by Angela McAllister
In early 2017 I was at an award ceremony with my editor, Jenny Broom from Quarto, when she asked whether I’d like to write a collection of stories from Shakespeare. I didn’t need to think twice; what a gift, the opportunity to plunge into some of the greatest works written in the English language. I’ve loved Shakespeare ever since playing scenes from Macbeth in primary school. (Astonishingly, the teacher followed this up by taking the class to a screening of Orson Welles’ dark film of 1948.) Since then, there have been other acting roles, set plays to study, thrilling stage productions, a well-thumbed copy of the collected works and a flat-mate driven mad as I repeatedly listened to Hamlet late at night. Despite not winning an award at the ceremony that evening I felt I was leaving with a prize.
However, on the journey home I began to realise how difficult the task would be. The book would be in the same format as our collections of folk tales, A Year Full of Stories and A World Full of Animal Stories, and space for each play would be tight, around 1800 words per play. Even if I could condense the stories of those complex dramas into a few pages, how to present their powerful themes to readers as young as 7 upwards? My elation quickly evaporated.
The first challenge was to decide which plays to choose. Could we present anti-Semitism in The Merchant of Venice? What about murder and suicide in Hamlet and Othello? How to offer King Lear to a young reader? After much debate we chose twelve plays; Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest, Twelfth Night, Othello, As you Like It, Julius Caesar, Much Ado About Nothing, King Lear and The Merchant of Venice.
The second consideration was the nature of the reader, for that would determine how the stories would be written. I’d been a bookish child, full of imagination and keen to learn new words but from the beginning of this project I’ve had very different reader in mind. My aim was to engage those who are usually turned off by the first word they don’t understand, who tell themselves ‘I don’t get it’ and stop trying before they start; those who feel defeated as soon as they are told to open the cover of a Shakespeare play. If they could be gripped by the dramas in simple form, without baffling language or complicated plots, and allow those stories to work their powerful magic, to enchant, excite and amuse, then hopefully they wouldn’t be afraid to step into Shakespeare’s world and give the plays themselves a chance.
With this in mind, I set to work. It was a brutal journey. Back stories were reduced to a single line, sub-plots abandoned, characters cut without mercy. Hardest of all was resisting the glorious language and restricting myself to a couple of direct lines in each story. One day, I turned a corner in the National Portrait Gallery and found the bard himself staring me straight in the eye – was that a disapproving look, I wondered?
As the stories emerged they were brought to life by Alice Lindstrom’s stunning paper collage illustrations. Her cast portraits and colourful stage sets, where characters play out their actions with clearly expressed emotion, powerfully enhance the narrative to help the reader through the story. It was a joy to see each arrive.
Finally, a short biography of Shakespeare and notes about the plays were added at the end. The job was finally done, but had it been worthwhile?
Happily, early reaction from readers, reluctant and otherwise, has been enthusiastic and teachers seem eager for the book. My mother, who is eighty-four and left school at fifteen without any Shakespeare, has enjoyed it too. Now, I’m pleased to say that we’re looking forward to enjoying the plays together.
This is a guest post by Angela McAllister and the views expressed do not necessarily represent the FCBG.