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

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

Some Lines from King John

Guest blogger, Jonathan Blaney, writes…

I was interested to hear that King John is, from the evidence of wear, the least read of the plays in the Bodleian’s copy of the First Folio. For me, it contains the most touching lines in all of Shakespeare’s writing. When Constance is separated from her son, Arthur, she says:

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form;

King John, III, iii. 93-7

The play is often dated to 1596. The Arden edition, edited by Honigmann, remarks tersely of this passage: “Some edd. think Shakespeare remembers the death of his son Hamnet, ob. 1596.”

It’s a benefit of not being a Shakespeare scholar to be able to say, “of course he’s remembering Hamnet”. The writing in this part of the play, quite drab by Shakespeare’s standards, briefly takes wing. It’s incongruous and deeply felt. As long as the dating is correct, then of course it’s about Hamnet.

The curious thing is that at this point in the play Arthur is not dead. It seems to me that very often in Shakespeare death is attended by some kind of misprision: Lear thinks Cordelia is alive but she is dead; Romeo thinks Juliet is dead but she is alive. And death frequently strikes blindly, as though through an arras: Hamlet thinks he is killing Claudius but he’s killing Polonius; Claudius thinks he is killing Hamlet but he’s killing Gertrude. Most insistently, Shakespeare works away obsessively at the idea that characters thought to be dead are, in various ways, redeemed from death and restored by drama: Imogen, Ferdinand, Perdita and Marina are just the most explicit examples, as if in the late plays Shakespeare allowed himself licence to write about what interested him most.

I cannot help noticing that after the restoration of the nuclear family in The Winter’s Tale one character is not brought back to the life of Leontes: his son Mamillius, who was perhaps the age of Arthur and of Hamnet.

It may be that I am just partial to such scenes: nothing in Henry V stays in my mind except the death of Falstaff. Or it may be that, as the poet (and wonderful Shakespeare translator) Paul Celan wrote shortly before his own death, “when is great poetry not about last things?”

Jonathan Blaney