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‘Fake news about the Bard still exists’

Former theatre critic Nicholas de Jongh’s new play examines Shakespeare’s sexual fluidity

18 March, 2017 — By Dan Carrier

Nicholas de Jongh

WHEN Shakespeare wrote 129 sonnets professing a beautiful and consuming love, the person the words were addressed to has caused some discomfort among biographers. The reason for this could be the fact that the playwright penned the verses to Southampton – who happened to be a man.

Now writer Nicholas de Jongh has taken these works – and a 400-year-old reaction to them – and used them as the basis for a new play, Pricked Out, to be staged at the King’s Head in Islington.

This is the third play Nicholas, who lives near Upper Street, has written: previously he was the chief theatre critic for the Evening Standard and has also worked as The Guardian’s arts correspondent. He says his “magic, realistic comedy” challenges the orthodox position that ignores evidence that Shakespeare was, for a time, in love with a man – to whom he referred to in verse as “…rose, his dear heart, his fair flower, his sweet love”.

The accompanying blurb to the play reveals the story starts on a Dorset beach in 2016. A young man, lying asleep on a deserted beach, is woken up by another who has lost his bearings and needs help in discovering where he is. As they talk, it becomes clear neither of them has any idea of who or where they are.

But did they perhaps know each other well a very long time ago?

William Shakespeare ‘was in love with a man’

“The genesis of the play was the fact we are approaching the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and the situation exists that there has been a 400-year-long cover up. Fake news about his sexuality still exists,” says Nicholas.

“No academic or biographer has written that his one great love affair was with an aristocrat. It was clearly a significant period of his life.”

Nicholas believes this stems from a homophobic embarrass­ment that has lasted centuries. He says scholars “are, and always have been, embarrassed by this series of sonnets and tried to write them off as an example of a platonic relationship. A lot of them say there was a tradition of friendship without an erotic engagement. If so, there would not have been such attempts to disavow crucial elements of the sonnets.

For example, in 1640, publishers changed he to she in the sonnets.”

Nicholas does not claim Shakespeare was gay – “he had three children,” he points out – rather that he was “sexually fluid”.

“A lot of academics and poets were pretty disgusted by this – for example, Wordsworth and Coleridge,” he adds.

“Many say there is no evidence, and that it is possible the sonnets were written to order for money. But I find that unconvincing – they were so self-exposing. It seems very unlikely he would have written down and put out here such intimate thoughts.”

The play, with a cast that includes Daniel Donsky in the role of Elizabethan gay poet Barnfield, whose work Shakespeare published, takes to the stage at a theatre with a reputation for running ground-breaking works. And for a man who has enjoyed the best seats at press nights in London’s top theatres, the importance of smaller venues is not lost.

Nicholas says theatres like the King’s Head are the lifeblood for a thriving scene in London.

“Such fringe venues are a wonderful model for London as a whole,” he says. “And they work – for example, the Park Theatre [in Finsbury Park] has come about because it recognises the value and worth of smaller theatres. And look a the model of the Finborough – it gets no financial support at all yet they produce exciting work.”

Pricked Out runs from March 25-29 at the King’s Head, 115 Upper Street, N1 1QN, 020 72268561,www.kingsheadtheatre.com

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