‘It’s such a joyous play’: four leading actors on playing Shakespeare’s great roles

For his new book Shakespeare On Stage: Volume 2, experienced actor Julian Curry – who himself has appeared in twenty-one of Shakespeare’s plays – spoke to twelve leading colleagues about their experience of participating in landmark Shakespearean productions, each recreating in detail their memorable performance in a major role. Here, read some extracts from the book including Chiwetel Ejiofor on Othello, Zoë Wanamaker on Beatrice, Ian McKellen on Lear, and Fiona Shaw on the Shrew.

Chiwetel Ejiofor on Othello’s feelings towards Desdemona

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Othello; Othello, Donmar Warehouse, 2007, directed by Michael Grandage
(© Donald Cooper/Photostage)

I saw it as absolutely that he fell in love with her. What he describes is exactly what happened. Brabantio invited him, they became friends, and Brabantio was thrilled to have this exotic guy in the house, and pleased for him to tell his stories and impress the children. And in the course of doing so, Othello notices that the girl is extraordinarily interested not only in his stories but in him. He realises that she is falling in love with him. He sees, I suppose, a softness in her gaze that he’s quite unused to. Her gentleness and her beauty are intoxicating to him, and because of this adoration he finds himself falling in love with her. And so there probably isn’t a deep knowledge of each other, as much as a powerful awareness of the emotion they’re both feeling. He is also attracted to her willingness to break through societal constraints. I don’t think there’s any evidence in the text that he considered her to be merely a trophy.

Othello’s never been in love before. He’s shell-shocked by the emotion. He had no idea that one could feel anything like that. He’s been through terrible trauma, including being in the Arab slave trade, and has largely shut down the emotional side of himself, and filtered it into conflict. That’s where he has always felt most alive, as he describes, in the ‘Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war’ [3.3]. He’s not looking for anything to replace that emotion, which is why she completely catches him off-guard by falling in love with him. It’s not something that he expected or even necessarily wanted. But it certainly is the first time he’s experienced it.


Zoë Wanamaker on Beatrice and Benedick’s relationship in Much Ado About Nothing

Zoë Wanamaker as Beatrice; Much Ado About Nothing, National Theatre, 2007, directed by Nicholas Hytner
(© Donald Cooper/Photostage)

At the start, her relationship with Benedick is based on misunderstandings, fear and insecurities. They’re both insecure, I think. Benedick pretending he had all these lovers, Beatrice thinking she could never get married. What’s more, Beatrice is in a very male-dominated society, which she resents and he is part of, so you’d assume they absolutely can’t get on. But the great thing about these characters is how they develop as the plot progresses. When you go into any play you’re looking for a character’s change or revelation, which makes them more true to life and is part of the audience’s satisfaction as well as the actor’s. These two people are changed for the better and the happier as a result of the gulling scenes.

Julian Curry: Do you think she was waiting for him all the time, that she always knew he was the one, if only it could come out right?

Wanamaker: It’s possible.

Or is that a bit soppy?

A little bit, yes, but it’s possible. Of all the people she might have a relationship with, it could only be him. And when it happens, a flower opens. Theirs is a marriage made in heaven because they’re so right, their spirits are so perfectly matched. That’s where Nick Hytner [the director] was so clever: the play is not about young people, it’s about mature people, people who have lived but are looking in the wrong directions. It’s the warmth and the wit of these two people, and the fact that they are misfits who thankfully find each other, that make it such a joyous play.


Ian McKellen on the storm scene in King Lear

Ian McKellen as Lear; King Lear, Royal Shakespeare Company, 2007, directed by Trevor Nunn
(© Donald Cooper/Photostage)

We had real rain. Trevor Nunn [the director] was very insistent on that. Then they weren’t able to light the scene, so the audience could hardly see that it was happening. But we were cold and wet, sometimes literally shaking with cold. Actually it was quite helpful to us to be extremely uncomfortable. I remember saying in rehearsal that we should go out into a storm and I’d take off my clothes to feel what it’s like, and then remember it. But in the end we didn’t need to do that, because we had to endure the real thing on stage.

Julian Curry: What do you think Lear’s doing? Why does he want the storm? Why is he welcoming it, asking for it?

McKellen: When it’s raining, and you’re outside in a real old storm with thunder and lightning, and there’s nowhere to go, you’re simply a victim. You can’t control the rain and tell it to stop. It’s just there. He’s trying to relate the reality of getting cold and wet, and being frightened, with what it felt like when his daughters broke all the conventions of his rule by hurting him, thwarting him. He should have been able to control them, but he couldn’t. And he can’t control the weather. The storm is introducing him to the idea that he is just a man, and an old man at that. He had never thought of himself as just a man: he’s King Lear.


Fiona Shaw on the difficulties of playing Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew

Fiona Shaw as Katherine; The Taming of the Shrew, RSC, 1987, directed by Jonathan Miller
(© Donald Cooper/Photostage)

Katherine’s journey is enormous. The difficulty of playing it is that the transitional beats that you would like to have are not there, so you have to make quantum leaps sometimes.

There are a million things between the beginning and the end of the play. You don’t have anything like Petruchio’s journey, which is dextrous and full of contradiction. She has no soliloquy, so you don’t get to the inside of her mind, which means she remains an object to the audience. Until the end, when she’s very much the subject. But that last speech has to be earned. And it’s a thin-ice fragment of a resolution, which is quite hard to do. You have to be very light of feet to get to it. The middle of the play is perhaps the most tricky part, where she doesn’t speak. That’s when you really need to speak, but she doesn’t. She’s silenced. There is a power in silence too, of course, and the audience can be moved and upset, but they’re not charmed by it in the way they’re charmed by his wit. So it’s a hard part to play, whereas Petruchio is a wonderful part to play. And Katherine is also a hard part to enjoy. Maybe that’s generational, but I don’t know of a Katherine who really enjoys playing it.


The above is taken from Shakespeare On Stage: Volume 2 – Twelve Leading Actors on Twelve Key Roles by Julian Curry.

In the book, twelve leading actors take us behind the scenes of landmark Shakespearean productions, each recreating in detail their memorable performance in a major role. The result is a series of individual masterclasses that will be invaluable for other actors and directors, as well as students of Shakespeare – and fascinating for audiences of the plays.

To get your copy at a 20% discount – no voucher code required  – click here.

Harriet Walter on playing Shakespeare’s great roles

Harriet WalterIn her new book Brutus and Other Heroines: Playing Shakespeare’s Roles for Women, acclaimed actor Harriet Walter looks back at her experiences of playing many of Shakespeare’s most famous roles – both female and male – across her varied and distinguished career. Her perceptive and intimate accounts illustrate each play as a whole, and provide invaluable insights for anyone looking to tackle the roles themselves. Here, in a series of extracts from the book, she explores five different roles spanning four decades…

OPHELIA – Hamlet, 1981

Ophelia

As Ophelia with Jonathan Pryce (Hamlet); Hamlet, Royal Court Theatre, London, 1980
(© John Haynes/Lebrecht Music & Arts)

The most famous thing about Ophelia is that she goes mad. Richard Eyre, who’d asked me to play Ophelia to Jonathan Pryce’s Hamlet, had given me one major tip as to what he wanted, by telling me what he didn’t want. He did not want ‘mad acting’. I knew what he meant. For Ophelia, her mad scene is an ungoverned artless release; for the actress playing her it can be a chance to show off her repertoire of lolling tongues and rolling eyes, in a fey and affecting aria which is anything but artless. That is the paradox of acting mad. The actor is self-conscious in every sense, while the mad person has lost their hold on self.

Generalised mad acting, being unhinged from any centre, leaves the actor floundering in their own embarrassment. The remedy for me was to find a method in Ophelia’s madness, so that I could root her actions in her motivations (however insane and disordered), just as I would with any other character I was playing. Before playing her I had shared with many others the impression that Ophelia was a bit of a colourless part—that is, until she goes mad. I needed to find a unifying scheme that would contain both the ‘interesting’ mad Ophelia and the ‘boring’ sane Ophelia.

Suppose Ophelia is happily ‘normal’ until her lover rejects her and murders her father. Is that necessarily a cue to go mad? After all, Juliet suffered something of the kind when Romeo killed Tybalt, and although the idea tormented her she did not flip. I started to see that the seeds of Ophelia’s madness had been sown long before the play started, by the workings of a cold, repressive environment on an already susceptible mind. I preferred this theory to the sudden madness-through-grief idea which, together with broken hearts and walking spirits, seemed to belong in the theatre of Henry Irving or a Victorian poem.


VIOLA – Twelfth Night, 1987

Viola

As Viola with Donald Sumpter (Orsino); Twelfth Night, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1987
(© Ivan Kyncl/Arena PAL)

I don’t think that Viola is a naturally comic role.  Consider her situation:

Viola is shipwrecked, an orphan in a foreign land where no one knows her, and she believes her twin brother and only relative has been drowned. She then falls in love with a man who thinks she’s a boy, and who is infatuated with another woman, and is sent to woo that rival on behalf of the man she loves. Olivia then falls in love with her boy disguise. The audience revels in these complications. Viola does not. Viola isn’t Rosalind, loved and in love, delighting in the freedom of her disguise and knowing she can drop it at any time (in the forest at least).

Viola triggers a lot of comedy but does not crack a lot of jokes. It seems to me that the comedy in Twelfth Night works along a spectrum of self-knowledge with the most self-deceived at one end (Malvolio, Aguecheek), whose idiocy we laugh at, and at the other, the most self-aware, Viola (the only character on stage aware of her real identity), whose wit we laugh with. We laugh at Orsino, who is blinded by love, and at Olivia, who is blind to her vanity in mourning, and at both of them, who are blind to the fact that Cesario is a girl. Sebastian, the ‘drowned’ brother, walks into a chaos he cannot make head or tail of, and we laugh at his confusion. We wryly laugh with Feste, the all-knowing fool, and with Maria, the traditional cunning maid, and we uncomfortably laugh with Belch, who thinks he knows it all and revels in exploiting other people’s weakness.

Although Viola is the most knowing in one way, she is on totally unfamiliar ground (physically and emotionally), and this is a source of comedy for the all-knowing audience.


LADY MACBETH – Macbeth, 1999

Lady Macbeth

As Lady Macbeth with Antony Sher (Macbeth); Macbeth, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1999
(© Jonathan Dockar-Drysdale/RSC)

I suspect that if you were to ask the person-in-the-street what they knew of Lady Macbeth, most who knew anything would say something like ‘She’s the one who persuades her husband to kill the King…’ But I was finding indications in the text that Lady M does not put the idea of killing the King into her husband’s head, it is already there. There is a huge but subtle difference between coercing a totally upright person to commit a crime and working on the wavering will of someone who already wants to commit that crime but fears the consequences. I was not out to clear Lady Macbeth’s name, but I wanted to straighten a few facts.

Shakespeare repeatedly uses the image of planting, and it is an apt one. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are caught at a moment of ripeness and preparedness for evil. The witches are agents of this evil, and for that reason they do not seek out Banquo, who proves less fertile soil, but Macbeth. Lady Macbeth understands her husband as well as the witches do and builds on the work they have begun. She herself never kills, but if she had let well alone, Macbeth would not have acted. That is the considerable extent of her blame.

I had already scoured the text for any insights into Lady Macbeth as an individual, separate from her husband, but except for the odd ‘most kind hostess’ or ‘fair and noble hostess’ from the King, no one comments on her or throws any light on her character. Nobody seems to know her. She has no confidante. Her world is confined to the castle and its servants, but it was hard for my imagination to people the place or fill it with domestic goings-on. A Lady Macbeth busying herself with the housekeeping or taking tea with a circle of friends just did not ring true. It did not ring true because Shakespeare’s creation only exists within the time-frame of the play. It was as though she had visited Shakespeare’s imagination fully formed, giving away no secrets, and therein lies a lot of her power.


CLEOPATRA – Antony and Cleopatra, 2006

Cleopatra

As Cleopatra; Antony and Cleopatra, Royal Shakespeare Company, 2006 (© Pascal Molliere/RSC)

How do you approach playing a woman who reputedly stops the heart and eclipses the reason of every man she meets? Who has Julius Caesar eating out of the palm of her hand? To me Cleopatra was Elizabeth Taylor, Ava Gardner, Mata Hari, the erotic, black-eyed woman on Edwardian postcards, impossible for me to get near. However, once I did my research, I found that nowhere in the play or in any historical account is Cleopatra described as beautiful. In fact any existing images of her make her look rather heavy-browed and long-nosed. Hooray! Yes, but on second thoughts not hooray because that meant she managed to pull the men despite not being beautiful. That means she possessed some indefinable sexual ingredient, the X-factor which you either have or have not got and which is something beyond the art of acting.

What I did have were Shakespeare’s words, and they became my largest sexual attribute. They say the brain is the largest sex organ in the body, and her words were of infinite variety. Playful, grandiose, self-dramatising, switchback, heart-breaking, infuriating and unpredictable. I knew that my best chance of convincing an audience that men might fall at my Cleopatra’s feet would be to get behind those words, the switches of mood, the reach of her imagery, the energy and the emotion to be inferred from her rhythms. And if I could bring all that off the page and on to the stage, I wouldn’t need to fulfil every man’s fantasy with my physique or some ‘X’ ingredient. Getting behind those words would be a tough enough task, but at least it was one that could be worked at, whereas one’s physical attributes are more immutable.

What I also had was the real experience of a woman on the cusp of old age, with all the contradictions that presents. On the one hand still in touch with a youthful energy and physicality, and on the other the consciousness that, as I joked at the time, ‘this may be the last time I play the love interest’. Both Patrick Stewart, who played Antony, and I are fairly fit and athletic—which I am rarely required to demonstrate—so we both used that quality of physical energy and enjoyment wherever we could, and indeed I haven’t had and don’t expect to have another chance to run around the stage barefoot or ever again to leap into a stage lover’s arms.


HENRY IV – Henry IV, 2014

Henry IV

As King Henry IV; Henry IV, Donmar Warehouse, 2014 (© Helen Maybanks)

I have to confess to having rather enjoyed strutting and striding and puffing out my chest. I suspect that many men enjoy it too. I have watched those sorts of men all my life, never thinking I would need those observations for an acting job. Since I was very young I have been able to watch someone and imagine myself inside them, moving their limbs, striking their poses and by some strange mechanism, getting an inkling as to their feelings and thoughts. I’m sure everyone has something of this ability, but it is particularly developed in actors. It is hard to explain how it’s done because it is not a systematised process; it is just part of our equipment. It means that we can ‘channel’ someone from real life who matches the character we are playing.

As Henry, I channelled two or three different men (not the men themselves but their acting personae). For obvious reasons I had never had cause to channel Ray Winstone before, but I did now. Another model was Tom Bell; another was the guy from the film A Prophet, Niels Arestrup. If you know any of these actors, you will understand I was not striving to be a lookalike, but somehow, by keeping them in my mind’s eye, I could borrow some useful quality of theirs: the stillness that accompanies physical power, the prowling pace of a man keeping his violence in check, the spread-limbed arrogance of those men on the tube who occupy two seats and leave you squished up in the corner.

It is a bit of a cliché to say it, but in many ways we are all acting. We have all been trained up in our physicality and raised within gender conventions that restrict us. The experiment of being a woman playing a man produced in me a hybrid that surprised me and released me from myself. That is what a lot of actors love best about the whole game—the escape from the limits of the package we are wrapped in. I suspect many non-actors are looking for the same.


Brutus and Other HeroinesThese edited extracts are taken from Brutus and Other Heroines: Playing Shakespeare’s Roles for Women by Harriet Walter, out now. To buy your copy for just £10.39, visit the Nick Hern Books website.

Harriet Walter stars in the Donmar Warehouse’s all-female Shakespeare Trilogy – playing Brutus in Julius Caesar, Henry IV in Henry IV, and Prospero in The Tempest – at Kings Cross Theatre, London, until 17 December.

Michael Bruce: How I became a theatre composer

Michael Bruce is a prolific theatre composer whose music has accompanied plays at the National Theatre, in the West End and on Broadway. He has written scores and songs for productions as varied as The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Candide for the RSC, Strange Interlude and Man and Superman at the National Theatre, and Coriolanus, Privacy and The Physicists at the Donmar Warehouse, where he is Composer-in-Residence. The job is endlessly diverse and you can never rest on your laurels, as he explains in this extract from his new book, Writing Music for the Stage – published here with audio clips from several of his theatre scores.

When people ask me how I started to write music for plays, they are often surprised by the sheer extent of happenstance and luck that led me down this particular road. I don’t think I’m unusual in that I didn’t set out to write music for plays. After teaching myself the piano as a child, I longed for a career in songwriting: pop music primarily and then later musical theatre. I went to a performing arts college (Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts) to study music and for the first couple of years only occasionally participated in any theatre activities. Even when I did decide to concentrate my efforts on musical theatre it never occurred to me that there might be a world of plays out there that required composers. In fact, it took me a long time to even call myself a composer – I was a songwriter; the word ‘composer’ seemed far too hifalutin. In my secondary-school music class, composition was called ‘inventing’ (presumably because we couldn’t possibly declare the music we were sweating out as ‘composition’). No, that required formal music education in a building with a royal crest on the front of it – surely?

The truth is, concert works, musicals, films, albums all seem to be much more glamorous and financially rewarding (although they often aren’t) than writing music for plays. Composition in the ‘straight theatre’ can act as a training ground for any of those projects, but it is frequently wholly satisfying in itself. Plays, more than any other compositional work, demand a strong multi-purpose technique, openness for collaboration, an eclectic knowledge and a keen interest in storytelling. If you’re going to write music for plays, you need to be able to turn your hand to almost anything musically and because of that, the people who do compose music for the theatre get there by a myriad of different pathways and circumstances. Many Oscar-winning composers still write music for theatre in between film projects. As you might expect, there is no tried-and-tested route to becoming a theatre composer.

two-gentlemen-Simon Annand

The Two Gentlemen of Verona by William Shakespeare, Royal Shakespeare Company, 2014, directed by Simon Godwin (photo by Simon Annand)

 

As a young composer in London, having previously served as an assistant musical director, I was busy writing small-scale musical theatre and cabaret when I received a last-minute call to participate in a podcast discussion about new musical theatre. A contemporary of mine who was meant to be on the panel became unavailable at the last minute and for some reason (I can’t remember why now) they called me. On the panel was a representative from the Arts Council who was very intrigued by the mention of an idea for a ‘composer-in-residence’ scheme. He later asked me to carry on the discussion over coffee. From what seemed like out of nowhere he managed to procure me an invitation to visit the Bush Theatre with a view to becoming their first composer-in-residence.

The Bush Theatre is a world-leading new-writing powerhouse and it became my home for the next two years. Yes, I wrote a musical there, but even more fascinating was my introduction to a world of drama I had neglected to embrace. There has been a tendency amongst some musical-theatre writers (and I was one of them) to become engrossed in an insular musical-theatre world, when right next door there is an entire industry of playwrights and directors putting on world-class productions of plays. I think it’s exceedingly important that artists get as broad a spectrum of inspiration and education as possible, and one of the best places to get that is at the theatre.

After forming many friendships and professional relationships at the Bush I was offered a job as composer-in-residence at the Donmar Warehouse. It was my relationship with Josie Rourke, the artistic director of both of those institutions, that led me to writing music for plays in the first place. In doing that, I have been fortunate enough to work steadily with some of the leading directors and playwrights, in the leading theatres, with the leading actors, ever since. The capacity for learning whilst working on these kinds of jobs with these kinds of people is unparalleled. You can never rest on your laurels when scoring plays, because you never know what the next moment will call for. You can’t just churn out the same thing every time because you are being constantly challenged to respond to the specific needs of the production. This is the best training you could ask for.

strange-interlude-set

Strange Interlude by Eugene O’Neill, National Theatre, 2013, directed by Simon Godwin

 

Directors are the people who usually have the power to hire composers. A director will specify their preferred creative team to a producer or producing theatre who can, in turn, suggest their own ideas. Sometimes a producer might question the employment of someone who perhaps is untested in the theatrical forum, but mostly, if a director trusts in a composer to deliver, the producer will back him up. Meeting directors may seem like a tricky thing to set up, but your best bet is to start working on small projects either at school, in college or in your local community and invite people to see your work. If you’ve got the option to watch a lot of theatre, then do so. To some extent this is harder if you don’t live in London or don’t have lots of spare cash to burn, but there are great regional theatres around the country producing top-quality work. Also, don’t forget that cinema broadcasts of theatre productions make them far more accessible on a budget from wherever you are in the world. Absorb all the influences you can: get to know which directors’ work you enjoy and write to them. You could even send a director a demo or two. What’s the worst that could happen?

Joshua McGuire in Privacy Photo by Johan Persson 5

Privacy by James Graham, Donmar Warehouse 2014, directed by Josie Rourke (photo by Johan Persson)

 

The most important thing to do is to get some experience on your CV. It doesn’t matter if it’s in a town hall or on Broadway. If you can show some proclivity for hard work, directors are much more likely to take you seriously. Take every job going and turn your hand to as many styles of music as you can. Even after years of working I still have difficulty turning things down: I am constantly thrilled when someone decides they would like me to write the music for their show. Never take anything for granted. The number of weird and wonderful jobs I took on as a young composer and musical director is still staggering to me now. From the cramped and seedy nightclubs of Soho to commercials for car insurance, there’s something to learn from every experience, so no matter how far from your desired path a music job might seem, you should take it on, make the most of it and feel proud to be earning a pay cheque.

You will meet new people every time you take on a new project, and you never know where those relationships might lead. Always remember that the theatre industry is small: contacts are vital to keep your workload ticking over and you never know who might come to see your latest offering or what new opportunities lie right around the corner.


FormattedExtracted from Writing Music for the Stage: A Practical Guide for Theatremakers by Michael Bruce, published by Nick Hern Books.

‘A good score makes a world of difference to an actor. Read Michael Bruce’s book and you’ll understand why. He is a genius.’ Judi Dench

To buy your copy for just £10.39 (RRP £12.99), click here.

For more excerpts from Michael Bruce’s theatre scores, visit the Nick Hern Books SoundCloud page here.

Author photo by Steven McIntosh.

‘A Field of Dreams’: Joyce McMillan on Theatre in Scotland

Joyce McMillan, lead drama critic at The Scotsman, is an unrivalled authority on modern Scottish theatre and a leading thinker and writer about Scotland. Her new book, Theatre in Scotland: A Field of Dreams, is a collection of more than three decades of her writings about theatre, selected by theatre director Philip Howard. Here, in his introduction to the book, Howard explores the connections between McMillan’s career and the recent cultural and political renaissance in Scotland, as well as her unfailing ability to detect a great new play. And, below, we present some choice excerpts from her writings, ranging from her review of the 1987 Edinburgh Fringe, to the launch show of the National Theatre of Scotland…

Philip Howard: Theatre in Scotland: A Field of Dreams traces Joyce McMillan’s journey from self-taught, passionate contributing writer to the short-lived Sunday Standard (1981-1983), to her current life as the chief theatre critic of The Scotsman. No other critic in Scotland covers as much ground as she does in her working week, or has done for so many years. And so the premise of the book is simple: gather all of the most insightful material from over the past three decades, add new essays by McMillan herself to underscore the narrative – and what you have is a history of modern Scottish theatre, reported from the frontline. The volume is not a hit parade. While the vast majority of landmark theatre productions in Scotland have been covered, it was important also to acknowledge McMillan’s footfall across the whole country and celebrate the truly national portrait that emerges.

McMillan’s first reviewing jobs were for BBC Radio Scotland in the 1970s, talking about Edinburgh Festival shows for Festival View, presented by Neville Garden – and she credits the inspiration of this annual cultural spectacle as a determining factor in her ambition to write about theatre. In 1978 the great Allen Wright at The Scotsman commissioned her to cover a production of The Good Person of Szechwan for him in St Andrews, and she soon became his second-string reviewer. When the Sunday Standard was founded in 1981, McMillan set her sights on becoming their principal theatre critic, and, despite the newspaper lasting only two years, it is here that she begins to find her voice, or, as she puts it, ‘This is where the dialogue with myself really starts.’ There followed ten distinguished years as the Guardian’s Scotland theatre critic (1984-1994) and three at Scotland on Sunday (1994-1997), where for the first time she was writing a longer weekly column, essay-style, covering all the week’s theatre openings, and exploiting her skill in detecting wider cultural resonances and thematic links between the work. After a lightning-quick spell as an arts writer for The Herald in 1997, she started in 1998 at The Scotsman, and it is in this current incarnation as a critic and political commentator that she has become defined as a leading thinker and writer about Scotland.

She wasn’t born to it. There were visits to the theatre as a child – her first memory is of a Kenneth McKellar Christmas show at the Alhambra, Glasgow – but she was never an enthusiastic amateur audience member, or certainly not for very long. A half-completed PhD at the University of Edinburgh on the tragedies of Ben Jonson crystallised for her the indivisibility of theatre and politics, and she talks interestingly about her new passion for theatre at that time stemming from her disenchantment with the direction of British politics, i.e. towards the right, and a conviction that theatre is one place where you might find ‘an alternative truth about what it means to be human’. And perhaps it is this wide-angle lens on theatre and parallel enquiry as a political writer which explain her tenacity and longevity. Of course, she’s not the only theatre writer to apply herself to political writing – think of Fintan O’Toole, for many years political columnist and chief theatre critic of The Irish Times – but McMillan’s career is coinciding with the very period where Scotland is remaking itself more energetically than ever before. The ground is fertile.

It is surely the goal of any critic, certainly in terms of legacy, to contribute in some way to the evolution of the art form itself, Kenneth Tynan in England and America in the 1950s and ’60s being the iconic example of this. McMillan has far too long a working life left for it to be possible to make this kind of retrospective analysis, but certain themes do emerge from her critical writing which arguably have tuned with the times, if not influenced them: for example, an obstinate insistence that the director of a classic revival must know very precisely why they are reviving an old play rather than making a new one – her sympathy for directors who also have to run monolithic theatre buildings does not extend to them programming plays just because they feature in compendia of ‘the 100 greatest plays’. Predictably, as a leading political commentator, she will despise an unthinkingly or lazily apolitical interpretation of a play, reserving her greatest spleen for the ‘Loamshire’ play (as Tynan did before her), or self-absorbed new writing that makes no attempt to connect with the public sphere. But then – in a wonderfully contradictory way – she will often surprise us by enthusing about something shamelessly sentimental, entertaining or romantic, as long as it’s beautifully executed. Most importantly of all, she has, to my knowledge, an almost unblemished record in never having failed to spot a great new play; and, rare among critics, she has the ability to watch an unsuccessful new play and detect whether it’s the playwright or director at fault. This can make for uncomfortable reading. (‘Philip Howard’s Traverse production seems to fall stillborn on to the stage’ on Grace in America by Antoine Ó Flatharta, Scotland on Sunday, 1 May 1994 – sticks in the mind.)

She isn’t shy of skewering some sacred cows: the empty heart of the RSC’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1990); the reactionary flippancy (Travesties, 1987) and bourgeois self-satisfaction (Rough Crossing, 1996) of Tom Stoppard. And occasionally she deploys a devastating ability to take hold of a superficially successful production – think Bill Bryden’s The Big Picnic (1994) or the Brian Cox The Master Builder (1993) – and then, like a drone or laser, zero in on its fatal flaw. But McMillan is also bold in finding something to commend even in work of mixed success, and stick her neck out to champion unfashionable work which she suspects her colleagues might dismiss. Perhaps this is because she knows it’s easier to write a bad review than a good one, intellectually easier to puncture than to validate. And so there are plenty of roses among the barbed wire – and an unswerving commitment to shout praise from the rooftops where it is due, and celebrate the art form in all its mad messy glory (Macbeth on the Isle of Inchcolm, 1989).

The book works chronologically rather than thematically, and yet is divided, unevenly, into three parts telling three essential stories of how Scottish theatre has grown in confidence over the decades: the road to 1990, the year of Glasgow’s reign as European Capital of Culture, which marked a generational change in how that great city viewed itself and was viewed by the world; the 1990s and early years of the new millennium, which witnessed an extraordinary explosion in self-confidence among both new and older Scottish playwrights, leading to, finally: the birth and hegemony of the National Theatre of Scotland, bringing the role of our theatre culture as close as it has ever got to the heart of the nation. The vast majority of entries in the book are reviews; the rest are feature articles or programme notes. New linking pieces by McMillan range throughout the volume, providing additional context.

Students of theatre criticism may enjoy the underlying portrait of a critic teaching herself to be the best, from the passionate newcomer at the Sunday Standard in the early 1980s, trying to find her style but never missing a political beat, through mounting confidence, occasional fierceness of judgement and an increasingly fine writing style, to the older, authoritative and interestingly more mellow critic that we have today. She testifies to the collegiate atmosphere of theatre criticism in Scotland, where being part of that ‘public conversation’ helps ensure that the genre faces outward – and guards against the lonesomeness of the profession.

Students of theatre literature may read the book as a collection of essays on English language playwriting, from the twentieth-century greats (Coward, Osborne, Pinter, etc.) to all the leading Scottish playwrights, from John Byrne and Liz Lochhead to David Greig and David Harrower. And ultimately, it is as a writer about Scotland and about what the art form of theatre can tell us about Scotland that distinguishes McMillan’s work: her piece ‘Theatre and Nationhood’ (1991), written for Tramway’s Theatres and Nations season which heralded the permanent opening of Glasgow’s key Capital of Culture venue from 1990, is a defining essay on Scottishness, written against the backdrop of the dismantlement of the Soviet Union. Sometimes it’s in the critique of a theatre production which would not be taken as seriously by the rest of the Scottish theatre community (even if they had seen it), that she writes most flawlessly about the culture of the nation – for example, Accounts in Town Yetholm (1991) or Bright Water on Easdale Island (2007). The combination of this panoramic view, political acuity, and the ability to marry the head and the heart, has sealed her reputation far beyond Scotland’s borders.

Joyce McMillan: By chance – or perhaps for reasons I barely understood at the time – it was at an important moment of transition in Scottish politics and cultural identity, at the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, that I felt myself drawn, perhaps almost driven, to become a theatre critic in Scotland. I was already almost thirty, I had no history of interest in theatre beyond an academic one, and like many people who grew up in the 1960s, I saw theatre as an old-fashioned art form, already half-dead on its feet.

Yet in the late 1970s, I was suddenly gripped by the power of the shared experience of theatre, by the idea of it as a place where ideas could be made flesh, and could be tested against the real reactions of the audience. Perhaps it was a reaction to the repetitiveness, and frequent intellectual rigidity, of the left-wing and feminist politics in which I was vaguely involved. Perhaps it was an unconscious response to the coming of Thatcherism: an insistence that somewhere, even if only in a series of small darkened rooms, a serious collective life would continue through this age of individualism. Or perhaps it was something in Scottish theatre itself, evolving fast and freely after a long age of quiescence and marginalisation. If Scotland’s professional theatre tradition had been limited and interrupted by centuries of official Presbyterianism, that very history – or rather the lack of it – meant that it entered the late twentieth century with relatively little baggage, and an exhilarating freedom to reinvent itself, in forms that were both popular and experimental.

So, at the beginning of 1982, I began to set out my stall as the Sunday Standard’s main theatre critic. In the big world beyond theatre, there were three huge arguments in progress. There was one about the future of the British left, after Margaret Thatcher’s victory in 1979; in theatre, that was often articulated through my arguments with, and about, John McGrath’s 7:84 Company, and its sister company Wildcat Stage Productions. There was an argument about feminism, a fraught coming-to-terms with the huge revolution in consciousness that had taken place during the 1970s. And, of course, there was the argument about Scotland: rousing itself after the failed home-rule referendum of 1979, and once again setting out to redefine and reshape itself. At the time, the Scottish Arts Council was funding around fifteen major professional companies in Scotland, including the building-based ones in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee, Perth and Pitlochry; and, in 1981, it had also decided to fund an initiative by the actor Ewan Hooper to launch a new Scottish Theatre Company, dedicated to creating Scottish-made shows for mainstage theatres, and – in some respects at least – to pursuing a more traditional Scottish repertoire than could be found at the Traverse or the Citizens’. It was through the work of the STC, and my often sceptical reactions to it, that I began to evolve my own ideas about what the word ‘Scottish’ could and should mean, in the late twentieth century; and about our evolving relationship with the standard repertoire of English-language theatre.


Extracts from reviews collected in Theatre in Scotland: A Field of Dreams

Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off
Little Lyceum, Edinburgh
The Guardian, 13 August 1987

Like the official Festival, this year’s Fringe seems to be all about Scots and Russians, with a generous sprinkling of Americans and other, more exotic visitors; the English Fringe – as represented by shows like Hull Truck’s Teechers, playing at the George Square Theatre to large crowds of off-duty educational face-workers, or by the charming It’s a Girl from the Duke’s Playhouse, Lancaster, or even by an oddly laid-back and giggly Jenny Lecoat at the Assembly Rooms – seems in strangely subdued mood. Perhaps, like the Labour Party, English alternative theatre has reached a point where it must rethink its entire politics; at any rate, these soft-centred, well-staged, witty, humanistic and utterly predictable shows look like the last gasp of a Fringe culture that’s reached the end of its line.

MQS2.inddIn Scotland, though, things seem slightly different – rougher, harsher, more colourful and cosmopolitan, shot through with a kind of brash, nothing-to-lose energy. In the official Festival, the energy blisters through the strange, heightened, ritualistically foul-mouthed new-speak of Iain Heggie’s A Wholly Healthy Glasgow, and shouts from the canvases at the Vigorous Imagination exhibition of new Scottish painting at the Modern Art Gallery. And it’s reflected with terrific, show-stopping force in Liz Lochhead’s Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, a ferociously iconoclastic re-examination of Mary Stuart’s life and its significance – in sixteenth-century Scots and standard English, fierce poetic monologue, stylised movement and sharp, almost improvised dialogue – that’s been one of the brilliant high points of this first Fringe week. Specially commissioned by the young Edinburgh-based touring company Communicado, performed at the Lyceum Studio in the very shadow of Mary’s castle, it simply blasts to smithereens the heavy, obscuring deposit of romantic claptrap that has gathered around the story down the centuries, and instead draws the most dramatic and uncomfortable parallels between the sacrifice of Mary in her day, and the myriad sexual, political and religious deformities that still plague the Scottish psyche now.

The Guid Sisters
Tron, Glasgow
The Guardian, 3 May 1989

It’s one of the myths of our civilisation that, whereas middle-class culture is international and universal, working-class culture is somehow local and parochial, a matter of ‘Cockney slang’ or ‘Glasgow humour’. It’s a comforting idea, in that it reduces the common experience of the millions of human beings who were drawn into the cities in the industrial age – their courage, their humour, their resilience in the face of unrelenting poverty and drastic overcrowding – to a matter of ‘local character’; it makes a private civic joke of an experience that was, in fact, central to the development of industrial capitalism everywhere from Chicago to Kraków.

guidsisters&othersOne of Mayfest’s most striking achievements, as a festival dedicated to presenting the best of Scottish ‘popular’ theatre alongside similar work from Europe and overseas, has been the consistency with which it has blasted that myth that the Glasgow experience is somehow unique, idiosyncratic. And now, in that tradition, the Tron Theatre’s Mayfest production of Michel Tremblay’s Les Belles-sœurs – a play born in the turbulent Québec of the 1960s, and now translated into a pithy, fierce, foul-mouthed urban Scots by Bill Findlay and Martin Bowman – offers us a portrait of a bunch of worn-out housewives in a Montréal tenement that matches the experience of generations of Glasgow women in almost uncanny detail.

Macbeth
Inchcolm Island, Firth of Forth
The Guardian, 15 August 1989

The rain drove, the wind blustered, the witches heaved up from the bowels of the ship as if they had risen from the water itself, to screech and whirl across the decks with their knowledge of evil and doom in the offing; never in my life will I forget the sound of the words ‘Though his bark shall not be lost | Yet it shall be tempest-toss’d!’ snatched from the mouth of the chief witch by the wind and echoing away across the steel-grey waves. […] See Macbeth on Inchcolm – the wind whipping, the gulls screeching, the old capital across the stormy firth climbing grey and smoky towards its skyline – and you’ll never want to see it anywhere else.

Theatre and Nationhood
for Tramway, Glasgow
25 August 1991

It seems strange to be writing about theatre and nationhood on a weekend when one of the two greatest nations on earth is disappearing before our eyes. Nations are like Tinkerbell in Barrie’s Peter Pan: they only exist so long as we believe in them. For reasons too complex to explore here, people have been withdrawing their belief from the idea of the Soviet Union for decades now; and this weekend, that unbelief reached a critical mass. In that sense, nations are fictions, man-made communities conjured up and defined, on the shifting human surface of the earth, within the minds of men and women. If we feel Scottish, then Scotland is, despite 284 years of union; if people no longer feel like Soviet citizens, then the combined power of the party, the KGB and the army command cannot keep the USSR together. And it’s because nationhood is this kind of thing – an intangible sense of community, subject to change and flux – that theatre often plays such a vital part in expressing and defining it. Theatre is, at its best, a forum where people come together to discover, through their live response to the same event, the feelings and experiences they share with other people; and a sense of national identity is a shared feeling, or it is nothing.

Rough Crossing
Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
Scotland on Sunday, 16 June 1996

Kenny Ireland’s Royal Lyceum production of Tom Stoppard’s Rough Crossing is the kind of show that makes me feel vaguely ashamed of having any connection with theatre at all. Freely adapted from a Hungarian comedy by Ferenc Molnár, Rough Crossing is a coy little spoof on the genre of 1930s musical comedy, set on an ocean liner crossing from London to New York, and featuring all the usual clichés, from a slightly ageing diva of a leading lady to a scene-stealing drunken steward. Since the plot concerns the tribulations of a pair of musical-comedy writers trying to finish off their latest Broadway opus, the text is also stuffed with self-referring witticisms about the playwright’s art, obviously fascinating to Stoppard, less so to the rest of us.

[…] The trouble is that Stoppard, like many who have embraced Britishness as an adopted nationality, knows only one element of British culture, namely the manners, language, and style of the English upper-middle class; and in this play, he does not even attempt to achieve the moral seriousness and philosophical depth that make that narrow social focus relatively unimportant in most of his work. The result is a sad little joke of a show that sprays messages of class and cultural exclusion around the auditorium like some kind of theatrical bird-scarer.

Home
National Theatre of Scotland
The Scotsman, 27 February 2006

It’s half-past six on a chill February evening in Aberdeen, and a new era in Scottish theatre begins, not with a bang, but with the familiar rattle of a small hopper bus, carrying an audience of excited theatregoers out to the edge of the city. Waiting for us in the Middlefield estate are twenty actors, young and old, professional and community; and six unoccupied flats on the same low-rise staircase, each with a nameplate on the door featuring the word ‘Home’.

For ‘home’ was the theme chosen by the National Theatre of Scotland for its unique launch event, featuring ten site-specific shows in ten locations all over Scotland. […] The new company has achieved a dazzling geographical reach, and a real sense of connection with local communities that has both enabled those communities to re-examine their own story, and given them a new voice on the national stage. It’s been a start, in other words; and, taken as a whole, a brave and imaginative one, designed to smash and rearrange many hostile Scottish preconceptions about theatre. But there are still many miles to travel before Scotland can begin to take this long-neglected art form back into its heart, and into its sense of what home is, and what it might become.


FormattedThe above extracts are taken from Theatre in Scotland: A Field of Dreams by Joyce McMillan, edited by Philip Howard.

The book is out now, published by Nick Hern Books. To buy your copy for just £11.99 (RRP £14.99) click here.

Join the author and a distinguished panel of critics and theatre makers at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, to discuss the remarkable journey of modern Scottish theatre, and to explore the directions it might take in the years to come. Theatre in Scotland: Reflecting the Nation is at the Traverse, 29 June, 7.30pm. Tickets available here.

Photo of Joyce McMillan by Chris Hill.

Victoria Wood: ‘Giving Notes’

VictoriaWood

We were saddened by the death of Victoria Wood this week – she was a gleeful, mischievous presence on our screens for so many years, and will be sorely missed. Here’s a reminder of her talent in her sketch included in the RSC’s The Shakespeare Revue – appropriately enough as we commemorate the death of William Shakespeare 400 years ago. In this sketch, ‘Giving Notes’, the director of an amateur production of Hamlet offers the cast some priceless advice…

Right. Bit of hush please. Connie! Thank you. Now that was quite a good rehearsal; I was quite pleased. There were a few raised eyebrows when we let it slip the Piecrust Players were having a bash at Shakespeare but I think we’re getting there. But I can’t say this too often: it may be Hamlet but it’s got to be Fun Fun Fun!

Now we’re still very loose on lines. Where’s Gertrude? I’m not so worried about you – if you ‘dry’ just give us a bit of business with the shower cap. But Barbara – you will have to buckle down. I mean, Ophelia’s mad scene, ‘There’s rosemary, that’s for remem­brance’ – it’s no good just bunging a few herbs about and saying, ‘Don’t mind me, I’m a loony’. Yes?

Right, Act One Scene One, on the ramparts. Now I know the whist table is a bit wobbly, but until Stan works out how to adapt the Beanstalk it’ll have to do. What’s this? Atmosphere? Yes – now what did we work on, Philip? Yes, it’s midnight, it’s jolly cold. What do we do when it’s cold? We go ‘Brrr’, and we do this (slaps hands on arms). Right, well don’t forget again, please. And cut the hot-water bottle, it’s not working.

Where’s my ghost of Hamlet’s father? Oh yes, what went wrong tonight, Betty? He’s on nights still, is he? OK. Well, it’s not really on for you to play that particular part, Betty – you’re already doing the Player Queen and the back legs of Hamlet’s donkey. Well, we don’t know he didn’t have one, do we? Why waste a good cossy?

Hamlet – drop the Geordie, David, it’s not coming over. Your characterisation’s reasonably good, David, but it’s just far too gloomy. Fair enough, make him a little bit depressed at the beginning, but start lightening it from Scene Two, say from the hokey-cokey onwards.

Polonius, try and show the age of the man in your voice and in your bearing, rather than waving the bus-pass. I think you’ll find it easier when we get the walking frame. Is that coming, Connie? OK.

The Players’ scene: did any of you feel it had stretched a bit too . . . ? Yes. I think we’ll go back to the tumbling on the entrance, rather than the extract from Barnum. You see, we’re running at six hours twenty now, and if we’re going to put those soliloquies back in . . .

Gravediggers? Oh yes, gravediggers. The problem here is that Shakespeare hasn’t given us a lot to play with – I feel we’re a little short on laughs, so Harold, you do your dribbling, and Arthur, just put in anything you can remember from the Ayckbourn, yes?

The mad scene: apart from lines, much better, Barbara – I can tell you’re getting more used to the straitjacket. Oh – any news on the skull, Connie? I’m just thinking, if your little dog pulls through, we’ll have to fall back on papier mâché. All right, Connie, as long as it’s dead by the dress . . .

That’s it for tonight then; thank you. I shall expect you all to be word-perfect by the next rehearsal. Have any of you realised what date we’re up to? Yes, April the twenty-seventh! And when do we open? August! It’s not long!


Here’s a version of the sketch performed by Julie Walters:


Shakespeare RevueThe above is an extract from The Shakespeare Revue compiled by Christopher Luscombe and Malcolm McKee, published by Nick Hern Books.

Giles Block: ‘I see a voice’ – the clues in Shakespeare’s words

Giles BlockIn his role as ‘Master of the Words’ at Shakespeare’s Globe, it is Giles Block’s job to help both actors and audiences fully understand and enjoy Shakespeare’s words. As his new book Speaking the Speech is published, Giles reflects on how he came to work with the language, and how ‘trusting the detail’ can enable greater insight.

Today, before I sat down to write this, I was working at the Globe Theatre with actors from the cast of our upcoming production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. So lines from that play are very much in my mind. At one point Bottom, cast as Pyramus in the play within the play, hearing his love Thisbe talking on the other side of the wall, says:

                                      I see a voice; now will I to the chink,
                                      To spy and I can hear my Thisbe’s face.

These lines, on the face of it, are ridiculous: has Bottom just got his words muddled up?

How can you see a voice?

But then, thinking about Bottom’s ‘I see a voice’ I said to myself, that’s exactly what we should all be able to do when we are looking at Shakespeare’s texts on the page.

In Speaking the Speech, one of my aims is to show how by learning to follow the way Shakespeare’s texts are composed – whether the lines are written in verse, or prose; whether the verse is rhymed or unrhymed; whether the phrases of which his verse speeches are composed, are contained within the run of his lines, or tumble over from one line into the next – it is possible to begin to ‘hear’ the voices of the characters, coming off the page towards you, as you scan Shakespeare’s lines with your eyes.  That is, if you know what clues to be looking out for.

I believe that it is by observing the ‘form’ that Shakespeare’s writings are cast in, that you will discover creative freedom.

I’ve been at the Globe since 1999. My role there is to try and make the text sound clear, and expressive, and be delivered as spontaneously as possible.  My ultimate aim is that audiences should come out at the end of the performances and say – ‘It was so clear, I understood every moment… but you’ve modernised it, haven’t you?’ – and I shall be able to reply, ‘No, that’s just as Shakespeare wrote it.’

I never thought that I would ever write a book. From my school days onwards I knew, vaguely, that Shakespeare was important to me. It was fun to be appearing in his plays, both while I was at school and at university; and the fun continued once I became a professional actor. Ten years later, it became an even more engaging experience, once I had become a director, and began directing some of his plays as well. Much, much later, when I heard that Sam Wanamaker was planning to build a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, I thought, ‘how much I‘d like to be a part of that’…

Mark Rylance

‘Giles deepened my love for Shakespeare and for the way we all speak. I trust you will have a similar experience reading his book.’
– Mark Rylance, from his Foreword

Each year I work at the Globe with probably about an hundred actors – including, for my first seven years there, Mark Rylance, who kindly wrote the Foreword to this book. But I also work with probably a couple of hundred students each year, and I know there are so many more actors and students I’d like to reach out to. I realise now that this book, which I never thought I’d write, may well enable me to do that.

Who is this book for?

While clearly I’d like young and aspiring actors to be drawn to it, it’s written with actors of all ages in mind: all those who are still curious and young in spirit (as actors as a group tend to be). But as Shakespeare touches so many more than those who are simply part of the theatrical community, it’s also for those interested in reading more about Shakespeare, the development of his writing, and his working methods.

Everything I say in the book is about ‘getting back to Shakespeare’ – trusting him, seeing exactly what he writes, and how he writes it. The greatness of his plays lies in the detail, and in the detail lies the richness and the contradictions of the array of characters he has created for us to play, and to be entertained by.

Bottom’s ‘I see a voice’ isn’t simply an anomalous one-off. It reminds me of other lines Shakespeare wrote including these closing lines from his 23rd sonnet:

                                      O learn to read what silent love hath writ:
                                      To hear with eyes belongs to love’s fine wit.

Speaking the Speech

Speaking the Speech, £14.99

‘Seeing’ voices, or ‘hearing’ with your eyes, may be an important step in speaking the speech with conviction.

Nick Hern Books is thrilled to publish Speaking the Speech: An Actor’s Guide to Shakespeare. To order your copy at a special 25% discount, click here – no voucher code required.


‘So tyrannous and rough in proof!’: Shakespeare and typos. By Nick de Somogyi.

William ShakespeareWhy didn’t Shakespeare concern himself with the many inaccuracies in the printed editions of his works? Nick de Somogyi, editor of the Shakespeare Folios Series, hunts for clues and looks at the lasting consequences, as his new book Shakespeare on Theatre, a unique collection of Shakespeare’s every reflection on the theatre, is published.

In the beginning was the Word; closely followed by the typo. Or so last year’s exhibition at Cambridge University Library celebrating the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible reminded us. Readers who puzzled over the 1631 version of the Seventh Commandment (‘Thou shalt commit adultery’) were later promised that ‘the unrighteous shall inherit the kingdom of God’ (1653). Perhaps richest of all, though, reads the 1701 edition, where the Psalmist laments that ‘Printers have persecuted me without a cause’: a sentiment Shakespeare would surely have applauded – had he displayed any lasting interest in his own published work. Shakespeare’s lifelong relationship with print (or rather his lack of one) endures as a perpetually mysterious frustration to his biographers and editors.

He certainly seems to have supervised the publication of his two narrative poems, Venus and Adonis and Lucrece, in the early 1590s, both of which were finely printed by his Stratford friend Richard Field – whose catalogue anyway included many books Shakespeare is known to have read. But Field didn’t print plays (too lowly a product, perhaps), and those of Shakespeare’s that appeared in his lifetime did so via a bewildering series of different publishers – with none of whose products he ever seems to have much bothered himself. So while Ben Jonson took care to explain that he had changed the original ending of Every Man Out of His Humour (1600), that Sejanus was ‘not the same with that which was acted on the public stage’ (1605), and that nothing had ‘been changed from the simplicity of the first copy’ of Epicoene (1616), Shakespeare’s editors must glance longingly at such clues to the status and ‘authenticity’ of their texts.

Shakespeare’s own attitude towards print was characteristically ambivalent, reportedly ‘much offended’ in 1612 that a careless publisher had passed off someone else’s poem as his, while celebrating Richard Field as the ‘Richard du Champ’ praised by Imogen in Cymbeline (1610), first printed in the 1623 First Folio – as it happens, by the same sloppy publisher, William Jaggard, who had earlier so offended him. Or should that properly be Innogen? ‘Imogen’ throughout the play’s unique Folio text, scholars have recently agreed that the spelling of her name ‘appears to be a misprint’ for ‘Innogen’, which is how she appears both in Shakespeare’s source and subsequent accounts of his play. So tell that to the millions of girls since named after his heroine’s Folio misspelling – a mass chorus behind the Goon’s famous self-introduction as ‘Spike Milligna, the well known typing error’. It was Spike’s friend Eric’s then current television series that must have caused the howler on the blurb of my seventies paperback of Oliver Twist, which counts ‘Bill Sykes’ [sic] among its major characters. Not that Shakespeare’s name was ever typographically fixed during his lifetime (Shaxberd, Shaxpere, Shackspere . . .), but it did matter to some – notably Ben Jonson (or IONSON, in any case without the h), who insisted on the ‘Roman’ form of his surname, even as he crammed the margins of his proofs with his Latin sources: ‘to which it may be required, since I have quoted the page, to name what editions I followed’.

It is hard to imagine Shakespeare writing such words, though his impatience at proofreading perhaps issues into Lady Capulet’s chilly instructions to Juliet: ‘Read o’er the volume of young Paris’ face,’ she says, ‘Examine every single lineament . . . And what obscur’d in this fair volume lies | Find written in the margin of his eyes’ – any lingering doubt at his appearance being corrected by the certainty of his eyes’ adoration, in the same way that a marginal gloss – or a proofreader’s marginal correction – will make the proper reading clear. As that oddly cross-eyed description shows, whatever other qualities Paris has to offer as a suitor, love at first sight is not among them. ‘Whate’er befall thee,’ warns a Cambridge academic in a 1601 play, ‘keep thee from the trade of a corrector of the press! . . . Would it not grieve any good spirit to sit a whole month nitting over a lousy pamphlet?’ The advice holds good (it would, and it doth), and Shakespeare seems to have taken it. Of such pamphlets, few were lousier with typos than the Quarto text of Pericles (1609) – one of Shakespeare’s greatest triumphs at the Globe. When Marina describes the commotion aboardship as sailors ‘skip from sterne to sterne’, for example, editors since 1790 have confidently corrected the phrase to read ‘from stem to stern’, the result of the typesetter misreading a handwritten m as rn. But who is to say that the original line did not read ‘from stern to stem’? Certainly not Shakespeare, whose abdication of a modern author’s duties extended that same year to the error-strewn Quarto edition of his Sonnets.

It may be that Shakespeare always intended to supervise his own Collected Works before his death in 1616 – a possibility discernible in the preface Heminge and Condell wrote for their Folio (‘It had been a thing, we confess, worthy to have been wished, that the author himself had lived to have set forth and overseen his own writings’). Had he done so – well, who knows how many additional treasures might have been bequeathed. The scripts of Love’s Labours Won and Cardenio? A decent chronological account of his plays’ first performances? Or even just the occasional ruling over the hundreds of ‘textual cruxes’ that litter the plays as we have them. (If Dogberry is dim enough to instruct the Watch in Much Ado to be ‘vigitant’ instead of ‘vigilant’, say, why shouldn’t he make a better joke by telling them to observe the city ‘statues’, as he does in the Folio, rather than the Quarto’s correct but blankly unfunny ‘statutes’?) Even if Shakespeare had lived to correct the proofs of his Folio, though, the odd typo would always have got through – as it did when Juliet asks there, ‘What? in a names that which we call a Rose’ – a nonsense arising from a nit-picking proofreader’s correction of punctuation (‘What’s in a name? That which we call a rose . . .’) being botched by a confused typesetter. (I remember checking a dust-jacket where the author’s first name had been changed to ‘Rowan’, before seeing that the copy-editor had merely intended to change the font from italic to ‘roman’).

Nor did Shakespeare ever write an example of that minor artform, the ‘errata slip’, such as the following, from 1607: ‘Reader, some faults (by reason of my absence) escaped by the printer I entreat you, if you will, to excuse; if not, correct. The first (if kind) you may; the second (if curious) you must – and easily: if it be in the end of the verse by comparing the metre; if elsewhere, the sense.’ It’s still a useful guide for readers and editors of Shakespeare’s plays – and to the actors who still perform them. Having taken time out from editing the Shakespeare Folios series to compile Shakespeare on Theatre, an anthology of the playwright’s reflections on his craft, I think I can understand his otherwise infuriating indifference to the quality of the texts issued in his name. The balance between the grammatical punctuation required by a reader, and the looser ‘pointing’ of an actor’s script, is endlessly delicate, and the manuscript cue-parts distributed among Shakespeare’s company generally left it to them to sort out the sense – disastrously, in the case of the Prologue to Pyramus and Thisbe. Besides, while the full text of any play only ever supplies a menu (rather than a set meal) from which to select the script of a production, no edition of any of Shakespeare’s has ever been identically punctuated or worded in the four centuries since their first performance. The one quality Dr Johnson (with an h) found to praise in the otherwise abysmal playwright Richard Savage was his ‘superstitious regard to the correction of his sheets . . . lament[ing] an error of a single letter as a heavy calamity’. Shakespeare took a broader view, reserving his concern for the more pressing accidentals of the temporary stage, not the immortal page.

Shakespeare on Theatre (£10.99)

Shakespeare on Theatre (£10.99)

‘Death (as the Psalmist saith) is certain to all, all shall die,’ reflects Shallow in the 1600 Quarto of 2 Henry IV – the same misprinted Psalmist who should have complained about the ‘Princes’ (not the ‘Printers’) who persecuted him. The correct reading has always been more relevant. The publisher responsible for the missing ‘not’ in that 1631 Commandment was heavily fined by the authorities, and died in debtor’s prison. (A case of sabotage, he always claimed.) And when a Soviet newspaper rushed a new speech by Stalin into print in 1944, the harassed typesetter omitted a single letter that transformed the title of ‘Supreme High Commander’ into ‘Shitter-in-Chief’. (The editor was sent to the Front.) By such grim comparison, Shakespeare and his publishers got off lightly – though the 1623 Folio (the King James Version?) omits the bracketed reference to ‘the Psalmist’ in Shallow’s Quarto speech, following legislation against onstage profanity in 1606.

It is in part for the endlessly provisional nature of their scripts that Shakespeare’s plays will always re-enter the stage of the human mind – pending any posthumous directive by the author. It could still happen: when Cambridge University Library were pruning their collection in the 1860s, a scribbled-over edition of Milton’s Lycidas was found on the open shelves. It turned out they were Milton’s own corrections.

Shakespeare on Theatre is published by Nick Hern Books.  Click here to purchase your copy at our standard 20% discount (RRP £10.99) – no voucher code required.