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July 08, 2018

Ira Aldridge, 2017: The Countown continued

Ira Aldridge: Written Out of History

‘Ira was relentless. He didn’t take no for an answer and he never, ever gave up. After spending so long absent from our artistic history, it is fitting and just that we celebrate him now.’

(Adrian Lester, who played Ira Aldridge in Lolita Chakrabarti’s play Red Velvet)

On the 150th anniversary of his death, the Multicultural Shakespeare Project, Shakespeare’s Globe and Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre joined forces to help celebrate the life of pioneering black actor, Ira Aldridge.

How much do we know about the man noted for being the first black actor to play Othello? Until recently, not a great deal. In fact Professor Tony Howard of the University of Warwick notes, ‘his tragedy was that so soon after his death he was written out of history; his triumph is that all over the world he is being written back in now, with a vengeance.’

New discoveries by scholars and biographers such as Bernth Lindfors and Martin Hoyles coupled with creative projects such as the America tour of Red Velvet and Tony Howard’s Against Prejudice have brought Ira’s story to life again in this significant year.

Ira was born in July 1807 in New York and sailed for Britain in 1825 to escape racism. Soon after his arrival he scored his first theatrical successes in the ‘minor’ Royalty and Royal Coburg Theatres in South London.

Between 1826-27 he toured English regional theatres with great success, commenting in 1828 that, ‘he might have feared that, unknown and unfriended, he had little claim to public notice – did he not feel that being a foreigner and a stranger are universal passports to British sympathy.’

In the spring of 1828, spurred on by this success (though, astonishingly, at a time when Britain’s colonies and thousands of British investors still depended on slavery) he became the manager of the Coventry Theatre (Theatre Royal) at the modest age of 20. In his short but successful season at the theatre he used melodrama, music and Shakespeare to challenge racist stereotypes.

During the years after Ira’s time in Coventry he toured Britain as a successful actor with a strong Shakespearean repertoire. He also performed songs and poems, like the anti-slavery poem written for him by Warwickshire author James Bisset. This poem, which makes an explicit link between slavery and the new British industries that manufactured the everyday machinery of slavery, has been mentioned in biographies for decades but has never surfaced until now. We are delighted that it will be performed as part of the Against Prejudice event.

Despite vicious attacks from the press when he performed at Covent Garden Theatre, Ira continued his national tour and extended his reach internationally between 1852 and 1867. Considering the significance of this time in Ira’s life, Adrian Lester comments, ‘he took a horse and carriage to tour places that the railroad hadn’t been built to reach yet, being lauded and allowed to play anywhere but at home’.

Ira’s final accolade was to be the first ever British actor to be knighted. In August 1867, at a time when he was about to return to the USA after Civil War and the abolition of slavery, Ira died in Łódź, Poland, at the age of 60.

Shakespeare's Gobe comments: 'It is a privilege for Shakespeare’s Globe to be hosting Against Prejudice this season, to honour a man about whom Tony Howard notes, ‘Artists and audiences have responded passionately to the story of his life and his struggles to be heard.’ Reflecting on his work on the project, he adds, ‘time and time again I’ve been asked, ‘Why did nobody tell me this before?’

Against Prejudice: A celebration of Ira Aldridge in the candlelit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse - Tuesday September 19 2017 at 7.00pm. The evening featured a staged reading of Professor Tony Howard’s drama-documentary about Ira’s life as a theatre manager, a panel discussion led by historian David Olusoga about his legacy and a performance from vocalist Una May and Coventry Belgrade’s Black Youth Theatre. The evening also featured three leading actors who have played Ira in biographical plays and films about him: Ray Fearon, Joseph Marcell and Joseph Mydell

GUEST OF HONOUR: Earl Cameron, days after his 100th birthday. Mr. Cameron was voice-trained by Amanda, Ira Aldridge's daughter.

May 12, 2015

Reflections on BBAS's Who Owns Shakespeare? panel – 29 April 2015

Q).Who owns Shakespeare? A). Everyone

by Daniel Cope

Who Owns Shakespeare panel

Members of the "Who Owns Shakespeare?" panel

Who Owns Shakespeare? was held on 29 April at Warwick Arts Centre and as I ambled into the lecture theatre I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I’m in my final year studying English Literature and I’ve got an exam on Shakespeare coming up so I thought this would be an ample revision opportunity. What followed was some of the most interesting two hours of my life.

We were quickly introduced to two clips of Romeo and Juliet in Harlem(dir. Aleta Chappelle) and H4(dir: Paul Quinn) and then welcomed a panel consisting of actors Paterson Joseph and Nicholas Bailey alongside the stars of the two productions Jasmine Carmichael (Juliet) and Amad Jackson (Prince Harry). Also joining them was Jatinder Verma [artistic director of Tara Arts] and Aleta Chappelle. After a hearty round of applause the panel delved into a discussion of the two films and their understanding of Black and Asian Shakespeare.

The panel met with unanimous agreement that the medium of film is extraordinarily evocative in reaching out to young people. Jasmine Carmichael fondly remembered when the fight scene between Tybalt and Romeo was filmed on a basketball court, they generated enthusiastic interest from local children. Jasmine reflected how excited the children were to see these characters brought to live in their community with some girls even approaching her about how they too would like to play Juliet. This affectionate anecdote demonstrated just how important it is to engage women of colour with Shakespeare. The great Shakespeare characters such as Lady Macbeth, Rosalind, or Juliet herself should not be limited to the pervasive (and in this case, toxic) idea of ‘Englishness’. Shakespeare’s universal themes of love, hope, loss and many more can only continue to fly if they are placed globally in different situations and scenarios. You can’t “hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature” if you limit a text to its original playing conditions. The discussion pointed out many times that Shakespeare’s plays take place across the globe from Denmark, to Rome and Italy. Shakespeare echoes globally and that must never be forgotten.

For me the clearest issue that arose during the discussion was that of Shakespeare’s accessibility, particularly for young people. Amad Jackson voiced concerns about Shakespeare performances just being limited to black tights and how this has a limited resonance with younger people just beginning to engage with Shakespeare. Paterson Joseph agreed by stating that Shakespeare is a “living” playwright. I can’t seem to forget this comment because it seems obvious when you begin to unpack it. The universality of Shakespeare’s text continues not just because audiences are interested in early modern drama (although many of us are!) but because there is something intrinsically probing about the issues he explores. Members of the audience brought up that there was a recent production of Romeo and Juliet (dir. Nawar Bulbul) over Skype in Syria against the backdrop of a civil war which helped children caught up within the conflict articulate their feelings in performance. If this is the case, then surely Shakespeare is still doing something right?

I’m going to train to teach in a secondary school in September so I wanted to ask what the panel had to say about the teaching of Shakespeare and how to get past the initial fear of the complexity of the text. Paterson Joseph jumped straight in to confess that he feels accent is what lifts language and that the idea that Received Pronunciation is the only way to play the language is a nonsensical idea. The [retired] voice director of the RSC, Cicely Berry, joined in from the audience and agreed saying that historically some of the performing accents would have been more akin to the Brummie accent (this made me, a born Brummie, very happy!)

I left the auditorium richer. Not only am I going to look into the wealth of Black and Asian Shakespeare productions on offer but I feel like I had the chance to listen some of the most exciting talent in theatre and film. These actors and directors deeply care about Shakespeare as a medium through which real social change and young people’s engagement can be achieved. I came in thinking that I’d probably get some good revision pointers and I left filled to the brim with innovative ideas about accessibility, representation and the affirmation that Shakespeare really is owned by everyone and should continue to be so.

March 31, 2015

Hamlet around the world

I’m on tour with Shakespeare’s Globe at the moment, taking Hamlet to every nation on this earth over two years and we are currently 80 countries in. We are a multi heritage company, and I’m really proud to be a part of this.


Amanda Wilkin, a member of the Globe's world Hamlet tour, writes to us:

In Finland I remember meeting a dual heritage actress after the show, and she commented that it’s the first time she’s seen such a diverse company onstage and that it meant so much to her.

People comment positively on this aspect of our show all the time. And, I think that it’s great that wherever we go in the world, people may see someone onstage who looks a little bit like them. Hopefully this says that Shakespeare is for everyone, not only one kind of person.

Sometimes, however it’s been interesting to learn that someone has been confused by the casting. I was asked in Tunisia by a young woman what we were trying to say in the production by casting a Black actor as Hamlet.

My response was that simply, any person of any colour can feel the emotions and wrestle with his destiny like Hamlet in the play.

I’m having an incredible time, and feel very lucky to be on this journey.

February 17, 2015

Hamlet in Kashmir

Revenge cannot make you free.

The Shakespeare's Globe world tour of Hamlet will reach India and Pakistan in Autumn 2015; in the meantime a Hindi film updating the play has been released and has been showered with Bollywood awards, critical praise, and political and religious protests.

Following Maqbool (Macbeth) and Omkara (Othello), Haider is Vishal Bhardwaj’s third transposition of Shakespearean tragedy to the Indian subcontinent, and by far the most ambitious. Set in divided Kashmir during the violent separatist conflicts of the 1990s, Haider was co-scripted by Bhardwaj and the journalist Basharat Peer. It draws on Peer’s own experiences – from humiliations at army checkpoints (he has a cameo as a traumatised civilian) to a fundamental plot twist: the Muslim family of the teenage Haider/Hamlet send him away to university to prevent his radicalisation.

As a result Haider is two films in one. In the first half, the loose parallels with Shakespeare’s play seem incidental distractions while Bhardwaj presents tales of the Kashmir insurgency. Indian army artillery turns Haider’s home into a ruined shell. Byestanders are killed in the hunt for terrorists. Suspects - including Haider’s father, a doctor - are paraded before hidden accusers and selected for arrest, interrogation, or a mass grave. Indian cinema has rarely touched on this recent history.

Gradually, however, the Hamlet connections become more insistent. One of Bhardwaj’s greatest strengths is his readiness to rebalance Shakespeare, giving new speeches to the silent and bolstering relationships, and in this case he makes the hero’s grieving and isolated mother (renamed Ghazaala) the film’s emotional centre. When her husband is taken away, she becomes one of Kashmir’s thousands of ‘half-widows’, whom we see holding up photographs of vanished spouses and sons. So we understand - though Haider refuses to - when she drifts towards her affectionate brother-in-law Khurrum. He’s a populist politician, campaigning for the return of the Disappeared. How can he possibly be a murderer?

There are many bold touches like this. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern become the indistinguishable Salman and Salman - video-store owners and part-time spies. Ophelia (Arshee) is re-invented as a resourceful journalist; and yet her father, brother and lover all push her back towards Ophelia’s fate. Haider’s characters are the victims of their own contradictions and those of society. Arshee’s father, a corrupt policeman, is so touched when she knits him a red scarf that he wears it proudly with his uniform; he also uses it to tie up Haider’s wrists. In an understated scene of mental breakdown, Arshia unravels it.

Frustratingly, in all this, Haider, or rather the actor, Shahid Kapoor, seemed the film’s weak link to me - photogenic but inexpressive and with very little to say. But this actually prepares the ground for Bhardwaj's greatest coup. When Haider learns the truth of his father’s death (several kinds of ‘ghost’ deliver the call for revenge), both character and actor are transformed. Head shaved, face painted, gaping, grinning, Haider turns into a manic holy fool. He pretends to hang himself in the town square, he whips up a crowd of chanting protesters, and he leads a troupe of warrior-dancers in an electrifying routine shattering his new father’s wedding. Rather than feigning insanity or succumbing to it, this Hamlet channels decades of popular anger into frenetic movement and pounding song.

Thus he launches the film’s final movement - fifteen minutes of accelerating action in which all the plots converge and the relationship between Shakespearean fiction and internet brutality becomes surreal. Heavy snow blurs the vistas of the mountains and lakes; blood tints the snow; gravediggers sing, dance, and go to bed in their graves. Haider’s ending poses uncomfortable contemporary questions about suicide and revenge – and the ability of Shakespeare’s texts to help us answer them.


(From the forthcoming Spring edition of Around the Globe)

August 15, 2014

Bollywood Shakespeare

Guest Contributor Varsha Panjwani writes:

Shakespeare and Bollywood Conference

Organised by Koel Chatterjee (Royal Holloway), Preti Taneja (Cambrige), and Thea Buckley (Shakespeare Institute) at Senate House, London: 27 June 2014

Shakespeare arrived in India under colonial rule when T.B. Macaulay enforced English education, including the study of Shakespeare, as a means to undermine the development of Indian languages and literature. Ironically, however, when colonial rule ended and the British started leaving, Shakespeare remained and mastered local languages such as Gujarati, Bengali, Punjabi, Hindi, and Malayalam. Today, Shakespeare speaks in all these tongues on Indian screens as his plays are adapted, appropriated, and reinvented by Indian cinema.

The widespread popularity of Shakespeare in Indian cinema became apparent when keynote speaker Poonam Trivedi (Delhi University) kicked off the inaugural ‘Shakespeare and Bollywood’ conference by comparing V.K. Prakash’s Karmayogi, a 2012 take on Hamlet in Malayalam, with Sohrab Modi’s 1935 Hindi/Urdu adaptation Khoon Ka Khoon and Kishore Sahu’s 1954 Hamlet. Thea Buckley (Shakespeare Institute) further explored the influence of Shakespeare by mapping how the Mollywood blockbuster, Karmayogi blends Bollywood and Kerala’s cultural traditions with Shakespeare’s text. While these papers opened a significant line of enquiry regarding the differences and similarities between regional Shakespeare adaptations in India, they also problematised terms such as ‘Indian Cinema’ and ‘Bollywood’. The label ‘Indian Cinema’ was found limiting as it seems to present a homogeneous picture of an industry characterised by its heterogeneous variety. Equally, it was felt that the term ‘Bollywood’ was being used to describe almost any film with Indian themes and songs regardless of its language and the place where it was produced.

The urgency to investigate these terms was brought to the forefront when Sita Thomas (University of Warwick) critiqued the Royal Shakespeare Company’s branding of Iqbal Khan’s Much Ado About Nothing as a Bollywood production. Thomas contrasted this problematic labelling with the much more innovative way in which Samir Bhamra’s Phizzical Theatre Company embraced all aspects of Bollywood to create a Cymbeline which offered rich commentary on both Bollywood and Shakespeare. Bhamra was present at the conference and admitted that questions such as ‘How do you define a Bollywood production?’ and ‘What are its core ingredients?’ constantly occupied him when he was ‘Bollywoodising’ Shakespeare. Suman Bhuchar, who marketed Iqbal Khan’s production of Much Ado About Nothing, was also a contributor to the conference and provided more insight. Together, these papers made it clear that both Shakespeare and Bollywood are powerful global brands. While the Bollywood industry has recently begun to use Shakespeare to promote worldwide critical engagement, the Shakespeare industry has returned the compliment by using Bollywood to offer a differently flavoured Shakespeare to attract a more diverse clientele.

Yet, Shakespeare and Bollywood are not merely brands exploiting each other to sell their products; they share a more productive relationship. For instance, my own paper detailed the amalgam of Hindu religious folk theatre and Shakespeare in Bollywood’s 2013 adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, and questioned whether the film deployed Shakespeare to promote the subaltern theatre forms that were in danger of perishing under the influence of Western theatre. Priyanjali Sen (New York University) elaborated on these relationships when she raised the pertinent point that the Bengali Bhadralok culture – something that is considered so regionally specific – glorified Shakespeare right from its inception, thereby drawing attention to the way in which Shakespeare is deeply embedded in the cultural fabric of Indian cinema.

The long and chequered history of Shakespeare in Indian cinema is a powerful tool in the hands of directors who explore what it means to be Indian in a global culture through a Shakespearean lens. Emphasising one end of this spectrum was Shauna O’Brien (Trinity College, Dublin) who argued that the 1965 Bollywood film, Shakespeare Wallah commemorates how India defined its emerging identity in opposition to Shakespeare. Detailing the other end of this spectrum, Preti Taneja (University of Cambridge) interrogated negotiations between India’s national and diaspora identities in the 2009 film, Life Goes On, a retelling of King Lear. Taneja contended that the questions of identity are not as clear-cut as in Shakespeare Wallah and Datta’s film has to chart an uneasy territory in trying to appease various Indian sensibilities. That Datta uses Shakespeare’s play to debate Indian identity politics is testament to the fact that while Shakespeare arrived as a foreigner in India, he has now become a naturalised citizen, and that Bollywood has had a huge role to play in this settlement.

The process of naturalisation through cinema probably began with Angoor (1982) which Koel Chatterjee (Royal Holloway) pointed out was the first Bollywood film in which Shakespeare met an existing Indian film genre so that the product was more of a blend than a mere imitation or plagiarism. Claire Cochrane’s (University of Worcester) reflective thoughts on her first encounter with the more recent 2001 Bollywood blockbuster, Dil Chahta Hai, traced how this process has been refined over the years. Her paper pointed out that Shakespeare has become so ingrained in Bollywood that it is now difficult to tell whether an element is more Bollywood or more Shakespeare. This is only to be expected as Andrew Dickson (Guardian theatre critic) stressed how his search for the origins of Shakespeare on screen in India led him to conclude that Shakespeare was a definite presence even at the very start of cinema in India. His investigation revealed that while there was a wealth of past performances involving legendary songwriters, directors and actors from Gulzar, Vishal Bhardwaj, and Mala Sinha to independent directors such as Sharat Kataria, there were many more diverse projects still in the pipeline, such as Tigmanshu Dhulia’s and Bhardwaj’s two Hamlets. In the words of Trivedi, it is fair to say that Shakespeare has indeed become ‘hamara’ (our) Shakespeare in Indian cinema. What the inaugural conference made amply clear, however, was that this interrelationship has not received the attention it deserves. The way in which Bollywood particularly and Indian cinema generally is reconfiguring Shakespeare and Indian identity is something that both India and a multicultural society like Britain need to engage with further.

June 12, 2014

Delia Jarrett–Macauley: Making History

William Shakespeare isn’t the only playwright to be celebrating a big birthday this year. The Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka is now 80, and to honour him the literary wing of the Royal Africa Society, Africa Writes, invited him to speak at the British Library in London. In a dazzling, witty and compelling conversation the packed house heard stories about his early life as captured in Ake: The Years of Childhood.

The best questions from the floor came from the novelist Chibundo Onuzo: ‘I’m going to ask you about your Afro? How do you interact with the iconography of your person?’

The longest questions came from an unpublished writer who wanted advice on how long he might have to wait and under what conditions he should wait to get into print. ‘Prepare to collect your rejection slips!’ warned Soyinka, ‘and write when you feel compelled to do so.’

And the most serious questions concerned the state of Nigeria, Boko Haram and the kidnapping of the 200 schoolgirls, which Soyinka responded to by describing how the culture of impunity had become rampant in Nigeria over a period of many years.

Asked about the First Lady of Nigeria, Soyinka replied, ‘You’re trying to draw me.’

There was lots of laughter, and then he added, ‘Nigeria is a land of wonders.’

This ‘land of wonders’ is laid bare by the narrator of this political poem written during Soyinka’s imprisonment in Nigeria from 1967-1969.


He stilled his doubts, they rose to halt and lame

A resolution on the rack. Passion’s flame

Was doused in fear of error; his mind’s unease

Bred indulgence to the state’s disease.

Ghosts embowelled his earth; he clung to rails

In a gallery of abstractions, distracting tales

As ’told by an idiot’. Passionless he set the stage

Of passion for the guilt he would engage.

Justice despaired. The turn and turn abouts

Of reason danced default to duty’s counterpoint.

Till treachery scratched the slate of primal clay.

Then Metaphysics waived a thought’s delay.

It took the salt in the wound, the point

Envenom’d too to steal the prince of doubts.

This week I’ve been in and out of The Globe. My first visit was to the library tucked away in the Globe Education Department. It felt like a real researcher’s spot, archiving was going on somewhere behind me, the bookshelves looked happily crammed and a bit quaint, my fellow researchers earnest.

Researching ‘race’ in British history throws up so many quandaries. It is well known from the Globe’s programme of work that Black and Asian actors have appeared in many productions. They are there in the current world-touring Hamlet, in the DVD of the all-female Much Ado directed by Tamara Harvey in 2004, and in the posters on the wall at the stage door. They play lead roles and minor parts; they join training sessions and unwind the neighbouring bars. However, apart from examining the faces in ‘Adopt an Actor,’ in the main Black and Asian performers are not easily tracked through the archives. The books by leading African-American academic Ayanna Thompson do not appear when I search: Colourblind Shakespeare, New Perspectives on Race and Performance (Routledge, 2006) and the more recent monograph Passing Strange: Shakespeare, Race and Contemporary America (OUP, 2011) should be available to guide researchers seeking to understand how colour-blind casting has evolved and so make better sense of the Globe’s own achievements in this area.

History, like all other areas of organised Western learning, is constrained by norms established over centuries and carries with it the social and political preoccupations of the dominant culture. That truth is evidenced in the recent spat about the inclusion of American texts in the English school curriculum and it is shown in the deliberate attempt to deny and exclude Black historical figures such as the Jamaican Mary Seacole from the teaching of British history.

Still with The Globe - my pleasure in seeing Joseph Marcell performing in Derek Walcott’s epic Omeros was certainly enhanced by the poem being familiar, and both Marcell and Jade Anouka, in movement and voice, brought St Lucian language and life rhythms into the candlelit Sam Wannamaker Playhouse. When I glanced back at the critics on Omeros, I was reminded of the fact that when it was fresh off the press, John Figueroa hungrily devoured and dissected it for Stewart Brown’s collection The Art of Derek Walcott, (Seren Books, 1991), making connections between the Greek and modern retelling, revealing the cultural divide across which Walcott writes.

Away from the Nobel laureates, other work on Black and Asian people in the arts – actors, directors, writers and producers – is long overdue. There is no doubt that in Britain some written evidence exists in private papers, newspapers, organisational reports and so on. Many of those sources remain untapped. Tapping them, of course, requires the help of individuals who recognise the need to categorise or re-categorise those sources so that the creative practices and achievements of Black and Asian people can be opened up to wider intellectual enquiry. When that happens, history can catch up with reality.

With thanks to Shauna Barrett, Librarian, Shakespeare’s Globe.

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