A REMARKABLE EXPERIENCE – CHRIS LAOUTARIS
In 1596 Shakespeare found himself facing a formidable female opponent. Her name was Elizabeth Russell, a woman who struck terror into the hearts of many of her contemporaries. The playwright and his fellow actors and business partners got more than they bargained for when they decided to open a new theatre in the Blackfriars district of London that year, just paces away from Lady Russell’s home. They would discover, as many others had before them, that there were consequences to trifling with one of the best connected women in the land, a woman who was none too pleased that a ‘common playhouse’ was about to open its doors in her genteel neighbourhood.
This is the story I tell in my book, Shakespeare and the Countess: The Battle that Gave Birth to the Globe, and which I was privileged enough to share with a wonderful audience of more than 500 people at Hay Festival.
It is also a story of betrayal and skullduggery, for the doughty Elizabeth Russell, the self-styled Dowager Countess of Bedford, did something extraordinary: somehow she managed to convince the two men who stood to gain the most from Shakespeare’s continuing success to betray him. These were Shakespeare’s own patron and publisher, and they would aid her in a campaign to ban Shakespeare’s company from the Blackfriars Theatre. Elizabeth Russell and her army of loyal supporters would be victorious, with significant repercussions for the development not only of Shakespeare’s career but of theatrical history.
Lecturing at Hay was a remarkable experience. The engagement and passion of the audience, the faultless organisation from everyone who worked tirelessly behind the scenes, and the incredible atmosphere, made it utterly unforgettable. While lecturing about Lady Russell’s exploits (she was involved in several riots and constructed her own personal dungeon in the grounds of her country estate, in which she incarcerated many of her enemies), I couldn’t help but wonder what she would have made of all of this: the stage, the crowds, the audiences pouring in from far and wide to witness these events, the very things to which she objected when she forced Shakespeare’s company out of the Blackfriars Theatre. Good job she isn’t here to witness Hay, otherwise you can bet that she would have had something to say about it!