Shaking It Up

The winter is over and past and the season of spring is here. Not only that but the 400th anniversary of the death of The Bard is upon us. (Shakespeare is believed to have died on his birthday, April 23, in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1616.)

But isn't Shakespeare just a stuffy, dead writer? Having journeyed through a project of brief play adaptations with my nine-year-old, we can tell you, 'No!'

As we marvel afresh at a familiar view when it's covered in unexpected snow, so we can sometimes only see what we thought we knew when it is shaken up and unfamiliar. I've experienced a jolt of freshness in 'seeing' the playwright anew this past season.

I certainly had a jolt of humor when I came across the above image online recently: a most English Mr Whippy ice cream truck, doing its duty around Shakespeare's Stratford-upon-Avon, all decked out in the iconic Bard. To enhance one's purchase, there is even a snippet of summery sonnet. "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate."
I doubt I shall think of ice cream quite the same again ... or that familiar sonnet.

If that wasn't enough of a Shakespearean shake up, the esteemed London Transport Museum and Globe Theatre have just teamed up to celebrate the '400' with a re-worked Tube map.

In this commemorative map, the well-known names of all 367 London Underground stations from all fourteen lines have been replaced with characters from Shakespeare. For example, the Transport Museum explains, "The Central Line has been taken over by the Lovers, while the Jubilee Line is represented by Fathers and Kings and its stations have acquired names such as King Lear and Shylock."

Dr Farah Karim-Cooper, head of higher education at Shakespeare's Globe, said: "To think about navigating the plays in the same way we think about getting around the Underground reminds us that as complex as they are, the works of Shakespeare are entirely accessible to everyone."

You can purchase the poster-sized map from the London Transport Museum Shop. 

 

The familiar re-imagined

Procession of Characters from Shakespeare's Plays, by unknown artist

So, 'as complex as they are, the works of Shakespeare are entirely accessible to anyone'?

Compelling evidence is the excellent exercise by BBC School Radio, which my nine-year-old and I enjoyed every Friday afternoon through our American winter (with tea and biscuits, plus sketching and doodling while we listened.)

Ready for the 2016 anniversary, the BBC commissioned ten of today's most marvelous children's authors to each retell a familiar Shakespeare play, constrained only by the audience of children (and child-like adults such as I) and the generous time frame of fifteen minutes for each play.

Now, I can't imagine retelling an entire play in fifteen minutes (and it being worth broadcasting) and it was a true stretch to my imagination each week to hear what they accomplished. 

Each is an unexpected breath of fresh air that exemplifies great story telling. But what I enjoyed most was the weekly brief 'author talk' that explained the thinking behind each adaptation. When you hear Romeo and Juliet re-framed as a school soccer match ... well, it's nice to know why.

I've included the complete audios of our two favorite plays below, but you can also access all ten episodes here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio/programmes/genres/childrens/drama/player/episodes

 

Hamlet Lives Forever

 Horatio Clare, author of the Shakespeare Retold:  Hamlet Lives Forever

Horatio Clare, author of the Shakespeare Retold: Hamlet Lives Forever

The Shakespeare retelling series is a rather amazing project. When someone comes to you and asks you to retell a Shakespeare play for children, in under fifteen minutes, the possibilities are enormous and the challenges various. 

The author Horatio Clare grew up on a sheep farm in the wilds of south Wales. He was named after Hamlet's best friend Horatio, and was thrilled to be given Hamlet to adapt. He first thought of how he was told the play:

I was told it on long car journeys when I was a little boy. My mother, in order to stop my brother and I hitting each other as we trundled down motorways in the dark of the 1970s and 80s, she'd say, 'It was a dark night on the battlements, and the sentries were nervous.' and immediately she had us.

So Clare took that powerful memory and decided to have the play be retold to someone. The someone was Hamnet, Shakespeare's real-life son, who died age 11, several years before the play Hamlet was written. Clare imagines that father and son are reunited in Paradise and, typical of a young boy, Hamnet asks question after question of his father. That is the moving setting that conveys so much more than just the story of modern, tormented Prince Hamlet, but also the gut-wrenching loss of the playwright himself. You might need a hanky. No more spoilers.

To hear Clare's complete author talk, click on the image above. To hear the retold play, click below.

 A still from the Shakespeare Retold BBC School Radio page

A still from the Shakespeare Retold BBC School Radio page

 

Shakespeare's Farewell?

Our other favorite retelling was of The Tempest, possibly the last play Shakespeare wrote. The reteller is Frank Cottrell-Boyce, father of seven whom he homeschooled ("not through frustration or resentment, but because everyone enjoyed it so much. Drifting in and out with your nose in a book was universal.") He is not only a children's author but a scriptwriter for Dr. Who, and author of the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics, which was also based on The Tempest. Extraordinarily, he attempts to combine aspects of all three into this adaptation! I didn't see that coming. The futurism of Dr. Who, Olympic Ceremony pyrotechnics, plus Shakespeare?

He explains that while most of Shakespeare's plays were written to be performed during the day in The Globe, where the only special effects were conjured by the author's words, the last of Shakespeare's plays were produced in The Rose. This indoor, nighttime venue enabled Shakespeare to create magical special effects with lighting, curtains and other devices. This retelling is from the point-of-view of the Special Effects man, surely a new job category at the time.

Most moving is the closing of the play, also the closing words of the Olympic Ceremony, in which Shakespeare seems to say farewell to the theater itself.

Listen and see the familiar made movingly fresh in this modern rendition. 

 The only portrait of Shakespeare that has a good claim to have been painted from life, the famous 'Chandos' portrait, was the first acquisition of Britain's extraordinary  National Portrait Gallery

The only portrait of Shakespeare that has a good claim to have been painted from life, the famous 'Chandos' portrait, was the first acquisition of Britain's extraordinary National Portrait Gallery

 A copy of the First Folio,  published 7 years after Shakespeare's death  by two actor friends. Without this collection, eighteen plays would have been lost, incl. Macbeth, Julius Caesar and Romeo & Juliet

A copy of the First Folio, published 7 years after Shakespeare's death by two actor friends. Without this collection, eighteen plays would have been lost, incl. Macbeth, Julius Caesar and Romeo & Juliet

Let Me KNow ...

Let me know what you think of these wonderful re-tellings and re-imaginings that shake up our preconceived ideas.

With a fresh homepage at paperblogging.com, and some fresh writing and teaching plans for spring, I am shaking off the winter and looking forward to the weekly posting of stories about notebooks and seeing.