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Knowing Shakespeare (Nonesuch spring 2016)

Jo Elsworth, Director, University of Bristol Theatre Collection

Emily Watson OBE (BA 1988, Hon MA 2003) Independent Talent Group Ltd

Robin Belfield (BA 2001) RSC, Rob Freeman

13 May 2016

Saturday 23 April 2016 marked the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. Nonesuch unearths a wealth of memorabilia in the University’s Theatre Collection, and former and current students explain how the world’s greatest playwright has touched their lives and work.

Jo Elsworth
Director, University of Bristol Theatre Collection

With Shakespeare being such a key part of our theatrical heritage, and featuring in many of the Theatre Collection’s holdings (particularly the London Old Vic, Bristol Old Vic and Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory archives), it was difficult to decide how best to mark his 400th anniversary.

Our current exhibition of memorabilia, Shakespearabilia, shows how Shakespeare’s image has endured. Most of the likenesses we are familiar with today are drawn from just two portraits: the ‘Chandos’ portrait, painted between 1600 and 1610 and named after its owner, the Duke of Chandos (attributed to John Taylor) and an engraving by Martin Droeshout that features as the frontispiece to the collected works of Shakespeare (the First Folio), published in 1623. Memorials at Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, and in Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey, have also endured as recognisable images of Shakespeare.

No one is certain how accurate these depictions are, but the images have remained relatively unchanged and even influenced popular culture, appearing on everyday items from shoehorns to beer bottles and tea bags.

Most of the objects in the exhibition come from the Raymond Mander and Joe Mitchenson Collection, acquired in 2011. The collection is a lifetime’s work of two actors, who first met in a production of The Merry Wives of Windsor in the late 1930s, and formed a personal and professional partnership that lasted until Mander’s death in 1983. Many of the exhibition items are on public display for the first time.

Running alongside Shakespearabilia is a display by MA History of Art students focusing on unexpected productions of Hamlet. As an accredited museum and one of the world’s largest collections dedicated to British theatre history, we hope our activity will pique visitors’ interest and show that there are many different ways to think about Shakespeare. 

Dr Anna Farthing (BA 1987)
Visiting Fellow in the School of Arts, and a creative producer in performance and heritage

I was extremely fortunate to access the Theatre Collection during my undergraduate degree. From studying ‘stuff’ I understood how creativity is stored in material things.

My work in performance and heritage is informed by that early experience, as is my approach to Shakespeare. I have directed productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Pericles and Twelfth Night and I was a board member of the Bristol Shakespeare Festival, which programmes performances in outside spaces each July. But my habit of rummaging in archives has also led to a fascination with how Shakespeare’s life and work can resonate across time and space. 

As a trainee director at the National Theatre in the 1990s, I worked with Emily Watson (below) on Fair Ladies at a Game of Poem Cards by Chikamatsu (1653-1725), translated in blank verse by Peter Oswald. Familiarity with Shakespeare helped both actors and audiences to access the story, recognising Jacobean themes within the Japanese setting. Later I wrote an imaginary meeting
between Shakespeare and actor-manager Isabella Adreini (1562-1604), who led the Compagnia dei Comici Gelosi. Andreini improvised in several languages in the tradition of commedia dell’arte and toured Europe at a time when women were still banned from the English stage.

Most recently I created War, Women and Song inspired by Lena Ashwell (1872-1957), who not only provided entertainment for troops during the First World War, but also toured Shakespeare to civic halls between the 1920s and 1940s. A stickler for discipline, she famously sacked the young Lawrence Olivier for bad behaviour.

The Theatre Collection is invaluable in providing professional artists with a sense of continuum, as well as the inspiration and confidence to generate new material in any circumstances. I treasure it.

Emily Watson OBE (BA 1988, Hon MA 2003)

Shakespeare was a big part of my life growing up: my grandmother and mother had a quote for everything. When I was seven, my parents took me to see a Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) production of As You Like It. I was enthralled. Shortly after that, I saw Judi Dench in Much Ado About Nothing and nearly stopped the show laughing my head off.

Studying English at Bristol, I played Beatrice in Much Ado to Matthew Warchus’ (BA 1988, Hon DLitt 2010) Benedict. He’s a director now [at London’s Old Vic], but he’s also a fine actor and very funny.

At drama school, I really began to engage with the language of Shakespeare. I learned how the rhythm and structure of his blank verse gives you all the clues you need to play any of his characters.

I joined the RSC on a ‘play as cast’ contract, where you play whatever’s thrown at you – for two years, it was mainly spear-carrying and wenching. But I got to understudy some great actors and learned a tremendous amount.

Most importantly, I met my husband John Waters. Although he’s no longer an actor, we’ve always shared a love of theatre. Our daughter is called Juliet.

Since those early days, I’ve had a long career in film and TV, but I did get to play Viola in Sam Mendes’ production of Twelfth Night at the Donmar Warehouse in London in 2002, and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I remember vividly the heartache of its poetry. However many times I heard it, it was still a sucker punch. I hope I’ll play Shakespeare again one day.

Kieron Mieres (BA 2013-)
Third-year English student

I read Hamlet at school, and didn’t really understand it; it was like a foreign language. But I’ve come to appreciate that it all boils down to Shakespeare’s understanding of human nature. 

It’s amazing, the way he achieves such empathy for such a wide range of people. I feel as if I’d have to live a thousand lifetimes to get under the skin of someone like the 19-year-old Ophelia in Hamlet, who’s torn between her father, her brother and her lover, and whose first experience of love ends in heartbreak and insanity.

Shakespeare takes people as they come. He doesn’t judge; his characters aren’t solely defined by their religion, or politics, or philosophy – they’re complicated, conflicted and real. Then he sets
them side by side, and watches them interact. The more you study Shakespeare, the more open you become to other points of view.

You get different things from reading and watching the plays. Reading is much more contemplative; at a performance, you get snatched into the world of the play. I saw Titus Andronicus at
Shakespeare’s Globe last year, and people actually fainted. It wasn’t the violence so much as the raw emotion of the characters – it was visceral. It’s astonishing that a 400-year-old play can have that effect on a modern audience.

I’ve had some great tutors, particularly Dr Laurence Publicover, who has encouraged me to question the Aristotlean definition of the tragic hero as victim. Take Macbeth, for example. Yes, he’s
unlucky – he’s a great talent in a mediocre world, his wife is plotting against him, he lives in a society where murder is a normal method of advancement. But he’s also ambitious, and a villain.

Studying Shakespeare has enabled me to take a step back and think about what makes other people tick. That’s never going to leave me.

Robin Belfield (BA 2001)
Director and RSC Young People’s Performance Developer

I work with schools and theatres to develop teachers as directors. I help them explore Shakespeare’s plays from a performance perspective, engaging young people as actors rather than scholars of the texts.

This work feeds into a unique co-production of A Midsummer Night's Dream: A Play for the Nation (also known as dream2016) between the RSC and amateur companies across the UK to celebrate Shakespeare’s anniversary. At 14 venues, the professional cast will 
be joined by amateur actors playing the parts of the mechanicals (the six characters who perform the play within the play), and schoolchildren in Titania’s fairy train.

As part of dream2016, I worked with 42 schools and theatre companies on a shortened version of the play, The Dream. Students from six different regions rehearsed a section of the play, and came together to perform at their local theatres in March. Some of those students from each region will then perform at the RSC’s Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon in July.

Many of the youngsters I work with are new to Shakespeare and have no preconceptions. But I also meet those who think the plays are difficult or boring, and it’s a challenge to get them to open their minds. The easiest way to do this is to get them to speak the words out loud. There are lots of clues for the performer in the text: the trick is to find them.

I love rediscovering Shakespeare through performance – a speech I think I know well becomes fresh in the mouth of a different actor. But the real reward is to help a young person connect with the language and watch them speak it with confidence and feeling.

Memorabilia from the Theatre Collection's exhibition, Shakespearabilia

Listen to the audio version (mp3)

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