‘Ira was relentless. He didn’t take no for an answer and he
never, ever gave up. After spending so long absent from our artistic history,
it is fitting and just that we celebrate him now.’
(Adrian Lester, who played Ira Aldridge in Lolita
Chakrabarti’s play Red Velvet)
On the 150th anniversary of his death, the
Multicultural Shakespeare Project, Shakespeare’s Globe and Coventry’s Belgrade
Theatre are joining forces to help celebrate the life of pioneering black
actor, Ira Aldridge.
How much do we know about the man noted for being the first
black actor to play Othello? Until
recently, not a great deal. In fact Professor Tony Howard of the University of
Warwick notes, ‘his tragedy was that so soon after his death he was written out
of history; his triumph is that all over the world he is being written back in
now, with a vengeance.’
New discoveries by scholars and biographers such as Bernth
Lindfors and Martin Hoyles coupled with creative projects such as the America
tour of Red Velvet and Tony Howard’s Against Prejudice have brought Ira’s
story to life again in this significant year.
Ira was born in July 1807 in New York and sailed for Britain
in 1825 to escape racism. Soon after his arrival he scored his first theatrical
successes in the ‘minor’ Royalty and Royal Coburg Theatres in South London.
Between 1826-27 he toured English regional theatres with
great success, commenting in 1828 that,
‘he might have feared that, unknown and unfriended, he had little claim
to public notice – did he not feel that being a foreigner and a stranger are
universal passports to British sympathy.’
In the spring of 1828, spurred on by this success (though,
astonishingly, at a time when Britain’s colonies and thousands of British
investors still depended on slavery) he became the manager of the Coventry Theatre
(Theatre Royal) at the modest age of 20. In his short but successful season at
the theatre he used melodrama, music and Shakespeare to challenge racist stereotypes.
During the years after Ira’s time in Coventry he toured
Britain as a successful actor with a strong Shakespearean repertoire. He also
performed songs and poems, like the anti-slavery poem written for him by Warwickshire
author James Bisset. This poem, which makes an explicit link between slavery
and the new British industries that manufactured the everyday machinery of
slavery, has been mentioned in biographies for decades but has never surfaced
until now. We are delighted that it will be performed as part of the Against Prejudice event.
Despite vicious attacks from the press when he performed at
Covent Garden Theatre, Ira continued his national tour and extended his reach
internationally between 1852 and 1867. Considering the significance of this
time in Ira’s life, Adrian Lester comments, ‘he took a horse and carriage to
tour places that the railroad hadn’t been built to reach yet, being lauded and
allowed to play anywhere but at home’.
Ira’s final accolade was to be the first ever British actor
to be knighted. In August 1867, at a time when he was about to return to the
USA after Civil War and the abolition of slavery, Ira died in Łódź,Poland, at the age of 60.
It is a privilege for Shakespeare’s Globe to be hosting Against Prejudice this season, to honour
a man about whom Professor Howard notes, ‘Artists and audiences have responded
passionately to the story of his life and his struggles to be heard.’ Reflecting
on his work on the project, he notes, ‘time and time again I’ve been asked,
‘Why did nobody tell me this before?’
Against Prejudice: A
celebration of Ira Aldridge is in the candlelit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse on
Tuesday September 19 at 7.00pm. The evening features a staged reading of
Professor Tony Howard’s drama-documentary about Ira’s life as a theatre
manager, a panel discussion led by historian David Olusoga about his legacy and
a performance from vocalist Una May and Coventry Belgrade’s Black Youth Theatre.
The evening also features three leading actors who have played Ira in
biographical plays and films about him: Ray Fearon, Joseph Marcell and Joseph
African American Shakespearean star came to Britain to escape racism, became sensationally
successful touring the Continent, and died in Poland just as he was about to
return to the USA after the Civil War and the abolition of slavery.
We are joining forces with
Multicultural Shakespeare Project
(University of Warwick) and Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre to celebrate the life and legacy of Ira Aldridge 150 years after his death in this unique event.
As part of our Against Prejudice event celebrating the life of Ira Aldridge, we are delighted to welcome Rakie Ayola, Ray Fearon and Justin Avorth to the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse for a staged reading of Professor Tony Howard’s
acclaimed drama-documentary Ira Aldridge, Theatre
Ray Fearon returns to Shakespeare’s Globe after playing the titular role in Macbeth, 2016.
Directed by Jason Morell, our actors will be joined by Una May and the Coventry Belgrade’s Black Youth Theatre.
For the second half of the evening our performers will be joined by
David Olusoga (BBC Historian), Joseph Mydell (Actor), Martin Hoyles (Biographer) and Joseph Marcell (Actor) to form a panel considering the importance of Ira Aldridge’s achievements for his time and ours.
Suzanne Ahmet, James Askill, Oliver Bennet, Selina Cadell, Emma Denly, Tim Frances, Nat Graham, Bella Heesom, Lucy-Rose Leonard, Patrick Walshe McBride, Alex Mugnaioni, Emma Pallant, Rebecca Todd, James Thorne, Leo Wan, Rowan Williams
Pictured: Title page of Sapho and Phao, John LyLy (1584)
Max Kinder has been working in our Education team for the last year with our Youth Theatre Company. In his last blog for us he talked about his busy last few months…
It’s been a very long time since the Youth Theatre have been able to update you on what we have been up to. The last two months have been busy with line-learning, costume-sourcing, face-painting and focused rehearsal time, but finally I can inform you what has been taking place.
During May and June, the company worked on their new production of Macbeth: The Witches’ Tale, with a focus on creating truthful character performances and eerie ensemble scenes.
We agreed early on that, because we wanted to see how the witches manipulate events throughout the play, the core group of witches would remain onstage the entire time; controlling other character’s actions through noises and slight adjustments of their bodies.
They also shared roles, with the actors’ playing Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Banquo and so on having different face-paint designs to show the audience who they were playing, as well as all members being part of the witches’ ensemble (designated by having their hoods up during the performance).
The first few weeks of rehearsal were spent on individual scenes, with each of the 19 scenes getting attention from the practitioners. They also explored on the many collaborative scenes, such as the death of King Duncan and the murder of Banquo.
In the last 3 weeks, we moved into our performance space of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, and ran through the production a number of times, focusing particularly on each members’ vocal technique so that they could fill the space and ensure that the story was told well.
To create the experience of a true professional show, not only did our company provide a truly exceptional performance, but there were changes in lighting states, costume and make up that the young people provided and live music to accompany the event.
The performance itself went extremely well. The Youth Theatre had one of their largest audiences of the year in the Playhouse. Friends and family all gathered to see the work that had been created, and came out of the theatre raving about the quality of each actors’ performance and the production itself.
The company themselves had an excellent time performing, and were very happy with the progress that they had made in either confidence, techniques, improvisation or social skills.
On a more personal note, this will be the last blog that I write for the Youth Theatre and it has been an absolute pleasure to work with this company over the last year.
The Youth Theatre have brought both fun and focused work to every Saturday afternoon I worked with them and I left each rehearsal inspired by how dedicated each member was to the production and the team they were a part of.
I wish next year’s Southwark Youth Theatre Company and Youth Theatre Company Manager the very best and hope that you have an excellent time.
Well, he was England’s first great playwright, the most successful writer of fiction of his day, who out-sells everyone for the next sixty years. He was also a novelist, theatre impresario, pamphleteer, politician and courtier. Yet now, Lyly is virtually unknown.
At the age of just 24 Lyly was the literary sensation of his time. Short, well dressed, addicted to tobacco, his first book, The Anatomy of Wit, published in 1578, and its sequel, Euphues, his England made him, and his new style of English, the one to imitate; the epitome of fashionable wit – the Oscar Wilde of his day.
Photo: A 1587 printing of Euphues, John Lyly, Thomas East (printer), Gabriel Cawood (publisher): Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection
Working for the notorious Earl of Oxford in the 1580’s, his plays were first performed publicly at the indoor theatres of Blackfriars and St Paul’s, then at the great Court festivities of Elizabeth I. Before Lyly, no printed play had ever run into a second printing in a single year. His first, Campaspe, ran to three.
He revolutionised romantic comedy, creating a new sort of dramatic prose, glittering with wit, beauty, and a mischievous sense of fun. Taking love as his great theme, in all its sweetness and bitterness, he wrote plays that were clever, funny, mysterious, magical, joyous, and profound. Shakespeare’s comedies are influenced more by him than by anyone else.
Lyly’s plays are filled with artists and philosophers, soldiers and shepherds, rascally schoolboys and love-struck court ladies. We meet astrologers and alchemists, witches and wise women, mermaids and monsters. Trees talk. He brings the Gods, the planets, the earth and the moon, onto the stage to act. His takes us to Classical Athens, to Tudor Rochester, from the pre-Christian sea-shores of the Mediterranean to the Saxon riverbank of the Humber. From Arcadia to Phrygia to Utopia, from a literal no-place to a cosmological everywhere. He is both Greek and Roman, and, at the same time, quintessentially English.
He’s also surprisingly modern. I’ve staged all eight of his plays for Read Not Dead, and he has been the biggest discovery of all. Actors and audiences have fallen in love with him. His language has a clarity that makes him easier to understand now than any of his contemporaries. And he’s still really funny.
Lyly shows us dreamworlds of metamorphosis and change. He challenges sexuality, desire transgressively crossing boundaries of class, sex, of the human and the supernatural. The victor falls in love with the captive, a royal lady falls in love with a lowly ferryboy, two girls falls in love with each other. The Earth loves a man who is in love with the Moon.
Lyly writes more for women characters than any of his contemporaries. “It is no second thing to be a woman” he declares. Women are rulers, and can master the Gods. In his Utopia, even the first creator of man-and-womankind, the universe and everything, is a she.
In and out of favour with the Queen, he kept finding himself in trouble. He was accused of witchcraft. He became entangled in religious controversy. His plays were banned, and his theatre closed down. Twice.
Ultimately, it’s in Shakespeare’s plays that we most see Lyly’s enduring influence. In the ‘great feast of language’ of Love’s Labour’s Lost. In the verbal sparring between Katherine and Petruchio, and Benedick and Beatrice. In Falstaff we see Endymion’s Sir Tophas, and Mother Bombie influences both Errors and Merry Wives. In the Dream we find Midas’ donkey’s ears and The Woman in the Moon’s supernaturally influenced love chase. In Twelfth Night and As You Like It we see the boys dressed as girls dressed as boys of Gallathea, and also the father-daughter relationship of Prospero and Miranda.
Yet since then, Lyly has been largely forgotten. With notable exceptions, C.S. Lewis among them, nineteenth and twentieth century critics have neglected and disparaged his plays, without ever having seen them in performance.
Read Not Dead has shown that neglect to be baffling. Tastes change. Marlowe went unstaged for centuries, and even Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy had to wait until 1969 for professional revival. Re-appraisals can take a long time, and one is more than overdue for the plays of John Lyly.
This August, you have the chance to be part of that rediscovery – come and join us!
The Woman in the Moon: Interview with Bella Heesom
Can you name the largest female role in any professional play before the theatres closed in 1642?
It isn’t Rosalind, Shakespeare’s largest, with 26% of the words of As You Like It. Christopher Marlowe’s Dido takes second place with 31%. Topping the list however is Pandora, with nearly 33% of John Lyly’s comedy The Woman in the Moon.
Bella Heesom has already played her twice: once at The Glastonbury Festival with our Read Not Dead project, and again in a full production at The Rose Playhouse on Bankside.
As she prepares to take on the role once again, she talks to director James Wallace about the most extraordinary female part in early modern theatre.
Photography by Robert Piwko
Pandora dominates the play and barely leaves the stage. Is she a challenge or a liberation to act?
Oh, a liberation, absolutely… and a challenge. Both! I’m quite happy dominating, to be honest. And I’m very happy barely leaving the stage. I really enjoy the experience of sharing the complete journey with the audience.
The thing I found most challenging when I first started rehearsing her, was her sudden shifts in mood – the way she switches from happy to sad, from lustful to bloodthirsty, and so on, as the different planets take control of her. The changes are so quick.
Usually as an actor I try and find the through-line, the motivation. But with Pandora, there is no reason that she’s aware of, she just suddenly feels full of violent rage. And the truth of the character is that she doesn’t have an existential crisis about these unexpected, unexplained feelings, and try and control them like I probably would, she just goes with them. Boom! Let’s fight. That’s incredibly liberating and fun to play.
Some people have called this a proto-feminist play. Do you think that’s true?
Yes, I think so. It’s wonderful to see Mother Nature as the most powerful force in the universe, and it’s exciting and unusual to see a play dominated by a female character. I struggle with the wording of the ending – it can be interpreted as a bit dismissive of women as fickle, but for me that’s outweighed by the fact that throughout the story, Pandora is always the subject, never an object. She is a powerful instigator who is at the centre of all the action. She follows her instincts and never concerns herself with the approval of others, which is refreshing to see, and empowering to play. Plus she’s funny…
Julia Sandiford as Mother Nature
Do you think the role Pandora has anything to say to say to women today? Or to men?
I think to women she says: you can be anything. Anything you can dream of, you can be. The possibilities are infinite. It’s thrilling. And to men, perhaps she says: don’t underestimate us. We contain multitudes, as Whitman put it.
You not only act but write too. You’ve been touring your show My World Has Exploded a Little Bit. The subject matter is quite challenging, isn’t it? How did audiences respond on tour?
Yes, it’s an account of how I dealt with the deaths of my parents. It’s deeply personal and brutally honest, tragic but also very silly. I’m a firm believer in balancing tragedy with comedy. The audience response is incredible. It’s my favourite thing about performing the show. They laugh and cry, sometimes at the same time.
It’s a pretty intense experience. I offer everyone hugs at the end, and it’s really special to have that contact with people. They often share their stories with me too, which is an honour.
This year you became an associate artist at Ovalhouse. What’s next for you after Pandora?
Yes, it’s fantastic to be working with them. Along with Arts Council England and The Bike Shed Theatre, they’re supporting the development of my next show, which I’m currently making with my long time collaborator Donnacadh O’Briain [the Oliver award winning director of Rotterdam]. It’s called Rejoicing At Her Wondrous Vulva The Young Woman Applauded Herself, and it’ll be a celebration of female sexuality and an exploration of the impact the internalised male gaze has on a woman’s relationship with her own pleasure. People will be able to see it at Ovalhouse in February next year.
Photo: Katy Owen as Malvolio in Twelfth Night, 2017, photo by Hugo Glendinning
Ahead of her course this August, Jane Kingsley-Smith from The University of Roehampton wanted to ask – what did Shakespeare know about love?
Shakespeare’s work seems to epitomise romantic love in popular culture. Teenage passion is modelled on Romeo and Juliet; sexual jealousy finds its echoes in Othello; the blindness of infatuation is defined by the Sonnets. But to what extent was Shakespeare’s imagining of love determined by his culture?
This course will examine the various theories that shaped the experience of love in Shakespeare’s time. Love was imposed by a mythological deity, Cupid; it was a humoral imbalance in the body that caused literal sickness; a poetic tradition through which one might achieve political aims; a myth that facilitated marriage and population growth. By understanding these competing theories, we can gain some sense of Shakespeare’s own philosophy of love, as developed in the plays, and how it influenced his contemporaries.
Photo: Kirsty Bushell as Juliet and Edward Hogg as Romeo in Romeo and Juliet, 2016, photo by Robert Workman
Whilst Shakespearean love is created by language, it is also something to be enacted on a stage. Shakespeare worked with a set of theatrical conventions for performing love which might include the use of physical space, gesture, music and stage effects. Workshops with Globe professionals will enable participants on this course to explore how the illusion of love was created on stage, with particular focus on Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night, and Much Ado About Nothing.
Finally, we will examine the notion of Shakespeare himself as a lover. From the eighteenth century onwards, Shakespeare’s capacity to feel love has been one of his most praised qualities, and biographical hints in the Sonnets have led to poems, plays, novels and latterly films which re-imagine Shakespeare as a lover. But why are we so concerned with the way in which Shakespeare loved, and how is this perception of Shakespearean desire changing in the modern world?
Photo: Joshua Lacey as Orsino and Anita-Joy Uwajeh as Viola in Twelfth Night, photo by Hugo Glendinning
This course promises to enrich our understanding of the value placed on love in Shakespeare’s work, in early modern culture, and in our own lives.
Kiernan Ryan argues that it’s time to reclaim the
idea of Shakespeare’s universality from reactionary and radical misconceptions.
source of Shakespeare’s enduring appeal, and the reason why he still matters so
much, not just in his native land but all over the world, has been widely
regarded for centuries as his genius for dramatizing the timeless truths of the
universal human condition. The grip of this explanation on students, performers
and lovers of Shakespeare across the globe remains tenacious, despite recent
attempts to reject the idea of Shakespeare’s universality as a politically
past 30 years the very idea has been taboo in academic circles. The overriding
aim of modern Shakespeare scholars has been to demonstrate that his drama was
not ‘for all time’, as Ben Jonson famously claimed, but ‘of an age’, and that
only by embedding it as deeply as possible in that vanished age can it be
properly understood. This aim is indivisible from their desire to dethrone a
conception of Shakespeare rightly seen as complicit in masking – and thus perpetuating
– social, sexual and racial injustice.
that desire remained confined to the academy. The World Shakespeare Festival staged
at the Globe in 2012 provoked an angry article by Emer O’Toole in The Guardian, headed ‘Shakespeare,
universal? No, it’s cultural imperialism’. ‘Shakespeare is full of classism,
sexism, racism and defunct social mores’, fumed O’Toole. ‘The Taming of the Shrew is about as universally relevant as the
chastity belt’, while ‘The Merchant of
Venice is about as universal as the Nuremberg laws.’ ‘So where’, O’Toole
asked, ‘has the idea that Shakespeare is “universal” come from? Why do people
the world over study and perform Shakespeare? Colonialism. That’s why.
Shakespeare was a powerful tool of empire, transported to foreign climes along
with the doctrine of European cultural superiority.’
strident tone of O’Toole’s tirade may grate, but her assault on the notion that
his plays still matter because there’s something universal about the stories
they tell is as justified as her charge that their alleged universality played
a key role in making Shakespeare ‘a powerful tool of empire’. The contention
that The Taming of the Shrew, The Merchant of Venice, or any play by
Shakespeare is sure to enthral people in all times and places, whatever their
nationality, race, gender, language, creed or sexual orientation, because it
reflects a universal experience everyone can identify with, won’t stand up to
scrutiny for a moment.
drama plainly doesn’t hold a mirror up to the lives of everybody everywhere,
not least because the subject matter it dramatizes, the forms it takes, and the
language it uses stamp it immediately as the product of the place and period in
which it was written. In this respect, the campaign to historicize Shakespeare
and dispel the reactionary myth that’s clouded the perception of his plays deserves
to be applauded. The only problem with anti-universalist Bard-buffs and
Bard-bashers like O’Toole is that they haven’t stopped to wonder whether the
extraordinary persistence of Shakespeare’s international appeal is due to his
drama’s being ‘universal’ in a quite different, progressive sense ─ a sense
perfectly compatible with its anchorage in the age of Shakespeare.
As a result,
they’re incapable of explaining why the glove-maker’s lad from Stratford still
captivates audiences on every continent of the planet, while even the most
dazzling of his fellow dramatists do not. And that’s because they’re blind to
what empowers Shakespeare’s plays to dramatize his time from a standpoint
that’s still far ahead of our time: their profound commitment to the future emancipation
of humanity. What’s universal about Shakespeare’s drama is not the plights and
fates of his characters, but the visionary, egalitarian perspective from which
they are portrayed and we are invited to view them.
None of the plays is
more fiercely possessed by ‘the prophetic soul / Of the wide world dreaming on
things to come’ (Sonnet 107) than King Lear. In his supreme tragedy
Shakespeare forces an omnipotent monarch to feel what the ‘Poor naked wretches’
of his kingdom feel, and to realise that beneath his royal robes and a beggar’s
rags beats the heart of the same ‘bare, forked animal’. Through Lear’s
traumatic ordeal, the play demolishes the assumptions on which social division
and inequality depend. It climaxes in Lear’s snarl of contempt for all who claim
the right to impose their will on others: ‘there thou mightst behold the great
image of authority. A dog’s obeyed in office’. And in place of the drive to
divide, oppress and impoverish that destroys its protagonists, and that threatens our kind with destruction today,
King Lear demands economic justice rooted in the fundamental kinship
of all human creatures: ‘So distribution should undo excess, / And each man
To grasp the true source of Shakespeare’s
universality is to grasp the real reason why the plays still move the heart and
fire the imagination four centuries after they were penned. Shakespeare matters
because his drama keeps the dream of revolutionary transformation alive.
Kiernan Ryan will be giving the next talk in our series of Sam Conversations, titled Shakespeare and Social Justice, in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse on Thursday 6 July. Find out more and buy tickets.