It was 2011 and I was suffering withdrawal symptoms. No Shakespeare fix! The Bard in the Park project was dead. The RSC had abandoned Newcastle. It was, for Shakespeare freaks like me, a bitter time, and then actor Jessica Johnson, who ran the Pink Lane Poetry and Performance evenings in the Jazz Café in Newcastle, posted on Facebook that she was so annoyed by the RSC’s departure that she wanted to set up a “Loyal Shakespeare Company” to perform at the Jazz Café and asked anyone interested to get in touch.
I didn’t actually really know Jess, although we had mutual friends so I had met her and she had come to see Romeo and Juliet the year before, but nonetheless I contacted her and suggested that doing a full-length play would be a massive (and expensive) undertaking so it might be better to take a theme and link together extracts from various plays.
We met; we talked; she showed me the venue and we agreed on a theme: love. I’d talk to people I knew I thought would be up for it (it was going to be profit-share), and I went home to sort out the extracts and the ways of linking them.
The Romeo and Juliet balcony scene was an obvious one, as was that wonderful spat between Petruchio and Katherina. We’d have a touch of cross-dressing with Twelfth Night and some real sleaze from Measure for Measure, as well as that heart-breaking scene where Hamlet turns on Ophelia. We’d finish with a very Geordie Pyramus and Thisbe (“Oh waal, oh waal, oh sweet ‘n’ lovely waal which stands atween hor fatha’s groond an’ mine!”) which was very physical, with a Bottom (Robbie Lee Hurst whom I’d never met before but whom Jess recommended strongly) who had huge energy and seemed to be—at least!—triple jointed.
The extracts would be linked together by short Shakespearean quotations, bits of sonnets, even a little modern dialogue and some poems by Shakespeare’s contemporaries, such as Raleigh’s Now What Is Love?.
There was one reference that no one ever got—or, at least as far as I knew. We stuck torn out pages of the Sonnets on every vertical surface, even the windows.
Clue: The Forest of Arden.
Still no? Too obscure? OK then: Orlando in As You Like It pinning his poems to Rosalind to the trees of the Forest.
Many of the 'rep company' signed up for it. Even though they realised that the pay wouldn’t—no, couldn’t—be anywhere near Equity minimum, some of these well-established stars of NE theatre still wanted to be involved.
It was well received at the Jazz Café and we took it to the Customs House where it was the after-dinner entertainment on Valentine’s Night.
Great fun to do and a smashing way of keeping my Shakespearean hand in! (Even though personally I lost money!)
And the title? We called it To Wit: To Woo (Lessons in Love from William Shakespeare) and it had nothing to do with owls.