Feeding Body and Brain

Here I am, eating my lunch, at my desk, reading the news online (I know I should get outside but I will, later) and I come across a feature from the Guardian called, ‘Reclaim you lunch hour’. What’s it about? Seeing 45 minute theatre productions at London’s Bridewell Theatre in your lunch hour. Obviously, something will be lost in the shortening of the plays but what a backdrop to your sandwich munching. Click on the link above to watch a short video about the idea behind Lunchbox Theatre and the current production of Two Gentlemen of Verona. It’s certainly food for thought about how we spend our lunch hour.

A Day for Celebration or Trepidation?

Today is the day William Shakespeare, the greatest poet in the English language, was born in 1564 (although he was baptised on 26th April) and it is also the day he died in 1606. Today is also marks the anniversary of the deaths of Henry Vaughan (1695), William Wordsworth (1850), Rupert Brooke (1915). There is much to be remembered today but perhaps, it’s a day to be feared by poets, as regular contibutor to The Reader magazine, Ian McMillan, writes in today’s Guardian. On top of all this, it is, of course, also St. George’s Day!

Casi Dylan, Read to Lead Training Manager selects her favourite Shakespearean sonnet to share with you.

This sonnet is one of my all-time favourite poems. What appeals to me above all is its frankness – which sometimes borders on cheekiness – its down to earth sense of a woman I can imagine as a real person, as someone who has lived and loved. There is something comforting not only in the poet’s acceptance of imperfections in a lover, but also in his love’s ability to render those imperfections ‘rare’ and true, as opposed to ‘false’ comparisons too often associated with love poetry.

My Mistress’s Eyes Are Nothing Like The Sun (Sonnet 130)

My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lip’s red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun,
If hair be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
In some perfumes there is more delight
Than the breath with which my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know,
Music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

William Shakespeare

Why Reading Matters

If you missed Why Reading Matters on BBC Four on Monday, you’re not too late to catch it: the programme is available to watch on BBC iplayer for the next five days.

The documentary, about the incredible power that reading unlocks in the brain,  features Philip Davis, editor of The Reader magazine, investigating the ‘Shakespeared Brain’ – how the shapes of Shakespeare’s lines and sentences effect our minds – and The Reader Organisation’s pioneering outreach project Get Into Reading.

Event: Physiological Responses to Shakespeare

We have varying physiological responses to Shakespeare, depending on whether we are reading or listening to works of the Bard, using and engaging different parts of the brain in each of these activities. Join Professor Philip Davis of the University of Liverpool and editor of The Reader magazine in a talk about the unique ways in which our minds respond to Shakespeare.

Friday 21 November, 1.00 – 2.00pm, Liverpool Everyman. Cost: £1.50 when booked with a theatre ticket for King Lear (starring Pete Postlethwaite). Contact the Everyman (0151 709 4776) to book a ticket.

Wirral’s Shakespearean Stars

Since 2002, Jane Davis, Director of The Reader Organisation, has had many Get Into Reading group members say, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could put on a play?”, a suggestion that, although attractive, was easily resistible. “Just think”, said Jane, “the work! The organisation! The cost!”. However, in 2006 she paid a visit to New York’s Central Park, attending attended the fabled free ‘Shakespeare in the Park’; she was inspired. With Liverpool ‘08 on the horizon and this year also being the National Year of Reading, Jane conceived the idea of bringing Shakespeare to Birkenhead Park. A couple of years later and thanks to many hard-working people, Wirral Community Shakespeare – organised by The Reader Organisation and Aspire Trust – performed five open-air performances of The Winter’s Tale.

The show was an astounding success, thrilling audiences and instilling enormous pride in everyone involved in the project. “Remarkable…a fantastic ensemble piece and great team effort of which all involved should be justifiably proud,” Liverpool Daily Post. Directed by Brookside‘s Neil Caple and starring twenty-eight members of the local community, with Coronation Street‘s Pauline Fleming as Paulina, the cast and crew staged an unforgettable show.

It is estimated that more than 1500 people saw the performances in the “fabulous setting” of Birkenhead Park. Free tickets and huge involvement by the local community – in the cast and crew – plus some big names, meant that The Reader Organisation’s aim to make Shakespeare more accessible to people in the wider community has been realised. Councillor Phil Davies, who attended the performance on Friday evening, said,

I’m sure that the fact that tickets were free encouraged people who may never have read or seen a play by Shakespeare to attend. All in all, it was a great night and I very much hope that other plays and performances can be staged in the park in future years.

A mixture of pleasure, pride and surprise was felt amongst the audience, cast and crew: people didn’t expect something that “great and good” in Birkenhead. “This is important, for Birkenhead and for the park,” said one audience member and another commented, “The park’s only used by dog-walkers and scallies. To see it being used like this is wonderful, like reclaiming it for what it should be used for.”

A volunteer on the refreshment stall, a Get Into Reading group member said, “I’m so impressed by what’s been achieved, a wow for the audience and a truly profound, uplifting experience for the Get Into Reading members involved: double success!”

It’s been a remarkable inaugural year for Wirral Community Shakespeare and we hope, due to an overwhelming amount of positive feedback and support received, that The Winter’s Tale is the first of many open-air productions. One cast member commented, “Many of us are asking ourselves, ‘what are we going to do now after such an intense experience? – we all know we’ll be back next year”.

Posted by Jen Tomkins

Open Air Shakespeare Comes To Birkenhead Park

A community performance in Birkenhead Park of A Winter’s Tale directed by Neil Caple is being produced by The Reader Organisation.

Wirral Community Shakespeare

Wirral Community Shakespeare is a project that is running on Wirral with a simple aim, to get anyone involved in producing a great performance of a great play. The project is not simply about putting on a show, it includes workshops, opportunities to volunteer in the build-up to project, to work backstage or front of house on the night.

The show will be on 29th and 30th August in Birkenhead Park. Tickets are FREE and are available to pick up from the Visitors’ Centre, Birkenhead Park 9:30am-4pm. Alternatively send a stamped and addressed envelope to: Get in Reading, The Lauries Centre, 142 Claughton Road, Birkenhead CH61 6EY.

How To Get Involved

Are you interested in being involved? Want to help source props and costumes? Maybe you could host? Or is backstage more your thing? Whatever it is you would like to do, get in touch with Wirral Community Shakespeare using the contact form right here, or email BenDavis [AT] thereader.org.uk

‘Dumbing down’ Shakespeare: to be or not to be?

A call from the University’s press office at noon on a Friday is not a particularly usual occurrence. ‘We’re after someone to talk about Shakespeare, just for a few minutes, as part of City Talk’s discussion on making Shakespeare more accessible to younger people – we thought that Jane Davis would be a good person to do this, is she around?’ Ah. No, Jane’s in Paris. Estelle, the coordinator of our Community Shakespeare project is also unavailable. A little more information required now, as I could see that this interview was to be falling upon my shoulders. So I discover that this has all come about after an article published in The Telegraph about Martin Baum’s new publication Yoof Speak.

I feel that yes, Shakespeare, were he alive today, would have felt “duty bound” to reflect “life as it really is in the 21st century” but as far as I can tell, life isn’t all “innit”, “bovvered” and “geezas” in the 21st century. I am not alone in thinking this, am I? Perhaps I live in a bubble where sentences still have words without a littering of zs and vs. Were he alive today I am sure Shakespeare’s language would reflect our current idioms but still be as poetic and beautiful as it was four-hundred years ago. He may well drop a few ts or swear more frequently but really, “innit”? I doubt it. So, in an attempt to defend the richness of the Bard’s language and to reinforce that part of the enjoyment of Shakespeare is in getting to grips with that language, searching for the meaning and feeling like you’ve achieved something, I took to the stage (as it were). Oh okay, if I must… click here to ‘listen again’ (about 45 minutes in).

Now, the problem that I have about this mutation of:

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whole misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.


Verona was de turf of de feuding Montagues and de Capulet families. And coz they was always brawling and stuff, de prince of Verona told them to cool it or else they was gonna get well mashed if they carried on larging it with each other.

Is that it’s just not Shakespeare is it? I truly believe that Shakespeare can be accessible for all and is, if the time is given to it and texts or performances are approached in a dynamic and interesting way for those who would be otherwise uninterested and un-enthused. Take The Reader Organisation’s Community Shakespeare project: organised by Get Into Reading, we will be staging two performances of The Winter’s Tale in August, reaching out across the Wirral community to members of our GIR groups, local schools and people who, for various reasons feel socially excluded, in the hope that we will be able to make Shakespeare more accessible to the wider community. Members will take part in a wide range of activities to support the event from costume making, ticket design, painting and publicity. It will be hard work, it will take a lot of time, a lot of planning and energy but it will be, we hope, an invigorating, life-enhancing and enjoyable experience for all involved.

Surely it is better to take the time to read, explain and hopefully, eventually, be able to connect with the words of Shakespeare than to alter the language to such a hideous extent that even the story itself loses its essence? Shakespeare is his language. To alter that alters the entire experience.

Posted by Jen Tomkins

Cheltenham Literature Festival: Shakespeare

Yesterday, my day at the festival was bridged by two events that could not have provided two more different insights into the life and work of Shakespeare. Which am I more convinced by? Depends upon whether I want to indulge in fantasy or face the facts.

Promoting her new book, Shakespeare’s Wife, Germaine Greer thrilled her audience by giving an intelligent and quick-witted key note lecture. Critically acclaimed as an “engaging and speculative” work, this defence of Anne Hathaway’s integral position as Shakespeare’s wife and the influence on his work is intriguing but it is, as Greer admits, “all guess work”. What Greer aims to achieve with this publication is to “open our eyes to Anne” and make literary scholars work to disregard her. “This woman seems to be the still centre of Will’s giddy world,” states Greer as she plots possible social, economic and political reasons for Anne’s central position in Shakespeare’s life. Greer also examines Shakespeares “resourceful and measured” wives in the early comedy plays (her PhD thesis focused on the ethic of love and marriage in these plays), believing that these resolute figures are a reflection of Anne. Rooted in extensive socio-historic research, Greer’s arguments are compelling and she seems to achieve her aim of putting Anne into the frame in relation to Shakespearean literary criticism. An entirely speculative work, yes, but Greer although there is no proof to her arguments, there is nothing to disprove them either.

The evening’s panel discussion about Shakespeare’s history plays and their relevance to today’s society could not have been a more disparate environment, rooted firmly in traditional critical theory. Radio 4’s James Naughtie, Michael Boyd (Artistic Director of the RSC) and historian Michael Wood even discussing these plays in the first instance shows that they are still in the centre of public discourse. Why is this? Because these plays, like all of Shakespeare’s work, present fundamental truths about us as humans. In the history plays, Shakespeare demonstrates a unique ability to see the situation of the times but as Michael Wood suggests, “they go bigger, they tell us something of the truth of history, something useful.” We should not underestimate Shakespeare’s involvement with politics but the power that resides in each of his plays are the moments of humanity – where the man triumphs over the king – and we are reassured that the essential order of humanity cannot be broken. Michael Boyd, who has the demanding task of staging all of the history plays over the coming year at the RSC, states that Shakespeare was an “optimist of the will but pessimist of the intellect”. A credible record of historical events is important to Shakespeare but their “hopelessly and brilliantly unresloved nature” shows that he was a man torn between two worlds: that past relationships and events have an undeniable connection with the future; what has happened in the past has gone but there is an integral sense of having to move foward.

Behind every great man there is a great woman; behind every monarch there is a human being; behind every theoretical argument there is the text itself. Shakespeare criticism is always going to present conflicting (and controversial) arguments and it is difficult to bring the strands of yesterday’s events to any sort of conclusion. The premise of the discussions were so incongruent that they’re essentially incomparable. However, both examinations were concerned with the fabric of history, how history itself is built on thought, ideas and relationships and there is no argument against Shakespeare’s unmitigated ability to communicate the human condition.

Posted by Jen Tomkins