British Museum blog

Making magic

Shakespeare’s Restless World is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Today’s episode New Science, Old Magic takes us closer to Dr John Dee and his magical world.


Greg Doran, Artistic Director Designate, Royal Shakespeare Company

I have always been intrigued by theatre magic. Dr Dee is famous for having created an amazing illusion when he was a student at Cambridge in the 1540s, and even now I can’t work out how he did it. He put on a play, Aristophanes’ Peace, in which an Athenian mortal flies to heaven on the back of a dung beetle basically to ask the Gods to stop the Peloponnesian war. How did Dee manage to convince the audience that he was flying around Trinity Hall on the back of a giant dung beetle? I would have real problems doing that in the Swan Theatre in Stratford.

Unless you have the mechanics that are available to productions like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang or Mary Poppins, that kind of illusion is really hard to pull off, so I am rather fascinated by Dee. On open stages like the Swan or the Globe, with no lighting effects to speak of and the audience wrapped all the way around the stage, it’s very difficult to hide the strings.

It is intriguing to wonder how Shakespeare and his company at the Globe created magic. We know they did have effects; they could create thunder, for example. But in the controlled environment of the indoor theatres like the later Blackfriars Theatre, where there was more theatre machinery around, they had a far greater control of light – and if you can control the light, you can control the effect.

When you go to a Shakespeare play you are wondering how they are going to do Banquo’s ghost in Macbeth or how Hamlet’s father is going to appear. On an open stage this kind of illusion is harder to do. Patrick Stewart played Hamlet’s ghost in the 2008 production of Hamlet with David Tennant and we created an illusion that wherever he went on the stage, smoke surrounded him. It was actually a little machine tucked up under his great coat, but it made him look as though he was floating on a cloud of smoke wherever he went.

We did a production of Macbeth with Tony Sher and Harriet Walter in 1999, and we decided at the end of the banquet scene we needed to spook the audience. As Lady Macbeth left the banquet, she picked up one of the candles from the table and as she left, suddenly all the candles on the table extinguished by themselves. In fact the witches were sitting under the table and pulled the wicks through the candles, which is why they went out. The witches then suddenly pushed all the chairs over from underneath the table and threw the table in the air and the audience were pretty shocked; I have to say that was fun.

We spend a lot of time trying to work out the very simple magic that, of course, Shakespeare’s theatre was investigating all the time.

Shakespeare’s Restless World is on BBC Radio 4
from 16 April to 11 May, at 13.45 and 19.45 weekdays.

Listen to today’s programme New Science, Old Magic

Find out more:
Royal Shakespeare Company
Behind the scenes at the RSC

Filed under: Shakespeare's Restless World, What's on

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In the @ImperialWarMuseums exhibition ‘Fashion on the Ration: 1940s street style’ we can see how men and women found new ways to dress while clothing was rationed. Displays of original clothes from the era, from military uniforms to utility underwear, reveal what life was really like on the home front in wartime Britain.

Despite the limitations imposed by rationing, clothing retailers sought to retain and even expand their customer base during the Second World War. Britain's high street adapted in response to wartime conditions, and this was reflected in their retail ranges. The government intervened in the mass manufacture of high street fashions with the arrival of the Utility clothing scheme in 1942. Shoppers carefully spent their precious clothing coupons and money on new clothes to make sure their purchases would be suitable across spring, summer and autumn and winter. Despite the restrictions, the war and civilian austerity did not put an end to creative design, commercial opportunism or fashionable trends on the British home front.

#FashionontheRation exhibition runs @imperialwarmuseums until 31 August.

Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap. For our final day of #MuseumInstaSwap we’re learning about the Second World War @ImperialWarMuseums, and discovering the impact of the war on ordinary people. 
Clothes were rationed in Britain from 1 June 1941. This limited the amount of new garments people could buy until 1949, four years after the war's end. The British government needed to reduce production and consumption of civilian clothes to safeguard raw materials and release workers and factory space for war production. As with food rationing, which had been in place since 1940, one of the reasons for introducing civilian clothes rationing was to ensure fairness. Rationing sought to ensure a more equal distribution of clothing and improve the availability of garments in the shops.

As this poster shows, the rationing scheme worked by allocating each type of clothing item a 'points' value which varied according to how much material and labour went into its manufacture. Eleven coupons were needed for a dress, two needed for a pair of stockings, and eight coupons required for a man's shirt or a pair of trousers. Women's shoes meant relinquishing five coupons, and men's footwear cost seven coupons. When buying new clothes, the shopper had to hand over coupons with a 'points' value as well as money. Every adult was initially given an allocation of 66 points to last one year, but this allocation shrank as the war progressed. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 8293) This week on @instagram we’ve joined up with other London museums to highlight our shared stories. Our partner is @imperialwarmuseums, whose incredible collection brings people’s experiences of modern war and conflict to life. Follow #MuseumInstaSwap to discover some of the intriguing historical connections we have found, as well as insights into everyday life during wartime. As part of our #MuseumInstaSwap with @ImperialWarMuseums, we’ve been given special access to the Churchill War Rooms – located deep below the streets of Westminster.
This is Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s bedroom, which includes his private desk, briefcase and papers, his bed and chamber pot and even an original cigar! The bedroom is located close to the Map Room, keeping Churchill as close as possible to the epicentre of Cabinet War Rooms.
Following the surrender of the Japanese Forces the doors to the War Rooms were locked on 16 August 1945 and the complex was left undisturbed until Parliament ensured its preservation as a historic site in 1948. Knowledge of the site and access to it remained highly restricted until the late 1970s when @ImperialWarMuseums began the task of preserving the site and its contents, making them accessible to as wide an audience as possible and opening them to the public in 1984.
Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap We’re exploring the Churchill War Rooms – the secret underground headquarters of the British government during the Second World War – in partnership with @ImperialWarMuseums for #MuseumInstaSwap.
The fear that London would be the target of aerial bombardment had troubled the government since the First World War and in 1938 the basement of a Whitehall building was chosen as the site for the Cabinet War Rooms. From 1940 to 1945 hundreds of men and women would spend thousands of vital hours here and it soon became the inner sanctum of British government.
Here you can see the wall of the Map Room, detailing the positions of British convoys across the world, which has not changed since 1945! Today in #MuseumInstaSwap we’re beneath the streets of Westminster to discover the hidden secrets of the #WW2 Cabinet War Rooms, which is part of @ImperialWarMuseums.
This is the underground bunker that protected the heart of Britain’s government during the Second World War as Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his inner circle plotted the route to Allied victory. It’s an amazing experience to step back in time and walk in the footsteps of Churchill, glimpsing what life would have been like during the tense days and nights of the Second World War. This archive photo shows Churchill at his desk in the Map Room at the Cabinet War Rooms. Beside him, Captain Pym of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR) takes a telephone call. To this day, the Map Room has remained exactly as it was left on the day the lights were switched off in 1945.
© IWM (HU 44788)
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