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Why 'Will From Warwickshire' Never Lost His Touch

This portrait, painted in 1610, is believed to be the only surviving picture of William Shakespeare painted in his lifetime.
This portrait, painted in 1610, is believed to be the only surviving picture of William Shakespeare painted in his lifetime.

Shakespeare has always been there for me when I needed him.

Acting Shakespeare helped me survive school. Writing about Shakespeare got me through university. When I was in love, when I failed at love, when I lost a job I needed, Shakespeare was there with the right words, and still is. (Incidentally, if you too have been fired, I recommend Coriolanus's speech in Act 3, scene 3 after his banishment from Rome. Powerful stuff.)

Lately I've been hanging out a shingle as a Shakespearean text coach to actors. To learn that trade, over the past three-and-a-bit years, I've been spending two Sundays a month in various scruffy rooms around the city with a small group of equally scruffy actors and directors. 's aim has been to workshop all 38 plays in rough chronological order, holding readings, discussions and masterclasses; they will complete that mission with The Tempest this April. I couldn't think of a better place to start asking why the works of Will from Warwickshire still speak to us, 400 years after he died.

Scaffold is the brainchild of 29-year-old actor Tobias Deacon, who runs the company with fellow actor Annabelle Brown and directors Tom Latter and Bryn Holding. "I don't have a god," Deacon says. "I don't have a religion. But the lessons I have learnt from Shakespeare have influenced the way in which I live my life ... He gives weight to things of importance; he doesn't underestimate characters because of their station or their situation; he gives them the human qualities and the human decency that other writers might not. It gives me something that I have to stand up to as an artist."

"And it's not because everything he wrote is sacred, and it's not because everything he wrote is perfect," Deacon adds. "But it comes from a really good human being who really, really loved human beings. And that's why three years, 10 years, 20 years, a lifetime is never enough."

Director Tom Latter believes that one of the duties of Scaffold is to knock Shakespeare off his pedestal:

I don't have a god. I don't have a religion. But the lessons I have learnt from Shakespeare have influenced the way in which I live my life."

"Reverence is a dangerous thing when what you're trying to do is tell stories to people that were written 400-plus years ago. He was writing for everybody, and yet there's a perception of Shakespeare now that it's only for a certain level of education or class of people. Which is actually not the case at all."

Fortunately, the Britain I live in is full of companies large and small who, every day, are telling these 400-year-old stories to anyone who'll stop and listen — they're the unsung heroes bringing Shakespeare to the people he was writing for.

I head north to Manchester, where the are in the middle of a run of King Lear. It's an exciting production, by turns epic and heartbreaking, and many around me are weeping openly by the final scene. What's remarkable is that this is award-winning director Michael Buffong's first go at Shakespeare.

"A lot of people said 'Wow, of all the ones you could have picked for your first one, you seem to have gone for the biggest,' but that's just the way it happened," he laughs. "And of course there are fantastic discoveries on the floor of the rehearsal room. Sometimes you're banging your head against the brick wall, 'why can't we unlock what's happening in this scene, what's at the heart of it?' And then suddenly something comes to light that illuminates the whole thing. I mean, there were days when I was literally quite high with some of the stuff we discovered."

Philip Whitchurch as the blinded Earl of Gloucester and Don Warrington as Lear in Talawa Theatre's production of <em>King Lear.</em>
/ Jonathan Keenan
Philip Whitchurch as the blinded Earl of Gloucester and Don Warrington as Lear in Talawa Theatre's production of <em>King Lear.</em>

Norman Bowman, who plays the violent, sadistic Duke of Cornwall, knows that high well: "There is a wonderful thing about understanding Shakespeare that kind of expands your braincells and your grey matter. It's magical, to be honest. It's about tapping into a part of your brain that if you didn't know it existed, you'd be fine. But once you do, it's ... like taking the blue or the red pill, in the Matrix! I'll never tire of it."

One of many memorable moments in this production of Lear is when an old woman, played by Sarah Quist, sings a haunting lullaby as she gently bandages the Earl of Gloucester's bleeding, blinded eyes. Quist says that for her, music was the key to Shakespeare's language:

"I was singing jazz, and I realised that doing Shakespeare is like getting a piece of classical music and making it your own. You have to be able to improvise within the confines of what he's given you." Quist also feels a personal connection to the play: "For us, it's been about dementia. And seeing Shakespeare hit on that so clearly, for me, has been immense. When Lear says 'Let me not be mad,' every time I hear it it breaks my heart. Because I understand it, and I've seen and heard people in my family say those things."

That may be one of the keys to why Shakespeare is still making audiences laugh and cry 400 years later — and why, to me, this long-dead playwright feels oddly like a personal friend: his uncannily universal ability to understand human reactions and emotions.

When Lear says 'Let me not be mad,' every time I hear it it breaks my heart. Because I understand it, and I've seen and heard people in my family say those things.

You can't talk about that without talking about Hamlet,of course. I found myself in the small Hertfordshire town of Hitchin to catch up with Librarian Theatre Company in the middle of their 38-stop tour. These hardy souls — director Tom Cuthbertson, three actors, stage manager and a puppet Ophelia — are performing a cut-down version of Hamlet in public libraries throughout southern England, under the banner of "The Book's the Thing."

"I think Hamlet is so relevant to so many young people," says Kelly Eva-May, who plays Hamlet. "He is just a young teenager, an adolescent feeling isolated and lonely. He's dealing with a lot of emotions and a lot of trauma, and he's trying to find ways to express himself and finding life really difficult, which I think everyone does at some point in their lives."

Keith Hill, a veteran Shakespearean playing Claudius, Polonius and the ghost of Hamlet's father, agrees: "Every individual in this play has a massive decision to make and nobody to ask about it. But the plays are all about people who are trying to resolve incredibly difficult dilemmas, and so often, the subtext of the play seems to be 'And I bet you couldn't do any better either.'"

That challenge has resonated down the centuries from Shakespeare to us. I can't tie this article up with a neat conclusion; if I pretended to have all the answers I'd be a fraud, and Shakespeare would see straight through me.

But the fact that people are still reacting to Shakespeare with such strong feelings — of love, of fear, of the will to put in the hard work and the radiant high at those sudden, strange moments of understanding — shows that, 400 years on, Will from Warwickshire hasn't lost his touch.

Liza Graham is a mezzo-soprano, writer and Shakespearean text coach. She would like to dedicate this article to the memory of Professor A. D. Nuttall.

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