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Shakespeare’s Lockdown Birthday

by on 23 April 2020

Hold What Distance His Wisdom Can Provide

Shakespeare’s Lockdown Birthday

A retrospective by Thomas Forsythe

As the sun warms a hot spring day, we can escape the shackles of pestilence, at least culturally and within in our own mind, to enjoy this most English of days, St George’s Day. Of course in the English mind 23rd April, apart from being our patron saint’s day is also the day we celebrate our supernal of poets and playwrights, William Shakespeare, who was born (Happy Birthday, William!) 456 years ago today. Well, er, we know he was christened three days later, but in 1564 baptism was an urgent matter, for in that year an outbreak of the plague killed a quarter of Stratford-upon-Avon’s population. Now we are able to sympathise at first hand with those times as the plague seems all too real. Pestilence of one sort or another was to dog England throughout all of Shakespeare’s life, right up to the year he died, 404 years ago in 1616, co-incidentally also on 23rd April.

So Shakespeare knew the frustrations of lockdown. But what did he do? A widespread contagion in 1592-93 closed London’s theatres, which could have been disastrous to an already famous playwright. However, he had a quite lucrative side-line in love poetry and his most famous, apart from early sonnets, written during this time was the long poem Venus and Adonis. During the first two decades of the seventeen century, all London theatres, including the Globe, were closed in total for 78 months. One year of lockdown in 1606 produced some of the later poems and the texts of King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra and Macbeth. So, lockdown can have beneficial effects!

In my own lockdown, and noting that Shakespeare’ longest lockdown period was 25 months, I have taken a look at Mark Aspen Reviews, wondering how many over the same period of time have mentioned Shakespeare. I was staggered to discover that 52 reviews have mentioned Shakespeare! Of these, fourteen are directly or indirectly by Shakespeare. “Indirectly” includes two operas and three adaptations.

Much Ado Rose

A year ago, Benedick’s “giddy thing” Much Ado about Nothing at The Rose, set in a five-star hotel in Scilly, brilliantly involved both the Mafiosi and a mad cow; whereas Richmond Shakespeare Society set the same play to the background of the suffragette movement in its Twickenham open-air production last summer, almost concurrently with Shakespeare Wanderers’ “effortless” open-air Bloomsbury production, set under khaki bell-tents between the Wars.

Shakespeare is nothing if not versatile.

The Winter’s Tale green-eyed monster has come a-roaring out of his den three times. Teddington Theatre Club’s January 2019 Regency setting with Neelaksh Sadhoo’s “genuinely tormented” Leontes, contrasted with Helikon Theatre Company’s adaptation. Presented at the OSO in Barnes in March last year, this presciently foreshadowed events twelve months on, with Hermione’s adultery trial taking place by video conference. Zooming  (as it were) back to another adaptation in August 2018, the Youth Music Theatre UK’s “West End worthy” musical version at The Rose Theatre moved from conflict to “heart-warming magic” as the statue returned to life.

Shakespeare is nowadays considered to be very malleable by plenty of innovative directors, but, as examples of bending it without breaking it, was the Bedouin Shakespeare Company’s The Merchant of Venice. This came to the Duke of York’s in October 2018, via the Globe in Rome, and wove in music, clowning, and physical comedy. Last autumn, Richmond Shakespeare Society’s Hamlet cross-casted … well just about everybody, while YAT’s Romeo and Juliet had the Capulets running a car repairers, both plays running with great success.

For some unfathomable reason, A Midsummer Night’s Dream seems to be put on even before spring comes. Katie Abbott’s thematically overextended adaptation, Dream, produced by the RSS Young Actors’ Company this February was “a visual delight” with its teenage cast “giving their all”. Two years ago Questors’ equally “colourful and highly imaginative” version in the Judi Dench Playhouse in Ealing was described as “a night not to be missed”. Also in March 2018, English National Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s “feast for the eyes” gave an “otherworldly and magical” experience.


Of course opera does add another dimension to Shakespeare, a point thoroughly understood by an octogenarian Giuseppe Verdi when writing Falstaff, his long awaited first comic opera based mainly on The Merry Wives of Windsor. The Grange Festival’s “priceless production” in June last year was “blustering, big, boisterous and brilliant”. As Falstaff, bass-baritone Robert Hayward was “outstanding in all senses”. Of all the Shakespeare interpretations of the last two years, Falstaff was a winner. Mark Aspen’s verdict was “If you only go to one country-house opera this summer, this must be it!”

Sadly, this year there is to be no Grange Festival, no Shakespeare, no live theatre, and even if we see a friend we must, to quote from Macbeth “advise him to a caution, to hold what distance his wisdom can provide”. However, if in our mind’s eye we see William Shakespeare in these pestilent times, we can, from our two metre social distance, call out, “Happy Birthday!” The Bard will understand.

Thomas Forsythe
April 2020

Photography by Mark Douet, Chris Marchant, Simone Best, Sarah J. Carter, Sally Tunbill, Jojo Leppink, Tom Shore, Robert Workman and Clive Barda

One Comment
  1. e-mail elizabethwait permalink

    Enjoyed reading this


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