‘These our actors’

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Last year, as I wrote in an earlier blog, I compiled a programme for the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival called ‘At the Mermaid Tavern’, which included a wide selection of writings by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, some of them anonymous. I was pleased to be asked to put together another programme for this year’s festival. The proceeds from one of last year’s events were shared between the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and Amnesty International, and the committee thought we should like to assist a different charity in the same way this year. My suggestion that the charity might appropriately be The Actors’ Benevolent Fund was accepted. So I decided to make ‘Shakespeare and actors’ the theme of my programme, giving it the title ’These our actors’ – ‘these our actors, as I foretold you, were all spirits …’, says Prospero in The Tempest.

I set about the work of compilation by thinking about all the references to acting in Shakespeare’s works – there are many, most conspicuously in Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream but also spread over the rest of the canon, including the sonnets (‘As an unperfect actor …’, No. 23.) I consulted a number of anthologies of writings about the theatre and of course racked my brains for memories of suitable poems and prose passages. I thought of various ways of organizing the programme. Amateurs and Professionals were possible categories. Hits and misses was another; audiences should come into it somehow. I wanted to include accounts of some particularly fine performances. Although there are poems about the theatre and acting, including for example ‘The Actor’ by Robert Lloyd (1733-1764), which I eventually decided not to use, very little verse has been written about particular performances, though I did find a sonnet about Sarah Siddons written possibly by Charles Lamb, possibly by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and one by Oscar Wilde about Ellen Terry as Portia.

I saw no reason to confine myself to verse as there are of course vivid and eloquent accounts in prose. The first part of the programme as it finished up includes extracts from both A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hamlet, some of the rare descriptions of performances in Shakespeare’s lifetime, a poem about a boy actor by Ben Jonson, and a number of writings about the greatest actor of Shakespeare’s company, Richard Burbage, including a little-known early twentieth century poem. This part will end with a short comic playlet about a rehearsal of Macbeth featuring Burbage along with Shakespeare himself in a subsidiary role.

Audiences are an integral part of performance, so I’m beginning the second part with some verse about them and following this with writings about three great Shakespeare actresses – Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth, Helena Faucit as Hermione in The Winter’s Tale, and Ellen Terry, including two sonnets addressed to her by Wilde and a charming description from her delightful book of memoirs of an incident that happened as she was playing Puck at the age of nine. I end with two prose accounts of performances that went awry, one given by an amateur –William, of Just William fame – the other by a professional, Kenneth Branagh’s hilarious account of a stage accident that occurred as he played Henry V.

‘These our actors’ will be performed by Alexandra Gilbreath, Henry Goodman and Scott Handy, on Sunday 3 July at 7.30pm at The Shakespeare Centre. Tickets are £15.00. Box Office (01789) 292176

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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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