“Acting is merely the art of keeping a large group of people from coughing” (Sir Ralph Richardson)

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We’ve had a lovely group of talented actors from Texas with us this week.  They have been participating in one of our ‘Shakespeare Text and Theatre’ courses, whilst also rehearsing and doing research in our archives.  As well as seeing and discussing the RSC’s repertoire, this group also had the chance to see a new play based on Shakespeare’s life and times.  The one-man show has been written by Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate, editor of the RSC’s Complete Works of Shakespeare, and author of (among many other books) The Genius of Shakespeare, Shakespeare and Ovid, and Soul of the Age: the Life, Mind and World of William Shakespeare.  Jonathan has hit upon the novel idea of basing a play about Shakespeare’s life around the ‘Seven Ages of Man’ speech, spoken by Jaques in As You Like It.  The aim of the piece is to “track down the real Shakespeare, bringing to life both the man and the unforgettable characters – lovers, kings, soldiers, and clowns – who have since conquered the world’s stages”. Bringing Jonathan’s and Shakespeare’s words to life is the pre-eminent English actor Simon Callow, who counts Orlando, Titus Andronicus and Sir John Falstaff among his Shakespearian conquests.  Simon Callow has already performed one-man shows about the lives of Oscar Wilde and Charles Dickens, so it’s about time that Shakespeare got a look-in.

One of the joys (and one of the dangers) of live performance, is that anything can happen – anything! As our friends from Texas were travelling to Oxford to see the play, none of them could have foreseen that that night’s show would fall victim to overflowing toilets!  A flood in the basement caused problems with the electrics keeping Callow from the stage for 40 minutes. He chatted with the audience while lights crackled and fizzed, and eventually was able to reprise his performance – all’s well that ends well, indeed.

There is a long history of strange things happening during Shakespearian performances. Famously, actors shudder at the thought of Macbeth’s name being mentioned in a theatre before a show starts, and the common good luck saying of  ‘break-a-leg’ could be considered to be tempting fate. I have seen guns misfire – fail to fire – and set on fire! I have heard mobiles ring – fire alarms sing – and snores come from the stalls!  I’ve seen spectators faint – audiences arrive late – and actors fall from the stage!  A night out at the theatre promises ‘infinite variety’ – the auditorium can be flooded with emotion, and flooded with tears – and as it turns out, it can also be flooded by the toilets!

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Author:Nick Walton

Nick Walton is a Lecturer in Shakespeare Studies at The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

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  • melissaleon

    So Nick what is the superstition about saying Macbeth before a show starts?

  • Nick Walton

    Well Melissa – some say it is because this is a play in which evil spirits are conjured – and you don’t want any of those hanging around the stage on an opening night! Others think that it is because putting on ‘Macbeth’ can be a sign that a theatre is not doing well financially – when ticket sales have been low theatre companies have sometimes staged this old familiar play in the hope that they can get some bums on seats. If you happen to find yourself saying ‘Macbeth’ backstage at a theatre, make sure you leave the room, spin round three times, spit, curse, and then knock to be let back in. All going well you’ll live to tell the tale.

  • Nick Walton

    Well Melissa – some say it is because this is a play in which evil spirits are conjured – and you don’t want any of those hanging around the stage on an opening night! Others think that it is because putting on ‘Macbeth’ can be a sign that a theatre is not doing well financially – when ticket sales have been low theatre companies have sometimes staged this old familiar play in the hope that they can get some bums on seats. If you happen to find yourself saying ‘Macbeth’ backstage at a theatre, make sure you leave the room, spin round three times, spit, curse, and then knock to be let back in. All going well you’ll live to tell the tale.

  • melissaleon

    So Nick what is the superstition about saying Macbeth before a show starts?

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