“The course of true love never did run smooth.” ~ A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Generally speaking, I love Shakespeare. But I don’t understand all of it. Today marks what is widely accepted as his 450th birthday, so it seemed apt to write something about it. I have grown into Shakespeare as I’ve got older, learnt to appreciate plays which I had previously written off as “probably boring” and yet there are still a few which are currently utterly lost on me. I’m afraid I found the production of King Lear at the National Theatre well acted, but inaccessible – everyone I know who enjoyed it had studied the play in some form – I haven’t, but I’m prepared to think that it may resonate with me at some point in the future.
I didn’t have such a good start with Shakespeare. I remember tortuous English lessons at school where whichever teacher would simply take a speech and go around the class asking us to read out a line each. A stilted sequence of adolscent voices all variously proficient at reading aloud. At best, this disjointed method left those words devoid of meaning and power – at worst, it made them tedious and pointless. The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, The Merchant of Venice and Measure for Measure all became quite dull in the hands of assorted teachers. The feeling of futility as we scoured the playtext for quotes and tried to describe power structures and synonyms, just to put into essays to satisfy examiners. But all was not completely lost.
I think it was just sheer luck that Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes came out in 1996 when I was studying it – a modern interpretation which spoke to a generation of teenagers jaded with Shakespeare. That same year, I was taken on a tour of the Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre which was still under construction – I spent £5 on a brick (in hindsight, money well spent) and it was opened in 1997. I remember a school trip to see The Merchant of Venice and the discovery that the play wasn’t actually as boring as it was in the classroom. 1998 followed with the film of Shakespeare in Love and the youth group at my theatre put on a summer production of Living With Lady Macbeth by Rob John, where I was given a fairly major role and my lines included several snippets of speeches by Lady M – suddenly those words came to life. Shakespeare does not belong in a book. It needs to be up on its feet in a theatre and spoken with rhythm and conviction. These are words written for the mouth and ears, not for the eyes.
So there have been several watershed moments for me over the years – here are some of my favourites:
Performing as ensemble cast in Twelfth Night at The Minack Theatre (2001)
This was really my first taste of working with a whole play and this is probably why it remains my favourite Shakespeare comedy – even so far as to reword the opening line as the name for my blog. I was playing a lady-in-waiting to Olivia and a general servant/stage crew in costume, but we were in the wings so frequently, that when we weren’t on stage, we were watching almost every single scene anyway. I remember our dress rehearsal under a giant full moon and how the box tree scene would have both the audience and us helpless with laughter at every single performance. In 2012 I was lucky enough to see Twelfth Night at the Apollo Theatre (I would’ve sold my soul to see it at the Globe) with Mark Rylance playing Olivia as a woman completely at the mercy of sexual desire – an incredible performance by one of the greatest Shakespearean actors of our time.
Titus Andronicus at Shakespeare’s Globe (2006)
This was for a friend’s birthday – I hadn’t seen her for a long time, so really I wanted to see her rather than the play, but a £5 groundling ticket was a bearable price to pay and I’d heard it’d had good reviews. I knew nothing much about it except that Titus kills 2 boys, cooks them in a pie and feeds them to their mother. But from its epic beginning, as Roman generals are wheeled in on raised platforms to the sound of thundering drums with their spoils of war, the captive Goths, through delicious black humour, tit-for-tat violence and graphic, merciless butchery, to the chilling finale – I was hooked. Geraldine Alexander as vengeful tiger-mother Tamora was a force to be reckoned with – if I can every persuade my theatre to put on Titus, I want to play Tamora (this may have to wait a decade or so until I’m actually old enough). The same production returns to the Globe this summer under the same director and I strongly urge you to see it if you can, and definitely from the groundling pit if your feet, legs and back can handle standing for a few hours. (My friend’s birthday was pretty good too).
The Factory Hamlet at Shakespeare’s Globe (2008)
Spearheaded by director Tim Carroll, The Factory Hamlet works on a simple principle; around 30 actors, each of whom has learnt 2 or 3 parts in Hamlet, ergo you have 2 or 3 actors who could play each part. In the spirit of fairness and spontaneity, two actors who could play e.g. Laertes were brought forward and 2 audience members hauled on stage to play rock-paper-scissors to decide who would play the role that night. The whole play was cast as such and away we went! In addition to this, all audience members were asked (when booking tickets) to bring along random objects to be used as props. The actors were given a different rules for each act – e.g. musical statues, so you can speak when it’s your line, but only move when the music is playing, or you can only have one actor standing on the stage at any time (so one actor enlisted a member of the audience to give him a piggyback on the stage!).
The emphasis is very much on ‘playing with Shakespeare’, finding unlikely new connections, experimenting with how lines are delivered, movements etc. The ghost of Hamlet’s father was an inflatable shark, a duel was played out with a baguette and a mink stole, Polonius hid behind a full sized taxidermied stag only to be stabbed to death with a top hat and alas poor Yorick was a tin of baked beans. But the true talent of this bunch was best demonstrated in Act V – actors who lost the rock-paper-scissors were asked to stand in the gallery and speak the words of their character, and the actors who won would be on the stage lip-synching. Played with alarming pace, this incredible feat of teamwork and trust was a sight to behold, especially the burly Horatio with a newly acquired feminine voice!
Visiting Elsinore Castle in Denmark (2010)
I went to see a frien in Malmo, Sweden for the weekend, but as my flight hope from Copenhagen wasn’t until the evening, we had a whole day to fill, but ideally this needed to be in Denmark and something not too complicated with a small suitcase in tow. So in some vain hope of inspiritation, we asked the lady at the tourist office what she suggested: “Well, what interests you?” I naturally said that I like the theatre. “Have you ever been to Elsinore Castle where Hamlet is set?” I could’ve kissed her. “Well you could go via Copenhagen, but if you get the train north to Helsingborg, you can get the ferry across the Oresund to Helsingor. It’s really worth seeing the castle from the sea first. Then it’s about a 10 minute walk from the ferry terminal. There’s a train to Helsingborg in a few minutes.” Decision made. So as the boat drew closer to the Danish coast, I was greeted with the view of copper spires:
If this weren’t enough, Hamlet and Ophelia were standing outside Helsingor Station:
As it turns out, Hamlet is based on the legend of Amled written in the 12th century Danish Chronicles and it appears that Shakespeare chose the castle at Helsingor as the setting for his version of the story, renaming it Elsinore. There are some who say that Shakespeare didn’t write all of his plays and perhaps there is an element of truth in this – that he wrote the words, but didn’t come up with the original story. In 1816, a group of soldiers from the local garrison decided to put on a production of Hamlet in the castle to mark the 200th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death; this has become a regular occurence over the years and recent performances have included Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Christopher Plummer and Jude Law in the title role.
There is still so much more Shakespeare out there to discover; I’m really only just starting to familiarise myself with the sonnets. One of the most used apps on my smartphone is Shakespeare Complete Works – and it was free to download! I’ve started to re-read sections of plays which I haven’t touched since secondary school. I have dared to dip into plays that I know nothing about, but I think I need to see and hear them on a stage to get the full benefit. You’ll often find me on Twitter participating in #ShakespeareSunday (as led by @HollowCrownFans). I don’t think I can ever pretend to be an expert on any of it, but I know what I enjoy and how it makes me feel. But safe to say that those words were for his time, for our time and for all time.
Happy birthday Shakespeare!