Richard Thompson at Gawsworth Hall: Mock Tudor? No, the real thing

Richard Thompson at Gawsworth Hall: Mock Tudor? No, the real thing

Gawsworth 1

I Can’t Wake Up To Save My Life

On Wednesday I drove across Cheshire, through the fields and lanes of my childhood, to Gawsworth Hall, a Tudor half-timbered manor-house just south of Macclesfield. There, on the lawn below the rose garden, a stage and covered seating had been erected – an idyllic setting on a warm summer’s evening for a Richard Thompson gig.

Gawsworth Hall is the real thing: grade 1 listed Tudor black and white, one of the many that adorn the Cheshire countryside, telling of a wealth and confidence that persists in this corner of the north west.  In 1999, Thompson released a portrait of suburbia called Mock Tudor, and at Gawsworth he sprinkled his set with three tunes from that album. He made no reference to this on stage, but knowing something of his dry sense of humour, I’m sure it wasn’t accidental.

I arrived in mid-afternoon so I had time to look around the house and gardens before the concert. The house is a home, lived in by Timothy and Elizabeth Richards and their two sons who, each summer, organise a season of theatre and music on a stage erected on their back lawn.  Apparently, the Richards have been trying to book Richard Thompson for one of their summer shows for years, and only managed to do so this year at the last minute. Timothy gave a personal introduction to the concert, while later, as we filed out after the performance, Elizabeth wished everyone goodnight.  Free parking was provided, and the catering was a family affair, too – delicious home-made cakes and excellent yet low-priced wine in the cafe.

Gawsworth 2Gawsworth Hall: gardens

Picnics on the lawn

Another sign of the Richards’ hospitality was the invitation to bring a picnic, and  the lawn that stretches from the house down to the fishponds soon filled up with groups of picnickers, some having brought all the accoutrements – coolboxes, garden chairs and tables, even gazebos.

I spent some time exploring the grounds and looking around inside the house.  There has been a manor house on this site since Norman times, when the de Orreby family built an earlier hall in 1130.   The present house was built between 1480 and 1600 and owned by the Fitton family util 1662.  Theirs is a story of vaunting ambition, followed by disgrace and bankruptcy.

Mary Fitton was the daughter of the third generation of the Fitton family to live here.  She became a maid of honour to Queen Elizabeth, and is reputed to be the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets.  She certainly put herself about, having affairs with a succession of men at court, culminating in William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke (perhaps the Fair Youth of Shakespeare’s sonnets).

In the old age black was not counted fair,
Or if it were, it bore not beauty’s name;
But now is black beauty’s successive heir,
And beauty slandered with a bastard shame:
For since each hand hath put on Nature’s power,
Fairing the foul with Art’s false borrowed face,
Sweet beauty hath no name, no holy bower,
But is profaned, if not lives in disgrace.
Therefore my mistress’ eyes are raven black,
Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem
At such who, not born fair, no beauty lack,
Sland’ring creation with a false esteem:
Yet so they mourn becoming of their woe,
That every tongue says beauty should look so.

When she became pregnant with his child, Mary was ejected from Elizabeth’s court and sent home in disgrace.  For the Fittons the scandal meant social ruin, though Mary did not seem as abashed, having affairs with several more men.  She died in 1647 and is buried in Gawsworth.  By the time of her death the Fittons were ruined financially, too. Before the scandal they had spent vast sums on their property in the hope of inducing a visit by Queen Elizabeth. It has been estimated that some £10 million in today’s money was spent on creating a lavish Elizabethan pleasure garden with five lakes, avenues of lime trees, and a a tilting ground for jousting.

Gawsworth Hall: gardens

The rose garden to the rear of the house

Leaving the house, its fine rooms and its history, I emerged into the afternoon sunshine to hear Richard Thompson starting his sound-check.  Though we had been temporarily barred from the performance area I was able to enjoy a crystal-clear, note-perfect cover of  ‘Going Back’, one of my favourite oldies.  As the sound-check continued, I lay down in the sun with my own picnic, a glass of Rioja and Donna Tartt’s engrossing Goldfinch.  Perfection.

Gawsworth 3bGawsworth 3

I might try this in our back garden…

Soon, though, 7:30 rolled around and support band The Rails took to the stage. The Rails are a folk-rock duo comprising Thompson’s daughter Kamila and her husband James Walbourne, who is one hell of a guitarist. Kami is a fine singer whose voice at times held echoes of that of her mother, Linda.  The pair played a mix of traditional and original songs off their first album Fair Warning that featured gorgeous harmonies (think Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris) and outstanding guitar by Walbourne.  Nick Hornby once proclaimed that ‘Walbourne’s fluid, tasteful, beautiful solos drop the jaw, stop the heart, and smack the gob, all at the same time’.  So no reservations there.

The Rails

The Rails

There were tracks from the debut album like ‘Breakneck Speed’, ‘Panic Attack Blues’ and ‘Send Her to Holloway’  (described by Kami as ‘songs so icky, and potent, and heart wrenching, they could have been written 500 years or 10 minutes ago, it doesn’t matter’), but for me the highlights of the set were their first single ‘Bonnie Portmore’ and ‘Lonely (Left Me)’, a song from a forthcoming Thompson ‘family album’ that will feature Richard,Teddy, Kami, James and Kami’s mother Linda.

There’s a great video on the Clash magazine website of The Rails with a few friends on a recent pub crawl. Kami and James are joined by Ed Harcourt and Linda Thompson, performing in two traditional London pubs: Notting Hill’s The Cock & Bottle and Gospel Oak’s Southampton Arms.  The video was filmed in two parts; part one can be seen now at: The Rails Head Out On A Pub Crawl. The second part will be premiered next week.


Richard Thompson: beret present and correct

The light was beginning to fade as swallows swooped  and dived above the stage when Richard appeared, looking trim and dapper in the trademark military style black beret.  He got down to business right away with a spirited account of ‘ Valerie’. Thompson is touring to promote his new album, Acoustic Classics, a selection of re-recorded favourites from his extensive back catalogue.  On the album there are several tracks – like ‘Valerie’ – that first appeared in electric band versions. The new recordings retain much of the power and attack of the originals, despite being performed solo on acoustic guitar.  That’s the brilliance of RT, revealed many times during the evening: he can generate as much dynamism from the strings of one guitar as can a roomful of musicians.

RT 2  Chris Bates

As much energy as a roomful of musicians

Thompson reprised a few of the classics from the new album – ‘Walking On A Wire’, ‘I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight’ and ‘Persuasion’ – but, surprisingly perhaps, there was no ‘Beeswing’ or ‘Galway to Graceland’.  Instead there were three songs from Mock Tudor – ‘Hope You Like the New Me’, ‘Bathsheba Smiles’ and ‘Dry My Tears and Move On’.

Thompson’s dry humour and acerbic wit were, as usual, much in evidence – both in the lyrics and in the repartee between numbers (an exchange with an over-excited female in the front row concerning talcum powder, and a put-down for another audience member who had cracked a joke: ‘why don’t you come back for Ken Dodd tomorrow night?’)

‘Johnny’s Far Away’ was introduced as a song about ‘what musicians get up to on the road, and what the spouses get up to at home’ – ‘a bit of a sea shanty’.  ‘You have a sea shanty tradition here, don’t you, living so near the ocean?’ Then there was ‘Fergus Lang’, a bitter and twisted  song about a developer called Fergus Lang, a thinly-disguised Donald Trump.  It features the line, ‘Fergus Lang, he builds and builds/Yet short is his erection’, and another about Fergus Lang having a fine head of hair, ‘but only if the wind is blowing in the right direction’.

Thompson expressed his surprise at his new album being number 9 in the UK album charts (the first time he’s ever penetrated the top ten), and then, introducing ‘Good Things Happen to Bad People’, he observed that the song had been nominated  for best song at last year’s Americana Awards.  But had lost.  ‘So, here: listen to a loser’.  One song that is certainly no loser is ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’, in my view just possibly RT’s most accomplished song (though it’s a difficult call). There’s a new recording of it on Acoustic Classics, and he gave us a marvellous version at Gawsworth, decorated with filigree guitar work.  Here’s a great account of the song, captured four years ago on YouTube:

‘I used to be in a band, you know.  Paul McCartney used to be in a band, too’.  Back in the sixties that was.  Thompson noted that, looking at us, a mere 10% of the audience looked like they had missed the sixties.  For them he sang ‘Genesis Hall, his song about a hippie squat in an abandoned hotel in London’s Drury Lane.  Police evicted the squatters, and smashed up the building. At the time, Thompson’s father was a member of the London police force. The song, said Thompson, ‘tells you all you need to know about the sixties’:

My father he rides with your sheriffs
And I know he would never mean harm
But to see both sides of a quarrel
Is to judge without hate or love …

You take away homes from the homeless
And leave them to die in the cold

Another song that spoke to the experience of the generation making up the bulk of the audience was ‘Read About Love’, which perfectly captures the misinformation and confusion about sex experienced  by those who grew up in the fifties:

Asked my daddy when I was thirteen
Daddy can you tell me what love really means?
His eyes went glassy, not a word was said
He poured another beer and his face turned red
Asked my mother, she acted the same
She never looked up, she seemed so ashamed
Asked my teacher, he reached for the cane
He said, don’t mention that subject again
So I read about love-read it in a magazine
Read about love – Cosmo and Seventeen
Read about love – In the back of a Hustler, Hustler, Hustler
So I know what makes girls sigh

Thompson had obviously been absorbing Gawsworth’s Shakespearian connections, pulling from his 1000 Years of Popular Music project Frank Loesser’s 1940s hip-jive ‘Dog Eat Dog in Denmark’ in which Hamlet is reduced to a four-minute smile.  As Thompson said, ‘You have to wonder whether Shakespeare overdid the padding.   Was he being paid by the line?’

Hamlet was the prince of a spot called Denmark
There never was such a frantic guy either before or since
He was a dreamboy, and like a hole in the head Denmark needed that prince

He bumped off his uncle and he poisoned his mother
And he drove his girl to suicide and he stabbed her big brother
Cause he didn’t want nobody else but himself should live
He was what you might call uncooperative …

That was followed by a more sober interlude: three short pieces about World War 1 derived from letters home written by soldiers at the front. Thompson has set the words to music for a project commissioned by 14-18 NOW, due for completion in 2016 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme.  They sounded very much like a work in progress.

Towards the end of the concert Thompson invited ‘an old friend’ to join him on stage, and across the lawn came Christine Collister who served as a member of the Richard Thompson Band in the late 1980s, taking the part on many songs previously filled by Linda Thompson before the separation.  Together, Collister and Thompson sang ‘I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight’, followed by ‘Ghosts in the Wind’ from the 1992 album, Across a Crowded Room.  Thompson’s shivering guitar and Collister’s vocals made this a tremendously atmospheric version of a song that conjures images of a building that shifts and creaks, as if stirred by the memories locked inside its walls (again, maybe, when drawing up the set list, Thompson was influenced by his surroundings):

Now this old house moves
This old house moves and moans
The tongues of the night
The tongues of the night stir my bones

I’m empty and cold
I’m empty and cold like a ruin
The wind tears through me
The wind tears through me like a ruin

Thompson and Collister next collaborated on a spine-tingling ‘Wall Of Death’ (there’s a YouTube video, made some time in the late eighties, of them doing the same number):

Finally, they were joined on stage by The Rails to perform another song from that forthcoming family album, called ‘That’s Enough’.  Uncompromising lyrics about us ‘still falling for the same old lies’ echoed across leafy, plush, comfortable Cheshire as a thousand voices were urged to join the chorus:  ‘Times are tough …that’s enough’.

Richard Thompson tour poster

Richard Thompson Acoustic Classics tour poster

Gawsworth gallery

See also

Much Ado About Nothing in Calderstones Park: better to weep at joy

Much Ado About Nothing in Calderstones Park: better to weep at joy

Much Ado

Chris Starkie as the night constable Dogberry: ‘I am an ass, though it be not written down’

How much better is it to weep at joy than to joy at weeping.
Leonato, Much Ado About Nothing, Act 1, scene 1

This is the trouble with inviting the Globe Theatre to perform Shakespeare outdoors in Calderstones Park: the local groundlings lurk in trees and bushes, ruffians and scoundrels the lot of them, cackling and chattering so loudly you can hardly follow the bard’s dialogue.

On a warm summer’s evening the birds of Calderstones were rightly, and joyously, vociferous.  But their contribution only enhanced the agreeable atmosphere engendered by watching what is, perhaps, Shakespeare’s most feelgood play, Much Ado About Nothing, presented by eight versatile actors from the Globe Theatre on tour.

An Elizabethan-style booth stage had been set up in the garden behind the Mansion House and there was soon a Glyndebourne-style atmosphere as the audience assembled, armed with folding chairs, waterproofs and rugs (not needed on this balmy evening).  Then out came the strawberries and cream, the cava and the nibbles as the crowd settled down for the two hours of comedy, repartee and verbal wit that Much Ado affords.

An engaging and successful performance of Much Ado will depend especially on the electricity generated by the actors playing Benedick and Beatrice (‘They never meet, but there is a skirmish of wit between them’). As someone who was totally seduced by the sparks that flew between Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson in Branagh’s 1994 version filmed in a golden Tuscany, I wondered how the Globe troupe would hold up.  I need not have worried.

Benedick: What, my dear Lady Disdain! are you yet living?
Beatrice: Is it possible disdain should die while she hath such meet food to feed it as Signior Benedick? Courtesy itself must convert to disdain, if you come in her presence.

In this touring Globe Theatre production the tall and slender Emma Pallant is paired with Simon Bubb’s self-opinionated Benedick, scornful of love and marriage. The warring couple have at least one thing in common: they are both dedicated to dissembling and rapid-fire repartee.

In our last conflict four of his five wits went halting off, and now is the whole man governed with one: so that if he have wit enough to keep himself warm, let him bear it for a difference between himself and his horse; for it is all the wealth that he hath left, to be known a reasonable creature.
Beatrice, scene 1

Much Ado Simon Bubb as Benedick

Simon Bubb as Benedick

Beatrice and Benedick are such a strong pair of personalities that they might leave other characters in the shade. But all eight members of the cast (performing multiple parts) make this truly an ensemble piece, with the comedy and drama undiluted, even when the sparring duo are off-stage. The versatile cast swap roles, costumes and musical instruments with tremendous verve.  Music and dance enliven the drama as the cast deploy a range of instruments – accordion, guitar, trombone – to provide a Renaissance party atmosphere, especially in the masked banquet scene.

Much Ado About Nothing - Emma Pallant (Beatrice) and Simin Bubb (Benedick)

A Renaissance party atmosphere in the masked banquet scene

It’s easy to forget that the Beatrice and Benedick storyline is a subplot that has taken over the play. At the heart of this romantic comedy is the darker story of Claudio and Hero, the young couple brought together by Don Pedro, prince of Aragon before being torn apart by the prince’s villainous brother, Don John.

Gemma Lawrence does her best with the quiet and gentle Hero who has the fewest lines of the four primary characters, while Sam Phillips is suitably gauche and immature as Claudio, who falls in love with Hero over the course of one silent meeting, can’t even court her on his own, and then resigns her entirely at the hint that she might like Don Pedro better.

MuchAdo EmmaPallant and Robert Pickavance

 Emma Pallant as Beatrice and Robert Pickavance as her uncle Leonato

Dogberry, the comically incompetent night constable with an unremitting tendency to abuse the English language, is played by Chris Starkie (who also doubles as Don John).  The scenes with Dogberry and his band of watchmen are hilarious, and – I think, unusually in a Shakespeare play – essential to the forward movement of the play. Dogberry fulfils an important role in the plot,  bringing Don John’s treachery into the light of day, as well as lightening the enveloping darkness that follows Hero’s supposed death in what is, after all, intended as a comedy. It’s Dogberry who brings Borachio before Don Pedro to confess how Don John incited him to slander and disgrace Hero – as Dogberry explains in his inimitable manner:

Marry, sir, they have committed false report;
moreover, they have spoken untruths;
secondarily, they are slanders;
sixth and lastly, they have belied a lady;
thirdly, they have verified unjust things;
and, to conclude, they are lying knaves.

Much Ado Dogberry and his watchmen

Dogberry and his watchmen

Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more;
Men were deceivers ever;
One foot in sea and one on shore,
To one thing constant never;
Then sigh not so,
But let them go,
And be you blithe and bonny;
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into. Hey nonny, nonny.

Reflecting on this ostensibly sunny play, it’s interesting how dark it gets at times (for instance, with Benedick swearing to kill Claudio), the part which deception plays in it.  There is the self-deception of Benedick and Beatrice, who deceive themselves into believing they feel nothing for each other, and then are both tricked into believing the other is in love with them. Ultimately, their marriage is the result of all this deception.  There is more deception when Don Pedro offers to woo Hero on Claudio’s behalf, and then there is the deception instigated by Don John intended to frustrate Claudio’s marriage to Hero by ruining her reputation.

Much Ado Beatrice and Hero

Emma Pallant as Beatrice and Gemma Lawrence as Hero

In the excellent programme that accompanies the production there is an interesting essay by John F Cox that explains how, at the beginning of the 20th century, two different productions of Much Ado profoundly influenced modern Shakespearian production by rejecting the pictorial realism of Victorian productions in favour of simpler staging and faster-paced productions.

Cox writes that ‘anticipating practice at today’s Globe, these productions returned to staging Shakespeare in the manner of Elizabethan theatre, with an apron stage for audience rapport, an absence of realistic set scenery, continuous action with no scene breaks, and Renaissance music played on traditional instruments.  All these elements were present in this production by the Globe, with highlights being the uproariously funny eavesdropping scenes, achieved without elaborate staging: a few boxes of oranges or a wet washing line being all that was needed to represent the hiding places in which conversations could be overheard.

The Globe Theatre came to Calderstones at the invitation of the Reader Organisation which also organized last year’s sell out production of King Lear and re-established the Garden Theatre as a venue, after having taken over the Mansion House to develop their International Centre for Reading and Wellbeing  to provide a home for the Reader Organisation where they offer educational and literary courses, reading holidays, well-being breaks for carers and many more activities.

See also

My English Renaissance

My English Renaissance

Sir Thomas Wyatt by Hans Holbein the Younger, c1535-7

Hans Holbein, drawing of  Sir Thomas Wyatt, c 1535-7

My English Renaissance came while doing my A-levels in the mid-1960s.  Never before, or since, have I been so inspired, so transported by the process of discovering new worlds.  The first person fortunate enough to go to grammar school (and later university) on either side of my family (one part urban, industrial working class; the other Derbyshire farm labourers, quarrymen and lead miners), I was taking English Literature and History, and for two years I was immersed in that period of enquiry, exploration and artistic flowering under the Tudors that culminated with Shakespeare: the English Renaissance.

I’m recalling those teenage years, having been watching A Very British Renaissance, the BBC 2 series presented by art historian Dr James Fox in which he presented a pretty decent overview of the English renaissance, dealing not just with art and architecture, science and music (in which the English achievement was arguably well outshone by developments south of the Alps), but with literature, too.  It was good to have a series that ranged across all of these fields, though there were some oddities, not least the way Fox repeatedly declaimed ‘I believe’ or ‘I think’ before arguing a point, as if he were putting forth some radically fresh perspective when the point wasn’t new at all.

He began, for example, with the assertion that:

The Renaissance is supposed to have passed us by. But the British did have a renaissance, and it was bold; it was beautiful; and it was brilliant.

This was odd, coming from someone so obviously learned, since historians were using the term ‘English Renaissance‘ when I was at school (and that was a long time ago).  And given that many choosing to watch his series might also have heard of  John Donne, or Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe or Ben Jonson – let alone William Shakespeare. Many will have wandered into an art gallery and been stunned by Holbein’s art.  Or have been enthralled by the music of Thomas Tallis or John Dowland.

Still, it was a worthwhile series in which Fox explored how Renaissance ideas came to these shores with the arrival of a handful of influential European artists bringing ideas from the continent in the early 16th century – from Pietro Torrigiano, fleeing Florence after breaking Michelangelo’s nose and then being commissioned by Henry VIII  to create the monument to Henry VII  in Westminster Abbey, to Hans Holbein who sketched and painted portraits of men and women at the court of Henry VIII.  From these first seeds sprang a Renaissance as rich and as significant as that of Italy and Northern Europe – collectively, painters, sculptors, poets, playwrights, composers, craftsmen and scientists developed revolutionary new ways of seeing the world.

Portrait of John Donne by an unknown English artist

What was it about this period that drew me so powerfully as a teenager?  I suppose it was the thrill of seeing elements of the modern world emerging combined with the pastoralism of some of the texts we were reading.  At that time still, where I lived the suburbs were only just beginning to edge their way into open countryside.  I had grown up in a semi-rural setting, and so when we studied The Winter’s Tale, and Perdita makes her ‘speech of flowers’ that begins ‘I would I had some flowers o’ the spring that might become your time of day’ and continues:

That come before the swallow dares, and take
The winds of March with beauty; violets dim,
But sweeter than the lids of Juno’s eyes
Or Cytherea’s breath; pale prime-roses,
That die unmarried, ere they can behold
Bright Phœbus in his strength, a malady
Most incident to maids; bold oxlips and
The crown imperial; lilies of all kinds,
The flower-de-luce being one. O! these I lack
To make you garlands of, and my sweet friend,
To strew him o’er and o’er!

Shakespeare’s words spoke of natural things that were already very familiar (and it was also the year of the summer of love and ‘wear some flowers in your hair’).

I don’t think there’s ever been a time in my life when poetry spoke so powerfully.  I was listening to Dylan and reading Wifred Owen and the other war poets out of school (they weren’t on the curriculum – yet; it was another war in Vietnam that had led me to them).  And of all the poets, it was John Donne that I loved the most.  I relished the intellectual puzzles presented by the conceits of metaphysical poetry, and was swept away by the forthright language and erotic imagery of Donne’s verses.  Looking at the portrait of him on the cover of my textbook, he seemed as cool and utterly modern as Dylan on the cover of albums like Highway 61 and Bringing it All Back Home that I was listening to at the time.

Donne's house

The ‘Summer House’ at Pyrford where Donne lived 1600-1604

One of Donne’s poems we studied back then was ‘The Good Morrow’.  In the last programme of his series, James Fox read  this love poem written at a time of the discovery of new lands that is suggestive of Donne poring over maps of the new world (‘O my America, my new-found-land…’):

I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved? Were we not weaned till then?
But sucked on country pleasures, childishly?
Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers’ den?
’Twas so; but this, all pleasures fancies be.
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a dream of thee.

And now good-morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear;
For love, all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,
Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown,
Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.

My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;
Where can we find two better hemispheres,
Without sharp north, without declining west?
Whatever dies, was not mixed equally;
If our two loves be one, or, thou and I
Love so alike, that none do slacken, none can die.

He was filmed punting down the Wey Navigation in Surrey and arriving at a small brick tower known as the Summer House.  This tiny structure, fourteen feet square, may well be the ‘one little room’ in which the poem is set.

There were other poems by Donne that set a teenage heart pounding in 1966, not least these lines from ‘To His Mistress Going to Bed’:

Licence my roving hands, and let them go,
Before, behind, between, above, below.
O my America! my new-found-land,
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man mann’d,
My Mine of precious stones, My Empirie,
How blest am I in this discovering thee!
To enter in these bonds, is to be free;
Then where my hand is set, my seal shall be.
Full nakedness! All joys are due to thee,
As souls unbodied, bodies uncloth’d must be,
To taste whole joys.

But my favourite of all Donne’s poems was (perhaps because of that ‘Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide/Late schoolboys’), and remains, ‘The Sun Rising‘ – ‘one of the most joyous love poems ever written’, according to Carol Rumens writing in the Guardian:

Busy old fool, unruly Sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows and through curtains call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late schoolboys and sour ‘prentices,
Go tell court huntsmen that the King will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices;
Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.

Thy beams, so reverend and strong
Why shoulds’t thou think?
I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink,
But that I would not lose her sight so long;
If her eyes have not blinded thine,
Look, and tomorrow late, tell me,
Whether both th’Indias of spice and mine
Be where thou left’st them, or lie here with me?
Ask for those kings whom thou saw’st yesterday,
And thou shalt hear, ‘All here in one bed lay.’

She’s all states, and all princes, I;
Nothing else is.
Princes do but play us; compared to this,
All honour’s mimic, all wealth alchemy.
Thou, Sun, art half as happy as we,
In that the world’s contracted thus;
Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
To warm the world, that’s done in warming us.
Shine here, to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed thy centre is, these walls, thy sphere.

Holbein drawing Henry Howard, aged 15

Hans Holbein, drawing of Henry Howard, aged 15

Our A-level History syllabus formed a perfect dovetail with the literature of the Tudor and early Stuart years – Shakespeare, Donne, Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair, Marlowe’s Dr Faustus, and even England’s first novel, Jack of Newbury –  as we explored (courtesy of Ben Elton’s uncle) the constitutional changes wrought by Henry VIII’s chief minister Thomas Cromwell. Changes that began the long, slow process that modified medieval, monarchical rule and marked the beginnings of modern, law-based government.

Back then I was familiar with one or two of Holbein’s Tudor portraits, notably those of Henry VIII and Cromwell, but it was only later that I got to know more of the superb drawings and paintings he made of men and women at the court of Henry VIII.  James Fox paid close attention to them in the second programme in his series.

One of the drawings made by Holbein that Fox lingered over was that of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, made when he was about 15 years old and exactly halfway through his life. He’s a character who will be familiar to readers of Hilary Mantel – after the king had had Anne Boleyn executed on charges of adultery and treason, and made paranoid by suggestions of Surrey’s involvement with Boleyn, Henry had him executed.

Another suspected Boleyn lover who escaped execution was Sir Thomas Wyatt.  Fox claimed him as the most impressive English poet of the early 16th century. Wyatt was an important courtier and diplomat throughout the 1530s, but the court of Henry VIII was a dangerous place and his poetry often reflects the power struggles, paranoia and uncertainties of the time.  Fox discussed his poem ‘They Flee From Me’, which may refer to any one of Wyatt’s affairs with high-born women of the court of Henry VIII, possibly with Anne Boleyn.

They flee from me that sometime did me seek
With naked foot, stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek,
That now are wild and do not remember
That sometime they put themself in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range,
Busily seeking with a continual change.

Thanked be fortune it hath been otherwise
Twenty times better; but once in special,
In thin array after a pleasant guise,
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small;
Therewithall sweetly did me kiss
And softly said, “Dear heart, how like you this?”

It was no dream: I lay broad waking.
But all is turned thorough my gentleness
Into a strange fashion of forsaking;
And I have leave to go of her goodness,
And she also, to use newfangleness.
But since that I so kindly am served
I would fain know what she hath deserved.

Holbein’s exceptional portraits – more than just photographic representations, they seem to capture the sitter’s soul – reflect a moment, Fox argued, ‘when people stopped thinking of themselves as ‘types’ – courtiers, knights – and started thinking of themselves as individuals’.

Holbein portrait 1 Holbein portrait 2

Preparatory drawings for portraits by Hans Holbein

In these three programmes, James Fox ranged over many aspects of the English Renaissance with which I would not have been familiar as a schoolboy.  In the second episode, while exploring the Elizabethans’ love of secrecy, codes and complexity, he examined a painting that has become familiar in recent years since Rita hung a framed print of it in her study.  It’s a widescreen-format painting made around 1596 by unknown artist that literally tells the story of Sir Henry Unton, a diplomat during Elizabeth’s reign. After his death in 1596 while serving as ambassador to France, his widow commissioned an unknown artist to paint this unusual portrait of Unton and his life. In addition to showing the sitter as he appeared shortly before his death, the painting also uses a narrative, comic-strip style to show important events in his life, beginning with his birth and ending with his funeral procession.

Sir Henry Unton by an unknown artist

Fox’s case was that this painting is an example of how, at this time, the British preferred to ‘read’ paintings rather than look at them. An Elizabethan would have started at the bottom-right corner where Unton is depicted in red as a baby. Then, moving to the building just to the left, we see him as a student at Oxford University. Along the top right, the adult Unton travels through Europe as a diplomat.  Following his life journey round the main portrait, the viewer sees Unton on his deathbed, and then his funeral cortege. This isn’t just Unton’s portrait, said Fox: it’s his biography.

Cookmaid with Still Life of Vegetables and Fruit circa 1620-5 by Sir Nathaniel Bacon 1585-1627

Nathaniel Bacon, Cookmaid with Still Life of Vegetables and Fruit, c.1620-5

Another painting from this period which I noticed for the first time during a recent visit to Tate Britain is Nathaniel Bacon’s Cookmaid with Still Life of Vegetables and Fruit. Bacon was a wealthy man whose hobbies, gardening and painting, were spectacularly combined here. It’s a painting that can be appreciated in several ways.  In one sense, it’s Bacon representing his success in growing fine specimens of fruit and vegetables that would have been unusual to contemporary viewers. In another it’s a metaphor for Britain’s global power: these marrows, squashes, pumpkins, cucumbers and runner beans originated in  the New World; and the grapes from the Far East.  Finally (or maybe primarily?), the painting is a lascivious celebration of the erotic: the abundance of ripe melons (one of them sliced provocatively) surround the cookmaid, echoing her voluptuous cleavage.

Nathanial Bacon, Landscape,

Nathaniel Bacon, Landscape

James Fox made a surprising claim for this painting by Bacon – that it is the earliest surviving landscape painted by a native artist in Britain, though indebted to Flemish and Italian styles.

Queens Palace 1 Queens Palace 2

The Queen’s House, Greenwich, designed by Inigo Jones

Fox drew his survey of the British Renaissance to a close with an architectural gem (one we had passed, but did not enter, during our recent visit to the Maritime Museum in Greenwich).  The Queen’s House, on the waterfront at Greenwich, was commissioned by Anne of Denmark, wife of James I, after the king sought to make amends to Anne for having sworn at her in public when she accidentally shot one of his favourite dogs while hunting in 1614.

The building was designed, inside and out, by architect Inigo Jones, and represents the first fully Classical building seen in England.  Fox explained how Jones, who had risen to fame as a designer of court entertainments, was appointed Surveyor of the King’s Works in 1617 to carry out the commission.  Jones had recently spent three years in Italy studying Roman and Renaissance architecture. This was his first important commission and his first application of the architectural principles he had studied while in Italy.  The highlights the building are the beautiful ‘tulip stairs’ (the first centrally unsupported spiral stair in Britain), and the fine marble floor of the ground floor Hall.

William Shakespeare, John Taylor

William Shakespeare by John Taylor, c 1600-10

John Taylor’s is is the only portrait of Shakespeare that has any claim to have been painted from life.  It was probably made sometime during the miraculous final decade of Shakespeare’s creative output that produced (inter alia) Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, Othello, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest.  The last four of those named (along with the comedy of Henry IV Part One) were the plays on my curriculum, with The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest being the ones that most inspired me with their redemptive poetry, their ‘spirits to enforce, art to enchant’, their evocation of a society learning for the first time of brave new worlds.

And that was the point, of course.  Exploration and colonisation were key factors in the growing prosperity of English society during its Renaissance years.  The spirit of enquiry and exploration lead to the discovery of new lands – but also to encounters with previously unknown peoples.

O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!

Reflecting this, James Fox examined the work of John White, an English artist and member of one of the first English efforts to settle the New World. He was among those who sailed with Richard Grenville to North Carolina in 1585, acting as artist and mapmaker to the expedition. During his time at Roanoke Island he made a number of watercolour sketches of the surrounding landscape and the native Algonquin people.

John White, The Manner of Their Fishing

 John White, The Manner of Their Fishing, 1585

White had been commissioned to ‘draw to life’ the inhabitants of the New World and their surroundings. The resulting watercolours are significant as they represent the most informative illustrations of a Native American society of the Eastern seaboard.  They represent the sole surviving visual record of the native inhabitants of America whose lives and social arrangements were soon to be devastated.

John White, A Festive Dance,

John White, A Festive Dance, 1585

If … Twelfth Night at the Everyman

If … Twelfth Night at the Everyman

Twelfth Night


Gemma Bodinetz’s exuberant inaugural production of Twelfth Night in the magnificent new Everyman underlines the dreamlike, fairy-tale nature of Shakespeare’s comedy by having Orsino repeat the play’s opening-word three times. What if  gender expectations were turned inside out? What if social hierarchies were turned upside down? What if dreams could come true?

Those three words are spoken before a coup de theatre in which the shipwrecked Viola is vomited forth from the water onto the stage of Illyria. One of the many pleasures of this productions is the sense you have of the Everyman company enjoying playing with their new toolbox of stage devices which enables actors to literally swim on stage, allows hanging baskets to descend from the heavens, and for elaborately garlanded arches to be extended across the rear of the stage.

But make no mistake: the technical capabilities are not overdone, and the focus remains firmly in the Everyman tradition on the actors, ensemble playing, and on exploiting the advantages of actors being in close proximity to the audience on the familiar, restored thrust stage.

Artistic director Gemma Bodinetz has said she wanted this inaugural show to be an ensemble piece and it is certainly that, bringing together Matthew Kelly as Sir Toby Belch and Nick Woodeson (Malvolio) from the classic Everyman company of 1974 (they’re at the front in the iconic photo taken that year) with a fantastic cast of seasoned and younger players who grab with both hands the opportunities offered by a play that brims with great individual parts.

If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it…

Bodinetz has spoken, too, of the appropriateness of the play’s themes to the Everyman: freedom of spirit, naughtiness, and love. It’s rooted in Elizabethan Twelfth Night customs (and appears to have been first performed on Twelfth Night in 1602). The festival of Epiphany, 12 days after Christmas, was traditionally a time for merry-making, for pranks and disguises. This is the atmosphere of Illyria –  a land where individuals love to distraction, and excess of love, drink and renegade spirit leads to confusion and not a little madness.

Written sometime between 1599 and 1601 (just before he embarked on Hamlet), Twelfth Night is considered by many  to represent Shakespeare’s greatest romantic comedy. Like the post-Christmas feast of its title, the play is  a joyful occasion for merrymaking, topsy-turvy reversal, and misrule.  Twelfth Night brought the Christmas holiday to a close (at one point the cast sing a capering ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’), and the comic spirit of the occasion was that of the world turned upside down.  The feast was traditionally presided over by a Lord of Misrule whose role was to depose whoever was in authority and to instigate some sort of carnivalesque disorder (I’m reminded of the time I experienced Women’s Carnival day in Cologne, when women symbolically assume power over their male-counterparts, playing pranks on men by cutting off their ties).

In the programme there’s a quote from literary critic LG Salinger that captures perfectly the carnival atmosphere of the play; there is, he writes:

A prolonged season of misrule, or ‘uncivil rule’, in Olivia’s household, with Sir Toby turning night into day; there are drinking, dancing and singing, scenes of mock wooing, a mock sword fight, and the gulling of an unpopular member of the household, with Feste mumming it as a priest and attempting a mock exorcism in the manner of the Feast of Fools.

What could be more Everyman?  Director and players have captured the play’s transgressive nature with a joyous energy, and though some critics complained about the length of the performance (well over three hours), the time just flies. As Liz Lacey aptly concluded on the Seven Streets blog:

It struck me throughout that Twelfth Night is a most fitting choice of play for a Liverpool theatre and audience; it is soaked with music and riddled with wordplay, high emotions and romantic delusions abound, along with mischief and a spirit of joyous anarchy… all qualities we understand locally, and export in large amounts. The all-singing, all dancing finale makes a statement of intent…’We strive to please you every day’. In this city of entertainment, excitement, melancholy and mirth, we could do worse than adopt this as a civic motto, and the Everyman has already set it to music for us.

‘I am not what I am’

This is a play about transformation, the ambiguity of gender roles, about imagining other worlds, other possibilities. So many characters assume disguises, beginning with Viola (Jodie McNee, looking extraordinarily like kd Lang), who dons a blue trouseer suit and convinces Orsino and everyone else that she is a man.  McNee’s is an impressive performance, her reincarnation as a young man observed with attention to detail, such as the way she, like her brother Sebastian brushes back her hair.

Matthew Kelly as Sir Toby Belch, Paul Duckworth as Feste and Adam Keast as Sir Andrew Aguecheek

Local actors were outstanding: Pauline Daniels as Olivia’s lady in waiting Maria, Adam Keast as the mincing Sir Andrew Aguecheek (he reminded me of Rik Mayall), and especially Paul Duckworth as Feste, drag queen, clown and musician.  Music plays an important part in Twelfth Night, and the production features several excellent arrangements of the songs by Peter Coyte, including two versions of ‘Come away’, one sung by Feste, the other by a spotlit Jodie McNee as Viola:

Come away, come away, death,
And in sad cypress let me be laid;
Fly away, fly away breath;
I am slain by a fair cruel maid.
My shroud of white, stuck all with yew,
O, prepare it!
My part of death, no one so true
Did share it.
Not a flower, not a flower sweet
On my black coffin let there be strown;
Not a friend, not a friend greet
My poor corpse, where my bones shall be thrown:
A thousand thousand sighs to save,
Lay me, O, where
Sad true lover never find my grave,
To weep there!

One detail: all through the early scenes, in a chair at the back of the stage, sleeps a priest who wakes with a start occasionally when someone gives him a poke or a kick.  It reminded me of Father Jack in Father Ted.

There’s something of The Winter’s Tale about this play, with its joyful resolutions.  Then, with Feste’s last song, we are ushered back to the imperfect world of the everyday where ‘the rain it raineth every day’.  But Gemma Bodinetz  gives us a joyous finale of streamers and balloons as the cast sing heartily:

A great while ago the world begun,
With hey, ho,
But that’s all one, our play is done,
And we’ll strive to please you every day.

And with that promise, I see perfectly why Bodinetz chose this for the opening show.  The result is one of the best Shakespeare productions I’ve seen.

We’ve got the Everyman back.  How good is that?


See also

Hamlet at the RSC: an antic disposition

Jonathan Slinger as Hamlet
Jonathan Slinger as Hamlet

Over the weekend we stayed with our friends in Uttoxeter who drove us over to Stratford to see the current RSC production of Hamlet that has Jonathan Slinger in the title role.  It’s an unusual, even rather strange envisioning, with Slinger presenting Hamlet in a quite idiosyncratic manner in places – for example, entering the stage before the ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy singing Ken Dodd’s ‘Happiness’.

David Farr’s direction came in for a lot of criticism when the play opened; for example, in the Telegraph, Charles Spencer wrote:

His production is annoying, too. Farr is the kind of director who has 20 bright ideas before breakfast and bungs them all on stage to prove how clever he is. Sometimes it works but a show-offy approach to Hamlet strikes me as verging on the obscene.

I certainly wouldn’t go that far – overall the production was an enjoyable one, with interesting staging in certain scenes and some fine acting. But there was an oddness about it. The first thing that discomfited me was Hamlet’s appearance in the opening scenes: balding, glasses, suit, he seemed too old. As Charles Spencer observed:

With his piscine features, thinning hair and ill-fitting suit he looks more like an embittered low-rank civil servant than a prince.

Jonathan Slinger as Hamlet in suit and glasses
Jonathan Slinger as Hamlet in suit and glasses

Or a recent student one might add (though, following the encounter with the ghost, Slinger removed the glasses he had worn in the opening scenes, and began to look – and behave – more like a freshly-minted graduate).

This production (and two essays in the worst RSC programme I’ve ever seen) focusses on depression – for most of western history, as Erin Sullivan notes in her essay, known to doctors and sufferers as melancholy.

How strange or odd soe’er I bear myself,
As I perchance hereafter shall think meet
To put an antic disposition on

Hamlet is presented as mad from the start, and whereas most productions more or less go along with his claim that his madness is feigned, this one doesn’t. Even before he claims that he will ‘put an antic disposition on, he looks haunted and is prone to hide in a corner and howl.

The play has been set in some indeterminate modern period (some critics thought the sixties, and it is true that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern share a spliff with Hamlet).  The set places us in a large hall, with a stage at one end – perhaps a community centre or school assembly hall.  It’s somewhere that probably doubles as a gym: there are wallbars and racks along the side for fencing foils (fencing is this production’s other big theme: swords line the hall, the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears in full fencing gear, his face covered by a fencing mask, and the duel between Hamlet and Laertes takes place as part of a fencing contest).

It’s all a bit muddled, with lots of ideas thrown into the pot.  So, since we’re in Denmark, Ophelia wears a Sarah Lund jumper, and – as if also referencing The Killing – powerful electric torches are used to probe the shadows, while fluorescent strip lights coldly illuminate palace rooms.

Above the stage at the far end of the hall are written the Latin words mens sana in corpore sano, ‘a sound mind in a healthy body’, seeming to suggest that if Hamlet would only buck up and get over it, he’d be fine. The big bonus of this stage comes with the play-within-a-play scene: both the dumb-show and the play itself were done brilliantly.

Other than these elements, the set is simple: later in the play the wooden flooring is lifted to reveal earth, from which skulls are disinterred and into which Ophelia is laid to rest. In another example of the magpie references, Ophelia lies there looking every inch like the Millais painting.  Curiously, Pippa Nixon is left lying in this pose at the front of the stage for the rest of the play.

Pippa Nixon as Ophelia
Pippa Nixon as Ophelia

The scenes in which Ophelia appears seemed to reflect the confusion at the heart of this production: she is presented as a shy schoolmistress hefting a pile of exercise books to mark, while Jonathan Slinger’s portrayal of Hamlet’s relationship with her is odd.  In the ‘get thee to a nunnery’ scene his Hamlet attacks Opelia with great violence, stripping off her clothes and holding a knife to her throat as he screams,  ‘Be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow … Get thee to a nunnery…’

It’s shocking – but not just because of the violence; it’s a shock because the force of the violence seems to come out of nowhere.  There were other ways in which motivation was hard to comprehend in this production. Greg Hicks played Claudius with swaggering arrogance, but with to suggest why he might have been motivated to murder in order to bed the decidedly frumpy-looking Gertrude (played by Charlotte Cornwall). I never believed, either, in the idea that she was sufficiently driven by sexual desire to have gone along with the plan.

Maybe because this summer an old friend of ours took her life, I found myself attuned to the way in which Shakespeare probes the morality of suicide in this play, allowing the attitudes of his day to be expressed in differing voices –  that of Hamlet, the intellectual, and the grave diggers, representing the down-to-earth (sorry!) views of the common man.

Our friend was Catholic, but while Catholic teaching still regards suicide as a grave sin, one of the most moving aspects of the day of her funeral for me (an atheist) was the non-judgemental and compassionate response of the priest and deacon in celebrating Mass for her at the church she had attended.

Things were very different, of course, in Elizabethan society, which dealt harshly with suicide. The extreme reaction against suicide is described in Michael MacDonald and Terence R. Murphy’s book, Sleepless Souls (I’m indebted to the website Hamlet Conundrums for the following quotation):

Suicide was a terrible crime in Tudor and early Stuart England. Self-killing was a species of murder, a felony in criminal law and a desperate sin in the eyes of the church. ‘For the heinousness thereof’, observed Michael Dalton, ‘it is an offense against God, against the king, and against Nature.’ Suicides were tried posthumously by a coroner’s jury, and if they were convicted as self-murderers, they and their heirs were savagely punished. Their moveable goods, including tools, household items, money, debts owed to them, and even leases on the land that they had worked were forfeited to the crown or to the holder of a royal patent who possessed the right to such windfalls in a particular place. Self-murderers were denied Christian burials; their bodies were interred profanely, with a macabre ceremony prescribed by popular custom. The night following the inquest, officials of the parish, the churchwardens and their helpers, carried the corpse to a crossroads and threw it naked into a pit. A wooden stake was hammered through the body, pinioning it in the grave, and the hole was filled in. No prayers for the dead were repeated; the minister did not attend.

Bearing all this in mind, we can see how Shakespeare would have challenged audiences in his time (it also set me wondering whether something had happened in Shakespeare’s circle that caused him to introduce this theme into a revenge tragedy).

Hamlet’s thoughts about suicide are contained, of course, in the famous soliloquy that begins:

To be, or not to be–that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep –
No more – and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to.

Hamlet contemplates suicide, but thinks about the question in the broader context of humanity as a whole. He speculates that a many people would kill themselves ‘but that the dread of something after death’ dissuades them from performing an act that anyone can do – ‘with a bare bodkin’. Death may seem like an easy way to escape problems that beset us, except that nobody can know beforehand what death might mean: it is ‘the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveller returns’:

‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep –
To sleep – perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns …

The gravediggers preparing for Ophelia’s burial contemplate the legal issues at stake. Since suicide is a mortal sin, she should not receive a Christian burial. Were it not for her royal status, Ophelia would have been buried in unsanctified ground. But the coroner has ruled for a Christian burial, and the gravediggers chew over the fevidence of one law for the rich and another for the poor:

Is she to be buried in Christian burial that
wilfully seeks her own salvation?

I tell thee she is: and therefore make her grave
straight: the crowner hath sat on her, and finds it
Christian burial.

But is this law?

Ay, marry, is’t; crowner’s quest law.

Will you ha’ the truth on’t? If this had not been
a gentlewoman, she should have been buried out o’
Christian burial.

Why, there thou say’st: and the more pity that
great folk should have countenance in this world to
drown or hang themselves

Turning to lighter matters: there was a fine attention to comedy in this production, and this was seen at its best in the grave-digging scene, with great performances by David Fielder and Rosie Hilal.  They gave comic sparkle to the lines concerning Hamlet – ‘he that is mad’ – being sent to England.

Ay, marry, why was he sent into England?

Why, because he was mad: he shall recover his wits there; or, if he do not, it’s no great matter there.


‘Twill, a not be seen in him there; there the men are as mad as he.

How came he mad?

Very strangely, they say.

That scene closes with one grave-digger asking the other how long a man must lie in the earth before he rots.

I’ faith, if he be not rotten before he die – as we have many pocky corses now-a-days, that will scarce hold the laying in–he will last you some eight year or nine year: a tanner will last you nine year. … his hide is so tanned with his trade, that he will keep out water a great while; and your water is a sore decayer of your whoreson dead body.

Thinking about it now, I see that the line about water being a ‘sore decayer’ of a dead body may be a clue to understanding one of the real oddities of this production: ending with a fire alarm sounding as sprinklers soaked the stage.

Jonathan Slinger performs Act 1, Scene 2 of Hamlet


Two more Hamlet productions:

King Lear on a summer evening in Calderstones park

King Lear on a summer evening in Calderstones park
Joseph-Marcell as King Lear
Joseph Marcell as King Lear in the Globe Theatre touring production

The Globe Theatre came to Calderstones Park last night, bringing their touring production of King Lear. On a warm evening, with the rain holding off, five hundred of us saw eight actors and two musicians, perform one of Shakespeare’s best-known stories.  A basic wooden stage had been erected in the garden behind Calderstones Mansion House and as the audience gathered, unfolding chairs and unpacking food and drink, the actors trolled around and chatted to the audience.

For Liverpudlians, the Globe Theatre’s visit was especially significant: for the first time in 30 years, live theatre was back at the Garden Theatre in Calderstones. This was all down to the Reader Organisation that recently took over the Mansion House to develop their International Centre for Reading and Wellbeing which will providing a home for The Reader Organisation and offer educational and literary courses, reading holidays, wellbeing breaks for carers and many more activities.

Lear Calderstones
The audience settles in to watch King Lear in Calderstones Garden Theatre

On a warm summer’s evening when the English weather is kind, what could be better than to sit under the trees and, as darkness falls, watch a great play performed by actors from a great company in a production that was full of energy and offered new insights into the play?  As in Shakespeare’s day, the players had to turn their hand, not only to a bit of acting and singing, but also take turns at performing as musicians and stagehands.  They were also required to take on two or more roles each. So before launching into the play, they gave us a song and told us about where this year’s tour had taken them – around Britain, across Europe to Romania and Turkey, and finally (lucky players!) to St Lucia.

Directed by Bill Buckhurst, this was not only an energetic rendition of the story, but also had a lighter, more comedic touch than usual (so, for example, the gore and horror of the scene where Gloucester is blinded culminated with an eye being thrown into the audience). This made for a very different reading of the play to the one we saw at the Everyman in Capital of Culture year (featuring the late Pete Postlethwaite in the lead role) which emphasised the contemporary relevance of the play’s politics of succession and division.  It was also quite different to the harrowing Donmar production we saw in 2011 at the Lowry in Salford.

Globe 2013 Lear BethanCullinane
BethanCullinane as the Fool with Dickon Tyrell as Kent

There were strong performances all round, but special mention should be made of Joseph Marcell’s fine Lear, played with growing emotional intensity and lacerating sense of loss, Bethan Cullinane who, apart from playing Cordelia, also gave us a lively and entertaining fool, the one person at court who possesses the liberty to tell Lear to his face where he has gone wrong.  Ruth Everett and Shanaya Rafaat were brilliant as the hypocritical, amoral sisters Goneril and Regan – I think, perhaps, the best portrayal of the pair who have no conscience, only appetite. Their performance dripped with villainy – the greedy ambition that leads them to crush all opposition, but especially their unrestrained sexual desire for Edmund, which destroys their alliance and leads them to destroy each other.

Lear West Sussex
The Globe perform Lear in West Sussex

A travelling production obviously needs to be a spare one, but this one showed how basic materials produce powerful effects.  This was seen especially in a spine-tingling storm scene that employed nothing more than a flapping curtain and metal thunder sheets. The doubling-up of actors, although a bit confusing at first, added to the liveliness, particularly in a scene where Edmund, played by Oliver Boot (a bit of a Ralph Fiennes lookalike) dashed around changing hats to appear simultaneously as two characters.

King Lear cast performing in Brighton
The cast of King Lear performing in Brighton

Probably because I had just been writing about Dickens’s exploration of the theme of hypocrisy in Martin Chuzzlewit, I noticed how strongly that same theme emerges in the opening scene, with Lear inviting his daughters to pile on their flattery of him in order to gain a share of his kingdom.  Goneril shows no qualms:

Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter;
Dearer than eye-sight, space, and liberty;
Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare;
No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honour;
As much as child e’er loved, or father found;
A love that makes breath poor, and speech unable;
Beyond all manner of so much I love you.

Off to one side, Cordelia resolves to be honest and true:

What shall Cordelia do?
Love, and be silent.

When she speaks she refuses to follow her sisters in their false flattery, saying simply:

Cordelia: Nothing, my lord.

Lear: Nothing!

Cordelia: Nothing.

Lear: Nothing will come of nothing: speak again.

Cordelia: Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth

It’s a wonderful exchange, Pinteresque in its conciseness. Later when Lear, wandering the storm-wracked heath, encounters Poor Tom the beggar my attention was caught by these lines, which also drew a ripple of cynical laughter from the audience.  We were all, no doubt, thinking of more recent behaviour by England’s politicians:

Through tatter’d clothes small vices do appear;
Robes and furr’d gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold,
And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks:
Arm it in rags, a pigmy’s straw does pierce it.
None does offend, none, I say, none; I’ll able ’em:
Take that of me, my friend, who have the power
To seal the accuser’s lips. Get thee glass eyes;
And like a scurvy politician, seem
To see the things thou dost not.

Globe2013 Lear JosephMarcell
Joseph Marcell as Lear

In the programme, essays by Michael Dobson, Professor of Shakespeare at Birmingham University, and Neil Rodes, Professor of English Literature and Cultural History at St Andrews University, highlight the importance of the theme of homelessness and vagrancy in the play.

The country gives me proof and precedent
Of Bedlam beggars, who, with roaring voices,
Strike in their numb’d and mortified bare arms
Pins, wooden pricks, nails, sprigs of rosemary;
And with this horrible object, from low farms,
Poor pelting villages, sheep-cotes, and mills,
Sometime with lunatic bans, sometime with prayers,
Enforce their charity. Poor Turlygod! poor Tom!
That’s something yet: Edgar I nothing am.

When Edgar disguises himself as Poor Tom, an inmate of Bedlam hospital, Shakespeare was bringing into the play one of the key social and political issues at the time that Lear was written and first performed in the first decade of the 17th century. By then Bedlam (Bethlehem Hospital) was already an asylum notorious for its appalling conditions and brutal treatment of its patients, some of whom were given licenses to beg outside the hospital.

Dobson writes of the play’s ‘profound interest in vagrancy’:

Shakespeare’s version of the tale of King Lear, a story well-known to Jacobeans is the only [version] in which Lear and Cordelia lose the battle, the only one in which the King goes mad, and the only one in which the king’s moral trajectory through the action hinges on an encounter with what appears to be a mad rural beggar, Edgar in his disguise as Poor Tom. For Shakespeare, half the point of Kin gLear is the salutary, edifying experience undergone by its titular king of becoming a deranged, homeless, lost vagrant himself.

Dobson describes Lear as ‘a literally levelling play’ with ‘no gods, no heavens, no hell, just a disenchanted flat exposed plain on which human beings struggle and die’. At the very core of the play, out shelterless in the rain, Lear expresses this new, egalitarian moral vision in a prayer:

Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just

For Dobson, ‘this play aspires to speak of, and to, everyone, everywhere’. He adds, interestingly, that among the play’s earliest recorded productions, soon after being performed before King James, was a rendition given illegally by a small company of former artisans who toured the moorland hamlets of Yorkshire in 1609-10.

The cast of King Lear

Introducing the programme notes, Dominic Dromgoole, the Globe’s Artistic Director, observes that touring productions represent a tradition in English theatre that goes back a long way:

Before the construction of the Rose and the Globe all our dramatic experiences were about companies trucking up to strange towns, and performing plays in inn yards, in churches, in guildhalls, in fairs and at any other number of strange venues under the canopy of the sky. Touring was in Shakespeare’s blood and in the blood of the company of actors he worked with. They had toured before they formed a company at the Globe, and they continued to do so after they were established. In part this was an emergency measure – when the theatres had to close due to plague or the opprobrium of the city fathers, then they could take a show out on the road. But there were also powerful economic reasons – touring made money, and was a good way to recycle work that had succeeded in London.

The Globe resurrected this tradition in summer 2007 after a 400-year break taking a scaled-down, touring production of Romeo and Juliet out from the Globe. They have toured ever since, and the tours have gone from strength to strength.

Brueghel Village Festival
Pieter Brueghel the Younger: Village Festival in Honour of St Hubert and St Anthony

Dromgoole’s piece is illustrated by a detail from Village Festival in Honour of St Hubert and St Anthony, by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, painted in 1632. At the centre of the village festivities, Brueghel has depicted a booth stage – the kind of temporary stage that was dominant in England in Shakespeare’s day.  It was a small rectangular stage mounted on trestles or barrels and backed by a cloth-covered booth which served as a tiring-house (short for ‘attiring house’, where the actors dressed).

Brueghel Village Festival detail

In the centre of the painting, a large crowd has gathered around the stage to watch a play in which a man dressed as a monk kisses a buxom woman, while another man spies upon them from a basket on a colleague’s back. The painting  illustrates a religious festival which would undoubtedly have come as a welcome respite from the monotonous toil of peasant existence. Effigies of Saints Anthony and Hubert are being carried in a procession through the village, but for the most part the spectators’ attention has been diverted elsewhere, gazing instead at the play performed by a group of travelling actors.

See also

Shakespeare: Staging the World

Shakespeare: Staging the World

A nifty toothpick-cum ear scraper, a hornbook of the sort that Shakespeare might have used to learn his ABC, the eye of a Jesuit priest hung for his part in the Gunpowder Plot, the only piece of text in Shakespeare’s own hand, a striking portrait of the Moroccan Ambassador to Queen Elizabeth I: just a few of the objects to see in the British Museum’s marvellous exhibition, Shakespeare: Staging the World.

Visiting London, I was determined to see this exhibition, having enjoyed Neil MacGregor’s companion radio series, Shakespeare’s Restless World earlier this year.  The exhibition’s co-curators, Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton, have brought together an array of objects, images and curiosities selected for their Shakespearean associations.  It’s a portrait the world that created Shakespeare, and of the world that he created from his imagination.

It’s a vivid glimpse of what it was like to live in London around 1600: a turbulent world where violence stalked the streets while the Crown feared conspiracy and an uncertain succession. Round the corner from the Globe there was bear-baiting and heretics were hanged, drawn and quartered in public.  But this was also an exciting time when mental and geographical frontiers were expanding, with explorers extending the limits of the known world, and trade bringing Londoners into contact with emissaries from distant lands and exotic cultures. As the Museum puts it in their introduction:

The exhibition provides a unique insight into the emerging role of London as a world city, seen through the innovative perspective of Shakespeare’s plays. It also explores the pivotal role of the playhouse as a window to the world outside London, and the playwright’s importance in shaping a new sense of
national identity.

Shakespeare: Staging the World shows how a historical understanding of the places, the objects and the ideas with which Shakespeare was familiar can enhance the experience of watching his plays.

Can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
(Henry V, Act I, Scene 1)

Shakespeare, as Jonathan Bate says, probably never left these shores, but ‘he travelled in his imagination’. This exhibition enters his world – both real and imagined. It takes us from Elizabethan London and finishes on Prospero’s mysterious island. Along the way it passes through the pastoral retreat of the forest of Arden, explores the classical world of Greece and Rome that fuelled Shakespeare’s stories, notes how Britain’s identity as a nation was being defined at the time partly by the new mapmakers (and by Shakespeare himself), before coming ashore in places such as Jamaica and Venice that fired the playwright’s imagination.

Brian Sewell, in a review for the Telegraph that embraced both the exhibition and the catalogue (which, he said, ‘should be in every school library in the land. Indeed, every such library should have 20 copies in armour-plated bindings that will survive a century of careless handling. Indeed, I shall go further and suggest that every student of English literature should have his own copy and that the book should never go out of print), wrote eloquently about the places to which Shakespeare journeyed in his imagination:

To London from Stratford-upon-Avon was Shakespeare’s only significant journey. For him there was no sitting at the feet of philosophers and theologians in the universities of the Low Countries and Paris; nor was there a Grand Tour to inform his imagination (what would he have made of the hostile grandeur of the Alps?), and what he knew of Italy from Venice to Messina, he knew by proxy from others who had travelled there, or from visitors to London, implied by the British Museum to have been an entrepôt that was at least a match for Constantinople, Venice, Seville and the Hanseatic ports of northern Europe.

He was, perhaps, further informed by maps, a not entirely new source of knowledge and mystery, but one greatly expanded in the 16th century and increasingly available, not just to the rich and educated, but to wider reaches of society. The merchants of once parochial London, through trade with the Far East and the new riches pillaged from the Americas, in Shakespeare’s day ringed the globe with their enterprise and began her conversion into a world city.

The untravelled Shakespeare, enchanted by old tales of Troy and ancient Rome, and by new of Bohemia, Sicily, Cyprus and the Caribbean, imagined the faces and places there, became their atlas and geographer, and dubbed the new theatre of which he was a housekeeper (the Elizabethan term for any owning part or all of a theatre), The Globe. “All the world’s a stage,” said the authentic voice of Shakespeare in the role of Jaques, the philosophical idler of As You Like It; he could as readily have said, “A stage is all the world,” for in his hands that is exactly what it was.

There are so many interesting objects here – some of them I mentioned in my review of the radio series – so I can only pick out a few that caught my attention as I explored the exhibits.  The hornbook (above) was not a book, but a small wooden board with a handle. A sheet of vellum inscribed with a lesson – perhaps the alphabet or the Lord’s Prayer – was attached to one side and covered by a thin, transparent layer of horn or mica. They were an important element of  early education in the 16th and 17th centuries in England and on the continent.  Shakespeare mentions a ‘hornebook’ in Love’s Labour’s Lost, and it’s probable that Shakespeare first learned his letters on a hornbook.

And this is what he learned: the exhibition opens (just as it closes) with an edition of Shakespeare’s plays, in this case the First Folio of 1623.  It included 36 of his plays – and what always staggers me is that 17 of those had never been published before 1623, being prepared from Shakespeare’s ‘foul papers’ or working drafts of a play or the prompt-book used by the prompter during a performance of the play.

Wenceslaus Hollar: View of London with the (mis-labelled) Globe Theatre and the Bear Garden

On the wall  the behind the First Folio is a large reproduction of Wenceslaus Hollar’s panoramic Long View of London that serves as introduction to the objects that bring to life the London of Shakespeare’s time.  It depicts the Thames teeming with rivercraft, the rubric ‘eel boats’ inscribed under one small flotilla,  while in Southwark, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre is misidentified by the engraver as ‘the beere-bayting house’ – a reminder of the attractions with which Shakespeare’s plays had to compete. Nearby is displayed the skull of a bear, excavated from the mud of the Thames during the rebuilding of the Globe.

The new playhouses, like the bear pits and other low-life attractions, were were situated well away from the centre of town.  Bankside, where the Globe was established, was an area with a dangerous and notorious reputation. The theatres needed to attract large numbers of playgoers and so performances had to appeal to a wide spectrum of society, from groundlings to courtiers. There is a rather jolly print on show, entitled ‘Going to Bankside’ (top) which depicts a well-heeled group being rowed across the river by two boatmen.  Objects excavated from the sites of the Globe and Rose theatres – such as a beautiful Italian fork for sweetmeats, a set of dice, a pipe, a piece of oak balustrade from the theatre, and a curious implement designed with a toothpick at one end and an ear-scraper at the other – vividly bring to life the Southwark of Shakespeare’s day, when the playhouse rubbed shoulders with bear-baiting arenas, brothels and pubs. A rapier and a dagger found in the Thames nearby – possibly dropped by a young man as he got in or out of one of those  Bankside ferry boats – illustrate the extent of violence in Elizabethan London when gentlemen ‘and others of higher degree and place’ were permitted by law to routinely carry such weapons.

Another section of the exhibition reveals how, at the same time as they explored the new world and laid the foundations of empire, the Elizabethans also focused on defining the national identity at home. One way in which this was accomplished was through the vast and detailed mapping of England that was completed under Elizabeth for the first time in history.

Saxton map, Warwickshire, 1576

Several maps made in this period are displayed, including the Saxton map of of 1576 and the Newell-Burghley Atlas of 1564, commissioned by Elizabeth’s first Minister, Sir William Cecil (underlining the point made the exhibition’s co-curator Jonathan Bate in his BBC Radio 4 series Discovery of England that such mapping was a state enterprise designed both to collect data valuable for military purposes, but also to help strengthen a sense of national identity).

Nearby are exhibits loaned by Westminster Abbey that reflect the same national project, and which would have been on public display in the Abbey in Shakespeare’s day.  The playwright would have seen the  funery relics of Henry V – his helmet and sword – inspiring his portrayal of him as the brave, patriotic soldier-king, and written into the prologue of act five of Henry V, as ‘his bruisèd helmet and his bended sword’.

Just as Shakespeare almost single-handedly built the reputation of Henry V, so, by contrast, did he reduce the standing of Richard III, portraying him as a deformed, incompetent, cruel king. A portrait of Richard III painted by an unknown artist around 1555 illustrates how his reputation was manipulated.  The king is shown with a disfigured hand, evidence of a warped and malign nature, and a broken sword signifying dishonour and the impotence of evil.  Shakespeare’s play reinforced this image of Richard and provided further support for the legitimacy of Richard’s successors, who were also  his patrons.

The exhibition shows how Shakespeare delved into the stories of classical Greece and Rome in order to create plays, such as Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, that addressed political questions that could not otherwise be safely debated in public: questions of power and authority, legitimacy and succession were explored, but in the context of ancient Rome or Athens.  The relevance of the classical world is powerfully contained in one tiny coin, minted by Brutus to commemorate the assassination of Julius Caesar. On the reverse are the daggers with which Caesar was killed and a cap of liberty to symbolise the liberation of Rome from his rule. In one of several video installations featuring actors, Paterson Joseph (Brutus in the RSC’s African production of the play) is seen brandishing the same coin.

Shakespeare was fairly adept at making acute political points about the questions of the day without bringing the wrath of the authorities down upon his head, or losing a play to censorship. In a TV series a few years back, the historian Michael Wood explored the question of whether Shakespeare was a crypto-Catholic, given that his father left a ‘spiritual testament’ professing his adherence to Catholicism (only found in the rafters of the Shakespeare home on Henley Street in 1757) and had associations with Catholics, both in Warwickshire and Lancashire.  His conclusion was that ‘as one would expect, he was a Christian, but his mind was wide and his scepticism of any system of power was pronounced. … If he retained in his heart a sympathy for the Old Faith of his parents, he kept his cards close to his chest’.

An object which signifies the religious divisions and fears of the time is a silver reliquary said to contain the right eye of the Jesuit priest Edward Oldcorne, who was executed for allegedly having played a part in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, which was collected at his execution at Worcester in 1606.  Is this the counterpart of Gloucester’s eye, ruthlessly gouged from his face – ‘Out, vile jelly! Where is thy lustre now?’ – by Cornwall in King Lear?

Other objects help us understand contemporary references made in the plays.  For example, Jonathan Bate was fascinated by the fact that Othello, just before killing himself, refers to a ‘sword of Spain’ he keeps in his chamber. What would one have looked like?  On show is a rapier with a long Toledo blade and an exquisitely worked French hilt. And when Caliban in The Tempest tells Stephano he will teach him ‘how to snare the nimble marmoset’, how did that reference jump into Shakespeare’s head? Marmosets were exotic primates recently being brought back from the New World to Europe as pets for princes, and we are presented with a drawing of one.

Could Ariel from The Tempest, be inspired by artefacts of spirits from the pre-colonial religion of Jamaica?  Possibly: the curators have displayed a 15th century wooden figure from the island. Meanwhile (as in the radio series), Prospero’s wizardry is illustrated by magical objects that belonged to the Elizabethan occultist John Dee, including ‘Dr Dee’s magick mirror’, an artefact originating in Mexico some time in the 14th or 15th centuries.

I was much taken with the only surviving example of a manuscript in Shakespeare’s handwriting – an extract from Sir Thomas More, a play to which he contributed only one scene that takes place during the ‘Evil May’ race riots of 1517, in which he has Thomas More, as undersheriff of London, quell riots directed at immigrants living in London with this speech:

Grant them removed, and grant that this your noise
Hath chid down all the majesty of England;
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding tooth ports and costs for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires,
Authority quite silent by your brawl,
And you in ruff of your opinions clothed;
What had you got? I’ll tell you: you had taught
How insolence and strong hand should prevail,
How order should be quelled; and by this pattern
Not one of you should live an aged man,
For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,
Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
Would feed on one another. […]

You’ll put down strangers,
Kill them, cut their throats, possess their houses,
And lead the majesty of law in line,
To slip him like a hound. Say now the king
(As he is clement, if th’ offender mourn)
Should so much come to short of your great trespass
As but to banish you, whether would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbor? go you to France or Flanders,
To any German province, to Spain or Portugal,
Nay, any where that not adheres to England,—
Why, you must needs be strangers: would you be pleased
To find a nation of such barbarous temper,
That, breaking out in hideous violence,
Would not afford you an abode on earth,
Whet their detested knives against your throats,
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God
Owed not nor made not you, nor that the claimants
Were not all appropriate to your comforts,
But chartered unto them, what would you think
To be thus used? this is the strangers case;
And this your mountanish inhumanity.

ALL: Faith, a says true: let’s do as we may be done to.

Ian McKellen performs Shakespeare’s monologue from Sir Thomas More

A later section of the exhibition is concerned with Shakespeare’s representations of ‘strangers’ and reflects  encounters he might have had with those from other lands and other cultures.   The striking portrait of Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun, Moroccan Ambassador to Queen Elizabeth I (above), depicts the leader of a delegation from Morocco that came to London in 1600 on a state visit to negotiate an alliance against Spain. The presence of these men had a great impact on London at the time. They were a source of both fascination and fear. El-Ouahed and his men were in the city for six months and would certainly have been known to Shakespeare as one of  Lord Chamberlain’s Men.  Abd el-Ouahed may well have informed the character of Othello, the soldier and ‘noble moor’.

Alongside this portrait are other representations of black Africans: a beautiful bust of a black African by Nicolas Cordier (a French artist working in Rome) and ‘Portrait of an African Man’ (below) by the Dutch painter Jan Jansz Mostaert. Painted around 1525, it is the earliest portrait of a black African to have survived from the Renaissance.

This part of the exhibition shows how Shakespeare utilised Venice, the dazzling entrepot of his day that drew in and accommodated ‘strangers’ from the Mediterranean lands and beyond, not only in Othello but also The Merchant of Venice. A Sabbath lamp, predating the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290, is presented as a reminder that, following Edward I’s expulsion of the Jews, it is possible that no Englishman, including Shakespeare, had encountered a professing Jew. However, in London Shakespeare would have encountered Spanish or Portuguese marranos, forcibly converted Jewish immigrants (or their children), people regarded with deep suspicion by the English.

So to develop the character of Shylock, Shakespeare drew on his knowledge of London’s Jews: small, illegal communities of Jewish conversos or marranos who made London a vibrant place for trade and cultural exchange. Out of these scraps of impressions, Shakespeare created Shylock – not as a stranger in a foreign land, but at home in the Venetian ghetto, surrounded by his daughter, servants, friends. In this way, he transformed a stereotypical villain into a believable human being and makes him the focus of  a debate about the nature of justice. Without minimising Shylock’s vengeful  nature, Shakespeare requires us to decide what is fair and what is not, and whether the greater guilt belongs to the one who does wrong or the one who takes revenge on a wrong.

Jewish Venice is represented by a scroll of the Book of Esther in Hebrew, dated 1573, and a balance and coin weights with a collection of gold ducats, of which there just happen to be 30 pieces.  Nearby, on a video screen,  Antony Sher recites Shylock’s poignant appeal for common humanity across the ethnic divide: ‘Hath not a Jew eyes?’ This is one of several superb videos made by the Royal Shakespeare Company that embellish the exhibition, including Ian McKellan performing Prospero’s soliloquy.

The final exhibit is an edition of Shakespeare, covered in Hindu iconography as a disguise.  It is the Robben Island Bible, smuggled into the jail by one of the imprisoned ANC leaders Sonny Venkatrathnam as his ‘bible’ since inmates weren’t allowed any books apart from religious texts. He circulated it amongst his fellow prisoners, inviting them to select a favourite passage and autograph it.  Several marked their favourite passages, and the book is open at a speech from Julius Caesar with the following lines marked:

Cowards die many times before their deaths; 
The valiant never taste of death but once. 
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard, 
It seems to me most strange that men should fear; 
Seeing that death, a necessary end, 
Will come when it will come.

A date and a signature is added.  The date is 16.12.77. The signature ‘NRD Mandela’.

In this video, the exhibition’s curators speaking to a slideshow of the objects on display:

See also

Timon of Athens: love is money

Timon of Athens: love is money

You don’t get many chances to see Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens performed on stage. Regarded as difficult, problematic, and anyway co-written with Thomas Middleton, the play only found its way into the First Folio in 1623 by chance and is rarely performed, so we made a visit to the current National Theatre production the centrepiece of a trip to London this weekend.

This production comes trailed in garlands – for Nicholas Hytner’s direction – which gives the play a vividly contemporary setting in today’s divided London, brilliantly realised in Tim Hatley’s design – and especially Simon Russell Beale’s performance in the title role.

Hytner transfers the setting from ancient Greece to a present day capital city of wealthy financiers, a fawning cultural elite and streets where the poor and dispossessed are angry and turbulent. As the play begins, we glimpse an Occupy-style tent-city before a revolving stage whisks us to the opening of an opulent and palatial new gallery wing –  the Timon Room – where Timon the benefactor basks in sycophantic adulation. The room is dominated by the El Greco painting that depicts Christ driving the money changers from the Temple, an ironic reinforcement of the point, as Michael Billington put it in The Guardian, that:

Hytner is … at pains to remind us that Timon’s ruination is part of a larger crisis in capitalism and, utilising the play’s Athenian background, shows angry crowds occupying the squares and streets. All this gives the play a sense of contemporary urgency.

This approach – apparently strengthened by some significant editing and rewriting of the original text, even adding lines from other Shakespeare plays, undoubtedly makes the production powerfully topical.  But, though neither of us had any knowledge of the play beforehand, by the end of the play it seemed to us that the authors’ original intention was less a critique of social divisions and more a satire on hypocrisy.

Wealthy, friend to the rich and powerful, patron of the arts, munificent host, Timon showers gifts on the city’s elite. But, we very soon realise that he has vastly outspent his resources. During a lavish banquet, Timon’s steward Flavius (here transposed to Deborah Findlay’s genuinely loyal and concerned Flavia) reveals that Timon is bust:

His promises fly so beyond his state
That what he speaks is all in debt; he owes
For every word: he is so kind that he now
Pays interest for ‘t; his land’s put to their books.

When Timon realises his predicament he calls upon his fawning fair-weather friends.  But, instead of offering help, they turn their backs on him. The first half ends with Timon staging a final, vengeful banquet, at which he calls ‘each man to his stool’, presenting them with a covered dish which, when revealed, turns out to be excrement.  His rich guests flee in revulsion as Timon rails:

Live loathed and long,
Most smiling, smooth, detested parasites,
Courteous destroyers, affable wolves, meek bears,
You fools of fortune, trencher-friends, time’s flies,
Cap and knee slaves, vapours, and minute-jacks!

In a programme essay, Peter Holland notes the strangeness of the play’s title: not The Tragedy of Timon of Athens, but simply Timon of Athens.  Shakespeare’s tragedies usually end in death, often involving a goodly number of corpses.  But here, although Timon dies towards the end of the play, he dies off-stage and in unexplained circumstances, though possibly suicide.  Tragedies also require a tragic figure, one whose nobility is brought to ruin. But there is no back-story to Timon: we know nothing about him beyond what we see in these halls amidst the flatterers.

What is problematic about the play is its abrupt change of gear in the final two acts when Timon withdraws from the city to a inhabit a literal and emotional wasteland.  In the text he lives off roots; in Hytner’s production he ends up a pathetic vagrant, pushing a supermarket trolley, scavenging for food among the detritus of the city.  But more problematic than this material shift is the sudden transformation of Timon’s generosity of spirit into an absolute hatred of mankind.  As Peter Holland writes, ‘his absolute generosity metamorphoses into his absolute hatred; philanthropy becomes misanthropy with almost no pause between.  Timon departs the city for the wilds where thinks he shall find
‘the unkindest beast more kinder than mankind’, and where he expects

his hate may grow
To the whole race of mankind, high and low!

The cynic Apemantus sums up the change:

The middle of humanity thou never knewest, but the
extremity of both ends

‘Money can’t buy me love’, sang The Beatles, but Timon, in his pomp, had begged to differ, using his wealth to gather friends around him: at the play’s opening he had remarked, ‘there’s none can truly say he gives, if he receives’.  But now he rails:

Who dares, who dares,
In purity of manhood stand upright,
And say ‘This man’s a flatterer?’ if one be,
So are they all; for every grise of fortune
Is smooth’d by that below: the learned pate
Ducks to the golden fool: all is oblique;
There’s nothing level in our cursed natures,
But direct villany. Therefore, be abhorr’d
All feasts, societies, and throngs of men!

It is the brilliance of Simon Russell-Beale’s portrayal that binds together the two halves of this production and makes something credible of Timon’s psychology. In the first half he portrays Timon not as some Christ-like benefactor, but as an individual who is almost simple-minded in his failure to see through the flattery of others, whose vanity is stoked by the love which others affect to show. In The Guardian, Michael Billington spoke of:

…. the psychological acuity of Russell Beale’s performance. His beaming, bounteous, besuited Timon is always seen in a crowd, suggesting that his philanthropy is a form of vanity. He also backs neurotically away when anyone tries to kiss or touch him, as if unused to the demands of intimacy.

Friendship, in this world, is a commodity to be purchased; and it makes total sense that, when Timon is finally exposed to the ingratitude of his followers, he summons them to an anti-banquet where he offers them plates of excrement.

The cynic Apemantus is quick to observe what is going on at the start:

….. I should
ne’er flatter thee. O you gods, what a number of
men eat Timon, and he sees ’em not! It grieves me
to see so many dip their meat in one man’s blood;
and all the madness is, he cheers them up too.
I wonder men dare trust themselves with men:
Methinks they should invite them without knives;
Good for their meat, and safer for their lives.

For me, one of the highlights of this production was the Beckett-like interplay between Apemantus (played with trenchant Scots sardonicism by Hilton McRae) and Timon as he sifts through the city’s rubbish:

Apemantus: Why this spade? this place?
This slave-like habit? and these looks of care?
Thy flatterers yet wear silk, drink wine, lie soft;
Hug their diseased perfumes, and have forgot
That ever Timon was. Shame not these woods,
By putting on the cunning of a carper.
Be thou a flatterer now, and seek to thrive
By that which has undone thee: hinge thy knee,
And let his very breath, whom thou’lt observe,
Blow off thy cap; praise his most vicious strain,
And call it excellent …. Do not assume my likeness.

Timon: Were I like thee, I’d throw away myself.

The play is really a jaundiced anthem of despair at the hollow nature of society and man. But threaded through it is a political rebellion that brings to mind Coriolanus in its portrayal of the mob disturbing the equilibrium of the city.   However, the same sceptical perspective applies here, too: the rebel leader Alcibiades is bought off by the establishment’s offer of power and wealth.

Bought off: Karl Marx, writing about ‘The Power of Money’ in Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 quoted Timon’s words in the second part upon discovering gold in the rubbish he is sifting for food:

This yellow slave
Will knit and break religions, bless the accursed,
Make the hoar leprosy adored, place thieves
And give them title, knee and approbation
With senators on the bench

Shakespeare, he argues, ‘excellently depicts the real nature of money’ in capitalist society: 

It is the visible divinity – the transformation of all human and natural properties into their contraries, the universal confounding and distorting of things: impossibilities are soldered together by it.

It is the common whore, the common procurer of people and nations.

Athens was not a capitalist society, but the people in the play are either noble and wealthy or part of the servant class dependent on the rich.  As depicted by Shakespeare and Middleton, it is, as Peter Holland observes,

a society of exchange and gift, of conspicuous consumption and equally conspicuous patronage.  None of the wealthy shows any signs of work; they simply have money.  And, as Marx knew well, it is money that acts as the linkage …that brings people together.

No surprise, then, that Nicholas Hytner saw the time was timely for a revival of this overlooked play in a production whose performances and set design plant it firmly in the London of now.

In this YouTube video from the National Theatre, Simon Russell Beale and dramaturg Ben Power discuss the character of Timonand what makes him an unusual tragic protagonist.

He doesn’t understand love.  He thinks love is money.

Making of Timon: Staging the Play

See also

Trevor Nunn on The Tempest

Trevor Nunn on The Tempest

BBC 4 is putting on something of a Shakespeare extravaganza at the moment, headlined by the new adaptation of the Hollow Crown sequence of plays which I have not yet seen.  But the other night they screened a brilliant and moving  examination by Trevor Nunn of The Tempest, Shakespeare’s last complete play and, Nunn assured us, his most autobiographical. Prospero and playwright were both 50, both in their way magicians at the height of their powers, and in control of their globe.

Nunn explained why The Tempest can be regarded as Shakespeare’s most experimental play, telling how it was written specifically for an indoor theatre, its special effects not compatible with an afternoon performance at the Globe, open to the sky.  Shakespeare and his company took over another theatre – the Blackfriars – in order to present the play in candlelight and with special aerial effects. He visited rehearsals for an American production of The Tempest in a replica of the Blackfriars in Virginia that uses 17th century staging techniques and special effects.

Nunn also delved into the inspiration for the story – uniquely for a Shakespeare play, there was no existing fictional story that he drew upon.  It’s possible, Nunn suggests, that Shakespeare was influenced by a real event – the wreck and stranding of Sir Thomas Gates and 500 others from the vessel The Sea Venturer on the island of Bermuda in 1609 that had been described in several contemporary accounts.

Heathcote Williams as Prospero in Derek Jarman’s film of The Tempest

Trevor Nunn incisively explores the themes of magic, revenge and forgiveness that are expressed through the story of the magus Prospero, abandoned on an island with his daughter Miranda. One of the main questions of the play, Nunn explains, is will Prospero be capable of forgiveness?  He has used his great powers to bring his enemies ashore on the same island, and now they are at his mercy. But, as Nunn explains, the opportunity for Prospero to wreak revenge upon those who abandoned him ultimately leads to a profound exploration of love and forgiveness.

Turning to the question of Caliban, Nunn was not especially impressed with the tendency of modern criticism and productions to make European colonialism the central theme of this play.  He suggested that the play is located much more firmly in a Mediterranean context than in the New World.  Furthermore, aspects of Prospero’s character and circumstance do not sit easily with any interpretation that portrays him as ‘another white colonialist’, when he has, in fact, been cast adrift and the island has been his lifeline, while Caliban is not a native of the island. No-one is native to the island.

In the most deeply felt part of his presentation, Nunn analysed The Tempest as an intensely autobiographical piece.  So his depiction of the relationship between Miranda and her father was, Nunn suggests, informed by the imminent marriage of his own daughter to a man whose reputation was not exactly solid.  Above all, Shakespeare seems to have had a presentiment that this might be the last play he would ever write, and so felt the need to speak of his life: the decades in the theatre, and his achievement as a writer.

Nunn regards Prospero’s speech at the marriage of his daughter to Ferdinand as ‘one of the most poetic and consoling speeches Shakespeare ever wrote’.   Addressing the young couple, Prospero talks about the fragility and transience of life itself:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And—like the baseless fabric of this vision—
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. …

Nunn feels ‘100% certain’ that there is an autobiographical ingredient here, drawing attention to Shakespeare’s use of the phrase ‘the great globe itself’ – partly meaning, of course, the world, but being also the name of his theatre, the Globe.  Shakespeare is saying, ‘all of our shows, all of these things we’ve created here: they won’t be around any more’.

Something powerful is stirring in Prospero as he tries to come to terms with those who have wronged him.  Nunn analyses the scene in which Ariel describes the fear and distress of those Prospero has under his spell:

Confined together
In the same fashion as you gave in charge,
Just as you left them; all prisoners, sir,
In the line-grove which weather-fends your cell;
They cannot budge till your release. The king,
His brother and yours, abide all three distracted
And the remainder mourning over them,
Brimful of sorrow and dismay; but chiefly
Him that you term’d, sir, ‘The good old lord Gonzalo;’
His tears run down his beard, like winter’s drops
From eaves of reeds. Your charm so strongly works ’em
That if you now beheld them, your affections
Would become tender.

To which Prospero responds, ‘Dost thou think so, spirit?’  Nunn sees Ariel’s reply as the key moment when Prospero decides to relinquish his magical powers, as his non-human spirit talks about human compassion: ‘Mine would, sir, were I human’.  Nunn sees a special poignancy in Prospero’s surrender of his powers, since he feels that Shakespeare is, in part, writing about himself.

Shakespeare, like Prospero, has spent years conjuring with his imagination.  But after The Tempest he will write no more plays.  Calling up his spirits for one last time, Prospero remembers his extraordinary accomplishments:

… I have bedimm’d
The noontide sun, call’d forth the mutinous winds,
And ‘twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set roaring war: to the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire and rifted Jove’s stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake and by the spurs pluck’d up
The pine and cedar: graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ’em forth
By my so potent art. But this rough magic
I here abjure, and, when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book

Shakespeare, too, has summoned countless visions, and brought the dead to life.  ‘The connection I see between Shakespeare and Prospero, makes this for me a particularly moving speech’, said Nunn.  Shakespeare, he suggests, is not saying ‘I’m abandoning you’, but ‘I’m leaving you with everything I have to offer… I want it to stay with you, but I have to go’.  Both Helen Mirren and Dr Rowan Williams speak eloquently of this moment in the play.  Rowan Williams:

With so many great artists, it seems, there comes a point where they seen their own work, their own utterance, as having resolved nothing.  They empty their hands … the the sense of the all-powerful, magical figure manipulating stories, suddenly saying ‘I can’t do this any loner –  I have to become human’ – I think that is something that is bound into the really great artists’ work..

Nunn also pinpoints how potent is the idea that we are call entitled to our freedom in the play.  He gives his spirit slave Ariel the freedom he yearns for:

then to the elements
Be free, and fare thou well!

Prospero forgives those who have wronged him, including his would-be murderer, Caliban.  ‘And so’, said Nunn, ‘at the end of his last play, Shakespeare tells us that the struggle to achieve forgiveness can be won.  Prospero manages to forgive, and in doing so, he frees himself.

Finally, Nunn returns to the parallels between Prospero and Shakespeare.  In the Epilogue, no longer empowered, he makes a plea of great simplicity.  He steps forward and asks us, the audience, to set him free. Prospero, who ends the play by giving up his magic just as Shakespeare gave up his own theatrical magic to return to Stratford where, only two years later, he died. Nunn, barely holding back tears, recites the epilogue, reading from the headstone in the churchyard where Shakespeare is buried:

Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own,
Which is most faint …

But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands:
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
Let your indulgence set me free.

Trevor Nunn concludes:

For me The Tempest will always be exceptional, not just for its wisdom and humanity, but because more than any of his other plays, it leads us to the essence of the man who wrote them.  My feeling is that it’s in The Tempest, through the character of Prospero, that we get closest to the workings of the mind of that genius, William Shakespeare.

See also

The RSC’s ‘African’ Julius Caesar: not stones, but men

The RSC’s ‘African’ Julius Caesar: not stones, but men

How many ages hence shall this, our lofty scene, be acted in states unknown and accents yet unborn!
Cassius, Julius Caesar, Act 3, Scene 1

Never spoke a truer word, that man with the lean and hungry look.  Cassius, Brutus and the rest of the conspirators are dipping their hands in the blood of the man they have just assassinated, and action that will unleash civil war.  In Gregory Doran’s production of Julius Caesar for the Royal Shakespeare Company which we saw in Stratford last week, the repetitious nature of dictatorship and civil war is reinforced by having the play set somewhere in modern Africa.  But it could as easily have been the post-Spring Arab world or just about anywhere else on the planet.

But there is another sense in which those words from Cassius resonate here: this is a production in which the entire cast are black British actors who speak Shakespeare’s poetry in vibrant African accents.  In an article for the programme, Richard Dowden, Director of the Royal African Society, points out that, not only is Shakespeare taught in most schools in English-speaking Africa, but Africans also respond effortlessly to the rhythms of Shakespeare’s language and the relevance of the drama of Julius Caesar.

Gregory Doran and Paterson Joseph (Brutus) at rehearsal for Julius Caesar

For director Gregory Doran,  one of the inspirations behind setting Julius Caesar in Africa was learning of the copy of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare that made its way on to Robben Island and which was passed between anti-apartheid prisoners during the 1970’s, all of whom treasured the book, each highlighting passages and quotes that they found meaningful and profound.  On December 16 1977 Nelson Mandela chose to autograph these lines from  Julius Caesar:

Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard.
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.

Africa has no monopoly on dictators –  you only have to ponder this image of four deposed leaders – Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, Ali Abdullah Saleh (Yemen), Libya’s Colonel Gadaffi, and Hosni Mubarak (Egypt) – to understand that this play could easily be staged in the Arab world.  Indeed, in the scene that follows Caesar’s assassination which reveals – through Mark Antony’s ironic evisceration of the conspirators (‘are they not honourable men?’) and his revelation of Caesar’s will – that the murder, rather than saving the republic, has set fire to it, I thought of another place and time, and another fearful and factionalised leadership faced with an inconvenient last will and testament:

You are not wood, you are not stones, but men;
And, being men, bearing the will of Caesar,
It will inflame you, it will make you mad:
‘Tis good you know not that you are his heirs;
For, if you should, O, what would come of it!

In Gregory Doran’s production, as the audience take their seats, the stage is filled with a colourful, noisy and frenzied crowd, yell and sway as musicians playing afrobeat rhythms whip up the excitement.  The set design simultaneously suggests a Roman amphitheatre and crumbling post-independence African architecture, a looming bronze statue of Caesar emphasising the dictatorial threat.

This street fiesta consists of ordinary folk celebrating the return of warlord Caesar, a hero after crushing fellow-warlord Pompey. From the off, Shakespeare avoids simplistic analysis.  Julius Caesar is a play about the encroachment of autocracy on a republic – the conspirators speak of genuine concern for the future of the republic at the same time as they seek their own aggrandisement – but in the opening scene Shakespeare focusses on the fickleness of public opinion.

But, indeed, sir, we make holiday,
to see Caesar and to rejoice in his triumph –

so speaks one of the ‘tradesmen’ who have gathered in the square.  The rejoinder comes from Flavius, one of the tribunes:

Wherefore rejoice?  […]
You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things!
O you hard hearts, you cruel men of Rome,
Knew you not Pompey? Many a time and oft
Have you climb’d up to walls and battlements,
To towers and windows, yea, to chimney-tops,
Your infants in your arms, and there have sat
The livelong day, with patient expectation,
To see great Pompey pass the streets of Rome:
And when you saw his chariot but appear,
Have you not made an universal shout,
That Tiber trembled underneath her banks,
To hear the replication of your sounds
Made in her concave shores?
And do you now put on your best attire?
And do you now cull out a holiday?
And do you now strew flowers in his way
That comes in triumph over Pompey’s blood? Be gone!

Paterson Joseph and Theo Ogundipe in Julius Caesar

This is a production that does not slow for one moment, the absence of an interval maintaining the pace throughout.  The cast are uniformly excellent; as Charles Spencer remarked in his review in The Telegraph:

The production is … a reminder of the strength in depth of British black actors. There isn’t a dud performance here, and Shakespeare – who was such an enduring inspiration to Nelson Mandela and his fellow inmates on Robben Island – sounds just fine with an African accent.

Indeed, the verse-speaking is vibrant and fluent, the rounded rhythms of African speech enriching Shakespeare’s poetry.  The acting also draws out the complexity of Shakespeare’s portrayal of the main characters.  Jeffery Kissoon is superb as a heavy-set, dignified yet intimidating Caesar with fly whisk and white suit:

Danger knows full well
That Caesar is more dangerous than he.
We are two lions litter’d in one day,
And I the elder and more terrible.

Jeffery Kissoon as Caesar

Paterson Joseph succeeds in conveying the contradictions in Brutus’ personality, while Cyril Nri conveys the ‘lean and hungry’ manipulativeness of Cassius. Ray Fearon is excellent as Mark Antony, especially in the aforementioned scene in which he whips up the populace to rebellion with the power of his rhetoric.

If the focus of this production and the reviews which have followed has been on the play’s relevance to recent events in Africa or the Arab world, the first performance of Julius Caesar, on 21 September 1599, also took place in a deeply unsettled times. With an ageing and childless Elizabeth nearing the end of her reign, the issue of the succession – and whether England would remain a Protestant country or revert to Catholicism – preoccupied the nation.

Threatened by Spain and rebellion in Ireland, that very month had seen the Earl of Essex, a Brutus-like figure popular with the public, defy Elizabeth by returning to London after the failure of his campaigns in Ireland.  He  would be convicted, deprived of public office and income, and go on to mount an abortive rebellion.  It was these weeks and months of uncertainty that Shakespeare drew upon as he wrote the great plays of this period: Henry V, Julius Caesar, and Hamlet, dramas in which Shakespeare shifted up a gear or two to produce thought-provoking dramas, each successive play pushing the boundaries a little further with complex portrayals of character and motivation, and reflecting the times with incisive commentaries on power, leadership and morality.

Shakespeare’s greatness as a dramatist is revealed in the way in which he transforms his source material – widely understood to be Plutarch’s Lives, translated into English by Thomas North in 1579.  Although Shakespeare follows Plutarch’s account quite closely, and even echoes some of North’s phrasing, characteristically he emphasises the contrasts and contradictions within the main characters – Caesar, Brutus, Antony, Cassius and Octavious – giving them an ambiguity that makes them more human.

Much discussion of Julius Caesar has centred on its structure, in which the titular character appears for only one-third of the play.  Some critics have even seen the action after the assassination as something of an anticlimax.  But perhaps this misses Shakespeare’s central concern: to explore both what impact Caesar has on the thoughts and actions of the other main protagonists, and to examine the repercussions of the murder, an act championed by Brutus and his fellow-conspirators as one both necessary and liberating.

Shakespeare’s play continued a tradition of literary debate about whether Caesar was a tyrant or the father of the people, and if Brutus was a liberator or treacherous assassin.  Significantly, gives the final words to Antony, with his eulogy for Brutus:

This was the noblest Roman of them all:
All the conspirators save only he
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;
He only, in a general honest thought
And common good to all, made one of them.
His life was gentle, and the elements
So mix’d in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world ‘This was a man!’

This was our first visit to the transformed RSC theatre at Stratford. It re-opened in November 2010 following a three-year transformation project which has retained many of the art deco features of the 1932 Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, but significantly improved the experience for theatre-goers by changing the auditorium to a projecting thrust stage with consequentially better sight-lines and sound.

This is how Ellis Woodman summed up the changes, writing in The Telegraph on the occasion of the re-opening in 2010:

Designed by Bennetts Associates, it is just the latest in a line of remodellings that the Royal Shakespeare Theatre has undergone since its foundation in 1873. The original building presented a ripe fantasy of Ye Olde England, complete with neo-Tudor half-timbering. Its focus was a 32-metre water tower that loomed, Big Ben-like, over the town and was intended as a safeguard against fire.

In 1926, however, the tower and a significant part of the building that it was meant to protect burnt to the ground. A competition was quickly held to find a design for a new theatre. Elisabeth Scott, one of the very few woman architects working in Britain at the time, won it with a design for a 1,400-seat auditorium which backed directly against the retained ruins of the Victorian building. Its layout was indebted to her experience as a designer of cinemas. Intimate, it was not. […]

Ever since, the RSC has harboured a desire to exchange the Scott auditorium for a venue of equivalent capacity, but of a layout much closer to that of the Swan. And the new auditorium really is a triumph. It has yet to stage its first production but shows every sign of living up to Michael Boyd’s billing of it as “the best place for performing Shakespeare in the world”. It actually represents a reduction in capacity of around 400 seats, but the gods of the old auditorium had such awful sightlines that the RSC struggled to fill them. A large part of the problem was that the distance from the front of the stage to the back of the auditorium was a daunting 30 metres – a gulf that prompted one disgruntled thespian to describe performing there as “like standing on the cliffs of Dover, addressing Calais”. In the new theatre, the actors can now make eye contact with virtually everyone in the audience. […]

The new theatre not only has a 7-metre fly tower, but a 7-metre basement to boot. The Forest of Arden can now be summoned at the press of a button.

Beyond the auditorium, the results are more mixed. The new public spaces are generic – the palette of grey painted steelwork and full-height glazing serviceable but distinctly under-imagined. However, the more significant misjudgment is the one moment where the architects have allowed themselves a truly emphatic gesture. On the site’s most prominent corner a new tower has been constructed of a height that matches the long vanished water-tower. One can see the logic. The old building’s primary orientation was to the river with the effect that it turned its back on Stratford – a failing that has now been corrected through the creation of a much expanded lobby running the full length of the town elevation. The tower stands sentry-like beside the new front door. The architects talk of it as being wedded to the Italy of Shakespeare’s imagination.

And yet, this is not a campanile but a startlingly imposing structure designed for the purposes of observation. Visitors can take a lift to the top and, on a good day, see four counties.

See also

Restless Shakespeare unlocked on the BBC

Restless Shakespeare unlocked on the BBC
William Shakespeare: attributed to John Taylor

Recently, across BBC radio and television, there’s been a season of excellent programmes dedicated to Shakespeare.  Best of all was  Neil MacGregor following up his 100 Objects with Shakespeare’s Restless World, 20 programmes that explored the world of Shakespeare through twenty objects from that turbulent period.  On BBC4 James Shapiro re-examined the work of Shakespeare during King James I’s reign in an excellent short series, The King and the Playwright: A Jacobean History, while back on Radio 3 The Essay featured five essays about love in the work of Shakespeare.


Drake's circumnavigation medal
Drake’s circumnavigation medal

This is Drake’s Circumnavigation Medal, a small silver medal showing Sir Francis Drake’s 1577-80 voyage around the world. It was created in 1589, around the time that Shakespeare began his theatrical career in London. Neil MacGregor chose this as the first object of his series in order to illustrate how Shakespeare’s generation was the first to conceive of a world whose limits were known. Suddenly, the world looked like a very different place. The 1580s and 1590s saw English figures joining the great adventure of exploration, exploitation, trading and looting that marked the European age of discovery – bringing with it exotic goods and even more exotic tales that would fire the public imagination.

Oberon: ‘We the globe can compass soon,
Swifter than the wandering moon.’
(A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 4.1.96-7)

Puck: ‘I’ll put a girdle round about the earth
In forty minutes.’
(A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 2.1.175-6)

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, MacGregor , pointed out, Oberon, king of the fairies, and his mischievous attendant Puck boast that they can circumnavigate the globe in just over half an hour. It took Francis Drake nearly three years.But it was not really until this period that people could have had a real visual sense of the whole world, and in particular the roundness of the world.

The Stratford Chalice
The Stratford Chalice

In a series of brilliant essays, MacGregor evoked a powerful sense of Shakespeare’s times through objects such as the Stratford Chalice (above), from which Shakespeare may even have drunk (chosen to reflect the changing religious landscape of Elizabethan England), a theatre-goers fork excavated from the site of the Rose Theatre on London’s south bank, and a Plague proclamation from King James I issued in 1603 , the year that a fresh epidemic swept through London forcing the theatres to close for almost a year and leaving Shakespeare’s company little choice but to head out on the road to tour the provinces.

Battle Gear of Henry V

In one essay, MacGregor’s starting point was Henry V’s battle gear, which can be seen the museum at Westminster Abbey.  In Shakespeare’s day, he said, there were two easy ways to learn about national history: you could go to the theatre and see England’s famous victories chronicled in performance; or you could head to Westminster Abbey where in amongst the royal tombs you could be instructed on the ‘living monuments’ of dead kings.  If you did either, it’s probable that one monarch’s heroic deeds would have stood out above all others – those of England’s valiant, dashing, and heroic ‘warrior king’ Henry V.  In the 1590s, as England headed for war with Spain 150 years after Henry’s death, spectacular chivalric displays at Westminster and performances on stage across the river, harked back to this powerful king who personified the ability to unite Englishmen against the enemy.

It was the same for the generation that lived through the Second World war: Laurence Olivier’s film version depicted a handsome and valiant Englishman taking his people onward into battle.

King Henry: In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favoured rage;

(Henry V, 3.1.3-8)

In Westminster Abbey we can still see Henry V’s  battered shield and sword, sturdy helmet and saddle for a war horse.  The reason these instruments of battle are in the Abbey, MacGregor said, is because for centuries they were put on public display, hung over Henry V’s tomb.

Obsidian Aztec mirror owned by Dr John Dee, now in the British Museum
Obsidian Aztec mirror owned by Dr John Dee, now in the British Museum

One of the programmes, ‘New Science, Old Magic’, told the fascinating story of how, in 1608, after acquiring a second indoor playhouse to complement the Globe, Shakespeare’s company were able to begin to deploy magical effects in stage performances such as The Tempest.  Greg Doran of the Royal Shakespeare Company explained the impact:

When they moved inside to the Blackfriars theatre, they had control of light and that’s a very important factor. If you can control the light, you can control the effect. In the Globe’s stage, in the open air with no lighting effects to speak of, with the audience wrapped all the way around, very very difficult to as it were to hide the strings.’

Indoors at Blackfriars, stage magic reached a new pitch of sophistication in The Tempest, employing effects developed by Dr John Dee, an Elizabethan celebrity and  famous practitioner of the occult arts who inspired great theatrical characters such as Marlowe’s damned Dr Faustus and Shakespeare’s own master of magical effects, Prospero.  Dr Dee was particularly known in England for what he called his ‘showstones’, reflective mirrors in which, combining prayer and optics, he was able to conjure and talk to angels.

One of Dee’s mirrors is in the British Museum (above). It’s a large round disc of highly polished obsidian, a black volcanic glass.  It was almost certainly a piece of Spanish booty from Mexico, and is in fact an Aztec mirror, painstakingly crafted in Mexico some time before the Spanish arrived. It was shaped with stone tools and we now know, although Dr Dee probably didn’t, that the high polish was achieved by long rubbing with bat excrement. Aztec royalty used obsidian mirrors, like this one, as symbols of their power and as a means of seeing into the future, deriving part of their authority from a god they called ‘Lord of the Smoking Mirror’. ‘When Spanish science defeated the magic of Mexico’, said MacGregor, ‘this magical object travelled to Europe where it became part of a different, but disconcertingly similar, structure of knowledge possessed only by a few’.

The signature of Nelson Mandela next to a speech in Julius Caesar
The signature of Nelson Mandela next to a speech in Julius Caesar

The series concluded with a superb example of MacGregor’s scholarship and humanitarian sensibility.  In his final essay, Shakespeare Goes Global, he explored how Shakespeare’s words have circled the Earth in the centuries since the publication, by a group of friends a decade after his death, of the First Folio which preserved Shakespeare’s plays for future generations.  I thought this episode so powerful that I’ll quote extended passages here:

On 22 July 1942, the German SS announced that all the Jews in Warsaw would, in the euphemism of the day, be ‘resettled’ to the camp at Treblinka. It was effectively a death sentence:

‘There were however six groups of people who were to be exempted from the resettlement. These included all able-bodied Jews of working age, all persons employed by German public authorities or in German production facilities or those who were on the staff of the Judenrat and the Jewish hospitals. One sentence suddenly set me thinking; the wives and children of the people in these categories were not to be resettled either.’

The 22-year-old Marcel Reich-Ranicki was one of those exemptions. Now over 90 years old and Germany’s leading literary critic, he told his story to the German Parliament in January 2012. A German-Polish Jew, he was working for the Judenrat, the Council of Jews set up by the Nazis. He had no wife or children, but he was engaged, and he realised that, if he acted straight away, he could prevent his fiancee from being ‘resettled’. He must marry her at once:

‘The ceremony did not last long. I cannot recall whether in all the rush and excitement I actually kissed Teofila, I don’t know. But I well remember the feeling that engulfed us, a feeling of fear, fear of what would happen in the coming days. And I still remember the Shakespearean line that occurred to me at the time: ‘Ward je in dieser Laun’ ein Weib gefreit?’

‘Ward je in dieser Laun’ ein Weib gefreit?’: ‘Was ever woman in this humour wooed?’ It’s a quotation from Shakespeare’s Richard III and it’s an astonishing thing for a young German Pole to think of at such a moment. At this time of extreme need, the only words Marcel Reich-Ranicki found were Shakespeare’s. […]

In this final programme I want to look at the many things that Shakespeare’s plays have come to mean to the whole world. For hundreds of years, people like Marcel Reich-Ranicki have found in Shakespeare the words to express their own deepest feelings. How has this supremely public writer become the private companion of so many, his words the stuff that their hopes, fears and dreams are made on? How did this very English playwright go global?

Well the answer, I think, is here in the British Library, and it’s in this book that I’ve got in front of me: Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies – often referred to simply as the ‘First Folio’. … The first folio was advertised for the Frankfurt Book Fair of 1622, six years after Shakespeare had died, but as often happens, the publishers ran a bit late and it appeared only in 1623. Now, it was rare for plays in English by a single author to be gathered and published like this. That tribute was usually reserved for the great writers in Latin. But with this book, people everywhere, people who had never seen Shakespeare played in the theatre, could make his works part of their lives. And from the beginning, we know that they did.

The First Folio allowed Shakespeare to travel out of the theatre and into the world. The copy I’m looking at now belonged to William Johnstoune, who lived in Dumfriesshire in Scotland.  […]

Johnstoune’s copy of the First Folio is now in Meisei University in Tokyo. But I am studying it in a cafe in London on my smartphone. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Puck puts a girdle round the earth in forty minutes. In the world of modern magic, online Shakespeare circles the globe instantly.

And on every circling the words mean something new. In 2012, the very new state of South Sudan found echoes of its post-conflict recovery in an officially sponsored production of Cymbeline in Juba Arabic. […]

Memorably [Shakespeare] was there on Robben Island, the infamous South African jail, where in the 1970s, leaders of the African National Congress were imprisoned during the struggle against apartheid. Sonny Venkatratham was one of them:

‘When I got to Robben Island we had no access to a library or any other reading material. I applied to buy some books and the reply came that I am allowed only one book. Eventually I decided the only book that would keep me going for some time would be the Complete Works of Shakespeare – well I knew they wouldn’t allow me to have the Das Kapital or something.’

In order to keep his Shakespeare with him in his cell, Sonny Venkatratham disguised it by sticking Hindu cards sent to him for Diwali over the covers. The Robben Island ‘Bible’ is now part of the legend of the battle against apartheid:

‘About six months before my due release date, I circulated The Complete Works of Shakespeare and asked my comrades there to select a line or a passage that appealed to them and sign it. All of them chose lines or passages that inspired them and strengthened the resolve for the struggle.’

On the 16 December 1977, the disguised Robben Island Bible reached Nelson Mandela. He signed his name beside this passage on courage and death from Julius Caesar:

Caesar: Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear,
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.

(Julius Caesar 2.2.32-7)

The same passage had moved William Johnstoune in Scotland 350 years earlier: ‘Death a necessarie end will come when it will come and is not to be forefeared’.  The prisoner Walter Sisulu, pondering racial injustice in South Africa, fascinatingly does not choose as his passage words chosen by Othello, the Moor of Venice, and victim of many racist slurs. He chooses instead the Venetian Jew, Shylock:

Shylock: You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,
. . .
Fair sir, you spat on me on Wednesday last,
You spurned me such a day, another time
You called me dog

(The Merchant of Venice 1.3.108-25)

Imagining Sisulu reading these lines, is to imagine Shakespeare conjuring the humiliations of apartheid South Africa. The Robben Island Bible, like the First Folio, allows everyone to see in Shakespeare the mirror of their own predicament and, in the Warsaw ghetto or in a South African prison, Shakespeare speaks to the unsettled condition of our time. In the First Folio, his contemporary Ben Jonson described him as the ‘soul of the age’, but also as ‘not of an age, but for all time’. Shakespeare scholar, Jonathan Bate:

‘I think the key to Shakespeare’s endurance, and the fact that in every culture and every age he seemed to speak to the present, comes from that paradox. On the one hand he was the ‘soul of the age’, all the great conflicts and innovations of the age, the sense of the discovery of new worlds, new ways of looking at the world, it all is there in Shakespeare. He was the soul of the age, but at the same time he never confined himself to the particularities of his historical moment and that meant that because he sort of plugged in to the fundamental questions about human society and human life, he speaks to every age. Shakespeare is always our contemporary.’

James Shapiro

I’ve been an admirer of James Shapiro, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University , since reading 1599: A Year In The Life of William Shakespeare and another of his books, Shakespeare and the Jews.  In the Shakespeare Unlocked season he presented a three-part series about Shakespeare in the reign of King James, The King and the Playwright: A Jacobean History. It proved to be fascinating stuff, with revealing insights into the background that informed plays such as Macbeth, Coriolanus, Measure for Measure and King Lear.

Shapiro began by sketching in the anxious mood of 1603 when the Scottish king succeeded to the English  throne. Puritans, plague, an extravagant gift to a Spanish diplomatic delegation, and a new British coin called the Unite all featured in Shapiro’s rich and fascinating history of a troubled time which saw an extraordinary creative outpouring.  Shapiro’s main purpose was to relate Shakespeare’s late plays to the politics and the tensions of the Jacobean period, much as he did for later Elizabethan England in his book 1599. He pointed out that  the theatre was of tremendous significance in Jacobean London: in a city of just 200,000 people, there were eight theatres. There would need to be 300 for an equivalent ratio today.

What Shapiro (and MacGregor, too) made clear was just how much the death of Elizabeth was a political chasm that opened at the feet of the age. Shapiro emphasised what an enormous change it represented for Shakespeare in particular.  As he said, we tend to think of him as an Elizabethan playwright who simply progressed from triumph to triumph. But James’s accession endangered that progress. Shapiro, drew attention to the difference between Hamlet (1600) and Measure for Measure (1604):

The distance he travelled… suddenly you have this play of incredible ambiguity and disturbing resolution that has come out of a different world … I am struggling as a cultural historian to understand this moment.

Measure for Measure was not the first Shakespeare play to be presented before the new king, but was likely the first to be written in his reign. James hated crowds and was awkward with people: he was far happier in a library or on a hunting field than playing the part of a king. Or, as the Duke puts it, ‘I love the people but do not like to stage me to their eyes’. In addition, Measure for Measure addresses the exact same issues of good governance, of pragmatism versus piety that were preoccupying James at the start of his reign.

In Macbeth, written in 1606 in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot when the authorities were cracking down on Catholics, Shakespeare  captured the anxiety and obsessions of the time. Shapiro drew out the links between Macbeth, especially the famous and chilling Porter’s speech, and the Gunpowder Plot.

Here’s a knocking indeed! If a man were 
porter of Hell Gate, he should have old turning the 
key. (Knock.) Knock, knock, knock! Who’s there, 
i’ the name of Beelzebub? Here’s a farmer, that hang’d 
himself on th’ expectation of plenty. Come in time! 
Have napkins enow about you; here you’ll sweat for’t. 
(Knock.) Knock, knock! Who’s there, in the other 
devil’s name? Faith, here’s an equivocator, that could 
swear in both the scales against either scale, who com- 
mitted treason enough for God’s sake, yet could 
not equivocate to heaven. O, come in, equivocator.

The Porter, he points out, uses the word ‘equivocate’ once and ‘equivocator’ twice. The Catholic priest Henry Garnet, executed for complicity in the plot, had written A Treatise of Equivocation instructing Catholics in how to conceal their faith. Concealment, secrecy and ‘equivocation’ were words that signified the fears of the age.

Romeo and Juliet

The Essay on Radio 3 marked the season with a week of essays about love in the work of Shakespeare. Margaret Drabble explores how our concepts of love and humanity have been deepened by the power of Shakespeare’s poetry and how his many and varied versions of love continue to shape our imaginations: from the first love and love at first sight shared by the teenage Romeo and Juliet to the all consuming last love of the ageing Antony and Cleopatra.

Other essays were given by Stanley Wells – who suggested that, though Shakespeare’s work is not generally considered to be autobiographical, there is good reason to believe his varying portrayals of love and romance may reflect the changing nature of Shakespeare’s own experiences – and by the actor and director Samuel West, who explored the many and varied portrayals of love in Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays. Professor Helen Hackett examined in some depth the love sonnet spoken by Romeo and Juliet and how, like so many of his poems, it creates a moment of extreme unreality. Time stands still as the protagonists pour out their hearts in what is effectively a sonnet whose lines are handed back and forth between the two lovers, a sonnet that takes us beyond poetic convention and beyond realism to tell the truth about love:

Romeo [To Juliet]: If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.

Juliet: Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.

Romeo: Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?

Juliet: Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.

Rome: O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
They pray — grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.

Juliet: Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.

Romeo: Then move not, while my prayer’s effect I take.  [Kisses her.]
Thus from my lips, by yours, my sin is purged.

Juliet: Then have my lips the sin that they have took.

Rome: Sin from thy lips? O trespass sweetly urged!
Give me my sin again.  [Kisses her.]

The final essay was in some ways the most interesting, related as it was to Neil MacGregor’s final essay. In it, the writer and journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown recalled how her own heart was captured by Shakespeare as a child growing up in Uganda, East Africa, where his plays were performed at her school on a regular basis. She told her own astonishing story, a tragic variant on Shakespeare’s tale of forbidden love between families divided by hatred and prejudice.  After playing Juliet to a black African Romeo, scandal followed and her father never spoke to her again until he died.  Alibhai-Brown recalled the experience in article for the Independent:

I am forever grateful that some of my teachers were brave enough to instil in us ideas which were inimical to those held by our parents and communities. That they took on their more conventional colleagues, broke rules, took risks and made us into questioning little upstarts and worthy rebels instead of a generation of little obedients. Our poor old British teachers today would never be allowed to get away with such subversive behaviour.

Mrs Mann, my English teacher is the true heroine of the one-woman show I have been performing as part of the RSC’s new work programme based on my life as a young girl in Uganda and my love of Shakespeare. Mrs Mann came into our predominantly Asian school (with a minority of black pupils) and shook things up by producing Romeo and Juliet with Asians playing the Capulets and Africans playing the Montagues. I was Juliet. Shame and scandal followed and my father never spoke to me again until he died.

Africans in the early Sixties had grown to despise us, even the massive good we did. Asians thought of Africans as inferior beings. After independence we had to make a different country. Mrs Mann made us break from those deep prejudices. She came to the show in London on the final night and I publicly told her that whatever had happened within my family, she was right to do what she did.  I often talk to pupils in schools and am increasingly appalled at how poor they are at challenging each other’s ideas, how they reproduce the prejudices of their parents and tribes, how unfree they are.

In her radio essay, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown argued that, though Shakespeare may never have left England, he had a global outlook on love.  ‘He wrote so perceptively and eloquently about cross-cultural and interracial relationships that no playwright since has ever come near’, she said. From Titus Andronicus and the Merchant of Venice to Othello, the plays are full of rebellious lovers, mixed race couplings whose complex lives are portrayed with such moral clarity and moral ambivalence that they resonate today.

Note: The painting of William Shakespeare at the head of this post is the only portrait of him that has any claim to have been painted from life. It may be by a painter called John Taylor who was an important member of the Painter-Stainers’ Company. The portrait is known as the ‘Chandos portrait’ after a previous owner. It was the first portrait to be acquired by the National Portrait Gallery in 1856. In June, this and other portraits from the NPG will be available to view online when  a further 21,000 paintings will be added to the excellent Your Paintings website.

See also

Henry V: The Globe gets it just right

Henry V: The Globe gets it just right

In Liverpool this week we’ve been fortunate in seeing the Globe Theatre production of Henry V on the first leg of a nationwide tour, prior to its opening back at the Globe at Southwark in June.  I had my doubts when I heard that in this Olympic summer the Globe were presenting the one Shakespeare play in which the patriotic notes can be turned up to full volume.  But – no worries; this is a superb production that is colourful, inventive and deft in highlighting all the nuances of Shakespeare’s text.

Henry V is a popular play, crammed with glorious and familiar poetry.  Like many of my generation, I imagine, this was the first Shakespeare play I ever saw – in Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film version which had reflected the moment in offering a rousing, patriotic rallying cry for Britons as the war entered its last months. It’s remained a favourite for me ever since, with its glorious poetry and uproarious comedy.

Henry V can be presented as a play to thrill proud patriots – or as a satire on conniving politicians who resort to war to serve their own ends, and a condemnation of the brutality of war.  This production doesn’t veer towards either pole.  Instead, it underlines the fact that Shakespeare is far too subtle to preach, or offer anything less than a multi-faceted view of human nature.  I think this is crystallised in the joyous musical coda that director Dominic Dromgoole has added to the play, in which all the characters join the band of musicians in cavorting around the stage: we see the ‘fair field full of folk’ that Shakespeare has explored – high and low, honourable and thieving, brave and cowardly, the warrior and the sceptic.  For this is a play in which heroism and villainy march shoulder to shoulder.

Shakespeare’s Henry is a nuanced portrayal of a monarch who appears at times the courageous leader able to inspire his subjects to rally to the cause, whether mingling with them incognito on the eve of battle or employing the high-flown rhetoric that the play has become famous for:

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood […]

I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’


This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered –
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers

On the one hand Henry can expressly order that,

…  in our marches through the
country, there be nothing compelled from the
villages, nothing taken but paid for, none of the
French upbraided or abused in disdainful language;
for when lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the
gentler gamester is the soonest winner.

Yet also terrify the governor of Harfleur with these words:

I will not leave the half-achieved Harfleur
Till in her ashes she lie buried.
The gates of mercy shall be all shut up,
And the flesh’d soldier, rough and hard of heart,
In liberty of bloody hand shall range
With conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass
Your fresh-fair virgins and your flowering infants.

Later, on the battlefield, in revenge for the deaths of leading English nobles, Henry orders the immediate execution of all French prisoners.

Music is woven into the fabric of this production, helping to reinforce the authentic sense of the medieval world that director Dominic Dromgoole seeks to create.  The play opens and ends with music, and musical interludes are interspersed throughout the action – played on period instruments such as sackbut, lute, cittern, hurdy-gurdy and cornet by a small band of musicians.

In another example of this quest for authenticity, the play opens to the startling sight of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely plotting to convince the king of the desirability of regaining lost lands in France whilst having a crap and wiping their arses as a servant hovers with a handwash bowl.  Defecating in public – and accompanying the act with a little conversation or intrigue – would not have been regarded as out of the ordinary in those days.

There was attention to period detail, too, in the costumes, from the rich silks and fur of wealthy courtiers to the rags and filth of the poor infantrymen. The set brought a slice of The Globe to the Playhouse: two huge pillars, a balcony and a stairway constructed from rustic wooden planks served as a representation of the stage at The Globe.

The acting was uniformly excellent.  Jamie Parker as Henry gave a sound performance – and I was struck by the way in which he (and others in the cast) avoided the conventional declamatory style of delivery in favour of a more natural one that seemed to elucidate the meaning and the poetry of the lines.

[Update 22 April: listening to The Reunion today on Radio 4 explained that this style of delivery constitutes one of the significant contributions that The Globe has made to British theatrical practice.   The programme reunited five people who helped create The Globe Theatre and,  despite three decades of setbacks made it a critical and commercial success.  One of the contributers made the point that The Globe’s architecture, with a standing audience close to the actors, means that the actors can deliver their lines as if the audience were on stage with them.  The discussion also made clear how the commitment to period detail – whether in music or costume – is a central element of the Globe house style.]

Sam Cox as Pistol was brilliant as the eccentric, grasping and cowardly former drinking partner of the king.  The Welsh Captain Fluellen was rendered perfectly by Brendan O’Hea, while Chris Starkie deserves a mention for his astonishing performance as the Scottish Captain Jamy, his lines delivered in such broad Glaswegian as to be completely unintelligible.

An unusual feature of this production is that the Chorus is played by a woman (as per Greek drama, perhaps).  Brid Brennan’s performance was superb, drawing attention to an element of the play that might be overlooked.  Yet there is a great deal of interest in this Chorus: in an almost Brechtian manner, Shakespeare repeatedly draws attention to the unreality of the scenes being presented on stage, and to the limits of what can be staged.  Right from those wonderful opening lines, in fact:

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!

In the prologue, the Chorus reminds the audience of the limitations of the play:

Can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?

Henry V was written in 1599, a crucial year in Shakespeare’s career that is the subject of a book by James Shapiro that I read a few years back – 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare.  I recall its vivid opening chapter that describes how, in the last days of December 1598, a troupe of players led by Richard Burbage (probably the first actor to play the role of Henry V), armed with pikes and swords, march to the Theatre in Shoreditch.  The actors are members of The Chamberlain’s Men, Shakespeare’s band of brothers. The armaments are  props from the Curtain Theatre where the Chamberlain’s Men had been forced, for the season just past, to stage their productions following a dispute with the landlord of their previous venue, London’s oldest and most celebrated playhouse, the Theatre in Shoreditch.

The Chamberlain’s Men, now lacking a permanent playing space, were in danger of becoming homeless.  But they had secured some land in Southwark, giving them a building site, but no theatre.  Strictly speaking, Burbage owned the building at Shoreditch, but ownership was most likely to be disputed by the man who owned the land, the man with whom the company were in contention.  So while he was away on his Christmas holidays, the plan was for the actors to steal it from under his nose, dismantling the theatre’s timbers and transporting them across the river.  And, of course, that plan proved successful – the original Globe Theatre being the upshot.

Shapiro also tells how Henry V was written against the backdrop of what turned out to be the ill-fated Irish campaign by the ambitious Earl of Essex, suspected of mounting his expedition in expectation of returning victorious to overthrow Queen Elizabeth.  Henry V may be the only play in which Shakespeare makes explicit reference to the political situation at the time he was writing, giving these words to the Chorus at the opening of the final act, comparing Henry’s triumphant return to London, firstly with that of ‘conquering Caesar’ returning to Rome, and then with Essex returning, ‘as in good time he may’, with ‘rebellion broached on his sword’:

But now behold,
In the quick forge and working-house of thought,
How London doth pour out her citizens!
The mayor and all his brethren in best sort,
Like to the senators of the antique Rome,
With the plebeians swarming at their heels,
Go forth and fetch their conquering Caesar in:
As, by a lower but loving likelihood,
Were now the general of our gracious empress,
As in good time he may, from Ireland coming,
Bringing rebellion broached on his sword,
How many would the peaceful city quit,
To welcome him! much more, and much more cause,
Did they this Harry.

Olivier’s take on St Crispian:

 Derek Jacobi as the Chorus speaks the prologue from Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 film version:

And the 1944 Olivier version: