Hamlets onstage in 2017

Tom Hiddleston as Hamlet

Of all Shakespeare’s plays, it’s Hamlet that holds most fascination for audiences, and new productions often make the headlines. In recent years we’ve seen Maxine Peake at the Royal Exchange in Manchester in 2014, Benedict Cumberbatch’s production staged at the Barbican in 2015 and Paapa Essiedu at the RSC in 2016. Each was notable in its own way. Rolling through all three years was Dominic Dromgoole’s production that toured to almost 200 countries around the world.

These production were all notable, each for different reasons that sometimes had little to do with the quality of the acting: with Peake media interest focused on her gender, finding her angry and emotionally direct, one critic noting with some surprise that she was a good fencer. It’s a pity that consideration of Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance received much less media attention than the fact that the famous TV Sherlock had to plead with the audience not to film the show on their mobile phones. His Hamlet, in contrast to his highly intellectual Sherlock, was a case of “arrested emotional development. What we are watching is a man still struggling to grow up”. It was estimated that 250,000 people saw the production either in the theatre or via the relay in cinemas worldwide. In the RSC’s production “the focus is less on politics than on the predicament of a prince who finds himself an outcast in his own land”,Paapa Essiedu a young man “palpably isolated and bereft”. The production was so successful the RSC has now announced it is to go on tour to five regional theatres before heading for London in 2018.

The wonder of Dromgoole’s Hamlet was that it happened at all, setting out the seemingly impossible task of performing in every country on earth. They might not quite have managed that, but it was still a considerable feat, and Dromgoole has now written an account of it  that focuses on the difficulties of achieving it rather than the production itself, or even international reactions to it.  This production too played to over 100,000 people.

The Brandreth Hamlet

We never seem to have had too much of Hamlet and in 2017 there have been a new crop. They were discussed on the BBC’s Front Row on 28 August.  

The only one of the three Hamlets in London this summer that anyone still has a chance of seeing is the three-handed version at the Park Theatre, Finsbury Park with Benet and Gyles Brandreth and Benet’s wife Kosha Engler. It runs until 16 September. Inevitably it’s a family affair, labelled a kitchen sink drama and probably not meant to be taken too seriously. 

The highest-profile of these is the current production at RADA’s Jerwood Vanbrugh theatre, starring Tom Hiddleston. Directed by Kenneth Branagh (himself a notable Hamlet on several occasions) most media interest has been caused by the fact that it’s virtually impossible to get a ticket. Only 4000 tickets were available for the three-week season from 1-23 September, in a studio seating only 160. They were allocated by ballot (allegedly reviewers had to go through the ballot too through the Guardian’s Michael Billington still got a seat). The idea is to raise funds for RADA though it’s hard to resist the feeling that it would have been easy to make an awful lot more by playing in a larger space or live-streaming it to cinemas. Like Cumberbatch’s production, and venue would have been sold out in hours, and the media attention is again more on the fight for tickets than on the production itself. 

Having said that,  people attending dress rehearsals described the production as a “thriller”, “vibrant” and “the grief Hamlet”. The Guardian commented that the production stresses the domestic rather than the political aspects of the play, and “Tom Hiddleston captures the sweetness as well as the fury”.

Andrew Scott as Hamlet (Photo by Manuel Harlan)

The other London production, now closed, is Andrew Scott’s Hamlet at the Almeida which then transferred to the Harold Pinter Theatre in the West End, closing on 2 September. Famous for other high-profile roles including Moriarty in, again, Sherlock, Scott’s performance has been widely praised and the whole production called “an all-consuming marvel”. Not just about the prince, the production has had a terrific cast including Juliet Stevenson as Gertrude. Elsinore is a place where everybody is being watched, spied on, under surveillance.  

With the production now having closed, it is great news that it will be screened by the BBC in 2018. No further information is available yet but this link leads to the BBC’s announcement. Who knows how many other gloomy but charismatic Danes will appear on the stage in 2018.

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Announcing the Shakespeare Club of Stratford-upon-Avon’s new season

Michael Wood

With summer turning to autumn, it’s time to think about the many enjoyable ways to fill the longer evenings. Shakespeare-lovers can now look forward to the new season of meetings of the Stratford-upon-Avon Shakespeare Club. The Club is the oldest Shakespeare organisation still in existence and at the monthly gatherings members can hear distinguished speakers talking on a variety of Shakespeare-related subjects. Meetings are held at the Shakespeare Institute in Church Street, Stratford, on the second Tuesday of the month from October to May.  Visitors are always welcome and parking is available at the rear of the building. If you would like to find out more about the Club, its history, the upcoming season and how to join all the information is on the website.

This year the Club’s President is to be the popular TV historian Michael Wood, who has produced many fascinating series including In Search of Shakespeare and a single documentary on Mary Arden, Shakespeare’s mother. He’s long had connections with Stratford-upon-Avon.

For his presidential evening on 14 November he will be talking on ““Shakespeare’s Memory”, examining the primary  influences on him as a young man,  the ones that came from family and community. He will look at Shakespeare’s local roots  in Warwickshire,  and especially at his parents’  generation in a time of great  social, economic and religious change.  Wood’s research is always thorough and he’s an enthusiastic, engaging speaker so this is likely to be a real highlight.

A full list and description of all the upcoming lectures is on the website. As usual, several of our lectures are on unusual aspects of Shakespeare study. In October, Professor Gary Watt will examine how Shakespeare uses sound effects to move us in the same way as music does.  In December Jerry Brotton will examine the extensive contacts between Elizabethan England and the Islamic world, with Muslims being viewed as either exotic or barbarous. He will examine the ways in which this ambivalence is also seen in Shakespeare’s plays. Other talks will include a light-hearted look at acting Shakespeare and, appropriately for the May meeting when spring will have sprung, a description of Shakespeare’s gardens and plans for their future.

To get a flavour of the Club’s activities go to the website where you will find a gallery of photographs including some recent events, and the minutes of the last few years’ meetings which summarise the lectures.  The recently-published history of the Club, The Story of the Shakespeare Club of Stratford-upon-Avon, 1824-2016,  details of which are also on the website, will also be available for purchase at each meeting. All are welcome.

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Shakespeare and Greenwich

Greenwich Palace in the Tudor period

There is something special about the place where important events took place, no matter how long ago. Even where there are no remaining signs on the ground people still visit: perhaps the draw is that these sites make us use our imaginations so strongly.  

It’s always surprising to find bits of the London that Shakespeare knew beneath the city streets and buildings. A couple of weeks ago it was announced that remains of Greenwich Palace had been found.  

Greenwich, on the banks of the Thames several miles downstream from London, has been a place of significance for many centuries. The Tudor palace was where Henry VIII was born in 1491, where he married Catherine of Aragon, where their daughters Mary and Elizabeth were born to his first two wives. Later Henry married his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves there. When she became Queen, Elizabeth 1 continued to use Greenwich as well as other royal palaces, and it has a particular significance for Shakespeare. Over the Christmas period in 1594 the newly-formed Lord Chamberlain’s Men played twice at court in Greenwich. The accounts list William Kempe, Richard Burbage and William Shakespeare as payees. It’s the earliest document that links Shakespeare to a theatrical company, showing that he was one of its leaders, and tells us that the company was important enough to perform before the monarch. It must have been an extraordinary experience for them all.  

The remains of the Tudor palace at Greenwich

Sadly the excavation can not bring us any nearer to those actual events, and the remains are relatively humble, finding “two rooms of the Tudor palace, including a floor featuring lead-glazed tiles. Being set back from the river, these are likely to be from the service range, possibly where the kitchens, bakehouse, brewhouse and laundry were. One of the rooms was clearly subterranean and contains a series of unusual niches, which archaeologists believe may be ‘bee boles’ for the keeping of skeps (hive baskets) during the winter months when the bee colonies are hibernating.” The palace known to Henry VIII and Elizabeth was demolished and the magnificent buildings that are now the Old Royal Naval College, designed by Christopher Wren, were erected on the same site. The current finds were made during the restoration of this building’s magnificent Painted Hall which is to be fully opened complete with a new visitors centre.  In 2006 an earlier excavation uncovered remains of the chapel build by Henry VII where those two marriages of Henry VIII took place.  

Among the descriptions of the palace I was intrigued to find another link to Shakespeare. The original palace that was replaced by Henry VII was built by Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester in 1443. This is Shakespeare’s “Good Duke Humphrey”, they youngest brother of Henry V. He appears rather briefly in Shakespeare’s play of the same name, but after Henry’s death Humphrey became a major political figure, appointed regent to the young Henry VI. As Lord Protector, the most powerful man in the kingdom, he built his palace in Greenwich. In Henry VI parts 1 and 2 he constantly battles against the other English nobles, making enemies who eventually get him arrested for high treason, and is brutally murdered. Writing Humphrey’s lament, and the King’s later speech, Shakespeare uses some of those long extended metaphors that relate to his own rural upbringing:
h! thus King Henry throws away his crutch
Before his legs be firm to bear his body.
Thus is the shepherd beaten from thy side,
And wolves are gnarling who shall gnaw thee first.

And Henry speaks out in his defence, but too late.

Ah, uncle Humphrey! in thy face I see
The map of honour, truth and loyalty:
And yet, good Humphrey, is the hour to come
That e’er I proved thee false or fear’d thy faith.
What louring star now envies thy estate,
That these great lords and Margaret our queen
Do seek subversion of thy harmless life?

Thou never didst them wrong, nor no man wrong;
And as the butcher takes away the calf
And binds the wretch, and beats it when it strays,
Bearing it to the bloody slaughter-house,
Even so remorseless have they borne him hence;
And as the dam runs lowing up and down,
Looking the way her harmless young one went,
And can do nought but wail her darling’s loss,
Even so myself bewails good Gloucester’s case
With sad unhelpful tears, and with dimm’d eyes
Look after him and cannot do him good,
So mighty are his vowed enemies.
His fortunes I will weep; and, ‘twixt each groan
Say ‘Who’s a traitor? Gloucester he is none.’

“Good Duke Humphrey” is one of the most sympathetic of Shakespeare’s nobles and even though nothing of his palace has been found it’s to be hoped that in the new visitors centre that the story of Duke Humphrey and his palace will be told.

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Shakespeare the therapist

Swimming for Shakespeare

The idea that performing Shakespeare can help in the treatment of prisoners, ex-offenders and those suffering mental illnesses has been gaining popularity for several decades. Actors have often lead the way, with both Mark Rylance and Ian McKellen working actively with offenders.  

One of the best-known organisations working in this area is the USA’s Shakespeare Behind Bars, The work is expensive, costing $500 per person, and the charity needs constant support. This week I’ve been told about another actor’s efforts to raise money for this good cause. New York actor Sarah Eismann is crowdfunding, but no sponsored walks for her: she is carrying out at least 40 miles of Open Water Swimming, giving her project the title Swimming for Shakespeare. As well as raising money, Sarah hopes to raise awareness of the work done by Shakespeare Behind Bars and other similar programmes. Should you wish to donate,  this is the link to Swimming for Shakespeare.

Shakespeare Behind Bars was founded in the USA in 1992, and is holding a conference on Shakespeare in Prisons at the San Diego Globe in March 2018. It’s expected that 150 people will attend the conference. The following description appeared in the article announcing it that appeared in the San Diego Tribune: “The biennial Shakespeare in Prisons Conference gives prison arts practitioners the opportunity to share their collective experiences, rejuvenate passion for their work, and build an expanded network of peers. Artists and educators engaged in transformational arts programs using Shakespeare in prisons across the U.S. (and the world) are brought together to explore and study the effects such programming has on prison populations.

Shakespeare Behind Bard

“The conference promotes a collaborative learning forum where participants are exposed to a diverse array of programs that all strive for a common result: ‘the habilitation of the inmate’s mind, heart, body, and spirit.’”

Shakespeare Behind Bars is just one of many similar organisations, and holding these biennial conferences shows how seriously this kind of therapy is now taken. This link leads to another, the Shakespeare Prison Project at the University of Wisconsin.

In the UK too groups such as Not Shut Up works with offenders through a variety of arts experiences, including Shakespeare.

Shakespeare Comes to Broadmoor

I first became aware of the work being done to treat offenders by introducing them to Shakespeare when members of the RSC went to Broadmoor Hospital, England’s best-known high-security psychiatric hospital. Most of the patients have been convicted of serious crimes. Murray Cox, consultant psychotherapist at Broadmoor, met Mark Rylance who was playing a disturbed Hamlet at the RSC in Stratford in 1989, and their meeting led to the actors performing the play to patients at Broadmoor. Cox tells the story of the connections that followed in his 1992 book Shakespeare Comes to Broadmoor. There is an interview with Mark Rylance here and an essay by Ian McKellen who wrote the foreword to the book here.  Part of the book itself can be read online here.  When Murray Cox died in 1997 he was still working at Broadmoor.

Initially companies performed whole plays including Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet and Measure for Measure, to patients and staff, but they were also able to take part in  workshops and discussions. Many of the projects now encourage participants to put on a production of a whole play, and a number of different conditions are now thought to be helped. This link leads to an article about another therapy that helps to treat children with autism spectrum disorder, developed over a number of years by RSC actor Kelly Hunter. She uses a series of games based on themes from The Tempest to boost social skills. More research is needed but the results so far are striking.

It would be interesting to know what Dr John Conolly would have made of these projects. He was a physician in Stratford-upon-Avon during the 1820s who became the driving force behind the newly-established Shakespeare Club. His real passion was in treating the mentally ill and this led him in 1839 to become Superintendent of the Hanwell Asylum in Middlesex. Here he developed techniques of treating mentally ill patients by humane methods. Working with mentally ill patients for several decades he developed his own theories about Shakespeare’s knowledge of the subject, publishing his book A Study of Hamlet in 1863.

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Michelle Terry at Shakespeare’s Globe

Michelle Terry

Michelle Terry, the Artistic Director designate of Shakespeare’s Globe in London, has now released her ideas for the theatre when she takes over in April 2018. She knows she will be keenly watched: Emma Rice seemed to have barely got her feet under the table before her departure was announced in a humiliating episode for her that did nothing for the reputation of the Globe’s Board. Rice’s introduction of twenty-first technology in the form of artificial lighting and amplification was said to be responsible for the disagreement, and the use of natural staging conditions has been written into Terry’s contract. The Globe’s position is unusual, and in her piece for The Stage Lyn Gardner summarises the problem: “It is an organisation caught between those who believe the Globe must not stray from its original mission to explore the conditions Shakespeare and his contemporaries worked in, and those who believe that theatres and spaces must constantly evolve or they become museums.”

Terry is best known as an actor, and has never done any directing in the theatre. This could well be an advantage: the original Globe was set up and managed by actors, including Shakespeare himself, and it was actor Sam Wanamaker who fought for it to be reconstructed. Shakespeare’s Globe’s first artistic director was the highly-respected actor Mark Rylance. Lyn Gardner again notes that “The Globe is very much an actors’ theatre, making huge demands on its performers and creating a unique relationship between performers and audience.”

Michel Billington thinks she could be an inspired choice, with a tremendous track record acting in Shakespeare, including a number of roles at the Globe. So she already understands the challenges of acting Shakespeare in the space as no other Artistic Director has done before.

On her appointment, Michelle Terry spoke of her excitement:

The work of Shakespeare is for me timeless, mythic, mysterious, vital, profoundly human and unapologetically theatrical. There are no other theatres more perfectly suited to house these plays than the pure and uniquely democratic spaces of The Globe and the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. I am so proud and excited that I will be in the privileged position where I can offer artists the opportunity to come together to reclaim and rediscover not only Shakespeare, but the work of his contemporaries, alongside new work from our current writers. For us to then share those stories with an audience that demands an unparalleled honesty, clarity and bravery, is all a dream come true.’

Michelle Terry as Henry V, Regent’s Park 2016

Her ideas are refreshingly uncomplicated: she won’t be directing any plays, but will be acting in a few. She will ensure that casting is “gender blind, race blind, disability blind”, these will be no artificial lighting or amplification, and she wants to involve more children. As an actor herself she will ensure that the focus is on the acting, and she can speak with authority as she has herself taken on that most masculine of roles, Henry V, at the Regents Park theatre in 2016.

It remains to be seen how this arrangement will work in future: Dominic Dromgoole, the previous artistic director, defended Rice’s right to use lighting and sound even though he did not agree with her decision. Rice herself felt it was essential that as Artistic Director she was allowed “personal trust and artistic freedom”. Lyn Gardner believes that Terry may be able to bridge the gap, guiding the Globe “ into a position where it may feel more comfortable about re-evaluating its role and meeting the needs of a 21st-century theatre audience”

Emma Rice seems now to be thriving with a new, controversial project. She is setting up a new company called Wise Children, and although Rice claims it will be “firmly and deeply rooted in the south-west” as was her Kneehigh company, it was registered in London. It will initially be resident at the Old Vic, just a few minutes from Shakespeare’s Globe. It is on the strength of this regional connection that she has been granted substantial Arts Council funding at a time that other established arts companies have had their funding removed.

Even so, exciting times for women in the theatre. Good luck to them both!

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Robert Hardy and Shakespeare


Robert Hardy

On Thursday 3 August 2017 one of the UK’s best-loved actors, Robert Hardy, died. His family described him as “Gruff, elegant, twinkly, and always dignified” and most of his admirers would agree. I remember him best as Robert Dudley in the 1971 TV series Elizabeth R to Glenda Jackson’s Queen, just one of his many roles. Late in life he found an entirely new audience through the Harry Potter films.

Although Shakespeare did not feature greatly in his later career, as a young man he was immersed in it, spending several years performing at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, in London and on Tour. Like many people of his generation his career necessarily stalled when he was called up during the Second World War. He had previously been a student at Oxford where he had become friends with Richard Burton. After the war he returned to University and completed his degree, then became an actor.

He was taken on in 1949 by Anthony Quayle to work at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre to play a string of small parts in plays such as Cymbeline and Henry VIII. The following year he continued to work at the SMT, appearing in Measure for Measure and King Lear. In 1951 he took part in Anthony Quayle’s triumphant cycle of four history plays from Richard II to Henry V, celebrating the Festival of Britain. Hardy played Hotspur in Richard II and Henry IV Part 1 and Archbishop Scroop in Henry IV part 2, as well as Fluellen in Henry V, reuniting him with old friend Richard Burton who was playing Henry V. During these years he also performed, first as Friar Francis and then as Claudio, in revivals of John Gielgud’s production of Much Ado About Nothing.

During this period Hardy worked on a large variety of Shakespeare’s plays with many of the best actors and directors at work of the 1950s: not just Gielgud, Quayle and Burton, but Peter Brook as the director of Measure for Measure, Michael Redgrave, Peggy Ashcroft and Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies. Also in the company were other young and talented actors such as Barbara Jefford and Alan Badel.

Coriolanus, 1959, the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre. Directed by Peter Hall. Menenius (Harry Andrews), Valeria (Vanessa Redgrave) and Virgilia (Mary Ure) witness Volumnia (Edith Evans) raging at the tribunes, Sicinius Brutus (Robert Hardy) and Junius Brutus (Peter Woodthorpe). Photo by Angus McBean. (c) RSC

In the 1980s Sally Beauman described the performance conditions of the time: only four weeks was allowed for rehearsals, with brief technical and dress rehearsals, and  no previews. The theatre could not be closed for a single night when a new production was brought in. Actors were used to this “baptism of fire” and it was to stand Hardy in good stead when he moved into TV.

After this period with the SMT ,which included a spell in the West End, he played Laertes to Richard Burton’s Hamlet and Ariel in a production of The Tempest. He returned to the SMT for the 1959 season, the starriest that had ever been seen in Stratford-upon-Avon. Paul Robeson was to play Othello, Laurence Olivier Coriolanus, Dame Edith Evans as Volumnia, and the Countess of Roussillon in All’s Well That Ends Well, Charles Laughton both King Lear, and Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Mary Ure played Titania and Desdemona. In this amazing line-up Robert Hardy was tribune Sicinius Velutus in Coriolanus, Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the aging King of France in All’s Well That Ends Well and Edmund in King Lear.

The following year Hardy was offered the opportunity to work with Peter Hall, the newly-appointed Director of the Stratford theatre, shortly to be renamed the Royal Shakespeare Company. He declined, apparently disappointed with the range of parts offered.

Judi Dench (Princess of France) and Robert Hardy (Henry V) in An Age of Kings, 1960

Another door immediately opened. The BBC was undertaking the screening of Shakespeare’s history plays in fifteen live episodes, one a fortnight, in 1960. It was an extraordinarily ambitious project, as John Wyver says “An Age of Kings remains the only occasion when a single company and production team has taken on for television all eight of Shakespeare’s major History plays.” More than three million viewers regularly tuned in. With only two weeks between screenings the actors were allowed four days to learn lines and just a week’s rehearsal, then a couple of days for camera rehearsals before the live broadcast. Even though Henry V, with its battle scenes, suffers from being staged in a studio, Robert Hardy’s Henry V was one of the great successes of the project. Clips of his wooing of the French Princess (Judi Dench) are available on YouTube and after many years of being unavailable the whole series was finally released on DVD by Illuminations in 2013.

Less well-known than his acting, Hardy was also an expert in the history of the longbow, the weapon which won the battle of Agincourt for the English.  He was consulted by archaeologists involved in the raising of Henry VIII’s flagship, the Mary Rose, also presenting a TV documentary and writing two books on the subject, and was Master of the Worshipful Company of Bowyers in the late 1980s.

In the SMT season brochure for 1951 he was described as “A young actor from whom great things are expected”. Robert Hardy fulfilled all these expectations and more, and we are particularly lucky that some of his Shakespeare work remains accessible.

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Ira Aldridge, theatre manager: the Coventry connection

On 3 August 2017 a blue plaque is to be unveiled in Coventry commemorating Britain’s first non-white theatre manager, Ira Aldridge, exactly 150 years after his death. I’ve written blog posts before celebrating Aldridge’s work as an actor in Shakespeare’s plays. He was a sensation as Othello and Aaron, his skill surprising some of those who saw him and assumed a man of colour’s acting could not compare to that of a white man.

Aldridge made his name acting in London but he performed many times on provincial stages. In 1851 he even performed in Stratford’s little theatre, the first black Othello to perform in the town of Shakespeare’s birth. This was not to be repeated until 1959 when Paul Robeson took the part. During his considerable UK career he toured widely.

Aldridge’s role as a theatre manager is less well-known, even though short-lived. In 1828 he ran Coventry Theatre, an achievement even more extraordinary for a black man than performing in Shakespeare. The Stage journal notes that the blue plaque being unveiled on 3 August is the result “of a campaign to recognise Aldridge’s contribution to theatre and to the city, with support from the Belgrade Theatre Coventry and Warwick University.” It highlights the fact that ethnic diversity has been part of Coventry’s history for centuries and celebrates the contribution that people of Coventry made in 1828 to support the abolition of slavery.

The plaque will be unveiled by Coventry’s Lord Mayor at the site of the original theatre, the guest of honour being the 99-year-old Bermudan actor Earl Cameron. In an extraordinary link with the past he was taught acting by Aldridge’s daughter and he went on the be one of the first black actors to perform in mainstream film and television. The campaign began last November when, after a torchlit procession, flowers were laid at the site. Those taking place included RSC Associate Artist Ray Fearon who had played Aldridge in the drama-documentary Against Prejudice.

Warwick University’s website contains a great deal of information about this and the rest of its Multicultural Shakespeare project. Tony Howard, its leader, spoke about this event:

Portrait of Ira Aldridge

It was moving. The Black Youth Theatre sang songs that Ira Aldridge himself performed on that spot nearly two centuries ago, and they sang them to a gentleman who knew Ira’s daughter. Three generations came together to honour a forgotten moment in our multicultural past. In January 1828 Ira Aldridge was advertised as a fairground attraction: A Most Extraordinary Novelty, a Man of Colour, yet only a few weeks later Coventry gave him the keys to its theatre.

It was obvious there had to be a permanent memorial.

The building Aldridge managed was demolished long ago, and the Blitz even destroyed the streets around it. So the plaque marking the site will be in the heart of modern Coventry, in the Precinct. Every day hundreds of shoppers will be reminded of a great African American and of the city’s openness to “foreigners and strangers”.

The site is at 43-47 Upper Precinct, Coventry City Centre. Participants will set off from the Belgrade Theatre at 2.15 for the ceremony timed to start at 2.30. A reception will follow back at the Belgrade and people are encouraged to join in.

There is also to be a linked event at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe on September 19 at 7pm. The drama-documentary Against Prejudice: A Celebration of Ira Aldridge, is to be performed, followed by a discussion with historians and performers sharing their perspectives on his importance.

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Shakespeare and Gay Britannia

On 27 July 1967 the Sexual Offences Act received Royal Approval in the UK, making private homosexual acts between men over the age of 21 legal. In the intervening fifty years attitudes have changed profoundly. Back in 1953 the newly-knighted John Gielgud, the greatest Shakespearean actor of his time, was arrested, charged and fined for soliciting. Within hours the story was on the front pages of the newspapers and Gielgud, in rehearsal for a play in the West End, faced terrible humiliation. Perhaps coincidentally, in 1954 the Wolfenden committee was set up to look at the law and when it reported announced, more or less, that what consenting adults did in private was not the law’s concern.

That Gielgud’s career and reputation was not wrecked was due to the support he received from his professional colleagues and the tolerance of audiences who were more interested in his acting than his personal life. There have always been gay people in the arts, whether or not their sexuality has been discussed publicly.

In that relatively short period of fifty years changes have been massive. Now exuberant LGBT Gay Pride events are held around the world, under the rainbow flag symbolising diversity and peace.

The BBC’s current Gay Britannia season celebrates that diversity and the nation’s artistic success. The photographic exhibition Love Happens Here documents the LGBT community in London. There’s a celebration of E M Forster’s novel Maurice and a series of programmes by Simon Callow about the history of the representation of gay sexual relationships in the arts. He has already discussed how nineteenth century artists commented on male sexual relationships and in the episode on 24 July he will talk about  how theatres and music halls across Britain endlessly explored sexuality, gender and difference while managing to avoid the censors.

Inevitably Shakespeare is involved in this debate, and RSC Artistic Director Gregory Doran was invited onto Radio 4’sToday programme on 21 July to talk about whether Shakespeare was gay or not. There is an extract of the interview here, and the full five-minute interview can still be listened to as part of the Today programme. It begins at 1hr 43 minutes in. This article in the Telegraph is based on the interview.

Gregory Doran and Antony Sher were branded “Theatre’s leading gay power couple” in this 2015 article . They have been partners for thirty years, became civil partners in 2005 and married in 2015.

Actors and directors, particularly in the theatre, know Shakespeare’s plays more intimately than anyone else, committing them to memory and making sense of the words in order to speak them. Doran, first as an actor then as a director, has been doing this for over thirty years and his opinion has considerable weight. He finds that Shakespeare frequently writes from the point of view of the outsider, like the Jew Shylock and the Moor Othello, and suggests Shakespeare may have felt himself to be an outsider, perhaps as a result of his sexuality. He also points out, though, that as a gay man himself, he may be casting Shakespeare in his own image, just as every biographer has done.

With Shakespeare, of course, nothing is simple. When he wrote his plays, the actors performing them were men. Might Romeo and Juliet have been unconvincing, their sexuality ambiguous? Shakespeare solved the problem by keeping the would-be lovers apart in the balcony scene, making them declare their love in beautiful words rather than actions. And Shakespeare had no trouble writing about heterosexual desire in his long erotic poem Venus and Adonis.

Gregory Doran

Doran repeats the suggestion that Shakespeare’s sonnets, the most personal of poems, are overwhelmingly addressed to a man. Many editions have certainly heterosexualised them, replacing “he” with “she”, but there is always a question mark about them. The sonnets were published in 1609 without Shakespeare’s permission. When a selection was reprinted some thirty years later the then-publisher changed the order, giving sonnets titles and conflating some of them. The original publisher too might have rearranged them in order to provide a developing “story”. Read individually there is often nothing to indicate the sex of the addressee. In their edition, Stanley Wells and Paul Edmondson recommend this approach. Rather than one young man and one dark lady there could be many addressees, of both genders.

The main point of Doran’s interview, though, was to insist that characters such as Antonio in The Merchant of Venice, desperately in love with Bassanio, should be played as gay, rather than toned down. And here he surely has a point. The Gay Britannia season also intends to reveal the discrimination still facing people today. We still have a long way to go before people are treated equally, and before Shakespeare’s words of love can be appreciated regardless of who they address. It’s the love that’s important after all.

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Marie Corelli’s Stratford-upon-Avon memorial restored

Marie Corelli’s monument

The monument to Shakespeare monument was put in place by 1623, and has been visited by tourists almost ever since. Over the past four centuries it has occasionally suffered damage, and has been restored several times. At least, though, its location high on the wall in the chancel of Holy Trinity Church has protected it. Back in 2012 another statue to a famous writer who died in Stratford-upon-Avon was not so lucky. Marie Corelli’s memorial, a large statue of The Angel of the Resurrection, was positioned near the entrance to the town’s modern cemetery where it could be seen from the road, and during the night vandals climbed over the railings, pulling the statue off its plinth and causing it severe damage.

With the romantic novelist no longer the celebrity she had been during her lifetime (she died in 1924), it might have been difficult to raise the money to restore the statue. But she has a local champion in the shape of Nick Birch. One of Corelli’s flights of fancy was to import from Italy a gondola, complete with Italian gondolier, that she took out on the Avon on summer days. Lost for many years, this is now owned by Nick Birch who runs Avon Boating, a company that hires boats on the river, and occasionally puts it on show. He runs a website dedicated to the writer and I’ve written a piece about the story of the gondola.

Marie Corelli’s monument

Birch took the lead and received a grant from Stratford Town Trust to ensure the restoration could take place. Although it had been badly damaged, with one of its wings broken off, the statue is now returned to its full beauty and on 7 July 2017, a ceremony took place returning it to its original spot. Carried out as the result of local enthusiasms, it’s also satisfying that the old firm of local masons Clifford and Sons put the statue back in place. The story is told here.

In order to celebrate the statue’s return, and to inform people of the town’s link with Marie Corelli, Nick Birch is giving a free lecture at 6.30pm on 19 July 2017 at Stratford-upon-Avon Town Hall entitled Marie Corelli, the Life Literature and Legacy of Stratford’s “Great Little Lady”. His talk will be illustrated with photographs, illustrations and extracts and there will be a reception at the end with an opportunity to buy books and biographies about her.

Marie Corelli

On her arrival in the town Marie Corelli was celebrated as the most famous author of her day. She had chosen to make her home in Stratford because of its Shakespeare connections, and took part in the activities of a number of organisations, including its Shakespeare Club. The recently-published book The Story of the Shakespeare Club of Stratford-upon-Avon 1824-2016: Long life to the Club call’d Shakspearean, notes her involvement:

Corelli was one of the first celebrity members of the Club joining in December 1901. Two years before she had moved into Mason Croft in Church St. and was settling into her role as grande dame, patron and benefactor in the town. She was invited to respond to the toast to art and literature at the 1903 Birthday luncheon, and spoke with her customary coyness:˜The mayor had asked one of the least among the students of literature to respond for the greatest of professions” one who was moreover altogether the wrong sex to undertake such a responsibility”, she was reported as saying in the Stratford-upon-Avon Herald (24 April). By November she had, more robustly, resigned from the Club, a result perhaps of her single-minded campaign to defend historic Stratford. That year her opposition to the location of a new public library in Henley St. a few doors from Shakespeare’s Birthplace made her enemies throughout the town and especially among the Trustees of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust whom she described as “brewers and retired tradesmen who really care nothing at all about the Poet’s scarred fame”. Some of them, G.M. Bird (wine merchant),  W.G. Colbourne (proprietor of the Red Horse Hotel) and George Boyden (editor of the Stratford-upon-Avon Herald), were also members of the Shakespeare Club. It ended in the defeat of her libel action at Birmingham Assizes in December 1903.

The joint authors of the book, Susan Brock and Sylvia Morris, are giving a fully-illustrated talk about the history of the club, including links and memorabilia relating to Marie Corelli, at 7 for 7.30 on 27 July at The Old Slaughterhouse, at the back of Sheep Street, Stratford-upon-Avon. For more information email info@escapearts.org.uk

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Celebrating Ovid 2000 years on

Statue of Ovid in Romania

2017 marks the 2000th anniversary of the death of the Roman writer Ovid, whose  Metamorphoses has continued to be one of the most influential of literary works.

As Shakespeare’s favourite writer, the RSC, and its current Artistic Director Gregory Doran in particular, have long championed Ovid’s work. His influence can be seen in the plots of his plays, in the allusions within them, and often in the language itself. Ovid continues to inspire creative artists today, but Ovid himself, and the stories he wrote, are in danger of being forgotten. As Doran has said: But today, some of those fantastical stories are being forgotten and our appreciation of Shakespeare’s plays will be lessened if that happens.  Who was Proserpina, and why did she “let her flowers fall”? What happened when glistering Phaeton lost the manage of his father’s chariot? And why was Niobe “all tears“.

Ovid’s fame can be seen in surviving books like the fifteenth century manuscript in French, now at the British Library, that illustrates the powerful scene in which Thisbe, finding Pyramus dead, stabs herself. This moment is dramatised by the mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.


Shakespeare and Ovid’s Metamorphoses

I’ve written before about some of the references to Ovid in Shakespeare’s work, but how did his work come to influence Shakespeare, and what was it  that affected him so deeply?

The death of Thisbe in the BL’s 15th century manuscript

In his book In Search of Shakespeare, historian Michael Wood notes that Shakespeare’s play Titus Andronicus “contains one of those throwaway remarks that he seems to put in for no apparent reason”, when a young boy brings a copy of Metamorphoses on stage and comments “my mother gave it me”. It’s a tantalising thought that Shakespeare could have been placing a reference to his own mother’s gift of this much-loved book inside the play. It may be wishful thinking, but it is pretty certain that Shakespeare first encountered Ovid as a child. Michael Wood notes that, assuming Stratford’s curriculum was similar to other grammar schools, he would have begun to read his stories aged about nine. He also quotes the French philosopher Michel Montaigne who recalled how “the first taste or feeling I had of bookes, was of the pleasure I took in reading the fables of Ovid’s Metamorphosies; for being but seven or eight years old, I would steale and sequester myselfe from all other delights, only to read them”.

Edgar Innes Fripp’s 1938 two-volume book Shakespeare, Man and Artist, although old-fashioned, is still a great read. He describes the delights of the Metamorphoses: “Here was a young poet’s treasury, Nature, mountains, sunshine and moonshine, flowers, woods, caves, pools, seas, storms, spirits, gods and goddesses, fairies, nymphs, lovers, shepherds, maidens, the music of the pipe and the lyre, hunting, bathing, centaurs, warriors, fighting, dragons, witches, Hades, horrors, magic, wonders, transformations and transmigrations of souls and of human beings into beasts and birds”. Michael Wood notes that today’s children are still captivated by the wonderfully imaginative worlds of Harry Potter, Narnia and The Lord of the Rings, as well as, Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy.

Ovid’s pagan tales were allegorical: one thing could stand in for another, or be turned into another. He celebrated change, and nature as the great creator. His stories allowed the reader’s imagination to fly free, unlike the literal readings of the Bible that were drummed into people at church. Here Ovid’s explains his view of the world:
The elements themselves do not endure;
Examine how they change and learn from me…
Nothing retains its form; new shapes from old
Nature, the great inventor, ceaselessly

Shakespeare seized on these ideas, showing us in play after play things that are not what they seem, that we are beguiled by illusions, and that nature is careless and unpredictable.

Edgar Fripp, like Michael Wood, hoped to find a direct link between Shakespeare and Ovid. In his book he described the Bodleian Library’s 1502 copy of the work, in Latin as “one of the treasures of the Bodleian”. Why? Because it contains an abbreviated Shakespeare signature, and opposite is a handwritten note “This little Booke of Ovid was given to me by W Hall who sayd it was once Will. Shakesperes. T.N.1682.  No longer mentioned as one of the Library’s treasures, it has, along with several other similar signatures in books, been accepted as a forgery, and become merely a curiosity.

Adonis with Venus from the RSC’s puppet version, 2004

Celebrations of Ovid get under way with a revival of Gregory Doran’s puppet version of Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, from 26 July to 4 August. This much-admired production was first staged in 2004 and is a great introduction both to the poem and to Ovid’s ideas. For three weeks in October the RSC is putting on a series of Ovid-related events. Many are intended to introduce the stories to children, but there are also events for adults such as a reading from Ted Hughes’ adaptation Tales from Ovid.

Because of the brilliance of the BBC’s services, it’s still possible to find out more with an edition of In Our Time on Metamorphoses, and a 2017 radio documentary Ovid in Changing Times.

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