“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.

“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.”

“I have the exact same spinal curvature as Richard. His chronic pain and shame are very real to me…” Exclusive interview! Last year, Kate Mulvany won acclaim in the role of Richard III for Australia’s Bell Shakespeare Company. So we felt it was high time we asked her Six Questions about Shakespeare…

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Photo by Prudence Upton

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

“The next Shakespeare I’m taking on is still top secret, so I’m not allowed to share just yet. Sorry! However, I have just spent much of 2017 performing as Richard III for the Bell Shakespeare Company – Australia’s very own company devoted to Shakespeare’s works. It was an extraordinary experience. Although I am a woman, I played Richard as a man, which gave a further strangeness to the character. To hear lines of misogyny come out of the mouth of a female actor, playing them straight as a man, added a further ‘discomfort’ for the audience, I suppose. Lines that would normally get a bit of a sexist titter got nervous laughs or horrified gasps…

“It was a fascinating insight into gender, performer and audience relationship. I also worked as dramaturg on the production for two years before we started rehearsals, so that gave me a lot of time to really delve into not just Richard, but all of the characters in his life, and view them through this gender-bending prism.

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Photo By Prudence Upton

“I also have the exact same spinal curvature as the real Richard, so for the first time in 20 years as an actor I was allowed to fully reveal it. I have had to hide my scoliosis from audiences – usually with costuming and lighting and blocking. However, with Richard III, I was free to (literally) expose myself. The chronic pain and shame he refers to in the play are very real to me. Although I don’t agree with his politics, I can empathise completely with the way he walks in the world. I felt a very deep, unexpected, sincere care for him.

“As a result of this insight, I changed the ending of the play and gave Richard a soliloquy, after being wounded by Richmond. (I stole it from King Henry VI, Part III.) I had Richard start with ‘I have often heard my mother say I came into the world with my legs forward…’ and end on ‘I am myself alone’. I wanted Richard to use his final moments to question the audience on whether he was born a monster or made one by his family, and by society.”

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

That he would be part of my life at all! I grew up in outback Australia. Shakespeare was not an option for us at school – there was no access to any theatrical studies. But somehow, fate led me to studying drama at university in the city. And it was there that I was introduced to Shakespeare. I fell in love with the drive of his ideas, the muscularity of the language, the epic in the domestic, the domestic in the epic… Since then, I have found myself performing regularly in Shakespeare’s works – often as male characters. Cassius. Claudius. Richard. Lady Macbeth. I have no idea how I got here, but I’m so glad I did.”

Which Shakespeare character most resembles you?

“Richard III, physically. Beatrice, personally.”

Macbeth 2012 photo credit RUSH
Photo by Rush

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

“‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow…’ (Macbeth). It’s a simple but profound favourite – heartbreaking and hopeful all at once.”

What’s your favourite Shakespeare-related fact, myth, story or anecdote?

“I love that Shakespeare was a bower bird. He borrowed from myths, legends, publications and anecdotes all the time. It means that when you read a Shakespearean work you get a whole treasure trove of other references that are all wonderful, timeless gifts from the playwright himself.

“I also love that Shakespeare was an actor. You can feel it in his words. He gives you lines and characters that you can’t help but feel he has said aloud as he wrote them – they trip off the tongue and curl round the mouth so addictively. And they are the basis of extraordinary characterisations and narratives that comes from an actor’s pen, fervently and subconsciously writing for himself…”

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Photo by TBC

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?

“Trump. As one of the Plebeians in Julius Caesar. But not one with any lines. Just to make him shut up and listen!”

From the vaults: “A visually stunning, action-filled Bardfest with top-notch performances…” Film critic Robin Askew’s 1996 review of Richard Loncraine’s Richard III, which unforgettably starred Ian McKellen

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Opening with an action scene strongly reminscent of one of the more audacious stunts in Goldeneye and climaxing in a style that owes more to Terminator 2 than any of those stilted school stage productions which are the closest most of us get to the Bard, Richard Loncraine and Ian McKellen’s reworking of Richard Eyre’s daring stage adaptation is clearly not for the Shakespeare purist. That said, it’s not a crass attempt to bring Richard III to “the kids”, either; rather a bold and inspired reimagining of the play’s universal themes in a handsomely staged civil war-torn alternate-world England of the 1930s.

McKellen is a hypnotically watchable, oily, scheming Richard, cursed by physical deformity but unstintingly ruthless in his pursuit of power in this jazz age Albion awash with the sinister trappings of fascism. Following the death of the King and the accession of his elder brother Edward, Richard’s blood-spattered path to the throne becomes clear. First he must seduce and marry Lady Anne (Kristin Scott Thomas) – here reduced to a pitiful junkie with needle tracks up her arms – whose husband he slaughtered during the Civil War.

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Then, with the aid of the greedy Duke of Buckingham (Jim Broadbent) and his faithful assassin James Tyrell (Adrian Dunbar), this brilliant, twisted strategist sets about removing every obstacle in his way, from his brothers King Edward (John Wood) and the gentle Clarence (Nigel Hawthorne) to Earl Rivers (Robert Downey Jr), brother of the widowed Queen Elizabeth (Annette Bening), who meets his end in a particularly grisly manifestation of coitus interruptus.

A visually stunning, action-filled Bardfest, pared to just the right length, with top-notch performances from its venerable thesps, including oddly cast American Downey Jr and a suitably regal Bening, Richard III makes outstanding use of its imaginative locations, from the palace at St. Pancras Station to the final tank battle in the shadow of Battersea Power Station. McKellen contributes a performance of such lip-smacking evil – all crocodile smiles and sly asides to camera – that even a ferocious public disowning by Queen Mum Maggie Smith is barely able to deflect it for more than a heartbeat.

This review originally appeared in Venue Magazine.

Richard III (15)
UK / 1996 / 103 minutes
Director: Richard Loncraine.
Cast: Ian McKellen, Annette Bening, Kristin Scott Thomas, Jim Broadbent, Robert Downey Jr., Maggie Smith, Nigel Hawthorne, Adrian Dunbar, John Wood

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Back in 2014, an illuminating interview with Hollow Crown Fans kicked off the very first issue of Shakespeare Magazine. This month, we caught up with Rose from HCF for a timely update on her Shakespearean activities

Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III

Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III

 
Your very own #ShakespeareSunday hashtag began in 2012, and is still reaching new Twitter heights.
Rose: “There have been great themes and theme pickers over the years, and it continues to show just how popular and global the Bard’s works are. The Bard’s birthday celebrations this year actually landed on a #ShakespeareSunday which was great timing, even Stan Lee and Chaka Khan joined in! It really is fun to see who discovers the tag each week, as well as enjoying the creativity of the regular tweeters on the tag.

“Since the interview with Shakespeare Magazine in 2014 we had the unexpected good news that Neal Street were going to make a second series of The Hollow Crown, with Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III, which has come and gone. Now there are already rumours of a third series involving the Roman plays, so that is certainly an area I’ll be looking into further. It has been a popular theme on #ShakespeareSunday a few times, and Coriolanus a favourite to quote from since Tom Hiddleston starred in the leading role at the Donmar in 2013. The Roman plays seem to be very much the choice of the moment, and Hollow Crown fans are also excited at the prospect of Julius Caesar opening in London next year with Ben Whishaw and David Morrissey!”

Maxine Peake (left) as Doll Tearsheet in The Hollow Crown

Maxine Peake (left) as Doll Tearsheet in The Hollow Crown

 
Which Shakespeare character most resembles you?
“Going off from the Hollow Crown cast for this question, I’d say Doll Tearsheet… maybe. I can rock the English peasant look, for good or bad, even Neal Street thought that when they cast me as an extra for Henry V! Ha Ha.”

If I ask you to give me a Shakespeare quotation, which is the first one that comes to your mind?
“What relish is in this? How runs the stream? Or I am mad, or else this is a dream.” – Twelfth Night (Act IV, Scene 1)

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?
“Seth Numrich – Prince Hal / Henry V. I have become a fan of Seth’s via another love of mine, the AMC TV series TURN: Washington’s Spies. Fans of the Bard and history really need to check this show out if they have not done so already. Fantastic cast, gripping storyline and Shakespeare quotes dropped in at various points over the seasons. There is a wonderful YouTube video of Seth quoting from The Merchant of Venice (“The quality of mercy is not strain’d…”) that has not left my head since watching it many moons ago. To see him on stage doing Shakespeare would be a real treat!

Seth Numrich in TURN

Seth Numrich in TURN

 
“In his interview for Muse of Fire (which you can see on Globe Player, 47 minutes in) Seth mentions his desire to play the role of Prince Hal, and he would be perfect. One of my favourite characters from The Hollow Crown and Shakespeare’s plays as a whole. I watched this interview in 2015 and I’m still waiting. If I had the power I’d certainly make it happen! Whilst we all wait, do check out Seth with Matt Doyle in Private Romeo, an all-male cast set in a high-school military academy.”

Follow Hollow Crown Fans on Twitter, and join the #ShakespeareSunday festivities each weekend.

Read our Hollow Crown Fans interview in Shakespeare Magazine 01.

Read the Hollow Crown Fans interview with actor Edward Akrout in Shakespeare Magzazine 04.

Shakespeare Magazine 10 features Benedict Cumberbatch and Sophie Okonedo in the BBC’s epic The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses

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Hot on the heels of his sensational 2015 Hamlet, Shakespeare superstar Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Richard III on the cover of Shakespeare Magazine 10. 

And our second cover features Sophie Okonedo, who stars with Benedict in the epic BBC Shakespeare series The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses. 

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Inside the magazine, we interview Hollow Crown director Dominic Cooke, and share our gallery of iconic Hollow Crown images.

Also this issue, we explore Shakespeare’s First Folio with the expert guidance of Emma Smith. 

And we learn all about Shakespeare’s Globe from Head of Education Farah Karim-Cooper.

We take a walk on the dark side with the witches of Macbeth, and talk to one of the witches from last year’s Macbeth film.

Meanwhile, stars like Ben Kingsley, James Earl Jones, Earle Hayman, Jim Beaver and Liev Schreiber reveal How Shakespeare Changed My Life. 

If you’re bored of traditional theatre, let us tell you about the quirky delights of Table Top Shakespeare. 

And our look at the best Indian Shakespeare films shows the Bard is much-loved in Bollywood. 

Finally, our biggest-ever issue has an affectionate and ever-so-slightly audacious mash-up of Shakespeare with Star Wars: The Force Awakens. 

May the Bard Be With You!

Birmingham City University students create life-size effigies of Shakespeare and some of his most iconic characters

A life-size installation featuring more than a dozen of Shakespeare’s most famous creations – handcrafted from paper and cardboard – is open to the public, free of charge, at Birmingham City University.

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Tamora, Queen of the Goths (from Titus Andronicus).

With scale models over six feet tall, a three-metre-high balcony and even a walk-in tavern, it has been made as a tribute to mark 400 years since the Bard’s death.

Each piece in the installation was individually crafted by 22 first year students from the University’s Design for Theatre, Performance and Events degree course.

Romeo and Juliet
Romeo and Juliet.

The students used techniques learned on the course to sculpt 780 metres of corrugated cardboard and nearly 5,000 metres of brown paper into the setting and characters.

Among the figures are a likeness of William Shakespeare himself, writing at his desk, and full size replicas of King Lear, Caliban, Richard III, and Romeo & Juliet.

Caliban
Caliban (from The Tempest).

The exhibition took nearly three weeks to create, with students working day and night to make each component from scratch, as well as selecting music and lighting to complement each element.

The installation is housed in the Shell space at the University’s Parkside Building. It is open to the public, with free admission, until Friday 26 February.

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Viola (from Twelfth Night).

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust helped students research the project. When the project ends, a number of characters and settings will be transported to Stratford-upon-Avon for display.

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Shakespeare at his desk.

The tavern in the installation is intended to replicate London’s historic Gorge (or “George”) Inn, sometimes referred to as “Shakespeare’s Local”.

Traditional Elizabethan music plays in the exhibition hall, while words from The Two Noble Kinsmen – thought to be Shakespeare’s final play – make a poignant tribute to the Bard.

Juliet
Juliet (from Romeo and Juliet).

“It’s very rare that you get an art installation that really looks at the times that Shakespeare was writing in,” says the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s Marie Brennan.

“As well as looking at new interpretations of his own work. It’s really an unusual and creative concept to bring those two together into one installation.

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Peter Quince (from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Titled “The Figure in Space – Shakespeare”, the exhibition is on until Friday 26 February at Birmingham City University: The Parkside Building, 5 Cardigan Street, Birmingham B4 7BD. Admission is free.

Go here for a map and directions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Canadian acting legend Christopher Plummer is delighted to receive 2015 Sam Wanamaker Award from Shakespeare’s Globe

Internationally-acclaimed actor Christopher Plummer has been awarded Shakespeare’s Globe’s most prestigious prize, the 2015 Sam Wanamaker Award, established in the name of the theatre’s founder to celebrate work that has increased the understanding and enjoyment of Shakespeare.

Christopher Plummer is regarded by many as one of the finest living actors on stage or screen today. His Shakespearean roles include King Lear and Iago, Macbeth opposite Glenda Jackson, Hamlet for BBC TV, Henry V, Mercutio, Mark Antony, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Leontes, Bardolph, Benedick, Richard III and, most recently, Prospero at the Stratford Festival in Canada.

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On winning the Award, Christopher Plummer said: “I look at the Globe Theatre today proudly restored and I think how easy it is to forget the long hard struggle. How one man kept circling the planet, mostly alone, to raise the necessary funds. Sam Wanamaker’s passion, devotion and ferocious Elizabethan energy fought for his jewel – our jewel.

“And just when it was ready to be mounted he died, never to look his triumph in the face. Sam Wanamaker was an American whose heart was in the right place. It sometimes takes the New Hemisphere to revive the Old and, by heaven, Sam was living proof of that! In one short lifetime he gave us back one of the wonders of the world.

“Sam knew of my devotion to the Globe and South Bank projects and very generously invited me onto his Board. I was never so honoured – and now this! I am moved beyond measure not just for this, but for Sam, that extraordinary fighter who won the battle for us all.”

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The Sam Wanamaker Award was instituted by Shakespeare’s Globe in 1994 to honour work which has a similar quality to Sam’s own pioneering mission. Christopher Plummer follows former illustrious recipients of the Award, the first of whom was Dr Rex Gibson, creator and editor of the Cambridge School Shakespeare.

Other recipients include Janet Arnold for her pioneering research into Elizabethan clothing; Professor Stanley Wells, Shakespeare scholar and former Chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust; John Barton, founding member of the Royal Shakespeare Company; and actor and director Mark Rylance.

Christopher was a strong supporter of Sam Wanamaker as he tirelessly campaigned over the last 23 years of his life to reconstruct the Globe on London’s Bankside.

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Neil Constable, Chief Executive at Shakespeare’s Globe, commented: “Christopher has illuminated the world’s understanding of Shakespeare through many memorable performances.

He gave unswerving support to Sam Wanamaker, has been an active fundraiser for reconstructing the Globe on Bankside and also strengthened Globe links between London, Canada and the US.”

The Sam Wanamaker Award will be presented to Christopher in Toronto on 12 November, at a gala to celebrate the Shakespeare’s Globe Centre of Canada’s 25th anniversary.

Go here for more on Sam Wanamaker and Shakespeare’s Globe.

Go here to read about Great Shakespeare Actors in Shakespeare Magazine 07.