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{Sun 28 March 2010}   Warm Winter Poetry Reading
Warm Winter Poetry Reading

Given the sparseness of my snowy post and my subsequent apparent absence from the blogoverse, you’re forgiven for thinking that winter got the better of me and I didn’t make it through! There’ve been times, given the !*&#insert-curse-here*~&! weather in the UK over the past six months, that I didn’t think I would.

But, contrary to appearances, I have actually been around, lurking and learning and adding my two cents’ worth to a few other web projects. I’ve also been having some offline fun, such as the poetry evening we hosted at home on 30th January.

This event came together quickly due to last-minute cancellations for the scheduled reading of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. We didn’t have enough people to read the play, but we still wanted to do something Shakespearean. I asked each person to bring a favourite Shakespeare sonnet, with another poem, by any other poet, which addresses that sonnet’s themes. It worked brilliantly – the selections delighted us with their variety, yet there was a strong sense of unity because of the Shakespeare connection.

These are some of the poems that were paired:

Because there were only six of us, and because the readings were much shorter than when we read an entire play in an evening, not only could we have a sit-down dinner instead of a buffet, but there was also much more time for discussion and for diverging along delicious poetic and non-poetic tangents.

Speaking of delicious… I created a new soup for the dinner, which went down extremely well and had everyone demanding seconds. As I’m not the world’s best chef, this was something of a culinary miracle, so, for posterity, here’s the recipe:

Tia’s Green Soup

Serves 8

Ingredients:

1 large leek (chopped)
3 garlic cloves (minced)
1 whole broccoli (chopped)
1 whole cauliflower (chopped)
5 celery sticks including leaves (chopped)
6-8 peeled carrots (unless the peel is sweet, then use it)(chopped)
1 large pkt spinach
1 pkt “salad or stirfry” leaves
1 can green flageolet beans

4 tsp vegetable stock granules
1 tsp mixed herbs
1 bayleaf
sea salt (to taste)
olive oil
1.5 litres water

In a very large pot:

1. Fry leek and garlic in olive oil for a few minutes
2. Add broccoli, cauliflower, celery, carrots and stir-fry for a few minutes.
3. Add spinach, “salad or stirfry” leaves, vegetable stock granules, mixed herbs, bayleaf, sea salt and water and simmer for about twenty minutes. Add more water if the mixture doesn’t look right, or if you cook for a bit longer, but the goal is to keep the soup really thick, so don’t overdo it.
4. After twenty minutes, add the green flageolet beans with the liquid from the can and cook for another five minutes.
5. Remove the bayleaf and use a hand-blender to liquidize the soup to a thick, smooth consistency.

The result is an amazingly creamy, tasty, green soup. I finished preparing this two hours in advance and then reheated it to serve and it was great.



A transliterate feast with Romeo and Juliet

“What are you doing over the festive season?” You often hear this question at this time of the year, but “Taking part in a Shakespeare reading” is not often the answer! It might seem a rather “boffinish” thing to do, as our youngest reader, Lizzi, remarked, but we will remember the Romeo and Juliet reading that we hosted on Saturday 19th December as a highlight of our festivities (and only a tad boffinish!). The company and the food were as great as those at Capulet’s feast and the text as rich as ever, of course, but besides these essential elements, we also enjoyed seeing the Fonteyn and Nureyev ballet version to Prokofiev’s gorgeous score (Royal Opera House, 1966), as well as the Shakespeare Readers’ Group’s Facebook facility, on our new wide-screen TV.

This transliteracy experiment in bringing together voice, text, dance, music and screen was a first for this group, but in fact the clash and/or conflation of literacies is a continuous process, one that went on as much in Shakespeare’s day as in ours. One member, Irene, pointed out a few words in the text that were possibly innovations by Shakespeare, reflecting the time’s great excitement about language experiments as writers took inspiration from Europe and the Renaissance. These words dismayed or delighted the audience then, sometimes for different reasons than they do the same for us now. Then, these innovations were challenging because they were new; now, they are challenging because they are archaic, which may yet dismay some and delight others! It struck me that part of our enjoyment arose from the unique mix of literacies called up between us as we sought to share a pleasurable experience.

A requirement for participating in the group is “the ability to read English aloud fluently”, an ability all our readers possess to greater or lesser degrees. But each also brings different perspectives, experience and skills. One might say that each possesses a variety of literacies. Some have English as a second language and place emphases differently from first-language English speakers. The impulses of their primary literacy call our attention in new ways to individual words and to the iambic poetic flow of Shakespeare’s English. Some are academics who revel in explication and analysis of difficult or unusual portions of the text. Some intuitively inhabit their characters, bringing them alive through vocal variation that responds to each event in the story. Some are older and voice the concerns of older characters with an empathy that is not yet available to the younger readers. Some are dramatists who read even Stage Directions with a conviction that enables us to see and feel the context of the action. We learn from each other.

Each time we took a break from the reading, we watched the ballet. There are inevitably losses and gains in the process of transliterating the familiar story of the star-crossed lovers into the languages of music and dance. Some modifications to the storyline might disappoint, for example when scenes are left out or conflated, but other changes might delight when they richly express implicit characterization, emotional interplay or actions sometimes only hinted at or briefly mentioned in the text. The introduction of Juliet and the Nurse, the balcony scene with Romeo and Juliet, Juliet’s rejection of Paris and the final death scene are examples of wonderful choreography and dancing that carry the audience right to the passionate heart of Shakespeare’s poetry, without words.

A new literacy for the group is that of relating to one another on-screen via Facebook. Everyone who attended had responded to the invitation via Facebook, but with varying degrees of comfort depending on their familiarity with the tool. Many had struggled to find their way back to the Event page to see the Links and find the scripts. For this reason, I presented a brief Facebook overview to demonstrate the difference between the individual’s Profile (using mine as an example), the Shakespeare Readers Group and the Romeo and Juliet Event and to explain the import of leaving comments on each of the different Walls. We also looked briefly at the new Facebook Privacy options, to allay fears about publishing one’s data to the world.

This move to organising the readings via Facebook Events has become necessary for several reasons. It is quicker to monitor attendance and dramatically cuts the number of emails to and from individuals that I as organiser previously dealt with. It also facilitates an ongoing sense of community which is otherwise fragmented between meetings, as the group has grown to over twenty people, not all of whom can come to every reading. There is also interest from people outside the UK who cannot attend readings but would like to participate in discussions. For instance, Eva, a member in Italy, shared our anticipation before the event by posting a link to a blog post she wrote in 2007 about Shakespeare’s possible models for the Romeo and Juliet story in the real city of Verona.

Facebook is clearly useful in these ways, but I had not appreciated to what extent this particular new media literacy might have a direct impact on our appreciation of the plays themselves, until one of our new members, Anna, posted a link to this write-up of a student project that views Romeo and Juliet as “A Facebook Tragedy” of competing social networks which “contains an emphasis on the bonds between kinsmen and family. The play focuses on both honoring these bonds, and the consequences of breaking bonds.”

Shakespeare offers all the fascination of the archaic and unfamiliar to those who are keen on historical mysteries, but most of his enduring attraction is due to the aptness of his themes for every age and the up-to-date voice with which he has always spoken on issues close to the human heart. This powerful communication has demanded translation into almost every world language and transliteration into every conceivable medium (live theatre, music, dance, film, TV…), with each translater or producer creating new metaphors in order to stay true to the old themes in their new medium. In our networked age, it should not surprise us to find Shakespeare alive in Facebook too!



Notes on reading Shakespeare aloud for fun

It’s hard to believe two years have passed since we lasted hosted a play reading in London (Antony and Cleopatra). Now that my MA is finished, I can return to pleasant pastimes like this, so we’re looking forward to our next reading, of All’s Well That Ends Well, on 3rd October.

The Shakespeare-interpreting part of my brain was decidedly rusty when I first plunged into the text a couple of weeks ago, but the fantastic production we then saw at the National Theatre went a long way to lubricating it. If you can’t get to London, then check out NT Live, an initiative to broadcast the play to cinema screens around the world on 1st October 2009.

While preparing for the reading and allocating parts, I’ve made the following notes to encourage the readers, new and old:

  1. Adopt the attitude that this is a workshop rather than a performance. We’re figuring it out together as we go along. This is why we don’t allow spectators—we’re all in it together.
  2. Don’t hurry.
  3. Keep in mind your character’s basic motivations and role in the story. If you don’t have time to pre-read the whole play, or even your own part/s before the group reading, then make an effort to read at least a character summary. There are many resources online; one example is the Hudson Shakespeare Company which offers a good Character Directory.
  4. Remember the play is for the stage—much of the meaning should be conveyed visually, so use the stage directions to help you imagine the scenes, the actions and the tone of the exchanges… e.g. whether indoors or outdoors, who is present, how many are present and what they are doing—there are differences between the pomp and ceremony of a royal court and the intimacy of a private exchange in a parlour, between men’s voices in the rough and tumble of the battlefield and women’s voices in a safer setting in town, between an address to an equal and an address to a subordinate.
  5. Therefore, when reading Stage Directions, do so clearly, with appropriate emphases, to assist the group in imagining the scene. Note: Do not read the words [Aside], [Reads] or [Sings] – we leave it to the reader of the part to convey that they are speaking quietly to avoid being heard by someone in the scene, or that they are reading, or singing.
  6. Use the punctuation. Respond with appropriate emphases to exclamation and question marks. Pause with full stops, commas and em dashes—they give you and your hearers time to absorb what has just been said, and they help you make sense of the sentences. Don’t pause at the ends of lines unless punctuation says you should.
  7. If you realise by the end of a sentence, a paragraph or a poetic section that you have misunderstood it and placed emphasis incorrectly and you feel you could improve it with a second reading, by all means read it again. This is not required, but it’s perfectly acceptable in a workshop: you can re-read it yourself or invite someone else to have a go. Of course, we don’t have time to analyse every word or even to understand every sentence, but if you think the particular sentence you’re struggling with is important to understanding a conversation or a plot development, everyone else will welcome the repetition too.


{Thu 14 February 2008}   The Merchant of Venice in Cape Town
Two weeks ago I had the privilege of hosting a reading of The Merchant of Venice with a new group in Cape Town. As is usual with a new group of readers who last engaged with a Shakespeare text anywhere from twenty to forty years ago (at school), there was a mix of attitudes as the evening began— uncertainty, excitement, cynicism, anticipation, etc. but as everyone gamely plunged in and gradually relaxed into the reading, some of the wonderful shades and possibilities of Shakespeare’s drama and poetry began to grip us all. The feedback I received afterwards suggested that the participants had really enjoyed the evening. Many were surprised at how accessible they had found it, despite their initial nervousness.

Armed with our recent exploration of the text, four of us then went to see the current production at The Maynardville Open Air Theatre. Setting (beautiful green open air stage), set and costumes (Italy, 1943), and acting were all great, or at least, interesting, and it all seemed to be adding up to a very enjoyable evening, until a peculiar epilogue was tacked on to the end of the play and spoiled it for me.

It was bad enough that after Gratiano’s final words (which should have ended the play), “Well, while I live, I’ll fear no other thing/So sore as keeping safe Nerissa’s ring”, Portia and Bassanio suddenly used an interchange that should have been spoken earlier in the play, weakening the dry comic effect of Gratiano’s words without enhancing the final spoken scene at all. But worse was to come. Before the audience could respond with the applause that had already, at least in my case, been interrupted once, a little mimed morality play was suddenly inflicted upon us. It depicted Shylock being forced at gunpoint by the Nazis to wear a yellow star under some rapidly unfurled Nazi banners.

In a discussion this morning, I realised that I hadn’t even noticed that there was a Catholic priest in that final mime, because I was so offended by the reek of “political correctness” that I couldn’t concentrate on details at that point! It wouldn’t have made any difference if I had though. I was simply appalled by the grossness of the Holocaust imagery—the unfurling of Nazi flags and the guns pointed at Shylock and the yellow star, etc. These strange tacked-on bits so ruined what had until that point been a very good performance that I found myself unable to applaud at all.

I am of course aware that much of the action in any Shakespeare production is only “in the text” by implication or interpretation, but this odd added epilogue emphasized one strand of meaning in the text to such an extent that the ambivalence and complexity of the human interactions showcased in the play were annihilated in favour of the one anti-anti-semitism message. The hypocrisy and selfishness of all the characters and their inability to exemplify the highest ideals of either religion, or, said another way, the inadequacy of either religion for the task of overcoming the worst aspects of human nature, were completely lost.

Shylock is, of course, a victim of the Christians’ disgusting prejudices, but he is also a pretty nasty character in his own right—neither his own daughter nor his servant like or respect him. The law that he claims to exonerate him of wrongdoing in his unreasonable demand for a pound of flesh is not the Law of G-d but the law of the state. The Bard leaves one in no doubt that none of the other characters are perfectly lovely either. The apparently righteous Antonio shows very selective love and generosity (towards Christians only, rather than to his “neighbour” or his “enemy” as Christ exhorted); Bassanio is as interested in Portia’s fortune as he is in her face and her virtue, and less in her than in his “friendship” with Antonio; Portia is a blatant racist and spoiled little rich girl, is most interested in making the best of the bad deal her father has left her, and shows very little mercy to Shylock immediately after her “quality of mercy” speech; the Christian society endorses slavery, etc.

On reading the play, and seeing it in other productions, I’ve never been in any doubt that Shakespeare was extremely subversive and did not unquestioningly accept the prevailing attitudes of his day. The prominence given to the Jew and the woman Portia in terms of number of lines and quality of poetry makes this clear, and the careful development of situation to the point where Shylock is psychologically pushed over the edge makes one sympathise with him despite his meanness. Although in the final few lines Shakespeare apparently restores the Elizabethan “natural” order by making the three male lovers heads of their new households again, their real authority is very much in doubt because it is so clear that their fortunes are dependent on the wealth and the wit of their women. Shylock’s forced and therefore insincere conversion has left a bad taste in the mouth and the moral authority of the “Christian” state has therefore also been brought into question. The only real act of love has been that of Antonio towards Bassanio in risking himself for his friend, but that relationship has strong homoerotic overtones, so this particular self-sacrifice (commitment to suicide?) would not officially be sanctioned by Christianity…. It’s all deliciously complex and I really was extremely disappointed by the crassness of the ending of this particular production. For me, it negated both the outstanding job done by some of the actors, particularly Jeremy Crutchley as Shylock, and the apparently accurate and sensitive interpretation of the text by the director until that point.

Er, sorry, Mr Sargeant, but that’s really how I felt—intellectually insulted (and assaulted!). But good stuff, until that final scene… I had to wonder whether a producer or a funder made you do it…



{Thu 22 November 2007}   Points of light in a grey, wet winter
I love rain, but I don’t like grey. Heavy, exciting rain that contrasts with plenty of warm sunshine, that’s good. Rain that just witters around forever, greeting me with wimpish wetness every time I open the curtains in the morning, that’s bad. Real bad. Just what is the point of opening those curtains, if it’s not going to change the quality of light in the room? In this season, I look towards the coming months in the UK with a kind of muted horror, feeling already how hard it is to motivate myself to dress in anything other than an all-enveloping cushion of warm frumpiness, or to go out to the mailbox, much less to the gym.

But then, there’s Shakespeare, and poetry.

The weekend before last, we held a reading of Antony and Cleopatra. It was a fantastic evening, with twelve readers gamely taking on the 56 or so roles between them. Before we launched in, we had the privilege of an introduction to the political context of the Roman world of the Mediterranean by a group member keenly interested in Roman history. This brief survey of the times added great interest, helping us to understand the characters’ motivations and the enormous personal and political stakes for which they played, as well as clarifying that Shakespeare had squashed actual events that spanned several years into what appears a much shorter period in the play.

Our Cleopatra was passionate, petulant and powerful right to the end, and Antony’s gorgeous voice keenly reflected the conflict between his own passions for love and for honour, and between his rationalizing and his rational mind as he yearned both to lose himself in Egypt and to lead again in the Roman Empire. Octavius Caesar came across as intelligent and dangerously calculating under a veneer of courtesy and honour. Cleopatra’s maidservants, Iras and Charmian, were suitably langorous and lighthearted (at least at first), to convey Egypt’s exotic sensuality and hedonism as opposed to the militant, ambitious demands of Rome.

It’s a long and very complex play, with a vast number of scenes, some only a few lines long, taking place in Egypt, in Rome, in Sicily, in Athens, on the battlefield, etc. Messengers are of great importance in a scenario as vast as this to carry the story from scene to scene and to assist the audience with the understanding of the transitions. Our Messenger (we had one person reading all of them) bravely dusted himself off after the various rejections and beatings which seemed to be his unfortunate lot as he brought unwelcome news again and again!

Of course, it’s easier to relate to this number of scene changes when one sees them on stage, as visual and musical settings help to orient one. I’ve never been so grateful for the clear and confident reading of Stage Directions! It seems strange to beginning readers that we should “waste talent” on reading Stage Directions out loud, but we have found that this contributes enormously to the framing of each scene and to the rhythm of the reading. The person reading the humble Stage Directions with clarity and confidence subtly facilitates and “contains” the reading for the others. It’s so effective that I now try to allocate one reader to Stage Directions for each Act, with that reader reading no or very few other parts during that Act if possible. In fact, I would have a single person read all the Stage Directions for the entire play if I weren’t afraid there’d be a mutiny, because of course we all want to feel the motivations and speak the poetry of at least one character as well!

To do something a bit different and slightly lighter over the festive season, we’ve decided to hold a poetry evening next. In the spirit of inclusion, as so many different cultures are represented in our group, we’ll each read a poem that is connected in some way to an aspect of our heritage, and then direct some or all of the others in the group in a re-reading of it (besides being a lot of fun, this is a way to absorb the meaning and atmosphere of a poem that is at first strange to one — it’s very seldom that one truly “gets” a poem on first reading. Well, I think the best poems keep on giving one new stuff every time one goes back to them, of course!) The date has yet to be decided, but I hope there’ll be a write-up of a happy poetic evening soon!

And still on points of light… see my next post for a light poem about light that I wrote last weekend at a writer’s workshop in Geneva.



After a month of rain and stormy weather, our King Lear reading took place on the first sunny weekend of the summer. However, with the images of grey skies and floodwaters still strong in our minds, it wasn’t difficult to feel the intensity of Shakespeare’s insistent “Storm continues” repeated so often in the stage directions. Poor Lear is adrift in an awful storm of his own making. Despite their loyalty to him, the Fool and Kent repeatedly assert that he is the author of his own misfortune, for giving up his crown too early and for disinheriting the one daughter who truly loved him and on whom he might have counted when the others betrayed him.

Many hold this to be the Bard’s greatest play, but not always for the same reasons, or perhaps because there are so many possible reasons. As usual, we enjoyed the different perspectives that arose in our group’s discussion. Are Lear’s irrational pronouncements and acts born purely out of wilful folly or monstrous ego, or does his great age suggest the possibility of dementia, something he senses is happening and knows he cannot control? If a king of forty wants to give up his throne in order to “shake all cares and business from our age”, we might well accuse him of laziness, of simply wanting an easy life with the trappings but not the responsibilities of authority. But when the king is eighty (in a world when many people did not live past fifty), and has exercised authority throughout a long life, is the same charge fair? In this latter case, might one not see his attempt to transfer power peacefully during his lifetime as a brave and responsible act, fouled only by the dementia itself when he repudiates Cordelia? Goneril’s and Regan’s references to earlier irrational acts before the play opens lend themselves to this interpretation, as do Lear’s own expressed fear of going mad and his alternating periods of apparent lunacy and lucidity.

Of course he also represents humankind at large, buffeted by the storms of life. We know this because our sympathy for him grows as he rails alone against the storm, even if it is his own fault that he’s there at all. Is Shakespeare suggesting that most of our stormy experiences arise because of our own stubborn refusal to see clearly and to act rightly? Or does the theme of “nothing”, also repeated often, suggest a lurking nihilism, the idea that all our intentions and efforts may be meaningless, subject to the random attacks of nature, no matter whether we act responsibly or not? Cordelia acts according to her conscience throughout, but ends up just as dead as Lear and the traitors. Is Shakespeare evoking an absurd universe, long before Waiting for Godot? This is one possibility raised by the really enjoyable essay “Speak What We Feel: An Introduction to King Lear” by Ian Johnston at http://www.mala.bc.ca/~Johnstoi/eng366/lectures/lear.htm. This essay also raises several other questions, such as the ‘normality’ of evil and the value of individual acts of goodness, like that of the unnamed Servant who challenges and kills Cornwall. There is a wealth of other Lear material online as well — just search on “King Lear”.

After such a stimulating reading and discussion, we are very much looking forward to seeing the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of King Lear with Ian McKellen in the title role at the New London Theatre in November. Join us if you can! Note that booking for this production is currently only available to RSC Members. Public booking opens on 7th September 2007. RSC Membership costs £15 and is well worth it, as tickets for most productions over the past two years have sold out very quickly.

The next reading, probably in August, will be The Merchant of Venice.



Yesterday we hosted one of our regular Shakespeare readings at home. The company was jolly and the food delicious, if very simple (crudites with organic hummus to start, then homemade veggie soup with homemade crusty bread at the halfway point, and strawberries and Lindt Lindor Extra Dark choccy balls for the final act!). With the help of some French organic cider and a very good Pinot Noir, the group launched into Measure for Measure with great energy, scrambling bravely over the rocky bits (French velvet and English kersey) and breaking out every so often for a spot of outrage or insight as we are wont to do. We were delighted by the variety of temperaments our readers captured in both large and small parts, with a menacingly sepulchral Angelo, Lucio as a canny, sassy, irreverent ne’er-sit-down whose wordplay gleamed like swordplay, Francisca sporting an Irish accent, a self-righteous Elbow, a truculent Barnardine, the passionate virgin Isabella, and all the other characters whose hilarious and shocking contrasts only fully emerge when embodied.

The play was, as always, very timely. We yielded willingly to the Bard’s genius in creating characters, situations and wordplay that make us laugh uproariously while reflecting on themes of moral hypocrisy, the unequal values placed on the testimonies of women and men, the power-relationships of relative rank, money, reputation, class and gender, over-legislation and interference by the state, and the obsession with sex as a focus for legislation and judgement due to supposed “public interest”, with repression the chosen tool despite the evidence of history that it is neither possible nor desirable to “geld and splay all the youth of the city” (Pompey to Escalus, MforM Act II Sc i).

These topics are so ubiquitous and familiar still from our own everyday politics that it’s hard to blame anyone who takes up an attitude as cynical as Lucio’s, determining simply to follow whichever path (and suck up to whichever power source) is likely to lead to the greatest personal licence right now. However, in Shakespeare’s time one had a lot less choice about one’s position and advancement in society (at least relative to those who live in more or less democratic cultures now — I know that the majority of the world still lacks this privilege). Why don’t those of us who can in the 21st century require our leaders and opinion-formers in church and state and media to concentrate on education, health, gender equality and poverty relief or any of the other things where their intervention could actually be useful, rather than spending our time and our money on the prosecution of people whose service exists because of society’s need and desire to use it?

I say this in connection with “The madam, her girls and a city in fear” in the Mail&Guardian. How much has changed since Shakespeare wrote Measure for Measure? Well, I smiled as I thought that it seems clear that the primal needs and the political motivations of the players haven’t altered at all, but at least there is a possibility that Mistress Overdone may get more airtime. That, at least, brings a bit of balance to the exploitation equation.

Overall, the play’s a peachy preach on a theme that’s too little heard these days:

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way as you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye’, when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

Matthew 7:1-5

And I love the open question at the end… did Isabella say yes to Vincentio?



There’s a wonderful article in The Guardian today where Robert Fisk explores the Bard’s evocations of the feelings and actions of men in battle situations and shows how relevant and accurate they are to our wars today. Oh, to see so clearly and write poetry that penetrates and grips and lasts and keeps on speaking!

See http://news.independent.co.uk/world/fisk/article2403298.ece



et cetera