Tag Archives: Shakespeare

Remembering Easter Monday 1916

2016: an invigorating walk up and around Cumnor Hill ( Oxfordshire) was so energising that when I got back I poured myself a glass of champagne, added some orange juice and sat down at my newly decluttered desk to watch again Tom Hiddleston play Henry V (Harry) in the BBC’s marvellous Hollow Crown series. Meanwhile,in Dublin, the first shots in the 1916 Easter Rising are being remembered on Irish television. Within a few days, the ring leaders would be  shot and their coffinless bodies buried in lime.

Would that Harry had been on the rebels’ side in 1916: they might then not have been executed with such haste: “Use them with mercy” Henry V instructed his soldiers of the citizens of Harfleur after he had taken the port by force. Though that compassion may have been Shakespeare’s and not that of the real Henry V.


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A Shakespeare sonnet: one of my favourites


When my love swears that she is made of truth
I do believe her, though I know she lies,
That she might think me some untutor’d youth,
Unlearned in the world’s false subtleties.
Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young,
Although she knows my days are past the best,
Simply I credit her false speaking tongue:
On both sides thus is simple truth suppress’d.
But wherefore says she not she is unjust?
And wherefore say not I that I am old?
O, love’s best habit is in seeming trust,
And age in love loves not to have years told:
Therefore I lie with her and she with me,
And in our faults by lies we flatter’d be.

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Two plays this week and one was a disappointment.

Went to see Richard lll in a small London theatre – the New Diorama Theatre near the Euston Rd.

The company specialises in physical theatre which seemed to involve a lot of miming and mock battles with mock swords when really the words had already made that clear. You can’t improve on Shakespeare’s words.

What’s good about this company is that it is both colour and gender fluid so we had six women in a cast of 19 and some of them playing male parts.One or two good touches included Richard’s physical defects become more pronounced when he was threatened.

No sets which was a challenge and actors wore their own clothes apart from the main female parts and they wore frocks of a certain vintage.

But despite all the company’s good intentions, the actor playing Richard remained unconvincing. Pity.


Our second outing was to the Royal Court – where else – to see  Escaped Alone by Caryl Churchill.  Four women ( all over 70 the programme tells us) sit in a summer garden and hold conversations with each other about this and that. It’s the dialogue that is arresting. No one talks in full sentences and some of the characters begin their sentences in the middle and some never finish theirs. Every so often the  stage darkens and one of the characters appears alone and delivers a string of monologues about various disasters in which charred remains were reused as pieces of art. I think.

The funny thing is that after you’ve come out of the theatre you notice you yourself – and your companion – are speaking in half sentences that barely make sense. Listen yourself to see what I mean.



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Theatre, talks, Bloomsday – and a bit of music.

Mary Russell

A busy fortnight. Last week, William Dalrymple at Pitt Rivers, talking about the last of the Moghuls. Great evening. I may well become a friend of PR!

Yesterday, Dr. Mustafa Barghouti and Avi Schlaim at St Anthonys discussing Palestine. This evening – and this I am really looking forward to – the Oxford Chavad Society has invited the Provost of Worcester, Jonathan Bate, to give a talk entitled Shakespeare and the Jews. And still on the subject, June 16, I’ll be at the Martello Tower in Dublin’s Sandycove to hear readings from Ulysses by actor Brian Murray followed by wine and some  music by the local ukulele band in Glasthule village.

And finally, on Friday week, I’ll be at the National Theatre ( London) for a revival of that great play by Caryl Churchill – A Light Shining in Buckinghamshire. Given the dismal political situation in England right now, this…

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My reading list just gets longer. Time to prioritise…

Got to the Bodleian yesterday evening about 16:30 when the sky overhead was a deep, luminous blue which surely meant snow.
The book I had ordered was there, waiting for me in the Radcliffe Camera. Normally, for books on the open shelves, readers help themselves but we are temporarily barred from the lower Gladstone Link, due to a leak, and so enjoy the luxury of our books being carried up the metal stairs for us to the Camera.
The book I wanted was Travel A Literary History, by Peter Whitfield, published in 2011, by the Bodleian itself and available in the library’s excellent shop.

As with all books ordered, I did a skim read. Byron is there as is Joan Didion, Dante, Hannibal, Sara Wheeler and Jan Morris among many others. I’m not. (Yes, I checked. I am human, after all.) Egeria is there though Whitfield is a bit dismissive, saying that she tells little about the places she visited. Not so. Earlier this year, I sat in a shaded monastery garden outside Jerusalem, with Earl from the Falls Road, though now known as Gregory, Abbot of the Benedictine Monastery in Jerusalem’s old city. He knew of Egeria ( full marks, Abbot) because of her writings which are greatly valued as being among the earliest first-hand accounts of 4th century liturgy. Her descriptions of the rich hangings and drapes alone are worth reading. She also comments on the plants grown by the monks and on their irrigation systems. You can read more about her in my book The Blessings of a Good Thick Skirt ( http://www.maryrussell.info) .

You can also read, in Blessings, about Margery Kempe, the noisy, obstreperous, talkative and, at times, infuriating pilgrim who travelled on foot and by boat from England to Jerusalem in 1414. Strange that she too has been left out of Whitfield’s so comprehensive book. By the way, if I’ve whetted your appetite, you’ll find the radio documentary I made about Margery also on my website.

Whitfield has included an apt comment by Paul Theroux made when a friend remarked that there was no point in travel writing since, said the friend, everyone travels so who wants to read about it. To which Theroux replied: ”Everyone gets laid too but that doesn’t eliminate screwing as a subject – I mean people still write about it.”
So Egeria is here as is Saint Brendan but not, and understandably perhaps, Saint Ia who sailed across the sea on a leaf from Ireland to Cornwall to found the settlement of Saint Ives. Or so I’ve been led to believe.

Whitfield’s book will demand time and attention which I didn’t have last night but I will be back. Not only to read Travel but also to read his upcoming book Mapping Shakespeare’s World, also published by the Bodleian.

This is going to be a fascinating read as it looks at the way in which Shakespeare locates his plays in places he had never – nor could have – visited, such as Verona, Elsinore and Ephesus.

The play I’m currently interested in is Othello, set in Cyprus and in which play Shakespeare moves dates around to suit his dramatic purposes. The Ottomans would have had a right to complain but they didn’t. Instead, they welcomed the Elizabethan travelling salesmen with open arms. And why not? Everyone wanted to hang their palaces and churches with silk from Damascus.Or clothe themselves in the precious silk:  Anne Boleyn wore a damask mantle when she went to her death.

Strange then that, in Whitfield’s book on travel and literature, there’s no mention in the index of Aleppo or Palmyra or, saddest of all, the great city of Damascus.

But here, cue my latest book My Home is Your Home http://www.maryrussell.info which tells you not just about the city and the country but the people who make up that country. Published in 2011 it is now a record of times past.

I will be back in the Bodleian to read more of Peter Whitfield’s travel book but first there’s my bookclub book to finish: Rose Tremain’s The Colour. Then there’s a book review to write for The Irish Times: Leaving Before The Rains Come, by Alexandra Fuller whose Let’s Not Go to the Dogs Tonight, I reviewed and loved. And finally, there’s a post-Christmas gift: Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.

These may keep me going till Mapping Shakespeare’s World is published in June by which time it will be top of my reading list.

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What is it with older actors? Three women to watch.

Three theatre women worth watching:

Diana Quick: just finished a run at the Theatre Royal in Bath – The Big Meal. This is a challenging play by US writer Dan LeFranc which tells the story of a family through five generations with all the actors playing multiple parts.

Quick was married  to fellowe actor Bill Nighy for some 27 years and her daughter, Mary, is also an actor.

Diana Quick played the part of Margery Kempe in a radio play of  mine that BBC Radio broadcast a few years ago. I liked what I heard but I really wanted to see this character in the flesh. One day….

Clare Dunne: currently playing Hal in the Donmar Warehouse production of Henry lV parts l and ll.

Dunne has worked a lot with Gary Hyne’s Galway-based Druid Theatre Company.  I saw her play Major Barbara at the Abbey in Dublin and she gave it all that that part needed. The Donmar production, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, has an all-female cast and is the second of three such Shakespearean productions with Julius Caesar the first.

Henry lV runs till Nov 29


Eileen Atkins: currently playing the lead in The Witch of Edmonton at  the Swan Theatre, Stratford on Avon.  In a recent interview in The Observer, she was asked if playing a witch was typical casting for ” a mature actress.” And she replied: ” Of course. Even today  there’s a resentment  of what you call mature and I call old people.They are thought of as witches. ”  Atkins is seventy-something. Directed by Gregory Doran, she  plays the part of a woman , in 1621, who takes up witchcraft in self-defense. As the Observer notes “…tiresome, isolated, loquacious, she is the sort of neighbour you might prefer to avoid.”  Sounds a bit lke Margery Kempe to me. I’ll know next week – I have the ticket bought.

The Witch of Edmonton runs till 29 Nov



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Saw Richard ll this week. It’s abt regime change, the director says.

For the first time, a live performance at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford on Avon, was filmed and shown in cinemas worldwide on Nov 13. The play, a favourite of the RSC’s new director, Greg Doran, was Richard ll with David Tennant in the lead.

It’s a play in which the long speech figures big time. Most of the speeches are about England – its greatness, its magic, its heroic nature. When the speeches are finished, everyone gets back to the business of killing each other. Those they don’t kill, they betray.

It’s a marvellous production with a wonderful set enhanced by an ingenious system of lighting – all explained to us, on screen during the interval, by lighting designer Tim Mitchell.

Shakespeare knew how to end a play, the final moments often handed to the director on a plate. In this play, Richard is deposed by his enemy Bolingbroke, incarcerated in a cellar and finally killed by those he had trusted. Thus  Doran has Bolingbroke – in an attempt to portray himself as a good guy really – speaking his last lines: “I’ll make a voyage to the Holy Land, to wash this blood from off my guilty hand…” as the saintly figure of Richard ll appears aloft, clad in a white gown. It’d make your heart bleed and that’s what Shakespeare is good at.

Walking home, I thought of the playwright’s take on politics and decided that the only safe position to hold must have been one of cynicism – especially in the turbulence of Tudor times.

Those speeches reminded me of former British politician Jonathan Aitken who, when his corruption was about to be uncovered by the Guardian newspaper, tried to  scare off the press with the following speech: ” If it falls to me to start a fight to cut out the cancer of bent and twisted journalism in our country with the  simple sword  of truth and the trusty shield of British fair play, so be it. I am ready for the fight.”

You have to laugh. When it comes to blatant tub-thumping, that little speech it’s up there with some of the patriotic speeches in Richard ll.

Shakespeare had a handle on politics and we can learn from him: view most politicians with a degree of cynicism and you won’t be disheartened when you find it was all lies.

Aitken, by the way, was found guilty and sent to prison.

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