Two bards, one songbird, a loop pedal and a nod to Taylor Swift add up to Jessa Liversidge’s Shakespeare and Burns show

Jessa Liversidge: Two bards, one songbird; two performances, two workshops. Picture: David K Newton

EASINGWOLD singer and choir leader Jessa Liversidge presents her celebration of song inspired by two bards, William Shakespeare and Robert Burns, from her native Scotland, in York tomorrow and Helmsley next Saturday.

Her heartfelt performance spans traditional folk, pop and musical theatre, sung to her piano accompaniment with judicious use of a loop pedal to layer melodies and sounds.

At each concert, at Theatre@41 and Helmsley Arts Centre, audience suggestions are invited to enable Jessa to improvise a new song around a Shakespeare/Burns quotation.

At both venues, from 4pm to 6pm, she will be hosting a harmony-singing workshop for participants to sing in the evening show. Box office: York,; Helmsley,

The poster for Two Bards And A Songbird

Here, Jessa discusses Shakespeare, Burns, songs, poems and her next show with CharlesHutchPress

What part did Robert Burns and Shakespeare play in your education, being brought up in Scotland?

“I was brought up and went to school in Dundee, and in my younger years we all had to learn a Burns song to take part in a competition called the Leng Medal. This was my first experience of Burns’s songs, and of course we learned several of the poems in school too.

“At this young age, I didn’t really appreciate the poetry and power of his words, and certainly didn’t fully appreciate the speeches from Macbeth and Hamlet as I crammed them the night before my Higher English exam! I wouldn’t have predicted that years later I’d be improvising songs around those same words.”

How did you first come to participate in the Durham Fringe Festival?

“Durham is quite a young Fringe, and I’ve been involved since it started in 2021. Mick [actor husband Mick Liversidge] and I had put a show together inspired by our outdoor lockdown singing and poetry reciting called Fields and Lanes, and this was featured in an afternoon showcase the Fringe put on, alongside aerial artistes and dancers! A great experience and a friendly bunch of volunteers running the festival.

“It has grown since then, and I performed my Songbirds show there in 2022, then Two Bards And A Songbird in 2023. My inspiration to put this show together was a callout by Durham Fringe for Shakespeare-inspired shows, to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the First Folio.”

Sum up the show in a nutshell…

“It’s a musical exploration of work inspired by the two bards. Just me, a piano and my loop pedal. Very different, very eclectic!

“I could be singing a beautiful Robert Burns song one moment, improvising around a Shakespeare sonnet the next, looping around with a Taylor Swift song, then throwing in a musical theatre number, such as Sondheim’s Fear No More The Heat O’ The Sun or So In Love from Kiss me Kate.

Mick and Jessa Liversidge on one of their walks in lockdown in 2020 for Fields and Lanes

“I even combine the two bards in two of the pieces. There’s also a fun, but scary element of the show, where audience members pick a quotation from their table for me to improvise around.”

Shakespeare’s plays feature songs; Burns’s poetry has a long tradition of being turned into folk songs, alongside his own songwriting. How has that shaped the content of your show?

“Several of Burns’s original songs feature in the show – Red, Red Rose, Ae Fond Kiss, A’ The Airts – as well as the most famous song Burns actually didn’t write! (Auld Lang Syne, which he heard someone singing, then wrote down!)

“In the early stages of developing the show, I looked at some of the original songs used in Shakespeare plays, but I ended up using a more contemporary mix of songs for the Shakespeare element. His work features such universal themes that just about anything can be said to be inspired by Shakespeare!

“What I’ve chosen is a mixture of pop and musical theatre inspired by his words and stories, songs from musical adaptations of his plays (including some from a fairly recent adaptation of As You Like It, performed in Central Park, New York, featuring hundreds of community performers and music by Shaina Taub.)

“Plus of course the more improvised sections, where I develop my own musical interpretations of Shakespeare’s words, such as Come Away Death and Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day.”

How do you use the loop pedal?

“I love looping! It’s so addictive and fun, and a great, if sometimes baffling, experience for the audience, some of whom have never heard anything quite like it!

“I basically layer up keyboard chords, vocal harmonies, melodies, sometimes even recited poetry, together. Everything is done live, nothing pre-recorded.

The poster for Jessa Liversidge’s new show, A Tapestry Of Life, at the 2024 Durham Fringe Festival

“So, with the Taylor Swift song in the show, I build up harmonies in a chorus first, as part of the performance, then use that within the song.

Here it is:

“It’s great for the improvised sections too, and where I mash Shakespeare and Burns together – so at one point I sing a Burns song (John Anderson My Jo) and layer a suitable sonnet over the top – as a great way of creating harmony and different effects as a solo performer.”

Explain your choice of Burns and Shakespeare works to intertwine.

“The Burns song, John Anderson My Jo, speaks in a light-hearted way of the longevity of love, how it changes over time. Quite ironic as Burns never reached old age sadly. (N.B. I am doing one of the more polite versions of this song!).

“I then layer Shakespeare’s sonnet 104 over the top, which speaks, “to me, fair friend, you never can be old”.

“Another features a short segment from the Royal Shakespeare Company production of Julius Caesar that I was lucky enough to be involved with this time last year: Ghosts, used with permission of the composer, Jasmin Kent Rodgman.

“This haunting, repetitive piece is used in one of the battle scenes – and as a nod to the more pacifist leanings of Burns, I recite his Logan Braes over the top.” 

Jessa Liversidge leading one of her choir workshops

What will the workshops involve? Who can attend? Is there a charge?

“The workshops are open to all voices – anyone who enjoys singing and wants to get more involved with the show. We’ll work on some vocal technique and fun warm-ups, then learn some of the material from the show – which the group can then get up and perform alongside me in the evening, in between enjoying the rest of the show as an audience member.

“I will tailor each workshop to whoever comes along. I am used to working with all ages and abilities and just love bringing people together to sing! It’s such a joyous way to connect with others. 

“Both venues are offering a combined ticket for the workshop and show, only £5 extra for the two-hour workshop.”

Have your performed Two Bards And A Songbird in Scotland?

“I’ve been up to my native land for a couple of weekends performing the show in Dundee and Fife. Quite a moment, having not performed there since I was at school! And even then, I was never a singing soloist in those days, only really finding my voice in my mid-twenties.

“One old school friend who came to the Dundee performance said, ‘you were a violinist at school’! Lovely, though, to be able to have some family members come and support who don’t usually get to witness my antics in real life.”

How did you find your voice in your mid-20s, and was that part of the inspiration for encouraging others to do likewise in your choirs?

“My vocal journey has been a long and winding one! I’ve always enjoyed singing, but as I reached my 20s, I found I was limited in what I could do as a soloist, so decided to have some proper vocal training.

“I could be singing a beautiful Robert Burns song one moment, improvising around a Shakespeare sonnet the next,” says Jessa of her Two Bards And A Songbird show. Picture: Andrea Denniss

“I spent ten years training with York’s Jacqueline Edwards, finding my full range and surprising myself with what I could do. Then since having my own children in my 30s, I have built up my freelance work around singing, and sharing the joy of singing with others.

“I’ve undertaken so much more training in the past ten years or so, from vocal health first aid to vocal cross-training (all the different techniques and characteristics of singing in different genres), and now I feel so lucky to spend my week singing with, and for, such a wide range of people of all ages and abilities.”

Describe your new Carole King show, A Tapestry Of Life, premiering at next month’s Durham Fringe Festival?

“Like many, I’m a huge fan of Carole King. Her songs (a bit like the bard himself!) focus on those universal themes everyone can identify with: life, love, loss. My sister, Andrea Brown, has recently written a book of poetry with that very title.

“As we were born in the 1970s, when Tapestry was released, I came up with the idea of A Tapestry Of Life. It will be the classic Carole King songs, interspersed with songs I’m writing from Andrea’s poetry. Lots of them about pretty moving and emotional family events, and situations and journeys that will resonate with a lot of people, I’m sure. Quite scary for me as I am quite new to songwriting!

“But the words are so beautiful, I am very excited about performing this combination of old and new.”

What drew you to the music of Carole King?

“I first got to know some of the best-known songs, such as You’ve Got A Friend and Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow, then decided to explore further. I love the messages behind her songs, the catchy and moving melodies, and how the songs mean so much to people. These songs were released over 50 years ago but the themes and messages are eternally relevant.”

How have you found the experience of writing songs? 

“It’s a whole new world for me. I really only started writing songs in 2020, and even then, that was only short rounds and partner songs to teach to my choirs. I’ve dabbled a little but not often had the confidence to share much of my own writing.

“My sister Andrea has always been the poet in our family. She’s written poems for events at work and home, and even wrote and recited beautiful poems for our parents’ funerals.

“I am used to improvising short melodies, and layering up harmonies, like I do in Two Bards, but this is a different ball game! I’m loving the process of putting these moving words to music and linking the themes of the Carole King classics to the themes of these beautiful poems.”

Jessa Liversidge, Two Bards And A Songbird, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, tomorrow (16/6/2024), 7.30pm, and Helmsley Arts Centre, June 22, 7.30pm. Box office: York,; Helmsley, 01439 771700 or

Jessa Liversidge, A Tapestry Of Life, Durham Fringe Festival, The Pemberton Rooms, Durham University, just off Palace Green, July 25 to 28, 4.30pm. Box office:

Preview show at Easingwold Library on July 17 at 7.30pm (doors 7pm). Suggested entry donation of £8; all profits in aid of community library funds. Bookings: email or ring 07526 107448 and leave a message with contact details.

Jessa Liversidge: the back story

SINGER and positive and encouraging singing leader, experienced in working with singers of all ages and abilities.

Runs several choirs, including HAC Singers, Easingwold Community Singers, Singing For All and York Military Wives Choir, as well as teaching singing privately and teaching music to young people, lifting the spirits of hundreds through song each week.

For more information, head to:

How far would we go for our principles, asks director Atri Banerjee in RSC’s Julius Caesar

William Robinson’s Marc Antony and Thalissa Teixeira’s Brutus in the RSC’s Julius Caesar. Picture: Marc Brenner

ATRI Banerjee directs Shakespeare’s fast-paced political thriller Julius Caesar on the Royal Shakespeare Company’s return to York Theatre Royal from tonight (13/6/2023) to Saturday.

Concerned that divisive leader Julius Caesar (Nigel Barrett) poses a threat to democracy, revolutionaries take the violent decision to murder him but without a plan for what happens next. As the world spins out of control, chaos, horror and superstition rush in to fill the void. Civil war erupts and a new leader must rise, but at what cost?

This production asks: how far would we go for our principles? “We know it’s a political play, a play that speaks to our politics, speaks to who gets to be a leader, and asks us to think about what you do when you don’t agree with the people in power,” says Atri, who is directing his first Shakespeare production for the RSC through the Open Hire scheme, set up Josh Roche and Derek Bond to encourage a more transparent application process within the theatre industry to stop it feeling like a closed shop.

Atri had first studied Julius Caesar at university. “I really felt, when coming to the play this time last year when I got this job, that this was a play that speaks about power, who holds it, who challenges it, and the gulf between politicians and the people they are meant to be leading.

“It speaks not only to the Ukraine situation but to the idea of governance in this age of Covid and Partygate. What I find interesting is that Shakespeare does not make either the leader or the conspirators the hero.”

Atri reflects on the prevailing political environment wherein Shakespeare penned Julius Caesar. “He was writing the play at a time when Elizabeth I was coming to the end of her reign. There had been plots against her, and there was a question of who would succeed her,” he says. “So even in Shakespeare’s day he was using this Roman story to talk about Elizabethan England and what happens when there is a possible power vacuum.”

Atri wanted to make a production that “felt like it could speak about today”. “I think we live in a world where a series of crises have happened, particularly over the last seven years, from Brexit, to Trump, the war in Ukraine, the pandemic, events that have revealed the massive rifts we have in our society between class, gender, race, disability, across every intersection of power,” he says.

“The questions I was asking myself were, ‘when you feel like the world is in a bad place, what steps do you actually take to make the world a better place? What are the limits of peaceful activism? How do we react, for example, to the likes of Extinction Rebellion, or the two young women who threw tomato soup at the Van Gogh painting?’.

“I’m also very aware that it’s easy to put Julius Caesar in a Donald Trump wig and cast him as the baddie in a way that’s quite black and white. But I’m more interested in creating a production that makes an audience feel the conspirators were both totally right to kill Julius Caesar, and totally wrong to kill Julius Caesar at the same time.

Nigel Barrett’s Julius Caesar in Atri Banerjee’s production. Picture: Marc Brenner

“I wanted to capture that ambivalence that’s central to what Shakespeare has written. Shakespeare isn’t offering any solutions. I don’t think he is saying one way is good and one way is wrong. Because the actions the conspirators take to assassinate Julius Caesar plunges Rome and the world into even more chaos.

“So, what appealed to me about directing Julius Caesar is that it felt like a play that could think about these huge moral grey areas that we exist in without trying to draw any easy conclusions.”

Consequently, we can always ask questions of our own society. “Cassius and Brutus were called liberators and saw themselves as trying to enact political change, seeing what might be possible through an act of radical violence,” says Atri.

“It’s about people just putting one foot in front of the other, rather than thinking about the devastating consequence for the nation, plunging people into a civil war, even though Brutus and Cassius came from a position of wanting to do the right thing, stopping autocracy by dramatic action.”

Atri continues: “I think theatre is the space for nuance; theatre can be a place for political change; not the play itself, so much as people in the audience contemplating the play afterwards, having conversations in the bar or on the way home.

“Whether it’s Novak Djokovic speaking about the Serbia-Kosovo conflict; Israel and Palestine; Stop The Boats, there is nuance in every case, and we should try to be alive to as many nuances as possible in any theatre production we do.

“The reason we keep coming back to these classics is we know Julius Caesar will be assassinated but Shakespeare’s play gives you a vessel within which you can think about things in a safe environment and look at them in a new way.”

Atri hopes audiences will come away from his production asking the questions, “What would I do? Would I go as far as to kill someone who is my best friend if I really thought that was going to make the world a better place?”

“The answer is probably no to murder(!), that’s the extremist version of it. But at what point do you glue yourself to Downing Street; at what point do you put yourself in front of a horse like the suffragettes did?” he ponders.

Jimena Larraguive’s Calpurnia. Picture: Marc Brenner

“We live through waves of political crisis, and activism tries to combat the crisis, but at what point do we resort to violence?”

As for the setting of his Julius Caesar, “it’s not in Westminster, but neither is it in ancient Rome,” Atri says. “It draws on elements of the modern and the ancient world to create our own world really.

“Taking influences from impressionist theatre, from choreographers like Pina Bausch, and from German theatre to make a world that feels quite stylised and heightened.

“I’m also very keen to convey a sense of the supernatural and time running out. The play has ghosts, omens and prophecies. The Soothsayer famously tells Caesar to beware the Ides of March. Characters are always worried about the time, and time running out.

“That relates to the climate crisis we face: if we don’t act now, we will reach the unmanageable temperature for living. It feels to me that Julius Caesar, like the world we live in today, is a play that’s set in a place of emergency. The threat of apocalypse feels very close.”

Atri’s fresh interpretation casts a female Brutus (Thalissa Teixeira) and non-binary Cassius (Annabel Baldwin). “Along with several other parts across the company, we’ve re-imagined the roles of Brutus and Cassius to tell a story about power today: who holds it, who wields it, and who gets to challenge it,” he says.

 “Julius Caesar is the perfect play for our age of emergency, asking uncomfortable questions about today. When asked to imagine a better future for us all, what resources do we have left? What are the limits of peaceful activism? How far would you, personally, go to make the world a better place?

“By thinking of the roles in this play across intersectional lines – gender, race, class, disability, among others – we’re inviting audience members to think of their own place within the status quo and what might be at stake for each of us within it.”

Atri adds: “With the way we have cast it, we’ve not pitched the struggle between Caesar and Brutus and Cassius entirely on gender, but it brings different associations to that dynamic and asks us to look at the changing dynamics of power now.

Stranglehold on power: Nigel Barrett’s Julius Caesar and Thalissa Teixeira’s Brutus. Picture: Marc Brenner

“Both Thalissa and Annabel are young actors, and that means that young audiences, though not only young audiences, can identify with these characters, whereas men in togas might have felt more foreign. If people see people that look like themselves on stage, which is a question of representation, then they can identify with their situation and the question of: ‘if you were in this situation, what would you do?’.

“We have undergone seismic changes, from the Brexit vote, the election of Trump as president, Covid, Black Lives Matter, the legacy of slavery and the British Empire, all sorts of historical pressures, and that means that within the space of the arts and culture, there is such an increased awareness of gender identity and the so-called culture wars that prevail now.

“I would encourage anyone who is making the judgement, ‘oh, they are casting Brutus as a black woman’, to slow down and reflect, and I speak as someone of South Asian origin taking on directing this play.”

History repeats itself down the years. “There will always be dictators, always be politicians, tyrants and non-tyrants,” says Atri. “The idea of democracy will rise and fall, rise and fall, with the passing of time, and Shakespeare was very aware of that. Shakespeare has that meta-reality that this play will resonate through time, through the ages, and will speak to different generations.”

Was working for the RSC always on Atri’s radar? “I come from Oxford, so the RSC was somewhere I used to visit as a teenager as it’s only an hour away [in Stratford-upon-Avon],” he says. “I saw productions like Rupert Goold’s The Merchant Of Venice and Maria Aberg’s As You Like It.

“I directed a community production for the RSC at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury in Autumn 2021 called Error, Error, Error. Over half the company was made up of people affiliated with Canterbury Umbrella; adults with mental health or learning disabilities and those who are isolated in the community.

“It was an extraordinary experience to work on a show that gave this group of people the opportunity to experience what theatre making is.”

Now he is directing his first professional Shakespeare production.“It feels like a homecoming,” he says.

“It’ll be my first show to play York too. The Theatre Royal is a very beautiful space.”

Royal Shakespeare Company in Julius Caesar, York Theatre Royal, June 13 to 17, 7.30pm plus 2pm Thursday and Saturday matinees. Box office: 01904 623568 or

Atri Banerjee: back story

Director Atri Banerjee in rehearsals for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s touring production of Julius Caesar. Picture: Marc Brenner

WON The Stage Debut Award for Best Director and a UK Theatre Award nomination for his production of Hobson’s Choice at Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester.

Other credits include: The Glass Menagerie (Royal Exchange, Manchester); Britannicus (Lyric Hammersmith); Kes (Octagon Theatre,Bolton/Theatre By The Lake, Keswick); Harm (Bush Theatre, London, also broadcast on BBC Four) and Utopia (Royal Exchange Theatre).

Named in The Stage 25 list of theatre-makers to look out for in 2022 and beyond.

In November 2022,  along with Rachel Bagshaw, he was awarded a Peter Hall bursary by the National Theatre to support him in developing work for the NT’s stages.

Recruited for role as director of Royal Shakespeare Company’s Julius Caesar through Open Hire, a new initiative to improve transparency and access to freelance creative jobs in theatre.

“I got into directing when I was still at school,” says Atri. “I wrote a version of Macbeth with two of my friends, set in 1950s’ Hollywood and called Big Mac. I didn’t really know I wanted to be a director as a teenager, but I saw lots of shows – at places like the Oxford Playhouse, where I grew up – so regional theatre and touring theatre are really important to me.

“I went to university to study English and then did a Masters in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, and throughout that time I did a lot of shows with my student drama society, including quite a bit of Shakespeare.

“When I left university, I still didn’t know if I wanted to be a director, partly because of the freelance struggle of it all, so I got a job as the press assistant at the National Theatre, where I met lots of amazing creatives and artists, and I decided that directing was the thing I wanted to do.

“I did a Masters in directing at Birkbeck [University of London], where the first year is training and the second year is a placement. I was at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, where I stayed for a couple more years.

“Some of my career highlights to date include Hobson’s Choice, my first big show at the Royal Exchange, which was a South Asian version of [Harold] Brighouse’s play; Harm at the Bush Theatre, and more recently, Kes at the Bolton Octagon; Britannicus at the Lyric Hammersmith; and The Glass Menagerie, again at the Royal Exchange. The Glass Menagerie had been cancelled by the pandemic, so it was amazing to finally bring it to the stage.”

I got into directing when I was still at school,” says Atri Banerjee. Picture: The Other Richard

York Shakespeare Project to open new chapter with Edward III rehearsed reading

Tony Froud: Directing York Shakespeare Project’s rehearsed reading of the rarely performed Edward III

PHASE Two of York Shakespeare Project begins with a staged rehearsed reading of Edward III upstairs at the Black Swan Inn, Peasholme Green, York, on February 7.

This rarely performed 1592 history play is now widely accepted as a collaboration between William Shakespeare and Thomas Kyd, replete with its celebration of Edward’s victories over the French, satirical digs at the Scots and depiction of the Black Prince.

Rehearsed February readings will be a regular part of YSP’s broadened remit to include work by the best of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, alongside a second staging of all his works, over the next 25 years.

Tony Froud’s cast will be led by Pick Me Up Theatre luminary Mark Hird in the title role. “At short notice, I’ve been able to bring together a strong cast that mixes YSP stalwarts, such as Liz Elsworth and Emma Scott, with new faces to us, such as Mark,” says Tony.

Hird’s King Edward will be joined by Elsworth’s Derby and Queen Philippa; Scott’s Gobin de Grey, Villiers, Frenchman 3 and Captain; Ben Thorburn’s Prince Edward; Nell Frampton’s Warwick and Salisbury; Bill Laverick’s Audley and Messenger and Stuart Lindsay’s Lodowick, Frenchman 4 and King David.

Mark Hird: Cast as King Edward in Edward II, his York Shakespeare Project debut

In the company too are: Sally Mitcham’s William Montague, Jon Copland, Herald 1, Frenchman 2 and Earl Douglas; Joy Warner’s Squire, Artois and Frenchman 1; Tom Jennings’s Herald 2 and Prince Charles; Jodie Fletcher’s Herald 3, Lorraine, Mariner and Messenger 2; Harry Summers’ King John and Lara Stafford’s Prince Philip and Countess Salisbury.

“It will be a one-night-only show, following the pattern of Ben Prusiner’s season of John Fletcher comedies and Jim Paterson’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which showed the impressive quality of performance that can be achieved in a short time by a good cast,” says Tony.

“The rehearsed reading puts a great emphasis on the language, so do come along to meet some colourful characters and hear some fabulous language in a plot that will take you from London to Calais via Northumberland and Crecy.”

Tickets for the 7.30pm performance cost £5 on the door or at 

Meanwhile, preparations are well under way for Dr Daniel Roy Connelly’s debut YSP production of Richard III at Friargate Theatre, Lower Friargate, York, from April 26 to 29. Auditions are in their “final phase”.

Yorkshireman Joe Layton heads home as trouble-making Iago in Frantic Assembly’s Othello on tour at York Theatre Royal

What’s he plotting next? Joe Layton’s Iago in Frantic Assembly’s Othello, on tour at York Theatre Royal. Picture: Tristram Kenton

JOE Layton returns to his native Yorkshire from tonight to play Iago in Frantic Assembly’s electrifying reimagining of Shakespeare’s Othello at York Theatre Royal.

Once more he will confirming his English teacher’s hunch at a parents’ evening that Ilkley lad Joe “had some talent for acting”.

“He said, ‘I don’t say this very often, but I would encourage Joe to apply for drama school’,” he recalls.

He duly did so, supported by teacher Tony Johnson, who provided not only encouragement but help in preparing audition speeches. “I owe him a huge amount,” says Joe. “He came to see the last show I did in Leicester and hope he’s in the audience for Othello.”

This is Frantic Assembly’s third staging of their award-winning account of Othello, Shakespeare’s tragedy of paranoia, sex and murder, set in a volatile 21st century wherein Othello’s passionate affair with Desdemona becomes the catalyst for jealousy, betrayal, revenge and the darkest intents.

Shakespeare’s muscular yet beautiful text combines with the touring company’s own bruising physicality in a world of broken glass and broken promises, malicious manipulation and explosive violence, previously staged in 2008 and 2014 and now updated for 2022.

On the wind-up: Joe Layton’s Iago has a word with Michael Akinsulire’s Othello. Picture: Tristram Kenton

Frantic Assembly have had a marked effect on his career and aspirations already, as he was part of their Ignition programme – a free nationwide talent development programme for young people aged 16 to 24 – in 2009 and later appeared in Frantic’s The Unreturning.

“It’s for all genders now but Ignition started out as an all-male programme and was a space where sensitivity and masculinity were explored in a non-toxic way, which I hadn’t experienced before,” says Joe, one of no fewer than five Ignition graduates involved in Othello this season.

He saw Frantic Assembly’s original production in 2008 but it was another of the company’s shows that was particularly influential: Bryony Lavery’s two-hander Stockholm. “I must have been 15 years old,” says Joe. “It was one of those mind-blowing moments that gave you goosebumps. That was the moment I said to myself, ‘I want to work with Frantic one day’.”

His professional debut came two years later in Nikolai Foster’s production of George Orwell’s Animal Farm at West Yorkshire Playhouse. As a 17-year-old schoolboy, he was given special dispensation to leave early several days a week to do the Leeds show.

Looking back at his first encounter with Frantic Assembly’s Othello, Joe recalls how “it really leapt off the page for me and made it accessible, especially for teenagers. It was real, visceral and immediate”.

Honest, Iago? Joe Layton keeps at arm’s length from the truth in Othello. Picture: Tristram Kenton

Now he is playing Iago, the poison-dripping baddie of the piece, or is he possibly misjudged? Psychopath or “a bit of a villain”, Joe must ask himself. “As an actor, you have to get inside them, understand them, what makes them tick, and do the things they do which, in Iago’s case, is hideous, unforgivable things,” he says.

Movement becomes as important as words in Frantic Assembly’s style book. “The way Frantic work, you are creating a physical sequence, finding a physical connection between characters. Then story and characters are layered in on top of that. You throw yourself in and trust the director [Scott Graham]. You have to give yourself and trust the process,” he says.

“We begin rehearsals with a one-hour workout and high intensity training. The rest of the morning is given over to movement sequences. Everything is really highly choreographed. There’s nothing that happens on stage that’s not choreographed.”

Joe grew up in Ilkley, moved to London for drama school, met his wife in New York and now lives in the United States, while working on both sides of the Atlantic.

He headed to America after being scouted by a top actors’ agency. “I don’t regret moving to Los Angeles because it was a really interesting period of my life, although challenging in a lot of ways. I moved away from family and friends and all that sort of stuff.

Turning the tables: Joe Layton’s Iago plays his mind games on Michael Akinsulire’s Othello as Chanel Waddock’s Desdemona looks on. Picture: Tristram Kenton

“I couldn’t work for six months because I was waiting for my work visa to come through. I was a 21-year-old with not much money just sitting around.”

One role to emerge from his USA move was Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD. He was not picked for the role for which he auditioned but was offered a different one. He took part in the series for only a few weeks but found working in the Marvel superhero world to be “a whole different ballgame”.

“I have an agent in the US and the UK,” he says. “One of the things that really changed through the pandemic is that everything, including casting, went online, which means there’s even less need to be in London. It seems the industry is getting less London-centric. You can audition on film anywhere, read a scene and be cast off the tape. That’s been great for me in terms of quality of life and being able to live in America.”

During lockdown, Joe spent an enforced period back in Leeds while visiting family for Christmas celebrations. Unable to go home, he spent six months living in his grandmother’s cottage near Pateley Bridge.

He will return to the USA during a break in the Othello tour. “My wife is at home in America. She’s a writer and working on a new book, so she’s pleased to have me out of the house and have time for herself and her writing.”

Frantic Assembly’s Othello runs at York Theatre Royal from tonight until Saturday, 7.30pm plus 2pm, Thursday; 2.30pm, Saturday. Box office: 01904 623568 or

Did you know?

Joe Layton (Iago), associate director David Gilbert, co-choreographer Perry Johnson, Oliver Baines (Montano) and Felipe Pacheco (Roderigo) have all taken part in Frantic Assembly’s Ignition programme.

Diane Page directs Julius Caesar for divisive age of Putin and Johnson as Shakespeare’s Globe heads indoors at York Theatre Royal

Diane Page directing a rehearsal for Shakespeare’s Globe’s touring production of Julius Caesar. Picture: Helen Murray

IN her school days, Diane Page decided Shakespeare was not for her.

And yet, look who is directing the Shakespeare’s Globe touring production of Julius Caesar as it plays York Theatre Royal from tomorrow (10/6/2022).

“Maybe because of the environment I was in – I was at quite an academic school, a comprehensive in New Cross – and I just thought, ‘Shakespeare isn’t for me’,” recalls the Londoner, who studied Shakespeare for her English Literature GCSE. “Being dyslexic made it even more difficult.

“But after I left school, one of the plays I read in my breaks when I worked as an usher in the West End was Julius Caesar and I really loved it. Then I read it again in lockdown and thought, ‘Gosh, this is a really amazing play that I want to direct’, seeing it through a contemporary lens, with some interventions to reflect now, but without changing the text.”

A year’s planning has gone into the production since Diane first took the idea to Shakespeare’s Globe artistic director Michelle Terry.

As attributed to Prime Minister Harold Wilson in a lobby briefing to journalists in 1964, “a week is a long time in politics”, and so the machinations of Shakespeare’s epic tragedy are being played out against a backdrop of the paranoid Vladimir Putin’s Russian invasion of neighbouring Ukraine and the populist but increasingly unpopular Boris Johnson’s night of the half-drawn knives with his splintering Conservative MPs on Monday.

“The links with today resonate through the play, but what really stands out is how characters are constantly reacting out of fear, which feels really interesting when related to our times, when you look at how power works and reflect on contemporary politics,” says Diane, who notes how “the play has these amazing speeches but they haven’t been thought of in that way”.

Page confronts today’s rising tide of regime change through the prism of Shakespeare’s brutal tale of ambition, incursion and revolution in Ancient Rome, where the conspiracy to kill, the public broadcast of cunning rhetoric and a divisive fight for greatness echo down today’s corridors of power.

Cassius and Brutus’s belief that Rome’s leader, Julius Caesar, poses a political threat to their beloved country could be matched by the rhetoric of Tory rebel MPs seeking to justify their motion of No Confidence in leader Boris Johnson (although more likely it is rooted in fearing the loss of their seats and a General Election defeat when seeking an unprecedented fifth successive term in power for the Conservatives).

“That’s something I’ve drawn on, both historically and from now: how society responds to a leader and what people want in a leader,” says Diane. “Particularly what we’ve drawn on is the contrast between the public persona of Julius Caesar and this frightened, paranoid leader in private.

“Tragically, throughout history, we’ve seen this idea of populism [in political leaders] and how long it lasts, and it’s fascinating that it happens again and again and again.

“One of the things we’re asking people as they watch the play now is, ‘what is it that we need to do differently when we’re voting for our leaders. We’re not drawing on any particular era or political figure in regard to Caesar, but when Trump was first happening, you think, ‘this will never happen’, then you think, ‘this might happen’, and then, ‘oh, it’s happened’. For me, part of Brutus’s flaw is to think that everyone will think the same, but history tells you a different story.”

Charlotte Bate as Cassius in a Shakespeare’s Globe performance of Julius Caesar at Morden Hall Park in April. “As I read Julius Caesar in the first lockdown, I thought, ‘I think Cassius and Brutus are women’,” says director Diane Page

Does Diane see parallels between Caesar and Putin? “It’s important to say that though it’s not explicitly written in the play, we do feel that Caesar does rule by imposing fear on others, but at the same time he’s fearful,” she says. “There’s also the paranoia that’s transmitted into the community around him.

“So it did feel like we had an extra responsibility to handle these subjects with sensitivity once Russia invaded Ukraine.”

Diane has cast two women, Charlotte Bate and Anna Crichlow, as Cassius and Brutus respectively. “As I read Julius Caesar in the first lockdown, I thought, ‘I think they’re women’. It was instinctual, in my exploration of power and women in power, so it was a very conscious choice, and casting Brutus as a black woman adds another dimension,” she says.

“In thinking about the theme of power, we’re asking what it means now, how it has transcended through the years, and what it means for women to be in power. If we’re still shocked by that, then we think, ‘well, just how many women are in power?’.”

“We know the play is based on historical events, but it’s been fictionalised by Shakespeare, so I felt we had artistic licence to look at what power means now, and those speeches transfer well to women speaking them.

“Looking at friendship between women brings another dynamic to it, and because Julius Caesar is such a masculine play, it’s interesting to flip it or re-angle it.”

Diane is asking questions, rather than providing answers, in her interpretation of Julius Caesar.  “That’s how I feel about Shakespeare: his plays are so universal, whatever challenges someone may face, but for me, the production has to be about what the play means now, though the words remain exactly the same,” she says.

“It did feel important, with such a masculine play and with what’s happening now, to ask questions about women in power. If a play is about us, then it is for us to think about these questions and to discuss them.”

Roll on tomorrow and Saturday’s performances at York Theatre Royal as Diane’s production moves indoors for the first time after open-air shows at the Globe and on tour. “I’ve written a comprehensive plan for my assistant because I’m now working on another show,” she says.

“It’s going to take some adapting because outdoors we use the yard or where the audience are seated, and indoors there’ll be different logistical needs, but not so many that it’ll become distinct from the outdoor performances.”

Shakespeare’s Globe On Tour presents Julius Caesar, York Theatre Royal, tomorrow, 7.30pm; Saturday, 2.30pm, 7.30pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or

Copyright of The Press, York

Diane Page: Director of Julius Caesar

Who is Diane Page, award-winning theatre director?

Training: MFA in theatre directing, Birkbeck, University of London; BA in theatre and drama studies, first class honours, Birkbeck, University of London.

Award winner: 2021 JMK Award for her production of Statements After An Arrest Under The Immorality Act.

Shakespeare’s Globe work: Assistant director for Bartholomew Fair, 2019; director for Julius Caesar, Globe On Tour, from April 2022.

Theatre as director: Lost And Found, Royal Opera House, London; Statements After An Arrest Under The Immorality Act, Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond; Out West, co-director, Lyric Hammersmith Theatre, London; In Love And Loyalty, also writer, Lyric Hammersmith Theatre.

Theatre as associate director: Ghost Stories, West End and UK tour, playing Grand Opera House, York, in March 2020.

Ghost Stories, on tour at the Grand Opera House, York, in March 2020

Something wicked this way comes…at last as York Shakespeare Project’s delayed Macbeth takes a bewitched cyberpunk turn

Vaulting ambition: Emma Scott in rehearsal for her lead role as Macbeth in York Shakespeare Project’s Macbeth. Picture: John Saunders

THE curse of Macbeth combined with Lockdown 1’s imposition to put a stop to York Shakespeare Project’s Scottish Play just one week before its March 2020 opening.

Rising like the ghost of Banquo, but sure to be better received, Leo Doulton’s resurrected production will run at Theatre@41, Monkgate, from October 26 to 30 as the 37th play in the York charity’s mission to perform all Shakespeare’s known plays in a 20-year span.

Doulton is casting Macbeth into a dystopian cyberpunk future, using a dramatic new staging to bring to life this dark tale of ambition, murder and supernatural forces.

“This production has had an unusually long journey, and I’m grateful to everyone involved for their wonderful creativity and resilience over the years, whether they’re a veteran of the original production or a newcomer,” he says.

Nell Frampton as The Lady in the York Shakespeare Project rehearsal room. Picture: John Saunders

“It would be impossible to present Macbeth in the same way as when we started work on it before the pandemic. We’ve moved from a world where we fear quite specific things to one where we fear more pervasive, invisible ones, such as the pandemic and the climate crisis. 

“Cyberpunk is an exciting genre for Macbeth, allowing us to explore Shakespeare’s ideas of lurking corruption, a disintegrating reality, and the search for some moral certainty. It is a magnificent play, and I look forward to sharing this production at long last.”

YSP secretary Tony Froud says: “We were all disappointed not to see Macbeth take place last year, when we were so close to the finish line, especially after the hard work of Leo and the cast and crew.

“During lockdowns and restrictions on performance, we’ve done our best to stay engaged with our community with online play readings and two successful outdoor productions of Sit Down Sonnets, but we’ve always been planning to return to this play and the resumption of our 20-year mission.

Tony Froud’s Ross, with Emma Scott’s Macbeth, left, and Elizabeth Elsworth’s Duncan, rehearsing a scene for Leo Doulton’s Macbeth production. Picture: John Saunders

“We’re really pleased that Leo and so many of the cast have been able to return, and we can’t wait to share this production with a wider audience.” 

York Shakespeare Project in Macbeth, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, October 26 to 30, 7.30pm and 2.30pm Saturday matinee. Box office:

Tickets cost £15; £5 for students, means-tested benefit recipients and under-18s. The October 26 performance is an open dress rehearsal with tickets at £5.

YSP’s plot summary

MACBETH receives a prophecy from a trio of witches that one day he will become king. Torn between duty and the chance of greatness, Macbeth and his devoted wife murder King Duncan and take the throne for themselves. Macbeth slowly turns into a tyrant, as corrupt as the strange witches. Meanwhile, the forces of virtue realise what Macbeth has become and a civil war begins.

Clive Lyons as Banquo in York Shakespeare Project’s Macbeth. Picture: John Saunders


Macbeth: Emma Scott

The Lady: Nell Frampton

Banquo, Siward: Clive Lyons

Fleance, Donalbain, Son, Young Siward: Meredith Stewart

Macduff: Frank Brogan

Duncan, Lady Macduff, Menteith: Elizabeth Elsworth

Malcolm: Rhiannon Griffiths

Lennox: Andrea Mitchell

Ross: Tony Froud

Angus: Sarah-Jane Strong

First Witch, First Murderer, Doctor: Joy Warner

Second Witch, Second Murderer, Gentlewoman: Diana Wyatt

Third Witch, Third Murderer, Caithness, Seyton: Xandra Logan

That clinches it: Emma Scott’s Macbeth and Nell Frampton’s The Lady embrace. Picture: John Saunders

Creative crew

Director: Leo Doulton

Set and costume designer: Charley Ipsen

Lighting designer: Neil Wood

Sound designer: Jim Paterson

Poster design: Charles Keusters

Company back story

YORK Shakespeare Project (YSP) was established in 2001 with a commitment to perform all of Shakespeare’s known plays in York over 20 years.

Debut production Richard III took place in 2002, since when YSP has staged 35 productions, covering 36 of Shakespeare’s plays. Despite the pandemic-enforced delays, YSP still plans to complete the project in 2022.

For more information, go to:

Macbeth director Leo Doulton

Coming up at CharlesHutchPress: Director Leo Doulton discusses his dystopian, cyberpunk Macbeth.

REVIEW: The HandleBards in Romeo & Juliet, The Love Season, York Theatre Royal, May 25 and 26 ****

Paul Moss: Bringing out the Johnny Vegas in Romeo in The HandleBards’ Romeo & Juliet. All pictures: Rah Petherbridge

NORMALLY the perma-cycling HandleBards would ride into York as part of a tour de Britain devoted to shaking up Shakespeare.

No sign of an eco-friendly cast pedalling away furiously on the Theatre Royal stage this spring; instead, company founders Paul Moss and Tom Dixon and partner in chaotic irreverence Lucy Green had headed north by train for this one-stop trip into Step 3 Blighty with their “bonkers and unhinged” Romeo & Juliet after 50 dates last year betwixt lockdowns.

They travelled lightly, judging by a set design confined to a clothes rail with rainbow-striped curtaining and bunting to either side. As for props, cycling paraphernalia was to the fore: bells to signify Usain Bolt-fast scene and costume changes; bicycle pumps for killing weaponry and a bike back light for, well, a light, of course.

Pulling faces: Lucy Green as Juliet, teenage tantrums and all, in The HandleBards’ Romeo & Juliet

If you are thinking by now that The HandleBards must be biting their thumb at the teenage rampage of a Shakespeare tragedy, rather than taking it seriously, you would be right. Moss and Dixon were dressed for a Boy’s Own adventure in shorts and long socks, as if awaiting instruction from Baden-Powell; Green was the one who wore the trousers.

Directed by Nel Crouch, they neither kissed by the book, nor did anything by the book, brazenly removing theatre’s fourth wall in the cause of comedy as Moss announced he would be playing Romeo, a perma-drink-in-the-hand Lady Capulet and a little part of Friar John; Green, Juliet obvs, fiery Tybalt, Lord Montague and the other part of Friar John.

And Dixon? Everyone else, from a bewigged, woefully weak-as-his-letter ‘R’ Duke to a Scouse Mercutio; a Rowlandson round-bottomed Nurse to a perpetually on-the-hoof Friar Lawrence.

Mercutio is usually the witty-tongued loose cannon in R&J; so much so, the story goes, that Shakespeare served him his early P45 for scene-stealing. Here, however, we had the Queen Mab speech and “A plague on both your houses” and otherwise a back seat for Mercutio as the humour was spread all around him.

Romeo (Paul Moss), Juliet (Lucy Green) and pretty much everyone else (Tom Dixon)

Moss’s Romeo, in his back-to-front baseball cap, had the hang-dog air of young Johnny Vegas; Green’s Juliet stamped her foot like the teenager she was supposed to be, yet could suddenly find the beauty of her soliloquies before more giggles and teen awkwardness in her first encounters with Romeo on dancefloor and balcony alike.

Props were characters in their own right, whether the balcony worn by Juliet or the explosions of red ribbons to signify each death. Even Juliet’s sleeping potion tasted “like strawberry” and Romeo’s bottle of poison, “not bad actually”.

Socially distanced audience involvement came in the form of direct address to Chris in the front row, a good sport throughout amid such mischief and merry music-making. For never was a story of less woe than this particular Juliet and her Romeo. It would have been a tragedy to have missed out.

York International Shakespeare Festival is ON and you can play your part, but make it snappy! Here’s how…

Masked ball, pandemic style, in Romeo & Juliet: Not exactly kissing by the book in The HandleBards’ irreverent production at York Theatre Royal

TODAY is William Shakespeare’s 457th birthday: the perfect time to reveal what will be happening with this year’s York International Shakespeare Festival in May and how you can play your part.

“Covid, Brexit and all the issues around travel and funding mean that this won’t be the usual ‘YorkShakes’ experience,” says festival organiser Philip Parr, artistic director of Parrabbola.

“Festivals and theatre are facing tricky times, but all is not lost. Undaunted, we’re going ahead and have an exciting programme for you. Our festival may be little, but from May 25 to June 6, we’re fiercely determined to bring some international Shakespeare to York and to share work being made in the city.” 

The festival promises films of exciting international productions; the announcement of a new ongoing collaboration programme with colleagues in Taiwan, and “even some live Shakespeare”, courtesy of cycle-everywhere company The HandleBards’ irreverent Romeo & Juliet at a socially distanced York Theatre Royal on May 25 and 26.

Created by three actors cooped up together during lockdown, fuelled by cabin fever and a determination to forget the tears and the tragedy, the result is “an unhinged and bonkers, laugh-out-loud version of Shakespeare’s story of star-crossed lovers” that also will form part of the Theatre Royal’s Love Season.

“The festival climax will be a new, online filmed production of a fast-paced, pared-back Pericles by York company Riding Lights, and we’re also going to launch the world’s first ever – we think! – collection of all of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets, each recorded in a different language or dialect,” says Philip.

“And we want you to be part of the festival too in the form of York Loves Shakespeare, a photographic project for people who live, work or play in York, and who love Shakespeare.”  

Here’s how to be involved: “We want you to propose your favourite line from a Shakespeare play and then we’re going to choose one line from every play (so either 37, 38 or a few more plays),” says Philip.

“If you and your line are selected, we’ll photograph you with that line at a location in York that is relevant, iconic and perhaps personally specific. The results will be presented on Instagram and other social media during the festival and then collected on a webpage – and might perhaps go further!

“It’s a simple commitment and can be done legally and safely under current pandemic rules. You’ll need to go to your venue, but it will be only you and the photographer working together. John Saunders, who is well-known around York, has agreed to take our photographs and we’re grateful to him for being a vital part of the team.”

To take part in this celebration of Shakespeare and York, just email Philip Parr at and propose your play and your line. “The deadline is May 1, so not much thinking time – t’were well it were done quickly!” both he and Shakespeare advise.

“Once we’ve made our choices, we’ll be back in touch to discuss the how and where and when. We need you! Come and join in,” adds Philip.