December 8, 2023

Oxford Shakespeare Festival; Why we are still celebrating the Bard

The Oxford Shakespeare Festival or more fashionably termed the Oxford Bard Fest, began in earnest with a launch picnic in university parks, exploiting the glorious weather and providing the platform for what promised to be a two-week indulgence of the playwright. Determined to avoid a purely thespian dominated fortnight, the festival played host to music, talks and events as well as some new productions of classic plays, Love’s Labours Lost, Titus Andronicus, Twelfth Night and an ambitious 24 hour production by English finalists of The Comedy of Errors, the third years already requiring a Bard injection less than two weeks after completing their exams, which aptly included an entire paper dedicated to the Elizabethan playwright, the only compulsory author for English undergraduates to study so I am told.
The festival’s events began with a musical performance in Brasenose chapel-The Montagues and the Capulets- a compilation of songs that have taken their inspiration from the now renowned love story. Despite the undoubtedly talented female singer forgetting the words of Taylor Swift’s Love Story, other performances of modern pop by Dire Straits and the love theme from Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 modernised film, provided excellent contrast to Prokofiev’s masterpiece, which was performed by a wind quintet. This was an astonishing performance and only a shame that such music has now been usurped by The Apprentice for use as background to Alan Sugar’s sinister presence. The short concert closed with a jazz trio improvising tunes from West Side Story, the pianist’s imagination and talent were immense and many of the audience left open-mouthed at the unexpected composition. Serendipitously I was seated next to the festival’s producer. She insisted, on overhearing our discussion of the upcoming events, on the desire of the organisers to appeal to as many students as possible, regardless of their reasons for admiring Shakespeare whether they are his social, historical, musical or theatrical influence. This wish was definitely clear by the opening night performance. Other musical events throughout the week included ‘Lend Me Your Ears’ at the Ashmolean museum, a concert of Shakespeare inspired music by a capella groups such asThe Oxford Gargoyles and Out of the Blue, as well as late night evensongs and candlelit concerts.
Not wishing to stray too far away from the dramatic path, the Bard Fest did put on a collection of plays; Titus Andronicus, Twelfth Night, Love’s Labour’s Lost and The Comedy of Errors. Love’s Labours Lost, staged in Christchurch Cathedral garden, accelerated the play’s situation forward in time to a Brideshead-esque era of scholarship- the men wore gowns, the women flapper dresses with the bitchy Rosaline perpetually clutching a cigarette in her claw like fingers. Aptly set outside, the play brought out some brilliant comedy moments particularly by Berowne, whose movement and facial expressions maintained an animated role and complemented the static poise of the female characters absolutely.
Succeeding in forcing into the fortnight as much divergence within Shakespeare as possible, the Bard Fest also provided a forum for new writing in the form of Unsex Me Here, a presentation of the female monologues contextualised in the scenario of a belligerent director, herself attempting to stage a production. Staged in the Norrington room of Blackwells book shop, the play’s originality, wit and imagination provided an excellent if short distraction, facilitating a whole new Shakespearean perspective, something that many productions have in my opinion tried and failed to accomplish. The audience were presented with an insightful and honest portrayal of Shakespearean characters. There was some excellent acting from each of the cast members and noticeable differences between the speeches when the fictional director asked for the words to be read as a witch, a lecturer, a housewife, with controlled anger and amusedly ‘drag queen sexy,’ the latter being part of the attempt to present a woman playing a woman being played by a man. Not only this, but Unsex Me Here was a witty exploration into the role of women in modern society, particularly the relationships between women. It also gave a completely believable presentation of the world of ‘backstage’ with frequent references to bickering actresses, diva-like behaviour and obscure theatrical techniques, with the actress at one point being told to go outside and spin around three times before spitting, to improve her voice.
Faced with a stream of monologues of Shakespearean females, the play had the potential to become overtly feminist, the all female cast prompted concerns for this, but any feminist references were subtle and therefore thought provoking and powerful. Including different interpretations of the role that Shakespeare gave his women, whether even the powerful women were truly powerful, Cleopatra or Emilia providing good discussion points, or even why Shakespeare never wrote about a tragic heroine or how the speeches would have been different if Shakespeare had been a woman, were all thoroughly interesting questions that I left the Norrington room pondering. The play encapsulated critical and analytical deconstructions of Shakespearean works, how to present the women, as well as references to attempts to ‘redo’ Shakespeare in modern days, the suggestion that there had been a version in which the characters were ‘acrobats, suspended from silk ropes over an aquarium’ inducing giggles from many an audience member reflecting on that really weird Shakespeare interpretation they had recently seen, the director desperately trying to make their production memorable. The writer and director should be commended for managing to convey such a breadth of literary issues in such a short space of time, with refined dialogue and inter-textual references, including Virginia Woolf, poetry and actor interviews. When the monologues were spoken, they were conveyed with conviction and emotion. The cynical critic delivered earnest speeches and provided the springboard for much of the literary controversies that Shakespeare has provoked while the director was just the right amount of cutting, edging on malicious to produce her character’s stereotypical indifference and a great platform for chemistry with the other characters. Her relationship with her assistant director in particular provided an amusing insight into the private sparks of a back stage crew. This relationship allowed a context for the monologues demonstrating that many of the issues of women during the time of Shakespeare are just as relevant today, the claim that ‘there is no sisterhood in Shakespeare’ being followed by a comical catfight between these two actors.
The Shakespeare festival also provided constructive information with a variety of talks by lecturers and outside speakers. I attended Fiona Moorhead,the artistic co-ordinator of the Globe theatre. Fiona spoke about her role as well as the current season at the Globe, and then answered questions, prompting a discussion on Shakespeare’s place in modern society and paths into the industry. Her enthusiasm for an occupation at the place that is ‘home’ if one is a Shakespearean scholar accompanied by experience and skills determined her place within the organisation. In response to questions about the future of Shakespeare, how to sustain interest and ensure an audience, Fiona’s opinion of the far-reaching appeal of Shakespeare, how people can ‘find themselves’ in his work regardless of gender, race or class and the mere ‘beauty of the language’ was touching, and hopefully true. Concerning funding, Fiona emphasised that it is the narrative and relationship between actor and audience that is important- this is why the Globe works so well, and why regardless of budget, a faithful yet creative production can be staged. Finally, Fiona focussed on the success of the recent international festival where 37 plays in 37 different languages were performed. Suggesting that there is a gap in the market for an international theatrical venue in London, Fiona’s pride at the success of the festival was noticeable, as well as the obvious success of the festival itself in reaching out to new audience members and involving them in Shakespearean culture.
Hosting such a wide range of events- others included baking Shakespeare themed cakes, a Shakespeare themed performance by the Oxford Imps and a film evening and competition- there is no doubt that the organisers of the festival worked incredibly hard to ensure that there really was something for everyone and not just English undergraduates. The festival highlighted the extent to which Shakespeare has seeped into other forms of culture, how great his influence was within the arts as a whole and of course his phenomenal talent. All of these attributes certify Shakespeare’s place within society- his impact is inescapable- and the Drama Society was correct to celebrate the Bard. Calls of his irrelevancy or his being ‘over done’ should be vehemently ignored, as it is clear that those criticisms are definitely not the case.

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