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1 June - 30 June

In summer 2010 Iris Theatre’s famous outdoor productions at St. Paul’s Church, Covent Garden returned. Alongside a revival of our 2009 production of Romeo & Juliet we also produced Kenneth Grahame’s classic, The Wind in the Willows.

We performed for the whole of the month of June with 40 performances of the two shows.

A cast and crew of sixty people (three times as many as last year); producers, actors, designers, musicians, technical crew, front of house ushers and stage management; all contributed to making this unique event happen.

An audience of over two thousand and two hundred people (more than double 2009’s attendance), paying an average of only £10 per ticket, came along to soak up the atmosphere of these two shows. This included groups from youth charities Kids Company and Young Minds, and several primary and secondary schools.

a theatrical history

The origin of the tale of `Romeo and Juliet` comes from a long poem by Arthur Brooke, popular in Shakespeare’s period. The classical tale of `Pyramus and Thisbe` based on a doomed affair between two lovers whose families are at war is a likely additional source. The later tale is parodied for comic purposes in the last Act of `Midsummer Night’s Dream’.

`Romeo and Juliet` is an early tragedy of Shakespeare, written sometime between 1591 and 1596. The Nurse’s reference to an earthquake 11 years before is thought to be alluding to the Dover Straits earthquake of 1580, and its similarities to `Midsummer Night’s Dream’ would argue a similar date to that work of around 1594-5. Furthermore, its first `bad` quarto text is early 1597, and it is mentioned amongst other early works of Shakespeare’s by Meres in 1598.

It was actually published in two quarto editions by different editors in 1597 and 1599, before being part of the first folio collection of 1623. The second quarto (Q2) is the basis of most editions that followed. Q2 is thought to be based on Shakespeare’s own pre-performance draft or `foul papers`.
Q1 is probably a pirated version of the imperfect memories of two actors, with some 800 missing lines. Just as cinemas warn today of pirated poor versions of popular films, using camcorders secretly filming in cinemas and later to be sold on market stalls, so the popular new art of theatre in Shakespeare’s day had editors trying to rush out imperfect versions to be sold for profit.

Q1 says that the play `hath been often (and with great applause) plaid publiquely`, which indicates the first acting company to perform it was Shakespeare’s own, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, before 1597, and the first actor to perform Romeo would have been Richard Burbage. Of course Juliet would have been played by a young boy; women not being allowed to perform on the Elizabethan or Jacobean stage. It was also one of the first English plays to be performed outside England when a much reduced and simplified version was performed in Nordlingen, Germany in 1604.

Between 1642 and 1660, all theatres were closed by order of the Puritan government of Cromwell, but when the Monarchy was restored in the person of Charles II who loved the theatre, plays quickly began to be staged, and for the first time professional actresses were allowed on stage. From the Restoration onwards, `Romeo and Juliet` has been almost continuously in production and apart from `Hamlet appears to be the most popular of Shakespeare’s plays.

A 1662 adaptation of the play was performed in London, with probably the first female professional Juliet, Mary Saunderson. Not all the audience loved it; the diarist Samuel Pepys wrote that it was `the worst play that ever I heard in my life`.

Another version, played around the same time, allowed the two lovers to survive. Thomas Otway wrote a romanticised version in 1680 `The History and Fall of Caius Manus` set in ancient Rome, in which Juliet wakes before Romeo dies, which was popular for the next 70 years. There was a tendency in both this period and the Victorian to rewrite Shakespeare’s tragedies, giving them happy endings; thus, for example, they enjoyed a version of `Lear` in which both Cordelia and Lear survived and Cordelia married Kent, the King of France having conveniently died. In 1750 the `battle of the Romeos` began in the West End between Spranger Barry at Covent Garden and David Garrick at Drury Lane. The poet Dryden particularly praised Mercutio, and the writer and critic Samuel Johnson considered it one of Shakespeare’s `most pleasing plays`.

So it was not until 1845 that Shakespeare’s original version of `Romeo and Juliet` complete with dying lovers, returned to the stage. This happened first in America, where two sisters played the lovers, called Susan and Charlotte Cushman.

Queen Victoria, who saw them perform, could not believe Romeo was being played by a woman. `No one would have ever imagined she was a woman`.

In the mid-nineteenth century, performances of the play were generally star vehicles for aging stars, for example Henry Irving’s production at the Lyceum with himself as Romeo and Ellen Terry as Juliet. Their sets were elaborately painted, a feature that led to long pauses between scenes and the use of tableaux set pieces.

The twentieth century saw a more naturalistic style of performance of the play. John Gielgud’s production in 1935 featured himself and the young Laurence Oliver, who exchanged the roles of Mercutio and Romeo every six weeks, with Peggy Ashcroft as Juliet. They had very different portrayals of Romeo; Oliver later wrote that Gielgud was `all spiritual, all beauty, all abstract things, and myself all earth, blood, humanity…when I was playing Romeo I was carrying a torch, I was trying to sell realism in Shakespeare`.

Peter Brooke’s 1947 version deliberately excluded the final reconciliation between the families.

Audiences began to demand younger actors playing the lead roles. Zeffirelli’s Old Vic production in 1960 had the very young John Stride and Judi Dench as the lovers. In his film which followed in 1968, Zeffirelli deliberately chose a very young Juliet.

Shakespeare’s actors would have dressed in costumes of their period, and there would have been no attempt to Italianise the play. Recent performances, including the one you are seeing today, often set the play in a contemporary world. The 1986 R.S.C. production set it in modern Verona; switch blades replaced swords, feasts and balls became drug-laden rock parties, and Romeo committed suicide by hypodermic needle.

However some productions have given the play an historical setting to reflect on underlying conflicts of the period. There have been productions set in the Israeli-Palestine conflict and in the apartheid era of South Africa.

The play has long been associated with musical interpretations. At least 24 operas have been based on its story, the best known of which is probably Gounod’s 1867 `Romeo et Juliette`. Tchaikovsky wrote his famous fantasy overture in 1869. The best known ballet version was created by Prokofiev for the Kirov Ballet in 1935. Its most famous musical theatre version is of course `West Side Story` created by Bernstein and Sondheim in 1957 and filmed in 1961. Set in New York, it tells the tale of lovers destroyed by warring ethnic factions.

Indeed it may be the most filmed of Shakespeare’s plays; from Cukor’s multi-Oscar nominated production of 1936, to Zeffirelli’s 1968 version with the 15 year old Olivia Hussey as Juliet, and Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 version with Leonardo DiCaprio as Romeo and Claire Danes as Juliet. It continues to charm audiences of all backgrounds and ages today as it has for over 400 years.

-Barbara Winder – Summer 2010


William was the third child, and first son of John and Mary Shakespeare. He was baptised in Stratford on Avon, Warwickshire on 26th April 1564. If the Shakespeares followed the usual custom of the times, this would only have been a few days after his birth, which is traditionally celebrated on 23rd April, the same day as his death, and that of another national hero, Saint George. The birth almost certainly took place in the house on Henley Street, that still exist today.

John Shakespeare was a glove maker and sometime money lender, who also held a number of important public offices in Stratford, including Borough Ale Taster, Alderman, and Bailiff (the highest public office in Stratford). However from about 1577, when William was 13, John suffered significant financial losses and gradually ceased to play a part in local government. In 1575 he had been wealthy enough to buy two houses, but in 1577 he stopped attending council meetings. In 1578 he mortgaged a property of his wife’s and sold her share in another. Later he faced various fines and lost his alderman’s seat. In 1592 he was listed as one who failed to attend church `for fear of process for debts`. However his situation improved from 1596 until his death in 1600, possibly as a result of his son’s growing prosperity. In October 1596 the College of Heralds granted a coat of arms to John, which made all his sons and himself officially gentlemen.

Mary Shakespeare, William’s mother, was formerly Mary Arden, the daughter of a well-to-do landowner from a lesser branch of an aristocratic family who owned most of the Forest of Arden. She had eight children, and was buried in Stratford on 9 September 1608.

Shakespeare almost certainly attended King’s New School at Stratford established in 1553. Although no school roles exist from this period, it was where officials of the town sent their sons. It seems to have had a good reputation, and all its masters had university degrees. He would probably have spent two initial years when he was four or five in the Petty School attached to it, where he would have learnt to read and write. The hours in the grammar school proper were from 6 or 7 am to 5 or 6 at night. They studied Latin grammar, including Ovid, Plato and Cicero, Latin history and philosophy, rhetoric and some basic Greek. Boys usually stayed there until they were 15 or 16, but Shakespeare seems to have left early, possibly when his father got into financial difficulties.

The next time we hear of Shakespeare he is about to be married in 1582 when he was 18. Here the records are puzzling as he appears to have applied for a marriage licence to marry two different women! On November 27th 1582 a licence was granted to marry Anne Whateley, and a day later on November 28th Anne Hathwey. Some researchers believe this to be a simple clerk’s error, but others have seen a love triangle with the pregnant older bride getting her man! The use of a licence, which was more expensive than the slower banns, suggests a somewhat rushed marriage, and indeed their first daughter Susanna was baptised on May 26th 1583, some six months later. Anne from Shottery, a local village, was some eight years older than William, and would have been 26 at the time of their marriage.
The couple must have spent some of their early married life together since on February 2nd 1585 twins Hamnet and Judith were baptised in Stratford. However between 1585 and 1592 there are few records of William’s activities leading to much speculation. He has been identified as possibly leading the life of a soldier or sailor and travelling abroad, or moving northwards to tutor in aristocratic Catholic households, or training as a lawyer’s clerk, or joining one of the five theatrical companies that played in Stratford in the period and touring the country with them.

William was of the first English generation, because of the Reformation, to hear church services and the Bible in English. Church attendance in a Protestant church was compulsory and a register was taken and fines given if a family did not attend. Nonetheless there is some evidence that his family was Catholic in its sympathies; his mother’s relative William Arden was arrested for plotting against Elizabeth, imprisoned in the Tower, and executed. William’s daughter Susanna, was named as a recusant for failing to receive communion on Easter Sunday 1606.

The first reference we have to him being in London and involved with the stage is in Robert Greene’s rude pamphlet of 1592 which attacked the new young actors and playwrights including one newly arrived, `An upstart crow beautified with our feathers that with his tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide (a misquotation from one of his early history plays) supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you` and `is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in the country`.

In the hot summers of 1592 and 3, the plague was so severe in London that the theatres were closed, and it seems likely Shakespeare turned to poetry to enhance his reputation and bank balance; poetry being seen as a finer art in the period, far worthier of publication. In 1593 his `Venus and Adonis` was published, and in 1594 his `Rape of Lucrece`. His patron (who some people believe gave Shakespeare as much as £1000, a great sum for that period) was the young third Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesley, some nine years younger than Shakespeare, to whom both books are dedicated. His other major poetic work, his collection of love sonnets, were also begun in this period, although they were not published until 1609. Sonnets tended to be seen as more private and personal poetry and they were often circulated amongst an inner circle. Some critics have argued the WH of the sonnets was actually the Earl, and that the poems recount a failed affair between the Earl, Shakespeare and a young woman, called `the dark lady`.

By 1594 the theatres had reopened and William became a part sharer in a new company The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, under the patronage of the chief court official who decided on Elizabeth’s entertainment. On December 28th, Shakespeare’s company, performed his `Comedy of Errors` at Gray’s Inn as part of the Christmas law revels. Shakespeare had already experimented with history plays, and possibly an early comedy `Taming of the Shrew`. Histories were popular in these last decades of the sixteenth century because of the threat of Spanish Invasion.

The earliest official record of Shakespeare in the theatre is an entry in the Declared Accounts of the Treasury of the Royal Chamber of March 15th 1595, with Shakespeare listed as being paid, along with Burbage and Kempe, £20 for a Christmas performance before Elizabeth I. In 1598, faced with closure, the Burbage brothers removed overnight the entire fixtures of the Globe Theatre, which they re-erected in Southwark.

There is a questionable story about Shakespeare which may have related to this period of his life. It was circulated in a diary of a law student John Manningham around 1602, but since it refers to `Richard III`, an early tragedy, may have occurred in the mid-90s. It said that when Burbage played Richard III a lady watching the play made it known he could visit her room that evening. Shakespeare overheard and followed her home. They were making love when Burbage arrived and sent a message in saying `Richard III was at the door`, at which Shakespeare replied `William the Conqueror was before Richard III`.

Unlike many of his fellow artists, Shakespeare enjoyed prosperity during his lifetime. As a playwright, sharer in the company and partner in the Globe and Blackfrairs theatres he probably made around £200 a year, a significant sum. He invested in several properties in Stratford and at least one in London. There are a surprising number of financial records of his that have survived. We know from them that he avoided or forgot to pay taxes, and took legal action to force payments of outstanding debts. In 1597, at the age of 33 and one year after the death of his eleven year old son, Shakespeare invested £60 in buying New Place, the second largest house in Stratford, with two barns and two orchards, to which he would later retire.

On February 1601, a day before his failed rebellion, supporters of Essex, including Shakespeare’s erstwhile patron Southampton, commissioned the company to perform `Richard II` with its politically sensitive deposition scene. It was a dangerous juxtaposition and led to the company being investigated when the rebellion failed, but they were eventually cleared of any involvement in the uprising, although Southampton was sent to the Tower and Essex, executed.

On March 24, 1603 Queen Elizabeth died aged 69. She had always supported Shakespeare’s work; in the last ten years of her reign 32 performances of his Company had been done at court, out of a total of 69.

The new King, James I was also very interested in the theatre, and in 1603, Shakespeare’s company became The King’s Men on his accession. On March 15, 1604, Shakespeare received an order of four and a half yards of red cloth especially for the coronation celebrations.

Shakespeare continued to write a variety of important plays in these last years including great tragedies, and gentle, haunting romances speaking of love and reconciliation particularly between fathers and daughters. His friend Ben Jonson, a playwright who found writing difficult, noted the speed and ease with which he wrote and claimed `he never blotted a line`.

He continued to divide his time between London and his family and interests in Stratford. A further legend has him fathering another son, William Davenport in the summer of 1605, on the landlady of an inn he frequented on his travels, the Crown Tavern at Oxford.

About 1610 we find him in semi-retirement in Stratford, but still with London properties, visits to court and the writing of two further plays; `Two Noble Kinsmen` and the lost `Cardenio`. His will was drafted in January 1616 and signed in late March. We know he was buried on 25th April under the floor of Holy Trinity Church Stratford. Given the likely proximity of his birthday, a further legend has him celebrating it on the 23rd in an ale house with some male friends, and dying `of a surfeit of sack`.

Three of Shakespeare’s sisters died in infancy, and only Joan, who was born in 1569 and died in 1646, outlived him. He left her, a widow, provided for and owning the house she was living in, with some inheritance for her sons. Gilbert, his brother, born in 1566, was like his father a haberdasher, and he died in 1612. Another brother, Richard, about whom we know little, died in 1613 aged 39. Only his last brother, Edmund born 1580, followed him to London and the theatre. He was a player, and died young, some four months after his illegitimate son. He was buried at Southwark, inside the church, at some expense.

Both Shakespeare’s surviving children married and lived long. Susanna married Dr John Hal in 1607, and had one child Elizabeth born in 1608. She was left New Place in her father’s will, which passed to Elizabeth after her death. Although Elizabeth married twice, she had no children and died in 1670. Judith had contracted a rather unfortunate marriage to Thomas Quincey on February 10th 1616. This was during Lent and they had no special licence so the pair were excommunicated. In March, Quinney was fined for fathering an illegitimate child on another woman. At this point Shakespeare seems to have changed his will, leaving Judith an inheritance in her own right, of £300.

Shakespeare’s will has caused controversy and debate mainly because of his bequest to his wife Anne. He left the bulk of his estate and his major property to his eldest daughter Susanna. The only reference to the theatre is a bequest to buy mourning rings for his fellow actors Heminge, Burbage and Condell. He also, as was the custom, left a generous bequest to the local poor.

According to the laws of the period his wife would have automatically inherited a third of his property. However the added line `I give to my wife my second best bed with the furniture` is seen by some as an afterthought and even an insult. Others have argued it could be a sentimental bequest since the second best bed was probably their marriage bed, the first bed being kept for visitors. Anne probably spent the rest of her days in New Place with Susanna and her family, until she died in 1623 aged 67.

– Barbara Winder, March 2010