Thursday, 30 June 2016

'Shakespeare in Ten Acts' at the British Library

I went to see the Shakespeare exhibition at the British Library the other day, 'Shakespeare in Ten Acts'. It's based around ten performances of Shakespeare plays that changed the way they were viewed or that changed the history of the plays in some way. It's a novel approach and there was some fascinating stuff there but it was a bit underwhelming. Darkened rooms with everything spotlit seemed a bit, well, odd. The exhibition was book and paper-based which I expected (well, it's in a library after all) with some of the later rooms using video of performances or costumes.

The first exhibit is, of course, one of the prides of the Library - its copy of the First Folio in a glass case opened at the title page with the portrait of William himself. Beside it is a note that says Ben Johnson certified the pen and ink portrait as a true likeness. Mr Johnson's plays don't seem to be performed very often these days.

It wasn't so much the theme of the exhibition that caught me, it was some of the objects on display and their historic significance. Such as this little book that contains the prologue specially written when a woman first took to the stage in a production of a Shakespeare play, in this case 'Othello' in 1660. The first woman is thought to have been Anne Marshall. Can you imagine a time when women weren't legally allowed on the stage and the female roles were taken by boys? How odd is that.

The rest of this room went on to show portraits of some of the women who took to the stage with potted histories of their lives. There were also extracts from newspapers that raised against the new-found habit of men buying tickets back stage to watch the new actresses get dressed!

Another book to grab my attention was a small copy of 'Hamlet' thats' been passed from actor to actor in the 20th Century who've played the role. It's signed by some of the actors including Michael Redgrave, Peter O'Toole and Derek Jacobi. The sign notes that the book is passed on to note particularly celebrated performances. Jacobi passed it to Kenneth Branagh when he did his film version of 'Hamlet' in the '90s. Now, that's what I call a great gift. I've not seen Branagh's film but I did see Derek Jacobi play 'Hamlet' back in 1978 so that made me smile. I wonder who Branagh will give it to to continue the tradition?

One of the odder exhibits was Vivien Leigh's dress from her performance of Lady Macbeth. It's a nice enough frock but it was odd since the main poster for the exhibition shows her all gossamer and fairy as Titania from 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' but that frock isn't there.

And finally, here is a large red and white handkerchief that I coveted - I like the man bottom-right with the legend 'Ha! Ha! Hah! In places', presumably noting the potential response to one of the comedies.

No comments: