By Adam Kirkbride
Blog Staffer Adam Kirkbride catches Hadestown at the National Theatre before it strikes off for the bright likes of Broadway!
By Adam Kirkbride
Blog Staffer Adam Kirkbride catches Hadestown at the National Theatre before it strikes off for the bright likes of Broadway!
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 Harriet Bartle
Our Harriet Bartle was offered exclusive behind the scenes access to a new dramatic production making its debut in York this week: ‘The Yorkshire Scandals.’ Below, Harriet reflects on her one-to-one conversation with the director of this exciting endeavour, Ben Pruiser.
Late October saw the debut of Amphibious, a play penned by current Literature and History student Lydia Corsland. The play was performed at York Theatre Royal. Words Matter Blogger Jenna Houston sat down with Lydia to discuss the play: its genesis, performance and reception.
Ben Jonson’s 1606 play Volpone is a set-text on ‘1En600: Introduction to Literary Studies’, a first year module which takes students on a trans-historical tour of English Literature published prior to the 19th century. To supplement their reading, this year’s students worked with staff to perform a live-reading of the play for their peers. You can now listen to a recording of the performance via the YSJU Media Library!
Adam Smith is looking for performers to help him stage an informal dramatic reading of Ben Jonson’s 1606 play, Volpone, which is to be studied by first year students this semester.
“This bawdy, provocative and frankly vicious play follows the Machiavellian Volpone and his parasitic side-kick Mosca as they con and connive their way through renaissance Venice. Filled with razor sharp wit and cutting insults, Jonson’s play is and exciting, darkly comic and haunting tale, which I hope you might consider helping me bring to life in Week 5.
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.
I was delighted to see Margaret Atwood in conversation with Dr Liesl King at the York Theatre Royal. When asked about preparation for her novel Hag-Seed (2016), Atwood spoke about her research on Shakespeare and The Tempest, and how she enjoyed watching DVDs of the performance, in particular, Julie Taymore’s film with Helen Mirren as Prospera. Hag-Seed is an inventive re-telling of The Tempest which revisits the theme of revenge. The Prospero figure is the character Felix Phillips who is usurped by his cunning assistant, Tony. Whilst contemplating his revenge, Felix decides to teach drama in a local prison where he directs the inmates through Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Richard III and Macbeth. Felix later decides to stage The Tempest which will draw Tony to meet his match.
Atwood spoke about the high value she places on the teaching of literature and drama in prisons, and from her research she was inspired by inmates’ enthusiasm for acting. One inmate, on release from prison, had been so enthralled by the experience of acting that he trained to teach Shakespeare in prisons. When asked about the many genres in which she writes, Atwood said that while she was at college in Canada, nobody said that you could not write in a particular way, and as a result, she has enjoyed a long career of writing novels, plays, poetry and critical essays.
A member of the audience asked why Canada has so many great women authors and Atwood responded by highlighting acclaimed author Gwethalyn Graham, who wrote Earth and High Heaven (1944), while also acknowledging renowned Canadian male authors. She additionally discussed the importance of indigenous figures as role models for women across Canadian culture.
Finally, Atwood spoke about our planet and acknowledged British nature writers, in particular, Richard Mabey. She emphasised that 40-60% of the oxygen we breathe comes from the oceans which are now heavily polluted by industrial practices across the globe. A reduction in oxygen will impair all forms of life on earth. I thank Atwood for her contribution to the environmental debate and her relentless hard work in alerting people to our endangered earth.
YSJ students can catch a bargain for the two weeks, with tickets for the Theatre Mill production of Moby Dick currently playing at Guildhall for just £10. All you need to do is sail along to the venue with your student card in hand, and quote the words SHIP’S RUNNER on the door.
You’ll have a whale of a time: just try not to blubber during the sad bits 🙂
This Autumn Theatre Mill return to York, following their summer 2015 courtroom staging of Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution. This time the company are tackling a true Leviathan of a text: Herman Melville’s masterful mid nineteenth-century epic Moby Dick. The maritime novel is being brought to life in a new production from the 19 Oct – 3 Nov 2016 at the historic York Guildhall.
Theatre Mill promise a voyage to the South Seas that begins “in a local fishing inn, an in-the-round interactive theatre set where a group of old fisherman meet. Featuring spectacular live music and songs of the sea this promises to be a bold, exhilarating sea-faring adventure like no other.”
Ahoy mates! There she blows!