Blog in response to Jean Howard's public lecture

31 July 2013

The ShaLT lectures at the Victoria and Albert Museum are introducing the public not only to Shakespearean theatre but also to early modern London, the city that inspired many playwrights. In a lecture that considered the history and onstage depiction of the Royal Exchange and the debtors’ prisons, Jean Howard presented the dynamic intersection between theatre and city.

The Exchange and the Counter, the name for debtors’ prisons, represented extremes of London's growing economy and consumer culture. Built by Thomas Gresham, the Exchange became a hub for London's growing financial trading which had previously taken place in City streets. It provided a fixed location and crucially, considering the English weather, a covered walk way where merchants could meet and trade. Above the traders in the upper level of the building was London’s first shopping mall: at the ‘pawn’ different shop-keepers gathered to sell their wares. The Royal Exchange flourished as a site for English and foreign traders to make profitable deals and somewhere to purchase fashionable goods.

London’s ever expanding trading and shopping culture left many in a place that was the opposite of the economic vitality of the Royal Exchange: the Counter. Increasingly London’s economy was based on a system of credit and debt, with bonds as a substitute for the exchange of currency, which left many in complex and doomed financial arrangements. Howard’s evocative descriptions of corruption in the prison system, the ‘hole’ and prisoners’ suffering revealed that the world of sixteenth century finances could be especially grim.

Unsurprisingly the Royal Exchange and the Counter provided rich dramatic material in plays such as William Haughton's Englishmen for My Money (1598), Thomas Heywood's If You Know Now Me, You Know Nobody, Part II (1604/05) and Ben Jonson’s Everyman Out of His Humour (1599). Howard showed that playwrights depicted familiar urban locations, characters and stories for an audience that clearly enjoyed many in-jokes and moments of recognition.

In the Q and A after the lecture, several people were intrigued by the Royal Exchange and so Howard provided answers about the type of goods sold at the ‘pawn’, the meaning of this shopping mall’s name, Gresham’s background and the ‘Royal’ connection. Other questions focussed on Haughton’s Englishmen For My Money. With a central character interpreted as Jewish and a plot that involves a trio of suitors and financial arrangements, Haughton’s play made some think about Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Howard confirmed and elaborated on the connections between the two, which were written around the same time. Thinking of issues of debt, another question brought up Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens, inviting Howard to interpret this play in the context of London’s economy.

The lecture was a great opportunity to learn more about some very specific locations in Shakespeare’s London and to discover some overlooked gems in the canon of early modern plays. But most of all, Howard established that plays with real locations helped Londoners make sense of their rapidly changing urban environment and society. The link between city and drama, made so tangible by ShaLT project, is an important one to understand.

Written by Sarah Dustagheer, Lecturer in Early Modern English at King's College London

Filming for Shakespearean London Theatres

24th December 2012

John Wvyer of the independent film company Illuminations has blogged about making the hour-long film that is part of Shakespearean London Theatres (ShaLT). Here it is...

"Filming for Shakespearean London Theatres" by John Wyver

So, you know, what does a producer actually do? Well, judging by the paucity of posts this week, when he's filming he certainly doesn't have time for his blog. Since Monday we have been shooting short drama scenes for the research project Shakespearean London Theatres (ShaLT), and for this producer the past four days have included hanging an actor (intentionally and safely; see above), making a lot of coffee, finding locations, finding crew, recasting a major part with less than twenty-four hours notice, acting as a first AD, composing and sending out call sheets, explaining the project (over and over), disbursing petty cash (and collecting receipts), sourcing swords and worrying - a lot. Worrying about money, worrying about whether everyone is warm enough (they haven't been), worrying about noise, and most of all worrying about time. Oh, and directing the films. We have one further day of rehearsals today, and then our last drama shoot tomorrow morning. So maybe now I have time to tell you a bit about what we're doing.

We are making a group of short films about the theatre in London between around 1580 and 1642. These will complement a map, book, app, website and lecture series being created by Shakespearean London Theatres, all of which aim to enhance understanding of early modern theatre beyond the story of Shakespeare and the Globe. Our films, which will be freely available from the late spring next year, will include contributions of historians and elements of the documentary evidence from the time - which is comparatively sparse - and the traces of the theatres themselves in modern London.

We wanted, however, to make the films a little more dynamic than this and to give them a sense of life. So we came up with the idea that we would gather a small group of actors and film them both in rehearsal and in staged scenes, shot in a studio and on location, from four key plays. Which is what we have been doing over the past week - a process that has been alternately troubling (for me) and thrilling.


Our nine actors, many of whom have played Shakespeare, worked at Shakespeare's Globe and contributed to the Read not Dead strand of stagings 'on the book', gather at a studio in south London. The cast has been selected by our stage director James Wallace, who has just finished playing in 55 Days at Hampstead Theatre and is a stalwart of the Read not Dead series. The studio space is cold and the space heater makes such a racket that it's impossible to stay warm and hear yourself think. For the most part, the latter has to take precedence.

We gather in a semi-circle in the studio and I explain the outline of the project before James explains the choice of our four plays, including the only one of the quartet by Shakespeare himself, Richard III. We have chosen to do the scene of the wooing by Richard, or Gloucester as he still is, of the Lady Anne, close to the start of the play. Her father-in-law, King Henry VI, lies in a coffin as Richard, responsible for the king's death, worms his way into the widow's favour.

We are to film the scene the next day, and so today's readings and rehearsals concentrate on this. I have briefed the camera and sound team to capture parts of the rehearsal process, but there is too much else going on to be able to spend much time actually observing. There are transport arrangements to make for tomorrow (these turn out to be me ferrying cast to and from Canning Town tube station), some extras to hire and a make-up person to locate. We do not have a rehearsal space yet for Friday, and then there is the question of whether the coffin for the Richard III shoot can be manhandled down the staircase into tomorrow's location.

On wrap there is are call times to decide on for tomorrow, and a call-sheet to get out to everyone by e-mail. The agent for one of the cast is requesting time off for an audition, and we need to work out whether this can be accommodated. So it goes. Shakespearean London Theatres is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (who have also made possible the Screen Plays research project) and the production budget is a good one but not, as you would expect, at the level of broadcast drama.

For drama, the logistical questions about toilets and lunches and heaters, are taken care of by production managers and production co-ordinators and location managers and assistant directors. On a project of this size with this level of resources, there's the producer.


It is a really beautiful morning, with bright sun glistening on the river down by Docklands. We are in a beautiful brick basement which - initially at least - seems just perfect for our scene. Facilities are minimal - public toilets across the way, a very willing but over-worked small café, and no heating. Wardrobe and make-up, instead of the dedicated vans that would be brought in for a 'proper' shoot, have to make do with tables and chairs in a next-door space, with light from the open doorway. Everyone nonetheless does wonderfully well.

We are playing our scenes mostly in modern dress but our art director Hannah Spice (who worked with us on Julius Caesar) has drawn together a number of key props, including a sword and a ring. 'Casting' the coffin for Henry VI involved looking at a range of possibilities drawn from various hire company websites.

James and I were particularly drawn to one that was a fetching shade of red and had a lid a bit like a stable door, with a top half that could reveal the corpse's head and a bottom part that could remain closed. This we reasoned would help the actor who would be stuck there since he would have to worry less about whether he could be seen breathing. But the lid was hinged, and in the end this led to its rejection. Another had to go because it was so mouldy that it seemed it had indeed once had a 'real-dead' occupant.

Our morning is dedicated to blocking the scene, in addition to getting everyone made up and costumed. We start to film around 1pm, aware that we have to be away from the location by 5pm. It all seems very achievable, but this is where single inviolable principle of an Illuminations shoot kicks in: 'nothing's simple'. For on the wooden floor above us we start to hear the clickety-clack of heels, and then boxes being dragged around, and finally some sawing and drilling. Shakespeare's words sound rather less good when punctuated with such sounds.

We plead with the occupants above but to no avail, and so we have to plough on, with our sound recordist shaking his head in despair. Will we be able to cut around the noises? Can we filter some of them out. Perhaps we will have to fix some - or all - of the scene with 'additional dialogue recording' (ADR)? Those are questions for next week, but the frustration takes the shine off the day and at the end none of us feels as good about what we've achieved as perhaps we ought to.


Now this is a bit special. We are going to film a scene from Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy, a hugely popular play written in the late 1580s. And we are going to play the scene inside the circumference of The Rose Theatre, where it was presented over four hundred years ago. The foundations of the Rose were discovered in 1989 and are now submerged in water in a cavern beneath a modern office block. (There are exciting plans for a major restoration.) Over part of the site (and beneath the offices) there is a platform on which is presented a slate of adventurous productions of early modern plays (and the occasional carol concert).

The line of the original exterior wall of The Rose Theatre cuts across the platform where it is marked by a line of tiny red lights. On the 'inside' of this is where we erect the arbor within which the character Horatio will be hanged. Remarkably, we have a sense of how this was originally staged (and it is one of the very few such records from the time that has come down to us) in a crude engraving on the title page of the 1615 edition (a detail of which is reproduced above).

With a purchased garden feature and a specialist hanging harness we are, by the end of the day, able to achieve a very fair interpretation of the scene (pictures to come). Nor, part from the occasional police siren, do we have any sound problems today. For toilets we have to use those in the Globe Education a few doors away, and the cast keep warm in there when they are not needed. I had been worried about whether the arbor would fit through the outside door of the theatre but there are inches to spare. Indeed, with the expert help of operations manager at the Rose Pepe Pryke, everything goes wonderfully well, and some of us end the day with a celebratory drink down the road at The Swan Bar.

Diary of a producer, part 2

For yesterday's post I scribbled some notes about our filming this week for the research project Shakespearean London Theatres. With a company of nine actors we have been staging scenes from four early modern plays and filming both the rehearsals and the scenes themselves. It's been fairly stressful and at the same time a lot of fun, and it has been particularly interesting to see (and hear) how words that may seem to a degree impenetrable on the page make perfect sense when spoken. All of this is one strand of six short films, to be completed next March, that will also feature contributions from academics and elements of archive material. Read on for further notes from Thursday, Friday and today.


Today we are back in the south London studio to film the opening of Thomas Middleton and William Rowley's A Fair Quarrel. First performed in 1617, this is the latest of the plays from which we are taking scenes and its selection is partly because of its association with the company of boy actors known as Beeston's Boys. But it also gives us the chance to shoot some sword-play, and fight director Renny Krupinski joins us for the day. Through the morning he takes four of our actors through the moves of two separate short clashes.

We want to give each of the main scenes a different quality on screen, and today's will most likely be the most distinctive. We have the suggestions of a set in the shape of four doors but surrounding them is a 'green screen' onto which we will later key images and probably also elements of text. For the moment, however, setting and lighting the screen gives us endless trouble. Compounding the problems is the news that the actress who is at the centre of the scene to be rehearsed tomorrow and filmed on Saturday has had to withdraw because of her mother's illness.

Added to which, while we have the swords that we need we do not have scabbards, which have proved far harder to find than we expected. The main source for prop weapons will only hire out scabbarbs and swords together - and they want to charge for one such pair more than the total that we have already paid for all of our swords. Improvisation is the order of the day here, with our resourceful wardrobe supervisor Gemma Bedeau running up some simple belt-clasps which can hold the naked epées.

Perhaps most problematic of all, we have been relying on a local café for lunches. But I fail to take menu requests in time, and when we do finally get to this orders are backed up and the dishes are inordinately late in reaching us. Good humour is just about maintained all round. But the fights are looking good and once everyone is fed we set to to film our six minutes or so of drama between 2.37pm and the cut-off time of 6pm.

Via their agents, I try several possibles for the re-casting of our actress, and then - having taken recommendations from the existing cast - several more. Most are working, although I also encounter one agent who is not prepared even to put the idea to his client, dismissing my offer (supposedly because the videos will be made available online) as beneath consideration. Finally, mid-afternoon, we get lucky (and as it turns out, extremely lucky, since our replacement is wonderful) and hastily e-mail off a script and a letter of agreement.

The shoot meanwhile ticks along, the pace speeding up as we approach the dealine and our willingness to live with problems or small imperfections increasing. In fact, by this point the actors are well drilled and we get both the fights and some fine performances. It's a good job this is a comedy, since the laughs help dissipate the tension of what is definitely our most difficult day. We wrap at 6.05pm, happy enough, and very aware of another crew anxiously waiting to take over the sound stage for their overnight get-in.


Compared with yesterday, today is a doddle. We have set the time aside to rehearse a scene from Eastward Ho!, a city comedy written by George Chapman, Ben Jonson and John Marston. And as a rehearsal space we have been fortunate enough to find free time at Alford House in Lambeth. This is a youth club but also the location for three large halls oft frequented by rehearsals for musicals, plays and pantos. Fortunately for us the pantos have all gone on stage now, and we have the place to ourselves for the day.

I am particularly pleased to be here because Alford House is the location for Karel Reisz's Free Cinema documentary We are the Lambeth Boys (1959). This is a remarkable portait of what we would now call youth culture from a world that has almost entirely disappeared.

Through the day James works with the cast to refine the scene at the start of Act I Scene 2 in which Gertrude, the aspiring but essentially vulgar daughter of goldsmith Touchstone, is waiting on her lover knight Sir Petronel. The references as the cast works over words written nearly four hundred years ago are Rihanna and TOWIE, Beyoncé and bling. The scene as it emerges is also laugh-out-loud funny.

We are devoting more time to rehearse this because tomorrow we will have just five hours in our chosen location, The Old Hall in Lincoln's Inn. And the reason for that is the per-hour cost of the Hall which, although not unreasonable in the run of these things, pushes hard at the edges of our budget. Five hours is as much as we can afford and so we need to make the most of every minute.

Even so, because our actress playing Gertrude only stepped into the role last night, the costume on order from the National Theatre stores for her role (and which is pivotal for the comedy) has had to be changed because of different measurements. Which means that we cannot take delivery of it until late in the afternoon, and the cast get only an hour or so to become familiar with it. Fingers crossed - yet again - that it will all be alright in the morning.

The day, however, is sufficiently relaxed that we can also record two interviews for the project, with Professor Gabriel Egan, principal investigator for Shakespearean London Theatres, and Dr Lucy Munro from Keele University. Gabriel gives us a fascinating overview of theatre in London from 1580 to the early years of the seventeenth century, and Lucy talks wonderfully well about the underrated playwright John Lyly. Our plan is to film a scene from Lyly's Sapho and Phao but the logistics for this are particularly complex and it will have to wait until the new year.


On then to Lincoln's Inn and an early call of 8am. We are waiting outside as the inns of court clock strikes the hour and we are let in to the Old Hall. This is a wonderful space, built around 1490 and subsequently enlarged and graced with a wooden screen most likely designed by Inigo Jones. The Lincoln's Inn website describes it as 'one of the finest buildings in London... small but beautifully proportioned and executed'. I wouldn't dream of disagreeing, and it is a privilege to spend the morning here.

Not that we have too much time for architectural appreciation. Each hour here costs what each of our actors is earning for their week's work. Is that fair? Perhaps not, but it is the way of the world. So we have to make the most of every minute. Beneath the hall is a crypt where wardrobe and make-up quickly establish themselves, and our first actors are prepped. Taking great care not to scratch the immaculate wooden floor (I have been warned several times about this), we bring in the modest furniture that - along with the screen - forms the setting for our scene.

There is, however, an unanticipated problem. I visited the hall many months ago and knew that it was perfect for today's shoot. Photographs online confirmed this. But neither my visit nor the photography took place in mid-December, and although as requested all of the tables and chairs have been removed, slap bank in the middle of the screen is a finely decorated Christmas tree. Fortuituously, the tree is mounted on a small rubber-wheeled trolley, and we are able to roll it very gingerly to one side. Our last act before leaving will be return it to its position - and hopefully no-one will know the difference (unless they read this blog, of course).

While everything is readied, with one of our cast I make a foray to Fleet Street to find coffees, teas and OJ. Ten minutes shy of nine we are ready to shoot - or almost. A key on-screen item has been left behind and we need to conjure up a replacement. I am assured that this will take 'five minutes', then 'another three minutes', then 'just five minutes more'. Time on a shoot can have a strange way of warping.

While we wait for this, we are able to shoot some cutaways, but by the time we are ready to film the first master wide we are 45 minutes in arrears of when I had planned. This too is not unusual, but constantly telling oneself that this is the case rarely improves things. Nonetheless we eventually turn over - and the scene plays beautifully. Spoken by a group of skilled players, the language of 1608 has an immediacy and a freshness that is instantly engaging.

Now let me give you a piece of advice. If you have only a short time to film a scene, do not choose one that involves the elaborate dressing of your lead actress in a seventeenth century petticoat, bustle and gown. Not only is this tricky in itself but re-setting the costume between each take occupies what can feel like an eternity. The gags are good, however, and the scene begins to reveal many of its subtleties about class and consumption.

The next problem is one familiar to anyone who has tried to record any audio anywhere in London: a helicopter. For a time it seems to be right above us, and this means that we are entirely unable to capture any dialogue. When it finally moves off the sound of a ticking clock in our space is particularly noticeable, but perhaps that is just because we are all even more aware of time's winged chariot hurrying near.

Had we but world enough and time we would plan out every master shot and each cut-in, we would plot them on a continuity sheet, and we would record several takes of each one. As it is, we are grateful to our cast when they deliver a fine performance each time, and we scramble onwards to the next set-up. Is this ideal as a way of filming a scene of drama? No. Is it realistic given our resources - and more importantly will we achieve something that communicates the richness of the relationships, the complexities of meanings and the crude wit of four centuries past? Yes (at least I think so).

We press on - and on, taking our chances with whether we have all the coverage an editor will eventually demand (I'll roll out this blog to explain). Amidst all of the barely suppressed concern I am aware that this is a very funny play - and that what we have here is a company (and a director) capable of delivering a fine production of the whole. Anyone interested in bank-rolling the whole piece?

Atop the Inigo Jones screen is an exquisite clock that appears to be running a few minutes slow, at least when compared with all of our iPhones. So it is this that we take our cue from, and we film our final shot just as it ticks past 1pm. We just have time for a wildtrack of a fragment of dialogue, the sound recording of several slaps and what's called 'room tone' (the sound of silence in a space, which helps the editor cover cuts).

We are given a short period of grace for the actors to disrobe, for the transfer of the digital rushes from the camera cards to my laptop, and for general tidying up. And of course for the rolling back of the Christmas tree. We are clear some thirty minutes later and it's off for a celebratory pizza and glass of red.

Thanks for all their hard work over the past week to our company of actors: Nathalie Armin, Philip Cumbus, Daniel Flynn, John Hopkins, Bella Heesom, Lisa McGrillis (who stepped in at the last minute), Adrian Schiller, Kate Sissons, Edwin Thomas and Rachel Winters.

Thanks also to Daniel Haggett and Mark Warmington (lighting camera), Sam Howson and Nick Walker (sound), Hannah Spice (wardrobe), rigger Chris Gough, Gemma Bedeau (wardrobe), Jo Drake and Pauline Cox (make-up), Renny Krupinski (fight director), the indefatigible Todd Macdonald from Illumiantions (DIT, second camera, stills and more) and most especially to our stage director James Wallace.

New walking map

18th December 2012

ShaLT is an AHRC-funded partnership between De Montfort University and the Victoria & Albert Museum. This week we received copies of the first of the outputs we have made: a tourist's map of London showing a series of walks that will take you around the sites of theatres and theatre-related buildings from Shakespeare's time and tell you a bit about them. We will be giving away 12,000 free copies of this map at tourist sites across London and beyond. 6,000 copies we are reserving to tuck away inside our low-cost full-colour guide to these sites, which will appear early in the New Year.

Welcome to the new ShaLT blog!

22nd February 2012

This blog documents the AHRC-funded project "Shakespearean London Theatres", which aims to get tourists walking around the London sites connected with the theatre industry from 1576 to 1642.

The project's major partner is the Victoria & Albert Museum London (V&A), and together we will produce maps and a smartphone app to guide walkers to and around the sites, a website for learning more about the theatres and the dramatic culture of the time, an hour of documentary film introducing the topic and a series of public talks.

The project runs from September 2011 to September 2013 (total spend £416,293) and has already generated some documents that will be posted here such as minutes of project meetings and (rather more interestingly) 'Collection Enhancement Reports'. In the latter, the project's post-doctoral research associate Dr Peter Sillitoe reviews the V&A's holdings in the area of theatre-history 1576-1642 and advises on how they might be highlighted to help the public better understand this vibrant entertainment industry.