Stanley Wells at the Globe

Every English graduate in the world has heard of Stanley Wells, if only for his “Complete Oxford Shakespeare” we were all encouraged to purchase prior to first year. Having been blown away by James Shapiro months earlier, I was keen to enjoy another of the Globe’s “Shakespeare at 450” lectures.

Introduced by the Globe’s education director, Patrick Spottiswoode, as a man who has chosen to “dedicate his life to serving Shakespeare” as well, hyperbolically perhaps but no less entertainingly, as “Shakespeare’s ambassador on earth,” Wells shirked all aplomb with a pithy: “you’re so plosive,” in response.

The topic of the lecture was a run through of the greatest Shakespearean actors (“from Burbage to Brannagh,” as the trailed book will be named). The joy of a great academic is that, though I hadn’t initially thought this was of interest, Wells made it of interest; his talk encompassed so much more than this.

Quoting Laurence Olivier, who as you might expect made a number of appearances in the talk, Wells explained he had limited his exploration to stage actors, rather than film as: “film is the director’s medium, television the writer’s, and stage the actor’s.”

On “colourblind” and “gender blind” productions, of which there is a long theatrical history, Wells posited that the heightened style of Shakespeare’s poetic drama allows greater diversity of interpretation: if the audience is prepared to accept actors talking in verse, they are more likely to accept other differences.

According to Wells, great Shakespearean actors manipulate their bodies and their voices. Olivier was especially noted for seeking to allow the external presentation to reveal the inner, such as his “false face” when playing Macbeth (we were told his wife, Vivien Leigh, had commented of the intensely thick make-up: “first you hear Macbeth’s line, then Larry’s make-up comes on, then Banquo comes on, then Larry comes on”). They also allow for an emotional distance while playing – they need to inhabit the character, but also be half-aware of the responses of the audience to ensure they do not speak over laughter or applause, for example. He cited plentiful examples in Shakespeare of actors giving acting advice; Hamlet most notably, but also Coriolanus (when overcome with passion he cries: “like a dull actor now, I have forgot my part”). Great actors can project their understanding and inhabitance of the inner life of the character with every expression and every articulation.

The chief take-away point in my view was that, although the playwright provides the material, the actors “achieve a different reality” with every performance. They recreate Shakespeare nightly, each time rebuilding an intricate and original representation.

More and more, I worry I am not qualified to teach my year 13 students. As a sixth former myself, I remember being moved in English lessons by the enormity of ideas discussed; I remember knowing that literature was without doubt the centre of the world; I remember being exposed to new words and new ideas daily. Years of practice training students to pass (often poorly created, unchallenging) exams has not made me a great teacher of the A-level. I wonder if I am alone in considering that if only more such academic lectures were available for English teachers to attend, we could re-engage with the critical community, and find our joy, passion and all-fulfilling reason in literature again.

Shapiro at the Sam Wanamaker

Having reflected last week at Wellington Festival on my lack of departmental emphasis on subject knowledge, a visit to one of the Globe’s Shakespeare at 450 lectures was well-timed to put my mind at ease. I think we are blessed in English departments across the land to be able to expand our subject knowledge at leisure; certainly, all the English teachers I have met read plentifully, visit theatres and yes – attend lectures.

Arriving, as is my wont, incredibly early, I realized too late that I was standing next to the man himself – a Brooklyn accent caught my ear, and before I knew it he was being whisked into the room. A fellow nerd looked over to me, and I saw my own ridiculous grin reflected in his. “He was right there!” we murmured to each other, in a life-affirming exchange that should warm the hearts of Shakespeare geeks everywhere.

And for the non-Shakespeare geeks, who is Shapiro? Well, he’s fast becoming the celebrity literary critic du jour. Shakespeare will always be in fashion, and Shapiro has maximized his influence through some blockbuster tomes (1599; Contested Will) as well as notable television appearances. Having seen Shapiro’s recent BBC documentary on The Duchess of Malfi, I was especially excited to view the inside of the Globe’s relatively new indoor theatre, the Sam Wanamaker.

Neither disappointed, though the seats were about as comfortable as you would expect from a theatre created by the Globe. James Shapiro came onto the stage to silence an excited applause with a single hand, before explaining how the evening would go: he had, he said, a lecture prepared; he didn’t want to give that to us. He said he fed off such audiences; he wanted to know what we were interested in and that would drive his scholarship. We could ask him any question, on the condition that we stood to ask it, and it “was actually a question, and not a statement with an inflection at the end.”

And there began an evening of audience members asking any random Shakespeare question, and Shapiro answering it. The audience contained a large American contingent, which is still perplexing me but for which I imagine there is an excellent reason. One questioner asked about the reception of history plays in the US as opposed to the UK; Shapiro notes that only Richard III had been staged with success in the USA. The reason? For the UK, the history plays “are never about the past” – they are about now. They tell us as much about the politics of today as they do the politics of the Jacobeans, or indeed of Bosworth Field. Shapiro went on to advocate the importance of relevant Shakespeare, noting he would like to see a production of King Lear referencing the segmenting of Iraq.

On considering alternative “Globe theatres” (apparently they are all over the world), he noted that in an “increasingly godless age”, these outdoor theatres provide a space for us to “celebrate communally.” He also remarked that we’ve probably got the spec wrong for the current Globe – rather than 100 feet, it was probably 75 feet in width; however, as “we’re all fatter now” he still believed it was an authentic experience.

Exploring the theatre-going audience, Shapiro did some magic maths (London: 200,000 people; capacity of theatre being 1,000 people; number of plays a day/week; discounting for elderly and infants) to show that everybody went to the theatre all the time. He described the Jacobeans as “the most educated theatrical audience ever.” Later stories of interest include Ulysses S. Grant’s being cast as Desdemona in an 1840s Texan production of Othello. Despite not going on to play the part, Shapiro mused over the question of his having so directly explored the “mixed” marriage prior to the civil war.

The central message of Shapiro was that “all of Shakespeare’s plays are infused with the politics of the time”, and that we do him most justice when we also infuse him with our current concerns and politics. Asking the question: how did he walk the political line to not be punished for his representations, Shapiro noted that Shakespeare’s preservation came from “asking questions and not giving answers.”

On the authorship controversy, Shapiro noted that for 99% of Shakespearean scholars it simply does not exist. He noted that his own book on it was actually about “why smart people think dumb things,” and shared his joy at rhetorically beating to a pulp the director of Anonymous at its premiere; also delighting in its box office disaster. Shapiro closed this conversation saying he had written this book to “take one for the team”, writing it so that Shakespeare scholars “don’t have to waste another minute” considering it.

Looking forward to his next book, 1606, he mentioned he had felt uneasy about the “Elizabethanisation” of the age – half of Shakespeare’s output is Jacobean, and yet there are not even any critically acclaimed biographies of this king – we know too little about him and his reign.

A final question pivoted him back to the night’s major issue: how did he feel about “modern vs period Shakespeare”? Shapiro warned against the “fetishization” of Shakespeare – concern with doublets and sword-fighting detracts from what we should be concerned with, which is the lines: “the plays speak not only to the distant past but also to Shakespeare’s moment and also to the moment being staged.” He ended with a call to arms to directors everywhere to be always expanding the number of people interested in Shakespeare and who accept him as a part of their lives.

After this tour de force, the audience left buzzing with enthusiasm about the conversation that had just occurred, for with an audience packed with scholars bowing to a great one, the humility of the speaker had been empowering. I noted as I left the theatre, unaccustomed as I am to venture forth on a weeknight, that Shapiro had moved to the foyer to continue the conversation with individuals who were still milling around. A living critical legend.

Loving Shakespeare

I am going to confess to something which I am not proud of: at age 15, I proclaimed to my English teacher (the famed Dr Byrne, of whom more later) that Oscar Wilde was a better playwright than William Shakespeare. And I wasn’t being deliberately argumentative, like I usually was.

I just didn’t like Shakespeare at all.

I didn’t understand it, I didn’t relate to it, and I certainly didn’t know why I had to study it.

Then something changed my view of Shakespeare forever: the 1996 RSC version of Midsummer Night’s Dream. I was learning a Shakespeare speech for a LAMDA acting exam, something I am incredibly glad I was forced to do, and for the “discussion” part of the exam we had to be able to discuss the play in its entirety. I picked the DVD up from the library, only because there was no video, and settled down one afternoon in the kitchen. I distrustingly loaded the disc into the PC (a new experience) and shuffled onto a hard kitchen chair to watch it.

The set was incredible: from the man-made lake to the stand-alone doors leading to nowhere to the suspended light bulbs illuminating the forest. It was utterly beautiful. I watched this in 2001, with all my teenage disregard for the bard, at our enormous and unwieldy computer, and I was entirely gripped. The beauty of the staging drew me in, but the relevance of the words was delivered, it seemed, directly to me and directly to my own context. It spoke to me, in a way I hadn’t been spoken to by a play before. I laughed, I cried, and at last I understood.

I’m re-watching this version now to use to teach my year 7 and I am brought back again to the start of my love affair with the bard. Indeed, my single favourite thing about living in London is that I can see live Shakespeare for only £5 a show at the Globe Theatre.

Incidentally, another gem worth a watch is the Globe on screen version of Much Ado About Nothing. I remember watching this production in the theatre itself at the tail end of one of my most stressful teaching terms, and despite not even knowing the story (although my helpful teacher theatre companion did her best to enlighten me en route to the playhouse) found myself laughing uncontrollably.

But how to make my students feel this?

I really believe that the key is a great version; reading words on the page, even as an English teacher, is nowhere near the same as an accomplished actor conveying the lines. So much about plays, anyway, is in the staging, the direction and the delivery of the lines; a novel’s intended audience is only ever an individual, its intended reader’s setting irrelevant, its intended backdrop a blank page. A play clearly has very many more complex layers than this.

The brilliance of a Globe production filmed is not only in the superb acting, but in the nearness of the visible audience, all (in the Much Ado Globe on Screen, and in my own experience) cloaked in rain-macs and huddled to each other and the stage; all interacting with the performance. I am certain the responses of these very familiar-looking modern humans will help my students to appreciate that yes, real people right now laugh at this stuff.

I believe that Shakespeare must be seen first, and acted; not read and analysed to death (although that can come later). On showing my year 9 set 5 Baz Luhrmann’s Act 1 Scene 1 of Romeo and Juliet, my students were bewitched. They really loved it. As one commented: “I didn’t think it would be about people like me!” She might have found the language a turn-off when presented with the page, but seeing the live action challenged that initial distaste for Shakespeare.

I, and I am sure all English teachers, am begging directors and producers everywhere: please, please keep giving us game-changing, earth moving and relevant Shakespeare that we and our students can love.

After all this, I’m still not entirely sure I love reading the stuff. But watching – that’s an entirely different story.

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