English Reunion Day
This report consists of several items kindly provided by participants of the English Reunion Day. We are grateful for all their contributions.
Programme for the day
11:00 Academic Shakespeare Panel chaired by Brian Gibbons (1958)
Ronnie Mulryne (1955): "William Shakespeare thanks the Tourists"
Reavley Gair (1959): "Shakespeare in the Little Ice Age"
Caroline Gonda (1996): "The fictional afterlife of Shakespearean cross-dressing" (the lecture can be found here*)
12:10 Lecture "Shakespeare, in time" by Hester Lees-Jeffries (2006) (please click here to view*)
12:30-14:30 Library exhibition
14:00 Playing Shakespeare (Directors' Workshops) (the below report, "Diary", details the rehearsals and performances)
Robin Telfer (1978): A Midsummer Night's Dream
Simon Godwin (1994): Two Gentlemen of Verona
Jay Miller (2003): Coriolanus
16:10 Great Cath's Shakespeareans: Peter Hall and Ian McKellen by Paul Hartle (1971) (please click here to view the lecture)
18:00 Playing Shakespeare: Words and Music (for the programme, please click here)
19:00 Drinks reception
19:30 Dinner with talk by Jonathan Bate (1977) (Paul Hartle's after dinner speech can be found here)
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English Reunion of Saturday, 19 November, 2016
Aware that St Catharine’s prides itself on its amazing English Alumni – Sir Peter Hall, James Shirley and Sir Ian McKellen, to name but three former students – I was very much looking forward to the English Reunion on Saturday, 19th November 2016.
As a first-year student, it was a rather intimidating experience to stand in the McGrath Centre surrounded not only by Fellows and older students, but by past students who had achieved wonderful careers and contributed significantly to their areas of study since leaving St Catharine’s. Nevertheless, along with tea and chocolate cookies, the friendly atmosphere put me at ease and it was soon time for the talks to begin.
Despite its rather unimaginative title (!), the Academic Shakespeare Panel was the perfect start to the day. Three Shakespeare scholars delivered short lectures in their respective areas of interest and specialism. Ronnie Mulryne’s wonderfully light-hearted ‘William Shakespeare thanks the Tourists’ explored how Shakespeare’s childhood - that is, his education, his father’s work as ceremonial bailiff of Stratford, and the visit of the Earl of Leicester’s travelling players to Stratford – created an interest in legal matters, a desire to perform and a literary enthusiasm in the mind of the young boy. As they say, the rest is history. Having little knowledge of the applicability of ecocriticism to Shakespeare, I found Reavley Gair’s ‘Shakespeare in the Little Ice Age’ lecture particularly fascinating. He discussed the phenomenal natural unrest in Shakespeare’s lifetime, focussing on the bizarre cold summers and freezing winters of the mid-1590s. I was amazed to learn that the amount of ice on the planet in these years reached its highest percentage since the Ice Age! Finally, Caroline Gonda delivered a talk exploring Shakespearean cross-dressing, in which she discussed the implication of boys dressing as women, and how this is particularly meaningful when the female character is disguising herself in masculine dress. Caroline mentioned several intriguing texts which I am now very keen to read, for example ‘No Bed for Bacon’ by Caryl Brahms. Following the panel, Hester Lees-Jeffries gave a thought-provoking view of the roles of time, memory, nostalgia and recognition in a lecture entitled ‘Shakespeare, in time’. She concluded that theatre, through the combination of its transience and daily repetition, can be a tool to help us cope with change. I particularly appreciated the beautiful personal touch Hester’s own childhood stories and photographs brought to the lecture.
In the afternoon, Paul Hartle, the Senior Tutor at St Catharine’s, discussed the work of Peter Hall and Ian McKellen. We were unexpectedly treated to a video message from Ian McKellen, who regretted that he was unable to attend the reunion due to performance commitments in London. A highlight for all in the audience, McKellen shared his memories of Cambridge and St Catharine’s, remembering fondly how the college became ‘home’ and recalling - perhaps less fondly - how late night rehearsals caused him to miss the curfew and resulted in many frantic climbs over the gate, often into the arms of the Dean! Following McKellen’s warm wishes, Ruth Brock turned our attention from the past and into the future. As Chief Executive of the Shakespeare Schools Festival, Ruth gave a truly heart-warming and inspirational insight into the power of the Bard to transform young lives. While studying at university, I find that it can be tempting to view Shakespeare exclusively in an academic setting, but her description of the charity located the plays delightfully in the real world, which is, of course, what Shakespeare wrote for. We enjoyed a relaxing conclusion to the lectures with ‘Playing Shakespeare: Words and Music’, which featured performances by members of the college choir and a selection of sonnets and extracts from the plays. I was particularly excited to learn that Scott Handy would be performing, as I had been impressed by his sympathetic interpretation of the Duke of Clarence in a screening of Richard III (Almeida Theatre) I have seen recently. Moreover, Paul made an unforgettable Malvolio in Twelfth Night, and the whole audience warmly applauded Hester’s determination to reach the end of the performance, despite suffering from a sore throat.
In true Cambridge style, the day concluded with a formal dinner in the college hall. Not only was this an opportunity to talk to the guests (I met a gentleman who had been lectured to by C.S. Lewis!), but it also allowed me to speak with graduate students and gain a more detailed idea of what the next three years hold in store for me. Finally, Jonathan Bate spoke affectionately of his memories of St Catharine’s, and we were all extremely amused by Jonathan’s recollections of the comments Paul wrote on his essays!
I know that I speak for every guest when I say that the English Reunion was a memorable day. I wish to offer my sincerest thanks to the college staff who were involved in its organisation, as well as thank those who travelled considerable distances to attend. Not only did I meet many wonderful people who are world specialists in their fields, but I was reminded of why Shakespeare remains a source of speech, thought and delight for people all around the world.
Ellie Loxton (2016)
English Reunion Day
The day began with coffee and cookies as people began to arrive, which were welcome to those of us current students who had attended the previous night’s Bridgemas Bop. It was interesting for us to see our supervisors and Directors of Study greet alumni who had attended Catz up to decades beforehand; I know I couldn’t help but draw comparisons between myself and them, thinking forward to when I might return for similar events as an alum myself.
The day was not about the future, though, but the past: remembering, commemorating, and celebrating generations of Catz English students, our fellows, and Shakespeare. The events began with a panel of lecturers discussing ‘Academic Shakespeare’; I found the first of these talks, about influences on the young Shakespeare as a child growing up in Stratford-upon-Avon, and the last, given by my Director of Studies Dr Gonda on the fictional afterlives of crossdressing characters in Shakespeare, of particular interest. It was good to learn about the context of Shakespeare’s works through lectures that, while educational, were not for the express purpose of our education, and that were given by people we were not used to seeing lecture. Dr Lees-Jeffries’ lecture, given after the panel, was the opposite, given that she supervised the Shakespeare paper; again, though, the additional detail allowed by the lack of confinement by the usual 50 minute timeframe of a lecture made the talk seem more like a complete and whole insight into Shakespeare’s works than an in-depth glimpse into a particular aspect. All the lectures enhanced my understanding of both Shakespeare’s plays and his life, but above all – and especially after Hester’s lecture – I walked away with a sense of the relevance and vitality of Shakespeare to our current, everyday lives, beyond the significance he has for us as English students studying Tripos, through new understandings and imaginings of his work.
After lunch, the Directors’ Workshops demonstrated this on an immediate level. Not being involved in drama myself, the rehearsal process was new to me, and the directors acknowledged the artificiality of having an audience and the potential impact it might have on the actors’ self-consciousness. Whether this was the case, it was interesting to watch how the directors helped the performance evolve by suggesting both minute and significant changes to the actors. The ways they did this were insightful in the way that their approaches differed: Robin Telfer’s editorial attention to changes in inflection in a scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream demonstrated how the smallest difference could lead to a fuller understanding of a scene for the audience, where Simon Godwin’s approach towards a scene from Two Gentlemen of Verona showed how scenes difficult to reconcile for a progressive audience could be tackled, changing the subtext through body language so that the scene seemed entirely different at the end from the start. Most unexpected (and entertaining) was Jay Miller’s take on Coriolanus in the style of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, where he and the actresses playing Caius Martius and his subordinate found a surprising vulnerability.
The section of the day which most hammered home the ties between Catz and Shakespeare was the next, when Dr Hartle gave a talk on Catz’ most famous Shakespeareans and the CEO of the Shakespeare Schools Festival talked about her work. Though many of us had hoped that Sir Ian McKellen would make an appearance, the video he sent in talking about his time at Catz was an excellent substitute. It was fascinating to hear about Peter Hall and Ian McKellen’s experience of studying English at Catz, if only because of the ways it has changed or stayed the same since; hearing about their lives emphasised the common experience that everyone in the audience shared. It was lovely to hear about the role Catz has pledged to play in the work of the Shakespeare Schools Festival, too – providing children the opportunity to experience Shakespeare seemed exactly in the spirit of the day.
It was fitting that the day was rounded off with a performance of Shakespearean songs and speeches by fellows and alumni alike. Watching our supervisors (especially Dr Hartle, who seemed to particularly relish his roles) act out familiar scenes was a reminder of the delight in Shakespeare that everyone in the audience shared, but it was also a celebration of the place that allowed us all to experience his work. As we went to the dinner to hear Jonathan Bate speak and catch up with old friends, it was heartening to think that I was in the company of so many people from so many different times who shared a common love of both.
Sriya Varadharajan (2014)
The day started early: 930am on a freezing Saturday. We met with the first director, Robin Telfer, who was very warm and funny. He was especially reassuring to me and Caitlin who, unlike Sam ‘Samlet’ Knights and Marco Young (now in his first year at drama school), are not practising actors. We sat at a table and read through the scene of A Midsummer’s Night Dream, stopping to gloss words we didn’t know or unpack complicated metaphors. The idea was to understand what we were saying, so that later in the open rehearsal/workshop we could explore how we actually delivered the lines. After a brisk forty minutes or so Simon Godwin arrived, and we rather dizzyingly got to work on the next play. Simon had brought a scene from Two Gentlemen of Verona, which he directed at the RSC in 2014. His approach was slightly different: we read through the scene once, flagging up a few tricky lines, and then had a go at getting it up on its feet, working out some of the basic blocking and delivery. Simon’s good-humour and insight from his own production made this especially rewarding.
Finally, Jay Miller. Paul told us that Jay would only be working on Coriolanus with Caitlin and me, presumably because he wanted to do a scene with Volumnia and Virgilia. Little did he know that Jay had already gotten in touch with us, and we had conspired to in fact do a scene with Coriolanus and Lartius. Jay wanted to examine Coriolanus’ hyper masculinity through experimental performance and drag. As non-actors, Caitlin and I were very intrigued by this: there is a distinction between acting and performing, the first requires you to conceivably transform into a different character, the second is simply putting yourself in front of an audience. I had brought in two suits and Jay brought in gym merchandise from a friend – tank top, baseball cap, protein shake. We looked at how we could make our movement more masculine, and how we could use these items to perform gender. Jay had made it a secure space to experiment and be instinctive. When I remembered, however, that I would be showing myself in baseball cap and tank top to an audience of friends, supervisors, and alumni I suddenly became self-conscious. ‘It’s difficult’, I said, ‘Because when you are in drag you have to mean it, but you are always aware of the fact that you look ridiculous’. Jay lit up: this, for him, was the essence of how he makes work. ‘That’s the beautiful thing about theatre’ he replied, ‘you get to see the attempt’.
As it turned out, the vulnerability of performing three unrehearsed scenes was strangely empowering. The directors took care to explain to the audience that rehearsals are normally kept closed for a reason: to enable actors to fail and look silly. The audience were very receptive and open to this, and it became easy to involve them in the rehearsal process. Having the opportunity to try again with a speech after being given precise and insightful direction from Robin put me at ease. Simon especially immersed the audience, asking them what they would do to make the famously bizarre scene from Two Gents more conceivable, and what they thought rehearsals were for. I was still nervous, however, for the final performance, particularly because it was so different from the others. Jay gave us a wink and told us privately that we should only do what we were comfortable with, and to give him a look if we wanted to stop. I felt that the audience was with us and both Caitlin and I really invested in the drag performance. The element of vulnerability became especially useful: it seemed to expose the vulnerability of Coriolanus’ masculine posturing itself.
The open-rehearsal experience was, I think, a real success. The three directors were all brilliant and eccentric and generous in their own ways, making both actor and audience come together to appreciate the process of making theatre.
Tilly Fletcher (2014)