I spent the best part of last year working on a dream project: a complete collection of stories from Shakespeare’s plays, written and edited by Anna Milbourne and published by Usborne. Each story includes short details about the main characters, and famous and memorable quotations from the play. The illustrations were ten months in the making, and I enjoyed every minute :).
But there is a backstory to this, and it starts sometime in 1996, when I discovered the best kind of books there was: plays! A book made only of dialogue, with helpful descriptions of characters at the beginning? Why weren’t all books like this? My parents had A midsummer night’s dream, The merry wives of Windsor and As you like it in pocket book format, and soon I knew them by heart. And, of course, I drew them.
And that was just the beginning of my Shakespearean adventure – because there was a British Council in my town, and they were renting video-tapes. Having read the Charles and Mary Lamb adaptations, I blindly navigated as many of the plays as I could find (they were in English, with no subtitles, but I sort of knew what was going on). I was young, and the adaptation that made the most powerful impression on me was Shakespeare: The Animated Tales, produced by the BBC and animated in Russia by Soyuzmultfilm (I especially liked the stop-motion wax-dolls ones – here is the Tempest).
In high-school, I started reading about the plays, and The Taming of the Shrew wasn’t so fun anymore, but was it ever meant to be fun? And then I got to university, and our first graphic design project was on Prospero’s Books – the Peter Greenway movie. Of course, you’ll say, this is Shakespeare, so it gets better and more complex as you get older – he is, after all, the world’s pre-eminent dramatist. And also, he’s everywhere, so I can’t even claim that discovering him as a kid was much of a coincidence…
…but this doesn’t change the fact that when the Usborne project came along, I was over the moon. I re-read the pays. I re-watched the movies (I’d love to say that I understand everything now. I don’t). I listened to documentaries (listen to this one about original pronunciation and tell me that the Hamlet ending doesn’t give you goosebumps) and interviews. I spent ages researching the costumes. And I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to do this as part of my real job.
I hope some of the joy I felt working on this passed into the illustrations. Many thanks to Anna Milbourne, Hayley Wells and Maria Bogade for their guidance.