Reading Shakespeare in Mulmur
“Shakespeare is hard,” said Brian (quoting the Irish critic Fintan O’Toole) “but so is life.”
Gordon Morton clears his throat and in a rich baritone, enlivened by his English accent, begins reading the lovesick Count Orsino’s glorious opening lines in Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night:
“If music be the food of love, play on,
Give me excess of it, that surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken and so die,
That strain again, it had a dying fall.
O, it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound
That breathes upon a bank of violets–”
When Gordon has finished Orsino’s speech, Huntly Christie, sitting next to him at the large dining-room table, delivers Curio’s idle query:
“Will you go hunt my lord?”
Then, Huntly’s wife Nancy Woods picks up the rhythm of Orsino’s distracted response:
And after Nancy, John Harrison sitting to her left, intones Curio’s answer (and the first of countless double entendres in this richly layered comedy):
“The hart.” (Or course, the audience also understands “heart.”)
Our goal on this the first meeting of the 2011 South Mulmur Shakespeare Study Group is to take turns around table reading until we have come to the end of Act I, Scene 4. But we are barely forty lines into the play when our host and facilitator, Brian Bixley, stops us.
All fifteen of us in the group are well prepared on this January morning. At Brian’s request, we have read the play carefully during the Christmas holidays. And then reread the first four scenes aloud the night before so that we do not fumble our lines.
“Before we go any further,” says Brian, who has spent the previous two or three months immersing himself in the play in preparation for his role as director of our motley crew, “let’s look at the first line of the play: ‘If music be the food of love–’ What do you think that actually means?”
And so began another session of the Shakespeare Study Group. Every second Tuesday morning from January until mid-April, each of us warmed up our winter-weary brains around the Bixleys’ commodious dining table while the violets in Brian’s snow-covered gardens slept soundly through another long and bitter winter. Twelfth Night was our second play. Last year, we studied The Winter’s Tale, a play we found sometimes fantastical, sometimes incomprehensible, but ultimately miraculous.
“It was a delight to see the longing to read Shakespeare with such gravity,” says Brian, adding, “Most of the group were not people who usually went to see Shakespearean productions.”
But go and see The Winter’s Tale we did (at last summer’s Stratford Festival), with a profoundly heightened appreciation for texts that most members of the group had previously viewed with bewilderment if not downright apprehension.
“Shakespeare is hard,” said Brian (quoting the Irish critic Fintan O’Toole) on the day the SSG started in early 2010, “but so is life.” His implication was, of course, that both are eminently worth the effort.
Still, how did it come to pass that fifteen people with little or no previous exposure to Shakespeare (at least not since high school or an obligatory, often unsatisfactory trip to Stratford every few years) find themselves poring for hours over dog-eared copies of plays that have enthralled and challenged scholars for centuries?
It all began with a talk that Brian, a retired economics professor and active gardener (the gardens at his Lilac Tree Farm are the stuff of local legend), delivered in 2008 to the Dufferin Arts Council about Shakespeare’s sonnets. Brian’s neighbours, John and Jo Harrison, attended the event, and although the retired engineer and his former dressage-instructor wife had had very little exposure to Shakespeare in their lives, the experience triggered something.
“We loved Brian’s talk, but we still found the sonnets unfathomable,” says Jo, “So we thought it would be fun to study them in a group.”
The couple approached Brian with their idea and he admits now that he was skeptical.
“I liked idea because I had become immersed in the sonnets,” says Brian, “but I wondered how many other people would be interested.”
John and Jo began calling friends hoping to get together a group of six or eight people, but no one wanted to sign up. “Brian said no one would be interested and he was right,” says Jo.
So John, who is as determined as he is curious, suggested they try to organize a group around a play instead. Brian agreed, but only on the condition that members be genuinely “serious” about doing a textual study.
“I didn’t want it to turn into a gossip/coffee klatch session the way many book clubs do,” Brian says.
This fit perfectly with the Harrisons’ vision. “We really wanted to understand the text,” says Jo, “to go through a play line by line. We’d been going to Stratford all these years and sitting through plays thinking ‘what was that all about?’ Sometimes I would pick up a play and try to read it, but a lot of it seemed like gibberish.”
A Shakespeare Study Group, the couple decided, would give them and other like-minded people a chance to learn about the bard in a way that they hadn’t experienced since leaving school. They sent out an email to DAC members and almost immediately received more than a dozen responses. And so the SSG was born.
From the outset, the format was rigorous and intense. Beginning sharp at 10 a.m. we began reading aloud, stopping every 100 lines or so to look closely at what we’d covered. There was often disagreement over the meaning of certain lines and phrases, and much speculation about the motivation of the characters, Shakespeare’s intentions and how scenes should be staged.
At 11 o’clock we took a brief break for coffee and cookies, and we wrapped things up at noon. A day or so later Brian recapped in an email what we had discussed and added further musings, which usually triggered another round of electronic exchanges.
Initially worried that people might be reluctant to speak up, Brian was pleased to find that the opposite was the case. His biggest challenge was to keep things moving so that we could finish the play on schedule. Indeed, inhibitions were so relaxed that two of the five men in the group (John Harrison and Gordon Morton) sang a cappella the songs that occur in both Twelfth Night and The Winters’ Tale.
“What I love about the group,” says Brian, “is that gradually they became possessed by the play. It gave them a sense of ownership and made them want to go and see it.”
Jo Harrison echoes that sentiment: “It was absolutely magical,” she says about her visit to Stratford to see The Winter’s Tale last summer. “‘They’re doing our play,’ I thought. Knowing the lines so intimately deepened the experience for me. I felt it was my play. I’d never experienced such a thing before. It was wonderful.”
In her write-up on the first year’s study group for the DAC newsletter, Jane Cooper observed, “Under Brian’s able and knowledgeable leadership we teased out the meanings of the text’s complexities, agonized over obscure and ambiguous passages, delighted in the beautiful language and imagery, enjoyed time spent making connections, and finally emerged with new insights and a new and deeper understanding of WS’s genius.”
And next year? Well, that depends on the new lineup at Stratford. Still, this summer, as he tends his gardens under sunny skies at Lilac Tree Farm, Brian Bixley may allow himself to dream of cold, bright winter mornings to come, contemplating with pleasure the prospect of taking on a tragedy next time, Hamlet or perhaps Lear.
And the buzzing in his ears as he tills the earth may sound less like bees than the aching musings of a young man bent on death, “To sleep: perchance to dream.” And the thunderstorms may bring not just rain, but also the mad ravings of a despairing king: “Who is it who can tell me who I am?”