Shakespeare’s Globe On Screen – Twelfth Night

The genesis of the original Globe Theatre is a story of intrigue, daring and initiative – an actor’s out-of-hours tale as dramatic as any portrayed on stage.

In his excellent book for children, Shakespeare – His Work and His World (beautifully illustrated by Robert Ingpen) Michael Rosen tells the tale like this:

‘It’s the middle of the night on the edge of London, a few days after Christmas Day, 1598. The River Thames is frozen over, snow is falling. The roofs of the timbered houses and the nearby fields are white with it. Four buildings stand higher than the nearby houses, shops, bowling-alleys, gambling houses and taverns – a windmill, a church and two theatres. One of the theatres is called the Curtain, and the other simply the Theatre….

.…tonight sixteen men are pulling down the Theatre. Two of them are brothers. They run a company of actors who put on plays, and with them there’s a builder and his workmen. As the men hurry about their work, it’s clear that what’s going on is secret and must be done as quickly as possible…. Two strangers arrive and start quizzing them. The workmen lie and say they are only taking down the parts of the building that are decaying…. But before long the men are taking the timbers across London Bridge to Southwark, where the theatre will be rebuilt and become known as one of the world’s most famous theatres: the Globe.’

'Shakespeare - His Work and His World' by Michael Rosen, Illustrated by Robert Ingpen

‘Shakespeare – His Work and His World’ by Michael Rosen, Illustrated by Robert Ingpen

Although James Burbage owned the Theatre, he leased the ground on which it stood – and the lease was due to expire at the end of 1597. The ground landlord, Giles Allen, seems to have seen this as his chance to make both money – and a manoeuvre that would satisfy his disapproval of theatrical productions. He raised the price of the lease to a sky-high level – and when negotiations failed, planned to pull down the Theatre and sell the materials. But, Burbage had discovered a clause in the original lease which allowed him to dismantle his theatre – and so he gathered his acting troupe to undertake the task under cover of a winter’s night…

Illustration by Robert Ingpen (dismantling the Theatre, 1598) - From 'Shakespeare - His Work and His World' by Michael Rosen

Illustration by Robert Ingpen (dismantling the Theatre, 1598) – From ‘Shakespeare – His Work and His World’ by Michael Rosen

As Michael Rosen points out, they were taking an enormous risk ‘…because if it can be proved that they are stealing, they will all be hanged and their severed heads put on show.’ These were people dedicated to their business, their livelihood, their autonomy – actors who claimed the world of the imagination, placed it in a Thames-side swamp and watched it grow…

Illustrations of The Globe Theatre by Robert Ingpen - From 'Shakespeare - His Work and His World' by Michael Rosen.

Illustrations of The Globe Theatre by Robert Ingpen – From ‘Shakespeare – His Work and His World’ by Michael Rosen.

…And all these centuries later, in 2013, on a sizzling Sunday at the beginning of July’s heat wave, it felt as if Burbage and Co. had been moving their theatre again – and had somehow cunningly contrived to set it up inside our local cinema…

Shakespeare’s Globe On Screen was like honey to a bee for my daughter and me. A strong enough lure for us to forsake one of the earliest sun-drenched afternoons of the summer, to sit in a darkened room – and happily travel to Illyria via the Globe’s 2012 production of Twelfth Night, directed by Tim Carroll.

Described as an ‘Original Practices production, exploring clothing, music, dance and settings possible in the Globe of around 1601,’ it was the first full all-male cast production of Shakespeare either of us had seen – and this experience, in itself, was like a direct, electric hook-up to the original presentations of his work. It highlighted all the more the complexities and emotional scope of all that cross dressing and gender disguise; the instances of a man falling in love with a woman disguised as a man, played by a man. And of a woman, played by a man, falling in love with a woman disguised as a man, played by a man. Situations that roll out like a series of magic carpets; layered with all the opportunities for both the fun and serious exploration of assumed and more latent aspects of sexuality and identity.

Mark Rylance was wonderful as Olivia – gliding demurely across the stage; stately, black-clad and – after her meeting with Cesario/ Viola – set simmering beneath corseted consonants, like verse ready to break free from the confines of its form.

Johnny Flynn as Viola/ Cesario was all at once innocent, knowing, bold, perplexed and heart-sore, lost in love. I was totally able to believe in the girl beneath the boy – even though the girl beneath the boy was – a man! The illusion and magic of the theatre – and Shakespeare’s manipulation of the power of the imagination – was brought to a pitch that fully referenced the play’s own relationship to the contemporary tools of its trade.

Paul Chahidi totally inhabited his role of Maria – catching every beat of comic timing (as well as glancing the darker undertones the audience’s way) on the delivery of each line, gesture and facial expression. He positively seethed as a woman biding the unleashing of her own powers.

Colin Hurley as Sir Toby Belch and Roger Lloyd Pack as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, were a double act made of that same cloth of comic timing and endearing humour – and of the casually draped darker and disturbing edges to their relationship, motivations and intentions. They were joined in this by my daughter’s favourite in the play – Peter Hamilton Dyer as Feste; wearing his part of Shakespearean Fool with that required demeanour of both familiar participant – and aloof, amoral onlooker; a kind of vessel for the looser, intangible, elusive, discordant, stranger aspects of the play’s atmosphere and pitch. In his wide eyes and melancholic, beautiful singing he underlined both the moral, philosophical questions, and the detachment of strings cut free from accountability.

Liam Brennan’s comic-petulant, earnest-shallow, affronted-romantic Orsino reminded me how every time I encounter his character I am worried by Viola’s choice – and see perfect sense in Olivia’s keeping her distance. The man is in love with love – and adrift in his own illusions. And, as this production suggests, perhaps he desires Cesario more than he desires Viola… But, of course (and as the play constantly reminds us) sexual attraction tends, for those involved, to lead to a complete bypassing of analytical scrutiny – and lights a mysterious touch paper that often burns out of kilter with surface awareness.

The comedy of the play was beautifully played by all – with both control and wonderful exuberance – and Stephen Fry came into his own as Malvolio. He wore the role with convincing comfort, and his both comic and hugely touching delivery of the scene in which he finds Olivia’s supposed letter, inspired an eruption of spontaneous applause from the onscreen audience – and heartfelt inner applause from us in the cinema. Fry’s portrayal of Malvolio’s very deep delight at the discovery that he is loved (‘I am happy!’) cut through the character’s pomposity, and formed a connection of heart-strung sympathy from the audience. And so, the most was made of Shakespeare’s revelation of the human beneath the character, intensifying the unease we feel in accepting any complicity in Sir Toby’s, Sir Andrew’s and Maria’s cruel schemes – though, the full impact of this unease did not come through until the end; reserved for then, and held back by the sheer force and beguilement of the comedy. We, as audience, are suddenly brought up short by our complicity – but, in this presentation of the play, not for too long. This was a production that emphasised the life-affirming pull of comedy – the subversive festivities of a Twelfth Night – and allowed the audience to run with it, to have our ‘cakes and ale,’ rather than tug us back with overly hard overtones of judgement. The unease and the darkness leave an aftertaste to mull over later…

And so, Theatre lives, breathes and finds its place, despite the ‘puritan’ negations of a Malvolio, or the likes of a theatre-demolishing Giles Allen. And, true to the traditions of Twelfth Night – the Feast of Fools – everything has been turned upside down. Through shadows and through light, through ‘the wind and the rain’ we have been led in a complex dance by the Lord of Misrule.

‘it raineth every day’ – and Life’s festive and mournful sides both have their need, their time – and their responsibilities.

‘…what is yours to bestow is not yours to reserve’ says Viola to Olivia.

Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?’ Sir Toby asks Malvolio.

What is love?’ Feste asks us…

Questions that, when we truly engage with them, can dismantle us – or at least challenge and dismantle our preconceptions – and can rebuild and rearrange and renew…

The experience of seeing a full Globe Theatre production at the cinema was definitely the next best thing to being there. The big screen brought us close to the actors and the action; the audience present at the recording seemed to draw us in as one of its own – and the vitality of sixteenth/seventeenth century music, colour, dance and spectacle typical of a Globe production, placed us under the magical illusion of actually being there. There was even a fifteen minute interval between Acts – for ice creams and loo breaks – just as if we were at the theatre.

My daughter and I relished the experience – and were both feeling on a “theatre-high” all evening afterwards. We’re now looking forward to seeing The Taming of the Shrew this month, when the Burbage brothers and Co. get up to their metaphorical dismantling tricks again – and move Shakespeare’s Globe back to our local cinema once more…

You can find details of the productions and check out cinema venues and times at the Shakespeare’s Globe On Screen website.

All the Globe 2012 season of plays – Twelfth Night, Henry V and The Taming of the Shrew will be available on DVD from the autumn.

Here’s a clip from Twelfth Night (Act II, Scene 2) with Stephen Fry as Malvolio and Johnny Flynn as Viola/ Cesario:

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Time Travel with Thomas Hardy

Occasionally, we get the chance to travel in time. Days flip back, like the ruffled pages of a book, to a moment when the players in a scene are suspended in their own present – and we, like Dick Dewy emerging from the whispering woods in Under the Greenwood Tree, step from the shadows, and into the beginning of a story…

'Under the Greenwood Tree' by Thomas Hardy - Penguin Classics and Folio Society editions.

‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ by Thomas Hardy – Penguin Classics and Folio Society editions.

A few years ago, whilst researching my family history online, I decided on a whim to wander the census in search of records of a favourite writer.

I chose the year 1841…

Typed in the name…

The place…

Clicked the mouse, once, twice…

Came face to face with the image of an aged document…

And, following its faded words into a long past moment:

Higher Bockhampton, Parish of Stinsford (District 7)

Mary Hardy – Age 65

Thomas Hardy – Age 25 – Mason

Jemima Hardy – Age 25

Thomas Hardy – Age 1

…found myself falling into step beside Dick Dewy along Mellstock Lane.

Together, we approached Tranter’s Cottage, our footfalls hollowing to silence on the root-crumpled soil…

Apple boughs draped the cool weight of dusk around our shoulders. Honeysuckle loosed moths from around the window’s edges. We stepped closer, peered in – grasped the ghost of a long past moment:

The Self-Unseeing

Here is the ancient floor,
Footworn and hollowed and thin,
Here was the former door
Where the dead feet walked in.

She sat here in her chair,
Smiling into the fire;
He who played stood there,
Bowing it higher and higher.

Childlike, I danced in a dream;
Blessings emblazoned that day;
Everything glowed with a gleam;
Yet we were looking away!

– Thomas Hardy

…And like Hardy, time-travelling through layers of place and perspective in this poem, we feel a sharpened appreciation of the past moment we witness; a newly heightened awareness of its significance and value. But, for us, the candlelit scene in the cottage is not one of hindsight-revealed loss, but of hindsight-revealed promise.

As we focus closer, our census-night scene remains hazy – malleable according to which way the imagination wavers. Is little Thomas sitting contentedly on his grandmother’s knee, ‘smiling into the fire?’ Or is Thomas Senior shaking free from his long day’s tracery of stone-dust, boots keeping time to a tune from his fiddle, ‘bowing it higher and higher’? Or is little Thomas asleep in his cradle? Or does he distract his mother from her work with his cries? If so, as Jemima lifts him to her shoulder, does she catch even a glimmer of what her son will become? Or what he will mean to people like me, over a hundred and seventy years into the future – and beyond?

Tranter’s is the fictional echo of the small thatched cottage built by Hardy’s grandfather in 1800; the real-world birthplace of Thomas, and the home of the Dewy family in Under the Greenwood Tree – which, in true Chinese box style, was written within its walls.

I have visited the cottage in my mind many a time, but in reality only once, in 2004:

Thomas Hardy's birthplace (June 2004)

Thomas Hardy’s birthplace (June 2004)

Even then, I didn’t go inside. We had sought out Thorncombe Woods for a homeward picnic after a holiday near Charmouth – and, with two small children in tow, it felt like a better bet to just enjoy the adventure of a ramble amongst the trees (those whispering woods Dick Dewy walked through) to find the magical, hidden cottage and watch butterflies in the garden.

I spent some sobering moments gazing out across what was left of Hardy’s Egdon Heath behind his birthplace, trying to superimpose his descriptions on what now filled my vision (dark, dense conifer plantation cloaked large areas of the land). Thankfully, a heathland restoration project was underway to bring back more of the wildlife-rich landscape he would have known and loved. When we visited back in 2004, information boards dotted Thorncombe Woods to announce the launch of an attempt to unlock time and a lost landscape; to turn back the page, and once more suspend the land in that long moment of halted natural succession Hardy would have experienced in his own lifetime – and which had existed in the collective memory of many previous generations.

As Richard Mabey points out in his 1993 essay Landscape: The Real Stuff (from Selected Writings 1974 – 1999) – heathland is:

‘…a kind of community that the strict hierarchies of landscape mythology don’t care to admit – a symbiosis, a partnership between humans and nature…created by the clearance of woodland on poor soils…it can only be maintained as heath if the cutting, burning or grazing, be it natural or deliberate, is continued. Otherwise it will eventually revert to woodland, as is happening at the moment to many of the unmanaged heaths of southern England.’

Mabey elaborates how the mythology of heathlands:

‘…is of a primeval, naturally formed wilderness, which because it hasn’t apparently been ‘reclaimed’ by human work is ‘wasteland’. Even Thomas Hardy, whose landscape history was usually impeccable, took this view. His description of Egdon Heath in the opening chapter of The Return of the Native – ‘A Face on Which Time Makes But Little Impression’- is one of the most evocative passages of landscape writing in the language, yet it still paints Egdon as literally, as well as emotionally, primordial.’

Title page, 'The Return of the Native' Folio Society edition. Wood engraving illustration by Peter Reddick

Title page, ‘The Return of the Native’ Folio Society edition. Wood engraving illustration by Peter Reddick

But, the illusion of the literally primordial aside, the foremost impression made upon me by those amazing opening chapters of The Return of the Native (and the point they most strongly convey) is of the continuity shared by successive generations in their relationship to that particular landscape. Centre stage are the signs and shaping of lives lived on that ‘vast tract of unenclosed wild’; the prehistoric burial barrows, the inherited customs, the livelihoods – and the basic concerns of life and death that connect the ages past and present. It is like Lear’s heath – where we are stripped of all trappings, to be in direct contact with the elemental of the land, the universe, the human:

‘It seemed as if the bonfire-makers were standing in some radiant upper storey of the world, detached from and independent of the dark stretches below…

…It was as if these men and boys had suddenly dived into past ages, and fetched therefrom an hour and deed which had before been familiar with this spot. The ashes of the original British pyre which blazed from that summit lay fresh and undisturbed in the barrow beneath their tread. The flames from funeral piles long ago kindled there had shone down upon the lowlands as these were shining now. Festival fires to Thor and Woden had followed on the same ground and duly had their day. Indeed, it is pretty well known that such blazes as this the heathmen were now enjoying are rather the lineal descendants from jumbled Druidical rites and Saxon ceremonies than the invention of popular feeling about Gunpowder plot.

Moreover to light a fire is the instinctive and resistant act of man when, at the winter ingress, the curfew is sounded throughout Nature. It indicates a spontaneous, Promethean rebelliousness against the fiat that this recurrent season shall bring foul times, cold darkness, misery and death. Black chaos comes, and the fettered gods of the earth say, Let there be light.’

– From The Return of the Native, Chapter 3 – ‘The Custom of the Country.’

All around that unbiddable “wasteland” is Change, a world ‘harassed by the irrepressible New’. We feel the Modern Age very much at work as a character – a state of mind, a reflective observer – through the narrative voice of the novel. But, Egdon remains the unchanging, the intractable core.

Wood engraving illustration of 'Egdon Heath' by Peter Reddick - from the Folio Society edition of 'The Return of the Native'

Wood engraving illustration of ‘Egdon Heath’ by Peter Reddick – from the Folio Society edition of ‘The Return of the Native’

Sadly, Egdon’s apparent immutability belied its actual fragility. As Mabey goes on to say:

The south Dorset heaths that Hardy immortalised as Egdon have been largely destroyed by enclosure and ploughing.’

Hopes for some of that heathland now pin on a time-travelling landscape, brought into being by a return to human customs which link us, past to past to future…

Change, and its consequences, was gathering pace during Hardy’s lifetime, and for him, Under the Greenwood Tree was a form of time travel in itself. He set the novel in the past, around the year of his birth: ‘to preserve for my own satisfaction a fairly true record of a vanishing life.’

On that census night in 1841, the quirks and concerns of that ‘vanishing life’ were yet to time travel on the turn of a young man’s thoughts and memories. Amongst the Hardy family and their neighbours, who could have foreseen that, out from the melting pot of their influence and the imagination of that one-year-old baby, would spring Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Jude the Obscure, Far from the Madding Crowd, The Mayor of Casterbridge – a whole cast of unforgettable characters – and the glorious descriptions of a Wessex that, because Hardy loved it, has been preserved spellbindingly on the page?

To overlap time, and to “witness” the very young Thomas’s as yet un-guessed potential was a powerful moment; like stumbling across a page torn from a story – a chapter left snagged on a branch and sought by the wind. There he was; a vulnerable child, poised to meet the vagaries of Fate – that fickle force he would go on to explore, with intensifying bitter-tenderness, in his writing. So many possibilities were held within that life just beginning – the paths he might have taken; the opportunities waiting upon Chance; the novels and poems he might never have written had other choices been made…

What a poorer world it would have been without them.

I, for one, am so grateful for the literary fruits of that life’s journey. I know that, for some, Hardy is a problematic figure (all the better to meet us halfway with our own problematical traits maybe?) And, for others, he is nothing less than Pessimism Personified, to be avoided at all costs. But I don’t hear in Hardy’s voice a simple one-note beat of misery – but complexity, complexity – all complexity. Hardy’s unique vision is sewn tight into that varied and precious pattern of our literature – and I wouldn’t want the weave of his contribution to be one stitch different. Hardy’s tragedies contain necessary – even beautiful – space in which to stretch realities, and to confront an uncomfortable, and yet liberating, recognition of difficult truths. He is a very human writer – a catcher of the flipsides, and an explorer and enquirer into the vivid clatter of life’s dropped plates, spillages and wastes.

Ironically, maybe it’s the upbeat tendency of my nature that focusses on the positives of Hardy’s pessimism. It is all so much a part of that trajectory that took him to further heights of creativity; all so much a part of that voyage on which great literature takes us.

Under the Greenwood Tree is amongst his earliest and happiest novels – it is like a ballad to a fondly remembered time (and its title, of course, is taken from the pastoral song in Shakespeare’s As You Like It).

Wood engraving by Peter Reddick (illustration from Folio Society edition of 'Under the Greenwood Tree')

Wood engraving by Peter Reddick (illustration from Folio Society edition of ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’)

I love the novel and its tone and its characters and its green world of hedgerow and forest; the sleepy drone of the village band from the church balcony (counterbalanced by the altogether more enthusiastic musical glee at the boozy Christmas party at Tranter’s!) And I’m moved in my affection for the players, as they reach a befuddling divide of Time, confronted by the advent of a new age.

Wood engraving by Peter Reddick from 'Under the Greenwood Tree' Folio Society edition

Wood engraving by Peter Reddick from ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ Folio Society edition

But I love Hardy’s later work even more. As he grew further into his own creative skills, Hardy’s life experience and his anger at injustice (societal and the natural cruelties of chance) tinged the edges of his vision with darker and darker hues. Harsh realities bit hard into his consciousness, and he responded truthfully according to his own thought processes and reactions. Readers may or may not find their own personal perspective reflected in that vision, the assertions in his work may or may not be to their taste. And that’s fine. But too often, I see this kind of personal reaction presented as an objective benchmark; a final word on the worth of a writer and his/her work.

Beyond the genuinely searching questions about his writing and the carefully considered analysis, Hardy seems to attract a lot of unthinking ire and unfair accusation. Maybe I should stay away from the more foggy edges of the internet, but my heart plummets faster than Gabriel Oak’s sheep when I see a fine literary work pushed over a cliff of swift, single-focus contempt. So much of worth spirals away from the grasp in that act of dismissal, not least the chance to get to know what makes that literary work so interesting, both as an individual piece of writing – and as a part of literature’s vital, gloriously diverse exploration of what it is to be human.

I’m slipping into a rant here – and I’m sure that, on this blog, I’m preaching to the converted. But, I just love this stuff so much… I want to tear down those blocks that prevent people experiencing the fullest possible engagement with a text. Because, when that deep-down communion happens, it’s just so mind-blowingly AMAZING; so massively life-enhancing – I just want to SHOUT IT from the very zenith of the Wessex Heights!

These great, sometimes messy, always complex, frayed-at-the-edges masterpieces are not written by machines. No writer, artist, human being is without flaws – and flaws Hardy may have had – but they are a part of the fabric – and humanity – of art. Maybe I’m peculiar, but I want to celebrate what that displays. “Flaws” can be a valuable ingredient in a wonderful, unpredictable concoction; bound up in the complex gift of personal vision and individuality of expression – and in a writer’s reaching to develop as they learn their craft. Can we imagine the work of Dickens or D. H. Lawrence without the complete package of their unique voice and traits and journeys of development? It would be like a tiger with its teeth removed. Jagged lightning channelled through a taming conductor. Colour drained to inoffensive beige.

Often, the “flaws” are the inextricable other side of the strengths; traits without which those strengths – and a whole recipe of qualities – would never exist. And of course, sometimes, what is condemned as a flaw by one person is heralded as an asset by another.

Either way, caught air bubbles in a glass can make the light refract in interesting ways, render that glass unique – give it realness and recognisability, and another facet of perspective. If we were to hold that glass to the light, to look at the world through those quirks in its surface, maybe we would discover something new – and learn more, always more, outside the limits of our own way of seeing.

But wider than this, there is in Hardy’s work a breathing in of some essential scent of life; a whiff of something hardwired, universal and utterly human. It is like that line from Donne when we hear the knell of the bell – and know that it tolls for us too – and that it is time to stretch our sympathy across the whole of humanity, because we are each a part of it; none of us exempt from Wordsworth’s ‘sad perplexity.’

I love Hardy’s early-rooted ambition to chase Shakespeare’s faceted shades, and to build grand, Bardic tragedy in novel form; to explore the high drama of ordinary folk, aided by a Greek Chorus of rustics, whose voices underline the comic and tragic spins of life’s coin. There, in entwined, elemental relationship with the land, his characters wear the two sided mask of the actor on an ancient stage…

And I love his poet’s deep vision, his awareness of the layering of time, and the interplay of ghosts of past and present. I love his naturalist’s knowledge, and the vitality and earthy reality of nature at the heart of his life, his imagination – and the lyricism of his language…

A humane writer with a philosopher’s heart, his work is, for me, infinitely rewarding to discover and revisit. His words invoke challenge, reflection, inspiration, confrontation. Beautiful and transporting, his prose and poetry resonate over and again – cast anew in different ways throughout a reading life.

And besides all that, he could tell a story that could rivet you to a moment, knock your socks off – and keep you turning the pages quicker than you could inadvisably order up another bowl of furmity…

That is a skill too often underestimated in its importance. When a great storyteller is born, something very special begins to prise open the petals of every experience that meets that growing mind, releasing fragrances which, through eventual skill, will reach us – like prayer in George Herbert’s poem – as a grasped pact; ‘a bird of paradise… something understood.’

Hardy’s novels are, for us all, a form of time travel. They take us to a different and lost world of the past. And yet, at the same time, their world is an ever unchanging one. Hardy’s writing pulses with the eternal rhythms to which we all move; whichever era our names are entered on the census…

I wonder what future great writers lay asleep in their cots right now, cooking their talents amid infant dreams – preparing to amaze/ surprise/ overturn or more than fulfil parental or societal expectations – and to enthral and influence the minds and lives of generations yet to come…

Who can tell from what corners of society these voices will emerge; from what hidden, or seemingly unlikely places they will gather their material, their strengths, their edges and, yes – their flaws. Perhaps a teenage single-parent, an immigrant care-home assistant, a call-centre worker – somewhere in a dark and unsure night – is holding such a baby right now. If we give each child the chance, who knows what she or he might be or do…

Time passes. Moments overlap. And perhaps we are always ‘looking away’.

All the World’s – a Book…

I hope you had a happy, bookish World Book Day 2011!

I started writing the following post yesterday, with every intention of posting it on the actual ‘Big Day’ – but… time and events had other ideas… So, here’s the finished article; a day late – but hopefully still topical (may whichever day you happen across this post, be a bookish celebration wherever you are in the world!)

Here’s what I wrote on 3rd March 2011:

My son has gone into school today dressed as Harry Potter, his wheelchair wheels sprinkled with wizardly magic (how he would love to be able to fly that NHS wheelchair, broomstick fashion, at Nimbus 2000 speeds! There would be no stopping him; he’d be airborne faster than you could say ‘snitch!’)

As I write this, my daughter will be paying homage beside Shakespeare’s grave. I hope she is passing on to Will a special moment of remembrance from her mum…

Later, she will spend a couple of hours at a workshop with the RSC – followed by a trip to the recently re-opened Royal Shakespeare Theatre, to see Rupert Goold’s production of Romeo and Juliet; a school trip beyond the wildest dreams of my own teenage years!

She’s beaten me to it as first member of the family to experience the new theatre at Stratford upon Avon. For the past few years, I’ve periodically watched its gradual rebirth, gazing across the River Avon at the original red brick façade, imagining the ghosts in its walls stirring, gathering up the memories and poetry of the soul of the theatre as it settles around the new stage and waits for new magic to happen.

My September 2008 trip to see the RSC’s truly riveting, unforgettable Hamlet (David Tennant, Patrick Stewart, Penny Downie – directed by Gregory Doran) saw the RST redevelopment looking like this:

My birthday treat in February 2009 (to see Antony Sher and John Kani in a deeply moving production of The Tempest – its African heartbeat throbbing with the strange magic of the play) – took place in a mysterious, mythological world parallel to these scenes:

And, in June 2009 – another trip to Stratford upon Avon revealed these changes in the theatre:

…all bound up with memories of the truly visceral drama of the assassination scene in Julius Caesar, which I watched through tears of shock and pity, my emotions wrung by the electric, skilful interplay of confusion, betrayal and human frailty moving like a lonely, cornered animal amongst the characters on the stage.

In August 2009, my daughter and I were gifted a very different mood of fun, frolics and superbly handled mayhem in the Young People’s Shakespeare production of A Comedy of Errors – and in June 2010, my friend and I were back in ancient Rome, following Darrell de Silva to Egypt, as he and Kathryn Hunter sparked and sparred in a crackling production of Antony and Cleopatra.

In beautiful August evening sunshine, 2010 – after my daughter and I had been treated to a wonderful Young People’s Shakespeare production of Hamlet – in which Debbie Korley delivered one of the best, most heartbreaking Ophelias I’ve ever seen – I took these pictures of a near complete new RST:

…And also took these commemorative pictures of the Courtyard Theatre, the RSC’s temporary performance space (and template for the auditorium of the RST rebuild) with sad, fond nostalgia in my heart. How I love that ‘big rusty shed.’ So full of memories…

But now, anticipation of my first visit to the transformed RST in June awaits new memories in the making. My tickets – little paper portals to actually be there when Jonathan Slinger, directed by Michael Boyd, inhabits the skin of Macbeth – are tucked away safely and at the ready. My excitement about this production is simmering at heart leaping levels already – it will be the first live performance I’ve seen of  ‘The Scottish Play’ since Peter O’Toole was beguiled by siren witches in the infamous Old Vic production of 1980!

Macbeth is special to me – the first Shakespeare play I ever read. I first opened its pages when I was about the age my daughter is now, and it awakened in me a passion for the Bard that has continued to deepen, grow and embed itself ever more firmly in the fabric of who I am. Now, I see the same process at work in my daughter…

For these reasons, and more, I can hardly wait to see Macbeth come alive on stage in what promises to be an electrifying production – and I can’t wait to get inside the new RST. Tonight though, the magic of the place will be brought home here in the sparkle of my daughter’s eyes, and in her tales of her experiences there. This World Book day, she is caught in those heady, early stages of falling in love – as I was when I first read Macbeth – with the book that truly belongs to all the world:

Just a few World Book Days ago, she too went into primary school dressed in the Gryffindor cloak my son wore today (she was Hermione – big hair included!)

Not long before I first read Macbeth, I was tucked up in bed riveted by Jill’s Gymkhana or avidly following Bilbo Baggins ‘there and back again’ (well, I still am sometimes…some things don’t change… 🙂 )

From Ron Weasley to Romeo, from The Hobbit to Hamlet – there’s no telling where a journey through books will lead…

Hip-Hop Happy Birthday, Shakespeare!

 
 
 

Picture of Shakespeare's Birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon

Shakespeare's Birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon

 

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, 
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.
    

(Sonnet 18 – Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day)

The tributes go round and round. The poetic tribute Shakespeare paid to his beloved in this sonnet – (and also, entirely deservedly, to the power of his own poetry) – gives life not only to that beloved – but becomes, when spoken on the breath of each and every reader, a tribute to Shakespeare and the longevity he foresaw for his ‘eternal lines’. Every time those words are read or spoken, their life unfolds and flies.

I suppose, in a way, there’s a tribute in there to the reader too. Shakespeare crafts a dialogue with our own powers of appreciation and empathy. Those ‘eternal lines’ pass through our own time, always retaining the same timeless relevance – and are relived and lived again in our own lives and understanding. Poem, thought and experience connect past, present, future. Going round and round and round. 

I’m passionate about the living Shakespeare. And that living Shakespeare – the heartbeat of his work – is…well… kept alive… in those very passions of the people who love him. They do indeed, these ‘eternal lines,’ go round and round, constantly beating in the pulse of everyone who loves them, shares them, passes them on. What would life be without Shakespeare? I can’t (don’t want to) imagine it. I want everyone to ‘get’ his magic – to feel that inspiration and connection.

Project’s like Akala’s Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company are a vital blood flow to that great, shared, living passion for Shakespeare; passing it on, opening eyes, igniting fires. I’m always so moved to see the many and various heartfelt ways in which people connect to Shakespeare. It’s a true inspirational high to see the magic at work; to see Shakespeare’s relevance suddenly reach someone for the first time, switch on their heart’s fire, light up their faces, spark their own passion – enrich their lives. Just witness the faces of some of the young people Akala has worked with to see it in action. The passion in Sir Ian McKellen’s and Akala’s faces is an inspiration very few could resist. Here Akala, with that passion and inspiration, performs Sonnet 18 and gives the breath of his times to those ‘eternal lines.’ And, of course, it is those ‘eternal lines’ that give the breath of life to his passion. And so it goes round and round…

We pass the baton on.

Other videos of Akala’s breathtaking Shakespearean inspired rap (e.g. Comedy, Tragedy, History) can be seen here. If rap’s not your thing…go on…give it a go, and have a look anyway. I never thought rap would be my thing either, until I saw Akala… I suppose I kind of followed the same process the kids go through at the Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company workshops – but in reverse. Through Shakespeare, I came to appreciate hip hop! Through the familiar, I discovered a way in to the unfamiliar. It’s all about finding that connection, I guess. It’s never a one way thing…

Happy birthday, Will!