“The play’s the thing”

Guest blogger, Caroline Astley, writes…

This summer brought Shakespeare’s Globe’s performance of Hamlet to the Bodleian Library Quad. After a string of wet evenings, I ventured down to the open-air Old Schools Quadrangle in the hope that, weather permitting, I would be in for an evening of theatre in classic Shakespearean style; given that Hamlet is considered the Bard’s most popular and performed play, and the Bodleian provided The Globe with a majestic, historical setting with which to bring it to life, I was not to be disappointed.

The Shakespeare’s Globe season at the Bodleian is a well-lived tradition, now in its fifth year. The Oxfordian location is ideal, almost rivalling The Globe’s own Elizabethan-style theatre, famously situated on London’s South Bank. Completed in 1619, three years after Shakespeare’s death, the Bodleian Library’s Old Schools Quadrangle is a suitably epic setting for a production of the well-known tragedy. Hamlet‘s touring set was similarly designed to feel contemporary with a seventeenth-century aesthetic; although more bare and stripped-down in appearance than the decadent Globe, the modest staging served as a perfect backdrop to the dramatic performance of a play which, as the Globe’s own flyer puts it, is “the fullest expression of Shakespeare’s genius”.

As seats filled and the sun remained out, the players gathered on stage in true Globeian style, with a handful of instruments, and began to strum a simple tune. Tom Lawrence (Horatio) came forward, introducing the play with a cry of “we have played a rainy Portsmouth, a wet and windy Poole and a stormy Cambridge: and, now, here we are in sunny Oxford!” The relief among audience and actors was unanimous.

Yet, regardless of the miraculous sunshine, Dominic Dromgoole and Bill Buckhurst’s direction would have withstood any weather: fresh and fast-paced, it made the two-and-a-half-hour performance fly by, despite dropping temperatures as the evening wore on. Michael Benz was raw yet dynamic as Hamlet, perfectly capturing the frantic paranoia of the Danish prince. Refreshingly youthful, Benz sold the angst and insecurity of his character, exposing his vulnerability beneath a carefully-constructed veneer of bravado. Treading the line between madness and sanity, Benz agitatedly dramatized the grief, frustration, anger and hysteria of the young prince.

A tragedy in the traditional sense, the production remained light in the first half through plenty of witty humour; lines delivered in a smart, subtle fashion from Benz and Christopher Saul (Polonius) kept the audience laughing. A comic interpretation of the play within the play, The Murder of Gonzalo, saw the end of the first half and, also, an end to the humour. After a brief interval, in which members of the audience could peruse the Bodleian’s Hamlet display in the Proscholium (as well as a warm bar set up in the stunning Divinity School), the production turned into a spiralling descent of tragic death and despair. In quick succession, Polonius’s murder, Ophelia’s madness (played with poignancy by Carlyss Peer), and the demise of Hamlet himself were executed with a deft handling of the catastrophic drama.

In a perfect kick-off to the summer of Sprint for Shakespeare, Dromgoole and Buckhurst’s Hamlet did not fail to meet expectations of the much-anticipated performance at the Bodleian Library. An exciting rendition of a traditional classic, The Globe managed to breathe new life into Shakespeare’s most popular play while remaining stripped down to its bare essentials. Not to be missed.

Shakespeare’s Globe is on tour with Hamlet until 1 September 2012.

Caroline Astley

Remarkable Puck

Guest blogger, Jo Willcox, writes…

I’ll put a girdle round about the earth

In forty minutes.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, II i

I have an unforgettable memory from my schooldays of a remarkable Puck. We had an annual Shakespeare competition in which each House had to present a scene from Shakespeare without scenery, with minimal props and in school uniform. As a 12-year-old newcomer I watched entranced an amazing Puck who in due course made a most spectacular exit. With one enormous bound she leapt from the platform out of the side door of the Hall as she set out to put a girdle round the earth.

She was later to become one of our much loved thespian Dames.

I regret to say that I cannot remember which House won the competition that year, but I like to think it was ours.

Jo Willcox

A third more opulent

Guest blogger Robert Stagg writes…

what can you say to draw
A third more opulent than your sisters’?

(King Lear Folio I, i, 85-6)

In speaking, the actor playing Lear – let alone Cordelia – must consider not only “what” to say but how to say it. In offering “A third more opulent than your sisters’”, does he emphasise “more” or “opulent”? – that is to say, does Lear think Cordelia will be allured by sheer wealth or sororal competition? Two different stress-routes are offered through the lines.

Two months ago, I was experiencing another problem of stress. I was writing a 10,000-word Master’s dissertation while rehearsing to play Lear in a psychology experiment. Audiences would see two different versions of King Lear I, i and I, ii. One version presented an affable Lear ruined by Cordelia’s refusal to join in his joke. The other showed the audience a king leering at his daughter, managing the family succession with a thin-faced relish. The affable Lear stressed a “more opulent” third in a playful manner; the second Lear laid emphasis on “opulent”, his eyes shining at the spoken riches.

An actor’s decision to place stress on “opulent” seems to accord with expectations of an iambic line; the first syllable of “opulent” (“op”) acquires stress if we are to read the line iambically. But the “o” of “opulent” is helped and enabled by the previous “o” in “more”. There is almost an elision or slur between the o’s. So stressing “opulent” comes with the permission of, and certainly not at the expense of, “more” – an auxiliary disruption of the iambic pattern.

Shakespeare, then, does not exactly give advice to the players (as Peter Hall’s book title, drawing on Hamlet, misleadingly promises). Here, Shakespeare does the opposite; he plays with the iambic advice of the line, makes it more difficult than counting syllables on fingers. Instead, the players are given a possibility or possibilities. From this small matter of stress – “more” or “opulent”? – comes an impression of Lear’s attitude to Cordelia and, with it, our attitude towards her. Does he think her greedy or competitive, and how so? Does his voice command our confidence in that judgement, or judgements? In a stutter, or a stumble, or a stress, worlds of possibility loop out from individual lines – like the parallel worlds or universes of modern physics – and create a staging of the play. The actor cannot play all the worlds at once; but he can hear a glimpse of its aspects from the stresses and strains of Shakespeare’s lines.

Robert Stagg

Teach young babes

Guest blogger, Judith Siefring, writes…

Those that do teach young babes
Do it with gentle means and easy tasks

Othello, IV, ii

Like so many of us, I love reading and watching Shakespeare. And like many book-loving parents, I perhaps think a little too much about how to pass on my favourite works to my children. I’m a digital editor at the Bodleian and having had the good fortune to work on the Shakespeare Quartos Archive in 2009, when my son was only two years old, I pondered the question of when to introduce a child to Shakespeare rather earlier than most!

I would often sit at my laptop surrounded by different editions of Hamlet, while my son played happily on the floor beside me. I have a treasured photograph of him absorbed in a paperback Hamlet; any secret desires I may have had to circulate it as evidence of my son’s incipient genius were scuppered by the fact that the book is upside down.

When my son was four, I decided to dip our toes together into Shakespeare in performance by taking him to the wonderful Shakespeare4Kidz production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Any doubts I may have had about whether it is possible to make Shakespeare truly appealing for kids were quickly dispelled by a theatre full of children in hysterics at the antics of Puck and company. Well over a year later, my son still talks about “the funny fairy guy”. I must confess, too, to feeling just a tiny bit smug when my boy pointed excitedly at a theatre poster recently at a crowded traffic crossing and bellowed, “Look Mummy – Hamlet!!

Now with the fantastic Sprint for Shakespeare initiative for inspiration, the time might be right to get to work on my two-year-old daughter…

 Judith Siefring

My Relevant Shakespeare

Guest blogger, Celia Smith, writes…

November 2008 is a significant date for me for two reasons: it was the first time I sought literary theory outside the classroom, and the first time I saw a Shakespeare play that was not in the rotation of classics with which I was familiar. The literary comment was a defence of T.S. Eliot’s anti-semitism by Jeanette Winterson.  The play was Tim Caroll’s 2008 The Merchant of Venice at the Royal Shakespeare Company, with Angus Wright as Shylock. I remember the two together because both were moments that offered ambivalent representations of the Jewish faith; something which interests me.

The set production of Merchant stood out to me in a way I hadn’t previously considered a Shakespearean performance. The floors, walls and furniture props took on hues of a musty, heat-burnt red – it reminded me of the Mediterranean marketplace setting and the gory blood money theme.  The experience marked a departure from the way I had watched Shakespeare plays as a child. When I was at school I had been used to uncritically sitting through versions of the plays you might typically be taken to see at that age (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Hamlet). I think the teachers hoped the trips would sow a seed of intellectual curiosity about the writer’s more obscure gold. Yet it’s a mark of my irrepressible juvenilia that plays like Henry VIII or The Winter’s Tale or Pericles will always exist for me outside the well-established set of Shakespeare texts that are – as they are for so many – imprinted permanently on my adolescent brain. It’s the language from the grand plays that have stayed with me all these years; the cadences of the lines that I have hung my heart on year after years of growing up.

I remember at university, the finalists in the years above me used Antony and Cleopatra and Henry V as they slogged through their exams. One girl wrote on Facebook as she approached the first night of her exams: “the bright day is done / And we are for the dark”. I remember when they were nearly done too because she wrote: “once more unto the breach dear friends!” Those lines returned to me as spurs of encouragement by the time I was doing my own finals. At that time I was comforted by the melodrama I could call on. When I felt like a misery-guts and I could see younger students still having fun, I would grumble: “I have of late – but wherefore I know not – lost all my mirth”. I would later eventually drop off after a sleepless night with grouchy resolve: “put out the light, and then put out the light”.

Nowadays working in my graduate job, I still find Shakespeare quotations lift my spirits. After a month working for Nightingale House (a Jewish care home for the elderly), and after a month waiting for social care reforms to come from the House of Commons, I was suddenly struck by how close the company’s talk of quality of care was making me think of Merchant’s speech on quality of mercy.

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest:

The Merchant of Venice, IV, i

In the light of the challenging future that faces the elderly community in Britain today, I feel that Shakespeare writes about care (or rather mercy) with a moral fibre that would make me gibber with guilt were I in Government. And that reminder of Merchant brings me back to that date of November 2008, when I was first exploring the world of literary theory. I came across this apologia for poetry in Winterson’s feature in The Guardian. Her argument for the relevance of T.S. Eliot is exactly how I feel about the relevance of Shakespeare:

So when people say that poetry is merely a luxury for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn’t be read much at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language – and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers – a language powerful enough to say how it is.

 

Celia Smith

Hooked Kids

Guest blogger, Angie Johnson, writes…

Once I was on holiday with my daughters near Arundel Castle where I was delighted to see advertised a production of The Tempest that was to play in the grounds.  As I was on holiday, I had no baby sitters available so we all went along. My girls were 2½ and 4 years old, but I figured, as it was outside, they could totter about if they got bored. I needn’t have worried — they loved every minute of it.

At first they were impressed by the antics of the colourful characters strutting on the stage — BUT then they got caught up in the rhythm of the lines, and became truly entranced by the show.  The very young love rhythm, yet I noticed how some of the older audience members struggled with it.  They could not give in to the magic of the iambic pentameter!

My girls are now in their mid 20s — love Shakespeare — and their favourite play is The Tempest.

It is never too early to get your kids hooked on the Bard!

Angie Johnson

Is Shakespeare in our DNA?

Guest blogger, Professor Martin Maiden, writes…

During my career as a microbiologist I have seen the molecule that I have spent much of my time working on, DNA, become part of popular culture. Phrases such as so-and-so “is in my DNA” are now frequently used and perhaps, sometimes, even vaguely understood.  Although many press announcements describing a “gene for…” are greatly oversimplified, we are increasingly aware of the importance of genetics and inheritance in complex human behaviours and it is fun, as long as we don’t take it too seriously, to speculate on the relationships of nature and nurture in our ability to produce and appreciate art.

If there were a “gene for” appreciating Shakespeare, I would be a good candidate to have inherited it.  Both my parents were great Shakespeare enthusiasts despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that their formal education ended in their early teenage. They went to Stratford-upon-Avon to visit the Shakespeare memorial theatre for their honeymoon, and I grew up with our copy of the complete works and a plaster copy of the Stratford statue prominent household possessions.

In the fullness of time, the whole family went on holiday to Stratford to visit the theatre – the first plays I saw there (standing) were King John and Richard II.  The later astonishment of the head of drama at my secondary modern school underlined that this was not a normal school holiday activity.

I was hooked from that time on – I even carried around a copy of the Sonnets (purchased, of course, in Stratford) for a number of years although, the apocryphal act of parliament never having been passed, I read them less often than I aspired to. With my own children approaching teenage, I naturally want them to enjoy Shakespeare too, but am sceptical that I shall be as successful as my parents in passing on my enthusiasm. If there really were a “gene for” this then I wouldn’t have to worry, of course, but perhaps my confidence in genetic determinism, at least for my own children, is not that strong…

I still find Shakespeare’s wide appeal, across time and cultures, remarkable and intriguing. A particular combination of human genes, placed in the environment of late Elizabethan England, resulted in an individual who not only had a remarkable understanding of the emotions and motivations of other, but who was also capable of using the English language to convey those feelings to an audience.

My own enjoyment of the plays is rooted in the reality of his characters: the people who inhabit his plays are the neighbour, the colleague, the person you meet in the supermarket.  Although living at a time when scientific knowledge was rudimentary, Shakespeare accurately observed and described the diversity of feelings and behaviours of human beings in a way that shall remain relevant for as long as our species continues to exist. In the sense of how we are constituted, for me, Shakespeare really does get inside “our DNA”.

Professor Martin Maiden
University of Oxford

Shakespeare on Radio

We are delighted to share a guest post from a former Chief Producer Radio Drama at the BBC, Martin Jenkins, who writes…

Budget and time restraints present real challenges for radio directors who have to rehearse and record some 30 minutes of a Shakespeare play during each studio day.  Pre-preparation is vital.  Various versions of the text will be studied.  Some additional verse may be required so that listeners know where a scene is set and who is speaking. I remember when I was directing Peggy Ashcroft as Queen Margaret in 1977 (a role she had first played with the RSC in 1963) she came to a handful of lines she didn’t recognise. “I wonder why John [Barton] cut these out – they’re rather good.”  I opted to keep quiet.

Casting is crucial.  In all radio drama, it is essential to utilize a wide range of voices and accents so listeners can distinguish between the various characters.  The director’s nightmare is to realise at the readthrough that Hamlet and Horatio sound identical.

Owing to the limited rehearsal/recording time, BBC Radio can often assemble stunning casts, all of whom enter into the spirit of the recording with the “big names” also taking part in crowd scenes with great gusto.

With such limited rehearsal time, a director needs to create an open working environment during which ideas are discussed and actors brought to performance pitch in a remarkably short space of time. Many clearly relish this immediacy and sense of “danger”.  At the same time, the director is shaping the emotional course of the scene whilst also carefully blocking the action. Radio is far from a static medium. Actors rarely, if ever, stand around microphones, reading.  A great deal of physical energy and movement is required and it is my privilege to have witnessed some truly remarkable performances in radio studios.

Throughout the studio sessions, I strive to ensure the language has a freshness and vitality, hopefully sounding as if it is being spoken for the first time. During actual recordings, I am in the cubicle listening intently to the journey of the play, as well as to the journey of each of the characters. I have to be sure that character and plot development are clear to the listener and, most importantly, that they are being drawn into Shakespeare’s world: “On your imaginary forces work.” (Henry V, I, Prologue)

Shakespeare can work brilliantly on radio. With no visual distractions, the listener has a unique relationship with the verse. They can eavesdrop, especially during soliloquies. They can experience characters thinking aloud and sharing their innermost thoughts.  Because of this closeness, a mis-stressed word or misplaced inflection will jar and hinder understanding of the character’s thought processes.  Sometimes in the theatre, one feels performances have “settled” and that lines are being “recited” rather than “thought”.  Recited lines on radio work against audience involvement.

Throughout a recording, my role is to focus on listening, not watching, the actors. If something doesn’t work then my notes have to be (hopefully) clear and concise.  When it does work – when you hear actors in total harmony with the sense, pitch and energy of the language – everything makes sense and the lines feel as fresh as the day they were written.

Martin Jenkins
Former BBC Chief Producer Radio Drama; founding Artistic Director of the Liverpool Everyman; former assistant director and actor with the RSC

Healing in The Winter’s Tale

Guest blogger, Katherine Arnold, writes…

For this affliction has a taste as sweet
As any cordial comfort. Still, methinks,
There is an air comes from her: what fine chisel
Could ever yet cut breath? Let no man mock me,
For I will kiss her.

The Winter’s Tale, V, iii

My most vivid impression of a scene in Shakespeare’s plays takes place, odd as it may sound, in a work I have never seen performed. The startling transformation of Queen Hermione’s statue in The Winter’s Tale sparked my sudden, belated appreciation for the play both as a work in isolation and for its vibrant connections to other literature. The moment marks the reconcilement of the royal families, the younger generation with the older, and Hermione with her repentant husband, which presented, to me, clear evidence of the beautiful possibilities a gesture of forgiveness offers for familial and spiritual revival. Moreover, her return, following the romance of Perdita and Florizel, completes the transition from the winter of the play’s first three acts to the spring of the final two.

The captivating image of a living statue led to a series of questions and, in turn, fascination with the indicated complexities. How could the actors be positioned onstage? What gestures and expressions would they have? Would there be a line of symmetry between the family members of Sicily and Bohemia, and how could the significance of the moment be extended? While the written words and speech had initially taken my attention, in a form where visual actions hold as much importance on stage, these questions began my appreciation for the variety of potential interpretations (has Hermione been alive, or is it magic? Does she accept Leontes’s remorse as genuine?) which change and colour any performance (or, in this case, reading) of a play.

These considerations, as well as the play’s connection to another piece of literature, led to the unexpected penetration of the issues of remorse and healing through knowing a different set of characters from another time period. My first encounter with the statue’s transformation came, after all, through reading George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (Gwendolen Harleth takes up the role of Hermione, directing Rex Gascoigne to play Leontes, and kneel and kiss the hem of her dress) which presents a striking, unforgettable view of Shakespeare’s characters for the purpose of a novel. The play, far from standing untouched through time, has both history and descendents in works of literature, releasing exhilaration for the questions that arise among layers of meaning. Even a reading of Hermione’s return elicited this vivacity, an affirmation of the openness of Shakespeare’s work to our joys and our experiences.

Katherine Arnold

Conservation Diary — Day 9

Nicole Gilroy writes…

The final intact bifolium, before treatment

The final intact bifolium, before treatment

We are coming to the end of the treatment needed.

The final bifolium of the book had shifted out of position and protruded from the edge, causing damage to the corner.

The book's final intact bifolium, during work

Nicole Gilroy and Julie Sommerfeldt work on the book’s final intact bifolium

The final intact bifolium, after treatment

The final intact bifolium, after treatment

We have relaxed the spine fold and repositioned the bifolium so that the edges are back within the textblock and in their proper position.

We have also evaluated the success of our splint repairs and are pleased with the way that they allow the leaves to flex properly again.

Final leaf of Titus Andronicus before splint repairs

Final leaf of Titus Andronicus before splint repairs

Final leaf of Titus Andronicus after splint repairs

Final leaf of Titus Andronicus after splint repairs

Last leaf after treatment

Last leaf after treatment

The 3 detached leaves of Cymbeline (around the re-positioned bifolium) will be replaced in position, loose, at the back of the book. In our usual work, we would re-attach loose leaves, repairing the torn spine folds and hinging the loose leaves back into position. But we felt that such repair was undesirable in this case, and would stand out against the minimal approach to the rest of the volume, so they will remain loose. As the book will not be handled by readers as an ordinary book would be, the risks of unattached leaves can be balanced with the principle of minimal interference.