Beware the Ides of March

Guest blogger, Anneli James, writes…

On 23 April, I was teaching singing to a lovely year 6 boy at my favourite primary school. He has just got a merit for his Grade 1 singing and we were choosing new pieces for him to learn, and especially a suitable one for the school concert.

We debated the pros and cons of singing a well known song that people would enjoy hearing, against the fact that they would know if he made a mistake. Shortlisted, but rejected, were: ‘Consider Yourself’ (Oliver!), ‘No Matter What’ (Whistle Down the Wind, although apparently more notably covered by Boyzone), and ‘Summer Holiday’ (Summer Holiday).

Finally, and somewhat as a last resort, I asked if he’d like to sing Lin Marsh’s ‘Beware the Ides of March’. I told him it was a song about Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar. In great excitement my pupil exclaimed, “Shakespeare! Wasn’t he a Tudor? And he wrote stuff! We are doing Tudors in class. Won’t an audience be impressed if I can sing something by Shakespeare?” He asked me to play him the song.

It is exciting, slow and menacing in a minor key with plenty of piano tremellos. We discussed the plot briefly, and chatted about Shakespeare writing a play about something that was ancient history even to him. ‘Beware the Ides of March’ beat all the other shortlisted songs, by virtue of the Shakespeare connection.

My pupil went home very happily to try and get his head around complicated words like Caesar, Cassius, conspiracy, prophecy. The song will be featured in the June concert — wish us luck! And a big congratulations to the wonderful class teacher who inspired them with such excitement about Shakespeare. It just seemed a wonderful thing to happen on his birthday!

Anneli James

Jacobi’s Lear: a heartbreaking vision

Guest blogger, Angela Cartwright, writes…

Like many, no doubt, I find myself drawn to dramatic productions of King Lear. It’s not so much that I yearn for something new and fresh (after all, the text off the page in any interpretation is bound to entertain), but there’s always the possibility that this might occur. Not necessarily throughout an entire production but somewhere.

And in this regards, Sir Derek Jacobi’s performance as Lear in Michael Grandage’s 2010 production for the Donmar Warehouse did not disappoint. For me, there was one moment in particular that was simply unforgettable.

It’s all too familiar: the storm is heard brewing at the end of Act II and it then forms the backdrop for Act III. And it is usually such a dominating feature that it can be quite difficult to hear the speeches clearly above the cataclysmic racket. Certainly, I’ve seen many productions where Lear has personified the storm by shouting and blustering his way through the well-known speech: “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!”

But not this production and not Jacobi.

Instead, the sound of the storm fell away dramatically and the audience seemed entirely still as well as silent as the world of Lear assumed a hushed and altogether disturbing atmosphere. And only then did Jacobi begin. His delivery of this speech was absolutely spellbinding and also quite frightening. Rather than opting for an outward display of rage, Jacobi’s Lear quietly internalized the metaphoric storm and in this way offered a harrowing glimpse into the devastating effects of an ailing mind.
Never before had I been so confronted and affected by the pitiable spectacle of this king – this man – losing his 5 wits and much, much more besides. And as a consequence, tears – hitherto unbidden so early in the play – were called forth and shed, because of the rather surprising and overwhelming pathos generated by this heartbreaking vision.

I’ve wondered whether this interpretation — and perhaps also my response to it — was informed by the reality our aging society and its increasing demands on an ailing health system. There may well be something in that but, that being said, the truth of the matter is that the play itself accommodated this interpretation. And to my mind, the fact that this play could deliver something so seemingly modern and breathtakingly real — after so many centuries and countless productions — is more than enough proof of its brilliance.

Angela Cartwright

Shakespeare, or Something Like It

Guest blogger, Sarah Leeves, writes…

Learning a foreign language is quite an achievement. To be honest, I could never get my head around French, let alone why the chair was feminine and the floor was masculine, or whatever. This is how some people, including my Dad, feel about Shakespeare.

“It’s just a load of arty nonsense,” says Dad. “Why not say exactly what you mean? To the point. It’s just too posh.”

So a few plays, written for “the common people” by a “common” man and performed to the masses as a primitive form of TV is too posh…go figure! But that is the problem, people think Shakespeare is too posh and the language is foreign.

Now don’t get me wrong, Othello isn’t an easy read. I’ve stumbled over “I kiss’d thee ere I killed thee, no way but this; / Killing myself, to die upon a kiss” (V, ii) countless times; first off, there are too many “e”s for me to cope with. But I enjoy reading it – a play written hundreds of years ago that STILL has relevance today – not that we all settle arguments with rapiers nowadays, but that segregation and prejudice are still problems. STILL. And apparently society has progressed…?

For GCSE, I directed A Midsummer Night’s Dream with a Bollywood backdrop and a brilliant modern soundtrack. The performance was choreographed with familiar dance routines and the costumes were plush and Eastern. I got an A (thank you). The school and the audience loved it. Why? Because it was relevant and relatable (SPOILER: in actual fact, I didn’t change any of the language or the scenarios, I just changed the costume and the scenery). Audiences love familiarity and when something is alien to them, the language for example, they quickly panic, switch off and go back to Eastenders. With my piece, the audience loved the costumes and the recognizable music so they were immediately hooked. That meant the script worked its magic and enchanted without them even noticing. Fab.

What I’m trying to say, granted in a round-about way, is that Shakespeare is for everyone; it’s clever, relevant and accessible. Once you break down the language “barrier”, it’s plain sailing. It’s only a barrier if you let it be so, like deciding not to go to the gym because it’s raining (put a coat on and just do it). The same can be said for Shakespeare, minus the coat: make a cup of tea, sit down and actually READ IT. Slowly. Maybe I should take my own advice and give French another go…

So to conclude, Shakespeare is as much for today as it was many years ago. If Gnomeo and Juliet has taught me anything other than gardens are magical places, it’s that people secretly love Shakespeare – they just won’t admit it.

Sarah Leeves

Shakespeare at Play in a Bookish Space

Guest blogger, Micah Coston, writes…

The rain it raineth every day.

Twelfth Night, V i

And it came down above the vaulted ceiling, as the players played in a modified thrust space at the Divinity School, Bodleian Library, Oxford. The ornate room, completed nearly a century before Shakespeare’s birth, provided a dark and delicious setting for his Twelfth Night. The conventional treatment with its “summery garden,” bemoaned by Director Krishna Omkar at the pre-performance panel in the neighbouring Convocation House, was a distant thought, as the Divinity School became a stone, Perpendicular Gothic, not-so-black box to play in.

It began. The lights cut out. The side door thrown open. The light comes through. “What country, friend[s], is this?” grabbed our ears first and replaced the famed opening line, “If music be the food of love, play on.” Happily, the memorable verse surfaced later with melancholic, luted accompaniment. Sovereign Arts’ adaptation cleverly swapped the scenes, sharply prompting a heightened awareness of place. “What country is this?” became, “Where are we?” spotlighting the unique location and the one-off playing space. It also reminded us of the true foreignness of the room for the actors, who mastered the movements with only one day of blocking in this location.

Twelfth Night or What You Will, frequently called a play of words and one of several Shakespearean plays only experienced now thanks to its inclusion in the First Folio, provided an excellent choice for a production so close to the reveal of the digitized form of the Bodleian’s copy. The Friends of the Bodleian, who sponsored this performance, also helped to promote the Sprint for Shakespeare campaign. With a featured presence in the theatre programme, Sprint for Shakespeare was forefronted and, in sense, transferred onto the performance, making the audience acutely aware of the significance of the Folio in preserving Shakespeare’s play and enabling the production we were seeing and hearing.

Hey, ho, the wind and the rain.

The final words echoed, as the entire cast joined in Feste’s song. As I exited the School, I didn’t enter the foyer of a theatre, but the entrance to the old Bodleian, a collection of books and papers and texts used for centuries as a site of verbal discovery. Shakespeare’s play of words fit right in. And this night, twelfth or not, became a fusion of the literary and the performative in a place just perfect for the two.

Micah Coston
@micahcoston

Staging King Lear

Guest blogger, Jonny Patrick, writes…

My favourite moment in Shakespeare is the scene in King Lear where the blind Gloucester is led by his son Edgar to the cliffs of Dover, where he intends to commit suicide. Gloucester does not know that his guide is Edgar, who has taken on the disguise of the madman Poor Tom.

Gloucester has lost his sight; we have ours. However, what we are about to see will make us question its reliability, morality, even its desirability. We watch as Edgar leads his father forward, telling him that he is now “within a foot / Of th’extreme verge” (IV, vi). He gives a dizzying verbal picture of the view from the precipice. Gloucester tells him to leave and Edgar does so. What, we ask ourselves, is Edgar playing at? Will he really let his father jump? Is this some kind of revenge for Gloucester’s earlier injustices towards him? In an aside, Edgar addresses the question, but tells us merely “Why I do trifle thus with his despair / Is done to cure it”. In this play about eyes, where should we look: at the man about to leap or at his son, who must surely stop this from happening?

Then Gloucester jumps. He falls, and is prostrate onstage. So he’s dead? Have we really just watched a man leap to his death? Edgar himself is unsure and runs up to Gloucester. Assuming a new accent and persona, he shouts to Gloucester, who wakes up. Once again, Shakespeare pitches us into confusion. Have we just watched a man jump from a cliff and survive? Or have we just seen him die then rise from the dead? Gloucester himself is unsure: “But have I fallen or no?” Ultimately, we can work out that this is an elaborate ruse by Edgar, designed to trick his father out of his suicidal despair by convincing him that he has been miraculously preserved. Gloucester’s leap landed him on the ground before him; Edgar never took him to the edge. But Edgar/Shakespeare is toying with us too: was that really what we saw?

I can think of nothing more purely theatrical than this scene. On the radio or on film, it just can’t work in the same way. It has to be done on a bare stage; make the staging realistic and you give away that Gloucester hasn’t jumped at all. It’s a soul-saving experience for Gloucester and a theatrical miracle.

Jonny Patrick
Head of English, St Paul’s Girls’ School

A Production of Many Colours: RSC’s Glistering King John

Guest blogger, Annie Martirosyan, writes…

RSC is always a treat when I am in fair Stratford-upon-Avon. I have seen performances I adored and performances I disliked. I could not predict what I would make of King John. I am mostly a purist when it comes to adapting Shakespeare and I heard King John was very modernized.

It was raining as I left the Shakespeare Institute. I intentionally forgot the umbrella at the guest house as I did not want to shun the English rain. I had little time for usual pottering in the foyer, so I grabbed my RSC Key ticket and ran to the Gallery.

There were balloons! They must burst onto the stage at some point, I thought. Something splendid seemed to be unfolding…

RSC's King John

Photo: Annie Martirosyan

Pippa Nixon appeared – in colourful tights, with bright red lipstick and a guitar. She was loud, modern-Englished, talking to us randomly and playing the guitar accompanied with her high-spirited singing. I laughed. I definitely was not in the early 13th century – but whatever it was, it looked like it was going to be a blast!

…The lights lit up, the cast rushed in, loud, colourful, fidgety. Blanche, blonde, and excellently portrayed by Natalie Klamar. Did Shakespeare conceive of Blanche as a modern stereotypical silly blonde? And so perfectly modern did Shakespearean English sound from the mouth of the Spanish princess!

Blanche and Dauphin’s wedding was the most hilarious I have ever witnessed, on and off stage. How naturally gifted a non-native director must be to combine modern posh pomp and Shakespeare’s tongue so gracefully and fluently! And all was to such a very appropriate music that the audience laughed themselves into stitches with delight at this musical comedy, while not hating this unimaginable interpretation of King John – indeed, nodding at the very wild and brilliant adaptation. This is what the Swedish director Maria Aberg achieved.

Alex Waldmann played King John – so young and yet so worthy to stand on RSC’s stage as an English king. Susie Trayling as a mad Constance, in a vibrant purple dress and with reddish curls, was noisy and chilling. Paola Dionisotti as a female Pandulph looked smart. John Stahl as Philip of France, in a trim aquamarine suit, was funny and appropriate. Sandra Duncan was hilarity itself as a motorcycling Lady Faulconbridge!  Strangely, the boy playing Arthur is not mentioned in the “King John cast and creative” on RSC’s website – he was apt and voiced, so young and so talented! They were all excellent.

Siobhan Redmond, in a long emerald silky dress and with her fiery head, a gift from nature – slightly incestuous, slightly silly but snobbish – was almost an ideal grandmother to Arthur.

The Bastard: you would not make much of the character, would you, other than term him a slimy, insolent illegitimate social climber or some such? Maria Aberg unsexed him, made her a central character and what’s more – had Pippa Nixon cope with this. And cope she did, top-drawer. She sprang onto stage as if from the street, with the casualness of her outfit, the resonant powerful voice spontaneously spitting Shakespeare’s lines from her throat and her being – this slim young actress besieged the audience. If Pippa Nixon can make so much out of such an unpleasing, neglected character and give shape to a plot Shakespeare cared not to define, I don’t doubt I’ll see her doing King Lear and Falstaff one day with similar dazzle!

…The lights went out, there was confetti in the air, Pippa Nixon was singing…

With balloons, hoops, pomp, a silly blonde, slight incest and comedy, RSC’s King John was an absolute delight. In a mingled play of mixed feelings and a plot that baffles a single-sentence definition, Maria Aberg’s exquisite production attempted not to confirm it as a black-and-white historical trauma, but succeeded in accentuating the jumbled plot with physical colours and emphasized characters, turning King John into a glittering show that was incredibly likeable! Indeed, the production deserves as many stars as there were balloons! Shakespeare would have been entertained.

The RSC’s King John was on at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon from April to September 2012.

You can read the longer review and the full writ on Avon’s stages on Talk Like Shakespeare website.

Annie Martirosyan
PhD Shakespeare researcher, linguist, English Language Lecturer
www.talklikeshakespeare.gobsplat.com

Apropos Macbeth

Guest blogger, Ligia Luckhurst, writes…

In the winter of 1980, I saw Peter O’Toole as Macbeth at the Old Vic. Yes, that production, and for all the wrong reasons: at that time, aged 28, I was, as I still am at age of 60, in love with O’Toole.

On the evening, my normal reasoning and perceiving faculties were cancelled out. I started getting ready hours before the show, and only minutes later discovered that I had half an hour left to traverse London from north to south, find the Old Vic theatre, present my ticket and take my seat.

Sean Feeney was already on the stage when I got in. He was grey-haired and spectral, speaking the verses in that peculiar staccato way that is uniquely his. I was full of awe. I felt I was in the presence of a being who knew everything and who had experienced everything.

And that is what is wrong with most productions of Macbeth: Macbeth is wise, doomed and despairing from the start, whilst the play is in fact about acquiring pointless wisdom at a terrible price.

Years later, I saw Sam Walters’ production at The Orange tree in Richmond. It was an eye-opener.

Who is Macbeth, really? A soldier, a Joe Bloggs inhabiting a clean-cut world of dos and don’ts, who suddenly receives notification of having won the Reader’s Digest Prize Draw, provided he returns his lucky numbers in the envelope labelled ‘Yes’?

When he does, he wades through rivers of blood to learn that the world is a tale told by an idiot, with sound and fury.

At that stage, of course, he is no longer Joe Bloggs, nor is there anything left for him to do but to die: the whole of his life’s potential has been used up as payment for this obscene knowledge.

And why was he chosen as winner of the Prize Draw? Because Macbeth is the sort of bloke who can be depended upon to return his lucky numbers. Blokes who return their numbers make the tale told by an idiot go round. That is Macbeth in a nutshell.

Joe Bloggs, however, is one thing O’Toole could not be and he was right not to have tried to. He was grand and extravagant; he made us sit up and listen, whether we liked it or not. And that was good and as it should be.

Ligia Luckhurst

Malleable Shakespeare

Guest blogger, Jakub Boguszak, writes…

What surprises me again and again each time I get to perform in a Shakespeare play is how malleable one’s own reading of a play can become once the rehearsal process begins.

There are so many inflections the text acquires only when a situation is physically enacted, when one is forced to respond to other people’s ideas of what their characters and scenes are about; one can look forward to playing the solemn, magisterial and cool Prospero only to discover that he can be actually quite funny in front of an audience (The Tempest); apparently routine lines can gain profound significance when spoken out loud to somebody else (as in Antony and Cleopatra, when Charmian responds with her dying breath: “Ah, soldier!”); the presence of silent characters on stage can turn out to be essential for the architecture of a scene.

I was fortunate to perform in 4 Shakespeare plays produced by an experienced director who gave us the freedom to explore the text ourselves and find its meaning through dialogue – on stage and off. In this sense, the plays became ours as we had to negotiate the meaning of the scenes and the overall progress of the story, while at the beginning only some of us were acquainted with more than our own parts and the basic premise of the play (as indeed was the case with Shakespeare’s company, the King’s Men).

A director can always explain what he or she thinks a particular situation is about and make the actors channel the idea, but I believe that Shakespeare in performance tends to be more rewarding when the actors themselves surprise and challenge one another: whenever the manner of an actor’s response prevents me from acting in the way I imagined my character to act when I was reading the play, I learn something new.

This process can be confusing and frustrating, as all sacrifices and compromises tend to be, but when a director can serve as a moderator of these exchanges, the chance that something both original and true emerges in the performance increases dramatically. If, in the end, the collective effort does not bring about a spectacular production rich with fresh insights, we can always return to the texts themselves and stage the plays in our minds the way we would like them to be staged. Pity we can then only bow to ourselves.

Jakub Boguszak

“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