There’s no shortage of events in London right now dedicated to the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. From commemorative walks to celebrations at The Globe, and from ‘Romeo and Juliet’ at the Garrick Theatre to the Midsummer-inspired theatrical extravaganza ‘The Donkey Show at Proud Camden‘, there’s something for every Bard lover out there.
Running all summer is the British Library’s flagship exhibition, ‘Shakespeare in Ten Acts’, billed as an “exhibition on the performances that made an icon”. Don’t let the title fool you; this is far more than a look back at ten era-defining stagings of Shakespeare’s work, albeit the curators do focus on a few specific examples.
In fact, the ‘ten acts’ title is rather a misnomer; in reality, this is an examination of how Shakespeare’s canon has been re-purposed over the centuries for political and cultural ends. Each act is a launchpad for an exploration of Shakespeare’s world, from the actors he worked with to the writing and art he was inspired by
So we get a section on the Bard and race – including the fascinating story on black actor Ira Aldridge – and another on women in his plays (as characters and as actresses), along with a look at how Shakespeare has traversed the globe to be the most-performed writer in the world. We get to consider how Shakespeare has gone from print to stage to film, opera, and wider entertainment; a clip of New York’s Metropolitan Opera performing ‘The Enchanted Island’, inspired by ‘The Tempest’, perfectly illustrates this.
It’s a challenging exhibition, much like watching one of his plays; a good deal of what is on display includes letters and documents (not least the only surviving script in his handwriting; ironically from a play about Thomas More that was never performed, and for which he was merely a script doctor). You have to look closely to work out why these items have been chosen and what makes them significance. But those who persevere are rewarded with a lifetime’s worth of trivia about the playwright, about Elizabethan England, and about how the arts world has chopped and changed over the centuries.
So there are delicious titbits about the real people his characters were based on – apparently the real Yorick was an Elizabethan clown called Richard Tarleton – and the pressures and irritations of the London theatre scene in the 17th century. We learn that to replicate the sound of thunder for performances of ‘The Tempest’ at the Rose Theatre, cannonballs would be rolled above the stage, and that West Side Story was originally conceived as Jews versus Catholics, but was so long in production this was later changed to reflect New York’s shifting demographics. We find out that ‘Titus Andronicus’ features almost double the number of grisly deaths and murders as ‘Hamlet’, courtesy of an amusing National Theatre infographic.
A particular joy was seeing the petition against the Blackfriars Playhouse when it was being constructed at the end of the 16th century. Tudor Britons, it turns out, were as nimbyish as their descendants, with the monastery next door expressing reservations, and with locals speaking of concern that “vagrants and lewd persons… under colour of reporting to the plays, will come thither and work all manner of mischief”. Not that they were necessarily wrong; subsequent records show that the opening of the theatre led to increased traffic as all the wealthy punters came by carriage.
We also learn of the – possibly apocryphal – story of the first non-European performance of one of his plays; a ‘Hamlet’ in 1607 aboard an East India Company Ship docked off Sierra Leone, although the curators make clear this may well be a myth. The exhibition then takes a close look at how different countries and cultures have interpreted Shakespeare; for example a Bollywood adaptation of ‘Romeo and Juliet’, which veered away from the text when the young lovers were kidnapped by gangsters.
One of the ‘Acts’ is dedicated to the conspiracies that have swirled around Shakespeare and his work since his death, including, most notoriously, the discovery of a tranche of unknown plays by William Henry Ireland. Even after these were publicly denounced as fraudulent, a theatre staged ‘Vortigern’, drawing great crowds and apparently making a fair bit of cash.
The exhibition closes with a clip of the 2012 Globe production of ‘Twelfth Night’, notable for its all-male cast (including Stephen Fry, and Mark Rylance in full drag as Olivia). It’s a reminder of how Shakespeare lives on for new audiences, even 400 years after his death.
Shakespeare in Ten Acts is on at the British Library until 6 September.