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The Lady Novelist pays her respects to King Richard III (part 2)

After a day exploring the Bosworth Battlefield Heritage Centre (and regretting that I’d missed the annual re-enactments of the battle in August) I rested my weary head in the splendid Richard III room at the Belmont Hotel.

My possibly misplaced fondness for dear old Richard meant that I slept peacefully under the watchful eye of his portrait instead of wondering when he might instructing his minions to “rumour it abroad that Narrelle, my fanciful biographer, is sick and like to die”.

And then I went into Leicester in search of the real Richard III

King Richard III Visitor Centre

My first port of call was the King Richard III Visitor Centre. Its subtitle ‘Dynasty Death and Discovery’ is an excellent precis of what you’ll find within.

Temporary displays and an excellent audio-visual presentation give a good overview of the dynastic ructions which preceded Richard’s claiming of the throne from his brother’s boy Edward V, on the basis that Edward IV’s children were illegitimate.

(There is apparently evidence that Edward V, a known philanderer, had actually been married before he married Elizabeth Woodville, and that his first wife was still alive and in a nunnery. Parliament agreed with Richard and proclaimed the boys bastards.)

Understanding all this dynastic and even tribal argy bargy between the Yorks and the Lancasters is a bit of an ask, but vital to understanding what happened to bring Richard III to the throne and shortly thereafter to an ignominious burial. The KRIII centre does a good job of this before leading the visitor through displays that precis the key points of Richard’s reign and on to the challenges to his rule, the still unexplained disappearance of his disinherited nephews, and the final battle at Bosworth Field.

Upstairs, the displays look more at the popular opinion of Richard as influenced both by Shakespeare and the organisations, existing since the 19th century, which aimed to give a more balanced and realistic account of the man and his rule.

From there to the forensic account of the discovery of his body by members of the Ricardians, how his bones were identified and what was learned from his body.

The replica of his bones with material on the various wounds he received at Bosworth was what moved me the most. Accounts say he swore to live and die a King and not retreat from the field, and the blows he received, including an insulting post-death stabbing, seem to speak of courage, desperation and cruelty, all.

Leicester Cathedral tour

That curious sorrow for a long dead king struck me again when Tim and I went next to Leicester Cathedral, where we were guided around the church, as it was back in the day. Our guide spoke of the thousands who came to pay their respects to the lost king’s remains – spurred by curiosity as much as compassion, one supposes. The guide spoke in wonder of a woman who flew out from Moscow a day after seeing the thousands of people who lined up to see his coffin and its sumptuous funeral pall.

The simple alabaster tomb over his grave is elegantly carved and angled. “On the six sunny days we get in Leicester,” said our guide, “The sun comes through the stained glass window to reflect colours on his grave.”

The idea of that made me happy in a melancholy way. Richard’s body was bundled, naked, from the battlefield on the back of a horse. He was stabbed, post-mortem, and put on display to prove he was dead. He was buried hurriedly in a nearby Friary, so not completely without respect, but his head was bent, his hands were tied. His bones seemed small and sad in the pictures where they were found in situ. This simple, solemn, elegant grave feels like a kindness.

Although that Catholic and devout gentleman would no doubt spin in his elegant grave at thought of what that wicked Shakespearean version of him gets up to with Khan in my stories, I’m glad to see at last a more balanced and just view of his achievements and flaws, and the great shadow cast over both by those two lost boys.

Leicester and King Richard III Walking tour

Richard and I aren’t done with each other quite yet though. Our last Ricardian treat is the Blue Badge walking tour with our guide, Steve.

The walking tour shows other parts of Leicester’s history – it’s not all dead kings and surprise wins by the local football club. There are Roman ruins too. Richard’s history is also replete with mistaken historians and uncertainties about what really happened. Until relatively recently, Richard’s remains were thought to have been dug up and thrown into the river under the Bow Bridge. Near the bridge in question, three separate plaques refer to the changing understanding of that incorrect history.

Steve’s tour gives a broader view of Leicester and elements of Richard’s story in the landscape where it took place. For all his wicked reputation, Richard is still viewed with some pride by the locals and streets are named for him as well as numerous pubs. People place white roses at the feet of his statue.

Grant me the carving of my name says the beautiful poem by Carol Ann Duffy, which was read at his reinterrment. Richard has been granted that, at least.

It’s an excellent way to consolidate everything I’ve learned so far while pacing the roads that, more or less, a King once rode and his body returned on.

Will the real King Richard please stand up

While Richard’s culpability in his nephew’s disappearance from the Tower and possible murder is still a subject of conjecture, elements of his character can be gleaned from his loyalty to King Edward IV, the legislation he passed during his short reign, and the few surviving letters he wrote.

His history has been written by those who defeated him (and whose ascension to the throne also relied on there being no legitimate living children of Edward V to stand in the way).  Most people’s memory of Richard  lodged in most people’s experience by William Shakespeare’s brilliant play.

However,  if not for Shakespeare’s deliciously villainous Richard, the world may not have cared so much when, against amazing odds, his body was discovered, mostly intact, over 500 years later underneath nondescript car park.

Richard’s head was pressed upward in its hastily dug grave, hands apparently bound, his spine twisted with scoliosis. It’s an image to invoke pity, whatever version of Richard you prefer.

My Richard III

I carry in my head the vivid but fictional villainy of Shakespeare’s Richard. That image vies with the version I created for myself in fictions of a Richard and Khan redeemed not only by love but by the desire to be worthy of such love.

With these few days in Leicester, I also carry now the more balanced image of Richard: a man of his time. He was for many years a loyal brother, a courageous warrior, and a wise administrator who may have been responsible (through direct deed or indirectly through his authority over those who committed it) of the deaths of his nephews; or may have been made the scapegoat by those who had as much to gain from their deaths but less obvious opportunity to ensure them.

Unless further miracles of history occur to tell us, we’re left to choose the Richard we prefer. Our preference is probably determined by our own natures.

I prefer to believe in a man who tried to be fair and loyal but was compromised by circumstance: at worst, his own ambition, at best, a too-rigid belief in the rule of succession within the context that Edward’s children may well have been illegitimate and that made him the rightful heir, come hell or high water.

As Hamlet says of his father: “He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again.”


Tim and I were guests of the Belmont Hotel and the King Richard III Visitor Centre in Leicester.

The Lady Novelist pays her respects to King Richard III (part 1)

My relationship with Richard III is a bit rambling and has a few strange turns.

Like most people, what I knew of Richard Plantagenet, Duke of Gloucester, boiled down to one simple story: he was a wicked, hunchbacked man who stole the throne and murdered his innocent nephews, before being cut down in battle while calling out for a horse.

Shakespeare’s play – a fiction written for a Tudor audience and heavily influenced by histories written by Tudor accounts – obviously in turn influenced centuries of popular opinion on this game loser of the Wars of the Roses.

These days, I’m a much keener advocate of King Richard III as a misunderstood monarch. Books like The Maligned King have sown enough doubt about his complicity in the boys’ disappearance and made me a Ricardian!

My road to becoming one actually began with Shakespeare, though, and Martin Freeman’s brilliant 2014 turn as the cruel and broken man.  (More recently, Kate Mulvany’s portrayal was breathtaking too).

Hot on the heels of my second viewing of theTrafalgar Theatre production, my friend, fellow writer and co-conspirator, Wendy Fries, dared me to write a Richard III/Star Trek’s Khan fanfiction. After 30 seconds of denying such a thing was possible, I wrote the first of what turned out to be 14 stories of time travel, reincarnation, epic love and redemption.

I turned Shakespeare’s (and Freeman’s) mad, bad Richard into a whole new character – and my curiosity about the real Richard was revived. Not long after I’d written the stories, Richard’s recently rediscovered bones were reinterred at Leicester Cathedral. The pathos of the moment, combined my unexpected emotional investment in both the fictional and the real King, spurred me onto further reading.  I read Jospehine Tey’s The Daughter of Time and then, hungry for facts, Annette Carson’s The Maligned King.

All of which brings me to Leicester, and on the trail of the history of King Richard III, who was surely no saint, but who wasn’t a black-hearted villain either.

The Bosworth Battlefield

My first day in Leicester took us to the Bosworth Battlefield Heritage Centre. Between intermittent bursts of rain and sunshine, we were guided through the exhibition in the old farmhouse by the centre’s curator, Richard Knox.

The actual location of the battlefield wasn’t certain until relatively recently, when investigation located both the marsh in which Richard III’s horse got bogged and a wealth of medieval cannon balls. The Centre is located on what was the King’s encampment. From the nearby hill, a frame surmounted by Richard’s and Henry Tudor’s standards looks down on the valley where Richard met his end.

There’s a trick of imagination I indulge when visiting historical sites. I close my eyes and try to place myself across time, in the shoes of whoever once stood here. I have rested on the stones at the base of the Egyptian pyramids where workers once rested. I have placed my hands on Roman walls that were built by hands long gone to dust.

This day I stood on the earth that those long-gone medieval once stood on; suffered on; died on.

Here a man with a twisted spine – recently bereaved of both son and wife, an administrator with a concern for justice who was overhung with an appalling mistrust over the fate of his disinherited and vanished nephews – decided to live or die as a king of England.

Had he killed Henry instead of Henry’s standard bearer, the fate of English history may have been different.

The Bosworth Battlefield Heritage Centre takes no sides in the debate about Richard’s character. As Knox says during our tour, the job of the centre is to present the facts of the battle as far as they can be known. This includes presentations of the events leading to the battle, the kinds of weapons and armour used, the key events during the battle as understood from contemporaenous reports, and the aftermath.

The centre also presents material from the various archaelogical researches that went into locating the actual battlefield. Among the items on display is a boar pin, which would have been worn by one of Richard’s household, who rallied to him in the fatal final moments of the battle. Where it was found, the historians surmise, is where he fell, fighting

These final hours of Richard’s short life and two-year reign are covered at the centre with objective thoroughness. If you’re interested in medieval history, whether or not you’re a Ricardian, it’s worth the considerabal trek out to see this thoughtful and intelligently presented battlefield site.

Next I’ll be writing about the discovery of Richard’s body under a Leicester car park and his reinterment at the cathedral.

Tim and I were guests of the Belmont Hotel and the Bosworth Battlefield Heritage Centre in Leicester.

Review: Hamlet at the Barbican, London

hamlet toy soldierShakespeare’s Hamlet is one of those plays so dense with ideas that you can easily see a dozen of them and get a different experience each time. Should Hamlet be young? He’s still at university, after all. Ah, but the gravedigger says of Yorick, “this skull has lain in the earth three and twenty years”, and Hamlet remembers the jester from when he was a boy – so he must be almost thirty, at least?

That’s a prosaic question among many. Is Hamlet mad, feigning madness or something in between? Did Rosencrantz and Guildenstern ever understand their role or deserve their fate? Was Claudius merely a greedy, self-indulgent opportunist or a cold-hearted, manipulative bastard who was out to rob Hamlets Senior and Junior of the kingship from the start? How implicated is Gertrude and does Ophelia have any agency at all, when her death is reduced to her brother and her boyfriend having a graveyard pissing contest over who loved her more, when nobody loved her enough to care about her opinions or fate when she was alive?

hamlet 2I’ve seen a lot of Hamlets, on stage and screen, adapted and in Shakespeare’s original texts (and there are a couple of different versions of those). I’ve seen them edited down, done with the whole shebang, performed in modern dress, in period dress, in mixed costuming, though not yet nude. (Give it time, though, give it time.)

All is by way of saying that I have a lot of Hamlets under my belt, and this production at the Barbican, directed with confidence and a grand vision by Lyndsey Turner, was one of the very best I’ve ever seen.

The production itself closed on 31 October and will in a week or two come to cinema screens as part of the National Theatre Live program. If you don’t want spoilers about the production or my musings on the text (which may still be spoilerific for some – after all, everyone sees it for the first time some time) you might want to bookmark this for later.

First up is the astonishing set, which reveals itself in stages and then becomes a canvas for the set and lighting design to splash the fate of Denmark upon it. The first thing we see, actually, is Hamlet sitting on the floor in front of a dropped flat. He’s listening to Nature Boy on a record player, going through possessions in old tea chests and experience a small, private moment of loss. In that small moment we meet a grieving son. Soon after, that curtain rises and we are greeted with the vast hall of a royal mansion: two storeys high with a massive staircase, ballustrades, great doors and almost cavernous. You wonder how on earth that space can be filled.

It’s a sudden shift from the individual to the wider world, and of course the royal hall is more than just the palace of Elsinore – that space is Denmark, bounded in a nutshell and the director and her cast have no trouble filling it at all. In face, after the banquet scene, the back of it opens up so that it become still larger yet! And never once is there a sense that the actors are swimming in emptiness (unless, of course, that is the point of the scene). Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet makes particularly good use of this ‘little Denmark’ – his energy in racing from point to point is beautifully contrasted each time he stops and becomes a still centre for thought and introspection.

At key points, the lighting paints decay on the walls – the something rotten in the state of Denmark clearly something emanating from the palace.

claudiusAnd that something, it is eventually proven, is Claudius himself. I’ve enjoyed Ciaran Hinds’ work immensely in the past – he combines fantastic gravitas (he was Julius Caesar in the Rome series) with very human flaws. I’ve seen so many versions of Claudius where he is a bit on the soft side, an apparently affable man who let ambition overtake his duty and now he can’t believe his luck that he got a kingdom and a deliciously saucy wife to boot. When the truth is uncovered at last, this kind of Claudius makes desperate plans to protect himself.

Hinds’ Claudius is a planmaker, all right, but he’s no weaker younger brother who took an oppportunity and ran with it. This Claudius’s true colours are pretty much black to the bone – genuinely dangerous, genuinely threatening and, as a result, a  brilliantly dark and, for me, refreshing take on a character I thought was familiar. At the end of the first half of the play, the palace explodes with black confetti, as though Claudius’s determination to ensure Hamlet is killed is the bursting of a particularly nasty foulness – and it infects the whole set. The second half is a scorched Elsinore, a blackened battlefield of a Denmark, ruined long before Fortinbras arrives. This is a Denmark deeply infected by corruption from the top, and when Hamlet returns, apparently relieved of his almost feverish madness, it’s only to find everyone else fretful with rage and their own kind of fevered wildness.

OPheliaSian Brooke’s Ophelia is also a treat. The character never has much agency and is pushed around or ignored by pretty much everyone, even after she dies. This Ophelia is nervy, sweet but socially awkward, looking at the world through the filter of her camera. Strangely, although she seems to keep an arm’s length away from people with that intervening camera, it also means that she sees more than others do, too. Her mad scene is played to convey that extremely well, and it is only then that Claudius really pays attention to her – when she says something that indicates she knows what he’s done. Soon after this, when Gertrude realises what Ophelia has buried in her delirium-fed funeral for her murdered father, Ophelia’s distress and her imminent fate hit chillingly hard.

Then, of course, there’s Cumberbatch as Hamlet. Given the hype surrounding his casting and the speed with which tickets sold out for the run, a year in advance, it was always going to be a challenge for him to live up to the expectations.

hamlet 3Fortunately, he not only lived up to them, but exceeded them. His Hamlet is complex and moving, from that first moment we see him as a grieving son to his last breath of a man finally embracing the ‘felicity’ of escaping what is to him an malevolent world. In between, he is melancholy, funny, sly, furious, bemused, child-like, unreasonable, wounded, heartbroken and enraged. He uses every inch of the stage when it’s right to use it, and commands stillness when stillness best tells Hamlet’s tale. He has an incredible physicality and grace – whether clambering all over the banquet table for a soliloquy or waltzing with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as he accuses them of playing him like a pipe.  With Lyndsey Turner’s direction, Cumberbatch wrings every conflict and every contradiction out of the role, and delivers a superbly textured, engaging, comedic and deeply tragic prince.

For all I sing his praises, the fact is he is supported by a truly excellent cast. Along with those already mentioned, there’s Rosencrantz (Matthew Steer) and Guildenstern (Rudi Dharmalingam) who really do feel like they’ve known him from childhood; Laertes (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) who personifies being the opposite in every way of Hamlet as a son; and a Gertrude (Anastasia Hille) who seems happy to turn a blind eye as long as she still has a nice frock. Karl Johnson even does a marvellous job at being an opposite of himself as both the Ghost and the Gravedigger – as grim and disturbing in the former as he is wickedly funny in the latter.

GertrudeI am so familiar with this play, but so much of this production felt fresh, its approach highlighting aspects of character and text in new ways.Benedict Cumberbatch is part of an ensemble of excellence, from the whole cast and the director to every backdrop, every soundscape, every costume and every line. Lyndsey Turner and her team should be rightly proud of themselves for bringing their grand vision to life in ways still so emotionally direct and personal.

This may not be the definitive Hamlet – with a play this layered, I don’t know that there will ever be such a thing – but it is a consummate Hamlet and well worth the seeing. Which I’m going to do again, in the National Theatre Live screening next week.

See more about the Barbican’s Hamlet:

Read my review of Richard III starring Martin Freeman (2014)

This is my post about visiting Stratford Upon Avon

Check out my Shakespeare-inspired Redbubble designs, including Claudius’s “sorry/not sorry”.

My very great thanks to Wendy C Fries who bought tickets for this production for me in 2014, on the off-chance I’d make it back to London in 2015. You’re a champion!

The Lady Novelist Contemplates the Bard

Will DuckspeareStratford Upon Avon. Birthplace of the Bard. The village where William Shakespeare’s relatively humble origins lead some to believe (rather snobbily, I think) that a fellow with a fairly ordinary education could not possibly have written plays which still resonated with audiences 400 years later (as though all, or even the best, education happens in schoolrooms).

After several trips to the UK I finally made it to this English town, wanting to pay my respects to a writer who has lasted so long in our minds and imaginations, and whose explorations of the complex state of being human still have us talking today.

My concerns that Stratford would turn out to be a kind of DisneyShakespeareland were mostly unfounded – Stratford Upon Avon is not wall-to-wall Elizabethan Fun Park, although the township is obviously proud of their famous son and their heritage. The houses that are related to Shakespeare’s life – the house in which he was born; the one in which his daughter and her husband, a doctor, lived, and more – are well preserved, well signed and have guides in period costume to explain elements of everyday Tudor life.

On one window of the upstairs bedroom of Shakespeare’s birthplace, names have been scratched into glass (that wouldn’t even have been there in Shakespeare’s time) – including that of Henry Irving, the great Shakespearean actor of the 19th century.  A picture of the panel in question is in the gallery below.

At Shakespeare’s birthplace, a roving performer even did soliloquies on request. He first delivered Richard III’s opening speech, but then he said he remembered Margaret’s speech, having once done the role, and he let me film it.

Of course shops abound, filled with Shakespearean tat (say hello to William Duckspeare, above) as well as higher quality souvenirs. But the architecure is genuinely interesting – especially to an Australian. All the Tudor-style stuff we see here is obviously fake, from the 1960s and 70s I think.

IMG_0770Among other things, I learned that the expression ‘sleep tight’ relates to the way mattresses once rested on a kind of rope sling, and that the ropes would have to be regularly tightened to make sure sleepers didn’t eventually sag onto the floor!

The Shakespeare Centre next to the house is wonderful too, full of art and audio and souvenirs-through-the-ages, including a display copy of a first folio open at the first page of The Tragedy of Richard III!

IMG_0823Naturally I took the opportunity to see the Royal Shakespeare Company in action! Their Henry V was excellent, with some new takes on familiar scenes. Henry addressing the troops was also addressing us, and when he pleads for assistance with his French in wooing the princess, I couldn’t help feeling that a Globe Theatre audience would have thrown some suggestions his way.

Visiting Shakespeare’s grave was a fascinating moment. Buried in Trinity Church, a pretty little place near the river, dear old Will continues to attract pilgrims. I’m not necessarily a keen tourist of Places Famous People Have Been, but there was something about sitting in a pew a little way down from his grave and the plea to leave his bones undisturbed that is carved into the stone that was quietly moving.

IMG_0903

I suppose that we all want to be remembered somehow – and Will has managed that more effectively than most. The thing is, I don’t believe in an afterlife. I believe that any immortality we have, such as it is, is in our deeds. Our names may not be remembered at all, in fact, but the things we do, how we treated people, how we engaged with our world – those are things that have ripple effects, in ways large and small. Perhaps a word I speak today, or a sentence I write, will mean something to someone one day. Perhaps something in my actions or words will prompt someone to think in a new direction (hopefully a more positive one) and that slight change now will mean something to someone else down the line. I get feedback on my work sometimes that leads me to hope this is so, even in small ways.

And here lies a man whose wit, compassion, subtlety and poetry, expressed through his words, has meant a huge amount to generations of readers and audiences. His characters and stories have opened up minds to many different facets of being human – that villains can have their better moments; that heroes can be flawed. That we are all made up of multiple motivations, and perhaps that ‘nothing is either good nor bad, but thinking makes it so’.

So Vale, Mr Shakespeare. You taught me a lot about writing, about humanity, and theatre and even myself.

Thank you.