January 1992 | Shakespeare Comes to Broadmoor

Foreword to Murray Cox's book

There is a commonly expressed view amongst professional drama critics that there are too many productions of Shakespeare in the United Kingdom. When I played Hamlet in 1971, there had been ten other productions that year in and around London. More than one critic wrote that they were bored with the play. To adapt Samuel Johnson — a great Shakespeare critic: 'When a man is tired of Shakespeare he is tired of life; for there is in Shakespeare all that life can afford'. That is, in part, the message of this book and it's significant that no drama critic has contributed to it.

Instead, we can read here the reactions of actors and their audience, the essential participants at any theatre performance, whose views are nevertheless rarely recorded. All of them have presented their feelings with an honesty which is more authoritative than most drama criticism, whether journalistic or academic. There is no need to apologise for this unique addition to the flood of literature about Shakespeare.

Other books have analysed the plays from every possible standpoint, discovering in them a confirmation that the writers' own interests, expertise and prejudices are shared by Shakespeare. Through the last 400 years, some of his plays have dipped in and out of fashion, but there has been a remarkably constant acceptance that Shakespeare knew more about ourselves than we could ever have discovered without him.

A senior member of the House of Windsor, after seeing Richard II in 1969, told me she had learnt something new about being royal, which she wanted to discuss with her family. In 1977, when Harold Wilson saw Macbeth, he was most intrigued by the minor character of Ross, who reminded him of the type of civil servant he had worked with as prime minister. Soldiers, too, are astonished by Shakespeare's grasp of the details of their professional lives: so are sailors, lawyers and gardeners. He is a mirror reflecting all our lives, now as much as ever.

Perhaps more than any other group, theatre-people regard him personally. He is one of us. After all, he could have just written poetry or essays or treatises or sermons. He could, surely, have invented the novel. Although he didn't invent the tenet that all the world's a stage, he certainly lived by it and there it was, as a text above his Globe Theatre — Totus mundi agit historiem. Every one of his plays uses the metaphor of theatre and of acting, to illuminate their meaning. Let others despise us for escaping the real world for a career of disguise and pretence. Shakespeare reassures us that acting is close to the heart of human experience.

So whatever our discipline, we feel we are personally represented in the plays, encouraging us to try and imagine the man who wrote them. Caroline Spurgeon even believes that details of his life. taste and physical appearance are revealed in his clusters of imagery. That sort of enquiry is why so many actors and audiences like to be in his hometown. For all of his working-life he was in London, where his theatres have been destroyed. Looking at the fragile remains of the Rose and Globe Theatres recently uncovered in the water-logged mud on the south bank of the Thames, it is difficult to imagine their original state. But in Stratford-upon-Avon, renovated and adapted maybe, so much looks as it used to — the birthplace, school and church and plan of the streets where he walked and played. There as a child, the touring actors introduced him to theatre. All of us who sense him as a man and feel grateful to him, keep returning to Stratford and the Warwickshire landscape that bred him. It's not surprising that the farsighted plan for Shakespeare's first visit to Broadmoor should have been suggested in his hometown.

The reports in this book are, without exception, enthusiastic about the outcome. Some actors, perhaps too apprehensive for their own safety, didn't join in. Nor did every patient, for reasons unrecorded, want to see the plays. But it is moving that the rest of us all felt we were beneficiaries of those performances in Broadmoor. I wish there were fuller reports from patients — there's certainly a need for a further book, if other productions take place. Their nurses and therapists have written in detail. So have some of the actors: and there's no need for me to add much to the insightful impressions of my colleagues.

Was I alone, however, as I peered round the audience, in being unable to work out who was a patient and who was a nurse? Was the man who sat silent through King Lear, his slack jaw down on his chest, really asleep or just listening intently? Like Brian Cox, I can never forget as he asked the audience, 'Is there any cause in nature that make these hard hearts' to see beyond him, the rapt attention of the young woman who slowly shook her head in sympathy with the question. I suppose in Broadmoor, more than anywhere else, there must be faith that there can be an answer.

As Deborah Warner astutely observes, much of the experience of playing in Broadmoor was not out of the ordinary for some of us. Touring actors are used to adapting themselves to a wide variety of theatre-spaces. Anyone who has worked in the open-air or in a very small theatre knows the challenge of seeing the audience as clearly as we could in Broadmoor. Performing King Lear in everyday clothes, we recaptured the freedom of an exploratory rehearsal. What was incontrovertibly special was the nature of the audience. Some of them might be expected to have a unique sympathy with the violence of the action. Others had never seen a Shakespeare play before. Clare Higgins expresses the most extreme revelation, when she wants, in future, to rehearse Shakespeare with Broadmoor patients. She and the rest of us, were reminded of the purpose of playing, which can too often be obscured by the pressures of first nights and of long runs. Who do we do these plays for? Anonymous audiences whom we never meet, directors whom we meet all too often, or drama critics who sometimes tell us they are bored with Hamlet? I hope all these groups will read this book and be as grateful to Murray Cox as I am for inspiring and compiling it. He will forgive me if I end by thanking an actor. Mark Rylance, for realising before anyone else that 'it would be good if we could bring Hamlet to Broadmoor'.

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