This Isle is Full of Voices – Reimagining Shakespeare for the 21st Century

It’s Shakespeare’s birthday! To celebrate we spoke to poet Michelle Penn about her upcoming collection, Paper Crusade and how it felt to rewrite the Bard.

Over the years, I’ve had numerous ambitions and goals, but rewriting Shakespeare was never one of them. Ever.

Yet there I was, at Sadler’s Wells in 2014, brimming over with ideas after seeing The Tempest Replica, a contemporary dance piece choreographed by Crystal Pite. I was inspired by the movements, the psychology, the white masks and costumes, the folded paper boats. The production stirred something in me that I had to express in words. Which sent me back to the original source, The Tempest — and the problem of rewriting Shakespeare.

I knew I wanted to make something that was different from both the dance piece and the original play — and it had to feel relevant to the twenty-first century. Of course, there’s plenty in The Tempest that continues to be relevant (themes of power, forgiveness, language, love, etc.), but it seemed to me that a refugee magician coming to an island, colonising it, altering its environment and terrorising those around him suggested more of a tragic approach than a comedic one.

I decided to concentrate only on a handful of characters and to add The Sea: a character contemptuous of humans and both participant and commentator. And I deliberately left most of the characters unnamed in order to really separate them from Shakespeare’s characters. I didn’t want to think about Prospero but about The Father, a man desperate for revenge, a man who has suffered losses and can’t control his anger, a man who wants to feel powerful and respected, even feared. Similarly, I wanted to create more of an interior life for The Daughter, so she couldn’t be the sweet, obedient Miranda. And I wanted C’s struggles and rebellion to be full of not just resentment but pain. The characters in Paper Crusade needed independent ‘lives’, apart from Shakespeare.

Easier said than done. While I found myself quickly and deeply inside the world of my characters, I was sometimes needled by doubt. What was I doing? Who on earth was I to rewrite Shakespeare? The idea seemed hilarious, arrogant, a recipe for failure. Shakespeare didn’t need my help or my reimagining.  

But sometimes, there’s comfort in a crowd, and when I had a stab of despair, I reminded myself of others who have reimagined The Tempest: Peter Greenway’s film, Prospero’s Books or Derek Jarman’s The Tempest or Julie Taymore’s, in which Helen Mirren plays Prospera. Numerous ballets and dance pieces have been made on The Tempest, including one choreographed by Rudolf Nureyev. And of course, other writers have used Shakespeare’s play as source material: Aimé Césaire rewrote it to focus on its colonial themes. Auden riffed on it in his long poem, ‘The Sea and the Mirror’, which he considered his ars poetica. Browning wrote about Caliban, Shelley about Ariel.

Of course, there were still moments when I could almost imagine Shakespeare laughing at me from the grave. But the Bard himself was a great borrower and reinterpreter of earlier stories, so I assumed he’d understand — and maybe even appreciate the effort. After all, the play is a springboard, not a mirror, not something to imitate.

Overall, rewriting Shakespeare turned out to be great fun. I loved being inside the island world and with the characters, seeing them in my mind, hearing them speak and watching where they took the story. I didn’t know how Paper Crusade would end until I reached the final pages, and that process was exciting. The characters led me to expand my poetry and try things I’d never tried before. And although I’m a fan of several of Shakespeare’s plays, I now have a special bond with The Tempest.

Listen to Michelle Penn reading ‘The Sea, Offended’ from Paper Crusade:

 

Paper Crusade will be published on 21 June 2022. You can pre-order a copy from our webshop now. Details of online and in-person launch events (in-person at Keats House  in London) are coming soon.

Next Door to the Capulets – a Preview of Vindication

From our 2016 Midsummer festival, Saul Reichlin reading Sarah Lawson‘s poem, Next Door to the Capulets, which we are publishing NEXT WEEK in Vindication.

Launch info join us on Wednesday at the Poetry Cafe (RSVP)

or pick a copy up at Free Verse this saturday

or order a copy from our webshop

Shakespeare’s Women

Video

 

Jennifer A McGowan reads some of her Shakespeare inspired poems at Midsummer Night in the Garden. Responding to:

Othello – Emilia

King Lear – Cordelia in Prison

A Winter’s Tale – Paulina as Pygmalion

Macbeth (Had to sort the camera out part way through this, so it’s a bit, um, weird.) Weird Sisters on the Make

Henry VI Parts 1-3 & Richard III – Margaret of Anjou

We hope to publish Jennifer’s next collection With Paper for Feet, in 2017, funding permitting.

What Country, Friends? and Mary Arden Videos

Video

Carrie Cohen reads Elinor Brooks poem, What Country, Friends? Inspired by Twelfth Night, amongst other things.

And Jennifer A McGowan reads her own sequence of poems, Mary Arden’s Garrets

Another Midsummer in the Garden performance.

 

At the Bottom of the Sea of Troubles video

Katy Darby reads the delicious At the Bottom of the Sea of Troubles by Lucy Ribchester (originally a Liars’ League story), at our Shakespeare400 event, Midsummer Night in the Garden at Manor House Library.

oh, and we got a review – it’s only available on Facebook, so it is copied here in almost its entirety for those of you who don’t do that (I’ve left out some misapprehensions that just confuse the issue.)

“A miniature Kenwood or a pocket Glyndebourne” ? by RICHARD STOKER – Actor/Composer/Writer/Artist etc.

Some very talented actors and musicians treated us to a real summer open-air event last evening – June 21st 2016. It was luckily a warm sunny night with only one spot of rain ! The action started with music : ” From Songsters Raise the Roof ” and ended with a story ” At the Bottom of the Sea of Troubles ” these two items alone made an excellent start and end to the production – both as creations and in performance quality. You can guess by now that it was in praise of our greatest bard – William Shakespeare – in an almost authentic setting both in its venue – the splendid Baring public-library and gardens (even the two canons outside the front door were festooned with flowers for a change) – the birds flew over even one seagull – planes could be seen in the distance but did not drown in any way the music or the actors – one baby could be heard crying. We were very lucky no midges wasps or bees were about … the sound system worked extremely well too – refreshments were available including strawberries and cream tarts etc. People sat on the lawns Glyndebourne-style with picnics laid out over the grass. As it grew darker this setting was idyllic for Shakespeare …I was reminded of Kenwood House as the music was sung and the Scarborough open air library events came to mind which I always enjoyed. “Raise the Roof” was the splendid choir mostly a cappella conducted by Kirsty Martin – who reminded me of Imogen Holst herself – with the same determination of purpose. The actors were excellent – they included Cliff Chapman, Carrie Cohen, Katy Darby, Saul Reichlin – in fact Katy Darby was a star of the show having that rare ability to hold any audience anywhere at her finger-tips. There was also some original writing from many of our authors including the american-born Sarah Lawson, her “Next door to the Capulets” deserves mention. The printed program was well designed in Shakespearian style print and spelling. Much devoted thought had gone into this whole project. This evening will live long in the memories of all who were lucky enough to have attended …