Shakespeare Magazine makes a guest appearance at Shakespeare Counterstream Symposium in Istanbul, Turkey

symposium poster
This month saw Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University commemorate the Bard’s birthday by hosting a symposium titled “Shakespeare: Counterstream”.

The program contained speeches made by students and academics on topics including “Mark-it-in: Pop Culture and Shakespeare” and “From Global to Local: Adapting Shakespeare”.

Shakespeare Magazine even made an appearance at the symposium via Cansu Kutlualp, a loyal and enthusiastic Turkish reader of the magazine.

Cansu Kutlualp (second left) at the symposium.

Cansu Kutlualp (second left) at the symposium.

Cansu talked about how Shakespeare is surviving in the internet age in her speech titled: “The Bard that Exists Online #Shakespeare”.

She reported that people were blown away by the freshness and uniqueness of the magazine and also revealed that the next issue is to feature an article about Shakespeare and Turkey.

Cansu’s talk was very well received and she was asked many stimulating questions about Shakespeare Magazine.

Go here to find out more about Boğaziçi University and Shakespeare: Counterstream.

Actor and director Sir Kenneth Branagh receives prestigious Pragnell Shakespeare Birthday Award in Stratford-upon-Avon

Shakespeare superstar Kenneth Branagh.

Shakespeare superstar Kenneth Branagh.

Sir Kenneth Branagh has received the 2015 Pragnell Shakespeare Birthday Award.

The distinguished Shakespearean actor/director and award-winning international film star was chosen to receive the award by representatives of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Shakespeare Institute chose.
The award was presented on Saturday 25 April at the Shakespeare Birthday Luncheon held at the Theatre Gardens in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Sponsored by Stratford-based jewellers George Pragnell Limited, the award is given annually “for outstanding achievement in extending the appreciation and enjoyment of the works of William Shakespeare or in the general advancement of Shakespearean knowledge and understanding”.
Last year’s award was presented to Sir Nicholas Hytner. Other acclaimed recipients include Sir Ian McKellen, Sir Patrick Stewart, Sir Peter Hall, Dame Judi Dench and Dame Harriet Walter.

Belfast-born Branagh joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1984, where he received acclaim for his performances in Hamlet and Henry V. His most recent Shakespeare production, Macbeth (Manchester International Festival and the Armory, New York), marked his 25th Shakespeare production.

Five-times Oscar nominated Branagh has directed and starred in several film adaptations of William Shakespeare’s plays, including Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, Hamlet, Love Labour’s Lost and As You Like It.

He has recently announced the launch of his own Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company which will stage Shakespeare plays The Winter’s Tale and Romeo and Juliet.

Sir Ken said: “I am honoured to be this year’s recipient of the distinguished Pragnell Shakespeare award. To be in the company of such illustrious predecessors is both touching and meaningful. I look forward very much to returning to Stratford, a town I love, and of course, to a delightful lunch to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday!”

Shakespeare Magazine's Emma Wheatley with Sir Kenneth Branagh in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Shakespeare Magazine’s Emma Wheatley with Sir Kenneth Branagh in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Professor Stanley Wells, Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Honorary President said: “Kenneth Branagh is more than worthy of this prestigious award, both as a great actor and director of Shakespeare on stage and as an innovative, prolific and highly successful director and actor in films of Shakespeare that have brought his plays to global audiences who would never otherwise have been able to enjoy them.”

The President and Master of Ceremonies for the afternoon was distinguished historian Michael Wood, while the toast to the Immortal Memory of William Shakespeare was delivered by writer and broadcaster Gyles Brandreth.

Andrea Chapin introduces us to a young, charismatic and nakedly ambitious William Shakespeare in her elegantly-written historical novel The Tutor


Andrea Chapin (c) Ric Kallaher
The Tutor
is your debut novel. What were you doing before this?

“When I started The Tutor I had been, for almost 15 years, a book doctor. That is someone who works on other people’s books before they are published, often with an agent or sometimes with an editor. It’s now over 250 novels and memoirs that I have worked on. It’s fairly anonymous, maybe an acknowledgement or line saying thank you, but usually not even that. Because no one wants to publicise that they had someone work on their book before the actual editor worked on it.

“I had been doing that non-stop for quite a while, but I had always wanted to write my own novel and it hadn’t worked out yet. I think I had, in my own journey, reached a point where I was really wondering, ‘Am I going to write my novel or not?’”

Was there a catalyst that brought the novel about?

“My brother-in-law said at Thanksgiving, ‘Everyone in the theatre world is reading this amazing book, James Shapiro’s A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare:1599!’ I thought it sounded like something I would really like to read. Looking at one year of Shakespeare’s life from many different angles – from the political, from the religious, from the economical. But that was all.

“Then, a couple days before Christmas, I was buying presents, last-minute books to put under the tree. And there, sitting in paperback, was this book my brother-in-law had mentioned to me. So, I bought it, wrapped it up, and put it under the tree for myself.

“It was a larger gift than I had anticipated. When I started reading it, I was completely fascinated, and I was especially fascinated by the prospect of the lost years. What was Shakespeare doing during chunks of his life? I thought to myself, ‘This is the job of a fiction writer – to imagine what Shakespeare was doing!’

“Part of that curiosity goes back to that I have worked with a lot of authors and I have seen their names before then they showed up on the New York Times Bestseller List. I also taught fiction workshops at NYU, and worked with a lot of authors who were just beginning, who were just launching.

“I began mulling over this idea of the lost years and what Shakespeare was doing before his name ever appeared in print. I kept thinking, ‘Even though Shakespeare feels like like a god, a huge force in our world, he was a person’.”

AndreaHolyTrinityChurcgraveyardStratford

Why did you decide to tell the story from Katharine’s point of view?

“I decided I couldn’t write it from a male point of view, and thought, ‘What if I created someone like me? Someone who has worked very collaboratively with authors, helping them create plot lines, really helped them develop their books. What if a character like that worked with Shakespeare? And that is how the whole thing launched. I started fooling around with it, toying with it. And interestingly, I have to say that when I started writing Katharine there was something very magical, almost chemical, about it. The Tutor came from a more honest place in my own voice than anything else I had previously written.”

In your story Shakespeare is complex and oftentimes a bit unlikeable. Where did that version of the Bard come from?

“I wanted to veer away from the warm and fuzzy Shakespeare. Not that there has been one, but in Shakespeare in Love – which I love – he is just so adorable. I had my own ideas about developing a character that ended up being fairly ruthless and narcissistic, but still very compelling. Sometimes those people can be not the nicest, but still be extremely intriguing and dazzling because of their brilliance.

“While I was doing research, I read a lot about Picasso and Françoise Gilot, one of his partners. She wrote an amazing autobiography about what it was like to be Picasso’s muse. She really is the only one of his muses who escaped with her life, in a way. She had to leave him – he was sleeping with someone else but he also couldn’t let go of her.”

“I was taken by that aspect of the muse and the artist. And also, when you do read what there is about Shakespeare, it assumed that he didn’t really go home much. Early on he had three children, and by 24 or 25 was probably in an acting company. By 27 or 28 his name appears in London and then he is really in London. He does not return to Stratford as his home until a couple years before he dies.

“What also struck me was the type of ambition that he needed was so huge. I am not saying that every ambitious person is a narcissist, but I played around with the idea that this person had to want it so badly that he would use people, and not be the greatest dad or husband, because he wanted to get where he wanted to go. And he did!

“Not only to write the sort of poem that he wrote with Venus and Adonis, and get a patron like the Earl of Southampton – that is amazing. But also to decide not to be just a poet, not to be just a player, not to be just a playwright, but actually to be a businessman too and be a part of the company. That shows incredible ambition.”

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Where do you think that ambition could have come from?

“Well, his father. We don’t know if John Shakespeare could read or write, but he held about 15 positions in Stratford, ending up being the equivalent of the mayor of Stratford. That is an ambitious man. Shakespeare saw that. John Shakespeare also applied for a coat of arms, and married up – Mary Arden owned the property his parents worked on. To send your child to grammar school you had to have a certain political standing, and John Shakespeare made sure he had that. Shakespeare had, as a role model, an extremely ambitious man.

“So Shakespeare is someone who saw this ambition and then something happened. Was the father a catholic? Was he a drunk? Was he ill? We don’t know. But something happened and his father stumbled, right at the time when Shakespeare would have gone on to Oxford. Someone with Shakespeare’s skills would have the opportunity, but right at that time his father’s fortunes failed and Shakespeare had to go off to make money, changing everything.”

Can you give us a glimpse of your process and research?

“In the beginning of all of this, an agent that I doctor for asked if I had read any good books, and, since I had just written the first couple chapters of my book, I mentioned that James Shapiro’s book had kind of changed my life. And she laughed, and said that he was one of her clients. Things progressed, she put us together, and Professor Shapiro was extremely generous in information. I could email him and he opened doors in terms of where I needed to go for research. That was terrific.

“Before I opened Shapiro’s book, I had always enjoyed Shakespeare but I hadn’t been obsessed with Shakespeare. It was when I started digging into the research, and all of his plays, and each sonnet, and then the poems, that I became truly obsessed.

“I felt like I had to familiarise myself with what was going on in literature during that time. I delved into Philip Sidney, and other contemporaries. I went back to Ovid, and often had three different books in front of me with different annotations – the translation that Shakespeare would have used and two more recent translations. Then, once I went to Ovid, I could see where so much of the poets of the time, certainly Shakespeare, got the seeds that became their works.

“In my journey, I joke that I have given myself at least a master’s, maybe a PhD, in Elizabethan literature and history on my own. I really thought it was important to see what his influences were as much as I could. That’s why I brought them in and had so much fun doing it.”

The Tutor

What do you hope readers will take away from your novel?

“I would love for my readers to learn about Shakespeare and his life as they, hopefully, enjoy the story. I had a lot of fun playing around with Venus and Adonis because it is such a wonderful and really sexy poem. I would love for readers to become curious about those other works of his.

“Reviews have said that the situation of Kate and the other characters is one we’ve all found ourselves in, like when our friends say, ‘What are you doing with him?’ and someone says, ‘You just don’t understand!’ And that makes me so happy because, overall, I wanted to achieve a story that people could relate to now. I wanted to make these characters not feel ancient or archaic – not just Will and Kate, but the larger context of family and her relations.
I wanted them to feel like contemporary folks.”

The Tutor is published in the UK by Penguin on 26 March, priced £7.99

North West music outfit The Nearlys release haunting new version of Shakespeare’s ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ in time for the Bard’s birthday this week

The Nearlys_UnderTheGreenwoodTree_Everday Records

Here’s a musical treat to celebrate the week of Shakespeare’s birthday. Based in the North West of England, musical outfit The Nearlys, comprising vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Helen Walker and her drummer husband Mike, have recorded a mellow and haunting folk and jazz-tinged new version of the song ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ from Shakespeare’s As You Like It.

Can you tell us why you chose this Shakespeare lyric and how you constructed the musical track?

Helen Walker: “It was initially written for a choir competition, the rules of which required that I wrote to a lyric that is in the public domain. I usually write my own lyrics, although I have also set ‘The Skylark’ by James Hogg to music. After a lot of research I chose ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ because it inspired me. I compose at the piano and then arrange as it’s recorded in the studio. I sang and played all the instruments on the song except for the drums, which were played by my husband Mike Walker.”

Would you consider doing a whole album of Shakespeare songs? I’d like to hear your take on ‘The Rain it Raineth Every Day’, for instance…

“I’ve never thought of it – but it’s a great idea and I’ll never work with a better lyricist! I’m just in the process of completing The Nearlys’ LP, due out later this year. But I’ll have a try at composing for ‘The Rain it Raineth Every Day’ and let you know how I get on. It would be nice to release something further to mark Shakespeare’s 400th [anniversary of death] next year.”

Go here to listen to ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ by The Nearlys (released by Everyday Records)

Coincidentally, London-based actor Josh Neesby has just won a Royal Shakespeare Company competition with an electronic version of the same song, recorded as ‘Come Hither.

Go here to listen to ‘Come Hither’ by Josh Neesby.

Shakespeare for the People as all 154 of the Sonnets are performed in celebration of the Bard’s birthday at New York’s Central Park Sonnet Slam

Melinda Hall photographed by Pete Casanave at 2014's Sonnet Slam

Melinda Hall photographed by Pete Casanave at 2014′s Sonnet Slam

 

Starting at 1pm on Friday 24 April, no less than 154 Shakespeare enthusiasts – including students, scholars and performers – will take the stage one at a time, each reading one of William Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Welcome to the Sonnet Slam.

It began five years ago, founded by actor-director Melinda Hall. “I really wanted to create a place in New York City where Shakespeare was able to heard,” she says, “and performed by just about anyone.”

Now firmly established as an annual event, these free public readings in the Central Park Naumburg Bandshell are able to snag the attention of accidental, as well as intentional, audience members.

And, according to Melinda, the performers are just as varied as the audience. “We have doctors and lawyers and diplomats,” she says, “and shop workers and all sorts of people that read the sonnets.”

The event does attract some theatre professionals though. Readers this year will include Emmy Award Winning actor Richard Thomas, as well as actor and playwright Patrick Page, and actor Peter Francis James (who also teaches drama at Yale University.

This year there is an Indiegogo campaign accompanying the event which Melinda hopes will help to ensure the Sonnet Slam’s future.

“My vision is that we will raise enough money to hire some grant writers,” she says, “to assist in getting city, state, and arts funding, so the Sonnet Slam can be a perpetual event.”

SonnetPoster-2015
For more details on the Sonnet Slam visit the Facebook page.

Go here for details of the Sonnet Slam Indiegogo campaign.

And as an extra treat, here’s a video of Ben Crystal reading Sonnet 29 in OP (Original Pronunciation) last year’s Sonnet Slam.

Even people who aren’t sure what a soliloquy is know that Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” is the most famous soliloquy in theatre history. There’s just one problem. It’s not actually a soliloquy.

David Tennant played Hamlet with the RSC in 2008.

David Tennant played Hamlet with the RSC in 2008.

 

“To be or not to be…”

Spoken by the title character of Hamlet, the most famous speech in the history of theatre is 34 lines and 271 words long. Apart from providing titles for (or being quoted in) countless other plays, poems, novels, TV shows and movies, it has also appeared on posters, T-shirts, coffee mugs and keyrings. It’s even been translated into Klingon (“taH pagh taHbe”). There are at least 379,000 hits on the internet for the first line alone.

This speech is many, many things. One thing it is not, however, is a soliloquy.

Maxine Peake's Hamlet debuted last year at Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre.

Maxine Peake’s Hamlet debuted last year at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre.

The image of the ‘lone prince’, so endemic on the stage, duly made the transition to TV and motion pictures. Laurence Olivier’s 1948 version placed Hamlet alone on a windswept tower of Elsinore. Grigori Kozintsev’s 1964 version is another lone Hamlet, this time walking along the Danish shore. Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 film sees Hamlet alone in his father’s sepulchre. Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 film places Hamlet in a mirrored hall, practically alone but for Ophelia hiding out of sight. Peter Wellington’s 2003 adaptation of the speech for the series Slings & Arrows features a seated, lone Hamlet. Gregory Doran’s 2009 TV adaptation of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Hamlet has David Tennant’s Hamlet all alone, with Ophelia scurrying off immediately before the speech and tromping back on just as he finishes saying “Soft you now.”

New play 'Women Playing Hamlet' offers a fresh take on "To be or not to be" in 2015.

New play ‘Women Playing Hamlet’ offers a fresh take on “To be or not to be” in 2015.

Despite the entrenchment of the lone Hamlet on our cultural understanding of Hamlet, when we study the six quarto and three folio printings that comprise the original texts, we find the following: one, that the famous speech cannot be a soliloquy; two, that the entering Hamlet should know he is being spied upon; three, that Ophelia’s presence must be addressed; and, fourth and lastly, that Hamlet may be reading as he enters the scene.
My methodology does need some explanation. I believe in the primacy of the text: dramatic texts are the most important factor in creating a production. The words of a text are the skeleton of a play, and basing one’s interpretation on elements not in the text is problematic at best. Now, I’m not trying to say there is only one way of doing any play or moment from a play. I only distinguish between two kinds of performances – those that agree with the text and those that do not.

Shakespeare Theatre Company's 2007 Hamlet.

Shakespeare Theatre Company’s 2007 Hamlet.

Soliloquies feature lone speakers, but all nine original Hamlet printings agree that Hamlet is not alone, as Ophelia is also onstage throughout the speech. Therefore, the classical understanding of “soliloquy” does not apply.
Further, the “To be or not to be” speech features none of the characteristics of Hamlet’s actual soliloquies. In those speeches, he follows a pattern – he speaks about Claudius, the late King Hamlet, and, usually, Gertrude. Hamlet does discuss his family with some other characters, but when he knows he is accompanied by potential spies, he stays away from the topic of his family. The “What a piece of work is a man” speech, delivered just after Hamlet discovers he cannot trust Rosencrantz or Guildenstern, is an elaborate deception. When Hamlet delivers his speech to appease his friends-turned-spies, he does not mention the circumstances of his father’s murder. He only mentions the King and Queen as the people to whom Rosencrantz and Guildenstern must report.
“I will tell you why, so shall my anticipation prevent your discovery, and your secrecy to the King and Queen moult no feather.”

Gamut Theatre's 2015 Hamlet.

Gamut Theatre’s 2015 Hamlet.

Since “To be or not to be” takes place with others on stage, and since it deviates from the patterns Shakespeare established in Hamlet’s actual soliloquies, it cannot be a soliloquy. Since the speech is not a soliloquy, it cannot be staged as a soliloquy and still be faithful to the text. Text-based stagings focus on what is written. For instance, Hamlet, entering into the scene, knows he is being observed. The original printings agree that, by this moment in the play, Hamlet has discovered that his schoolmates have been dispatched by the King to spy on him. Further, all but one of the printings agree that Hamlet enters into the scene because he has been sent for by the King. The remaining printing, the First Quarto, does not mention this at all. What happens next is a strange division; all folio printings agree that the King and Polonius hide before Hamlet enters, while all quartos state they exit after Hamlet enters.

Peter O'Toole's legendary 1957 Hamlet at Bristol Old Vic.

Peter O’Toole’s legendary 1957 Hamlet at Bristol Old Vic.

The quarto texts allow Hamlet to see the King and his crony hide; Hamlet would clearly know he is being spied upon. In all three folio printings, the King and Polonius exit before Hamlet enters the scene. Even if a director chooses the folio option, it is still reasonable that Hamlet knows he is being spied upon. Hamlet already suspects Claudius on some level before the action of the play, as evidenced by his response to the Ghost’s news that Claudius murdered Hamlet’s father: “O my prophetic soul! / Mine uncle?”
The King has just sent for Hamlet. If, as in the folios, Hamlet enters not seeing the King and Polonius, he still has another reason to be suspicious: the King is absent, but Ophelia is directly in his path.
Brooke Hamlet Scarf
Let’s talk about Ophelia and the issue of the silent actor. In order to stage the scene, we must have a better understanding of Ophelia and her relationship with Hamlet. She has only appeared twice before, in scenes revolving around her relationship with Hamlet. Ophelia speaks on this subject with her father, Polonius, saying her relationship with Hamlet is an honorable and affectionate one that has included every promise, save that of matrimony. Polonius dismisses this as Hamlet merely wanting to master her chaste treasure and commands her to never see Hamlet again.
When Ophelia is placed in Hamlet’s way, she is being used to provoke her boyfriend into showing why he is behaving so strangely. This is part of Polonius’ plan to discover if Hamlet is mad for his daughter’s love. Claudius accedes to the plan and, immediately before Hamlet’s entrance, describes his plan to Gertrude, that Hamlet should “affront” Ophelia.
The meaning of the word “affront” is crucial: “to put oneself in the way of so as to meet; to accost, address.” By strategically placing Ophelia onstage, Polonius and Claudius mean for her to come face to face with Hamlet so they can hear what follows between them. As a result, Ophelia could be Hamlet’s audience, either in part or in whole.

Shakespeare Theatre Company's 2001 Hamlet.

Shakespeare Theatre Company’s 2001 Hamlet.

Before this passionate meeting, there is one more discovery to address: what Hamlet is doing as he enters the scene. The First Quarto offers a fascinating option. In it, before Hamlet enters for “To be or not to be”, the King says, “see where he comes poring upon a book.” This is similar to Gertrude’s statement in an earlier scene, “But look where sadly the poor wretch comes reading,” which appears in all other printings of the story. It may be the First Quarto misplaces Hamlet’s entrance, but this anomaly bears study. Hamlet does have a book in other scenes, so a Hamlet who enters reading can be textually valid. In fact, the book he reads may still exist.
Douce in 1839 and Hunter in 1845 noted that Girolamo Cardano’s 1576 book Comfort includes passages very similar to a portion of Hamlet’s speech:
“…saying, that [death] did not only remove sickness and all other griefs but… what should we accompt of death to be resembled to anything better then sleep… and to die is said to sleep.”
Compare all this talk of death, the easing of griefs, and sleeping to this famous portion of Hamlet’s speech:
“To die – to sleep,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep…”

Gamut Theatre's 2011 Hamlet.

Gamut Theatre’s 2011 Hamlet.

A reading Hamlet opens up a new possibility to the speech. If Hamlet is reading about death, his speech might refer to the book. Shakespeare gives us a similar situation in Henry IV, Part One, where, examining a letter from a confederate, Hotspur reads a phrase and then makes a scathing response. If this formula were applied to Hamlet’s speech, “the question” may refer to ideas raised in the book itself. A staging using this reading can allow the prop to help explain why Hamlet is in this frame of mind.
Studying the original texts with a respect for their primacy reveals that the cherished long-established vision of Hamlet simply does not agree with the text. The options revealed by the text and its established circumstances are many and must be explored in a production. After studying the evidence, I staged the scene two different ways. In the first, Hamlet entered reading, responded to the book like Hotspur in Henry IV, and discussed the contents with Ophelia. In the second staging, I took Hamlet’s book away, allowed him to see Claudius and Polonius exit, and had him confess his dark thoughts to Ophelia.
The first staging was greatly intellectual. Hamlet mused about the ideas of death, sharing them on that level with Ophelia. This Hamlet is the consummate philosopher, matching wits with Ophelia and even referring to the book she is carrying. The concepts of death and release are explored with great cerebral impact, so much so that, in directing a full production, I can easily see Hamlet reading voraciously through the early stages of the play.

Haunting poster image for the upcoming Barbican Hamlet which will star Benedict Cumberbatch.

Haunting poster image for the upcoming Barbican Hamlet which will star Benedict Cumberbatch.

The second staging focused upon the circumstances of the characters. Hamlet, knowing he is spied upon, takes refuge in the arms of his forbidden love but is unable to tell her the whole truth of his problems. Ophelia, torn by duty to her father, her King, and her love, must react to Hamlet’s considering death and suicide. This staging speaks to the troubles as written by Shakespeare and had great emotional and visceral impact. Similar to the first staging, I can see a full production of this sort of Hamlet.
These are two very different interpretations of the “To be or not to be” speech, but it is vital to remember they are both based on Shakespeare’s texts.
“So what?” you may be thinking. “Why is this important?” Well, for hundreds of years the theatre world has embraced a version of Hamlet that does not agree with the words Shakespeare wrote. Elsewhere in Hamlet, Shakespeare commands “suit the action to the word”, charging us to base our versions of his work on the words he left behind. He did the job of a playwright well, creating the skeleton of his plays. It falls to us to give that skeleton a heart, a soul, and scars.

This article originally appeared in Shakespeare Magazine Issue 6. Go here to see the original version.

Shaun the Sheep gets a Shakespearean uplift and takes up residence outside the iconic Globe Theatre on London’s Bankside

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“He’s Shaun the Sheep, He’s Shaun the Sheep,
He even mucks about with those who cannot bleat…”

Shakespeare didn’t write these immortal lines, but we like to think the Bard would have approved of Shaun, the animated comedy superstar sheep brought to us by Aardman – makers of family faves Wallace and Gromit.

Indeed, if you saw the recent cinema blockbuster Shaun the Sheep: The Movie you may have even caught a fleeting, admirably cheeky Hamlet reference where Shaun’s owner, the lovably dim-witted Farmer, poses with a skull.
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Well, the good news for fans of Shaun – and Shakespeare – is that Aardman’s highly excellent ‘Shaun in the City’ initiative has come to London’s South Bank.

UK2 Group, a leading web hoster for small businesses, has sponsored this Shakespearean Sheep, wittily titled ‘To Sheep Perchance to Dream’ that’s currently grazing outside Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.

No less than 50 Shaun statues have popped up around London since 28 March. They’ll be here until 25 May, and will be auctioned off later in the year, with proceeds going to the Aardman-backed children’s charity Wallace and Gromit’s Grand Appeal.

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So if you’re heading along to the Globe, or taking a stroll through Shakespeare’s London, be sure to pay our woolly friend a visit. As you can see, he’s been beautifully painted with quotes and scenes from Shakespeare plays such as The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Incidentally, the cute youngsters pictured here with Shakespeare/Shaun are the children of food writer Mallika Basu: “Posing for charity and chocolate,” she says.

Go here to find out more about Shaun in the City.

Go here to find out more about Wallace and Gromit’s Grand Appeal.

Stand-up comedian, actress, writer, vegan and all-round clever clogs Sara Pascoe is a big fan of William Shakespeare, and she’s not afraid to shout about it

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How on earth?

“I’ve got an English degree, and a big part of my life at university was throwing off the misunderstandings and misapprehensions I’d had about Shakespeare at school and coming to appreciate him properly. At school I think we got taught Macbeth and King Lear and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the teacher would say ‘Oh, you see what he’s saying here? He’s saying this’, and I would think ‘How on earth?’ I just didn’t believe them, I thought the teachers were making it up. Then when I was at university we had to read virtually all of the plays and we went into much more depth. That was when I suddenly realised how clever Shakespeare was, and it was mind-blowing.”

My favourite play…

“I did love the Sonnets. I think they’re so accessible and they have such universal themes – death, and time, and how we replicate ourselves. If I had to pick a favourite play… I really loved The Winter’s Tale actually, and I remember thinking Measure for Measure was brilliant, but I think probably Hamlet is my favourite.
“The one I seem to have seen most is As You Like It. I saw an RSC production of Much Ado About Nothing which had Tamsin Greig as Beatrice. They set it I think in Cuba or South America and it was just fantastic, really rhythmic and hilarious.”

If Shakespeare were here today…
“Shakespeare nowadays? Oh gosh, it would be something incredible, wouldn’t it? He was so fantastic at creating these flawed heroes where you could absolutely see how life had made them behave in a certain way, and because of that behaviour drama just unfolds everywhere around them. He’d put everyone else to shame because he’d be writing comedies and dramas and films all at the same time. Even now, people would probably be saying ‘Is it really just one man? It must be a committee of people doing it secretly!’”
Sara Pascoe - Large Library Image

He always sees the full picture
“I just think he understands human psychology so brilliantly. He understands cause and effect, he understands how people can be trying to be good, but also that their worldview might be slightly too myopic to enable them to see anything larger. However, he as the writer always manages to see the full picture and always, especially in the greatest of the plays, manages to create such a viable world that it doesn’t seem fictional. I recently saw the Macbeth they did at the Globe where they made the play a comedy, very successfully. And I thought that was so fantastic because the ambitions of the Macbeths had such lightness of touch all of a sudden, and the play still held together, it still felt true.”

Ten Things I Hate About You
“I think what was always surprising, probably because of the age I was when they came out, was finding out that things like Ten Things I Hate About You was The Taming of the Shrew. It’s always great when you think ‘Oh! Yes, I see, it’s that story!’ I’ve been watching House of Cards, and they’ve very clearly jumped off from Macbeth.”

On being a teenage skateboard fairy
“I do talk about Shakespeare in my show that I’m touring with at the moment. I have a little routine about being told that A Midsummer Night’s Dream was a comedy and how as a 15, 16-year-old having teachers try to say ‘Look, here’s the joke – the queen loves a donkey!’ you just think ‘I don’t get it’. The routine’s about that and how in our production we were trying to liven it up. Everyone wants to do their own ground-breaking thing with Shakespeare, even though it’s all already been done. So I played Puck, but I was on a skateboard and I knocked myself out. Twice. I wasn’t very good at the skateboard. We really thought this was ground-breaking at the time.”
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All about the attitude
“I think that’s what’s so interesting about new productions, they make you meet characters again in a different way. I really like Hermione from The Winter’s Tale. I think that her speeches are so brave and courageous. I’ll always love Kate from The Taming of the Shrew too, but she doesn’t even really talk very much in the play. It’s much more the attitude and the performance of her, isn’t it?

“Beatrice and Benedick’s whole repartee with each other, it’s so brilliant to watch on stage because it doesn’t come across on the page in the same way. Trying to overhear somebody else’s conversation while hiding behind a pot plant, I always think that’s so hysterical.”

Women with brains and activity and thoughts
“I think in terms of his time he was incredible. This was a time when women weren’t allowed on the stage. To be born a woman and want to be creative was impossible. You couldn’t own property, you couldn’t earn money, you were either born into a rich family to be married off, or you were born with no money and very limited options. Shakespeare did write women with brains and activity and thoughts, and I think in some plays the women are as varied as the men in terms of morality and intelligence. Although now for actresses the number of men on stage to the number of women is probably a bit frustrating, it could be a whole lot worse, so I think he should be respected for that.

“Also people are now putting on all-female productions. That’s so exciting because in Shakespeare’s day it would have been an all-male company, and now the opposite is completely possible.”

Most Shakespeare thing I’ve done…
“This isn’t so much a Shakespeare thing as a me thing, but I’ve been to the RSC twice to do stand-up. I got to do stand-up on the stage at the Swan, and that was amazing. Stratford-upon-Avon is a wonderful place. You walk around thinking ‘Oh my god, this is where Shakespeare was born’. Then I remember that I live in London – where he chose to live.”

Go here to find out more about Sara and check out her latest tour dates.

This interview originally appeared in Issue 6 of Shakespeare Magazine. Go here to see the original version.

Actor Ben Walden is a man on a mission to educate and inspire. And his weapon of choice is Shakespeare. All of which makes him the perfect candidate for a rare interview by award-winning teacher, author and contrarian Phil Beadle.

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“He has kill’d me, mother.”

I have witnessed this epitome of weakness delivered so thoughtlessly as to render the desolation of Macduff as kindergarten mawkish. The forlorn bleat of an innocent without a name as he’s descended into the writhing masterpiece of eternity comes usually in Disneyfied pastels. Not so the last time I was in the same dark room as this line. I sat, horrified, on an uncomfortable bench with two of my three sons flanking me, both of them rigid with fear as The Porter brutally slammed down a trapdoor, through which, milliseconds ago hard light shone, disappearing it, and along with it the anguished cry of the death of promise.

The second time I met Ben Walden the conversation went like this:

Ben: “What did you think?”

Phil: “Yeah, it was great. Really good.”

Language can be drivel. What I had meant to say about the touring version of Macbeth that I’d just seen in Deptford that Ben directed was that it had all the visceral thrill and panic-inducing horror of the Hellraiser films. But I didn’t.
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The reason my words disappointed me so particularly is that the first time I met Ben Walden I thought he may well have been one of the coolest people I’ve ever encountered. Unassuming in a pastel V-neck in a circle of middle-aged white men of above-average professional capital at the AGM of the firm we both work for, Independent Thinking Ltd, he introduces himself in anger: fists of tears which he cannot and vehemently will not suppress roll down his cheeks. The object of his anger? What the proud philistine Michael Gove – He’s dead. He’s dead. That B-movie, lowlife, literate bozo is dead! – is doing to arts provision and education for working class children. I understand the anger that gave vent to his tears, as I feel it acutely myself.

The third time I met Ben Walden I left a decade-and-a-half old yellow corduroy jacket containing my phone and house keys in a pub in East Grinstead. I couldn’t be bothered to go down there to pick it up, and miss it still. I then left the notes for this interview in Montenegro (it’s a long story) and that is why this interview is five months late.
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I had met with him to discuss the impact of Shakespeare on his life. If you do not know who Ben Walden is, and you should, he was a member of Mark Rylance’s original company when the Globe opened, is an actor of seriousness and note, and now runs a company, Contender Charlie, whose mission is to bring the power of Shakespeare’s text to inner city kids, and who subsidises this work, which they do for next to nothing, by giving presentations to corporate clients on what they can learn about leadership from Henry V. I ask him some penetrating questions:

Phil: “What lessons from the plays have you applied to you own life?”

Ben: “I was sent to a boarding school when I was a kid, and as a result have always despised not only the concept, but the human manifestation of ‘repressed Englishness’: their reticence, their poison, their cowardice. For me, people should speak what they feel, and because of this Edgar’s line in King Lear – ‘The weight of this sad time we must obey. Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say” – reverberates strongly with me.”

Phil: “How much of the language infiltrates your own day-to-day expression?”

Ben: “The best way to explain this, Phil, would be for you to watch Kate Tempest’s ‘My Shakespeare’.”

[I watch it five months after our meeting, after my notes finally return from their sojourn in the former Eastern bloc. I don’t buy Kate Tempest as a performer, but the passion is clear, as is the fact that she’s distanced being a drama school cockney infecting culture with lies. “He’s not something boring taught in classrooms in language that’s hard to understand. He’s not just a feeling of inadequacy when you sit for an exam”].
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Phil: “Tell me the shape of your year?”

Ben: “There’s a lot of airports. And those gigs that require air travel pay for the work we do with kids from different environments.”

Phil: “What different environments? What do Contender Charlie do… in exactly seven words?”

Ben: “Help kids find purpose and meaning. Can I have four more?”

Phil: “Grudgingly…”

Ben: “…By examining their feelings.”

Phil: “What are your feelings about the philistinism of Gove trying to make drama and the performing arts not formal GCSEs?”

Ben: “For me, whether Shakespeare is on the curriculum or not is an irrelevance. Humans are naturally ritualistic. Making drama not a ‘proper’ GCSE doesn’t change that. People will still seek the spiritual. Shakespeare, himself, was a deeply spiritual anarchist, in touch with our deepest nature. His work remains vital no matter what space policy-makers have him in this week. Kids will always connect with it like I did. Shakespeare came close to saving my life. When I was overwhelmed as a young adult, I would read a speech for solace and read it again and again. The transient whims of policy-makers are just that.”
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Phil: “Put the four great tragedies in order of something other than their greatness.”

Ben: “Can I put them in the order of how much I like them?”

Phil: (Murmurs assent)

Ben:Lear, I give 11/10, Macbeth 10/10, Othello 9/10 and Hamlet 8/10.”

Phil: “Harsh on Hamlet?”

Ben: “It’s arrogant playwriting. And he is self-indulgent as a character. It is really Shakespeare examining depressed adolescence. Hamlet is caught in his own depression and his own pain, and is a bad lesson. In life, you have to rise above your own pain to see the profundity in and of everything – to see the ‘special providence in the fall of a sparrow’. True wisdom is in being truly present emotionally, facing pain and meeting it head on. Truly wise people don’t fall off the wire.”

Go here for more on Ben Walden and his work.

This interview originally appeared in Shakespeare Magazine Issue 6. Go here to see the original version.

Our US Staff Writer breaks the gender wall and takes to the stage as Grumio in her college’s ambitious production of Shakespeare’s most boisterous comedy

After putting on my jacket and straightening my hat, I turned to my sister with an air of expectancy. “You look like an asshole,” she said, laughing.
I smiled. That was exactly the look I was going for.
I was wearing leather pants, black kicks (that’s what the kids call those shoes, right?), a T-shirt two sizes too large, and a hoodie to match. The ensemble was topped off with a grey beanie on my head, and a bruise around my eye. The final touch was an oversized gold watch on my wrist. The wardrobe was inspired in part by Justin Bieber and Kanye West, so not my normal style.
Over the next three hours, I got into fights (losing most of them), made crude jokes, drove go-karts and fought with lightsabres, all in the name of William Shakespeare. I was playing Grumio in The Taming of the Shrew.

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This adventure began three months ago when I decided to audition. The fact that it’d been seven years since my last acting experience didn’t deter me. Nor did the fact that this play features hardly any female roles. Knowing that Messiah College, my small liberal arts school would have an abundance of girls competing to play Katherina and Bianca, I decided that in true Shakespearean fashion I’d try to “suit me all points like a man”.
Looking at the array of men’s parts, I considered my petite frame and artsy demeanor, and settled on auditioning for Petruchio’s hot-headed companion Grumio. To my disappointment, I was only called back for the female roles, but when the director, Tom Ryan, was short of someone to read Grumio, I was on stage before he could finish asking for volunteers. One anxious week later, the cast list was up and I was on my way to checking one more item off my bucket list.

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With the anxiety of auditions removed, though, I found myself beginning to worry about the fate of this beloved text. The first read-through, which took six hours, did little to boost my confidence in the capabilities of this cast (myself included) to tackle one of the Bard’s most nuanced comedies.
Much to my chagrin, my college had not performed Shakespeare in four years, so for most of us this was the first Shakespeare play we had been involved in. But I was not exactly enthralled by the director’s vision – a modern-day Shrew where the Minola family owned a pizza shop in Little Italy, NYC, while Lucentio travelled from Texas and Petruchio came from New Jersey. However, what unfolded over the month-and-a-half of rehearsals astounded me.
Tom set the tone from the beginning. “These characters are stereotypical,” he said at the first rehearsal, “but their relationships with each other are complicated.” My anxiety subsided a little.

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I won’t say we did something with Shakespeare that was unheard of, or unique – I’ve seen too many productions to think that – but it was impressive.
Part of Shakespeare’s genius, perhaps the main part, is that he does not tell the story of one, two or even three characters. Every person in his cast has the potential to be the main character of the action. Not only did Ryan know this, but so did each of my fellow cast members.
Over and over, Ryan encouraged us to decide on who our character was, figure out the stereotype, discover ways to go bigger. Gremio (Bob Colbert) became a washed-up mobster who had seen better days. Biondello (Cheyenne Shupp) turned into an over-zealous and hilariously naive stable hand. Vincentio (Tim Spirk) was a Texan oil baron. Even the Pedant (Austin Blair) became his own character – in this production, a drunkard who spent most of his time passed out on stage.

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Beyond the hours of rehearsal at night, Ryan encouraged all the actors to study the text on their own time. Since poring over Shakespeare encapsulates most of my free time, it was far from a tedious assignment. For other cast members, who didn’t share this passion, it was more of a chore.
Nevertheless, they tackled the challenge with relish and it enlivened their performances. Actors previously unaware of the power of Shakespeare’s words and rhythm were finding it on their own.
“It was really exciting to make discoveries as we did that homework,” says Michael Hardenberg (Tranio). “The metre gives you everything you need, even the character at times.”
Tobias Nordlund played Petruchio and struggled with the text before it came good in the end. “My experience with this show and with Shakespeare,” he says, “completely took me by surprise.”

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When opening night arrived, we were abuzz with nervous energy. Hell Week of rehearsals lived up to its name, but the production far exceeded our expectations.
The audience roared when Kate (Rachel Ballasy) duct taped the hands of Bianca (Chrisanna Rock), trapping her on a speeding-up treadmill during the interrogation scene. In the wedding scene, I successfully manoeuvred a golf cart on and off the stage to gasps of surprise. And at the end of the road trip scene, when a member of the college faculty came out of the port-a-potty with toilet paper trailing from his feet, the audience erupted with laughter.

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Playing Grumio let me fall in love with Shakespeare and theatre in new ways. Above all, it cemented my belief that anyone, truly anyone, can do Shakespeare – and do it phenomenally – and that is the reason he is still being performed today. Not necessarily because his ideas were that great or his poetry so complex. But because he created characters that can be understood by all people, as long as the proper amount of work and energy is invested into the production.

This feature originally appeared in Issue 6 of Shakespeare Magazine. Go here to see the original version.