On the Occasion of Mr Shakespeare’s Birthday – or – Me and Will

23 April, 2012 by No Comments

“To me, fair friend, you never can be old.” (Sonnet 104)

We go back a bit, Will and I. It’s his 448th birthday today but my knowledge of him only goes back about 50 of those years.

I first met him as a child in the Queensland Primary School Readers. Little extracts or quotes from the plays littered the pages as my 8 years of elementary school tripped by. Back then the word ‘Shakespeare’ meant very little to me, although I came to recognise this quite exotic name in time.

I do recall loving poetry as a kid. Along with the person whom I came to learn was called ‘The Bard’ I loved Coleridge, Tennyson, Wordsworth … all the great English poets. They appeared in our readers along with Australian bush balladeers and romantics. These were a great introduction to literature, I must say. But, back to Will …

I really got to know him in high school. I think I studied … and I mean, studied … and learned how to learn lines in at least four of the plays. It’s a skill that has stood me in great stead. They were Julius Caesar, Twelfth Night, Henry IV (I) and King Lear, although I could be wrong on this last one. The good Sisters of Mercy made us read the plays out loud – hooray – and learn great chunks of the speeches. I remember the thrill of standing behind my desk or in front of the room reciting away madly to the bemused faces of my classmates. I can still trot out huge passages of … Caesar. Needless to say, I adored these classes and learned to love language even more because of Will. During high school we were taken to the theatre to see productions of the plays or the Young Elizabethans visited the school with their travelling shows. I would get the tingles sitting in the audience for even the dreadful stuff. I was falling in love, you see.

By the time I got to Teachers’ College in the mid-60s, I was pretty much hooked on theatre and had decided that was where my life should be. I just had to save the money to run away to London, as most of us did back then, in order to study acting. I did, eventually, but not before working on a couple of the plays for the amateur Brisbane Arts Theatre: Julius Caesar (Portia) and backstage in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Shakespeare’s plays are windows onto other worlds – to those long gone in history and to those private worlds that still reside deep within men and women.

During my actor-training in London I played Helena in a rather hippie version of MND – lots of purple as I recall – and saw lots and lots and lots of Shakespeare: in the West End at the National Theatre (still at the Old Vic in the late 1960s-early 70s) and up at Stratford Upon Avon. I recall queueing from dawn and eating breakfast in the line to get standing-only tickets to that day’s performance of Peter Brook’s seminal … Dream.  I’ve been back to Stratford a couple of times since. Touristy it may be, but it’s still magical, especially when the crowds are gone. Just walking in the Warwickshire countryside through harvested wheat fields under the wide, blue skies is sheer bliss. There are skylarks …

On my return to Australia after drama school I was fortunate enough to get work with the newly-established Queensland Theatre Company where I spent 7 years on and off working as an actor, writer, and director. During that time I appeared in The Merchant of Venice (Nerissa) directed by Alan Edwards. I remember with great fondness the individual coaching sessions – what we call ‘master-classes’ now – with one of the QTC’s directors, Joe MacColum. Joe was a volatile Dubliner with a passion for words and language. He grilled me, challenged me, and turned my thinking about acting and speaking Shakespeare upside-down. He was the first of the great teachers I’ve had the privilege of working with in the succeeding years.

Only a fraction of my professional acting career has been spent working on Shakespeare’s plays, and I wish I had done more. I shouldn’t be greedy though. I’ve had the opportunity to play some magnificent roles: Regan in King Lear and Gertrude in Hamlet (twice). I take heart from the fact that my most recent appearance in these liberated 21st century gender-free casting days – was as Duke Senior in La Boite Theatre Company’s As You Like It. Yes, I liked it! I recall seeing the all-male version of the play at the National back in 1969 but playing a man for the first time was an exhilarating challenge. The first time I’d had to ponder on a father-daughter relationship as part of my character prep.  Right now my Shakespeare bucket-list includes playing Volumnia (Coriolanus) and Queen Margaret in any of the histories. They’re a couple of formidable characters that scare the hell out of me. Of course, I want to have a crack at them!

My academic career has seen more studying, teaching and directing of the plays. Training young actors to engage with the Elizabethan language formed a big part of the text work I did during the time I was Assoc Prof of Voice at the University of Southern Queensland. I’ve directed university productions of The TempestTwelfth Night and The Comedy of Errors (twice) along with various compilations, including scenes and sonnet programs. As voice-coach I’ve worked on The Taming of the Shrew, The Comedy of Errors (again) and Hamlet and Macbeth. Whilst it’s been a tough gig at times, it’s never been boring.

Along with colleagues from USQ I helped establish the Shakespeare in the Park Festival in Toowoomba in 2004. I took my inspiration for this from the many outdoor Shakespeare festivals I’d seen around the world and especially in North America where they love them. I was frustrated one year in my attempts to get to Ashland in Oregon for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The light aircraft I was in was unable to take off – ice on the wings. One day, one day … oh, and to the free open-air theatre in NYC’s Central Park for their summer Shakespeare season. I couldn’t get tickets for Henry V last time I was there.

However, I did get to Stratford Ontario – a picture book town that runs on Shakespeare tourism – to catch some of the Festival of Canada seven years ago. I managed 5 shows in 3 days before my brain exploded. Not all were Shakespeare but I caught a terrific The Tempest and Measure for Measure, some talk-back sessions, a tour around the Festival Theatre and a seminar. Geek!

When I’m in London, I love hanging out on the South Bank, especially round Shakespeare’s Globe. An ale in the yard on a midsummer’s evening just before a play is pretty much idyllic. In a few weeks’ time I’ll be back and ready to take in some of the huge World Shakespeare Festival that’s about to explode in the city.

Shakespeare Garden Central Park

Via Shakespeare I’ve made money and friends and spent probably more than I’ve earned on theatre tickets and Shakespeare stuff: dozens of books, editions of the plays, posters, recordings, movies, knick-knacks and a tee-shirt collection that just keeps growing. Here are just a few and, no, I can’t bear to throw them out. Oh, and in the digital age, how cool is it to have the complete works on your iPad … for handy referencing and long trips!

As a gardener I’ve planted and been successful in getting some of the flowers mentioned in the plays to grow in my own patch: daisies pied, violets blue, rosemary, rue, roses (one called Troilus) and many, many more. I love tracking down and photographing Shakespearean gardens round the world. A summer display of the Rudbeckia growing in Stratford Ontario’s Shakespeare garden is a stunning, golden delight.

Shakespeare’s plays are windows onto other worlds – to those long gone in history and to those private worlds that reside deep within men and women. I’m looking forward to being challenged and delighted and intrigued even more by them in the years to come.

This week, and especially today, bloggers all over the world have contributed to the Blogging Shakespeare project to celebrate William Shakespeare’s birthday. This post is my way of joining in. Happy birthday Mr Shakespeare.