New BBC radio documentary ‘Shakespeare and Terrorism’ to explore Osama bin Laden’s hatred of Shakespeare – and the Bard’s own alleged family links to the Gunpowder Plot.

Osama bin Laden’s weekly visits to Shakespeare’s birthplace and the Bard’s historic links to the Gunpowder Plot will be among the stories explored in a new documentary airing on BBC Radio 3.

Shakespeare and Terrorism’, presented by Dr Islam Issa, Senior Lecturer in English Literature at Birmingham City University, examines how the iconic playwright’s work has been linked to acts of terror or influenced terrorists.

The documentary will look at how the Bard’s work has been viewed and interpreted by extremists from across the globe including bin Laden, Guy Fawkes, Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth and Nazi theorist Carl Schmitt.

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Shakespeare’s Birthplace

Documents released by the CIA last year detailed bin Laden’s frequent visits to Stratford-upon-Avon as a teenager and his hatred of Shakespeare as a symbol of the West and its political ideology.

The terror leader wrote in his diaries that “we went every Sunday to visit Shakespeare’s house” and these experiences are believed to have coloured his hatred of the West.

Links between the Bard and the Gunpowder Plot stem from the fact the plotters included family friends of Shakespeare and that the conspirators had strong links to Stratford-upon-Avon.

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Guy Fawkes

Abraham Lincoln’s assassin John Booth, murdered the American President in Ford’s Theatre in Washington. Booth was an actor and fan of Shakespeare who was influenced by the playwright’s portrayal of freedom and the murder of the emperor in the play Julius Caesar.

Meanwhile Carl Schmitt used Shakespeare as a way to justify Nazi and fascist ideology and wrote a book focussing on how going against the law can be justified, just as murder ultimately ended Hamlet’s troubles.

Dr Issa believes Shakespeare’s themes and characters make the plays wide open to multiple and varied interpretations.

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Dr Islam Issa

“The terrorists who hated Shakespeare or who attacked theatres saw the playwright as a symbol of the West or of colonialism,” he says. “But looking at it from another angle, some terrorists have also been inspired by him.

“There are lots of violent and extreme moments in the plays that remind us of what we see in the news today. Not only did Shakespeare live through the biggest terrorist plot in British history – the Gunpowder Plot – he also constructed characters who have similar issues, mind-sets and justifications to modern-day terrorists.

“For example, recording this show has really made me reinterpret the character of Hamlet.”

​The documentary will take in interviews, including one with a criminologist to analyse the mind of a terrorist, and includes visits to Hamlet’s castle in Denmark and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust underground archives, where Dr Issa examines rare documents linked to the Gunpowder Plot.

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Kronborg Castle

Shakespeare and Terrorism’ will air on BBC Radio 3 as part of ‘Sunday Feature’ on Sunday 4 November at 6.45pm.

Celebrating 50 years of Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare Magazine Editor Pat Reid writes about growing up and growing old with a Shakespearean cinematic masterpiece – and its eternally youthful stars, Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey.

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“But you sound just like Leonard!” exclaims the voice at the end of the telephone. “Exactly like him, it’s uncanny!”The voice that’s saying this is Olivia Hussey’s. The voice that she’s saying it about is mine. Fifty years ago, when she was just 15, Olivia starred as Juliet in Franco Zeffirelli’s film of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The Leonard to whom she refers is Leonard Whiting, then 17, her co-star who played Romeo. It’s all documented in her recent book The Girl on the Balcony. To have my voice compared to Leonard’s is a major compliment. I want to respond with a witty quip like “I bet you say that to all the Romeos…” – but there’s an interview to do.

I first saw Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet when I was around the age Olivia was when she starred in it. My relationship with the film, and with the play it’s based on (and with the characters in it) has certainly evolved over the passing decades. The first time I saw it, in a mid-’80s classroom of an all-boys school, it was the sword fights that excited me most, to be honest. Having said that, Olivia’s radiant vivacity as Juliet, and the emotional rush of her love affair with Leonard’s sensitive-yet-athletic Romeo, must have seemed a kind of dream version of what life would surely hold in store.

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When I saw it again in my mid-twenties I was taken aback by how deliriously romantic it all was. The film is both opulent and gritty, a bacchanalian feast of the screen. I was now much older than Olivia’s Juliet, but still far too young to understand what was really going on in the film.​In my early forties I became both a father for the first time, and a born again Shakespearean. This is when Romeo and Juliet becomes every parent’s worst nightmare. You do everything you can to bring your kids up right, and they go and fall madly in love – and end up dead. Yes, it’s funny when I put it like that, but really it’s terrifying.

Watching the film in middle age, I also noticed for the first time how Shakespeare’s words were bursting with an overwhelming beauty that was matched note for note by Nino Rota’s musical score – one of the all-time great movie soundtracks.

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I noticed other things too. How Lady Capulet (played by Natasha Parry) was not in fact an evil old bag, but a dignified, concerned and rather beautiful young mother. At this point I could hardly fail to see how Romeo and Juliet was absolutely crammed with performances that in any other film would have been breakouts. From Pat Heywood as Juliet’s Nurse, to Michael York as an imperious, flashing-eyed Tybalt – not forgetting the demented swagger of John McEnery’s Mercutio, and Robert Stephens embodying authority as the Prince – it’s an embarrassment of riches.Finally I watched it again this year, 2018, the year that the film and myself both turn 50. Everything I’ve written above is still true, but watching the film after reading Olivia’s book puts a different light on things. Indeed, her book shines a light into all the nooks and crannies of the film.

My most recent viewing of the film took place after reading her book, but actually speaking to Olivia was a precious experience. She is a custodian of the memory of Romeo and Juliet, and the keeper of its secrets. “I’ve never told anyone that before,” she said, after sharing a detail about her famously gruelling audition process for the film, “I only just remembered it now”.

Indeed, Zeffirelli’s casting process would probably be impossible – or illegal – today, but its result was perfection. In 1960s London there were a lot of beautiful, talented young men and women. But Romeo and Juliet had to be beautiful together in the right way, a complementary beauty that made them both shine more brightly, not a situation where one cancelled the other out.

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There have been other Romeo and Juliet films before and since, of course. The 1954 version with Laurence Harvey is almost forgotten now, forever eclipsed by Zeffirelli’s ’60s supernova. The 1936 production is seen as a historical curio, with Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer, aged 43 and 33, far too old for the roles.Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 update, styled Romeo + Juliet, succeeded because it made itself as different as possible from Franco Zeffirelli’s. But while I’ve met countless women who fell in love with Leonardo DiCaprio’s Romeo, I’ve yet to meet a man who fell in love with Claire Danes as Juliet. We admire her as an actress – she’s one of the few in Hollywood who can actually move her face – but we don’t want to die for her.

And a 2013 film of Romeo and Juliet cast Douglas Booth and Hailee Steinfeld in the lead roles. They looked every bit like a Renaissance painting, but alas the chemistry was lacking – the pair seemed more like amused, conspiratorial siblings than Shakespeare’s tragic, star cross’d lovers.

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And that’s why Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet is not just one of the greatest Shakespeare films ever made, it’s one of the greatest films of any kind ever made.Yes, he took liberties with Shakespeare, but you can tell it’s a film made by someone who’s in love with Shakespeare, in love with Romeo and Juliet, in love with life, and in love with love. Watch it today, or soon, to celebrate its 50th anniversary – and be sure to raise a glass to Franco, to Leonard and to Olivia. Their Romeo and Juliet is, and will always be, an intoxicating experience.

All images courtesy of Paramount. Watch out for a full interview with Olivia Hussey in the next issue of Shakespeare Magazine.

Attention! Leading experimental theatre company Forced Entertainment are calling on everyone to help them – by sharing a livestream of their unique Table Top presentation of all 36 of Shakespeare’s plays, performed with the aid of household objects…

Terry O'Connor
Beginning this Friday 26 October and running until Saturday 3 November, Forced Entertainment are to livestream Complete Works: Table Top Shakespeare - each of Shakespeare’s 36 plays condensed and presented on a table top over nine days, using a cast of ordinary household objects.
The durational production by the internationally recognised experimental theatre group, features objects such as pepper pots, knives and forks and cheese graters in place of Shakespeare’s characters.
Jerry Killick in action
Originally devised and performed in 2015, Complete Works will be presented at and livestreamed from SPILL Ipswich, between 26 October and 3 November, giving those who aren’t able to make it to the Festival the opportunity to see all of the hour-long pieces.
For the first time ever, the livestream of Complete Works will include 12 subtiled performances: Coriolanus, King John, As You Like It, The Taming of the Shrew, Richard II, Much Ado About Nothing, Macbeth, Henry IV Part 1, Measure for Measure, All’s Well That Ends Well, Timon of Athens and Hamlet.
Forced Entertainment is working with SPILL Festival of Performance, and the livestream will appear on both the festival’s website and Forced Entertainment’s. The livestream will also be shared on Facebook and cross-posted to BBC Arts Online and BBC Shakespeare. The livestream has been commissioned by The Space.
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The livestream will appear on Forced Entertainent’s website and Facebook page. Please tag @ForcedEnts when sharing the event on Twitter and Instagram and use the hashtag #CompleteWorksLive to join in the conversation.

Along with millions of other viewers, we were gripped by the recent BBC drama Bodyguard. So our interest was well and truly piqued when we heard that a Shakespeare-influenced fan theory had emerged, which claims the series contains numerous references to Romeo and Juliet…

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We love a mystery (and a Shakespearean challenge), so we decided to see if we could piece together the entire theory based on just the few tweets and headlines we’d already seen…

So here goes. We understand that the theory is based on the fact that the co-lead character in Bodyguard is named Julia Montague. But first…

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Bodyguard is written/created by Jed Mercurio. Does he have a thing about Romeo and Juliet? Well, interestingly his name is almost exactly the same as Mercutio – Romeo’s best friend.

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Mercurio and Mercutio are both Italian names, both derived from the Roman god Mercury. This is also where we get the word ‘mercurial’, meaning ‘unpredictable’. Shakespeare’s Mercutio is certainly that.

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Mercutio’s legendary death-scene line: “A plague a’ both your houses”. There is certainly the suggestion in Bodyguard that both sides – indeed all the squabbling factions – are totally corrupt, and happy to let innocent people suffer and die.

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Romeo is a Montague, Juliet is a Capulet. They marry (and die) very young, causing the reconciliation of their warring families. In Bodyguard, Julia Montague is the Home Secretary, a mature and highly-successful woman.

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Is Julia Montague the writer’s idea of how Juliet might have turned out if she lived in our era?

(In the way that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was supposedly a grown-up, modern-day version of Pippi Longstocking)

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Okay, so if Julia is Juliet, who’s Romeo? Not her conniving Chief Whip ex-husband Roger Penhaligon*, that’s for sure.

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(*By the way, famous Cornish actress Susan Penhaligon got her first break playing – you guessed it – Juliet)

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We forgot to mention that Julia Montague is played by the marvellous Keeley Hawes! We don’t know if she’s ever played Juliet, but here she is as Shakespeare’s Elizabeth Woodville in The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses.

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The obvious candidate for Romeo is the Bodyguard himself, David Budd, played by Richard Madden.

Incidentally, Richard played Romeo on the stage a couple of years ago – and was even featured on the cover of Shakespeare Magazine.

And, of course, David Budd. As in Rose Bud. As in Juliet’s famous musing on Romeo: “That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet…”

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As we hinted before, every Romeo needs a Mercutio. Just like Mercutio, David’s friend Andy is a loose cannon and a cryptic truth-teller. And as with Romeo and Mercutio, David is ultimately responsible for Andy’s death.

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David Westhead, who plays the Prime Minister in Bodyguard, appeared in the 2007 Doctor Who story The Shakespeare Code as “Will Kempe”. We know for a fact that famed clown Kempe (or Kemp) appeared in the ORIGINAL production of Romeo and Juliet – he’s named in the stage directions.

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The one thing everyone knows about Romeo and Juliet: THEY DIE. And the hospital staff affirm that Julia Montague did indeed shuffle off her mortal coil – after injuries sustained in the mysterious explosion that interrupted her controversial speech.

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But Shakespeare’s not that simple. Juliet, advised by a friar, takes a potion that simulates death. Unaware of the plan, Romeo kills himself. Juliet wakes up, sees Romeo dead, and in turn kills herself.

This doesn’t sound a lot like Bodyguard.

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This is why fans reckon that Julia (like Juliet) may not actually be dead. Will she return in the final episode? Also, David (like Romeo) did try to kill himself after learning of Julia’s demise. But someone put a blank round in his gun, so he survived.

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One of the most popular characters in Romeo and Juliet is Juliet’s Nurse. And there is a nurse in Bodyguard (albeit of the medical variety) in the form of David’s estranged wife Vicky, played by Sophie Rundle – who looks rather like traditional depictions of Juliet.

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And from among the other characters, here’s top cop Ann Sampson, played by Gina McKee. The first line in Romeo and Juliet is spoken by Sampson of the Capulets, who then bites his thumb at the Montagues to start a brawl.

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To conclude, yes, Bodyguard does seem to have quite a few Romeo and Juliet references. But essentially it’s a political/terrorism drama, so we don’t think it really qualifies as a remake or reimagining of Shakespeare’s play.

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Crucially, Romeo and Juliet are young. They’re star-cross’d lovers whose families are at war. They confide in Friar Lawrence and he marries them in secret. David and Julia are mature adults who embark on a clandestine affair. It’s very different.

And, lest we forget, Romeo and Juliet contains some of the most heartbreakingly beautiful poetry in the English language.

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Bodyguard isn’t in quite the same league.

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Heck of a thriller, though. Even if we didn’t get the stupendously Shakespearean showdown were hoping for in the final episode…

Here endeth our take on “Bodyguard – the Romeo and Juliet Connection”. Do let us know if you spot any Shakespearean references or themes we’ve missed!

Dr Michael Goodman of Cardiff University wants everyone to sample and enjoy the artistic treasures and historical delights of the Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive.

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What comes to mind when you think of Shakespeare? The latest Kenneth Branagh film, perhaps? Struggling to make sense of the language in school? Merry Englande, ruffs and a good dose of ‘hey nonny nonny’? If we could somehow ask this question to a Victorian, there is a good chance that they would answer: ‘illustrations’.

The Victorian era was the ‘Golden Age’ for Shakespeare illustration. Between 1839 and the end of the century, thousands of illustrations were produced within many different editions of Shakespeare’s Complete Works. New printing technologies meant that books could be produced on a mass commercial scale and illustrated books, for the first time, became affordable to working and middle class families.

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What is so fascinating about these illustrated Shakespeare editions, which were hugely popular in the Victorian era, is that they form a significant part of our cultural heritage and, indeed, our construction of Shakespeare’s plays as we understand them today. Unfortunately, these illustrations are often hidden away in rare books libraries, meaning that they are often inaccessible to members of the general public.

My recent project, The Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive, seeks to rectify this. It is an online, open access resource, which contains over 3,000 of these Victorian illustrations. And it is centred on the four most significant Victorian editions and illustrators of Shakespeare’s Complete Works: Charles Knight, Kenny Meadows, John Gilbert and H.C. Selous.

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The archive came about when I was exploring ideas for my PhD in English Literature at Cardiff University. Initially the project was just going to be concerned with analysing how Victorian illustrators depicted Shakespeare’s plays. However, as my research progressed, it slowly became apparent that here was a remarkable under-explored and underappreciated treasure trove of fantastic, curious, and often unnerving illustrations that deserved to be shared with both academics and the wider public. The illustrations by the Cardigan-born Kenny Meadows, whom one of his contemporaries described as an ‘erratic genius’, are a perfect example of the richness of material available in the archive.

Fortunately, digital technology allows us to reach audiences in a way that is unprecedented. Digital archives allow us to recover hidden histories, celebrate forgotten voices, to enhance our understanding of bygone eras, and to disseminate cultural artefacts in an engaging and innovative fashion. It was with these ideas in mind – about what can be achieved using the digital – I decided to create The Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive.

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This was, of course, a large undertaking. Each of these editions contain hundreds of illustrations which would require scanning into the computer, alongside being given the appropriate bibliographical and iconographical meta data (basically, the details about where the image came from and what the image contains), so that the illustrations would then be searchable within the archive. Furthermore, I wanted the archive to be as user-friendly as possible, and to incorporate the ability to use social media, so that users could comment upon and share the images on Facebook and Twitter. After four years of working on the project, I launched the archive late last year, and the reaction it has received has been hugely positive.

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The BBC, for example, have made a short video about the archive , while Digital Arts magazine have credited it as being one of the top ten websites for free historical images. Many online literary magazines have also written about the archive, including Lit Hub, while the UK’s Shakespeare Magazine (thank you, Pat!) has described it as a ‘deeply wonderful thing’. As kind and generous as these reactions have been, what I take most from them is that there is a real desire amongst the public to engage with academic work.

Ultimately, I hope the archive will be used in education to help students of all ages to better understand Shakespeare’s plays, and by researchers interested in the Victorian period and Shakespeare. However, the archive is available for anyone to use in whatever way they wish. Moreover, I would like to inspire other people to have the confidence to make similar archives and to recognise that with curiosity, imagination and creativity, we can make scholarship exciting, interesting and available to all.

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We now live in world where, thanks to technology, we can begin to share our cultural history – not just with a privileged few, but with everyone.

Go here to explore the Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive.

Olivier Award-winner Sheila Atim stars as shipwrecked twins Viola and Sebastian in a new and timely screen adaptation of Shakespeare’s much-loved comedy Twelfth Night, released on 25 October.

Sheila Atim (Viola)
Shanty Productions is an independent film production company, co-founded by Rakie Ayola and Adam Smethurst, and committed to producing drama that speaks to a diverse audience. Its first production is a full text version of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, a 400-year-old stage play adapted for the screen to reflect and reach multicultural Britain today.
Adapted and directed by Smethurst, with Welsh actor Ayola (Harry Potter and The Cursed Child) as Executive Producer, Twelfth Night is available on Amazon Prime and iTunes from Thursday 25 October 2018.
Shalini Peiris (Olivia)
The film stars 2018 Olivier Award winner Sheila Atim as the Bard’s shipwrecked twins, Viola and Sebastian. She has previously performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company and in the Donmar Shakespeare Trilogy, and is currently playing the role of Emilia in Othello at Shakespeare’s Globe.
 
This is a modern, full text version of Shakespeare’s tale of unrequited love, which also features Shalini Peiris as Olivia, Antony Bunsee as Malvolio, Zackary Momoh as Antonio and Upstart Crow’s Dominic Coleman as Sir Andrew Aguecheek among its talented cast.
Twelfth Night is the first feature from Shanty Productions; a new independent film production company committed to producing exceptional drama for diverse, multicultural audiences – creating worlds they recognise and characters they can relate to on accessible platforms for today’s digital natives.
Steven Milller (Fabian), Dominic Coleman (sir Andrew Aguecheek), Simon Nagra (Sir Toby Belch)
Commenting on the driving force behind Shanty Productions, Co-Founder Rakie Ayola said, “It is essentially the realisation that Adam and I could put our money where our mouths are, channel our skills and produce the kind of work we want to see. Work that combines our love of Shakespeare with our need to represent the world as we see it – as we’d like our daughters and their contemporaries to see it.”
On his decision to start with an adaptation of Twelfth Night, Adam Smethurst explained, “With the widespread rise of anti-immigrant populism and governments actively encouraging a hostile environment for refugees, telling the story of the outsider surviving in an alien world on her wit, charm and ingenuity became and remains compellingly urgent.”
 Zackary Momoh (Antonio)
Lead actor Sheila Atim added, “We’re not trying to dumb Shakespeare down; we’re not trying to make it what it isn’t so people can digest it. We’re staying absolutely true to what it is. We’re just bringing it forward to a time when people may feel like they can connect with it more.”
Twelfth Night is available on Amazon Prime and iTunes from Thursday 25 October 2018. For more details, visit the Shanty Productions website.
Antony Bunsee (Malvolio)

Earlier this year, Professor Michael Dobson, the director of the UK’s Shakespeare Institute, visited a university in Ukraine to talk about ‘Spaces for Shakespeare’ (and beer!)

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On 7 May 2018 Professor Michael Dobson gave a lecture titled Spaces for Shakespeare at the Ukrainian Shakespeare Centre, Zaporizhzhya Classical Private University, in south east Ukraine.

The Director of the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon, Professor Dobson spoke to a packed lecture theatre of students, teachers and academics from across central and southern Eastern Ukraine.

Following a lively introduction by Director of the Centre, Professor Nataliya Torkut on Shakespeare Days in Ukraine 2018 (a multi-centre Shakespeare festival), there was an enjoyable, wide ranging and insightful lecture by Michael Dobson on Spaces for Shakespeare.

The audience in Zaporizhzhia
“Any space can be a space for Shakespeare,” Professor Dobson stated, “and the more spaces that are a space for Shakespeare the better.”

The lecture took us through the history of Shakespeare’s plays (“His plays are a conversation – always eloquent.”) and performance of them, via the theatres and other places where they have been performed. Trends and styles of different periods in Britain, Europe, the USA, Canada and Australia were covered. Usually-overlooked places in Britain discussed included Middlesborough’s purpose-built post-war theatre, St. Mary’s Guildhall in Coventry, Maddermarket Theare in Norwich, and the planned Shakespeare Playhouse at Prescot, near Liverpool.

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Professor Dobson’s observations ranged from the serious (“It is vitally important that countries as well as having their own culture have culture in common.”) to the light-hearted (“Hamlet is a brilliant stand-up comic as well as a doomed young man.”)

He also addressed a question about Shakespeare authorship theories. He revealed that he spent much time in every lecture dealing with this, and that Shakespeare seemed to simply attract the attention of a significant amount of people who psychologically were attracted to conspiracy theories. Dobson pointed out that there is lots of evidence that William Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare and no evidence that any one else did. (The very same week, Prospect Magazine published an article with similar conclusions but more provocative language: ‘Think Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare? You might just be a snob’).

More agreeably, Dobson addressed the role of beer in Shakespeare theatre. “Elizabethan theatre started as pub theatre,” he explained. “You can get a very good range of beer at the RSC, the Globe, at every major theatre. Shakespeare writes beautifully about beer.”

“Murder While I Smile…” Back in 1996, Sir Ian McKellen starred in a vivid, outrageous and visceral screen adaptation of Shakespeare’s Richard III. In this classic archive interview, film critic Robin Askew finds the acting legend on fiery, yet thoughtful, form.

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Ian McKellen pulls himself up in his chair and fixes me with the steely glare that generally precedes murder most foul in his extraordinary performance as the eponymous hunchbacked schemer in Richard Loncraine’s visually stunning Richard III. “Let me throw back the challenge,” he demands. “What’s that line about?”

The line in question is “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” – one of two that even those of us who nodded off in Eng Lit lessons will recognise from the play (the other being “Now is the winter of our discontent…”). McKellen’s daring screenplay, developed from Richard Eyre’s stage adaptation, strips away more than 40 extraneous characters, prunes two-and-a-half hours from the play’s usual running time, and commits the ultimate sacrilege of tidying up the Bard’s archaisms. No ‘thees’, ‘thous’ or ‘withals’ here.

But Richard’s desperate boost to the equine exchange rate remains jarringly unaltered in the vivid alternate ’30s England setting, striking the only real false note. He’s sitting in a jeep at the time, f’chrissakes. McKellen is not persuaded that a mechanic might have been more use. “I think people now understand that what that line is about is a man who is desperately trying to get back into the battle and can’t because of the situation he’s in,” he insists. “I think our version’s as good as any other.”

McKellen and Loncraine are holding court at Bristol’s Marriott Hotel as part of a gruelling regional press tour to promote this most accessible of Shakespeare adaptations. They’ve already done Birmingham today and are dashing off shortly to attend a specially-arranged schools’ screening. McKellen has thoughtfully bashed out answers to the six most commonly asked questions about the film (“Why does Richard III talk to the camera?” “Has cinema always been important to you?” and so on), but even these cannot anticipate the demands of newspaper hacks charged with uncovering a Local Angle. No, he corrects the poor woman from the Evening Post who hasn’t seen the film, he has never played in anything at the Old Vic, and since he’s only spending four hours in Bristol he cannot offer an opinion on our lovely city.

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They make an odd couple, Loncraine and McKellen. The latter’s a famously gay theatrical knight whose stage career has been conspicuously more successful than his screen one. The former’s remarkable career began in the swinging ’60s when he marketed such groovy executive toys as the money-spinning Newton’s Cradle. He then graduated to Tomorrow’s World, where he made a further 70 short films about fab gadgets that would revolutionise our way of living forever, but somehow failed to materialise in the corner shop. His directorial debut was Slade in Flame, and he now admits to making films only “when someone is foolhardy enough to give one to me”. His day job is in the lucrative world of commercials. It is Loncraine we have to thank for Bob Hoskins’ “It’s good to talk” and the supremely irritating ‘Papa and Nicole’.

He also admits to a lifelong loathing of Shakespeare, of which he has only now been cured. “I think there are millions of people out there like me who were taught Shakespeare rather badly at school and weren’t allowed to laugh at the funny bits or get horny at the sexy bits,” he explains. “And so I ignored it. And it took me a long while to realise that it was me who was at fault. Shakespeare is the most accessible writer if you approach him correctly for a modern audience.”

You’d have thought this meeting of the minds would result in some almighty arguments on set. “The first day of rehearsals, you’d got Ian, Maggie Smith, Robert Downey Jr., Annette Bening, Nigel Hawthorne… the list of people was quite intimidating,” admits Loncraine candidly. “For me, the great danger as director was that the actors wouldn’t look at me – they’d look at Ian to see whether he approved. And that would have been a disaster because Ian wasn’t directing the movie. So Ian and I used to have arguments, but we’d have them in front of everybody else. It was the only way for people to see that I was strong enough – if that’s the word – to disagree with Ian.”

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“Richard was constantly asking me questions about Shakespeare and challenging me to come up with credible answers,” adds McKellen, who has played Richard III more than 300 times on stage. “And if I couldn’t convince him, then he would win the argument. And he was constantly introducing me to ways of telling a story visually and cinematically, which I wasn’t going to resist because that’s what we both wanted. Anyone who thinks they’re coming to see the play should be disabused of that. The play belongs in the theatre.”

One aspect of the play which very quickly gave way to more cinematic sensibilities was Richard’s dramatic demise in the climactic battle. “We always knew there was going to be a battle because that’s what Shakespeare gave us,” explains Loncraine. “But he didn’t kill Richard on stage. The guy walks off and someone else walks on and says, ‘The king is dead. Long live the king.’ Well, you couldn’t do that to a cinema audience or they’d rip the seats out. Richard had to die on screen.”

Both men resist any attempts to draw parallels between their militaristic ’30s stylings and Nazi Germany. “It looks like Nazi imagery, but actually it’s only red and black,” points out the director. “The helmets are 1962 NATO helmets and the characters wear Greek uniforms from the 1980s that we fiddled with.”

Indeed, the film’s lavish set design and imaginative use of locations are what lend it such a distinctive flavour. McKellen stresses that “this is an English play about English characters with English characteristics” and it exasperates him that the idea of an alternate ’30s England riven by civil war still confuses some of the film’s critics.

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“The ’30s is perhaps the most recent period of our history when someone from within the ranks of the establishment might have taken over, when dictatorship and tyranny were in the air all over the rest of Europe. The first review we got was not from a drama critic but from a political correspondent in a right-wing newspaper, who said: ‘Here they go again, these lefties’ – ‘lefty luvvies’, I think we were called – ‘rubbishing the right wing. Why can’t they set Richard III in Soviet Russia rather than Germany?’ And you think, well, did he see the film. What on earth’s he talking about?”

It was during a Radio 3 debate with vehemently anti-gay Tory hack Peregrine Worsthorne that McKellen first ‘came out’. He subsequently became the first openly homosexual actor to accept a knighthood, in the face of bitter opposition from fellow activist Derek Jarman. His next project takes him to Hollywood, where he’s to star in Bryan (The Usual Suspects) Singer’s big-budget adaptation of Apt Pupil – a story from Different Seasons, the Stephen King collection that also yielded The Shawshank Redemption. Given that Tinseltown has been described as the world’s biggest closet, what do they make of him over there?

“Yeah, well, that’s a simple question with a long answer really,” he says after a pause. “It’s currently as difficult to be openly gay if you’re an actor in Hollywood as it was a couple of generations ago to be openly Jewish. Because you had to change your name and disguise the fact that you were Jewish. Under McCarthy, you had to disguise what your politics were. At the moment, it’s thought that you have to disguise the fact that you’re gay. Not if you’re an executive. Not if you’re a manager, a writer or a musician. That’s thought to be all right. But if you’re an actor, it’s thought to be death.”

The furrowed brow of concentration gives way to a broad grin. “So it gives me the greatest of pleasure to arrive in Hollywood on public occasions and talk about being gay because, in fact, nobody gives a damn. I can see the difference between the stage I’m at in my career and someone who’s starting out and trying to be a heterosexual sex symbol. But we’ll have to wait and see what happens. Some young man or woman will come out and be honest about themselves and maybe the whole thing will change overnight.

“When I played in And the Band Plays On, which was only three years ago, they couldn’t find an American actor who was prepared to play a gay character – whether he himself was gay or not. This was before Philadelphia and Tom Hanks. So they cast an actor who was 20 years too old for the part, the wrong nationality and didn’t even look like the man I was supposed to be playing. It was crazy. But Hollywood doesn’t hold the mirror up to nature. It holds up a distorting mirror – the world as they would like it to be.”

This feature originally appeared in Venue Magazine. Richard III was released on 26 April 1996. Shamefully, the film is not currently available on DVD. Second-hand copies of the deleted UK release regularly sell for £30 on eBay. Beware of European imports which have non-removable subtitles.

“Why I always watch Shakespeare with the subtitles on – And I invite you to do the same.” Shakespeare Magazine Editor Pat Reid is convinced that subtitles are good for the brain, and can greatly enhance our enjoyment and appreciation of Shakespeare.

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When my son was a baby, I mentioned to my brother that I was always anxious while watching television at night. If I was enjoying a programme downstairs and I turned up the volume, there was a danger I might not hear the baby crying in his upstairs bedroom. My brother, who already had two children, told me he’d acquired the habit of watching TV with the volume turned down low and the subtitles on. So I started doing this too, and I soon discovered that what I was missing in sound, I was more than making up for in the amount of information I was taking in.

During his toddler years, my son started watching CBeebies, the BBC children’s channel. We were a little concerned at first, because his interest was so intense. But it gave us, his parents, a break, and the programmes were suitably nourishing, so we decided it was all right.

Then we noticed a surprising side effect. Like all parents, we monitored our child’s developmental milestones. He seemed to be a little behind with some of them. But there was one area where he seemingly raced ahead, and that was learning to read.

One day we were watching CBeebies together, and I realised that as we had permanently left the subtitles on, every TV programme our son watched was effectively a reading lesson. A character or presenter would say a simple phrase, the subtitles would correspond with it, and our son was making the connection. He was learning a crucial skill – and, like some Holy Grail of education, it was both effortless and fun.

When he started school at four, our boy was one of the younger children in his class, but one of the most advanced readers. I’m sure that other factors played a part, but CBeebies and subtitles definitely helped.

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But what, you may ask, does this have to do with Shakespeare? Well, I was busy planning and launching Shakespeare Magazine during this time, and I was watching a lot of Shakespeare DVDs. Again, I had the volume down low and the subtitles on. And I began to notice that I was understanding the plays better, and enjoying them more.

How so? Well, often when we watch TV programmes or films, we don’t actually hear everything that’s being said. Sometimes actors can mumble or have their voices drowned out by other sounds. Hollywood films have been like this for decades, but in more recent years a spate of British television dramas have drawn complaints from viewers who can’t properly hear the dialogue. Some viewers in the US have resorted to the subtitles because they can’t understand the new Doctor Who’s accent.

It’s not the end of the world, of course. Usually, our brain goes to work trying to fill in the gaps, and we come away with a good sense of what’s going on. But films and TV shows often leave us with a sense of dissatisfaction and incompletion. I do wonder if that’s a subconscious feeling of being shortchanged when we can’t hear the words.

With Shakespeare productions, I noticed some big differences when I used subtitles. When I saw the 2015 Macbeth film at the cinema, I was initially disappointed. The soundtrack music seemed to be mixed very high, while the male actors all affected the same guttural, clenched-buttock delivery. This was a play I knew very well, and yet I could hardly understand a word that was being said.

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When Macbeth was released for home viewing, I watched it again – this time on my iPad, with the subtitles on. I enjoyed it a lot more, and the mumblecore approach didn’t bug me to the same extent.

A complete contrast was the 2012 BBC production The Hollow Crown, which struck me as being particularly beautiful in terms of sound. I watched this on a rattly portable DVD player (late at night, while working on a laborious email campaign), and even with the volume on the very lowest level, I could still hear pretty much everything. The subtitles did the rest. I was especially struck by the scenes with Jeremy Irons and Tom Hiddleston as Henry IV and Prince Hal – they sounded like a couple of lions purring at one other.

Ralph Fiennes’ 2011 Coriolanus, which I also watched on the portable DVD player, was different again. It’s a first-rate example of a modern-day Shakespeare film, but the sound levels seemed to be all over the place. I suppose this captured the chaos and confusion of war, but it was also likely to wake up my sleeping family, so I turned it right down and largely relied on the subtitles. 

It was a similar story with the 2016 BBC production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I watched this one on our (relatively) big-screen TV, and the problem was I had to keep turning it up because I couldn’t hear the dialogue, but then the soundtrack music would come crashing in (several notches higher than the dialogue) and I had to turn it down again, which meant I couldn’t hear the dialogue, which… You get the picture. At times like this the subtitles are a godsend.

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As it was CBeebies that started all this for me, I’m delighted to say that their two Shakespeare productions, 2016’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and 2018’s The Tempest, have very good sound. But these are lively, exuberant productions with a lot going on, so the subtitles can certainly help to keep track of it all.

So we’ve established that I firmly believe Shakespearean subtitles are good for us. But how does this actually work? My guess is that because we’re seeing it, hearing it AND reading it, this means that more of it goes in – and more of it stays there.

I have to admit that some of my readers have reacted angrily – even viscerally – to my periodic urging to switch on the subtitles. I’m not quite sure why this idea is so offensive to some. I think some people were taught in school that Shakespeare’s plays were “supposed to be heard”, and therefore experiencing them any other way is wrong. It’s an interesting position to take, but I can’t find it within myself to agree.

In my opinion, reading Shakespeare’s works is brilliant, because it gets us nearer to the experience of being Shakespeare’s original actors. In fact, it gets us closer to the experience of actually being Shakespeare.

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I know from my years as a cinema journalist that a lot of people do have an instinctive dislike of subtitles. With the exception of Amélie (way, way back in 2001) very few subtitled films have succeeded at the UK box office. But using subtitles is something that anyone can easily train themselves to do. After all, if you can read a tweet or a text message, or a picture caption, a subtitle doesn’t exactly present a challenge.

Now, before you ask, no, I don’t know if there are any studies or books on this subject, and frankly I don’t care. I KNOW that it works for me. It’s helped my son learn to read, and it’s given me a better understanding of Shakespeare’s texts. And the chances are it’ll work for you as well. So what are you waiting for? Whack on the subtitles, and get stuck into some Shakespeare.

“Richard drives the action, Hamlet is defined by his lack of action…” Known for her one-woman interpretations of both Richard III and Hamlet, performer Emily Carding tells us what Shakespeare means to her.

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Which play or area of Shakespeare are you working on right now – and what are you getting from it?

“As a writer, this year I’m immersed in the esoteric level of Shakespeare’s plays for a book I’m currently writing for Llewellyn Publishing. I also recently incorporated many quotes and speeches from the plays into a science-fiction storytelling piece for London Science Museum. However, as a performer this year, apart from Richard III (a one woman show) which has toured to Pakistan and Romania this year – and will, I suspect, continue to tour on and off for some time – the focus has been overwhelmingly on Hamlet. I played Hamlet for a full-cast production in Sussex for a small tour, which may be revived at some point. And I’m currently [August 2018] in Edinburgh with Brite Theater’s new show, Hamlet (an experience), a solo audience-interactive adaptation of Shakespeare’s most famous play.

“It’s fascinating to be so absorbed in both Hamlet and Richard III, and to note the similarities and differences. Richard III drives the action himself and makes the audience complicit in his decisions. Hamlet is defined by his lack of action and his sharing his indecision with the audience. Both comment upon conscience and cowardice: Hamlet’s ‘Thus conscience does make cowards of us all’ and Richard’s ‘Conscience is but a word that cowards use’.

“In Richard III, the audience participation is passive and manipulated and controlled by myself as Richard. In Hamlet (an experience), it’s proving fascinating and rewarding to stand back and watch what the audience choose to bring to it, within the scope awarded to them via simple cue-scripts. Hamlet is a role that demands vulnerability and complete exposure of the soul to an audience. It’s a scary role to take on for so many reasons, and we’re pushing boundaries. I’m loving the journey.”

What have you learned about Shakespeare that would have surprised your younger self?

“I have an MFA in Shakespeare, so these last few years I think I’ve learned a lot of surprising things! Perhaps I surprise myself most by moving away from being quite traditional and purist to being incredibly playful, post-modern and experimental. The most important realisation was that there is no ‘holy text’, that there are so many different versions, and that they were almost certainly abridged and improvised around in performance in Shakespeare’s day, butchered by the Victorians, and make the most wonderful raw material for us to work from in making contemporary theatre today.”

Which Shakespeare character most resembles you?

“I don’t know that I can say I am really like Mercutio as such, but certainly playing him was a very comfortable fit. As an actor I bring myself to every role I play, and part of the joy is in exploring all the different facets of humanity, finding those points of commonality and connection, so this is a really difficult question. In some ways I think perhaps I am most like Prospero, and that goes for the shadow side as well as the good. I’m a single parent, I often feel isolated, I have unresolved family issues, a large collection of magical books and I have a tattoo on my right foot which reads ‘By my so potent art’.”

If I ask you to give me a Shakespeare quotation, which is the first one that comes to your mind?

“We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.” (The Tempest)

You have the power to cast anyone in the world (actor or otherwise) to play any Shakespearean character. Who do you choose – and which role do they play?

“This is a really tough question because I keep thinking of castings that have already happened. McKellen as Lear I’m seeing in September, and Rylance as Iago I’ll catch in the Autumn too. I’d like to see Judi Dench play Prospero. That would be something special. Let’s have Tilda Swinton as Ariel while we’re at it.”