Saturday, 23 April 2016

Shakespeare The Shapeshifter by Steve Gladwin

On the day this blog comes out I have been invited to a wedding. I do not especially want to go as I hardly know the people involved, but it will I'm sure be a joyful occasion, made all the more so by the difficulties they have had to endure,before getting there What is fairly certain is that after a couple of hours of registry office and reception, people will know this couple – Pat and Tony, that bit better.

Life is full of times like this, when we do something new and end up adding to or enhancing our knowledge. It can be a new TV show or film, a new author as recommended by a friend, or taking that last minute, cut - price holiday offer.

We might think we know William Shakespeare as well, for we are constantly shown something new in reading or seeing his plays or in other’s interpretations of them. Of all writers, the poor old Bard has been messed about with more than most and yet always comes up not just smiling but relatively fresh and sometimes even a new kind of new. He can survive the attentions of Blackadder and the two lovey actors played so memorably by the late, great Kenneth Connor and Hugh Paddick, suffering the endless nose tweaking every time someone says the dreaded word ‘Macbeth’. (Sorry). 

Equally we can accept a pretty as a picture interpretation of Romeo and Juliet by Franco Zefirelli, with actors of more or less the right ages, and Baz Luhrmann’s great urban, street smart re-invention of 1988. I saw the latter in a small cinema in Burnham on Sea in Somerset. There were two teenagers behind us, who had only just removed their trainers from behind our heads. As the credits came on, one turned to his mate.

 ‘Ah, you ‘aven’t brought me to see ******** Shakespeare?
‘Yeh but see - after the first couple of minutes - you don’t notice.’’ 

And much to his mate's and even my surprise, you really didn’t. Around that time we were touring R and J for Key Stage 3 in local secondary schools and what chance do you have with your plastic looking knives when most of them have just seen that?
Around the same time at an evening performance of the Scottish Play at Bridgwater Arts Centre, I was surprised to see crowds of Years 5 and 6 and their teachers milling around in excitement, waiting for the performance by Cheek by Jowl to begin. But why should I be surprised? At that time I simply hadn’t got it – the fact that anyone can appreciate Shakespeare and no-one can really put their finger on why. To some people its the language - which, we are so often led to assume, he must have crafted so carefully and thoughtfully - so surely it must only be spoken in a suitably beautiful way? Except of course that he couldn't have done, because more than anything he was a jobbing actor, a sharer in first The Lord Chamberlain and later The Kings Men. The scene at the beginning of Olivier’s tub thumping film of Henry the Fifth - where we see a most convincing wooden ‘O’, and the deliberate tripping up of the poor bloke playing the archbishop - or the opening scene of Shakespeare In Love where Geoffrey Rush as Henslowe has his feet toasted by an impatient Tom Wilkinson are probably all too authentic.

Henry Fuseli's uniquely eerie take on Mr and Mrs Scottish Play

Somehow we still convince ourselves that we are seeing is in some way Shakespeare as it would have been performed, which of course is so much nonsense. There is the absence of boy actors alone, or that what we see nowadays is mostly lovingly detailed and imagined rather than the simple representation of the times, more’ two planks and a passion’, than high art. We may gasp and cry for poor drowned Ophelia or the deeply disturbed Lady Scottish Play, but we forget that audience responses in the 16th and 17th centuries would be more like pantomime. Returning kings were cheered, villains were hissed and with poor Ophelia it would be more a case of ‘look at ‘er – poor cow.’

In their own way however, every member of that audience would have cared what he or she saw during that ‘two hour traffic of our stage’ and even sometimes have gone away just a bit changed. It will be equally so at this wedding where two characters who I hardly know, will - for a few hours - be the leading lights on this particular stage. Shakespeare understood this and he did it better than anyone.

Last year I did a ten week online Shakespeare course with Professor Jonathan Bate and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. I lasted nine and a bit weeks before I got learner overkill and bowed out. It wasn’t Shakespeare I grew bored with, but the other online learners analysing every nuance and in several cases setting themselves up as experts with their own merry bands of followers. I enjoyed the course, but mostly it was because of the plays I read, some for the first time, (oh all right, maybe not Anthony and Cleo which Morecambe and Wise and Glenda Jackson did far better!). The others I  
hadn’t read – The Merchant of Venice and The Merry Wives of Windsor - I enjoyed thoroughly and would read again. Above all I responded - as so many people did - to the stories in the plays and the story of the man who wrote them.

And maybe that sums up Shakespeare! He may be a shape-shifter - able to survive any amount of ‘mucking about with’ - but he is also first and foremost a storyteller and boy did he know how to do it. His stuff isn’t all about kings, and queens and lords and ladies. As Jonathan Bate himself says in his revealing book The Genius Of Shakespeare, one of many facts which makes nonsense of the ‘Shakespeare was the Earl of Oxford/Christopher Marlowe, who wasn’t really dead/a lot of monkeys with typewriters/my granny, debate, is that he so clearly spoke not just for the common man or woman, (which he certainly did), but for the ordinary life and experience as much as the extraordinary one.. Shakespeare often wrote about a Pat and a Tony and helped us to know them better. 
Emma Rice, courtesy of

After all it is a wonderful time for us Shakespeare fans - what with all the plans the good old Beeb, (leave it alone - it's fine as it is!) - has for the Bard's birthday. More exciting for me is the appointment of Emma Rice, former director of Kneehigh Theatre Company as the new director of The Globe. Emma directed and starred in the best piece of theatre I have ever seen, Theatre Alibi's "Sea of Faces', which I saw at Bridgwater Arts Centre in 1997. It was based on the finding of a collection of old family photos on a rubbish heap. Out of these lost faces Emma and Dan Jamieson created the most wonderful magical and often tender two hander which brought all of these lost people back to life.
Shakespeare made us care too and most of the time he ensures that a character - whether they be a king and queen or a Pat and Tony - is never just a 'face'. That is one of the reasons I'm happy to raise a glass not just to Pat and Tony, but to the man who would surely have appreciated their story. 

New Globe Theatre director Emma Rice on her first season and a whole lot more. 

I found Shakespeare again on Future Learn, where you can find a whole lot more besides


Sue Bursztynski said...

Steve, you've nailed it! Shakespeare is for everyone, no matter what people who haven't heard his stuff might think. And absolutely, he can survive any amount of mucking around with. In those days, everyone went to the theatre - and if you didn't please the audience they'd let you know, in a way they don't do now. The worst you can expect these days is for audience members to leave at intermission. So you'd better give them s great story. If they didn't like your stories, they could always go to the bear baiting. I've done a fair bit of Shakespeare introduction with my Year 8 classes because I knew it might be the only Shakespeare they would get. I start with the additions to the language - they gasp in amazement! - then a bit of stuff about him and his theatre, with an added comment that the theatre would have been in an area that was similar to the disadvantaged suburb of Melbourne where they live. Then, depending on the class, I'll have either a Shakespeare film or one inspired by Shakespeare(I make them research Twelfth Night before we watch She's The Man)

It says something, too, that you can adapt Shakespeare stories for modern audiences in film and book. I suspect he might be rather surprised to hear people were still reading and performing his work four hundred years on "What? Still doing Hamlet? Hey,
I have this great new play that makes that one look like garbage! But you can pay me some of those royalties thingies!"

Steve Gladwin said...

Thanks for your comments Sue which really confirm the best things about people's response to Shakespeare. I notice also that in the new Globe season there is specific emphasis on involvement of more disadvantaged people. I'm also sure you have a point about Shakespeare's response to his own work. Thanks again and glad you got it!

Sue Purkiss said...

Lovely piece - hope you had a great time at the wedding!