Shakespeare and I: Greg Doran

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‘Shakespeare and I’ was an idea that grew from two events held as part of last year’s Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival, for which travel writer Jan Morris and television presenter Michael Wood made a personal selection of poems and then discussed them with me. But we wanted Shakespeare to play a more prominent part in the Festival, so I invited the theatre director, Greg Doran, to chose around a dozen Shakespeare passages and related readings that would illustrate how Shakespeare has helped form his life and career. And so the scene was set for our public conversation last Thursday evening.

His father was a member of a record club and Greg recalls a 45 r.p.m. disc of Mendelssohn’s incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream arriving when he was eight years old. The recording included some extracts from the play. Shakespeare’s language caught Greg’s imagination, especially Oberon’s speech beginning ‘I know a bank where the wild thyme blows’ (2.1.249), which he selected as part of the programme. Puck’s ‘I’ll put a girdle round the earth / In forty minutes’ (2.1.175-6) bore literal comparison to the Sputnik which Greg remembers hearing could orbit the earth in an hour and a half. So much for his earliest encounter with Shakespeare. His future in the theatre had been assured even earlier when, at the age of four, he was taken to see the Preston’s Women’s Institute Christmas show: ‘I saw two statues come to life, and have been hooked ever since.’

The sound of Shakespeare and poetry more generally are immensely important to Greg. Another piece he selected was Ben Jonson’s tribute at the front of the First Folio in which he compares Shakespeare to Apollo, coming forth ‘to warm / Our ears.’ Gerard Manley Hopkins’s vividly musical ‘Inversnaid’ beginning, ‘This darksome burn, horseback brown’ represented Greg’s own Jesuit education and reminds him of his father. It was while Greg was at the Roman Catholic college in Preston, where he was brought up, that he began to act in Shakespeare plays. Pipped to the post for Ophelia, he nevertheless went on to play Lady Anne, Richard II, and Malvolio. Lady Macbeth was particularly memorable, especially since he would recite her dangerous words late at night during long walks on the salt marshes near his home. He chose her speech beginning ‘The raven himself is hoarse’ (1.5.37), Richard II’s speech, ‘Let’s talk of graves, of worms and epitaphs’ (3.2.141), and Leontes’s ‘Is whispering nothing?’ (The Winter’s Tale 1.2.286) to conjure up the Shakespeare music he has loved long.

Regular theatre trips to Stratford meant that he had completed his canon by the time he was twenty-one (he shared a cursory diary entry about going to see Buzz Goodbody’s As You Like It on 30 August 1973). Twenty years later he was staging Derek Walcott’s version of The Odyssey, the first of Greg’s many R.S.C. productions, a new voyage marked by his choice of Cavafy’s ‘Ithaca’: ‘When you set out on your journey to Ithaca, / pray that the road is long, / full of adventure, full of knowledge.’ His selection from Alexander Pope’s ‘An Essay on Criticism’ about making sure the way language sounds reflects its meaning is one he often uses with actors during rehearsals.

And his meeting and falling in love with Antony Sher (his partner of twenty-four years) was marked by Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29 and John Donne’s ‘A Valediction Forbidding Mourning.’

The first half ended with Shakespeare’s Venus kissing Adonis (an extract finishing at line 540), and the whole evening ended with Lucrece on ‘Time’s glory’, wasting ‘huge stones with little water drops.’ (The Rape of Lucrece, lines 939 to 959).

This was a magical evening of open reflection, poetry, and the difference that Shakespeare can make.

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Author:Paul Edmondson

Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Follow Paul on Twitter @paul_edmondson

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