Shakespeare and The Classics Club's July question

The question this month is:

Have you ever read a biography on a classic author? If so, tell us about it. If you had already read works by this author, did reading a biography of his/her life change your perspective on the author’s writing? Why or why not? // Or, if you’ve never read a biography of a classic author, would you? Why or why not?

This question came at just the right time for me because I’ve just finished reading Shakespeare: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd. It’s taken me a long time to read because I began it in March and have been reading it almost daily a few short chapters each day.

Ackroyd Shakespeare I bought the book in Stratford-upon-Avon some years ago after going to the theatre there. I first came across Shakespeare’s plays at school – doesn’t everyone? Years later I took an Open University course and studied more plays and managed to see productions of each one, either at the Barbican in London or at the Stratford.

So, I’m familiar with several plays, which helps enormously with reading Ackoyd’s biography as he has structured it mainly around the plays.  But above all, he has placed Shakespeare within his own time and place, whether it is Stratford or London or travelling around the countryside with the touring companies of players. Shakespeare spans the reigns of two monarchs, which saw great changes and Ackroyd conjures up vividly the social, religious and cultural scene. It’s a very readable book, full of detail. My only reservation about it is one I often have when reading biographies – there are inevitably assumptions, those phrases such as ‘must have’  ‘would have’, ‘most likely’, ‘could have’, ‘there is also a possibility that’ and so on that biographers use.

I learnt a lot that I hadn’t known before as my study of Shakespeare hadn’t gone much beyond the plays, and studying them as entities in themselves is not the same as seeing them in their contemporary settings, or as a part of his whole work. I knew very little (or if I did learn anything years ago, I’ve forgotten) for example of the theatrical world, of how the actors worked, their patrons and managers, nor about how Shakespeare interacted with other writers, or of how his work was received by the public and the monarchy. I particularly liked the sections on religion and the religious conflicts of the late 16th and early 17th centuries and his discussion about Shakespeare’s own beliefs and practices:

This raises the vexed question of his religion, endlessly debated through the centuries. It is true that he used the language and the structure of the old faith in his drama, but that does not imply that he espoused Catholicism. His parents are likely to have been of the old faith, but he did not necessarily take it with him into his adulthood. The old religion was part of the landscape of his imagination, not of his belief.

His own adult beliefs are much more difficult to estimate. It is possible that he was, in the language of the period, a ‘church papist’; he outwardly conformed, as in the ceremony of christening, but secretly remained a Catholic. This was a perfectly conventional stance at the time. (pages 446 – 7)

Ackroyd’s account of the language of the plays is also fascinating. Understanding the plays can be demanding. I’ve found that when I’ve seen a play acted it makes much more sense to me than when I’ve only read it and I’ve often wondered how the plays were understood by their 16th century audiences. Ackroyd considers that

Some of Shakespeare’s more recondite phrases would have passed over them, as they baffle even the most highly educated contemporary audience, but the Elizabethans understood the plots and were able to appreciate the contemporary allusions. Of course scholars of a later age have detected in Shakespeare’s plays a subtlety of theme and intention that may well have escaped Elizabethan audiences. But it may be asked whether these are the inventions of scholars rather than the dramatist. (page 349)

In a book of over 500 pages there is much more to be said about it than I’ve attempted in this post – I’ve only just touched the surface!

My overall view of this biography is that it is well researched, with an extensive bibliography, notes and index. Ackroyd acknowledges that he ‘came to this study as a Shakespearian enthusiast‘ rather than as an expert and lists other biographies that he found ‘most illuminating’.

In answer to the Classics Club question on whether reading a biography has changed my perspective on an author’s writing I think the answer has to be that it hasn’t really changed it but it has enhanced my understanding of the world in which Shakespeare lived and wrote and emphasised the fact that the plays are/were made for an audience:

Shakespeare relied upon the audience and, with such devices as the soliloquy, extended the play towards it; the drama did not comprehend a completely independent world, but needed to be authenticated by the various responses of the crowd. (page 349)

Macbeth at the Royal Shakespeare Company

We’ve been away most of last week visiting family and going to Stratford-upon-Avon to see Macbeth at the transformed Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

Watching a live performance of any of Shakespeare’s plays is a special treat, one that we manage less frequently now that we’ve moved so far away from Stratford, but combining our visit with a family occasion made it possible this year. The new auditorium is impressive with a huge stage thrusting into the audience, seating around 1,000 people on three sides of the stage. Our seats were in the stalls, very close to the stage, with a group of school children seated in front of us, whose reactions were highly amusing.

The set design was dramatic and atmospherically dark, shattered stained glass windows in a ruined church with defaced images of saints and piles of rubble on the floor. At one point in the play Macbeth and Banquo erupted onto the stage through holes in the back wall. There are no weird sisters in this version of Macbeth; the prophecy is announced in suitably ghost-like tones by three children (the children of Macduff) suspended in the air above the stage as though they have been hung on meat hooks.

It was the children and Seyton the porter who stole the show for me, although the other actors all gave excellent performances. The murder of the children had me gasping and almost in tears as Macduff’s little daughter was taken away to her death. Jamie Beamish as Seyton was fantastic and his pyrotechnics really shocked me. Jonathan Slinger portrayed Macbeth as an frenetic lunatic who made me decidedly edgy and I never knew how close to me in the audience he was going to get – I was glad I wasn’t on the front row.

A hugely enjoyable performance.

The Comedy of Errors: Shakespeare in the Open Air

Yesterday afternoon we went to see The Comedy of Errors performed in a circular garden on the side of the Elizabethan Ramparts in Berwick-on-Tweed. It was a brilliant performance by  London’s Shakespeare Globe Touring Company. We both thought this was one of the best, if not the best, performance we’ve seen. 

The day didn’t look promising when I woke up – the garden was shrouded in mist, first thing and then it drizzled all morning. The play would go on regardless of the weather but we didn’t fancy watching in the rain. Much to our relief by the afternoon it was bright and sunny in Berwick and armed with our new folding director’s chairs we found our way to the circular garden – a perfect setting for the play. It’s surrounded by trees, so sheltered from the sea breeze with the ramparts making an impressive backdrop.

Photos weren’t allowed during the performance, but during the interval I took this one of the booth stage and some of the audience:

The audience was mixed with families, babies, toddlers, older children and a dog. People had brought picnics, sandwiches, wine and champagne and the atmosphere was relaxed and happy; “anyone got a corkscrew?” one lady asked and as people laughed one was handed to her. Everyone had brought their own seating – garden chairs – plastic and wooden, folding chairs, blankets and rugs. Seagulls swooped overhead, a little aeroplane chugged across the sky above, and people stood above on the ramparts looking down. There was a bar selling beer, wine, coffee and snacks. I had a red wine and a cup of coffee and D had beer.

The booth stage is designed from paintings and etchings from Shakespeare’s time, when the company of actors he worked with toured the country before they formed a company at the Globe and even after that, taking the show on the road. This gave the performance an authentic 17th century feel, and as we were all so near the stage it was as though we had a part to play as well.

The Comedy of Errors is a farce and in these actors’ hands it was hilarious as they dashed around the stage and in and out of the audience.  The cast of eight actors was fantastic, the play went at a fast pace, the energy was amazing as they doubled up the parts of the two sets of twins and other characters too – confusion and mayhem was at its peak. Their timing was so slick, as they switched from one character to the next. I was wondering how they were going to handle the finale where the twins come face to face and it was masterful. Each twin brought on to the stage a life-size cardboard cut-out figure of himself – it was true comedy. 

I can’t praise it enough!

Julius Caesar

jc-progOur last visit to the RSC in Stratford was in 2007. We try to go for my birthday in August but last year left it too late to book tickets to see Hamlet; with David Tennant in the lead role tickets went very quickly!

This year we went to see Julius Caesar, at The Courtyard Theatre. (Work on the new auditorium is well underway but performances there still seem a long way off.) The RSC’s production emphasises how brutal, dangerous and violent the world of ancient Rome was.  As we entered the theatre and took our seats two scantily-clothed, dirt-streaked actors were fighting on stage like wild animals, portraying Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome – a dramatic addition to Shakespeare’s original text. This was followed by the Roman fertility festival of Lupercal – Lupercal is a cave on the Palatine Hill believed to be where a wolf suckled Romulus and Remus. I thought this was a most effective beginning, with the statue of the wolf suckling the twins projected on the backdrop, and showing a Rome full of violence, panic and hysteria. The cast was aided by video scenes of the crowd projected onto screens. It was actually very clever, if rather distracting but as we were sitting to one side of the stage I was able to ignore most of it.

The performance has stayed fresh in my mind. It was certainly a most entertaining production, and I enjoyed it even though it was slightly marred because I found most of Brutus’s dialogue inaudible. This may be because for his quieter speeches Sam Troughton had his back to our side of the stage, and yet I had no difficulty in hearing the other actors. His portrayal of Brutus emphasised the flaws in Brutus’s character – is Brutus really an “honourable man”? Clearly not, as Troughton’s “scared rabbit”, hesitant portrayal of Brutus came over as weak in complete contrast to Greg Hicks’s Caesar and particularly to Darrell D’Silva’s brutish and battle-scarred Mark Antony. As Cassius reveals, Brutus is easily persuaded over to the conspirators’ cause.

Julius Caesar is a play that has never convinced me that Caesar’s actions were so ambitious, nor of the justice or otherwise of the conspirators’ cause and this performance didn’t help. The conspirators came over as self-seeking and just as autocratic as Caesar, although strangely I found myself sympathising with Cassius, a character I didn’t take to when I read the play, with his “lean and hungry look”. Maybe this Cassius was just not that hungry, but nevertheless he was dangerous and Caesar would have done well to follow his own advice and avoid him.

The play draws attention to difference between the idealised image of Caesar and his infirmities – he is deaf in one ear, a weak swimmer and epileptic and Greg Hicks’s performance was powerful, if rather over-emphasised. However, Mark Antony’s vigorous and convincing devastation at Caesar’s death probably swung me over to his side. Darrell D’Silva’s performance was by far the best of the night.

Stratford and Twelfth Night at The Courtyard Theatre

D and I have been away for a few days. We went to Stratford to see Twelfth Night at The Courtyard Theatre. Although we have stayed in Stratford several times over the last 10 years and watched several plays performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company we had never been to The Courtyard Theatre before. We were quite surprised that it was some distance away from the main theatre and in what looks like a large rusty metal box. Fortunately the inside is nothing like the outside and the auditorium is impressive, seating over 1,000 people, with the audience seated around three sides of the stage. We were in the stalls and had a really good view of all the action on the stage.

On previous visits to Stratford it has been crowded with tourists and we’ve never visited Shakespeare’s birthplace. We didn’t make it this time either, but when we walked up to The Courtyard theatre in the morning before the matinee we followed the signs to Holy Trinity Church where Shakespeare was baptised in 1564, where he worshipped and where he is buried. Holy Trinity Church is a beautiful church dating back to the 13th century, set in a lovely, peaceful position by the River Avon. Perhaps next time we’ll manage to visit Shakespeare’s Birthplace and the Shakespeare Centre.

We stayed at the Alveston Manor Hotel. We’ve stayed here before, as it is just a few minutes walk from the River Avon and the RSC Theatre and also because the original timber-framed house is a beautiful Tudor building, full of atmosphere – leaded Elizabethan windows, panelled walls lined with paintings of Shakespeare and characters from the plays and photographs of old playbills. It is set in gardens with an ancient Cedar Tree under which, it is rumoured, the first performance of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ was given.

Twelfth Night

We went to the matinee performance. The theatre was full and as we waited for the play to start we overheard from the seats behind us: ‘Well Mother, this is going to be different. I’m hoping a lot of this will pass you by.’

At the end of the performance we overheard a conversation from a couple following behind us as we walked away from the theatre: ‘I thought Feste and Malvolio were the best.’ ‘Oh no’ came the friend’s reply ‘I didnt like Feste at all – ‘far too modern and the microphone! Her friend: ‘I didnt like Sir Toby, a woman doesn’t have enough stature to play a man.’ The cross-dressing was not to everyone’s liking, although I think the teenage element of the audience found it hilarious.

This was the second performance of Twelfth Night that we’ve seen by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford. The first time was in the RSC theatre, now closed because a new auditorium is being built (due to be completed in 2010). That was a traditional performance, complete with Feste, the fool dressed in motley, playing a lute, an Elizabethan set and was very colourful and funny. This performance was different. The setting was black; nearly all the actors were dressed in black Edwardian costumes and not a box-tree in sight. Feste was a dissolute musician in evening dress, playing a grand piano, and using a microphone into which he drawled at the opening of the play ‘Twelfth Night – or What you Will ‘ –  and the scene was set. On came Viola, shipwrecked, barefoot and in a nightdress and shawl, and obviously a man.

The play continued – Viola, believing her twin brother, Sebastian has drowned in the wreck ‘disguised’ as a boy, Cesario, goes to the court of the Count Orsino, who is besotted with unrequited love of the Lady Olivia, who repels his wooing as she is in mourning for her dead brother. Everything is topsy-turvy in this play and this performance certainly demonstrated that, with Sir Toby Belch (Olivia’s uncle), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (a foolish foppish knight) and Fabian (a servant) all played by women, giving a pantomime performance and reminding me somewhat of the hobbits in Lord of The Rings – small in size but yet full grown and different from adult men. I could suspend my disbelief to enjoy their performance, even though I found it a bit bizarre, but I’m sorry to say that I found the performance of Viola/Cesario (Chris New) was just not convincing – even though I know that originally women’s roles were played by boys, there was no way that I could conceive he was a woman disguised as a boy, nor that Olivia could possibly find such an effeminate young man attractive, let alone fall in love with him and this grated and irritated me throughout the play.

I did like Feste (James Clyde); his foolery, his bored condescension and his singing were superb. I also liked Olivia (Justine Mitchell) and her housekeeper Maria (Siobhan Redmond) who both gave spirited and convincing performances. Malvolio (John Lithgow) was magnificent in his portrayal of the ridiculous steward driven into seeming madness, wearing cross-gartered yellow stockings and smiling grotesquely. The grand piano had to stand in for the box-tree, so that this was where the tipsy Sir Toby (Marjorie Yates in tweeds) and the others hid to watch Malvolio find the letter written to fool him into believing Olivia loves him and it worked quite well, as the actors popped up and down commenting on and sniggering at Malvolio’s conceit and self importance.

Twelfth Night relies on the use of language and wit and is essentially a comedy about deception and disguise, about illusion and reality, about what is sane and what is rational and above all about love, the irrationality and unruliness of love.

Like the lady behind me I thought Feste and Malvolio were the best and I’d add Maria and Olivia as well – they were all excellent and made the play one that I enjoyed and will remember.

An added bonus was that whilst in Stratford I bought a hardback copy of Peter Ackroyd’s Shakespeare: the Biography for the bargain price of £3.35.