York Shakespeare Project to kick up storm on debut Yorkshire tour in The Tempest in magical finale to ambitious 20-year journey

Storm brewing: York Shakespeare Project cast members in rehearsal for Philip Parr’s production of The Tempest. Picture: John Saunders

YORK Shakespeare Project completes its mission to perform all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays inside 20 years with its first tour, staging The Tempest across North and East Yorkshire from tomorrow (Friday).

Once described by Professor Michael Dobson, Shakespeare Institute director at the University of Birmingham, as “the most ambitious amateur Shakespearean venture in the country”, the project has drawn 350 actors and 300 backstage crew since its debut with Richard III in 2002.

Parrabbola director Philip Parr, founding council member and chair of the European Shakespeare Festivals network and director of York International Shakespeare Festival, has the honour of overseeing YSP reaching its target with a company led by Paul French as Prospero, Effie Warboys as Miranda and Jacob Ward as Ferdinand.

“It’s the final fling, putting pressure on Philip and Paul,” says YSP chair Councillor Janet Looker, former Lord Mayor of York and a stalwart of the project since its inception in 2001.

“Certainly, it comes with issues of responsibility, not just for the production, but for the whole project,” says Philip. “I don’t think you can divorce the play from the event, or the nature of that event, the final production, so there’s a responsibility to those who first thought of doing it 20 years to bring it to a conclusion that feels right.

Lara Stafford’s Gonzala in rehearsal. Remember her Rosalind in As You Like It in the Residence Garden, York Minster, in July 2008 when she was Lara Pattison?

“It’s been impossible not to plan this production without thinking about the context of it being the end of this remarkable mission. We’ve been able to recruit a cast full of people who have performed in different YSP productions across the years, along with some who are performing with YSP for the first time.”

Fiona Mozley, 2017 Man Booker Prize-nominated author of Elmet, Hot Stew and Soho (AdN) had hoped to re-join the YSP ranks for The Tempest but is no longer able to add to her teenage performances in The Taming Of The Shrew and Love’s Labours Lost.

Bringing the stormy play’s island setting and disrupted world to life through communal storytelling in a new interpretation that highlights colonisation, reconciliation and change, The Tempest is an ideal grand finale, argues Philip.

“Shakespeare’s last play deals with many themes that are relevant both to this moment for YSP, but also ones that our society continues to grapple with today:  disconnection, corruption, reconciliation and the difficulty of generational change,” he says.

“I’m excited about the way we’re approaching telling this story, using the performing collective to create the island and the ‘magic’ that permeates it, and using the musical skills of many of the performers to ensure the ‘isle is full of noises’.

““Creating a sense of place in the audience’s mind is even more important in this play, because so much of it is storytelling, narration. There’s very little theatre in terms of dramatic events. People just talk a lot and you have to frame that up.”

Effie Warboys’ Miranda makes her point to Paul French’s Prospero in rehearsals for The Tempest. Picture: John Saunders

The YSP committee had taken the decision to undertake a tour as the finale long before Philip was involved. “Originally, we’d always intended to do the last week at York Theatre Royal but the finances got too complex, so it was suggested, ‘well, let’s do something completely different’: a tour. Being at the Theatre Royal on the last night will be the icing on the cake,” says Janet.

“Doing this tour is an example of how YSP has never sat still but has always looked at new ways of doing  things, taking on new challenges dynamically.”

Philip adds: “It has a sense of reward for the project to finish at York Theatre Royal and to end with these eight performances, seven on the road, at six venues, concluding back in York. That’s more performances than many productions get; a two-week run with a big cast to present it.

“It’s a big commitment to make and it’s a tour that comes with different demands: some venues have stage exits, some don’t; some have lighting, some don’t, so we’ll be taking a small lighting rig to illuminate the stage.

“I haven’t been to all the venues. I’ve been to some, had video tours of some, but that’s not unusual for a tour. We’ve created a set that’s not difficult to grapple with too, fitting easily into each venue.”

York Shakespeare Project’s banner image for The Tempest

The cast will feature no fewer than 17 Ariel spirits, “The Ariel Collective” as they will be known. “You want to do a celebratory production, so I had a rule that said, ‘if you have been in a YSP production, you have the right to be Ariel’, and it’s been nice that so many people have come out of the woods!” says Philip.

Twenty years of YSP leads to this finale, a play that reflects on ageing, politics and leadership, acquiring knowledge, and the power of magic to transform. “The more experiences you bring into it, the more you see in the conversations about human nature and the chance the play gives to all the characters to go back to where they were but with new knowledge, just as we’d like to be able to go back 20 years but with the knowledge acquired in those years.

“The Tempest might have been Shakespeare wishing that too, and now it’s a treat to find that across all the characters. Because Shakespeare has learnt it all, he can do it all in this play at a time when everyone believed in magic.

“Part of what I was looking at was, if you don’t believe in magic, who is Ariel? By having so many Ariels, Ariel can be in anything that is there. They can make things happen, but in a natural way.”

Janet adds: “Having so many Ariels means they can project from all around the stage because is Ariel is never in only one place.”

Jacob Ward’s Ferdinand and Effie Warboys’ Miranda in a scene from York Shakespeare Project’s The Tempest. Dress rehearsal picture: John Saunders

Philip rejoins: “With so many voices, you have a spectrum from high soprano to low bass, and how Ariel speaks depends on Prospero’s tone. Then, if they want to tell him off, a lower voice will be used. Prospero has to learn that ruling is about husbanding your resources.”

Philip could not have been more thorough in his preparations for staging The Tempest. “I’ve seen 15 productions this year,” he says. “Three in Poland at the last Shakespeare festival there, which was all about The Tempest. Two in Rumania, one in Italy. A couple here, and more! I had to stop in the end, but every one of them has been an influence.

“You take ideas from past productions, then come up with a thousand ideas and throw 999 of them away.”

Janet says: “The actors then have to take it over and you can’t stop them at that point.” Philip agrees: “That ownership is important because you have to make a choice and then everyone needs to go with that decision. At each performance, that decision is inspired by all sorts of things: the audience, the space, the mood of the night, the actors.”

Twenty years, 37 plays in 35 productions, the mission is complete. Appropriately, the last word goes to Janet, the chair: “It’s difficult to believe that it’s been 20 years since our very first production. We thought we were being rather ambitious when we started – would we really be able to keep this going for 20 years? And we weren’t always sure we’d get there, especially with the events of the past two years.

The Ariel Collective confronting Stuart Lindsay’s Sebastian in the dress rehearsal at Thorganby Village Hall. Picture: John Saunders

“But the commitment of the many supporters who have participated in our productions over the years has seen us reach this last play. We always knew we wanted to finish with something special, and this tour and a finale at York Theatre Royal will be an exciting and unique experience for all the actors and crew, and will give us a chance to share not just the story of The Tempest, but the community ethos of York Shakespeare Project, with a much wider audience. It is a very fitting way to mark the end of this journey.”

The celebratory party the next day (October 2) will be well deserved.

York Shakespeare Project presents The Tempest on tour at Thorganby Village Hall tomorrow (23/9/2022), 7.30pm; Strensall and Towthorpe Village Hall, Saturday, 2.30, 7.30pm; Helmsley Arts Centre, September 27, 7.30pm; Selby Town Hall, September 28, 7.30pm; The Junction, Goole, September 29; Acomb Parish Church Hall, September 30, 7.30pm and  York Theatre Royal, October 1, 7.30pm. Box office: yorkshakespeareproject.org and venue box offices; York, 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

York Shakespeare Project’s plot summary for The Tempest:

PROSPERO uses magic to conjure a storm and torment the survivors of a shipwreck, including the King of Naples and Prospero’s treacherous sister, Antonia. The embittered Caliban plots to rid himself of Prospero but is thwarted by the spirit Ariel.

The King’s young son Ferdinand, thought to be dead, falls in love with Prospero’s daughter Miranda. Their celebrations are cut short when Prospero confronts his sister and reveals his identity as the usurped Duke of Milan.

The cast comprises:

David Denbigh; Sonia Di Lorenzo; Jodie Fletcher; Nell Frampton; Paul French; Tony Froud; Emily Hansen; David Harrison; Bronte Hobson; Judith Ireland; Andrew Isherwood; Tom Jennings; Nick Jones; Stuart Lindsay; Michael Maybridge; Sally Maybridge; Sally Mitcham; Andrea Mitchell; Tim Olive-Besley; Megan Ollerhead; Tracy Rea; Eleanor Royse; Emma Scott; Julie Speedie; Lara Stafford; Harry Summers, Effie Warboys and Jacob Ward.

Production team:

Director, Philip Parr; assistant director, Terry Ram; stage managers, Janice Newton and David Harrison; musical director, Nick Jones.

History in the making as York Shakespeare Project completes mission to perform all 37 plays with plans to start all over again!

How it all began: John White’s production of Richard III at Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, in 2002. Picture: Jeremy Muldowney

YORK Shakespeare Project’s tour of The Tempest will complete “the most ambitious amateur Shakespearean venture in the country”.

Such is the judgement of Professor Michael Dobson, Shakespeare Institute director at the University of Birmingham, describing the mission to perform all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays inside 20 years.

York Shakespeare Project (YSP) was formed in 2002 by a group of actors seeking to replace the challenge and excitement of taking part in the York Minster Millennium Mystery Plays in 2000.

Alan Lyons, an early chair of the project, described its origins in the programme for YSP’s first play, Richard III, staged at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre from October 30 to November 2 2002. “There I was, sitting with Frank Brogan as he dreamt up the idea of the York Shakespeare Project. ‘It won’t work,’ I said. An hour later I changed my mind.

“Maybe I was captivated by the idea. Maybe it was Frank’s persuasive tongue. I am still not sure why. This show [Richard III] is the result of hard work and effort put in by a great number of people since Frank had his original idea.”

After a few years away, Frank Brogan is once more a member of the YSP committee that oversees the project. “In the early days, it was said that the actor who would play Miranda in our concluding production of The Tempest had yet to be born”, Frank recalls.

It almost worked out that way. University student Effie Warboys was not even three months old at the time of Richard III’s opening night in 2002. Now she has been cast by director Philip Parr as Miranda in a tour that adds up to eight performances, seven on the road, at six venues, climaxing at York Theatre Royal on October 1.

Janet Looker, YSP chair and former Lord Mayor of York, has seen every YSP play. “There have been so many memorable productions”, she says. “For 20 years, York Shakespeare Project has frequently surprised and delighted me with the wide variety of performances put on under its banner.

York Shakespeare Project’s 2019 production of Cymbeline. Picture: John Saunders

“So many highlights! A memorable Romeo And Juliet, set in the Fifties’ street gang culture with an amazing female Mercutio [Cecily Boys]: a bravura performance!

“As You Like It in the shade of York Minster, an outdoor production that used the trees and landscaping of the Minster garden to brilliant effect in creating the Forest of Arden – and a Rosalind [Lara Pattison] and Orlando [Toby Gordon] who were probably genuinely as young as the original concept.

“A funny, but moving outdoor production of Much Ado about Nothing, set in the immediate post-war era of the 1940s with Land Girls and ARP wardens and brilliantly evocative use of contemporary music.”

More highlights, Janet? “Hamlet in an old church with ghost and eavesdroppers appearing from behind gloomy pillars, and the background of a dim church around us.

“Henry VI – in two parts – in York’s Guildhall, a building older than the play, but less than a mile from the very gate where the Duke of York’s head was placed: “that York may overlook the stones of York”.

“A stunning all-women cast for Henry V, which was set during the First World War and movingly married the France through which Henry marched, with the trenches in Flanders Field. As an added bonus, one night it was acted on St Crispin’s Day, giving an added shiver to the famous speech.

“Henry VIII, set in King’s Manor, the house where Henry himself stayed when he visited the city, again adding an extra frisson.

“So many memories, and I look forward to adding The Tempest, our last production, to that list. Thank you a hundred times to YSP for giving one Shakespeare fan so much pleasure over the project.”

Toby Gordon: Progressed from York Shakespeare Project minor roles to playing the Devil in the 2016 York Mystery Plays at York Minster. Picture: T Figgins

Since 2002, more than 350 performers have taken part in the plays, aided by 300 backstage crew. Some have appeared only once, but one, retired lecturer Nick Jones, has made as many as 12 appearances. “The project was always a crazy but wonderful idea,” he says. “When I returned to York in 2010, it was already 15 plays in, so of course I couldn’t resist getting involved.

“It was never obvious that we would survive but here we are, approaching our last play, in which I’ve got a small part and am arranging the music. It’s been a unique experience.”

In the desire to avoid a clique, no company of regulars was ever established. Every play has started with genuinely open auditions, with each of the 24 directors being granted total discretion over casting.

YSP has been the stepping stone for many a York actor to move onto greater things. Toby Gordon progressed from minor parts in the 2007 production of Henry VI and a volatile Hotspur in the 2010 Henry IV to star as the Devil in the 2016 York Mystery Plays at York Minster.

He will be playing Joey in the final London run of The Guild of Misrule’s immersive staging of The Great Gatsby, produced by Immersive Everywhere at Gatsby’s Mansion within Immersive/LDN, in Mayfair, until January 7 2023.

Charlotte Wood, who played Cordelia in King Lear in 2016, will take the title role in Cinderella, this winter’s pantomime at the Lighthouse Theatre in Poole.

After appearing for YSP in Maggie Smales’s Henry V in 2015 and Madeleine O’Reilly’s Coriolanus in 2018, Claire Morley is completing her hattrick of all-female Shakespeare productions in Chris Connaughton’s three-hander version of Macbeth for Northumberland Theatre Company, whose tour visits Pocklington Arts Centre on September 29.

Mediaevalist and 2017 Man Booker Prize-nominated author Fiona Mozley cites her appearances in YSP productions not only as an essential formative influence on her writing but as fun: “Aged 15, I was cast as Biondello in YSP’s second production, The Taming Of The Shrew. I had a great time and have fond memories of the rehearsals and performances,” says the writer of Elmet, Hot Stew and Soho (AdN) .

Claire Morley, centre, as Henry V in Maggie Smales’s all-female Henry V. Picture: Michael Oakes

“Early exposure to the arts is gold. We all know that the books we read as teenagers stay with us for life, and this is doubly true of acting in plays. I can vividly remember whole passages of the text and regularly think about the complex ideas Shakespeare was teasing out. I learnt a huge amount from my participation in YSP, not only The Taming Of The Shrew but also Love’s Labours Lost, and carry it with me in my own writing.”

Fiona had hoped to re-join the YSP ranks as part of the Collective Ariel (18 actors in total),  returning to the boards alongside her father Harold Mozley, who has been an active member of YSP for the past 20 years, but now neither Fiona, nor Harold, is able to do so.

Janet Looker looks back with pride and forward with optimism. “I’ll be passing on the baton to a new chair and a revitalised committee, which will take the project forward. Plans are in place. It’s not in our nature to sit on our laurels.

“The project will continue and intends to perform all of Shakespeare’s plays all over again, this time alongside the best of his contemporaries, and maybe some of the modern takes on the plays too. That might take a little longer. Maybe a 25- year project this time.

“This is the end of York Shakespeare Project One, completed with the odd slippage, given the impact of Covid, but there’s a very strong desire to take the project onwards with YSP Two. We have a very committed committee wanting to take on the next step.

“Some of us will bow out, but YSP Two will find its feet; the challenge is to keep driving it forward. We’ve never had a consistent committee, we’ve always had different people coming on board, but there’s always been a core vision. I look forward to supporting YSP, and particularly the younger faces very keen to give it new momentum.”

York Shakespeare Company’s productions

Richard III, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, October 30 to November 2 2002. Director: John White

The Taming Of The Shrew, Pocklington Arts Centre, June 13 and 14; Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, June 17 to 21 2003. Director: Paul Toy

The Comedy Of Errors, Friargate Theatre, York, December 3 to 6 2003. Director: Chris Rawson

Titus Andronicus, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, April 21 to 24 2004. Director: Paul Toy

Peter Watts’s Hamlet in John Topping’s 2013 production. Picture: John Saunders

Love’s Labours Lost, Friargate Theatre, York, December 1 to 11 2004. Director: Chris Rawson

Romeo And Juliet, Rowntree Park, York, July 13 to 24 2005. Director: Sarah Punshon

Two Gentlemen Of Verona, Friargate Theatre, York, November 29 to December 3 2005. Director: Ali Borthwick

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Rowntree Park, York, July 19 to 30 2006. Director: Mark France

King John, Friargate Theatre, December 5 to 9 2006. Director: Jeremy Muldowney

Henry VI, Parts 1, 2 & 3, produced in two parts, York Guildhall, July 12 to 22 2007. Director: Mark France

As You Like It, Residence Garden, York Minster, July 16 to 27 2008. Director: Roger Calvert  

The Merchant Of Venice, Studio Theatre, 41 Monkgate, York, November 12 to 22 2008. Director: Cecily Boys

Julius Caesar, Studio Theatre, 41 Monkgate, York, June 10 to 20 2009. Director: Mark Smith

Richard II, Studio Theatre, 41 Monkgate, York, November 17 to 21 2009. Director: Hugh Allinson

Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, Church of St Martin-cum-Gregory, Micklegate, York, July 29 to August 15 2010. Director: Tom Cooper

Much Ado About Nothing, Rowntree Park, York, June 29 to July 9 2011; The Dell, Stratford-upon-Avon, July 16 2011. Director: Paul Taylor-Mills

Troilus And Cressida, Upstage Centre Youth Theatre, 41 Monkgate, York, November 15 to 19 2011. Director: Paul Toy

The Merry Wives Of Windsor, Rowntree Park, York, June 25 to June 27, May 30 to Diamond Jubilee Tuesday, June 5 2012. Three performances rained off. The Dell, Stratford-upon-Avon, June 10 2012. Director: Tom Straszewski

Paul French’s Lear and Charlotte Wood’s Cordelia in Ben Prusiner’s King Lear in 2016. Picture John Saunders

Othello, York Theatre Royal Studio, October 23 to 27 2012. Director: Mark France

Hamlet, St Martin-cum-Gregory Church, Micklegate, York, July 18 to August 3 2013; The Dell, Stratford-upon-Avon, August 11 2013. Director: John Topping

Measure For Measure, Friargate Theatre, York, December 5 to 8 2013. Director: Matt Simpson

Twelfth Night, York Theatre Royal Studio, April 3 to 12 2014; The Dell, Stratford-upon-Avon, June 7 2014. Director: Mark Smith

All’s Well That Ends Well, Friargate Theatre, York, November 27 to 30 2014. Director: Maurice Crichton

Timon Of Athens, De Grey Rooms Ballroom, York, May 14 to 17 2015. Director: Ruby Clarke

Henry V, Upstage Centre Youth Theatre, 41 Monkgate, York, October 21 to 31 2015. Director Maggie Smales

Pericles, Prince Of Tyre, Upstage Centre Youth Theatre, 41 Monkgate, York, April 19 to 23 2016. Director: Sophie Paterson

King Lear, Upstage Centre Youth Theatre, 41 Monkgate, York, November 30 to December 10 2016. Director: Ben Prusiner

Henry VIII, King’s Manor, Exhibition Square, York, March 30 to April 1 2017. Director: Ben Prusiner

The Winter’s Tale, John Cooper Studio@41 Monkgate, York, October 24 to 28 2017. Director: Natalie Quatermass

The Two Noble Kinsmen, by John Fletcher and William Shakespeare, De Grey Rooms Ballroom, York, May 2 to 5 2018. Director: Tom Straszewski

Coriolanus, Friargate Theatre, York, November 28 to December 1 2018. Director: Madeleine O’Reilly

Cymbeline, Merchant Taylors’ Hall, Aldwark, York, March 1 to 3 2019. Director: Ben Prusiner

Antony & Cleopatra, John Cooper Studio, 41 Monkgate, York,  October 28 to November 2 2019. Director: Leo Doulton

Macbeth, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, October 26 to 30 2021. Director: Leo Doulton

The Tempest, on tour, September 23 to October 1 2022. Director: Philip Parr

Did you know?

YORK Shakespeare Project’s tour of The Tempest is being accompanied by a retrospective exhibition in celebration of 20 years of YSP productions, running in the York Theatre Royal foyer until October 1. Admission is free.