The Winter’s Tale Day 3: Being 3-D, In The Round & Slo-mo

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Light on late afternoon trees at Calderstones Park

One great thing about Shakespeare plays is the totality, the wholeness, the 3-D-rounded-in-time-ness.

Perhaps this  is true for all works of literature ? But I don’t have time to think about that today and it is definitely true of these plays. They are  like 3-D objects, knit together, made of the same complex, changing, stuff all through.

And the more time you spend in them the more that solidity and wholeness is revealed. If I was to read a  play new to me or one I’ve forgotten (I don’t know Alls Well That Ends Well very well, probably read it  three times in thirty years, and only seen it once) would that 3-D solidity seem so obvious? I don’t think so. It’s something to do with knowing what is going to happen, not just in narrative terms but in terms of who people are. The less well I know the play the more like a ‘play’ it seems. The ones I know very well (King Lear, As You Like It, Hamlet, MacbethOthello and above all, The Winter’s Tale) hardly seem like ‘plays’ at all. I don’t know what to call them. They seem like little working models of  what is to be human.

Why do I say ‘little’?  They last only two or three hours, whereas, we last, if we are lucky, threescore years and ten.  The plays seem like what John Donne calls ‘a little world made cunningly’ .

If you’ve never read a Shakespeare play before and are reading it with a Shared Reading group for the first time – that is great: you wonderfully free and untramelled by experience, like youth. Read, struggle, enjoy!

But age and experience has its bounty. It helps deepen the experience if you know what is coming.

Here, the fact that I know what is going to happen affects how I read/hear Camillo’s line ‘the heavens continue their loves.’ Soon, the heavens will not continue their loves.  The heavens will smash them.

When we are new to play, we don’t know that. Of course, in one sense, we are always new to the play because the story has to play out in time, a narrative unfolding before our eyes. So at this point I both  know (because I’ve read the play before) and don’t know because I’ve just started again and I am also in  the experience of narrative unfolding time. I’m in two timebands, two parallel, connected but different universes.

So I have two ways of understanding Camillo: the one in which he is speaking  in normal-speak and by saying ‘the heavens continue’ he is only saying something rather empty (something standard, such as  ‘god willing’, ‘godspeed’ – a figure of speech, a politeness); and another in which, with the resonance of what is coming, the line is loaded with anxiety.

At this point, like someone with superhuman powers, I see two possible futures unfolding -the one in which the heavens do continue their loves and a return state visit takes place in the predictable and normal course of events; the other in which the heavens do not continue their loves and all hell breaks lose. These two strands are woven together. I suppose that is what I mean about the 3-D-ness. This moment, short as it is, feels like a solid object. As all human time might, if we were able to slow it down enough to see what was happening, what was potentially unfolding.

 

CAMILLO

Sicilia cannot show himself over-kind to Bohemia.
They were trained together in their childhoods; and
there rooted betwixt them then such an affection,
which cannot choose but branch now. Since their
more mature dignities and royal necessities made
separation of their society, their encounters,
though not personal, have been royally attorneyed
with interchange of gifts, letters, loving
embassies; that they have seemed to be together,
though absent, shook hands, as over a vast, and
embraced, as it were, from the ends of opposed
winds. The heavens continue their loves!

Looking in slo-mo at Camillo’s words,  and lit with my anxiety about what I know is going to happen, I now see more worrying words: I’d like to paint them red with my highlighter.

Cannot / betwixt /cannot /branch /separation /seemed /absent /opposed

The genius of the great Director/reader is to feel the power of that  set of words in what is a politely civil-servant normal-speech set of  words.  How are we going to get that foreboding, gently, into the room?  In the theatre – good job we have one here on the table in front of us  – maybe by lighting, or music, or stops and starts in Camillo’s inflection?

Agh, time’s up.  More anon.

The Winter’s Tale Day 2: Two Men Walk Into A Room

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Snowdrops emerging near some Buddlea cuttings – hurray for soon to be Spring

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.

 

ACT I

SCENE I. Antechamber in LEONTES’ palace.

Enter CAMILLO and ARCHIDAMUS

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.

CAMILLO

I think, this coming summer, the King of Sicilia
means to pay Bohemia the visitation which he justly owes him.

ARCHIDAMUS

Wherein our entertainment shall shame us we will be
justified in our loves; for indeed–

CAMILLO

Beseech you,–

ARCHIDAMUS

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
us.

CAMILLO

You pay a great deal too dear for what’s given freely.

ARCHIDAMUS

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.

 

 

 

The Winter’s Tale Day 1: Flying Upward

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Being a human isn’t easy,  even for a very lucky human like me, born in England in the twentieth century,  having had some education and not having to work at manual labour and having food and warmth and house insurance and many other luxuries…being human isn’t easy. So it’s not surprising that people often want to stay on the surface in Shared Reading and not go too deep into sorrow. We’ve got enough of it already!

Yet the fact remains that for most of us, even wealthy third-worlders, life is hard, as the Book of Job (6th century BCE) asserts:

Yet man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward.

The implication – look at the picture –  is, how should it be any other way? We  are mortal. yet we live with powerful consciousness that feels immortal.  There’s always death, pain, illness, breakages. Lots of the time, naturally, we want to  keep whistling and pretend it is not so.

Yet the very best experiences in Shared Reading often come when  we stop whistling and look up and listen to the crackle of the sparks and the silence behind  them. You  gotta go down to get up.

A Reader Leader  developing a group has a tough job on, partly coaxing non-readers towards literature in the first place, then keeping a balance between the wishes of some  members to ‘stay light’  (as one reader said to me, ‘we’ve got enough sorrow at home’ ) and the  task of creating the intense experience that comes from sharing the most complex, and often sad or troubling, texts.

In groups I’ve run I’m always aiming towards the best and greatest,  even if it might take a while to get there. For me that best and greatest is usually Shakespeare (other great writers are harder to share: I’ve only once read Dante and rarely Wordsworth, and never Milton in a normal weekly community Shared Reading group, though have read all of them on Saturday Dayschools. Would I try it?  Yes probably, depending on the stability of the group). When I say best and greatest, I think I am talking about levels of complexity. Which writers use up the greatest proportion of my brain and heart?

And  while there are many great Shakespeare works you might decide to start trying to talk your group into starting – I’ve read Hamlet, All’s Well , Macbeth and probably others that I’ve forgotten in Shared Reading groups – for me the play I love and would most like to share is The Winter’s Tale.

Starting The Winter’s Tale here is partly for myself – haven’t read it for a couple of years, so I’ll enjoy spending some time with it. But partly I offer my reading as an encouragement to anyone who can’t imagine reading a Shakespeare play in their Shared Reading group. And for readers who don’t run groups ( why don’t you?)  I hope it will simply be a meditative joy to read some complicating deep stuff very slowly.  Breathe! Breathe!

There’s an online text here, and you’ll find paper texts  in libraries and bookshops everywhere. We don’t need a text with  exceptional scholarship, though it’s fine if you have one.

How to start?

Talk them into it!  Start talking about it long before – in the middle of  run of short stories, or half way through Silas Marner. Sell it! Tell them how great it will be, and  remind them it won’t be like school.

Some tips before you begin:

  • If you can,  watch it in a couple of different productions (I still  like the 1981 BBC Shakespeare version directed by Jane Howell and starring the great Margaret Tyzack as Paulina.).
  • Close your ears, now The Reader Quality team, but I’m not a great fan of prep for Shared Reading – I like to find my reading live and without a safety net. Of course I’ve been falling off that highwire for decades so I’m used to landing with a splat. But here I’d definitely recommend you working on the text in advance if possible, because you want to feel reasonably confident.  Get a scene or so in advance of your group.
  • Make sure your group know this is going to take a while: we’re not going to rush. Treat it like a poem, let every word, every phrase and sentence have its right amount of time.
  • Be prepared to say, many times over, ‘I don’t know! I haven’t a clue!’
  • Let discussion wander all over the shop but keep coming back to the text and asking everyone to think again or try to imagine it.
  • To imagine it, build a little invisible theatre-in-the-round in the middle of your reading space and ask group members to visualise the play – try it with different sets, costumes, actors from the telly. Make it move!
  • Know the story and be able to tell it to entice your more reluctant group members towards the play – be ready with translations into modern-day life – who do we know who is like this? Have you ever seen a person do this?
  • Ask one of your group to keep a list of characters (and clues to who they are) which could be pinned up in the room as you read –  people new to Shakespeare will really struggle with the names in the this play.  (Polixenes= King of  Bohemia, boyhood friend of King Leontes / Mamillius= son of King Leontes, aged about 9 or 10. / Paulina= wife of courtier Antigonus, speaks her mind).
  • Beware the academic – no fancy talk. Your job as Reader Leader is to keep it real – this is not an old studied for A level play, it’s a piece of our heart.

Ah, run out of time now. But here is the opening scene, which I’ll pick up next time.

ACT I

SCENE I. Antechamber in LEONTES’ palace.

Enter CAMILLO and ARCHIDAMUS

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.

CAMILLO

I think, this coming summer, the King of Sicilia
means to pay Bohemia the visitation which he justly owes him.

ARCHIDAMUS

Wherein our entertainment shall shame us we will be
justified in our loves; for indeed–

CAMILLO

Beseech you,–

ARCHIDAMUS

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
us.

CAMILLO

You pay a great deal too dear for what’s given freely.

ARCHIDAMUS

Believe me, I speak as my understanding instructs me
and as mine honesty puts it to utterance.

CAMILLO

Sicilia cannot show himself over-kind to Bohemia.
They were trained together in their childhoods; and
there rooted betwixt them then such an affection,
which cannot choose but branch now. Since their
more mature dignities and royal necessities made
separation of their society, their encounters,
though not personal, have been royally attorneyed
with interchange of gifts, letters, loving
embassies; that they have seemed to be together,
though absent, shook hands, as over a vast, and
embraced, as it were, from the ends of opposed
winds. The heavens continue their loves!

ARCHIDAMUS

I think there is not in the world either malice or
matter to alter it. You have an unspeakable
comfort of your young prince Mamillius: it is a
gentleman of the greatest promise that ever came
into my note.

CAMILLO

I very well agree with you in the hopes of him: it
is a gallant child; one that indeed physics the
subject, makes old hearts fresh: they that went on
crutches ere he was born desire yet their life to
see him a man.

ARCHIDAMUS

Would they else be content to die?

CAMILLO

Yes; if there were no other excuse why they should
desire to live.

ARCHIDAMUS

If the king had no son, they would desire to live
on crutches till he had one.
Exeunt