Talking to the highly energised and effervescent Helen Watkinson, artistic Director of Shook Up Shakespeare, you get the impression that ideas spring from her animated brain like bright, multi-coloured sparks from a hyperactive firework. We met at the National Theatre to discuss in depth language, text, character and Shakespeare’s role, in the 400th anniversary year since his death, as the progenitor of 21st century party planning and the undisputed Father of Fun. Yes. Shakespeare. Fun.
Normally we associate Shakespeare as the antithesis of fun recalling dreary exam-based explorations of unfathomable plays from our school days or the text followed word for word by reverential audiences in largely silent auditoria where Revering the Bard is the name of the game. Watkinson has an entirely different take. Shakespeare, she opines, gave the often raucous Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences what they wanted. It was a commercial exercise as much as East Enders is today. Audiences weren’t afraid to boo, to hiss, to chuck half-eaten fruit or to refrain from deleting their expletives if they didn’t like a particular player. In other words it truly was party time – often the precursor to a spot of bear-baiting, cock-fighting, hog roast munching and a tour round the Bankside brothels (Watkinson informs me). Yes it was fun with a capital F and entertainment with a capital ENT (can’t say E – hadn’t been invented back then). And it is from this authentic reading of what exactly Shakespeare was all about that the Shook Up Shakespeare concept sprang and was subsequently given oxygen in their first show “Shakespeare As You Might Like It”.
Formed by Watkinson with Rosie Morris over breakfast at the end of last year – before which particular repast they had undoubtedly already had a hundred ideas – Shook Up Shakespeare is enjoyment personified. Watkinson, who read English Literature at UCL before gaining an MA in Acting at the Drama Centre, uses her encyclopaedic knowledge of the Shakespeare canon to select, edit and script the shows in advance of collaboratively devising them in rehearsal with her, at present, all female cast. “Midsummer Madness”, the follow-up show to “As You Might Like It”, was put together in just nine days with full company only available for final run, dress and get-in. This is quite a feat as one of Shook Up Shakespeare’s features is what is perhaps best described as the interactive optional direction sequences when, through audience participation, options are given, and the audience chooses the direction the cast and show take. There is an element of risk about this, and I get the impression that Watkinson is a serial risk-taker, but, I suggest to her, presumably all options are rehearsed beforehand so that the cast isn’t left floundering.
“No!” says Watkinson with a mischievous glint in her eye. For example, in the recite-a- sonnet-in- a-particular- style game (games are another feature of the Shook Up Shakespeare approach) only a handful of styles are rehearsed and she deliberately throws in others which the cast are not expecting to keep them on their mettle. Thus each performance is unlikely to be a carbon copy of another and the show can grow and develop organically. Watkinson is constantly coming up with ways to challenge her cast and the audience so that nothing is set in stone and each performance can be truly original. Thus we get to the Company’s mantra: where Performance meets Party.
Having written and performed the first show together Watkinson’s collaborator Morris has veered away from acting into teaching so for the next show Watkinson did extensive auditions before settling on the all female troupe of five that perform “Midsummer Madness” with Watkinson content to devise and direct and not get up on stage this time. Is this now the template for future shows? No, says Watkinson who loves performing and will be back in the cast at some point in the future. What about the all female angle – is this a deliberately exclusive female company? Again the answer is no: the composition of the cast was script-led with Watkinson keen to explore five of the Bard’s great female characters. But as an example of the collaborative feel of the company and that it’s not just Watkinson’s ideas that go into the mix, Genevieve Berkeley-Steele, who plays Beatrice, performed an Eminem rap as her audition piece: this inspired Watkinson to write a rap as a whirlwind trip around all of Shakespeare plays which, performed by Berkeley-Steel, became the kicking-off point for “Midsummer Madness”.
Walking around Hampstead one day looking for lunch Watkinson stumbled upon the Duke of Hamilton in New End Road which advertised the Rabbit Hole Theatre in the pub. Always on the look out for possible venues she explored further finding that the Rabbit Hole had generally been a music venue owned and run by Steve Coxshall, a stock broker turned music industry exponent who had been manager of boy band Blue and whose promoted acoustic sets at the Rabbit Hole have included Ed Sheeran. A meeting with Coxshall ascertained that he was interested in expanding into a theatre programme and having secured a slot for her new show in the theatre there was a definite meeting of minds and ambitions which naturally progressed into Shook Up Shakespeare becoming the resident company. As well as regular Shook Up Shakespeare productions Watkinson will be touring the London Fringe looking for suitable shows and is also open to submissions from companies on a box office split basis (contact details below).
Unusually (in my experience) in the Pub Theatre scene the Rabbit Hole is not an upstairs venue but it is in the basement – thus its name. It has an Alice in Wonderland feel to it, Watkinson tells me, as you enter from the bar through a small door and descend to a magical space with brick arches and, at times, a spooky feel with the faintest hint of dead bodies – originally storage for kegs and bottles. It’s an intimate 50 seater with a cosily atmospheric fringe feel and will be a marvellous venue for the kind of work that Shook Up Shakespeare presents.The pub’s history takes it back over 300 years and is said to be one of the oldest pubs in London. As one of the last “proper boozers” in Hampstead village it is also renowned for being the pub where Oliver Reed spent a significant part of his waking ours and these days it’s a wet led pub that has a great reputation for its range of Real Ales and is a favourite among locals. The Shook Up Shakespeare residency will undoubtedly further enhance the Duke of Hamilton’s reputation as it takes its place alongside others in the rich vein of London Pub Theatres.
After a launch event at the Rabbit Hole Watkinson hasn’t finally decided what the inaugural Shook Up Shakespeare production will be at the Rabbit Hole though a regular event – “The Merry War of Skirmish Wit” – will be a monthly Shakespearean pot pourri which trials new material and explores new ideas (there are plenty of them!). In the meantime “Holiday Humour” hits the boards at the Phoenix Artists Club on 22nd & 23rd of August, destined for the Rabbit Hole at a later date: another great Shakespearean sacred cow is liable to be slaughtered in this as the show takes cross-dressing as its theme. And just to shake it up a tad more we have a female playing Falstaff who as a man dresses up as a woman (“Merry Wives of Windsor”) as well as other favourite cross-dressing Shakespeareans – yet more Bardy Party delight as Shakespeare shakes up Hampstead.
By Peter Yates
The Rabbit Hole Theatre,
23-25 New End Road, Hampstead NW3 1JD