What with the BBC2 four-part series The Hollow Crown, Mark Rylance as Richard III at the Globe and Simon Russell Beale as Timon of Athens at the National, Shakespeare: staging the world at the British Museum and reports of the opening ceremony of the Olympics being based on The Tempest, Shakespeare has us thoroughly surrounded.
(And that’s not forgetting the RSC in Stratford, and recently at the Roundhouse.)
The Hollow Crown, which finished last night with Henry V, was a magnificent feast of austerely visual splendour and featured the best actors in the country – including SRB as Falstaff.
(Please, BBC, make more of them. Can I put in a plea for Measure for Measure in particular?)
Mark Rylance was a comparatively matter-of-fact, even low-key Richard at the Globe, especially by comparison (odious but inevitable) with the flashier Kevin Spacey and the riveting Antony Sher.
Meanwhile the critics made much of the timeliness of the National’s Timon with its modern setting featuring the Occupy movement and the National Gallery, where Timon the benefactor had a room named after him. Personally while I would travel the world to see SRB I could see why Timon is so rarely performed. It has none of the subtlety and complexity of Shakespeare’s usual characterisation – Timon goes from beaming benefactor to raging misanthrope in the flick of an eyelid.
He is not even the most interesting character in the play – that honour belongs surely to the ‘sceptics’ cynic’ Apemantus, ‘a philosopher’. Or even, as played by Deborah Findlay, Timon’s steward/PA Flavia. At least the gender swap of some of the characters in Timon, of which Flavia was one (Flavius in the original), which made perfect sense, made up in a small way for the all-male Richard.
Shakespeare: staging the world at the British Museum might more appropriately be called Shakespeare’s London, or even Shakespeare’s Venice. Not surprisingly perhaps it’s an exhibition about objects rather than performance, the most remarkable of which, for me, was an original piece of writing in Shakespeare’s hand taken from The Booke of Sir Thomas Moore (sic):
Otherwise I have to admit for thrill value the exhibition in no way matches up to its YouTube promotional trailer, which has the Roman army marching across the Millennium Bridge and Othello carrying the dead body of Desdemona through the 21st century streets of the West End of London.
Forward to the past
In my lectures I draw attention to the fact that when modern theatre appears to reinvent itself it is very often actually harping back to the ideas and the environments of centuries ago. ‘Site specific’ theatre was the only kind of theatre available in the middle ages for instance. Now, in addition to the replica New Globe on Bankside and the Rose Theatre in Kingston, The Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford recently underwent a complete transformation in order to replace the unfashionable vastness of the 1930s pros arch shape with the far more intimate thrust stage design modelled on the 400 year old Elizabethan playhouse.
There has been, ever since the discovery of the foundations of the Rose Theatre on Bankside in 1989, a resurgence of interest in theatre history in London. Four years ago Museum of London archeologists uncovered the foundations of England’s first ever playhouse, The Theatre, built by James Burbage in Shoreditch in 1576.
The site was being excavated before construction began to build a new theatre for the Tower Theatre Company. So I went along at the weekend to see how the new theatre was coming along and saw this:
Just a hoarding, with pictures the only indication of what lies behind it. Peeking through a tiny hole all I could see was rubble – no sign of any new building or of any ancient foundations. If anyone reading this has any information on what’s going on (or not going on) I’d be very interested to hear about it.
I also went looking for the newly-discovered foundations of The Curtain theatre, built the year after The Theatre and just around the corner from it in Shoreditch. Again, nothing to see. All hidden among buildings and just a plaque on the wall.
Still the encouraging thing is that these sites are being excavated and, hopefully, preserved. Shakespeare lives on.
We may not rejoice in our weather in London, but in many other ways we are the luckiest people in the world.