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Discovering Shakespeare in the pleasant garden of great Italy

Discovering Shakespeare in the pleasant garden of great Italy

A Guest Post by Francis Cox

“So, what do we think ‘Titus Andronicus’ is about?” asked theatre director Lucy Bailey, kicking off the Shakespeare in Italy Summer School 2017 in Padua. ‘Titus Andronicus’ is one of Shakespeare’s most challenging plays, seething as it is with murder, madness, rape, mutilation, revenge and inadvertent cannibalism. To say nothing of its confusing timescale. But Lucy soon had us all on our feet, doing dramatic exercises and bringing the play to life. Hardly surprising since she directed a powerful production at London’s Globe Theatre, whose realistic stage effects had audience members fainting in the aisles. “I was there,” said a fellow course participant. “They were dropping like flies.”


Enticing and accessible

A bit of background. I’m an actor who came to the profession late in life. I love Italy and Shakespeare, and I was getting tired of my usual summer holidays at one of the beach resorts that dot the vast Italian coastline. I wanted something different, and the two-week Shakespeare in Italy Summer School seemed to combine acting, the Bard and Italy in one enticing package. I was a little apprehensive about approaching this new adventure (Would my fellow students’ Shakespearean knowledge put mine to shame?), but the course was very accessible and Lucy Bailey got things off to a cracking start, so I immediately knew I’d made the right decision.


Impeccable credentials

Shakespeare in Italy is the brainchild of husband and wife Julian Curry and Mary Chater who lived in Italy for many years. As former actors with the Royal Shakespeare Company, their aim is to create opportunities to explore the important influence of Italian culture on Shakespeare and his writing. With their RSC connections, they are able to attract illustrious ex-colleagues to act as tutors at the summer school.

A diverse, international group

These boldface names in turn help draw participants from all over the world, ranging in age from 19 to 93. Some are actors, others are college or university students. The course also attracts adults with a lively interest in Italian Renaissance culture in general, and Shakespeare in particular. If you want to perform when scenes are “put on their feet” you can. If you don’t, you can observe and comment on the work in progress.

Exploring a challenging play

John Nettles, star of long-running TV shows ‘Bergerac’ and ‘Midsomer Murders’, taught the second play of the course, ‘The Merchant of Venice.’ With its blatant anti-Semitism, ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is possibly more challenging to modern audiences than ‘Titus Andronicus’, and John explored this aspect of the play in admirable depth. As a bonus, he brought with him the lovely Jane Wymark who played his wife in ‘Midsomer Murders’. As an experienced drama teacher at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Jane led some wonderful exercises including a choral rendition of the moving “If you prick us do we not bleed” speech.

Well organized excursions

In between each of the three plays we studied, there was a day off to explore the local region. We had excursions to nearby Venice and Verona, and on our last day, to the fabulous Scrovegni Chapel in Padua itself. These trips were very well organized thanks to Mary Chater’s diligence. I particularly appreciated her attention to detail when I landed at Venice Airport to join the course. Thanks to her comprehensive instructions about the locations of the ticket desk and the bus stop, I made the next bus to Padua shortly after I cleared customs.


A unique perspective on ‘Othello’

All this led up to the final play of the course, ‘Othello’ taught by actress and director Janet Suzman. Born in South Africa, Janet directed a landmark production of the play starring John Kani at Johannesburg’s Market Theatre in 1987. It was the first time a black actor had played the Moor in apartheid South Africa. With this unique perspective, Janet guided us through the text in her characteristic no-nonsense fashion. Along the way, she made frequent references to ‘Antony and Cleopatra’, in which she played one her greatest stage roles. We finished the course by watching a TV version of her groundbreaking production of ‘Othello’. Over 30 years later, it’s still compelling viewing.


Eager for more

For me, the Shakespeare in Italy Summer School was an unforgettable experience and since returning to Amsterdam, I’ve been eagerly awaiting details of this year’s program. It’s just been announced that the 2018 summer school will run from Saturday 19 May to Saturday 2 June in Pizzo, Calabria. To my joy, Janet Suzman and Jane Wymark are returning to teach ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ and ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ respectively, while actor and director Michael Pennington will teach ‘The Winter’s Tale.’

I can’t wait.

For more information visit Shakespeare in Italy