Marooned boats in a magical woodland: Butterfly Theatre’s The Tempest at Bristol Shakespeare Festival 2015

Directed by Aileen Gonsalves, Butterfly Theatre’s production of The Tempest is a dynamic and exciting take on the play that benefits from its outdoor setting in Bristol’s Leigh Woods. It is one of the many innovative shows taking place this July as part of the Bristol Shakespeare Festival.

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The performance starts deep in Leigh Woods, as singing actors in yellow mackintoshes beckon the audience to pass under a symbolic sea. After this energetic beginning, the audience enters local artist Luke Jerram’s Withdrawn installation, comprising five fishing boats stranded in the woods. The Tempest’s themes of power, reconciliation and magic certainly resonate deeply here among the trees.

The cast of seven guide the audience through a promenade performance where maintaining the momentum is a key element. Prospero (Julian Protheroe) is masterful, surveying his island from a boat’s deck. His relationship with Miranda (Georgie Ashworth) is warm, and Miranda shrieks with appropriate girlishness when she falls for a wide-eyed and earnest Ferdinand (Owen Pullar).
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Ariel is played compellingly by Gail Sixsmith whose powerful movements convince. Caliban (Elliot Thomas) incites pity, but his raucous comic scenes with Trinculo (Matthew McPherson) and “Stephana” (Kate Ellis) excite much laughter amongst the audience.

Though truncated, the production remains faithful to the outlines of the play-text and makes good use of the boats for dramatic effect. The soundscape created by Jonnie Harrison is an interesting mix of drums, instrumental music and singing. And the effect of the music appearing as if from among the trees adds to the magical, slightly eerie atmosphere.
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A play like The Tempest benefits from the unusual outdoor setting, and Butterfly Theatre manage to keep the standing audience happy throughout as the drama and magic unfold amongst the boats.

All images by Elle de Burgh

The Tempest in Leigh Woods ran from 11-17 July.

To find out more about Bristol Shakespeare Festival, go here.

To find out more about Butterfly Theatre, go here.

To find out more about Luke Jerram’s Withdrawn installation, go here.

Actor Danny Steele achieves his ambition to play Shakespeare’s Richard III on the hallowed turf of Stratford-upon-Avon – with just three days of rehearsal!

Earlier this summer, I played the Duke of Gloucester – and King Richard – in the Oxford Shakespeare Company’s Richard III. Excitingly, the production was staged in the Dell Gardens, close to the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.

We performed twice in one day at and then, a few days later, in Bosworth Field. But what made this performance unique – and really tested us all as performers – was that the company had got together to fully rehearse and bond just three days earlier.

Queen Anne (Emma Fitchett) gets chatted up by the Duke of Gloucester (Danny Steele)

Queen Anne (Emma Fitchett) gets chatted up by the Duke of Gloucester (Danny Steele)

Yes, you read that right. Three days earlier. When I told fellow teachers and actors about the schedule their responses ranged from puzzlement to outright disbelief. And it was pretty unbelievable. No, there was none of the luxury afforded to the RSC with their six month rehearsal period.

Performing Shakespeare is already difficult enough, but this new dimension certainly added an extra level of frisson to the performances – and gave me, as the lead, sleepless nights.

The two murderers (Mia Norton, Matthew Domenico) joke about Clarence’s death

The two murderers (Mia Norton, Matthew Domenico) joke about Clarence’s death

The Oxford Shakespeare Company is owned and run by Ron Song Destro, an American Director and Shakespeare Scholar. Half the cast were from the US and came over the week before. We all met at the start of the week in London before leaving for Stratford-upon-Avon.

The audiences were great, and we were able to ‘mingle’ with them in each two-hour performance. Especially Queen Margaret, as played by Rachele Fregonese, who sat next to audiences on the bench and the lawn as she delivered some of her lines.

The murdered twins visit King Richard (Danny Steele) and Richmond (Andrew James Gordon) while they sleep

The murdered twins visit King Richard (Danny Steele) and Richmond (Andrew James Gordon) while they sleep

As part of the schedule, we had the opportunity to work with the RSC’s celebrated voice director Cicely Berry, as well as receiving direction from theatre veteran Malcolm Mckay.

Two days before the show I had an attack of the ‘actor’s fear’. I felt nauseous, couldn’t eat and didn’t sleep. During the shows, however, all those worries fell away and although some lines were missed, the objectives stayed.

The Group ensemble at the RSC with renowned voice coach Cicely Berry

The Group ensemble at the RSC with renowned voice coach Cicely Berry

Would I put myself through it again? Hell, yes! Ron’s work has inspired me to stage another production of Richard III. This one will be set in the 1990s, and will be staged in London in early 2016. Watch this space!

To find out more about Ron Song Destro’s Oxford Shakespeare Company, go here.

“Shakespeare is very hip-hop…” Bike-tour actor Ralf Jean-Pierre crowdfunds Bard-inspired album

In 2012, Brooklyn actor Ralf Jean-Pierre set out on an epic bicycle journey across the USA. Starting in Florida, he cycled to California, up to Washington and across the Midwest, before returning home.

On the way, he performed one-man Shakespeare scenes at Waffle Houses, skate parks, shelters – anywhere he could gather an audience as The ’Speare Bearer.

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“It was an insane way to perform,” Ralf says, “but I got to bring Shakespeare to the people, like my hero Joe Papp.”

A highlight on the journey was performing at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Festival producer Claudia Aalick caught Ralf performing one afternoon and invited him to be a featured guest at the festival’s Green Show – which included clowns, jazz bands and flamenco dancers.

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“It was a thrill to go from entertaining random crowds in parking lots to hearing the applause of over 200 theater fans,” Ralf says.

Also a rapper and songwriter, Ralf is now documenting his tour through a musically eclectic album, What Should Be the Fear (the title comes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet). He is currently fundraising on Kickstarter to cover recording costs.

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“I think Rappers are the true inheritors of the modern Shakespeare tradition,” Ralf says. “Shakespeare was the urban medium of its era. Rappers deal in verse and meter and rhythm. They use their voices in new and unexpected ways, even creating new words.

“Rappers tell stories, often even rapping in character. Shakespeare is tragic, funny, synchronously profane and sublime, which is very hip-hop.”

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To find out more about Ralf’s crowdfunder campaign, go here.

You can follow Ralf Jean-Pierre on Twitter @RJPEsquire and Instagram @PrecGorgRalf

“Titus Andronicus probably wouldn’t be the best starting point…” Teacher and Hour-Long Shakespeare author Matthew Jenkinson offers his tips on approaching Shakespeare with young people

“All’s Well That Ends Well is funny – if you’re fluent in Shakespearean English!” protested one GCSE English pupil to me recently. It is not an uncommon complaint, along with assertions that Shakespeare’s plays are too complicated or difficult for many school children. Well, quite rightly Shakespeare is not going to go away; quite the opposite, as the new National Curriculum puts even greater emphasis on his works.

So how can parents or teachers aid in the understanding of Shakespeare among their pupils or children? The most empowering thing you can say, at first, is “Do not worry about understanding all (or any) of the words”. It is amazing how quickly a pupil’s brain can shut down because they are panicking about ‘getting’ everything the first time around. Understanding comes with time, re-reading, and patient explanation.

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It is also enhanced by watching Shakespeare on the stage. But parents and teachers need to be judicious about this. Watching a poor stage production will have pupils running a mile in the opposite direction, and they certainly won’t feel inclined to explore the text in any greater depth. Watching a great stage production can have the opposite effect.

There is no need to traipse long distances to Stratford or London these days either. The Globe Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company, respectively, have released some excellent DVDs of their recent stage productions. So you can now break up three-hour-long productions in the classroom or at home, pausing to discuss what is happening or to go to the loo.

Attending a live production can be exhilarating, but I would wait until the children have gained some traction. Making them stand in the rain at The Globe for three hours, as a first experience of Shakespeare, probably won’t have them begging for more.

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Watching a live performance enables pupils to work out plots by seeing the interaction between characters and hearing the tone employed by expert actors. I have used Roger Allam’s Falstaff scenes, performed at The Globe in 2010, to convey to pupils what happens in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. I have been amazed at how much laughter has come from individuals who just would not have understood the text if we had merely read it from the page.

The other way to get children engaged with Shakespeare is to get them on their feet, acting out parts. Again, a sensitive and judicious approach is necessary here. First of all, the choice of play is vital. Titus Andronicus probably wouldn’t be the best starting point. Parents and teachers also need to be understanding of the fact that many pupils, especially as they stumble through adolescence, will be quite reticent about standing up and delivering elaborate metaphors.

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There are two powerful ways to counter this. The first is to create a culture in school and at home where drama is an everyday feature – it is not nerdy or distant. The second – obviously – is to ‘differentiate’ the casting, ensuring that the allocation of parts reflects the confidence and ability of the pupils. Giving a reticent child the part of Macbeth will put them off Shakespeare for life, as will giving a confident actor the part of First Servingman. One of the joys of Shakespeare’s history plays, in particular, is the number of roles available, with differing levels of intensity; every pupil can find their niche.

There are very few schools out there that will be able to stage a full three-hour Shakespeare play, which is why I have been editing a new series of abridged versions in the Hour-Long Shakespeare series. As the title suggests, each play lasts about an hour when performed, with central characters and the overall narrative arcs preserved. This is by no means a novel project – the plays have been abridged since Shakespeare’s day, as evidenced by the discovery in 2014 of a First Folio in St Omer, France, in which Jesuits made cuts to suit their pupils.

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What is new about the Hour-Long series, aside from some original scene shifting (don’t use these texts in exams!), is the use of a Chorus in all of the plays. Shakespeare himself famously used a Chorus in Henry V, for example, but adopting this device in other plays enables any number of pupils to get involved as narrators, offering summaries of excised sections of plot, or acting as Roman citizens in Julius Caesar, the tyrant’s conscience in Richard III, or the witches in Macbeth – all with the text still in front of them.

Removing the pressures of learning vast amounts of lines, or spending too long on the stage, enables usually reticent pupils to engage with Shakespeare in performance. Maintaining juicy title roles with headline speeches attracts those keen actors who are ready for something more challenging. In sum, Shakespeare hopefully becomes more manageable for those who would normally be scared off.

Matthew Jenkinson is director of studies at New College School in Oxford. Hour-Long Shakespeare: Henry IV (Part 1), Henry V and Richard III is available now, priced £10. Hour-Long Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and Julius Cesar will be published in September.

“Let me put it to you this way: No one has ever successfully ripped off the Folger Library…” Guarding Shakespeare author Quintin Peterson takes us into the high-security vaults of Washington D.C.’s Shakespeare treasure house

I’ve often jokingly said words to the effect of “Bloody Americans! Nicking all our Folios…” So it amused me greatly that Guarding Shakespeare’s opening scene featured a couple of Brits saying something similar. Have you encountered many English people who really do feel that way?

“I started working for the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Department of Safety and Security in December 2010, after I retired from the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department. In the four years I have worked there, only one British gentleman who visited the library expressed that sentiment. I reminded him that all of the Folger Library’s copies of the First Folio were purchased, not pilfered.”

The next thing I noticed is that your book is virtually a How-To guide to robbing the Folger Library! Do you worry you may have given too much away?

“Not at all. Like all good fiction authors, I mix lies with the truth. Any thief who attempts to use Guarding Shakespeare as a how-to guide to try to rip off the Folger Library is in for a rude awakening. I used the Folger Library as the backdrop for a good old-fashioned heist story, but I didn’t give away the farm. I would never put the library’s security at risk for the sake of a story. I write crime fiction, noir mysteries, thrillers and simply followed the guidelines for creating an entertaining noir heist story. However, this story enlightens as well as entertains.”

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I was reminded of Ian Fleming’s note at the beginning of From Russia With Love, where he mentions the accuracy of his descriptions of people and places. Were all your Folger descriptions real or did you invent some rooms, passageways and so on?

“That certainly is not true of my depiction of the Folger Shakespeare Library, except for the common areas open to the general public. Guarding Shakespeare is part fact, part fancy. Like I said, I mix lies with the truth.”

Apart from the main conspirators, how many of the characters are real Folger people? I noticed you gave yourself a cameo role…

“Characters in the book who have anything to do with the plot are purely fictitious. The rest are actual people the fictional characters either interact with in passing, or who witness the actions of the fictional characters. Fact and fiction collide. It’s also my way of acknowledging coworkers.”

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I didn’t appreciate until fairly recently how important the Folger is as a storehouse of Shakespeare treasures and a centre of study. Your book conveys a sense of it as a place of almost religious significance…

“It is. People from around the globe come to the Folger to either work with rare materials housed there or to appreciate the various exhibitions on display in the Great Hall. One of the best exhibits was Manifold Greatness: The Life and Afterlife of the King James Bible. The exhibit consisted of various King James Bibles – one owned by Queen Elizabeth I, another by Elvis Presley, which he’d acquired from the Estate of Frederick Douglass, et al. And yet always on display in the Great Hall, no matter what exhibit is featured, is one of the Folger’s 82 First Folios. It occurred to me that the two most influential books of the English language were on display together. For the first time, perhaps…”

Another Ian Fleming comparison is the audacious scheme to heist Fort Knox in Goldfinger. Has anyone ever actually succeeded in robbing the Folger in real life?

“Let me put it to you this way: No one has ever successfully ripped off the Folger Library.”

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I know that real-life criminal gangs are increasingly targeting rare books, but the target in Guarding Shakespeare isn’t actually a book, is it?

“No. Nefarious businessman Rupert Whyte describes the MacGuffin – the object of desire – as something so small, all protagonist Special Police Officer Lt. Norman Blalock need do is put it in his shirt pocket and then just walk out of the Folger Library.”

And it does seem entirely plausible that the Folger could have acquired some amazing Shakespeare items without anyone realising quite what they were…

“Yes. In my novel, the object of desire is hidden inside of a jewelry box the Folger Library recently acquired.”

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You also touch on the frightening idea of what would happen if an unstable employee went berserk in the Folger. It’s a chilling reminder that Shakespeare books and artefacts are vulnerable to vandalism – as well as the kind of cultural terrorism practiced by IS.

“Yes. It’s one of the reasons why the Folger Library has its own Department of Safety and Security, not only to safeguard the collection, but its employees and visitors as well.”

Finally, can you tell us one mind-blowing fact about the Folger that didn’t make it into your book?

“The underground complex of the Folger Shakespeare Library is a bunker. In that bunker along with priceless treasures is the Special Collection, consisting of works of fiction depicting scene(s) inside of the Folger Library or that merely make mention of the library. Guarding Shakespeare is among them. However, it is the only work of fiction that is actually about the Folger Library. My novel has gone where no crime fiction has gone before.

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“On Thursday, 23 April, 2015, I autographed 30 copies of Guarding Shakespeare for the Folger Shakespeare Memorial Library’s Board of Governors, and inscribed each book: ‘All the world’s a stage…’

“Coincidentally, 23 April is Shakespeare’s birthday, but it is also the day I retired from the Metropolitan Police Department. D.C., five years ago, after more than 28 years of public service. It was a great day.”

UK readers order Guarding Shakespeare here.

US readers order Guarding Shakespeare here.