Vivien Leigh as Titania in Midsummer Nights Dream performed at The Old Vic
"With bated breath," on Saturday 16th April, Marilyn , Abi and I, "we bear a charmed life" by the way, "put our best foot forward" and went up to The British Library to see the "Shakespeare in Ten Acts" exhibition. Shakespeare breathed his last in Stratford upon Avon at his home, New Place, on the 23rd April 1616. This year is the 400th anniversary of his death. "As good luck would have it," The British Library has created a wonderful exhibition to commemorate his death. Arguably, "come what may," Shakespeare is the greatest writer " this brave new world" has known. Before I continue, I hope Shakespeare addicts who peruse this article will not accuse me of plagiarism. It must be "a foregone conclusion"that I have already used the Bard’s very own words a number of times. Actually we can’t get away from Shakespeare. He introduced so many common place words and phrases into our vocabulary, we use them all the time without even realizing what we do. They have become "household words." (Ha! Ha! there I go again. Didn’t even realise it.) In this introductory paragraph, I seem to continiue quoted Shakespeare ,"countless times." I have done it consciously as you probably realise . I will continue this article quoting the Bard again and again. Please don’t be too critical, to write this successfully I can’t get away from him. (and yes, I have quoted him again in the last two sentences.) He’s everywhere in nearly everything we write or say !!!!! The words and phrases are there in his plays.
It is his plays that the library has turned to to explain Shakespeare’s enduring importance and greatness. The exhibition begins with a display showing a first folio edition of thirty six of his plays collected by two of Shakespeare’s friends, John Hemmings and Henry Condell and published in 1623 seven years after Shakespeare died. Before 1623 and during Shakespeare’s lifetime, eighteen of Shakespeare’s plays had been published in quarto editions. Without Hemmings and Condell we may never have had many of Shakespeare's plays passed down through the centuries to us today. The folio edition frontice piece shows the picture of Shakespeare we all know, a balding fresh faced gentleman with wide open eyes staring out of the page straight at us. The exhibition explains Shakespeare in ten iconic productions performed over the centuries that have been milestones in his popularity.
Shakespeare as he appears in the title page of the first folio.
The first of the ten plays that were important to creating Shakespeare’s legacy is the first Hamlet performed at the Globe Theatre in about 1600 in Southwark on the South Bank. Revenge was common in a lot plays written at the time and most were bloodthirsty but Shakespeares Hamlet was more cerebral. He wrote to the strengths of the Lord Chamberlaynes men, later the Kings Men, of whom Shakespeare was shareholder. He wrote a part specifically for his friend Richard Burbage. Making Hamlet appeal to the audience’s minds linked the life experiences of each member of the audience with the characters in the play. There was empathy. Through theatre people could now act out in their own imaginings their own real problems whether they be thoughts of revenge or other human issues.
During the winter months, the Kings men performed in the Blackfriars theatre, the ancient refectory of the Blackfriars situated just south west of St Pauls Cathedral. It no longer exists but you can walk through the narrow streets that still retain the Medieval street pattern to this day. You can see the location of the old monastery gatehouse that Shakespeare bought as his London home. You can still see the site of the graveyard attached to the monastery and plaques showing where the Blackfriars Monastery was located. Also you can still walk into the courtyard where the Kings Wardrobe was. Shakespeare and The Kings Men borrowed or hired costumes from The Kings Wardrobe to wear as costumes for their plays. The Kings Men played at the Blackfriars Playhouse from 1609 onwards during the Winter months and at the open air Globe Theatre during the Summer. The indoor atmosphere created by the Blackfriars theatre, a candlelit space, caused Shakespeare to write plays that made full advantage of the indoor location by , “using magic, music and spectacle.” Shakespeare wrote The Tempest to take advantage of this more moody, enclosed atmosphere of the Blackfriars Playhouse.
Shakespeare's birthplace in Stratford upon Avon.
On the 5th September 1607 The Crew of the Red Dragon, an East India Company ship, reputedly performed Hamlet off the coast of Sierra Leone to an audience of African guests. It takes a moment to think about that. Hamlet was performed to Africans in Africa during Shakespeare's lifetime. During the 1600s, because of travel and trade Shakespeare’s plays were already being performed outside of England.
There was institutional sexism against women who performed on the stage during Shakespeare’s time and women were played by adolescent boys. However, on the 8th December 1660 the part of Desdemona in Othello was played by a woman. She was introduced as a novelty and her name was not recorded. Later in the 18th and 19th century women did act on stage but very often they were thought of as no better than prostitutes.
By the end of the 18th century Shakespeare was greatly revered. David Garrick had promoted Shakespeare. It was a time that Shakespeare was so revered, forgery became a temptation. In 1795 law clerk, William Henry Ireland astonished his Shakespeare loving father when he discovered a cache of Shakespeare's documents including King Lear, Hamlet and an unknown play called Vortigern. The Theatre Royal Drury Lane snapped up Vortigern. It was performed on the 2nd April 1796. The performance was ridiculed and Ireland’s documents were exposed as forgeries.
In 1825 Ira Aldridge was part of the African Theatre in New York and performed Shakespeare. The actors were treated appallingly by the authorities and beaten badly. Aldridge came to Britain in 1824 and acted in Britain for over 40 years. He was the first black actor to play Othello.
By the end of the 17th century Shakespeare was considered old fashioned and many of his plays were rewritten to suit the times. For instance King Lear was rewritten by Nahum Tate in 1681 giving Lear a happy ending. In 1838 William Charles Macready reintroduced Lear’s fool into the play and got nearer to the original although even Macready’s version was still an adaptation.
The site of New Place in Stratford where Shakespeare lived the last years of his life and died.
Closer to my heart is the 1970 Peter Brook’s Midsummer Nights Dream, staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company. I was 18 years old. Peter Brook took the production on tour, a run of a limited number of theatres before decamping for the USA. I saw it at Southampton’s Gaumont Theatre. It was incredible . I was at an impressionable age! A minimal white stage, that enhanced the simple geometric shaped costumes of poster paint colours. A character was either yellow, blue, green, white and so on; very simply attired. Swings and ropes helped characters ascend , descend and fly. I remember being thrilled by this bright vivid production. I remember being awestruck after the play had ended when outside the theatre I saw the characters of Bottom and other mechanicals appear out of a side door to the theatre in their ordinary clothes and line up outside a nearby fish and chip shop to buy some fish and chips. My friends and I stood and stared at them. It was slightly surreal as indeed this production was. The production had a hippie element to it, combined with its minimal stage, costumes and acrobatics. It was a production that really fitted ,”the age of Aquarius.” Peter Brook showed what can be done and how each generation can interpret and learn from Shakespeare.
A scene from Peter Brooks 1970 production of A Midsummer Nights Dream.
More recently, in 2002, the acclaimed actor Mark Rylance, whilst director of The Globe Theatre on the South Bank returned Twelfth Night back to what Shakespeare would have known using the music and costumes of Shakespeare’s time. He also made it an all male cast with women played by men. Rylance was trying to inject some authenticity into Twelfth Night making a connection with Shakespeare's time.
Mark Rylance in the 2002 production of Twelfth Night at The Globe Theatre on the South Bank.
And most recently, "the tenth act" and so the tenth play that demonstrates how Shakespeare is for all times, is an adaptation of Hamlet performed first in 2013 by The Wooster Group. They created a Hamlet that uses modern technology to connect productions of Hamlet from past generations with a Hamlet of today. It was first performed in the USA in 2007 and more recently at the Edinburgh Festival in 2013. The live performance used digital technology to combine its live performance with the film of Richard Burton's 1964 Broadway production. Other footage of Hamlet films were combined into the production too. It must have created a layered effect of multiple interpretations. This could only have been achieved now in this digital age. As technology progresses we can only wonder what the future will bring.
I was introduced to Shakespeare at a very young age. There was obviously the mere act of speaking to start with. We can’t get away from Shakespeare. At school, Macbeth, the Scottish play was the first engagement with one of Shakespeare’s plays we had . Being educated in a catholic school in Southampton we were all used to engaging, rather vividly, with concepts of the conscience, confession, the ten commandments, guilt, God, the devil, hell , good and evil and Macbeth has all this in abundance. We were in our Roman Catholic element. Macbeth is powerful stuff and we learned the witches chants and spells avidly. Lady Macbeths wringing her hands, “out damned spot,” the making of her confession and trying to get her soul clean , resonated with our guilty Roman Catholic consciences , and how! Later on we were taken to see Macbeth at Stratford upon Avon on a day trip from school. The six formers at my school created a production of Macbeth for us all to participate in too. We were imbued with Macbeth. Later, as I mentioned above,I saw Peter Brooks 1970, production of a Midsummer Nights Dream at Southampton Gaumont when it toured the country. Over the years I have seen a number of Shakespeares plays on stage and on film. Some of the most memorable are of course Macbeth at Stratford, and A Midsummer Nights Dream at the Gaumont but also Henry IV part one at the Mermaid Theatre at Puddledock in Blackfriars next to the Thames in the City, As You Like It, at The Globe Theatre on the South Bank, Lear at The National, Midsummer Nights Dream, recently at The Rose Theater, Kingston upon Thames with Judy Dench playing an aged Queen Elizabeth I. I have seen, Hamlet at Stratford. Leonardo de Caprio’ s Romeo and Juliet and Orson Welles, Macbeth, come to mind as powerful incarnations of the bards works on the screen. We all of know of course, once more, Laurence Olivier’s, Henry V. There is the brilliant adaptation of Romeo and Juliet,West Side Story, too.
There were believed to have been 750 copies of the first folio printed. 234 of them are known to have survived. The British Library has five copies. The first folio is one the rarest books in the world and is sort after. Recently at the library of Mount Stuart on the Isle of Bute a copy that has been in the library’s collection for a hundred years was confirmed as authentic by Professor Emma Smith of Oxford University. After seeing this rare and precious edition of the first folio we were introduced to quarto versions of Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet. Eighteen of Shakespeare’s plays were published individually in quarto form in his lifetime. Some are better than others. Publishers plagiarised the texts from the official theatre prompt books. Some say that they were written from the memory of people who attended performances of the plays. This process lead to inconsistencies meaning that some of the quartos are of reasonable quality but some are poor bastardised versions of the plays. Condell and Hemynges, the publishers of the folio edition, contested the validity of many of the quarto versions of the plays. But still, seeing these original volumes showed us what people of Shakespeare’s time would have seen and read. Being able to see the folio edition is a special moment. It is a connection with Shakespeare himself. We are only permitted to see with our eyes. Touching would be destructive. The folio edition is something from the past for us now to see but also for future generations.
The first folio edition. Thirty six plays collected by John Hemmings and Henry Condell.
In one final exhibition case, there is displayed the delicate bejewelled and flowered headdress Vivien Leigh wore as Titania in the 1937 production of A Midsummer Nights dream at The Old Vic. The exhibition poster, "not over cool," the exhibition book, available "for our perusal" and the exhibition guide, which can never be described as "too much of a good thing," use the picture of Vivien Leigh wearing this head piece, on their front cover. Vivien Leigh does indeed look like a beautiful dream. This exhibition is superbly curated and presented. "Swift as a shadow," it leads us through the various key moments in the development of Shakespeare over the centuries through various productions and interpretations. It shows us Shakespeare in ten acts just as Shakespeare shows us his dramatic stories in a series of acts. A superb exhibition, from first folio to electronic wizardry. It is however that First Folio that is so important to us today enabling us to discover what Shakespeare intended.
To finish with a dramatic flourish, "all's well that ends well."
To finish with a dramatic flourish, "all's well that ends well."