Podcasts: Shakespeare and Company

Sylvia Rosenblum at Eastside Radio and I have done another series of podcasts (which seems to have become an annual thing). This one looks at the working conditions of theatres in Shakespeare’s day. The episodes are only around twelve minutes long, so great for a short commute, and can be played via the Eastside website or downloaded on iTunes.

The way we broke down this series was:

  • How did professional theatre in London begin? What were the companies and how did they work?
  • The star system in Shakespearean England
  • Boy players
  • What part did women play in the theatrical world?
  • Shakespeare’s sources and the adaptation/collaboration system
  • Respectability at last! How this new profession influenced social status, and what happened when Shakespeare retired


When Sylvia and I make these recordings we do significant prep, but then we pretty much sit down and plough straight through, in one or two sessions, with no re-takes. This suits us because we’re both pretty chatty and focused, but sometimes I do listen back and wish I’d brought in other things, or spun a different emphasis. In this round I’m somewhat disappointed with my handling of the segment on Shakespeare’s sources. We got very involved in talking about the History plays, and vital people like Ovid, Montaigne, Boccaccio, Plutarch, Chaucer all fell by the wayside. But I only had ten minutes!! So please take this as in introduction to the introduction to the sources, and I may make my own little supplementary episode when time permits.

Keeping in mind that this series was designed for people who have an interest rather than an expertise in Shakespeare, it all adds up to a little over an hour of lively surveying of the landscape that shaped Shakespeare’s work.


To recap, my previous podcasts with Sylvia have been:

Sixteenth-Century map of London

History, Politics and Performance: the Pop-Up Globe

I have complicated feelings about the Pop-Up Globe.

The Pop-Up Globe is a monument to willpower and whimsy. The fact that something so elaborate that was supposed to be a once-only experiment has found an ongoing life shows that there is an audience for this very special kind of theatre-as-immersion-adventure work. There is plenty to enjoy in the Shakespeare itself, but this is actually just a portion of an experience that has significant overlap with visiting the St Ives Medieval Faire or the Warwick Castle Dungeon tour. I refuse to countenance the idea that it’s not a valid thing to do to swoosh up some performance with a bit of history and a bucketload of playfulness.

The stage is set for the ABC’s Q and A

For a long time I feared I wouldn’t get to see it with my own eyes as, despite being largely based on Sydney scholar Tim Fitzpatrick’s work, it seemed only New Zealand had the right combination of imagination and gumption to simply decide that such a thing could be done. When it finally came to Sydney the atmosphere was fizzing, and the productions of Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (I didn’t make it to the other two) were lively and injected with real spirit. Even if the performances themselves were uneven and a bit clumsy, analysing them in the way of a conventional theatre review seemed an inappropriate model; rather than assessing them as performances of plays, it seems more fair to talk about attending as an event. I would say the experience of being there, in that space with the actors and audience, was joyous and energising and I truly loved it.

So I write as someone who was delighted that this event happened, and at its success, when I say that I wish is was possible to have all this without the same, infuriating limitations that continue to dog other forms of theatre. Sadly, Artistic Director and instigator of the entire project, Miles Gregory, has a horrible record when it comes to hiring women in positions of creative control, and no sense at all that this is something he should be trying to address or correct. The way he brushes off anyone who tries to engage him on the issue is bile-stimulating. Interviewed by Katie Prior here, he is being presented with thoughtful questions by a clearly smarter, better informed person, and does nothing but slide past her enquiries. In the end the only answer he has as to why he set up and then continued to use all-male companies, and gave plum jobs to white, male directors imported from overseas instead of creating opportunities for local talent, is that it was his show and that’s how he likes to do it. In addition, when the Pop-Up Globe came to Australia every director involved in the four productions that toured was male.

“Dr Gregory wasn’t able to be reached for a response, but a spokesperson for him said last night the decision to use all-male casts adhered to tradition as only men acted during Shakespeare’s time.” Radio New Zealand

No, Gregory’s company of men does not ‘adhere to tradition’. It would be excellent if we could clear up in one final go the belief that a company is doing something historic or period accurate if they only hire male actors. The professional stage of Shakespeare’s day never cast adult male actors in female roles, there was a very codified system in place whereby those roles were exclusively the territory of the apprentices, i.e. teenage boys. The differences between what the Pop-Up Globe company, or Shakespeare’s Globe under Mark Rylance, or Edward Hall’s Windmill Theatre, are doing and what Early Modern London theatre was doing are so many and so shaping as to make a nonsense of such claims. Socially, boys were broadly grouped with women as ‘not men’, until they attained their majority. We also can’t separate who the audience is from the transactional process of communication between the stage and the audience. Elizabethan audiences had no cultural reference point of drag shows, pantomime dames, or footy show sketch comedy. Now your audience comes to the show carrying that conventional history, the presentation of adult men imitating women can’t be observed unmoored from that background. There is no evidence that it was inherently funny to Elizabethans to see boys play women, so if your production is purposefully directed to get a laugh from seeing a man in a wig and a frock enter as Helena, you are ipso facto not being historically accurate. If the production was really reflecting the experience of watching an Elizabethan performance by doing this, it wouldn’t rely on the audience seeing humour in characters merely appearing on stage looking like a man in a dress.

To examine more closely a specific example that shows the have-your-cake-and-eat-it attitude of claiming historical authority while at the same time not giving a toss about historical accuracy, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream Helena was wearing 19th-century bloomers under her skirt, and revealing them was repeatedly used to generate laughs. This is also a standard (pretty lazy) source of humour: old fashioned underwear = funny. But no one who wore the kind of period dress on which the rest of her costume was based would have ever worn underwear like that. Now, I don’t care a jot if you want to mix your periods when staging a silly, non-naturalistic comedy, in fact I might even say it’s my preferred approach. But it’s an expressly non-Elizabethan laugh to get, and it’s hypocritical to go for that that laugh while simultaneously justifying its setup on historic grounds. You can’t do that and at the same time exclude a category of artist from your work on the grounds of ‘tradition’.

On this Penny Ashton is well worth reading in full: “to use historical oppression as an excuse for some fun modern oppression, well that can fuck right off.”

Showing a bullish unwillingness to learn from feedback with the project’s most recent season, that Gregory thought he was the best choice to direct Measure for Measure is insulting. This is a play that was given deeply patriarchal productions for decades, and is only just now starting to be seen for the challenge it can be to sexually abusive social convention, when given the opportunity for the right performance choices. That a man who doesn’t even feel he has an obligation to respond respectfully to a female reporter, or address issues of equity in his practice, feels confident that he can handle the intricacies of a play that speaks to female experience of not being heard by men just trumpets arrogance.

I adore the outreach aspect of this project, every bit as much as the aesthetic of mixing cheesy painted trompe l’oeil with bare scaffolding and plywood. But the need to dump on the work everyone else is doing (their Australian tour pre-publicity relied heavily on preaching the line that teaching and performing Shakespeare in Australia is done badly, which is both untrue and unnecessary), to hypocritically claim and yet abandon how history can inform practice, and to shut out people who can help you, diminishes the entire enterprise. There is much more to unpack in all the issues I am addressing too superficially here, and I can see places it may appear I am contradicting myself (simultaneously suggesting that history does and doesn’t matter, for instance). But the point here is that theatre is how we interpret the world, and no version of it can abdicate from the responsibility of being open to being better.

Shakespeare By Night

Shakespeare By Night at the Old Fitz sees a group of actors perform selected scenes from across Shakespeare’s works in an 80 minute performance lit only by candlelight. This is not (as we see at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre at Shakespeare’s Globe) an attempt to investigate historical staging practices, it is more simply a vehicle for actors to explore how it affects their choices and stimulates their expressive imaginations to work within the opportunities and constraints of this one production element.

It is a clever way to give an otherwise conventional premise a bit more zing, as well as being a charming way to spend an evening. They’ve done it at least a couple of times, and I believe it always sells out, but this was my first opportunity to see it. One of the features is a chance to see scenes from rarely performed plays. This one included Constance’s lament from King John, the Earl of Suffolk’s first meeting with Margaret of Anjou from Henry VI, and a very funny gender-flipped early scene from Two Gentlemen of Verona. So much attention is lavished on Shakespeare’s very famous plays, it is too easy even for fans never to hear wonderful passages spoken from plays that have little chance of being produced in full. The set-up also allows for artful juxtaposition of related scenes from different plays, in this case Shylock’s most famous “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech followed by Emilia’s “Let husbands know / Their wives have sense like them” wisdom imparted to Desdemona.

When a higher level of lighting was preferred a bank of numerous white pillar candles, one on either side of the small stage, provided it, plus somebody’s prized possession of a multi-pronged standing candelabra. Three enclosed lanterns threw general light, usually held by the actors, only once suspended from above.  The light was then topped up with tealights carried in useful little half-pint pots with handles.

The actors have very little time to rehearse all together in the performance space (and presumably next to no budget), which limits opportunities for very inventive or elaborate staging. Still, I was surprised a couple more experiments weren’t attempted in getting variations in light from the candles. Apart from some points where the hand-held candles were moved to give more light to the person speaking there were few attempts to alter lighting to reflect a shift in tone within a scene, and there were some clear openings to get more out of the premise that were missed. Portia confronting Brutus in Julius Caesar is extraordinary but not familiar to many. The moment when she reveals, “I have made strong proof of my constancy, / Giving myself a voluntary wound / Here, in the thigh” should rock the room, but I have seen so many productions where it is thrown away like an ordinary line. Here, given the constraints of lighting, it begged for the actors to keep the light on their upper bodies until the moment when she pulls aside her gown and lowers a candle to show us blood that we couldn’t see before. It would have been breathtaking, and have grown directly from the underlying production idea, but instead I’m not sure the audience heard and understood what was being spoken of.

The choice of scenes and casting within them, however, was inventive and delightful, with an active initiative to break down conservative expectations of race and gender, and an open-hearted enthusiasm for communicating the text to the audience in an unpretentious, conversational style.

This idea creates wonderful possibilities for an evening performance. I would love to see it spread to other groups and venues, and I am already working on my pitch for a scene if they do it again here (it’s a secret).

Several candles burning.

Shakespeare Summer School in Verona

I am so excited to say that I will be joining Dr Victoria Bladen at her Shakespeare Summer School in Verona in July.

I will be giving a workshop on the use of cue scripts, with particular reference to Two Gentlemen of Verona, and also an introductory lecture on that play. The other focus play is, naturally, Romeo and Juliet.

To be held at the University of Verona with a cohort of educators from Italy and Australia, and open to anyone who is interested, this will be a varied and stimulating 5-day intensive, with a focus on theatrical expression and enjoying the language.

What an incredible opportunity to share ideas on history and theatre, in a place so redolent of both.

Apply for a registration form by emailing Victoria on victoria.bladen@uqconnect.edu.au

Download more information here: Verona Summer School 2019 info