When actor and blogger William Sutton talks about Shakespeare, his animated gestures and twinkling eyes clearly show that he is a man in love. The love affair began in a coffee shop in Amsterdam with a book of the sonnets.
“I lit a fat doobie on fire and opened the book to the most famous sonnet in the history of the world, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day… This was hard-core textual intercourse,” says Sutton, an actor/comic/performer, who ever since has immersed himself in all things Shakespeare.
Sutton has many outlets for expressing his passion. Onstage, he performs in Shakespeare’s plays; he presents workshops to help introduce students and audiences to Shakespeare at schools and festivals. One of his workshops is titled SHAOKE, which is Shakespeare Karaoke. Students and participants can recite Shakespeare (with a mike and scrolling text), the same way a wanna-be singer can belt out his or her favorite song.
His stand-up comedy act is titled Why Love Shakespeare? A part of this show is his Sonnet Challenge. In each seat, Sutton lays a different copy of all 154 sonnets. Participants are asked to call out a sonnet number or a word, and Sutton will either call out the sonnet number, recite a line from the sonnet, or recite the entire sonnet. He has memorized all 2,155 lines of the 154 sonnets.
How? Practice. Practice. Practice. It took more than five years of “taking advantage of that post-gig energy” to learn and practice reciting the sonnets. He’d group them in chunks of say 1 to 35 at a time. He still reviews 30 sonnets daily to stay sharp. “Brits reaction to this is that’s a very nice parlor trick, but it was about really getting to know Shakespeare,” says Sutton, who lives in Amsterdam. Sutton took his one-man show to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, which earned him a four-star review from The Scotsman.
Sutton’s obsession with the sonnets has to do with the intensity of their content. “They are an internal struggle between reason and passion. They are a journey through the human emotions of love, happiness, hate, fear, and jealousy,” he says.
After more than two decades performing the Bard’s work, it’s hard to find something that Sutton hasn’t done. This last July 2014, he performed with several other Shakespearean actors at Shakespeare’s Globe in London. He was cast as Banquo in an original pronunciation version of Macbeth as part of a three-night exploration of original pronunciation, which also included OP readings of sonnets and songs as well as a talk from leading experts David and Ben Crystal (father and son, David began the OP movement when he collaborated with Shakespeare’s Globe to create an OP production of Romeo and Juliet in 2004).
“We had an ad hock ensemble,” Sutton says. “Some were experienced, some were not. We had actors from Austria, Lithuania, Scotland, Ireland, America, Wales. David worked with each of us on Skype to get the correct pronunciation down. It leveled us out. Audience couldn’t tell the origin of the actor. Rhymes and jokes started to work again… the language came to life.”
Sutton met Ben Crystal through Ben’s sister, who had been Sutton’s publicist for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. She brought Ben to the show. “He wanted to hate this guy who was going to do the sonnets, but he ended up liking me.” Once the two began talking Shakespeare, they became fast friends. “We both like single-malt whiskey and good food. We can both do Shakespeare all day, and still come home and talk Shakespeare. He is so engrained in us. We bounce ideas off each other. We have a missionary, passion for the topic, and we want others to see that. Shakespeare is only boring if he is taught boringly. He has to be brought down from the ivory towers.”
But let there be no mistake, Sutton has a scholarly side, that “ivory tower” education. After discovering his love for Shakespeare, he made a pilgrimage to Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon. While there, he was on Church Street and saw a brass plaque for The Shakespeare Institute, which is a part of the University of Birmingham. Inside, he saw a grey-haired professor, whom he later learned was the prominent scholar Stanley Wells. He inquired about the school’s cost, and two years later he came back with enough money saved to study at the school for a year. During his time at the institute, Sutton received his degree in Shakespeare studies learning with and from top Shakespeare scholars such as Wells, Paul Prescott, and Paul Edmondson.
Now Sutton’s outlet for his intellectual pursuits is in his blog I Love Shakespeare. This site has guest posts from Ben Crystal, articles on original pronunciation, original practices, the women of Shakespeare, plus quizzes on the sonnets and plays. The latter quiz requires players to match the opening lines with the correct play. All things Sutton is all things Shakespeare. Catch him and catch the Shakespeare fever.
Deborah Voorhees writes reviews, features, and a weekly column Bard in Multimedia that publishes each Monday and covers books, films, recordings, web content, videos, video games, radio, television, and all emerging mediums. Send press releases and comments to the Associate Editor for Multimedia, Deborah Voorhees at firstname.lastname@example.org.