Sunday, 27 April 2014

Shakespeare at 450

Last week saw the 450th anniversary of the birth of William Shakespeare, poet and playwright. Everyone knows his name but we know very little about him, including his actual birth date. He was baptised on 26 April 1564 so, presumably, was born a few days earlier and he died on 23 April 1616. He would have had no inkling that people all over the world would still be talking about him, reading his words and seeing his plays all these years later. I wonder what he would have thought?

I've seen and read many of Shakespeare's plays and poems but not all by any means. I used to have a hardback 'complete plays' when I was at university (it had a red cover I seem to recall) as well as individual editions of the plays I was studying. Some of his plays come round again and again on the stage while others seem to be rarely touched. I haven't seen many of the history plays because I've never been terribly interested in them but I ought to see them if only for the sake of completeness.

I've seen great productions of Shakespeare plays and others that were a bit ho hum. Sometimes it's the interpretation, sometimes it's the direction or the acting. And sometimes, frankly, it's the play that's the problem. Why, for example, have the daft wooing scene at the end of 'Henry V' and am I the only person in the world that doesn't like Bottom in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' (or any of the rustics for that matter)? I'm sure there's a very valid reason for all the things I'm not keen on in Shakespeare plays but  that won't make me suddenly like them.

I have favourite productions and sometimes I leave the theatre elated and sometimes depressed. Productions that I should have liked have been very disappointing and it's sometimes difficult to pinpoint why that is. Last year's must-see production of 'Othello' at the National Theatre with the double-header of Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear (who won an Olivier Award for his performance) was an example of a production that left me cold. It should have been a massive favourite bit it wasn't, partly because of the staging and costumes even though the acting was excellent. I felt terribly let down by that one.

On the other hand, two versions of 'Much Ado About Nothing' live on in my mind. Firstly there was Zoe Wannamaker and Simon Russell Beale's version at the National Theatre which I will always remember for them both falling into the same pond. Then, a couple of years ago, the production billed as the 'Indian' version with that great Shakespearean actress Meera Syal who showed us no mercy by milking every possible laugh from every scene and laugh we did (even me). It most ably demonstrated that Shakespeare can be transplanted to any age or culture and it still works. I loved that production and wish I'd seen it again.

My first ever Shakespeare production was 'Hamlet' with Derek Jacobi in, I think, 1978. Other than a few panto's that was my first trip to the 'serious' theatre with 'serious' actors. Mr Jacobi was, of course, hot property at the time off the back of 'I Clavdivs'. His star status helped fill seats but I went because I was doing 'Hamlet' for 'A' level English. The most recent production that I'd praise is 'Henry V' with Jude Law who delivered an excellent St Crispin's Day speech (I saw Adrian Lester deliver this speech 11 years ago when he took the part). Jude is my king and my sword-arm is his, at least until I see another production of the play.

The most disappointing play was 'Timon of Athens' at the National Theatre a couple of years ago with Simon Russell Beale. It was a great productions, with excellent acting, direction and sets but what disappointed was the play. I'd never read it or seen it before so didn't know what to expect - I wanted to experience it raw and direct as a first time experience so I wasn't prepared for the downbeat ending. Why didn't Timon triumph over adversity at the end instead of crumbling? I don't want to see that play again.

The beauty of Shakespeare is that the plays can be interpreted in many different ways to suit the current mode and productions can mirror life in any way they want, from the prosaic to the magical. 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' and 'The Tempest' should always be done as magical in my mind, anything less is an insult to the text and to the audience. I want magic and wonder.

The current big Shakespeare production is 'King Lear' at the National Theatre with Simon Russell Beale in the title role. I saw another production of this a few years ago with Derek Jacobi (yes, the same names keep cropping up) and the excellent Gina McKee as a triumphant Goneril. You don't take her on lightly.

There's always another Shakespeare production and actors ready to step up and make their names in these classic roles. A play I'm looking forward to - and again, that I haven't seen or read before - is 'Titus Andronicus' at The Globe in a couple of months time. The Globe has a lovely big stage but the wooden bench seats are a challenge even with the cushions you can hire in the yard. Something else I'm looking forward to is a reading of all 154 sonnets by Simon Russell-Beale, Harriet Walter and others at the Royal Festival Hall. That's going to be an intense evening and I'm sure there'll be smiles and tears that night!.

There is always another side to Shakespeare and that is why he's great. There's a Sheakespeare for every age and every mode, you just need to dig. Happy birthday William, you'd be astonished at the shop at The Globe Theatre but I suspect you'd have a wry grin at the souvenirs when you walked round.

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