Monday, 2 June 2014

Shakespeare's Sonnets at the Royal Festival Hall

This evening I went to a rather unique event at the Royal Festival Hall, a reading of all 154 of Shakespeare's sonnets, one after another in order. The sonnets were read by a group of actors, six of whom I've seen on stage and four of whom I've seen in Shakespeare productions (sometimes more than once):

Simon Russell Beale
Maureen Beattie
Deborah Findlay
Oliver Ford Davies
Victoria Hamilton
David Harewood
Paterson Joseph
Guy Paul
Juliet Stevenson
Harriet Walter

The evening was split into two halves. The first started at 5:00pm with readings of sonnets 1-77 and the second half started at 7:15 with sonnets 78-154. The stage was bare except for stools, tables for water and microphones for the readers. I don't think I've ever seen that stage so bare. I booked tickets for this months ago when the only name involved was Simon Russell Beale so it was nice to see the readers expanded. Simon is still doing his 'King Lear' at the National Theatre so was in his severe Lear haircut and beard.

The readers took turns reading out a sonnet, sometimes a single sonnet, other times two or three that were linked in some way, starting with sonnet one and working up. They each had a folder with the sonnets printed inside. Simon Russell Beale read the first and last poems. Each of the readers brought something different to the sonnets, their interpretation of those 14 lines, and it was interesting to see how they presented the poems. Some presented directly to us in the audience, others seemed to just read from the folders.

I particularly liked Juliet Stevenson with her fresh approach to reading the sonnets - almost like cleansing the palette after something stodgy - and Paterson Jospeh who virtually acted out the poems and treated it as a performance, putting on a show for us. Both of their voices really worked in making me listen to the words, to the rhymes, to the pace, to what the words weren't saying as much as what they were. Both were very clear and unambiguous and Paterson, in particular, brought an element of fun to the poems he was given to read.

Not all of the sonnets worked. Sometimes I felt I was sitting there with random words flying by while others drew me in and made me want to know what comes next. It was interesting to see quite a few people in the audience with books open on their lap following the readings - not quite sure why, but I assume they enjoyed it.

The readers were projected onto a big screen at the back of the stage and I'm not sure this was a good idea. I found it quite distracting. I tried to watch the reader on stage, how they stood and moved, their gestures, rather than the close-up of their head and shoulders on the screen. The screen didn't really work for those who seemed to just look down at the text and read the poems. I sometimes just closed my eyes and listened.

I really enjoyed this event. I drifted off a few times and, with some of the sonnets, couldn't help wonder what on earth it was about, but I'm pleased I was there. I assume the feat of reading all the sonnets has been done before but not that I know about so it was good to be there for the event itself. I'd estimate that at least half of the audience was older than me - and some were rather old Shakespeare fans - and it was good to hear people talking about the poems and the readers at half time. We all respond differently to things like this.

There's one of the sonnets that virtually everyone will know, or at least the first line, 'Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?'. That is sort of the big hit of the pack. So, while Simon opened the event and read sonnet one, the hit of sonnet 18 was given to Harriet Walter to read. And here it is...

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature's changing course, untrimm'd;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st;
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee. 

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