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Doing it Elizabethan Style: Shakespeare’s Richard III

A few weeks ago I heard that the Globe had transferred two of their summer productions to the Apollo Theatre for the winter – and more importantly from my perspective, these were two new all-male productions starring Mark Rylance, former artistic director of the Globe. I’d read about the similar productions he’d done almost a decade ago, so the chance to see one at last was irresistible!

Johnny Flynn as Queen Anne and Mark Rylance as King Richard III (Photo: Globe Theatre)
Johnny Flynn as Queen Anne and Mark Rylance as King Richard III (Photo: Globe Theatre)

I hesitated briefly over which to choose, and eventually plumped for Richard III. Much as I love Twelfth Night, it’s a play I’m very familiar with, whereas the only version of Richard III I’ve seen is the well-known Laurence Olivier film. The reviews of Rylance’s performance suggested that this might be the better of the two, which swayed me further.

I booked stage seats, for the best possible view at the most reasonable price. This meant we were seated in one of two two-tier wooden stands, almost like a bit of the Globe Theatre brought to the West End, on each side of the stage. Unfortunately we arrived too late to get a lower-level seat, but the upper level still gave wonderfully up-close-and-personal views of the actors and set. The costumes were absolutely gorgeous – I spent a good deal of the play just taking in all the details, from the various styles of men’s hats (including a very silly fluffy white one with a pink hatband, like something a pimp would wear!) to the daggers worn tucked horizontally through the belt, in the small of the back. Another benefit of our seats was that we could see many of the costumes hanging up backstage, and even got a chance to thank the actors personally as we left, since they were still standing in the wings.

The undisputed star of the show was of course Rylance. He plays Richard as an almost pantomime villain, confiding in the audience about his wicked plans and getting them on his side. The result was an extremely funny play – surprisingly so, for a Shakespeare history play – at least until his final downfall. He was ably assisted in this by his foil, Roger Lloyd Pack as Buckingham (better known as Trigger from Only Fools and Horses). Most of the actors apart from the few leads played multiple roles, but the distinctness of their costumes meant that I was never confused when they returned in new guise. From our stage seats we could also make out little details invisible to the rest of the audience, like the fact that the pewter inkwells really did contain ink and you could see the actors signing the various documents that appear in the play. This added a startling verisimilitude that I had not expected – and nearly gave Mark Rylance a turn when he all but dropped an inkwell in his lap!

As mentioned above, one of the main reasons I wanted to see this production was that it was being staged with full Elizabethan practices as far as possible. The stage was lit by masses of candles (albeit backed up by some electric lighting for the benefit of modern theatre-goers) – four huge wrought-iron candelabra hanging from the ceiling, and a large floor-standing one at the back of the stage. Scenes flowed seamlessly from one to the next, with incoming actors beginning their lines even before the previous ones had left the stage. And then of course there were the men in female roles.

Samuel Barnett (perhaps best known for his role as Posner in The History Boys) was brilliant as Queen Elizabeth, graceful in his movements and acting as effortlessly as if this were his usual type of role. Johnny Flynn was less successful as Anne Neville; he declaimed his lines stiffly, as if it was taking all his effort to maintain a believable falsetto. A pity, as this has put me off going to see Twelfth Night, in which he plays the key role of Viola.

Samuel Barnett as Queen Elizabeth and Colin Hurley as King Edward IV (Photo: Globe Theatre)
Samuel Barnett as Queen Elizabeth and Colin Hurley as King Edward IV (Photo: Globe Theatre)

One difference from Elizabethan practice is that the actors playing female roles were a lot older than they would have been in Shakespeare’s day – Barnett, for example, is 32. Some actors did indeed continue in such roles until their early twenties, but the majority would have been around fifteen or sixteen, an age at which many an undernourished Elizabethan apprentice might still have an unbroken voice. These days, finding boys young enough to have such voices but old enough to play leading roles in Shakespeare must be practically impossible!

What struck me, though, during the play was that I soon stopped thinking of them as “men in drag”. On the one hand, they clearly weren’t actual women, but the combination of the artificiality of the stage environment and the contrast between male and female Elizabethan dress made them so distinct from the men as to seem like women by virtue of that fact alone. It gave me a striking insight into the Elizabethan mindset, whereby a person’s identity (both in gender and status) was judged very much by their clothing and far less by the human body inhabiting that clothing.

The play ended, as all Globe productions do, with a traditional jig performed by all the company. The dancing was superb, with so much leaping, stamping and clapping that I almost expected the men to start break-dancing any moment! It also reminded me a great deal of the ball scene in A Knight’s Tale where they suddenly start boogying to Bowie. Anyone who thinks that an Elizabethan ball would have been as sedate an event as its equivalent in Jane Austen’s day should think again – this was seriously sexy stuff!

All in all it was a wondrous experience, and well worth the considerable sum I paid for the tickets. I’m already starting to eye the coming season at the Globe Theatre with interest…

Alchemist of Souls signed audiobook giveaway

Christmas is coming early for one of Mal Catlyn’s fans…

One of the (many) cool things about Angry Robot Books is that they now publish an audiobook version of all their titles, simultaneously with the paperback and ebook. This is a great thing for both authors and readers, since there are a lot of fantasy fans who don’t have much time to sit down and read a book but will happily listen to one on their daily commute or whilst doing chores (I listen to audiobooks whilst washing up).

Anyway, I have a spare boxed set of The Alchemist of Souls on CD to give away. This is the unabridged edition, on 13 discs, narrated by award-winner Michael Page (see my June blog post announcing the audiobook release).

All you have to do to be in with a chance is to leave a comment on this post. If you win, you will receive a brand new CD audiobook set of The Alchemist of Souls, with disc 1 signed by yours truly! Unlike previous giveaways, since I only have the one spare copy, entry is open to anyone, anywhere in the world. This is a one-off chance to own the only signed copy currently available 🙂

Please note that comments are moderated to reduce spam, so don’t panic if yours doesn’t appear right away.


  1. One comment per entrant, please – multiple commenters will be disqualified.
  2. For security reasons, please don’t leave contact details in your comment – there’s a space in the comment form for your email address, I’ll use that to get hold of you.
  3. Closing date for entries is noon PST time on Tuesday 27th November. Any comments posted after that deadline will be deleted.
  4. I will be picking one winner (using a random number generator), to receive the aforementioned boxed set.
  5. If I do not hear from the winner before Christmas, I reserve the right to select a replacement.

Good luck!

Friday Reads: Casket of Souls, by Lynn Flewelling

Casket of Souls is the sixth installment in Lynn Flewelling’s long-running Nightrunner series of fantasy novels set in a roughly 17th/18th-century-esque milieu. Whilst recent books have seen protagonists Seregil and Alec travelling widely, Casket of Souls finds them back on familiar territory in the city of Rhiminee, and back to their old ways. Seregil, a very minor nobleman distantly related to the royal family, is an accomplished spy and cat-burglar and, with his young companion and lover Alec, has served the crown loyally for years. However with a war dragging on and food shortages in the city, tensions are running high, and it’s not long before the two young men find themselves in the midst of a conspiracy to usurp the throne. And as old friends of one of the rival claimants, if they don’t find solid evidence of the traitors’ plans they could be arrested themselves.

Added to their problems is a sudden, mysterious plague afflicting the poorer parts of the city; a plague with no known cause or cure. Most of the victims are children, a fact which especially touches the gentle heart of Alec. As the deaths mount up, Seregil and Alec find their loyalties torn between unmasking the conspirators and protecting the city’s children from the plague; even the best nightrunners can’t be in two places at once.

Casket of Souls marks a return to the intrigue and derring-do of the earliest Nightrunner books, as well as the unpleasant magics that are a trademark of Flewelling’s world. The first half unfolds quite slowly, as is somewhat inevitable in this kind of plot where all the pieces have to be put in place before they can make their moves, but the pace picks up as the net tightens around Seregil, Alec and their friends.

It’s not all deadly serious, thank goodness. There’s a particularly fun scene in a gambling house (let’s just say it will please the fangirls no end!), and though a number of characters die, the story lacks the angst and bleakness of recent outings.

The conspiracy plot is perhaps wrapped up a little too hastily, but that may just be because I read the last third of the book so fast! Even though you know it’s all going to work out OK in the end (Flewelling has more sense than to kill off characters with such an ardent following), there are enough deaths that the threat to our heroes is palpable and you have to keep reading to be absolutely sure.

Overall I think this may be my favourite book of the series so far. Such a pity then that there will only be one more!


When I found out the title of this latest book, I couldn’t quite believe my eyes. Lynn had already blurbed my own novel The Alchemist of Souls, which seemed coincidence enough. However it seems there’s some kind of psychic bond going on between us, because although the particulars are very different, there are an awful lot of parallel elements between the two books, from the conspiracy plotline to the acting troupe with their new theatre, and of course the magic hinted at by the title. What’s more, I know Lynn had just about finished revising her own book when I sent her mine,  so any similarities are entirely coincidental, honest!

The Alchemist of Souls – now in audiobook!

June is Audiobook Month, so I’m delighted to be able to contribute with my own slice of aural entertainment. You can now wrap your lugholes around the adventures of Mal, Coby and friends with the latest co-production between Angry Robot Books and Brilliance Audio. Read by Michael Page, award-winning narrator of Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora, this is an unabridged edition of The Alchemist of Souls. That’s 15 whole hours of Elizabethan intrigue, romance and action – enough to entertain you through quite a few commutes.

I’ve been listening to it myself the past few days, partly to find out how Michael got on with the skrayling names and languages, and partly to try and absorb the rhythm of my own prose when read by a great narrator. Of course there’s the small problem that I do occasionally wince and wish I’d written a sentence better, but that’s part of the learning process 🙂

What’s particularly interesting about the narrator is that he’s a professor of theatre with a particular interest in Shakespeare – I do hope he enjoyed reading the theatrical sections and didn’t find my made-up play too terrible! He certainly does a good range of accents and voices, and does a creditable job of pronouncing all the skrayling stuff despite not having had a pronunciation guide from me (I guess my orthography was a success, then!). In some respects he pronounces it better than I do, since I’m rubbish at a trilled ‘r’; he does speak it rather slower than the skraylings would, but that’s perfectly understandable. At some point I shall post a pronunciation guide on my website, and perhaps a bit of background information about the languages, for the delectation of the conlangers out there.

All in all I’m delighted with the end result, and hope you enjoy it too. The audiobook is available from Audible, Amazon and the iTunes Store – see my Alchemist of Souls webpage for links. For more about Audiobook Month, search for the #JIAM2012 hashtag on Twitter or see the link at the top of the page.

The perspective of time

I’ve just been watching a DVD of “Twelfth Night” (the BBC/Trevor Nunn version with Helena Bonham-Carter and Nigel Hawthorne), and it suddenly struck me that this play is the twin (no pun intended!) of “The Merchant of Venice”.

We often think of “The Merchant of Venice” as a serious play, even a tragedy, because of its (to us) strongly anti-Semitic flavour and the persecution of Shylock. In contrast, “Twelfth Night” is acknowledged to be a comedy, even though a substantial subplot consist of the cruel persecution of another representative of a hated religious group, Malvolio the Puritan.

However having seen “The Merchant of Venice” performed at the Globe, I now know that it is one of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies, much like “Twelfth Night”. A large part of the play is taken up with the story of Portia’s testing of her suitors with the almost fairy-tale challenge of the three caskets of silver, gold and lead.
Being a lover of Shakespeare rather than a serious student, I have not done a detailed study of the two side by side, but I can’t help wondering what a difference history has made to our perception of them. If there had been a vicious counter-Reformation that saw Protestants being exterminated in a holocaust, would we now feel as uneasy about “Twelfth Night” as we do about “Merchant”?

Plus ça change

I was watching “Doctor Who Confidential” on BBC iPlayer this evening (nothing unusual about that!), when a bit of theatrical jargon caught my ear. During a section about lighting effects, the gaffer (head electrician) explained that he was following the script “from what’s called ‘sides'” – and I was suddenly taken back four hundred years. “Sides” was a term back in Shakespeare’s day for the individual scripts which contained each role’s lines and cues; lacking photocopiers or typewriters, the copyist provided each actor with only the bare minimum he needed to follow his part.

For me, one of the joys of history is discovering unexpected links with ancestors long dead, and today’s find was a very small but still pleasurable addition to that list…

Merchant of Venice

Last night we went to see “The Merchant of Venice” at the Globe (a regular annual trip arranged by the campus sports and social club). The production was very good indeed – great acting and lots of music and spectacle. Unusually, they had added some bits of scenery to suggest the cityscape of Venice: at one corner of the stage were some rustic wooden poles, perhaps ten or twelve feet long, for tying up gondolas, and the normal short run of steps up to the stage had been replaced by a wooden bridge. The costumes were mostly Elizabethan but with a few tweaks to add the flavour of a busy modern metropolis (the programme made comparisons between Venice and New York), such as trilby-like hats for the men and one of the merchants in dark pinstripes!

Most surprising of all, though, was how funny the play was. When we think of “The Merchant of Venice”, we tend to focus on the trial, and Shylock’s contract with the eponymous merchant Antonio. But the subplots, of Bassanio’s wooing of Portia, Gratiano’s of Nerissa and the elopement of Lorenzo and Jessica, are much closer in tone to Shakespeare’s other Italian comedies, and the production certainly brought that out. As is typical with Shakespeare’s plays there is a part for the company’s clown in Lancelot, but this production added a nameless courtesan, played (I think) by Leander Deeny (who also took the minor parts of servants Leonardo and Stephano), who clopped about the stage in his high-soled chopins and engaged in “business” (in both the stage and usual sense) with some of the male characters. At the end of the performance all the cast joined in a jig, as was Elizabethan tradition. Perhaps because of the courtesan’s “clogs”, I was suddenly reminded of the big dance number at the end of the movie “Zatoichi”, and I wondered whether Takeshi Kitano had ever seen an authentic production of Shakespeare! Given the Bard’s popularity in Japan, it’s not so very improbable…
This was my second visit to the Globe, and as usual I treated it as something of a research trip as well as a good night out. In the theatre shop I bought a heavily-illustrated children’s book “A Shakespearean Theatre” – with their cut-away illustrations and tidbits of information, books of this sort are really useful for writers, condensing years of academic research into vivid images. Of course I have other, more grown-up resources to fill in the gaps, but an illustrated book makes it much easier to visualise what other works labour to describe.

The Winter’s Tale

Yesterday’s trip to London was exhausting but definitely worth it – almost as good as a trip back in time (and without the smells!)

We got the coach down to London and arrived in plenty of time, so we had a drink in “The Mudlark” and then dinner at Pizza Express (very Elizabethan – not!). Just after 7pm we headed back to the Globe, where we ordered a drink for the interval and hired cushions – the latter very necessary, as the benches are very hard. I was gratified to see that prices for cushion hire haven’t changed in 400 years, in relative terms at any rate. In Shakespeare’s day it cost 1d to hire a cushion, and now it costs £1. On the other hand the gallery seats used to cost only 2d or 3d – a lot cheaper than today’s £25!

The play was performed in Elizabethan costume, though with women in the parts that would have been played by boys. “The Winter’s Tale” is not one of Shakespeare’s best, and not easy to understand; not just because of the changes in the language in the last 400-odd years, but also because it is deliberately obscure in places. However it was an enjoyable performance and of course more “grist for the mill”.

Sadly I have no clear photos as it was a cloudy evening and thus rather dark; the theatre is open in the centre but obviously rather shadowy at that time of day.