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Retelling Rome and Juliet at Anne Hathaway's Cottage

Artist Thor McIntyre with his installation at Anne Hathaway’s Cottage. Photo: Mark Williamson
Artist Thor McIntyre with his installation at Anne Hathaway’s Cottage. Photo: Mark Williamson

Sound and visual artist Thor McIntyre has extracted thoughts and words, spoken and written, from visitors to Anne Hathaway’s Cottage to create an extraordinary art installation celebrating Shakespeare’s great love story. He tells Gill Sutherland about it.

“If only it could have a happy ending – just once…” Who hasn’t wished this of Shakespeare’s greatest love story, Romeo and Juliet? This thought, and many others — written on yellow tags or made as voice recordings — went into the making of an extraordinary art installation at Anne Hathaway’s Cottage created over the summer.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust collaborated with award-winning sound and visual artist Thor McIntyre to create the experimental art installation based on Romeo and Juliet, with a twist: this is the story not as Shakespeare penned it, but as it lives on in our hearts and minds.

Speaking to Herald arts Thor explains how it worked. “The project was called Threads of the Unsaid and it evolved over summer and culminated on Saturday with An Aspect of Sound. Essentially we’ve been creating an installation that encourages people to participate to collectively create a crowd-scripted version of Romeo and Juliet.

“We built a pathway that weaves through the orchard at the cottage — it’s a tunnel of woody arches and woven in amongst those arches are lengths of red thread with bold yellow tags on the end and each one is a contribution from a person.

“Essentially when visitors arrive an attendant gives you a tag and asks you to contribute a memory or a reflection about Romeo and Juliet on the tag — the pathway runs from the prologue at the start, running through the acts, ending with Act V. We then asked people to put their tags where they thought they would fit best. The idea is that as you walk through you can read tags, collecting fragments and moments to create your own version of Romeo and Juliet as you weave through.”

Amazingly there are currently over a thousand tags, with more being added. What kind of things do people write?

“A lot of people talked about the balcony scene — of course Shakespeare makes no mention of a balcony — and ‘wherefore art thou, Romeo?’ or various versions of that line,” says Thor. “We had many written in different languages, including Chinese and Japanese, and some really nice anecdotes, one said: ‘We are two lovers like R and J who go by the name Claudia and Frankie but hopefully with a happy ending.’”

Also in situ was the extraordinary mobile ‘Recollecta Salon’ that recorded people recalling and relating to the famous story via spoken word. Thor explains how that worked:

“I built a recording chair, called the Recollecta Chair that is like a 1960s hairdresser’s chair that speaks to you and records your voice. The idea is that instead of writing a tag you respond to a number of questions the chair asks you — it’s like a conversation. We wanted it to be funny and quirky and not too imposing.

“I collected all of those recordings, and then on Saturday we had sculptural speakers hanging beneath little umbrellas, so that they were floating along the pathway, and coming out of those were the voices that we’d collected.”

The archives of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust had also been scoured for snippets of memories. Thor explains: “We dug up scripts, show prompts, actors’ notes and directors’ cues from past productions of Romeo and Juliet — we pulled out nuggets we thought were interesting and recorded those too; they included a fracas between a designer and director, and an incident where Juliet broke her ankle during a production performed on roller skates.”

While Thor, who is usually based in London, was in Stratford he also took time out to see the current production at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Did he see any correlation with the work he’d been doing?

“Curiously we were both interested in the same thing — voices being heard. I was particularly struck by the scene where Juliet’s father is condemning her and saying don’t talk, listen to me. It really highlighted the idea of people thinking their voices aren’t being heard, especially female voices. I like how some of the male roles were played by women. The Prince’s line ‘You men, you beasts, who satisfy your anger with fountains of each others’ blood!’ has a totally different meaning when said by a woman.”

Working on the art installation was Thor impressed by people’s understanding of Rome and Juliet?

“Everyone knows something, even small kids,” says Thor. “In one voice recording a small child was talking about ‘a tomato fight followed by a blueberry fight… and how the swan found their love’ — I thought what are they talking about?! Then they mentioned a gnome and I realised they were talking about Gnomeo and Juliet, the children’s film.”

Thor concludes: “One of the motivations for the piece was that I was intrigued how something so well known exists in the public consciousness — what aspects of this story do people hold even if they haven’t seen it?

“The story is still being constructed as people add tags. Acts III and IV are looking a bit thin still because it’s the bit people know the least.”

What are you waiting for? Go along to Anne Hathaway’s and help retell Shakespeare’s love story before the art installation is taken down on 4th November.

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