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Playing Along

The Royal Shakespeare Company and the University of Michigan will work together to develop three new plays, including a reconstruction of a “lost” play credited to William Shakespeare and his contemporary, John Fletcher.

The world-acclaimed, England-based theatre company will be in Ann Arbor from March 20-31, marking their fourth visit to campus, and their first trip focused exclusively on the play development process.

“Our collaboration with The Royal Shakespeare Company reflects the high priority we place on the arts as a means to deepen our understanding of the human condition – and bring together people of all cultures,” said U-M President Mary Sue Coleman.

“The Royal Shakespeare Company will collaborate with University of Michigan literary and historical scholars while drawing upon the university’s many theatrical resources,” said Coleman. “This project illustrates how universities can play a vital role in the artistic process.”

Cleopatra by Pascal Molliere.

In the last decade, The RSC, U-M and the University Musical Society shared a “groundbreaking partnership,” which helped elevate the company’s profile in Midwest while drawing on UMS’ entrepreneurial acumen, and the university’s academic resources.

“The partnership showed how a university and world-class cultural treasure like The RSC can work together for the public’s edification,” said UMS President Kenneth Fischer whose organization presented the RSC in extended residencies in 2001, 2003, and 2006 in partnership with the University.

“In these tough economic times, we all are looking for mutually beneficial ways to collaborate and our latest venture shows the power of cooperation,” said Fischer, who noted U-M’s Ross School of Business will provide lodging, meals, and rehearsal space at a special sponsor’s rate for the duration of The RSC’s visit.

Theatre as laboratory

The RSC and U-M collaboration includes 16 British and American actors, and a 9-member creative team, including three playwrights, director, and dramaturge. The goal is to develop and fine-tune the scripts, including characters, and dramatic verisimilitude.

Harriet Walter as Cleopatra.

Harriet Walter as Cleopatra.

In addition, U-M students in theatre and music will participate in the development of plays, working alongside The RSC renowned playwrights and directors.

“The plays are in a very early state of development,” said Jeremy Adams, The RSC producer. “Rather than ‘readings’ of the plays, we consider them ‘insights’ into the plays, which offers writers, actors and directors a chance to discuss the journey of contributing to the new work.”

Three plays in-development are:

  • “Cardenio,” a story performed, but without an existing text. The story involves a character of the same name from Cervantes’ “Don Quixote,” published and translated into English from the original Spanish in the early 1600s. A Spanish playwright will produce a text in conjunction with the English version.
  • A play by David Edgar, The RSC Associate, on the role of Lancelot Andrewes in the formation and publication of the King James Bible. Andrewes played a central and controversial role in the religious life of the times.
  • A play by Helen Edmundson based on the story of Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz, a celebrated 17th-century, South American nun who wrote beautiful, controversial plays and essays.

Throughout The RSC visit to Ann Arbor, the creative team will work with U-M faculty with expertise in subjects pertinent to the plays.

Reconstructing a work by the master

Even in the anything-is-possible age of virtual reality and digital hocus pocus, the latest paleontological-like literary reconstruction of a Shakespeare play may seem inconceivable – or perhaps to some, dramaturgical sacrilege.

But through meticulous research from scholars, rigorous academic debate and creative reconstruction of characters and dialogue by a commissioned playwright, a refined bi-lingual version of “Cardenio” aims to evoke the spirit, appeal and magic of Shakespeare, said Michael Boyd, artistic director of The RSC.

Since the mid 1600s, the original author or authors and content of “Cardenio” have been open to speculation. Some scholars contend the play was first performed in 1613 by the King’s Men, a London-based theatre company. Several decades after Shakespeare’s death in 1616, authorship was attributed to Shakespeare and his contemporary, John Fletcher.

“Drawing on scholars and resources at the University of Michigan, we hope to restore a play that holds up to the most rigorous examinations,” said Boyd. “Our hope is that the merging of English and Spanish further expands the appeal of Shakespeare’s work to non-English speaking people who appreciate the beauty and inspiration of world drama.”

Insights for faculty, students and U-M community

Ariyon Bakare as Mark Antony.

Ariyon Bakare as Mark Antony.

There will be three opportunities for faculty, students and UM community to attend what the Royal Shakespeare Company call Insights, which are ‘sharings’ from the in-development plays with the actors writers and directors.

Attendance will be open and free of charge.

Venue and time for the readings will be announced at a later date.