RAISING THE CURTAIN #10: “Shakespeare at the Castle” by Maureen Sullivan

One of the best messages I have ever received was from the fantastic Hannah Brewer, back in 2016: would I, perchance, she wondered, be up for directing ‘Merry Wives of Windsor’ as an outdoor production at Carisbrooke Castle?

Hmm, let me think – me, a Shakespeare nut, direct one of his funniest plays in the unique setting of our historic castle, beloved of Keats – less beloved, it has to be said, of Charles I… it took me all of five seconds to say yes.

Why Merry Wives? Because, explained Hannah, George Carey, cousin (possibly half-brother?) to Queen Elizabeth I, had not only been Governor of the Isle of Wight with Carisbrooke Castle as his official residence, but later in his life Lord Chamberlain and as such patron to Shakespeare’s acting troupe who, according to tradition, performed Merry Wives as the entertainment for Carey’s induction into the Order of the Garter ceremony.

Well, I was satisfied….

But, people might ask – why Shakespeare? In the 21st Century? How is he still relevant and who would want to see a group of amateur actors mouthing incomprehensible, long and boring speeches for hours on end?

First – why Shakespeare? For me, he is a lifetime’s obsession – well, almost a lifetime – I’m not dead yet! I’ll explain how I discovered him another time. Suffice to say, played (and taught) properly, his plays are capable not only of being understood, but of evoking the highest and lowest emotions and thoughts of humankind. From fear, pride, jealousy, anger, love…to farting, swearing, slapstick, malapropism and sheer silliness – no one does it like Shakespeare.

Take Merry Wives. The central character, John Falstaff, is the archetypal comic figure. He featured in two earlier history plays, where he ended up dying in prison – but apparently Queen Elizabeth loved him so much Shakespeare had to bring him back to life! Centuries before they had the same idea in EastEnders….

Hannah and I had agreed that since this was the first open air Shakespeare at the Castle, and we wanted there to be more, we had to pick our cast really carefully to get the highest possible standard.

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Most importantly, we needed a real force of nature to play Falstaff – someone who could do pomp, gravitas – and be effectively a male panto dame. Who would be able to dominate the stage, and convince everyone he thought two beautiful younger women would fall for a fat, elderly idiot. Someone who could manage to look important dressed in old women’s clothes or covered in dirty washing….

Who else but Paul Stevens?

One marvellously funny actor only works however, if you have an equally strong cast to support him – and we were lucky enough to find them. Each handpicked, each accepting the role offered (for which I thank them) and each ready to rehearse.

And rehearse we did – to the accompaniment of the Castle jackdaws much of the time! I was quite pleased about this however: another of my literary heroes, John Keats, noted in a letter that as he heard the jackdaws during his visit to Carisbrooke Castle, he thought of Charles I listening to the cries of these birds’ ancestors. And here they still are, reminding me that Keats was here before us. I’m sure he would have approved of us playing Shakespeare…

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For those believing Shakespeare is stuffy and boring, Falstaff, convinced of his own irresistiblity to women, sends identical love letters to two married ladies (the Merry Wives of the title) believing he will be able to seduce each of them – and sweet talk each into giving him lots of (their husbands’) money. The ladies are not as stupid as he thinks – they compare their letters and decide to play a few tricks on him. Add in a suspicious husband, a daughter being pressurised into marrying her father’s choice….and her mother’s choice (not the same) who has her own idea of a suitable husband…and you have one of the first truly funny farces.

As it turned out, our hope that 40-50 people would be interested enough to come and see our play was rewarded with an audience of nearly 200 which confirmed the invitation to do it again the following year. Much Ado About Nothing was followed last year by A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest. We were preparing to stage Hamlet in June this year but of course that is now on hold….but we will be back!

In the 16th Century, plague in London closed the theatres – actors left the city and went on tour. Today, lockdown means there is nowhere physically to go on tour – but we do have the internet to help us keep in touch – thank you to IW Theatre for suggesting we share our theatre memories – looking forward to hearing from other thespians!

Maureen Sullivan


This is the 10th in a series of “Raising The Curtain” posts, thank you Maureen!

If you would like to share an Island theatre story, to reminisce, let us know. We look forward to sharing your contributions.

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