The Bard of Manchester: Shakespeare anniversary commemorated in new play

Shakespeare, with an accessible Mancunian twist – that’s what Manchester Shakespeare Company founders John Topliff and Gina T Frost are striving for as they commemorate the 400th anniversary of the bard’s death.

Each reimagining of the bard’s works, penned by John, has Manchester at its heart.

Among others, the Company’s repertoire includes Desperate Measures, based on Measure for Measure and set in the imaginary city of ‘Mancia’ during the 2011 riots.

Summer Dreaming is, naturally, based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream and draws on the Equal Pay Act, hippies and industrial relations in seventies Manchester.

And with the anniversary of his death falling on April 23 – also believed to be his birthday – John’s work is more pertinent than ever.

“You can set a Shakespeare play anywhere, but in terms of Manchester, it’s a no nonsense place – it’s not up its own backside like a lot of towns,” John told MM.

“The problem I have with Shakespeare is that it’s been gentrified over the years and turned into something classical, wholesome.”

Twelve Nights, currently on tour, is set in a farcical future with Jamie Oliver as Prime Minister of the Former United Kingdom (FUK), a rebuilt Hadrian’s Wall and a blocked off Channel Tunnel.

The original Twelfth Night gender play is turned on its head again, applying Shakespeare’s universal appeal in a contemporary exploration of immigration and fame.

It’s Manchester’s ingrained industrial grit and humour that provide the stronghold for John’s adaptations.

“In Shakespeare’s time the actors weren’t posh people,” he said.

“They came out from trade, industry.

“They were all Christopher Ecclestons, if you like. They made a fortune and rose in society.

“There’s always something in Shakespeare for the pit, a bit of classical for the toffs, and always a good laugh, a bit of rudeness along the way.

“There’s that Mancunian ‘taking the piss out of yourself’ kind of thing.”

The Company took form after John and Gina’s time as teachers at Blackpool College highlighted a lack of Shakespeare productions in the area.

The couple’s venture quickly rocketed into adapting Shakespeare with modern language, using the same structure and contextualising the action in their Northern Quarter theatre for relatable performances that have proved to be very popular with audiences.

“We’re trying to bring it back to what it was,” John said.

“You don’t need a degree to understand it.

“It’s proper entertainment, it just so happens to be 400 years old.”

Now John has written a special play to commemorate that 400th anniversary.

Will & Anne visualises the bard and his wife as a modern day married couple, starring 80s TV star Aiden J Harvey as Will and Lynn Touil as Anne.

Based on documented evidence of Shakespeare’s family history, and with extra research from Dr Sarah Lowe, the play delves into the trials and tribulations of a couple that could easily be part of today’s society.

“Shakespeare was a teenage dad, he was 19 when his first child was born, he moved down to London away from the family, they lost a son and he didn’t make it to the funeral because he was on tour,” John said.

“He wasn’t on good terms with his wife and that’s central to the play.”

Extremely little is actually known about what the great man himself was like.

History gives us one quote, from the son of 17th century actor Christopher Beeston.

Beeston’s son said that Shakespeare ‘wasn’t a company keeper and he wouldn’t be debauched’.

“We’ve taken all this into account for Will & Anne, using a contemporary actor in the same circumstances,” said John.

“We’re just going back to the source material and saying ‘here’s the bloke, imagine he was born now’.

“What would people think of him, what would his work be like, would it be on television, maybe doing ITV drama?”

“If he were here now he’d piss himself laughing at what we’ve done with the world.”

Will and Anne plays at the Three Minute Theatre from April 21-24.

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