My 1000th Post: Shakespeare and Me

To mark my 1000th post on this blog (!), I wanted to write something other than a review, so I decided to write about my love of Shakespeare. It’s particularly appropriate because I finally completed the canon this year: I can now proudly say that I have seen every Shakespeare play performed.

My introduction to Shakespeare, like that of so many British people, was at school. However, unlike many people I was lucky enough to have a brilliant teacher who not only didn’t put me off Shakespeare, but actually instilled a love for the Bard and his works. We studied Julius Caesar, which even now remains one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. My opinions of the various characters have changed over the years and I’m always finding something new in the play.

For my GCSEs I studied Hamlet, which I also loved. This is another play that I’ve changed my mind about over the years. It’s also the play that I have seen performed more often than any other: over ten times at the last count. Every year I make a resolution not to see any more productions of Hamlet, and every year I break it.

The final play I studied was Antony and Cleopatra, as part of my English Literature A Level. This is now my favourite Shakespeare play; I love the imagery and the character of Cleopatra. It’s no coincidence, I think, that my three favourite Shakespeare plays are the ones that I have studied. I know some people say that studying Shakespeare put them off for life, but I found it helped me understand the plays in greater depth.

Antony and Cleopatra was also the first Shakespeare play I saw performed live. The RSC brought it to the Theatre Royal in Newcastle, the year after I studied it. I loved it and Sinead Cusack, who played Cleopatra, was fantastic. While I loved studying Shakespeare, I do think that the best way of appreciating his plays is to see them.

From then on, I had to rely on my own initiative to read and try to understand the plays, and over the next few years I got through them all. I also saw several performances: highlights included an outdoor production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at university in York (very funny because Hermia was played as a stroppy bitch) and a student production of Romeo and Juliet by the ADC in Cambridge, which helped to reverse my previous dismissal of the play as just a soppy love story.

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The RSC in Stratford upon Avon

It was around this time that I first visited the RSC in Stratford; my friend and I went to see David Tennant’s Hamlet. I loved the production and I have been back to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre several times since. My first encounter with many of Shakespeare’s plays has been at the RSC: Henry IV, The Winter’s TaleThe Merry Wives of Windsor, and more.

At around the same time I also discovered the Globe, a reconstruction of the original theatre on Bankside. At only five pounds for a standing ticket, it’s one of the best value theatres in London – possibly THE best value – and the productions are always strong. Their production of Much Ado About Nothing a couple of years ago, starring Charles Edwards and Eve Best, is the best production of that play I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen plenty of other good ones including Macbeth with Joseph Millson, The Tempest with Roger Allam and this years’s The Merchant of Venice starring Jonathan Pryce.

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Shakespeare’s Globe on Bankside

I’ve seen Shakespeare productions in the West End, of course, but at the risk of sounding snobbish I rarely find them as good as the Globe’s or the RSC’s. Michael Grandage’s Henry V, The Tempest at the Haymarket, and, in particular, Mark Rylance’s Much Ado at the Old Vic really disappointed me. I am yet to see the current Garrick Theatre production of The Winter’s Tale starring Kenneth Branagh and Judi Dench – hopefully this will not disappoint!

Moving to London in 2011 meant that I was able to go to lots of different fringe theatres, many of which put on productions of the more obscure plays. In this way I was able to see The Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Two Noble Kinsmen, for instance. Finally, towards the end of this year, I finally got to see Henry VIII, as there was a one-off production in Brighton organised by someone who was also trying to complete the canon.

So what’s next? Well, I am certainly not going to stop going to see Shakespeare plays just because I’ve now seen them all. It’s the 400th anniversary of his death in 2016, so I’m hoping for some good productions. The RSC are aiming to put on each of his plays once over the next few years, and I definitely want to see those; and I’m sure I’ll carry on going to the Globe, too, not least to see the late plays that are being performed in the Jacobean Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.

I’ve often thought that you can go and see several different Hollywood films, all with different writers, stars and directors, and still come away thinking you’ve just seen the same film five times. With Shakespeare, however, I can see the same play over and over and still feel as though I am seeing a different play each time. I don’t think that my enthusiasm is going to dim any time soon.

Postscript: In the unlikely event that anyone is interested, I’ve attached my Shakespeare table, showing the plays and films I’ve seen. It is up to date up until the 18th of October, which is when I completed the canon.

Shakespeare plays I have seen

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Mementoes and memories

When my grandparents died I ended up with a big box of leaflets, programmes and tickets they’d accumulated over the years. Sadly my mam flatly refused to let me keep them all (I suspect she wanted the Fortnum & Mason hamper). Therefore, last time I was at home I had the task of sorting them out.

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Box (hamper) of delights

My grandparents got to see some amazing casts in their time. Look at this cast list for A Room With a View – it includes Jane Lapotaire and Derek Jacobi!

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A Room With a View cast list

I found this little gem while rummaging through the hamper – a programme signed by Tommy Steele. Steele is an incredibly long-running performer who just two years ago was still performing in Scrooge at the Palladium (impressively full of energy despite being 75 at the time). He also happens to share a name with my granda (well, except for the rogue “e” at the end of Steele, and for the fact that my granda was always Thomas, or Tom, never, to my knowledge, Tommy).

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Programme signed by Tommy Steele

I was rather pleased to find this programme for Dangerous Corner, as I was due to see the play myself a few weeks later (I thoroughly enjoyed it when I did see it).

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Programme for Dangerous Corner

A joyous find – a programme for a version of The Lambton Worm, complete with the words of the song. All together now: “Whisht! lads, haad yor gobs, An aa’ll tell ye aall an aaful story…”

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The Lambton Worm

I can’t remember which programmes these were, but I had to record this hair and that moustache for posterity.

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HAIR

My grandparents must have visited Newcastle Theatre royal a lot, judging by the number of programmes I found. Fun story: a few years before I was born, my grandparents took my parents to see a Shakespeare play here, one of two that the RSC were touring that season. My granda then booked for the other play, but when they all turned up that evening, it was the same play again… oops. At least that’s unlikely to happen with online booking!

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Newcastle Theatre Royal programmes

The Royal Shakespeare Company have had a season in Newcastle for years (my first experience of the RSC’s work was the 2002 production of Antony and Cleopatra) and my grandparents had kept leaflets from nearly every year.

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RSC in Newcastle

I was thrilled to find this programme for To Kill A Mockingbird at the Darlington Civic Theatre as I remember my grandparents taking me. It was the first, or at least one of the first, productions I saw with them that wasn’t a pantomime, and I loved it.

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To Kill A Mockingbird programme

Talking about pantomime, here are some panto programmes!

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Pantomime programmes

My grandparents liked travelling to London when they could and going to see West End shows. I was rather jealous to find programmes from the original runs of Les MiserablesMiss Saigon and Starlight Express.

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Original West End programmes

If I was ever in any doubt about where I get my theatre obsession from, that doubt would now be dispelled. I miss my grandparents, but at least I have lots of good memories of going to the theatre with them.