Shakespeare is a constant source of inspiration to myself and others. I'm currently working on a PhD about the first public Shakespeare collection in the world - the Shakespeare Memorial Library at the Library of Birmingham, and as a result ideas for short films come thick and fast. The Everything to Everybody Project which is currently sharing this collection with the people and revitalising Shakespeare in the eyes of the city, have started touring the First Folio to different communities around Birmingham. The collection belongs to the people, it is theirs and the tour is a significant expression of public ownership.
A short film about the First Folio itself seems like too good an opportunity. A few years ago I heard a brilliant poem by Richard O'Brien (Lecturer in Creative Writing at Northumbria University), a former student of the Shakespeare Institute, subsequently the Poet Laureate of Birmingham (2018-2020). The poem, entitled 'Whereof are you made?' conflates two acts of human genius - Shakespeare's writing, and the revolutionary process of printing which changed the world.
By dissecting the printing process into its component parts the creation of the book itself is a Frankensteinian scientific piece of magic, a moment of genius in its physical creation. The miracle of the printed word itself, in combination with the original printing of Shakespeare's first collected works, bestows the First Folio with a physical and cultural immortality. It is a medium transmitting Shakespeare's intellect - his poetry, stories, and emotional worlds into different forms and for new eras.
Richard very kindly agreed for me to create a film around his work. He is also a brilliant reader of his own poetry and has provided an excellent recording for me to work with. The film process begins!
Richard wrote the following on the inspiration behind the poem:
I’d recently been to the American Bookbinders Museum in San Francisco – which I highly recommend – where an extremely cool woman showed me how to use a 16th-century screw press and talked to me about the making of rag paper. A few days later my girlfriend showed me a clip from BBC coverage of, I think, the Chelsea Flower Show, with a woman talking about wasps and galls and I thought – that should not be what we have to rely on to print great literature. And yet obviously it is, and all these strange, messy, organic components are brought together in a very labour-intensive, human process, using some quite elaborate machinery, for us to be able to have this book at all. And the works of Shakespeare are sometimes imagined as this kind of transcendent thing, living in the mind – and their existence is completely reliant on some torn-up rags and some tree bark having a bit of an over-reaction. I thought there was something fascinating about that, and I just wanted to convey the sense of process and the work involved. The title comes from one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, which is similarly trying to struggle with how something – someone – came to be the way they are, and that was the final piece of the picture, really.”
Over the next couple of months, as the First Folio tour continues, I will be filming, as well as utilising gorgeous footage of rare books shot for a previous film, to produce a montage fit for Richard's stunning poem. As a Shakespearean, book lover and firm believer in the social and cultural importance of libraries, this is a true labour of love.
Whereof are you made?
by Richard O'Brien
Cut rags to ribbons. Bring them to the boil,
then beat them into pulp. Set up a frame.
Remove the frisket. Give the tympan oil.
Lay out the letters of a normal name.
Wait for a wasp to swell an oak with gall,
then crush the growth and stir it in hot piss.
Dampen the paper. Fetch a leather ball,
and roll it in whatever comes of this.
Blacken the type, then lock the page in place.
Push in the press bed. Pull to wind the screw.
Lower the platen. Black marks on white space.
Open the hinges. Lift out something new.
Do this all day, in dim light. Here it stands:
one man’s words, and the work of many hands.