Ben Spiller of Derby’s 1623 Theatre Company

Ben as Shakespeare

Ben as Shakespeare - Credit: Archant

Nigel Powlson talks to 1623’s artistic director Ben Spiller about the Derby Shakespeare theatre company’s latest project

Valentine Shakespeare 2012 - Kat Glenn, Ben Spiller and Jamie Brown Photo Dave Bird

Valentine Shakespeare 2012 - Kat Glenn, Ben Spiller and Jamie Brown Photo Dave Bird - Credit: Archant

One elderly care home resident in Derbyshire hadn’t spoken for more than a year when 1623 theatre company visited with an innovative new workshop based on King Lear.

The Derby company led by artistic director Ben Spiller is half-way through a long-term project exploring dementia through Shakespeare’s play and has been visiting care homes in the county with startling results.

Ben says: ‘After not talking for so long, this resident began to speak after being given the opportunity to draw. It was a lovely moment.

‘There was one lady at another workshop who wouldn’t engage in any of it until the singing started. Then she whispered to me, “I do like dancing you know”. So we danced. She led and I learnt a few moves from her.

‘It’s very special and humbling. It encourages you to be more meaningful with other people whether they have dementia or not. It can be unsettling and troubling when a loved one has dementia and can’t recognise you anymore. They are a different person, in a new stage in their life. People say it’s like going back to a childhood but I’m not sure – a life has been lived and it’s still informing their imagination. It’s going forwards but we don’t understand enough about it and it’s very emotional for all the family.

‘What we have discovered is that you can have meaningful conversations with people with dementia if you have a stimulus, something to share that’s not all about talking – it might just be holding a hand, listening, touching a piece of art...’

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1623 has carved a unique niche in the arts world by exploring Shakespeare’s works in unusual and inventive ways but this use of King Lear to delve into dementia is perhaps the most ambitious project yet.

Ben says: ‘It’s about celebrating the imagination and creativity of people living with dementia.

‘Apparently, the very last part of the brain to die, whether you have dementia or not, is the frontal lobe and that’s where our imagination and creativity is. So if the brain is gradually dying away due to dementia, the imagination is still there.’

Ben and 1623 have been exploring the theme for the last six months, culminating in workshops at QUAD from which a new piece of theatre will be created. The work in progress was performed at Derby Theatre before Christmas.

The aim now is to secure more funding for the new work to ensure it can be developed into a new play and seen not only at Derby Theatre but other venues across the East Midlands, including Nottingham Playhouse, Chesterfield’s Pomegranate and Lincoln Drill Hall, who have already expressed an interest.

The Arts Council has already backed the project in the research stage.

Ben says: ‘It’s all about taking risks, arts development and creating ambitious and exciting work. We are trying to break new ground by engaging people who live in the care homes and their families.

‘One of the most troubling, emotive and relevant social issues at the moment is dementia. According to the Alzheimer’s Society about 800,000 people have that condition alone in the UK, never mind other forms of dementia. Our population is getting older and that’s going to be a growing issue.

‘As we are a Shakespeare company, we wanted to explore that issue through the framework of one of his plays and King Lear was the obvious one. There’s a lot of medical opinion on the play from the mid-Victorian period right through to 1988 when a medical practitioner read the text and diagnosed Lear as having dementia. What we have done is carry that kind of research on and have gone into more detail with current knowledge.’

Ben and his producer Christopher Lydon put in a funding application to the Arts Council and won their support. There was also support from Derbyshire County Council, QUAD, Derby Theatre and the University of Derby.

Emma Fitzpatrick, a university researcher, joined the project to create a document for dementia care experts using extracts from the play. After reaching a diagnosis, the experts were asked to put a care plan together for King Lear as if he was alive today.

Ben says: ‘It was really important to the integrity of the play we are creating to have that level of understanding and all the experts have taken an imaginative leap with us.’

The experts’ verdict was that there was a strong chance that Lear had Parkinson’s Disease in the opening scene of the play, as he’s quick to anger when challenged and he becomes obsessive. Later in the play, his hallucinations suggest Lewy Bodies dementia. He also displays evidence of the early onset of Alzheimer’s towards the end of the play. Some experts also suggested vascular dementia, which affects speech but Ben says that depends on how you perform the play as well.

1623 has spent the last six months in research and development for this new piece of theatre. As well as the expert diagnosis, Ben took a short extract from the play and asked members of the public to respond to it in a creative digital way. He had more than 100 responses to the quotation ‘Let me not be mad’ in the form of photographs, video, audio files, songs and creative writing.

‘We told people they didn’t have to know anything about Shakespeare and King Lear, we just wanted a response to those words,’ he says.

All of those responses are now displayed on the 1623 website.

Ben says: ‘These kind of thoughts can be very personal, we didn’t want to pry, but it gave people the opportunity to express their feelings.’

1623 then worked with QUAD digital artist Darius Powell to create collages made out of the responses.

The third strand of the research has been what Ben and his team are calling 1623’s ‘tapestory workshops’. The whole play of King Lear was interpreted by actor-artist Julia Damassa through the eyes of Lear’s court fool. These images are embroidered onto pieces of material and then taken into care homes for the residents, staff and families to respond to.

‘We go into each home three times,’ says Ben. ‘Firstly it’s just the staff so we can give them the chance to think creatively about what we can do. One home wanted to write a collective poem with the residents with dementia for example.’

Long Eaton playwright Jane Upton, who is creating the new work, has also been to the workshops collecting nuggets of information that will go into the final piece.

‘We never mention the word memory,’ says Ben. ‘People can become agitated if they can’t remember things. It’s about that day in that room. Because the art works are tactile pieces they are simple to hold and easy to trace with fingers.

‘We have managed to gather a wealth of material, so many stories.

‘We call it participatory research as it has meant something to the people involved as well as helping create a new piece of artwork.’

King Lear

King Lear is the story of a monarch who, suffering from growing mental problems, decides to divide his kingdom between his three daughters bringing tragic consequences. It is believed to be based on the legend of a mythological Celtic king. It was written between 1603 and 1606 and later revised from Shakespeare’s earlier version. It was included in the 1623 First Folio and is now regarded as one of the Bard’s finest works thanks to its sharp observations of human nature. The role of Lear is one of the most coveted in theatre.

1623 history

Whether it’s encouraging people to get fit using the Shakespearean Workout, or joining forces with St John Ambulance to administer first aid to the Bard’s characters in Emergency Shakespeare, 1623 has always been innovative in its look at the great playwright’s work. The company is the brainchild of Ben Spiller, who discovered a love of Shakespeare at the John Port School in Etwall, and who has been artistic director of the company since 2005.

1623 is the year the collected works of Shakespeare were first published (in what is known as the First Folio). The first 1623 show was a collection of love scenes at Gardener’s World Live in a Globe Theatre-style garden specially created by Derby College.

Ben says: ‘When we started out it was all about Shakespeare in non-traditional spaces. It was about where we performed (from gardens to caves) but now it’s about seeing Shakespeare differently. That can still happen in a field or an old mill or in a town centre but it can be in a traditional theatre. We are also very much about including the audience, so they partly own the piece.’

It was Shakespeare’s ‘imagination’ and his ‘very clear, bold vision’ that drew Ben to the Bard when he was still a teenager.

‘It was the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Weird Sisters in Macbeth, medieval monarchs, magic islands, the way he draws upon myths and historical events,’ Ben says. ‘It’s the imagination and the incredible language he uses to conjure up these worlds.

‘He might be blamed for ruining Richard III’s reputation but he created this memorable, vibrant, attractive theatrical figure who’s still wowing audiences today.’

Ben believes he was lucky to get both the rigorous academic side to Shakespeare and the creative dramatic interpretation at John Port School and the University of Warwick, where he studied theatre.

‘Shakespeare on the written page is only half the story,’ he says. ‘You need the performance and the audience there for the whole picture.’

Ben always knew that he wanted to do something with his love of Shakespeare.

‘It was always there,’ he says, ‘from first sitting in the classroom reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream. From the age of 12 I knew I had to do it and I wanted to seek out other people who shared that ambition.

‘I’m a firm believer that theatre can change the way you view the world around you and inspire you to change it.’

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