"I see their knavery: this is to make an ass of me" So says Bottom, the lovable fool in A Midsummer Night's Dream, when he finds out he has been partly transformed into a donkey. In one of Shakespeare's most famous plays, Oberon and Titania, king and queen of the fairies, are arguing and the king sends his cheeky servant Puck to aggravate the queen. After turning Bottom into a donkey, Puck uses a love potion on the queen of the fairies to make her fall in love with the donkey-headed Bottom. One of the funniest and most magical comedies now unfurls, with the humble donkey as a focal character...
In a homage to the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) are touring the UK and joining up with local theatre groups to give amateur actors a chance to perform with leading Shakespeareans. In the West Midlands, amateur dramatic company 'The Nonentities' of Kidderminster will be performing with the RSC, with their very own Chris Clarke playing the role of Bottom. In a bid to gather some research into donkey behaviour and how to best portray one on stage, Chris made his way down to our Centre in Birmingham.
Through human-donkey interaction, the donkeys in Birmingham provide happiness, stimulation and companionship to children with additional needs in the local area, as well as to residents in local care homes and respite centres. Chris spoke with Andy, one of the grooms who works with Birmingham's 20 donkeys, and a lover of Shakespeare himself. Whilst watching the donkeys, Chris gained an insight into their mannerisms and characteristics.
Chris said "We had a great discussion about donkey traits and the signs that show emotions. For instance, donkeys move quickly away if they are 'afeared', and then will move cautiously back to explore." Andy showed Chris around the stables and the yard, giving Chris a chance to get 'hands on' with the animals he will be portraying. Chris noted that "they also like nothing more than to be stroked around the jaw -which will produce a lovely wobbly lip movement showing enjoyment. There's also the 'nudging' they do when they want to get your attention." It was encouraging to hear how much Chris took away with him to incorporate into his stage performance.
Bottom's donkey head disappears as he wakes from his Night's Dream the next morning. In a twist to the play, instead of Bottom coming out of his transformation as a dumb and mute fool, as the donkey is sometime portrayed to be, he emerges with a fantastic speech and as the only mortal in the play who had the privilege of seeing the magical fairy realm. "Thou art as wise as thou art beautiful" says Titania the fairy queen of Bottom as a donkey - a phrase that could have easily been on the lips of The Donkey Sanctuary's founder Dr Elisabeth Svendsen.
April 23rd is regarded by many to be 'Shakespeare Day' and the works of Shakespeare still have much to teach us. Here they seem to echo the teachings of animal charities worldwide - by interacting with nature and it's creatures, we have a direct link to magic and beauty. As Chris Clarke himself noted, "Seeing -and being surrounded- by these noble beasts was not only great for some research, but also reinforced The Donkey Sanctuary's work with children and adults."
The immortal bard, it seems, was clearly a visionary when it came to the humble donkey, for they are truly as wise as they are beautiful.
Chris Clarke's blog can be read at http://dramatichris.blogspot.co.uk/
Read the BBC's article of the RSC tour at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-33238563