Shakespeare Spinoffs in Cambridge
Michael Grosvenor Myer

Grosvenor Myer, Michael. "Shakespeare Spinoffs in Cambridge." Early Modern Literary Studies 6.3 (January, 2001): 21.1-7 <URL:

  1. "The ADC Theatre," it says in the programme for every production, "England's oldest University playhouse, is administered by the University of Cambridge."

  2. A good place, then, to assess how Shakespeare is being done by the top 4-A's element of today's youth. Michaelmas term 2000 featured some straight-on productions early on: a Hamlet and a Dream which I unfortunately missed through not getting my mailing lists organised in time. But I was there for one of those latenite ésprits which have become a feature of ADC programming since such lovely atmospheric medieval (and renaissance!) concepts as gowns-at-night, gate hours, all-men’s colleges, and birchings in college halls for faulty disputation (or was that a bit earlier? Aubrey and Johnson both thought Milton was one of the last to cop it, and in my own college too: must admit, can’t remember that much of it in my time) were swept away by post-60s iconoclastic passion for "improvement." Well, perhaps some of them were improvements, at that. And I shouldn’t like to have missed Hamlet! the Musical.

  3. Not that it was specially of our day. Bard-based buffoonery, parodies and travesties and revue sketches, has long been standard fare; but this was a good example of the genre. For a start, it was worthwhile musically: a variety of contemp styles (country, rock, soul), five good singers and a high-class onstage mini-orchestra of piano, drums, bass-guitar and string quartet making a very nice noise indeed. Moreover, although elements of farce and slapstick were inevitably there, they were both well-judged and amusing, and kept cleverly under control for more serious pieces like Gertrude's Oedipal torch-song for a son lost to a girl she nevertheless loved too, "like a mother," and Claudius's lament for his lost innocence as a fratricide (the reworking of "O my offence is rank"). Most of the words were reworked, of course; but the original was always implied: this was, as you'd expect, a production aimed at those with Shax at their fingertips. There was a nice spritely air for "The question is, to be or not to be," unsurprisingly constantly reprised as a chorus, and a balletic accompaniment to an all-dumbshow play, as in Olivier's film version, replete with damnable faces. The only passage where the original words were retained in full was Ophelia's St Valentine song, done country style--the exquisite little creature who sang it didn’t look much like Dolly Parton ("My favourite group," as Billy Connolly once described her), but she managed to belt out that sort of sound right enough--but with an interpolated chorus, Freudian again, which memorably rhymed "failure" with "genitalia."

  4. Hamlet! the Musical was the work of Ed Jaspers and Alex Silverman, who, I would venture on this evidence, might well reappear shortly to a much wider audience in either a comedy or a musical or a Shakespearean context, or any combination thereof. As, for that matter, might any of their company, Russell Balkind, Dave Dorrian, Vicki Kruger, Becca Whiticar, Joe Wicks. Watch your screens.

  5. A few days later, in an ADC bar newly refurbished to double as a studio venue, with lighting boom and mini-stage, Hamlet/Starlet was a double bill of twist-in-tail black comedies by experienced and much-respected local actor Val Widdowson. Both were patently the work of one steeped in Elizabethan drama. The first, as the name suggests, is about Hamlet: in fact, a monologue by a disgruntled ex-Hamlet demoted to Laertes in favour of the latest matinée idol, for whom he plots a Revenge Tragedy comeuppance. Written in the cadenced and heightened prose suggestive of a classically trained thesp, it was beautifully delivered by Roly Ryan. The second play, as well as containing several not unexpected Bardic refs, concerned an actress whose career was insidiously managed by an officious agent who contrived all her heart's desire; until the cleverly engineered climax which (I hope it's not giving too much away to say) carried surprising Marlovian overtones. Mr Widdowson himself made a fine fist of the own-agenda agent (plus a few other guys who happened to be around) and Jackie Delamatre excelled as three different, and well differentiated, ambitious young actresses.

  6. Shakespeare is enjoying something of a Cambridge revival, indeed: not that he has ever gone away in terms of production; but for the first time I can remember in a nearly fifty year residence in city and university, there is a regular Shakespeare reading group, meeting in Emmanuel: "a play a week, parts out of the hat"--I got Paris plus a couple of servants in Troilus and Cressida. Mostly English faculty, naturally, but at least one physicist the evening I went. It's not the first ever such venture: the organiser, a Boston graduate and Newnham research student called Jennifer, told me that a friend had drawn her attention to mention of a similar group in a letter of Edward Fitzgerald (Trinity, 1826-1830).

  7. A fertile Sunday afternoon was spent listening to Judith Buchanan of York University’s Film Studies department introducing clips from Silent Shakespeare at the Arts Picture house. (Note for those who know the terrain: not the dear old Arts Cinema, which has fallen victim to a rebuilding scheme [chiz! chiz!], but a new, and excellent, triple-screener which has replaced it on the upper storeys of the old Regal/ABC/MGM in St Andrew’s Street). There were, we learned, some four to five hundred silent screen versions of the canon in the first three decades of last century, varying from one or two reel extracts or adaptations to full-length productions. Some of the extracts we saw were enhanced by live actors doing voice-overs, others had piano or dubbed on music. Beerbohm Tree’s 1899 death of King John, filmed as a sort of trail/come-on from his stage production at Her Majesty’s and run as part of the programme at a nearby movie-house, was a fascinating bit of bravura of its day (and BT did, too, look and act like Wolfit, at that, as old people of my youth never tired of saying). There were inventive takes on The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale and a wonderful piece of acting by the great Emil Jannings as Othello fantasising Desdemona and Cassio at it. Odd gender-bends kept cropping up. Danish actress Asta Nielsen gave a female-disguised-as-male Princess Hamlet; the face of her Horatio, feeling for his/her dying heartbeat and finding something else, was a sight to see: grief mixed with relief (underscored by the German-script subboes) that these feelings he’d been having for his dear friend at Wittenburg were all right after all. Even odder was an American Dream from 1908 in which Oberon was replaced, apparently without explanation, by a strapping great fairy-wench called Penelope, giving some remarkable twists to the relationship with Titania, and providing Puck, instead of "So awake when I am gone, For I must now to Oberon," with the ringing exit-line assertion that "I must elope To Penelope."

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2001-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS)