Charlie Dupré, tells us about the life of his play Compositor E, starting with his first experiences with Shakespeare.
An earlier draft of Compositor E was longlisted for the Bruntwood Playwriting Prize 2022 and was performed at Vault Festival this year. The run at Omnibus Theatre marks his first in-house production as playwright and his first publication with Methuen.
I’m 12 and have developed an obsession with Shakespeare’s Richard III. So I abridge it down to half an hour (assisted by some handy animated TV versions), and persuade some amenable school friends that we’re going to do it in my back garden for our parents (casting myself, interestingly, as Lady Anne). The following year we do Hamlet. My delight in these stories is heavily influenced by the boom of Shakespearean cinema versions of the time, and I realise later that this is something I’m really into: adaptation. The malleability of theme, character and text. How you can mess with them. How you can make them your own.
At drama school comes the introduction to the First Folio – I’m immediately infatuated with it. Such a specific, almost mystical look and feel, somehow more Shakespeare-y than the modern versions, and apparently there’s a good reason for every layout choice – every punctuation mark means something: in the absence of a director in a rehearsal room, the actor is being directed by a semi-colon! Somehow at this point, a playwright is born. I particularly love knowing which key words have capitalised first letters, and afterwards find the modern editions somewhat inadequate.
A Stratford-upon-Avon bookshop: I’m aware it’s the centenary soon and have toyed with the idea of writing something for it, only I don’t have the angle. Emma Smith’s ‘The Making of Shakespeare’s First Folio’ beams out at me, and later informs me that each of the compositors who worked on it had their own particular typesetting habits, which we can use to identify them, habits which in some cases actually alter the narrative. One of them makes more mistakes than the others – Compositor E – and it is likely he was an apprentice – a ‘journeyman’ who was learning on the job. It is even possible to track his improvement just by studying the book! This is the moment when I know how I will mess with Shakespeare. It’s not just that this team of labourers gave us some of our most cherished works of literature, ones which otherwise would’ve been lost forever. It’s that the texts of these works tell us a different story altogether – that of a young man who had travelled to London from elsewhere to learn a craft. What else was in his story? How might he have altered the narrative, and why? His presence looms over this text, so it’s time he had his authorship recognised, isn’t it?