Brian Ralph: ‘Shakespeare – a playwright for today and all days’

As You Like It (1987) with Don Williams and Brian Ralph, at the original Wolsey Theatre Photo: Mike

As You Like It (1987) with Don Williams and Brian Ralph, at the original Wolsey Theatre Photo: Mike Kwasniak - Credit: Archant

Actor and Shakespeare aficinado Brian Ralph talks about his life-long love of The Bard and why Shakespeare remains Britain's greatest wordsmith

Brian Ralph who has enjoyed a lifelong love of Shakespeare Photo: Brian Ralph

Brian Ralph who has enjoyed a lifelong love of Shakespeare Photo: Brian Ralph - Credit: Archant

I think it likely that every adult reading this would be able to name at least three or four plays written by Shakespeare and could probably come up with a few quotes. I suggest that the same could not be said of any other playwright in any other country.

Yet many would probably, eagerly contribute very unhappy recollections of their experience of Shakespeare while at school and whilst I cannot comment upon current practice when he is introduced to young scholars, it is certainly the case that, in days gone by, the experience was, for many, far from being a happy one.

Unless of course you were fortunate enough to be placed in the care of someone enthused with a love of the man and his works. John H C Byrnes was my English teacher at Queen Mary's School in Basingstoke, a man who I impersonated mercilessly. Studying Shakespeare with him in class did little to arouse any great affection or respect for the man or his plays, although, exhibitionist that I was, I was ever eager to demonstrate my aptitude for performance when it was my turn to read a few lines from the text. Every year John directed a production of one of Shakespeare's plays. At the age of 13, I was cast as a fairy in Merry Wives of Windsor. I have little recollection of the experience, but I was more than happy when, the following year I was cast as Lady Percy in Henry IV Part 1. As with Shakespeare's boy actors, playing female roles was inevitable in an all-boys school. This was followed by Gratiano in Merchant of Venice and the title roles in Richard II and Hamlet – this latter production toured to Denmark and Sweden in 1964 – the quatercentenary of Shakespeare's birth.

By this time I had developed what was to become a lifelong love of his language and of every opportunity to speak it. I have performed his plays in many theatres and at the Wolsey Theatre I played, amongst others some of my favourite Shakespearean roles; Theseus/Oberon, Petruchio , and Shylock. I have been fortunate in having had the opportunity of exploring the incomparably beautiful language and enticing characters as a performer and director ever since my school days.

In my time as Head of Performing Arts at Suffolk College, I directed amongst a vast range of plays, six Shakespeare productions. I would like to think that the students who performed in those plays had an experience that will remain with them. I also believe that if you were to speak to any one of them, they would say words to the effect that they never believed they would have enjoyed Shakespeare so much.

So why is it that this man who was writing from 430 years ago still commands an unassailable reputation as being, not only the greatest playwright of his time, but arguably the greatest playwright in the English language of all time?

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He was not the first to write in that most flexible of forms, the iambic pentameter, so suited to the English spoken language, but he certainly developed it to its highest expression. It is questionable as to whether, had he lived, that Christopher Marlowe might have proved a worthy co-exponent, that must remain a matter of conjecture. But, Marlowe aside, of his contemporaries only Ben Johnson comes close to achieving the same celebrity.

But Shakespeare was not writing only of his time. His themes are for all times as has been demonstrated in so many productions where the themes have astonishing contemporary resonances. His characters are as recognisable today as they were in Tudor England.

Such are the universality of the themes and the richness of the language, that his plays, seen in performance demonstrate his ability to speak to all ages across the centuries and as such, have inspired and lent themselves to re-working and re-presenting in every imaginable medium.

Relevant today? Look about you; Shakespeare is alive and well and living just about everywhere.