Category Archives: Shakespeare


(Chis Wiegand’s article appeaed in the Guardian, 5/5; via Pam Green; Photo: On tomorrow and tomorrow … David Tennant in a publicity shot for the Donmar’s forthcoming Macbeth. Photograph: Charlie Gray.)

The actor will take to the stage as the Scottish king in December, in the last production of the London theatre’s 30th-anniversary season

Hot on the heels of the news that Ralph Fiennes will play Macbeth in a tour of repurposed UK warehouses comes the announcement that David Tennant will also star as the Scottish king at London’s Donmar Warehouse.

It is the Scottish actor’s first Shakespearean stage role since he played Richard II for the Royal Shakespeare Company, on and off, from 2013 to 2016. In 2022 he was Macbeth in a two-part BBC Radio 4 broadcast. The Donmar production will be directed by Max Webster and will conclude the 30th-anniversary season for the London theatre, which was previously home to a banana-ripening warehouse.

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(Arifa Akbar’s article appeared in the Guardian, 5/6; via Pam Green; Photo: Adjoa Andoh as Shakepeare’s Richard III. Photograph: Manuel Harlan.)

An inspiring analysis of Shakespeare and race restores his reputation as a playwright for all

There is a vivid moment in Farah Karim-Cooper’s new book where she reflects on the image of the nation’s pre-eminent playwright – how unfathomable he has seemed to artists and how his face has been conjured from a historical blur. She compares portraits and discerns a marked shift in the 18th century when he seems to become “more beautiful, symmetrical, and whiter in complexion”.

If visual art has hitherto seemed like a peripheral detail in the appraisal of his work, Karim-Cooper, a professor of Shakespeare studies, connects this paled image to a metaphorical whitewashing: the man we celebrate today is not the one who lived and worked in Elizabethan England but a reconstructed fantasy, built to serve as an emblem of white excellence and imperial Englishness.

Efforts to decolonise Shakespeare have been fiercely contested in the past and as co-director of education at the Globe theatre, Karim-Cooper navigated her own storm when she organised a series of webinars on anti-racism in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. Far from being cowed by the experience, she has produced a book-length study of the bard through the lens of race theory.

It is a thorough analysis but also a kind of love letter. Karim-Cooper felt an instant connection to Shakespeare at the age of 15, during an English lesson on Romeo and Juliet. But in order to love him, she argues, we have to know him fully, and not only his genius but the darker aspects of his legacy.

Karim-Cooper’s broader sociopolitical scope makes us see certain lines and characters afresh

It is a clever deployment of Shakespearean wisdom on how to love without a distorting “fancy bred in the eye”. The great white bard of the title is just that type of idealised cultural construct, she suggests. “I am a foreign, brown woman – and I feel seen and heard in Shakespeare’s plays,” Karim-Cooper asserts and this chimes with her book’s broader aim: to restore the swan of Avon as a playwright for all.

Close readings of the texts produce concrete examples of racial prejudice, antisemitism and colonial subjugation in works such as Othello, The Merchant of Venice, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra and The Tempest. Some of this is familiar, but Karim-Cooper’s broader sociopolitical scope makes us see certain lines and characters afresh. She also bypasses charges of unfairly applying 21st-century definitions of racism and white supremacy by calibrating her analysis to the values of the Tudor era, or subsequent centuries.

We are taken from original stagings in black- and brown-face to the trauma carried in roles such as Othello for contemporary Black actors. Karim-Cooper makes some rather creative connections between Shakespeare’s world and ours: a discussion on inter-racial couples such as Othello and Desdemona and Titus Andronicus’s Aaron and Tamora segues into an analysis of the present day ambivalence towards Prince Harry and Meghan Markle; she draws on the cultural theorist bell hooks’s idea of political resistance through self-love, hailing Aaron’s eloquent defence of his blackness (“Coal-black is better than another hue / in that it scorns to bear another hue”) as “the first ever black power speech”.

Historians including Miranda Kaufmann and David Olusoga have supplied ample examples of diversity in Tudor Britain, and Karim-Cooper sees Shakespeare as holding a mirror to this society, with his plays interrogating live issues around race, identity and the colonial enterprise. Her critique is at its most absorbing and original when she shows how complicated his approach was. “Shakespeare often challenges us to hold two contradictory views simultaneously – it was how his mind worked,” she writes, and demonstrates how figures such as Shylock and Aaron were both defined by stereotypes as well as undermining them. Her arguments, cumulatively, come to feel essential and should be absorbed by every theatre director, writer, critic, interested in finding new ways into the work.

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(Mark Lawson’s article appeared in the guardian, 5/4;Photo:  Peter De Jersey as Cymbeline. Photograph: Ellie Kurttz.)

Royal Shakespeare theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Departing artistic director Greg Doran reinvigorates this tale of a royal family in crisis with clarity and intelligence

The president of the Royal Shakespeare Company, King Charles III, may be bemused by the company premiering, pre-Coronation, a play about an English king in a contentious second marriage and in which an “oath of loyalty” becomes an issue. Republican mischief seems unlikely: Cymbeline was scheduled as the RSC farewell to departing artistic director Greg Doran, who is finally staging the only Shakespeare play to elude him.

As a second leaving present, Doran has published a tremendous textbook-memoir, My Shakespeare, explaining how rehearsals start with the cast paraphrasing each line in modern speech, sealing meanings to be revealed in verse. That must have been tough with Cymbeline, a very late play with knotted poetry and a plot so convoluted that some productions add an onstage narrator.

A triumph for Doran’s method is that there is never doubt about who is or pretending to be whom. And his scholarly attention to text is shown by an unusual division into three sections. In The Wager, the exiled Posthumus accepts in Italy a creepy challenge that his England-held wife Imogen will not succumb to an attempted seduction by nobleman Iachimo. The second section, Wales, features the sex bet’s consequences, comic and gruesome, around a Milford Haven cave. The War somehow coheres the bizarre last six scenes where, through human confusion or divine intervention (dazzling gilded design by Stephen Brimson Lewis), identities flip and the “dead” wed.

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(Chris Wiegand’s article appeared in the Guardian, 4/28/2023; via Pam Green; Photo: Transatlantic tragedy … Kenneth Branagh. Photograph: Johan Persson.)

The play, which the actor has described as being pertinent to our ‘savage and judgmental’ political climate, will run for 50 performances in the West End before transferring to the US

Kenneth Branagh is to star as King Lear in a production that he will also direct in London and New York.

The play will run for 50 performances at Wyndham’s theatre in the West End from October and then transfer to the Shed’s Griffin theatre in the US in autumn 2024.

It is produced by the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company (KBTC) which presented a season of seven plays at the Garrick theatre in London from 2015-16 including John Osborne’s The Entertainer with Branagh in the lead role. In 2017, Branagh directed Tom Hiddleston as Hamlet in a limited-run production to raise funds for Rada. In 2021, KTBC’s planned production of The Browning Version by Terence Rattigan, starring and directed by Branagh, was cancelled due to Covid-related absences during rehearsals.

Branagh, who played Edgar opposite Richard Briers’ Lear in a 1990 touring production of Shakespeare’s tragedy, said in a 2019 interview that King Lear has a “sense of contained outrage by previously voiceless people” that remains pertinent in the modern political climate. The play, he added, explores a “tremendous lack of forgiveness … that is perhaps also something that our world is experiencing – a savage and judgmental and instant and violent division”.

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(Andrew Dickson’s article appeared in the Guardian, 4/7; via Pam Green; Photo: Tom Varey and Madeleine Mantock as William and Agnes, the characters based on Shakespeare and Hathaway.Credit…Manuel Harlan.)

A Royal Shakespeare Company adaptation of Maggie O’Farrell’s hit novel gives voice and agency to a historical character we know little about.

Reporting from Stratford-upon-Avon, England

Of the numerous puzzles about William Shakespeare, those concerning his love life are the most tantalizing. Why did he marry a local woman, Anne Hathaway, have three children with her, then decamp to London for a life in the theater? What was their relationship really like? And why do we know so little about Anne herself, whom one scholar has called a “wife-shaped void” in the playwright’s story?

This year, the 400th anniversary’s of Anne death, might be the year we finally hear about this other Shakespeare. A volume of celebratory poems, “Anne-thology,” is being published later this month. A small bust of her has been unveiled at Holy Trinity church in Stratford-upon-Avon, where her body has lain next to her husband’s since 1623. And, most strikingly, a Royal Shakespeare Company production devoted to her story opens next Wednesday at the company’s Swan Theater in the town.

“It’s about time,” said Erica Whyman, the show’s director, in an interview after a recent rehearsal. “This is her town; she was born just outside Stratford and lived here all her life, as far as we know. She deserves to be back here.”

The play, an adaptation of Maggie O’Farrell’s best-selling 2020 novel “Hamnet,” is named for the Shakespeares’ only son, who died at age 11 in 1596, for reasons unknown. His father apparently began work on the death-haunted “Hamlet” not long afterward, something that has driven biographers into frenzies of Freudian speculation.

But in the script, which has been adapted by Lolita Chakrabarti, there is little doubt who is the star: Shakespeare’s wife, the mother of his children and the head of his household, who brims with spirit and practical intelligence, and runs rings around her partner and everyone else. In the play’s first scene, we see the 17-year-old William gawkily trying to woo her while she flies a pet hawk. (She, too, will never be tamed, we surmise.) Later, we see her industriously baking bread and mixing folk remedies while he dreams of poetry and the theater.

“She’s so alive,” said Madeleine Mantock, who plays the role based on Anne for the Royal Shakespeare Company. “She has all this knowledge, all this capability.”

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(Jack Thorne’s article appeared in the Guardian, 4/7; via Pam Green; To thine own self be true … John Gielgud directs Richard Burton in rehearsals for Hamlet. Photograph: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive.) 

The Motive and the Cue depicts John Gielgud’s struggle to direct Richard Burton in Hamlet on Broadway. Its writer describes the task of putting his words into such celebrated mouths

I have spent most of my life avoiding writing about real people. In fact, as a screenwriter, I’ve made half a career out of avoiding it. I wrote pieces that were almost about real people, but not quite. With my Channel 4 dramas National TreasureKiri and Help, out of necessity I wrote towards the truth but didn’t embrace it utterly. With National Treasure I wrote about historic sex crimes and referenced famous sex offenders, but didn’t write of them because to do so was very legally and ethically complicated and might involve upsetting or worsening the damage already done to victims. With Kiri we risked disrupting ongoing legal cases. With Help I wanted to write about care homes during the pandemic without exposing any one of them to unwelcome scrutiny.

As a dramatist this puts you in a difficult position: how do you make something feel true, but not be true? But it also gives you latitude to find a way into the story from an angle of your choosing. You talk to people, you uncover things, you try to represent stories as best you can.

Recently, however, I have been drawn to real events. I find myself writing about real people. Some historical, some current, all complicated. That dual obligation, which better writers than me have struggled with, of telling something that is engaging and true. Having an obligation to your subjects that goes beyond your obligation as a storyteller and perhaps even your obligation to the truth as you understand it is terrifying, for me at least.

With real people you have to feel their breath as they tell their story to you, and you have to feel their breath as you (later) tell them the way you will tell their story. Last year I co-wrote a drama with Genevieve Barr called Then Barbara Met Alan about the disabled rights movement. Alan and Barbara are heroes to both of us, but in order to tell their story properly we had to show the raw reality of them. Did they like that exposure? Not all of it. But we adjusted our story and ended up with something that represented them in a way they were brave enough to be comfortable with.

Later this month, we begin previewing a play I’ve written for the National Theatre about Sir John Gielgud directing Richard Burton playing Hamlet on Broadway in 1964. The idea first came from Sam Mendes and he directs it. The play contains, by necessity, Gielgud, Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Hume Cronyn, Eileen Herlie, William Redfield and many, many more. Figures that are iconic, figures that lots of people have a history with, either in person or in passion.

How do you do justice to these incredible figures? How do you feel able to do justice to them? Particularly in a single evening. These are questions I’ve really struggled with.

There are two accounts of that original rehearsal period. Both are very interesting works. One by Redfield, the actor playing Guildenstern, which takes the form of letters he wrote to a friend detailing the process. The other by Richard Sterne, a “Gentleman” in the show, who went to extraordinary lengths to get accurate recordings of the rehearsals as they took place. There are also numerous biographies and written materials about all the major figures, as well as Burton’s diaries and Gielgud’s letters.

It was a very difficult production. Burton behaved badly because he didn’t get the direction from Gielgud he felt he required. Or perhaps because he got more direction than he expected. The two, who were prior friends, couldn’t work out how their Hamlet might work. What was Burton trying to do playing him? He was the most famous actor in the world by this point – he and Elizabeth Taylor literally invented the paparazzi with their glamour – so why put on a hair shirt when he could be earning millions doing something less taxing?

Gielgud, in contrast, was on his uppers: Laurence Olivier was running the National, the Royal Shakespeare Company weren’t much interested in him, and the Royal Court and “modern theatre” was increasingly dominating the West End. He took the job because he didn’t have many other offers. The easy thing to do would have been to allow Burton to dominate. But Hamlet mattered to Gielgud, he’d played him quite definitively more than 300 times, and he wouldn’t let it go. Disaster quickly loomed.

Sam Mendes said two things in particular that really stuck with me as I tried to write the play. The first was that he wanted it to be something which took people inside a genuine rehearsal process. This was the height of lockdown and both of us were desperate to be back inside a rehearsal room; he wanted to explain the process of making a play and make it feel dynamic. How do you reflect on a process which aims to reflect life? The second was that this was to be about classical theatre meeting modern ideas. Gielgud was the epitome of tradition, looking back to his aunt Ellen Terry and her theatrical partner Henry Irving; Burton was bursting to be modern, while paradoxically yearning for ideals of classical theatre.

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(Dalya Alberge’s article appeared in the Guardian, 3/23.)

An almost unknown sonnet in the playbook or script of a 1603 play by Ben Jonson could be a “lost” work by William Shakespeare, according to two leading scholars.

Beyond “compelling” stylistic evidence, the sonnet, titled To the Deserving Author, is signed with the mysterious pseudonym Cygnus, after the mythical figure who was turned into a swan – evoking Jonson’s very own tribute to Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon as the “Sweet Swan of Avon”.

Dr Chris Laoutaris, an associate professor of Shakespeare and early modern drama at the Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham, told the Guardian: “This is how Jonson referred to him in his long poem in honour of the playwright in the first folio mourning Shakespeare’s ‘flight’ as the swan, whose living presence shall never again grace England’s stages.”

The sonnet is within the playbook of Jonson’s Sejanus: His Fall, a tragic play set in ancient Rome, in which Shakespeare had acted.

It shares a page with a ditty by Hugh Holland, who also dedicated a commemorative verse to Shakespeare in the first folio.

Laoutaris said that while both sonnets paid tribute to Jonson, they were “very different”. For example, Holland addresses Jonson with the more formal “you” throughout, whereas Cygnus uses the informal “thou”, the form favoured by Shakespeare in his sonnets.

He said: “It’s tantalising. There are so many parallels with Shakespeare’s style that it must surely make even the most hardened sceptic pause and think.”

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(Mark Lawson’s article appeared in the Guardian, 2/2; via Pam Green; Revelatory … Alex Kingston as Prospero. Photograph: Ikin Yum.)

Royal Shakespeare theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Climate catastrophe and power struggles dominate Elizabeth Freestone’s RSC interpretation of Shakespeare’s play

If there were prizes for inventive recycling of props, this RSC staging would get the soup-tin statuette. Oil drums are rolled to illustrate anecdotes, drunkards quaff from petrol cans and Ariel’s flute is twisted together from plumbing pipes.

Such post-industrial stuff scatters Prospero’s island due to a climate event; the clothes are 21st century but the shipwrecked King of Naples and his entourage use sailing boats because wind is the only fuel left. With references to “the quality of the climate” and “mutinous winds”, The Tempest sustains director Elizabeth Freestone’s contemporary interpretation with little strain, helped by the opening storm being made by man.

Or, in this version, woman. Alex Kingston’s Prospero, though still an exiled “duke” of Milan, is mother to a daughter. This affects the text, neutralising Shakespeare’s “farther” puns and forcing recounts in Miranda’s lines about how many men she saw before Sebastian, while Prospero’s rather creepy concern with the security of Miranda’s hymen feels unlikely from a bohemian modern mother.

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(Benjamin Lee’s article appeared in the Guardian, 1/1/23; via the Drudge Report; Photo: Franco Zeffirelli directing Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting in Romeo and Juliet. Photograph: REX Shutterstock.)

Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting accuse studio of sexual exploitation in nude scene in Franco Zeffirelli adaptation

The two leads from the 1968 adaptation of Romeo and Juliet are suing Paramount for child abuse over a nude scene in the film.

According to Variety, Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting, who were teenagers when making the Oscar-winning film, filed a lawsuit on 30 December accusing the studio of sexual exploitation.

In the suit, the pair claim that the director, Franco Zeffirelli, told them there would be no nudity and flesh-coloured items would be worn in the bedroom scene but he then later insisted they performed nude “or the picture would fail”. Zeffirelli died in 2019.

“What they were told and what went on were two different things,” said Tony Marinozzi, a business manager for the two actors. “They trusted Franco. At 16, as actors, they took his lead that he would not violate that trust they had. Franco was their friend, and frankly, at 16, what do they do? There are no options. There was no #MeToo.”

Hussey was 15 and Whiting 16 at the time of production. The complaint alleges the pair have suffered “mental anguish and emotional distress” in the years since and have lost out on job opportunities. Damages are being sought “believed to be in excess of $500m”.

“These were very young naive children in the 60s who had no understanding of what was about to hit them,” said Solomon Gresen, a lawyer for the pair. “All of a sudden they were famous at a level they never expected, and in addition they were violated in a way they didn’t know how to deal with.”

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 (Nadeem Badshah’s article appeared in the Guardian, 11/17.  Photo:  The portrait is unveiled by conservator Adrian Phippen (right) and Art and Antiques writer Duncan Phillips. Photograph: Kirsty O’Connor/PA.) 

The artwork by Robert Peake went on display on Wednesday at Grosvenor House hotel in west London

A portrait said to be the only signed and dated image of William Shakespeare created during his lifetime has gone on sale for more than £10m and is being displayed in London.

The owner, who wishes to remain anonymous, is offering the piece for sale by private treaty without an auction.

It is the work of Robert Peake, court painter to King James I, and is signed and dated 1608. The artwork went on display on Wednesday at Grosvenor House hotel in west London.

Prior to 1975, the picture hung in the library of a stately home in the north of England, once home to the Danby family. Since then it has been in private ownership.

Those behind its sale claim the connections between Shakespeare and Peake are “extensive” and that the artist was regularly commissioned to paint the portraits of high-ranking members of the court and Jacobean society.

They also noted he was commissioned by the Office of the Revels, which oversaw the presentation of plays, and worked in the premises in Clerkenwell, London, where some of Shakespeare’s plays were rehearsed.

However, only two paintings of Shakespeare, both posthumous, are generally recognised as validly portraying him – the engraving that appears on the title page of the First Folio, published in 1623, and the sculpture at his funeral monument in Stratford-upon-Avon. Shakespeare died in 1616, at the age of 52.

Art expert Duncan Phillips, who investigated the work ahead of the sale, said: “There is more evidence for this portrait of Shakespeare than any other known painting of the playwright.

“It is a monogrammed and dated work by a portrait painter of serious status with connections to the artist who produced the image for the First Folio.

“The picture has survived the past 400 years almost untouched by wear and tear thanks to its ownership by a family of Shakespeare enthusiasts who hung it in their library.”

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