Shakespeare & Co. by Stanley Wells

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I very much enjoyed working with Rory Kinnear and Kelly Hunter on my programme of extracts from Shakespeare and his contemporaries for the Poetry Festival. Two such talented and experienced performers needed scarcely any direction, just a few suggestions about emphases as we did the run through. It was slightly odd to find that my function as compiler of the programme had finished before the performance began. All I had to do then was to sit back along with the other members of the full house and enjoy it. But timing of programmes like these is crucial and not easy to estimate in advance of the event. The usual fault is to over-run.  So I was keen to keep an eye on how we were getting on. Happily the first part came in at about 50 minutes, the second at 40, which was exactly what I had aimed at. So I gave myself a pat on the back.

It was a mixed programme. Some of the items were standards, such as the great song from Nashe’s Summer’s Last Will and Testament – the one that includes the wonderful lines ‘Brightness falls from the air; / Queens have died young and fair; / Dust hath closed Helen’s eye; / I am sick, I must die. / Lord have mercy on us.’  (Someone has suggested that it should read ‘Brightness falls from the hair’, but I think this takes away all the magic.) And there were poems by Marlowe, Campion, Donne and Walter Ralegh along with extracts from Titus Andronicus, The Jew of Malta, and Every Man in His Humour. But I also put in some anonymous, non-literary verses, as it were, including the parodic ‘Come live with me and be my whore’, the ballad on the burning of the Globe, and another,  rather long ballad about the appearance of ‘a strange fish’ – no doubt a whale – on the Cheshire coast. It’s exactly the kind of verse that Autolycus tries to sell to the credulous shepherdesses in The Winter’s Tale, which was my justification for including it. During the rehearsal we wondered whether to shorten it, but its very length and naive repetitiveness are part of its charm, so we did it in full. Its refrain is ‘O rare beyond compare, in England ne’er the like’, which Rory had to say 15 times. He varied it in masterly fashion, inviting the audience to join in on its last appearance.

Towards the end I put in William Basse’s elegy on Shakespeare’s death, along with lines from Jonson’s poem in the Folio which echo it. It read surprisingly well, and provided the occasion for a bit of propaganda about the authorship debate, too.

At the end I was quite sad it was over. Anyone want a ready-made programme called ‘From the Mermaid Tavern’?

by Stanley Wells

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Author:Stanley Wells

Stanley Wells is Honorary President and a Life Trustee of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Emeritus Professor of Shakespeare Studies of the University of Birmingham, Honorary Emeritus Governor of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Follow Stanley on twitter @stanley_wells or visit his website

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