A Birthday Blog for the Bard

As the world marks the death of William Shakespeare, 400 years on, there have been many celebrations of his work across the globe. Today I want to share some of them – the ones that have particularly resonated with me.  Here in Hong Kong, we have just had the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) performing some of the Histories, all the Henries, in repertoire, to great acclaim. The company then moved to Beijing, where those plays have never been been seen before. My first offering, therefore, is a lecture by Gregory Doran, artistic director of the RSC,  given upon his return from this tour. Entitled Is Shakespeare Chinese? , Doran speaks beautifully about the universality of Shakespeare, and for those of you that follow Theatre Room, you will know that this is something that often raises questions for me….but more of this later.


As a theatre practitioner, generally people expect you, firstly, to love Shakespeare with a passion, and secondly, to have seen every single play he ever wrote. My answers to both of those inevitably provoke a surprised response, which I secretly quite like. Recently, one of my students, Nadia, chose a speech from King John to use in a solo performance employing some of the techniques of Jerzy Grotowski. The outcome was stunning, the words brought alive in an incredible way. I have never seen or read King John but that performance has now compelled me to do so. This brings to me to my next share, a series of Shakespeare’s monologues and soliloquies performed by some of the UK’s most respected actors. Filmed for the The Guardian and presented in two parts, they are very compelling viewing.



An accompanying piece written by theatre critic Michael Billington, also for The Guardian, explores three of the films in greater detail. Connecting to this, in an article for The Independent, journalist Oscar Quine interviews Cicely Berry (pictured below), who has been voice coach at the RSC for over 45 years. Known to be a force of nature (Berry has worked with some of the best known actors over the last half century) the piece, The RSC’s formidable voice coach reveals how to capture the sound of Shakespeare, makes interesting reading.


Another two-part documentary really caught my imagination. Made for the BBC and written and presented by historian Simon Schama, eponymously titled Simon Schama’s Shakespearesthey explore the world of Shakespeare and how it shaped his writing. They are both worth a watch as Schama manages to vividly connect the plays and their characters to the contemporary world in which they were written to exist.



And finally, in the interests of balance, another BBC production from their programme strand Arts Nightin which writer and broadcaster Andrew Marr champions some great Renaissance dramatists who, he posits,  have been neglected because they worked at the same time as William Shakespeare.



A Devine Wright?

abridged-shakespeareAs much of the world begins a new academic year, so does Theatre Room. I am going to pick up where I left off in August with a further two articles that were published as a result of comments made by Ira Glass about Shakespeare and his relevance to a contemporary audience.

The first one that particularly caught my attention was written by Noah Berlatsky for The Atlantic. In it,  Berlatsky talks about Shakespeare’s political conservatism and how this shaped his writing.


Ira Glass recently admitted that he is not all that into Shakespeare, explaining that Shakespeare’s plays are “not relatable [and are] unemotional.” This caused a certain amount of incredulity and horror—but The Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg took the opportunity to point out that Shakespeare reverence can be deadening. “It does greater honor to Shakespeare to recognize that he was a man rather than a god. We keep him [Shakespeare] alive best by debating his work and the work that others do with it rather than by locking him away to dusty, honored and ultimately doomed posterity,” she argued.

Rosenberg has a point. A Shakespeare who is never questioned is a Shakespeare who’s irrelevant. And there are a lot of things to question in Shakespeare for a modern audience. One of those things, often overlooked in popular discussions of his work, is his politics.

Shakespeare was a conservative, in the sense that he supported early modern England’s status quo and established hierarchy, which meant defending the Crown’s view of divine monarchical right and opposing the radicals, often Puritan, who questioned it.

For all the complexity and nuance of Shakespeare’s plays, his political allegiances were clear. James I was his patron, and Macbeth in particular is thought to be a tribute to the King. It even includes a reference to the Gunpowder Plot assassination attempt at James. That reference is made by Lady Macbeth as part of her effort to convince her husband to murder Duncan. The villainous traitors in the play are thus directly linked to traitors against James.

Macbeth isn’t a one-off to flatter the King, either: Rebels and usurpers in Shakespeare’s plays are always the bad guys. When Hamlet spits out the lines:

Oh fie, fie, ’tis an unweeded Garden
That grows to Seed: Things rank, and gross in Nature
Possess it merely.

The vision of sickening wrongness there is in part repulsion at his mother marrying his uncle, but it’s also a political disgust at the fact that the rightful ruler is gone, replaced by a usurpur. What’s “rank and gross” is not just sexual impropriety, but perversion of divine order. The Tempest is about restoring the rightful Duke to his place in spite of his usurping brother, while Othello shows that Shakespeare’s sympathies are not just with kings, but with any authority figure, as the sneaking underling Iago attempts to overthrow his noble Captain. It is significant here, too, that (as many critics have pointed out) Iago has no real motive for his animosity. He does not articulate a critique, or even a complaint, about the way Othello exercises power. Instead, he simply says:

I hate the Moor
And it is thought abroad, that ‘twixt my sheets
He has done my office: I know not if’t be true;
But I, for mere suspicion in that kind,
Will do as if for surety.

Rebellion against one’s superiors is presented as a matter of misguided jealousy and intrinsic spite. Similarly, the Puritan Malvolio in Twelfth Night, who aspires to the hand of a woman above him in social standing, is a hypocrite and a fool. The Puritan political resistance, or the Puritan ideological opposition to hierarchical norms, is never voiced, much less endorsed.


In Shakespeare, those in authority rarely provoke resistance through injustice. In general, the one thing Shakespeare’s rulers can do wrong is to shirk their authority, trying to retire too early (King Lear) or consorting with those beneath them (Henry IV.) Often, their role is to come on at the end as a kind of hierarch ex machina, assuring all that “Some shall be pardon’d and some punished,” like the Prince at the end of Romeo and Juliet, or Prince Fortinbras at the end ofHamlet (“with sorrow I embrace my fortune”—yeah, we bet you’re sorry).

It’s sometimes said that Shakespeare always wrapped things up with a king on his throne and all right with the world as a reflection of a general belief among his contemporaries in the Great Chain of Being—a conception of the universe as divinely ordered hierarchy, each subordinate in his or her divinely ordered place. But there were many people in Shakespeare’s time who were mistrustful of kings and received authority—real-life versions of Malvolio, who Shakespeare pillories. Within his own context and within his own milieu, Shakespeare consistently championed the most powerful, and set himself against those who challenged their authority. He saw hierarchy as good and rebels as evil.

None of this is a good reason to dismiss Shakespeare. But it is a good basis for critical skepticism toward him. What would Twelfth Night look like from Malvolio’s perspective—or even from a perspective where it is not on its face ridiculous to imagine someone marrying across class? What real grievances might Iago or Macbeth have if it were possible for Shakespeare to show us an authority figure who isn’t a paragon? What happens to Julius Caesar if the rebels have some actual, genuine concerns about tyranny? As Rosenberg says, Shakespeare was a man, not a god—and as a man, he had a particular perspective, particular axes to grind, and particular blind spots. His plays aren’t entombed, authoritative holy writ; they’re living arguments, which means that, at least at times, they’re worth rebelling against.

The second comes from The Washington Post, written by Alyssa Rosenberg and explores the notion that the way a play is adapted/staged/interpreted will, of course, have a bearing on its relevancy to a modern audience: What we get wrong when we talk about Shakespeare.

A Shakespearian Smorgasbord

Today’s post is a bit of a pick and mix of all things Shakespeare that have come my way recently. Firstly, a very recent interview with Sam Mendes, acclaimed director of both stage and screen.  His latest theatrical outing was directing Simon Russell Beale as King Lear at the National Theatre in London. Here he is in conversation with Mark Leipacher about that very production.


Along with Mendes, there are a series of video and audio recordings from the National that talk with the actors about their approach to creating all the major roles in Lear. You can listen to Talking Lear here or watch them here.  Another from the same series, which is really interesting, is a discussion hosted by theatre critic Michael Billington between psychoanalyst, Mike Brearley, and academic, Laurie Maguire, where they discuss Shakespeare’s understanding of the complexities of the human mind and how these would appear to be evident in King Lear.


Finally in connection with King Lear Simon Russell Beale wrote a piece for The Telegraph in April, Whys Shakespeare always says something newin which talks at length about playing the Bard, the dangers of editing the text and why he considers that Shakespeare still has something to say today.


Another production that has been making headlines beyond its rave reviews is Titus Andronicus currently at The Globe Theatre, London. Titus is renowned for its violence – 14 deaths, a brutal rape and scenes of mutilation and cannibalism. Inevitably, stage blood is often used by the litre in productions of the play, and occasionally to great and gruesome effect.  This particular production has clearly pushed the boundaries, being described as full of violence and sick humour in Hannah Furness’ article for The Telegraph, Globe audience faints at ‘grotesquely violent’ Titus Andronicus. The fainting count at the time the article went to press was growing rapidly. If rumours are to be believed, the largest number to faint so far in one performance is 43.


It is clear from the publicity photographs why the squeamish are not faring well at The Globe. Indeed those who faint have been dubbed ‘droppers’ by fellow theatre goers and Globe staff. Furness writes:

One theatre-goer, who watched the show’s opening night, said there had been “quite a few droppers” in the audience, who fainted upon seeing so much blood. Another reported he had “almost puked” by the interval, while a third warned: “You will definitely need a strong stomach”. Others praised the “Brilliantly staged and flawlessly acted” production, but warned of “blood and violence galore”

What is amazing that amongst all the gore, the director, Lucy Bailey has also been highly praised for bringing out the darkly comic elements of Titus and making sense of what is often seen as faltering marriage of knock-about humour and extreme suffering on Shakespeare’s part.


I16iht-lon16-superJumbo_Fotorn her article for The Guardian, There’s method in theatre’s blood and goreMarina Warner talks about violence on stage through history, why tragedies such as Titus bring us face to face with intense violence and how they also carry a vital contemporary message. A great read.

There is some really good related reading on The Globe’s website. One is a great piece wittily entitled Food for Thought by Cedric Watts about the cannibal or anthropophagous banquet scene in the play.  Another is The Sound of Cracking Bone by Robert Shore which looks at the rehabilitation of Titus as a play of substance and how staging it in a theatre resembling its original setting allows it to breath again. It also reminded me of my favourite of Shakespeare’s stage directions, which comes from Titus, 

Enter a messenger with two heads and a hand

The maxim, there’s no such thing as bad publicity seems to have held true for The Globe and they have quietly taken advantage of the ‘droppers’ to garner extra publicity for the show. No one has actually said how much stage blood they are getting through, but it didn’t stop one intrepid journalist heading off to find where it was all made. There will be blood! written by Nick Clark for The Independent visits the suppliers of the fake blood for Titus who make up to 450 litres of the stuff every week and have doubled their production in the last year, largely due to bloody productions of Shakespeare’s plays.

Finally for today, a shout out for The Internet Archive which has recently posted the Orson Welles Shakespeare Collection, a selection of Shakespeare’s plays adapted for the radio by him in the 1930s and which were groundbreaking at the time. Welles is perhaps best known for the movie Citizen Kane, as well as one of the most famous broadcasts in the history of radio, his adaptation War of the Worlds which caused widespread panic when American listeners thought it was real and that an invasion by extraterrestrial beings was taking place

Orson Welles as Brutus in However, he was also a celebrated Shakespearian actor and during the late 1930s, Welles was the toast of Broadway, thanks to a string of audacious revivals of the Shakespeare’s work. The most famous of these was his 1937 adaptation of Julius Caesar. Welles costumed the piece in modern dress with soldiers wearing what looked like Nazi black shirts. The show was lit in such a way as to recall a Nuremberg rally. Obviously this was playing at a time when Hitler’s power was growing, and the production is said to have jolted American audiences and made Welles famous, with Time Magazine even putting him on its cover.

The recordings made available by The Internet Archive are obviously dated and sound quality is not always great, but they have a surprising intensity about them. You can access them here and I have embedded Julius Caesar to give a flavour of what the rest are like.


Going Global

I found myself recently in a conversation about what the term World Theatre means? I came to the conclusion that it depends on where in the world you are. For me, Cantonese Opera is not World Theatre because it exists on my doorstep, but for my students the work of Harold Pinter is, for example, as is the Broadway Musical.

But an announcement last week by a theatre company got me back on to this subject and it really got me thinking. The Globe Theatre in London, who I also wrote about recently, said they are sending a production of Hamlet on the first genuine world tour in theatre history. Starting on 23 April 2014, the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, the company will spend two years travelling by planes, trains, boats and buses to visit every nation on Earth – 205 countries in all.  My immediate thoughts were, ‘is this inspired or is it arrogance  – only a British company would consider doing this?’. However, a quick Google search later disabused me of my cynicism. The proposed tour was reported in Canada, Australia and the US (not surprisingly, you might think), but also in India, China, Egypt, Turkey and many other places where English is not spoken as a first language. The saintly Peter Brook commented that it is:

a bold and dynamic project……the six simplest words in the English language are ‘to be or not to be’. There is hardly a corner of the planet where these words have not been translated. Even in English, those who can’t speak the language will at once recognise the sound and exclaim ‘Shakespeare!'”


According to The Globe’s artistic director, Dominic Dromgoole the idea came about because they wanted to build on the festival they hosted last year where all 37 Shakespeare plays were performed in 37 different languages, by actors from 37 countries. I wrote about it my post Globe to Globe. Further details were given in an interview with Maev Kennedy in the Guardian

Globe theatre plans 205-nation Hamlet world tour

Two-year tour will start next April on 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, and aims to visit every nation on Earth

“I think having a lunatic idea is a very good thing, it’s a great way to keep everybody focused and dazzled and delighted by the ambition and energy of the company,” said the artistic director, Dominic Dromgoole. “If we’re going to do every country in the world it has to be every country, we’re not going to leave anyone out. All the ‘Stans, South and North Korea – we’re very keen to get into North Korea. Antarctica? Fuck yes.”

He said it had to be Hamlet for the project. “It is an iconic play, instantly recognisable anywhere. It has that capacity to question, to challenge, to inspire in any country in the world,” he said.

The show will open at the Globe next April, and close there exactly two years later on 23 April 2016, which also happens to be Dromgoole’s last day as artistic director.

The 204th and 205th stops are already decided: the Rift Valley in Kenya – “where human life began on Earth”, Dromgoole said – and Elsinore in Denmark, the castle where Shakespeare set his tragedy. They will be performing in theatres, in town squares, on beaches and in jungle clearings. There are, however, many gaps and question marks in the plan.

The company will snake across Europe, at one point playing four countries in five days, into the Caribbean, America north and south, down the west coast of Africa, on into Australia and the Pacific islands (“logistically that could be quite hard work,” Dromgoole said, looking slightly anxious for the first time) on to Indonesia, Japan, China and Asia, back up the east coast of Africa, to Elsinore and then home. Easy.

Hamlet at the Globe

The experiment is unprecedented but builds on links forged through the Globe’s last spectacular attempt to link nations through the words of the glover’s son from Stratford-upon-Avon. Last summer as part of world Shakespeare season celebrating the Olympics, the Globe invited companies to come and perform every play the Bard wrote in 37 different languages – including Troilus and Cressida in Maori, Two Gentlemen of Verona in Shona (spoken in Zimbabwe and Zambia), and the Henry VI plays divided among the Balkans in Serbian, Albanian and Macedonian.

The season proved a wild success, seen by more than 100,000 people in six weeks, 80% of them first-time visitors to the Globe. “It was such a fantastic experience I thought we need to keep that energy going, we need another bananas idea,” Dromgoole explained.

The touring Hamlet will be the Globe’s scaled-down version, which has already been admired in UK tours, with a cast of eight – from a company of 12 to allow for illness and even the odd day off – playing more than two dozen roles between them, scampering through the text of Shakespeare’s longest play in just over two and a half hours.


Although they hope to attract sponsorship, the unsubsidised main house on the South Bank has been making a handsome profit in recent years, and small-scale tours having been covering their costs or better.

Since Dromgoole launched Romeo and Juliet in a camper van six years ago – the modern version of the strolling players of Shakespeare’s day arriving in a wagon piled high with props and costumes, he said – he has been trying to reach the parts other tours don’t touch.

This summer he is sending a company out to play Shakespeare’s history plays on the actual battlefields that sparked regime change,  with Henry VI on the wide green fields in Yorkshire where in 1461 streams ran red with blood and ditches were choked with bodies at the battle of Towton.

“Touring is in our blood,” Dromgoole said. “It’s what Shakespeare’s company did, it’s what we do – and it’s great fun.”

Another interview here with The Globe’s executive producer, Tom Bird, gives you an even greater idea about the possibilities and logistics behind the tour.

I have to applaud Dromgoole for his vision. It is inspired. Perhaps Shakespeare is the true World Theatre? He is performed in the original and in translation all over the world. I was reading an interview with a Kuwaiti actor yesterday who said his greatest challenge and love was always Shakespeare (in Arabic). I’ve seen bilingual performances here in Hong Kong. Shakespeare is a favourite in Korea.

This tour will be an interesting one to follow once it gets underway. I am looking forward to how it is received. You can follow it on Twiiter @WorldHamlet.