Meet Noah as York Mystery Plays roll out waggons for return to city-centre streets

When it rains, it pours: Maurice Crichton’s Noah looks to the sky in rehearsal for York Mystery Plays Supporters Trust’s production of The Building Of The Ark and The Flood. Picture: John Saunders

EIGHT plays from the York Cycle of Mystery Plays will be wheeled around York city centre on waggons by the Guilds of York and York Festival Trust on Saturday and June 26.

Under the direction of Tom Straszewski, from 11am each weekend, the Plays will process from College Green (free admission) to St Sampson’s Square (free), St Helen’s Square (free) and King’s Manor (ticketed).

In addition, five of the plays will be staged in ticketed Midsummer midweek performances in Shambles Market on Wednesday and Thursday at 7.30pm.

Taking part in all of the performances will be a familiar bearded face on the York stage, Maurice Crichton, playing Noah in Paul Toy’s staging of The Building Of The Ark and The Flood for the Company of Cordwainers and York Mystery Plays Supporters Trust.

Maurice is steeped in Mystery history. “I did the Settlement Players’ waggon play in 2010, as Pontius Pilate; Riding Lights and York Theatre Royal’s Two Planks And A Passion in 2011; Pilate in the 2012 Mystery Plays in the Museum Gardens; Herod in York Minster in 2016, and Soldier 1 in The Crucifixion for the Company of Butchers and St Chad’s Church in 2018,” he says.

“But I’ve never done a Supporters Trust play, so that’s a first, and I’ve never done Noah before. It’s a delightful part, and we’ve tried to go for the humour, although there’s not so much humour in ‘The Ark’, but as soon as Paul [Toy] mashed the two plays together, that helped with the tone.”

Director Paul Toy, centre, bearded, in the thick of a rehearsal for The Building Of The Ark and The Flood

What draws Maurice back to the York Mystery Plays time after time? “First of all, it connects me to the city where I live,” he says. “It’s the one piece of world theatre that the city is really connected to, so I enjoy that aspect, and the more I’ve done the plays, the more I’ve looked into the history.

“It’s similar to Shakespeare, where you have the script but you have no idea how it was done when it was first performed. You’re like a detective, and the more you look into the plays, the more the options open up as you de-code the text, and that’s exciting.

“That’s what differentiates the Mystery Plays from plays of our time, where the writer is still around to help you to prepare. For a role like Noah, you have to think, how do I ‘see’ this line; what actions will go with that? It’s a case of, the more you take these words into your head, the more you think about what cadence is needed, what freedom have I got; what’s the rhythm; what’s the meaning?”

Maurice makes a further comparison with Shakespeare’s texts. “Sometimes you feel the audience isn’t going to follow this because the language is dated,” he says. “I’ve had discussions with Paul where I’ve said, I think the original version works better for its musicality, rather than the new adaptation, but elsewhere I’ve said, can I modernise a line, so it cuts both ways.”

Performing on bustling city-centre streets makes particular demands on actors. “The first thing to say is the plays are not being done where they should be, in the tight streets, rather than the open squares, but that’s for practical reasons,” points out Maurice.

“Now, there’s no reverb off the walls to help you, much as College Green is a beautiful setting, but the plays used to be done in streets like Stonegate, as old pictures show.

“I remember in 2010 I was hoarse by the end of the day after the four performances,” says Maurice Crichton. “I needed someone to say ‘that’s loud enough’!”

“You also have to imagine how the streets of York used to be; they’ve all become wider, apart from Shambles, to deal with traffic.

“The danger is that if you’re worried about your audibility, you’re going to punish your vocal cords because you’re trying to be too loud. I remember in 2010 I was hoarse by the end of the day after the four performances. I needed someone to say ‘that’s loud enough’.”

Maurice continues: “Having not been to drama school, I didn’t know what to do in that situation, but what I’ve learned is you really need to keep your face pointed forwards towards the audience at all times when you have something to say, using your arms for gestures.

“It doesn’t help to look at your partner on stage. But when they’re talking, you do look at them; you’re fully responsive in your expressions, turning to face them to show very positively you’re engaging with them through your eyes.

“It’s a different discipline to acting on a stage indoors, because you wouldn’t perform that way in natural speech. Indoors, these days you’re mainly trying to achieve naturalism, but performing on the streets requires the opposite of the norm. Outdoors, it looks like you’re in a Victorian melodrama.”

Given the “noises off” that confront street theatre, with shoppers, stags and hens and open-air cafe tables to negotiate, Maurice says: “The reality is, you’ll be able to count on one hand the number of actors you can hear clearly 90 per cent of the time.

“In St Helen’s Square, for example, there’s a massive amount of distractions, as people move from one shopping street to another, and the challenge is to be so focused and confident in your lines that you can keep going, stopping to do a funny aside, if necessary, but always keeping your face head on to the crowd, of course!”

If the cap fits: Mick Liversidge will play Satan in the Mysteries In The Market on Wednesday and Thursday

Meanwhile, Easingwold actor Mick Liversidge will play Satan in the midsummer Mysteries In The Market performances in Shambles Market on Wednesday and Thursday evening, following in the crepuscular footsteps of James Swanton’s Lucifer in The Mysteries After Dark in September 2018.

“As a huge fan of outdoor theatre, I was absolutely delighted to be offered this role,” says Mick, who will act as narrator, steering the 100-strong audience and linking each of the five plays to be presented.

“I’ve performed in many local plays both in York and around Yorkshire, so it’s a pleasure to be involved in such a great community event. I’m looking forward to guiding the audience and seeing their reactions as the plays unfold.”

Mick has appeared in everything from York productions of Wind In The Willows, Calendar Girls The Musical and A Christmas Carol to Shakespeare, short films, Coronation Street, Channels 4’s It’s A Sin, The Queen And I on Netflix, the 2019 film version of Downton Abbey and this year’s Bengali-language adventure thriller Swastik Sanket.

Full details of the 2022 York Mystery Plays can be found at yorkmysteryplays.co.uk, including bookings for the ticketed performances at King’s Manor and Shambles Market.

Copyright of The Press, York

The Crucifixion scene in The Mysteries After Dark at Shambles Market in September 2018

What will the eight plays be?

* Creation To The Fifth Day, York Guild of Building, directed by Janice Newton

* The Fall Of Man, Gild of Freemen and Vale of York Academy, directed by Bex Nicholson

* The Building Of The Ark and The Flood, Company of Cordwainers and York Mystery Plays Supporters Trust, directed by Paul Toy

* The Three Kings and Herod, St Luke’s Church, directed by Mike Tyler

* The Last Supper, Company of Merchant Taylors and Lords of Misrule, directed by Dr Emily Hansen

* The Crucifixion and Death Of Christ, Company of Butchers and Riding Lights Acting Up!, directed by Kelvin Goodspeed and Jared More

* The Appearance Of Jesus To Mary Magdalene, Guild of Media Arts and Guild of Scriveners, directed by Jess Murray

* The Last Judgement, Company of Merchant Adventurers, directed by Alan and Diane Heaven

2022 York Mystery Plays director Tom Straszewski, pictured with Jess Murray, director of The Appearance Of Jesus To Mary Magdalene for the Guild of Media Arts and Guild of Scriveners

2022 York Mystery Plays director Tom Straszewski has confirmed the plays for Mysteries In The Market:

June 22, 7.30pm: Fall Of Adam and Eve; The Flood; The Last Supper; The Crucifixion and The Last Judgement.

June 23, 7.30pm: Creation To The Fifth Day; The Flood; The Last Supper; The Crucifixion and The Last Judgement.

York Shakespeare Project’s Sonnets At The Bar draw record crowds to secret garden

York Shakespeare Project’s sonneteers take a bow at the finale to Sonnets At The Bar in the Bar Convent Living Heritage Centre’s “secret garden” in York

YORK Shakespeare Project’s Sonnets At The Bar 2021 played to record attendances, surpassing the annual summer event’s previous peak by 190.

Running from July 30 to August 7 in YSP’s new Sonnets location of the Bar Convent Living Heritage Centre’s “secret garden”, in Blossom Street, York, Emile Knight’s production drew 428 people. The past best was 238.

Producer Maurice Crichton reflects: “We took a few chances with the weather and got through all 18 planned performances without a real downpour. I think we may well return to the same venue next year when the perils of Covid and pinging interdicts will hopefully be fully behind us.

“I was particularly pleased that we managed to involve three young men – Aran MacRae, Luke Tearney and Josh Roe – who all contributed to a very strong company bond. There’s something special about a group of players aged from 15 to 60 plus.”    

Next up for York Shakespeare Project will be Leo Doulton’s production of Macbeth in October. Watch this space for more details to follow.

Knight’s move as director takes York Shakespeare Project’s Sonnets show into secret garden at Bar Convent for a week

York Shakespeare Project director Emilie Knight with the Sonnets At The Bar banner on the Bar Convent Living Heritage Centre railings, promoting the week-long run

YORK Shakespeare Project has a not-so-secret location for its latest sonnet adventures, the “secret garden” of the Bar Convent Living Heritage Centre, in Blossom Street, York.

After several years of Sonnet Walks through the city streets and public gardens and the socially distanced Sit-down Sonnets at Holy Trinity churchyard, in Goodramgate, last September, here come Sonnets At the Bar 2021, directed by Emilie Knight and produced by Maurice Crichton from tomorrow (30/7/2021) to August 7.

Emilie, who played a Covid Nurse in last year’s performances, has come up with the conceit of the Bar Convent being in use for all sorts of community centre-type activities, some of them outdoors in the garden on account of Covid, with the sonneteers either hosting classes or groups or attending them, all under the watchful eye of the caretaker, Mr Barrowclough.

In YSP’s now time-honoured fashion, each character has a sonnet to set up, the pairing of character and sonnet opening up some unknown sonnets in an accessible way or giving well-known ones a new angle.

Here, Emilie answers Charles Hutchinson’s questions on plays versus sonnets, topical characters, outdoor performances, new sonneteers and Covid times.

What draws you to Shakespeare’s sonnets by comparison with his plays? 

“The sonnets provide an instant hit of the Bard’s language and turn of phrase, and while you may need to read it over and for some do a little research, when you do get it, it’s striking. Each one tells a story or even more than one as we’ve explored with the Sonnets productions.”

Emilie Knight in the role of a Covid Nurse in the Sit-down Sonnets at Holy Trinity churchyard, Goodramagte, in September 2020. Picture: John Saunders

What struck you most about performing the topical Covid Nurse role in last September’s production?

“Although there was a touch of humour in the role, I found playing the nurse very moving. I have no healthcare experience and felt a tinge of imposter syndrome, especially when I was leafleting in Goodramgate between performances in my scrubs and people came up to me assuming I was campaigning for the NHS, which in a way, I was.”    

What did you learn from that outdoor staging – in one location, rather than moving around York’s streets and gardens – that you can bring to this summer’s production?

“There was a stillness in Holy Trinity churchyard – apart from the restaurant kitchen noises that punctuated some of the performances – that enabled the audience to really focus on the character and their sonnet without distractions from passers-by and traffic.

“I was keen to replicate that while introducing the movement that the sonnet walks allows. In this case, the characters are moving through the space rather than the audience moving through York.”

What do you see as the director’s role in this production? 

“Very much as an introducer of ideas. I had a strong image of how I wanted the production to look and feel, but from my own experience as a sonneteer also knew that the organic nature of this sonnets concept relies on the ideas we have and sometimes accidental discoveries we make throughout the rehearsal process. 

“It’s also been my role to ensure that everyone has fun. We’re a community group with jobs, studying, family responsibilities to deal with, all coming together because we love theatre and never more so than now after the challenging times we’ve all experienced.”  

Emilie Knight in flamingo fanatic mode in York Shakespeare Project’s 2018 Sonnet Walks. Picture: John Saunders

How did you settle on this year’s Shakespeare Sonnets conceit of the Bar Convent being in use for all sorts of community centre-type activities?

“Within hours of finishing our last production, I’d started mulling over possible future themes, and by the beginning of this year, it struck me that through the pandemic our hobbies and community activities had been completely turned upside down.

“I asked myself, ‘how is it going to feel to return to gatherings in person after doing everything online for so long?’ and whether there would be any hesitation in doing so. We heard a lot about how desperate everyone was to ‘get back to normal’, but I did wonder whether some people would prefer it to stay as it is, and that’s when Harry Barrowclough popped into my head.

“Then I thought about all the different things that go on in community centres that, unless you’re involved in yourself, you barely give any thought to. A major consideration in the early days was where to stage the production and, given the community connection and the fabulous garden, theBar Convent seemed a perfect fit and it has been.

How did you decide on the characters? Did you give the actors leeway to create them or did you create the characters first and then let them work on them?

“I had very clear characters in mind and drafted a working script as a starting point. But you never know who’s going to audition; through that process I was able to identify some who fitted a particular character exactly as I thought of them or who delivered something completely different from how I imagined it and it just worked.

“From day one of rehearsals, I invited the sonneteers to play with their character and dialogue and try out different ideas until we settled on the perfect fit. For me, the joy of the YSP Sonnets programme is very much that it is a creative process for everyone involved and together we develop something very special.”

York professional actor Aran MacRae, one of four new York Shakespeare Project sonneteers, in the “secret garden” at the Bar Convent Living Heritage, Centre, York

Five “new” sonnets feature among the selection. What made you choose those ones? 

“I chose all the sonnets first with a few extra, without reference to which had been used before, and by a happy coincidence there were new ones. Some I chose for their direct relevance to a character and situation I had in mind; others I simply found very beautiful and knew I wanted to use them and so devised a way to make them suit.”

How have you rehearsed the sonnets in Covid times? 

“We were very fortunate that the Bar Convent embraced our production from the beginning and made it possible for us to rehearse in the space, which, being open air, made everything instantly more Covid safe.

“We’ve also been lucky with the weather…so far! Of course, we’ve had the ongoing challenge of cast members being ‘pinged’ at any moment and have all been committed to keeping each other safe and will continue to do so for ourselves, the Bar Convent community and our audiences.”

Among the cast, you have selected four actors new to York Shakespeare Project.  Who are they?

“Lindsay Waller Wilkinson, Aran MacRae, Luke Tearney and Josh Roe. I’m so excited about this production and very proud of all the work everyone has put in, most especially the youngsters.

“With the cuts in arts education generally and worryingly more to come, and the reduced opportunities for our youth to explore the creative arts, it’s been very rewarding to have been able to offer this chance for them to shine.”

York Shakespeare Project presents Sonnets At The Bar 2021, Bar Convent Living Heritage Centre, Blossom Street, York, tomorrow (30/7/2021) until August 7; no show on August 2. Performances: 6pm and 7.30pm nightly, plus 4.15pm on both Saturdays. Tickets: 01904 623568, at yorkthreatreroyal.co.uk or in person from the YTR box office.

SONNETS AT THE BAR 2021 CREDITS LIST

Sonneteers

Sindy Allen*
Frank Brogan*
Judith Ireland*
Aran MacRae
Sally Mitcham**
Josh Roe
Mick Taylor*

Luke Tearney
Lindsay Waller-Wilkinson
Helen Wilson*

Musician

Luke Tearney, Friday to Sunday

Matt Pattison, Tuesday to Saturday

Director

Emilie Knight*

Producer

Maurice Crichton* –

* Sonnet veterans

** Other YSP involvements but not Sonnets

Four debutant sonneteers



York Shakespeare Project to perform Sonnets At The Bar in Bar Convent garden in August. Auditions set for next week

Knight’s move: Emilie Knight will direct York Shakespeare Project’s Sonnets At The Bar after playing Covid Nurse in Sit-down Sonnets at Holy Trinity Church last September. Picture: John Saunders

YORK Shakespeare Project has a not-so-secret new location for its latest sonnet adventures, the secret garden of the Bar Convent Living Heritage Centre, in Blossom Street, York.

After several years of Sonnet Walks through the city streets and public gardens and the socially distanced Sit-down Sonnets at Holy Trinity churchyard, in Goodramgate, last September, here come Sonnets At the Bar 2021, directed by Emilie Knight and produced by Maurice Crichton, from July 30 to August 7.

“Emilie Knight and I have struck up a good working relationship at the Bar Convent with James Foster, the chief operations officer,” says Maurice. “They have a lovely ‘secret’ garden with plenty of room and a surprisingly quiet, voice-friendly acoustic for a space so close to one of the busiest road junctions in the city.”

Looking forward to mounting this summer’s spree of Shakespeare sonnets, Maurice enthuses: “York Shakespeare Project wants to involve people in a close engagement with Shakespeare’s writing, and as Jonathan Bate says in every Royal Shakespeare Company edition of the plays: ‘The best way to understand a Shakespeare play is to see it or ideally to participate in it’.

“Emilie is setting up auditions ‘open to all’ and we want to get the word out as widely as possible to try to involve some new faces in this format.”

The “secret” garden at the Bar Convent Living Heritage Centre in York: the August venue for York Shakespeare Project’s Sonnets At The Bar 2021

Those auditions will be held at the Bar Convent onJune 4 from 5pm and June 5 from 10am. Anyone wanting to arrange an audition time should contact Emilie at emknight65@aol.com, putting ‘Sonnets’ in the heading and indicating a preference of day and time.

“I’ll provide details of everything you need to prepare when confirming your audition time,” says Emilie, who performed in last year’s Sit-down Sonnets in role of Covid Nurse at Holy Trinity Church.

Outlining the format of this summer’s performances, she explains: “We’ll be bringing our audience into the secret garden of the Bar Convent to witness the comings and goings of the ordinary people of York as they pursue their hobbies and interests at a community venue.

“The characters cover a range of age and gender and a couple also require some musical ability (instrument or vocal). We welcome all levels of experience, as commitment, enthusiasm and a certain amount of flexibility will determine the success of this production. And, we want you to have fun!”

Rehearsals will be held outdoors, initially in West Bank Park, Holgate, and then at the Bar Convent.

The eight evening performances from July 30 to August 7 – no show on Monday, August 2 – will be complemented by late-afternoon matinees on both Saturdays. “We’re going to include a drink in the ticket price and this will be provided by the heritage centre’s café,” says Maurice.

“‘The best way to understand a Shakespeare play is to see it or ideally to participate in it,” says Maurice Crichton, producer of York Shakespeare Project’s Sonnets At The Bar 2021

REVIEW: Love Bites, The Love Season, York Theatre Royal, May 17 and 18

Send in the clown : James Lewis-Knight in his Love Bite, Staying Connected. Picture: Tom Arber

YORK Theatre Royal has reopened after 427 days. The longest, darkest hiatus since the Second World War at England’s longest-running theatre has ended with a declaration of love.

More precisely, 22 love letters to the power of theatre, a craving for freedom of movement, expression and identity and the need for human connection: a collective, anything-but-cautious hug that was as much a sigh of relief as a breath of fresh York air in the form of a fiesta of five-minute vignettes commissioned from 220 applicants.

Let’s repeat that. 22O applicants for £1,000 commissions from York’s diverse arts community that refuses to accept Rich Boy Risha Sunak’s slight that such talents are non-viable. A community that will laugh off the Beano comic’s laughable Hilarity Report finding that the average York resident laughs only 14 times a day, the second lowest in the country. Are you joking? Laugher aplenty could be heard on Monday night, alongside the joy, the sadness, the uncertainty but hope.

Indeed, The 22 would surely challenge York Mix e-letter writer John Wolfe’s scalding, agent-provocateur assertion that York is a city of “no real festivals or decent venues. No sports centres or entertainment for locals. No chance of change either. Why do you think all of the young people move away? Outside of its history it’s drab and bl**dy awful.”

Crying Wolfe? Well, John, in the city of the York Community Stadium, four state-of-the-art cinemas, myriad theatres, ever more restaurants, café bars, coffee houses, independent galleries and a rising tide of street art, perhaps you should go York Theatre Royal, one of the country’s great theatres, tonight (Tuesday) to see the spread of talent, both young and older.

Some were born in the city and are determined to stay here, when the arts are becoming less London-centric; others have been drawn to the city from, for example, Canada and Zimbabwe, and here they gathered under one rainbow umbrella to express their love for York and their place in it. 

Trouble is, John, you can’t buy a seat because, as with the first night, tonight’s Love Bites have sold out at the outset of a Love Season pulsing with life, vigour and, yes, love, topped off by Ralph Fiennes performing T S Eliot’s Four Quartets in late-July.

In the words of chief executive Tom Bird, Love Bites and The Love Season are a chance to “experience again the electric excitement that only live performance can bring. This spring and summer, we’re putting on a season of brave, bold love stories to celebrate the return of human connection. We’re doing it with passion, fervour and heart, as you’d expect.”

Monday night began with the much-loved veteran BBC broadcaster Harry Gration in host mode, toasting his 50-year love affair with the Theatre Royal before making way for the flurry of short pieces.

The screen backdrop could and probably should have been used for announcing each show title, writer and performer, especially as flicking through the e-programme on your phone in the dark would have been distracting for others, even in the socially distanced seating with the capacity reduced from 750 to 340.

Actor Toby Gordon’s hair has grown to Dave Grohl length in locks-down lockdown, but the golden tongue that delivered both Satan and later Jesus’s lines in the York Minster Mystery Plays now glistened anew in the questing, vexed poetry of W H Auden’s O Tell Me The Truth About Love.

Film would feature on several occasions through the night, first in a cinematic riparian soundscape by Ben Pugh to accompany the poetic ebb and flow of Robert Powell and Kitty Greenbrown’s The Angels Of Lendal Bridge, imagining those painted “angels” conversing above the Ouse, recalling so much water that has passed under their iron bridge amid a rising tide of love.

Luella Rebbeck, Jamie Marshall-White and Isla Bowles in The Art Of Losing. Picture: Tom Arber

CAPA College student trio Luella Rebbeck, Jamie Marshall-White and Isla Bowles, in glowing green and pink socks to suit the occasion, were nevertheless in contemplative mood in The Art Of Losing, tempo slow, bodies graceful, in what they emphasised were three “non-love stories”, but instead felt more like a lament; a year’s absence making the heart grow fonder for “what it means to have contact with one another”.

Playwright, poet and slam champ Hannah Davies’s tweets at @davieswords have charted her enervating health frustrations, but no York shaper of words captures a sense, meaning and memory of place so movingly, so evocatively, and what a joy it was to see back on a stage for Love Song To Spring.

Accompanied by Jack “Pascallion” Woods’s exploratory guitar paths, her lockdown love story journeyed through the freshly discovered joys of city walking and spring renewal in York’s myriad green spaces. Listen to Hannah, and you will step into spring with added spring in your step.

New discovery of the night was much-travelled Zimbabwean playwright Butshilo Nleya, who “wondered if my pockets are big enough to carry home with me” as he moved to York.

Explosive bursts of drumming and film imagery by Sunnie Hsia of Butshilo on York streets, stairways and in the dank Leeman Road tunnel formed a triptych with his soliloquy, Ekhaya, Love Them Both?, as he mulled over place, love and self, with humour rooted in observation of York’s idiosyncrasies, but a deeper wish to find his place, wherever he plays his drum, whatever life throws at him. One to watch, definitely.

For aeons, a Nightingale’s nocturnal song has had writers reaching for metaphors for love and beauty. Musician, performance writer and actor Tom Nightingale’s song, Elaine, is to “show everyone my gratitude to the only lady who has ever helped me”, his wife.

In its cautious yet unguarded way it was a song of love and beauty suffused with unshaven, wry, deadpan frankness, delivered in the spirit of John Otway and Jonathan Richman beneath Martin Stephenson’s cocked hat. Nightingale writes as a “therapeutic outlet”, to make sense of life; on Monday, it worked for your reviewer; hopefully it does for Elaine too.

The name in the Love Bites e-programme and in her Q&A answers to CharlesHutchPress is Erika Noda, but the Japanese-English actor and East 15 graduate born in York introduced herself on Monday as Aiaka, the name that a teacher found so difficult, she called her ‘Ai’ and banished her from the classroom for insubordination in challenging her.

So began the journey to Ai, Erika/Aiaka’s semi-autobiographical debut solo-writing work, examining her dual heritage and encounters with racist “microaggression”, growing up in York, (a city once so white it was dubbed “Persil Town”). On the evidence of Ai, this quest for identity remains unresolved, a bumpy ride with such familiar stones in the road as “no, but where are you really from?”.

Even the inventor of Zoom apparently has had enough of all those enervating Zoom-and-gloom meetings, but loveable York musical-comedy double act Fladam (pianist-singer Adam Sowter and funny face-puller and singer Florence Poskitt) found the funny side of this digital bridge to connecting in lockdown-separation in the tartly topical Love Bytes. Aptly, the cheeky, witty, melodious encounter was long-distance, Adam on stage, Flo online, filling the screen with a squelchy face as ripe for comedy as Thora Hird or Victoria Wood.

Surprise of the night? Seeing Paul Birch on stage and then wondering why he does not frequent this space more often. Maybe he is just too busy writing and directing, and running Out Of Character, the York company for artists with experiences of mental illness.

His twisting-and-turning five-minute gem, Lost For Words, was a mind-game in motion as the quicksilver Birch fought to save his most precious relationship in a race against time where a killjoy voice from beyond kept stripping him of the right to use letters from the alphabet, letter by letter. You found yourself joining him in his mental exercise, smugly spotting him still using a ‘V’ when barred from doing so, but cheering him on as he tried to keep his head above water as the wds rn t. Could this be a game show in the making?

All around is frown time, but clown time is never over for the red-nosed James Lewis-Knight, actor and artistic director of Clown Space, purveyor of comical pandemonium amid a pandemic. After a year as the Clown in Lockdown, wandering the busking streets of York turned silent, James unlocked his dusty case to make his mimed plea for Staying Connected. He kept saying “Picnic”, but where Birch was lost for words, James was a little lost for meaning, one punchline short of his Picnic having more bite.

If you heard Dora Rubinstein’s perkily assertive rendition of Gus Gowland’s The Streets Of York blind, you would swear it was from a musical. Sure enough, Gowland, latterly moved to York, is a musical theatre writer/composer with the award-winning Pieces Of String to his name. Gowland’s celebration of Gentleman Jack Anne Lister’s wedding vows in a York church will surely grow from a love letter to a full-blown show, a progression the Theatre Royal should encourage and activate.

Janet-Emily Bruce and Cassie Vallance in Story Craft Theatre’s She Can Go Anywhere. Picture: Tom Arber

In a night of storytelling, butter-rich with words, the shadow puppetry of children’s theatre company Story Craft Theatre silently spoke volumes to the accompaniment of Jonathan Glew’s beautiful score in She Can Go Anywhere. Who knew you could say so much with a sheet, folded and unfolded by Cassie Vallance and Janet-Emily Bruce as if a cotton version of origami, freeing imaginations when the pandemic has shrunk the world to the home, transforming life’s caterpillars into butterflies.

Hannah Wintie-Hawkins was a dancer at the double in her terpsichorean love letter In The Beginning, at once on stage and in digital artist Aaron Howell’s accompanying film, dancing with baby Mabel in her arms.  It was as though Hannah, like us, was watching in wonder at the joy of a new arrival: a beacon of hope amid the pandemic turbulence, only in her case it was moving her to break out into a dance. The dual focus, however, was not wholly satisfying, as she danced with herself, the one distracting from the other, rather than intertwining like mother and daughter on screen.

Richard Kay, actor, singer, pantomime writer and Zoom choir leader, asked his choir members two questions: how and why do you like singing? Whereupon he compiled the answers into the composition For The Love Of Singing, a song as nimble on its feet as Fred Astaire and wittily delivered in the crisply enunciated manner of a Richard Stilgoe, with digital choir backing and the projection of words dancing in and out of formation in David Todd’s playful animation. Clever, humorous, warm and briskly energetic, and tuneful to boot, it would sit well in a cabaret revue.

How did it feel to be back in the theatre after 427 days? Actor Maurice Crichton caught those feelings as he cast his net of observations in Where Are We Now, You And I?, and he looked in such a hurry to deliver his thoughts, it was as if he had come straight from a rehearsal room in tracksuit trousers and The Show Must Go On T-shirt, hair unkempt.

Not that he rushed through his sage counsel, instead understanding feelings of anger, advising a policy of gentleness with each other and not expecting too much too soon, while breathing in the wonder of theatre once more.  How right he was; how emotional too.

Canadian-born papercut artist Elena Skoreyko Wagner, countertenor and composer James Cave and libretto editor Bethan Ellis promised Magic and delivered it too in a four-minute mini-musical, set in a constantly evolving paper theatre that grew ever prettier under Elena’s delicate guidance.

Elena seeks to discover “magic and meaning in everyday, mundane experiences”, the transcendent magic rising through her imagery and the beauty of James’s singing, and in the stasis of the pandemic, a walk, birdsong, gardening, baking banana bread, have indeed taken on a heightened magical air.

On their Twitter account, non-binary, unapologetically autistic creator Ashleigh J Mills (they/them) calls themselves Angry Black Changeling. Identity and accessibility into theatre lay at the heart of In Progress, their spoken-word exploration of the “interplay between race, self-understanding and the shifting boundaries of gender over the span of a solitary year” when experiencing life on the margins.

Ashleigh has kept a Good Words List for four years, and on the screen behind them, the constant, measured flicking through a book revealed word after word standing proud from the text, each building a picture of Ashleigh’s questing, creative fascination with words.

Those words were knitted together to form their soliloquy, a still-evolving expression of Ashleigh as a work in progress in changing times, and only good words can be said of their poetic candour.

Of all the five minutes, nothing brought a broader smile than the sheer joy in dancing together of Alice Boddy and Leanne Hope, friends since Northern Ballet School days, who burst out of a restricted year of living-room creativity to revel in a Love Letter To Female Friendship on the dancefloor in the face of such trying times. They were so in their moment, they were in their own world, but one we all could recognise and wish to join in.

The title, Mise En Aby-Me, may have been baffling, but life model, milliner and costumier Claire Spooner made a fascinating body of work in her physical theatre piece that testified to her desire to tell a story through the human form, rather than words, in this case aided by Richard Stephenson’s artwork and LEMNIS’s music.

Claire turned herself into a Russian doll, peeling off layers, adding masks, revealing how she presented herself in relationships, love in different guises, until nothing could hide the constant persona within, beauty beyond the eye of the beholder.

Deaf director and “self-proclaimed proactive busy-body” Harri Marshall composed a semi-autobiographical love letter to oneself via cards and correspondence collected over the past year…and then handed over the task of interpreting them aloud to Sarah Huggett, accompanied by the exact wording on the screen behind.

I say “exact” because text and voice did not always say the same lines and you found yourself checking for differences as much as concentrating on Harri’s flow of meaning. What’s more, the rhythm of the language was broken too, screen and voice going in and out of synch. Hopefully, I Often Think Of You had a better second night.

Before Reverie came a nightmare, thankfully only briefly, as a flick of a switch belatedly awoke the somnambulant keyboard for composer, pianist and piano teacher Vanessa Simmons’s retelling of a dream in musical form. Ah, what peace, after the fizzing fireworks, as an unperturbed Vanessa rejoiced in “the beauty, sorrow and power of real love”.

Last, but anything but least and rightly chosen as the finale was 5 Minute Call, penned by esteemed York playwright Bridget Foreman, writer of 30 plays, both large and solo, with another, My Place, on the way.

Chief exec Tom Bird’s Irish-accented actor wife, Laura Pyper, took on the guise of a theatre “techie” five minutes before curtain-up, taking instruction on checking lighting for stage positions while capturing how the theatre itself felt about the return of life on its boards, warming up to the reunion with its lifeblood, both performers and audiences. The feeling of love was mutual, as the Pied Pyper led us back to our spiritual home.

These Love Bites left their mark, so much so, let’s hope York Theatre Royal can look to open further seasons with showcases for the city’s talents, £1,000 commissions et al.

Review written on May 18 with later additions

Bite-sized Q & A with…Maurice Crichton on his Love Bites piece at York Theatre Royal

Maurice Crichton, as Dorn, with Elizabeth Elsworth, as Polina, in York Settlement Community Players’ production of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull at York Theatre Royal Studio in February-March 2020. Picture: John Saunders

THE Love Season will soon set hearts pulsing at York Theatre Royal, where the Step 3 reopening will make its mark with Love Bites: a love letter to live performance and a toast to the city’s creative talent.

More than 200 artists from a variety of art forms applied for £1,000 love-letter commissions to be staged on May 17 – the first day that theatres can reopen after restrictions are lifted – and May 18.

The 22 short pieces selected will be performed each night at 8pm under the overall direction of Theatre Royal creative director Juliet Forster. Each “bite” will take hold for five minutes.

In the first in a series of CharlesHutchPress Q&As, York actor Maurice Crichton has five minutes to discuss his work, Where Are You Now, You And I?

How did you hear about Love Bites, Maurice?

“I reckon I saw it come up on Facebook and of course via charleshutchpress.”

What is your connection with York?

“I came south from the Glasgow area to university here in the early 1980s and have been here ever since. My three children grew up here. Then in 2009 I got involved in the York amateur theatre scene and theatrical pursuits are now a big part of my life.”

Helen Wilson: Directing Maurice Crichton in Where Are We Now, You And I?. Here she is pictured performing in York Shakespeare Project’s Sit-down Sonnets in the Holy Trinity Church open air in Goodramgate, York

What will feature in your Love Bite, Where Are We Now, You and I?, and why? 

“I can tell you it is a solo piece which I have written and that my partner Helen Wilson is going to bring to bear her considerable directing expertise to try to make sure I don’t make a complete fool of myself. 

“The brief was simple and clear for a very special occasion. A love letter to light up the YTR stage after such a long period of darkness. I had an immediate and personal response to the brief, which I hope will do justice to the opportunity. 

“I was in Anthony Minghella’s Two Planks And A Passion in 2011 in the main house when it was reconfigured in the round. I did a slightly daunting read-through as Pilate for the 2012 Mystery Plays from the main stage to a big audience the following year. But nothing else in that space. So, for lots of reasons, even though it is only five minutes, for me personally it’s going to be a big five minutes.”

So, where are we now, you and I and the rest of us?

“I hope just about OK. I have been very lucky. With any unexpected trauma, it doesn’t really hit home until the danger is past. What has it cost us all? It’s too early to say.”

In lockdown, what have you missed most about theatre? 

“Being able to take for granted that it’s alive and well in our city and has a future.”

“What has it cost us all? It’s too early to say,” says Maurice Crichton of living through these pandemic times

What’s coming next for you?

“I’ve done some filming work on a piece called The Whispering House with Damian Cruden (director) and Bridget Foreman (writer), about the Census in Tang Hall and Heworth, in which I play a Swedish immigrant completing the 1911 census.

“His name is Enoch Stanhope, a real person. He lived at Yew Villa, Heworth Village, and had a jewellery shop on Coney Street. I hope the fruits of that work will be released soon.”

“I’m producing another Sonnets production – the sixth – this summer for York Shakespeare Project. Emilie Knight is going to direct and we hope to able to announce dates for this year in an exciting new outdoor venue very soon. 

“I’m also working on a little project for York Mystery Plays Supporters Trust to take a guided walk along the route of the medieval Mystery Plays. (YMPST, along with York Festival Trust are staging A Resurrection For York on wagons in the Residence Garden, Dean’s Park, beside the Minster Library on July 3 and 4, directed by Philip Parr.)

What would be the best way to spend five minutes if you had a choice?

“Right now, it would be to ring my Mum’s doorbell in Fife and give her a hug or to make a surprise second visit to my new granddaughter (aged four weeks) in Bath and to bounce little Emma on my knee.”

Tickets for Love Bites cost Pay What You Feel at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk or on 01904 623568.

Jessa and Mick Liversidge team up with Helmsley Arts Centre for Fields & Lanes song and poetry livestream tomorrow

Field work: Actor Mick Liversidge and singer Jessa Liversidge take the country air

EASINGWOLD singer Jessa Liversidge and husband actor Mick Liversidge will present the Fields & Lanes Livestream show from Helmsley Arts Centre tomorrow night (13/3/2021).

“Mick and I have been working on a collaborative project with the arts centre all about engaging communities creatively,” says community singing leader and music tutor Jessa. “Now, we’ve recruited some more field singers and outdoor performers to join us virtually for our performance at 7.30pm.”

Since the first Coronavirus pandemic lockdown in March 2020, Jessa and Mick have taken to performing outside to lift spirits and cheer those stuck inside. While Jessa sings in fields, Mick recites poetry down country lanes, and together they have devised Fields & Lanes, a celebration of poetry and song as well a celebration of the great outdoors.

Mick and Jessa perform with no accompaniment, their sincere and heartfelt delivery letting the poems and songs speak for themselves.

Last Saturday, Jessa notched her 50th “field sing”: a Saturday morning routine for the past 50 weeks wherein she “gets up and performs a song outdoors”.

“Over 50 songs now as some weeks I have done two,” she says, and you can watch that performance as she lists all the songs at https://www.facebook.com/JessaLiversidgeSinger/videos/207646327454590/ or on YouTube at https://youtu.be/a8bzyhocd-U.

“I might delay the field sing a bit if it’s snowing or raining, or I’ll shelter under a tree, but I find doing these songs really beneficial for me; doing it every week, having that fixed in my diary, knowing I need to do it on a Saturday morning,” Jessa says.

Mick, a professional actor on stage and screen for six years, and Jessa also performed a socially distanced Fields & Lanes Under The Willow Tree at Easingwold Community Library on a September Sunday afternoon and for Joseph Rowntree Theatre volunteers when testing the York theatre’s Covid-safety regime last October.

Mick LIversidge recording one of his Fields & Lanes poems in lockdown

Buoyed by the response to their outdoor pursuits, Jessa and Mick teamed up with Helmsley Arts Centre (HAC) to offer the Ryedale and wider community the chance to join the Fields & Lanes family in remote workshops.

“You will have the chance to develop singing or recitation skills and work towards your own pre-recorded performance, which will be featured in the livestream Fields & Lanes show on March 13,” read the invitation to recruits on the HAC website.

Places were strictly limited, enabling Jessa and Mick to work with both small groups and individuals on February 27 and March 6. Participants also received support, feedback and guidance from Jessa or Mick in between sessions and they are entitled to a gratis ticket for tomorrow’s livestream.

“We’ve found that singing and performing poetry outside has been both therapeutic and uplifting during these challenging times,” says Jessa. “We’ve enjoyed everything that comes with performing in the open air: the bird song, the fields, the winds, and we wanted to help others take part and feel the benefits.

“We’re thrilled to be working with Helmsley Arts Centre, who have provided the funding for a project to demonstrate how music and poetry can connect the community through creativity, and we’re delighted with the wide range of performers who have joined us, from seasoned professional performers to hobby singers and poets.

“In the workshops and individual sessions over the two weekends, we’ve worked on field singing and outdoor recitation techniques and created some collaborative performances. As a result, members of these groups will be appearing with us in the livestream via pre-recorded video.”

Tomorrow’s livestream viewers can expect a wide-ranging show featuring poetry from William Wordsworth to Spike Milligan, Lord Byron to D H Lawrence, and songs from folk standards to pop favourites and gospel classics, The Beatles to Bill Withers, Cilla Black to Carole King.

Poetry collaborators in tomorrow’s livestream are Bill Laverick, Helen Wilson and Maurice Crichton, from York Shakespeare Project and York Settlement Community Players, and Ted Naisbitt, from Sowerby, near Thirsk, performing one of his own poems, My Lakes, inspired by Wordsworth.

Helen Wilson, performing at last summer’s Sitdown Sonnets, presented by York Shakespeare Project at Holy Trinity Church, Goodramgate, York. Tomorrow she is taking part in the Fields & Lanes livestream

Mick worked with Bill, Helen, Maurice and Ted, each taking a verse from Wordsworth’s Daffodils and Sir John Betjeman’s Business Girls, reciting both on Zoom and in the open air.

New field singers taking part are Sinead Livingston, Mary Bourne, Madeleine Cordes, Gary Cordes, Cat Ellis, Caitlin Ellis, Sarah Boyle and Bill Laverick.

“They’re spread across the country from Essex to the North East,” says Jessa. “One of the positives of these times has been being able to work with people from all over the place!

“Sinead, Mary and Madeleine are all singing leaders, who I’ve been liaising with over the past year, all liking the idea of singing outside, and it’s been really great to have such high-quality people to work with.

“Mary runs choirs in Kingston and writes songs, and she’s been a friend for a couple of years. We’ve recorded a duet called My Call, where I recorded my part outside and as she’s ‘Choir Leader In A Kayak’, she’s done her part from a kayak.”

Introducing more of tomorrow’s remote singers, Jessa says: “Cat and Caitlin are a mother and daughter from Easingwold; Cat is in one of my choirs and I teach Caitlin. Sarah Boyle is a ‘hobby singer’ from York who’s joined one of my choirs, and Madeleine and Gary Cordes run a talent agency in Essex.

“In the first workshop, we did Stand By Me and The Water Is Wide, with me editing the virtual performances together and then last Saturday we worked on individual song choices.”

For tomorrow’s livestream, “bubble couple” Mick and Jessa will be performing live and alone in Helmsley Arts Centre, where the pre-recorded songs and poems will be projected on a screen.

“We’ve found that singing and performing poetry outside has been both therapeutic and uplifting during these challenging times,” says Jessa

The 7.30pm show marks a return to Helmsley Arts Centre for Jessa, after performing three of her one-woman shows there: ’Til The Boys Come Home, Some Enchanted Sondheim and Songbirds.

She has been a freelance singer and singing leader for the past 12 years, completing high-level training on performance, singing teaching and musical direction with Vocal Process and qualifying as a Vocal Health First Aider.

“From youth choirs and dementia-friendly groups to community choirs and private lessons, my sessions all have an encouraging atmosphere and a positive, inclusive ethos,” she says.

“I’m continuing to run my singing groups online – Singing For All and Community Singers Online, as well as the live YMHSing sessions for the York Music Hub – and I’m always looking for more singers of all abilities to join in.

“One new singer recently said, ‘you fill the screen with fun and enjoyment’ and I’d love to reach a few more of these people.” 

As testament to her teaching skills, Jessa has been nominated for two 2021 Music and Drama Education awards on March 24 for her inspiring work with singers of all ages in the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Quite an honour and a big surprise!” she says. “I’ve no expectations of winning but will glam up and tune into the ceremony on the 24th anyway!”

Jessa is shortlisted for the #goldstars Award, for any teacher who has shown particular flair, creativity or compassion during this past year, and the Francesca Honley Inspiration Award, which honours an individual who has had a hugely inspirational impact on students of any age in their music-making. 

Outdoor pursuits: Mick Liversidge and Jessa Liversidge head out for a song and a poem in the Yorkshire air

“The person who nominated me mentioned the wide range of ways I have adapted and created different ways of inspiring people of all ages through singing, including the live sings and Zoom choirs for York Music Hub, song and music videos, live singing for all and field sings,” says Jessa, as she looks forward to listening to the 6pm online ceremony at https://www.musicdramaedawards.com/.

Looking ahead, Jessa says: “I’m definitely going to continue with the choirs online. I even have participants from Milton Keynes, Rochdale, Bedfordshire, and I’ve been able to engage in various ways, along with continuing my ‘real’ groups.

“I feel loyal to them all, so when lockdown eases under the Government ‘roadmap’, I’ll do hybrid ‘Room and Zoom’ sessions. I did one in October, which I enjoyed, though it is quite exhausting trying to do two things at once!”

Reflecting on 12 months under the pandemic cloud, Jessa says: “I’m really happy with the way I’ve managed to grow and create this past year despite everything, or actually out of necessity due to everything.

“I’ve developed a lot of skills, like a lot of people like me have. I’ve really enjoyed it, picking up technical skills, such as learning how to synch up people singing separately for streaming. It’s quite time consuming but I think it’s worth it, recording people standing alone in a field but then seeing themselves in a group online.”

Jessa is proof positive that singing is good for the soul, for physical health, for mental wellbeing. “Singing just lifts you and takes you somewhere else,” she says in her break from her online “three hat day” for this interview.

“Singing keeps me going. Today [8/3/2021] I’m running a Singing For All session; teaching a couple of pupils and doing a York Music Hub session at four o’clock, so I’ll be buoyant all day!”

Tickets for tomorrow’s 7.30pm livestream cost £8 per household. To book, go to: https://www.helmsleyarts.co.uk/whats-on/fields-and-lanes-livestream-from-hac.

All the Fields & Lanes poems and songs performed by Mick and Jessa outdoors can be found at the Fields & Lanes Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/fieldsandlanes/.

REVIEW: Sit-down Sonnets 2020, York Shakespeare Project, until Saturday

Helen Wilson dons the tartan and the Scottish accent for Sit-down Sonnets. All pctures: John Saunders

York Shakespeare Project, Sit-down Sonnets, Holy Trinity churchyard, Goodramgate, York, until September 12, 5.45pm and 7pm daily, plus 4.15pm on Saturday. Box office: yorktheatreroyal.co.uk

YORK Shakespeare Project’s last production was Antony And Cleopatra in October 2019, leaving only two to complete the 20-year cycle of presenting all of his plays.

Next up should have been Macbeth, but sure enough, if anything could de-rail the stately progress to the finishing post, it would have to be the Scottish play, the one afeared by the theatre world at large.

Lo and behold, its curse struck again, only a week to go to opening night for Leo Doulton’s production, when the Covid-19 lockdown put a stop to everything. Who knows when to expect the return of the Mac, but in the meantime YSP keeps busy with Zoom play readings each month, under the guise of the Quarantine Players, and now with the Sit-down Sonnets, a variation on YSP’s Sonnet Walks around York.

If the hat fits: Mick Liversidge

The Churches Conservation Trust is keen for Holy Trinity to play host to more outdoor performances amid its gravestones, mown grass, five benches and trees, and tucked away from the Goodramgate shoppers, it is a delightful haven for theatre or music.

YSP has frequented the churchyard previously, as a stopping point to deliver a Sonnet Walk, but now comes a full-scale 45-minute production to a seated audience,  spread out with social distancing in “ten social bubbles or 20 souls, whichever maximum we reach first”.

Producer Maurice Crichton’s invitation to review came with a covering note and a request: “As always we think part of the delight of live theatre is surprise,” he wrote, and he is right on that score, along with his advice to bring a rug, a cushion, a camp chair, maybe a flask and a packet of biscuits.

“The conceit of this show is that it is a selection of Shakespeare’s characters in the present day paired with a sonnet. I wonder which character will be next? I wonder which character would be dressed like that? I wonder which sonnet this character is going to have? Who is [YSP founder] Frank Brogan playing this time?

Where there’s a Will: Margaret Hillier

“These are questions we want to be a part of the show. For that reason, we are holding back our [printed] ‘programme’ to the end. It’s a memento that confirms what the audience has seen, not a spoiler of what they are about to see. 

“Our polite request is that you don’t spoil everything by publishing everything we have.”

Your reviewer could not have put it better than the ever-eloquent former solicitor Mr Crichton, m’lud. Covid-19 has done so much spoiling already in 2020 that another killjoy would not be appropriate.

Suffice to say, director Mick Taylor, bearing a rod as if he were Prospero, guides the audience into the fast-flowing performance of ten sonnets, pointing out how Shakespeare himself was blighted by pandemics, with theatres being closed for more than six years between 1603 and 1613.

He makes way for 11 YSP luminaries to take on the guise of familiar Shakespeare characters but now in a modern context, be they a grave digger or a nurse, as they reflect on lockdown, isolation, masks, social distancing and the NHS.

Mick Taylor looks on as Emily Hansen performs her Sit-down Sonnet

The shadow of Covid hangs heavy over their apposite sonnet choices: ‘mourn’ ‘fever’ ‘absent in the spring’ and ‘epitaph’ all leap out from the titles, but so do ‘summer’s day’ and ‘love’ and, in turn, a love of theatre. Sadness, resilience and grave humour sit side by side as resonance and relevance abound in this pandemic-blighted contemporary context.

How else could Mick Taylor end but with Puck’s epilogue, If We Shadows Have Offended, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream – the very play that would suit a Holy Trinity churchyard staging.

In deference to the YSP request, I shall remain muzzled – an alternative to the de rigueur mask worn by Shakespeare on the show poster and programme cover – as to who each actor plays, but step forward for a closing burst of applause: Di Starr, Emily Hansen, Emilie Knight, a tartaned Helen Wilson, Mick Liversidge, Frank Brogan, Phyllis Carson-Smith, Nigel Evans, Sue Harris, Judith Ireland and Margaret Hillier, Will quill in hand.

The rest is silenced.

York Shakespeare Project’s poster for Sit-down Sonnets: note the Bard’s on-trend mask and trainers

How much hand sanitiser will Lady Macbeth get through? Take a seat for YSP’s Sit-down Sonnets in a churchyard for the answer

Mick Taylor, York Shakespeare Project’s director for Sit-down Sonnets, aptly takes a seat for last Saturday’s rehearsal at the Rowntree Park amphitheatre

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.

York Shakespeare Project cast members Shirley Williams, left, and Di Starr performing Shakespeare’s Sonnet Walks in 2019 in the churchyard at Holy Trinity, Goodramgate, where Sit-down Sonnets will open on Friday

“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.”

Note the face mask: York Shakespeare Project’s topical poster for September’s Sit-down Sonnets

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.”

How prescient: York Shakespeare Project founder Frank Brogan predicts the end of the world in last summer’s Shakespeare’s Sonnet Walks. Cue Covid-19…

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.

Take a seat: York Shakespeare Project’s Sit-down Sonnets cast members listen to director Mick Taylor, fourth from right, when rehearsing in Rowntree Park, York, last weekend

“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.”

Frank Brogan in rehearsal for the Sit-down Sonnets

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.