This month we commemorate the 400th Anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. It has been my deadline for posting this piece, which has grown to over 9,000 words.
I have now seen every Shakespeare play in at least three different versions (stage productions, films or made for TV). I have seen every play performed on stage at least twice, with the exception of “Coriolanus” (just the once so far). [2017 Update: I have now seen a second stage production of “Coriolanus”, as recorded here.] This piece records how I first tried to track down a performance of every play in 2003/4. It incorporates miscarriage, pregnancy and a happy ending.
“Seen it, seen it, haven’t seen it”
If you are over a certain age and have any interest in English literature generally, or Shakespeare specifically, you have probably picked up a copy of the Complete Works and said something like, “Seen it, seen it, haven’t seen it, uh, I think I’ve seen that, oh, never heard of that one …”
I did this in the summer of 2003 and realized that out of 37 plays I had only seen 13 of them on stage all the way through. I had also seen half of “All’s well that ends well” but that production was abandoned halfway through (there was a fire in the theatre) and I had never seen the rest of it. And I enjoy watching Shakespeare plays: I choose to go to the theatre. Over the next 8 months I set about seeing each play at least once, on stage if possible, otherwise a film or TV version.
For the record, here are the 13 plays that I had seen on stage before July 2003, and when and where I first saw them.
“Henry IV Part 1” (April 1976) Gunnersbury Catholic School [Tony Slattery played the part of Prince Hal]
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (October 1977) RSC, Aldwych [Patrick Stewart as Oberon]
“Hamlet” (November 1978) Young Vic at the Old Vic
“Measure for Measure” (June 1979) Riverside Studios Hammersmith
“Troilus and Cressida” (March 1980) Queen Mary College, University of London
“Othello” (June 1980) National Theatre [Paul Scofield as Othello, Felicity Kendal as Desdemona]
“Julius Caesar” (June 1980) Riverside Studios Hammersmith
“As You Like It” (July 1980) RSC, Stratford [Jeremy Irons and Sinead Cusack]
“Macbeth” (February 1983?) Trinity College Cambridge [An experimental production, with 3 actors playing all the parts]
“Romeo and Juliet” (March 1995) Lyric Hammersmith [Emily Woof as Juliet]
“King Lear” (October 1995) Hackney Empire [Warren Mitchell as Lear]
“Henry V” (November 1995) RSC, Barbican [Iain Glen as Henry V]
“Taming of the Shrew (July 1999) St Peter’s Square Hammersmith
Prologue: “Macbeth”, December 2002
“Hamlet” and “Macbeth” are the two Shakespeare plays I have seen most often. In the mid-90s I saw a few productions of both plays including “Hamlet” directed by Peter Hall, another version starring Ralph Fiennes, and productions of “Macbeth” featuring Helen McCrory and Jane Horrocks as Lady Macbeth. Towards the end of 2002 I hadn’t seen a live production for a while and booked tickets for four of us (my wife, my sister and her teenage daughter) to see this big name production in the West End. Sean Bean played the title role and Samantha Bond was Lady Macbeth.
My wife and I had got married the previous year. 2002 was, for us, a year of miscarriages, three in all. The last was in November. For me the key line in “Macbeth” is “He has no children”, spoken by Macduff on hearing that his wife and children have been murdered. It is, among other things, a play about childlessness. I tried not to think too hard about that during the play. I had booked the tickets before my wife miscarried for that third time.
Summer 2003, West London, Shakespeare in a park
By the summer of 2003 my wife was pregnant for the fourth time. The previous three pregnancies had all ended in miscarriage, within the first 10 weeks. We were now under the care of the Recurrent Miscarriage Unit at St Mary’s Hospital and hoped for a better outcome Fourth Time Around.
Every July there is a visiting Shakespeare production in St Peter’s Square Hammersmith, outdoors if the weather is fine, or in St Peter’s Church if there’s rain.
I had seen a production of “Taming of the Shrew” there some years earlier, and this year it was “Comedy of Errors”. My wife and I went to the Sunday afternoon performance and sat in the sun.
I dared to look ahead, to daydream about the same weekend a year later, a buggy next to us, or between us, a sleeping child. If all went to plan the baby would be about four months old then.
Things didn’t go to plan. Early in August we lost the baby.
The project begins
That low-scale outdoor production of “Comedy of Errors” initiated my Shakespeare project: to see (live or in a filmed performance) every Shakespeare play. After we lost the baby I decided to set a timescale for it: complete the cycle by the end of March 2004, the month that the baby was due.
I felt superstitious about it. If all went well my wife would be pregnant again by the time I had seen every play, and this time things would work out better.
I had to fit it in around full-time work, commuting from West London to Redhill in Surrey most days (45 to 60 minutes each way by car, 100 minutes or more each way if I took trains, but at least I could read or sleep on the way).
I had already caught up with a few Shakespeare films during July: Kenneth Branagh’s “Hamlet” and “Love’s Labour’s Lost”, Julie Taymor’s “Titus” (Andronicus) and on the first Saturday in August I went to a matinee of “Merry Wives of Windsor”, the RSC production finishing its run at the Old Vic (this was before Kevin Spacey was artistic director there). I went alone, and had also planned to go to the evening performance of “Coriolanus”. My wife and I spoke mid-afternoon. She didn’t feel right, she was pretty sure that this pregnancy was going the way of the others. It did. To paraphrase Ian Dury: what happened next was private; it’s also rather sad.
We didn’t know that there would be a happy ending, that we would have a fifth and then a sixth pregnancy, and both would go to term. As I type these words our healthy children are a boy of 11 and a girl of 9. We didn’t know that then. In the meantime I would track down and watch every play, by March 2004. If there were no planned stage productions for any of the plays I could always buy a video of the BBC adaptation.
The BBC Complete Works Season
The BBC Complete Works Season ran from 1978 to 1985 and covered all 37 plays. (It didn’t include “Two Noble Kinsmen”, which was co-written with John Fletcher.)
I had seen many of them when originally broadcast, long before we had a video recorder, and could picture them easily: Derek Jacobi’s Hamlet, John Cleese as Petruchio in “Taming of the Shrew”, Helen Mirren as Titania and Brian Glover as Bottom in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, and Warren Mitchell as Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice”.
In 2003 the only way I could track down many of these productions on video was at the BBC shop in Margaret Street, just north of Oxford Street, at 25 English Pounds per VHS tape. I had just bought a DVD player (Region 2 only) but the Complete Works DVD collection (Region 1 only) was around 1000 US Dollars to buy online and wasn’t available in the UK yet.
From this point onwards, along with biographical notes, asides and some chronology, I’ll give a heading to each play (numbered from 1 to 37) with a note about which production(s) I saw and the exact date wherever possible.
A note about diaries and dates
As I have written elsewhere (and that link includes a picture) I have a pocket diary for every year between 1979 and 2001.
[This paragraph gets a bit technical.] In 2003/04 I was using a Palm (previously known as a Palm Pilot) as my diary, synched with a PC so it was always backed up. By the time my Palm computer failed irretrievably I was keeping a more detailed record of my time, in password-protected word processing files. The only way to go back to my Palm diary entries was to dig out the Windows 2000 tower, screen, keyboard and mouse (unused for over five years) that the Palm information was backed up to. I had the diary files, but they are incompatible with any software that I use these days. The only place where I still have the Palm software is that old Windows 2000 computer. Over several hours I transcribed the Palm entries into a spreadsheet, and that has formed the basis of the dates below. I have a note of every live performance I attended and for most of the videos seen, but for a handful of plays seen on video the date is a guess, accurate to within a month. I definitely saw every play either on stage or on video by 13 March 2004.
If I had been Blogging in 2003/4 the chronology would probably be impeccable, but the writing would have been full of uncertainty and speculation. I’m glad I know what happened next.
1. “The Comedy of Errors”
[Sunday 13 July 2003, touring production at St Peter’s Square Hammersmith]
[Also: Saturday 28 February 2004, RSC production on video; Friday 3 September 2004, Lincoln’s Inn Gardens]
This is the production that started it all, St Peter’s Square, July 2003. My wife and I decided to go at short notice. I read the Lamb’s Tale (from my 1974 edition, which has an etching of Shylock on the front) and flicked through the play in my Complete Works volume so that I’d have some idea of what was going on.
I enjoyed it. It’s a romp, it’s a bit daft, but even a low-budget production like this can work well. I admired the costumes, the imaginative way that both sets of twins were dressed, making it easy for someone like me to work out who they were and what was going on. There’s always a pleasant atmosphere at these St Peter’s Square afternoon performances.
[Wednesday 23-Thursday 24 July 2003, film starring and directed by Kenneth Branagh, on video]
[Also: Sunday 18 January 2004, film starring Nicol Williamson, on video; Sunday 22 February 2004, Greenwich Theatre]
As Richard Osman has said more than once on the quiz show “Pointless”, there are two Shakespeare plays: the one you did at school, and all the other ones.
This is the one that I did in the most depth at school, at A-Level, in the late 1970s, a time that coincided with the play being performed on the London stage by Derek Jacobi, Steven Berkoff and Jonathan Pryce. (I also did “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at O Level and “Troilus and Cressida” at A Level, but “Hamlet” is the one I put most work into.)
In July 2003 there were no productions coming up so I watched this 4-hour Kenneth Branagh production, taped off the TV some years earlier. I had enjoyed all of his Shakespeare adaptations, had seen “Henry V” and “Much Ado about Nothing” on the big screen, and “Twelfth Night” on TV, and was especially touched by “In the bleak midwinter”, a play about a small troupe putting on a production of “Hamlet” in a village hall. I saw it one quiet January afternoon in 1995, just after returning from the Sundance Film Festival. It’s the film he made immediately after the mid-life crisis that is “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein”, and Julia Sawalha is excellent as a grief-stricken actress.
This is a monster production (I mean that in a good way), the definitive film of the greatest of all Shakespeare’s plays. I couldn’t quite watch it over the course of an evening so split it across two nights after work.
Later in the year I would watch the Nicol Williamson production, shot evocatively at London’s Roundhouse theatre, where I had also seen Steven Berkoff’s 1980 production, but more usually went to see bands. In the words of Mott the Hoople’s last single “Saturday Gig”, I’d “float up to the Roundhouse on a Sunday afternoon”. I had seen Blondie, Generation X, Buzzcocks and Steel Pulse all headline (the latter on a bill that featured John Cooper Clarke and Wreckless Eric; fourth on the bill was a trio called The Police).
The thing that bugs me with “Hamlet” is all the productions I have missed, and will continue to miss. I would love to have seen Daniel Day-Lewis and Ian Charleson in the role, at the National Theatre. I wished it at the time. I had dinner in the late 1980s with a friend and her one-time lodger, a lovely girl who was the daughter of a Very Famous Actor. She had just seen Ian Charleson in one of his very last performances. He died in January 1990, of AIDS. If I could go back in time and see one Shakespeare performance from my lifetime it would be Ian Charleson as Hamlet, closely followed by Daniel Day-Lewis as Hamlet.
3. “Love’s Labour’s Lost”
[Thursday 24 July 2003, film starring and directed by Kenneth Branagh, on video]
[Also: Saturday 21 August 2004, Wadham College Oxford]
Straight after watching the end of Branagh’s “Hamlet” I watched his 90-minute musical version of “Love’s Labour’s Lost”. Does it count as an actual Shakespeare play? I’ll say yes, although more than half of the text is missing, and there are plenty of songs by the likes of Cole Porter and Irving Berlin worked into the action. I later caught up with the whole play, performed live in a garden in Oxford, in the summer of 2004.
4. “Titus Andronicus”
[Friday 24 July 2003, Julie Taymor’s film “Titus”, on video]
The Julie Taymor movie is simply called “Titus”. It’s a riot. If you know nothing about the play, and have time to read a 3000-word synopsis, try this. Otherwise, in brief, the play involves murder, rape, mutilation, madness and revenge, notably with the two rapists (Demetrius and Charon) being baked in a pie and fed to their mother (Tamora).
My only previous knowledge of the play was from that classic Hammer Horror movie “Theatre of Blood”, in which Vincent Price plays a ham actor who takes his revenge on the Critics’ Circle who have savaged a season of his plays. He kills the critics one by one, using methods from Shakespeare plays. One critic is drowned in a butt of Malmsey wine (like Clarence in “Henry VI”). Another (played by Jack Hawkins) is spurred on by jealousy, like Othello, to kill his wife (who is played by Diana Dors). And the character played by Robert Morley chokes to death on a pie made from his “babies”. In this case it’s his beloved poodles rather than human babies.
Anthony Hopkins plays Titus, Jessica Lange the vengeful Tamora, I enjoyed it. I rented the video from my local library and watched one Friday night after work. I had no idea what to expect.
5. “The Merry Wives of Windsor”
[Saturday 2 August 2003, RSC Production at the The Old Vic]
There was a real end-of-term feeling here. “Merry Wives” and “Coriolanus” were due to play in rep for another 3 weeks but the run was cut short. This was the last performance of the play, and there were surtitles: a red dot-matrix screen displayed 2 lines of text at a time. I would happily watch all productions this way, just as I now watch most recorded TV and DVDs with subtitles.
As I noted earlier, that night my wife had her fourth miscarriage. Thankfully it would be the last, but we didn’t know that at the time.
August went by in a blur
August 2003 went by in a blur of work, weekend trips to Paris and Dublin, and a kind of mourning. How do you mourn a baby that doesn’t get past 10 weeks? Is it even a baby?
I also spent this summer catching up on some movies I had on video, Oscar-winners like “Unforgiven” and “Titanic” which I had never seen, and “Shakespeare in Love”. (This is all part of a separate project, to watch every major Oscar-winner.)
6. “Richard II”
[Wednesday 13 August 2003, Shakespeare’s Globe]
I had booked tickets before the miscarriage, “Groundling” (standing room) tickets for both of us. At £5 a ticket it didn’t matter if we went or not but I was keen to go. My wife joined me, after my day’s work in Redhill. We learnt the lesson that every “Groundling” learns at Shakespeare’s Globe: no sitting. The ushers are resolute in enforcing this rule. Even on a Hot August Night nobody was allowed to sit down during the action, even for a minute.
I was captivated: by the theatre, by the performance, by the atmosphere. Mark Rylance (then artistic director of the Globe) directed the play and played Richard II. I had been put off going in previous years by my memories of his “Macbeth” at the Greenwich Theatre in 1995. It was my loss. I’m sure I missed a lot of good productions in those early years of the Globe.
My wife lasted until the interval and spent the second half indoors, sat near the coffee stand reading her book. Physically she had recovered well from the miscarriage. She always did. You end up grateful for small mercies. We had also been fortunate in not having to wait too long between pregnancies. We were fertile but prone to miscarriage. To paraphrase an episode of “Seinfeld” (explained below) “we knew how to make the baby, we just didn’t know how to hold the baby. And that’s really the most important part …”
An aside about “Seinfeld”, and that adapted line of dialogue
Unlike most people in the UK my wife and I were familiar with the American show “Seinfeld”. The UK is probably the only English-speaking territory where the show was a minority interest rather than a mainstream hit. It was shown on BBC2 after 11pm on Tuesday nights, unless there was a darts or snooker competition at the time, in which case it got bumped. In the mid-1990s we were always 3 or 4 series behind the rest of the world. Shows like “Cheers”, “Friends” and “Frasier” were shown at sensible times (like 9pm on a Friday) on Channel 4, a few weeks or months after being broadcast in the States. “Seinfeld” was never given the same treatment here. By 2004, six years after the final series, we had caught up with most of the episodes (on the Paramount Comedy Channel), and had our own favourites like “The Limo” (for my wife) and “The Hamptons” (for me). The line about “we knew how to make the baby, we just didn’t know how to hold the baby” paraphrased the lines spoken by Jerry and the Rental Car Agent in “The Alternate Side” quoted here.
Don’t watch “Bhaji on the Beach” if you’ve just had a miscarriage
That summer my wife and I made the mistake of watching “Bhaji on the Beach”. If you have just had a miscarriage or lost a baby do not watch this movie. One of the characters wanders around the seaside town bemoaning the fact that she’s pregnant and doesn’t want to keep the baby. Should she have an abortion? Should she keep the baby? We did watch to the end, mostly with our teeth clenched, but I can’t remember what she decided. I’m sure that I would feel different about the movie if I saw it again. Some years later a friend, who had just lost a baby in an ectopic pregnancy, saw the video on our living-room shelves and asked if it was any good, and could she borrow it. She was welcome to it but I advised her against watching it after everything she had just been through. I am a big fan of Meera Syal and Gurinder Chada and at another time in my life might have been a fan of this movie, but not in August 2003.
7. “The Winter’s Tale”
[Saturday 23 August 2003, Lincoln’s Inn Gardens]
This was the next live production I went to, with my niece, who was 15 at the time. We drove and parked easily. I had time to get to the Caffe Nero on Kingsway and grab a coffee. There is something magical about Shakespeare outdoors in England on a summer’s evening, especially in a location like this, where The King’s Players themselves performed the plays 400 years earlier. This was a small Oxford touring company. Over 12 years on I remember very little about the production, just that I enjoyed it.
8. “Two Gentlemen of Verona”
[Thursday 4 September 2003, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre]
I hadn’t been to the Open Air Theatre since school days, 25 years earlier, when studying “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” for O Level. In those days “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was always on at the Open Air Theatre, alternating with another Shakespeare. My wife and I went to this evening performance, a warm late summer night, the wind whistling through the trees at appropriate times. An enjoyable performance, a pleasant evening out: the dog was good.
9. “The Merchant of Venice”
[Saturday 6 September 2003, The Minerva Chichester]
A matinee at the Minerva Chichester; my wife and I drove down from West London in the morning, had time for a quick bite beforehand. She was especially taken by the appearance of Patrick Robinson (from “Casualty”) as Bassanio. Desmond Barritt was good as Shylock.
My wife is Jewish and had appeared in this play at school. It held pleasant memories for her. There were lines that we listened out for, based on stories from those school performances. At school the line “His words were farewell mistress, nothing else” had been spoken in a cockney accent, as “is werds were farewe’ mistress, nuffink ewse” and we’d spent the journey down repeating this. Also the girl playing Shylock in that school production had left a dramatic pause during the speech that includes “He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million … cooled my friends, heated mine enemies; and what’s his reason? (Pause)”. This led to a very loud and unnecessary prompt before she could continue the speech: “I AM A JEW”.
We drove on to Brighton for the wedding celebrations of some friends and spent the night in Hove.
Aside: A quick trip to Dublin for the All-Ireland Hurling Final
Early in the morning on Saturday 13 September my wife and I flew to Dublin for the weekend, to see Kilkenny play Cork in the All-Ireland Hurling Final. We had seen the semi-final in an Irish Bar in Paris in August and vowed that if Kilkenny (my father’s county) got to the final we would go to Dublin for it. We wouldn’t have done this if my wife had still been pregnant. We got a tip from a cab driver about where to get tickets on the day (a fish & chip shop run by an Italian chap, next to a certain pub, near Croke Park) but by the time we got there on the Sunday afternoon we were too late. We enjoyed the atmosphere instead. We were in Dublin for All-Ireland Final as planned; getting into the ground would have been a bonus. We walked back towards our hotel on Stephen’s Green and saw the first half in a pub on Parnell Street, just round the corner from where my Mum was born. The pub was called “The Shakespeare”. It seemed like a good sign, but Kilkenny were behind at half-time so we relocated to the Ha’penny Bridge Inn for the second half. I had proposed to my wife on the Ha’penny Bridge in 2001, and we usually cross the bridge and pop into this bar whenever we’re in town. You could do the same next time you’re there. The bridge used to be a toll-bridge for pedestrians (hence the name). You can cross for free now, but please put a few coins into the paper cups held by the beggars on the bridge: they probably need it more than you.
10. “Richard III”
[Saturday 20 September 2003, Shakespeare’s Globe]
[Also Wednesday 21 January 2004, film starring Ian McKellen’s, directed by Richard Loncraine, on video; Saturday 24 January 2004, film starring and directed by Laurence Olivier, on video]
I wanted to go back to the Globe as soon as I could after that first visit. “Taming of the Shrew” was playing that summer but all performances were sold out. I went alone, as a Groundling again, to this excellent all-female “Richard III”, Kathryn Hunter in the title role. It was a Saturday matinee, the day before my birthday. I went for a long walk along the river, enjoying London in the sunshine: from Bankside along the river path to Tower Bridge, over the bridge, past the Tower, which featured in the play, and home on the District Line.
11. “Henry VIII”
[Sunday 21 – Monday 22 September 2003, BBC Complete Works, on video]
Sunday 21 September was my birthday, and I had already seen, one way or another, over a quarter of Shakespeare’s plays since the project began. My wife bought me this video as a present. I watched it over two nights (Sunday and Monday). Earlier in the summer we had made vague plans for a party but we’d changed that after the events of August. A couple of friends came over for Sunday lunch (a big chicken pie) and we watched Arsenal (my wife’s team) draw 0-0 with Manchester United on TV. This was the notorious game where Ruud van Nistelrooy missed a penalty and Martin Keown confronted him afterwards. (Alex Ferguson described this as the worst thing he’d ever seen on a football pitch. He must have had his eyes closed when Roy Keane exacted revenge on Alf Inge Haaland in April 2001 for some perceived earlier transgression: that’s the worst thing that I’ve ever seen in a game of football.) This 0-0 draw was a key moment in what became Arsenal’s “Invincibles” Season. (My team, Leeds United, were heading in a very different direction.)
12. “As You Like It”
[Tuesday 23 September 2003, Peter Hall Production at the Churchill Theatre Bromley]
[Also Saturday 8 November 2013, RSC, Stratford-on-Avon]
My first and only trip to the Churchill Theatre Bromley: my wife met me after work in Redhill and we drove round the M25, a long way from home, to see this Peter Hall production. It featured his daughter Rebecca Hall as Rosalind, her first major role. I was keen to see it after the early reviews from Bath. For a while most of the plays that my wife came to see involved women dressing as men: first “Two Gentlemen of Verona”, then “Merchant of Venice”, where Portia appears as a male lawyer for the “Quality of Mercy” speech, now this.
[Later in the autumn (Saturday 8 November 2003) I drove to Stratford-on-Avon and back for a Saturday matinee, with my 15 year old niece. I had told her about the plot twists, she wanted to see it, and I was happy to take her. Nina Sosanye was very good as Rosalind. Checking my phone after the game I saw that Leeds were losing heavily at Portsmouth, 6-1 in the end.]
[Saturday 27 September 2003, Lyric Hammersmith]
For much of the autumn Saturday was Shakespeare matinee day for me. The Lyric Hammersmith is walking distance from us and here was a play I had barely heard of three months earlier being staged as close as could be. I went alone, knowing very little about the play. Just like “The Winter’s Tale” there’s a daughter separated from her parents and a mother, thought dead and found to be alive: redemption, and a happy ending.
I was now a third of the way through the Complete Works.
14. “Twelfth Night”
[Saturday 11 October 2003, Shakespeare’s Globe]
Another Saturday matinee, and I got tickets for the four of us who had seen Sean Bean as Macbeth the previous December (me, my wife, my sister and her teenage daughter). It was an all-male version, Mark Rylance as Olivia, a welcome return for a play that had played the previous year and gone on tour. Once again my wife witnessed a woman dressed as a man, or in this case a male actor playing the part of a woman dressing as a man.
[Saturday 25 October 2003, RSC, Stratford-on-Avon]
Another Saturday matinee and another play with a woman dressing as a man. My wife and I drove to Stratford-on-Avon and back on the day (around two hours each way). As we sat having lunch in a pub beforehand three women at the table next to us were discussing the play they were going to see, “Titus Andronicus”. One of them had printed out the synopsis and mapped out who did what to whom and when, and how it all played out. She was doing a great job, along the lines of, “Yes, so then Lavinia is raped by Tamora’s two sons. And they cut off her hands and cut her tongue out so she can’t tell anyone who did it …” The other two were almost shrieking: “What is this thing you’re taking us to?”
We loved this production of “Cymbeline”. If I could have scheduled the productions myself I would have left the Late Plays till later in the cycle but I had already seen “The Winter’s Tale” and “Pericles” and I’d see “The Tempest” the following month on video.
16. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”
[Wednesday 29 October 2003, the 1999 film version, on video, rented from my local library]
[Also Wednesday 25 February 2004, an RSC production on video; Thursday 9 September 2004, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre]
This Hollywood movie features Kevin Kline, Rupert Everett, Callista Flockhart and Michelle Pfeiffer. I’m still not used to American accents with Shakespeare. After “Macbeth” and “Hamlet” this is the Shakespeare play that I have seen more often than any other. As someone who buys and keeps theatre programmes I know that the first professional Shakespeare production I saw (October 1977, the RSC at the Aldwych Theatre) featured Patrick Stewart as Oberon. I didn’t realize that until 2003. Every now and then I go back and look through the cast lists. The Bristol Old Vic Production that I saw in July 1980 included Daniel Day-Lewis.
17. “Henry V”
[Friday 31 October 2003, Kenneth Branagh’s film version, on video]
In an earlier incarnation I was Director of a Film Festival. I attended the Cannes Film Festival every year between 1985 and 1989, by which time I needed a break. By the end of the 1989 Festival I had seen 53 films in 10 days. There were only 3 that I would sit through again, and this was one of them, and I enjoyed it just as much second time around.
Video City, Notting Hill Gate
At some point during the autumn of 2003 I discovered Video City in Notting Hill Gate, an old-fashioned one-off video store, the kind we had back in the 1980s. They aimed to stock every French-language film that had been released on video in the UK and there might have been other languages equally well represented. There were still plenty of videos to rent, though the shift to DVDs meant that there were very few new videos. By the time the store closed (in June 2015) they only stocked DVDs.
I found the shop in good time for this project: most of the Shakespeare videos at my local library were of plays that I had already seen.
[When the store finally closed in June 2015 I made one last trip there, said my farewells, and bought some ex-rental DVDs (“The Hollow Crown”, covering “Richard II”, “Henry IV parts 1 and 2” and “Henry V”) and a retail copy of Kenneth Branagh’s “Hamlet”. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.]
[Saturday 1 November 2003, film starring Laurence Fishburne, directed by Oliver Parker, on video, rented from Video City]
[Saturday 15 November 2003, Greenwich Theatre]
I rented the movie from Video City, not knowing that there would be a stage production later that month. Kenneth Branagh and Laurence Fishburne are excellent as Iago and The Moor respectively.
For the stage production it was another Saturday afternoon, another Shakespeare matinee: I went alone and remember very little about the production after all these years. This was the first time that I had seen a black actor playing “Othello” on stage. I had seen Paul Scofield play the title role at the National Theatre in 1980 (with Felicity Kendall as Desdemona) and remember a lot more about that production. After my afternoon in Greenwich I met my wife en route to Wembley Arena, to see Bob Dylan in concert.
I make no secret of my admiration for Dylan, the greatest songwriter of the last 50 years in my view, but his live performances can be of variable quality. Around this time I heard someone say that if Dylan is playing three times in your town, and you’re a fan, you should go to all three shows: one of them will be among the best gigs you’ve ever seen and one of them will be among the worst, but you won’t know in advance which they’ll be. This wasn’t a great show, and nor was his performance later that month at the Hammersmith Apollo (forever known as the Hammersmith Odeon to me and my friends). He also played the Brixton Academy that month, so I assume that was the show to go to. I missed it.
19. “Measure for Measure”
[Sunday 2 November 2003, BBC Complete Works, on video, rented from Video City]
[Also Saturday 24 July 2004, The Globe Production at Hampton Court Palace]
This one features Tim Pigott-Smith as Angelo, made governor of Vienna when the Duke absents himself, and Kate Nelligan as the saintly Isabella. I had seen the play at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith when I was a teenager and remembered nothing about it, not even that it was set in Vienna. (“Measure for Measure” is the answer to a Quiz Question I’ve heard many times: which of Shakespeare’s plays is the only one to be set in Vienna?)
This was a much-watched rental video which just about played on my VCR, with plenty of manual tracking required to get it to keep playing. It was good to see Kate Nelligan on screen again, from her late 1970s heyday. She is an actress who evokes the same feelings for men of my generation as Ingrid Pitt, Gabriella Drake and Anoushka Hempel. Excuse me while I stare into the middle distance for a few moments.
[The following summer the play was staged at Hampton Court Palace, in the very same room where Shakespeare once performed the play for King James I (or VI), and I was privileged to be there.]
I am now halfway
By early November 2003, 16 weeks into this project, I had seen half of Shakespeare’s plays one way or another. If we hadn’t lost the baby in July we would have been nearly halfway through the pregnancy as well.
Stephen Unwin’s Guide, and an abandoned production
“A Pocket Guide to Shakespeare’s Plays” by Kenneth McLeish and Stephen Unwin was published by Faber and Faber in 1998. I picked up a copy during 2003 and it became part of my routine before watching any unfamiliar play. I would read the chapter about the play (synopsis, main characters, its performance history, a few quotes).
Stephen Unwin was directing plays when I was at university in Cambridge during the 1980s. At the end of my first year I went to a production of “All’s well that ends well” at the ADC Theatre. It starred Dictynna Hood as the Countess. The performance was halted, and then abandoned because of a fire. A woman I got to know later in my time at university was working at the box office that evening and it was her voice that requested that “Mr Sands” should go to the box office. This was in 1982, and in the intervening 21 years I had never seen the play. In the meantime Stephen Unwin had made a career as a theatre director and I was grateful for his book.
20. “King Lear”
[Thursday 6 November 2003, Barons Court Theatre, Curtain’s Up Pub]
[Also: Sunday 1 February 2004, Greenwich Playhouse; Sunday 29 February 2004, ITV Production on video, starring Laurence Olivier]
The Curtain’s Up Pub is a Fringe Theatre (a 50-seater in the cellar beneath a pub) and this production featured a female Lear – it was called “Lear” rather than “King Lear”. I got home from work after 7pm and rushed straight out again, had about 20 minutes to get to Barons Court by District Line. If the train had been delayed I’d have missed the start but got there just as the play began – there was no curtain to go up, just a small stage with seats almost on top of it. I went alone. There was really nobody I could persuade to accompany me to this one.
No matter how carefully I say the word “fringe” people choose to mishear it as “French”. I would ask, “Do you want to see “King Lear”? It’s a Fringe Production, in Barons Court.” “A French Production?” “No, fringe, fa-rin-ja”, to rhyme with ginger. The smaller the theatre, the less likely I was to find a fellow theatre-goer.
[In 2004 I saw it again in Greenwich (very few memories of that production) and saw Laurence Olivier’s performance on video, originally broadcast on ITV in the early 1980s. We’re supposed to side with Cordelia, but Regan is played by Diana Rigg so I was a little conflicted.]
[Sunday 9 November 2003, RSC production on video]
I bought the video from the RSC shop in Stratford-on-Avon. It features Anthony Sher as Macbeth, and like Nicol Williamson’s Hamlet it was filmed at the Roundhouse. I watched it one Sunday afternoon. It features Anthony Sher in a bath at some point, and Harriet Walter as Lady Macbeth.
[Later that winter I also rented the video of the production first broadcast on ITV in the late 1970s. It starred Ian McKellen in the title role and Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth. It was the first version of the play that I ever saw. I didn’t see it on stage until an “Experimental” Production in 1983 at my college, with 3 actors playing all the parts,. The image I always have from the ITV version of of men in big polo-neck jumpers.]
22. “Taming of the Shrew”
[Saturday 22 November 2003, Zeffirelli film, on video, rented from my local library]
This version, starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, was directed by Franco Zeffirelli and on location in Padua. I enjoyed it, but the older I get the more uncomfortable I am about Petruchio’s treatment of Katherine. Still, Elizabeth Taylor seemed well able to take care of herself.
My wife and I had visited Padua in the summer of 2003. We were on our way to a wedding in Italy, in Cortona. We had driven to Paris first. The firm I was working for had an office there and I delivered a day’s training (in English, mercifully) before we headed south. We put the car on the Autotrain to save driving all the way from Paris to Nice, and took the sleeper from Gare de Lyon. It was a trip that we had taken on honeymoon (and, getting ahead of myself again, we were to take the same trip with our two children in the summer of 2015). .
Before heading to Cortona for the wedding we did a mini-tour of towns in the north of Italy. We stayed in Padua (where “Taming of the Shrew” is set), and visited Verona (and Juliet’s balcony) and Venice (but didn’t find any tourist attractions there related to Shylock or Antonio). Even before my Shakespeare project began we had incorporated three Shakespeare plays into our Italian trip. On the way back through France we stayed in Rocamadour.
An aside about Rocamadour
Our neighbours when I was growing up were a French mother, a Polish father and their two younger children. (They had an older boy who was living away from home most of the time, in Paris.) They all moved back to France in the 1970s, having bought a place not far from Brive. We kept in touch and I visited them a few times in the 80s and 90s (for a wedding, and then twice travelling through France after my mother died in 1997). My wife and I visited them in 2001 when we were on honeymoon, and again in the summer of 2003.
On one of the visits in 1997 our former neighbours told me about the nearby pilgrimage town of Rocamadour, home to the Black Madonna. Their first son was born in the late 1940s, and ten years later, after several miscarriages, they had not had another child. A relative suggested that they go to Rocamadour and pray for help: she recommended the Black Madonna for people who had had miscarriages. It was one of the “Big Four” destinations for medieval pilgrims, along with Santiago de Compostela, Rome and Jerusalem. Our friends had two more children, in the early 1960s, after their own personal pilgrimage.
The information had very little resonance for me in 1997 but I remembered it in 2003 and we decided to stay there on that trip back from Italy. We stayed in a cheap hotel (a pilgrim’s hostel) and on our first afternoon there I got chatting to a coach driver, pulling in with a party of Irish pilgrims. I was wearing a Kilkenny cap and he separated himself from a group of elderly ladies saying, “I’m going to have a talk with this chap.” Within a minute we established that his brother was married to a first cousin of mine from Kilkenny. You don’t need to read Shakespeare to find unexpected connections between complete strangers.
I did say a quiet prayer to the Black Madonna there in Rocamadour in June 2003. We were to go through one more miscarriage but it wasn’t her fault.
23. “Much Ado About Nothing”
[Sunday 23 November 2003, film directed by Kenneth Branagh, on video]
[Also: Saturday 14 August 2004, Holland Park; Saturday 11 September 2004, Shakespeare’s Globe]
I had seen this production on its original release, in 1993, a rare trip paying for tickets at a cinema that year. Having worked for a Film Festival until 1989, I was used to seeing movies for free (at other Festivals, or in Preview screenings in central London). It always surprises me how much people pay to go to the cinema. This is another good Shakespeare movie directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, the last film he made with his then-wife Emma Thompson. We didn’t know that at the time, nor did we know about her traumatic experiences with miscarriage.
[Again, jumping ahead in time, by the time we saw a stage production, in August 2004, my wife was nearly 6 months pregnant.]
24. “Romeo and Juliet”
[Saturday 29 November 2003, film directed by Baz Luhrman, on video, rented from my local library]
[Also Sunday 5 September 2004, Shakespeare’s Globe]
When this was originally released in 1996 Leonardo DiCaprio (who plays Romeo) hadn’t yet made “Titanic”. I just knew him as Johnny Depp’s little brother in “What’s eating Gilbert Grape?” In 2003 this fast-paced, up-to-the-minute adaptation hadn’t dated (and 7 years is a long time in technology). I wonder if it still holds up, technologically. Many things made after the mid-90s – with mobile phones, and references to the internet – have endured well, but there are specific things that make them look instantly dated – like square rather than wide-screen television sets. I remember this as a good film, enhanced by having The Cardigans’ “Lovefool” on the soundtrack.
25. “The Tempest”
[Sunday 30 November 2003, BBC Complete Works, on video, rented from Video City]
[Also: Saturday 6 November 2004, UCL Bloomsbury Theatre]
I had seen this BBC production when it was first broadcast, in the days before I had a video recorder. It had Michael Hordern as Prospero and David Dixon as Ariel. I rented this one from Video City. I would have rented the Derek Jarman movie if they’d had it but was happy to see this one again. I had read the play for the first time the previous month and along with “Hamlet” it’s my favourite play to read.
26. “Antony and Cleopatra”
[Sunday 7 December 2003, US TV production, on video, rented from my local library]
This was a production I had never heard of, made for American TV in 1984. It held some local interest for us. Timothy Dalton and Vanessa Redgrave both lived nearby, and were (or had been) in a relationship, and here was Dalton playing Antony to Vanessa’s sister Lynn Redgrave. I recall the production as being rather flat, or maybe that was just me. The only previous version I had seen was from the BBC Complete Works season, with Jane Lapotaire as Cleopatra. My brother had studied this play for A-Level and we have never discussed it.
27. “Henry IV Part 1”
[Sunday 14 December 2003, a BBC production that compressed the two parts of Henry IV into one drama, on video]
Was this cheating? The BBC had compressed the two plays into one production of around three hours, broadcast in 1995. I had recorded it off the TV then and never watched it. This was the last screen performance by Paul Eddington (Jerry in “The Good Life”, here playing Justice Shallow). He was suffering from a terrible skin condition. IMDB tells me that Roger Allam played Richard II. I would go on to see him as Falstaff in the two parts of Henry IV at Shakespeare’s Globe, many years later.
Just to separate out the two plays I watched the first part one night and the next party the following night.
28. “Henry IV Part 2”
[Monday 15 December 2003, a BBC production that compressed the two parts of Henry IV into one drama, on video]
(See previous note, for “Henry IV Part 1”.)
29. “Julius Caesar”
[Saturday 20 December 2003, BBC Complete Works, on video, rented from Video City]
[Also Sunday 14 March 2004, Menier Chocolate Factory]
I rented this one from Video City again. I would have rented the 1953 movie featuring Marlon Brando as Mark Antony if they’d had it. I’d like to see it again. I hadn’t seen this BBC production. It features Charles Gray as Caesar and Keith Michell as Mark Anthony. It hasn’t left a lasting impression on me.
[An aside about Marlon Brando: Back in 1981 I caught up on over half of Brando’s films thanks to repertory cinemas like the Scala (then based in Charlotte Street), the Electric in Portobello Road or the Hampstead Everyman. In 2012 I finally saw “Candy” on DVD which meant that I had seen every one of his movies. I haven’t seen that 1953 “Julius Caesar” since 1981.]
30. “King John”
[Friday 26 December 2003, BBC Complete Works, on video]
For seven of the remaining eight plays I needed the BBC shop in Margaret Street to help me out. I bought VHS videos there at 25 English Pounds each. In all I spent 200 pounds on videos (I bought “Cymbeline” as well, not sure why) and assume that my wife spent 25 quid on my birthday present of “Henry VIII”. By comparison, in the spring of 2015 I spent 63 English Pounds on the entire Complete Works season on DVD (less than 2 quid per DVD). I still have all of the pre-recorded VHS videos, taking up shelf space and unlikely ever to be viewed again.
This production had Leonard Rossiter (Reginald Perrin, and Rigsby in “Rising Damp” to people of my generation) in the title role, and John Thaw as the character who murders King John’s nephew. I found it hard to take Rossiter seriously as the mediocre king, and am as surprised now as I was then to find that Rossiter died in 1984. This was a quiet afternoon’s viewing on a mild Boxing Day.
31. “Timon of Athens”
[Sunday 28 December 2003, BBC Complete Works, on video]
Another BBC production, with Jonathan Pryce excellent in the title role; I read the play for the first time in January 2016 and it was Pryce’s face and voice that came to mind throughout. Like “King John” two days earlier this was another quiet afternoon’s viewing.
32. “Henry VI Part 1”
[Saturday 3 January 2004, BBC Complete Works, on video]
33. “Henry VI Part 2”
[Sunday 4 January 2004, BBC Complete Works, on video]
34. “Henry VI Part 3”
[Saturday 10 January 2004, BBC Complete Works, on video]
There are over nine hours of drama across the three parts of Henry VI. I had hoped to watch them all in a weekend, but had to spread the third part across my working week, through the following weekend and on to the next Monday night. I have a 1970s Penguin Shakespeare edition of the three plays in one volume and was reading through that at the same time, and on my way to and from work. These days, with DVDs, I always have subtitles on for Shakespeare so that I can read the words as well as hear them.
For all three plays I did a bit of multi-tasking, 20-30 minute bursts on my exercise bike while watching the videos, with that Penguin Shakespeare edition perched on the handlebars. I’d pause every now and then to check the text and footnotes and take breaks from the action.
These studio-bound productions are an important resource for me. There are no other recording of these three plays, though as I write these words in 2016 I can look forward to the imminent release of next part of “The Hollow Crown” which will incorporate these three plays and “Richard III”. In the BBC version Brian Protheroe plays Edward IV. Protheroe wrote and recorded the single “Pinball” which I bought in the 1970s and have always liked.
Seeing these productions again confirmed that I had seen them “live” when they were first broadcast in 1983. I remember wanting to pause the action at one point so that I could pee, but you couldn’t in those days. I missed about a minute of one of the plays. That sort of thing bugs me. I like to complete things (I’m sure that won’t surprise you) and for a completist who takes things literally missing just a minute of a play can make you feel that you haven’t seen the whole thing, until you realize just how many lines of text are cut in most productions. If you take things this literally can you ever feel that you have seen the whole play if some of the lines have been cut?
[Saturday 17 January 2004, BBC Complete Works, on video]
During the BBC Complete Works season, between 1978 and 1985, they only broadcast six or seven plays a year. With this BBC video I had now seen six of the productions in under a month. I would have liked a different feel to some of the plays but this was all that was available. Even 12 years later the only non-BBC production that you can see of any of the plays that I have numbered from 30-36 in this list is Ralph Fiennes’s film of “Coriolanus”. At times this would feel like I was just ticking things off a list, but the list was very nearly complete, and although I only had two more plays to see I would carry on watching other productions whenever possible, especially if it was something I had never seen on stage before.
36. “Troilus and Cressida”
[Friday 27 February 2004, BBC Complete Works, on video]
This is a play I know well. I studied it for A-Level, along with “Hamlet”, and I had seen two stage productions in my teens, which is two more than most people get to see. It’s a Problem Play, like “Measure for Measure” and “The Merchant of Venice”, set during the Trojan War. “Where are the strong, and who are the trusting?” to quote from Nick Lowe’s “(What’s so funny about) Peace and love and understanding?” Jack Birkett (Caliban in Derek Jarman’s film of “The Tempest”) plays Thersites, the scathing observer who summarizes the play as follows: “all the argument is a cuckold and a whore”.
Again, I was grateful to the BBC for providing the only means of catching this play, unless (and it’s rare) it’s about to be performed somewhere near you.
What else happened in February 2004?
So, what else happened in February 2004? Apart from seeing the BBC production of “Troilus and Cressida” I caught stage productions of “King Lear”, “Taming of the Shrew” and its “sequel” “The Tamer Tamed”, written by John Fletcher (probably without any help from Shakespeare). There was also a production of “Hamlet” at the Greenwich Playhouse, and I read Douglas Coupland’s “Hey Nostradamus” and Peter Carey’s Booker Prize Winner “The True History of the Kelly Gang”.
My wife and I went to Dublin for the Valentine’s Day weekend. We stayed in a fancy hotel on Stephen’s Green and had a fancy Valentine’s Day Dinner on the Saturday (Valentine’s Day itself). This included a glass of champagne with a little scoop of peach sorbet in the bottom of the glass, an excellent take on the cocktail the blini. During the evening two (or was it three?) couples got engaged; each time the guy went down on one knee and offered his would-be bride a ring. Each time the girl said yes, and we all cheered.
The following weekend we gave a farewell party to our good friends Steve and Clare, who were heading off to live in Melbourne Australia, her home city. Steve is from the UK and had been a work colleague for many years. They might have stayed in the UK a bit longer, but Clare was six months pregnant and they’d always planned to bring up children in Australia rather than here. Soon it would be too late to fly back.
And by the end of February my wife was pregnant again.
37. “All’s Well that Ends Well”
[Saturday 13 March 2004, RSC at the Queen’s Theatre Shaftesbury Avenue]
To quote Jeannie C Riley’s “Harper Valley PTA” (which would be “The Castaway’s Favourite” if I were ever on “Desert Island Discs”), “No I wouldn’t put you on because it really did, it happened just this way”. The final play in our journey was “All’s Well that Ends Well”. My wife was a few weeks pregnant. We took her parents to see this Big Event Production which had played Stratford-on-Avon the previous autumn. Judi Dench played the Countess, her first role with the RSC for many, many years. The four of us (not Judi Dench) had dinner beforehand at the New Loon Fung, our favourite restaurant in Chinatown. We told my parents-in-law that we were expecting a baby, again. It wasn’t the kind of news to make them throw their hats in the air (figuratively speaking). We had been through this before, but it seemed appropriate to tell them even this early in the pregnancy.
And one for luck, “The Two Noble Kinsmen”
[Saturday 20 March 2004, Bristol Old Vic Studio]
This is the only “official” Shakespeare co-write, with John Fletcher. It’s based on the same story that provides “The Knight’s Tale” in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” (which is the Tale that I studied for English A-Level). This play doesn’t make it into most “Complete Works” volumes. The BBC didn’t produce it in their Complete Works Season. But it was on, less than two hours’ drive away, and my teenage niece and I headed down to Bristol for the day. On the Chiswick Flyover I told her our news. We were expecting another baby, in November, and would she be godmother? Tears were shed, but we had recovered before we passed Heathrow Airport. This was a graduation performance by students at the Bristol Old Vic. I wonder which of the performers went on to become household names.
I had done what I set out to do: I had seen every Shakespeare play before the end of March 2004, the month that our child would have been born if that previous pregnancy had gone to term. And my wife was pregnant again. I would carry on, trying to see as many stage productions as I could, and attending all the appointments, scans, ante-natal classes, trips to Mothercare and the rest of it. As I wrote earlier, there is a happy ending to all of this: no further miscarriages, two full-term pregnancies, two healthy children, aged 9 and 11 as I type these words. By the end of “All’s Well that Ends Well” in March 2004 I had seen 24 of the 37 plays on stage, and before our son was born on 9 November I would see a further 3. That left 10 more to see on stage. When my wife was expecting our second child I aimed to complete a similar project: to see stage productions of all the Shakespeare plays that I had only seen on film or TV. But that’s another story.