A Summer School in Italy to inspire teachers, students and Shakespeare enthusiasts
James Stredder finds a wealth of exciting approaches to teaching the plays and poems in plans for the ‘Shakespeare in Italy Summer School’, which will take place in Urbino from the 12th to the 26th July, and which will feature four leading Shakespearian directors and performers, Josie Lawrence, Bill Alexander, Michael Pennington and Martin Best. All are passionate about Shakespeare and all have worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company – three of them having spent substantial parts of their careers with the RSC. Josie Lawrence will lead work on ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, Bill Alexander on ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and Michael Pennington on ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Martin Best will perform his lecture-recital, ‘Shakespeare’s Music Hall’ – and teach a seminar on the Sonnets.
Whether as teachers or students, we know how important it is that our subject is alive and active in our imaginations. Whenever we speak Shakespeare ‘aloud’, or read him in the theatre of the mind, our creative imaginations allow us to experience this living quality, but we also experience it in a host of other ways – through performance, for example, whether in the workshop, rehearsal room, theatre, cinema or concert hall, and through contextual knowledge of various kinds. Both performance and contextual knowledge feature in the teaching approaches taken by the Summer School and its tutors. Josie Lawrence, Bill Alexander and Michael Pennington will share their extensive experience of working on a wide range of highly successful productions, and Martin Best will offer a fascinating case-study of the understanding that work on Shakespeare’s music, and the culture and music of the Italian Renaissance, can bring to the texts.
The Summer School brings together practitioners whose working lives have been devoted to performance, especially to realisation of the works of Shakespeare, in the theatre and in the concert hall. Their teaching sessions will focus on lively and creative approaches to Shakespearean texts (with the option for students of participating actively or of observing the ways in which performance evolves), but they will also set out to discover what part Italy and ‘the Italian context’ play in the appreciation and understanding of Shakespeare.
Classical history and civilization, and contemporary Renaissance Italy, had a huge influence on the life and culture of Shakespeare’s England. Shakespeare himself was one of numerous playwrights and poets whose work shows just how extensive this influence was, but perhaps we do not always feel and understand it with our creative imaginations, as we work on texts. What does it mean that Shakespeare is ‘a man of the Renaissance’ and how might ‘the Italian legacy’ come to life in one’s reading of the plays? It’s a brilliant idea to invite outstanding Shakespearean artists to consider these questions, as they share their professional knowledge and personal working methods in a study of Shakespeare’s Sonnets and three of his ‘Italian’ plays. This is what a new theatre company, Shakespeare in Italy, set up early in 2013 by English actors Julian Curry and Mary Chater, in association with Italian theatre manager Sandro Pascucci has planned for its 2014 summer school in the World Heritage Site of Urbino, one of the great Italian cities of the Renaissance. The centrepiece of Urbino is the early 15th Century Palazzo Ducale, the fabulous creation of Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino from 1444 to 1482. Watch this short video, about Urbino’s Renaissance origins, to be reminded of the world of the Italian princes, dukes and courtiers imagined so frequently in Early Modern English drama. Summer School classes will be held in the University of Urbino (founded 1506) and there will be plenty of time for art, music, sight-seeing and relaxation in this wonderful place. Mary Chater, who has performed frequently with the RSC and the NT, and is also a teacher and a Blue Badge Guide, will lead a varied programme of cultural events in and around the city. The region’s historic theatres are gems of period design & architecture. There are plans for the Summer School to visit some of them – and to rehearse scenes onstage.
JOSIE LAWRENCE is particularly well-qualified to be teaching the sessions on Much Ado About Nothing, having played both leading roles, possibly the only actress in the world to have done this. She starred as Beatrice at the Manchester Royal Exchange, for which she won the Manchester Evening News award for Best Actress, and as Benedick in the all-female production at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2004. For the RSC, Josie Lawrence played Katharine in Gail Edwards’s 1995 production of The Taming of the Shrew, receiving a Dame Peggy Ashcroft award for Best Actress. She is also a talented singer (take a look at this clip of her singing Mozart with Lesley Garrett) and a popular comedian and television personality. She is especially well known for her enormously inventive and entertaining work over 18 years with the improvisational troupe, The Comedy Store Players; for her appearances in the Channel Four tv series Whose Line Is It Anyway?; and, more recently, for playing Manda Best in the BBC’s EastEnders. But on a number of occasions she has made her unbounded enthusiasm for Shakespeare very clear. In an interview in 2001 with Terri Paddock, for instance, when she was starring in The King and I at the London Palladium, she named Shakespeare as her favourite playwright and Hamlet as the role she would most like to play. Asked about the highlight of her career, she replied ‘reading a sonnet during Shakespeare’s birthday celebrations at the church in Stratford-upon-Avon.’
Conference participants can be sure that Josie Lawrence will bring a wide and very stimulating range of approaches to her teaching. In a recent email to me, she wrote of her excitement about the Summer School and her special affection for Much Ado:
I adore this play for its great wit, complex relationships and that wonderful dip into darkness. I’ll be exploring all these factors during our three days together in beautiful Italy. We will obviously be concentrating on Shakespeare’s text – but expect a little improvising too!
BILL ALEXANDER will be teaching The Merchant of Venice, which he directed at Stratford in 1987, with Anthony Sher as Shylock. Bill Alexander has directed a great number of the plays, to widespread acclaim. He was Resident, and then Associate Director, at the RSC, from 1977 to 1992 and he continued to direct Shakespeare as part of his work as Artistic Director of the Birmingham Rep, from 1992 to 2001. In 2004/5 he returned to the RSC to direct David Bradley in Titus Andronicus and Corin Redgrave in King Lear. His most recent Shakespeare was a production of Othello in 2012, for NWCTC in Portland, Oregon. I asked him to comment on the approach he would be taking at the Summer School. He began by saying that he will work with the class, as if they are ‘the cast, stage management and design team all rolled into one’. Though drawing on his extensive study of the play, and his experience of directing it, he will not set out with fixed ideas, but, as in the theatre, will ‘see where the work takes us’.
BA: I think what I’ll be trying to do over my three days is take the participants through a sort of speeded up version of the rehearsal process. I shall begin by discussing the play – its text, social/historical context, characters, place in the canon, performance history and so on.
He then plans to go on to ‘the table work of the first week or so of production.’
BA: This will involve analysis of character and meaning, gradually leading to movement and the evolution of the physical side of the production. There will be discussion of topics raised, on the relationship of the group to the play, the unique problems the text raises, the question of casting and the relationship of performers to the text and so on – for instance I’d like to explore what happens when modern dress and Renaissance thought meet -also the chemistry between highly poetic language and modern Freudian notions of character and sub-text. Really I suppose, it’s all about that unique Shakespearean meeting place between Naturalism and Magic; or realism and trickery!
To achieve a common experience of the text, he plans ‘a collective slow reading of the play, with scene by scene discussion and constant changing of roles’. This will be followed by close readings and analysis of selected scenes (with discussion of issues of staging, movement and stage formats) – and workshop staging of the scenes. There will be workshops on: ‘Movement and Text’ and ‘Character: Shakespeare to Chekhov, Magic to Method’. Finally, he will illustrate differences of directorial technique, by giving a master-class on Antonio’s first speech, with Summer School Director Julian Curry, who played Antonio in Greg Doran’s 1997 production for the RSC. On one evening during the three-day study, a film version of the play will be screened.
MICHAEL PENNINGTON, who played Mercutio in Trevor Nunn’s production for the RSC back in 1976, will be teaching Romeo and Juliet. Michael has played numerous Shakepearean roles, including Hamlet, Timon of Athens, Angelo and Berowne for the RSC and Coriolanus, Macbeth, Leontes, Prince Hal/Henry V and Richard II for The English Shakespeare Company, which he co-founded with Michael Bogdanov in 1986. Most recently he played Antony at Chichester (2012) and John of Gaunt for the RSC (2013), getting outstanding reviews for both. Michael’s work as a director includes productions of Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as well as two celebrated one-man shows, Anton Chekhov and Sweet William. If you go to the personal website of Michael Pennington and click on ‘One Man Shows’, you can watch video excerpts from both.
At the moment, Michael is rehearsing in New York. (No sooner had he finished the London run of Richard II at the Barbican, before Christmas, than he turned his mind to playing the title role in King Lear for Theatre for a New Audience –opening in March). Last week he wrote to me to say that he is very much looking forward to Urbino. He plans to spend time with Summer School participants seeking out and clarifying the ‘special ambience’ of Romeo and Juliet. Like Bill Alexander, in his study of The Merchant, this will be a process of discovery. He will work key scenes with the class and then, as a climax to his three days teaching, he plans a ‘showcase’ to celebrate students’ work. Participants can expect special attention to the verse, including personal demonstrations from one of the great contemporary speakers of Shakespeare. They can also expect attention to the fascinating question of the intricate relationship between Shakespeare’s biography and his art, about which Michael Pennington writes with great expertise in Sweet William (Nick Hern Books: 2012). Sweet William is also very much an actor’s book. His seven pages of commentary on the way the narrative of Romeo and Juliet unfolds, for example, is an imaginative telling, pointing up the knowledge and the awareness, the ‘all-round’ vision, actors must have if their playing is to live onstage and captivate their audience. Consider his discussion of the conditions in which the love of Romeo and Juliet attempts to survive:
MP: Since they have no internal faultline, the lovers have eventually to be defeated by a Shakespearian accident – a messenger unable to deliver a letter because of a suspected epidemic. And their rapture has always to compete with a mocking world, its cadences lapping against the ugly outcrops of Capulet and Tybalt, Mercutio’s obsessive debunking of romance and the ‘petit guignol’ Apothecary, ‘in tattered weeds, with overwhelming brows’, who sells Romeo his poison. The figure of the Nurse grounds much of the action in a day-to-day bustle of rope ladders and bad news, not to mention the need to rest her back before delivering her urgent messages. These are the cross-rhythms against which love has to hold its tempo. (Sweet William, p.154)
So how does Michael Pennington plan to work on Romeo and Juliet ? In an interview on acting and directing some years ago, he was asked about his approach to Shakespeare’s texts.
MP: To some extent, it depends on the director or the style I am working with. I was brought up on Shakespeare, so I fortunately have a good working knowledge of all the plays, and that is completely different from someone who might come to the material fresh. It is difficult to generalize how you approach a text. You look for the sense of it. You explore it as you would a contemporary text. Either at the same time or possibly in a secondary stage, you begin to appreciate, as you would a piece in Mozart, the structure and the form from the outside. For example, why he’s placed one word at the end of a line rather than in the middle of the line. But, of course, as with Mozart, you find very quickly that the more you pay attention to Shakespeare’s form, the more certain matters of interpretation become clear to you. The clues are actually all in the sequence of the words on the page and the order Shakespeare has chosen to put them in.
In addition to the meticulous attention to form and craft that this passage implies, Michael Pennington also brings a profoundly philosophical – and political – approach to the text. Summer School participants can expect some lively debate.
MP: The English Shakespeare Company’s work was based on a conviction that everything in Shakespeare, however beautiful, is full of argumentation, and every line a point of view in a transfixing debate. So Romeo and Juliet is not just a beautiful love story but a bold question about whether love can change the world. (Sweet William, p.154)
MARTIN BEST, associated for over 30 years with the Royal Shakespeare Company, as actor-singer, practical musician, composer and devisor of recital programmes, brings musical scholarship and an international reputation, to the Summer School in Urbino. His biography for the RSC’s 2005 revival of John Barton’s The Hollow Crown, for which he compiled and arranged the music, opens: ‘Martin Best is acknowledged as one of the world’s outstanding performers of ancient songs and ballads; for which the International Edison Award Committee dubbed him “the first great contemporary troubadour”.’
Martin’s contribution to the summer school will be threefold: he will perform his lecture-recital, Shakespeare’s Music Hall, he will teach a seminar on the Sonnets and he will contribute to Bill Alexander’s work on The Merchant of Venice. Recently I wrote to Martin, asking him to comment on the connection between his work as a musician, man of the theatre and educationist, and the teaching approaches he plans to take in Urbino.
MB: Well, when I was with the RSC performing the singing/acting parts in the plays and creating the recital programmes and composing for them and for main house productions, I sucked in what was going on around me all the time, from directors, actors (especially. Peggy Ashcroft) and composers like Guy Woolfenden. I did an awful lot of learning by doing and by osmosis, and because I was already a student of literature, it stuck. Working with Peter Brook on A Midsummer Night’s Dream was seminal, in that it showed me the ‘relevance’ of Shakespeare to one’s life. The whole experience opened up my thinking on Imagination. (I will build that into the sonnet workshop). The main thing I bring with me is a real understanding of Renaissance musical theory, by which music is not only something heard, but also something perceived or sensed through what Richard II calls ‘the music of men’s lives’. Baldassare Castiglione, for example, who lived in Urbino, shows how the life of the courtier or gentle-man is essentially a set of behaviours and speech habits that reflect what we might call cosmic harmony, but which he would have just called ‘musica’.
Martin’s mention of Castiglione, who visited England in 1506, and wrote Il Libro del Cortegiano (The Book of the Courtier) between 1508 and 1518, furnishes an example of the kind of way that the Italian Summer School will deepen and enliven the knowledge and experience of those attending the course in Urbino. Castiglione’s book, which was translated into English by Sir Thomas Hoby in 1561, exerted a strong influence on the courtly ideals of Elizabeth’s reign. The ‘merry war’ of Beatrice and Benedick, in Much Ado About Nothing, parallels a similar display of wit in Castiglione’s book.
It is a great bonus for the Summer School that Martin Best, an outstanding performer and scholar of Renaissance music, should place Shakespeare at the centre of his artistic and intellectual life. In fact, his devotion to Shakespeare goes way beyond that:
MB: I can say that if Shakespeare is in my life and I in his, then life is complete. This is partly because of the companionship that was so much part of my life when I was in the RSC from 1964 to about 2006. My wife and I knew Stanley Wells in the early days of his career, before he became a professor and Director of the Shakespeare Institute. When we did productions in the RSC, we worked as a company, often spending whole nights talking about the meaning of lines, living with them, so that we could make up our own blank verse and play with his imagery. When, for example, Shakespeare references come up in ‘Times’ leaders, this means one has a special reference point that makes one’s whole life richer. The (technical) process of creation is something that is always close to the surface with Shakespeare, so that he is never far away from one’s mind and heart. Then there are things that only he can say. Plus there are the things that only he can do : he is so incredibly clever, and he brings off poetic coups, as in Sonnet 18,‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’, which he knows is brilliant and which he knows will endure for all time. He was a mould-breaker. And then, like Bach and Mozart, he had a direct line to what it is to be human. So when you are working with others who really love and know Shakespeare, you are part of a magic circle, which is why the Summer School staff want to come to Urbino, and learn and be happy together, in each other’s company, again – and in his. And we want to invite the participants to join us and share in the greatest gift that you can have – a greater intimacy with the man and his work.
Martin’s lecture-recital is set to be a highlight of the Summer School. I asked him what it will include and if students will have the opportunity to participate in some way.
MB: ‘Shakespeare’s Music Hall’ will comprise key musical moments from the plays and sonnets, strung together with a spoken narrative, with the audience and an onstage group of attendees providing the music of the spheres, the animals and birds and sea nymphs in Ariel’s songs, and the sounds of discord in Troilus and Cressida and Richard II. It will be a journey through these moments, framed by the discovery of harmony, by Pythagoras, and the Platonic universe pre-Galileo. I also might try to work in a breaking lute as well to illustrate the collapse of an old musical order and the beginning of a new one marked, in Twelfth Night, by Malvolio’s call for its destruction (‘I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you’). The programme is designed to enrich participants’ understanding of what music meant to a Renaissance person, and how that meaning spread into every aspect of life. Participants will be inspired by hearing familiar texts in the arresting ways that Shakespeare intended, and they’ll have the chance to join in and help create the music (this part is not compulsory!) They will discover that the ‘music of the Spheres’ was conveyed not only in music, but in verse, in action and in emotion, and they will experience how Shakespeare depicts the fading of this idea as the modern world encroaches, leaving behind a gap in our understanding of the world, that we still haven’t filled. This is a performance replete with lute, love and song!
In his Sonnets Seminar, Martin will suggest how to interpret and speak some of the most famous, and some of the lesser known sonnets in the canon. Participants will learn about the origins of the sonnets in medieval songs, and how Petrarch, Chaucer and Dante, paved the way for these extraordinary works. They will come away with a new understanding of the musical-poetical structure of the sonnets, of Shakespeare’s virtuosity, and of how to embody the poems in their own speaking, so that they can be experienced more deeply as they are read. They will also learn how to craft the physical techniques of performance – voice, rhythm, clarity and emotion – so as to realise their impact in their own, personal ways. When I asked Martin to elaborate on the way he plans to work on the Sonnets, he commented:
MB: I’d like to introduce participants to the two main themes of the sonnets: erotic love and the music of words. These are held together by Shakespeare’s virtuosity, which of course is contained in the originality of his approach and the way he bends the rules and makes his own. ‘What is he up to?’ we can ask. So we’ll examine some well known, and perhaps lesser known sonnets, and I’m hoping that we can do all our learning and exploring via people being brave and having a go at performing them, by letting the words ‘inhabit’ their own speech. We’ll look at technique – use of voice, breath, tone, emphasis; I hope to help people to read the sonnets in more depth, and to speak them aloud even if they are alone, because this was usual at the time. It’s only recently that we’ve learnt to read silently. We’ll explore where it all began – with Love and the Troubadors (who were prolific in 12th & 13th Century Italy), which I’ll demonstrate by singing; we’ll look into Sidney and Petrarch (there’s clearly a special Italian link here), as Shakespeare’s precursors. So I hope to give a sense of the tradition that Shakespeare felt himself to be part of, and of his place in European prosody – this means touching on the Baiff school in Paris.
How do I hope to work? My picture is of a close and informal circle of enthusiasts in a good room working together to try and speak the sonnets with courage and knowledge. I want to impart some of the learning that I’ve been lucky enough to have been exposed to. We should also examine the ‘Platonic’ nature of Shakespeare’s love for the Young Man, and probably argue about its relation to present day sexual politics. I will use Sonnet 8,‘Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?’ to illustrate the nature of Renaissance thinking about music. I will use the lute to demonstrate, putting that into the context of musical ideas of the time, and will argue that Shakespeare was really wanting to show how words (and probably mainly his words) were a ‘new music’ that replaced the old medieval theories so beloved of academic authority.
It is plain from listening to Martin talk about his approaches to teaching Shakespeare and the music of Shakespeare’s day, that he has the true educator’s passion for sharing his own enthusiasm, knowledge and pleasure with others. He also believes in the usefulness of the Arts. He and his wife, Sue, founded the Corporate Theatre – a unique leadership education project, which brings programmes based on insights from the Performing Arts, Humanities and Psychology into large organisations. This ‘applied’ aspect to Martin’s work with Shakespeare is distinguished by his belief in the importance of philosophy. He also believes that Shakespeare can teach us all we need to know about rhetorical invention:
MB: In fact Shakespeare concentrated on rhetorical invention between about 1597 and 1602. But I think he found, in the end, that the upsurge of individuality and mutuality in love, and political ambition, made rhetoric less important, and I think this is what he lamented in the song at the end of Twelfth Night – that the world was going to be a bleaker place with the loss of a group culture of musical values, and the ascent of a group culture of personal advancement and wealth and power. So nothing changes! But, in the end, we yearn for harmoniousness, which is why the Urbino project holds so much meaning – and promise. People who come will join a group of performer-teachers who have worked together for many years, and who love nothing better than to be with, perform, talk about, teach, and learn about, Shakespeare.
For more on ‘Shakespeare in Italy’ (on both the general topic and on the Summer School) read Sylvia Morris’s recent blog. There is also a nice piece on Urbino in the Telegraph online, where the Summer School’s hotel, the Albergo San Domenico, is described as a ‘special treat’.