Blood, Birthdays and the Bard

Being born in August is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you never have to go to school on your birthday and the sun might even shine (admittedly rare in my experience). On the other, all your friends disappear on their summer holidays and it’s hard to arrange any form of celebration. Historically, I’ve ended up having multiple birthday events each year, doing different things with separate groups of friends depending on when people are around. As much I enjoy using this as an excuse to drag out my birthday for a week or more, I do sometimes wish that I could do one or two bigger things to celebrate.

My housemates and I used to have ‘fake birthdays’ for those of us who were born in the holidays – when you study at Durham, there’s plenty of holiday to have been born in – including that one famous year when I held a Tim Burton fancy dress party and went as Mrs Lovett, complete with bloodstained apron and tin foil meat cleaver. Last year, though I was still writing my dissertation, I chose to go home and on August 1st, the anniversary of my arrival into this world, I went round to my best friend’s house. He’d forgotten. Given that I did very little else for the occasion too, I promised myself that this time I’d do my birthday properly.

You may remember that earlier this year, I got a little bit carried away with renewing my love for my subject. As well as binging on Medieval and Renaissance history, I’ve embarked on a flurry of ticket-buying for productions of early modern plays. It started with a bizarre, half-modernised version of Doctor Faustus in March and continued with not one but two Shakespearean extravaganzas either side of that fateful day when I turned 23.

For someone who was born in Leeds on Yorkshire Day and still lives in God’s Own Country, it’s perhaps appropriate that I should choose Shakespeare’s Wars of the Roses plays. Besides, when Shakespeare’s Globe is putting on all three Henry VI plays in a day it’s almost rude to resist – especially when you can stand up for a fiver. (I’d better look out for Richard III now so I can complete the tetralogy.)

If you’ve never been to Shakespeare’s Globe, I highly recommend it. A replica of the Elizabethan building which stood close to the current site, it really gives you a sense of what the writers, actors and audiences expected from a performance. But of course, that means the drawbacks of the sixteenth and early seventeenth-century stage become all too apparent, for the Globe is an outdoor performance space. The first indoor theatres didn’t exist until the later end of the period, so pretty much all of Shakespeare’s output was written for the open air. As my intrepid companions and I discovered, that leaves the audience at the mercy of the elements.

The people who pay extra for seats are covered, and their smugness is palpable when the sun is at its strongest or the rain interspersed with thunder. I know this because both of these fateful events occurred. Never before have I wanted to punch someone just for sitting down, but people trying to hide their grins when they hear you say “hey, the rain’s keeping my sunburn cool” are asking to feel some pain.

My first time at the Globe was in 2008 when I saw a great production of Merchant of Venice, but the weather was fine then. It’s only when you suffer like the groundlings did that you really start to see what writers and players were up against; how difficult it is to hold the audience’s attention when they’re soaked to the skin and can’t hear you for the thunder. Every time you take to the stage you’re gambling with the elements, so the play is always different. You can see why they liked the control that came with indoor playhouses.

On top of that, poor Will and his colleagues were facing a less than co-operative crowd. Perhaps it’s because the outdoor space might mean fewer people hear, or because standing up makes people more restless, but there were some really bloody rude people in the audience. With the kind of courage/lack of caring to which I can only aspire, my boyfriend had to tell off the people who were having a long conversation at normal speaking volume about four feet behind us. Given that in Shakespeare’s day the playhouses were also likely to feature prostitutes touting for business and people walking around selling stuff to the often drunk spectators, it must have been a madhouse.

It’s a far cry from how theatre is staged today. A week later I went to the Bard’s hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon, now the home of the Royal Shakespeare Company, to watch a non-more-black, deeply disturbing production of Titus Andronicus. In a lot of ways it was fascinating to compare it to what had gone before – with lighting, sound and far more complex staging that gives the company greater scope to manipulate the atmosphere of the play. RSC managed to put on a baroque, gothic and haunting production in spite, or perhaps because, of the inescapable moments of horrible laughter that will stay with you longer than the death toll.

And this is despite the fact that Titus is, like so many other tragedies first performed in the 1590s, a kind of Elizabethan video nasty. The RSC has put together an infographic setting out just how nasty it is – violent and interspersed with black humour that verges on hysteria. Every laugh feels wrong, because it comes as a reaction to an act of terrible cruelty that by its very extremity triggers a shock response. Judging that kind of comedy is a difficult task. I guess that’s why they’re Royal.

These two fantastic weekends encompassed some of my favourite people and a lot of old books (and a lot of time in gift shops). I came home laid down with posters, programmes and yes, more books, as well as an RSC t-shirt. The quote from Hamlet which will be proudly emblazoned across my chest sums it up:

We know what we are, but we know not what we may be.

If birthdays exist to celebrate the life we’ve had so far, watching a load of early modern plays was probably very appropriate for me. But if we see them as a way of looking to the future, I’d still like to think it was pretty suitable. I know not what I may be in the year to come, but if it involves friends and books I’ll be happy.


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