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Ben Spiller Guest Blog #2

After having become excited about Play On! from the first moment I came across it at Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2016, to booking tickets online for several rehearsed readings of contemporary translations of Shakespeare’s plays in New York City, via meeting up with project director Lue Douthit at the National Theatre in London to catch up on developments, I found myself in a bit of a tricky situation.

My heart had overcome my mind, as I’d booked myself on to 7 readings without having sorted out my flight or accommodation. In desperation, I contacted Taylor Bailey, Play On! producer, and asked if he knew of any cheap places to stay, or even if I could crash on people’s sofas at night. If so, I could then try to raise funds to cover the cost of the flight.

What came next was truly extraordinary. Taylor replied to say that he’d talked to Lue and she’d come up with a solution. Play On! would pay for my return flight and some of my accommodation in a hotel on Times Square with which they’d struck a good deal.

I really couldn’t believe this. What kindness! What support! How humbling. I jumped for joy before attempting to express my gratitude as well as I could through the medium of email. A week in New York City for Play On Shakespeare! was about to become a reality. It really was and I couldn’t wait to be part of this landmark festival.

Now I’m at the computer in the QUAD arts centre office in Derby, UK, where 1623 is based, after having returned from one of the most incredible experiences of my life both professionally and personally. Trying to gather together my memories and thoughts. And there are thousands of them. But don’t worry, I won’t bombard you with them all. Here are extracts from my diary, below.

Wednesday 19 June 2019
Thrilled to be here for the Play On Shakespeare Festival! Great rehearsed reading tonight of TROILUS AND CRESSIDA translated by Lillian Groag. Refreshing to hear the language contemporised while keeping beat, rhythm and poetic expression. Lots of grim humour too. This new translation includes the words dickhead, fucker and cunt (there were gasps at the latter). Just as Will would have liked it. Proper gritty. And this play is a total grit fest of bitterness and cynicism. Love it. After the reading, I met Dave Hitz who has funded the whole Play On! Festival. He explained that it was his love for Shakespeare and wanting to share that love with other people through new translations that drove him to fund the commissions and the Festival. Such generosity is making a big difference to many people’s lives.

Thursday 20 June 2019
This afternoon at Play On Shakespeare there was a rehearsed reading of MEASURE FOR MEASURE, in which Duke Angelo tells novice nun Isabella that he will spare the life of her brother (sentenced to death for having sex outside of marriage) in exchange for sex. Isabella refuses and plans to expose his coercion and hypocrisy publicly. At the reading, Tina Benko’s forceful Angelo snarled, “Who will believe you, Isabella?” with a strong emphasis on “you” and a slight pause before “Isabella”. Insignificant little you against big powerful me. Silence. Then a collective gasp from everyone in the room. My whole body shook, the hairs on my neck stood on end and I’m still recovering from the intensity of that moment almost 20 hours later. This is Shakespeare’s #MeToo play, translated beautifully and thoughtfully by Aditi Brennan Kapil with dramaturgical support from Lezlie C Cross, Liz Engelman and Andrew Ian Carlson. What a play, what a team. Unforgettable. This evening, Mfoniso Udofia’s translation of OTHELLO really brought home the racism in this play through multiple translations of the term ‘moor’, used often in the play to refer to Othello. These included animal references which were disturbing, difficult to process (if at all) and brought into focus the racist world in which Othello lives and dies.

Friday 21 June 2019
Lue invited me over to the Play On! rehearsal space – Playwrights Downtown on Lafayette Street – to talk to camera about my response to Play On! This was when I met producer Taylor for the first time in person. What a lovely, committed, driven and friendly person Taylor is.
Bowled over by Virginia Grise’s new verse translation of ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL, which unlocks the queerness of Shakespeare’s play through language choices (repetition and playing with word meanings) and casting (mainly queer artists). A meeting of two great writers at Play On Shakespeare tonight. Hot off the press too! And a wonderful reading by the cast.

Saturday 22 June 2019
Kenneth Cavander’s translation of TIMON OF ATHENS was this afternoon. I was so moved by the reading, which really brought home the emotional impact of financial mismanagement, particularly in the light of the recent crash. Marcus Gardley is a stunning playwright whose translation of KING LEAR into a modern verse play is the result of exquisite language choices that bring this play vividly and viscerally into our time. Amazing rehearsed reading tonight by a top-notch cast of actors including John Glover who conveyed the heart-breaking tragedy of Lear as he realised too late that he should have distributed his wealth among all his subjects before dividing it between two of his daughters. Between the readings today, I met up with Lue for lunch and we had a great conversation about Shakespeare, translation, and the importance of empowering marginalised voices to ensure social progression. We’ve decided to work together on MEASURE FOR MEASURE in the UK at some point soon. Watch this space for news. So exciting!

Sunday 23 June 2019
No readings today because it’s Sunday and the team needs a rest! Yvette Monique Clark, a fabulous actor who played several roles in TIMON OF ATHENS yesterday, joined me for lunch. We found that we share a love for Lady Macbeth, Juliet’s Nurse, autobiographical shows, cabarets, books, opening our eyes as wide as we can when we really want to listen to something. And fish and chips. Such a fantastic way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Monday 24 June 2019
Fantastic to have lunch, chat and share ideas for a new rock-infused Shakespeare show with the brilliant actor-musician Carlo Albán (Troilus last Wednesday, and rehearsing for CYMBELINE today). Early days, but things are a-brewin’! Then I met the wonderful Michael Mendelson, who dropped by to pick up his script for THE WINTER’S TALE. We shared our thoughts about Leontes, the role he was going to read a few days later, and came up with a tentative plan to collaborate in the future. My final Play On Shakespeare reading was tonight – MACBETH, translated by the fantastic Migdalia Cruz. It was a magnificent script read by an incredibly passionate cast. And so much more humour in the reading than anticipated – such a good idea to help pace this taut and intense play. I loved the way the new translation gives more space for the weird sisters to develop by giving them a few more scenes. I wish I could stay for the final week of plays, but home is calling. And Shane [Gabriel] and I have a show (QUEER LADY M) to get ready! Thank you to the whole Festival team – especially Lue Douthit – for a thrilling week of Shakespeare, new writing, chats, meals and hugs. I love you all and wish you well. Keep in touch: ben.spiller@1623theatre.co.uk; facebook.com/shakespiller; twitter.com/shakespiller.

For more on my thoughts and observations of Play On! and my New York City trip more generally, please check out #BenNYC on Facebook and Twitter (warning: I gushed a lot at actors on Twitter).

Want to find out more about Ben’s company, 1623? Click the logo below! 

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Ben Spiller

Ben is passionate about Shakespeare. They love inspiring, surprising and...

Ben is passionate about Shakespeare. They love inspiring, surprising and affecting people with the playwright’s innovative language, vibrant characters and exciting sense of performance.

Working as artistic director of award-winning 1623 theatre company – based at QUAD, Derby’s thriving arts centre – gives Ben the opportunity to put their passion into practice and share it with other people.

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