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BSA 2023 Conference: ‘Re-locating Shakespeare’ (University of Liverpool, 25th – 28th July 2023)

The British Shakespeare Association is delighted to announce that our next conference will take place at the University of Liverpool, Tuesday 25th – Friday 28th July 2023, organised by Dr Esme Miskimmin (University of Liverpool) and Professor Elspeth Graham (Liverpool John Moores University).

In Shakespeare’s lifetime, and in the four hundred years since the relocation of his plays from stage to page in the First Folio, his work has had a sustained and varied life in multiple geographical and theoretical locations through print, performance, research and education. More importantly, perhaps, there has been a concomitant narrative of ‘relocation’ associated with Shakespeare. The physical journeys of his works and their performers, including the visits of Lord Strange’s Men to the Northwest in the late sixteenth-century, performers who used the plays for colonialist and imperialist purposes overseas, or the arrival of Ira Aldridge, the ‘Black Roscius’ at the Liverpool docks in 1824, attest to a constant geographical relocation of Shakespeare and his performers. There have also always been sustained theoretical re-locations of Shakespeare in relation to changing contexts and prevailing critical, socio-historical and theatrical perspectives. Most recently, the opening of the Shakespeare North Playhouse in Knowsley has relocated performances and narratives of Shakespeare in the Northwest of England.

This conference will seek to explore the geographical, temporal and semantic ‘Re-locations’ of Shakespeare, looking again at the place(s) of his works and reassessing them through the wider contexts of performance, print, translation, teaching and research. Possible focuses could include (but are very much not limited to):

  • Notions of location, locating and re-locating within Shakespeare, including explorations of travel, exile, pilgrimage and direction.
  • Claiming and ‘owning’ locations, including colonial and postcolonial re/appropriations.
  • The cartographies of Shakespeare – the mapping / remapping, navigation and ‘discovery’ of locations.
  • Re-locating through the imagination and / or the virtual:  the movement from the ‘wooden O’ to the ‘vasty fields of France’ or the virtual Dover cliff; online performances.
  • Re-locating through translation and adaptation, including dramatic, musical, operatic and fictional adaptations.
  • Location / Re-location in the teaching of Shakespeare – where and how pupils and students experience Shakespeare.
  • Voluntary and / or forced relocations – in Shakespeare’s texts, or for pedagogical or political uses.
  • Re-locating perspectives (critical, pedagogical or performative) in relation to cultural and social changes, disability and LGBTQ+
  • Relocating in times of pandemic (from the touring circuit outside of London during the plagues and beyond, to the internet during covid).
  • ‘What do they in the North?’ (RIII 4.4.398): Implications / connotations arising from a specifically ‘northern’ Shakespeare.
  • Re-locating Shakespeare’s work in understandings of literary / theatrical / critical canons, in the light of any of the above (or any other types of ‘re-locations’).

At this time we are seeking proposals for seminars and workshops. The deadline for submissions is 1st August 2022. The conference will be predominantly in-person, but we will live-stream plenaries and are open to including virtual seminars and workshops in the programme, so please indicate the preferred format for your seminar or workshop.

Workshop: Please submit a proposed title, 250-word description of the workshop’s aims, focus, and scope, together with a brief bio of the workshop leader.

Seminar: Please submit a proposed title, 250-word description of the seminar’s focus and the types of paper contributions that it seeks to invite from contributors and a brief bio of the seminar leader.

Please visit to learn more about what these session formats entail.

Please send your seminar and workshop submissions to the organisers, Dr Esme Miskimmin and Professor Elspeth Graham at the conference address by 1st August:


If you have any questions about submissions or the conference, please contact the conference organisers:

Dr Esme Miskimmin or Professor Elspeth Graham

Arrangements are currently being made by the organisers to facilitate options for other conference formats, submissions for which will open after the deadline for seminar and workshop submissions passes.

On 8th August, after we publish a list of seminar and workshops, we will open submissions for other conference session formats (i.e. 20-minute papers, paper panels, roundtables, and Early Career Researcher posters).

This announcement is also available in PDF format.

Applications open for new Chair of the BSA

Chair of the Board of Trustees of the British Shakespeare Association

The Board of the British Shakespeare Association is looking to appoint new leadership from Summer 2023 onwards. This is an exciting opportunity to lead the Board of the BSA during the year of Shakespeare’s quarter-centenary and help take the BSA forward.

The BSA is committed to values of equality, diversity, and inclusion, and are keen to reflect this within its governing body. We welcome and support applicants from all backgrounds, particularly those who have been traditionally less well-represented by the BSA and the field of Shakespeare scholarship more broadly. The process of appointment is governed by the BSA’s EDI policy.

About the BSA

The BSA was founded in 2002 with a mission to bring together academics, teachers, theatre practitioners and other people who work with Shakespeare’s texts into a professional association. In 2007, the BSA was incorporated as a charitable company limited by guarantee with a commitment to educate the general public about Shakespeare and his works. The BSA typically has around 300 paid up members and over 1000 members on its database. Members pay an annual subscription fee of £25 although there are also concessionary rates. The BSA’s flagship event is its Biennial Conference, which brings together Shakespeareans from all of its communities to discuss latest research and the most recent insights into teaching and performance. Between conferences, the BSA runs a number of other events, most notably an annual Honorary Fellows event. We appoint two Honorary Fellows a year – past Fellows include Stanley Wells, Chris Grace, Janet Suzman, Cicely Berry, Adrian Lester, John Russell Brown and Adjoa Andoh. The BSA is also associated with two publications: Teaching Shakespeare, a magazine edited by Myfanwy Edwards and published through the BSA website and Shakespeare: the Journal of the British Shakespeare Association, which is published by Routledge and is considered to be one of the best academic journals on Shakespeare in the world. The BSA’s website disseminates news and events relating to Shakespeare and gives members access to additional resources.

About the Board of Trustees

The Board of Trustees (which is also a Board of Directors) is made up of: 4 Officers, 6 elected Trustees, and 3 ex officio Trustees representing the Shakespeare Institute, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and the Routledge Journal. Four committees also report directly to the Board: the Events Committee, the Honorary Fellowship Committee, the Education Committee and the Performance and Media Committee. The Chairs of these Committees are appointed by the Board and are entitled to attend Board meetings, but can only vote if they are also Trustees. The Board meets three times a year, usually online  and holds one Annual General Meeting. As well as overseeing the various activities of the BSA, the Board is responsible for ensuring good governance and for ensuring compliance with auditing requirements for Companies House and the Charity Commission. The Board’s work is governed by three documents: its Articles of Association, the Rules of the BSA, and the Financial Procedures of the BSA. Meetings typically last 2-hours and currently follow a standing agenda.


The Chair of the British Shakespeare Association is also the Head of the British Shakespeare Association. The main duty of the Chair is to ensure that the charitable object of the BSA, to educate the general public about Shakespeare’s works, is being fulfilled by its activities. The Chair is responsible for the day-to-day management of the BSA and for working with the Board to set its strategic priorities. This person chairs meetings of the Board and reports to it. The Chair also manages the Officers of the Board (the Treasurer, the Membership Officer and the Web and Communications Officer) and the Chairs of the Board’s Committees to ensure that they are working effectively towards furthering the BSA’s charitable objects. The Chair also chairs the Annual General Meeting.

The Board is looking for someone who is committed to the BSA’s vision and is able to work across its different communities in ways that bring them together into a positive and dynamic association. In normal circumstances, the Chair will serve between 3 and 6 years, in line with the terms for our Trustees. After their appointment, the incoming Chair will be asked to shadow the outgoing Chair to ensure smooth transition of BSA business.

Essential Criteria

  1. A natural negotiator and diplomat who is able to collaborate with other members of the Board and make the most of their talents
  2. A good strategic thinker who is able to balance risk and opportunity to help the BSA grow
  3. An effective leader with good communication skills and the ability to articulate a clear achievable vision for the BSA
  4. Experience of chairing meetings and effectively following up agreed actions
  5. Willing and able to act as the public face of the BSA
  6. Either a long-standing member of the BSA who has demonstrated a commitment to its values or substantial equivalent experience of a cognate charity
  7. IT-literate


  • An experienced Chair and/or a Trustee of a charity
  • Pro-active in using modern technology to engage members

As Chair, you will also be a trustee and consequently cannot stand for the Board if you are disqualified from being a trustee either by law or under the constitution of the BSA. For more details on eligibility criteria for trustees, please see this document:  

The deadline for applications is 1 October 2022. Shortlisted candidates for the Chair will be invited to an informal meeting with the current Board followed by an interview with a panel.

This is a volunteer position, but reasonable expenses will be paid.

To apply, please send a letter of application, a CV and the names of two referees to britishshakespeareassociation[at] by the appropriate deadline.

For an informal discussion about any of these roles please contact Alison Findlay, the outgoing Chair of the Board, by emailing a.g.findlay[at]

A PDF version of this text is available here. A document outlining the BSA’s policies and procedures for appointments to the Board is available here.

New special issue of ‘Shakespeare’ journal: Shakespeare and the Jews

The BSA is delighted to announce the recent publication of a special issue of our journal Shakespeare on the theme of ‘Shakespeare and the Jews’, edited by Coen Heijes and Sabine Schülting. This special issue brings together eight articles that explore, in the editors’ words, ‘the incredible width of the topic in their approaches, some more historicist, some more presentist, some theatre oriented, some focusing on adaptations in the cinema or on the page, some more autobiographical, some zooming in on specific aspects of Jewishness’.

Parts of the special issue are available in Open Access here:

If you are a BSA member who has purchased journal access, please log in to the BSA website and click on ‘Journal‘ on the dashboard in order to access the entire issue.

If you would like to add a journal subscription to your BSA membership, please log in and click on ‘Edit Membership‘ to purchase the £15 journal upgrade, which will remain active until the end of the membership year (31 December 2022).

Attendance at ‘Readings of Shakespeare with Honorary Fellows’ Free for BSA Members (5th and 6th March, Stratford-Upon-Avon)

The BSA has contributed to sponsorship of a community-based reading of Shakespeare’s complete works from in the ballroom of the Town Hall, Stratford-upon-Avon.

The event, ‘Shakespeare’s Coming Home’ which runs from 1st to 12th March 2022 is to raise money to restore the statue of Shakespeare given by David Garrick in 1769. A full programme for all the days of the event and information about participation for non-BSA members can be found here.

Our sponsorship entitles each member of the BSA to attend as audience or readers on 5th to 6th March 2022, led by BSA Honorary Fellows

Dame Harriet Walter.and Dame Janet Suzman. Please see the details below.

Each BSA member is also entitled to bring a guest. To attend, simply send your name (and that of your guest if appropriate) and your contact details to the organiser, Paul Edmondson by email

If you wish to participate as a reader please indicate to Paul which play readings(s) you would like to participate in as a general reader.

Further Details Programme for Weekend of Saturday 5th and Sunday 6th March from 11.30am to 11.00pm:

Saturday 5 March

11.00am to 2.00pm King John. Led by The Stratford Society.

3.00pm to 6.00pm As You Like It. Led by Dame Harriet Walter as Rosalind and Guy Paul as Orlando.

7.30pm to 11.00pm Measure for Measure. Led by The Reading Early Modern Plays group.

Sunday 6 March

11.00pm to 2.00pm Timon of Athens

2.30pm to 6.00pm Antony and Cleopatra. Led by Dame Janet Suzman as Cleopatra. John Heffernan as Caesar. Andrew French as Antony.

7.00-11.00 pm Coriolanus

Out Now: Early Modern German Shakespeare

English itinerant players are known to have toured in northern continental Europe from the 1580s. Their repertories initially consisted of plays from the London theatre, but over time the English players learnt German, and German players joined the companies as a result of which the dramatic texts were adapted and translated into German. It is well established that a number of German plays now extant have a direct connection to Shakespeare. Only four of them, however, are so close in plot, character constellation and at times even language to their English originals that they can legitimately be considered versions of Shakespeare’s plays (not unlike the ‘bad quartos’): Der Bestrafte Brudermord, in English Fratricide Punished (Hamlet); Romio und Julieta (Romeo and Juliet); Tito Andronico (Titus Andronicus); and Kunst über alle Künste, ein bös Weib gut zu machen, in English An Art beyond All Arts, to Make a Bad Wife Good (The Taming of the Shrew). The chief aim of our research project has been to produce editions of these four plays, now published in two volumes by Arden Shakespeare. Jointly, these editions not only give us unprecedented scholarly access to the most important early German Shakespeare adaptations, but they also throw much light on the Shakespearean originals of whose performance history the German adaptations preserve important and so far understudied traces.

For more information about the editorial project and team, please visit:

Volme 2 of Early Modern German Shakespeare: Titus Andronicus and The Taming of the Shrew: Tito Andronico and Kunst über alle Künste, ein bös Weib gut zu machen in Translation, edited by Lukas Erne, Florence Hazrat, and Maria Shmygol is out now in hardback with Arden Shakespeare.

The volume is also available in Open Access and can be downloaded for free here.

Volume 1 of Early Modern German Shakespeare: Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet: Der Bestrafte Brudermord and Romio und Julieta in Translation, edited by Lukas Erne and Kareen Seidler is now available in paperback.

Header image: British Library Egerton MS 1222, Album of Franz Hartmann (1597–1617), originally digitised for the British Library’s Discovering Literature: Shakespeare project and reproduced in accordance with its reuse policy.

Applications open for BSA Small Events Fund

Applications are currently open for the BSA’s Small Events Fund, for awards of up to £250 per event. The purpose of the BSA’s Small Events Fund is to offer financial support to members of the BSA who wish to organize a Shakespeare-related event. We especially encourage proposals from doctoral and early career researchers, teachers and educators, and theatre practitioners. Both online and in-person events are eligible for this scheme, particularly education, performance, and academic events. Examples of eligible costs include:

  • Honoraria for unsalaried speakers / practitioners
  • Expenses associated with staging performances
  • Fees for online streaming / video platforms (e.g. Crowdcast, Zoom Premium, Vimeo)
  • Fees for video editing software (for filmed performances)
  • Travel expenses for invited speakers.

Eligibility and How to Apply

Applications are open to BSA members in good standing; further particulars about how to make an application can be accessed from the Members’ Dashboard after logging in to your BSA account and clicking on the ‘Small Events Fund’ icon.


The deadline for the current round is 30th March 2022; the next deadline for the next round will be 30th September 2022.

Call for Papers: A Special Issue of ‘Multicultural Shakespeare’ Journal

The guest editors of the special issue of Multicultural Shakespeare: Translation, Appropriation and Performance (2022), ‘Staging Utopias: Shakespeare in Performance’ invite submissions that consider Shakespeare and utopia in performance.

Abstracts of 300-400 words should be sent to the guest editors of the special issue: Delilah Bermudez Brataas (Norwegian University of Science and Technology), Magdalena Cieślak (University of Lodz) and Anna Kowalcze-Pawlik (University of Lodz).

Deadline for abstracts : April 30, 2022
Deadline for submissions of 6,000-6,500 word articles: June 15, 2022

Further Particulars from the Guest Editors

Jill Dolan writes in Utopia in Performance (2010) that theatre potentially allows for utopian performatives, i.e. those moments in the performance that open up the audience to “a hopeful feeling of what the world might be like if every moment of our lives were as emotionally voluminous, generous, aesthetically striking and intersubjectively tense” (4) and “allow fleeting contact with a utopia not stabilized by its own finished perfection […] but a utopia always in process, always only partially grasped, as it disappears before us around the corners of narrative and social experience”(6). A utopian performative in this context is a moment of empowerment that gestures towards a vision of a better reality and reveals an ethical dimension of the play that has a potential transformative, if not political impact. This volume takes this proposition further, to investigate the presence of the utopian impulse in Shakespeare’s works on stage. Whether that presence emerges as the influence of classical ideal spaces, the bourgeoning potential of the new world as a utopia, or the political ideologies inspired by Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), visions of utopia appear in Shakespeare’s plays, to be further elaborated on, negotiated and modified in performance that can amplify the utopian impulse in its own utopian performative, or, alternatively, engage it in a
dystopian fashion.

We are interested in submissions that:

  • address “utopian performatives” in Shakespeare in performance
  • consider how Shakespeare’s works contributed to the development of utopia as a genre and/or the impact of utopian literature and criticism on Shakespeare in performance
  • analyse the way in which Shakespeare’s idealized presence an international social and cultural icon influence our contemporary understanding of utopian literature
  • examine the ways in which the utopian impulse has been created, staged and/or critically engaged in theatrical productions across the centuries and continents.

By bringing together critical reflection on theatre as a utopian space and the ways in which it is actively used in Shakespeare in performance the volume should chart the territory that, with the notable exception of The Tempest, still remains relatively unexplored.

This information is also available in a PDF poster format.

Andrea Smith: Radio Productions of Shakespeare’s Plays

BSA member Andrea Smith offers a fascinating glimpse into her doctoral research project on radio productions of Shakespeare’s plays.

For most people, getting their fix of Shakespeare during the pandemic has meant turning to online platforms and recordings of stage productions while our theatres have been closed for long periods over the last two years. But I’ve had a different lockdown project. Listening to the 150 or so performances of Shakespeare’s plays held in the archives of BBC radio. And it’s been an extraordinary listen.

The very first production, Twelfth Night, aired just six months after the BBC began, in May 1923. Back then, they didn’t have the facility to record their plays, so everything was live and nothing but memories remain. But it turns out there are a lot of those. Using newspaper reports and personal memoirs it’s possible to piece together a pretty good idea of what it sounded like. Until now, people have generally underestimated the aims and abilities of our early broadcasters in terms of drama. But the production had a specially adapted script, professional actors and music played on a harpsichord. This was no cobbled-together, am-dram production but a serious attempt at producing a two-hour Shakespeare play in audio only. In a full-page article about the broadcast, no less a person than Dame May Whitty described it as ‘exceedingly well done’, bringing a ‘sense of colour and atmosphere’ to listeners.

Between this point and the start of the BBC’s audio archive of these plays there were around 150 more productions, many of which are well documented by critics, producers and listeners, although not always that well by the BBC itself. Many scripts remain (there’s a great selection from the 1930s and 1940s at the Shakespeare Memorial Library in the Library of Birmingham), and there is the odd audio clip, but we don’t get a full archive production until 1944 and As You Like It.

There’s no obvious reason why this production was chosen as the first to be kept for posterity, except perhaps its stars: Edith Evans and Michael Redgrave. It’s also near full-text – just seven lines are cut. But it doesn’t really show the radio drama department’s capabilities at its best. While back in 1923 efforts were made to adapt the script to make it intelligible to those who didn’t know the plot, mainly through descriptive narration, the audience were largely left to work it out for themselves here. This is probably because the credited adaptor, Herbert Farjeon, was a Shakespeare purist. He’d had a long-standing row with the BBC about how they should present the playwright, and while the head of radio drama, Val Gielgud, had insisted that the plays should be edited in the cause of ‘practical entertainment value’, Farjeon believed that they needed to be largely uncut. In this production he got his way.

There was also a world of difference between Evans’ and Redgrave’s performances. Evans was very theatrical: you can imagine her standing at the front of a stage, declaiming her lines to a massive auditorium. Whereas Redgrave was very much giving a microphone performance: relatively quiet, intimate, subtle. Producers had already recognised that this style frequently worked best on radio, but it was decades before it would be consistently adopted, with many producers still choosing to cast theatre stars in their productions, some of whom seem to have struggled to adapt to the new medium.

The audio archive is patchy from the 1940s to the 1960s, although you can still hear Donald Wolfit’s King Lear (surprisingly affecting), Twelfth Night with Jimmy Edwards and Beryl Reid as Sir Toby and Maria (Edwards is wonderfully malevolent), and an extract of Judi Dench as the female protagonist in a schools’ production of Romeo and Juliet. But the best known production from this era is John Gielgud’s Hamlet from 1948. It was his third radio performance in the role (the previous one, in 1940, overran and was cut off before most of the characters had died!) and was later hailed by one critic as ‘The best Hamlet of our time’. Anyone familiar with Gielgud’s performances will recognise his speed of delivery, verbal dexterity and slightly mannered tone, but they may also enjoy his occasional spontaneity here, such as the stifled laugh when Esmé Percy, playing Osric, ad-libs on his exit. (Although this production was recorded there was virtually no facility for editing, which means productions of this era often feel as if they were live).

Of course, 1948 was also the year of Olivier’s film of the play. Maybe that’s why the BBC chose to present Hamlet that Christmas (for nearly four-and-a-half hours on Boxing Night, including two intervals, with a repeat on New Year’s Eve). But even if that wasn’t the motivation behind it, the recording is a great opportunity to compare two of the most famous actors of their generation in probably their most famous roles. I do enjoy Olivier’s film (I think it was the first Shakespeare I ever saw) but I must admit to equally delight in Gielgud’s radio performance. Both are very much products of their time, but none the worse for that.

As we head into the 1970s, the BBC’s archive is near-complete. One of the missing plays – 1971’s Macbeth with Joss Ackland and Googie Withers – came to light at the end of 2021 in a private recording held at the British Library. Sitting in one of their little booths, listening to it, was thrilling. I was probably the first person, other than the man who made the recording, who’d heard it in 50 years. It also includes ‘what may well be the missing scene’, according to The Listener, taken from William Davenant’s Restoration adaptation of the play in which Macbeth tells Seyton: ‘The enemy’s upon our borders. Scotland’s in danger’ and goes on to talk about the ‘indisposition’ of his wife. Why producer Raymond Raikes decided to insert it, I’m not really sure, although there is a bit of a history of producers slipping bits of other Early Modern plays into their productions. The 1988 Taming of the Shrew includes scenes from The Taming of A Shrew, for example. (In radio, producers are usually also directors and frequently adaptors when it comes to Shakespeare’s plays).

Eventually, in my largely chronological trawl through the archive, I arrived at the twenty-first century, and productions I already knew and loved. Pericles (2017) starring Paapa Essiedu as the title character and Willard White as a very charismatic Gower. The joyous 2015 As You Like It, with Pippa Nixon and Luke Norris as Rosalind and Orlando (Nixon is a very far cry from Evans’ performance 70 years earlier). And the wonderful serialised productions of Hamlet (2014) and Julius Caesar (2016), produced by Marc Beeby for Radio 4. Marc sadly died at the end of 2020 and is a great loss to the field. He was also responsible for a cracking Coriolanus (2019) and a wonderfully internalised Macbeth (2015), starring Neil Dudgeon. If you want to get inside Macbeth’s head, this is a great production to listen to.

Much of the BBC archive is available via Learning on Screen’s Box of Broadcasts website, although some of the earliest recordings are still only held by the ‘Beeb’ themselves. And if you don’t have access to BoB, then you’ll find quite a few of the recent plays available for free via the BBC website if you search for them. I’d recommend you seek them out (okay, I’m biased!). I can’t promise you’ll love them all (you won’t – whoever loved every theatre production they ever saw?) but I can promise you’ll find new interpretations you won’t have heard before and some great performances that you won’t find anywhere else.

Andrea Smith

Postgraduate Researcher (University of East Anglia); Lecturer (University of Suffolk)

To read more about Andrea’s research, please visit her departmental page. Andrea tweets @AndreaUEA

Header image: Leslie Howard, who starred in CBS’s radio Much Ado About Nothing in 1937 and the BBC’s radio Hamlet (1938). Image credit: Wikimedia.

New Episode of ‘Women and Shakespeare’ Podcast: Sarah Olive on Shakespeare in Education

The BSA is delighted to have sponsored this new episode of Varsha Panjwani’s ‘Women and Shakespeare’ podcast, available here:

In this episode Varsha is joined by Sarah Olive (former editor of BSA’s Teaching Shakespeare magazine), who discusses the role of Shakespeare in Education. Follow the link and tune in to learn more!

In Memoriam: Antony Sher

The BSA is saddened by the death of Sir Antony Sher, whose extraordinary passion for performing has energised the Shakespearean stage, exciting us and illuminating our understanding. Our thoughts are with his husband, Greg Doran and his wide family of friends and colleagues.

Remembering Antony Sher: A Tribute by Martin White

As he matured as a Shakespearean actor, Antony Sher fused the virtuoso theatrical style – for which he was first singled out by reviewers and audiences – with what John Peter, writing of Sher’s performance as Primo Levi, described as ‘acting of the purest and most unostentatious kind, unadorned by self-pity or visible virtuosity’ (Sunday Times, 29 January, 2006). It is these qualities that defined his acting: detailed nuances of gesture and vocal tone, physical and emotional energy matched by deep focus of concentration, the sense of an actor fully inhabiting the role, drawing on a well-spring of feeling, and the confident grasp of the blurred line between the humanity and grotesquerie of life.

Antony Sher came to London from South Africa in 1968 with one ambition:  to train as an actor. His first audition was for the Central School of Speech and Drama. His audition didn’t go well, and Central turned him down, as, more brutally, did the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, their rejection letter telling him that ‘Not only have you failed this audition, and not only are we unable to contemplate auditioning you again, but we strongly urge you to seek a different career’ (Beside Myself [BM] Antony’s autobiography, 89). Refusing to be deterred, Sher was eventually accepted by the Webber-Douglas Academy, where, because he was tone deaf, he was barred from classes in singing but relished the classes in make-up, mime, improvisation and Speaking Shakespeare, where the training instilled in him two basic principles from which he never deviated:

. . . you have to paraphrase every single word in every single speech, translate them into contemporary English; and then, when you’ve understood everything, get it back up to speed, like normal speech. We talk very fast, very deftly, and Shakespeare is easier to understand at this pace than when it’s overemphasised. [BM 107].

Gradually the elements that would come to shape and define him as a Shakespearian actor were emerging: a focus on form, feeling and energy in both spoken and physical performance; an awareness of how intelligence can feed emotion and vice-versa; the exhilaration of experimentation; an appreciation of the impact and importance of his heritage; and a desire to keep learning.

Webber-Douglas taught no rigid philosophy of acting. Indeed, one of the most lasting lessons Antony learned is that the only rule in acting is that there isn’t one: each part demands its own response.  Nevertheless, he remained adamant that he would still advise any young actor to go to drama school, to ‘go and get the training, learn all they teach you and carry on learning through your career, because you will if you’re lucky’.  For him, learning-on-the-job was sustained largely by his lengthy association with the RSC where:

I suddenly found myself in a place where I was surrounded by great Shakespeareans who wanted to teach me: Cicely Berry [Head of Voice], [and directors] John Barton, Terry Hands, Adrian Noble – and then I ended up marrying one, which has been an extraordinary privilege because more than anyone Greg [Doran] has shown me that Shakespeare can be mine as much as anybody’s. [Conversation with MW]

From his earliest Shakespearean performances such as the Fool in King Lear (first at the Liverpool Everyman in 1972, then the RSC in 1982) and Richard III (RSC, 1984) he had been defined by his ability to bring to the stage an electrifying energy, a sense of unpredictability and danger. But for some, these performances, however brilliant, remained externalised, bravura displays rather than an expression of a character’s psyche, and while not wishing to lose that sense of the sheer joy of the physicality of acting, he increasingly sought ways to combine these detailed portrayals of the ‘outside’ of a character with humanity and compassion, drawing without self-censorship on the most intimate, often self-destructive experiences from his own life to find a ‘sense memory’ in which to root the performance.

In 1999, his performances for the RSC of Leontes (The Winter’s Tale) and Macbeth, both directed by Greg Doran, marked, for many who had followed Sher’s career, significant steps forward in his growing maturity as a major Shakespearean actor. Initially reluctant to play Leontes – believing it offered him no real challenge, being only another character who ‘just keeps running round the stage shouting and snarling at people’ – he changed his mind when the suggestion was made that he should double Leontes with the comic role of Autolycus. Sher himself tracked the reasons why he resolved before rehearsals-proper got under way to play only the King, but his decision to step aside from the more flamboyant, theatrical role of Autolycus and concentrate on the emotionally damaged Leontes might perhaps reflect an unconscious desire to focus all his energies on a part that he would have to excavate to its core. Robert Smallwood wrote of the performance:

It was a precisely charted psychological journey that Sher presented, brilliantly executed technically, but with the technique not . . . in any way diverting from the emotional power of the progress to disintegration and collapse, never allowing us to forget that there was another, a ‘real’, Leontes underneath this misery (Shakespeare Survey, 53, 2000, p. 264).

In 2009 the National Theatre mounted an exhibition of Sher’s paintings and drawings, including a number of portraits of himself and other actors in various roles. As I write this, on the wall above my desk hangs a portrait of Antony as Domitian, the leading role that he played superbly in Massinger’s The Roman Actor at the RSC in 2012. He was an extremely accomplished artist, and painting and drawing played a very significant part in the development of his roles, before and during the rehearsal period. For example, in Year of the King (significantly sub-titled ‘An Actor’s Diary and Sketchbook), he traced his work on Richard III (RSC, 1984) from the earliest negotiations with the RSC through to press night, showing how he used sketches and more complete drawings to find a route to the character and give visual form to his developing thoughts, not just for his own benefit but also to share with director and designer. The first sketches, done before he had signed a contract or even knew for certain he would be offered the role, included Laurence Olivier, but gradually featured himself, though still blended with these associations:

The sunlight is weird at this time of the year – an insistent silver light. This morning as I shave it falls on the water and throws a strange light on my face.  Instantly Richard III. I stare at him for a moment, then quickly fetch a sketchbook to put down what I’ve just seen.  But it’s a difficult drawing. And worst of all, the lips I have drawn are not my own, but Olivier’s. Again that giant shadow falls across the landscape and I dart around trying to find some light of my own. My Richard is in its infancy; barely that, it is still struggling to take form, uncertain even whether to take form. And there’s this fully formed, famously formed, infamous child murderer leaning over the cradle (Year of the King, pp. 37-8).

Generally, however, the theatre’s rehearsal process and the benefit and pleasure Sher derived from it was a significant factor in his preference for stage acting over screen. For him, the rehearsal period was a mix of careful deliberation and a willingness to respond to chance. And he had a remarkably open attitude to the views of others. One of my favourite examples is of a moment in rehearsing Richard III, when one of the young boys playing the princes in the Tower suggested Antony should change a move. It is possible another actor might have been amused, perhaps affronted by this apparent breach of protocol, but recognising that the boy was right, he happily took the note. Rehearsals may also require the actor to polish up neglected skills or master new ones, and again Sher relished these challenges. When he played Tamburlaine (RSC, 1992), for example, it was decided with the director, Terry Hands, that Antony would need to learn acrobatic skills to enable him to climb a rope to a point twenty feet above the stage, and then hang upside down while delivering the speech. Antony achieved it, but ‘never stopped dreading that bloody rope. Each night as the scene approached I felt I had an appointment with fear coming up’.

I want to conclude with Antony’s own summary of the demands Shakespeare makes of the actor:

To play Shakespeare you need a variety of resources. You need enormous technical ease to phrase, shape and finally breathe the language like normal speech. You need great curiosity about human beings. You need to become so fascinated by our strange behaviour that you believe you’re perceiving it for the first time – like Shakespeare did, I think – and feel compelled to tell the truth about us. So you have to be raw as hell and supremely skilled. You must be able both to grunt and echo, murmur and sing. You must be Marlon Brando and Placido Domingo in the same body. It’s difficult (BM 328-9).

And finally, a particular personal memory. I was in the rehearsal room at the Department of Drama at Bristol, with my third-year students, when the door opened and there were Antony and Greg (who had been a student of mine decades before) politely asking whether they might join us. They were in Bristol on business and found time to visit. For the next hour they chatted happily with the students, answering all questions but asking quite a lot of their own, and generously sharing their experience before slipping away to return to Stratford. A good time was had by all.

[Much of the above is drawn from Martin White’s essay on Antony Sher in The Routledge Companion to Actors’ Shakespeare, edited by John Russell Brown, 2012.]

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