Guest post – Shakespeare, social media, and everyday creativity

Holly Reaney, creator of our current exhibition at the Shakespeare Institute Library on Shakespeare and Social Media here blogs on the theme.

Digital Shakespeares

Over the past five weeks I’ve been working with Holly Reaney, as part of the University of Birmingham’s Undergraduate Research Scholarship programme. Holly has just completed the first year of her BA in English at UoB and has been helping me explore the wide and wonderful world of Shakespeare and the internet. Each week I’ve given her a project or prompt to explore and she’s then gone away to see what the world wide web uncovers. Below is a summary of her work in her own words. Thank you Holly for all your help!

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Shakespeare, social media, and everyday creativity

The undergraduate research scholarship is a scheme offered to non-final year undergraduate students in the College of Arts and Law at the University of Birmingham. The scheme aims to immerse and engage students in academia as well as enabling them to gain valuable experience in the undertaking of…

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Topless in Arden: Guide Friday and the Shakespeare Experience

Holy TrinityIn the early 1970s, a young Cornishman arrived in Stratford-upon-Avon. Out of funds, he dossed down that first night in the dry grasses under the wall of Holy Trinity Church, not many yards away from the bones of the man he had come to discover. Next morning, clutching guide-book, map and all the impedimenta of a tourist, he set out to learn the town.

Roger Thompson had the mind of an entrepreneur and an instinctive feeling for social and cultural history. In previous years, realising his own bright idea, he had made money by driving rich Americans around the UK in a vintage Rolls Royce. His quick brain absorbed material about tourist destinations anywhere south of Edinburgh. If clients fancied veering off the beaten track, he would mug up the details overnight. He spoke of himself as ‘a mine of useless information’.  But this was far from the case, for as he drove, telling stories and jokes, entertaining and informing, he would draw on an apparently inexhaustible fund of appropriate and accurate knowledge.

But not everyone could afford the Rolls Royce treatment: this was the great era of the coach tour when visitors came in droves from the United States and Japan, sometimes performing the remarkable feat of ‘Doing Britain in Five Days.’ Stratford-upon-Avon was inevitably on the route and, as enormous coaches, belching fumes, edged through town, locals would mutter sourly ‘It’s Tuesday, so it must be Stratford.’

Roger had already assessed the tourist potential of Stratford-upon-Avon and Shakespeare in particular. Not only were there the Birthplace, New Place and Hall’s Croft- much visited since the eighteenth century – but there were too the relatively new Shakespeare Centre, the Avon and the riverside walks, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and a number of historic buildings, monuments and sites of interest. And the homes of Shakespeare’s mother and wife were only a short way out of town. All the Shakespeare-related houses could, in fact, comprise the key points of a circular tour.

In the days of his car tours, Roger had noticed how high streets had begun to look very much the same. But a different, far more interesting panorama was offered at roof level and besides, elevation gave a more comprehensive view of tourist venues. Might not a two-tier, open-topped vehicle do the job?

guide friday logoSo, Guide Friday came into being: two double-decker buses were acquired with the roofs of their upper decks removed and a smart dark green and cream livery. The ‘Stratford-go-Round’ linked the three in-town Shakespeare houses but then drove out to Ann Hathaway’s Cottage and Mary Arden’s Farm before returning to town a different way.  Passengers could get on or off at will, taking time to linger at one or all the properties. They might spend an hour or a day, for the second bus was only fifteen minutes behind when they were ready to move on. ‘Hop on! Hop off!’ ‘Go topless!’ ‘Experience the Shakespeare Story!’ were slogans which drew the visitors.

Tour busThe other essential ingredient of the Guide Friday vision was that of a driver-guide service. Roger had long understood the appeal of a real person leading the tour rather than a mechanised voice-over. Shakespeare aside, an on-the-spot, hands-on guide would welcome, inform and reassure as well as being   available to advise on accommodation, services and a whole miscellany of useful tourist information.

As a result, the first Blue Badge Guide course, in partnership with the Heart of England Tourist Board, was set up. The first wave of applicants comprised students, a doctor’s wife, an ex-bank manager, retired or resting teachers and salesmen, and even a former member of the cast of the scandalous musical Oh! Calcutta!  Though disparate in age and background, group members shared varying degrees of communication skills and local knowledge.

open top busIt was made very clear that this was to be a professional qualification tested by written and practical examination. Roger himself, of course, had already amassed a formidable body of information having read around his subject, visited the Shakespeare properties and talked at length with the house guides. He had even approached and questioned scholars at the Shakespeare Centre and sought out local historians. He had a clear vision of what he expected Blue Badge Guides to know.

Aspiring trainees were invited to interview with Roger and a member of the Tourist Board. For one woman, used to professional formality, it was an experience made extraordinary by the sight of Mr Thompson lounging elegantly in a chair whilst consuming a bag of salted pistachios. Every so often, as discussion proceeded, he would throw her a nut which, unable at such short notice to devise an alternative strategy, she caught and ate. Either Roger had missed lunch, or else a subtle psychological test was underway in which applicants were being assessed for their ability to deal with the unscripted. Such a skill would, after all, be extremely useful when dealing with the vagaries of the general public.

Apart from classroom lectures, the course consisted of practical trips during which trainees took turns on the microphone, told the story of Shakespeare  and familiarised themselves with the route. Roger, naturally, demonstrated how it was done.  He was a born raconteur and could hold an audience rapt. Passing Hall’s Croft he would relate John Halldetails of Dr John Hall’s treatments – the frog on a string, swallowed to treat a putrid throat, symptoms of the Black Death, leeches bloated with blood.  Then, standing up front with the microphone, he would move on to Tudor Stratford – plague pits and open sewers , whipping post, stocks and brothels, pisspots emptied from upper casement windows. Finally, arriving at the topic of personal hygiene and, raking the rows of seats with compelling eyes, he would declare  ‘You stank. I stank. Everybody stank.’   The phrase entered the Guide Friday vernacular and was repeated verbatim on tours for years afterwards. Or else two guides, meeting each other, might for no obvious reason, suddenly break into the refrain before doubling up with laughter.

Facts, as far as they were known, were insisted upon: stories, anecdotes and local myths about Shakespeare and his times might be related as long as they were correctly introduced by ‘It’s thought that..’ or ‘Some versions of this story say…’  If stumped for information when questioned, guides were instructed to take a contact number, look up the answer (no Google or I-pads in that decade) and ring later to pass it on.

So Guide Friday set the highest standards of customer service. It was a point of pride which was, however, memorably flouted one afternoon when a truculent party of Americans joined the tour. After being told that her commentary was ‘bulls***’ and that Christopher Marlowe had, in fact, written the plays attributed to Shakespeare (he had transmitted them by spirit message from the Other Side) the guide struck back. As the former Motor Museum came up on the left, she informed the group that Shakespeare’s car was the prime exhibit. Honour was satisfied when exclamations of interest and murmurs of ‘Gee! That’s really something!’ rose up.

In any tourist town there will be those who dislike visitors. But tourists create employment, swell the local economy and bring a number of community benefits. Guide Friday’s success helped to enhance the status of Stratford-upon-Avon;  without being patronising, it educated and interested those whose knowledge of Shakespeare was slight and provided information about a relatively distant period of history.  It might even have drawn some, whose experience of school Shakespeare had been negative, to see or read one of the plays.

Before the concept assumed such a high profile in service industries, Roger was committed to setting a high standard of customer care and quality of experience.  His concern for the environment influenced the introduction of buses which produced low levels of pollution. He was for many years a director of the annual Stratford-upon Avon Festival and became vice president of the Heart of England Tourist Board.

The company was awarded the British Tourist Authority’s ‘Come to Britain’ trophy and the English Tourist Board’s ‘England for Excellence’ award in two separate years. And fittingly, Roger Thompson received an OBE for his services to tourism.

Bettina Harris, Library Support Assistant

SIL Book of the Week : An occasional series

This week: The selected writings of Jonathan Miller, 1954–2016

Received into the Shakespeare Institute Library this week,  this selection of essays, lectures and interviews spans seven decades of the varied (an understatement) life and career of celebrated intellectual Jonathan Miller. The title of the volume, One Thing and Another, encapsulates precisely the range of subjects to which Miller contributes and upon which he reflects – that is, anything which interests him!

NPG x27384; Beyond the Fringe (Peter Cook; Jonathan Miller; Dudley Moore; Alan Bennett) by Lewis MorleyThe ultimate polymath, Dr Sir Jonathan Miller studied natural sciences and medicine at Cambridge, qualifying and working as a medical doctor. At the same time, he became involved with the Cambridge Footlights, the University’s amateur theatrical club which initiated many a famous career in comedy and acting – including his own. Miller made his name as a member of the quartet who brought us the inimitable satire show, Beyond the Fringe, starring Alan Bennett, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore as well, of course, as Miller himself. He then took up a position at the BBC, where, apparently, he picked up the art of directing ‘as he went along’. Here he produced and directed a wide variety of programmes  from plays and adaptations to various documentaries including series on the human body, the human mind, madness and the complexities of language.

Of particular interest to Shakespeare students is his role as director of six plays in the BBC Television Shakespeare series in the early 1980s. He also worked in theatre, producing and directing Shakespeare on the stage. Of this he observes, ‘It’s extremely unlikely that Monteverdi [Miller is also an opera enthusiast] and Shakespeare ever in their wildest dreams imagined that their works would be bequeathed to others who were so fundamentally and recognizably different from them and from their audiences. It’s very hard to put ourselves back into the imagination of people in the sixteenth or seventeenth century and conceive the notion of posterity as visualised by them’. But Miller has apparently coped with this difficulty admirably: His most recent directing role, in 2015 and at the age of 82, was Northern Broadsides critically acclaimed production of King Lear.

He also pursued his love of opera by directing productions for Glyndebourne and the English National Opera, this immediately following the holding of a research fellowship in the history of medicine at University College London. Later he studied neuropsychology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, before taking up another research fellowship in the same subject at the University of Sussex. And so on.

And all these fascinating facets of his life are represented in this book: his thoughts on theatre, opera, comedy, philosophy, atheism and scientific debate; his undoubted intellect and his rigorous scholarship accompanied by his acerbic wit and humour. There is something here for everyone, for all of us, like Miller himself, must be interested in ‘one thing and another’. In a library devoted to Renaissance studies,  Jonathan Miller is surely the epitome of the ‘Renaissance man’.

Dr Jill Francis

Jonathan Miller, One Thing and Another: Selected writings, 1954-2016, edited by Ian Greaves. (Oberon, 2017). PN2598.M7.

Available in the Shakespeare Institute Library now.

Richard Burbage died #OTD 1619

In 1598, in the last days on the year, a group of men tore a building down in Shoreditch. Giles Allen, who owned the plot of land had claimed that the building being dismantled belonged to him, since the lease on the land had expired. The men disagreed, and when Allen went off to his country home for Christmas, they picked the building apart, and transported it, timber by timber, to a warehouse in Bridewell. That spring they rebuilt that building, the Theatre, and adorned it with a new, more imaginative name. The Globe had come into being.

870px-British_-_Richard_Burbage_-_Google_Art_ProjectRichard Burbage was 31, already a successful actor, when he rebuilt his father’s Theatre. When he played a part in creating the Globe, Burbage erected a stage he would come to rule. If the marble slab to his – and James Burbage’s, Cuthbert Burbage’s, William Somers’, Richard Tarlton’s, Gabriel Spencer’s, William Sly’s, and Richard Cowley’s – memory in St Leonard’s is to be believed, his most memorable thespian achievements took the form of Richard III and Hamlet.

He was a shareholder in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, who would become the Queen’s Men, and then, with James’ ascension, the King’s Men. Shakespeare left him money in his will, alongside John Heminge and Henry Condell, for mourning rings. Burbage overtook Shakespeare on the final stretch of road, while Heminge and Condell went on to become the driving forces behind the First Folio in 1623.

When Burbage died, in early March 1619, the sorrow that enveloped London and particularly the theatrical world of the capital was so all-encompassing it became the subject of an anonymous mocking verse, punning on the opening lines from Henry VI part 1:

Hung be the heavens with black, yield day to night!
Comets importing change shoot through the sky:
Scourge the foul fates that thus afflict our sight!
Burbage, the player, has vouchsafed to die!
Therefore, in London is not one eye dry:
The deaths of men who act our Queens and Kings,
Are now more mourn’d than are the real things.

A second Globe stood where the Theatre’s timbers had turned to ash in 1613, but it was a hollow world, the poet complained:

Hereafter must our Poets cease to write.
Since thou art gone, dear Dick, a tragic night
Will wrap our black-hung stage

 

For more information on Richard Burbage check out these books:

C.C. Stopes Burbage and Shakespeare’s Stage (PR3095)

Bart Van Es Shakespeare in Company (PR2957)

Evelyn Tribble Early Modern Actors and Shakespeare’s Theatre – Thinking with the Body (new)

 

Sara Westh, Library Support Assistant

The Roundhouse: the best railway shed in town

‘It was the bunker for exploratory beliefs, in the form of plays, philosophical debate, poetry and marshal-amplified rock that quaked round the fat and lime-mortared drum like a constantly replayed pile-up on the M1’.

‘A Victorian train-shed built like a brick privy….’

‘A big, butch bothy…’

‘Surplus army coats, body odour…charred and onion-ringed comestibles from the dodgy concession stands, tinnitus…like angry wasps on helium…wedged in your ears.’

‘anarchic….’

The Roundhouse / Camden

So the Roundhouse at Chalk Farm was variously described during its second great incarnation from 1964 to 1983. If the term ‘arts arena’  means a laboratory for thinking about and presenting arts from all cultures and disciplines,  in a way that energises connections between exhibition, performance, debate, festival, lecture and conference, then it was the first of its kind in this country. And it was the brainchild of an eminent English playwright.

sketchThe Roundhouse was a historic original, purpose- built in 1865 to service locomotives. A turn-table encircled by 24 cast iron columns dominated the interior, with an intricate cat’s cradle of thin interconnecting supports above. Though completely pragmatic in design, the interior had that stripped back, aesthetic beauty that some Victorian industrial architecture seems to acquire by accident. The symmetry and spareness of linked Doric columns around a central space evoked the design of classical theatre. Even in early etchings ,the interior has a sense of enigma and presence.

 

The building went on to function as a warehouse after becoming redundant as an engine shed, and fell into disuse just before World War 11. It was not to be re-opened until the early 1960s.

In London, post-war austerity had given way to a new wave of self-expression and liberation: there was a sense of disillusion with the existing order and the era of the Swinging Sixties was poised to begin. The anti-establishment feeling had already made its impact on the arts and the so-called angry young men’ of the mid-1950s – dissenting, radical and even anarchic in their views – were focusing on ‘gritty’ social realism. In the theatre, John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger was a landmark play, sparking off a new genre – shocking and deeply distasteful to some – known as ‘kitchen sink drama.’  In both theatre and the novel there was a new emphasis on working class people and their disenchantment with an intelligentsia seen as largely upper-class and hopelessly out-of-touch.

weskerProminent among the new dramatists was Arnold Wesker. The commercial success of his ‘Trilogy’ of 1960 enabled him to put into action his liberal-radical ideas. The arts in Britain were ‘a mean joke’, he declared; culture should be freely available and accessible to all, not just to an elite.

His bold plan was to establish an inclusive arts centre which would provide a secure venue for performers. A permanent company of actors, a resident orchestra and jazz band were envisaged, along with provision for a wide variety of concerts, plays and other forms of artistic expression. There were, over a twenty year period, to be an art gallery, library, dance hall, work-shops, a youth club and a restaurant.But where to find a suitable space?

1855-original-fitandcrop-550x823Wesker’s recognition of the potential of the Roundhouse was inspired. A campaign to raise funds to refurbish it was launched and, re-named as Centre 42, it opened as a live entertainments venue in October 1966. The event was variously described as ‘epic’, ‘legendary’ and a ‘revolutionary event in English thinking and alternative music.’  An underground newspaper – International Times – was launched that evening and sugar lumps, handy for ingesting LSD, were allegedly handed out at the door. An unknown new group called Pink Floyd performed. They would be followed over the next few years by Led Zeppelin, David Bowie and bands such as The Rolling Stones, The Clash and The Yardbirds.

brook_tempestThe Roundhouse was very far from the plush West End theatres where plays were usually performed.Its spare, graceful interior; the almost limitless potential of playing in a large circular space (no stuffy proscenium arch here) stimulated directors to experiment and innovate. Their treatment of Shakespeare was radical and the young director Peter Brook, already known for his convention-defying work, produced an account of The Tempest which provoked a critical storm. Tradition was swept aside in a house which had no seats and so blurred the line between audience and actors. Brook’s direction managed to include rape, sodomy and domination and the text was interspersed with mime, chanting and guttural noises. Some critics were baffled and begged to be told what it all meant; others declared that it was not Shakespeare at all but merely made occasional reference to the original.  But in general, the production was acknowledged as something extraordinary and it was conceded that experimentation was healthy and necessary.

In 1969, the maverick director Tony Richardson cast Nicol Williamson in his production of Hamlet. Williamson was the notorious bad boy of the theatre but his talent was not in doubt. John Osborne judged him to be ‘the greatest actor since Marlon Brando’ and Olivier was quoted as saying that Williamson was his ‘closest challenger’ as the leading man of English-language theatre.

hamletWilliamson‘s Prince was biting and hostile. Unlike the beautifully articulated oration of former actors, his voice snarled with a nasal twang somewhere between Brummie and Glaswegian. Many playgoers had not experienced theatre in the round, or such an alarming proximity to the actors. They had never seen saliva fly. This Hamlet was nobody’s fool but had assessed the corrupt Danish court with the most penetrating acuity:  the text was loaded with his loathing and blistering contempt. But, in contrast, his affection for Horatio showed him as warm and endearing, and the scene in Gertrude’s ‘closet’ was almost unbearably intimate: some felt like intrusive voyeurs and wanted to creep away in embarrassment. The bar, at the interval, was packed with people in passionate discussion of the play.

The performance was judged as ‘iconoclastic’, ‘touched by genius’and ‘a benchmark’.  Michael Billington called it the most exciting Hamlet for more than a decade, while the P.M. Harold Wilson described it at length in a meeting with the U.S. President, Richard Nixon. The role had been redefined.

Steven Berkoff’s Hamlet of 1980 followed. The director wanted to offer ‘simple uncluttered Shakespeare in the round’ but the audience was unprepared for a totally bare stage surrounded by actors in black, humming wind noises on the non-existent battlements of Elsinore. Props were minimal – there was even an absence of rapiers in the duel scene. But, after all, Shakespeare himself had set the trend, and the playwright turned out to be a member of the cast. Berkoff, in the leading role, wore a striped blue suit with punk-inspired accessories. Notices were unfavourable, however, and at least one reviewer was so negative that the inflammable Berkoff threatened to murder the man.

The Roundhouse went on to stage Catch My Soul, a rock musical based on Othello in which a blacked-up chorus line danced to Mexican music. It was unusual, but its impact was slight compared with the outrage and controversy caused by Kenneth Tynan’s Oh! Calcutta! Described in the tabloids as ‘The Nudest Show on Earth’, it contained ‘adult material’ and full-frontal nudity. The pro-censorship campaigner and battle-axe for ‘public decency’, Mary Whitehouse, claimed that the arts and the country in general were morally at risk from such a show. More moderate reviewers described it as ‘tasteful pornography for the thinking voyeur’.

We are used to all this today, but fifty years ago such productions were emphatically ground-breaking. No other venue had offered a programme where the works of Shakespeare, in particular, had been so deconstructed and reconstituted, so often violent and disturbingly surreal. They were, too, disrespectfully sandwiched between ear-splitting rock ‘n’roll gigs, where the audience circulated in a fog of cannabis smoke and alcohol.

In 1883, funds ran out and the Roundhouse fell silent. But its third incarnation was at hand: it was bought by a local businessman and remodelled as a performance space. A new wing was added and the underground area housed a ring of practice rooms, recording suites and digital resources. The great, circular main space, the iron columns and the rotunda remained untouched.

main-space-2-smallThe new Roundhouse reopened in 2006. Its programme today is multidisciplinary and multicultural, reflecting every nuance of present day arts. Could this have happened without the almost-twenty years when it was the most controversial venue in London? It had been an icon of cultural change, through the hippy era to punk and post-punk. It spoke to the Free Love movement, to women’s ‘libbers’, civil rights activists, striking miners and black and musicians blasting out subversive music. It shocked and outraged, overturned traditional thinking and blatantly challenged establishment perceptions of what a work of art should be.

Wesker could not have known how comprehensively his vision was to be realised, or with what uninhibited and full-blooded vigour the arts at the Roundhouse were to develop and flourish. He would approve of what his performance arena had become and what it had achieved. The work goes on.

Bettina Harris, Library Support Assistant

SIL Book of the Week – The ‘stuff’ of early modern history

The latest addition to the Routledge Guides to using Historical Sources, Understanding Early Modern Primary Sources has been received into the Shakespeare Institute Library this week. Edited by Laura Sangha and Jonathan Willis, this book is an invaluable resource for the student of early modern history. Every student knows that primary sources are the lifeblood of the historian and without them, as the Introduction clearly states, history would be impossible to write. But where to start?!

understandingFor the student, the array of material ranging from state papers, printed books, literary sources, manuscript letters, diaries, wills and inventories, visual sources such as paintings, buildings, clothing etc. etc. can be daunting, if not overwhelming. The first part of this book offers a practical guide to approaching such sources, providing information on how the material was produced in the first place, how it has been preserved and how it can be accessed. There are pointers as to where to look at original material as well of course as how to access the vast and ever-increasing  digital resources now available. There are hints on the kind of questions to ask when approaching such sources together with case studies and examples.

The second part of the book approaches its subject thematically, examining what kind of sources can be used to explore a range of major themes such as popular culture, political culture, gender, science, warfare, religion and so on.

A must for the student of early modern history as well as the student of Shakespeare who is interested in setting the work of the bard within the wider context of the world in which he lived.

Dr Jill Francis, Library Support Assistant

Shakespeare in 1950s India: Wendy Beavis writes home

portrait

The Shakespeare Institute Library has recently acquired the letters of Wendy Beavis, an actor with the Shakespeareana Company touring India and Pakistan in the 1950s. Run by Geoffrey and Laura Kendal, the company performed in schools, theatres and sometimes the open-air and experienced long, cramped train journeys, basic accommodation and prickly heat as well as staying in palaces, riding on elephants and seeing the Himalayas, together with the camaraderie and petty squabbles of a small touring group of actors.

 

Wendy wrote to her parents in Sutton Coldfield every few days and her letters are full of the everyday experiences of being away from home: trying new food, making her limited money last, dealing with other company members and their foibles but also of the specific problems of a theatre troupe: trying to keep the costumes clean and pressed, coping with inadequate electrical supplies in remote villages, playing to audiences who don’t speak English and the constant shortage of greasepaint which Wendy frequently asks her parents to send her. The searing heat caused the Macbeth witches’ rubber masks to melt and the costumes to be drenched in sweat, monsoon rains flooded the theatre and drummed on the tin roof and, during a performance of Othello, an earthquake caused the audience to stampede from the theatre, endangering Jennifer Bragg (the Kendals’ daughter) who was lying on stage as the dead Desdemona.

Shakespeareana performed a varied repertoire, not just Shakespeare but also Gaslight, The Importance of Being Earnest, Charley’s Aunt and She Stoops to Conquer, here shown in a performance in Simla with Wendy on the far left.

production-shot

The company performed for and met many notable people including Prime Minister Nehru, Tensing Norgay, Countess Mountbatten, the Maharajah of Mysore and Gopi Krishna, the famous Kathak dancer.

The main sequence of letters runs from June 1953 when the company set sail on the TSS Jal-Jawahar from England to Bombay (performing several shows on board ship) until October 1956 when Wendy and fellow actor John Day returned on the MS Batory, with her final letter on the 20th ending ‘only another 17 days’. Having told her parents back in March that she would be coming home in the autumn and would be at home for Christmas, by the time she left India the ever-changing Shakespeareana schedule had changed again. The plan then was for the company to tour America and Canada and for Wendy to join them in Antwerp in November for the transatlantic crossing. However this tour never materialised, the company travelled on to Singapore and Malaya and Wendy never rejoined them. How her parents or Wendy herself felt about this we shall never know.

Wendy discussed news from home both domestic and national. She always responded to details in her parents’ letters and constantly asked questions about their garden, her relatives and Candy the cat. She also mentioned the 1955 general election, an outbreak of myxomatosis, a serious crash at Sutton railway station (still Birmingham’s worst rail disaster) and asked ‘How is this commercial T.V. going? Are you getting any better programmes, or is it more irritating?’

One of the common frustrations of reading an archive of letters is that you only get one side of the story.  A rare treasure therefore are two letters written to Wendy in November 1954 which were returned to sender covered in redirections: one from her father and one from her mother. Mrs Beavis went into hospital in 1954 for an operation; it’s clear Wendy worried about her and even offered to come home but we don’t know how much she knew about it or whether her parents withheld the details. Mr Beavis wrote that while his wife was in hospital he has put two coats of paint on the kitchen as a surprise for her and reports she was ‘bucked’ to get a letter from Wendy with snaps and flowers. Mrs Beavis wrote from Ward 2 of the Women’s Hospital and on page 11 of a 16-page letter mostly talking about other people she mentioned she has had a hysterectomy. We know Wendy did not get this letter but we have those she sent her mother in hospital, one enclosing two sprigs of bougainvillea, exotic blooms in Sparkhill, Birmingham.

envelope

Kate Welch, Senior Information Assistant

The Art of Deception: Kurosawa’s ‘The Bad Sleep Well’

ran-poster

This morning on Twitter a stunning poster of Ran reminded me of my awe and wonder for Kurosawa’s films. Yes, I’ve blogged about Kurosawa before but it struck me that Throne of Blood and Ran get much attention while the marvellous The Bad Sleep Well is less known and less praised. Here’s a short piece about that film which contains moments of pure cinematic genius.

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In his book Theatre of Chaos William Demastes states that ‘Hamlet is like a sponge. Unless produced in a stylized or antiquarian fashion, it immediately absorbs the problems of our time… its philosophical dimensions are as rich and culturally moveable as its political dimensions.’

Kurosawa sets his version of Hamlet in contemporary post-war Japan. During the 20th century Japan transformed from a feudal empire to an industrial super state, and the transition was not a smooth one. When Japan surrendered at the end of the Second World War the emperor declared, “We must endure the unendurable”, and for the first time in their history Japan became an occupied country. Traditional feudal values were repressed by the American occupiers, there were political and economic reforms, democratic institutions were set up. A whole new way of life had to be adopted – some threw themselves into it with a self-destructive force, others, like Kurosawa, approached it carefully, adapted to it and made it their own. He was given the chance to make films about subjects that had never been tackled before – one of them being the social chaos of the post war years. Wartime austerity had been replaced by indulgence and excess. He said:

I wanted to make a film of some social significance. At last I decided to do something about corruption, because it has always seemed to me that graft, bribery, etc, on a public level is the worst crime that there is. These people hide behind the façade of some great organisation like a company or corporation and consequently no one ever really knows how dreadful they are, what awful things they do. Exposing them I thought of as a socially significant act – and so I started the film.

the-bad-sleep-well-poster2

Kurosawa’s resulting screenplay examines the effect that political decisions can have on the personal, and by association, national psyche – how will the human soul be affected? The Bad Sleep Well shows us a complete warping of traditional values – a sickness brought about by corruption within new and established institutions disturbed by the war. Speaking later he said: ‘Maybe it was because I came from the old samurai class, but even back then I remember hating anything crooked or underhanded’.

Important traditional qualities such as loyalty and honour are manipulated for self-interest. Employees are encouraged to commit suicide in order to save the skins of their superiors. Self-assertion was seen as immoral in pre-war days and self-sacrifice as a sensible course in life. In Kurosawa’s film the old levels of Japanese society, their ways and values are still in place but have been perverted for diabolical ends and a hidden agenda. Nobility and virtue no longer apply in a capitalist environment. Beneath the veneer of duty, ritual and obedience to authority is a wealth of personal trauma. The ‘Hamlet’ character, played by Toshiro Mifune (and by association Kurosawa himself), wishes to explode the facade, and takes on the important responsibility of trying to expose these men who hide behind the mask of respectability and act like gangsters.

the-bad-sleep-well-noirAppropriately, The Bad Sleep Well is photographed like a film noir. This was a style born in America by directors who fled Germany at the start of the Second World War. They used expressionistic techniques, chiaroscuro, angled camera positions, and disturbing cityscapes. This genre of film told stories of people who found it difficult and sometimes impossible to wade through the dark underbelly of their country – characters that are severely tested in their adjustment to civilian life after the war – having fought for justice, they find only corruption, and the fates against them in their own city streets. The noir style fits Kurosawa’s subject. Beautifully photographed in ravishing black and white widescreen, the film flows between the clinical corporate world of offices and meetings to the darkened suburban streets where ersatz ghosts and would-be-killers lurk in shadows, only to disappear in car headlights moments later.

the-bad-sleep-well-1960-4

Japan, like Denmark, is a prison. This feeling of entrapment is cleverly created with Kurosawa’s visual style. The majority of his shots in this film have a symmetrical composition. Characters stand on opposite sides of the screen reflecting each other and framing the action. The actors are often blocked to form converging lines or triangles so that the viewer subliminally feels as though he is being fenced in or pushed into a corner.

The settings also emphasize this eerie claustrophobic aspect with long corridors lit by strips of light, darkened streets lined with fences that block off sight-lines: a police office with horizontal blinds lit from outside creates bars of light across the walls; home interiors of plain walls with bars of wood again creating the idea of being closed in.

 

This film is a myriad of mousetraps, as Nishi tries to expose his father’s murderers and bring down the company. The centre-piece to this film is a breath-taking and extraordinary scene which occurs directly after Nishi has saved Wada, another company pawn, from committing suicide. Wada, who is believed dead by everyone, is forced by Nishi to watch his own funeral. This is Nishi’s incredibly cruel ‘play within the play’ which Wada must endure in order to spur the revenge plot. (The scene is first up in this trailer for the film).

It is a scene that reflects the concerns of the entire film. It is about truth and the juxtaposition of conflicting ideologies, and is completely cinematic – what we see and hear are completely at odds and so the horror of it is accentuated.

Nishi and Wada are in the constricted environment of the car, the windscreen itself acts like a cinema screen, and Nishi produces his own soundtrack – a recording of the corporate villains of the company Dairyu in a nightclub. So, we are watching a film within a film. The soundtrack is completely at odds with what we are watching, thus making it more grotesque. A grieving widow and child unknowingly receive the would-be murderers of the man they have lost. The very traditional funeral mount and the national costumes of the women, place them in traditional Japan – a funeral service for a man who believes in the validity of old values – the belief of which has ironically resulted in his attempted suicide and presumed death. The men from Dairyu, their dark suits representing the corporate world, appear reverential and humble, they pray – their deception in the outside world goes unnoticed. But we hear, with Wada, from their morbid drive-in, the truth. The westernisation of Japan and the corporate identity that the executives represent is echoed in the swinging western music of the night club, we see them bow in reverence but hear them laugh about the man’s death and talk about celebrating his demise with drink and women.

There is a great sense of corruption here, of guilt and the gullibility of innocence and, of course, of betrayal. In Hamlet, those in power act above the law – as in Macbeth they show a face that hides a much darker self.

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Although he is alive, Wada is the ghost at his own funeral. He says, ‘after this I cannot go on living’. The rights have been performed and he is dead in the eyes of the world. Nishi leaves him no option but to join him in his revenge plot. But his role is that of a ghost, a visitor from the grave exposing the crime committed against him. Like Banquo’s ghost he repeatedly appears to his murderer and drives him out of his mind. His would-be murderer is also one of the men indirectly responsible for the death of Nishi’s father. He is left a gibbering wreck and in his madness, acknowledging his guilt, can only utter ‘Forgive me Furuya’.

Sons seeking revenge, corruption, murder for personal gain, madness, appearance versus reality, ghost and mousetraps – they are all here, joined by the pervading theme of deception. Kurosawa succeeds in exposing the corrupt interlocking of business and government in post-war Japan. Nishi’s attempt to impose justice on a world in which justice is absent is futile. As in Ran the chaos that ensues leads to madness and loss.

Karin Brown, Shakespeare Institute Librarian

Many of Kurosawa’s film are available on Box of Broadcasts including:

Ran

Throne of Blood

See the Bfi’s page on Kurosawa vs Shakespeare

The SIL Extraordinary Current Awareness Services

So. I recently paid for my final few months as a research student at the Shakespeare Institute (which, great news, turned out to be less than I thought it was going to be).  I’m nearly done. I just need to get through this final stretch, and I’ll get my officially sanctioned floppy hat.

I am absolutely certain I would not have made it this far without the Current Awareness scheme. As a research student, there are a million demands on your time, and it’s easy to slide out of touch with the latest research when you’re trying to bend the last fifty year’s theory to your will. It often seems to me that there are simply not enough hours in the day to keep abreast of everything going on in Shakespeare studies. And I just have to worry about text; our revolutions are slow tidal waves to the perpetual motion of performance, the never-ending permutations of stage craft, or the kaleidoscope root-scape of theory. If a helpful librarian wasn’t browsing through the new books and journals looking for my key words, I would have had to give up on sleep to get through it all myself.

shakespeares-words-via-flickrBut I am getting ahead of myself; I haven’t even explained what this marvellous scheme is yet. Current Awareness is part of the library service offered by the Shakespeare Institute Library to PhD students. For free. The doctor-to-be sends a list of keywords to the library (silib@bham.ac.uk), and the library staff then read through every new book and periodical that crosses the SIL magnetized threshold, and alerts the researcher when their keywords pop up. To call it time-saving is an understatement in the extreme.

My only regret is that I didn’t know about it until I started working on it as an LSA. I am not aware of any other university libraries offering this service to their students; in Copenhagen, where I did my first degree, the librarians were busy protecting the older, frailer tomes, and pushing carts brimming with books from one part of campus to another, and while I did of course ask the occasional question, it never occurred to me that they could help me with my research.

It may be argued that my enthusiasm for Current Awareness is simply proof that I am not a very good academic: that I need to get better at managing my time – that a researcher who put in the hours could easily transverse the ever-broadening expanse of new material. Fortunately, however, I am not alone in valuing the benefits of this unique service. Here is their praise, in short, twitterific bursts: “That looks great – thanks!”, “Thank you for the recommendations”, “Most helpful, as always”, “Thank you – it sounds ideal”, “Thanks.  This sounds very useful”, “Thanks, that’s very cool!” “Thank you so much for making me aware of this :)”, “Thanks v. much – v helpful”.

And, speaking from the other side of the desk, from the comfort of the LSA chair, such positive feedback makes all the scouring worthwhile.

Truth be told, I enjoy hunting through all the new journals, looking for incredibly specific topics other than my own. It has made me aware in a very direct way of the richness of research being carried out across the world of Shakespeare studies, of the countless new publications that help reinvigorate our field each year, of how my little thread adds to the texture of a tapestry that is as much in our minds as out of them.

Words, words, words.

Sara Marie Westh, Library Support Assistant (and expectant PhD)

SI Old Stager on New Blood & a New Academic Year

Then nightly sings the staring owl.

A time of change is upon us here at the Shakespeare Institute Library.

I know it’s part of the academic year, as sure as the seasons roll on, and a great deal more punctual for that matter. Yet I’m always surprised by it. My inbox is flooded with good advice to new students – the system doesn’t seem capable of differentiating between the new and the continuing learner – who to write, what to write, how to find a housemate, where to file supplications for council tax exemption.

I knew it was coming, and it caught me completely unawares. It always does.

waitingLast Sunday saw the new MA students gather for the welcome tea, and from behind my desk at the Library entrance I hardly noticed. The old academic year has come to an end, and the new one is about to kick off. I haven’t met any of them yet. I haven’t met enough of the old MA’s yet, and they’re leaving this little, little stage, bowing out with Rosalind and Prospero.

It’s strange; the old MA students don’t seem so very old to me, and I find it hard to believe they’ve been here a year. I find it equally hard to believe that even younger students are about to embark on the same journey through Shakespeare scholarship I undertook not that long ago. The whirligig of time brings in more students.

I know they’re here in all their ripeness. I’ve seen a few of them in the library already. At least, I think I’ve seen them. They have the slightly overwhelmed, preoccupied look of people finding their feet on new ground. They pull at doors that should be pushed, and fumble with the card readers. Each of them reminds me a bit of Ferdinand and Viola, looking at the Institute island and trying to decide where they fit into it all.

Perfectly timed to coincide with the hurly-burly of seasonal scholarly change, we have implemented a new loans system across the University of Birmingham Libraries, which should, hopefully, make things run a little smoother all around. Loans will now automatically renew, to be recalled only when someone else requests the book. This will give our patrons the liberty to use our material with the greatest amount of freedom possible, restrained only by the needs of their fellow scholars. To the new students, this will not be a change. To them, this will be the system that always was.

Change is a natural part of the business of learning – when early career scholars are told to publish or perish, this is as much born of the necessity to contribute something preferably measurable to an academic field that often deals with things boundless as the sea, as it expresses the need for movement and for change. The day we stop moving is the day we become a museum. I feel a deep nostalgia for the past year, but I wouldn’t want to relive it.

parade

I will miss the old ones. I look forward to meeting the new ones.

I was new once, too.

Tu-whit, tu-whoo! – a merry note.

Sara Marie Westh, LSA and PhD student at the Shakespeare Institute