Dec. 20, 2017

Doctoral student brings an Elizabethan Christmas to Alberta

Killam Laureate and dramaturg Benjamin Blyth marks Twelfth Night with production of seasonal favourite
University of Calgary PhD student Benjamin Blyth, working at the original site of the Rose Playhouse on London's South Bank.

Benjamin Blyth, working at the original site of the Rose Playhouse on London's South Bank.

Benjamin Blyth

Let’s face it: by the 12th day of Christmas, most of us are back to the grind with neither partridge nor pear tree in sight. Benjamin Blyth — with a little help from Shakespeare — is ready to remind us that wasn’t always so in some traditions.

Jan. 5 marks the start of Epiphany, also known as Twelfth Night and the end of Christmastide. Blyth, a PhD student in English, is marking the occasion with his production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, or What You Will.

The recently founded Edmonton Shakespeare Collective is performing the raucous holiday romp of mistaken identities, love and feuds under the direction of Blyth, who is also an alum of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art at Cambridge.

The Shoreditch 19

The timing of this latest project reflects Blyth’s deeper academic interest in linking a group of Shakespeare’s early plays known as the Shoreditch 19 to the time and place of their origins. Much like the Bard, Blyth spent time cutting his teeth in the East London community of Shoreditch.

“I had been working in classical theatre for a while, and the idea for a PhD project grew out of this professional work,” he says. “I had been directing Shakespeare productions in Shoreditch for maybe a year, working with residents and local historians to dig up what little I could about the relationship between the Borough and the Bard.”

As Blyth explains, very little information on the Shoreditch period has survived, creating a gap in Shakesespeare scholarship: “These early years contain some of Shakespeare’s most divisive and challenging work, and with the ongoing excavations of the Curtain Theatre site, this seemed like the perfect moment to further my practical work on the Shoreditch 19 project in an academic environment.”

From Shoreditch to Calgary

Fleeing a post-Brexit U.K., Blyth found himself in Edmonton. An acquaintance at the University of Alberta directed Blyth to Calgary, specifically to work with Susan Bennett in UCalgary's English department. Bennett’s work with site-specificity in classical text made a strong academic match.

“Ben has landed on a fascinating exploration of Shakespeare's creative life in the early years of his career,” notes Bennett. “Part practical, part critical and part archaeological, Ben's project has the potential to open up new ways of thinking about a 16th-century writer who, in the 21st century, remains the world's most often-produced playwright.”

Today, Shoreditch trades on its storied past. The hip mix of shops, upscale condos and fine dining is home to contemporary creatives like artist Damien Hirst and music producer Andrew Weatherall. Surprisingly, directing Shakespeare’s plays in and around locations where they were first performed 400 years ago is not always easy.

“Unlike Stratford-upon-Avon or Southwark (which have the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and reconstructed Globe Theatre respectively), Shoreditch has no site dedicated to Jacobethan performance,” explains Blyth. “A lot of the contemporary Shakespeare performance in East London is site-specific: drawing upon parking lots, churches, rooftops, anywhere that can suitably accommodate an audience large enough to break even!”

A 'Wooden O' by any other name

Much remains to be uncovered about the relationship between place and Shakespeare’s plays in performance. Blyth cites the example of the current excavations of Shoreditch’s Curtain Theatre, where Shakespeare’s company The Lord Chamberlain’s Men performed in the late 16th century: “Archaeologists were expecting to uncover round wooden foundations similar to those of the Rose Playhouse in Southwark. What they actually discovered was a brick rectangle, meaning contemporary scholarship had to go back to the drawing board with certain expectations of those early plays in performance.”

The discovery challenges the long-standing assumption that the “Wooden O” mentioned in Henry V referred to the shape of the Curtain. For Blyth, the discovery raises new questions: “If Shakespeare was writing these early plays with a view to performance in an end-on courtyard space, then, where might this be evidenced in the text itself?”

Killam support for upcoming production

Alongside his supervisor Bennett, who was recently named a Killam Annual Professor, Blyth himself was named a 2017 Killam Laureate. “The Killam scholarship has been a real blessing, as it’s finally allowed me to have the time to develop an ongoing portfolio of professional projects that run alongside my academic coursework,” says Blyth. “In supporting the upcoming production of Twelfth Night this January, the scholarship is directly connecting Shakespearean performance practices with a community of Albertan actors and audience members alike. It takes a lot of people to bring a Shakespeare play to life, and in this way, this one Killam scholarship is creating opportunities and platforms for a wide network of Albertan artists.”

After a run in Edmonton from Jan. 5 to 20 at the Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Old Strathcona, Blyth’s production of Twelfth Night, or What You Will returns to Calgary, where it runs at St. Stephen’s Church from Jan. 26 to 28.