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Sheffield Hallam Performance Students Recite Shakespeare on the Banks of the Thames

Last week, some of the L5s stood on the bank of the Thames and recited their Shakespeare speeches, against a back-drop of the ever growing tower blocks of London’s skyline. As I watched, I was struck by how the past and present were colliding. Just yards from where we stood, 500 years earlier, Shakespeare’s Players who, to paraphrase, strutted and fretted their hour upon the stage, were speaking the same text out into the London air. Now , thanks to gaming, we think of a Player in different terms, but at least we can agree that a Player is someone that is actively involved in something and doesn’t just watch. For the main part of the evening, we were there to do that; to watch. We were there to watch Richard III  in The Pit Theatre.

I don’t know if you know much about Richard III. He was the last king of the House of York, who reigned from 1452-1485. He was the King that was killed at the battle of Bosworth, whose body was found under a car park in Leicester and was re-interred in Leicester cathedral in 2015. He has always been regarded as a villain, characterised by black, lank hair, a hunched back and a ruthless ambition. Much of this reputation is thanks to Shakespeare, whose History Play about Richard’s blood thirsty reign created one of the best villains in the English language canon. His true villainy is sealed by the cold blooded murder of the innocent princes in the tower. How could he!?

Yet Shakespeare wrote this play as a piece of propaganda. He wrote it towards the end of the Tudor dynasty, whilst Elizabeth I was on the throne, and, as it was the Tudors who deposed Richard, he was keen to show that they were the rightful heirs to the crown of England. It was written as a piece of contemporary politics of the time.

Although Shakespeare’s play was written  500 years and was very much about the politics of then, there was much in this production which also spoke of now. Theatre productions are transitory. They only exist for the short period of time they are being performed (unlike a film, which is recorded and can be watched again years afterwards). The quote from Macbeth, that I referred to earlier about “a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage”, finishes “and then is heard no more” and is used to illustrate that life is as brief as a performance on stage. Productions are also, though, made by people (actors, directors, designers) who live in the real world, outside the Playhouse, and so bring a bit of that world into the rehearsal room and auditorium. Sometimes this is a deliberate aesthetic choice, but even when not, it’s still there. And... you might have noticed that politics is all around us, at the moment. Theres a General Election on the way.

Richard III is not only about ambition, but also about the importance of learning from past mistakes and of healing the nations wounds. That feels very current. There is much division in our country at the moment (although I doubt a General Election is going to bring the country together) and the split between Remainers and Brexiteers is as wide as that of the warring families in Richard’s time (ok, I accept, a bit of dramatic licence is needed to go with that). There is also a mistrust of those in power, believing them to care more about maintaining power than anything else.

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So, in this production, the director made some clear decisions to make it feel contemporary and current. Rather than play Richard as a deformed old man, this production had him played by a woman actor, who was tall, elegant and charismatic, with striking blond hair. Dare I say, there was something of the current Prime Minister in her faux charisma and complete unscrupulousness. The murders weren’t brutal, but instead funny and cartoon-like. The was a hint of Tarrantino in the way that Richard’s henchmen would dispose of another enemy whilst Richard danced around the stage singing songs. In this world, violence wasn’t shocking, but common place and amusing. Like watching a disaster on the TV news, we were distanced from the terror and watched on dispassionately.

In Richard’s day, ordinary people, like us, had absolutely no say in what tyrant ran the country. Things have moved on. Now, even though when voting your voice is just one of millions, you do have the opportunity to have your voice heard and counted (and you dont lose your head for it). We can choose to say what we agree or dont agree with. We can vote out of conviction or choose not to support someone because we believe they care more about their own power than the good of the country. We can be discerning and not be sold on fake charm and charisma. We can do more than observe. We can be players.

So... Make sure you vote. Who you choose, is up to you and if you’re not sure who to vote for, at least find out which political parties support the arts. We want more people being given the opportunity to shout the words of Shakespeare from the banks of the Thames.

If you wish to know more about our BA(hons) degree in Acting & Performance at Sheffield Hallam University, then please go to www.shuperformance.co.uk

Images: Ashley Barnes

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SHU Performance is based in the Department of Humanities at Sheffield Hallam University.

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