By Me William Shakespeare – Inigo Rooms, Somerset House

I went to see the exhibition By Me William Shakespeare, held at the Inigo Rooms, Somerset House, part of King’s College London, before it closed. The exhibition was an opportunity to view Shakespeare’s will, as well as other documents relating to his life. It incorporated research, scientific analysis and a digital installation, with the nine “most nationally important” documents selected by academics from the London Shakespeare Centre at King’s and specialists from the National Archives.

Although the exhibition doesn’t sound like much, consisting as it does of nine documents, the curators have done a great job illuminating what they all mean and exploring the context. Documents on display include Shakespeare’s Last Will and Testament (he famously left his wife the “second best bed”, though the exhibition does make clear this was not necessarily the snub it is thought to be), as well as those that include four of his six known signatures. One document refers to the infamous incident when Richard Burbage and Shakespeare dismantled the Theatre in Shoreditch and rowed it across the Thames, where they rebuilt it as the Globe. Another concerns the dowry dispute in which Shakespeare was involved because he lodged in the house of the family concerned.

As a lover of Shakespeare, this exhibition was a real treat for me and I enjoyed it, although non-fans may find it a bit dry.

Shakespeare400: Shakespeare’s London/Beaumont’s London – Guildhall Library

The other day I went to a talk at Guildhall Library given by by Dr Lucy Munro from King’s College London. The talk was about the London of Shakespeare and Beaumont, marking the 400th anniversary of the death of both writers. William Shakespeare of course died on 23 April 1616, but Francis Beaumont also died that year (on 6 March, aged only 31): he has been rather overshadowed by Shakespeare over the past four centuries, but his life is worth celebrating too.

Munro began her talk by showing us a 1572 map of London, revealing a much smaller-scale city than the one we are familiar with today. Playhouses were growing up all over London. One of the first such houses Shakespeare wrote for was “The Theatre” – not such an unimaginative name as it sounds, as the term “theatre” was usually used for private indoor spaces. The name harks back to the classical world of Greek and Roman drama.

Shakespeare lived on Silver Street for a time; he also, in 1613, bought a gatehouse on Blackfriars (the road on which another playhouse for which he wrote was located). Beaumont was born in Leicestershire in 1584, his father a judge, his mother a recusant Catholic. His wife may have been Roman Catholic too, which would have marked out Beaumont as an outsider. He entered the Inner Temple in 1600 after studying at Oxford, and began his collaboration with the writer John Fletcher in 1605.

The pair’s first play The Woman Hater was written for the Children of St Paul’s, though the pair also wrote for the Children of the Queen’s Revels at the Blackfriars Theatre. Beaumont and Fletcher lodged together on Bankside: an anecdote from John Aubrey, found in his Brief Lives, suggests the closeness of their relationship, as they lived together and shared everything. When Beaumont died he was buried in London, in Westminster Abbey.

Whereas Shakespeare set most of his plays in fairly exotic locations (excepting the histories, which mention such landmarks as the Tower of London, Westminster, and the Boar’s Head Tavern at Eastcheap), Francis Beaumont wrote regularly about specific London locations including the Mermaid Tavern (mentioned in a poem to Ben Jonson). A painting by the nineteenth-century artist John Ford imagines what poets’ meetings at the Mermaid might have looked like, although it is not particularly accurate: it is not known that Shakespeare was involved in these meetings, but he has a central place in Ford’s painting.

Beaumont’s writing makes reference to the London streets, their smells and sights; locations reflect the social, moral and economic circumstances of the characters. The Knight of the Burning Pestle, his significant solo play, mentions London locations, transforming them from real-life places into fantastical locations for his knight’s Quixotic journey.

I really enjoyed this talk: I think Beaumont is a vastly underrated writer (The Knight of the Burning Pestle, which I saw at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, is a masterpiece) and I enjoyed learning about how he uses London in his work and his relationship to the city.

Shakespeare’s London – Museum of London Archaeological Archive

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, and as such there are several special events going on. One such event, Shakespeare’s London, taking place at the Museum of London Archaeological Archive in Hackney, is a tour of the archive which includes a look at artefacts discovered at London’s Elizabethan theatres. I booked this pretty much as soon as I heard about it, as I love both history and Shakespeare.

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Mortimer Wheeler House

The Archive is held at Mortimer Wheeler House; I looked up how to find it and I’m glad that I did, as it isn’t the easiest building to find. It’s located in east London, north of Old Street, just below the canal. We waited in the foyer for the tour to begin; there were quite a few of us, so we were taken around in two separate groups. As we explored the Archive, we were able to learn more about it, as well as the history of theatres in Shakespeare’s day.

The Museum of London Archaeological Archive is part of the museum’s Department of Archaeological Collections and Archive. Over the past century, nearly 8,500 archaeological sites have been investigated in Greater London: this archive holds information relating to all of these, with full archives for over 3,500 of them. There is also an archaeological library collection. It has been officially recognised as the largest archaeological archive in the world.

The Archive is of international significance, the primary source of evidence for early London. As archaeology itself is a destructive process – accessing one layer usually involves removing another – the only evidence of its existence is in the archive. There is an online catalogue containing information about object collections and archive records, and the Archive can also be visited for research purposes. This is free, but you need to make an appointment.

Early in the tour we got to play “archive lottery” – choosing a number and taking the relevant box off the shelf to see what it contained. Our box wasn’t particularly exciting, containing bits of pottery – however, as our tour guide (one of the Archive’s volunteers) explained, pottery is actually a really valuable tool for dating a site. We were subsequently introduced to some very special artefacts relating to the theatre.

Theatres like the Globe, the Rose and the Curtain, popular in Shakespeare’s day, were actually known as playhouses: the term “theatre” tended to refer to indoor, private theatres located in houses (similar to the Globe’s new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse). However, for the purposes of the tour they were referred to as theatres. We saw a cannonball that was found on a theatre site, once used to help create the sound of thunder (a similar item from the Rose Theatre is about to go on display at the British Library as part of their Shakespeare exhibition). Some of the smaller artefacts that we got to handle included copper pins, seals for rolls of cloth, and fragments of tobacco pipes. We also saw – but because of its fragility, understandably weren’t allowed to touch – an almost complete leather boot from the Elizabethan period: an incredible sight.

Many of the small items recovered were things which could have been dropped easily in the tightly packed, busy atmosphere of the playhouse. Gambling dice and makeup brushes were also found, as were tokens used to gain admittance into the playhouse. Money boxes were used to collect payment; when they were full, they were smashed, and the contents counted. They were kept in the money box office – what would later become the box office.

The area around Southwark where most of the theatres were situated was also known for bear-baiting, and the skull and bones of a bear and of a dog, possible rivals in the ring, are testament to this. The bear bone that we saw had tooth marks on it – possibly chewed by a dog after the poor dead or dying bear was discarded.

In a small room with a table, we were able to look at newspaper cuttings and letters related to the discovery and excavation of the Rose Theatre in 1988. When an archaeological excavation began on this site, no one had any idea just what an incredible find would be unearthed. The discovery sparked a campaign to retain and restore the site (the original developers just wanted to cover it over), and inspired a change in the law, meaning that excavations are now required when developers take over a site in London.

It was once thought that the hazelnut shells found at the Rose site indicated that theatregoers ate hazelnuts during performances, in the same way we might eat sweets or popcorn today. However, it is now thought that the thick layer of hazelnut shells would have provided cheap and effective flooring – especially as, with long performances and no toilets, groundlings would often just go where they stood – it makes me cringe to imagine walking over a spongy, urine-soaked floor of shells, but I guess they would have been used to it!

Finally, we ended up in a ceramics room, looking at some of the Shakespeare-related items held in the Archive. These included whole, and nearly whole, money boxes (which were always green, seemingly), and a figurine of Othello and Iago. We got to have a look around the room for a while before leaving, at some of the impressive collections which ranged from Roman amphorae to Victorian hot water bottles.

I absolutely loved my trip to the Archive and would recommend it for all those interested in London’s history. The Shakespeare tours are taking place again on 16 April, so it’s not too late if you want to take part.

Shakespeare’s Schoolroom – Stratford upon Avon

While I was in Stratford upon Avon recently to see a Shakespeare play I came across a leaflet stating that tours were being offered around Shakespeare’s old school, King Edward VI School in the heart of the town. I made an impromptu visit, eager to enjoy the chance to look around.

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Entrance to the building on Church Street

I was given a tour by a very pleasant and polite pupil of the school (feeling incredibly old as I write that). The building incorporates the 16th century Upper and Lower Guildhall, still used today. The school itself is still going and it is a state school, not a private school, as I’d thought at first. Shakespeare attended this school, then Stratford Grammar School, between the ages of approximately 7 and 14.

The Lower Guildhall

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Wall paintings can still be seen
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From the back
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Way in from the back

The Upper Guildhall

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More “hidden” pictures are just visible on the wall
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Table around which Guild members would have sat
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The schoolroom, where Shakespeare would have received his education

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This pane of glass was kept when the rest was replaced, as it may bear William Shakespeare’s signature

The school was raising money for a forthcoming performance of John Ford’s The Lady’s Trial at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in London (the Jacobean playhouse at the Globe Theatre). I wish them the best of luck with their production.

Shakespeare: Greatest Living Playwright – V&A

The small display Shakespeare: Greatest Living Playwright is on in the Theatre & Performance area at the Victoria & Albert Museum until the 28th of September. It celebrates the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, and consists of artefacts such as a copy of the First Folio and videos of several theatre practitioners currently involved with Shakespeare. These include Sinead Cusack, Cush Jumbo and Simon Russell Beale, and I really enjoyed hearing about their experiences, especially Cusack, as she played Cleopatra in the first ever RSC production I saw back in 2002.

RIFT Macbeth

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The Balfron Tower was designed by Erno Goldfinger in 1963

I’m going to write a proper review of RIFT’s Macbeth, but in the meantime I want to write something about the experience itself, as it was one of the craziest, most intense things I’ve ever done. I booked it for myself for a birthday treat, and I tried to get some friends to come along, but none of them were particularly keen on the idea. Despite initial apprehensiveness about going on my own, I needn’t have worried. I talked to loads of really interesting people, about the show and about our shared interest in immersive theatre (practically everyone there had already been to Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man). In any case, most of our time was spent taking in the show, and we didn’t have to worry too much about chatting.

Webcowgirl and Playhouse Pickings have already written really helpful guides to the experience, so all I will do is emphasise the importance of following their tips – they came in very handy for me. Having said that, there were no super-hot peppers at our banquet – only perfectly innocuous, not at all spicy ones. I felt rather smug that I’d heeded the warnings about eating beforehand and going to the loo (I spent a couple of hours at Westfield Stratford before heading to Langdon Park DLR) as many of my fellow audience members were dying for the toilet almost immediately and when we were finally allowed to go there was a huge queue.

I stayed overnight and slept very well in my bunk bed – a bit TOO well, to my disappointment, as I slept right through the whopping thunderstorm that occurred on Thursday night, and missed out on the chance of watching the action from my flat’s 18th floor balcony. The flat itself – the hall and bathroom, at least – was still covered in blood from the performance, which was somewhat disconcerting. I was able to wash my face and brush my teeth, but after much-appreciated coffee and croissants in the morning I was very happy to get home and finally have a shower.

Still, this performance will go down as one of my favourite London experiences, and it was definitely one of the best birthdays ever!

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Amazing views from my 18th floor balcony
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Amazing views from my 18th floor balcony

Shakespeare in Print – Guildhall Library

I popped out in my lunch hour on Wednesday to visit the Shakespeare in Print exhibition at the Guildhall Library. This looks at the history of printing William Shakespeare’s plays, from late sixteenth century quartos to seventeenth century folios, the reworked versions of the eighteenth century and the rediscovery and popularity of the originals in the nineteenth. I wanted to go on a Wednesday as this was the only day of the week on which the Library’s original First Folio is displayed – a facsimile is on view at all other times. This First Folio was acquired around 1760 by William Petty Fitzmaurice, 2nd Earl of Shelburne, and purchased for the London Institution in 1806; it was transferred to the Guildhall Library in 1912. It is supposed to be one of the five finest copies in existence.

The First Folio dates from 1623; it contains almost all of Shakespeare’s plays. One exception is Pericles, which was only added to the Second Folio. In addition, several early copies of the First Folio do not contain Troilus and Cressida. The First Folio was the result of Shakespeare’s followers and admirers gathering together several years after his death to combine, edit and publish his plays. This is part of the reason Shakespeare’s works are so well known today: it was uncommon for plays to be printed in the sixteenth century, as it could damage the original company’s profits if another company got hold of a written text and started performing it. Shakespeare himself probably did not authorise any such publication in his lifetime. It’s just as well the First Folio was published, as it is the earliest printed version of around half of Shakespeare’s plays, including MacbethJulius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. Without the First Folio, these plays may have been lost.

The First Folio was followed by the Second, Third and Fourth Folios as Shakespeare remained popular. As plays became accepted as serious literature, other works were published during this time, and the exhibition holds some examples of these, including The Knight of the Burning Pestle by Francis Beaumont (recently performed at the Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse) and the works of Benjamin Johnson.

During the eighteenth century, Shakespeare was often adapted heavily to suit the tastes of the time. For instance, Macbeth was performed with songs (I would love to see this) and as a ‘travestie’ version – a spoof in two acts (I would also love to see this). During the Victorian era, Shakespeare began to take on the iconic status he still has today and theatre-makers began to go back to the original texts and study Shakespeare more seriously. ‘Variorum’ editions of the works – editions including all known variants of a text, including notes – began to be produced, and gift books, such as the ‘Library Shakespeare’ on display, were common.

The exhibition didn’t just contain books: there was also a dress worn by Juliet Rylance in the Globe’s 2005 production of  The Winter’s Tale, which was made by the Original Practices Clothing Archive. Overall, this was a small but fascinating free exhibition and I’m glad I made the effort to go, even though it meant a bit of a rush during lunch!

Middle Temple Hall

Shakespeare’s Globe are planning a huge undertaking – to take a production of Hamlet to every country in the world between now and 2016. ‘World Hamlet, as it is known, officially kicked off at the Globe this week, opening the new season on Shakespeare’s birthday, April 23rd. However, a few preview performances took place over the Easter weekend at Middle Temple Hall, and I attended one of these.

The Hall dates back to the sixteenth century and it is a wonderful place to experience theatre. A highly appropriate place for Shakespeare, in any case, since he actually did have his plays performed here: a plaque marks the location of the first performance of Twelfth Night in 1602. The space itself is beautiful: rich and ornate.

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Stratford upon Avon

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Royal Shakespeare Company

I may or may not have mentioned that I often go to Stratford upon Avon to see the RSC perform plays. Recently the Artistic Director, Gregory Doran, announced a plan to put on each of Shakespeare’s plays over the next couple of years, so of course, being the completist obsessive that I am, I decided that I wanted to see them all too. After the fantastic production of Richard II starring David Tennant last year, it was time for Henry IV Parts I and II, and they both surpassed expectations.

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Henry IV Part I
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Henry IV Part II

I saw the matinee performance of Henry IV Part I followed by the evening performance of Henry IV Part II. I preferred the first play, but I think that was down to the play itself rather than any fault with the cast or direction of Part II. Anthony Sher was brilliant as Falstaff and I honestly thought both productions were excellent. Full reviews are on my theatre blog.

I stayed in Stratford overnight as there aren’t any late trains back to London on a Saturday. I had a lovely weekend and can’t wait to go back in the summer!

2013 at Shakespeare’s Globe – the Season of Plenty

Yesterday, the 23rd of April, was significant for many reasons. It was World Book Night, and I was a book giver again this year, handing out 20 copies of The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde to bemused commuters at my local tube station. It was also St George’s Day, the day of the patron saint of England (who never actually set foot on these shores), and was (as is rumoured) Shakespeare’s birthday (and deathday, too, but I don’t want to celebrate that).

As far as I was concerned the day was special for another reason – it was the first day of the new season at Shakespeare’s Globe. Located on the South Bank next to Tate Modern, the theatre is a modern reconstruction of the Globe of Shakespeare’s time and presents plays over the course of the summer (since the theatre is open to the elements, performances don’t take place in the winter). There couldn’t have been a better day for it – the sun shone brightly and the air was warm. Though I’d taken my coat in case it got cold during the evening performance, I didn’t need it, which is incredible considering it rarely remains warm at ten in the evening even at the height of summer.

The Globe

The 2013 season has been given the name ‘Season of Plenty’, and the plays on offer this year include The TempestMacbethA Midsummer Night’s Dream and touring productions of King Lear and The Taming of the Shrew (which will have short runs at the Globe in between their touring schedules). The three plays in the Henry VI cycle will be performed, often on the same day. Non-Shakespeare productions include a musical celebration called Gabriel, a story about the first female undergraduates at Cambridge named Blue Stockings, and an adaptation of Euripides’ The Bacchae entitled The Lightning Child.

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Poster for the ‘Season of Plenty’ – with many queuing groundlings underneath!

I was so excited about the new season that I booked for the very first performance, which happened to be of The Tempest. I got the tube to St Paul’s after work and wandered down to the river. Crossing the Millennium Bridge, I saw the wonderful, welcoming Globe, familiar and exciting.

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The new foyer – large, bright and airy

Inside, however, things have changed. In less than a year, the new indoor Jacobean theatre (the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse) will open on-site, and in preparation the foyer has been expanded. The coffee and cake stall that used to be next to the gift shop has moved downstairs, which has been developed into a larger seating area with picnic tables. This has freed up space for the shop to expand.

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Waiting for The Tempest to start

And what of the play itself? Well, this production of The Tempest is probably the best I’ve ever seen. Many of the varied characters, including Caliban and Gonzalo, were played by Globe regulars James Garnon and Pip Donaghy who always deliver strong performances. Roger Allam made a superb Prospero, and Jessie Buckley and Joshua James were excellent as the young lovers Miranda and Ferdinand. I usually find Ariel an incredibly annoying character, but Colin Morgan’s (Merlin in the BBC drama of the same name) portrayal made him sympathetic and multi-dimensional.  The production was a largely traditional one, employing simple costumes and props of the kind likely to have been seen four hundred years ago. This focused attention on the rich dialogue, which took on new layers of meaning when spoken in front of the Globe’s rapt and close-up audience. The storm that opens the play was evoked with metal sheets and other loud instruments, which were actually more effective than the bells and whistles of more modern productions with years of technology at their disposal.

Never mind the temperature or the number of flowers in the park: for me, the beginning of summer is signified by the opening of the Globe, and if last night’s performance is anything to go by, it’s going to be a good one.