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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‘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.

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.

Richard Eyre’s TALKING THEATRE: with John Gielgud

John Gielgud

John Gielgud, 1904—2000

Part Two of our week-long Talking Theatre Special is an extract from Richard Eyre’s interview with the late John Gielgud.

Actor and director John Gielgud performed all the major Shakespeare roles, and was instrumental in introducing Chekhov to English audiences. In later life he acted in plays by Alan Bennett, Charles Wood, David Storey and Harold Pinter. I interviewed him on the stage of the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, well before the start of filming the rest of the interviews—‘in case I drop off the twig,’ as he put it. He seemed then—the summer of 1998—to be eternal. He warned me that he was ‘just an actor’ who’d never had an idea in his head, which was typically self-deprecating. No one could have mistaken Gielgud for an intellectual, but although his conversation was showered with actorly anecdotes, it was impossible to discount his mercurial intelligence and his extraordinary recall of theatre history, even if life outside the theatre had passed him by.

What was the theatre like that you encountered as a child?

Well, it was very much a theatre of stars. Actor-managers were beginning to die out, but I looked for the big names on the marquee, so I got to know the theatre very well because I stood in the pit and gallery and went whenever I could; my parents were very long suffering. They both went to the theatre quite a lot, but they were never in the theatre, although my mother had strong links with all her Terry relations [Gielgud’s great aunt, Dame Ellen Terry, was the leading Shakespearean actress of her times]. I was fearfully lucky because from the very beginning I got my first jobs through personal introductions and so I never had to sort of stand in the queue to get work. I was earning seven or eight pounds a week from quite early times, and I got scholarships at two dramatic schools, so I didn’t have to pay fees, I didn’t cost my parents anything, and I lived at home. I really had a very easy time those first ten or twelve years, and I learned a bit of hard work.

What did you think of what you saw in the theatre in those days?

I didn’t think then what acting really was like. I loved spectacle and I was immediately taken in by colour and groupings, and the childhood drama of the curtain going up and the lights going down, which would vanish from the scene in years to come. I think that it was spectacle and romance and love scenes and people waving capes and looking out over balconies and things that appealed to me so much.

What was the social mix in the audience?

It was very much divided.

Upper-middle-class?

Very much. I mean, the stalls and dress circle were the middle-class and aristocratic public, and then there was the upper circle and the pit and gallery, which were the cheap parts, which hissed and booed or applauded on the first night and were very important for the commercial success. And there were enormous commercial successes: plays that ran a year. And things like Chu Chin Chow that ran three and four years.

Did you see Chu Chin Chow?

Yes, I never stopped seeing it.

The theatre at that time wasn’t was all light comedy, was it? It was also the age of Ibsen and Shaw.

Yes. I was in great difficulty because all my life I’ve been so stupid and flippant. I never cared to think of what was going on in the world or in the two wars, which I in a way lived through. But I had such a childlike adoration of the theatre and of actors and actresses and the ones I met in my parents’ house. My own relations were all very exciting to me and they lived this make-believe world. But when it came to Ibsen and Shaw I rather jibbed; I hadn’t got the appetite for dialogue and I found them very talky. I never got over that. I never have got over it. I’ve never really liked plays that are entirely talk.

You and Olivier must have been fiercely competitive at the time when you first worked together.

I was by then just becoming a leading man; my name was bigger than his, and without knowing it—we were very friendly, always, we got on extremely well—I had a feeling that he rather thought I was showing off, which indeed I was.

Well, he probably was as well.

Yes, but his showing-off was always so dazzling. [chuckles] My showing off was more technical and was more soft and, oh… effeminate, I suppose.

I’m surprised you say that because I would have characterised it the other way round, that his showing-off always seemed to me to be ahead of his interest in playing the truth of a character.

Well, I think his great performances were mostly comedy. I was never so impressed by his Oedipus or the Othello, which were two of his greatest successes. But I was enormously impressed by The Dance of Death and by Hotspur and Shallow and Puff [in Sheridan’s The Critic], and Richard III of course. And I loved working with him, the little that I did. But I always thought he went behind my back and directed the actors his way. When he played Malvolio for me at Stratford with Vivien Leigh as Viola, I was certain that he’d gone away and told her how he thought it ought to be played and that she was torn between the two characters trying to work with her.

Did you feel hurt when the National Theatre started and Olivier didn’t bring you into the company initially—and then only asked you to do Oedipus with Peter Brook?

Yes, I was a bit hurt, but I always had so many other sorts of offers. I’m not, funnily enough, very jealous, I never have been. I had great ambitions but I was never jealous. And I was always surprised to find that some actors were very jealous.

When the new National Theatre started, Peter Hall took you into the company.

Yes, but he gave me a very flat year—Julius Caesar and that old part in Volpone—so I really had no fun at all. I hated the National Theatre building: I hated that feeling of being in a sort of airport. And the Royal Shakespeare Theatre’s like a nursing home. [laughs]

It’s hard for us to believe that there was ever a time when Shakespeare wasn’t very popular, in the same way it’s hard to imagine there was a time when Mozart wasn’t very popular.

It wasn’t till John Barrymore came from America and did Hamlet with a complete English cast—except for two characters, I think—that suddenly it was box-office.

You did the film of  Julius Caesar directed by Joe Mankiewicz, which I admire enormously. Do you regard that as a successful translation of Shakespeare to the screen?

I think it’s one of the best. I saw it again after many years. It isn’t bad at all, except for the last part of the battle, which was done for tuppence in the last two to three days. But the main part of the film I enjoyed very much, and they were all very sweet to me. I got on excellently with Brando and with Mankiewicz, and the girls were very charming, and it was very exciting to be in Hollywood and see all the stars and I made quite a lot of money, and it was a new experience altogether.

Did you help Brando with his performance?

One day I did. He only had one scene in which I appeared with him. We worked on that one day, and he said: ‘What did you think of my performance?’ And I said: ‘I don’t want to discuss it.’ And he said: ‘Oh.’ ‘Let me think about it,’ I said. The next week I wasn’t working, and they came to me and said Brando had just done the speech over Caesar’s body and ‘It’s so wonderful you must come and see the rushes.’ So I went and saw them, and I didn’t like what I saw at all, but I naturally didn’t say so. But he then said, would I help him with the speeches in the scene we had together. And so I did. I didn’t know he was really listening, but the next morning he’d put in all the things that I’d suggested to him immediately. He was bright as a button. But I would have loved to have worked with him over some of the rest of it. They were all so pleased with him, but naturally I didn’t interfere. I didn’t want them to think I was teaching them how to speak Shakespeare.

What’s always struck me about the way you speak Shakespeare is that you always let the meaning lead.

You’ve got to be awfully sure of your material. I’ve found a great deal of Shakespeare very hard to follow and very difficult to act. But if a part appealed to me pictorially then I immediately grabbed it and that was all. I’ve never lost my very childish attitude towards the theatre, which is so-called make-believe romance, or pretending to be somebody else and having people round me who were also in the same kind of dream world.

This is an edited extract from Richard Eyre’s interview with John Gielgud. The full interview is published in the new paperback edition of Talking Theatre: Interviews with Theatre People.

Talking Theatre (paperback)

Talking Theatre (paperback, £9.99)

To order your copy of Talking Theatre at £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.

Don’t forget to visit the NHB blog EVERY DAY this week for more exclusive extracts from Talking Theatre: Interviews with Theatre People! Don’t miss tomorrow’s post featuring experimental theatre impresario Peter Brook – on why theatre is so important to the English.

Spotlight: CARDENIO at RSC

Gregory Doran directs Cardenio

Gregory Doran, editor and director of Cardenio

Gregory Doran has performed a masterful act of literary archaeology in bringing a lost Shakespeare play to the stage. Opening last night at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, Cardenio is set in the heat and dust of Andalusia in seventeenth-century Spain. But the history of the play is every bit as thrilling as the play itself. Here, Greg charts the thrilling story of Cardenio, from the story’s first appearance in Cervantes’ Don Quixote to its re-imagining at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2011, via Shakespeare and Fletcher’s stage in 1612 and the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in 1727.

Theatre is the most collaborative of the arts; and collaboration has been the key note of Cardenio since William Shakespeare and his younger colleague John Fletcher decided to write a play together, based on an episode in the Spanish best-seller, Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, first published in England in 1612, in a translation by Thomas Shelton.

Cardenio somehow avoided inclusion in either the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays in 1623, or of Humphrey Moseley’s publication of Beaumont and Fletcher’s plays in 1647. But Moseley did register The History of Cardenio by Mr Fletcher. & Shakespeare (sic) for publication in 1653, in the Stationers’ Register. Perhaps Sir William Davenant (who promoted the rumour that he was Shakespeare’s illegitimate child) had a manuscript of this play, and may have prepared it for performance by his company after the Restoration, with Thomas Betterton, the leading tragedian of his time, as Cardenio himself. Davenant’s company had done adaptations of the two other Shakespeare/Fletcher collaborations we know about: The Two Noble Kinsmen and All is True (Henry VIII); so why not Cardenio?

Cardenio production photo - Pippa Nixon as Dorotea and Alex Hassell as Fernando

Pippa Nixon as Dorotea and Alex Hassell as Fernando. © RSC/Ellie Kurttz

The prompter to that company, one John Downes, retired in 1706, and it seems a manuscript copy of Cardenio, in his handwriting, fell into the hands of one Lewis Theobald. Theobald, who had trained in the law, had tried his hand at everything: classical translation, journalism, poetry, opera librettos and even a novel, and was scratching a living writing the new popular pantomimes at the theatre in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. But he finally came to prominence by challenging the great poet of the Augustan Age, Alexander Pope, for his sloppy inaccurate edition of Shakespeare. And Theobald’s follow-up move, designed to secure his place in the literary pantheon, was his adaptation of that Cardenio manuscript, which he called Double Falshood, or The Distrest Lovers. It was a success. It ran for ten consecutive performances at Drury Lane Theatre.

Back in 2003, when I was directing Fletcher’s The Tamer Tamed, his sequel to The Taming of the Shrew, we got a group of actors together to read Theobald’s Double Falshood. We all agreed that it had great potential, but that the plotting (particularly at the beginning) was convoluted, and it was missing several scenes. At which point, we put the play aside. However, after re-reading Shelton’s 1612 translation of Don Quixote, I realised that those missing scenes might be re-imagined from the very same source material that Shakespeare and Fletcher must have used.

Cardenio production photo - Oliver Rix as Cardenio

Oliver Rix as Cardenio. © RSC/Ellie Kurttz

In 2007 on a visit to Spain with my production of The Canterbury Tales, I was introduced by the Almagro Festival director, Emilio Hernandez, to Antonio Álamo, a writer and the director of the Lope de Vega Theatre in Seville. Antonio is a Cervantes nut, so we inevitably discussed Cardenio. He alerted me to what an extraordinary story it is, and made me realise just how much Theobald (who admitted he was adapting it for the tastes and sensibilities of the London audience of his time) had removed: namely, much of the psychological complexity and rigour of the original. We would need to replace Cardenio’s ‘cojones’!

Further discussion with Spanish colleagues ensued. I travelled to Cordoba to accept a Bellas Artes medal, on behalf of the RSC, from the King of Spain (Laurence Boswell’s brilliant Spanish Golden Age Season had visited Madrid, as had my own production of Coriolanus: both had emanated from the RSC). In Alicante at a Cervantes/Shakespeare conference organised by Professor Jose Manuel Gonzalez de Sevilla, further discussions took place – and finally a visit to Seville with Antonio Álamo, to understand the significance of the story in Spain. Out of this visit came another draft, which we workshopped with the Hamlet company in 2008, and another draft was further developed at an RSC residency in Michigan, under the aegis of Professor Ralph Williams. Here we worked with Hispanic-American actors from the LAByrinth theatre company in New York. So, for example, Cardenio was played by a Mexican, and Don Bernardo by an actor from Los Angeles, which certainly revealed and rooted the play’s Spanish temperament.

Cardenio production photo - Alex Hassell as Fernando, Christopher Chilton as Priest, Lucy Briggs-Owen as Luscinda

Alex Hassell as Fernando, Christopher Chilton as Priest and Lucy Briggs-Owen as Luscinda. © RSC/Ellie Kurttz

Throughout the process, we poured over other seventeenth-century versions of the Cardenio story, by Pichou, by de Castro, by Bouscal, and by Thomas D’Urfey. But in an attempt to provide some sense of integrity to the piece, where extra lines were needed, I tried to limit myself to plundering only those Jacobean plays in which John Fletcher had drawn upon Cervantes.

Cardenio is the first new production in the Swan Theatre, since the RSC’s Transformation Project (another collaborative effort if ever there was one). The Swan opened twenty-five years ago with Fletcher and Shakespeare’s The Two Noble Kinsmen, so it is only fitting that we return with another play they worked on together, although this time the list of writing credits has grown to the length of a Hollywood blockbuster, with Shakespeare, Cervantes, Fletcher, Shelton, Theobald, etc.

Cardenio programme text (jacket)

Cardenio - Shakespeare's 'lost play' re-imagined

Cardenio reopened the RSC’s Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon on April 27th, and runs to 6th October 2011. It has already received a glowing reception from the critics – ‘an extraordinary and theatrically powerful piece’ wrote the Guardian, ‘a spirited, entertaining and at times touching night at the theatre’ adds the Telegraph. Today’s piece is an extract from Gregory Doran’s Introduction to the published text of the play. To secure your own copy of the Bard’s ‘lost play’ – with a special 20% discount (and free p&p for UK customers), click here and add ‘Cardenio Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout and your discount will be applied when your order is processed.