I’m a Shakespeare academic, and a playwright. My first play that got professionally produced was called Shakespeare’s Sister, which was inspired by Virginia Woolf when she asked “What if Shakespeare had a sister who was just as talented?”. This play won Masterclass’ Pitch Your Play scheme, which was incredibly lucky for me as plays with huge casts and period costumes are really hard to get staged professionally, particularly as a new playwright (Shakespeare’s Sister has a cast of 12). Winning Pitch Your Play meant that Samuel French got to see my work performed, and they published and licensed it. I eventually sent a copy over to the American Shakespeare Center who were looking for new writing set in the Renaissance – and it ended up getting an American premiere there!
Since then, I’ve written a couple more plays which respond to Shakespeare's works. One is called Bonfire of Flowers, about three women accused and executed for witchcraft in Jacobean England. It was responding to Shakespeare's ideas of three witches as these three powerful, supernatural figures, and countering with the real experience of what happened to three women in a true story of being executed for witchcraft, even though they are highly unlikely to have committed acts of magic. It hasn’t been performed yet, but workshopped staging witch trials at Northern Stage, and then received a staged reading at Kings College London. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it might get professionally staged someday (as various possibilities have been put on hold by COVID-19!)
My third play was The Defamation of Cicely Lee, which was in response to Cymbeline, which I entered for the New Contemporaries competition at the American Shakespeare Centre. My play responded to Cymbeline in context to the #MeToo movement, exploring women’s struggles to tell their stories and be heard.
As a young person trying to tackle Shakespeare, I have found that multiple people have different opinions on how they think Shakespeare should be done. One of the things I’m struggling with is verse work. Do I pause after each verse line or each thought?
I think actors would have the best knowledge on how to speak the verse - Rupert Wickham will be hosting a Masterclass tomorrow, and he will be more qualified than me to answer this – but in my knowledge, I think it’s worth making sure each thought is a complete thought, but the verse will propel you through the iambic pentameter. The important words are often on the beats – so if you follow the rhythm, it will help you find the meaning and speak the verse.
Many actors have found the key word is placed at the end of each line – the verse gives you the key to what the important words are.
Do you have any advice for taking ownership of the language and effectively conveying meaning?
I’d say the key thing you’ve got to have is a good scholarly copy of Shakespeare that has notes – Ardens edition or Oxford editions. There are lots of words that don’t mean the same thing in modern English. Making sure you’re checking what words mean – for example, “Poor silly women” in Shakespeare’s time would be very different, as silly meant defenceless. In King Lear, the phrase “naughty woman” often makes audiences laugh, but naughty was a very serious thing to call someone at that time. Make sure you really know what you’re saying when you say every word – then even if the audience doesn’t understand every word, you’ll be able to convey the sense through your performance .
What was the first Shakespeare play you saw? And did you understand it all?
The first Shakespeare production I saw was Romeo & Juliet at Nottingham Castle, and by then I’d seen Shakespeare in Love (strongly recommend it! Very playful but true to many of things we know about him), and I’d already seen the Baz Luhrmann film and a ballet, so I was already very familiar with it from context!
The first Shakespeare play I saw without knowing its context was a recorded version of Measure For Measure from the Royal Shakespeare Company, at school - I remember not getting it all, but the RSC audience knew when to laugh – I didn’t know how they understood the jokes! But even though I didn’t know it then, I think I’d have been laughing if I had been there live, in the audience. A good production can convey the meaning even when you don’t get every single joke, through the relationship between the actors and the audience.
Is there any value in presenting a Shakespeare play in the old-fashioned clothes etc instead of setting it in another era?
I think there’s a value in Shakespeare any way you want to stage it, when you have something to say about it – I love it done in period costume, especially at the Globe. You never forget you’re a modern audience, so you will respond to it in a different way. I like modern productions too, but I don’t think that’s the only way. Some of the most visceral versions I’ve seen have reminded us of that gap between the time period of the production and the audience.
How do you start writing your plays – do you start with a character, or a theme?
I generally start with a theme or the kernel of an idea. With Shakespeare’s Sister it was inspired by a question – and I followed it through by repeatedly asking ‘what if’ - what if his sister travelled to London, what if they wouldn’t put on her plays, etc.
I also often have a central female figure(s) whose choices I use as a driving force. For The Defamation of Cicely Lee I came across Susan Amussen’s book An Ordered Society, and in it she mentioned in passing that a woman called Cicely Lee had been accused of adultery with her master in Elizabethean England, and she made a counter accusation of rape. To me, it was about whose story do we believe, how do women have their stories believed, how do we believe and amplify women’s stories.
With so many people adapting his work, how do you find ‘new’ ways to approach Shakespeare creatively?
I feel like that’s a really interesting question – but I think asking yourself “is what I’m doing original?” can be such a creative block. You shut down your own creativity. With Shakespeare, yes so much has been adapted about him, thought about him, but you need to put that all to the side, and think about what you bring to his work. The perspective, life experience and the way you read his work is unique. The time you’re working at is unique. For example, in Measure for Measure, there’s a nun who is threatened by a corrupt governor to save her brother’s life (who is condemned to death), if she sleeps with him. He puts her in an horrific, impossible situation, and the play explores what happens. There’s a really chilling line that the governor Angelo says - “Who will believe thee Isabel?”, weighing his voice against hers, saying that no-one will believe her if she speaks out about the sexual abuse he’s threatening her with. Suddenly when the MeToo movement happened, that line was screaming out. It seemed so significant. It couldn’t be predicted in advance, but it gives so much opportunity for creativity in relation to what’s going on right now. It’s so potent.
If you read Shakespeare right now you will find something new – you don’t need to worry about whether its ‘new’ enough or ‘different’ enough!
But, if you are really worried about originality you could choose a lesser known play – maybe The Comedy of Errors, maybe some of the histories – Henry VI, untapped resources that hardly any people have responded to.
There are so many other playwrights from that time that you could respond to, for example if you read Three tragedies by Renaissance Women, edited by Dianne Purkiss, it includes a fantastic female playwright from the time, Lady Jane Lumley, who wrote the first translation/adaptation of a Euripedes play in the English Language – I'd love to see people responding to her work! The Rose Theatre Company did an all-female production of her work, which was wonderful.
Do you have any suggestion for ways to refresh your perspective on a play if you’ve worked on it in the past and want to find a new approach?
Try and put everything you know about the play to the side. Get a ‘fresh’ copy of the play (one without notes), find some friends and read the whole version aloud, with people who haven’t worked on it. Introductions to plays are very interesting to read as well, as they often have thematic sections – for example if you’d looked at A Midsummer Night’s Dream, you might find in your play introduction that they discuss the idea of the changeling boy as a key theme, the idea of post-colonialism, and the changeling boy coming from India, that might bring you a whole new aspect to view. Or try listening to some Shakespeare podcasts – people discussing how Titania could be a reference to Elizabeth I – think about how those ideas might spark a new theatrical idea.
Also, think about how the play would work without words. I saw Sleep No More in New York – Punchdrunk’s Macbeth with no words. It used no language throughout the piece, but I found so much meaning in it. Going through a play and identifying all the emotional ‘beats’ wordlessly could twist how you are perceiving the play.
How much research do you have to do to make sure your references etc are historically accurate?
I depends if you want the world or the plot to be historically accurate, as they are two very different things - for example, in my play Shakespeare’s Sister, my lead character wouldn’t have necessarily been executed for writing a play – so it’s not exactly accurate. But the world itself needed to feel very real.
Language is a hard one in terms of being historically accurate – I tend to use a relatively formal, stripped-back form of English so that it feels accurate without boxing myself in too much. If you try to use ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ all the time, it’s hard not to seem like a parody. I think people really enjoy the details of the historical worlds though, as it makes the play feel real in daily life – the senses are really important to that – what do things sound like, smell like?
In terms of research, I would always say read around your subject generally, as the gorgeous details of a real world involve reading lots of general histories. Recently I’ve been working on something set in 1550, so I’ve been reading around that time – reading lots of popular history books with lovely little details, the types of food they eat, their daily lives. I tend to ty and get a sense of the surviving voices of women – Women’s Worlds: A Sourcebook edited by Patricia Crawford and Laura Gowing is a great reference point. It has the real-life words of women in that period.
For your own work though, it’s up to you – if you find research exciting – plunge into the world. But if you just want to fact-check, you can just google! And you probably will get something wrong - audiences love finding the stuff you’ve got wrong anyway – I’m a renaissance scholar and I still get emails correcting me, so don’t worry too much!
I often find that Shakespeare's work doesn’t have much relevance to today’s world unless its adapted and changed to respond to new and current issues and situations. Do you think there should be more gender-swapped, all female and queer/LGBT version to reach a wider audience and make his work more accessible?
The short answer is yes – I think all versions, LGBT, Queer, gender-swapped versions tell us so much more about the plays that we haven’t seen before. I think ways of casting and reimagining the plays today make it relevant to today’s world –they show more of that richness that makes up today’s world rather than a whitewashed, mostly male, assumed straight version of the past that has been focussed on previously - I think it’s great to challenge that, especially as it doesn’t even reflect Shakespeare’s time! Shakespeare’s plays are full of homoerotic desire, there were people of colour in Elizabethan London – there’s a great book called Black Tudors by Miranda Kauffman which gives a fascinating exploration of this. Women may not have performed in Shakespeare’s plays but they did perform in Court masques, they performed in household performances.
Some of the best things I’ve seen have been gender-swapped – like the recent RSC’s The Taming of the Shrew. There are so many male roles in Shakespeare plays, so to see women taking up space on the stage, playing the powerful, property owning people, it’s incredibly powerful and moving.
One other thing I found really exciting was the all-female Donmar trilogy directed by Phyllida Lloyd, it was set in an all-female prison context. The way they staged the idea of a female cast as a universal cast, women just playing humans. It was incredible.
There’s a real hunger for this work – and it changes your mind by de-stabilising your idea of the past. Shakespeare was already playing with gender as it was performed by an all-male cast!
What other playwrights of Shakespeare’s era should more people be aware of?
John Webster (The Duchess of Malfi, The White Devil), Thomas Middleton (The Roaring Girl, about a real life Londoner named Mol Cutpurse, she would be described now as non-binary I suppose, really cool person who would behave in a way only men were allowed, hanging out in the street having verbal/rap battles, having duels). John Fletcher – co-wrote Henry VIII with Shakespeare, but I would suggest reading his play The Island Princess, very interesting play about how people can use religion to sow discord. It’s not about attacking religion but attacking people who use religion to sow discord – it’s very interesting.
If we want to talk about plays written by women, there’s The Tragedy of Mariam – which was the first play published by a woman in this period. Some of the anonymous plays are wonderful – Arden of Faversham – as is Thomas Heywood’s A Woman Killed with Kindness. Also The Witch of Edmonton – based on the true crimes of a woman called Elizabeth Sawyer.
How can we access your plays to read?
That’s very kind! You can buy Shakespeare’s Sister via all good bookshops. The other two are not yet published. I also did a version of Sense and Sensibility with my friend Brian McMahon, which you can buy via Samuel French/Concord Theatricals.
How do you create female focussed plays without them coming across lecturely and almost educational, versus a nuanced, exciting, and poignant piece of work?
Plays are what you want to say to the world – so you can’t help but have an agenda, but you don’t want people to feel preached at! I think simply by putting a load of women in your play, you don’t need to worry about preaching or them being a “strong female character” – just real, rich human beings.
I think the important thing is do this by showing rather than telling –e.g. showing what the problems are by inequality, by not believing women, just by allowing those scenarios to play out! Not every female focussed play needs to be issue based – you can just write a really joyous, celebratory piece that is about women, that does it as well. It’s whatever stories you want to tell, but with women driving the stories.
How have the more recent discoveries of performance practice made by the reconstruction of the Globe affected your understanding and scholarship? And the world of Shakespeare scholarship in general?
Hugely - I think one of the really important things is shared light – where the actors and the audiences can see each other, and actors can talk directly to the audience. I think a soliloquy is talking to the audience, and the Globe gives us such a greater understanding of that.
The Globe also has the most amazing in-house Education Department, with actual in-house scholars - there’s a real conversation between the productions and education and research. The ‘Research in Action’ workshops are amazing.
The other thing I get out of the reconstructed playhouses is the onstage/offstage feeling, the barrier between the two – which creates a sense of intimacy. The idea of there being Heavens and Hell are so visual as well, it constantly reminds you of that vertical axis of life, from the painted Heavens above to the trapdoor to Hell. The stage is literally the earth - so lines like “The whole world’s a stage” definitely take on that meaning!
Are there any Shakespeare scholar podcasts?
Yes! Emma Smith at Oxford talks about Shakespeare in her podcasts, the Globe does great online content. The RSC did a good series with the Telegraph which I spoke on, and there’s also the ‘Shakespeare Unlimited’ from the Folger Shakespeare Library.
Do you think Shakespeare works for TV and film? Do you find that scaling down the size of the performances results in some meaning being lost?
Yes they definitely work, for example with Much Ado About Nothing, I think both versions (the Kenneth Branagh and the Joss Whedon version) worked really well in completely different ways. Kenneth has this beautiful, wistful feel, whereas Joss Whedon does this drunken house party weekend, toxic masculinity version, it’s brilliant.
I think TV and film versions work best when they have a very precise, crystallised idea of what they want to be, a clear concept.
How did you come into playwriting and how did you get your work published/put on? What advice would you give to young playwrights?
I came into playwriting by doing some adaptations as a student and putting them on with a group of friends, plays like Dracula, and Austen adaptations. These friends went professional as a company (Reverend Productions) so I worked with them for a bit. After that I just sent my plays everywhere! But because I write period dramas it was quite hard – people think they don’t count as ‘contemporary work’. Renaissance plays shape the way we think about the past – the way British History is taught shapes our society. I’d love to challenge that! But I got loads of rejections from theatres that only wanted contemporary-set work.
Masterclass’ Pitch Your Play scheme made all the difference for me. By winning, I got a staged reading, industry professionals came to see it, Samuel French published it - and I think sending a published version helped get the attention of the American Shakespeare Center.
So, I would say get friends together and try and put your work on and enter any competitions you can find. Use Masterclass! I wouldn’t have my career without them.
Keep writing – and don’t let rejection get you down. Once you have a full piece you’ll have something to really show for your work. Go along to lots of events where you get to meet like-minded people! It’s rough starting out, and it’s still rough – it’s a tough industry, so having a community really helps.
What playwrighting competitions did you enter?
BBC Writersroom have a great list – there's lots of schemes starting out – look at your local theatres or where you come from (Nottingham had a scheme near me when I lived there, Oxford Playhouse have a new writing scheme, etc). In London there’s Theatre 503, Little Pieces of Gold, so many more.