In 1975 Abram Games, one of Britain’s greatest graphic designers, was commissioned to make a Centenary Appeal poster for the Royal Shakespeare Company. His brilliant solution was to become known beyond the British Isles: the face of Shakespeare built up from the titles of all the plays as they appear in the First Folio.
The poster has been seen all over the world, but Abram Games intended much more. After his death, his daughter Naomi discovered a mock-up he had made of a flickbook. As the reader flicked the pages, Games planned to make Shakespeare’s face gradually appear.
Julius Caesar is perhaps Shakespeare’s most topical play right now. Nick Hytner’s modern-dress production for The Bridge Theatre, follows the RSC’s 2017/18 Roman-dress version. A populist leader adored by the populace overreaches himself to the disgust and horror of the ruling elite, who prove fatally to lack the common touch. The mob is swayed back and forth by conflicting oratory, but the people’s choice has to be the one who offers the most tangible rewards – money and quality of life. Brutus, Cassius and their equally patrician co-conspirators step up, but are forced to step aside when Caesar’s protégé Mark Antony expertly plays on the emotions of the ‘ordinary’ Romans mobbing the funeral of their assassinated ‘beloved leader’.
The stand-out feature of Hytner’s vision is to have some hundreds of audience members promenading in the pit, cleared of seating and filled by designer Bunny Christie’s extraordinarily versatile set. His platforms rise and fall to transport the audience to Ancient Rome, from Senate House to Forum, Brutus’s palatial home to battlefield. Hytner’s masterstroke is to cast the promenaders as the Roman mob, ruthlessly controlled by uniformed apparatchiks (perfectly-drilled theatre staff who ensure the promenaders get out of the way of fast-moving scenery).
In 1975 when Chagall was 88, he illustrated an edition of Shakespeare’s magical play The Tempest, perhaps feeling an affinity with Prospero the magician and prince, who gives up his ‘rough magic’ at the play’s end. The first UK exhibition of this rare and limited portfolio is currently on view at the Ben Uri gallery. Curator Hanna Scolnicov, Professor emerita of Tel Aviv University (left in above photo), talks to JR’s arts editor Judi Herman (above right) about how Chagall came to illustrate the edition and takes listeners on an audio tour of the exhibition, stopping at her favourite images.
A Farewell to Art: Chagall, Shakespeare and Prospero runs until Sunday 11 February. Ben Uri Gallery, NW8 0RH. 020 7604 3991. www.benuri.org.uk
As the long-awaited date of the first performance of The Merchant of Venice in the Venice Ghetto itself arrives this week, in the last of our series of interviews with members of the company, JR’s arts editor Judi Herman talks to French-American actor Paul Spera. Based in Paris, Spera plays Lorenzo, the Christian youth who elopes with Shylock’s daughter, Jessica – and plenty of his money and jewels – thus goading the distraught father into seeking the revenge that leads to his demand for the famous pound of flesh from Antonio, the merchant of the title. Spera is interesting casting for the role of the Christian lad who steals away with the Jewish girl as he is half Jewish himself. And so we come full circle with this series of interviews with members of Compagnia de Colombari, for we began with Michelle Uranowitz aka Jessica herself.
As the long-awaited date of the first performance of The Merchant of Venice in the Venice Ghetto itself arrives this week, in the last of our series of interviews with members of the company, JR’s arts editor Judi Herman talks to actress Francesca Sarah Toich. Playing the role of Lancillotto, the servant to Shylock and confidante of Jessica, his daughter, normally a male role, but here intriguingly played by Toich, as a sort of cross-gender Harlequin figure. Italy-based Francesca is an award-winning performer who combines skills and experience in the very physical Commedia dell Arte tradition with a huge vocal range.
In the next of our chats with members of the cast and creative team of the very first production of The Merchant of Venice to be staged in the Venice Ghetto itself, Judi Herman talks to Welsh actress Jenni Lea-Jones, who has relocated to Venice and is perhaps the most unusual of the five performers sharing the role of Shylock in the show they are calling The Merchant in Venice. Apologies for the quality of the line at the start of this conversation, which happily soon improves.
In the next of our chats with members of the cast and creative team of the very first production of The Merchant of Venice to be staged in the Venice Ghetto itself, Judi Herman talks to Frank London, composer and musician. The Grammy-winning trumpeter and composer, founder of the Klezmatics and leader of bhangra/Yiddish group Sharabi (with Deep Singh), Shekhinah Big Band, and his Klezmer Brass Allstars is no stranger to large-scale collaborative projects, or of course to Jewish-themed work. Here he talks about the musicians who are working with him on this project and his inspirations for the music that will be heard in the Ghetto.
Hear music by Salomone Rossi (his beautiful Kaddish – the mourner’s prayer), the 17th-century, Italian-Jewish composer, who was one the inspirations that Frank mentions: www.youtube.com/watch?v=aBBXYsdt8Jk
“Rehearsals are going well! We’ve gone from table work to staging and it’s important to figure out the geometry of the space. Everyone is very excited with how the project is progressing and we’re making some very cool discoveries in the rehearsal room. In this photograph you see us debating over a line in the trial scene, which different versions of the play have different wordings for.”
As the celebrations to mark the 500th anniversary of the Venice Ghetto continue, excitement mounts over the first ever performances of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice in the Ghetto itself (26-31 July). In the next of a series of interviews with members of the cast and creative team, JR’s arts editor Judi Herman talks to Londoner Davina Moss, currently studying dramaturgy at university in New York, to find out more about her role as assistant dramaturg on this unique production.
As the celebrations to mark the 500th anniversary of the Venice Ghetto continue, excitement mounts over the first ever performances of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice in the Ghetto itself (26-31 July). JR’s arts editor Judi Herman will be talking to various members of the cast and creative team in the coming weeks, but first spoke to American actor Michelle Uranowitz about playing Shylock’s rebellious daughter Jessica in Venice.
Howard Jacobson was writing J, a novel about a dystopic (non-) Jewish future, when publisher Hogarth invited him to join a relay team retelling Shakespeare in contemporary settings. He was assigned The Merchant of Venice – an inspired choice that allowed him to tell the story from Shylock’s perspective. But Jacobson’s blinder, proving again his extraordinary inventiveness, is to have Shylock slip into present-day Cheshire to share the narrative with his 21st-century counterpart Simon Strulovitch, and chew over his own story as told by Shakespeare.
Shylock arrives without fanfare as the story opens, not in Venice but in a bleak Jewish cemetery in Manchester, the city where Jacobson was raised. He is communing with his long-dead wife Leah, “buried deep beneath the snow”. So Shylock engages the reader’s sympathy: within this take on the play is a meditation on loss, as well as scabrous satire on the materialistic celebrity denizens of Cheshire’s ‘Golden Triangle’.