Arts Arts Editor Muse

Take A Seat For Some Socially Distanced Shakespeare

Elizabeth Walsh looks at how the York Shakespeare Project is providing the live theatre we’ve missed but in a socially distanced manner.

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Image Credit: John Saunders

Adapting has become the new way of existing since the coronavirus stopped play back in March. Overcoming the obstacle of lost  indoor spaces has been particularly important for the arts. Hundreds of performances that spectators had been eagerly anticipating, have since been cancelled or postponed. Mick Taylor, Conceiver and Director of Sit-down Sonnets, recognises the detrimental effects this can have. As theatre-going is a social and shared experience he expressed that, “Gathering like-minded, caring people safely is, we hope, a way to deal with our troubles.”

Sit-down Sonnets, a new initiative brought to us by the York Shakespeare Project, is an adapted version of Sonnet Walks, an event that in previous years has seen the cast stationed at various points  around the city. Audience members would then be met by a succession of Shakespearean characters who engage them in dialogue, including a selected sonnet. In relation to the virus, Mick commented that, “By March, it was evident that the street format would be a problem, so we thought about a “static” show.”  With this, Sit-down Sonnets grew out of lockdown as the script began to be prepared in April.

The iconic and equally pertinent phrase, ‘All the world’s a stage’ taken from Shakespeare’s As You Like It reigns true for this year's production. The newly adapted open air ‘stage’ takes the form of a lamp-lit churchyard at Holy Trinity Church, Goodramgate. Audience members are invited to sit back, relax and become truly immersed in the captivating live performance. Sit-down Sonnets is the perfect opportunity to re-engage with snippets of Shakespeare’s much loved verse while making the most of the scenic setting. Watch the drama unfold from the rustic church benches or if you prefer, your own trusty camping chairs. With smaller audiences in attendance for each performance, the experience is far cosier and subsequently more memorable.

As well as the newly acquired stage, the sonnets themselves also play on the current situation which we find ourselves in. Mick noted that in the initial stages of writing, he had a list of twenty sonnets that were open to interpretation and could be, “ linked in some way to the fears and demands of the pandemic.” The originals have been cleverly re-imagined into comedic and relevant monologues in line with current pandemic related and political issues. Even the most amateur Shakespeare appreciators will find the fun in them. (The constant U-turns are after all becoming well and truly laughable at this point.)

Addressing the concern that some of the material may at times seem irrelevant, Mick explained that Shakespeare himself understood the human condition and was no stranger to a pandemic. As well as the threat of bubonic plague often causing the closure of theatres, he also noted that,“scientists at the time believed it was spread by infected breath.” A phenomena we too are becoming familiar with.

Links between the past and the present day are uncanny, yet carefully crafted into the script. Despite the fact that the current pandemic is unprecedented and something on such a large scale that has never been seen before, the similar experiences Shakespeare encountered in his day provide a strange sense of relief. We are connected in the experiences of a pandemic but also the relief live theatre can bring in such strange times.

At the heart of the show is the element of surprise. The audience are kept engaged by being encouraged to work out which character is being portrayed in each sonnet. Incorporating an interesting twist, the programme remains concealed until the end of the performance. Producer Maurice Crichton, confirmed that the idea behind this is that it can be used to confirm what has just been watched rather than as a spoiler.

What started out as merely an idea back in April, is sure to become a huge success in the next few weeks over which it will run.  Bringing Shakespeare back  into the present and aligning his famous words with those that we are becoming so familiar with in the age of coronavirus is refreshing. Reacting to and incorporating the pandemic into some of the most well known sonnets modernises them and creates more widely accessible drama. A concept I hope will remain even post-pandemic.

Sit-down Sonnets is being shown until 12th September and the link to book tickets can be found here:
https://www.yorktheatreroyal.co.uk/show/sit-down-sonnets-2020/

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