YORK’S purveyors of Shakespeare’s Sonnet Walks are staging a sit-down, but not as an act of protest.
Instead, the mood will be celebratory as York Shakespeare Project present a special production of Shakespeare’s sonnets from Friday, allowing audiences to enjoy live theatre outdoors.
YSP’s Sit-down Sonnets can be seen at the Holy Trinity churchyard, in Goodramgate, where the 45-minute production will feature Shakespearean characters responding to the pandemic, each sharing a famous Shakespeare sonnet as part of their monologue.
“The conceit this time is that the sonneteers are well-known Shakespeare characters in the present day, coping as best they can with lockdown,” says producer Maurice Crichton. “In what is now time-honoured fashion, each has a sonnet to tee up, the pairing of character and sonnet hopefully opening up some unknown sonnets in an accessible way and giving some well-known ones a new angle.
“Thinking of some of the characters I’ve played, I wondered how might they each be placed? Ulysses is no longer troubled that Achilles won’t come out of his tent because all the Greeks are stuck under canvas waiting for the latest R number estimates.
“Claudius is annoyed he’s had to postpone his marriage to Gertrude but is relieved there are no trains home from Wittenburg for Hamlet to catch; Feste can’t sing in public, so he’s planning an online concert from a willow cabin he’s constructing at Olivia’s gate…It’s a fun game to play and not just with Shakespeare.”
Conceived and directed by Mick Taylor and produced by Crichton, the sonnets show will be performed by Frank Brogan; Nigel Evans; Emily Hansen; Sue Harris; Margaret Hillier; Judith Ireland; Emilie Knight; Mick Liversidge; Phyllis Carson-Smith; Di Starr; Mick Taylor himself and Helen Wilson, “sharpening up her Miss Jean Brodie act”.
As to who they will play, Maurice teases: “We are being coy about which Shakespeare characters you will see…but Mick has had some fun pulling a script together.”
For the past few years, the York community theatre company has produced Sonnet Walks, a guided walk around York where the audience meets a range of connected characters with a story to tell and a Shakespearean sonnet to share.
Now comes the sit-down variation, under Taylor’s direction. “Like everyone involved with theatre, we’ve missed being able to enjoy and take part in live performance,” he says. “Having staged the Sonnet Walks previously, we knew that, as a format, it could be adapted in a way that would allow us to perform to a seated audience outdoors. And Holy Trinity is a beautiful place to do it: a leafy sanctuary in the centre of the city.”
Explaining the 2020 format, Mick says: “In these Sit-down Sonnets, we’ve taken some of Shakespeare’s most memorable characters and written new monologues for them as they find themselves in the middle of this pandemic.
“How might things have turned out for them if they’d been stuck in lockdown? How can Brutus get near to Caesar to put his knife in when all the senate meetings are on Zoom? Where can Romeo get his fateful poison if the apothecary’s on furlough? And how much hand sanitiser will Lady Macbeth get through? They’ll share their thoughts on a world of lockdowns, masks and social distancing, along with a sonnet that reflects their feelings.”
Making an historical link, Mick points out: “Shakespeare himself was no stranger to the impact a pandemic can have on theatre. Between 1603 and 1613, the theatres were closed for a total of six and a half years. Thankfully, we can return in performances like this a little sooner!”
York Shakespeare Project were just over a week away from the opening night for their spring production of Macbeth when lockdown began in late-March, stalling the 20-year mission to produce all of Shakespeare’s known plays by 2021 on the home straight, when only two big hitters, Macbeth and The Tempest, were left to perform.
Committee member Tony Froud says: “We were obviously very disappointed to have to postpone Macbeth and, like other companies, we are waiting to see how and when indoor live performance can safely return before deciding when we can prepare to stage the plays again.
“That’s why we’re so pleased to be able to perform Shakespeare in front of an audience in this way. Mick and Maurice have done a tremendous job in a short amount of time to prepare a production that audiences can enjoy safely and that brings the beauty of the sonnets to life in new ways.
“We hope that people will be able to join us for what should be a fun and unique performance, and a long-overdue chance to watch live theatre.”
YSP pass on their thanks to the Churches Conservation Trust and the volunteers at Holy Trinity Church, Goodramgate, for accommodating Sit-Down Sonnets this summer.
“We looked at Dean’s Park and the Museum Gardens but in both cases that would have involved opening late specially for us,” says Maurice. “Last year, Ed van der Molen at Holy Trinity Church was very responsive to our idea of bringing our Sonnet Walks through the churchyard and this year even more so: he could not have been more welcoming.
“The review in The Press last year said: ‘What can be more lovely than a marriage of Shakespeare’s golden verse and York’s heritage’. Holy Trinity is a jewel in York’s heritage and its churchyard a haven in the city centre. It was our first choice for trying out this new format.”
The Covid-secure Sit-down Sonnets will be presented from September 4 to 12 (except September 7) at 5.45pm and 7pm nightly, bolstered each Saturday by a 4.15pm matinee.
“The audience capacity is ten social bubbles or 20 souls, whichever maximum we reach first,” says Maurice. “We don’t really know how it will feel to have a static show rather than a walk, but the sonnets will come thicker and faster and it will be colder, so dress warmly.
“There are five park benches in the churchyard, which we will be using, so a cushion would be a useful thing to bring, as would a rug and a camp chair. Maybe a flask and a packet of biscuits too.
“We’re delighted to see that the latest weather forecast for this week’s opening performances is: Friday, 16C, 5% chance of rain, 11mph breeze; Saturday, 15C, 6% chance of rain, 9mph breeze.”
Tickets are available at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk, priced at £7 for adults, £4 for 14-17 year olds, and two under-14s may accompany each adult for free. To find out more about dates, tickets and the production, go to: yorkshakespeareproject.org.