I Am Shakespeare: by Mark Rylance

Mark Rylance

photo: Simon Annand

As actor Mark Rylance returns to Shakespeare’s Globe to play the title part in Richard III and Olivia in Twelfth Night, he reveals how his interest in the controversial Shakespeare authorship debate – the subject of his first play I Am Shakespeare, published this month by Nick Hern Books – led to the charge that he had betrayed Shakespeare. Nothing could be further from the truth, he argues in an introduction to the play, together with an extract presenting the case for one of the leading contenders.

The Big Secret Live ‘I Am Shakespeare’ Webcam Daytime Chatroom Show was created in the summer of 2007 for the Chichester Festival Theatre. Greg Ripley-Duggan produced the play, and subsequent to our run in Chichester, organised a brief tour to Warwickshire, Oxford and Cambridge University, amongst other places. This was not unlike taking a play that questioned Robert Burns’s identity as a poet, to Scotland. But, for some reason, the Shakespeare authorship controversy pierces deep to the heart of identity for some people, wherever you play. It was the extreme reaction of otherwise reasonable people that inspired this play. Their efforts to repress my curiosity, and frighten others away from the mystery, were funny in retrospect but extremely trying at the time, especially when I was Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London between 1995 and 2005.

I say that the play was ‘created’, as I had only written the first act and some of the second when the cast gathered in the Soho Laundry to begin rehearsals that summer. Under Matthew Warchus’s excellent direction, which included many improvements and developments of the script and idea, we then created the play. All of the original cast, especially Sean Foley who played Barry, improvised lines and situations, which I later included in the text. I am indebted to this spirit of adventure and collaboration, which, by the way, has always been my image of an aspect of the creation of the Shakespeare plays as well.

I Am Shakespeare (jacket)

Needless to say, I love Shakespeare – the work and the author – more than any other human art I have ever encountered. I have made my living, in many more ways than an actor’s pay check, on Shakespeare, since I was sixteen years old (which was thirty years ago at the time I wrote this play). I do not believe, as was charged against me at the Globe, that I am biting the hand that fed me. I am attempting to shake it. The fact that Shakespeare’s work will all disappear from the universe one day is more awe-inspiring to me than my own death.

Extract from I Am Shakespeare…

Act One Scene Three

The First Guest Ever: William Shakespeare

[Frank, a schoolteacher aged around fifty, has just begun the weekly broadcast of his chat-show about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, which goes out live via webcam from his garage in Maidstone.] There are two knocks on the door.

FRANK. Who’s there?

SHAKSPAR. Frank.

FRANK. Who is it?

WILLIAM SHAKSPAR enters.

SHAKSPAR. Hello, Frank.

FRANK. Who are you?

SHAKSPAR. Who do you think I am?

FRANK. Who do you think you are?

SHAKSPAR. No, who do you think I am? And more to the point, why do you think I am anyone other than who I actually am?

FRANK. What?

SHAKSPAR. Why do you do it, Frank?

FRANK. Why do I do what?

SHAKSPAR. Why do you get yourself in such a twist about who I am? Haven’t you got better things to do? You don’t need this to make you special. You should be proud of being just an ordinary good old teacher like your father, Tom.

FRANK. How do you know I’m a teacher? How do you know my father’s name?

SHAKSPAR. So what’s this all about? Books, books, books. Do you know there are more books about my play Hamlet than there are about the Bible? But then, I had a head start. There wasn’t an English Bible until a few years after Hamlet.

FRANK. Have you been sent here by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust?

SHAKSPAR. No.

FRANK. The Shakespeare Institute?

SHAKSPAR. No.

FRANK begins to speak.

No.

FRANK. Is this some sort of joke?

SHAKSPAR. You can’t fathom me, can you? Do you really think people have to be extraordinary themselves to do extraordinary things? I lived a thousand extraordinary lives in my writing – so many kings, lovers, murderers. They tired me out, Frank. But that’s not who I am.

FRANK. You dress up as William Shakespeare, break into my studio, hijack my show and then…

SHAKSPAR. It’s time you stopped, Frank. Please. Let it go. I don’t want to be man of the millennium. I just want a good millennium sleep. Every time you challenge me, some fool starts another penetrating biography: ‘Closer to Shakespeare’, ‘Shakespeare, The Player’, ‘Shakespeare, The Lost Years’, ‘Shakespeare for All Time’. Each one’s like an electric shock in my sleep, waking me up again. If I had known what it’s like to be a ghost, I never would have given them such small parts.

We see BARRY [Frank’s neighbour, age 35-45, a pop star who once had a top-twenty hit entitled ‘I’m a Sputnik Love God’] running round the outside of the garage.

FRANK. You think you can come in here, pretending to be William Shakespeare, sabotage my show…

BARRY rushes in.

Scene Four

The Interruption of the Neighbour’s Musical Genius

SHAKSPAR looks at the books.

BARRY enters, making sure he doesn’t forget a song he’s just composed in his head.

BARRY. I’ve got a song, Frank. After I rang you I went out with the guttering and BAM! I’VE GOT IT! After twenty-two years, my follow-up! ‘Long Green Summer Grass’. It’s got it all. Love in the afternoon. The great flood. It’s like a green love anthem. Sort of Al Gore meets Barry White!

SHAKSPAR. Hello, Barry.

BARRY sees SHAKSPAR.

BARRY. What are you doing?

FRANK. What are you doing?

BARRY. Who’s that?

FRANK. Yes. Who’s that?

BARRY. Why?

FRANK. Why what?

BARRY. What?

FRANK. Why?

BARRY. Why do something like this without telling me? Hiring a lookalike. I don’t think that’s very professional, you know, to keep secrets from your musical director. I thought we were working together on this. Oh, fuck it! Fuck it! I’ve forgotten the fucking song! I’ve forgotten the fucking tune! Look what you’ve done. I can’t remember it. It’s gone.

SHAKSPAR (singing).

Come on, baby, come on, baby, don’t say maybe,
When you’re way down, let me lay down –

BARRY. That’s my song!

SHAKSPAR (singing).

Lay down with you in the summer grass,
In the long green summer grass.

BARRY. That’s the song I just made up!

SHAKSPAR (singing).

I’m changing my drains down,
So, baby, when it rains down,
Ain’t no summer hose ban’s gonna turn,
Gonna burn, my long green summer grass to brown.

I thought the repeats helped the rhythm.

BARRY. Who is this guy, Frank?

FRANK. Why don’t you both just stop pretending. Get out. Go on, get out, the both of you.

BARRY. I never met the man before in my life! I swear on Brian May’s plectrum!

Scene Five

The First Interview Ever with William Shakespeare

SHAKSPAR. May I just finish this before I go?

BARRY. Do you know any more of my songs?

SHAKSPAR. Yes, but what I like best is that children’s book you’re working on.

FRANK. You never told me you were working on a children’s book.

BARRY. I never told anyone about Teddy and the Philosopher’s Guitar. What are you, like, a professional mind-reader? Is that your act?

SHAKSPAR. In a way, I suppose I always was, but since I died…

FRANK. Listen, you Shakespeare Kissogram, lookalike fake, bald-headed bladder-faced Midlands Pranny…

BARRY. Hey, Frank, why don’t you give him a chance to explain himself.

SHAKSPAR. Because his mind is closed, Barry. He doesn’t want to know who wrote the plays. He wants to know he’s right. And I think he’s probably got some kind of hang-up about common people creating great works of art.

SHAKSPAR gets up to go.

BARRY. Now you’re talking.

FRANK. No I haven’t.

SHAKSPAR. I’m off now. (Speaking into the camera.) May I just say thank you to everyone, actors and audiences everywhere, for making my plays the big success they are. I never imagined they would last so long.

FRANK (also into the camera). Because he never imagined them in the first place.

SHAKSPAR. I think I might go up to Stratford-upon-Avon and visit the Birthplace Trust. What’s the best way to get there?

BARRY. How did you get here?

SHAKSPAR. I don’t know… something to do with the internet and the weather? Look, I’ve written something for you, Frank. Just to show you there’s no hard feelings. One of your favourite sonnets. You wouldn’t believe the money you can get for any old document connected to me nowadays.

SHAKSPAR puts it on the desk.

FRANK. Oh, very impressive. Phoney Elizabethan writing. You’ve been up all night rehearsing this.

SHAKSPAR. Don’t you want a handwritten sonnet?

FRANK. No, I don’t want your lousy homework.

FRANK tears it up and throws it in his face. Sniffs him.

By the way, I don’t know if your friends have told you, but you have got severe hygiene issues.

SHAKSPAR. I’ll make my own way. Fare thee well, Barry.

BARRY. Fare thee well, Will.

SHAKSPAR. I’m retired; I just want to be left alone, like Prospero. Let your indulgence set me free.

FRANK. If Shakespeare’s so like Prospero, why didn’t he educate his daughters?

SHAKSPAR. They didn’t want to be educated.

FRANK. Why didn’t he write or receive any letters?

SHAKSPAR. I conducted my business in person.

FRANK. Why did Shakespeare never write about his home town, Stratford?

SHAKSPAR. Which would you rather go and hear: The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, or The Slightly Embarrassing Day in the Life of John, Glove Maker of Stratford?

He goes out and they carry on talking around and out in front of the garage.

FRANK. People in Stratford had no idea he was a playwright?

SHAKSPAR. I kept myself to myself.

FRANK. Then, why was he so litigious?

SHAKSPAR. What’s any of this got to do with my work?

FRANK. That’s exactly my question.

BARRY. Will, you know you can see inside my head, can you see inside Frank’s?

SHAKSPAR. When? In the past, present or future? Once you die, your existence is not bound by time or space.

BARRY. What was Frank doing last Tuesday at, say, 11:37 in the morning?

SHAKSPAR. He was in a classroom, teaching my play, Romeo and Juliet, and he was just about to confiscate a mobile telephone from a young student named James who was texting a friend beneath his desk.

BARRY. What did the text say?

FRANK. It doesn’t matter.

SHAKSPAR. ‘Tosser Charlton is a dickhead.’ In the First Folio collection of my plays, Ben Jonson refers to the author as the ‘Sweet Swan of Avon’; there’s a reference to the author’s ‘Stratford Monument’, in Stratford-upon-Avon; and, my fellow actors, Heminges and Condell, also refer to me as the author. How do you explain all that? Why? If I wasn’t the author, why? Until you can answer that, you haven’t got an answer, you haven’t even got a question!

SHAKSPAR goes out into the evening.

NHB are proud to publish Mark Rylance’s debut play, I Am Shakespeare. To order your copy at the special price of £7.99 (rrp £9.99) with free UK P&P click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the promo code box at checkout.

Tamara von WerthernA few words from NHB’s Performing Rights Manager, Tamara von Werthern…

“This is a lively and very funny play anchored in the present but exploring the secrets of the past. It’s great for companies who have a number of strong male performers and enjoy performing in costume. It’s a light-hearted piece that asks fundamental questions about identity and the nature of genius, and will be enjoyed by all audiences, particularly those with some knowledge of Shakespeare’s work (though, as the extract above shows, it wears its considerable learning lightly). And those of you who have seen or performed Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem will more than likely want to read a stage play by the actor who was the original Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron.”

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The ‘X Factor’ Actor

The Acting Book

John Abbott has enjoyed a varied career in theatre – as an actor, director, educator (namely, Head of Acting at ArtsEd) and author. He has written three books for NHB on theatre, and his latest – The Acting Book – is published this month. John identifies charisma as one of the most important attributes for the modern actor – but what exactly is ‘charisma’? Here, he demystifies the notion…

Lately I’ve found myself shouting at the television more and more often: ‘“ConTROversy” not “ContraVERsy”!’ I yell. Or: “A road map is something that shows you all the roads in an area, you idiot. It gives you thousands of different ways of getting from A to B. What you mean is a route! Something that tells you the best way to get where you want to go!”

But the thing that drives me round the bend is Louis Walsh bouncing up and down behind his desk when he rejects the public’s favourite X Factor contestant and defends his decision by shouting, “But it’s a singing contest, Simon!”

No, Louis. It’s not. The clue is in the title of the show. The contest is to find a performer with the X Factor. That indefinable something that touches an audience’s imagination. Bob Dylan would never have won a singing contest based on the quality of his voice. Neither would Frank Sinatra. Nor Kylie Minogue.

In fact, almost no one on The X Factor has the X Factor. Yes, they can be trained to sing like Rihanna or Adele or Jessie J, but there is always something missing. Very few contestants on reality TV shows have sustainable careers because that special something – that X Factor – is hard to find. It’s elusive. Let’s call it what it is: Charisma.

They say that trying to explain Buddhism is like trying to explain Beauty. Or Love. Or Happiness. Once you begin to analyse it, you’ve already missed the point. You know it when you experience it, but try to explain that experience to someone else and it just comes out wrong. Charisma is like that.

We’ve all seen charismatic actors. We go to see a play or a film just because they are in it. No other reason. We want to see them. You know who the charismatic actors are. And although there are a lot of brilliant actors in the profession and we can teach committed students how to act like them, can we teach the students how to become charismatic actors?

*

Ten years ago, Jane Harrison (now the Principal of ArtsEd) and I set about writing a document that would establish the academic credentials of the acting course we were teaching at ArtsEd. Lots of drama schools do it. They get their course validated by a university so their students can get a bachelor’s degree. We were lucky enough to get involved with City University, and I knew we were talking to like-minded people when the Dean of Validation, Steve Stanton, questioned one of the sentences in our proposed document: “You have used the word ‘heart’ when assessing a student’s creative commitment, but surely a heart is just a machine that pumps blood round the body. Wouldn’t it be better to use the word ‘soul’?” (Yes indeedy! Thanks, Steve.) ArtsEd logo

When you write a course document that needs to be validated by an academic institution, you have to come up with assessment criteria in order to give each of the students a mark for their performances. Some aspects of a performance are easy to assess: Have they learnt the lines? Is their character believable? Could you hear them? Did they look confident? And so on. But time and again you come up with the same problem because there are some actors you just want to watch. They draw you in to their performance. They could stumble over their lines and their characterisation could be flimsy, but when they are on stage they… what is it? They nourish you. They excite you. They make your heart flutter. They take you out of yourself. They thrill you. They have charisma.

So we wanted to add ‘charisma’ into the list of assessment criteria for performances and in order to do that we had to define it to some degree. Here’s what we came up with:

‘Charisma –

The students are assessed on their ability to:

  • Use their own personal qualities as a performer to convey plot, character and mood.
  • Display an understanding that personal focus and concentration is engaging for an audience.
  • Demonstrate a positive use of their unique qualities as a performer.’

One of the jokes we often tell ourselves is that if we could teach students to be confident and sexy we wouldn’t have to teach them anything else because that’s what people want to see in an actor. But actually ‘sexy’ isn’t quite the right word, because the quality we are referring to is something that appeals to both sexes. Perhaps ‘appealing’ is a better word. Or ‘charming’. Or ‘engaging’. (I’m using the thesaurus now, but you can see where I’m coming from).

Whichever adjective you choose, there is no doubt that confidence is the driving force behind them all. An agent once said that ArtsEd students were ‘confident without being arrogant’ and that was the biggest compliment we could have got, because confidence without arrogance is sexy, appealing, charming, engaging and, of course – charismatic. I do think it’s possible to teach ‘confidence without arrogance’ (and I’ve touched on an approach to that in The Acting Book when I refer to the ‘Confidence Trick’).John Abbott at ArtsEd

We don’t teach our students to act in any particular style or expect them to become disciples of any special methodology. All we do is introduce them to a collection of styles and methodologies and let them choose what suits them best. It’s what I do in The Acting Book as well, which outlines the course at ArtsEd and the different techniques and approaches that all actors, at every level, should be familiar with. It’s knowledge of these techniques that gives the students confidence. Our aim is to empower them, not enslave them. If drama teachers can help acting students to value their own unique qualities and then show them how to realise their personal artistic vision, then we will be on our way to training students to become truly charismatic actors.

The Acting Book is published by Nick Hern Books. For a limited period only copies can be purchased with a 20% discount (RRP £10.99). Plus, our blog readers can claim free UK p&p (international rates apply) by using the voucher code ‘ActingBookPP’ at checkout. Click here to purchase your copy. 

‘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.

The Hound of the Baskervilles: the Peepolykus version

The Hound of the Baskervilles

You don’t need an actual hellhound or a bucket of phosphorus to stage the Peepolykus version of Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles – the rib-tickling spoof, full of the company’s trademark verbal and visual ingenuity, seen on national tour and in the West End. But, as co-adapter, Steven Canny explains, there’s plenty of scope for horses, dogs, elephants and a large plastic lobster…

Our version of The Hound of the Baskervilles started out on its feet and has kept on dashing about ever since. To explain: before we wrote a word we worked with the brilliant company Peepolykus: improvising, trying, messing up, trying again, improvising some more, putting on silly wigs, getting stuck, and debating where the humour lay. Then, as we wrote some words down we tried them out again. The director of the original production, Orla O’Loughlin, likes to do read-throughs by getting the actors to stand or walk around the stage, and that means that you can immediately see the potential for the stage pictures, visual plotting of the action and areas for comic opportunity. This is a great way for John [Nicholson] and I to work as writers because we like action – in the past we’ve tried to write things where people talk about clever things a lot but we soon discovered our limitations. So instead we have our characters doing things. And it became clear that this production of The Hound of the Baskervilles would involve a great deal of dashing about, trying to keep up, not quite changing costumes in time and narrowly missing impact with parts of the set.

In fact, if you’re thinking about doing a production it might be worth asking your actors to run 800m or so before an audition. This will tell you nothing about their acting ability but at least you’ll know if they’re likely to keel over on you on the first day of rehearsals. Alongside this, they’ll also need to be excited by the prospect of conjuring up steamrooms, a train, horses, dogs, elephants and a haunting. They’ll also have to really love lightning quick costume changes. When we made the first production for West Yorkshire Playhouse we rehearsed in the room where they store all the props.  So you can blame them for some of the worst excesses that appear in the script. At one point a large plastic lobster played a large part in one of the key scenes!

Most of all, and this sounds dangerously like an evangelist’s sermon, we hope that you approach any production with the sense of joyfulness that we approached that original production. It was a huge adventure. We spent ages thinking of the silliest things we could and then the actors found ways of playing them on stage. So, alongside the running shoes, please issue a sense of fun and a general willingness to have a go. That should see you through.

Tamara von WerthernA few words from NHB’s Performing Rights Manager, Tamara von Werthern…

With its cast of three male performers taking on a variety of roles, this is a great play for groups with three talented (and physically fit!) actors looking for a challenge. This play will have your audience rolling in the aisles with laughter. If you would like a copy of the playscript on approval (free for up to 30 days, at the end of which the script can either be bought, or returned to us in mint condition) email me at tamara@nickhernbooks.co.uk.”

The Hound of the Baskervilles is published by Nick Hern Books. To celebrate the launch of NHB’s new website, for a limited period only copies can be purchased with a 20% discount (RRP £9.99). Plus, our blog readers can claim free UK p&p by using the voucher code ‘HOUND’ at checkout. Click here to purchase your copy.

Michael Pennington on his new book, SWEET WILLIAM: Twenty Thousand Hours with Shakespeare

Michael Pennington. Photo Helen Maybanks.

Michael Pennington (photo Helen Maybanks)

Renowned actor and author Michael Pennington introduces his new book on Shakespeare, Sweet William, based on his solo show of the same name. Read on, and you’ll find an exclusive extract from the book, that may whet your appetite for more…

This morning the snow is six inches deep and as I live at the top of a hill there’s not much prospect of going anywhere safely. The light bouncing off it into the house is a brilliant blue, and the sound is travelling differently – voices sound distant even when they are close at hand. The street is of course very still, in a kind of shocked silence.

Well, I try. But I’m not Shakespeare. And what I’m wondering this morning is what he would have made of this wintry scene. You may be able to think of some, but I can’t recall many snow scenes in Shakespeare, much as he liked autumn and seeing its empty branches as ‘bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang’. Quite a bit of my new book has to do with what Shakespeare would have said about many things that exercise us today – the Arab Spring, the London riots, but also the World Cup (where our disgraced goalie in 2010 had the same name as the jealous playwright who denounced Shakespeare as an upstart crow when he first arrived in London). And as the creator of the immortal dog Crab in Two Gentlemen of Verona, think how he’d have liked the dog Uggie in The Artist

This book, which has its origins both in my solo show Sweet William and in my first thrilling encounter with him when I was eleven, when I was blown away by the language of Richard II as spoken by the late lamented John Neville, is my fourth on Shakespeare and I thought that would be enough. But the trouble with Shakespeare is you can’t sign off : after 20,000 hours in his company I’m still getting big surprises. No sooner do I deliver this book than I see Ralph Fiennes’s brilliant film of Coriolanus and want to redo the chapter on that play – not rewrite it altogether, but I’d like to bring it up to date. Any good new production or film advances our understanding and changes our minds a bit. I’m hoping this book, like others I’ve done, will appeal to a wide variety – practitioners, Shakespeare fans, general readers. The pleasure has been that they also seem to appeal to academics, a community that I salute for the huge steps they’ve taken towards us in the trade during my working life. For fun, there are even imaginary conversations using only words and phrases invented by Shakespeare, and a conversation between Pistol from Henry IV and Parolles from All’s Well.

I’m also glad it’s coming out now, slightly beating the rush in a year when Shakespeare is going to be turned on like a tap : politicians will make startling claims, and there will be many misquotes while the nation congratulates itself on having produced such an amazing man. But really it’s he who’s produced us – with Chaucer, he more or less invented the language we use every day and he anticipated just about every political dilemma we’ve found ourselves in. I’d have bones to pick with him if I met him – the endless double meanings, the dreary Act Fours, his tendency to say the same thing three different ways – but that just shows how personal, almost intimate, one’s relationship with him is. He is the poet for your inner ear as well as the amphitheatre, for the middle of the night as much as for high noon. I hope you enjoy my version of him. 

Michael Pennington performing his show 'Sweet William'

Dogs were no strangers to the Elizabethan stage. It’s thought that the jig that followed all performances of Shakespeare’s plays (even King Lear) may sometimes have featured a troupe of dancing dogs. But had anyone made such a feature of one as Shakespeare did with Crab in Two Gentlemen of Verona? I doubt it. Shakespeare is starting something here which certainly had consequences: in The Witch of Edmonton (1621, Dekker, Rowley and Ford) the Devil turns up disguised as a dog.

 Crab conforms to an important technique of vaudeville: precondition the audience and they will laugh at anything. I recently saw a very brilliant French mime who ventured to do impersonations of various types of cheese. There, you’re interested already. He gave his Camembert a sort of shamefaced self-loathing, low and squat, as if his pungency embarrassed him; the English cheddar was rather upright and noble. From then on the mime could do no wrong. Yes, we cried, that’s a Bresse Bleu exactly; oh yes of course, a Taleggio, I’ve always thought that. Crab works like that too: to the relief of subsequent casting directors, Launce’s part is written in such a way that whatever Crab does, and is, is funny. Accused of ingratitude, whether he just sits there morosely, scratches and sniffs, bounds about, looks at the audience or blankly at Launce, it is equally good.

SWEET WILLIAM (£20)

Sweet William (£20)

Shakespeare is of course well ahead of his time in this. A couple of centuries later Crab would have flourished in music hall as a speciality act – the Mind-Reading Dog or the Talking Dog; and he is perhaps a less manageable cousin of the ventriloquist’s dummy, that other means of putting words into an uncomprehending mouth. Indeed the comedy of the vent lies in the cussed independence of the dummy, which may relapse into the same stubborn silences as Crab. And of course a real dog on the stage exemplifies the immemorial mournful warning of W.C. Fields never to work with anything on four legs. Though biddable for small tasks, a dog is not much of a dissembler; and a theatre holds as many interesting distractions as a toy shop does for a child. In a recent production at the Open Air Theatre in London’s Regent’s Park, the fact that a barbecue was cooking throughout the evening in the foyer bar led to some interesting chases for Crab – off down the grassy slope at the front of the stage and right up the central aisle to the front of house, pursued by Launce and sometimes members of the audience. The Rose, if that is where the first Two Gentlemen played, can hardly have been less attractive, with its rich mélange of aromatic refreshments – cheese, spice, meat pies and roasted thrushes.

Sweet William is published by Nick Hern Books (January 2012). For a limited period only, copies can be purchased for just £16 (RRP £20) through NHB’s website (standard postal fees apply) here.

Helen Edmundson on her stage version of SWALLOWS AND AMAZONS

'Dream' – Akiya Henry and company

'Dream' – Akiya Henry (photo Simon Annand)

Helen Edmundson is a multi-award-winning playwright with a string of stellar hits to her name, including adapting Jamila Gavin’s novel Coram Boy for the National Theatre, and winning the John Whiting Award (Best New Play) for The Clearing. Her latest venture – bringing Arthur Ransome’s classic novel Swallows and Amazons to life for the stage – is a collaboration with songwriter Neil Hannon from The Divine Comedy and director Tom Morris (War Horse, Coram Boy). After a flying start at Bristol Old Vic and a critically acclaimed West End run, the ships have set sail once again touring the UK. Helen reveals how this ‘rich and appealing fantasy’ (Evening Standard) all began…

I’d really enjoyed working on Coram Boy, and I was keen to write something else aimed at a younger, family audience, so I was very pleased when director Tom Morris and songwriter Neil Hannon asked me to collaborate on ‘Swallows‘. Beyond being a really engaging adventure story for children, the book is about important things – about giving children freedom and time to play, about encouraging them in their imaginative games and allowing them to learn through them – and the characters are honestly and lovingly drawn. It is very much of its time – it’s set in the 1920s – but there is a charm and nostalgia which comes with that. And we all knew it could be funny.

'Amazons' – Sophie Waller, Greg Barnett, Celia Adams and Jon Trenchard (photo Simon Annand)

'Amazons' – Sophie Waller, Greg Barnett, Celia Adams and Jon Trenchard (photo Simon Annand)

We developed the book and lyrics over a period of eighteen months – working at The National Theatre Studio. Neil lives in Dublin, so we would get together sporadically, often with marvellous actors to help us to try out our ideas, and then go off and work individually for a time. Tom Morris was with us all the way through, so the whole process was properly collaborative and organic. When Tom took over as Artistic Director at Bristol Old Vic, our show went with him, and became his first Christmas show at the theatre in 2010/11. Last year we continued to work on it, and in December The National Theatre and Fiery Angel, and The Children’s Touring Partnership brought the show into the West End. Now it sets sail on a nationwide tour.

'Swallows' – Richard Holt, Katie Moore, Akiya Henry and Stewart Wright (photo Simon Annand)

'Swallows' – Richard Holt, Katie Moore, Akiya Henry and Stewart Wright (photo Simon Annand)

One of the keys to the adaptation was realising that we could use the notion of imaginative play to unlock the story and its staging. We decided early on that we were not going to flood the stage and attempt to have real boats, but that we would allow the characters to create everything they needed, by grabbing whatever might be lying around in an old shed, or attic or garden. Imagination would be the answer to everything. And we would ask the audience to suspend their disbelief right from the start. So the great thing is that the script we now have can be tackled with very few resources. It’s an invitation to be inventive and could be realised in lots of different ways. The children in our production are played by adults, but they could be played equally well by children. The songs are reasonably simple and easy to pick up. I really hope it will be a tempting prospect for schools and amateur groups.

Tickling Trivia: Arthur Ransome, the author of the book “Swallows and Amazons” was married to Trotsky’s secretary.

Swallows and Amazons playscript

Swallows and Amazons (£9.99)

Swallows and Amazons is currently touring the UK until 31st March 2012, click here to book tickets. NHB are proud to publish the playscript. To order your copy at the special price of £8 (normal price £9.99) with free UK P&P click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout (to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed).

Coming soon on the NHB blog! Helen talks about her next big project, The Heresy of Love, premiering at the RSC’s Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, February 2012.

Charles Dickens’ THE HAUNTING: I Wants to Make Your Flesh Creep!

Hugh Janes , author of The Haunting

Hugh Janes

Hugh Janes’ spine-tingling play The Haunting is adapted from several original ghost stories by Charles Dickens, and toured extensively throughout the UK in 2010/11. Here, the author explains how the play was inspired by Dickens’ long-held fascination with the supernatural…

Whether we believe in them or not, ghosts appear to be everywhere: in churches, cemeteries and a great many theatres. The composer Ivor Novello has frequently been seen sitting in the stalls of London’s Cambridge Theatre. A woman sometimes glides along the catwalk seventy feet above the Shaftesbury’s stage. And the ghost of 19th-century actor and theatre manager John Baldwin Buckstone appears at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, when a play is about to become a big success. Patrick Stewart apparently saw him at recent revival of Waiting for Godot. I wonder if Buckstone gave the same spectral thumbs-up when the play first opened in the fifties?

Ghosts are a part of ancient culture, as both superstition and belief. They also feature in early literature in works like the Hebrew Bible, the Egyptian Book of the Dead and the Odyssey and Iliad of Homer who describes a ghost vanishing as ‘a vapour, gibbering and whining into the earth’.

It is the Fat Boy in The Pickwick Papers who says ‘I wants to make your flesh creep’, and this is the desire of any storyteller entering the world of the supernatural. It is an opportunity to play with the fear that lurks in our imaginations and is conjured from the twilight and shadows. The slightest suggestion of something lurking in the dark can be as powerful as any ghostly sighting.

THE HAUNTING: Charlie Clements (David Filde)

Charlie Clements (David Filde). Photo: Keith Pattison

Charles Dickens always loved ghost stories. His childhood nurse filled his young mind with these tales and he later wrote about his love of her ghoulish tastes. As a teenager he became fascinated by the illustrated horror stories that appeared in the ‘penny dreadful’ magazines. When he grew older, his curiosity about death, spirits and psychic phenomena increased as the same fascination in things spiritual gripped the public interest like a Victorian X Factor. In one of his short stories he wrote ‘There is always life in the night. Listen for it in bed in a darkened room, or look for it even in the comfortable firelight at dead of night, when the warm coals will conjure wild faces and figures… and as the gentle breeze turns into the howls of demons, the crackle of logs the cackle of witches, and then you can fill the house with noises until you have a noise for every nerve in your nervous system.’

His ghost stories appeared either as independent pieces or were included in his novels; there are five in The Pickwick Papers. He may have written them purely for his own pleasure and then published when he needed to meet a deadline. Or he may simply have felt these tales would fascinate his readers and provide them with an unusual diversion from the main plot. He often introduced a character in a book merely to impart a ghostly tale.

THE HAUNTING: Paul Nicholas (Lord Gray)

Paul Nicholas (Lord Gray). Photo: Keith Pattison

Dickens was fascinated by spiritualism and often visited mediums. Even after he learned the nature of their gimmickry he continued to visit. He loved trickery and was a very proficient magician himself. He describes how he and a friend entertained a large gathering of children at Christmas with ‘wonderful conjuring tricks. A plum-pudding was produced from an empty saucepan, held over a blazing fire kindled in Stanfield’s hat without damage to the lining.’

In my play, The Haunting, I have blended five of Dickens’ short ghost stories with a story I was told some years ago. One of my uncles was an antiquarian book dealer in Brighton and he visited an old Sussex manor to value some books. As he was looking at the collection in the cellar a woman appeared. She watched him for a while, apparently interested in what he was doing, and then vanished; he knew she was a ghost. He returned to the manor on several occasions hoping to find out more about her but she never reappeared.The Haunting (£8.99)

Cinema has been fertile ground lately for all things paranormal but there are still very few ghost plays. Yet all that is needed is the dead of night and an isolated, crumbling mansion high on the moors where a storm is gathering. Then a high-pitched scream followed by the sound of fingernails scraping on glass and the scene is set to begin the haunting of our imaginations.

Nick Hern Books publish The Haunting (£8.99) – adapted by Hugh Janes from five short stories by Charles Dickens. To order your copy with free UK P&P click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout (to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed). Offer available until 31st December 2011.

This play will be great fun to perform, with lots of potential for stage trickery such as books flying off shelves, creepy sound effects and a ghostly apparition. And the good news is – it is immediately available for amateur performance.

Please let me know if you would like to be sent a copy of the playtext on an approval basis (free for up to 30 days, at the end of which the script can either be bought, or returned to us in mint condition), or if you need any more information, by emailing me directly on tamara@nickhernbooks.demon.co.uk.