New York’s recent explosively controversial Shakespeare in the Park was All About Trump, but at Bristol’s Old Vic Theatre there was a rather more British take on Shakespeare’s perennially politicised play “Julius Caesar”

Julius Caesar at Bristol Old Vic - Lynn Farleigh (Calpurnia) Julian Glover (Julius Caesar) - Photo by Simon Purse
Photos by Simon Purse

Veteran actor Julian Glover’s Caesar is no Trump, but the fact that he’s beloved by the young while feared and hated by the recently-young does put one in mind of another JC – Jeremy Corbyn – and this production definitely takes its energy from today’s (30 June 2017) sense of post-election turbulence. There’s even an “Oh, Julius Caesar!” refrain from the mob in the opening scene.
These things never quite fit, of course. Arrogant and vain, Glover’s JC would never be mistaken for an allotment-tending socialist. You get the sense that his military victories and territorial conquests have made him a bit mad.

Julius Caesar at Bristol Old Vic - Afolabi Alli (Metellus) and Rudolphe Mdlongwa (Cinna) - Photo by Simon Purse
Indeed, for all his belief in his own godlike prowess, there’s a King Lear-like frailty to this Caesar. The one glimpse of his political instincts – when he singles out Cassius as dangerous – merely confirms that his radar is working but his defences are down.

Apart from Caesar, Calpurnia (Lynn Farleigh) and the Soothsayer (John Hartoch), the rest of the characters are all played by students from Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, and there’s plenty of ascending talent on display. Brutus is portrayed by Freddie Bowerman as a ramrod-straight patrician whose much-discussed honour never quite masks the suggestion that he’s acting out of vanity. As Cassius, Edward Stone is an oily George Osborne-type. A persuasive political realist, he needs Brutus on board for the conspiracy to succeed – but his deference to Brutus will prove a fatal flaw.

Julius Caesar at Bristol Old Vic - Alice Kerrigan (Cinna the Poet) with company - Photo by Simon Purse
Casca is one of Shakespeare’s most marvellously bitchy creations and, played with icy disdain by Eleanor House, gets quite a few laughs (in the early scenes, that is – Casca is also the conspirator who initiates the stabbing of Caesar). The gender-swapped casting means this Julius Caesar takes place in a world where wives like Calpurnia and Portia (Sarah Livingston) are essentially enslaved by the patriarchy, and yet it is simultaneously permissible for women to have high-flying political careers and fight in the civil war. Most significantly, Octavius becomes Octavia, played by Rosy McEwen with emotionless hauteur, reminiscent of a killer robot from the Terminator films.

Julius Caesar at Bristol Old Vic - Freddie Bowerman (Brutus) - Photo by Simon Purse
Mark Antony is played by Ross O’Donnellan as a party animal with a broad Irish accent, a fact which seemed to greatly amuse the two blokes sitting next to me. I thought it was a good choice for a character whom the conspirators underestimate until he strikes them with deadly force. The scene after Caesar’s assassination where Antony insists on shaking hands with the blood-soaked killers worked particularly well. It starts off as desperate survival technique, but it allows us to see Antony gradually get the measure of each of his opponents, and begin to realise he can beat them.

Julius Caesar at Bristol Old Vic - Ross O'Donnellan (Mark Antony) - Photo by Simon Purse
The mob scenes and battles are skilfully deployed in this lean, fast-moving production. The supporting cast all have a lot to do, playing multiple characters and at times literally running riot. The modern-day dress code of business suits and military fatigues is similar to the Ralph Fiennes Coriolanus film. But director Simon Dormandy’s Caesar has strengths of its own as it points, Soothsayer-like, to the consequences of political meltdown.

Julius Caesar ran at Bristol Old Vic from 9 June to 1 July 2017.
Go here for more on Bristol Old Vic.
Go here for more on Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.

Goat’s Dung, Mummified Flesh and Vomiting… This is what passed for state-of-the-art health care in Shakespeare’s day. The authors of new book ‘Maladies & Medicine: Exploring Health & Healing 1540-1740′ reveal six stomach-emptying (sometimes quite literally so) cures from early modern England

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By Jennifer Evans and Sara Read

In William Shakespeare’s time, the concept of the four humours dominated ideas about the body. The humours were fluids: blood, choler, melancholy, and phlegm, which needed to be kept in equilibrium in order for the body to stay healthy. Illness was usually, although not always, understood as an accumulation of excess or a corruption of one of these fluids.

For the most part, medical treatments were gentle ones designed to restore balance by drawing out ill humours and purging the body of excess. Remedies might also balance out the body by counteracting the effects of diseases. For example, cooling drinks might reduce the heat of the body caused by fever. Shakespeare’s own son-in-law, Dr John Hall, husband of his elder daughter Susanna, practised these mainly conservative cures in the first instance for many illnesses. So, in one case he prescribed a double-folded linen cloth filled with butter to be placed on the side of an elderly lady with stomach ache.

Not all remedies were pleasant though, particularly not when viewed from our modern perspective. Practitioners could resort to drastic means of purging the body, or could prescribe medicines that contained unappetising ingredients. Here are six remedies you would probably want to avoid today…

Blisters

Many practitioners thought that raising blisters on the skin was a good way of drawing out unwanted humours and therefore disease. An anonymous treatise from a 1577 book recommended the notoriously dangerous green flies known as cantharides (actually not flies at all, but small iridescent beetles) which, we’re told, were easily available from the local apothecary shop. These w‪ere placed in a mortar with vinegar and some breadcrumbs to make a paste, which was applied to ‘the sore place, that is, where the most grief is’ for around seven hours. Once dry, it had to be teased off with the tip of a knife. After the skin blistered it had to be burst and, as the author explained, ‘with your finger thrust out the water softly’. The problem with blisters was that while the ‘the pain of the disease is gone’, the patient then had to heal from the new sore.

Bloodletting

Imagine if you felt poorly and your doctor prescribed cutting open a vein in your arm or ankle, with a lance and no anaesthetic, to remove some of your ‘excess’ blood. The amount of blood removed was dependent on the condition. Because blood was considered to be a ‘hot’ humour, phlebotomy was often used to take heat from the body in the case of fevers. It wasn’t recommended to be used on children, fortunately, since all their blood was needed to help them grow. Doctors didn’t let blood willy-nilly. As one sixteenth-century physician (who published a book as ‘A. T’ in 1596) instructed, before letting blood you must consider ‘the age of the patient, the complexion, the time of the year, the region, the custom, the strength, and the vehemence of the disease’. Not all bloodletting was done by cutting into the body. As many people know, an alternative was to apply leeches to the skin.

Induced Vomiting

Most people today hate being sick, as they did in the past. One early doctor, Philip Barrough described in his 1583 medical guide how unpleasant feelings of nausea came from ‘a naughty and wicked motion of the expulsive virtue of the stomach’. But this innate urge to eject things was put to good use in early modern times, when emetic medicines that caused patients to be sick were a routine cure. Vomiting was also used to ward off ill health. John Clarke, an apothecary, took ‘a vomit’ once every month or six weeks as a preventative against all manner of infirmities. He wrote that if everyone did the same then it would save 20,000 pounds of tobacco which was currently being used by people as a medicine. Clarke described how to make a posset that would bring up a great quantity of phlegm and other corrupt humours, leaving you feeling clear headed and very well.

Mummified Flesh

In Shakespeare’s time, remedies composed of multiple ingredients could also include some rather unappealing components. A text published a few decades later (in the 1650s) claimed that many
medicaments are taken out of a Live Man, or from a dead man. From a live man, we have Hairs, Nails, Spittle, Ear-wax, Milk, Seed, Blood, Menstrual Blood, Secondines, Urine, Dung, Lice, Wormes, Stones of Bladder & Kidneyes, &c. From a dead man, Skin, Fat, Scul, Brain, Teeth, Bones Mummy

Preserved human flesh (mummy) was found in several medicines including an unguent to staunch blood recommended in a 1605 medical text by Christoph Wirsung, a German physician. Dead men’s flesh didn’t always have to be put into a medicine. Many people waited at the gallows in the hope that they could have their boils and swellings stroked with the hanged man’s hand, which was thought to have healing properties.

Breast Milk

In early modern notions of the body, breast milk was created from menstrual blood, which was diverted after the birth of the child to the breasts where it was ‘concocted’ into milk. It was thought to have healing properties. William Copland’s Treasurie of Health suggested that ‘The yolke of an egge, mingled w[ith] Rose water, bran, & womans milk’ was a good medicine to assuage pain and to drive unhealthy humours out of the body. While Thomas Vicary’s English-mans Treasure recommended a mixture of wormwood, plantain, rose water, breast milk and egg white to heal bloodshot eyes.

Animal Dung

It wasn’t just parts of the human body and its products that were used in medicines. Plasters sometimes contained rather pungent components. Dung, usually from a cow, formed the main component of several plasters recommended to ease swelling. Andrew Boorde’s Breuiary of Health, for example, suggested a remedy made of goat dung and honey. Christoph Wirsung’s medical text suggested a plaster of bayberries mixed with goat’s dung to ease the dropsy, a disease characterised by watery swelling of the stomach.

Jennifer Evans is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Hertfordshire
Sara Read is Lecturer in English at Loughborough University

Their new book Maladies and Medicines: Exploring Health and Healing, 1540-1740 is out now, published by Pen and Sword Books.

Vsit the authors’ blog: earlymodernmedicine.com

We caught up with theatre maker Ed Viney at Bristol Shakespeare Festival where he was directing the new comedy play “Shakespeare’s Worst”

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Which play or area of Shakespeare are you working on right now – and what are you getting from it?
“Currently working on Shakespeare’s Worst which is a play by Mike Reiss, former writer/producer on The Simpsons, and Nick Newlin, Shakespearean scholar. It’s about a group of actors staging The Two Gentlemen of Verona, arguably Shakespeare’s worst play. It’s a play on a play and all the things you’d like to say when sat in a theatre watching a really awful production of Shakespeare. It’s very liberating!”

What have you learned about Shakespeare that would have surprised your younger self?
“It’s deceptively simple when you say it aloud.”

Which Shakespeare character most resembles you?

“Benedick.” (Much Ado About Nothing)

If I ask you to give me a Shakespeare quotation, which is the first one that comes to your mind?
“Simply the thing I am shall make me live.” (Parolles in All’s Well That Ends Well)

What’s your favourite Shakespeare-related fact?

“Shakespeare wrote for actors.”

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?

“Robert Downey Jnr as Lady Macbeth.”

Shakespeare’s Worst has now ended, but Bristol Shakespeare Festival continues until 29 July.

Go to the Festival website for more details.

The lively, eclectic and much-loved Bristol Shakespeare Festival runs throughout July. Shakespeare Magazine’s Editor Pat Reid has previewed the Festival (and interviewed Festival Manager Jacqui Ham) for The Bristol Magazine

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Image: The Handlebards

Pat Reid writes:
Shakespeare Magazine is based in the city of Bristol, in the South West of England. We’re 70 miles from Stratford-upon-Avon (with which we share the River Avon) and 120 miles from London. But we’re very lucky to have a Shakespeare tradition all of our own. You may have heard of the historic Bristol Old Vic Theatre, along with its prestigious Theatre School. We also have a modern Shakespeare Tradition pioneered by the Tobacco Factory Theatres. And we have no less than four pubs named after Shakespeare!

But perhaps the most exciting event of all for a Bristol-based Shakespeare fan like myself is the annual Bristol Shakespeare Festival. This year the Festival is bigger than ever, with an impressive array of touring companies and one-off events taking over the city during the whole of July. I’m delighted to have once again been asked to preview Bristol Shakespeare Festival for The Bristol Magazine. I hope that it will encourage Bristolians to come out and enjoy a Shakespeare show. And I hope that visitors from further afield will also come and experience what Bristol has to offer. I can certainly promise that it will be “gert lush”, as we say in Bristol!

Read the full article in The Bristol Magazine here.

“Shakespeare loves women of colour…” We find out what Dr Farah Karim-Cooper of Shakespeare’s Globe has been working on – and learn about Shakespeare’s “alternative discourse of beauty”

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Photos by Bronwen Sharp

Which play or area of Shakespeare are you working on right now – and what are you getting from it?
I’m editing a book called Titus Andronicus: The State of Play, published by Arden – it’s a collection of essays examining what scholars are saying in 2017 about this important play. I have also just started researching a book about Shakespeare, Death and Spectatorship. I have not got an angle other than my interest in what happens to and within the spectator when they see someone die/killed. Either on stage or in reality.”

What have you learned about Shakespeare that would have surprised your younger self?
I have learned that he loves women of colour… which appeals to a Pakistani-American lady like myself! His dark lady sonnets (I’m oversimplifying) reveal an excitement at alternative beauty, the arguments for darker beauty in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Love’s Labour’s Lost suggest that he was engaging in what the terrific scholar Kim F. Hall has described as an alternative discourse of beauty – beauty that is brown, black or just not white. P.S. read Hall’s classic Things Of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England.”

Which Shakespeare character most resembles you?
Um… see my answer to Question 2! But seriously, I am not sure. I think I have a lot of Shrew‘s Katherina in me – feisty and with very high standards!”

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If I ask you to give me a Shakespeare quotation, which is the first one that comes to mind?
‘Meantime we shall express our darker purpose.’ – King Lear.”

What’s your favourite Shakespeare-related fact, myth, story or anecdote?
I think my favourite Shakespeare-related fact/anecdote/myth is the one about the dismantling of The Theatre in order to move the timbers across the river and build the Globe. There’s a lot of myth surrounding that story, which makes little sense given there is a great deal of surviving record about it, but I like how the story has been compressed from a couple of major events – i.e. dismantling one playhouse and building another more glorious – taking place over months to something that happened overnight.

“I love the idea of this fantasy – that one morning, the Globe magically appeared on Bankside and that Shakespeare might have played a part in this. It is a wonderful story, as myth-laden as it is. I think an excellent research project would be to build an oak-framed theatre and see how long it takes to dismantle it! I know Peter McCurdy (of McCurdy & Co who built the Globe and Sam Wanamaker Playhouse) would like to try this!”

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?
I want to see Adrian Lester play Hamlet. He’s one of my favourite Shakespearean actors and Hamlet is my favourite role. It would be unbelievable.”

Dr Farah Karim-Cooper is Head of Higher Education and Research, Globe Education.
Read our interview with Farah in Shakespeare Magazine 10

An intrepid crew of London-based Shakespeareans have just made theatrical history with the first cue script performance at Bankside’s Rose Playhouse since 1606. Lizzie Conrad Hughes of the salon: collective explains how they did it

Akilah Dale as Phoebe, Ricardo Freitas as Silvius

Akilah Dale as Phoebe, Ricardo Freitas as Silvius

We call it Shakespeare: Direct. Why the name? Because working from cue script parts in the style of Early Modern players – the first modern actors – means that you are directed directly through the text by the play’s writer, just as his own players were – so you are in direct contact with Shakespeare.

Cue script work means you prepare your part, your costume, and your character, but you do not know who else is in your scene, what they will say, or do, or how that will affect you, until you both meet on stage before an audience. And it is not enough to stand on stage and just speak – you have to deliver a performance. And you have to listen like your life depends on it not to miss your cue.

Ricardo Freitas as Hubert, Paula Parducz as Prince Arthur

Ricardo Freitas as Hubert, Paula Parducz as Prince Arthur

It has been said that cue script acting puts you right in the heart of the moment, but at no time are you in control of it – it’s a bit like juggling fire. This fire juggling makes the work very alive and gives us a glimpse of what performances may have been like back in Shakespeare’s day, with vibrantly alive actors hanging on each other’s every word.

Plus, sometimes an actor will receive a cue more than once – in other words, Shakespeare set up his actors to attempt to interrupt each other, which also helped to keep the action on stage fresh and exciting.

Anna Hawkes as Lady Percy

Anna Hawkes as Lady Percy

The moment I discovered The Rose Playhouse in May 2014, hidden under an office building beside Southwark Bridge, I knew what I had to do. The Rose is the site of Philip Henslowe’s playhouse, home to the Admiral’s Men, and site of Will Shakespeare’s own apprenticeship as player and playwright. It’s two minutes’ walk from Shakespeare’s Globe on the Bankside of the Thames, but it’s The Real Thing. And it’s very cold and they have no plumbing, as it’s a theatre in an archaeological site.

I’d been experimenting with First Folio text-based cue script acting for a few months, encouraged by my husband and fellow Shakespeare geek Dewi Hughes, and a growing group of fellow actors. We were gradually unearthing the acting secrets buried in the text by their writer/director and previously excavated by cue script pioneer Patrick Tucker. I’d read his book, Secrets of Acting Shakespeare, and been wildly inspired to try it out.

Lawrence Carmichael looking over the remains of The Rose

Lawrence Carmichael looking over the remains of The Rose

The work was embryonic still, but fascinating and ridiculously addictive. Finding The Rose, the spiritual home of cue script acting, it seemed tailor-made – all we had to do was bring the two things together.

On Sunday 29 March 2015 we performed at The Rose before an invited audience. There were 20 of us – 12 who knew what they were in for, and eight cue script novices who had no idea. We normally work in the studios at The Cockpit in Marylebone, so the echoing cavern and enigmatic great lake that covers The Rose meant a real change of pace.

Lizzie Conrad Hughes as Cleopatra

Lizzie Conrad Hughes as Cleopatra

We presented ten scenes from plays ranging from King John to As You Like It. Each scene begins and ends with a bell rung by the Book-holder – the prompter, who sits in the audience. Prompting was built into the process of the playhouses – their audiences knew they were watching a play and had no problem when a prompt was required. Nor did ours on Sunday. One audience member commented that it made her feel a part of the creative process, as the scene was created before her eyes.

Kim Hardy as Hotspur, Lawrence Carmichael as Northumberland

Kim Hardy as Hotspur, Lawrence Carmichael as Northumberland

Everyone taking part in this work did an all-day class to learn all the hidden secrets of the First Folio and get a feeling for being directed by the text. Then they received their part (around 40 lines and associated cues), which they had to study for text clues before their first one hour session with their ‘Verse Nurser’.

At this point we make sure they have any necessary info about their character and the story so far in the play, and check that they understand all their words and are on track with their study. They then get off book before session two, which is more about the physical performance, including potential movement in the scene.

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We have historical precedent for this – and besides, it makes practical theatrical sense! ‘VN’ and line learning takes three weeks. On performance day, we had a practical session of entrances and exits, changes in costume, and any physical business. Again, there is precedent for this – it’s about the only kind of practical preparation there was before a performance in Shakespeare’s day.

Dominic Kelly as Worcester

Dominic Kelly as Worcester

The actual acting passes in a haze of mental and emotional fire that is almost impossible to describe. Kim Hardy, who’s done the work once before, commented: “It was a tremendous experience all round. The buzz was thrilling playing at The Rose.” John Kelley, on his first go, said: “A unique, emotional, unforgettable experience where I felt utterly supported and inspired by my fellow players.”

Everyone who’s tried it agrees: it’s addictive. It changes how you work with other actors, how you treat text, and how you feel about William Shakespeare: player, playwright, director, poet, genius, and best friend to the modern actor.

The company perform their closing jig

The company perform their closing jig

Anyone looking for more information on the salon: collective and Shakespeare: Direct (and the chance to join the next round), check out their details on The Cockpit’s website.

All images by Camilla Greenwell

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.

“We’re all excavators in some way…” In this exclusive interview, Filter Theatre’s Oliver Dimsdale and Poppy Miller tell us about the formative experiences and bold choices that led to their their radical take on Shakespeare’s Macbeth

Images courtesy of Farrows Creative, Bristol.

image by farrows creative
Filter Theatre’s maverick style puts sound and music at the centre of all their productions, and their interpretations of Shakespeare are no exception. Artistic Director and founding member Oliver Dimsdale played the title role in their recent production of Macbeth. He and Poppy Miller (Lady Macbeth) both performed Shakespeare for the first time in their early teens, and it was then that they fell in love with the rhythms and imagery of his lines. We met them to discuss staging Shakespeare and their relationships with the Bard.

What was your earliest experience of Shakespeare, and what did you think of it at the time?

Oliver: “Mine was at my secondary school when I was about 13 years old. I auditioned to be in the lower school play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I got the part of Puck. Until then I’d never really keyed in to Shakespeare; I’d seen a couple of Shakespeare shows and it hadn’t really hit me. Up until that point I’d never been able to commit to memory text like it. Puck especially has wonderful verse and I just loved the rhythm. I had a fairly bad stammer when I was younger and it gave me a very real voice on stage. That’s my first memory of Shakespeare: a means by which to express myself through magnificent verse.”

Poppy: “My dad, who died 25 years ago, was a very erudite man. He was a teacher and used to do lots of amateur dramatics at the Maddermarket Theatre in Norwich, where I grew up. I used to go and watch him play big parts and then I started getting involved as well. I auditioned to play Miranda when I was 14 and ended up doing the play with my dad which was amazing. I’ve got some photographs of us doing that together. I have very magical and special memories of that because it was my first experience of real theatres and people being passionate about Shakespeare.”

image by farrows creative

Do you have a favourite Shakespeare play?

Poppy: “I’m quite keen on The Tempest. I think that, as with Macbeth, some of the speeches are just jaw-dropping.”

Oliver:King Lear is a big one for me. It probably ties into having done it for GCSE. I think I was starting to get into the possibilities and the power of Shakespeare and perhaps it’s a hangover from that. I’ve seen a couple of productions of it as well that have transported me. It’s thrillingly dark and horrendous.”

Filter Theatre produces truly unique adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. How do you develop from the play texts to these productions?

Poppy: “A very initial development process is to whack a load of paper on the walls and write on it what we love about the play, what we’re afraid about making a mess of or doing in a dull way – we get all our ideas and fears out straight away. Then we can really start to focus on core elements, so with Macbeth it would be the Weird Sisters, or the banquet, or the heath.

“Ideas of sound are never far from the mix. Tom Haines, the sound designer and composer, built many of the things we play in this production, so we had a huge pallet to work with.

“We’re quite bold with the filleting of the play. We had a dramaturg this time: experienced Shakespeare scholar and director Simon Reade, and he was very helpful. We’d go ‘What about sounds in this play?’ and he’d come back the next day with a full list of all the references to sound.”

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Oliver: “With new works we tend to focus on narrative first, though sound still plays an important role. But with Shakespeare we have the story there already, so we feel as if we have a good head start and can just crack on with finding ways we can deconstruct and put together.”

How did you prepare for your roles?

Poppy: “In my experience of playing a Shakespeare role over a long period, you find out more every week, and you can only do that by learning it and then trying to put yourself out of the picture. Inevitably your actor’s worries come up – I think we’re still asking ourselves questions now because there are so many possibilities and ways of playing it. In this production we’ve chosen proximity at places where you wouldn’t normally have it; for example, the only time our characters are intimate is in front of loads of other people in quite a grotesque way, whereas a lot of productions would have a much more…”

Oliver: “Sexual charge.”

Poppy: “Yes – he comes to the castle and they consume their ambition, and that’s almost better than the end itself.

“We’ve also stylised the movement a little bit, so there are always questions. But that’s good, I think. You just have to commit to the version you’re giving. Like with all great Shakespeare parts you feel a weight of something, which is ‘I’m going to be rubbish,’ basically. But once you’re doing it I think you have a direct connection with the character.”

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Are there any scenes or speeches when you feel that pressure most strongly, or any you particularly enjoy playing?

Poppy: “I have always really liked that scene after the murders, with the two of them. I think it’s just so brilliantly written, and the way Shakespeare’s written his half- and quarter-lines is just amazing dialogue with, when Macbeth talks about sleep, some of the most beautiful but domestic images. He’s talking about a jumper that’s fraying – or that’s how I see it!

“I think the summoning the spirits speech is great when you’re doing it, but it’s always had a whiff of failure about it for me. I did a really interesting workshop with an amazing Russian director – I’m not going to name any names. Myself and a lot of other actors were at the RSC and had been there about six months. And every time any of us stood up as Lady Macbeth, we’d breathe in and he’d go, ‘Niet.’ Just the way you breathed in wasn’t right! But I think you’ve got to remember it’s a woman. It’s a woman who’s in a very isolated place, who has a lot of capabilities but not the means to get what she wants, and all these things we can identify with.

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Some people might say your productions are not how Shakespeare intended his plays to be performed. What would you say to them?

Oliver: “The first thing I’d say to that is that no one actually knows what he intended, unless we can go back in time and speak to him. Basically we’re all excavators in some way. There are many brilliant scholars who keep on unearthing little titbits of information that might lead us a little bit closer to how it would have been done at the time, but I think a piece of art should keep on creating and moving.

“I often go to the Globe, and I love it there – knowing the actors can see whites of the eyes of the audience in broad daylight – where many of the clothes have been made in the original way and the jigs at the end are magnificent. It’s absolutely got a very strong place in our telling of Shakespeare stories now.

And I think at the same time, there can be many more braver productions than we dare to do, that have just as much of a right to be around. So I think the so-called Shakespeare purists, whatever that means, whoever they are, whatever their purpose is, are perhaps barking up the wrong tree, because there are many shapes and forms Shakespeare can take.”

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Poppy: “I think the thing to say about all of us in this company is that we do really, really love Shakespeare. Sometime people misunderstand our approach; they think it’s not possible to improve on Shakespeare. But that’s not what we’re trying to do. We’re inspired by, and every word of our Macbeth is, Shakespeare.”

Read more about Filter Theatre’s Macbeth in Issue 5 of Shakespeare Magazine.

Issue Six of Shakespeare Magazine is out now! Featuring five exciting, inspiring and controversial exclusive Shakespeare interviews

Issue 6 Cover

The latest issue of Shakespeare Magazine features a feast of informative, inspiring and sometimes incendiary Shakespeare interviews.

Speaking the speech are: actor, author and linguist Ben Crystal; novelist Andrea Chapin; UK comedian Sara Pascoe; Kill Shakespeare co-creator Anthony Del Col; and visionary actor-educator Ben Walden (interviewed by Top Teacher Phil Beadle).

Also this issue: our US Staff Writer nabs a part in her ambitious college production The Taming of the Shrew, and we take a fresh and surprising look at Shakespeare’s most legendary speech, “To be or not to be” from Hamlet.

Plus! We’re giving away 20 brilliant Shakespeare books!

Go here to read the latest issue completely free.