Categories - Books Shakespeare
Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time was commissioned by Hogarth Shakespeare as the first in a series of fictional reimaginings of the texts of Shakespeare, to mark the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare in 2015, and takes on the task of responding to The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare’s penultimate play, moving the storyline from stage to page.
The kingdoms of Sicilia and Bohemia have been exchanged for the money markets of London and an American city that is unspecified, where the nights are ‘hot and heavy’ and the hospitals have baby hatches in which lost children can be found. King Leontes, whose poisonous accusations of adultery against his wife, Hermione, and his childhood friend, Polixenes, galvanise the action of The Winters Tale, has become Leo, a hedge fund manager who uses money and status to make his way through the world. His wife is now a French pop singer called MiMi, whom we first encounter “smiling, happy, heavily pregnant”. Polixenes is become Xeno, an idealistic video game designer whose ambiguous sexuality creates the tension on which the story turns. The names are given a contemporary lift, but the narrative follows the plotline of the original very closely. Xeno learns that Leo, enraged with false jealousy, plans to murder him and he flees. Leo accuses MiMi of infidelity, she gives birth to Perdita whom Leo cannot believe is his child, causing Leo to bribe his gardener (a modern day member of his retinue) to get rid of the baby.
It’s an interesting re-write that works well in its conception, I generally enjoy Winterson’s work, and yet, I’m very divided over The Gap In Time. It was faithful to the original, it was humorous in parts, I enjoyed the themes of music and ‘falling’ metaphors that drifted through the whole, but whilst I found some passages beautiful and thought provoking, others were so violent and crude that I actually put the book down for periods of time and wasn’t sure I would finish it. I am glad that I persevered; on its most basic level Winterson does what she was commissioned to do, and I know that many will love this work, but it just wasn’t something I resonated with.
It was an “It’s me…” thing. I wanted to like it, but didn't, and that's okay. If it gives a younger generation an interest in seeing Shakespeare’s original, then it has served its mission, and for that I'm pleased.
Categories - Theatre Shakespeare
Riding Lights Theatre Company brought something rather special to round off York International Shakespeare Festival 2021; a production of Pericles, Prince of Tyre filmed in front of green screen and using some very clever technology to bring cast members together in a seamless way during Covid times. I’d already had a taste of what this company could do to remove the social distance barriers in their profoundly moving Breaking Day earlier this year, but this film advances the possibilities several leaps forward, and is meticulously produced.
The poet Gower, played by Emily Feltham, takes the form of a beautiful, bohemian storyteller, who still retains that ephemeral other worldliness of the original, but has been brought right up to date with a revised narrative written by Nigel Forde, and who weaves the tale together with wisdom and balance.
The concept of setting a riddle to be solved in exchange for a hand in marriage was explored by Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice, in which Bassanio won the hand of Portia, the penalty had he not solved it being celibacy. A decade later, in Pericles, King Antiochus (Richard Mapletoft) poses a riddle that hides a more sinister truth, and if it is guessed incorrectly, then the punishment is death. Prince Pericles of Tyre guessing the truth of the matter, that Antiochus is having an incestuous relationship with his daughter, decides that such an awful thing should not be revealed in public, but conveys that he fully understands what is going on. Antiochus gives him time to flee the scene, but not wanting a loose cannon who could divulge the secret at any time roaming free, he sends his servant Thaliard (Sandy Murray) to follow and murder Pericles.
Before Pericles (Simon Rodda) leaves the court of Antiochus, there is a beautifully tender moment with the daughter (Chloe Oldroyd), where Pericles assures her that she is not to blame for the abuse that she has been subjected to; that she is still a ‘fair glass of light’, gently explaining that she is like a viol - an instrument that like a violin or viola was played with a bow and produced very pleasant music, but was so small that it was lain in the lap or put between the knees of the player, and the convex bow was played with the palm upwards – ‘…fingered to make man his lawful music’. It’s a powerful and sickening image of child abuse. Oldroyd is silent throughout this, playing the role of someone who has been damaged by family abuse truthfully well. Words drawn from an old play that still sadly ricochet in a contemporary world where childhood abuse increased exponentially in lockdown, and where historical institutional and individual abuse cases make the headlines on a regular basis. Young people who have been scarred by sexual violence, usually by people they know and should have been able to trust; young people who still need their Pericles' moments – “It’s not your fault”, “You are not to blame”, “You are beautiful, and you deserve better”.
Pericles initially returns to Tyre, but his friend Helicanus (Patricia Jones) counsels him that his home city will be the first place Antiochus’ messenger will look for him, and suggests he spend time travelling further afield. Pericles sets sail to Tarsus, just as Thaliard arrives to kill him. Hearing a public announcement that the prince is away, Thaliard decides to tell Antiochus that Pericles has perished at sea.
Tarsus, a once prosperous city, is now stalked by famine. Its population is weak and so desperate for food that discussions take place between husband and wife as to which one of them should be eaten to prolong the life of the other. In a dialogue between the governor, Cleon (Butshilo Nieya), and his wife Dionyza (Grace Cookey-Gam) that is reminiscent of the Biblical scenes of 2 Kings 6, the sad helplessness of the situation rolls out in waves of heartbreak that seem all too familiar to us. Once again, the words of Shakespeare could have been written in our time. Even this morning, I read of famine of 1984 proportions overtaking Ethiopia again, as a result from the unceasing conflict in Tigray; of acute hunger in Yemen, Sudan and northern Nigeria; of 34 million people worldwide just a step away from starvation; and of these chilling words from David Beasley of the World Food Programme,
“We are seeing a catastrophe unfold before our very eyes. Famine – driven by conflict and fuelled by climate shocks and the COVID-19 hunger pandemic – is knocking on the door for millions of families”.
Starving people are vulnerable people, and when Cleon hears that Pericles’ ships are on their way, he fears that the land will be ceased in a war they are too weak to fight, but Pericles carries compassion and much needed food supplies. “Your grace is welcome to our town and us”, smiles a relieved Cleon.
However, Helicanus sends word that Thaliard has been in pursuit of him, so Pericles sets sail again.
A storm rages, in a poetically gorgeous description that belies its severity,
‘Slowly, the land discandies into mist
And far from any port or friendly shore,
The creaming waters seem at once disturbed;
Great creatures of the deep, the growling whales
And flashing porpoises sling water to stars;
Commotion in the winds, frights, changes,
Which fret and shake the elements below
To a sea of flint, on which a hundred moons
Shatter themselves and fling their shards abroad
As if to shake the carcass of the world
And throw horizons to the humming air.
Now the day-wearied sun is wrapt in clouds
And spits forth lightnings, dreadful thunderbolts
Which roar and clap the ears with horrid din.’
Pericles’ ship is wrecked, and he is thrown, battered and exhausted onto the shores of Pentapolis. Two fishermen (Erin Burbridge and Kelvin Goodspeed) share a humorous banter that, like most good comedy, has more than a modicum of truthful observation at its core; that, in any society, it is the rich that have power, whilst those without money or status are powerless. Pericles, approaches them for help, and amidst their jocularity is a kindness that warms and takes care of him. In their conversation, he learns that Simonides (Paul Burbridge) is to hold a jousting contest, the prize being the hand of his daughter, Thaisa (Nell Baker) in marriage. When the fishermen drag a rusty helmet from the sea that Pericles recognises to be his own, he plonks it on his bedraggled locks, seaweed hanging over his eyes, and knows it to be a sign that he must enter the contest.
Simonades is not put off by outward appearances, and it is, of course, not the knights whose armour shines brightly, but the rusty helmeted Pericles, one no-one recognises to be a Prince, who wins the match. There is some lovingly teasing banter from wonderful Burbridge when the other suitors are sent packing and Simonades gives his blessing to Thaisa and Pericles. He still does not know Pericles’s status, but recognises that what is in the heart is the better marker of commendation.
The marriage takes place, news arrives that both King Antiochus and his daughter are dead, and the couple are free to begin their lives together without fear. After a few months, Thaisa becomes pregnant, and the two begin their journey back to Tyre where he will reign.
A storm comes up, Thaisa goes into labour and amidst the squall gives birth to a premature daughter, but gives all appearance of having lost her own life. Her body is sealed in a makeshift coffin with a hastily written note, and committed to the seas. Pericles, knowing the baby to be too weak to survive the journey to Tyre, diverts his journey to nearby Tarsus to leave the child, named Marina because she was born at sea, in the care of Cleon and Dyoniza.
Thaisa’s coffin, meanwhile, has been washed up on the shores of Ephesus, where it is found along with the jewels and letter Pericles placed with her. The ruler, Cerimon (Tom Jackson), is a skilled physician who sees Thaisa still has life within, and nurses her back to health. In gratitude, and thinking her husband and baby must have been lost at sea, Thaisa pledges herself to service as a priestess in the temple of Diana.
Fifteen years pass. Jealous Dyoniza becomes the stepmother of Snow White, and her servant, Leonine (Rob Gooch), the unwilling woodcutter sent to take Marina (Rachel Hammond) to her death, because the girl has grown in grace, gifts and beauty that challenge her own daughter, Philoten’s claim to be ‘the fairest in the land’. Leonine holds her, with a gun to her head, when two pirates intervene and carry off Marina for their own unsavoury purposes. Marina is sold as a prostitute in Mytilene, but her virtue and integrity shine out so radiantly that, rather than being besmirched, it cleanses the brothel. All of the final restorative action, pivots on her purity and character.
Pericles and his friend Helicanus return to Tarsus to see Marina, only to be greeted by a (false) monument that tells of her death. Distraught with grief, sailing the seas at random, and determined that he will never enjoy life again, his ship arrives at Mytiline, and the governor Lysimachus (Jared More) goes to welcome it. Seeing Pericles’ disposition, he sends for Marina, who has been allowed to leave the brothel, as he knows that if anyone can help him, she can. Marina sings for Pericles; a beautiful rendition of John Rutter’s composition, 'A Gaelic Blessing', that speaks deep into his heart and opens the way for conversation and healing.
Aware now that Marina is his lost daughter, Pericles hears the voice of the goddess Diana telling him to visit the temple at Ephesus. After a time of feasting and restoration of his joy at Mytilene, he travels there with Lysimachus, Helicanus and Marina. The family is complete again as Thaisa is reunited with her husband and child.
This Riding Lights adaptation of Pericles, Prince of Tyre is well-shaped and graciously put together. The cast members I haven’t mentioned so far, but need to be worthily recognised, are Bolt (Tom Peters), Bawdy (Mandy Newby), Messenger (Patrick Burbridge), Sailor (Ivan Scoble), and Lychonda (Rebecca Hare).
The production has tremendous relevance to the modern day and is open to so many connections being made in viewing it, but Riding Lights recognises that the viewer has intelligence enough to make those value judgements for themselves.
Families fleeing danger in flimsy boats that sail upon stormy seas; those who survive the journey, arriving at places where they are either not welcomed or danger is increased. Children raped by those who promise to secure their safety. Young people taken from the streets and transported across the seas to be sold into slavery or used as prostitutes. Babies being born in unsanitary conditions and stormy/war-torn situations. Children in foster care. Young people leaving care and abandoned by the safety of the system. War zones and battles for territory. Relationships between fathers and daughters. The allusions to the apostolic travels and Pericles as a type of Job. I happen to be watching on World Environment Day, so, as well as the newspaper gleanings of today, I’m also thinking of climate change, unusual weather patterns and oceanic disturbances. It’s all there for the taking, to draw upon as needed.
Shakespeare’s play, dated 1608/1609, can be transported into the mindset of twenty-firs century audiences in a way that defies history or emphasis, and in their green screen production, Riding Lights have proven the point with wisdom and elegance.
A ‘Comoedie called the Northerne Lasse by master Broome’ was first entered into the Stationer’s Register on March 24, 1632, and that same year it was acted by The King’s Men at both The Globe and Blackfriars theatres; one of the earlier plays of Richard Brome, and, arguably, the one that sealed his reputation as a playwright. By 1738, The Northern Lass was out of fashion as a fully staged production, and didn’t get another airing until Shakespeare’s Globe presented it as a ‘Read Not Dead’ rehearsed reading in 2008.
It has seeped into modern consciousness a few times since, and this week, directed by Tom Straszewski and Josefina Venegas Meza, it received what I suspect may have been its first Zoom rehearsed reading, involving actors from across the UK. It was an ambitious and challenging experiment as so much of Brome’s text needs to be supplemented by specific visual action to bring it to life, but Straszewski, Meza and their team have done a wonderful job, and hopefully brought the work of this Caroline era playwright to the attention of a wider audience.
Brome’s dramaturgy employs a characteristic social investigation that is identified by a number of key theatrical tropes; an interest in presenting the wealthy and not-so-wealthy in direct proximity and engagement with each other; examples of playful and open extemporisation; a detailed examination of the mental and emotional states of the servants who often provide revelations pertinent to plot development; an irreverence towards authority; an inclination to portray the inner freedom and sexual nature of women with a certain relish; a sophisticated manipulation of metatheatrical devices, through which role-play, re-enactments and asides to the audience abound, inviting both the characters and the audience to shed their inhibitions and see both the world and theatre from a fresh perspective.
Brome’s writing in The Northern Lass also has a fluidity that lends itself to music – indeed, Daniel Purcell composed a musical score to accompany a 1706 production of the play – but Straszewski and Meza have made the directorial choice to use spoken word, concentrating instead on engaging with the fidelity of the text, exploring Original Pronunciation, and international and regional dialects in early modern theatre.
Sir Philip Luckless, played by Sara Mussad, is a gentleman who devotes his life to the satisfaction of his own wishes. His knighthood is a bought one, obtained to help him gain the affections of the rich widow, Mistress Audrey Fitchow (Gill Yue), much to the protestations of his friend, Master Triedwell (Juné Tiamatakorn), who insists that the lady is too old and too domineering to make the match a good one. Sir Luckless will have none of it, though he does have misgivings when he encounters her opportunistic and foolish brother, Master Wigeon (Phoebe Clements), who also happens to be seeking a rich wife, and his equally foolish and boastful tutor, Anvil (Colin Hurley).
The arrival of a stranger, the sharp tongued Mistress Trainwell (Joy Warner), who is paired with Beavis (Paul French), adds to Luckless’ consternation, by saying that he is already in a marriage contract with her ward ‘Constance’. The only Constance that Luckless can think of is Constance Holdup (Claire Morley), a prostitute he had an affair with, and assuming Mistress Trainwell is her agent, hastily gets rid of her, perceiving he is being blackmailed. He tells Mistress Fitchow they must be wed immediately. Whist getting ready, Mistress Fitchow tells her brother, Master Wigeon, that she intends to marry him to a northern lass called Constance (also played by Claire Morley), niece of wealthy, lascivious and full of blunder, Sir Paul Squelch (James Swanton). Master Wigeon has never heard of the girl, but if she’s set to inherit, then he’s satisfied with the match.
Constance herself is in love with Luckless from their first meeting; Triedwell finds himself head over heels with Mistress Fitchow; Constance Holdup (for the purposes of distinction now called Camitha), was mistress to Sir Squelch, but finds herself marrying Master Wigeon (who was, of course, going to marry the other ‘northern’ Constance). Amongst all this, Anvil, who considers himself an expert in the vices of all young gentlemen, has been held prisoner in a wardrobe for making unwanted advances to Mistress Trainwell, egged on by Luckless’ servant, Pate (Ella Plevin), who has disguised himself as both a doctor and a minister along the way.
Confusions, disguises and hoaxes continue to pile on top of one another, in a bordering-on-farce that uses ridiculous situations and practical jokes to twist a plot that appears impossibly complicated. To complete the character list, add in Master Apprehension Bullfinch (Tom Straszewski), Master Salamon Nonsense (Tony Froud), Humphrey Howdee (Oliver Woodgate), Vexhem (Bill Laverick), and the Clerk and Flaps ( Josefina Venegas Meza). The action moves at a frenetic pace, the misunderstandings tumble over each other and James Swanson becomes a most beguiling Senora; it’s all a joy to watch, and must have been great fun to put together.
It's rare to see theatre from the Caroline era performed today; it was a real privilege to see this rehearsed reading, especially under the confines of Zoom conventions, and all the cast and creatives can be very proud of what they have achieved.
The Northern Lass was performed as part of
York International Shakespeare Festival 2021.
The full programme can be seen here.
August 20, 2021 - The full recording of this reading of The Northern Lass is now available on the YorkShakes Vimeo site.
Categories - Theatre Shakespeare
One of the joys of York International Shakespeare 2021 is seeing productions that are both culturally different in their identities to our own, and far removed from anything we would ever think of buying a ticket for when glancing through a theatre brochure. These are the productions that stretch us beyond our comfort zones, perhaps take the most effort to assimilate and understand, but which, I would contend, we all need to discover once in a while to challenge our perceptions of what theatre is, and isn’t.
I Come To You River: Ophelia Fractured presented by Studio Kokyu from Poland, directed by Przemysław Błaszczak, is just such a piece.
It was developed in September 2020, a time when the Women’s Strike movement were filling the streets, with thousands of protests in defence of women’s rights, after a year in which the Polish government had pushed forward bills to make both abortions and sex education illegal, had cracked down on LGBT activists, and made threats to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, a regional violence against women treaty. The message women were receiving was that their rights to health, safety, bodily autonomy and privacy were secondary in the eyes of the state, and daily they were being abused, harassed and detained for suggesting otherwise. The protesters used banners, social media and the language of the popular culture to get their message across. Błaszczak uses Shakespeare’s Hamlet to talk about the position of women, a device that proves to be just as blunt.
In I Come To You River: Ophelia Fractured, Ophelia recovers her voice as a young woman of the twenty-first century, not only through what she says, but by the amount of what she says. In Hamlet, Ophelia has a total of 58 lines, most confined to the briefest, “Do you doubt that?”, “I shall obey Lord”, or “No more but so” demure answers from the shadows cast by the menfolk, and the longer ones either devoted to worrying about, and kowtowing to, her man or other men, or lost in madness. Blaszczak’s team have given Ophelia text that is delivered by three actors, in which she speaks about the injustices of generations of recurring stereotypes that women face in so many aspects of their lives. The monologues address the issues of treating the female body as an object, having to conform to beauty ideals defined by the fashion industries, and adapting to roles expected or imposed by societal, traditional or male-led expectations. There is reflection on what it is to be a woman fractured in the pieces of lover, wife and mother, but there is opportunity for the fractures to form cracks and fissures, allowing light to expose the loneliness, depression and longing, releasing what is held inside.
It’s easy to think of Ophelia drifting through Hamlet in her white nightie, her hair pulled loose and strewing herbs in her wake, and in the opening scene the three actors, Anita Szymanska, Marie Walker and Martine Vreiling van Tuijl, do indeed appear in white dresses, perhaps so that the link is made. The trio sit in front of bowls filled to the brim with water and plunge their faces into them, then straightening up and pouring water around them, the monologues begin. Ophelia was drowning, but now she has come through the waters and will not be silenced.
This modernisation of Ophelia makes her a universal figure, speaking through generations and across cultures, breaking the silence, challenging and demanding change for all women who suffer from inequalities and iniquities. The silence is often punctuated with screams (frustration, terror or both?), and a directness and blunt confrontation that will not be quelled. The Ophelia of few words has become a woman of many words, and every one of them endowed with power.
I Come To You River: Ophelia Fractured was presented as part of
York International Shakespeare Festival 2021.
The full programme can be seen here.
Categories - Theatre; Shakespeare
Questioning Heaven, is a filmed stage adaptation of King Lear, performed by Taiwan Bangzi Opera Company. It is a beautifully rich and extravagant production, that is both stunning and fascinating.
Wang Hai-ling is one of Taiwan’s most famous and well-respected musical actors; the show was written especially for her to take lead role, by Professor PERNG Ching-hsi and Professor CHEN Fang, both leading authorities on Shakespeare, and whilst the original Shakespeare play is eminently recognisable throughout, it has been done within the conventions of a culture that does not sit easily with Kings and kingdoms, and where the elderly are deeply revered.
The term ‘opera’ is literally translated as ‘song theatre’, and this is a far better description of what is happening. Bangzi (‘clapper’) refers to the arc shaped instrument made from date or jujube wood that sets the beat of the storytelling throughout; all of the characters are introduced and the essence of the plot is established first, then the lead actor is invited to play the drum before the story continues to unfold. The melodies are, in the main, heptatonic, lyrics structured in couplets, each line containing either seven or ten syllables, with strict rules pertaining to the tones. Questioning Heaven appears to mainly have a heterophonic texture, similar to Gamelan music, where a melody is played over an original melody. Much of that is lost in not knowing the language and matters not one jot, but it is useful in understanding the arc of the production.
In English performance, we are used to characters being introduced at the point they become relevant to the story, but here, everyone is on stage within minutes of the production starting, and by their make-up, costume, gestures and shoes, their status and future actions are fully apparent to the audience. Wei, has least facial markings, so we know she is the virtuous one, in complete contrast to her sister Shao’s long angular carmine cheek wings that mark her out as a ‘wrong-un’ before she has spoken one word. Similarly, when the Empress of Xuanyan is lost, wandering in the wild storm and wearing water sleeves to express her windswept state, we know something of her mental state deteriorating as her hair is unbound and her headdress removed, but we also know clearly that she is still the Empress by the white markings on her face, now added to by two scarlet ones to indicate that she retains her dignity and station even here. The generals and officials wear white soled shoes made from layers of paper stitched together; the white make up of the fool is down the nose line of his face rather than on his cheeks; when Duanmu is in the wilderness he appears with pheasant feathers in his hair – a signifier that he is still important, even in this alien state; the Empress has the four authority flags of an army Marshall when she does her combat dance, but, make no mistake, they are in yellow silk emblazoned with red dragons, something that only the royal leader could get away with.
The costumes are gorgeous; embroidered, many layered complexities in which each pattern and colour is there for a reason and to give added clarity to the character’s personality. I spotted log-cabin work, passementerie, reverse applique, screen printing, stick work, tjanting marks, leather work, and lots and lots of lavish embroidery techniques. I found myself re-winding again and again to focus in on particular costumes, and found it intriguing to see how costumes were changed, added to, or taken away from, as the play moved forward. To my joy, the bonus material at the end of the film contains not only fantastic rehearsal footage, but an interview with the costume designer LI Yu-shen, and whilst I can’t understand his words, the look into his work studio and the costume drawings will provide me with visual feasting for weeks. I wonder if he wants an aged assistant…
The Chinese stage is predominantly an empty one. No structures are built, doors and thresholds are indicated by body gestures, and it is incumbent upon the actors to convey whether the set is a royal palace or a battlefield. Big silk tapestries serve as the boundary between the front stage and the back stage. In traditional theatre, audience participation helps – for instance, they may be handed small flags with fish or clouds printed on them to wave as the story moves into a storm. The Taiwan Bangzi Opera Company no doubt still employs this method in its extensive schools and community work, but here we are treated to magnificent stage projections on to the silk tapestries, strobe lighting and multi-media special effects, which all add to the many stratas of this lavish production.
From the moment that the ‘hundred knights’ fill the opening scenes, and our Lear equivalent, Empress of Xuanyan, thumang swinging, enters to much pomp, music and celebration, this production has bedazzling pageantry written throughout.
She sings of how she has ruled the land on her own for eighteen years.
“Unceasing wars have aged me, worn me down… and now, at last, the land is unified.”
When she sings the line “Xuanyuan Empire will cut in three,” everyone looks worried. Having celebrated the land’s unity, how can the Queen not see that she now intends disunity and division? Three daughters, a request as to who loves her most, an answer she didn’t expect, and a fool who says, “Give me some land too”. It’s all sounding very familiar, but the exquisite sense of spectacle, the visual overload and the realisation that hits part way through viewing that you’re unconsciously registering the unspoken cues, is so satisfyingly joyous.
Questioning Heaven is shown as part of York International Shakespeare Festival 2021. The full programme can be seen here.
La Tempestad was first performed by the Honduran Mosquitia Sinska Theatre Group in June 2018, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the arrival of the Swiss Corporation Agency in La Mosquita, and within the framework of the 70th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights, to promote respect for human rights through the performing arts.
Following a short tour in its own country, the screening of the show for York International Shakespeare Festival 2021 marked the first time the performance had been seen in another country. Accompanied by several videos of behind-the-scenes process and interviews, and an informative Zoom discussion with the actors and creatives, it gave a fascinating insight into the political, environmental and socio-economic histories, traditions, beliefs and cultures of the forty mile band of coastline skirting the Mediterranean Sea between Honduras and Nicaragua; an area that was under British rule during the period of the Spanish crown, a significant zone of pirate activity, and where the inhabitants were not allowed to practice their Catholic faith. The Mosquitia kings, chosen by British rule, were educated in England and enforced English culture and customs on their subjects. The area was also under the rule of a Jamaican vice-kingdom, which brought its own traditions. English ships brought with them both African slaves and British citizens, who settled and intermarried. Into this melting pot came the Moravian church, from which emerged a munsee of Mosquitia converts who actively renounced the traditional Catholic practices of their own peoples. It heralded the beginning of the indigenous people struggling to hold on to any vestige of their own identity.
The director of ‘La Tempestad’, Tito Ochoa, studied stage direction at the Academy of Art of the Muses of the Czech Republic, and in his more than 35 years of theatrical work he has combined acting, directing, writing and teaching. In Honduras alone, his work has included founding the Rascanigus Theatre, being director of the National School of Dramatic Art, President of the Asociación Cultura Memorias and Professor at Javeriana University, the Externado University and the Universida del Rosario in Colombia. He explained,
“In literal terms, it [The Tempest] relates the meeting of two civilizations, but in metaphorical terms it is a political crisis that leads to social and humanitarian crises, like the ones we are experiencing… that is, the history of Central America portrayed. Parallel to the drama, love germinates; a relationship of dominance and imposition is established to enslave, and that establishes a conflict of a colonial order.
The community actors, all indigenous to the area, have day to day lives ranging from students, teachers and engineers; none of them were professional actors, but were selected through an extensive audition process and given intensive training in collaboration with the Luis Poma theatre in Salvador and its director, Roberto Salomón.
The selection of the actors was made through a casting where at least one hundred people of the ethnic group attended; the learning process about the performance and the assembly of the same lasted at least six months. The work addresses the theme of the territories conquered by Europe, the subjugation of their aborigines to slavery, the imposition of foreign culture, trying to erase the historical memory of the subjugated peoples. The creation and staging of this play was adapted to the cosmogony, history and living conditions of the Mosquitia; through this staging we were able to find the reality, culture and idiosyncrasy of that town. Members of the Mosquitia ethnic group who had no experience in acting were included in this staging and were involved in an exhaustive assembly process through exercises and teaching processes, managing to represent a work that is very complex and difficult, even for professional actors. The idea is that we carry out a community theatre with people from the community and show that these people should be treated with the same respect and nobility as any other person from another region.”
The resulting production is an astute adaptation of Shakespeare’s last play that is an elegant mixture of culture, tradition, dances and history of the Mosquitia people that loses nothing of the essence of the original and is a fitting tribute to the indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples of the country.
In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Prospero, Duke of Milan, was stripped of power by his brother Antonio, put in a boat and handed over to the mercy of the waves, with his daughter Miranda. They landed on a desert island where the sorceress Sycorax had been banished. Thanks to his magical arts, Prospero freed several spirits imprisoned by the magician, including Ariel, and subjected them to his orders. He now had at his service the son of the sorceress, Caliban, a monstrous, abject and naive creature who is the only inhabitant of the island.
Prospero and Miranda lived on the island for twelve years. A ship in which the usurper Antonio, his ally Alonso, king of Naples, and Fernando, the latter's son, were travelling, was then shipwrecked off the island's coast because of Prospero's enchantments. The passengers were saved, but they believed that Fernando had died, while Fernando thought that the others had drowned. Fernando and Miranda met and fell in love as soon as they saw each other. Ariel, by order of Prospero, prepared some scares for Antonio and Alonso. Antonio fell down in terror and Alonso repented of his cruelty, was reconciled with Prospero and recovered his son Fernando. The ship was saved by the force of the spells, and Prospero and the others prepared to leave the island, after Prospero had renounced magic. The island remained in the power of Caliban.
The word ‘Caliban’, according to some Mexican scholars, comes from the word ‘cannibal’, and in the Mosquitia region there were historically known to be ramen, so this reinforced the choice of the play, but it was, thankfully, the least of the reasons it resonated with the Mosquitia community. It is a text that speaks of two worlds in collision, lending itself well to finding similarities between the indigenous peoples of Central America and the European colonisers. There is an assumption that progress can only come through outside influences and the subjugation of the history, traditions and culture of its original peoples; an arrogance that is sadly infiltrating indigenous groups across the globe. Today, the Honduras government is systematically selling the country piece by piece, perceiving that only investment from foreign multi-nationals will bring progress, giving no consideration to what could be achieved through local initiatives. It all begs the question, “What is progress, and who gets to decide when it has been achieved?”. Ocheo has envisioned and adapted Shakespeare’s play as a political tool, performed by Mosquitia community, in defence of their own territories and landscape.
The Mosquito coast is also an area of severe weather conditions and ecological disruptions. Traditional industries of lobster, green turtle and shellfish diving, and salt manufacture, are disappearing as the oceans are depleted, and frequent cyclones and hurricanes mean that the coastline is subject to serious flooding, land erosion and deforestation. Home to some of the poorest people on the planet, each new hurricane brings fresh devastation. In November 2020 alone, both Hurricane Iota and Hurricane Eta struck in quick succession; both category 5 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, they flattened whole villages in their wake, killing citizens and fishermen stranded in the water, knocked down trees, burst river banks, made roads impassable and meant there was no power available. These are a people who know the true meaning of ‘tempest’ all too well.
In The Tempest, Prospero represents the colonial master who uses his power to coerce both the climate and the indigenous people into behaving in the ways he wants; both are his 'slaves'. He controls the weather of the sea and the island, to serve anthropogenic interest, changing the fundamental features of the earth and the ecosystem, his arrogant and ecophobic attitude and activities throughout the play reflecting how the privileged humans have arbitrarily manipulated the environment as well as the underprivileged indigenous peoples. Prospero’s attitude was comprised of strong abhorrence for both natural environment and the indigenous people, though both were of the utmost service to him.
Caliban is a symbol of indigenous people whose identity, history, and culture are being taken away by colonisation. The setting of the island where Caliban and his mother live takes place, for Shakespeare, somewhere in the Mediterranean, but the non-specificity of the location caters to the endless possibilities for the readers, and in La Tempestad, it translates well to the situation of the Mosquitia people, highlighting the significance of colonialism and its impact on the indigenous people and on the earth. Language plays a crucial role here. The language that the natives are taught by the colonial masters becomes itself a tool of resistance for them. Caliban learns the language taught by Prospero, but he also uses the same language to register his protest against his colonial master.
Written at the crossroads of pastoral tradition and the wide forthcoming technological prospects, Shakespeare’s The Tempest sheds light on the intermingled relationship between climate change and indigenous values. Through the complex patterns of myth, magic, symbols and motifs, Shakespeare shows how indigenous culture, language, and history across the world are alienated and marginalized to the point of extinction, along with mindless manipulation and controlling of environmental resources. We tend to think of environmental issues as something of a ‘modern’ phenomenon, but Shakespeare’s The Tempest foregrounded the possibility of an impending dystopia when humans would no longer remain simply biological agents; but by virtue of their capacity to cause massive climatic changes, would soon turn into geological force. Despite the fact that the indigenous values are dedicated to the nurturing of the environment and eco-systems, it is the indigenous people who are most affected by the human induced climatic disasters. Therefore, as the play seems to suggest, a rigorous revisiting to the indigenous values remains the most effective possible way to save the earth and the lives on it.
The Tempest is always talked about as a play of reconciliation, but Ochoa has deliberately left La Tempistad without any sense of resolution of the deep-seated issues. In the Zoom discussion, he explained to Philip Parr, Artistic Director of York International Shakespeare Festival,
‘At the end of the play, Prospero forgives those who have wronged him, but he does not forgive Caliban, so for us this is the tipping point in the relationship with the colonised, saying that Caliban cannot do anything against Prospero, but in our ending Lyomides, the goddess of the water, re-establishes the order that Prospero has unsettled in the name of progress. So in the end, it is not Caliban who defeats Prospero, but nature taking back its place against what progress has usurped or destroyed, and this is very important for us, given that we are a country that suffers from hurricanes that destroy, lack of climate planning and excessive exploitation of nature. This is a debate that we are trying to rescue; the relationship between the indigenous people and nature. And so, in the end, the play is about reconciliation, but the reconciliation with nature.
A reconciliation in the future? We have to do something about it, but it’s not up to Prospero to fix it; it’s up to us outside the play to make that change. The Spirit of the Air points out that responsibility as an invitation to the audience and the wider public.’
La Tempestad was a brilliant example of what can happen when someone takes up the baton to champion ordinary people. There are some lovely testimonies to how participating gave confidence and boosted the self esteem to the cast members, and they all gave stunning performances. The play was in turns extremely funny and very emotional, but it also played its important part in moving the conversations on in Mosquita, and had its place on an international stage, because those same conversations need to be had across many parts of our world today. The audience were as mesmerising as the players; every person attending was focused on the story unfolding, and I had tears flowing when the applause rang out. Shakespeare, through the cast and creatives, was telling their story, the questions it posed were their questions, and when those questions begin to be acknowledged, uttered and brought out into the open, then the possibility of shackles being broken and wounds being healed is immeasurably closer...
La Tempestad is shown as part of York International Shakespeare Festival 2021. The full programme can be seen here.
Categories - Theatre Shakespeare
‘Eirenicon’ is a word that runs like a golden thread throughout Debra Ann Byrd’s solo theatre piece, Becoming Othello:A Black Girl’s Journey, and it embodies rather well her life’s ethos of taking those things that are matters of conflict, looking for a point of resolution to transform the status quo, and moving forward to bring about peace.
Written as part of her residency with Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust, in association with the University of Warwick and Misfit Inc, the autobiographical Becoming Othello: A Black Girl’s Journey, draws Byrd’s audience into a whirling, high energy, history of subjugation, abuse and loss, but also sparkles and dances with revelationary light, positivity, love, creativity, and victory. It is the story of a remarkable human being travelling towards the apotheosis of her art.
Byrd grew up in Spanish Harlem, her father absent, her mother an alcoholic who eventually died from her drink problem. She was abused, became pregnant as a teenager and, abandoned as a single parent, she was gang-raped. The only apparent constant in her life was the fundamentalist church she attended which eschewed modern versions of Scripture, preaching from the 1611 King James version. The rhythms and cadences of its language and stories were eirenicon to her unsettled existence. She loved to hear of the stuttering prophets who found their voices and purposes when they stood on high mountains, their attentive audience listening as they looked up from the valleys below, and she loved internalising the memory verses with their poetic motifs.
It was the church that gave Byrd her first experiences of both performing and leading from the front, and, for a time, it seemed that her future was to be one of training as a minister. Connections led to her becoming involved in ‘Gospel Theatre’, notably playing the part of Harriet Tubman, dubbed ‘the Moses of her people’ for her work in helping slaves escape and find their freedom via the Underground Railway movement; a part that opened for Byrd an awareness of black history.
At the age of twenty-six, Byrd was invited by a colleague to see a production at Harlem Theatre where a troupe of black actors were doing monologues and scenes from Shakespeare. It was the first time she had heard of Shakespeare, the first time she had encountered words from his texts and the first time she had understood that people of colour could be professional classical actors. She struggled to understand immediately what was happening, but recognised that the metres, rhythms and pulses of the language were deeply familiar to her, because they were the ones she had known since childhood through the King James Bible. More so, seeing the production was an epiphany that challenged her profoundly, bringing her to a realisation that she no longer wanted to commit to a ministerial training, but that she wanted to explore this playwright more and learn to speak his lines for herself.
Byrd enrolled at Marymount Manhatten College to study Acting. She had the good fortune to be taught the Classics modules by UK born actor, director and lecturer, Elizabeth Swain, who not only increased her passion for Shakespeare and all the Renaissance plays, but also gave her the expertise to perform the texts well, and to take the characters into her body and being. Shakespeare had well and truly wormed his way into her world.
On the last day of college, the realities struck home. An agent told her that, as a black female, she would never make a career in classical acting, least of all, Shakespeare. Feeling she’d lost sight of her dream and wasted the grant that had funded her education, letting down herself and others, she lay on her bed and cried.
But that spirit of eirenicon was fighting back. Byrd dried her tears, took a deep breath and looked for a way through that would transform the status quo and move the theatre to a place where there was parity and opportunity for every actor, regardless of colour, ethnicity, or gender.
In her first year of college, she had formed a theatrical support service named ‘Take Wing and Soar’ – the name taken from the Biblical reference in Isaiah about eagles being the birds that outstretch their wings and soar higher. It was the works of Shakespeare that had drawn Byrd to study. Acting Shakespeare had been her focus and purpose. Recognising that there must be many others who faced barriers, she reshaped her company to create a safe place where people of colour could play whatever parts they wanted without censure or judgement, but her vision was even bigger than that; Byrd wanted to encourage an environment where ‘all bases together’ flourished, no matter what their colour, race, indigenous identity, gender, background or culture. She wanted ALL to soar, and to do that they needed opportunity not just to recite the odd monologue or sonnet, but to take the lead parts and to explore Shakespeare’s characters in depth, so a further evolvement allowed her to become Founder and Artistic Director of Harlem Shakespeare Festival.
But what of her personal desire to play Shakespeare? As Artistic Director of Harlem Shakespeare Festival she now knew what the possibilities were when the plays find their way into new contexts, but it wasn’t until a conversation with LA actor Lisa Wolpe that she considered taking on Othello, with Wolpe as her Iago. The theatrical horizons were slowly changing, female actors began taking on male roles and she now had an opportunity to question how doing an all female version of the play changed/effected the story, and to explore fully whether a woman playing the male character in Shakespeare could be so convincing that she could be mistaken for a man. Byrd dropped her voice, and developed masculine gesture to such an extent that she began to live that persona off-stage, and discovered it was having a negative effect on those around her, who were unsure how to react to her. The role had completely enmeshed itself in the fabric of her being.
Byrd played Othello with as much dignity and respect as she could, discovering that when he was in pain, he went from a regular rhythm in his speech to words of three, four and five syllables, as oppose to normally when someone is angry where speech shortens to cursing words, or words of exclamation, that don’t extend beyond one or two syllables. Othello’s long emotional journey gave way to prolonged, flowery language and Byrd wanted to discover what those things really meant and why he was saying them. What was it that made Othello shift to a place where regular speech was no longer useful? Her investigations brought her experience of playing Othello full circle. Struck by the text given to Othello in Act 2, Scene 1,
'Twere now to be most happy, for I fear
My soul hath her content so absolute
That not another comfort like to this
Succeeds in unknown fate’
Byrd was arrested by the acknowledgement that Othello considered his soul to be a ‘her’. Othello had a feminine side, and in this recognition, Bryd began to further develop the character allowing her body to be ‘him’, but her soul to be ‘her’. In doing so, she found a balance between what was happening in performance, and how she was perceived off-stage by others.
Becoming Othello: A Black Girl’s Journey is a fascinating and vastly entertaining solo theatre piece. Byrd sings, dances, cries, draws upon the panoply of African-American voices that have served as spiritual guidance on her path towards gender-flipping on the classical stage, and she delivers the words that brought her to a new understanding not only of Shakespeare, but of her own place in the world, and of the opportunity that theatre as an entity offers for self-discovery. But it is also a testimony to Byrd's assertion that, “ … we must solve our problems globally - we must save the world together”.
When Byrd began the Harlem Shakespeare Festival, she was one of only two people of colour who ran Shakespeare companies in America. Now there are fourteen. Shift has started. In a recent interview with Paul Edmondson of Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust, she reported that at the height of the Black Lives Matter campaign, following George Floyd’s death, colleagues were attacked and Byrd began to lose confidence, asking herself whether she had really achieved anything. But that spirit of eirenicon shone through again, and she recognised that she had to push through; to keep doing what she was doing, because even in the violence and turmoil, good things were happening.
Many people of colour had being ‘doing’ Shakespeare for years, but they were being ‘kept out, put out and shut out’; the fight to change the space, the world and the conversation needs to go on. Today, everyone is aware of the need for diversity and inclusion. It’s on the minds of every theatre producer across the globe, and, whilst shift has begun, the industry needs to continue to sit at the table and have those really tough conversations about what happened, what is happening now, and what the future needs to look like if we want to live in a world that is more peaceful than it has been in the past. A future where the only reason actors don’t get the part, or directors, producers or scenic artists the job, is because they weren’t the best in the room, not because they were black, Asian, Hispanic or had indigenous culture.
Becoming Othello: A Black Girl’s Journey, is an inspirational piece, but then, it has its foundation in a woman who is truly inspirational herself. A woman who has figured out how to be her best self, both for herself and for the empowerment of those around her. Her eirenicon spirit has enabled her to traverse the helplessness and hopelessness, to find her place of victory and joy, and to encourage and support others to do the same.
A closing snippet from that same interview sums it all up. Paul Edmondson asks what she might hope her legacy will be. Byrd responds,
‘When life smacks you in the head and all you want to do is crawl under the covers and not venture out again, lie down for a second, take a breath and have a cry, but then wipe your face and get up and keep moving; and not just going through the motions. Get up and do something. Get up and live. Get up and love. Get up and find your excellence.’
Becoming Othello:A Black Girl's Journey
was performed as part of
York International Shakespeare Festival 2021.
The full programme can be seen here.
For anyone not familiar with Shakespeare’s Othello, in a very truncated nutshell, the plot is that Iago is furious about being overlooked for promotion and determines to take revenge against his General, Othello, the Moor of Venice. Iago manipulates Othello into believing his innocent wife Desdemona is unfaithful, stirring Othello's jealousy. Othello allows jealousy to consume him, murders Desdemona, and then kills himself.
Othello and Desdemona are nothing more than pawns who lose their lives needlessly in Iago’s game.
Teatr Otwarta Strefa have imaginatively taken the story forward in an extremely elegant and economically beautiful production, written and performed by Anna Rakowska and Piotr Misztela, to a point where Othello is sitting in purgatory’s waiting room expiating his sins before going to his final destiny. We immediately see that he is sitting on seat number 13, which does not augur well. The setting is a theatre or cinema, and there are definite overtones of Juliusz Slowacki’s Mazepa – Poland’s equivalent of our Macbeth in terms of superstition, and a play where blind envy also has a cruel outcome. The props are minimal, the central two being a chess game and a coat-stand cleverly puppeteered to create the presence of Iago; in life, Iago manipulated them, but now it is they who manipulate ‘Iago’.
Chess is an abstract strategy game and involves no hidden information, the two sets of players being literally black and white. Here, truth will out. There is no Emilia, no Cassio, no embroidered handkerchief and no whispered conversations to sully the facts. In life, Desdemona could not understand Othello’s coldness towards her; in death, she will know. A clock ticks as Othello comes through death and slowly recognises where he is, and there to welcome him is Desdemona, who then asks why he killed her. Othello’s memories are faint at first, as white noise on an erased video tape, but slowly unfold before him in filmic episodes. Together they piece the story.
Iago’s words taunt Othello even in death, inveigling their way into his consciousness. There is a beautiful scene where Othello sits at a chess board that is not laid out conventionally and correct order is disrupted, holding the white Queen (representing Desdemona) in his hand, struggling to understand and remember. Iago (represented by the black Knight) moves the white Queen, followed by the white Knight which is placed in ‘Protector’ position, indicating the truth of the matter. In the play, Cassio is sent to protect Desdemona as she travels. But seeds of doubt have been sown. Iago’s next move is for the white King (Othello) to illegally hover over the board - as Desdemona and Cassio are watched in the original play - before being brought to a position on the black pieces territory, where the black knight turns on him. The white King then comes to rest in a position where he and the Queen are clearly separated by the white Knight, making the betrayal seemingly obvious. Cassio and Desdemona’s pieces both moved in accordance with the legal rules of chess, but the black Knight moved first, above his rank, and created confusion. The white King was jostled from pillar to post without any consideration of the strict rules of play. I have no knowledge of Polish, but here the synopsis of Othello was told in an incredible stylish way that needed no language understanding to help it along.
The ghost of Iago is persistent and cruel, reinforcing his lies about Desdemona, until Othello becomes controlled by them, and donning Iago’s hat, bitterly humiliates her and puts money in her hand as if she is a prostitute. The white Queen is thrown from the chess board, rendering the match worthless.
The recollections stop just before the point in the play where Othello murders his wife. A light bulb moment appears to indicate that he realises that they have both been victims of a savage plot, but it is too late for reparation. The relationship cannot be saved, even in death.
Desdemona quietly takes up Othello’s line,
“Czy modliłaś się dziś wieczorem, Desdemono?
Jeśli myślisz o jakimkolwiek przestępstwie
Jeszcze nie pogodzony z niebem i łaską,
Proś o to wprost ”.
Desdemona exits the stage, knowing her own innocence, and Othello is separated from her, realising his guilt and ready to make his act of expiation. The white noise stops and the time of recollection is done.
The inevitability of it all is sad to watch.
Othello is, of course, a play through which the themes of race, the woman’s role in family and society and adultery thread like ribbons. Here, Othello is cleverly costumed with a black vest and socks, added to by a black blanket and finally Iago’s black hat as his thoughts become darker. Desdemona wears white throughout, innocent of all she is accused of. Interestingly, Iago, dressed in black from the beginning, hides behind a white mask as his manipulation becomes more sinister, perhaps symbolising the fact that this is a character who controls and is behind everything, his power emerging from his ability to pretend and put on different masks, and perhaps a warning to not allow ourselves to be fooled by the master of pretence in the play.
Teatr Otwarta Strefa’s Po Otellu is a well crafted and thought provoking study of what might happen after death comes to the characters of Othello, and I enjoyed it immensely. The music composition, ‘Timeless Thoughts’ by Jakub Kalafut was a hauntingly appropriate accompaniment to the whole.
Teatr Otwarta Strefa’s Po Otellu was shown as part of York International Shakespeare Festival 2021. The full programme of events can be seen here.
Categories - Theatre; Shakespeare ; York Theatre Royal
My first venture back into a real live post-Covid indoor theatre, and what a joyous restart it was. York Theatre Royal had everything organised very slickly – temperature, contact details, handwash, mask reminder; before I knew it, lovely Rita was in position, welcoming me and showing me to my seat and Noel was shimmying up and down the steps wiping the rails and surfaces, as if we’d all just stepped out of the building for a few moments break, not an exceedingly wearing year.
The Handlebards' company were steering the show with a few spokes missing; only Tom Dixon, Paul Moss and Lucy Green were on stage for this performance - this trio share a house together, or in pandemic speak, form a bubble, but it was from this situation that this revised version of Romeo and Juliet emerged, and it was all the more bonkers and wonderfully energetic for it.
There was no green grass, no audience singing, no birds overhead (though an insistent moth was determined to have its moment in the spotlights), no picnics to be rifled through, and participation was a bit hard-going, but all the elements of a Handlebards' extravaganza that we know and love were there. The pipe stage hung with ribbons, the colourful bunting, the crazy costume changes, the ingenious props, the bicycle puns, the sun and moon, and all the irreverence and silliness that could be packed into a saddle bag. All the characters played by three actors - sometimes playing several at a time – meant mayhem and confusion of the very best sort. Juliet wore her own balcony, Romeo ate Haribos and the nurse had bosoms that you could happily eat afternoon tea from without danger of any spillage. It takes serious talent to keep track of so many characters, so many voice and costume challenges and to do it with accurate comic timing.
And that is precisely why The Handlebards way of performing Shakespeare is so effective, and why it does such a great job of introducing the canon to newcomers to Shakespeare, and/or theatre, as well as engaging those who know the plays well. You have to know the work intimately in order to mess with it, and all of the Handlebards have a grounded understanding of Shakespeare – Paul previously worked with Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, Lucy trained in classical theatre at RWCMD, and other members of the company have worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company. There is a paring down of the text, a great deal of hilarity, but, at the heart, they still get under the skins of the characters and bring out the essence of the story being told.
The show was fast paced and gloriously funny (especially for a tragedy!) – just the antidote needed to counter the Covid-blues. Purists may have winced at one or two of the liberties taken with text, and those who had no knowledge of the story may have found it difficult to follow, but I defy anyone to watch without a smile and, lets not forget, that The Handlebards have engendered a love of Shakespeare, and theatre per se, in hundreds of young people through their workshops, performances and schoolwork.
In 1807, Lamb’s Book of Shakespeare written for Victorian young children, introduced Shakespeare’s plays without compromising the language, but removing the harder concepts within them. The Handlebards are admirably following on in that same tradition , in a modern initiative, giving a powerful rendition of what the plays are about in a way that is accessible and fun for those who see their work, and a way in to further investigation for those who desire that. Their performances are short, but that doesn’t stop them from hitting the mark. The viewer still has to pay attention to the work, there is no mistaking that it has its centre in the roots of Shakespeare and that his characters reside in every note, through actors who are extremely talented and know the calibre of the material they are working with. It’s enthusiasm like that that causes others to want to know more.
Exciting things are happening for The Handlebards. During the pandemic, some of the members have used their bicycles to deliver food and necessities to members of the community. Tom Dixon’s particular passion is environmental concern, and whilst Shakespeare isn’t inherently environmentalist, The Handlebars' tours are put together with as much green criteria as possible, and the company has now established Arts Council funding to support four artists in development to place sustainability at the heart of their work and build platforms for more environmentally aware cultural programming. The crisis has given them new focus, new ways of working and a confidence that their simple pipe stage and colourful banners sit as elegantly on the stage of an ornate theatre as they do on a woodland hillside. In summer 2021, an all-female Macbeth is scheduled. There’s so much to look forward to…
My first venture back into a real live post-Covid indoor theatre, and I couldn’t be more delighted that it involved The Handlebards' Romeo and Juliet. Juliet calling out for a plaster to address the stab from a bicycle pump that caused her intestines to be sprawled along the stage of York Theatre Royal is an image that will live long in my mind.
The Handlebards' production of Romeo and Juliet was shown at York Theatre Royal as part of the York International Shakespeare Festival 2021. The rest of the Festival programme can be seen here.
The Handlebards' Romeo and Juliet continues its tour to
Ventnor Park, Isle of Wight
May 29th – 30th, at 7.00p.m
Tickets from Ventnor Exchange.
On Aug. 11, 1596, William Shakespeare’s only son, Hamnet, was buried. He was 11 years old.
Almost nothing more is known about this child’s brief life, and how his death impacted his older sister, his twin sister and his parents is impossible to gauge. No diaries, letters, sonnets, or records have survived to give us a clue. There are a few tantalising references in Shakespeare’s plays to the anguish of grieving fathers, the recurrence of twins and, of course, a tragedy called ‘Hamlet’ (a variant of Hamnet), but nothing concrete enough to be certain. It is this absence of authoritative knowledge that provides Maggie O’ Farrell an entry point into her novel Hamnet, and let’s not forget that it is a novel but, what a beautiful, but devastating, lyrically rich novel it is.
O’ Farrell changes certain names of the Shakespeare clan – too many ‘Joans’, for instance, would have simply been too confusing for the reader, and Anne is known as Agnes, the name her father gave her in his will. Shakespeare is never named, known only as the husband, or the father. The place-name Stratford upon Avon is cleverly avoided, but location is firmly set by the street names, and the narrative sets us firmly in a 16th century England where the bubonic plague has arrived in Warwickshire. It is principally, a study of grief, written by O’ Farrell in a time when our own contemporary world is seeing hundreds of thousands die in one of its own deadly plagues.
“What is given may be taken away, at any time. Cruelty and devastation wait for you around corners, inside coffers, behind doors: they can leap out at you at any time, like a thief or brigand. The trick is never to let down your guard. Never think you are safe. Never take for granted that your children's hearts beat, that they sup milk, that they draw breath, that they walk and speak and smile and argue and play. Never for a moment forget they may be gone, snatched from you, in the blink of an eye, borne away from you like thistledown.”
In the centre of the book, there is a chapter that almost has the rhythm of ‘The House That Jack Built’ that momentarily arrests the story of Shakespeare and his family, transporting the reader to the Mediterranean, to begin a gripping lesson in 16th century epidemiology, then, as now, commerce and transport being the engines of disease. A glassmaker in Venice, a monkey in Alexandria, a cabin boy from the Isle of Man, a ship’s cat and several rats all playing their part in the intricate chain of transmission as infected fleas jump from body to body, sowing illness across Europe. It’s a fascinating and horrific demonstration of the same forces now driving a pandemic almost 400 years later. We may have better medical terminology and equipment, but our frantic missteps have at times sounded like echoes of the Renaissance. They had their beak-masked doctors prescribing onions and dried toad, whilst we have heard world leaders nattering on about light and bleach. O’Farrell isn’t merely creating a diversion from the story; she is setting the context that will allow the reader to understand the full impact of the helplessness of parents faced with the suffering of a child and, ultimately death.
The story belongs to Agnes, a skilled woman married to a restless man whose talents are more imaginative than practical. Constrained by the demands of motherhood and the limited opportunities of the time, she must exercise her influence indirectly and stealthily. The moves she makes to keep her children healthy and her spouse happy represent the hidden sacrifices that countless women have made, without thanks or credit, to support their husbands’ ambitions. That delicate negotiation grows far more perilous when the couple endures the death of a child and discover, as all those who go through that experience discover, that grief and love manifest itself differently from individual to individual. Agnes is stripped of all her confidence, her anguish bringing her to a place of deep depression and neglect of herself, others and her surroundings. Her husband secretes himself in a tiny writing chamber many miles from home, throwing his energies into his work and pouring his sorrow into the characters of his plays. A comedy, then a history, and then a tragedy whose protagonist bears the name of their lost son.
Yet, it is when the novel pivots to acknowledge that the husband too is devastated by the loss, that the way is paved for transformation and future hope to begin. Agnes, appalled that her husband has defiled their son’s name, bravely ventures into the alien city world of theatres, actors and plays that he inhabits. It takes courage to persevere to understand, but Agnes slowly recognises that the play is not an insult to Hamnet’s memory, but a rich exploration of madness, grief, love, family, and so much more.
O’ Farrell writes in a gloriously descriptive manner that makes the reader feel transported to sixteenth century. I read Hamnet in two days, finding it difficult to leave for any length of time. There are many books written about Shakespeare, very few about his wife, and whilst this isn’t biography, it vividly brings to life (and death) the world she inhabited; the customs, folklore, courtesies and expectations. Within the covers, we find searing details of giving birth, preparing a body for burial, growing an Elizabethan garden, mixing tinctures and elixirs, brewing, falconry and a wealth of other things pertinent to the 16th century lifestyle, but some things never change. The ribbon of fierce, atavistic maternal love that causes any mum to fight for her suffering child, by whatever means possible, and that changes irrevocably when that child cannot be saved, transcends all centuries, customs and traditions, and it is that that O’ Farrell captures so incredibly well.
This part of my site isn't about me at all.
It is about watching, observing and reading the work of others. Those who know what they are about, who have honed their crafts over many years and for whom I have the greatest respect and admiration.
I have learned, and continue to learn, so much from each show watched, each book read, each art work discovered and each person encountered, and I am humbled by their generosity of spirit in giving so much.