Shakespeare’s Sonnets at the Southbank Centre – 1st June 2014

Sunday 1st June was marked by the Southbank Centre as a day of sonnets. Throughout the day free activities took place related to Shakespeare’s sonnets, which was followed in the evening by a complete reading of all 154 of them by ten wonderful actors at the Royal Festival Hall. As someone who enjoys Shakespeare’s work I was keen to experience this event.

Juliet Stevenson, Simon Russell Beale, David Harewood & Juliet Walter were among those taking part.
Juliet Stevenson, Simon Russell Beale, David Harewood & Juliet Walter were among those taking part.

The actors taking part in the event were: Deborah Findlay, Oliver Ford-Davies, Juliet Stevenson, Paterson Joseph, Harriet Walter, Simon Russell-Beale, Maureen Baettie, David Harewood, Victoria Hamilton and Guy Paul. The format of the event was quite straightforward, as all ten actors were sitting on the stage throughout and then took it in turns to stand and between them read all of Shakespeare’s sonnets in order across two acts (we reached Sonnet 77 at the interval).

I found it to be an incredibly interesting evening, as I am not familiar with Shakespeare’s sonnets in great detail and instead only recognise some of the more famous ones. Possibly the most famous is Sonnet 18 (aka “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”) which was read wonderfully by Harriet Walter. Particular highlights for me were Sonnet 135 & 136, read by Paterson Joseph. In fact Paterson was superb throughout – he brought the words to life brilliantly, adding emphasis and appropriate tone, sometimes requiring him to deliver the sonnets quite playfully and he certainly seemed to be enjoying the event as much as the audience. It was fun to hear him read Sonnet 144, which I now associate with the Lover’s Rap in David Tennant’s 2011 production of Much Ado About Nothing, which was performed on the soundtrack of that play by Adam James (Don Pedro), for which the composer Michael Bruce used songs from other Shakespeare plays or created ones using Shakespeare’s words – in this case Sonnet 144 as well as 146!

A master at Shakespeare - Oliver Ford Davies
A master at Shakespeare – Oliver Ford Davies
Victoria Hamilton beautifully delivered her sonnets
Victoria Hamilton beautifully delivered her sonnets

It was also wonderful to see such established Shakespearean talents as Simon Russell Beale and Oliver Ford Davies taking part. Both have been integral to pulling me into Shakespeare over the last few years and their readings were delivered with clarity and an obvious deep understanding of the material. I particularly enjoyed Sonnet 138 (by Mr. Russell Beale).  Victoria Hamilton is an actress I am less familiar with (having only seen her work in the BBC’s 1995 Pride & Prejudice and 2005’s To The Ends of The Earth). I found her to be a captivating actress, giving such emotional depth to her readings (I especially enjoyed Sonnet 109) and I will certainly go and see her whenever she is on stage.

The programme notes (which in my view, should have been a bit longer and ideally contain biographies of those taking part, although perhaps their attendance was arranged at short notice) talk about how some of the sonnets are by far stronger than others, which I would now certainly agree with. Hearing all of them together was an ideal way for me to appreciate the range of emotions and to some extent quality of the sonnets. Some were more elegant and beautiful than others, but read as a group that didn’t really matter.

Paterson Joseph was excellent during the evening.
Paterson Joseph was excellent during the evening.

I continue to be in awe of Shakespeare’s work the more of his plays I see (I still have nine to tick off my list) and it was a wonderful experience to become more familiar with his sonnets through such a wonderful event.

For details of future events at the Southbank Centre, visit its website:

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