Thursday, 10 April 2014

James Alexandrou on why Shakespeare's not that hard

Who wants to know why Shakespeare is hard? 

It's because of a riot in a theatre a couple of hundred years ago. The same riot which directly influenced police in America to carry guns. It's true. Look it up (

But long story short, it used to be in America, as here, plays were the TV of the day, everyone would go and mix, have an argument about the local goings-on (a sort of Question Time) and then shut up and listen to the plays. In fact a lot of people could recite the plays - and when I say a lot of people I mean everyone from the poor and uneducated to the upper classes. Trust me blud. 

James Alexandrou in rehearsal with Annabel Bates (credit: Boris Mitkov)

Along comes 2 actors, one British, one American and both very competitive. They have a public spat over who can perform Shakespeare the best ("I'm better than you", "No, I'm better then you", "I'll get my brother on you" and so on), which ends up with a massive riot during a performance by one the actors of Macbeth between their rival fans at a theatre in New York, which ended with the theatre burning down ('bringing the house down') and the Militia being called in and gunning down the crowd. Serious. This meant that new gun laws were brought in because the local police at the time didn't have death sticks yet, and almost as bad, it led to anyone of the lower social classes being banned from going to see Shakespeare at the theatre!

This meant for a large portion of the last 150 years, the poorer sections of society got to hear about Shakespeare but not to see it. It become more and more rarified and elitist and gained a reputation of being for the upper or at least the more educated class. Then along comes the heady and worthy productions of last century to pound into my little 14-year-old brain that Shakespeare is hard and I don't like it. 

But here's the thing. Shakespeare was an actor as well as a writer.  He obviously lived life, drank, partied and probably smoke weed as well as cocaine amongst other stuff. Don't believe me?

He made plays to sell tickets and make some money and keep the crowds coming back. It just so happens the man seemed to know something universal about humans and snuck a whole chunk of truth into what must have been the HBO dramas of the day. He made them to hit the heart, not the head.

James Alexandrou as Iago (credit: Boris Mitkov)

Grassroots Shakespeare London is a group of actors coming together with no director (another modern invention) and working together to tell the story of Othello. We work as close to Shakespeare's original methods as possible. They would have had a short rehearsal period, so we do too. With 2 weeks rehearsal you can forget any fantasies of an RSC level analysis of each line. You can forget deep research into how people of the day would have done this or that, or how, because a character repeats the word "Angry" 5 times in a passage, that Shakespeare was telling us to imbue some new meaning into each word. No, the man was probably pissed at the time anyway. 

Othello is about people not being who they really are. The black man in a white man's world having to be something he is not to survive, the betrayed friend who still has to act as if every thing is fine - put like this its easier to understand. Shakespeare's not hard. It's just incredibly deep, and all that requires is a bit of courage.

We are a company of actors coming together to discover some truth between ourselves and working at a time when funding is non-existent, we are all working for next to no money, taking time out of our days off to come and promote the show, to tweet, to Facebook and to sell as many tickets as we can in the hope that we get to do this again one day - just like Shakespeare did (minus the social networking). 

And just like Shakespeare we appeal to the heart not the head. Yes, our set is small but our heart is massive. Without exception, everyone member of my wonderful cast has made me cry. Without exception, they've made me laugh and without exception they have made me realise why I do this bloody job.

Get down and see why - Shakespeare's not that hard.

Othello is at Leicester Square until 26th April 2014. Tickets from

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Dying on Stage: Annabel Bates on working with Grassroots

Annabel Bates as Desdemona
The first night was last night and as I sip my cup of coffee trying to come up with something of interest to write, all I can think about it how brilliant and brave the people I'm working with are.

All productions require teamwork, but in this production of Othello, it's on another level. We're all in it together, without a director, working our arses off, and when you work with actors like I've been blessed with, you're inspired to give more and more and more.

The real stars, however, are the production team. From Rhodora, slogging away, sourcing daggers and lanterns; to Rachael and Suzi, pulling all-nighters, clubbing together to sew on buttons and poppers; from Boris papping us so often I'm beginning to think I have a stalker; to Siobhan, tweeting about us so much, she's now got RSI.

Annabel Bates as Desdemona and Emily Jane Kerr as Emilia in rehearsals for Othello

Theatre should be an experience. It's live and there is no way of knowing what will happen on the night. We all have to make ourselves vulnerable, and we all have to do things we wouldn't normally do. People talk about coming to see a piece of theatre to taste the actors' blood, sweat and tears. Well, you actually can in our production of Othello, as the space is incredibly intimate, but when I [spoiler alert!] die at the end of the play, I have a long time lying on a bed, dead (trying not to sneeze), and as I lay there last night, listening to my fellow actors sweating, bleeding and crying, I realised that everyone involved with the creation of this production has 'died' once or twice in order to tell The Tragedy of Othello to our audience in the most engaging way.

It's not that we're always raging against the dying of the light. The comedians out there will know the best clowning comes after just 'dying' on stage too'

We're all scary, funny, ugly, beautiful individuals 'dying' on a daily basis in order to survive and that I think is one thing theatre should be a platform for.

Annabel Bates as Desdemona and James Alexandrou as Iago in rehearsals for Othello

For me, the best thing about theatre is that it's live. We can't control what happens, daggers may fly and we might die on stage, but theatre is like a football match. We've trained hard, we've got our positions and formations, we've got each other's backs, we're playing the game as best we can and we're a team.

Annabel Bates as Desdemona, Emily Jane Kerr as Emilia and Nari Blair-Mangat as Othello in rehearsals

When you go to see a football match or a piece of theatre, you hope you're not going to be let down by your team. You hope they score some goals or take you on a journey. You hope they make you proud or tell a story and give you a golden nugget of an experience to carry around with you forever. It should be like meeting a exciting person you have a real connection with.

I can't say yet that we've achieved that or not, but I know we're aiming to give you an experience to remember and I know we're willing to 'die' for it.

Annabel Bates is playing Desdemona in Grassroots Shakespeare London's Othello at Leicester Square Theatre from 2nd - 26th April. Tickets available from