Glen Byam Shaw – A Stratford Director

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On Wednesday 23 March the SBT’s own Nick Walton dazzled an enthusiastic audience in the Wolfson Hall with a lecture on the late Stratford director Glen Byam Shaw (who, as I just learned, died on the day that I was born(!) Feeling old enough now?). Painstakingly researched and passionately delivered, Nick’s paper was based on the work he did for John Russell Brown’s anthology The Routledge Companion to Directors’ Shakespeare.

As Nick explained, the impressive volume is a collection of 31 essays, each dedicated to a director of Shakespeare’s plays that fulfilled three main criteria. First, he or she must have been innovative in his or her own time. Secondly, he or she must have reappraised and developed the ways in which Shakespeare’s plays were communicated to audiences. Thirdly, he or she must have made an impact on later directors and audiences. The 31 directors featured in the volume, in the eyes of its editor, fit comfortably within the confines of these criteria. You would not be surprised to read chapters on Peters Hall and Brook, Trevor Nunn, Terry Hands, the great Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman, and not least of all, Glen Byam Shaw – the subject of Nick Walton’s lecture.

The SBT Library and Archives house some of the materials that Nick used to complete his research. On hand at Wednesday’s event was a notebook that Shaw used while recovering in hospital after being wounded in military service. The notebook contains a plan for a production of Antony and Cleopatra, wherein he describes among many other things how difficult it would be to cut any of the text, and that he did not want a ‘big’ production. The resulting staging of A&C was hailed by critics as being clear, rigorous, and owing everything to Shakespeare. This is the heart of Shaw’s contribution to the Shakespearean theatre – a contribution that also included treating the plays as if they had just been written. Shaw convinced himself, his actors, and his audiences that they were coming to these plays for the first time, ensuring a fresh perspective. Nick Walton suggests that this approach to directing – letting Shakespeare do the work – has had a heavy influence on present RSC director, Greg Doran. This point was the focus of debate during the Q&A session, when members of the audience debated how modern audiences would react to Shaw’s productions having seen those of the current RSC directors. What say you all?

Nick finished his lecture by promoting John Russell Brown’s forthcoming The Routledge Companion to Actors’ Shakespeare and posing a tantalizing question to the audience that I will pass on to you: if you were editor of this collection of great ACTORS of Shakespeare’s plays, whom would you include? I will be interested to hear your responses.

The Routledge Companion to Directors’ Shakespeare is available from The Shakespeare Bookshop at the discounted rate of £26. Its sister volume, The Routledge Companion to Actors’ Shakespeare is due out in June, and will be available for £19.99! Below is an image to tickle your buying bone. I never claimed to have any shame!

  • Noelle

    “Shaw convinced himself, his actors, and his audiences that they were coming to these plays for the first time, ensuring a fresh perspective.”

    Ah, I love that. I saw a production of The Merchant of Venice which felt like that. In fact Gregory Doran’s Hamlet did a darn good job, too. As for Shakespearean actors… hm, I don’t think I can contribute. I’ve seen various great performances, sometimes from renowned actors and other times from locals and even children.

  • Andrew

    I see Mark Rylance is in the directors’ book and I’d put him in the actors’ one too. For sheer range you’d have to include Judi Dench but I can’t think of any actor who has had the same influence on how Shakespeare is performed as Olivier. I mean Anthony Sher is great but who has he influenced? Derek Jacobi clearly influenced Kenneth Branagh but I always felt Jacobi was passing on what he learned from Olivier rather than innovating. Someone in film maybe, or non-British like Kevin Kline perhaps? Hmm… interesting, I’ll look forward to seeing who other people suggest.

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