It is so heartwarming when production companies take their projects seriously enough to ensure that things are done properly, and this was the case with the forthcoming production of Shakespeare in Love in London’s West End.
I was asked to teach actor Tom Bateman (right), who is William Shakespeare in the play, how to cut and use a quill.
The teaching session was in the Playhouse Theatre and that particular night was the Press Night, so the red carpet was out (I knew it wasn’t for me!) and preparations were being made for that evening. I’ve never been at a Press Night and it all looked very exciting.
We found a quiet room off the bar, I set knives, feathers, ink and hand-made paper up on a table, and Tom looked for a bin – essential for quill cutting.
I went through the stages of quill cutting, with quickly drawn diagrams, and explained the process as I cut and changed a swan’s wing feather into a usable pen. Then it was Tom’s turn. At first he didn’t realise quite how tough the barrels of feathers are, but once I’d shown him how to place his thumbs and the angle of the knife for maximum effect, he was well away. It’s so marvellous teaching people who pick things up quickly, and Tom had a good quill cut in no time.
Then it was on to the writing; I had some hand-made paper with me that had a slightly textured surface, which would have been similar to the paper used in Elizabethan times (and at this time it is more likely to have been paper than vellum or parchment). Tom enjoyed the ‘tooth’ between a well-cut quill and the paper, and the scratching sound of the quill nib – there’s nothing like it! I also explained how precious paper was. The screwed up rejects of paper thrown over Shakespeare’s shoulder in the Shakespeare in Love film as he suffered from writer’s block were very unlikely. Paper was just too expensive to be wasted like this!
So all stages of cutting and using a quill were revised again, and Tom was happy with the process, so, armed with my DVD to remind him of what he had learned, he was then off to buy a quill knife (I use X-Acto knives with replaceable blades, removing the pointed blade that it comes with with a curved blade that are sold in sets of five) and feathers to practise.
I’m looking forward very much indeed to the production at the Noel Coward Theatre, and will be eagle-eyed to ensure that the quill is cut properly (if it writes and you end up with the right numbers of digits after cutting it, it’s fine!). It will also be interesting to see if Tom has any little ‘starting writing’ processes – I did suggest one to him, and if he uses it, you know where it came from!