Going Beyond Shakespeare
with Rob Crighton
Mike Lueger: Welcome to the Theatre History Podcast, a podcast produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide.
Hi, and welcome to the Theatre History Podcast. I’m Mike Lueger. “From the earliest drama in English to the closing of the theatre in 1642, there was a hell of a lot of drama produced—and a lot of it wasn’t by Shakespeare.” That’s from the beginning of the Beyond Shakespeare Company’s mission statement, and it speaks to a problem that people who focus on studying and performing early modern English drama know all too well. Shakespeare takes up a lot of space, and he tends to overshadow many other fascinating, complicated, and entertaining works. Beyond Shakespeare is working to change that, aiming to produce full audio productions of the plays—fragmentary and extant—that shaped the theatrical world that shaped our dramatic history. Today, we’re joined by Robert Crighton, artistic director of Beyond Shakespeare and host of its associated podcast. Rob, thank you so much for joining us.
Robert Crighton: Well, thank you for having me. It’s lovely to be here.
Mike: Can you explain the basic premise of this project? Your mission statement says you’re “going to produce EVERYTHING”—and everything is in all caps—“from the beginnings of English language drama until 1642.” So does that mean everything? And if it does, why?
Robert: Well, ideally, it does mean everything. Anything that you could call a play or call something that is theatrical or dramatic that doesn’t automatically mean a play, and how you define a play gets really wobbly around the edges. The number of potential texts that we could be working from goes from a number of around six hundred, eight hundred, but goes up to over one thousand. And that’s probably quite a conservative estimate of the amount of stuff that involves dialogue or interplay or physicality and could be called semi-theatrical. Some of those things were never intended to be theatre. There’s some really interesting pamphlets where people have conversations and dialogue that are interesting to play with, especially as a podcast. But then when you start digging down into what is a play, and you start trying to decide what you’re going to do with them. There’s no real one place to start.
And the idea of starting with everything is a way of really going, “Right, well, how does all of this material work? How do we test how it works?” And one of the problems with picking up and reading a play is you read a play and you usually fail to understand how effective it is. A lot of plays can look very, very dull on the page. A lot of plays have very long speeches, especially some of the plays designed for Inns of Court or more discuss, debatey kind of locations. And on paper, they look really dull, and then you get them on their feet, and you start doing things with them and you go, “Well, actually, no, there’s something interesting going on here.” So you have to do everything to try and sort through the material that you want to then focus on. And it’s a series of constant surprises of texts.
You think, “Oh, this isn’t going to be very interesting. This is going to be quite dull.” And then you go, “No, actually, no, this bit’s brilliant. This bit’s fascinating. I had no idea what’s going on here.” And the problem with focusing in on specific plays too much is you don’t build an audience for everything. And that’s one of the big problems with early modern drama, is there isn’t an audience that is there who will go and see a play because it’s from necessarily this period; they might go because it’s by this playwright, they might go because it’s a famous play they’ve heard of, but there isn’t really a well-built audience out there who want to see any play that I’d quite like to put on.
And unless there’s an audience, we’re never going to have the budgets to make things happen. So by saying we’re going to do everything and hopefully building an audience that will come and explore a reasonable percentage of what we do just because we’re doing it, not because they have a specific interest, seems to be the only way to change the narrative that we have about how we explore different plays from an earlier period. There’s lots of good reasons why I want to do everything. It’s partly because I’m just really, really curious about what’s there and reading them. Just reading them off a page, is a really bad way of assessing whether they’re any good. I think that covers everything, or why I do everything.
Mike: Absolutely, it does. So you mentioned at a minimum six hundred plays, probably more towards one thousand, depending on how you count. That’s a huge body of work. That’s a pretty wide swath of history. What are you doing to organize those various productions, to give your audience some sense of chronology of historical context?
Robert: Well, that’s a problem we hadn’t really needed to address until this last year. We’d been picking and choosing projects when we first started a couple of years ago in earnest of saying, “Right, we’re going to do a box set of the plays of John Heywood.” That was sort of our opening gambit because it was nice and small and containable. John Heywood wrote interludes in the early sixteenth century. They’re mostly small-cast plays, they’re relatively short, and they were very containable and easily done. And the idea was we would then say to our patrons and the people who support us, “We’ve got all these plays you can look at, you can choose what we’re going to look at.” And we were slowly building our online presence around that sort of material. And then when COVID-19 hit, everything sort of changed because our production base of producing full-cast audio adaptations came to a crashing halt very, very quickly.
We had a lot of stuff stored. We’ve got a lot of stuff that’s still in the edit that will be coming out piecemeal over the next year or so. But the active production base of that was quite difficult to reconstitute. And we ended up doing Zoom sessions online, which we’ve now been putting out on YouTube, where we’re reading through, doing our first read-throughs of the play and really going through plays at a ridiculous rate. In the last nine-and-a-half months, we’ve read over one hundred plays. Again, definition of play is quite tricky here, but well over one hundred plays, and suddenly we’ve got this problem that on the website we have all these plays arranged mostly in a chronological framework. And the question that we’re now trying to address is how do our listeners, how do our viewers access that and find a route in?
And that’s one of the things we’re looking at the moment. At the moment we’re using timelines because it sort of works. I mean, theatre tends to evolve in, and there tends to be sort of reasonably definable genres around different eras. So if you want anything vaguely biblical, then you go to the early part of the chronology. Anything up to the early sixteenth century is basically the God show. There’s very little surviving secular drama. There is secular drama, but there isn’t very much of it. And it’s sort of one of these great shames that we have these little snippets of really fun, silly comedies, but we mostly have religious material, biblical narrative, or morality plays. Then we get into the early Tudor period and we have... I think, you could say some of them are still very God related, but they’re more idea plays, as a lot of plays are playing around with debating and discussion and mixed in with violence and comedy, violence and fart jokes. And that sort of happens for fifty, sixty years. These are all gross exaggerations, I should point out, all this stuff is sort of all happening at the same time.
And then if anyone is looking for narrative storytelling, the kind of things that they might associate with Shakespeare to a degree, that starts happening in the Elizabethan age with the public playhouses as they start to develop. And there’s some really great narrative—interesting, engaging stories that are being told that are really exciting to dip into now that we’re really starting to get going with those and seeing how they change. So there are established genres that we are hoping, over the next few months, to be putting more pages on the website to discuss, as well as I’m going to be doing some individual essays about why I love Tudor interludes.
Tudor interludes are a very, very niche area. I entirely understand why a lot of people are not that interested in them, but if you’re a theatre practitioner, if you’re interested in comedy, if you’re interested in how to discuss ideas, they’re a really good training ground. That’s where my interest is, is stealing really good comedy material from that era. So I’m going to be doing some fun little essays on that, audio essays on the podcast, as well as trying to engage more with the history side of things now. Now that we’ve done so much material, we’re now getting the sorting hat out and establishing playlists.
So on the YouTube channel, there are various playlists; on the podcast, there are various playlists; and I want to develop that and fill those gaps. At the moment, it has to be said at the time of recording, we’re still not quite there in terms of how we sort that material, but that’s because in the last nine months, the amount of material that we’ve flown through has just been ridiculous. You can now almost listen to every single play—at least to some form of a read-through—almost every single text up to about the 1590s, a very broad sample of almost everything is now there. And we’re now sorting through that to help present that to people at home.
Mike: And when you’ve done that sorting, do you think... You’ve mostly been moving in this kind of chronological, more or less, like you said, kind of everything up to about the 1590s. Do you think once you’ve sort of done some of that sorting and maybe started to move beyond, you’ll also be able to sort of draw some connections between, say, medieval texts and Elizabethan texts?
Robert: Oh yes. And a little bit of that is already happening. I mean, especially as in the 1570s, 80s, 90s, as the professional theatre really starts to get itself organized. There’s been a professional theatre for a long, long time prior to that, but the establishment of playhouses and larger companies develops an interesting mix of styles that has its roots in earlier morality plays. There are plenty of plays on the stage in the 1580s, 90s, which you would call the morality play, but it’s also doing something else. It’s also doing narrative, and it’s mixing styles and ideas together in quite surprising ways. So, for example, there’s a play called James the Fourth by Robert Greene, which is a history play, but not as we know it. I wouldn’t say it has any real connection with actual events that ever happened, but also there’s a scene randomly in the middle of it, when three characters come on and stage a mini Tudor debate play of the style of something that was written 40 years earlier, and it comes sort of out of the blue.
And it’s like, the playwright is riffing on an older form that probably still survives in print and still probably is performed somewhere, but it’s not really the “in” thing, but it’s still part of what’s going on. So you can still see those elements in plays, but also you can see it in other forms as well. So earlier Tudor material, even earlier medieval material, finds little footholds in, say, civic entertainment. So pageants that would be performed on the streets of London, where people are making big declaratory speeches. There are interesting echoes there to much earlier forms as well, which might not survive in the main playhouse stages, but they might survive there or they might survive in the court masque as well—something we haven’t really done very much on yet. So those interesting juxtapositions we’re noticing even if we haven’t formal content yet around those ideas.
One of the plans we had that was stopped very much by the onset of plague was we were starting to do live shows with an audience, which were going to be recorded and put on the podcast, which were going to be more thematic. So the idea was we would do chunks of scenes from plays, we might do it around... Our first one was going to be about plays from East Anglia, but we might do things on clowning, professional clowns; the story of Richard Tarlton is particularly rich and exciting. But also just appearances by Satan. Satan has a rich stage life. He starts off within biblical text, but then he shows up in morality plays, and then he just turns up because he’s just a great character to write. He or lesser demons turn up throughout history. He just doesn’t go away because you can’t write bad dialogue for Satan. In the same ways you can’t write bad dialogue for death. Death is, as Terry Pratchett realized very, very quickly, is that it’s just a gift that keeps on giving. So, yes, those connections are all there. And I say, hopefully when we’re able to do those kinds of shows again, we’ll be able to, in a fun and engaging fashion, be able to make those links with quite disparate texts that are doing slightly different but similar things.
Mike: So you’ve talked a little bit about the form that these productions are taking: YouTube, podcasts, and, hopefully, vaccines willing, live shows at some point. What are you doing to sort of explore these plays, though? It really becomes apparent going through your YouTube channel, your podcast, you’re not just recording the play, checking it off, moving on, you’re exploring these works from all these different angles. So I’m curious, what’s your process for tackling a particular play, and what’s the end goal with each one that you produce?
Robert: Well, it’s important that it’s not a box-ticking, moving on exercise. I mean, that’s the vital thing. That is done a lot around the world. There’s a lot of very good work that is done, but there is a certain sense of, “Well, we’ve done it now. We will now put it to one side and not look at it again.” Our remit is very much to keep returning to a text as much as possible. So a process has emerged, and it sort of happened over the last few years, partly by accident and partly by design. So the system, if we can call it that, that’s now in place is we start with the first look exploring session. So we read through the play very slowly. We ideally have people in the room who have not read the play before, nobody comes in having read it.
Maybe they’ve scanned through it to make sure there’s no horrible chunks of Latin, which does often leap out to bite everyone horribly, and we stop and start, and we discuss it, and we get our immediate reactions. And we ask the question: do you know what’s going on? What are the good bits? What are the bad bits? What bits don’t seem to make sense? Because we want to replicate to a degree, the question for the audience, or if we present to a modern audience, what bits are just going to go over their heads very, very quickly? It’s very easy when you do a lot of these plays to get used to things and forget that a lot of people come to these plays and they have no idea what’s going on. So that’s our first look. Then we do a second look read-through where we run at it in with pace.
And these are all currently, mostly on YouTube. Some of them do end up on the podcast as well. There’s a bit of a crossover universe for that. And so over one or two sessions, we just do the play straight through. We do a little bit of prep, but nobody rehearses. It’s still quite fun. It’s a fair mix. Anyone can join these exploring sessions. Anyone can just sign up on the website and say, we read-through at pace to see whether some of our objections to it the first time are apparent when you just run at it. Sometimes you can kill a play by doing it slowly, because you take all the pace out and go, “Oh, this is quite slow.” And then you actually run it and you go, “Oh no, this is actually quite exciting. This is doing something to me that’s interesting.”
And sometimes it’s the reverse, you run at a pace and you go... All the details that you found when you looked at it slowly skim away and you go, “Actually, no, this feels not very satisfying.” So you get a second look at it. Then we start thinking about how we would organize a text for a production. So we might do a third run. We haven’t done any of these yet, with a cut-down script with an intent and maybe even some rehearsal, or we go into production. Now, if it’s a full-cast audio adaptation, which is our primary thrust, what we do is we record every single word and we do a rough cut based on that, and I then do a commentary on that. We call them “spoilers,” episodes where I just go through the whole thing in excessive detail.
And then at the end of that episode, you’ll have a chunk of the audio of just the text straight out. Often with rough cuts, they’re not properly acted in places. So sometimes we’ve got just someone who read in very briefly to fill in, who won’t appear in the final edit. So after that, we do a full cast audio adaptation, and that will involve cuts and adaptations. And especially for audio, you need to mention people’s names more often; you sometimes need to tweak action so that it’s understandable. And that way we have an audio product, which is hopefully a good quality audio adaptation, that’s free online that anyone can access. Once we’ve got to that stage, the question is we want to do it again in a different way or encourage somebody else to do it again in another way, because we’ve got a read-through, we’ve got a rough cut, we’ve got discussion, we’ve got a full-cast version.
Anyone who wants to attack this play again hopefully knows or can access information about what might work on stage or what might work on video or what might work in another way. So the aim is always to do it again, either us or somebody else in another medium or just in another way. So we did recently—I say recently, it’s about a year ago now—a play called The Life and Death of Jack Straw, which is a fascinatingly condensed history play set during the Peasants’ Revolt. It’s King Richard the Second, and he’s a young king, and it’s only about an hour long. It’s a ridiculously short play. As a script, it’s like a film script. It’s almost like it’s been cut down from a longer play to this length. So it made a perfect audio feature, but then also we went, “Right. Well, we’ve got an interesting series of local connections.”
So we were planning to do a local community production near to where I live, which I was going to direct. Sadly, the plague, again, arrived. And so that’s in hiatus at the moment, but that was the aim, was we would then be able to do a live production with an amateur cast, which could be filmed and also then go online because unless these things are shared online... This is the thing about trying to change people’s perceptions of the theatrical repertoire is, sadly, theatre isn’t very good at rectifying that, because not enough people see it.
So if you want to change people’s perception of the repertoire, you have to put it out in a mass medium, so on a podcast or on audio. I do have a tick list, as it were, of doing it once, doing it twice, and then trying to raise funds for us to be almost like a funder, that we executive-produce and commission other people to do work from different backgrounds. I don’t want it to be a world where we have a set way of doing things and that that’s the universal way that they should be done.
I like multiplicity and different ways of producing it. And also sometimes we get it wrong and a do-over is necessary. Some plays don’t work very well on audio, some plays do, but it’s the best medium we’ve got that is a mass medium and is at cost cheap enough to produce well and make accessible in a way that video to a degree isn’t. You can’t get the quality and the cost balance right yet until we got more money coming through that one day. “One day,” he said, always. So there is now quite a defined process, actually.
When we first started this few years ago, it was quite loose and there was a certain amount of figuring things out as we went along. And it was easy when we were starting with sort of Tudor interludes because they had a very small cast. And you could sort of work with the same group of people and work, and once you clicked into it just move on and to the next one. And it was quite smooth and seamless, but when you start working with multiple texts, it’s a different game entirely.
Mike: We have you on sort of representing the company, but I am a little curious—you’ve mentioned working with other groups, but who is Beyond Shakespeare? Who’s kind of collaborating here to produce these productions?
Robert: Well, in a sense I am the hub around which everything happens, certainly in terms of the full-cast audio productions have all been very much off my own bat. And I do all the admin in terms of producing the Zoom readings. But since lockdown, our scope has expanded. So we’ve got a lot of collaborators who come in from the academy who have their own research interests. So we have a selection of people there who are working on producing the texts that we can rehearse with because when you’re working online, you have to make sure you’ve got a digital version of text that you can use. So we now nicely have the digital versions of almost all these places that we’ve worked on, that we can share. We’re not currently sharing them publicly, but we can share within the group. And so there is a loose team around that.
When I was doing the full-cast audios, well, there was a whole team of associated actors and performers who are sort of still there, but we’re not actively working with them at the moment. But since lockdown and doing all these online readings, there’s now the nucleus of a much wider group. So at the moment, I’m still very much the hub sitting at the center doing everything, and everybody else is very much orbiting the things that I’m suggesting, but I’m hoping that by the end of all this unpleasantness that there will be a lot more semi-independent nodes, as it were, that’s sort of how I’m hoping it will work, but it’s still very early days.
We’ve only been doing this on and off the last couple of years in earnest, and I don’t want this to be too big an organization if that makes... I want it to be a holistic process, as much as it can be holistic because we can’t afford to be running a theatre or a full-time theatre company. It is something that needs to be able to dance around all this material. So we don’t have any formal links with other theatre companies, but we do have a good relationship with a fair few, and hoping to develop that into actual projects further down the line.
Mike: One last thing while we’re kind of talking about process here, you mentioned kind of figuring out what works maybe, or doesn’t work for a modern audience, places where you might have to do something with a big chunk of Latin or something like that. I am curious: how often do you find it necessary to make cuts, modifications to the texts? I guess to some degree, how strict are you about trying to stick to the whole text? And, in particular, on a possibly related note, I’m curious how you handle content that modern audiences might be somewhat uncomfortable with.
Robert: I mean, there’s no one answer to that because, again, it’s an ongoing process as we’re discovering the depths to which the early modern and the early mind could sink to. Some plays are more content-warningy than others. We have a general note for the group, the reading group, because we don’t always check absolutely what is being said in the text in advance. There’s a general content warning. The early modern period tends to be quite sexist; it tends to be a bit racist; it tends to be everything that… Either in the background or explicitly. And some plays are explicitly incredibly difficult to work with. Some plays are explicitly antisemitic. Some plays are explicitly sexist. And the question of how you deal with that material is a really present one. In a sense, doing all the text is part of the process, even if it’s not how the final production lands.
What’s possible with a podcast, in the way the broadcast drama wouldn’t be able to do, is to have explicit content warnings and context given before the actual content starts. So when we recorded in front of a live audience, John Heywood’s John John, His Wife, Tyb, and Sir John the Priest— good title—it was a difficult play to do. It was a difficult play to do live. It was a difficult play to put out because the “joke,” inverted commas in the air, is that John John comes on stage at the beginning and riffs with the audience about the possibility of beating his wife. And it was quite important to explain before you start, “Well, A, this was the past; and B, he clearly is a character who’s incapable of doing that.”
That doesn’t excuse it, but it’s really interesting to see the difference between the text that you discuss in private and rehearse and discuss and… we present online various read-throughs. We had a cast read-through that’s on the podcast. We also had a separate read-through with a different set of people looking at that text and assessing it: “will that fly with an audience?” And to a degree it didn’t, and the audience was not comfortable with that. And quite rightly so, I’d have been quite disturbed if they were comfortable with it. That would’ve been very disturbing. So in the final product, it’s important to say, “Well, we can just cut material or we can decide not to do certain plays.” And there are a handful of plays where we’re going, “We wouldn’t present this play as a piece of entertainment. We would perhaps frame it within a show about the themes that this play is dealing with.”
So there are certain plays that we’ve looked at which are quite xenophobic, very much about foreigners coming over here taking our jobs. So the material in that might make a very interesting element of an educational show about that kind of issue. But I wouldn’t necessarily present that play as a piece of entertainment for, “Come along and have a jolly old time,” because I don’t think that’s right. And that’s where the educational remit crosses over into what you do with these plays. And there are some plays that are quite tricky that way. I certainly don’t have any problem with cutting plays for the final adaptation if we’ve already done a read-through. If you want to hear every single word, then you can. If you want to see every single bit, then you can.
That doesn’t mean you should automatically cut just because you can. Sometimes you have to give material its due and see where it comes out. So it’s very much a case-by-case basis. A lot of the time, plays are absolutely fine. It’s the things you cut are just simply because nobody will understand what the hell anyone’s saying. It’s in-jokes are more of a problem. When someone’s making an in-joke about another play that doesn’t exist anymore, the joke is clearly incomprehensible to anyone except for people in the country who know what they’re talking about, then that is in a sense a more structurally difficult problem to deal with. Whereas if someone’s being racist, you just cut it; it’s relatively straightforward.
Mike: So you’ve mentioned, you’ve got just about everything up to around the 1590s. As you move forward, what new challenges are you expecting to face with some of these later works?
Robert: Density and length. The advantage with most things prior to the fifteenth... With our sort of Rubicon, we keep talking about the early 1590s. 1593-ish, there’s a massive plague. And it sort of is good clearing the decks for quite a few playwrights who do not survive through the other side, and the new generation of playwrights start coming in. It’s a slightly artificial barrier, but it’s a very good point. And broadly speaking, plays after that, at least the texts that survive, tend to be much longer. Plays before the early 1590s tend to be shorter. They tend to be more narratively driven and tend to be just that little bit easier to produce—at least from my point of view, others may disagree. The further on in time, the plays just get longer. The cast size tends to get bigger. The complexity of everything is more, and there’s just more materials.
The amount of material that survives from the early seventeenth century compared with what’s surviving from the sixteenth century, it’s just this wall of texts come flying at you that are just getting longer and denser and more self-referential as well. I mean, the conversations, you get the surviving… both sides of conversations as playwrights start having massive slanging matches at each other, which is very interesting and, again, makes for interesting, separate content that you can play with. But it is the scale that we started with Tudor interludes, because you need a handful of people and you can sort of get into the swing of it. And there’s a similarity to the material. It’s a sort of genre that doesn’t survive to the modern day, whereas when you’re telling a big story with a cast of sixteen to twenty, number of characters can be up in the thirties and forties, there’s some limitation as to how much doubling you can do with audio as to how clear it becomes on audio.
And that’s where the limits with an audio as medium becomes a big problem. So one of the texts we have looked at from the seventeenth century is A Game at Chess, which is quite a well-known play by Thomas Middleton. It’s a fascinating play. I think it’s very stage-worthy. I don’t know how it’s going to work as an audio play because nobody has any given names. They’re all chess pieces. So you can’t say, “X or Y.” All you can do is say, “The Black Knight,” or “the Queen’s Pawn.” And it really doesn’t suit well. I mean, as a stage play, it’s all fairly clear because you can see them, and you know what people look like and can play.
And again, it’s got its massive cast, and it’s a challenge in a way that even some of the more complicated plays in the 1580s, 1590s is not—the way the narrative is much more linear. And the number of characters on stage that you focus on is much smaller. So it’s scale and budget. I mean, it just costs more to do a seventeenth century play than it costs to do anything from the sixteenth century or earlier. I say the complexity of character relationships is to a degree slightly more complicated as well. There’s some variants there. So it costs more. That’s basically the difference.
Mike: You mentioned, a little while ago, this plague that hits London in 1593 and kind of marks this turning point in the history of theatre at that time. I found it really interesting last spring, in the spring of 2020, you had a reading of a letter from that year proclaiming the closure of the London theatres. Obviously, given the COVID-19 pandemic, very relevant both then and unfortunately now when we’re recording this interview, but it also points to something that I think is really interesting that your project is doing. On top of all these more conventional, multi-act plays, lesser-known things like Tudor interludes, you’ve also got all these other bits and pieces, prologues, epilogues, fragments from plays that haven’t fully survived, documents like that letter closing the theatres. What does reading those—almost sort of performing them, if you will—what does that sort of contribute to the larger project?
Robert: It’s context. It’s context, and it adds to the conversation between different materials. So a lot of what the plays at the time, especially comedies, are doing is they’re in conversation with other material. They’re often in conversation with other plays, but they’re also in conversation with the language of the time: commonplaces, figures of the time, people of the time that exists to us, at least today, in other literature and other literary output. I mean, that letter proclaimed the closing of the theatres due to the plague. I mean, that was recorded at quite a raw moment for me because we had literally just canceled our first proper live show that we were going to do. I’d canceled it before lockdown came down, but it was clearly that’s the way things were going. And suddenly you’ve got a bit of text and plenty of other pieces of text that could have done that similar job. It’s the one that just sort of came to hand. As ever, there’s just so much potential material that you could do. But suddenly in this moment going through it, well, this speaks to me quite directly. And so that can go out and that now means something to me in a way that it didn’t before.
And there’s plenty of other texts that do that. So for example, the patrons... This isn’t something that’s on the podcast yet, but the patrons get every week a Tarlton jest. So there are various jest books that exist. We have done an episode of the podcast talking about John Rastell’s A Hundred Merry Tales. They’re kind of books that today you would take into the toilet with you, into the lavatory to keep yourself amused. They’re short little comic skits. So each week we ask the question, “What’s the joke? Why is this funny?” And there are figures in that.
So Tarlton’s jests are talking about Richard Tarlton. So they’re talking about a person who was an actor, and they have stories about the theatre, and there’s a question of, “How true are these?” But even if they’re not true, they’re the kind of thing that people might believe to be true. So there’s got to be a certain sort of area of overlap there. So they start talking to each other. So you start doing a play, and Tarlton is in The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth. There’s a story from Tarlton’s jest about him in Henry the Fifth. There’s a story in Tarlton’s jest about him and a performing horse. And then you’d find a pamphlet about a conversation between the owner of a performing horse, who in this version is talking. So it’s a dialogue between an owner and his horse, and you end up going down these rabbit holes, and they’re fascinating, and you’re in this totally different world.
And the more you do that, the more you can understand the theatre world that you’re living in and all of that stuff to do with Tarlton, to do with the horse, to do with certain turns of phrase, to do with an earlier play that we were looking at where some of the turns of phrase are obviously commonplaces from much earlier. And then they got melded into a story about Richard Tarlton and you end up with this interesting narrative that’s just coming out of it, just actually how one word is used in a phrase.
And so hopefully, again, at one of our live shows down the line, we’ll be able to actually play with that and show to an audience all this material in a nicely put-together way so that you can go, “Right. Well, this is the world they’re living in.” And there’s plenty of other pamphlets and texts about the underworld and slang and other figures, which we’ll layer in because they all add to the world of theatre, which is in a sense sad because it informs you of the bits that you probably need to cut out of the plays. Because you go, “This is a joke that no one will get.” So unless you find an analog for that joke or you simply just massage it out for a performance… And so that’s sort of the loveliness about that, but also the sort of realization that you’ve not understood what that speech was doing. Now you do understand what that speech is doing, you need to get rid of that speech, potentially.
Mike: Speaking of going down rabbit holes, you’ve produced such a wide range. And as you’ve said, it’s really particularly on the YouTube channel has just taken off in the last year or so. For listeners who might be discovering Beyond Shakespeare for the first time, do you have any suggestions for them about where to start? What might give them a sense of the range of different styles and genres that you’ve produced so far?
Robert: Yes. Well, in terms of the podcast, whatever you do, don’t just listen to the podcast from the beginning. I’ve been meaning to actually put in a placeholder at the beginning of the podcast stream, because a lot of that material is from a very long time ago when we were a slightly different setup. For the podcast side, if you’re listening on the podcast, I would start with anything that’s labeled as a full-cast audio adaptation. There are a selection of different things that are there, not a huge number, but they often come with additional material that you can dance around. So if you like a comedy, there’s Gammer Gurton’s Needle, which comes with a range of spoilers. So if you want to understand how the play functions before you want to listen to the play, which I think is a very legitimate way of getting into plays…
I think sometimes people are afraid of what plays are doing. There’s that. If you like history plays, we have the aforementioned The Life and Death of Jack Straw, which is, again, it’s a lovely history play, because it’s very short and condensed. It does everything that a longer history play does, but it does it in an hour. That’s something of a blessed relief for many people. But we’ve also looked at that not only on the podcast, but we’ve also looked at that on the YouTube channel. We did a speed run of that on the YouTube channel as well. At the time, we would’ve been doing the live show if we’d been able. So there’s that. If you’re interested in Tudor interludes, then anything by John Heywood; we’ve done every single play by John Heywood. We have interviewed people about him and some of the people orbiting him.
So on the podcast, there are those tracks. If you’re interested in medieval drama, there are playlists of all our material that we’ve done on the Chester Mystery cycle. And we’ve approaching the end goal of looking at N-Town as well. Chester has a couple of full-cast audio adaptations, as well as all our exploring material on YouTube. And, in fact, generally, if you’re interested in exploring material, I’d go to the website. The timelines page is on our website as it currently stands at the time of recording. There will be hopefully other routes in on the website eventually [that] presents everything in chronological order, so you can go for various areas. So if you’re interested in religious drama, anything before the sixteenth century is going to be mostly God-related. And if you’re interested in that sort of interlude idea play, anything that John Heywood does, which was debating things, then anything from about 1480 through to 1560.
And then if you’re much more interested in plays that just tell a story in an engaging way, then looking at anything from the 1580s onwards. And we’ve got a lot of quite famous plays that we’ve done exploring sessions on, things like The Spanish Tragedy. By the time this goes out, we should have done all of Christopher Marlowe, at least as a first read-through. And the great thing about the podcast and, to a degree, the YouTube videos is that you can leave them on in the background while you’re doing something else. And this is something that we frequently do or people working with us do, is that just a reminder, even if you know the play, you can leave this material in the background and just dip in and out of texts because that’s that returning to the material.
It’s not just returning to it in a structured way of going out and doing the play again. It’s being able to experience it in some way, even if it’s just a rough read-through, keeps the text in your mind. You hear different things, you see different things in the text that you didn’t see the first time round and you can go, “No, that person is obviously talking nonsense. This is what this is really all about.” And that conversation hopefully comes into play. Hopefully, as I say, by the time your podcast goes out, we will have in place a few more introductory videos, introductory episodes on the podcast to give people routes into things they might be interested in. And I try to make sure that shownotes always have links to other interesting things that they might want to discover. But to a degree, look for something that appeals and just dive in. And if it doesn’t appeal, there’s always something else.
Mike: So I’m talking to you from the United States. And particularly here, perhaps, there’s this very… kind of complicated relationship with Shakespeare. We’ve mostly avoided saying his name so far.
Robert: You’ve been very good. You’ve been very good.
Mike: Thank you. But he is far and away the most frequently produced playwright on American stages. I know in the UK, it’s slightly different. Perhaps some of the attitudes are somewhat different, but I think a lot of people have been getting more vocal in recent years, recent decades, about their desire to diversify away from just constant Shakespeare revivals. You’ve got a really unique perspective because you’re explicitly working with stuff that is from the medieval, the early modern period, but you’re still kind of part of this project of trying to get away from the one name playwright that everybody knows. What has this project taught you about the value of producing this wider range of work? And even if those plays are products of this era that’s very culturally, demographically different from ours, do you think there are any lessons from what you’re doing that you can kind of provide to—regardless of what era people are working in—to people who are trying to expand the dramatic canon, who are trying to get beyond Shakespeare and all the other usual suspects?
Robert: The great thing about doing everything is you can have a far wider selection of plays for all occasions. I mean, there are almost all plays for all occasions and interests. I wouldn’t say that it’s universal. The early modern and medieval periods have serious blind spots, but there are an awful lot of texts that get far closer to ideas that we’re interested in. The problem with focusing on Shakespeare is that Shakespeare’s interest was actually relatively narrow. People get into this trap of saying, “Oh, the universality of his plays.” Well, actually you dig down into them and a lot of them are not very universal at all. The viewpoint of a recently well-off middle-aged White man. And there are other writers, and there are other viewpoints that are represented in part in everything else. So you can find a text that will lean in further into other viewpoints.
It would be unfair to say that there’s feminist material or queer material or... There are materials that will deal with those issues and those questions and areas better. And you can tailor what you want from all this material. And in a sense, all plays are, are these material… All the playwrights are dead, and do what you like with this material. It would be lovely if they were performed in an extant and perfect recreation, but let’s be realistic, a lot of it can’t be. And so long as people are engaging with it and doing interesting things with it, increases the likelihood that there will be full-scale productions of lots of plays.
So let’s take a play like The Tragedy of Mariam by Elizabeth Cary. So it’s the first—and I’ve got to be careful about precisely how this works—it’s the first full-length play in English by a woman that’s an original text, as opposed to a translation. So we’ve looked at various early women’s writings, and Tragedy of Mariam is a fantastic work. We’ve got recorded a full-cast audio adaptation. We have released spoilers episodes on it. Now that is a wonderful play that deserves to be given top-class theatre productions. There’s been a lot of small-scale work on it. It has an excellent modern production history. It’s got some wonderful parts for women, for men, for everyone. And it is a crime that it is not being produced by major national, international players. It is a crime that it is not available on DVD. It should not be a text that we are targeting, because it should already be out there beyond a student production that exists on YouTube or, for that matter, upcoming production when finally we’re able to finish it.
On purely my hard-headed hat on, there is a market for this. This is financially viable to do that play, and it should be done. And there is an eagerness for it. And there are similar plays that do touch on queer perspectives, that handle race in different ways that are available out there and which ultimately I, as a, again, middle-aged White man, shouldn’t really be leading projects on. But ideally I’ll be a commissioning editor and basically handing projects out to other people. And so all this text is material that can be worked on, and not even dramatic text.
I mean, for example, last year, one of the few big projects I did was I did an onstage production of a text called The Ghost of Richard the Third. It’s a poem. It’s a narrative poem, and it’s not actually in its raw state designed for going on stage. It’s a very regular verse, it’s a very stately thing. And so I filleted it and did horrible, horrible damage to the verse structure to make it more function dramatically. And it worked as a very nice one-person show, and it was livestreamed on the internet via my local theatre. There was no audience because we’re in plague conditions, and that kind of material can come out of extra-dramatic, non-dramatic material out there. That’s one of the reasons why our remit is so wide, is that actually poetry, narrative poetry, is just as viable a strand to look at. So if you’re willing to dig and look and look at everything, there is a high probability you’ll find a text to do what you want to do.
If you’ve got a small company of only two or three people, we’ve got a play for you. If you are looking for an epic history play where you want to spend thousands on costumes and effects, if you want to do explosions and pyrotechnics, we got plays for you. These plays all exist, to a greater or lesser degree. And if they don’t quite fit what you want, then they could be slightly adjusted so that they do in a way that if you focus on a relatively narrow canon, you can’t without making radical changes to the original text, which gets very samey. And so, expanding the dramatic canon, but just expanding the narrative, I think it’s... Gross exaggeration, I’m sure many people out there will be very offended by this, but there is a narrowness to how people think about how this work can be put on.
You can do anything, really. Focusing too narrowly on, “Oh, we’ll do this play.” Maybe it will go further. “Well, we’ll do this play once. We’ll put it on a website that will eventually die because we don’t maintain it, and the material will be left in a file format that will be obsolete within a few years.” And it’s not changing anything. And the problem is that people’s focus is on a certain way of working, which is fun. I love a rehearsed reading. I love a rehearsed reading, but people have been doing rehearsed readings for the better part of the century now, and it hasn’t changed the landscape in a fundamental way.
So unless we engage with new media, unless we share material in different ways, unless we actively engage with different communities and different people and just have a house rule never to mention He Who Must Not Be Named… When we do our online Zoom sessions, if anyone does dare, dare mention his name, they will hear the sound of the imaginary duck. [quacking noise.] And that will be edited out depending on how egregious that is. So we are quite absolute in our absence in that sense. And it’s fine if people want to do Shakespeare; that’s absolutely fine. But there’s a world out there, and it’s massive, and it’s yours for the taking because it’s all free.
Mike: We’ll post links to the Beyond Shakespeare project’s website and YouTube channel that will let you explore the company’s work. We’ll also post links to additional material that will help you learn more about medieval and early modern drama that wasn’t written by you-know-who. Rob, thank you so much for joining us.
Robert: Thank you. It’s been fun. I like having a good old natter about the randomness of early modern drama, where just anything can happen. You can be swallowed by a giant whale. You can be horribly murdered, or you can just be moderately traumatized by the fact that someone is going to take away your cow.
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