York St John University Creative Fellows return to York St John to talk about their work performing in Shakespeare’s plays.
By Charlotte Crawshaw
In the wake of Halloween, now more than ever monsters have been leaping to life from the pages of books around the world. In this Words Matter Creature Feature, Charlotte Crawshaw discusses representations of Witches throughout history from the past to the present.
By Tia Byer
On Wednesday 7th February 2018, English Literature students at York St John University were treated to a Literature Research Showcase. English Literature Faculty members presented their research and gave the low-down on what they are working on. Third-year student and Sub-Editor Tia Byer reports.
After our very successful involvement with the first York International Shakespeare Festival two years ago, YSJU’s English Literature team will again be putting on two events as part of the second YISF programme this May in conjunction with the University of Tehran and YSJU’s Drama and Theatre team. Both events are free but ticketed. Please check the external link regularly as they will be available shortly as the York Theatre Royal adds events to its system. If you would like to get involved as a volunteer, please email Saffron at email@example.com
Shakespeare’s play is a significant demonstration of the deployment of the state apparatus, which never discloses the strategies through which power is imposed. When Coriolanus reveals these strategies, the state, together with those who think order is the only guarantee of survival, literally delete him from society. Hence, Coriolanus reflects the current democratic crisis in our region.
-Adaptors Hamed Asgharzadeh and Javad Ebrahiminezhad
After the performance of Coriolanus there will be a short Q&A session.
QS/015, York St John University 11.00am – 1.00pm, Tuesday 16 May 2017
Titus Theatre Group, in collaboration with Drama and Theatre at York St John University, offer a workshop based around their production of Coriolanus. The workshop will be led by Hamed Asgharzadeh from Tehran, and David Richmond from the University of York St John.
The York St John student production, Coriolanus “and they hunt for the truth that is ‘behind it all’” (Brecht 1957, text by William Shakespeare, Kurt Cobain, Charles Olson and the company) will be presented on 11 and 12 May 2017 at the Stained Glass Centre at St Martin-cum-Gregory, Micklegate, York.
By George Moss
As part of their recent visit to York St John, RSC actors Alex Waldmann and Pippa Nixon led multiple workshops on Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Hamlet is a tale of madness, love, revenge, death, incestuousness and secrecy. When the king unexpectedly dies, his son the Prince of Denmark finds his destiny drastically altered and his rightful throne occupied by his uncle, Claudius. His father’s spirit returns and reveals his own murder, stoking a fire for revenge in his son that will thrust Hamlet down a twisted path of misery and deception.
After arranging us into a relaxed semi-circle, Nixon began the workshop by breaking down its structure: “We thought it might be useful with this session to maybe share a little bit about our experience of being in Hamlet for a long period of time with the RSC. I played Ophelia and Al played Horatio […] and then maybe we would just do half an hour of looking at the nunnery scene, in a very condensed way, and just go through how we might play with the text in a rehearsal room, which will be a little bit of audience participation. Don’t worry, we’ll get you all up on stage! Does that sound okay?” Heads shot down here with nervous chuckling by all, anxious fidgeting erupting across the room. Waldmann piled in on the gag, quipping: “Too late now, get up lock the door!” The jokes were soothing, and the room was now set to discuss the play with a comfortable determination.
— Shakespeare @YSJ (@ShakespeareYSJ) November 24, 2016
— Shakespeare @YSJ (@ShakespeareYSJ) 24 November 2016
As promised, the duo started by reflecting on their shared relationship with Hamlet. Nixon and Waldmann performed Hamlet with the RSC in 2013, under director David Farr. Nixon offered a detailed description of the setting, along with her own approach, explaining the play was “set in a fencing school. In a very posh house or a school? It was quite difficult to determine where this room was, but it was all set in this one room. I felt quite lucky playing Ophelia in this production, because a lot of actresses want to play her but she is such a difficult part because there are so many missing scenes. Like one minute you see her cut up about Hamlet, and the next minute she’s gone mad, and that’s a massive leap for an actress.” However, no matter where Nixon leaped, she always reached the other side. Ophelia has often been portrayed as something of a slippery snake, and the technicalities of grasping the character seem equally as challenging. It was after all the actor’s responsibility to give the audience something comprehensible to latch onto in the whirlwind madness. This was achieved, according to Nixon, by really interrogating the question, “what does madness mean to us? What does madness mean to us at the time?” Waldmann added firmly that “the most interesting thing in [Hamlet] was Pippa’s version of Ophelia. In real life, people that are mad don’t necessarily think they’re mad. That’s what makes them scary. They think they’re right, and that everyone else is wrong. It’s the certainty thing, Hamlet can never be sure that [his father] is a ghost, and that’s what makes him sane […] What made Pippa’s version of Ophelia really moving is because everyone else was mad because they didn’t understand ‘the owl was a bakers daughter’, but there was a certainty in that I’m going to get married.” This is an unsettling, complicated role reversal. Madness is treated as a power, as a tool that can evolve and conquer. It is a startling prospect, the gaps in Ophelia’s appearances and psychology partially filled in by infesting and tainting the thought processes of others.
Both Nixon and Waldmann were keen to get to the centre of the characters’ mentalities during the workshop. They provided a clear way of unpacking the character’s psychology, by analyzing the “nunnery” scene. In the play, this scene comes shortly after the famous ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy. After plucking up our courage to engage with two esteemed acting veterans, we slowly gained traction in creating a sizable list of potential character actions. Nixon elaborated that this process was called: “actioning […] and you would do this on each line or each thought, but we thought we would do it just for the overall peice right now. An action is like a verb, a doing word, of something that I would be doing to Al as Ophelia, as Ophelia what would I be doing to Hamlet. Maybe I would be imploring, or maybe I would be seducing, or humiliating. So we thought maybe we could bounce some ideas of each other.” There is a huge range of options and avenues to explore here, and it is easy to see how Shakespeare becomes so adaptable when this exercise is engaged with properly. Many of the actions we interpreted in the scene sometimes contradicted with another, but such contradictions can in turn spark further variations of Hamlet. Waldmann confirmed this, describing how “we’re using the same words, but depending on what action you play, it can completely change the way those words come alive. When you see boring Shakespeare, you just see a lot of people standing on stage trying to make it sound nice. And when you see good acting, or good Shakespeare – I’m talking to you now because we want to excite you and educate you and inspire you, I’m not just talking for the sake of it. I want my words to change you in some way. And the same way in any scene in any play, people and the characters are talking to each other because they’re saying ‘I need you to understand this about me. I was hungover too, I was drunk last night as well.'”
Following that poetic description of a dialogue, it was time to get stuck in! As a group, we brainstormed many variations of Hamlet and Ophelia’s actions during the infamous nunnery scene. Waldmann and Nixon patiently explored a few different variations, explaining that “what Ophelia is feeling is less important than what she is trying to do. Often in life we cover up what we’re really feeling to try and win the argument.” From that moment, our list of actions and reactions grew exponentially. For Hamlet to Ophelia: to humiliate, seduce, reject, punish, to implore. From Ophelia’s actions to Hamlet: to manipulate, provoke, irritate, degrade and to mock. Nixon then explained the interconnections of each action and how they feed into one another: “You guys will choose one now for both of us to play, and it might be like, mine might be to manipulate, but within manipulation I might have a moment of seducing or blocking. There are different actions within that main action.” In a special one-time treat for the group, or what Waldmann described as their catchy “world premiere of Hamlet provoking Ophelia humiliating”, Nixon and Waldmann began to act out our choices. Waldmann was to be Ophelia and Nixon to assume the role of Hamlet for the first round. However, what followed was near indescribable. They weaved their way through the crowd, poked and prodded each other, grappled on tables, banged on keyboards and erupted with hysterical laughter as they performed the scene, using their physicality to expand the meaning of the language. Their humour was natural and their acting compelling, giving a flavour of how Shakespeare’s text can evolve not only through history, but in the present, precise moment.
— Julie (@julie_raby) November 26, 2016
Thanks in no small part to Shakespeare: Perspectives tutors Julie Raby and Saffron Walking, Alex Waldmann and Pippa Nixon generously put in time and effort to bolster York St John’s understanding of Shakespeare. This was no ‘tick the box’, run of the mill drop in – they spent time with York St John because they care about the material and they care about how it is comprehended. That passion and level of commitment is wonderfully infectious, enriching York St John’s enjoyment of Shakespeare.
Shakespeare’s words have stayed with many throughout their lifetime. In the case of Alex Waldmann and Pippa Nixon, theirs will also stay with us long throughout our own.
By George Moss
Hot on the heels from multiple RSC visitors, two of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s most decorated actors Alex Waldmann and Pippa Nixon paid a valuable visit at York St John to unpack the evolution of Shakespeare’s King John and the true meaning of theatre.
Waldmann and Nixon met during the 2012 RSC production of King John at Stratford-upon-Avon’s Swan Theatre, directed by the magnificent Maria Aberg. The RSC’s plug for the play is that: “King John explores inheritance and illegitimacy and the subsequent political deals and struggle for power. It is one of Shakespeare’s least performed plays.” In retrieving the play from this obscurity, Waldmann starred as King John whilst Nixon performed as The Bastard, the two central characters.
— Shakespeare @YSJ (@ShakespeareYSJ) 24 November 2016
Waldmann, Nixon and the rest of the company created their production from an enthusiastic foundation. Nixon found rehearsals compelling from the start, stating that the “rehearsal room was one of the most creative and brave spaces that I’ve certainly ever been involved in. That play [King John] was a big risk.” Risks and challenges are vital terms frequently found in an actor’s vocabulary, and it is the sense of risk that keeps a play feeling rejuvenated and fresh. After all, if Shakespeare himself was ‘creative’ and ‘brave’ in the writing of his work, then surely the best way to honour this is by following suit. Rather than striving to re-create past performances or simply adding another familiar iteration, the company rightly wanted to add another link in a four hundred year-old chain. As King John is rarely performed, the cast’s previous exposure to the text was limited. Waldmann himself readily confessed that, “I didn’t really get the play [King John], it’s one of his [Shakespeare’s] least familiar plays […] it didn’t really make any sense to me”, a shaky start for a lead actor. Nixon similarly added that, “I didn’t know anything about King John. I’d never seen it, never read it.” This is what fueled the creativity of the aforementioned creative rehearsals, putting a face on the unknown. The ingenuity of the company allowed the production to transform from a place of skepticism and mild dissatisfaction to a natural evolution of King John, a fresh creation. Nixon spoke of director Maria Aberg’s own perspective: “she found it quite impenetrable I think, and for her, making The Bastard a female character and having this particular relationship with King John, and conflating Hubert with The Bastard, sort of made sense for her.” This genius change in the character propelled the production into uncharted territory. Distancing their production from preconceived parameters, their King John began to breathe a life of its own. This is something that Waldmann reaffirmed in a moment of realisation: “All of a sudden the play came to life to me, and made sense, and it all felt that it centered around this intense, destructive complex relationship between King John and The Bastard. Whereas in the original play you get to see these two people at the beginning and at the end, and in the middle their relationship disappears. So suddenly the play made sense to me.” Not only did they unearth a sense of a more linear narrative, but the play was rooted deeper in a vividly intelligible exploration of relationships. Both Waldmann and Nixon still rank this piece and their efforts as ones they are extremely proud of, and with very good reason.
— Dr Adam James Smith (@elementaladam) 24 November 2016
Not only were the gender paradigms shifted, but the duo’s approach to Shakespeare’s language was also insightful. Where does language end and the character begin? Do they intersect? Is language always reliable? These are questions which layer any production with depth and complexity. Waldmann explained his observation that: “people get obsessed by the words, but often we say the opposite of what we feel […] the language betrays what we’re really feeling […] you’ve got this template, and it’s about finding a way of bringing those words to life.” Though Shakespeare’s mastery of language is often heralded, it would be fair to say that his language has become an entity of its own. As Shakespeare continues to be adapted, Shakespeare’s words are difficult to comprehend to the uninitiated, and deeper meanings are difficult to discover. To combat this, language must not be a confinement to character, but a sandbox to play in. Pippa Nixon spoke about this in great length, stating, “to have the modern meet the classical is great, because I always found there was a slight veil between speaking ‘it’ and feeling ‘it’ and suddenly with The Bastard, because we did so much detailed work about who these people are, the character starts coming alive so much that the text is just a way to access that character […] And that got brought into As You Like It completely, then Ophelia in Hamlet and then it’s gone on to Ariel in The Tempest. It feels like that work had unlocked something, it unlocked this reverence to Shakespeare’s texts and it’s incredibly elastic, you can stretch it and pull it and throw it across the room.” Shakespeare is often thought to be on an untouchable pedestal; that the only way to understand him is through an enormous supply of ‘highbrow’ intellect. But this is not the case at all: you simply need to be in touch with your humanity.
“people miss the excitement and the danger of the stories”
Shakespeare’s plays are in large part studies on the human condition. Do academic dissections eclipse all the fun? Waldmann seemed to think so to an extent, stating that “people miss the excitement and the danger of the stories” when the mechanics of a text override the thematic essence. Expectations invade the sense of wonder, of spontaneity and creativity that the theatre strives to fuel. Waldmann notes that, when it comes to accessibility, companies are “trying, but part of it is to do with the performance style, where ‘I don’t really understand what you’re saying, and you’re not a human being, so I don’t really care – I’d rather go and watch something modern, a telly programme.'” It seems from here there is only one way to go, and that is to update the tactics of putting on a show. Shakespeare interrogated the sociopolitical climate of his own era, and it is now time to adapt his work to fit within our own understanding of our world. Nixon shared this sentiment, that some Shakespeare productions today are: “not feeling like it’s evolving and going to more exciting spaces and places”, and this presents a ceiling that can only be shattered by the creative industry. After all, as Waldmann concurred, the theatre is not a museum, but an arena of innovation.
Shakespeare is for all, not only to be studied rigorously by select few, but also to serve its most basic, original purpose: to entertain everybody. Waldmann and Nixon carry this torch high and proud, and it pays off in their audience feedback, according to Waldmann. After a Saturday Matinee performance, Waldmann was beckoned over by a heavily tattooed man from Salford. “I was like oh god, this is it, I am gonna get beaten up before tonight’s show. He said he was from Salford and got dragged down [to the play] by his in-laws and had never been to the theatre before. He said, ‘I didn’t really understand what you’re saying all the time, but I fucking loved that’. And it meant more than any peers saying that.”
Through the fundamental decency of Alex Waldmann and Pippa Nixon, the inherent creativity and humanity of the theatre will seldom be forgotten. Shakespeare would surely approve.
In a riveting discussion mediated by York St. John Senior Lecturer in Drama David Richmond, famed artist Melly Still discussed topics from her time at York St John, to her directorial efforts in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, currently playing at the Barbican Theatre, London.
Melly Still is a director, choreographer and designer. She has been nominated for four Olivier awards and six Tony awards, including best director for both. In a career going from strength to strength, Still has developed productions with The National Theatre, Blind Wall Festival Opera and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Her work has been recognized on an international scale, influencing theatrical circles in Europe, America, and Asia. Needless to say, Still ranks among York St John’s top alumna.
Still’s rationale for choosing to study at York St John University in the 1980s was that, “at the time, it was the only place in the UK that I could find that did theatre, fine art and dance – all three.” Retrospectively, this education route seems like an exhausting shocker. After all, it is not uncommon to find single honours undergraduates in the library engaging in various activities; working, reading, sleeping, crying. It would certainly be remarkable if Still aced three subjects at once, but as is true for many undergraduates, it wasn’t always smooth sailing.
Still highlighted many obstacles that came her way during her time at University. She openly admitted that, “I think I displayed lack of confidence by just not giving a damn at the time”, which for the theatrical arts obviously will not fly. In a subject that relies so heavily upon inspiration and creativity, a stunted student will find it difficult to reap the rewards of study and practice. Coupled with a lack of confidence is untapped potential, and that is something Still evidently had much of. Eventually this potential was unleashed, and Still “started to click with some of the work we were doing […] I really loved it at after that, second, third and fourth years. I don’t think I missed anything. Plus I was making work and putting on shows at every opportunity that wasn’t part of the curricular [activities].” It is often said that University is a time to broaden ones prospects, to participate in as much as possible whilst also, creating our own opportunities. Between the endless hours of Netflix and noise, a sense of maturity is eventually unearthed in the first year, and propels each and every student into the productive years that follow. Or at least that’s what we tell ourselves at 3am whilst devouring another episode of Luke Cage.
Nevertheless, Still began harnessing her talent through the three headed beast of a course. She described it as “really fascinating work – I remember a lot of the tutors. There was this kind of, strangely enough at the time, everything was very, very compartmentalized. At the time, theatre practice was theatre practice, art was art, and there was never a between, they would never meet ever. There was a lack of cooperation between departments at the time. Which seemed nuts to a lot of the students.” Of course, this has been clearly rectified now, with York St John University breathing as a whole by sharing trips, societies and a great many lectures. However, where the artist is confined it could only ever lead to rebellion. Still reflects that it: “Seemed mad we weren’t being able to do mad things on rooftops, and things like that. It was quite conservative, but it helped, because it meant we could sort of push against it. It’s quite easy to shock people here, which some how I found quite incentivising at the time.” Creativity is at its most vibrant when demolishing boundaries and offering new perspectives on a great many things, changing thoughts and feelings for the better. Of course, clambering onto somebody’s roof is also a stellar method of inciting change: hopefully we can expect someone to be on the roof of The White House one day soon.
Still’s continuing hard work eventually led her to where she is today, directing rarely performed Shakespearean juggernaut Cymbeline. Whilst she contemplates that “the tutors encouraged us to be quite experimental at the time”, she later stated that her artistic nuance came: “very late in my career, finding my voice. But I certainly felt I really want to work in a narratively driven, choreographic work”. In the case of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Cymbeline, that voice is on a speaker phone. The play’s pitch is hauntingly that “Britain is in crisis. Alienated, insular and on the brink of disaster. Can it be saved?” Reflecting a vast array of contemporary catastrophes (looking at you brexit), the play has arrived at a time in Earth’s history that is more poignant than ever. This is the crux of what Still is trying to communicate, stating that Cymbeline is “completely about isolationism. England was still struggling with its identity, do we become part of a bigger statehood? Lets reach out to our neighbours. They’re not my words, they’re Shakespeare’s. You can’t help but reach out to those parallels.” It is disheartening to consider whether Britain has come a long enough way in 400 years. Now of course, it is not merely England struggling with a contested identity; America, Germany and a great many other places are facing this question too. It is on this that makes Cymbeline truly vital and Shakespeare a timeless writer.
Ultimately, whether shaking things up at York St John or on a global stage, it is unquestionable that Melly Still makes our world immeasurably bigger.
Black History Month 2016
The School of Humanities, Religion and Philosophy will be celebrating Black History Month this year with an exhibition of student work and a programme of exciting events.
3rd October 3pm – 4pm Quad South Hall
Interview with Noma Dumezweni
Noma is an internationally recognised actress. She has undertaken several Shakespeare roles including Paulina in the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company), The Winters Tale and more recently Alice and Mistress Quickly, as well as working alongside Jude Law in Henry V.
Amongst numerous stage roles, Noma recently directed, I See You at the Royal Court and appeared in the award winning A Human Being Died That Night which toured to the Hampstead Theatre, the Market Theatre Johannesburg and Brooklyn Academy of music in New York. Both plays explore reconciliation and South Africa after Apartheid.
Currently, Noma is cast as Hermione in the sell-out Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in the West End.
This event will be a discussion about Noma’s roles including in A Human being Dies that Night, I See You, and for the RSC in the west end, a production of Henry V with Jude Law
Event starts at 3.00pm, all guests to be seated in Quad South Hall for a prompt start.
This event is FREE but booking is required. Please visit the YSJ online shop to reserve a space.
5th October – 27th October Arts Foyer
York/New York Exhibition
Earlier this year, English Literature students from the ‘Literature at Work’ module were tasked with developing and creating materials that could be used as part of York St John’s Black History Month 2016 exhibition.
Students have created, developed and curated a range of materials which allow us to celebrate the culture of Harlem, New York, right here on our ‘Old’ York campus. The materials include film, collage, photography and 3D models. Each work is an original and unique take on the cultural history of the Harlem Renaissance. Please come and explore the work and learn a little more about this exciting moment in black cultural history.
5th October 5pm – 8pm Arts Foyer
York/New York Exhibition Launch Evening
The exhibition will be officially launched with an evening of discussion and live music. The students responsible for the art work and curation of the exhibition will be on hand to talk you through their work and the cultural value they place on the Harlem Renaissance and Black History Month as cultural experiences. The evening will be sound tracked by a four piece jazz band playing wonderful music from the likes of Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday. Come and enjoy a glass of wine with us and celebrate this evocative and enriching cultural moment.
This event is FREE but booking is required. Please visit the YSJ online shop to book your tickets.
26 October, 5.30pm -7pm De Grey 016
Black History Month: Comics Reading Group with Dr Adam Smith
Black Panther and Power Man: Marvel Heroes of the Civil Rights Era
Meet T’Challa and Luke Cage, better known in their heyday as Marvel superheroes Black Panther and Power Man. Among the first African-American superheroes to appear in mainstream American comic books each character’s origins are bound up in both the Civil Rights Movement and the popularity of Blaxploitation cinema in the 1960s and 70s. Now, thanks to Netflix and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, both characters are enjoying global popularity for the first time. As part of YSJ Black History Month we invite you to join us for an informal discussion of some of these characters’ most celebrated comic-book appearances.
Email Adam Smith (firstname.lastname@example.org ) for a reading list.
This event is FREE but booking is required please visit the YSJ online shop to secure book a place.
27th October 6.30pm – 8pm Arts Foyer
An Evening with Jack Mapanje
To mark the end of York St John’s Black History Month events, human rights activist and award-winning poet Jack Mapanje will be reading from his latest poetry collection Greetings From Grandpa. Jack will also be discussing his memoir And Crocodiles are Hungry at Night, and reflecting on his time as a political prisoner in Malawi. There will be an opportunity to ask Jack questions about his work, and he will also be signing copies of his poetry. In addition, the winner of the YSJ Black History Month Creative Writing Competition will be announced, and there will be a chance to hear the winning entry.
This event is FREE but booking is required. Please visit the YSJ online shop to book your tickets.