Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 214
Mat Osman’s new novel, The Ghost Theatre, takes us flying over the rooftops of Elizabethan London and down into the gritty lives of its child actors. A historical novel set in a vibrant and sensuously reimagined Elizabethan London, the book’s main character is Shay, the daughter of a clairvoyant who lives among a community who worship birds. When Shay meets a charming young actor named Nonesuch, she is drawn into the world of the children’s theater—that is, a theater whose actors and crew are all made up of young people, performing for an audience made of primarily of adults. Shay falls in love with performance and joins an immersive guerrilla theater troupe that gets tangled up in a violent political power struggle.
The Ghost Theatre is Osman’s second novel, but you may know him from his other gig: he’s the bass player in the British rock band Suede. To get the texture of Elizabethan life right in The Ghost Theatre, Osman researched as much as he could at the margins of history. Osman tells Barbara Bogaev about how he imagined the lives of London’s early modern child actors.
Listen to Shakespeare Unlimited on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Soundcloud, or wherever you get your podcasts.
The Ghost Theatre is available now from Overlook Press.
This episode was produced by Matt Frassica. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. Leonor Fernandez. edits our transcripts. We had technical help from Sarah Nicol in London and Jenna McClellan at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Seas, Inc.
MICHAEL WITMORE: On today’s episode, a novel takes us flying over the rooftops of Elizabethan London and down into the gritty lives of its child actors.
From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger Director.
The Ghost Theatre is a historical novel set in a vibrant and sensuously reimagined Elizabethan London. Its main character is Shay, the daughter of a clairvoyant who lives among a community who worship birds. When Shay meets a charming young actor named Nonesuch, she gets drawn into the world of the children’s theater—that is, a theater whose actors and crew are all made up of young people, while the audience is mostly adults. Shay falls in love with performance and joins an immersive guerrilla theater troupe that gets tangled up in a violent political power struggle.
The author of The Ghost Theatre is Mat Osman. Osman is more famous as the bass player in the British rock band Suede. To get the texture of Elizabethan life right in The Ghost Theatre, Osman researched as much as he could at the margins of history. But the resulting novel goes far beyond period mimicry.
Osman has built a fantastical alternative-history England in which bird worshippers are persecuted and Queen Elizabeth musters a shadow army to put down an internal revolt. The result is a beautifully evocative novel that’s also a page-turner worthy of the beach.
Here’s Mat Osman in conversation with Barbara Bogaev.
BARBARA BOGAEV: So much of this story is about performance. And I know you wrote this novel while you were on tour with the band. So, was it originally going to be a story about a band?
MAT OSMAN: Yes, it was. It springs from an idea I had many years ago about writing about the ups and downs of a band but setting it in a different time period. I thought it’d be quite interesting to take that kind of the shape of a band’s career and put it in like Edwardian times or Victorian times.
BOGAEV: Huh. What intrigued you about that?
OSMAN: Because I thought there was a kind of an arc to, kind of, artistic pursuits that always seem to be followed. You know, one of the things with Suede is when we split up, I thought we’d have this fascinating, interesting career. Then, when I looked at it from a distance, it was kind of like—it was like every band, you know? Young, get a load of success, goes to your head, take things too easy, have arguments, split up.
The specifics change, but the general arc of it, it’s always Icarus, you know? It’s always that story. I thought it would be interesting to take it back a little way. But every time I tried it, it never really worked. It always ended up being about folk musicians, and I really don’t like folk music.
But then I saw a documentary about the kidnapping of a child actor in 1601, where a child was stolen to perform on stage at the Blackfriars Theatre. And immediately the ideas kind of clicked into place. And I was like, “Of course,” you know?
If there’d been like a punk movement in history, this is where it would have been. These were young working-class kids who were incredibly famous but had no power and the money was taken off them.
The parallels just that—they just flooded me. I started to write it as a… pretty much like an allegory of London’s punk movement, but set in Elizabethan London.
BOGAEV: These theater managers, they press ganged boys basically into service in the stage. You have this wonderful passage actually describing this kidnapping of a boy for the theater. Maybe you could read it for us and set it up for us.
OSMAN: So this is where—this is Henry Evans who was the real owner of the Blackfriars Theatre and was involved in kidnapping these children to basically to do the court masks originally. These are the big plays that Elizabeth I absolutely loved. So, this is the kidnapping.
“After it was over. Shay saw the kidnap happen again in snatches like lightning strikes. Evans and his men and his horses, all in black. Spurs dug into flanks, hunting cries, and the Blackfriars boys whispering, ‘There’ll be a new boy in the dorm tonight.’
“She’d gone up onto the rooftops to watch the sport. The men working like sheepdogs, herding a group of schoolboys away from the throng and into the quieter back streets. Children running, hands on caps, men laughing. Evans, one handed at a gallop, plucking the boy he wanted with a studied ease, cuffing his ear even as he rode on. Chasing, a pair of bare legs kicking at the air, and then all was silence. The only sign that anything had occurred was the school cap trodden into the mud.”
BOGAEV: They hunted these boys.
OSMAN: Yeah, I mean, there’s an incredible document in the records office down in Kew from 1601. Because one of the boys, his father sued Evans to try and get him back. And it talks about the men dragging him off the street. He was on his way to school with his friends as it happened.
BOGAEV: Wow. All right, so you have Henry Evans and then you got your setting from this whole idea. But how did this protagonist, Shay, enter in? She’s a bird worshipper, we should say.
OSMAN: She is a bird worshipper, yes. Shay came… kind of dropped from the heavens for me. I mean originally it was a book about Nonesuch, the main actor. I needed a character to be our eyes and ears at the theater said so that we could watch a performance for the first time.
BOGAEV: An outsider.
OSMAN: Exactly. Yeah, and the minute I started writing her—and she’s a messenger girl—I was fascinated by the way they could kind of go anywhere in the city. They were the kind of lifeblood of the city.
I started writing her and she just came to life for me. At the time, I was reading the autobiography of an American musician called Kristin Hersh, who used to sing with the Throwing Muses. She talks about how for the first five years of her career, she doesn’t remember a moment of being on stage. She would walk onto stage, she would perform, not remembering any of it. Then, she would basically come to afterwards and say, “What did I play?” I was so fascinated by this idea; that there’s another part of you that takes over when you’re performing, that you have no control over, that I knew I wanted to put it into a character.
I had this girl who was running across the rooftops, and everything kind of came from that. She’s one of those characters—it doesn’t happen very often—that just came to me pretty much fully-formed. I knew how she looked, how she talked, where she was from. It was just sheer blind luck, to be honest.
BOGAEV: Wow. And, I love her. I love that you just said she kind of came to you from above. Because I have a note here, it’s a quote from your book. “She came down with a crash,” is how it starts.
So, tell us about this God worshipping. And they’re called “flappers” in your book. They have sparrows tattooed on their inner wrists. Who are they in your mind, and did you base them on anything like Romani or a culture, a subculture?
OSMAN: You know what, they’re not based on anything. And people keep coming to me now with these really interesting ideas of who they might have been based on. And I keep saying, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s definitely them. It’s definitely them.”
It came from just a tour-bus conversation, as so many things do. We were just talking about, you know, cultures that worship, kind of, animals, like the Egyptians and stuff like that. And just wondering why there was no culture that worshipped birds. They seem eminently worshipable.
You know, they live in the heavens. They’re unknowable. They’re beautiful, they’re cruel. You know, they tick all the God-like boxes.
BOGAEV: They’re angels.
OSMAN: Exactly, exactly. You already have this vision of Devana, Shay’s bird, as a kind of angel overhead. And, like a lot of the things in the book, it was just me exploring the idea. It tickled me, the idea, that someone might worship birds. I just started writing about it.
All the kind of doubting about it, you know, Nonesuch saying, “Well, that means your gods eat worms,” and everything like that is me kind of prodding back at my idea saying, “Well, this is a bit pretentious, isn’t it?” And, then, her answers are kind of like, “Well, no. There’s something beautiful and unknowable about birds.”
BOGAEV: Nonesuch is your main actor, character in the Blackfriars. You must have thoroughly researched falconry. I mean, you write like you’ve spent a lot of time with these birds.
OSMAN: I did quite a lot of reading on it. I must admit the book that most kind of affected me was H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald.
BOGAEV: Of course.
OSMAN: Which if any of your listeners haven’t read, it’s an absolutely extraordinary book about a woman who [is mourning the death of her father] and decides to train a hawk. And the difficulties and the beauty of doing so.
What she tries to do in that book is, she tries to understand something that’s not understandable. She tries to understand this bird.
The thing that fascinates me about hawking and falconry is that you can do anything you want, but at some point you have to let them off the rest. You have to let them off the lead. So, you can’t beat them. You can’t be cruel. You have to build a kind of trust between them.
That kind of, like, trust and cruelty and the mixture of them I think is just so interesting. In a weird way I think Shay’s relationship with her bird is the most honest relationship in the entire book. They’re both really clear what they want and expect from each other, and they get it.
BOGAEV: So there’s Shay, and then there’s Nonesuch, the actor. Then, there’s London, really, is almost like another character in this book. It’s really fun to experience London through your eyes, especially in the first chapter. Maybe you could do another reading for us. It’s on right on—right in the beginning, page 11 to 12. About Cheapside. And, just tell us what Cheapside—I mean you’re going to tell us what it’s like, but what’s Cheapside to you, maybe? To give us some context.
OSMAN: Cheapside was where basically London’s commerce met. There were posher places that sold, kind of like, finished goods, but Cheapside was where, like, the raw materials of London life came.
This is a moment of real expansion in trade. Suddenly all the world’s goods are turning up on this quite drab London street.
Right, let me find the page.
“Shay loved Cheapside. Loved it more than any other place in London. The world was laid out here like a living map. Silks from India were stacked in riotous pyramids, rough edges hinting at the jungle within. Dutch merchants wore heavy, buckled hats over heavy, troubled faces, and squatted behind a forest of tulips. Seville oranges were labelled, hopefully, Marisco, so that the buyer’s patriotism wouldn’t be questioned.
“Reynold’s Spice Shop warmed one whole side of the street with a burnt, throat-catching aroma, and she took Nonesuch’s arm and showed him, nose to the air with her eyes closed.
“‘Cinnamon, cayenne, cloves and pepper. You taste it? India, Panama, Madeira, on your tongue for free.’
“He barked a quick laugh, but still he stood with his mouth ajar.
“Wiltshire ham, Anglia wool, Cornish tin. In ten minutes walking they heard five languages, twenty accents. Even the swallows overhead had travelled thousands of miles to get here.
“In Shay’s view of the world. London was the bullseye at the center of an archery target, and Cheapside was a miraculous once in a lifetime dead center shot.”
BOGAEV: I love that, the heavy… “the Dutch merchants with their heavy, troubled faces.”
OSMAN: Brian Eno once said that he wanted to do a photograph book called The Book of Giant Flemish Noses. I was kind of stealing that from him.
BOGAEV: What else did you steal, and from where? I mean, what research did you do to write the description of the crowds and the smells and the sounds of Cheapside and Tudor England?
OSMAN: It’s quite hard because so many history books are books about kings and queens and courts and things like that.
The lucky accident is that there have been so many great books about Shakespeare and Shakespeare lived quite an ordinary life. I mean, not in his work, but in his lodgings and where he drank and stuff like that.
So lots of it is kind of dredged from the marginalia, really, of Shakespeare books. You know, when they’re talking about how he spent his days when he wasn’t writing and things like that. Lots of odd little things. There’s a brilliant book on the fashions of Elizabethan London which I found really, really useful. Because clothes were so coded at that time. I mean, there were certain colors that you and I couldn’t wear.
BOGAEV: Right. Because of our class or occupation.
OSMAN: Yeah, totally. Unless you’re English royalty—I’m not sure that you are from your accent—you couldn’t have worn purple. If you were apprenticed, then you’d be wearing blue and you’d be wearing your cap. It was incredibly coded that way.
I was always looking for not the big things about London, but the tiny little moments. There’s a brilliant line in one of the Shakespeare books where a Londoner complains about the monasteries that Henry VIII had taken back, being turned into luxury flats, basically. Kind of like loads and loads of little cells, and the fact that there were foreign workers who were doing it all.
It’s basically a London pub conversation of last week. You know what I mean? “Oh, it’s all getting turned into luxury flats. And it’s foreigners who are doing the work,” you know? I love those little things that bring you straight back to there and make you think, “Obviously, they thought the same things we do.” And those moments, those connections across the years, they’re kind of what you write for.
BOGAEV: Yeah, they’re magical. I also love your description of the bear pit. Your actors go there before their first performance to touch the champion of the bear pit for good luck, Sackerson. Was that something you read about in your research?
OSMAN: Yeah, Sackerson’s a real bear. And turns up in Shakespeare, in fact.
OSMAN: Yes, he was kind of the undefeated champion for many years at a Southwark pit. I just kind of loved the idea.
You know, I was writing about boys. And, again, I was thinking to myself that boys don’t change that much. So, they love the carriages. You know, they love the carriages in the way that boys now love cars. They love Sackerson in the way that now, that boys love sports stars.
BOGAEV: And that, it made me think, “Oh, it’s just like baseball players.” You know, they’re superstitious. Of course, all actors are superstitious.
OSMAN: Oh, God, yeah. I mean, actors are the absolute— they’re worse than the musicians for superstition. It’s ridiculous.
BOGAEV: I never think of musicians as superstitious. Is it true?
OSMAN: It takes us about 45 minutes to get ready for stage. And that’s just rituals.
BOGAEV: Are what are yours? What do you do?
OSMAN: Oh my god, I honestly couldn’t start to tell you. You know what I mean? They’re so ridiculous. Things have to be said in a certain way, things have to be sent out, things have to be replaced, certain things have to be drunk. You know what I mean?
There’s a time when coffee, you know… it’s ridiculous. It’s absolutely ridiculous, but it just gets you into that kind of like, “Here we go.”
BOGAEV: Wow. Okay. Well, there are a lot of details—getting back to Tudor England—that you have Shay and Nonesuch enact as they’re moving through this wonderful Cheapside scenes.
One of them is that they’re late at one point getting to the theater, I think. And Nonesuch, who’s always very inventive and ready to disguise himself, he smears blood on his face and pretends he’s been mugged. That just parts the crowd, you know. And they’re yelling, “Someone’s been hurt,” and they get through it faster.
It’s just wonderful. Have you come up with this? It made me wonder if you’d ever tried it.
OSMAN: I’ve never done anything like that, but Nonesuch is kind of based on actors and lead singers I’ve known who are only really happy if there’s a drama. Only really interested in people looking at them, either for good things or for bad things. It doesn’t really matter.
So I just put myself in his shoes and I just thought that’s what he’d do.
BOGAEV: Nonesuch, in the book, he’s adopted this name, it seems, from a building: Nonesuch House. Was this a building you just wandered by and just thought, “What a great name for a character?”
OSMAN: Exactly that. I mean, Nonesuch is a word that turns up quite a lot in London. There is a Nonesuch House; not the one on London Bridge anymore, but there’s still one down in Southwest London. There’s an area called Nonesuch.
It kind of crops up in all these weird places. And I can remember driving through it at one point thinking, “I’m so going to call a character Nonesuch.”
The thing I really love about it is that it means, kind of, unparalleled. It’s a superlative, but at the same time, it kind of means nothing. You know, it means invisibility. It means not existing. And that seemed perfect for this mix of powerful and powerless that you get with actors.
You know, this kind of, on the streets, they’re nothing. But on the stage, they’re kings. That feeling.
BOGAEV: Well, let’s talk about theater. There’re so many different kinds of theater in your book. Nonesuch, of course, in the Blackfriars. And why Antony and Cleopatra? Is that a favorite of yours?
OSMAN: No, actually. It’s not one of my favorites. I wanted a kind of iconic female character for him to play. And so many people had written Cleopatra plays that I thought I could get away with that. I mean, one of the things is…
BOGAEV: What do you mean, get away with that?
OSMAN: That the children’s theatre’s never played any Shakespeare. In fact, Shakespeare was kind of opposed to them.
There’s a little—there’s a line, I think, in the folio version of Hamlet, where he kind of slags off the child companies. He calls them “little eyases,” which is little baby hawks, in fact, and has a bit of a dig at them, because they were competitors of his.
Lots of the plays that the Blackfriars boys put on, we don’t see anymore. There’s no record of them, you know. I mean, we’re lucky that so much of Shakespeare is saved.
But I thought Cleopatra was the kind of thing that they would have played. I mean, they did… they played very interesting acts, it must be said. They were quite satirical. There were things I think they felt children could say, that if adults were to say it would be sedition.
BOGAEV: Right, they’d land in the stocks. Yeah.
OSMAN: Exactly. There were things you could kind of write off as impudence. They were often quite sexual. There was definitely some kind of titillation going on at seeing these characters kiss, and fall in love, and flirt with the audience, and all these kind of things.
So, yeah, I wanted something that had a little bit of edge to it. So that’s why I chose the Cleopatra. And I thought he’d make a good Cleopatra. He’s got the bone structure.
BOGAEV: Definitely. So, this is interesting because the boys do have to entertain after the performances in your book and in history: private shows. Was that something you knew or you learned about in reading?
OSMAN: It was something I learned about. I mean, it’s kind of twofold. I mean, the Blackfriars boys, they started off being employed for masques: for performances for the Queen that would be quite really high production values, often outdoors. Quite extraordinary things with special effects and casts of thousands.
They realized that they could charge for the rehearsals for this. What would happen is, in the Blackfriars Theatre—which did exist, and if you now go to the Globe Theatre, there’s a version of it. So, they would rehearse for the masques there, and then they got so many people coming, that it became a legitimate theatre.
BOGAEV: Yeah, and it makes for a really poignant storyline for you—for Nonesuch. Because these boy theaters at the bottom of the heap and the, as you say, the adult theaters looking down on them. There really was no future for these boys.
OSMAN: Yeah, I mean, the odd one, there’s one called Nathan Field who did go on to become like an adult actor and play with the King’s Men. Became quite famous. But the rest of them are pretty much written from history.
I’m always looking for documents to find out what happened to them, but I don’t think anything exists, sadly.
BOGAEV: Yea, it’s heartbreaking. It did make me think a little bit— this storyline—about you and growing older as a rock musician. What that must be like.
OSMAN: That’s really, really interesting. I hadn’t thought about that at all, but you know, there’s a point every time when we go on to—I mean, I’m 55 now, and every time we start a new tour, I find myself up on stage throwing myself around and singing and stuff, there’s a point where I think, “This is ridiculous. This is a young man’s game,” you know? And then, just the flow of it and the feeling of the audience, it just turns it into something else.
But perhaps, yeah, perhaps that was on my mind. You know, we don’t expect rock musicians to grow up. Nowadays actors are allowed to. But yes, at that point there was definitely a ticking clock in all of their heads.
BOGAEV: You have Shay and Nonesuch, your main characters in the Blackfriars. But they start their own theater, the Ghost Theatre, that really sounds like, very modern and like an immersive, no walls, guerrilla-improv type experience. What was the genesis of that idea? I just imagine as I was reading it that you wanted to set these two performers free.
OSMAN: I think it’s that. I think it’s partly that. I think it’s partly just a really simple idea that people like to see themselves on stage and on screen. I mean, we know how important it is for people to see stories about people like them. You know, and one of the driving things of the punk movement was songs about the streets and about people. How people really lived.
When Suede started, it was very much about that for us. It was about singing about our lives and the people around us. And that… I’m certain that that kind of impetus has always existed. You know, I don’t believe that this is something that’s just sprung into life in the 20th century.
And I was always looking for, “Okay, so how would that have manifested itself in Elizabethan society?” You know what I mean? These kids, these actors, these performers, would have wanted to tell the stories of their own lives. And when it happened, it would have had a huge, huge effect.
It was almost going back to the very genesis of the idea of the book. The kind of… the punk thing. The kind of youth movement. And just saying, “I’m sure they would have wanted to do something like this.”
What would you do if your only power was the power of acting, you know? Where would you perform? What stories would you tell? What effect would you like to have?
BOGAEV: Well, I’m thinking this is your second novel, so how did you start writing in the first place?
OSMAN: I’ve written a lot over the years: short stories. I wrote short stories right from the start, when sometimes I would have an idea that would feel like a song. But often I’d have an idea that just didn’t feel like a song. And I would just write it down just to see what I thought about it.
There’s certain things that I only really understand what I think about them once I’ve written them down. I spend a lot of time writing down ideas about music and about people and about art.
My first novel was about musicians. So, there’s lots of ideas that I picked up over the years that I, kind of, wanted to get out there and see what I thought about them. I did that classic thing, I think, of what happens is, I’d written a lot of short stories, and I thought, “Oh, you know what I’ll do? I’ll do a kind of like David Mitchell. I’ll squeeze them all together and I’ll write some things that join them up, and I’ll have a novel. It’ll be great.”
I did and it was absolutely terrible because they didn’t flow and there was no kind of… there was no change and no arc, or anything like that.
BOGAEV: The kaleidoscope thing didn’t work.
OSMAN: Of course. But suddenly I looked at it and it was kind of like, all right, so I’ve got 60,000 words. So, it’s not impossible to write a novel. From that moment on I was just like, “Okay I’m going to take the very, most interesting idea of this and I’m going to turn it into a book.”
BOGAEV: Well, what are you writing now? Are you done with Tudor England?
OSMAN: Well, yes and no. I mean, when I was writing this book, there’s a character, Blank, who’s kind of a Black musician who’s based on a couple of real characters.
There’s a brilliant book called Black Tudors by Miranda Kaufmann. Which looks at all the, kind of, the Black community in London in Tudor and Elizabethan times, which was bigger than you’d expect.
And for Blank, I wrote a whole backstory that goes from Africa to Venezuela to Scotland. But it was turning the book into a bit of a monstrosity. So I cut it.
BOGAEV: Too much research, you mean?
OSMAN: Yeah. It was just getting very long, so I might come back to him.
BOGAEV: It is such a pleasure to talk with you. I have to let you go and it’s breaking my heart. Thank you so much.
OSMAN: Well, that was fantastic, Barbara. I really enjoyed that.
WITMORE: That was Mat Osman, talking to Barbara Bogaev.
Osman’s novel The Ghost Theatre is out now from Overlook Press.
This episode was produced by Matt Frassica. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer, with help from Leonor Fernandez. We had technical help from Sarah Nicol in London and Jenna McClellan at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Seas, Inc.
If you’re a fan of Shakespeare Unlimited, please leave us a review on your podcast platform of choice, to help others find the show.
Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. Our building in Washington, DC, has been under renovation for the past three years. But this fall, we’ll be opening our doors again. Come visit us on Capitol Hill, beginning November 17, 2023. Take in a performance in our Elizabethan Theatre and check out the world’s largest collection of First Folios—all 82, on display together for the very first time. You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu.
Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.