When I was eleven I played Son to MacDuff in a production of Macbeth by Keele University at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Not only did this mean afternoons off school hanging out with bearded, probably hung-over students and my first cup of instant coffee but I also got to be in a play with witches and swords and blood in which I thrown about the stage before being brutally slain. It was thrilling and this is what Shakespeare meant for me then and for many years to come – an intoxicating, transgressive, slightly dangerous world. But one that I did not fully understand.
What I said and what was said to me on stage could be as obscure as the language back-stage, punctuated by what I realise now were code words arranged so that the rest of the cast could engage in their filthy student speak without offending my young ears. I can still clearly hear one of my lines spoken in my younger self’s voice – “With what I get I mean, and so do they.” I’m not sure I ever really understood what this relatively simple sentence meant, and it still strikes me as somewhat opaque, although with an attractive, seesawing rhythm that still feels good to say three decades on.
Throughout my childhood I would avidly look forward to seeing a Shakespeare play and found them engaging, funny, sometimes really scary, but there would always be long passages that I found impenetrable and I would sit there waiting for the fighting to begin. And at the heart of it, it was because I didn’t understand what was being said. I could grasp snatches of dialogue and generally understand what was happening but it was as though the actors had not been properly tuned in. I could hear the individual words but often they were set in this great block of incomprehensibility. I still loved the sense of magic that was always somehow captured but when I thought of Shakespeare there remained a blank, a barrier. And it could feel like a failing on my part.
But I kept digging in. I attended workshops in which the intricate world of his verse started to open up to me. I began to see that it existed almost as a physical entity, constructed with machine-like grace that could be pulled and pushed to make it work in many ways, with Shakespeare himself guiding you through. Three years at drama college and spasmodic sessions on Shakespeare and a wildly enjoyable second year A Midsummer Night’s Dream was soon followed by my first theatre job - playing Paris in Troilus and Cressida. By William Shakespeare. In Stratford Upon-Avon. With the Royal Shakespeare Company.
It felt like I was trying to get with someone way out of my league in their hometown with the world watching. In rehearsals and on stage I was very exposed. I worked and worked but never quite found the fluidity that I was hoping for and that I could perceive in some of the other more experienced actors. “They’re just words” I remember our Troilus saying. And they are. And they aren’t.
There is a formality to the structure of the verse that provides a strong, supple spine to help approach the words and the multitudes they contain, but I felt locked into it. I was adhering to a set of rules that I had learned at college but felt as though I was in subjugation to them. All rigour but little freedom.
Some years later I got my second Shakespeare gig – Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet at Chichester Festival Theatre. I had the best time. One fantastic thing about the play is that is requires a young cast, the energy of which for that summer spilled out the rehearsal room to the pubs, parks and countryside around Chichester. And I got to get killed again, but this time not before a mighty sword fight with flying sabres which myself and Tybalt would practise in the sun outside the theatre at any opportunity. Especially whenever someone attractive walked by.
There were still the words though. And quite a lot of words in a very famous speech packed with some of Shakespeare’s knottiest and most expressive writing. “O then I see Queen Mab hath been with you …”
There can be the desire when approaching a well-known speech by Shakespeare to “do” something with it, to hurl yourself at it from a particular angle, to have worked out where you want to end up before embarking on it. I certainly approached the speech and by extension the character this way, and while I am still happy with some elements of my Mercutio it struck me then and now that it was a hard but blunt portrayal. I had made too many assumptions about him before rehearsals began and did not allow myself to make discoveries beat-by-beat, line-by-line, using the detailed clues that Shakespeare seeds throughout his plays for his fellow actors.
Four years later I got to spend many months in his company when I was asked to join the all male acting troupe Propeller. It meant a return to Stratford with The Taming of the Shrew as part of the RSC’s Complete Works Festival, before rehearsing and opening Twelfth Night at the Old Vic in London and then taking both productions around the world. This tour was soon followed by another comprising The Merchant of Venice and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, meaning I found myself working, living and having adventures in Australia, Italy, Japan, Germany, Spain, Hong Kong, Ireland, Poland, New York and throughout the UK. Propeller’s studied yet irreverent approach to the text, music and staging stems greatly from so many of the actors having worked together for years on previous productions, meaning each had a strong familiarity to the cadences of the verse and prose and none of the fear of stepping up to and honouring the plays that I had had in the past. As a new-boy you quickly pick up this relaxed approach, the text one more element among many to make your own and play with. Although the relentless touring and lack of female energy on stage eventually made me decide to step-down from the company, I shall always remember my time with Propeller with great affection and as the time when Shakespeare’s world properly opened to me with a big welcoming cheeky grin.
However, what has unequivocally made me fall in love with Shakespeare’s work has been teaching it. I have discovered that the time spent preparing and holding workshops has given me a deeper understanding of and appreciation of the extraordinary ways that he utilises language and in learning to communicate that to a group of students the joy and sense of shared humanity that it can bring.
The first real test of whether I could teach Shakespeare was when I offered to hold a two hour workshop for students at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich when I was living there in the Autumn of 2010. Any nervousness that I felt at teaching students at a German university - having never gone to university myself and in their second language - was magnified by asking myself how do you actually teach it?
I had gained more dexterity in my performances but how to impart that to others? I knew instinctively that I wanted to change the students’ perspectives - from that of reading his plays with an objective academic overview and instead to think of themselves as an actor living through the plays. Put simply, to make them stand up and speak the words aloud.
As for the nuts and bolts of what to actually teach I returned to my copy of John Barton’s Playing Shakespeare that we had been encouraged to read at drama school and discovered that looking in detail at the ways the iambic pentameter is constructed and Shakespeare’s use of elision, onomatopoeia, caesura, alliteration, contrapuntal stress and antithesis provided me with a series of practical steps to take the students through. And I started to find exploring them as exciting and liberating as when I first learnt about the iambic pentameter as a teenager.
The two-hour workshop evolved into a daylong and then a two-day session and I still return to Munich every summer to teach. I have subsequently taught Shakespeare Studies at East 15 Drama School and in 2015 I proposed to Presence that I could hold a number of Shakespeare workshops as part of our first Festival Season. One was picked up by the Northern Green Gathering and again by the larger Green Gathering in 2016 along with a Shakespearian Insults workshop that Deer Shed festival asked for to complement our Reading Group Live! event there, and which I was more than happy to create.
These two workshops for last year’s Festival Season remain some of my favourite ever moments in my relationship with William Shakespeare. Whether it was enthusiastic children shouting “You bull’s-pizzle!” at each other in a packed tent in Yorkshire or the enquiry and commitment that festival-goers of all ages showed whilst battling against Hari Krishna chanting at the William Shakespeare: Actor & Playwright workshop at the Green Gathering, I was continually surprised and moved by how much other people are into him too. I found the greatest way to show my love for him was to share him, to watch him encourage others to throw themselves way out of their normal everyday comfort zones to create something of real spontaneity and brilliance. Not once in my time working with them and watching the scenes that the participants created did I feel that sudden dread of not understanding what was being said, instead I followed every word perfectly and laughed and applauded when the others did. Unfettered by the actors desire of having to get it right, or to do something with it, this was Shakespeare being met in the most spirited and democratic way possible, making his speeches, characters and scenes genuinely come alive.
A few weeks ago I was invited to join the Lamb Players in their yearly Shakespeare production in the garden of Lamb House in Rye. Four days to rehearse and tech All's Well That End's Well. Quite a few lines to learn before rehearsals with the crack team of actors began. We all stepped up to the challenge and the required instinct and appetite for adventure made me think not only of how it must have been for Shakespeare's original actors but also of last year's Festival Season. I am indebted to Deer Shed and the Gathering Gathering for taking the risk and commissioning the workshops and to all those who came along for bringing me to a place where I no longer feel any inadequacy in my long relationship with my old friend William Shakespeare. Because no one who took part in either workshop displayed any shred of it. They went in trusting their love would be requited.
With special thanks to my Festival collaborators Beth Chalmers and Jamie de Courcey.