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Which Shakespeare performance shocked you the most?

Inspired by Stanley Wells’ recent book on Great Shakespeare Actors, we asked Oxford University Press staff members to remember a time when a theatrical production of a Shakespeare play shocked them. From eye-gouging in King Lear to a musical adaptation of The Merry Wives of Windsor, from puppet Hamlet to an all-male cast version of The Taming of the Shrew, we discovered that some Shakespeare plays have the ability to shock even the hardiest of OUP employees. Grab an ice-cream on your way in, take a seat, and enjoy the descriptions of shocking Shakespeare productions below.

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“Which Shakespeare performance shocked me the most? I think that honour would have to go to Trevor Nunn’s King Lear at the Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon (2007) starring Sir Ian McKellen in the title role. The thrust stage made the performance feel very intimate, and I was taken aback by the intensity of the production – an on-stage hanging, wonderful storm effects including torrential rain and deafening thunderclaps, and of course Sir Ian McKellen’s ‘notorious’ full frontal nudity! To this day it is still the most powerful performance of a Shakespeare play I have seen.”

— Julie Gough, Associate Marketing Manager

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“I couldn’t really say I was shocked to see The Taming of the Shrew performed with an all-male cast at the RSC in Stratford, as I’d known it before I went, but it certainly put a new light on the outdated gender roles of the play, shocking the audience into seeing the cruelty behind the humour.”

— Simon Thomas, Marketing Executive, Oxford Dictionaries

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“When I was at school we went to see an RSC production of The Merry Wives of Windsor: The Musical, with Judi Dench as Mistress Quickly and Simon Callow as Falstaff. I think it got terrible reviews for being too silly, but I thought it was hilarious! Seeing such famous Shakespearian actors in a thigh-slapping, jolly, bawdy musical was so much fun and radically different to any Shakespeare production I’ve seen before, or since – I loved it. Somehow we managed to get backstage after the show and we met the whole cast. Judi Dench borrowed my pen to sign our programmes – I treasured that pen afterwards!”

— Amy Jelf, Marketing Assistant

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“I’ve seen King Lear a number of times and I never cease to be shocked by the eye gouging scene. The last performance I saw was by the Guildford Shakespeare Company, Gloucester’s leg convulsed and twitched in pain. You didn’t see the gouging but you felt the pain! In the Sam Mendes and Simon Russell Beale version at the National Theatre they decided to kill off the Fool. Not only that, they had Lear beat him to death in a blind rage. What is so shocking is you don’t see it coming. Nor do you actually see it. It happens in a bath tub so all you can see is Lear’s club get increasingly bloody and the Fool’s bloodied, out-stretched hand. It makes you realise that Lear is still a dangerous and controlling man even with his advancing dementia.”

— Miriam Higgins, formerly Music Hire Librarian

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“I was stunned by the stark brutality of Rupert Goold’s spellbinding Macbeth at the Geilgud theatre in 2007. Patrick Stewart delivered an extraordinary performance in the title role and his transformation – from a sensitive soldier who stumbles at the word “murder” to an insecure monster talking flippantly of slaughter – was horrifying. The scene where Kate Fleetwood’s Lady Macbeth imagines dashing out her child’s brains affected me deeply at the time (I was seventeen). If I saw it now, I fear it would only shock me mildly. Much like Macbeth himself, time has made me impervious to such horrors!”

— Katie Stileman, Junior Press Officer

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“I remember stumbling upon a puppet adaptation of Hamlet towards the end of a tiring, yet enjoyable, day at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2010. I remember little about the play but I do remember being shocked by the first scene in which we see the Ghost. The puppet of the Ghost came floating over my head as I sat in the front row of the cramped theatre. I’d like to say I didn’t scream as much as the children sat next to me. But that would be a lie.”

— Daniel Parker, Social Media Marketing Executive

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Featured image credit: RSC Theatre, Stratford, by ‘Feeling My Age’. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Jules Levin

    Staying in my wife’s apartment in Udine, Italy, I saw the Burton/Taylor Shrew on TV, dubbed in Italian. The whole tone of the play became more authentically Italian, and the plot’s very Italian culture was more obvious.

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