The Old Vic at 200

The Old Vic, London

11 May 2018 is the 200th anniversary of the opening of one of the most important theatres in the UK, known as the Old Vic. It was originally named the Royal Coburg Theatre, after Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg and his wife Princess Charlotte of Wales, who laid the foundation stone.

Situated on the then-unfashionable south side of the Thames, the theatre was always an alternative to the famous London theatres Drury Lane and Covent Garden. Its broad audience was attracted by a repertoire of  mostly melodrama and pantomime. The theatre’s connection with Shakespeare, though, goes back to these early days. In 1831 the great, if unconventional actor Edmund Kean performed Richard III, Othello, Macbeth and King Lear there. Kean had performed on tour all round the UK, but he lost patience with the theatre’s audience, proclaiming:  ‘In my life I have never acted to such a set of ignorant, unmitigated brutes as I have before me’.

The interior of the Royal Coburg Theatre

Shortly afterwards the theatre was renamed the Royal Victoria after the then Princess, later Queen Victoria. It remained though a theatre for the common people, and after attempts to turn it into a music hall , in 1880 social reformer Emma Cons made the Old Vic respectable by renaming it the Royal Victoria Hall and Coffee Tavern, a ‘cheap and decent place of amusement on strict temperance lines’. The word theatre, with its disreputable associations, was dropped though plays were occasionally performed.

In 1898 Emma Cons appointed her young niece Lilian Baylis to run the building and on the death of her aunt Baylis acquired a theatrical licence. While Emma Cons had thought most theatre was incompatible with temperance, Lilian Baylis embraced Shakespeare’s plays as being instructive and a good influence on the behaviour of audiences. The Old Vic Shakespeare Company was formed under director Ben Greet, and their first big project was to perform all the plays in Shakespeare’s First Folio over 7 years. This had never been done before and it resulted in the Old Vic becoming the London home of Shakespeare’s plays. The theatre created its own stars, particularly Edith Evans, Sybil Thorndike, Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Michael Redgrave and the young John Gielgud who went on to lead the Company.  

The Old Vic in 1931

Lilian Baylis died in 1937 during rehearsals of Laurence Olivier’s Macbeth. Two years later the second world war broke out and in 1940 the theatre was damaged by bombing. Undaunted, the Company went on tour until 1944 when it was felt that it should establish itself in London again at the New Theatre. It was not until 1950 that the Old Vic reopened with a production of Twelfth Night and from 1953 to 1958 director Michael Benthall oversaw another complete cycle of Shakespeare’s plays beginning with Richard Burton playing the title role in Hamlet. Rising star Burton had turned down a Hollywood film contract in favour of performing at the Old Vic. Later in the cycle a very young Judi Dench made her Shakespearean debut. The connection between Shakespeare and the Old Vic was once again established, particularly for young audiences, creating in many of them an enthusiasm for Shakespeare that lasted a lifetime.

In 1946 as the country came out of war the Joint Council of The Old Vic and National Theatre was established, reviving the idea of a National Theatre. When Laurence Olivier was appointed the National Theatre’s first director in 1962 the Old Vic became its temporary home until the South Bank theatre was completed. During this decade or so young actors like Albert Finney, Maggie Smith and Peter O’Toole built up their reputations.

The Old Vic’s fortunes have been more mixed since then but there have always been  Shakespeare productions: in the late 1970s Derek Jacobi performed his Hamlet there with the Prospect Theatre Company. On the Wikipedia page about the theatre you will find on the right hand side a link to a podcast of Jacobi talking about the theatre. In 2000 the Old Vic Theatre Trust was formed and since then there has been much exceptional Shakespeare work including Kevin Spacey’s Richard III, Simon Russell Beale in The Winter’s Tale, Imogen Stubbs and Ben Whishaw in Hamlet and Glenda Jackson as King Lear. The theatre retains its royal connections and focus on young people, in 2017 Prince Charles becoming a patron and creating a partnership with the Prince’s Trust.

Old Vic at 200

There’ll be no Shakespeare in the birthday season, but current Artistic Director Matthew Warchus says “To honour The Old Vic’s 200th birthday we are celebrating it partly as a treasured historic icon but mostly as an adventurous, youthful, hub of creativity with a vibrant future ahead of it… The Old Vic will… continue to mix pertinent revivals and refreshed classics…, but for this birthday year we are allowing ourselves to focus on new work. 

Over the weekend events will include, at noon on Saturday, a procession complete with marching band from the National Theatre to the Old Vic, which will include some Shakespeare as an acknowledgement of the part he has played in the history of this great theatre.

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Shakespeare’s spring


One of the greatest pleasures of spring in England is watching life returning over weeks or even months, beginning in gardens and parks with the blooming of snowdrops, moving on to daffodils, apple blossom and bluebells, to the mighty trees, the oak being one of the last to unfold its leaves. Not so this year, 2018, when after a particularly long, cold and wet winter everything is happening in a rush. Some years daffodils are long gone before Shakespeare’s birthday but this year they were at their peak, and now even the oaks are coming into leaf.

We can’t know a lot about Shakespeare’s preferences in many matters, but we can be sure that he was very interested in plants and gardens, his plays showing a familiarity that he didn’t get just from books. He was a close observer of weather, and of the seasons as they changed. Spring was his favourite time of year, associated by him with the human emotions of love and joy.

In As You Like It, Rosalind makes the connection “Men are April when they woo, December when they wed: maids are May when they are maids, but the sky changes when they are wives”.  And in Much Ado About Nothing Benedick compares Beatrice with Hero: she “exceeds her as much in beauty/ As the first of May doth the last of December”.

Radio 4’s Today programme on Thurs 3 May came, as it happens, from Kew Gardens and I caught the last section where it was asserted that the herb rosemary has been scientifically proved to help those with memory loss and is sometimes taken into care homes for the elderly. This would be no surprise to anyone of Shakespeare’s period. Herbals not only describe plants but include sections in which their medicinal uses are explained. The Friar in Romeo and Juliet is first seen gathering medicinal herbs and Ophelia’s reminder that rosemary is for remembrance can now be seen as more than just symbolic.

Leaves unfurling against a blue sky

Shakespeare takes the comparison further, comparing the husbandry of a gardener to the failures of King Richard II that led to his deposition.

We at time of year
Do wound the bark, the skin of our fruit-trees,
Lest, being over-proud in sap and blood,
With too much riches it confound itself:
Had he done so to great and growing men,
They might have lived to bear and he to taste
Their fruits of duty: superfluous branches
We lop away, that bearing boughs may live:
Had he done so, himself had borne the crown,
Which waste of idle hours hath quite thrown down.

It’s appropriate that the next meeting of Stratford’s Shakespeare Club, on Tuesday 8 May, will be a talk by Glyn Jones, the Head of Gardens for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. His role is to help visitors “gain a greater understanding of Shakespeare’s life and works through both period and contemporary horticulture”, and he will be explaining what is planned for the five gardens associated with Shakespeare’s life.

A peaceful place for contemplation

The gardens surrounding the Shakespeare houses could be designed in many different ways. They could be made into settings in which the houses look beautiful, perhaps in the style of the quintessentially English cottage garden. They could be “authentic”, growing only plants that were known to Shakespeare, using methods practiced at the time and favouring wildlife. They could even bring to life a landscape from one of the plays, such as Olivia’s garden in Twelfth Night or the forest in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Or they could be places in which contemplation and calm enjoyment are encouraged. The Radio 4 Today programme again noted that gardens and outdoor spaces are now being valued as therapeutic in their own right. Shakespeare would certainly have recognised the idea. At the end of the late play Henry VIII he conjures up a rosy vision of life under Elizabeth 1 using the image of a garden:

In her days every man shall eat in safety,
Under his own vine, what he plants; and sing
The merry songs of peace to all his neighbours.

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Roger Howells remembered

Roger Howells

Monday 23 April 2018 was the 402nd anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. By coincidence it was also the day that a very special man, a great Shakespearean and man of the theatre, Roger Howells, died at the age of 88.

Most people won’t recognise his name or face because Roger was a man who worked behind the scenes. He began his career at the Royal Shakespeare Company working backstage as a Stage Manager in 1962, progressing to be one of the RSC’s most important members of staff as Production Manager at the RST and the Swan Theatre. When he retired in 1994 he had worked for the company for over 30 years, during which time he had helped to establish the RSC’s high standards of production, thereby contributing to both the RSC’s international reputation and the enjoyment of thousands upon thousands of theatregoers.

After taking a short break, in retirement Roger was ready for something else and he was invited to volunteer to work with the RSC’s production archives kept at the Shakespeare Centre Library in Henley Street. These were my main area of responsibility so Roger and I worked together. His first job was to process thousands of photographs recently cleared out from the RSC Press Office that had been delivered in about 15 large A4 filing boxes. He set about processing the photographs with gusto, filling up several new filing cabinets. His intimate knowledge of the productions meant he could identify details with ease and he showed himself to be happy to  follow our procedures for stamping, labelling and creating envelopes. His work ensures that the photographic records of RSC productions are fully documented for the benefit of future researchers.

Roger then move on to a more complex area of the RSC archives, but one he knew intimately, the Production Records. These miscellaneous documents were rarely if ever consulted, on arrival being ticked off on a checklist then tied into a bundle and stored on shelves. They were obscure: lighting plots, photos of backstage details, lists of props. But there were also gems: rehearsal notes written by stage managers, scripts in different stages of development, and the reports written by the stage manager after each performance giving details of the unusual events that inevitably happen during live shows. Identifying and sorting these items was a perfect job for Roger, and in time a team of volunteers was formed to rehouse and catalogue them. It’s because of Roger’s work that these items have been made accessible for researchers, but what was even more valuable was Roger’s presence as he generously assisted researchers to make sense of them.

His expertise was much in demand with the Shakespeare at Stratford series, published by the Arden Shakespeare in 2002-3. Each volume took one Shakespeare play and examined all the productions of it by the RSC between 1945 and the date of publication. The authors exploited the theatre’s archives in more detail than any others have done before or since, five of the six volumes acknowledging his help, Gillian Day in her Richard III volume noting his “acute recollection of production details”.

Personally, Roger was a delight to work with, cheerful, enthusiastic and endlessly fascinated by Shakespeare and theatre. He was  amused to be occasionally mistaken for Professor Stanley Wells, another grey-haired, bearded elderly gentleman who worked in the Shakespeare Centre. Roger might not have been a public figure, but word of mouth made him well known and readers often requested a special meeting with him, which he always granted. He was genuinely interested in other people’s research projects, his knowledge finding its way into countless essays, papers and books. His contribution to the reputation of the RSC and its productions has been considerable.

After I retired from the Library and Archive we most often met there while I was working as a researcher myself, but I also began to make sound recordings of people’s memories of RSC productions. I recorded Roger twice, and clips from our conversations have featured on several of my blog posts. In this one he talks about Love’s Labour’s Lost, 1973, this one The Tempest from 1951 and 1982, and this one the 1965 Hamlet.

Roger Howells, like Pyramus “a most lovely gentleman-like man”,  will be remembered fondly by the many people who knew him, but there are also many who have benefitted from his expertise and will continue to do so without ever knowing his name.

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Living statues and literary pageants: Shakespeare’s Birthday 2018

Mr Shakespeare ready for the 2018 celebrations

This weekend Shakespeare’s 454th birthday will be celebrated in the town of his birth, as it has been for nearly two centuries. While there are elements of the Birthday that have become traditional, almost every year the organisers add new elements to make the weekend more appealing to visitors and more engaging for locals.

In 2018 the two new features both contain elements linking to either celebrations of the past or to Shakespeare’s plays themselves. The main celebrations will take place on Saturday 21 April and part of it is to be a Literary Carnival Pageant. Local groups have been invited to create walking tableaux based on literary themes. These do not necessarily have to have any connection with Shakespeare so we can expect representations of Peter Pan and Harry Potter as well as works of Shakespeare himself. I’m pleased to see this idea as it echoes the Garrick Jubilee of 1769, the very first celebration of Shakespeare in the town. One of the most-anticipated elements of this three-day celebration was to be a parade of Shakespeare characters. Torrential rain blighted the Jubilee and caused the parade to be abandoned, but we know what was planned because engravings were made in advance. It would be more than fifty years later that the planned parade was put into effect in 1827 as part of the first celebrations organised locally. On April 23 of that year a mixture of professional actors and local people dressed up and, in groups, represented many of Shakespeare’s best-known plays. As is to happen in 2018, the participants walked, identifiable by the props they carried such as Macbeth with the daggers and the gravediggers from Hamlet with their spades. The weird sisters also from Macbeth somehow managed to carry a cauldron with them that they danced around. 

The Mirror, May 1827

A detailed description of the whole thing was described and published, together with an illustration in The Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction. We are told that it took around three hours to follow a winding route around the town and was estimated to have been watched by between thirty-five and forty thousand people. One account noted “its accomplishment was so far effected as to merit the approbation of the thousands of spectators assembled on the occasion”.

The second element of the celebrations that is new to 2018 is the first National Living Statue Championship. Living Statues have been seen around Henley Street in Stratford for several years, but this competition will welcome artists from all over the UK and Europe. The living statues will be on display on Saturday afternoon and Sunday, when they will be judged and the winner announced.

Shakespeare included a living statue of his own in his late play The Winter’s Tale. He took the idea from his favourite writer, the Roman poet Ovid. In the story of Pygmalion, one of his  Metamorphoses, the sculptor Pygmalion created a statue of a woman so beautiful that he fell in love with it. Venus, the goddess of love, took pity on him and brought the statue, Galatea, to life. The story of Pygmalion is one of Ovid’s most compelling tales, that has inspired many visual and dramatic artists. Although Shakespeare doesn’t refer to the rest of the story, it’s clear that the tale of a cold, dead statue being brought to warm and breathing life made a great impact on Shakespeare. For much of The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare sticks quite closely to his main source, the story Pandosto but he completely changes the ending in order to close the play with this miraculous scene.

Kelly Hunter as Hermione in the RSC production of The Winter’s Tale

Queen Hermione has been thought to be dead for sixteen years, but when her long-lost daughter is found, Paulina, who has preserved her secretly, invites the king, the daughter Perdita, and courtiers, to view the statue. The audience does not know what is about to happen. Paulina prepares the king:

                     If you can behold it,
I’ll make the statue move indeed; descend,
And take you by the hand.

She instructs Hermione, “‘Tis time; descend; be stone no more; approach”. Courtiers then describe how Hermione embraces her husband, hanging about his neck.

It’s an unforgettable moment. The story of Pygmalion had though been in Shakespeare’s mind before. In his narrative poem Venus and Adonis, the goddess of love, Venus pursues the beautiful but cold Adonis. Like Pygmalion, Venus touches, caresses and kisses the object of her love, but unlike Galatea, Adonis does not respond. He’s described as a “lifeless picture, cold and senseless stone,/ Well-painted idol, image dull and dead,/ Statue contenting but the eye alone.”

I have high hopes that among the living statues will be Queen Hermione, Shakespeare’s own living statue.  However you celebrate it, enjoy Shakespeare’s birthday!

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Shakespeare and the actors

Andrew Scott as Hamlet, Almeida 2017

The annual Olivier Awards ceremony took place on 8 April 2018, and this year, sadly, there were no awards for any Shakespeare productions. Even more unusually, there were only three nominations, all for Robert Icke’s production of Hamlet at the Almeida: Andrew Scott for Hamlet, Tom Gibbons for Sound Design and the whole production for Best Revival.

When it opened at the Almeida the production received outstanding reviews and transferred to the much larger Harold Pinter Theatre. The production so successful it was recorded and screened over the Easter weekend. If you’d like to catch up with this production it will be available on BBC IPlayer until 30 April, and in case the whole thing is too much there’s also a clip of Andrew Scott performing “To be or not to be”.

Scott’s performance, and the production as a whole, could not avoid comparison with that of Benedict Cumberbatch as both are stars of the BBC’s Sherlock. When Cumberbatch performed Hamlet at the Barbican Theatre in 2015 tickets were snapped up almost immediately and on its live cinema relay it was said to have been seen by 750,000 worldwide. The production hit a number of problems not least the overwhelming audience reaction that led to Cumberbatch having to plead with them not to record the show on their phones. There was also a feeling that it was a “five-star Hamlet trapped in a three star show”. Icke wisely avoided this possibility by engaging a top-notch cast.  Some of the reviewers, perhaps expecting Hamlet to be a star vehicle, were surprised to find that the play is much improved by being performed by a uniformly strong company. There are links to some of the reviews here, here and here.

Maybe Andrew Scott didn’t get the Olivier award because he’s just not an attention-grabbing actor. There is certainly no drop in interest in Shakespeare and the actors who bring his words to life. In fact at the moment there is a great deal of focus on individual actors who are sharing their thoughts about performing his major roles.

Julius Caesar and Me, by Paterson Joseph

Back in 2012 the RSC staged a production of Julius Caesar with an all-black cast. The experience greatly affected Paterson Joseph who played Brutus, as he has now published a book in which he writes about of rehearsing and performing the role. He’s also thought deeply about the play and its wider importance in the world today. The book is entitled Julius Caesar and Me: Exploring Shakespeare’s African Play. This post from the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Shakespeare and Beyond blog contains an extract from the book in which he discusses the translations of Shakespeare made by Julius Nyerere, the leader of Tanzania. And here’s a link to a TV interview with Paterson Joseph in which he talks about playing the part.

Also just published, by Nick Hern Books, is Antony Sher’s book Year of the Mad King. For King Lear, as for his other major Shakespeare roles, Sher has kept an account of his preparations, the rehearsals and the performances, illustrating it with his own drawings. Nick Hern Books have published a post based on the book.The original production was in 2016, but it is currently being revived and this RSC production is now playing at BAM in New York until 29 April.

Nick Hern Books have put up a post including material from the book here, and the Folger Shakespeare Library have again posted a blog in their series Shakespeare and Beyond of an interview with him by Barbara Bogaev. Shakespeare and Beyond, incidentally, is an excellent series and well worth following.

Niamh Cusack as Lady Macbeth, RSC 2018. Photo by Richard Davenport, copyright RSC

Another leading actor in a major Shakespeare role who’s been talking about her experiences is Niamh Cusack, 2018’s Lady Macbeth for the RSC. From 9-13 April Radio 3 Essential Classics included interviews with her, talking about her varied career in music, theatre and TV including her current work. They’re not easy to find but the interviews are available on BBC Iplayer until the end of April.

Finally, In McKellen is taking part in a live event broadcast to cinemas nationwide on Sunday 27 May, his own birthday weekend. Entitled Ian McKellen: Playing the Part it will be hosted by Graham Norton. It’s not quite clear what the live element of this will be, but the website tells us:

Built around a 14 hour interview, Playing the Part uncovers McKellen’s story. From his upbringing living through the war, working through repertory and West End theatre becoming a pioneering stage star, coming out and being a leader in the campaign for equality, to his mainstream film breakouts as Magneto and Gandalf. His work and influence transcends generations, celebrated here in this fully authorised insight.

McKellen: Playing the Part features unprecedented access to private photo albums, a wealth of never-before-seen archive material, including diaries written when he was 12, and unseen behind the scenes of theatre shows and films, alongside his personal thoughts on a life long lived.

The summary doesn’t mention his Shakespeare work but it’s been such a central part of his career that McKellen it is sure to figure. Shakespeare may not have won any awards this year but he’s still an integral part of the lives of many of our best actors.

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Sir Walter Raleigh’s 400th anniversary

Sir Walter Raleigh, National Portrait Gallery

2018 marks 400 years since the death by execution of one of the most remarkable men of Shakespeare’s period, Sir Walter Raleigh. Raleigh is popularly known for bringing back the first potatoes from Virginia, for popularising tobacco, and for placing his cloak over a puddle about to be trodden in by Queen Elizabeth. However there was much more to him. He was a soldier, explorer, courtier, royal favourite, poet and writer of distinction.

He retained his connections with the West Country all his life. He was born at Hayes Barton, a farmhouse near East Budleigh in Devon, probably in 1554. The house is almost unchanged since the Elizabethan period, standing about a mile out of the village along a narrow country road. Locals are proud of it: the house is not open to the public but there’s a decorative sign outside. In the village itself is the house where he was educated and the parish church contains several ancient carved pew ends including one of the family’s coat of arms and another depicting a sailing ship. This now-tranquil village was in Raleigh’s time a busy trading place, the River Otter still being navigable. He is commemorated by a statue in the village and the sign for the Sir Walter Raleigh pub shows the “cloak moment”.

Hayes Barton, the birthplace of Sir Walter Raleigh

An ambitious, energetic man like Raleigh had to leave East Budleigh. He seems to have spent his early years fighting in the Low Countries, at Oxford University and suppressing rebellions in Ireland. The Queen rewarded him with a knighthood and granted him a royal patent to explore Virginia, paving the way for future English colonisation. He must have shown extraordinary confidence and charisma, and as well as being a man of action he also wrote poetry. Later he still felt “fidelity towards Her whom I must still honour in the dust”. In the illustration of Elizabeth 1’s funeral procession in April 1603, Raleigh is shown as the Captain of the Guard, leading the Guardsmen.

The funeral procession of Queen Elizabeth, British Library

When James 1 arrived to succeed her, Raleigh, known for his closeness to Elizabeth, was almost immediately accused of plotting against James 1. He was sentenced to death and sent to the Tower of London, though the sentence was later reduced to life imprisonment.

While in the Tower Raleigh took on an ambitious new project, writing The History of the World. It was to be dedicated to King James’s son Prince Henry but the Prince’s death in 1612 brought this plan to an end with only the first of three planned volumes written. It only goes as far as the classical period, but it shows Raleigh’s contemplative, studious side. The writing took around 9 years and contains about a million words, actually more than Shakespeare wrote. After its publication in 1614, James tried to suppress it but Raleigh’s reputation ensured its popularity, especially after his death. This article proclaims the book to be one of the best 100 non-fiction works in English and notes the many reflective and beautifully-expressed passages in it. Here are Raleigh’s thoughts on mortality: “For this tide of man’s life, after it once turneth and declineth, ever runneth with a perpetuall ebbe and falling streame, but never floweth againe: our leafe once fallen, springeth no more, neither doth the Sunne or the Summer adorne us againe, with garments of new leaves and flowers.”

Raleigh remained in the Tower until 1614 when James sent him on a mission to find the mythical El Dorado. Inevitably he failed and Raleigh came into conflict with the Spanish. James needed no further excuse to reinstate the death sentence on Raleigh that was carried out on 29 October 1618, a poor reward for years of devotion to the crown and a distinguished career. This poem, Nature, that washed her hands in milk, reflects on death and the loss of reputation.
Oh, cruel time! which takes in trust
Our youth, our joys, and all we have,
And pays us but with age and dust;
Who in the dark and silent grave
When we have wandered all our ways
Shuts up the story of our days.

Raleigh’s niche on the nineteenth century orangery at Bicton Park, the historic home of the Rolle family near East Budleigh, is inscribed:
A soldier, statesman,
Navigator and historian.
He fell by the arts of those enemies whom his arms had subdued.

The statue of Walter Raleigh in East Budleigh

During 2018 the main celebration in East Devon will be an exhibition devoted to Raleigh at the Fairlynch Museum in Budleigh Salterton. The star attraction will be Sir John Everett Millais’s painting The Boyhood of Raleigh loaned by Tate Britain. This became one of the most famous paintings of the 19th century after it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1871. It shows the young Raleigh with his half-brother Humphrey Gilbert listening intently to a sailor’s exciting stories of his adventures. The painting is set on Budleigh Salterton’s pebble beach, opposite which Millais was living. Also on show will be armour, weapons and domestic items on loan from Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum and private collections. One of the most treasured items will be a pair of embroidered kid gloves associated with Raleigh. The exhibition will be on from 28 May to 31 August 2018.

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Remembering Vivien Leigh on World Bipolar Day

Vivien Leigh as Lady Macbeth, Laurence Olivier as Macbeth, SMT 1955. RSC/Angus McBean

In 1955, sixty-three years ago, Stratford-upon-Avon experienced its most glamorous season of Shakespeare. Laurence Olivier and his wife Vivien Leigh, the golden couple of stage and screen, performed in three plays at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre: Twelfth Night (Malvolio and Viola), Macbeth (Macbeth and Lady Macbeth) and Titus Andronicus (Titus and Lavinia). 500,000 applications were received for the 80,000 tickets available for the whole season before the box office had even opened. Audiences were thrilled, but behind the scenes, the couple’s troubled marriage was finally breaking down.

One of the major factors was the long-standing mental illness that had afflicted Vivien Leigh for well over ten years, perhaps much longer. She suffered from what is now known as bipolar disorder, then little understood. The only treatment for her dreadful attacks was electroconvulsive therapy, which Leigh endured several times with little success.

She was a fine actor winning Academy Awards for playing Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind and Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire, the second of these while already ill. But Leigh longed to be recognised as a classical actor in her own right even though she knew she could never compete with her husband, the most brilliant actor of the day. The couple had acted together before but the season at Stratford was particularly risky. The schedule was long and gruelling, and she would be compared directly with Olivier.

Why on earth did she do it? It’s hard to imagine now that the professionals who had treated her were not able to dissuade her, but symptoms of bipolar disorder include increased energy, an unrealistic belief in one’s abilities and denial that anything is wrong.

The season would have been difficult for anyone. It started with the gentle comedy Twelfth Night though there were arguments between the play’s director, John Gielgud, and Olivier. The reviews were not particularly favourable and paid more attention to Olivier than Leigh. Then came Macbeth. This was the most widely-anticipated play, the chance to see a charismatic married couple playing Shakespeare’s tragic Macbeths. Anthony Quayle, the Director of the Stratford Festival, found Leigh “was feeding her own mania into the tragedy…. She was mesmerizing”. But Kenneth Tynan’s review was deliberately cruel towards her. While “Sir Laurence shook hands with greatness… Vivien Leigh’s Lady Macbeth is more niminy-piminy than thundery-blundery, more viper than anaconda, but still quite competent in its small way”. According to Alexander Walker’s book Vivien, Tynan later admitted “In retrospect, the combination of Olivier and Vivien, with its emphasis on the way Macbeth is held in sexual thrall by his lady and so will do anything to please her, made more sense of the play than any other reading he had seen”. (p221)

Playing Lady Macbeth’s descent into madness must have been traumatic for Vivien. And Olivier had to play the scene with the doctor in which Shakespeare shows a real understanding of mental illness:

Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuffed bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?

To his credit, Olivier had spent many years struggling with Leigh’s bouts of illness: “At these moments, Vivien turned into a stranger, whom he was seemingly incapable of helping”.

Vivien Leigh as Lavinia, Titus Andronicus, SMT 1955. RSC/Angus McBean

One section of Anthony Holden’s book Olivier makes particularly hard reading. Actor and writer Noel Coward had been a close friend for many years, but in his opinion Olivier had “hideously spoiled” Leigh and “the seat of all this misery is our old friend, feminine ego”. His verdict was “If Larry had turned sharply on Vivien years ago and given her a good clip in the chops, he would have been spared a mint of trouble”. As Holden notes, “This intemperate verdict chillingly reveals how little Vivien’s mental illness was understood at the time, even by the most sympathetic of friends and sophisticated of society”. (p299-300)

The final straw in 1955 was Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s bloodiest play. Leigh was to play Lavinia, raped, mutilated and finally killed by her own father. “Vivien had…scarlet ribbons fluttering from her lips imaginatively suggesting the terrible butchery involved. Yet under Peter Brook’s direction, she mimed her distress most movingly and, advancing on Olivier…with her amputated arm stumps… she resembled a maimed and mute Cordelia.” (Walker, p 222)

By the end of the season Leigh was seriously ill. Typically, she blamed herself for her lukewarm reviews, saying she should have taken more risks with the roles. It would be some years later, after an international tour of Titus Andronicus in 1957, that they admitted their marriage was over. Vivien Leigh continued to act successfully for the next few years. It’s a pity that her strength of character, determination and talent are so little remembered amongst the more sensational aspects of her life. Her personal archive, including letters, photographs and diaries, is now publicly available at the Victoria and Albert Museum so her voice may be better heard. There’s a post here that includes a link to the catalogue. She died in 1967 aged only 53.

It’s hard to imagine now that even relatively recently so little medical help or understanding was available to one so famous. Mental illness in general, and bipolar disorder in particular, now carries much less stigma and public figures are able to admit they are sufferers. There is though still much to do and 30 March is now designated World Bipolar Day with the aim of raising awareness of bipolar disorders and improving sensitivity towards the illness.

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Fireworks for Queen Elizabeth

Zoe Laughlin and Lucy Worsley in Fireworks for a Tudor Queen

One of the most famous legends of Shakespeare’s life is the story that Shakespeare might have attended some of the celebrations that accompanied Queen Elizabeth 1’s visit to Kenilworth Castle in 1575. It would have been easy for the 11-year old William and his father John to have made their way to Kenilworth on horseback from Stratford-upon-Avon. Royal visits were rare, so many local people must have flocked to see the monarch and the spectacular entertainments that Robert Dudley put on to impress her. It is suggested the three-week visit cost him the equivalent of £24 million.

Early on, there was a magnificent firework display. We assume that people of the time would be easier to impress than we are today, but how spectacular were these early fireworks? A recent TV programme has tried to answer the question using a blend of historical research and experimentation. Fireworks for a Tudor Queen is another of Lucy Worsley’s re-creation programmes but it wasn’t just an opportunity for her to dress up (though she does appear as Queen Elizabeth). What made the programme compelling were the efforts to make Elizabethan fireworks, led by scientist and presenter Dr Zoe Laughlin, experts in pyrotechnics and practitioners. She started off making gunpowder, using a variety of ingredients including sulphur, charcoal and human urine, and went on to make implements on a lathe before setting off a number of explosions. It was great TV. We watched the construction of a Girandola, based on a cartwheel, that threw out showers of sparks and a rocket box which could launch dozens of rockets at a time.

Engraving of a dragon, part of a firework display

We were reminded that the art of firework-making had its origins in the violence of war, but there was beauty too in the building of a dragon, one of the most popular types of firework. A willow framework was covered in paper then loaded with fireworks that belched fire from every orifice as it moved along a wire.

Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Kenilworth is known because of the publication of a “letter” written by merchant Robert Laneham. His eyewitness account, frustratingly, doesn’t go into any detail about the fireworks. The display included “blaze of burning darts, flying to & fro, leams of stars Coruscant, streams and hail of fiery sparks, lightnings of wildfire on water and land, flight & shoots of thunderbolts: all with such …terror and vehemence, that the heavens thundered, the waters scourged, the earth shook”. He was certainly impressed: “It would have made me for my part, as hardy as I am, very vengeably afeard”. It was said that the fireworks at Kenilworth could be heard from twenty miles away.

Pyrotechnia by John Babington. One of the copies at the British Library

Without a proper description, Worsley consulted another book, Pyrotechnia, written by a gunner, John Babington in 1635. This British Library blog describes it. The book includes a diagram of an actual firework display, and it was this that they tried to reconstruct. The success of the programme was to show that these displays could indeed be spectacular, combining explosive power and beautiful effects.

Although the possible Shakespeare connection wasn’t mentioned, the role of fireworks on the stage was explained by Dr Farah Karim-Cooper, Head of Courses and Research at Shakespeare’s Globe. It was a kind of firework, the setting off of a cannon onstage in Shakespeare’s play Henry VIII, that resulted in the burning down of the theatre in 1613. It’s always been a risky business.

We won’t ever know if Shakespeare saw the royal fireworks at Kenilworth, but early in his career he shows he was aware of this kind of event. In Love’s Labour’s Lost an outdoor display of fireworks is commanded by a man wanting to impress a royal visitor:
the king would have me
present the princess … with some
delightful ostentation, or show, or pageant, or
antique, or firework.
The story goes that the entertainment of Queen Elizabeth was Dudley’s last attempt to persuade her to marry him. Of course it failed, but probably not because he had failed to impress her with his wonderful display of fireworks.

This entertaining and informative programme remains on IPlayer until 5 April 2018.

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Reviving the great Edmund Kean

Edmund Kean as Shylock

Who wouldn’t wish to have been able to experience the great Edmund Kean performing Shakespeare? He mesmerised his audiences and critic after critic tried to explain how he got his effects. The most famous of all descriptions came from the great poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge: ” Seeing him act was like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning.”.

In the early nineteenth century the stage had been dominated by the great Kemble family, led by the stately and dignified John Philip Kemble. By contrast, Kean was small, dark and intense. In January 1814 he was given the opportunity to play Shylock at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London. It was his big chance and he knew it. He caused a sensation and a couple of months later he took on Hamlet, one of the roles for which Kemble had been most famous, also succeeding in due course as Othello, Iago, Richard III and King Lear.

We might expect that “flashes of lightning” quote to mean that Kean’s performance was unpredictable, with the excitement of finding new insights night after night. But it’s clear from reading descriptions that Kean’s performances were just as worked out, his effects just as calculated, as Kemble’s were. Instead of finding and following a consistent line, though, he chose to save himself for particular scenes. So in Othello he went through the first couple of acts with little effort, putting all his energy into the big scenes in Act 3 where his character was consumed by jealousy.

Edmund Kean as Richard III, painted by Charles Turner in 1814

All actors were known for their “points” within a play in which they created distinctive moments that they owned and that audiences came to expect. His most famous is one we would find strange today, and seems odd given Kean’s reputation during his own lifetime for womanising and drunkenness. His Hamlet, though, behaved more gently in the Closet scene towards Gertrude than the respectable David Garrick had done. At the end of the nunnery scene with Ophelia Austin Brereton describes how “Kean used to return from the very extremity of the stage, take Ophelia’s hand, kiss it with tender rapture, look mournfully upon her, with eyes full of beautiful significance, and then rush off the stage”. It brought the house down every night.  The critic Hazlitt considered it “the finest commentary that was ever made on Shakespeare. It explained the character… as one of disappointed hope, of bitter regret, of affection suspended, and not obliterated, by the distractions of the scene around him”.

Kean’s performance as Othello was full of emotional power, but Arthur Colby Sprague notes that “nothing about it was fortuitous, nothing left unprepared”. When visiting a new theatre he would carefully work out exactly how many steps he needed to take across the stage while performing a piece of business or speaking a word in order to get the greatest audience response.

As well as the moves, his vocal mannerisms were worked out precisely in advance. Actor George Vandenhoff wrote that in speaking, he “ran on the same tones and semitones, had the same rests and breaks, the same forte and piano, the same crescendo and diminuendo, night after night, as if he spoke … from a musical score”.

Perhaps inevitably, Kean died young, collapsing on stage while playing Othello and dying a few weeks later aged only 46, in 1833. His fame had bought him riches, but he died in debt.

Ian Hughes as Edmund Kean

His turbulent life, and the excitement of his acting, have often been dramatized in the centuries since his death. Ian Hughes is the latest actor to take on the challenge of playing this charismatic actor in his one-man play The Dramatic Exploits of Edmund Kean. Over more than ten years Hughes was a versatile RSC regular, his roles including Fortinbras in Hamlet, the Fool in King Lear, Autolycus in The Winter’s Tale, Thersites in Troilus and Cressida and Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Hughes first presented his show during a festival at The Other Place in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2000, and I remember being very impressed by the play and Hughes’ performance. In the intervening years Edmund Kean has obviously remained an obsession for Ian Hughes, and he is now taking the play around the country. He’s already done it at several venues including the Georgian Theatre Royal, Richmond, Yorkshire, where Kean actually performed. Now, at 7pm on Thursday 22 March 2108 Ian Hughes is returning to Stratford-upon-Avon to perform it at the Shakespeare Institute, Church Street, and all are welcome to attend. It promises to be a terrific evening.

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Speaking Shakespeare in 2018

Robert Lister

The speaker at a recent meeting of the Shakespeare Club in Stratford-upon-Avon was actor Robert Lister. Never heard of him? Well Robert wouldn’t be hurt or surprised. He described himself as an “engine room actor” and in his talk, entitled “An Actor’s life for Me”, he explained how, accepting that stardom was unlikely to come his way, he chose to embrace acting as a profession that could lead to a life of interesting jobs, sometimes in exotic locations. His career’s been busy, varying from radio drama to TV voiceovers and understudying stars including Ian Richardson and Michael Gambon. If he ever had a regional accent, he has lost it, having had to adopt a range of voices over the years.

It’s surely always been the way, right back to Shakespeare’s day. The First Folio lists twenty-six “principall actors”. We don’t know how any of them spoke. Did they use their own  accents, or did they adopt some form of Received Pronunciation? In Shakespeare’s plays, the “upper classes” speak in formal language but it’s obvious that he intended some characters to speak in dialect, such as the Welsh captain Fluellen in Henry V whose favourite phrase is “look you”.

In Hamlet’s advice to the players the emphasis is on being natural:

Suit the action to the word, the word to the action; with this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature: for anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature;… O, there be players that I have seen play,…that… have so strutted and bellowed that I have thought some of Nature’s journeymen had made men, and not made them well, they imitated humanity so abominably.

There’s not much help here for any actor thinking about what kind of voice they might employ. I’ve recently been reading Laurence Olivier’s book On Acting, a masterclass from one of the twentieth-century’s greatest. He was famous for his physical transformations: “I like to think that my face has always been an open canvas, ready to be moulded as I wished. It has always been my great joy to surprise an audience.” (p12)

This was always, though, a means to an end: “The actor creates his own universe, then peoples it – a giant puppet master. The trick is to make the audience feel that they are observing reality…To convey the word that has been placed in your mouth to a great number of people you have to exaggerate subtly”. (p11)

As a young actor, he was criticised for his speaking of Shakespeare, so he always tried to find the right voice. With Richard III “Then there was the voice. It came to me: the thin reed of a sanctimonious scholar…It had an edge that I had never used before, a mixture of honey and razor blades”. (p79) For Othello, too “I was sure he had a deeper voice than mine. Bass, a bass part, a sound that should be dark violet – velvet stuff. A careful way of speaking” (p106)

He doesn’t specifically talk about accent, but it’s fair to assume that if he’d felt a regional accent would be right for a character, he would have adopted one.

Christopher Eccleston in rehearsal for Macbeth, 2018

Reading Olivier book, it’s been interesting to hear Christopher Eccleston’s views on playing Shakespeare. Coming from a working class family in Manchester he feels he hasn’t been offered the roles he would have had if he’d been educated differently, and only got the role of Macbeth with the RSC because he approached the Company’s Artistic Director. Specifically, he feels it’s his accent, which he obviously isn’t prepared to change, that has made the difference. In an interview he explained:

“I’m never offered Shakespeare… I was born in 1964 on a council estate. I didn’t go to the right university or the public schools…. You don’t hear many accents like [mine], and it’s discrimination and I loathe it. It’s held me back in terms of the classics because people like me “can’t be classical”.”

There was a time, in the 1960s, when actors with northern accents, like Albert Finney,  were in demand in Shakespeare.  Eccleston isn’t alone in being concerned about how the situation was been reversed in recent years. Back in 1992 Barrie Rutter founded Northern Broadsides, “a company of  Northern actors who perform in their natural voices and have an indisputable command of the language and poetry of classic drama”. His aim was to celebrate “the richness and muscularity of the Northern voice” and break “the southern stranglehold on classical performance”.

Lenny Henry as Othello, Northern Broadsides

The Company’s most high profile success came in 2009 when comedian Lenny Henry played Othello, though interestingly Henry largely abandoned his native accent. Barrie Rutter, during rehearsals, commented  “I would actually like to hear more of Lenny’s native Dudley and Jamaica in his voice than I am hearing”. Running the company has been an uphill struggle and although Rutter is now 70 he’s made it clear that he is now leaving because he is tired of arguing the case for funding with the Arts Council.

If it’s true, it’s a sad reflection on the state of acting at a time when such efforts are being made to be sexually and ethnically inclusive in the arts. Christopher Eccleston’s Macbeth is just about to open: let’s hope it’s successful, and that he makes his point.

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