Bard Timing

I don’t think I’ve had a love affair with Shakespeare.

To me Marlowe is always THE playwright. Although I’m ashamed to note how few of his plays I have seen live.

There’s someone about the Bard that has always felt overwhelming, too much baggage, too much Other People’s Property. There’s his centrality to English Literature — I don’t think you could do O Level (now GCSE) or A Level without him. He even showed up in my Drama O Level. The Bard seemed to induce in me a critical cringe – how can you say anything new about him? With Marlowe, on the other hand, I can see the way the plays sometimes clank, and the critical editions tend to be more honest about editorial and other interpolations.

It perhaps should be no surprise that my viewing of Shakespeare’s plays in the theatre has been impacted on by set texts. As far as I can recall, my first exposure was The People Show’s production of Macbeth, with Bernard Hill and Julie Walters in the leads. In the era of Boys from the Blackstuff, you might have assumed that this was Macscouse, but my memory was of Scottish accents. I think I enjoyed it, but I think the Roman Polanski version knocks spots off it, as well as the recent film. The play still intrigues me for the use of horror motifs, the family drama that collides with political upheaval, a narrative that could be as much a gangster film as a Scottish history. The theatrical business tends to get left out — the Hecate business — which is a bit of a shame.

For some reason I went to Measure for Measure, which I think was an A Level Drama text for friends, and which also led to rare friction and teenage rebellion as to whether my parents would let my friends drive me to Stratford upon Avon. I recall going to a day school at Nottingham University (they also did one on The Tempest) where the stupidity of the plot was pointed out — the Duke/King figure in a Shakespeare play is either a divine or tragic one, an echo of the English monarch. The Duke here cracks down on morality in the city, then pisses off, having appointed an unsuitable stand-in. As the conflict between morality and reason rises, the Duke wanders around in disguise. The Duke’s abdication of his responsibility should be critiqued (see Lear) — instead the play forgives him and even (in some productions) marries him off. My memory of the production — directed by Nicholas Hytner, with Roger Allam, Josette Simon and Phil Daniels — is that is nodded to West Side Story.

A Levels yielded studies of Antony and Cleopatra and The Tempest, and fortunately the former was performed at the National Theatre, with Anthony Hopkins and Judi Dench. Hopkins, I felt, was overacting, rolling over the stage at times, but with Dench I could see how Cleopatra could be viewed as the figure of beauty and desire. She commanded the stage in a way I don’t think Hopkins did — if memory serves he has done little theatre since. I saw a six person production of The Tempest in a village hall or a leisure centre — the inevitable doubling working for the comedy of the play and drawing attention to how little authority Prospero might wield (a point made at the Nottingham University day school, although not by the same person who discussed Measure for Measure). I later saw their production of Romeo and Juliet, but left at the interval.

Meanwhile, there was an RSC version of The Tempest, which I saw as part of my first solo holiday (a shape of things to come). If I recall correctly it was John Wood in the role of Prospero but I recall nothing else about it although it was another Hytner production; equally all I recall of Di Trevis’s Much Ado About Nothing was Clive Merrison, as Benedick, and Maggie Steed, as Beatrice, feeding fish. But I think my favourite of the three plays I saw would have been Deborah Warner’s King John, in The Other Place, effectively a hut but a better theatrical experience than the main stage. I remember lots of ladders and seeing the actor David Calder in the audience.

And then it gets a bit vague, I confess. There were a couple of history cycles — Michael Pennington’s English Shakespeare Company with Richard II, Richard III, Henry IV, Henry V, maybe a cut down Henry VI, which I seem to recall seeing in a day, notorious for the use of TV monitors as part of the mise en scène, and I think a Northern Broadsides Yorkshire accented Henry IV/V trilogy? I think we ventured to Leicester for Julius Caesar directed by John Dexter and starring Tim Pigott Smith; tedious and dull as I recall, but I suspect the play is. I think I saw half of another Romeo and Juliet. There was a Midsummer Night’s Dream I saw twice, once loving it, the second time hating it; a few years later I saw the Pocket Dream which critics loved in Nottingham then hated in the West End.

And then off to university, where early on I got to see the Pyjama Hamlet. For some reason they got a couple of members of the cast and the director to come to talk to us and we took them to the middle bar. I think Peter Wight had been Claudius. Hamlet was played by some guy called Mark Rylance. I wonder what happened to him? For a couple of years, we got up to see Ayckbourn’s new play at Scarborough and he also directed Othello, in a heavily cut down version, with a blacked up Michael Gambon. Gambon was trying for a more Arabic version of the Moor than perhaps we’ve usually seen, but that doesn’t make it any better. On the other hand, the play was stolen by Iago, played by Ken Stott, pre Takin’ Over the Asylum. I did see either a Bad Quarto Hamlet and/or a section of Henry VI, I think on an RSC small venues tour in a Goole swimming pool.

But I slowly fell out of love with theatre, although Pete Postlethwaite as Macbeth (and maybe Alan Rickman as Hamlet?) tempted me back. I remember being disappointed by Postlethwaite — maybe he was just too old — and I’m still not sure if it’s not a ghost memory of Rickman.

More recently I was tempted up to Sheffield for The Wire Othello — Dominic West as Iago and Clarke Peters as Othello, for the first time Othello holding his own against the much more interesting role of Iago. They stumbled somewhat over the lines — I think it was a preview. For reasons that escape me, I saw King Lear at Chichester (I think I confused the lead Frank Langella with some other actor), but again I enjoyed it. Most recently, the RSC Henry IV came to Canterbury, with a much older Anthony Sher than the one I saw declaiming blank verse whilst pulling himself up a rope on The Swan’s stage as Tamburlaine.

Surely there was more? But like I say, it was a long time ago, and in a different country and, besides, the wench is dead. At some point I fell out of love with theatre and somewhere along the line the Culture, Darling of it rubs me up the wrong way. And you watch Hamlet and suddenly find it’s full of quotations. I think I need to see more intimate settings — and there are a good twenty plays I’ve never seen live.

I have, rarely, been asked to teach Shakespeare. As You Like It, Othello and Henry V were set texts on a block with The Rover in a rare example of political correctness that was stupid and compounded the error with a difficult production of the Behn. If you want to question the notion of the canon, it gets really messy to compare three Elizabethan plays to a post-Restoration one. The variables are too many. I worked on some online teaching with – questioning Henry V’s character and noting the Chorus’s work to project Shakespeare’s angst. (“You want me to do the Battle of Agincourt? Did you read how many archers there are there? OMG WTF. We’ve got a cast of twenty… Maybe if we tell the audiences to just fucking imagine it?”)

And then there was the OU’s Shakespeare Summer School, where I upset a student over my reading of Freud’s account of Oedipus.

Oh and I had a second difficult student who could not see what I was asking them to do when comparing Enobarbus’s boat speech in Antony and Cleopatra to Plutarch. How did Shakespeare dramatise it?

Well, apparently he was divinely inspired so he wrote it all.

Without any help.

Even that phrase in Plutarch?

And she really couldn’t cope with a Freudian reading of Hamlet — but it later transpired she claimed to be the daughter of the wrongly deposed claimant to the kingdom of Bohemia and had View on regicide.

Edged nervously away…

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