Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Our Revels Now Are Ended... by Sheena Wilkinson

But I thought the bookish readers might like to hear about them. And maybe be inspired to do something similar.

 I love Shakespeare’s plays. Watching, reading, thinking about, and in my former career teaching*. I love his wealth of characters, his wildly inventive stories – not all original of course, his deep insights into the human psyche, and his language.

In 2017 some likeminded friends and I got together to share this love. We’d been in a Shakespeare reading group before, doing every single play over four years, and we missed it. Well, not  all of it. If I don’t read Troilus and Cressida again, that’s fine by me. 

So we set out to spend a year reading Shakespeare. We called it Twelve Plays In Twelve Months. There were eleven of us; perhaps twelve would have been neater. We met once a month in the home of our hosts, to eat and read. You don’t have to have dinner as well, but it does make it more festive, and the food usually tied in with the play – venison for As You Like It, haggis for Macbeth, etc., and we had great fun being inventive with puddings -- a strawberry pavlova to replicate the strawberry-spotted handkerchief in Othello; heart-shaped shortcake for Romeo And Juliet. 

We read the plays aloud, in full, as dramatized readings. Some of us were a little shy in January, but by March we were all giving it everything we had, safe in the knowledge that we were with friends who didn’t think it was weird, or pretentious, or boring, to want to read aloud some of the greatest literature ever written. 

How did we narrow it down to only twelve plays? Well, we chose personal favourites, and tried to have a representative sample of each type of play. We didn’t read Hamlet, because it takes too long, and of course we didn’t manage to include everyone’s favourite. We tried to fit the play to the month – Twelfth Night in January; Julius Caesar near the ‘ides of March’;  Macbeth close to Halloween, etc. Sometimes our reasoning was more pragmatic – we read King Lear in May because of the long and pleasant evenings; it might have been too depressing to read it in on a dark winter's night. We encouraged everyone to have the same text – we used the RSC Complete Works.

We were men and women – more women, inevitably at such gatherings. Some of us were, or had been, English teachers, but there was no real analysis of the plays – the reading was the thing. A couple of us were actors; others from different walks of life. Most of us were no more than acquaintances  at the start, except to one or two others, but there’s nothing like reading Juliet to a stranger’s Romeo to break down barriers.

It was great fun. It was a reminder to us all of how much we loved Shakespeare. In a crazy, difficult year, it was a little pinpoint of light every month, a getting together to do something beautiful, and traditional and enjoyable.So shines a good deed in a naughty world.  It was not very 2017. It took time. Even the shortest play takes several hours to read. You can’t rush Othello – and why would you want to? 

When we finished last week with The Tempest, we all felt a little sad, but joyful to have shared so many great plays. It’s so easy to organise: I’d encourage anyone who likes reading aloud to have a go. 

 Thank you, Mr Shakespeare!

* Not always an unalloyed joy, to be honest


Sue Barrow said...

Thanks for this interesting post Sheena. I'm going to suggest it to my reading group.

Steve Gladwin said...

What a lovely thing to share Sheena. Do give us your list with the months.

Sue Bursztynski said...

What a great idea! It does indeed sound like a lot of fun. I don't think I could persuade my friends to do it, alas! I may be the only Shakespeare-lover among us. :(

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