My main feeling when I start reading a Shakespeare play with other people is the excitement of wanting them to love it. But love can’t grow in an atmosphere of fear and many people fear Shakespeare.
So my main task in an opening session, before anything has happened, but when my fellow readers may be fearful or anxious, is to make it real and human, so that readers can see it is not a foreign language, or out of their league and is going to be o.k.
Shakespeare writes about Kings, about courts, so first we have to get past that strangeness and think what might be the equivalent to a King or a court in our lives today. Boss, parent, family, boardroom, gang. The Council. Government.
Here’s a play that begins in the middle of a state visit – I’ll say remember Mrs May and her husband Philip in China?
I will ask my group to imagine a little mini-theatre, here in the room with us, in the middle of the table. We might want to decorate our table-top theatre with posters made of blown-up photos of that China trip, or we might want to make it your Auntie Sheila’s visit from Australia – she hasn’t seen your Mum for fifteen years…Let’s use family photos as a backdrop – here they are when they were little girls together in the Lake District. And say Auntie Sheila has brought all her friends and relations… or that’s getting a bit unreal, let’s make it LFC visiting the Boston Redsox for a summer training camp. All those hangers-on and old coaches coming along for the ride, all the wives and girlfriends and children, and Klopp’s Mum because she loves Boston.
I want to get some ideas of visits, of the fun and tensions of visits. And when I’ve got my theatre set up, with various possibilities, I’d let the first two actors walk in.
Here are two men, one from the home family (business, country, team) and the other from the visiting team. Who do you know who could play a good careful, intelligent civil servant – not a Yes Minister! More of Jane Tennison visiting a distant New Zealand Police Force as part of a Royal Tour.
I’m like Whitman’s spider, casting out filaments, hoping one or more will catch somewhere and connect this old play with our lived reality.
Camillo is our man, the home player, Archidamus the visitor. They are perhaps parallel players – equally matched in their home organisation, uncle with uncle, Chief Operating Officer with Chief Operating Officer. Goalie with Goalie. Cousin with Cousin. Let them walk on – Enter Camillo and Archidamus. Anyone like to read? No? ok, I’ll do them both. But I can’t do them with different voices.
One of you might take pity on me and help me read. A clue about reading – use the punctuation! Head for a comma and then have a rest. And if you do read, and you realise you haven’t got a clue what you’ve just read… stop and call for help!
When I’m talking like this I’m just vamping, passing time, while waiting for someone to offer to help me with the reading. I know that someone in the group may be willing, and they just need a little time to get ready to offer to help. So I’ll keep talking for a while. And then Lucy offers.
Oh thanks, Lucy, you’ll do some reading. Ok – I’ll be Camillo – you set off as Archidamus.
(I’ve set out the parts like this on purpose, because I am not sure if Lucy can read well, or will want to go on very far. Camillo is a big part – she might be stuck in him for ages. Giving Lucy a short part gives her a get-out, and she can always come back in as someone else once we get going. Or I might have said :we’ll each just do a couple of lines while we get going)
Arch-i-dame-us. Or maybe it’s Ark-i-damus? Not sure. Vic, can you keep a list of the names – you’re a great pronouncer! We’re going to need to remember them. So Lucy, when you are reading Archidamus – are you going to be Helen Mirren? Inspector Jane Tennison. Very capable, professional. And I’ll be David Morrissey.
If Lucy hadn’t offered, I would read both parts, but I’d moan about it a little, how hard it is trying to do both voices! so as to keep saying, indirectly, come on, someone, help me! And someone would, in the end, help me.
In an established group there would be no trouble with this – people love reading once they’ve got used to it and will, in my experience, have a crack at anything.
SCENE I. Antechamber in LEONTES’ palace.
Enter CAMILLO and ARCHIDAMUS
If you shall chance, Camillo, to visit Bohemia, on
the like occasion whereon my services are now on
foot, you shall see, as I have said, great
difference betwixt our Bohemia and your Sicilia.
I think, this coming summer, the King of Sicilia
means to pay Bohemia the visitation which he justly owes him.
Wherein our entertainment shall shame us we will be
justified in our loves; for indeed–
Verily, I speak it in the freedom of my knowledge:
we cannot with such magnificence–in so rare–I know
not what to say. We will give you sleepy drinks,
that your senses, unintelligent of our insufficience,
may, though they cannot praise us, as little accuse
You pay a great deal too dear for what’s given freely.
Believe me, I speak as my understanding instructs me
and as mine honesty puts it to utterance.
I’m going to stop it here, just as we get going, because I want to be sure that everyone is with me. Lucy, reading Archidamus with the actor Helen Mirren in mind might not, for all our laughing here, be very sure about the language of what she has just read. Or she might be struggling. Others in the group may be troubled or feeling agitated.
I want to know how everyone is doing. I want to take the temperature.
What do you think so far, Mikey?
I mean this as a way of making eye contact with Mikey, the least able reader in the group, but Mikey takes it as an exam question. He pulls a face. Agh, my mistake! But, surprising me, Mikey is ok.
Well, he’s like saying, you coming to ours later, isn’t he? He’s going to go round to his?
Spot on – that’s it, I reply.
Jean says, but isn’t Archidamus saying – he’s going to be ashamed? What of? He says, ‘Wherein our entertainment shall shame us…’
Mikey, ‘but he’s already said there’s a difference , maybe he’s really wealthy and they’ve been laying it on…’
Jean, ‘like when Trump comes here for his state visit and wants a golden carriage and everything?’
Kay, ‘This was it when my cousins from Tobago came – you know they haven’t got much they are from the north, and they just fish and take tourists fishing… they couldn’t see I was not wealthy, you know because I have a car and a washing machine and big TV…’
Mikey ‘Big TV, eh, Kay?
We’re off text now, but I’m happy. My group is reading Shakespeare. Very slowly, yes, but making it our own. We connect things in the play to things we know. It’s like doing a jigsaw puzzle. Does this piece fit with any piece of my experience?
Let’s start again I’ll say. Enter Camillo and Archidamus. We read again.
Mikey, what’s ‘sleepy drinks’?
Kay, Ovaltine, isn’t it? Like hot milk drinks, get’s you to sleep.
No, it’s drugs, says Kev, speaking for the first time today. He’s saying we’ll have to drug you so you don’t notice how we don’t match up.
Me: Could you read it, Kev?
Kev: Ok – blows out a long stream of air – here goes – We will give you sleepy drinks, that your senses, unintelligent of our insufficience, wow that’s a mouthful. Unintelligent of our insuffience may, though they cannot praise us, as little accuse us.
Kay: we can’t give you back what you’ve given us.
Me – but that might not be true – this is court – it would just be the way these people talk. It might be just politeness?
I say this because I want to throw an extra layer into the mix. It may or may not be true. But I want to remember that these two men are not just men, family visitors from Australia or Tobago, but also courtiers. I ask everyone to think of the protocols of China and Mrs May. It might be rude to say you could match your hosts hospitality.
But look, Mikey says, pointing. He says he means it. Archi – Archi – he says…Believe me, I speak as my under … under …standing in…structs me and as mine honesty puts it to utt…utt…utterance.
We’re off. I think that’ll do for today.