Fifty miles north of New York City, the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival playfully subverted audiences’ expectations with a radical rendition of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

[Images of Hudson Valley Shakespeare by T. Charles Erickson. Other images by Emily Finch]

The scene was reminiscent of Georges Seurat’s famous painting A Sunday on La Grande Jatte. Families, couples, friends sprawled on the lawn of the historical Boscobel estate, accompanied by wicker baskets, wine glasses and cheese boards.

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This loyal crowd of patrons arrived early to enjoy the view of the river before an evening of theatre at the respected Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival. Excitement about the sold out performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream buzzed as everyone packed up their blankets and headed towards their seats under the tent’s canopy.

And yet, despite such a positive beginning, many audience members became disenchanted by the production. Disenchanted enough, in fact, to bale out in the middle of it. About 20 percent of the seats were empty at the actors’ final bow.

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream usually promises a fun, crowd-pleasing evening – what made the audience walk out? Well, very little about this production felt normal. Where so many Shakespeare productions attempt to rationalise everything – to answer every possible question an audience member might have – this production consistently resisted the urge to simplify and clarify, and instead said, “Why not?”

Why not have Bottom and Puck be played by the same actor?
Why not let Demetrius speak Spanglish?
Why not use five actors for all 20 parts?
According to actor Mark Bedard, these choices came out of rehearsals where director Eric Tucker constantly challenged his players, saying: “We could do the scene that way, the expected way. Or we could find a different way, a harder way.”

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The lack of scenery, props or elaborate costumes placed the responsibility for the success (or failure) of the play squarely on the actors – the aforementioned Mark Bedard, along with Sean McNall, Joey Parsons, Jason O’Connell and Nance Williamson.

As HVSF artistic director Davis McCallum put it, limiting the cast to five actors forced “radical creativity” on behalf of the performers and director to overcome the obstacles, the least of which being the numerous scenes with six or more characters.

The end result was a fresh and raucously hilarious interpretation of this most frequently performed of comedies. Those looking for an evening of conventional theatre were sorely disappointed. The rest of us were beside ourselves with mirth.

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“This isn’t Shakespeare that’s over people’s head,” McNall says. “It’s Shakespeare between their legs.”
Of course, the actors cannot help but notice the depleted audience as the evening unfolds.
“Sometimes, it is a little hard,” Parsons concedes, “to walk on in the second act and see an entire row gone.”

For Williamson, the polarity of reactions validates the unconventional choices. “It’s exciting when you don’t have just a wave of love every single night,” she says. “That’s theatre. The job is not to please everybody.”

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As hard as it is for the players to witness their patrons walking out, it must be said that the majority of the audience remain completely enthralled by the performance.

“We’ll have audiences that are really quiet, and obviously not happy,” says Bedard, “and then we’ll have audiences where it’s like a rock concert.”
Apart from the interpretive casting decisions, the open-air location lends a special life to the productions.

“Boscobel has this beautiful backdrop that makes the play have a lifted grace that it sometimes doesn’t have inside,” explains Williamson.
“The plays can never get stale out here,” adds O’Connell. “Every performance is wildly different just based upon the variables of the time of summer or what’s going on in the air.”

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For McCallum’s first full season as artistic director, he chose plays that would connect the audience with the production through the power of storytelling. “A group of people are gathering,” he says, “in this really unique spot, under this canopy, to be told a story.”

For the past 29 years, HVSF has been sharing stories with roughly 40,000 patrons each summer, along with thousands more through continuous educational outreach. For a summer festival with only five year-round staff members, those numbers prove this company is doing something right, something beyond being an idealistic picnic destination.

“For the sake of our artistic health, we want to do a wide range of things,” says McCallum. “Not just summer Shakespeare comedies.”

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Preparing for the Festival’s 30th anniversary next summer, McCallum plans to continue subverting expectations, delivering entertaining art that challenges as well, putting the little town of Garrison on the theatrical map.

“Our vision for the theatre is that it can be a real destination for audience members,” he says. “Not just from New York City, but from further afield.”

The five-person production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream played at New York City’s Pearl Theatre until 31 October.

Go here for more on Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival.

Book your seat for the UK and US cinema screenings of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, starring stage legends Kenneth Branagh and Judi Dench

[Images by Johan Persson. Dench Portrait: Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company]

Captured live from London’s famed Garrick Theatre, this prestigious production of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale is being broadcast to cinemas across the globe.

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For many of us, it will be the only chance we get to see two living Shakespeare legends – Judi Dench and Kenneth Branagh (who also directs).

Stanley Wells, Shakespeare expert and author of Great Shakespeare Actors, recently tweeted: “For an object lesson in speaking Shakespeare’s verse, hear Judi Dench as Time in The Winter’s Tale”.

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For UK screenings of The Winter’s Tale, on Thursday 26 November, go here to find a cinema near you and book tickets.

For screenings in the USA on Monday 30 November, go here to find a cinema near you and book tickets.

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Apart from Kenneth Branagh as Leontes and Judi Dench as Paulina and Time, The Winter’s Tale also stars Tom Bateman as Florizel, Jessie Buckley as Perdita, Hadley Fraser as Polixenes and Miranda Raison as Hermione.

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And the talented supporting cast includes stage veterans John Shrapnel and Michael Pennington. John Dagleish and Zoe Rainey also feature.

Go here for more on Branagh Theatre Company and The Winter’s Tale.

Last month saw the launch of Shakespeare By Design’s new jewellery collection The Noble Fool at The Arter in Stratford-upon-Avon

[Images by Julia Skupny]

Inspired by Touchstone from Shakespeare’s As You Like It, The Noble Fool is a new handmade collection from Shakespeare By Design.

Little Fool necklace in sterling silver

Little Fool necklace in sterling silver

Jewellery designer Jane Nead has meticulously researched all aspects of As You Like It, from Shakespeare’s source material to the play itself and the costumes used in modern productions. The attention to every detail is apparent in each piece of jewellery.

Little Fool stud earrings

Little Fool stud earrings

“Early in my research,” says Jane, “I discovered that Shakespeare wrote the character for Robert Armin, a member of his company who was also a Goldsmith. Touchstone always ‘tells it like it is’ in the play – he is the measure of all things, exposing counterfeit and falsehood, much like a real touchstone, which is used to test precious metals.”

The signature pieces with a genuine touchstone

The signature pieces with a genuine touchstone

The Noble Fool range consists of necklaces, bracelets and earrings, including the ‘Little Fool’ collection, based on the statue of Touchstone in Henley Street, Stratford-upon-Avon.

Touchflower and Little Fool necklaces

Touchflower and Little Fool necklaces

The collection’s signature piece is a two-necklace set that consists of an intricately designed pendant box. This represents Touchstone stepping out of his court persona. The beautiful piece also contains a fragment of genuine touchstone as used by jewellers.

Large diamond pendant

Large diamond pendant

The second necklace is of a Touchflower, inspired by the Forest of Arden. It’s every bit as delicate as the first piece, with each petal of the flower containing a touch needle that works alongside the touchstone.

Large Touchflower pendant

Large Touchflower pendant

The Noble Fool range is available in sterling silver, 22K gold and 18K rose gold plating. The range is exclusive to The Arter, a hidden treasure of a gift shop.

Specialising in handmade designs, The Arter is based in Hall’s Croft, the former home of Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna.

Go here to find out more about Jane Nead and Shakespeare By Design.

Shakespeare By Design on Facebook.

We love the richly symbolic new 2016 Shakespeare coins from the Royal Mint – but are they actually committing an act of treason against the Queen?

Shakespeare fans who are also numismatists are giddy with glee at the 2016 William Shakespeare £2 coins issued by the Royal Mint.

The three coins celebrate Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories and Tragedies.
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The ‘Comedies’ coin is conventional enough, depicting a Shakespearean jester or Fool.
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But the ‘Histories’ coin has rather more powerful imagery. It depicts Shakespeare’s “Hollow Crown” pierced by a short sword or dagger.
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As the coin’s other side features our present Queen, sharp-eyed commentators have wondered if this could be interpreted as being disrespectful – potentially even treasonous – towards the monarch?

My interpretation is that the Hollow Crown symbol accurately represents the overriding theme of Shakespeare’s Histories – the legitimacy of rulers and the fate of those who usurp the throne.

So, when we turn over the ‘Histories’ coin we find Queen Elizabeth II. The crown is no longer hollow – it’s worn by the longest-reigning monarch in English history, and the namesake of Shakespeare’s Queen (Elizabeth I) as well.

If possible, the ‘Tragedies’ coin is even more striking – disturbing, even. It features a very gothic-looking Skull-and-Rose motif.
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I’m intrigued to know if this is the first time a skull has appeared on a British coin?

The message of this coin is clear: it’s about death. And when we flip the coin over, we once again find the Queen’s head, and the inescapable thought that one day her reign will come to an end.

Reinforcing this notion, we’ve noticed that if you place the upper half of the ‘Histories’ coin upon the lower half of the ‘Tragedies’ coin, what results is a very sinister image of a skull apparently wearing a crown.
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In Shakespeare’s time it was considered treason to speculate about the death of the monarch – and we all know what the penalty was for treason.

But I think what the ‘Tragedies’ coin is saying is that, like Shakespeare himself, Queen Elizabeth II will live on – in artefacts like the coin itself, and in the memories of those who lived through her reign.

To quote the famous couplet from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18:

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

You can order the Shakespeare Coins direct from the Royal Mint.

A new book demonstrates that the legendary ‘curse of Macbeth’ – as depicted in BBC2 TV drama The Dresser – is in fact a relatively modern invention

Watching the excellent adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s play The Dresser on BBC2, there were many moments that tickled our Shakespearean tastebuds.

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Not least of these was when ‘Sir’ (Anthony Hopkins) inadvertently says “Macbeth” in the theatre, and a panic-stricken Norman (Ian McKellen) has to lead him through a strange theatrical ritual to negate the resulting ‘curse’.

The Dresser
Interestingly, a new book, Anecdotal Shakespeare by Paul Menzer, suggests that the infamous “curse of Macbeth” that has supposedly plagued theatres for 400 years is in fact an invented tradition – with no records of it ever being mentioned earlier than 1937!

As The Dresser is set circa 1940, however, that would make it just about historically accurate to include the so-called curse of The Scottish Play.

The Dresser
On the other hand, this vintage clip from the BBC’s Blackadder, which is set in the 18th century, although utterly hilarious, would seem to be somewhat lacking in historical verisimilitude.

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But then, as Shakespeare might have said, why let the facts get in the way of a good story – or, indeed, a great gag?

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Anecdotal Shakespeare
is out now, published by Arden Shakespeare/Bloomsbury.

(Thank you to reader Gordon Kerry for sending us the Blackadder link)