ernest Law in the early twentieth century, and the Great Garden containing its long borders, historic mulberry tree and the alto-relievo from the Shakespeare Gallery. On a warm afternoon people were sitting on the grass enjoying the peaceful atmosphere, as they have done for generations. Locals will be pleased to know it is easy to get a pass so they can visit the Garden free, and the whole site including the exhibition areas is wheelchair-accessible, a great advance.

For me it’s the simple things that work the best: I found the main part of the garden a bit fussy with too many things going on all at the same time. By reading the strips containing lines from the sonnets that are set into the paving, for instance, I completely missed seeing the old well, one of the original features, and some of the other sculptures. Inside the newly-built and refurbished exhibition areas it’s the other way round, with not enough detail to grab the attention, but this will surely change over time and the site as a whole is already well worth a visit.

For All Time

For All Time

Another project that is still to reach its conclusion is the restoration of the Swan Wing, the oldest part of the original Shakespeare Memorial Theatre. The promised exhibition, The Play’s the Thing, will be “a magical journey through 100 years of theatre-making”. It will open in October, up on the first floor of the building. Even now, though, it’s worth making your way up the stairs to see a stunning work of art, For All Time, by Steven Follen, a reference to Romeo and Juliet as well as Ben Jonson’s poem dedicated to Shakespeare. In the sculpture the mask-like face emerges from two thousand metal stars, each of which “hovers on a strand of wire”, a simple idea beautifully carried out.  

Also new for visitors this year is Shakespeare’s Schoolroom and Guildhall. The glorious upper room is still used as a teaching space so opening hours are restricted during term time, but for now it’s open from 10 to 5.

Shakespeare's Schoolroom

Shakespeare’s Schoolroom

I still haven’t managed to get inside to explore it properly since it reopened though I agree with historian Michael Wood’s assessment of it as “One of the most atmospheric, magical and important buildings in the whole of Britain” and “a memory room for the town and the nation” Downstairs is the less beautiful but equally important Guildhall, the centre of the town’s administration and the space where Shakespeare probably experienced professional theatre for the first time.    

The Guild Chapel, including its new organ and some of the medieval wall paintings

The Guild Chapel, including its new organ and some of the medieval wall paintings

The opening of these other buildings also allows the Guild Chapel, that stands between the two, to shine at last. It has been Stratford’s best-kept secret for too long. On the walls are some of the finest surviving medieval wall paintings in the country, two of the best of them about to undergo conservation work. The paintings were whitewashed over during the Reformation period and only rediscovered in the early 1800s, hence their ghostly appearance, but now information panels courtesy of Stratford’s Town Trust are in place to help explain them to visitors. Best of all the Chapel is free to visit (please make a donation).

 

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Black Shakespeare: Paapa Essiedu from Hamlet to Edmund

Paapa Essiedu (Hamlet) with Yorick's skull in HAMLET by Shakespeare opening at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre (RSC), Stratford-upon-Avon, England on 22/03/2016 design: Paul Wills lighting: Paul Anderson director: Simon Godwin ©Donald Cooper/Photostage donald@photostage.co.uk ref/0152

Paapa Essiedu (Hamlet) with Yorick’s skull in HAMLET by Shakespeare 
design: Paul Wills lighting: Paul Anderson director: Simon Godwin
©Donald Cooper/Photostage donald@photostage.co.uk ref/0152

On 13 August it was the last performance of the latest production of Hamlet at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford. Every production of this play is notable, but particularly this time because Hamlet was played by a man of Ghanaian parentage, Paapa Essiedu, the first black actor to play the part in an RSC production.

He has been universally praised: the Independent commented that:

Paapa Essiedu, at the comparatively precocious age of 25, is in thrillingly unforced command of the role, radiating the impudent charisma, energy and wounded idealism of youth. 

Paapa Essiedu as Hamlet

Paapa Essiedu as Hamlet

In his pretend madness, this Hamlet swaps funereal garb for a weirdly paint-sprayed, skull-emblazoned white suit.  Jean-Michel Basquiat’s subversive graffiti-art has heavily influenced Paul Wills’s design and Essiedu calmly vandalises the court with his aerosol can.

The Telegraph simply proclaimed “a star is born” and although the Daily Mail used adjectives that would normally be critical: “sulky and surly” and “bolshie”, they judged the production and its leading man a considerable success.

Essiedu has been much-interviewed: the Standard published his views about how important it is for the stage to represent the world we live in, and this extended half-hour interview about the role and the influence of his Ghanaian background was recorded by Heather Neill for Theatre Voice.

Paapa Essiedu isn’t the first black Hamlet in Stratford, however, as in 2006 Janet Suzman’s South African production of the play was performed in the Swan Theatre with Vaneshran Arumugam taking the leading role.

Publicity photo for the all-black Hamlet

Publicity photo for the all-black Hamlet

 

And soon the first tour of an all-black Hamlet gets under way from September to November 2016, a co-production by Black Theatre Live in association with Watford Palace Theatre and Stratford Circus Arts Centre (London). The production is being directed by distinguished actor Jeffery Kissoon. Black Theatre Live is a consortium of eight English theatres in Northumberland, Suffolk, Derby, London, Margate, Peterborough and Poole, aiming to transform perceptions. The theatres have been selected to be an eclectic mix, in parts of the country where the population is predominantly white or consists of a mixture of black and asian communities. It was set up “with the simple aim of changing hearts and minds about the intrinsic quality and value of Black, Asian and minority ethnic produced theatre”.

The full details are on the website, but, briefly, the tour will visit Watford Palace Theatre 14-17 September, Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds 20-23 September, Key Theatre Peterborough 27-28 September, Queen’s Hall Arts Hexham 4-5 October, Theatre Royal Margate 7-8 October, Theatre Royal Windsor 10-15 October, Lighthouse Theatre Poole 20-22 October, Tara Theatre London 25-29 October, and Stratford Circus Arts Centre London 2-5 November.

RSC-Live-King-Lear-One-SheetBut now, exactly a week after taking his last bow as Hamlet, Essiedu is back on the stage of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre again as the villainous Edmund in King Lear, starring Antony Sher and directed by Gregory Doran. Currently in preview, this production will be in Stratford until 15 October (live streamed to cinemas on 12 October) and will then be seen at the Barbican in London from 10 November to 23 December.

Essiedu understudied the role at the National Theatre when Simon Russell Beale played the lead. During the last preview he had to take over the role mid-performance as Sam Troughton suddenly and completely lost his voice. He had not long left drama school but took over the role with complete composure, and the event was widely reported in the media. Hopefully he will perform during the run without mishap.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the contribution black and asian people have made to Shakespeare in performance in the UK, you should take a look at the British Black and Asian Performance Database. This includes details of 1629 people in 1222 productions of Shakespeare since 1930. It is the most concrete lasting legacy of the University of Warwick’s British Black and Asian Shakespeare project, and largely the work of Dr Jami Rogers. She comments: “Students, teachers and academics will find it a rich resource for this little understood facet of theatre history. The database also tracks casting patterns and will provide a basis for understanding how cultural stereotypes have sometimes inhibited parity in classical theatre for the same performers the Multicultural Shakespeare project celebrates.”

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Celebrating Shakespeare with James Bisset

 James Bisset (1760-1832); Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/james-bisset-17601832-54549

James Bisset (1760-1832); Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/james-bisset-17601832-54549

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been neglecting the Shakespeare blog, struggling with the combined effects of jet lag and completing our book on the history of the Shakespeare Club. Although my co-author Susan Brock has shouldered most of the work, I have still been involved in checking proofs, working on page layouts, and making sure we acknowledge the many people who have helped us.

The Club, founded in 1824, owed its existence to the persistence and enthusiasm of local people, most of whom ran small businesses rather than having any history of performance or promotion. It’s just as well that others who had the necessary expertise also joined in organising the celebrations.

One of the most effective of them was James Bisset, whose songs were written and performed during the first few years of the Club, and give a flavour of the meetings. It’s been interesting to find more out about him as his name crops up time and time again in the documentation.  He was a Scot, born in Perth in 1762, and sent to Birmingham at the age of thirteen to train as a painter of miniatures. He had a continuing interest in paintings, establishing Birmingham’s first museum and art gallery in a large house in New Street, right in the heart of the town.

Bisset, James; Bishop James Kyle (1788-1869); Blairs Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/bishop-james-kyle-17881869-166437

Bisset, James; Bishop James Kyle (1788-1869); Blairs Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/bishop-james-kyle-17881869-166437

He was no mean artist himself, as the couple of paintings in public collections show. He also coined medals and developed a facility in writing amusing songs. In addition, in 1800 he published a Poetic Survey of Birmingham that included beautifully-engraved plates and a directory of the inhabitants and their professions.

In 1812 he paid attention to the fast-growing town of Leamington, opening a museum, picture gallery and newsroom, and moving there the following year. In 1814 he published A Picturesque Guide to Leamington, aimed at the wealthy visitors who were coming in increasing numbers to take the water at the spa. He was a prominent citizen of the town, and I’ve been delighted to find that Leamington Spa Art Gallery and Museum contains two portraits of him, both probably painted before he left Birmingham, showing him as a confident young man about town. Stratford was only a few miles away, and from 1816 until his death he was a fixture at every Shakespeare celebration in the town, performing his own songs and verses, some of which he published. No dinner was complete without Mr Bisset, ‘whose poetic muse is ever in the wing to enliven our convivial hours’.

At the Shakespeare Club’s dinner in 1826 he took the opportunity to announce that he had “fixed on an eligible situation at Stratford where he intends to build a Shakspearian Museum”. The song that he wrote for the occasion was “sung…with great glee, and reiterated plaudits”.
My muse has of late heard it whisper’d
Next season ’tis fully expected
A Museum in honor of Shakspeare,
Will be in his Birth-place erected.
From each Play that he wrote ’tis intended
Illustrative Scenes to display,
And with Portraits of Warwickshire Worthies!
To furnish a Gallery, gay!

Had this ambition been successful this would have been the first Shakespeare Museum in the town other than the Birthplace itself, and certainly the first to focus on Shakespeare’s work rather than his life. In another song he celebrates the commercial prosperity brought to the town by the coming of the canal.

unknown artist; James Bisset (1760-1832); Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/james-bisset-17601832-54572

unknown artist; James Bisset (1760-1832); Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/james-bisset-17601832-54572

One of his songs, the Shakspearean Club Catch, describes a meeting of the early Club at the Falcon Inn where Mr Ashfield was the licensee:
Hark! The gay Shakespearean boys,
They make the Falcon ring
With catch and glee, so merrily,
They sing so merrily -merrily!
See the brimming sparkling glass
Of Ashfield’s rich and famous ale;
Put hearts to cheer – his amber beer
Can surely- surely never fail!
From six to eight, on each club night,
We at our posts are found;
And quick again, from nine to ten,
The bumper toasts go round.

Later on he became involved in the rivalry between the original Falcon Club and the newer one that was formed in 1827. Though he tried to remain neutral, in 1830 he wrote a song celebrating the Falcon Club’s successful celebrations and their Royal approval:
In honour of Shakspeare, “The Warwickshire Wag,”
Of whom both his County and Country still brag,
A Club of choice Fellows, with liberal hand,
Today have presented a Jubilee grand;
In Costume appropriate richly array’d,
Shakspearean Characters here were display’d;

Our Monarch, God bless him, so frank and so free,
Condescended the Club’s Royal Patron to be;
Thus honr’d, of course, the glad Members now dub
Themselves, as “The Royal Shakspearean Club.

He died on 17 August 1832, and was buried in Leamington where a monument was erected to his memory. His entry in the Dictionary of National Biography omits any mention of his interest in Shakespeare and Stratford. More information about this colourful character will be found in our forthcoming book The Story of the Shakespeare Club of Stratford-upon-Avon: “Long Life to the Club call’d Shakspearean”, details of which are now on the website.

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World War 1, Shakespeare and the Anzacs

Townsville's Memorial to those who died in World War 1

Townsville’s Memorial to those who died in World War 1

As I write this, our time in Australia is coming to an end. Our final stop has been Townsville, in Northern Queensland, where the Australian Chamber Music Festival has been held each year for over 20 years. We have been enjoying wonderful music at the concerts, many featuring my husband’s niece, violinist Tasmin Little who has travelled here from the UK with her family to take part.
Without her suggestion we would never have visited  this area, but we’ve been impressed with the beautiful coast, hills and the winter warmth. Before we arrived we knew  nothing about the area, but it turns out that Townsville is home to Australia’s largest army barracks, with a military museum at Jezznine Barracks near the sea looking towards the absolutely beautiful Magnetic Island, and a Garden of Remembrance at Anzac Point at the other end of the Strand, another long section of palm-shaded beach.
We weren’t able to get to the museum, that features exhibits about the history of the Australian army covering the late 1800s, the Boer War, both World Wars and other conflicts particularly in Asia. The Jezznine Barracks have been there for over 120 years.
I was particularly interested to find out about this history because before leaving the UK I had been reading a chapter in Andrew Maunder’s new collection, British Theatre and the Great War, which had an Australian and New Zealand connection. Ailsa Grant Ferguson’s chapter “Entertaining the Anzacs” explained how during World War 1 two centres were created in London for troops on leave, providing shelter and entertainment. Those for the Australians and New Zealanders were the Aldwych Hut (at one time the Aldwych Theatre was taken over for their use), and the Shakespeare Hut in Bloomsbury.  While the Aldwych Hut and the theatre was “a place in which Anzac cultur, via concert parties, was performed”, the Shakespeare Hut often featured Shakespeare. The Hut had a rather makeshift auditorium that could nevertheless seat over 500 troops, and many of the stars of the West End stage such as Ellen  Terry, John Martin-Harvey and Johnston Forbes-Robertson appeared in honour of the troops.

The Shakespeare Hut

The Shakespeare Hut

The Shakespeare Hut was built in mock-tudor style, with helf-timbered walls and gables, and the purpose-built performance area. It “presented a particular brand of Englishness via Shakespearean performance”, but the aim was not simply to promote the British Empire, dominating the far-flung areas of the world. Ferguson recounts how one New Zealand soldier, taken on a visit to Stratford-upon-Avon, was invited to inscribe his name on the window of the Birthplace, an honour only normally granted to the most distinguished visitors. He was seen as a representative of New Zealand’s contribution to the war, and his signature was a significant “new Anzac mark on a highly symbolic English heritage site”.
One of the most intriguing areas was the contribution of women. The 15-year-old Fabia Drake, who went on to be a most distinguished actress (Lady Macbeth at the new Memorial Theatre in the 1930s for instance), performed as Henry V at the Shakespeare Hut. She recounts “Edy Craig had the inspiration that I should come out in front of the curtain and speak the Agincourt speech to my Army on the floor… Four hundred war-weary men rallied to the cry of “God for Harry, England and Saint George”, springing to their feet and cheering to the rafters”. This performance took place after the end of hostilities on 23 April 1919.

The inside of the Shakespeare Hut

The inside of the Shakespeare Hut

The Huts themselves were demolished after the war, but by coincidence an exhibition celebrating their history is about to be launched at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine which now stands of the site of the Shakespeare Hut. This will reproduce one of the rooms in the Hut. Rebecca Tremain is leading the project and says:
The project will lift the lid on what life was like for those who used the building, and relive stories of those who fought and lived through the Great War. After the installation closes, photographs and recordings will be on display at the Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre where they will be stored to cement the legacy of the Hut, ensuring the public can enjoy its fascinating history for many years to come.
Not surprisingly, Dr Ailsa Grant Ferguson is an advisor to the project.
It’s fantastic that the School is celebrating the history of this forgotten but wonderful building. London was a dangerous place for recuperating servicemen. Soldiers, especially those so very far from home as the Anzacs, were lost in London and faced many dangers including being robbed or beaten up. The YMCA aimed to offer a safe place for the men to sleep, socialise and enjoy a little home comfort.

It’s great that this project will remind both the English and those from Australia and New Zealand of a bit of nearly-forgotten history when Anzac troops contributed, many making the ultimate sacrifice,  to a war in Europe, half a world away.

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Finding Shakespeare in the tropics

St Crispin

St Crispin

I’m writing this from the tropical paradise that is Northern Queensland, Australia. We’ve been staying just north of Cairns at the hotel Paradise on the beach at Palm Cove. It certainly lives up to its name, with sea-washed beaches fringed with palm trees.
The sights and sounds inevitably make me think of the magic isle in The Tempest, which “must needs be of subtle, tender and delicate temperance…The air breathes upon us here most sweetly”. And Gonzalo, ever the optimist, declares:
Here is everything advantageous to life!
How lush and lusty the grass looks! How green!
But here, too, are natural hazards: jellyfish (bottles of vinegar are posted by the beach to counteract the stings), crocodiles (warnings everywhere), and sharks. Not far from here a woman was taken by a crocodile only a few weeks ago. We haven’t been near the water much except for the swimming pool.

Agincourt Apartments

Agincourt Apartments

The references to Shakespeare have been few and far between, though we thought we had hit the jackpot this morning on a walk to the neighbouring village of Clifton Beach. There we found an apartment block called Agincourt, and just nearby a road sign proclaims St Crispin Road. We asked a couple of ladies standing nearby if they were aware of a Shakespeare connection.
Oh, no, they said, lots of features of the village were names after the reefs. The Agincourt reef, or reefs, are on the very edge of the Great Barrier Reef near to the continental shelf. St Crispin reef is nearby. We had already been interested in the names of some of the reefs. A few days ago we had visited Michaelmas Cay, a tiny spit of sand barely above sea level, barren of any plants but inhabited by thousands of sea birds.
We had thought that, perhaps, these had been named during Captain James Cook’s voyage in 1770 when he mapped the eastern coast of Australia. He is known to have named Magnetic Island, near to Townsville, where we travel next for the Australian Chamber Music Festival, and Green Island was named by him in memory of astronomer Charles Green who was also on the Endeavour. Maybe, we thought, Cook had spotted Michaelmas Cay at the end of September, and Agincourt reef in October? But a little research revealed that Cook had visited Australia only between April and August, spending some weeks ashore mending the Endeavour after it had been damaged by sailing into the reef.

Michaelmas Cay

Michaelmas Cay

So Cook does not seem to have any role in naming these reefs, and I’ve found a note that Michaelmas Cay was still being called Oyster Cay in 1849. Other parts of the reef have interesting names that may hark back to the same period, including West End, Three Sisters, and even Stonehenge. Perhaps they were given these names during the mid-nineteenth century when people were being transported from England and the British Empire was at its most powerful. It’s good to see that now some efforts are being made to recognise the importance of the reefs to indigenous people, but there’s no sign of their traditional names being adopted again. Cook’s meetings with the aborigines was always guarded, or downright hostile. They certainly didn’t react like Caliban did to the Europeans he encountered, offering:
I’ll show thee the best springs, I’ll pluck thee berries;
I’ll fish for thee and get thee wood enough.
Probably the difference between fact and fiction.

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Welcome to Shakespeare Conferences 2016

cropped-wsc2016-logo1While I’m feeling disconnected on the other side of the world, back in Stratford-upon-Avon and London the International Shakespeare Association is holding its five-yearly World Shakespeare Congress. It begins on Sunday 31 July, continuing in Stratford until mid-week, after which the over 800 delegates move to London for the final days of the conference, ending Saturday 6 August.This will be the tenth World Shakespeare Congress: previous venues have included Berlin, Los Angeles, and Tokyo. The themes will be Creating and Re-creating Shakespeare, and the speakers will “celebrate Shakespeare’s memory and the global cultural legacy of his works. Uniquely, ambitiously, fittingly, this quatercentenary World Congress will be based in not just one but two locations: in Shakespeare’s birthplace, and final resting-place, Stratford-upon-Avon; and in the city where he made his name and where his genius flourished—London.” The speakers will include Adrian Lester, the son of Jamaican immigrants to the UK, Booker-Prize winning novelist Howard Jacobson on his novelistic interpretation of The Merchant of Venice, and Gregory Doran, Artistic Director of the RSC, on the company’s artistic life and history. In London there will be a discussion from a panel of theatre directors and a session from the founding director of music at the Globe, Claire Van Kampen.

A number of organisations will be hosting the conference this year: in Stratford, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and the University of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Institute; in London, Shakespeare’s Globe and the London Shakespeare Centre, King’s College London. They all look forward to welcoming delegates from around the world to share in a range of cultural and intellectual opportunities in the places where Shakespeare was born, acted, wrote and died. Writing from the other side of the globe I’m particularly aware of how special a place the UK is for those who study Shakespeare, and how special a visit can be for those who live in completely different places, even though we all feel more connected than ever before.
I’m especially sorry to be missing the Stratford Shakespeare Club’s contribution to the conference, a tea to be held at Shakespeare’s Holy Trinity Church for some of the delegates, at which those attending will be given tours of the building by those immersed in Stratford’s history. I very much hope this will be an occasion when the Club makes new and lasting friends and connections with Shakespeareans from around the world. The Club’s tradition of welcoming foreign visitors to the town dates right back to 1836, just a few years after its foundation. I hope everybody has a wonderful time at the World Shakespeare Conference.
Also coming up is another Shakespeare Conference, that organised by the British Shakespeare Association that will take place at the University of Hull from 8-11 September. It’s good to see the north of England being represented during the year of the Quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s death when all eyes are, perhaps even more than usual, on Stratford and London. Its themes are Death, Life and Afterlives, and the conference, importantly, comes during the run up to 2017 when Hull is to be the UK’s City of Culture.
The 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death offers us a timely opportunity to reflect upon the continuation of his life and art diachronically, spatially from the Globe across the globe, and materially on stage, page, canvas, music score, and screen. How does Shakespeare continue to haunt us? The second strand of the conference focuses on Shakespeare’s literary, dramatic, and transcultural afterlives. The conference thus also seeks to explore the various ways in which Shakespeare’s ghost has been invoked, summoned up, or warded off over the past four centuries.
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Shakespeare memories from the Bush

Jim Morris with his scrapbook

Jim Morris with his scrapbook

A couple of weeks ago I visited my brother-in-law James (Jim) Morris, who has lived on a beautiful plot of forest in New South Wales, Australia, near the small town Eden, for over thirty years. He left Stratford-upon-Avon, where he had been born and brought up, at the age of 19 in 1959.

I knew he had appeared on the stage of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre as a child actor aged 13, chosen largely because of his beautiful singing voice, and he’d sent me before some photographs of the souvenirs that he still has relating to what was, not surprisingly, an important time of his life. It was great to talk to him about his memories of the 1953 season when he appeared in both The Merchant of Venice and Richard III. It was a star-studded season, with Peggy Ashcroft and Michael Redgrave in The Merchant of Venice, and Marius Goring, Basil Hoskins and Rachel Kempson in Richard III.

Two of the boys in Fiesta costume

Two of the boys in Fiesta costume

In The Merchant of Venice he was one of the three casket-bearers, three boys who held the gold, silver and leaden caskets, who sang, and also contributed to the play in other ways, not always planned. Jim remembered how one of the boys got the giggles one night, and how another time the lighting was mis-timed, leaving the boys struggling to find their way off the moving stage during blackout.  The perils of live performance…

Jim has lovely photos showing the boys in the costumes having fun, with their chaperone Mrs Tuke in attendance, as well as actors like Robert Shaw at a cricket match held in Tiddington.

 

Jim in Richard III

Jim in Richard III

Things were probably more serious in Richard III, when Jim appeared as Edward, Earl of Warwick, the son of Clarence. Jim’s scrapbook includes a page of photographs of himself in costume, including a close-up. While most of the photos look like snaps, and indeed many were taken by Jim himself with his newly-acquired camera, this one looks more professional. Tucked into the scrapbook he unfolded for me a sketch, on a flimsy piece of paper, that had been made to show what his hair was to look like. I’ve seen lots of examples of costume designs for Memorial Theatre/RSC productions, but never one of these. As he pointed out, there can’t be many of them left. How extraordinary to find such a vulnerable piece of evidence for a production of Shakespeare in Stratford in such a far-distant place.

Jim's wig design sketch for Richard III

Jim’s wig design sketch for Richard III

But then, Jim has a fund of fantastic memories of his early life, and quite a collection of memorabilia. I loved his diary covering 1959, the year when he left England for Australia, having seen several of the shows at the Memorial Theatre before setting off, and documenting the first few weeks after his arrival. In his scrapbook he still has the invitation, sent out by Peggy Ashcroft, Michael Redgrave, and Mr and Mrs Glen Byam Shaw, to the end of season party on 25 October 1953. What a party that must have been, and what an experience for a thirteen-year old.

 

The pig given to Jim by Peggy Ashcroft

The pig given to Jim by Peggy Ashcroft

I was delighted to be shown one of his most treasured possessions, the little pottery pig which Peggy Ashcroft (his Portia) gave him, in perfect condition. Apparently there were three of them, each a different size, one for each of the casket boys. I wonder if either of the other two are still recognised and valued, and if so, in which of the “three corners of the world” they are to be found.

 

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Shakespeare in Miniature

The Poet of them All

The Poet of them All

They say all the best things come in small packages, and it’s certainly true that we all find small things, that seem to defy the normal, fascinating. It’s easy to see why some things, like miniature paintings, came to exist: these jewel-like objects could be worn, creating a very personal connection between the wearer and the subject.

So why are miniature books so popular? A quick search on Google will turn up all kinds of results, but nobody buys a miniature book, surely, to read it? I’ve seen and examined several different miniature editions of Shakespeare’s plays, with and without little stands to arrange them on, and have always found them charming if not very practical.

I was intrigued to be sent a copy of The Poet of Them All: William Shakespeare and Miniature Designer Bindings from the Collection of Neale and Margaret Albert, and although I was sceptical at first I quickly became enchanted by these lovely little objects.

The Taming of the Shrew

The Taming of the Shrew

The private collection is soon to be acquired by the Yale Center for British Art. Each of the books is less than three inches in height, intricately decorated and designed with both creativity and skill. Bookbinding is a very practical craft, and one of the fascinating elements of the book is that the expertise of the bookbinder is shown off in descriptions and photographs showing the books being created. Each binder explains the idea behind their work. These tiny objects are like little jewels.

Derek Hood's Brush Up Your Shakespeare

Derek Hood’s Brush Up Your Shakespeare

The story of the different books is interesting in its own right. Neale Albert, who knows he is addicted, took sets of miniature Shakespeare editions and asked binders to rebind them, without any constraints other than asking them to do their best work. One edition was Knickerbocker’s Shakespeare, an American edition from 1910, another was published in London in 1825. Neale also gave bookbinders copies of a miniature illustrated book published in 2009, containing the music and lyrics to Brush Up Your Shakespeare, the famous song from the Cole Porter musical Kiss Me, Kate. What’s fascinating about these is to see how different are the thirty-nine imaginative responses he has got to the same book. Some have rearranged the pages concertina-style, some have cut-outs, and fold-outs, and many have responded to the music or the comedy of the song itself.

Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar

Derek Hood’s version of Brush Up Your Shakespeare includes references to “the staccato dots of the spat shoes and the angular zoot suits worn by the gangsters”, while Robert Wu’s, used for the book jacket, plays with the musical and text elements. Jenni Grey’s The Taming of the Shrew is bound in lilac, a colour chosen to reflect the feisty attitude of the play’s heroine, while the twisted wire refers to the constraints that try to suppress her personality. The little green Julius Casear text, by Santiago Brugalla, is tooled in a much more traditional style with a portrait of Shakespeare in the centre.

The exhibition of these gorgeous miniature books is open until 21 August 2016 at the Yale Center for British Art, 1080 Chapel St.,New Haven, Connecticut, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, and noon-5 p.m. Sunday.

The 1904 Merchant of Venice

The 1904 Merchant of Venice

As it happens, one of the venues receiving a copy of the First Folio on loan, as part of The Folger Shakespeare Library’s celebrations for 2016, is also including an exhibition of miniature texts.  The Albert & Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia is making its own unique contribution to the festivities with the exhibition, Shakespeare by the Book: Four Centuries of Printing, Editing, and Publishing.

The exhibition is in three sections, one of which includes a large number of miniature editions. The Illustration shows their copy of The Merchant of Venice from the 1904 Ellen Terry edition. At the other end of the scale the exhibition also includes examples of the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery prints, images large enough to hang on a wall.

It will run until December 31st 2016, with the Folger Shakespeare’s Library’s First Folio making its appearance for the month of October.

 

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