Friday Writing Experiment No. 5: Borrowing From The Bard

As I mentioned earlier in the week, I saw the fabulous production of Twelfth Night at the Globe on Sunday, and as ever when watching Shakespeare I am awed into submission by the range and the depth of everything on show in the work: the language, the storytelling, the characters. And the words! The OED tells us that Shakespeare was the first recorded user of 1,035 words (bandit, critic, dewdrop, ode, puke, swagger …), and he also coined many phrases that have passed into common usage (fool’s paradise, love letter, into thin air, elbow room, green-eyed monster …). And many books have in turn taken their titles from Shakespeare’s work (Infinite Jest, The Dogs of War, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Pale Fire, The Sound and the Fury, Brave New World …). What a legacy.

And let’s not forget too that Shakespeare was a borrower himself. My programme for Twelfth Night tells me how the play owes a debt to Plautus, the Roman writer of comedy, as well as collections of tales such as Riche His Farewell To Militarie Profession (1581) by ‘old-soldier-turned-writer Barnaby Riche’. And of course he adapted plots (the histories, MacBeth) and even lifted descriptions from Holinshed’s Chronicles.

This week, I’m going to suggest that you lean heavily into this wealth of wordsmithery, and take a quotation from one of Shakespeare’s plays or poems, and write off it in some way or other.

I did this once, for example, using as an epigraph a line from Queen Gertrude in Hamlet – ‘Ay me, what act/ That roars so loud, and thunders in the index?’ – to create a short story about the secret life of a freelance indexer. I think I had the indexer in mind as a character to start with, but in doing a bit of research into indexing I stumbled across this quotation and began to wonder about the hidden life that roared and thundered beneath a tame exterior. The word thunder was a particular gift for helping this character come to life.

You might use your prompt as an epigraph too, or maybe a title or a first or last line, or maybe it’ll appear in dialogue or in some other explicit or subtle way, or somehow as a framing device. Your chosen form could be a short story or a poem, or whatever strikes your fancy.

This also reminds me of a class that Dr Reed Bye sometimes teaches at Naropa called Writing With Shakespeare, where students read plays while continuing an ongoing project that picks up ‘on infinite clues, character facets, and dramatic-linguistic stimuli’ within Shakespeare’s work. Perhaps this could even be something larger?

Twelfth Night at the Globe

Twelfth Night has not been one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. It’s not one I’ve read or studied. I saw a flattish production at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival (a shame, after the CSF created a very magical Dream that must rank among the most memorable productions of anything I’ve ever seen – in that open-air theatre, those fairy costumes were electric). And then I was disappointed by the much-laudedĀ  Donmar production at Wyndham’s Theatre in 2008; Derek Jacobi as Malvolio (sorry) dominated the show in a way that somehow left little room for the magic.

But I finally got to enjoy this play’s genius last night in the sublime (and sold-out) production of Twelfth Night at the Globe. (We were very very lucky last week to suddenly spot tickets coming free on the Globe’s website; thanks go to a very persistent fangirl niece.)

What struck me here was that this was a production by and for a whole cast (and they were clearly having great fun), and that successful balance within an ensemble lies at the heart of most (all?) comedy. One or two of the performers here could, for external reasons, have stolen the show, but they did not. And still those performers shone, maybe even more brightly than if the production had been focused upon them.

It’s an Original Features all-male version. Apparently there have been grumbles about such productions taking away parts from women. But please! 1. That’s beside the point. And 2. there’s room to do all-female productions too?!

Last night, quite emphatically, the play’s sexual confusion (and something of its play’s original intent?) was brought to the fore through, e.g., the drag of Johnny Flynn, with his reedy little ladyvoice, playing Viola playing Cesario, falling for the Duke and then snapping Olivia out of her self-absorption and resisting her charms. And such charm! Mark Rylance as Olivia has exquisite timing (the ring, the shoe, having greatness thrust upon her on a picnic blanket) and an awesome range of facial mannerisms, even under a black veil (yes, I was that dude with the binoculars …). He inhabits, contains, extends that character, and the gender-bending and campiness are core to that singular magic. Through Olivia’s sexual reawakening, the play’s treatment of self-love – also of course evident in the characters of Malvolio and Orsino – becomes a commentary on privilege and the need for play.

I note here that I’m using the word play twice in that last sentence, which leads me to dwell on the fact that playing is what happens in a theatre. This certainly was a very playful production.

Rylance’s performance will surely go down as one of the great ones. And yes, his Olivia is the central character, but s/he’s a generous one at that, feeding and feeding off the other players. Other exceptional performances in this stellar cast come from Paul Chahidi as Maria (very Hattie Jacques) and Roger Lloyd Pack as Andrew Aguecheek (very physical).

And then Stephen Fry brings real pathos to the part of Malvolio (Jacobi got the pomp, but not the pathos), which helped me experience the play’s darker tinge. Doesn’t all the best comedy have a dark side? And what a treat to see Mr Fry on stage.

And while we are there, let’s note the Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s recent outreach programme Shakespeare and Anti-Bullying: Twelfth Night. That letter = cyberbullying. And seen by over 11,000 kids in Colorado.

But back to the Globe. The dancing was, as always, such revellish fun. And given that my own robin returned to the garden yesterday, the rendition of Jolly Robyn – which I’d not paid attention to before – was special. (He – or she?! – flies towards me when I’m deadheading and repotting, rather than away. Hence my robin.)

If you’re not from London, and visiting, a trip to the Globe is perhaps the one thing you really must do. Or maybe even make this the whole purpose of a visit. The Globe works on so many levels: entertaining, instructive, and a real experience of something uniquely London. Take in its exhibition (I must make an excursion myself sometime). But most of all, see a play. Everyone within this wooden O – audience, players, those ever vigilant volunteers – knows and feels they are taking part in something special.

And now Twelfth Night becomes one of my favourite plays. That’s magic too.