Happy Birthday William Shakespeare 23 April 2021

Flowers for Shakespeare’s Birthday at Holy Trinity Church 2021

“I would I had some flowers of the spring”

Today, 23 April, is William Shakespeare’s Birthday. I’ve already been down to Holy Trinity Church where he was baptised and buried to leave a little posy of spring flowers from my garden.

In line with health restrictions there is to be no celebration in 2021 but that doesn’t mean there is nothing to join in with.  The Official Celebrations are in the form of a video featuring in which the main organisations, and include Mr Shakespeare at the Birthplace and the laying of wreaths at Holy Trinity Church. Wreaths from this recording are still to be seen on the grass near to Shakespeare’s monument. The video can be watched from 11 am.

Later on today, the Shakespeare Birthday Lecture, organised by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, is being delivered online by Professor Lena Orlin. The subject is “Shakespeare’s Life Portrait in Holy Trinity Church” so could hardly be more appropriate. This will be live at 4pm UK time, and tickets are £5. The Shakespeare Birthday Lecture Tickets, Fri 23 Apr 2021 at 16:00 | Eventbrite

For its April meeting, the Shakespeare Club of Stratford-upon-Avon asked its members to share their memories of the Birthday. This was made available online and now is attached to the news page of the Club’s website. Shakespeare Club of Stratford (stratfordshakespeareclub.org)

The Churchyard at Holy Trinity Church 23/4/2021

For me, as you’ll find if you watch the Club’s video, the taking of flowers to the church has always been the most meaningful part of the Celebrations and I’m delighted to have been able to carry out this simple act today. Most people are not so lucky but one advantage of being locked down is that so many more people can watch the Celebrations. We’re all hoping that the traditional Birthday Celebrations will be back next year.

The RSC’s production of The Winter’s Tale, originally scheduled for 2020, is being shown at 7pm on BBC4 on Sunday, 25 April. While it’s not the same as live performance, there is a bonus in that a much larger audience can access it this play. Good is to be found even in hard times, as Shakespeare indicates in this speech by the banished Duke in As You Like It.

Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile,
Hath not old custom made this life more sweet
Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court?
Here feel we not the penalty of Adam,
The seasons’ difference; as the icy fang
And churlish chiding of the winter’s wind,
Which when it bites and blows upon my body,
Even till I shrink with cold, I smile and say
‘This is no flattery; these are counsellors
That feelingly persuade me what I am.’
Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.

Have a happy day, and from the comfort of your own safe space raise a glass for William Shakespeare’s birthday.

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Remembering the Duke of Edinburgh in Stratford-upon-Avon

Prince Philip leaving Shakespeare’s Birthplace 23 April 1964

Today, 9 April 2021 we’ve all heard the sad news that Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh has died aged 99. He’s been one of the most recognizable figures in public life for as long as any of us can remember.

Much has been made already about his role as the longest-serving royal consort in British history, describing how he was always a step or two behind the Queen, only rarely carrying out public engagements on his own.

But one of those solo visits was made to Stratford-upon-Avon for the biggest celebration of Shakespeare’s life in history, the Quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s birth on 23 April 1964. People in Stratford may well have memories of this day. The Queen was unable to attend, having given birth to Prince Edward only a few weeks before.

 

He brought his characteristic energy to the rather breathless

Prince Philip being presented with Shakespeare Medals by Sir Fordham Flower

schedule. Having landed by helicopter, he took part in most of the festivities as well as carrying out some important official functions. He spent the day visiting the newly-opened Shakespeare Centre and the Birthplace in Henley Street, being the chief guest at the official luncheon, opening the Shakespeare exhibition on Waterside, meeting Peter Hall and Governors of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, and attending a matinee of Henry IV Part 1. Not known as a theatre fan, but well known for his sense of humour, this play that includes Falstaff’s most exuberant comedy was wisely chosen for him.

This was not his first visit, however. He had accompanied the Queen on their first Royal Visit in 1957, and his most recent visit, with the Queen, was for the official reopening of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre after its reconstruction, in March 2011.

He will be greatly missed. “Out, out, brief candle”.

Prince Philip arriving at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, March 2011.

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The end of “churlish winter’s tyranny”: February in Shakespeare’s Stratford

A swan on the Avon by Shakespeare’s church

Not many people are sorry to see the end of February, and with it the end of meteorological winter. If we’re lucky it’s also the end of what Shakespeare called “churlish winter’s tyranny”. In Much Ado About Nothing, Benedick is accused of having “a February face, So full of frost, of storm and cloudiness”. While most of the month may have been like that, the last few days have been bright, warm and sunny.

I actually love this time of year. Those first flowers, after weeks of barren ground, are so much more appreciated than summer flowers. Here in Stratford we have snowdrops, daffodils and crocuses in full bloom. Birds are singing, and on the river, swans are beginning their mating rituals, the males aggressively chasing away their rivals.

Willows by the Avon

It’s the sense of anticipation I really enjoy: buds swelling and beginning to burst, early blossom on bare-twigged bushes, and, down by the Avon, the haze of gold as the willow trees come into leaf. It’s like hearing the orchestra tuning up before a concert, or the hum of conversation subsiding as the lights go down in a theatre before the performance begins. It’s also the uncertainty, as so frequently commented on by Shakespeare. Buds, symbols of purity and hope, are often blighted by canker or cold. So in Henry IV Part 2,

In an early spring
We see th’appearing buds; which to prove fruit
Hope gives not so much warrant, as despair
That frosts will bite them.

The Other Place February 2021

There’s also sadness. During the winter, we can see the intricate shapes of the trees, their bare branches and bark. It’s the only time we’re really aware of the complexity of their structure. Just now, they’re enjoying a rare bit of sunshine that casts shadows showing off the beauty soon to be concealed by leaves.

I’m lucky to be able to enjoy Stratford-upon-Avon all year round, even during lockdown. Most people are not so fortunate, and I know many are missing visiting the town so I’m posting a few photographs taken within the last week. These include a reminder that, with all the theatres and Shakespeare properties closed, the only people accessing The Other Place are those going for a Covid test.  But hopefully not for too much longer.

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Stratford in 2020, and welcome to 2021

James Butler’s statue of Shakespeare, 2020

Few of us will be sorry to leave 2020 behind and to welcome 2021.

Even for those unaffected by the virus, it’s been a dreary year with few opportunities to enjoy the things we’d say make us human: music, dance, drama, and interacting with our friends and family. Shakespeare’s plays are full of love and loss, often ending with reconciliation and meetings of families long parted, from the early Comedy of Errors, through Twelfth Night to the magical rebirths of The Winter’s Tale and Pericles. I’m hoping that when we are able to meet again we experience an explosion of creativity, and never take for granted the arts and those who bring them to us. They have suffered great hardship in the last few months.

Stratford-upon-Avon itself has had a tough time during the pandemic: not so much in terms of the illness itself as our levels of infection have been low, but the economic effects have been severe. Theatres are closed, all the Shakespeare properties have been closed except, for a few months in the summer, the Birthplace, Holy Trinity Church, the Guild Chapel and Shakespeare’s Schoolroom all shut their doors. The town’s many hotels, restaurants, cafes and shops that rely on visitors have been forced to close or reduce their offerings. And allowing pedestrians more space led to some streets being closed to traffic.

But amongst all this, there has been one new Shakespeare attraction in town – and it’s proved perfect for this year, and sited in Henley Street, usually busy with tourists visiting the Birthplace. With the Birthplace closed, it has been great to have something for the tourists who come here, in the shape of a new Shakespeare statue by artist James Butler.

It’s been controversial for several years: it was originally intended to stand at the top of Bridge Street. But siting it at such a busy traffic intersection would have reduced the numbers looking at it. Other suggestions included the rather small patch of ground near the Town Hall, already overlooked by two images of Shakespeare. I wasn’t keen on this statue when it was first proposed,  but within days of it being unveiled, every time I passed people were taking photos of their families standing around the base of the statue with Shakespeare’s Birthplace in the back ground, and I’m happy to admit I was wrong.

The new statue offers a kind of easy familiarity that isn’t possible with most images of Shakespeare to be found in the town. The church bust high on the wall inside the church, the Garrick statue high on the Town Hall wall, the Gower Memorial in which Shakespeare is isolated, high above his characters. At the time when this was unveiled it was surrounded by a fence, and an admission charge was levied for people to get into the gardens where it stood. Times have changed: now we expect our heroes to be accessible.

James Butler’s statue of Shakespeare, 2020

I took these photos of the new statue in early November, before our second period of lockdown began, and when we experienced some beautiful golden autumnal days. We’re now entering Tier 4, with many restrictions in place to help reduce infection levels. We’re all hoping that Stratford’s unwelcoming face is only temporary and by springtime, when many of us will have received our vaccines and travel restrictions are removed, we will be able to welcome visitors back to enjoy its unique atmosphere and attractions.

So here’s to a happier 2021, one in which we hope there will be a lot more Shakespeare, more theatre,  and more opportunities for “merry meetings”.

 

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The Shakespeare Club’s latest President: Sir Stanley Wells

Sir Stanley Wells, current President of Stratford-upon-Avon’s Shakespeare Club

2020 has been remarkable for many reasons. Here in Stratford-upon-Avon the effects of the Covid 19 pandemic has meant that most of the town’s Shakespearian activities have been limited, often to just online events. The Shakespeare Club is one of the town’s least-known institutions, but it is the oldest, and its committee have been making efforts to keep its monthly meetings going.

Back in October I wrote about the first of our virtual meetings, and we are about to launch the third. This meeting will be really special as it takes the form of a recording of a discussion between our current President, Sir Stanley Wells, and his friend and colleague Rev Dr Paul Edmondson, who  answer questions submitted in advance by our members. Inevitably, perhaps, given his long career, Sir Stanley has been the Shakespeare Club’s President before but he is the first to now hold the post three times. I’ve already heard the recording and found it a fascinating view of Shakespeare’s works by the person who, more than anyone alive today, has the deepest insights into them. Sir Stanley wears his immense knowledge lightly and the discussion is warm, approachable and on occasion amusing. I do hope people will take advantage of this opportunity to hear him speak in such a personal way.

While we all regret the temporary loss of the live event, delivering meetings virtually is proving to have some benefits. The Shakespeare Club’s normal meetings are only available to those able to get into Stratford on Tuesday evenings. Now people can listen at a time that suits them. While we would normally charge for our sessions, we are offering these first sessions to anyone who signs up to our free mailing list. Most interestingly, since October people from around the world have joined the list, and we are keen to encourage individuals and Shakespeare Clubs to join our free list. And this is extremely appropriate: in 1824 the Shakespeare Club was set up by locals, for locals, but over the two hundred years since it was formed, it has contributed significantly to the world-wide celebration of Shakespeare with Stratford-upon-Avon as the centre. If, of course, you would like to join the Club you will be more than welcome to do so and full information is on the website http://www.stratfordshakespeareclub.org/.

To be put on the mailing list, email stratfordshakespeareclub@gmail.com and on Tuesday 8 December we’ll send you an email containing the link you need to access the meeting. This will remain live for several days. We look forward to hearing from you and we hope you will enjoy the meeting.

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Stratford in November’s lockdown, 2020

The River Avon and Royal Shakespeare Theatre as the sun sets, November 2020. Photo by Richard Morris

November 2020 is drawing to a close in Stratford-upon-Avon, and although we haven’t yet experienced the cold of winter “when blood is nipped”, we have had enough rain for “ways [to] be foul”, as Shakespeare describes at the end of Love’s Labour’s Lost.

Luckily, during this second period of lockdown to help reduce infection levels, we have rarely had to put up with the days described in Thomas Hood’s poem November:

No sun – no moon!
No morn – no noon –
No dawn – no dusk – no proper time of day.
No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member –
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds! –
November!

In town, takeaways are busy, as are riverside walks as people stroll in careful pairs. Locals were looking forward to fewer limitations on life after 2 December, but a few days ago it was revealed that Stratford-upon-Avon, along with the rest of Warwickshire, was to be placed in Tier 3 of restrictions when lockdown ends, to be reviewed on 16 December.

It’s bad news for all of us, but in particular for the town’s Shakespeare-related attractions. Shakespeare’s Birthplace had been welcoming visitors again since August, and was hoping to re-open again in December, but these plans have now been put on hold.  Although only that one out of the five Shakespeare houses has been able to open this summer, the influx of UK tourists must have helped businesses in a town that depends so much on visitors.

The Royal Shakespeare Theatre has been even more severely hit, with no live shows at all since March. They had been hoping to begin live performances again from 12 December, but these are now being delayed to 19 December assuming that the town will be lifted into Tier 2 and then we move into the lighter restrictions planned for Christmas.

The last nine months has been particularly difficult for theatres, and having to restrict even further their live performances is painful for all. This is an extract from the RSC’s latest press release.

Following the latest government announcement, the RSC will now offer live-stream only versions of all shows taking place between Saturday 5 and Saturday 12 December which will be available for one week after broadcast, with a view to welcoming audiences back to the theatre from Saturday 19 December. Full Covid-19 safety measures will be in place to make sure that up to 200 audience members can see events socially-distanced in a safe atmosphere, with the RSC welcome remaining as strong as ever.

One of the offerings from the RSC, which will it seems go ahead as a live stream no matter what, is Festive Tales, a weekend of music and reflection, on 19 and 20 December. This will feature carols, songs and festive readings celebrating the spirit of Christmas and the Royal Shakespeare Community. We all hope that our theatres, museums and other cultural events will be able to resume soon.

The Christmas lights in Bridge Street, Stratford-upon-Avon. Photo by Andrew Anderson

Both SBT and RSC are still running their online shops for those Shakespeare-related Christmas presents, and both are putting on online events.

And although so many shops are closed, the town is still putting its party hat on with the traditional Christmas lights burning bright after dark, bringing some cheer to the dark evenings. The photo of the lights in Bridge Street was taken recently by another Stratford resident, Andrew Anderson.

Like the Duke’s court, exiled to the forest in As You Like It, we have to remain isolated for a few more weeks, and to make the best of it. Shakespeare knew how important it is to find solace in the natural world in times of hardship.

And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.

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Shakespeare and Black History Month 2020

October is Black History Month, and this year, 2020, the Black Lives Matter movement has raised awareness of issues relating to race in both the UK and USA.  Although it was founded in 2013 Black Lives Matter protests began in earnest after the death in May 2020 of George Floyd at the hands of white police officers.

Race is proving to be a major factor in the build up to the US presidential election in early November, and here in the UK racism is constantly an issue, often linked to social deprivation and poverty. Much attention has focused on our colonial past, particularly slavery: one of the highest-profile events ended with the throwing of a statue of a Bristol slave trader into the river.

David Olusoga

David Olusoga specialises in the long history of the relationships between Britain and the  people of Africa and the Caribbean. His book Black and British: A forgotten history, published in 2016,  traces the evidence that there have been black people in this country back to Roman times, including some quite well documented from the Tudor period. Africans, who probably reached this country via Portugal, worked at the courts of both Henry VIII and Elizabeth 1 and Shakespeare was familiar enough with them to include them in his plays, most obviously Othello. Olusoga writes about the complexities and contradictions within English attitudes and belief. It is, he says, “impossible to get a full sense of how he or his audiences at the Globe regarded the black Africans about whom they had read, or the black people they now encountered in the capital”. He warns against looking at Shakespeare “through the optic of the forms of racism and racial thinking“ that emerged after his time. There was no organised slave trade until later in the seventeenth century and “the word race did not mean to Shakespeare and his contemporaries what it means to us”. The colour black had symbolised evil and the devil since medieval times, just as Queen Elizabeth’s white skin was a symbol of purity, virtue and virginity, rather than race. And in spite of contradictions, what is notable is  ”the depth of Shakespeare’s apparent empathy for Othello even as he destroys that which he loves”.

There is just time to hear David Olusoga at Sheffield University’s Off the Shelf Festival on 29 October. The subject of the discussion is Black History in the age of Black Lives Matter.

Joseph Marcell as King Lear, Shakespeare’s Globe 2013. Photo by Ellie Kurttz

The role of Othello and other black characters such as Aaron in Titus Andronicus, are now normally played by black actors, though for most of their history these roles have been played by white actors “blacking up”. The history of black actors performing Shakespeare is one of the most interesting, and has been made much easier by the work of Dr Jami Rogers for the AHRC project Multi-Cultural Shakespeare at the University of Warwick. She collected and input the data for the British Black and Asian Shakespeare Performance Database  that covers 1288 UK productions from 1930 onwards including black and Asian actors. While the number of actors involved sounds impressive there is still a long way to go and for Black History Month she has published a post on Shakespeare’s Globe site, Pioneers and the Glass Ceiling examining the careers of Rudolph Walker and Joseph Marcell.

Shakespeare’s Globe have also published another blog post to coincide with Black History Month, a piece entitled Pleasure and Pain in black Shakespearean Performance History written by Vanessa Corredera on the history of the first black theatre group, the African Company, founded in New York in 1821. Shakespeare was always important to them. The first play they staged was Richard III, followed by King Lear, Romeo and Juliet and Othello. It was the place where the young Ira Aldridge learned how to act before forging his successful career in Europe.

This link will take you to my post about Ira Aldridge, written a few years ago now.

I’ve also written a number of posts for Black History Month that you can find by using the search box on the right of your screen.

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The Shakespeare Club of Stratford-upon-Avon goes virtual

The second week in October is when Stratford-upon-Avon’s Shakespeare Club normally begins its season, when up to a hundred members meet in the Music Room at Mason Croft, Marie Corelli’s house and now the home of the Shakespeare Institute for talks by a range of lecturers, followed by questions and a lot of chat over refreshments. It’s a traditional setting that suits the Club, which is now nearing its 200th anniversary.

2020 is of course very different, and rather than give up until conditions improve, the Club’s committee has decided to try something a bit more 21st-century. So on Tuesday 13th October we are offering our first virtual meeting. We’re hoping this will still have the flavour of a Shakespeare Club meeting so will follow roughly the same format. It’ll be pre-recorded, avoiding (we hope) technical glitches and will be available for three days.

The talk on Tuesday will be one of those we had to cancel earlier in the year because of lockdown, Dr Rebekah Owens on the influential academic Frederick Samuel Boas  who was one of the first University Extension lecturers. In her words, “ In the fifteen years he worked for the scheme, Boas encountered some very familiar problems for teachers in higher education. In trying to realise the social and reformative aims of the Extension programme, Boas struggled with the question of how such a scheme should be funded and what its value to the wider society could possibly be. In discussing how he overcame these problems, this talk provides an insight into the sometimes troublesome, but never dull process of getting not just Shakespeare, but English Studies itself recognised as a suitable subject for teaching in schools and universities.”

Shakespeare Club banner 2017

While we all regret the temporary loss of the live event, delivering meetings virtually may have some benefits. Normal meetings are only available to those able to get here for Tuesday evenings. Now people can listen at a time that suits them. While we would normally have to charge for our sessions, we are able to offer the first couple of sessions to anyone who signs up to our free mailing list. For the first time, wherever you are in the world you’ll be able to take part. And this is extremely appropriate: the Shakespeare Club was set up by locals, for locals in 1824, but over the two hundred years since it was formed, it has contributed significantly to the world-wide celebration of Shakespeare with Stratford-upon-Avon as the centre. If, of course, you would like to join the Club you will be more than welcome to do so and full information is on the website .

To be put on the mailing list, email stratfordshakespeareclub@gmail.com and on Tuesday 13 October we’ll send you an email containing the link you need to access the meeting. This will remain live for three days. We look forward to hearing from you and we hope you will enjoy the meeting, though you’ll have to supply your own refreshments!

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Charles Dibdin and the music for Garrick’s Jubilee

unknown artist; Called ‘Charles Dibdin (1745-1814)’; Royal College of Music; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/called-charles-dibdin-17451814-215908

Early in the morning of 6 September 1769 the Shakespeare Jubilee began with cannon fire, bell-ringing and, charmingly, a group of musicians walking the streets of Stratford-upon-Avon singing The Morning Address, with words by David Garrick and music by Charles Dibdin.

Let Beauty with the sun arise,
To Shakespeare tribute pay,
With heavenly smiles and sparkling eyes
Give lustre to the day.

Although it was Garrick’s Jubilee, it also belonged to the musicians and composers. The two most important composers were Charles Dibdin and Thomas Arne. Arne’s Oratorio Judith was performed,  and he composed the music for Garrick’s Ode, but it was the young Dibdin’s music that permeated the three-day festival. Most of it has never been recorded, but in 2019 Retrospect Opera released their CD The Jubilee making Dibdin’s compositions for the event available at last. The Jubilee was the first Shakespeare Festival anywhere in the world, and it was very different from what we expect today from a Festival. Its aim was never to perform Shakespeare’s plays, many of which were regularly staged in London and were available in print. The notes accompanying the CD explain that is was seen as:

a proper opportunity to pay homage to the sublime genius behind the plays, a man whose total imaginative reach far transcended what any one play…could hope to achieve. But Garrick had no intention of placing Shakespeare on a lofty pedestal, remote from popular culture. Quite the contrary; part of his play was to establish the Bard as a sort of folk hero, the people’s poet – the literary equivalent of Robin Hood…To this end, Garrick penned the lyrics of a number of songs celebrating Shakespeare not just as a literary genius but also as … a likeable rogue.

Part of the last verse of The Warwickshire Lad describes Shakespeare:

There never was seen such a creature,
Of all she was worth he robbed nature;
He took all her smiles, and he took all her grief,
For the thief of all thieves was a Warwickshire thief.

Dibdin and Garrick inevitably fell out, but were reconciled just in time and the songs were some of the most successful parts of the Jubilee. The CD includes them, as well as other little-known delights. Rarely mentioned in accounts of the Jubilee are details of the concert that participants heard after dining in the Rotunda on the first day. It included Dibdin’s cantata Queen Mab. The CD notes again: “Of everything heard on the first day, this gave clearest expression to the Bardolatry inspiring the Jubilee…[The] sentiments closely anticipate those of Garrick’s great Ode”. Based around the Queen Mab speech from Romeo and Juliet that is based on popular folklore, it praises Shakespeare as “heaven’s most favor’d creature, Truest copier of Nature”, and fantasises about the queen of the fairies’ arrival on the banks of the Avon (with echoes of Cleopatra’s barge):

Mounted on a nut-shell car;
Six painted lady-birds the chariot drew…
A thousand glow-worm torches glimmer’d round.

The cantata was so successful that Dibdin published both words and score, but it has not been previously recorded.

While the Jubilee is thought of as a disaster, the first day was in fact a triumph. On days two and three the weather prevented the pageant of Shakespeare characters from taking place, but only a few weeks later Garrick took the idea and turned it into a spectacular presentation at his London theatre Drury Lane. In order to make it work, Garrick added some comic scenes featuring Warwickshire rustics and an unfortunate Irishman. These scenes, together with Dibdin’s successful songs, were performed as The Jubilee, premiering on 14 October 1769. It was performed 91 times in its first season, setting a record. For the first time, Retrospect Opera attempts to present it, focusing on the songs and including large chunks of the dialogue (all the words are reproduced in the pamphlet accompanying the CD).

Retrospect Opera’s CD The Jubilee

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed listening to this CD and finding out about Charles Dibdin’s work. It also includes another piece with Shakespearean connections, Datchet Mead, or The Fairy Court, written nearly 30 years later, with obvious references to The Merry Wives of Windsor. Dibdin (1745-1814) is nowadays little-known, but some of his melodies are familiar. The tune of The Warwickshire Lad, written for the Jubilee, is the regimental quick march of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. Dibdin’s most famous song, though, is Tom Bowling, a lament to a Royal Navy lieutenant who died in the service of his country. It is now part of the medley of British Sea Songs performed at the Last Night of the Proms. This link takes you to the lively event in 1993, and this one to a recording by baritone Roderick Williams (who happens to live near Stratford-upon-Avon).

I would like to acknowledge the help of David Chandler, Executive Producer of Retrospect Opera, who wrote the admirable notes which I have quoted, as well as providing me with a copy of this delightful recording.

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Sally Jacobs and A Midsummer Night’s Dream after 50 years

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

When you think of the Peter Brook production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, what springs to mind? Of course, an image of the famous white box set, perhaps with actors swinging on trapezes, Titania’s bower of blood-red feather boas, or Bottom in his string vest, oversize boots and ping-pong ball nose. The set, costumes and props are still instantly recognisable, all the work of designer Sally Jacobs who has died in August 2020. Unlike Peter Brook’s, her name is not particularly well known. He remembers their work as a fine collaboration and I would guess that although he provided much of the concept, the detail was hers. Together they created a series of visually-striking productions. These included, for the RSC, plays at the New Arts Theatre Club, the Theatre of Cruelty season, the Marat-Sade, and the anti-Vietnam play US at the Aldwych. In 1978 she designed Antony and Cleopatra with him. Her other work for the RSC during the 1960s was rather conventional, but her omission in Sally Beauman’s 1982 book The Royal Shakespeare Company: A History of Ten Decades just goes to show how little designers, particularly women, have been regarded in the theatre.

The white box set for Peter Brook’s most famous production: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

It is now exactly 50 years since this, the most famous Shakespeare production of the twentieth century, had its press night. Up to that point the season had been good but not exciting. They could not have known how it would change on 27 August 1970, when instead of polite applause before the rush to the bar the audience gave a standing ovation at the interval. Another followed at the end. The following morning the newspapers, which had not always praised Peter Brook’s productions, were almost unanimous. This was a revolution in Shakespeare production, a genie that could not be put back in the bottle. It was significant that this happened in the rather old-fashioned town of Stratford-upon-Avon, rather than London. A Midsummer Night’s Dream was associated with the town: the fairies came from local folklore, the mechanicals were Warwickshire working men, the forest was inspired by local woods known by Shakespeare as a child. But now the cosy, familiar traditions had been swept away and instead of being a rural backwater, Stratford led the way, redefining the Royal Shakespeare Theatre as a place where radical experimentation could go on.

Not everybody welcomed it: Rosemary Say, writing in the Financial Times, was not smitten, but her description is clear: “Peter Brook ……. is more determined than ever to compel us to take a creative part in his production. This time we are to be bullied into getting our imaginations to work. His method, lively and inventive, just gets by – particularly when he allows Shakespeare to take some part in the proceedings from time to time. The stage is white-walled and empty. An iron gallery runs round the top where those members of the cast not immediately taking part stand to look down on the play in the manner of overseers supervising a factory floor. Two trapezes hang on black cords and a vast red plume is splashed across the back wall. The actors spill on the stage, a garish mixture dressed in King’s Road-type shirt and trousers, white silk cloaks and dresses of hard primary colours. Last come the artisans, a gang of workmen carrying planks, sandwiches and mugs of tea.’ It’s rather shocking to us today, isn’t it, to find that she resents the idea that the audience might be made to use their imaginations?

Peter Brook had set out his ideas about theatre in 1968 in his book The Empty Space: ‘It is up to us to capture [the audience’s] attention and compel its belief. To do so we must prove that there will be no trickery, nothing hidden. We must open our empty hands and show that really there is nothing up our sleeves. Only then can we begin’. The bright white set that Sally Jacobs designed was the embodiment of these ideas. The reviewer in the Sunday Times understood that it was designed in order to stimulate the imaginations of the audience, rather than limiting them. He gave a list of possible interpretations that had occurred to him as he watched: ‘circus big top’, ‘squash court’, ‘polar bear pit at the zoo’, gymnasium, play-room – even the Elizabethan stage, with its tiring house-wall, two large upstage doors and gallery above and behind the stage.

Designer Sally Jacobs

There’s surely something in Peter Brook’s ideas for us today, trying to redefine what theatre means at a time when packing an audience into an auditorium is impossible. Again in The Empty Space Brook wrote “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space, whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged”. It’s the act, not the venue, that defines theatre. In his 1995 book The Quality of Mercy he wrote “The life of a play begins and ends in the moment of performance… No form nor interpretation is for ever. A form has to become fixed for a short time, then it has to go. As the world changes, there will and must be new and totally unpredictable Dreams.”

Let’s hope there will and must also be designers like Sally Jacobs, freelancers who can use their skills to lead audiences towards those new Dreams, and new forms of theatre.

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