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.

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.

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.”
Sara Pascoe press pic

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.
Ben Walden 2
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”].
Ben Walden 1

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.

Taking over 10 floors of the Library of Birmingham, director Daniel Tyler’s ‘Hamlets’ was a fully immersive Shakespeare experience that offered multiple interpretations of the Bard’s most iconic character

Exterior of Library of Birmingham

Exterior of Library of Birmingham

Walking towards the impressive Library of Birmingham I have no idea what to expect of Hamlets. Everyone has their favourite Hamlet, one that stays in their memory brighter than any other. But the aim of this production is to explore the many thousands of interpretations and incorporate them into one.

Upon arrival, we are greeted by The Archivists who will accompany us through our exploration of Hamlet. In reception there is a flutter of activity. People in white hazmat suits investigate a body on the floor. A chilling foresight of what is to come?

From the start, the audience is involved, answering questions about their relationship with Hamlet. Access granted, we are led by The Archivists to the beautiful Shakespeare Memorial Room on the top floor of the Library. Full of artefacts and books about Shakespeare, it’s the perfect place to be introduced to the world of Hamlet.

The Archivists lead the group through each scene via long corridors and dark stairwells; it’s almost as if we are exploring Elsinore ourselves. We find ourselves outside on the chilly night in the serene Secret Garden, high above the Birmingham life going on below us. The cold evening adds to the atmosphere of meeting the ghost of Hamlet’s father.

View of Birmingham from the Secret Garden. It added to the feeling of being behind the walls of a castle

View of Birmingham from the Secret Garden. It added to the feeling of being behind the walls of a castle

There are nine interpretations of Hamlet present, taking it in turns to shine before coming together to speak as one at particular points of the text. The absence of a stage and being able to interact with the Hamlets mean I feel connected to it all in a way I’ve never experienced before.

Exploring the Library’s vast floors, my highlight of the journey is being able to wander around the Hamlets, watching each one deal with their descents into madness in different ways. Seeing the Hamlets both alone and with members of the court shows a raw side to the play and the character. It really adds to Hamlet’s madness by seeing so many of them running around the room – a glimpse into what could have been going on in his mind.

Hamlet and Ophelia across the ages in the nunnery scene

Hamlet and Ophelia across the ages in the nunnery scene

We are led to a large room where we can take our time to walk around 18 different ‘To Be or Not To Be’ interpretations. As well as the nine Hamlets we’ve been following throughout the night, we can view pieces of art, text and visual interpretations – and also perform our own version. Walking from Hamlet to Hamlet feel I’m intruding on the most personal and private thoughts of the tortured prince. Each performance is powerful – it really feels as though you understand Hamlet’s pain.

As we continue throughout the Archives we are led down more dark stairwells by The Archivists, passing by the players performing The Mousetrap, Polonius’ death at the hand of Hamlet and Ophelia’s madness and eventual drowning. We find ourselves in the children’s room, confronted by a grave made out of books. There is even an archive box referring to Disney’s The Lion King, a reminder of Hamlet’s widespread influence.

We are ushered by The Archivists towards the final scene – a sword fight, with all nine Hamlets effortlessly changing places. For me, it highlights just how well rehearsed and in sync the individual players are. All nine have done a fantastic job, each one delivering a new take on an iconic role.

The Birmingham Young Rep and Hôtel Teatro Theatre groups have been superb, gelling as comfortably as if they had been acting together for years. Well-designed costumes enhance the sense of each character’s different era and culture. A special mention should go to Michael Barry for changing my perception of the character of Polonius. I’ve always imagined Polonius as an old fuddy duddy, but Michael portrays him as a mild mannered, loving father.

Michael Barry as a 19th Century Polonius

Michael Barry as a 19th Century Polonius

“My inspiration came from the fact that Shakespeare – and Hamlet – is adopted around the world and is re-interpreted in so many ways it can make you dizzy,” says director Daniel Tyler.

“Those of us who love and work with the Bard’s plays – especially the most famous ones – can often feel weighed down by production histories and ‘great’ or ‘landmark’ versions. Hamlets addresses this by making this history the very centre of the performance.

“Also, I’m hooked on the feeling I get when people who think Shakespeare ‘isn’t for them’ or ‘is too difficult’ or ‘irrelevant’ are having a great time engaging with a contemporary version of one of his plays.”

Hamlets ran at the Library of Birmingham from 17-21 March 2015

Images by Emma Wheatley

“Batman is Hamlet!” In an exclusive interview extra, Kill Shakespeare co-creator Anthony Del Col takes us deeper inside the world of his Bard-inspired comics series

Portraits by Piper Williams, Artwork by Andy Belanger.

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Do you have a favourite Shakespeare play?

“I liked Othello for the longest time, not only because of Iago. I’m drawn towards his tragedies rather than his comedies for the most part and Othello was the one play amongst the great tragedies that… It didn’t introduce any magic or fantasy, it’s just pure human emotion. That’s what I really loved about it.”

And now?
“Having gone through this – the multiple generations of the comic, the stage show, maybe TV and video games in the future – Hamlet is just coming out more and more as my favourite. Just because he is the most fascinating character I have ever read or ever experienced, consumed, and written for. The more chance I have to see it performed, read it, study it, the more fascinated I become with that character and hence with the play. People often say that Batman is Hamlet – you know, someone who lost a family member and is on a quest for revenge and is very conflicted about what he should do and whether life’s worth living.”

Cover Volume 2 by Andy Belanger

Are there any characters that you haven’t touched in Kill Shakespeare yet that you’d like to write for?
“Oh my god. yes! There are so many. The first one who jumps out is King Lear. I can’t wait to jump into King Lear. Beatrice and Benedick are the two others that I really desperately want to jump into, I just love those two and can’t wait to get them into our universe. Kate from The Taming of the Shrew. There are a lot of the comedy characters that we haven’t had much opportunity to introduce yet, so I’m really looking forward to those.”

Are there any Early Modern writers you’re inspired by outside of Shakespeare?
“Cervantes plays a big role in all of the stories; my favourite novel of all time is Don Quixote. I like to think there’s a bit of ‘tilting at windmills’ in every story. Hamlet’s story in the original arc of Kill Shakespeare, there are shades of Quixote in there, with Hamlet being Quixote himself. And of course Falstaff would make the most excellent Sancho Panza.

“We do reference Marlowe. There’s a very… It’s a huge Easter egg, so anyone that can find it I applaud them for it.”

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Do you have a favourite Shakespeare quotation? Something that resonates with you more than everything else?
“It’s going to sound kind of cheesy, but ‘to thine own self be true’. Not the whole speech, but just that actual line. On a comedic level ‘methinks he doth protest too much’, [modern figure of speech that springs from Hamlet’s ‘the lady doth protest too much, methinks’] that’s the ultimate quote that you can use in pretty much every single situation, so that’s the one I’ll quote the most. But ‘to thine own self be true’ is the one that I’ll try to quote to myself every now and then to remind myself who I should be.”

Is there a moment on the Kill Shakespeare journey that stands out as particularly memorable?
“There was the first time we had someone cosplay our version of these characters. That was amazing. We had people cosplaying as Richard III and Lady Macbeth.

Richard III by Andy Belanger

“Receiving a personal note from Sir Tom Stoppard was amazing. I have that right above my desk and I look at that on a daily basis and just pinch myself. Getting a mention on the Colbert Report here in the US and Canada was immensely gratifying.

“I guess just seeing that first issue hit the newsstands, you know, hit the comic book shops, and the first book showing up at Barnes and Noble and Waterstones. There’s no better feeling than walking into a book store and seeing something you’ve created right there.”

If you could do a crossover with Kill Shakespeare and another comic book series what would it be?
Fables would be the most natural one. It would be great to be able to collaborate on something with Bill Willingham. Mike Carey’s The Unwritten is another possibility, we could weave that in really naturally. We have the magical elements so we could pop into the DC or the Marvel universes. I mean, a crossover with Thor would be interesting because Thor itself is very Shakespearean, so it’d be great to see King Lear meets Thor.”

Find out more about about Anthony Del Col and Kill Shakespeare in the latest issue of Shakespeare Magazine.

What did the UK media make of Maxine Peake’s Manchester Hamlet? Shakespeare Magazine reviews the reviews…

The idea to take on the iconic role of Hamlet, Maxine Peake told Creative Tourist, came after she worked with Royal Exchange Artistic Director Sarah Frankcom on a 2012 production of Miss Julie. “We’ve got this opportunity now where there’s no boundaries,” she suggested, “so we’ve got to challenge ourselves, perhaps even to the point where we overstretch ourselves.”
As Creative Tourist puts it, Peake was “adamant that this part has got absolutely nothing to do with gender-swapping for shock’s sake.” But it must have been clear from the start that gender (or ‘gender-bending’ as the Telegraph helpfully put it) would be the principal lens through which many critics and punters would experience this production.
Hamlet 7 credit Jonathan Keenan
Several reviewers pointed out this was the first time Hamlet has been played by a woman in a high-profile production since Frances de la Tour in 1979. Susannah Clapp (Observer/Guardian) gave as good a summary as can be found of the rich theatrical story Peake’s performance belongs to: ‘There is a long, strong tradition of women performing the role,” she writes. “Sarah Siddons took it on in Manchester in 1777. Victorian actresses, amateur and professional, played the part regularly. Sarah Bernhardt, the first actress to be filmed in the part, declared it should always be performed by a woman.”

Frankcom told Creative Tourist that “Prescribed notions of gender – what is female, what is male – are all in flux at the moment … with our Hamlet, Maxine’s Hamlet, she’s creating a character that’s as much male and as much female.”
Hamlet 9 credit Jonathan Keenan
However, Peake’s Hamlet was for many reviewers very much a prince, rather than the intended royal-human-in-flux. To Polly Gianniba describes it was “a cross between a warrior angel (one of the beautiful lovelorn angels Philip Pullman writes) and the Little Prince.” Michael Billington refers to Peake’s Hamlet as ‘he’. Additionally, Polonius – or Polonia – was played by, and as, a woman (Gillian Bevan). For the Telegraph, this was confusing: “If Hamlet remains, technically, male in this reading – why make these added distinctions?” And one was left wondering whether The Independent reviewer joined the dots of his own thinking when he wrote “We are not used to seeing a woman play Hamlet. The result here is a powerful and yet curiously domestic production.” The suggestion seeming to be that ‘woman’ equals ‘domestic’. Although perhaps this ‘domestic’ sense came from the decision to largely excise the Fortinbras plot, the thread that brings the wider political world into the play’s family drama.
Hamlet 10 credit Jonathan Keenan
Fortinbras’s removal was Billington’s “main reservation” about the production, whilst Gianniba enjoyed the production enough that “anything left out feels inconsequential.” When a production minimises Fortinbras, as has often been done before, it usually indicates a focus on personal, rather than geo- politics.

Hamlet, more than many plays, is an intensely ‘personal’ experience. The character invites the audience’s identification through soliloquy and the expression of existential crisis. Having catalogued the staging (in-the-round), costumes (Chairman Mao suit, Bowie haircut for Hamlet, according to the Manchester Evening News and others) and expressed an opinion about the verse speaking – any reviewer in need of a point-of-view must finally fall back upon his or her own inner Hamlet and see how the new suit fits.
Hamlet 6 credit Jonathan Keenan
On these traditional terms, Peake pleased most reviewers. But it’s interesting to wonder who might be “shocked”, as Peake put it, by seeing a woman playing Hamlet in 2014. To an extent, coverage of this production is several degrees removed from the intense, often violent commentary on gender in this year of Beyoncé as ‘FEMINIST’, GamerGate, and the mixture of celebration and death threats that greets any new female re-imagining of Marvel superfolk. Nonetheless, perhaps that is this Hamlet’s wider, personal-political context. Susannah Clapp suggests that, with this and previous productions, “Frankcom is in effect creating England’s first mainstream feminist theatre.” And if a woman playing Hamlet still has the power to shock, or even confuse, an audience in 2014, then the political, like old Hamlet’s wronged ghost in the play, may have been this production’s sustaining energy.

Photography by Jonathan Keenan

Go here for more on Hamlet at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester.

Gaze in wonder at visionary poet and artist William Blake’s spellbinding paintings inspired by the works of William Shakespeare

This week we’ve been celebrating the 28 November birthday of William Blake (1757-1827). Although perhaps best known for his poems and for writing the words to the hymn ‘Jerusalem’, Blake was also a visionary painter, one whose was often Shakespeare-inspired.
Here is Blake’s ‘Pity’ (1795), inspired by the evocative but mysterious line from Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “And pity, like a naked new-born babe, Striding the blast…”
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Blake also illustrated more conventional scenes from Shakespeare – although often with a supernatural dimension. Here’s his version of Hamlet encountering his father’s Ghost (1806).
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Brutus and the ghost of Julius Caesar is another haunting Shakespearean scene from Blake (1806).
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And here we have Richard III on the night before the Battle of Bosworth, assailed by the ghosts of his victims (circa 1806).
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Blake also painted Oberon, Titania, Puck and the other fairies from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in this beautiful and dreamlike tableau from 1786.
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And Blake even turned his supremely versatile hand to a portrait of Shakespeare himself (circa 1800).
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William Blake was a poet, painter, printer, visionary, mystic – and Shakespearean. Portrait by Thomas Phillips (1807).
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Thank you to Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust Education for showing us the link between two great English literary Williams – William Blake and William Shakespeare.

Find out about the William Blake Exhibition at the Ashmolean, Oxford.
Find out about the William Blake Exhibition at Tate Britain.
Fnd out about Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust Education.

Secret Theatre’s swinging ’60s Hamlet makes debut at Edinburgh Fringe Festival

While traditionally Secret Theatre has kept their performances’ London locations secret – revealed only after tickets are purchased – they have announced that their Hamlet will debut at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year. Even though there may be no mystery about the performance’s location, this production will still have plenty of surprises.

secret hamlet poster

In this visionary staging of the play, Hamlet’s fatal quest for revenge is set against the political and social turmoil of the 1960s.

The production will not only feature costuming from this hedonistic time period, but also address the themes of “young people rebelling against the establishment, the sexual revolution, drug use, a woman’s changing place in society, Magdalene Asylums and the 27 Club.”

Starring Raphael Verrion as the Dane and directed by Brooke Johnston and founder Richard Crawford, this Hamlet also promises a unique interpretation of the script including the addition of a “completely overlooked subplot.”

Johnston says, “This is a really exciting interpretation of Hamlet which we wanted to share with the public and show Shakespeare doesn’t have to be an uptight production.” Despite the innovations though, the directors aim to stay true to Shakespeare’s text.

secret hamlet skull

Performances will take place from 31 July to 25 August at the C Too venue, St Columba’s by the Castle.

More from Secret Theatre.

Edinburgh Fringe Festival website and tickets.

Hipster Hamlet rocks the school!

It was a case of Prep-School-meets-Punk for the recent production of Hamlet at The Pennington School in New Jersey. Inspired by an exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, director Lisa Houston draped Shakespeare’s Danish tragedy in her own unique take on Punk Couture.

Taking their cue from punk musicians like Johnny Rotten, Patti Smith, the Ramones, and the Clash, not to mention designers such as Vivienne Westwood and Karl Lagerfeld, Lisa and her team created an edgy, yet ethereal, Elsinore held together with safety pins and raw youthful energy.

Clad in leather pants, skull T-shirts and distressed haute couture gowns, the student cast were living proof that Shakespeare rocks…

More from: http://www.pennington.org

Hamlet (centre), Horatio (right) and the Gravedigger.

Hamlet (centre), Horatio (right) and the Gravedigger.