North West music outfit The Nearlys release haunting new version of Shakespeare’s ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ in time for the Bard’s birthday this week

The Nearlys_UnderTheGreenwoodTree_Everday Records

Here’s a musical treat to celebrate the week of Shakespeare’s birthday. Based in the North West of England, musical outfit The Nearlys, comprising vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Helen Walker and her drummer husband Mike, have recorded a mellow and haunting folk and jazz-tinged new version of the song ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ from Shakespeare’s As You Like It.

Can you tell us why you chose this Shakespeare lyric and how you constructed the musical track?

Helen Walker: “It was initially written for a choir competition, the rules of which required that I wrote to a lyric that is in the public domain. I usually write my own lyrics, although I have also set ‘The Skylark’ by James Hogg to music. After a lot of research I chose ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ because it inspired me. I compose at the piano and then arrange as it’s recorded in the studio. I sang and played all the instruments on the song except for the drums, which were played by my husband Mike Walker.”

Would you consider doing a whole album of Shakespeare songs? I’d like to hear your take on ‘The Rain it Raineth Every Day’, for instance…

“I’ve never thought of it – but it’s a great idea and I’ll never work with a better lyricist! I’m just in the process of completing The Nearlys’ LP, due out later this year. But I’ll have a try at composing for ‘The Rain it Raineth Every Day’ and let you know how I get on. It would be nice to release something further to mark Shakespeare’s 400th [anniversary of death] next year.”

Go here to listen to ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ by The Nearlys (released by Everyday Records)

Coincidentally, London-based actor Josh Neesby has just won a Royal Shakespeare Company competition with an electronic version of the same song, recorded as ‘Come Hither.

Go here to listen to ‘Come Hither’ by Josh Neesby.

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!’”
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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.