A kingdom for a course

Study of English is brought to life in dramatic fashion at the University of Leicester
Richard III at the Old Vic, London.
Bringing drama to life: Kevin Spacey gives a powerful central performance as Richard III in Sam Mendes’ production of William Shakespeare’s Richard III at the Old Vic, London. Tristram Kenton/Guardian News & Media Ltd 2011

Studying Shakespeare at the University of Leicester could be even more dramatic than you might expect, thanks to a new initiative run by two Renaissance and Early Modern Literature experts in the School of English with external arts funding – a great coup at a time when many arts budgets are suffering cuts.

In a visit to Bosworth Field and a series of workshops run with the 1623 Theatre Company and Lostboys Productions, Drs Mary Ann Lund and Sarah Knight worked with a group of English students to bring historical fact and dramatic interpretation graphically to life.

The battlefield tour led by Eddie Smallwood, of the Bosworth Battlefield Trust, described in all its vivid detail the gruelling march to the battlefield and the hunt for food and water, as well as the injuries inflicted in one and a half hours of hand-to-hand fighting, Wars of the Roses fashion.

This was followed by a combat workshop led by Paul Smith of Lostboys Productions, a company which specialises in stage combat. The session reached its climax in the fight to the death between the ill-fated Richard III and Richmond, later crowned Henry VII. Students mastered fight manoeuvres, adopted snatches of Shakespeare’s text as battle mantras to be hurled at the enemy, and then trooped outside and put it all into practice on the real field of battle.

Back at the University of Leicester, workshops followed, putting the battle into a historical context, looking at Holinshed’s Chronicles and Shakespeare’s sources, the rhetoric of battle orations and how commanders inspired their soldiers. Ben Spiller, Artistic Director of 1623, discussed Tudor ideology, the Tudors’ stake in how Richard III’s demise was portrayed and why Shakespeare’s play came out when and how it did.

Ben then invited students to direct Paul Smith as Richmond, suggesting how he should speak, gesticulate and how to bring out nuances not spelt out in words. Working individually and in pairs they reenacted sections of the battle, learning how to give life to the battle orations of both Richard and Richmond. Then they put what they had learned together and added a bloodthirsty chant that gave a spine-chilling quality to the fighting.

“The only stage direction you have for the final battle in Richard III is ‘They

fight. Richard is slain’,” said Dr Lund. “When you have a direction like that in the climax to the play, what do you show? How can characters come across even when they‘re not talking?

“The students reinforced the characters of the two main protagonists through their fighting techniques. Richard hacked blindly whereas Richmond was more poised and accomplished.”

“What struck me,” Dr Knight added, “was that these weren’t drama students. They haven’t come to university to learn to act and you wouldn’t necessarily expect them to have that drive. What we had tried to do was to make the workshops relevant to English students reading dramatic texts.”

The project proved to be a fulfilling learning experience for everyone who took part and opened some fascinating possibilities for expanding its horizons in future years.

The Richard III combat project was supported by Arts Council England, Creative Innovation and Cultivate through Igniting Ambition, the Cultural Olympiad in the East Midlands.

This article originally appeared in LE1 Autumn 2011.

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