Remembering Garrick’s Jubilee in Stratford-upon-Avon

The statue of Shakespeare donated by David Garrick

Imagine the scene in Stratford-upon-Avon on Saturday 9 September 1769, the morning after the night before, indeed after the three days of David Garrick’s Jubilee. There was an undignified rush to leave the town, but there weren’t enough carriages. A writer for the St James’s Chronicle wrote “Every body wanted to quit Stratford, but few, unless those who were down with their own Carriages, could attempt it: Five Guineas… nay Fifty Guineas were unable to attain it.” The landlord of the White Lion Inn thought it might take three weeks for everybody to get away. He wasn’t complaining.

But what, after all the Jubilee-goers had managed to leave, when the town had dried out, and after the riverside amphitheatre had been taken down, was left to show it had all happened?  Shakespeare knew how easily any live event vanishes when it is over:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.

There was always going to be a sort of legacy. The Jubilee had only taken place at all because of the dedication of the new Town Hall, and Garrick’s statue of Shakespeare now stood in the niche near the entrance where it is to this day. It’s modest, but important. There were other legacies too, high quality works of art that were intended to hang forever inside the Town Hall.

David Garrick, a copy of Gainsborough’s portrait

As well as the statue, Garrick gave a portrait of Shakespeare by Benjamin Wilson. Robert Bell Wheler described it in his History and Antiquities of Stratford-upon-Avon. “Our inimitable poet is represented in the attitude of inspiration, and sitting in an antique chair; upon the ground lie several books… by some of the authors which Shakspeare consulted; and in the window are the armorial bearings of his family”. The other, bought by the Stratford Corporation to mark the Jubilee was a portrait of Garrick with Shakespeare by the great painter Thomas Gainsborough. This shows Garrick, in an outdoor parkland setting, leaning against a pedestal on which stands a bust of Shakespeare. Garrick’s arm embraces the bust. It’s an image that places Garrick and Shakespeare on a par, both men at home in the natural world. This image was so successful that it was reproduced as an engraving and widely copied. One copy is at Charlecote Park just a few miles from Stratford, while the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust owns one by Robert Edge Pine.

For nearly two centuries these two paintings hung facing each other in the ballroom, but both were lost in a fire at the Town Hall in 1946. While the Gainsborough is a famous image, Alan Young* notes that there is virtually no record of the Wilson portrait, not even a photograph, surprising given its prominent position. After the ballroom was rebuilt a painting of David Garrick in the role of Richard III, by Nathaniel Dance-Holland, was acquired by the Corporation and this contemporary picture of Garrick is still on display, even if it links him with his stage career rather than the Shakespeare-worship of the Jubilee.

There were other attempts to remember the Jubilee. The Greyhound Inn just opposite the Town Hall was renamed the Garrick Inn. Locals must have bought their own souvenirs like medals and ribbons, bringing them out on special occasions. Although some Stratfordians had been wary to begin with, when the Jubilee happened they embraced it.  Some made money letting out spare rooms, or by selling food and drink. But householders decorated their homes by placing candles or lamps in their windows every evening. They enjoyed the fireworks on the first and third evenings, and would have been impressed by the spectacle of the costumed procession had it not been rained off.

The site of the Amphitheatre shown on the 1814 map of Stratford

For several years afterwards a modest procession was held on 6 September, and twenty-five years later in 1794 a bigger celebration was planned but eventually had to be abandoned. The Jubilee was a source of pride, and visitors asked to be shown where it had all taken place. In his 1814 Guide to Stratford Robert Bell Wheler includes a map of the town, and there, at number 11, on the Bancroft, is the Site of the Amphitheatre, roughly where the Royal Shakespeare Theatre is now.

* Art and English Commemorations of Shakespeare 1769-1964. In Christa Jansohn and Dieter Mehl’s book Shakespeare Jubilees: 1769-2014.

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David Garrick’s Jubilee Ode, 1769

Garrick’s Jubilee Amphitheatre, illustrated by Robert Bell Wheler in 1806

Today, 7 September 2019, is the 250th anniversary of the highlight of David Garrick’s Shakespeare Jubilee. In the specially-built amphitheatre Garrick delivered his Ode, a long piece of verse consisting of spoken sections interspersed with airs delivered by some of the finest singers of the day. Although the words have survived, much of the music has not, and in 2016 concerts were given in which the Ode was spoken by actor Samuel West and new music was composed by Sally Beamish.

The Ode, brilliantly delivered by Garrick, was the most successful part of the whole festival. Although the Jubilee is criticised for its lack of Shakespeare in performance, that was never the point of this festival. Garrick had spent his life performing Shakespeare: why come all the way to Stratford-upon-Avon just to perform the plays which the audience had already seen beautifully staged at Drury Lane? The temporary, wooden Amphitheatre couldn’t rival a proper theatre, and there was no suggestion that it should try. Nor did he want to simply perform some of his favourite speeches. What he did do was to establish Shakespeare in his own environment for the first time. So Shakespeare is “Nature’s Glory, Fancy’s Child”, and from the very beginning of the Ode,  

          Blest genius of the isle,
……that demi-god!
Who Avon’s flow’ry margin trod,
While sportive Fancy round him flew;
Where Nature led him by the hand,
Instructed him in all she knew,
And gave him absolute command!

The Ode, praising Shakespeare’s rustic roots and the inspiration they provided, gave Warwickshire, and England as a whole, a bigger claim to Shakespeare. He was a divinely inspired writer, not only a writer of plays for the London stage. Garrick praised the man, using phrases based on Shakespeare from plays including Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream as well as noting “We ne’er shall look upon his like again”, a near-quotation from Hamlet.

Wheler’s History and Antiquities of Stratford, 1806

The Jubilee became almost a legend, an event unlike any other. So important was it that local antiquary Robert Bell Wheler included the Jubilee in his 1806 book on the History and Antiquities of Stratford-upon-Avon. It seems incongruous now that as well as chapters on historic buildings like the Church is a whole section on an event that had taken place only 37 years before. He included a description, the full text of the Ode, the speech Garrick gave afterwards praising Shakespeare’s skill as a writer, and the words of the songs written for the Jubilee under the collective title Shakespeare’s Garland. Wheler was not even alive at the time but as a child would  have heard lots of stories about the Jubilee from locals including his own parents.

He wrote: “ The elegant Ode met with the most universal approbation and applause: the recitative parts were spoken by Mr Garrick who  perhaps, in all the characters in which he ever appeared, never exerted more powers, or with greater variety and judgement, or ever caused a greater emotion, or made a stronger impression on the breasts of his auditors; he launched, indeed, almost beyond himself! In fact, though the turbulent applause gave him frequent interruption, yet it was generally allowed, that the Ode, in point of poetical merit, no less than the speaker, as to his elocution and mode of delivery, was justly entitled to universal admiration…. In short, it was allowed by all who had the happiness to be present at the recital of this Ode, that there never was exhibited in England, a performance more pleasing, more grand, or more worthy the memory of Shakespeare; and in which the genius and talents of Garrick (by whose enchanting powers it was rendered superior to criticism), was so thoroughly admirable, and gave so perfect a satisfaction”.  

Garrick knew he had a winner with the Ode. It quickly appeared in print and as early as 30 September in Drury Lane he included the first performance of it “in the Manner it was performed in Stratford”. This proved so successful that the other serious London theatre, Covent Garden, put on its own version and Garrick quickly responded. He expanded the Ode into a two-act afterpiece called The Jubilee that included scenes with comic yokels, the Ode, and the spectacular procession which he had been forced to cancel in the streets of Stratford. It was performed a record 153 times, the longest run of any London production, and cemented Drury Lane’s place as the playhouse sacred to Shakespeare.  A great result for the Jubilee that many dismissed as a failure.

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“This is the day!” Garrick’s Jubilee at 250

David Garrick

250 years ago today, on Weds 6 September 1769, David Garrick’s Shakespeare Jubilee began in Stratford-upon-Avon, the first Festival celebrating Shakespeare in the world.

Even before it started there were many critics of the whole idea who were ready to jump on any failure immediately. The many accounts of the Jubilee written at the time mostly focussed on the disagreements, the inadequate planning, and the disastrous rain that prevented the most spectacular elements from taking place.

The successes, though, are rarely remembered. One element that has stayed important to local people is the song “Warwickshire Lad”, that was regularly sung at Shakespeare Festivals in Stratford and has been adopted as the Regimental March of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. The words are given here, and here is the tune played as a quick march.

Music was an essential feature of the Jubilee, its first major event being a performance of Dr Arne’s oratorio Judith, performed in Holy Trinity Church at 11 and  intended to give an air of seriousness to the Jubilee before the mood became celebratory. In readiness for the entertainment the town was full of musicians the evening before. One writer listed the names of well-known performers to be seen, noting that the town also contained “an incredible number of Flutes, Hautboys, Fiddlers, Guitars, Candle-Snuffers, Scene Shifters, and a numerous tribe of Attendance from both the Theatres”. The atmosphere in the town must have been like nothing that had ever been seen there before, with “every Inn, House and Hovel, now swarm[ing] with Company,… the Haylofts…being cleared for the Reception of Families of the first Credit… for want of better Accommodation”.

Much of the music composed for and played during the Jubilee was inspired by the revival of interest in early English songs, ballads and catches. Dr Arne was one of the most prominent composers to write these songs, and Garrick thought they would be appropriate for this event which was intended to appeal to a wide range of people. For the occasion, then, Garrick and several assistants wrote many songs, and he called on the composer Charles Dibdin to set them to music. Dibdin had already set A Warwickshire Lad and another song The Mulberry Tree, and became so exhausted by Garrick’s demands that he eventually decided not to go to Stratford at all. 

Shakespear’s Garland, the collection of songs set by Dibdin for the Jubilee.

This could have been one of those stories of things that went wrong at the Jubilee, but on this occasion there was a happy ending. Dibdin wrote in a letter that omitting part of his work “might not only do material injury to the scheme, but …might be so represented as to appear a meditated insult to the public”. So Dibdin arrived in Stratford on the evening before the Jubilee, setting the words for guitars and flutes. He then took some of those musicians aside, “made the musicians sit up all night, and as it was daylight, we sallied forth as a band of masqueraders, and to the astonishment of Garrick serenaded him with the very thing he had set his heart upon but which he had given up as lost”.

This musical beginning to his great Jubilee must have been a perfect start to the day. And it continued: Judith was beautifully performed, and at its end Garrick, carrying his mulberry wood wand and wearing his mulberry-wood medal, led the band in a triumphant procession to the Birthplace. As they went, the performers sang:

This is the day, a holiday! A holiday!
Drive spleen and rancour far away,
This is the day, a holiday! A holiday!
Drive care and sorrow far away.

That first day continued as successfully as it had begun, but the memory of it has been obliterated by what, sadly, was to follow.

  • I’m indebted for much of the information in this post to Johanne M Stochholm’s book Garrick’s Folly.
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Sir Simon Russell Beale

Simon Russell Beale

I was delighted to hear, a few weeks ago, that actor Simon Russell Beale has been awarded a knighthood. I’ve always enjoyed seeing him on stage and television, in particular watching him taking on many of Shakespeare’s most challenging roles.

He began his career with the RSC in 1986, the year in which the Swan Theatre opened. This venue turned out to be perfectly suited to his unshowy style of acting, its intimate size and thrust stage allowing more direct communication with the audience than the much larger RST. He was in two plays in that first season, Every Man in His Humour and The Fair Maid of the West. He also played the Young Shepherd in The Winter’s Tale in the RST, and the slimy Oliver in The Art of Success in The Other Place. It was a strange mix of comic roles, supporting roles, or one-dimensional villain.

The only time I’ve ever met him was before I’d seen him on stage: while rehearsing Every Man in His Humour the actors must have been given a bit of research to do, because he and another actor turned up at the Shakespeare Centre Library. Introducing himself, I remember Simon laughing as he explained, standing next to the extremely handsome Nathaniel Parker, that he was playing the romantic lead in the play.

It was as if the RSC hadn’t yet worked out what to do with this obviously talented actor: in his next season, 1988, he played a series of fops, outrageously camp rather than subtle. But then there came a number of terrific performances: Konstantin in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, Thersites in Troilus and Cressida, the King in Marlowe’s Edward II, Ariel in The Tempest, the title role in Richard III, Oswald in Ibsen’s Ghosts. He was the first winner of the Ian Charleson award in 1991 for four of these performances with the RSC.

Timon of Athens

Since 1994 he’s done most of his stage work in London, particularly at the National Theatre. I’ve been lucky enough to see quite a few of his roles, mostly Shakespeare. Hamlet, Timon of Athens, King Lear, Uncle Vanya, Malvolio, Cassius in Julius Caesar. A few years ago he returned to the RSC to play Prospero in The Tempest. He’s often been in productions, like Timon of Athens, that have taken liberties with Shakespeare’s text, and this one also introduced extravagant computer-generated visuals. He’s on record as saying that we shouldn’t be too reverential towards Shakespeare, as he’s quite robust enough to withstand whatever we do to him.

Simon Russell Beale as Prospero

Simon Russell Beale almost always has an introspective, vulnerable quality. All actors do more than speak the words, but he finds the humanity of the part and finds a way of conveying it without speaking. As I’ve already mentioned in a blogpost, in The Tempest he managed by a single action to show how much his Ariel had always resented Prospero for making a slave of him, his emotionless façade there to protect himself. Lear’s probably the most ambiguous of characters – a difficult man to like, but whose suffering and fall demand our sympathy (or should). He’s the only Konstantin I’ve ever seen who didn’t come across as just a spoiled brat. I’ve seen and heard lots of actors delivering the “What a piece of work is a man” speech in Hamlet, but when he delivered it, it felt to me like a cry from the heart.

I’m sorry to have missed most of his recent work onstage, but he’s been on TV presenting Sacred Music, a series about choral music (he was a chorister at St Paul’s Cathedral).

Over the August Bank Holiday weekend in 2019 he could be heard in the reading of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, adapted by Timberlake Wertenbaker into ten hours of radio. Along with Simon Russell Beale they recruited an amazing cast including Derek Jacobi, Sylvestra le Touzel, Paterson Joseph and Frances Barber. It’s a book that is best known for being exceptionally long, and it’s certainly an achievement to get through the whole thing. I had to admit defeat when I tried reading the books several decades ago, so I hoped that listening would make up for it. But then the Bank Holiday weekend turned out to be gorgeously warm and sunny, so I, and I suspect many others, spent it outdoors. The good news is, though, that we can enjoy it as the evenings draw in.

Here are a couple of links, too, to him being interviewed by Melvyn Bragg about King Lear and him delivering a few short bits of Shakespeare to camera.

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Shakespeare and the moon

Astronaut on the moon, 1969

It’s fifty years since the first moon landing in July 1969, and most people who were alive at the time must have memories of it. My father woke me up to watch Neil Armstrong become the first human ever to tread on the surface of the moon, and I remember the capsule returning to earth. Later we went to London to see samples of moon-rock displayed in a glass case in a museum. It was hard to relate the dull fragments of rock to the glamorous Apollo missions and the beauty of the moon itself. My other strong memory though is of gazing at the moon while the astronauts were there. How would their expedition change how we felt about our moon?

The beautiful, mysterious moon has always fascinated us. Its link to the tides has been known for centuries, and the phases of the moon were thought to influence other aspects of life on earth such as the growth of plants. Some thought that weeds should be pulled up at the moon’s wane and apple trees pruned as it was waxing or increasing. Thomas Hill believed in gardening by the moon: in The Gardener’s Labyrinth(1652), he notes that herbs like rocket, parsley and oregano should be sown as the moon is increasing, and new strawberry plants should be set as it waned. It was supposed to influence the weather: Thomas Tusser in 1580 wrote a little rhyme about it:

Moon changed, keeps closet three days as a Queen,
Ere she in her prime will of any be seen:
If great she appeareth, it showereth out,
If small she appeareth, it signifieth drought.

Shakespeare, as a countryman, must have heard all these superstitions, but we can’t know if he believed any of them. In King Lear Edmund dismisses his father’s worries about the power of lunar eclipses to affect events on earth, but in Richard II the Welsh Captain believes what is prophesied by disturbances in the skies:

The bay-trees in our country are all withered,
And meteors fright the fixed stars of heaven,
The pale-faced moon looks bloody on the earth,
And lean-looked prophets whisper fearful change…
These signs forerun the death or fall of kings.

Drawn by Thomas Harriot in c1611, shows a map of the surface of the moon. Petworth Estate & Lord Egremont PHA HMC 241/9

I wonder how much Shakespeare actually knew about the moon. During his lifetime one of the many advances in science was the invention of the telescope in 1608 by German/Dutch Hans Lippershey. Galileo quickly adopted his ideas and improved them, building a telescope with which he could examine the moon and planets of the solar system. This knowledge quickly made its way to England: in 1611 Thomas Harriot drew this map of the moon’s surface, a document now in the Petworth Estate’s archives.

Shakespeare would surely have been interested to see this map, though his own references to the moon are for dramatic effect, particularly in the play most closely associated with the moon and its influence, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shakespeare seems to be determined to throw in as many references to the moon as he can and to remind us of our many, conflicting views of it. It’s a symbol of love, of madness, of chastity, to be feared or laughed at.

We’re told right at the start of the play that the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta is to take place on the day of the new moon, connecting the event with this serious ritual. And Theseus then speaks some of Shakespeare’s most romantic lines:

Starveling from the Austrian Burgtheater production in 2007

Four days will quickly steep themselves in night;
Four nights will quickly dream away the time:
And then the moon – like to a silver bow
New-bent in heaven – shall behold the night
Of our solemnities.

Hermia’s punishment for defying her father may be to face a life of chastity, “chanting faint hymns to the cold fruitless moon”. The moon is also a source of comedy, appearing in human form in the play Pyramus and Thisbe. For the literal-minded mechanicals the fact that Pyramus and Thisbe met by moonlight demands it. “This lanthorn doth the horned moon present;/Myself the man i’th’moon do seem to be”.  Poor Starveling, as the moon, is a figure of fun to his audience who constantly interrupt him as he tries to get his lines out.

Then at the close of the play Puck, a figure derived from English folklore, reminds us that the moon could also be dangerous.

Now the hungry lion roars
And the wolf behowls the moon,
Whilst the heavy ploughman snores
All with weary task foredone.

Shakespeare understood the complexity of our relationship to our mysterious moon. It’s become no simpler since men have stood on its surface. We still stare and wonder at its beauty, just as people have done for millennia.


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Sam Wanamaker’s centenary

Sam Wanamaker

14 June 2019 is the centenary of the birth of an unlikely hero of the British theatre, Sam Wanamaker. Most closely associated with Shakespeare’s Globe, which was built largely because of the force of his personality, Wanamaker was also a well-known actor, in the UK performing Iago to the Othello of Paul Robeson in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1959. In his native USA he was also a political activist. It’s for his work at the Globe, though, that he is best remembered, and a few years ago the indoor theatre at the Globe was named after him. He died before his dream of reconstructing the Globe theatre became a reality but the building, and its enormous success, are down to his passion and commitment. 

I’ve written a couple of blog posts about the man which discuss his life and achievements. This one here about the building of the Sam Wanamaker theatre, and this one on his life as a whole. Shakespeare’s Globe, too, have been celebrating his achievements and have created this podcast in honour of the anniversary.

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The John Webster #websterthon


Title page of The Duchess of Malfi quarto

In June 2019 the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon, is celebrating another of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, John Webster, in the seventh of their marathon playreadings. Webster’s canon is too compact for the three weeks of the event, and this year they are including plays that are known to have influenced the playwright. In order to track these influences, they are reading them in reverse chronological order: with Webster’s words fresh in their minds they will pick up references from earlier works as they appear. Martin Wiggins, who masterminds these events, describes it as “the literary equivalent of searching for the source of the Nile by navigating upstream”. The readings begin on 10 June and full information, including a timetable, can be found here.

The findings of these readings will contribute to Dr Helen Moore’s work on a new biography of Webster. A brief biography is on the British Library’s website.

Webster’s best-known works are the two Jacobean tragedies The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi. Both are set in Italy, a den of corruption and deception. The Roman scenes, and the character of Iachimo in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, remind me of the settings and characters of Webster’s plays, but unlike Shakespeare, humour, even black humour, is hard to find in his plays.

T S Eliot remarked on Webster’s love of the gruesome in his poem Whispers of Immortality:

Webster was much possessed by death
And saw the skull beneath the skin;
And breastless creatures under ground
Leaned backward with a lipless grin.  

Daffodil bulbs instead of balls
Stared from the sockets of the eyes!
He knew that thought clings round dead limbs
Tightening its lusts and luxuries. 

Joan Iyiola as the Duchess in The Duchess of Malfi, RSC, Swan 2018

At the RSC’s recent production of The Duchess of Malfi I did what I have almost never done in my theatregoing life – I left at the interval. This was not a judgement on the production but I was overwhelmed by the sense of claustrophobia and impending violence that had been signalled from the very beginning of the play.  I walked out of what felt like a slaughterhouse into the open air of Shakespeare’s Stratford with a huge sense of relief.

Webster’s first great solo work was The White Devil. He had spent much of his literary life collaborating with other writers, and had struggled to complete it. It was not well received on its first staging but Webster was not prepared to give up on the play, getting it published so it could be read by educated people. He wrote a long and rather endearing explanation To The Reader, that tells us quite a lot about the theatrical world as well as Webster himself.

He excuses the play’s failure at the Red Bull Theatre, blaming the weather “it was acted in so dull a time of winter”, the theatre “ in so open and black a theatre”, and the audience “most of the people that come to that playhouse resemble …ignorant asses” and suggests that even if the audience included many informed people, “the breath that comes from the uncapable multitude is able to poison it”.

Having insulted most of the audience, Webster apologises for writing slowly “I do not write with a goose-quill winged with two feathers” and continues to insult faster writers by implying their work will “only be read for three days, whereas mine shall continue three ages”.

His warmest words are reserved for his fellow-writers, some of whom had been his collaborators: “the full and heightened style of Mr Chapman, the laboured and understanding works of Mr Jonson, the …worthily excellent Mr Beaumont and Mr Fletcher and…the right happy and copious industry of Mr Shakespeare, Mr Dekker and Mr Heywood”.

John Webster from the film Shakespeare in Love

Around 15 years younger than Shakespeare, Webster must have been familiar with Shakespeare’s plays, and the two men probably knew each other. Their meeting shown in the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love is pure fiction, but the image of the young Webster tormenting a mouse by dangling it in front of a cat is inspired. He tells Shakespeare “When I write plays they will be like Titus [Andronicus]…I liked it when they cut heads off….Plenty of blood. That’s the only writing”. Fortunately for all of us Shakespeare did not agree, but Webster shouldn’t be dismissed as being interested in only mindless violence.  He was a powerful writer of striking poetry and prose, a unique voice that reflected the turbulent times in which he lived.

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Taking Shakespeare to the great outdoors, 2019


The stage for Shakespeare in Yosemite

Around the UK optimistic announcements are being made for a season of outdoor Shakespeare. Typically, the weather forecast for the beginning of June indicates some unsettled conditions, but fingers crossed for  another fine summer.  The Dell, the RSC’s garden space in Stratford-upon-Avon, hosts its first Shakespeare production on Saturday 1 June with a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and continue each weekend until 1 September.

Over the last few decades outdoor theatre has increased in popularity and the What’s on Stage site now lists a wide range of open air plays including the place where I saw my first outdoor production, Regent’s Park in London and what must be the most spectacular UK venue, the Minack Theatre in Cornwall, perched high on cliffs overlooking the sea. The most ambitious production on offer sounds to be a street theatre adaptation of Melville’s epic whaling novel, Moby Dick to be staged in London.

Back to Shakespeare, a quick internet search reveals productions all round the country. Both Cambridge and Oxford hold their own Shakespeare Festivals, and pop-up Shakespearean theatres will also be seen this summer at York and Blenheim.  While there will be some Shakespeare at the Edinburgh Festival, Glasgow is not to be outdone with stagings at the City’s Botanical Gardens in the City. Now in its 18th year, this is Scotland’s only annual outdoor Shakespeare Festival. Let’s hope for all their sakes that the summer turns out to be dry.

The USA, with more reliable weather, has developed a huge number of outdoor Shakespeare Festivals. Speaking recently to the Shakespeare Club in Stratford Dr Paul Prescott revealed that there are no fewer than 308 of them in North America. In 2014 he was part of the team who toured 14 of these for the Shakespeare on the Road project. The project sought answers to a number of questions such as why we feel the need to fill beautiful empty spaces with Shakespeare, and why, in North America, Shakespeare is so often produced in preference to playwrights like Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams.

As You Like It, Shakespeare in Yosemite 2019

Since then Dr Prescott has been directly involved in the development of a new Shakespeare festival,  Shakespeare in Yosemite, in which for just a few days a single Shakespeare play is performed in the magnificent surroundings of the Yosemite valley in California.  It’s a project in which concern for the environment comes first – the balance of nature is constantly threatened by the presence of visitors – but they have come up with a number of principles designed to draw attention to the valley’s delicate state while also keeping damage to a minimum. So costumes are, as far as possible, recycled or recyclable, performers come from a wide range of backgrounds including Park staff, and there are only a few performances. 2019 is their third year. They began with an hour-long programme that related the park’s first champion, John Muir, to Shakespeare, and followed with A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It.  Rather than trying to transport a bit of Olde England to this spot the productions relocate to Yosemite itself, replacing English placenames with local ones and giving the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream the names of local flowers instead of Shakespeare’s Peaseblossom and Mustardseed. Unlike most outdoor Shakespeare, too, the productions are staged in April taking advantage of a number of special anniversaries: Shakespeare’s birthday, John Muir’s birthday, Earth Day and Arbor Day. The 2020 production will be Love’s Labour’s Lost.

Created as it has been by academics this unique project could feel serious, even worthy, but it’s obvious from the clips on the website that the productions are designed to be above all celebratory, enriching the experience of visiting this beautiful place which Shakespeare would certainly have treasured.

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Happy 80th birthday, Sir Ian McKellen!

25 May 2019, the 80th birthday of Ian McKellen! I was recently lucky enough to catch his one-man show Ian McKellen on Stage at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry. He’s performing this show up and down the country for most of the year, a feat that would exhaust a much younger person. In Coventry he had originally expected to perform twice, on the evenings of Friday and Saturday, but decided to fit in a matinee on the Saturday as well. That was the performance I attended, and he appeared to be thoroughly enjoying the experience. At the end of each performance he asks the audience to donate to a local charity as they leave, and grabs a bucket himself. As we left he was surrounded by a crowd of audience members who, as well as putting money in the bucket, were queueing up for selfies or autographs. I couldn’t help thinking that with just a couple of hours before he had to start again most people, let alone 79-year-olds, would be glad of a nice rest.

That’s never been his way though. He’s always been a hard worker. As well as acting on stage, film and TV, for many years he had another one man show, Acting Shakespeare, which he performed on and off from 1977 to 1990. I saw this one too, in London in 1987. Like the current show, he asked for a bit of audience participation, throwing out the names of Shakespeare adaptations and asking us which Shakespeare play they were derived from. Everybody knew West Side Story, but The Boys from Syracuse was a bit trickier. The main part of the performance, though, were the scenes from Shakespeare. Not just the big monlogues, he also included the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet (rather unconvincing as Juliet I thought) and one of the scenes between Hal and Falstaff in Henry IV part one, which was mesmerising.

Now he has a much wider audience, who know him from a whole series of TV and film roles of which Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings is the best known, and lengthily acknowledged at the start of the show. So completely does he hold the audience in his hands that he’s able to close the first half with The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo by the great but hardly mainstream Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Willard White as Othello, Ian McKellen as Iago, RSC 1989

After the interval, it’s Shakespeare all the way. I’ve seen him perform quite a few Shakespeare roles on stage: Romeo, Macbeth, Coriolanus, King Lear, and Richard III on film, but the very best, for me, was his Iago at the old tin hut The Other Place, in 1989, with Willard White as Othello. The audience were so close in that space that they could see everything, and McKellen gave an astonishingly controlled performance, every flick of the eyes intended to be seen and interpreted by those watching.

Ian McKellen has long been known for campaigning, and during the show he mentions his work as a gay rights activist. He finishes this show with a different kind of political statement, the speech from Sir Thomas More which Shakespeare wrote and which exists, probably in Shakespeare’s own hand, in the British Library. It’s a plea for humanity when dealing with refugees. It’s a speech he’s become associated with: here’s a clip from a performance a few years ago.

For me, Ian McKellen was a magician long before he became Gandalf, and I would love to see this show again. The tour goes on until September and although most performances are sold out there’s always a chance. If you already have tickets, you’re in for a treat. If you haven’t, it’ll be worth the effort to get some. Here is Michael Billington’s review, and this article includes interviews with some of the actors he’s worked with. This current tour certainly doesn’t have the feel of a farewell, and I’m sure we’ll be hearing more from the great Ian McKellen in years to come. He’s performing on his birthday in Bolton, Lancashire, where his obsession with theatre began. It’s sure to be a special evening, so happy 80th birthday, Sir Ian!

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Shakespeare and National Walking Month

It’s still National Walking Month, when everyone is encouraged to get out and increase the amount of walking they do. We don’t all have lovely countryside to walk around so inevitably some of our walks are a bit mundane. Over the last few months I’ve been working with an organisation called World Walking that encourages people, especially in groups, to make their regular walks more interesting by giving them challenges. It’s organised by Duncan Galbraith. The World Walking website includes a collection of virtual walks to and around a variety of locations, some fairly ordinary, some very exotic. Individuals and groups feed in the amount of walking they’ve done and they can see how far they have gone on their virtual walk, passing points of interest on the way. In fact I’m told that Duncan’s local walking group, the Inverclyde Globetrotters have, just this week, completed a virtual walk to the moon!

Duncan contacted me last year and asked me if I’d like to create a Shakespeare walk for the site, and it went live earlier this year. It’s one of the shortest as it begins from Mary Arden’s Farm in Wilmcote, passes Anne Hathaway’s Cottage and then walks around Stratford-upon-Avon visiting places Shakespeare would have known.

Shakespeare’s characters often wish they were somewhere else and try to think themselves there. Left in Egypt, Cleopatra wonders where Antony is and what he’s doing, and Richard II tries to think himself out of prison.

Shakespeare also mentions the idea of taking journeys in your mind. In sonnet 27 he talks about how, even after a tiring journey, the mind keeps on working on its own:

Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed,
The dear repose for limbs with travel tired;
But then begins a journey in my head,
To work my mind, when body’s work’s expired:
For then my thoughts, from far where I abide,
Intend a zealous pilgrimage to thee,
And keep my drooping eyelids open wide,
Looking on darkness which the blind do see
Save that my soul’s imaginary sight
Presents thy shadow to my sightless view,
Which, like a jewel hung in ghastly night,
Makes black night beauteous and her old face new.
Lo! thus, by day my limbs, by night my mind,
For thee and for myself no quiet find.

Imagination is powerful, but it can’t really substitute for experience. Also in Richard II, Bolingbroke, facing banishment, recognises that the imagination can’t prevent us from being where we are.

O, who can hold a fire in his hand
By thinking on the frosty Caucasus?
Or cloy the hungry edge of appetite
By bare imagination of a feast?
Or wallow naked in December snow
By thinking on fantastic summer’s heat?

And in As You Like It Orlando voices his frustration after thinking he hs been wooing a boy instead of his love Rosalind, “I can live no longer by thinking”.

Of course, most of the walks on the site, unlike the walk to the moon, could actually be done as walks and this is certainly the case with my Shakespeare walk. In fact it’s short enough to do in a day, either virtually by walking round your own local park, or in reality. I hope that for National Walking Month you’ll have a go.

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