Thursday, April 23, 2009

"Seeking the bubble reputation"

I'm always just slightly behind in reading weekend newspapers -- there's always many more words than can possibly be covered in those forty-eight hours even after skipping through articles about relationships, travel and property and everything else which is currently irrelevant. Now that I'm actually working at the weekend, that's going to become even more accute. I won't know what's happened in the world until at least Monday afternoon.

Today, I was actually reading Saturday's Guardian from the 14th April (Grand National Day) and fittingly that meant this rather wonderful piece by Jonathan Bate which illuminates William Shakespeare's passage over the years into become a legend and being tagged with the description 'genius' taking in his veneration by actors and academics alike.

If asked I will say that I'm a Shakespeare fan, in much the same way as I might describe myself as a Doctor Who fan or that I like films. A bit. I've as many different Shakespeare productions as anything else and like those other 'interests'. And like those other loves, I can't always quite put my finger on why I'm addicted. I do agree with the reasons usually trotted out by talking heads in television documentaries -- 'They're such great stories', 'The language is amazing' and 'He's a genius'.

But along with those forty odd works, there's also four hundred years of history to enjoy. As Bate somewhat describes, you can understand British history through the changes in attitudes to the plays, how they've been performed and the audiences that saw them. Charles I's decree that women should be allowed to take up the acting profession demonstrates a change in society and frankly its amazing that it took so long for you to get the vote after that. As Shakespeare is oft to demonstrate, nearly all men are pigs, especially the ones who make laws about things.

I think though that it's more to do with the fact that even though the words and the plot are the same, every production is different and more than any other writer its possible for a director and his actors to put their own personal stamp on them. I've seen dozens of Hamlets and each and every time, although the text is the same they're all different, they all resonate in different ways. It's simply fascinating intellectually to compare and contrast the interpretations to see who thought what was important.

Plus, in the media age, as this blog demonstrates, it attracts the collector in me. Even though I've eight complete works already, some bought, some presents, I'm gathering the Arden editions of the plays because of the notes and appendixes which often include the original texts such as the Ur-Hamlet that Shakespeare used as his sources. Then there are the collections of criticism, the biographies. On top of that there are the many hundred audio and visual recordings of the plays from the BBC Shakespeare (radio and television) through Argo to ArkAngel. Some people collect vinyl or music boxes or badges. I collect Shakespeare productions.

You would expect on hearing all of this, that I'd seen or at least read all of the plays in the canon. Not a bit of it. I'm working my way through my BBC Shakespeare boxset (in production order minus the histories -- oh yes) and greeting many of them for the first time. Just as I've not seen or heard all of the television Doctor Who (let alone the spin-offs), I think I've only actually come in contacted with about half of the bard's work.

Some of this is simply because the same twenty-odd plays tend to be in production at the expense of others. But also its through avoidance, because I can't imagine that the likes of As You Like It can be as good as the version I have in my head through years of reading about them. Of course they can -- they're by Shakespeare, but there's also the matter of seeing them for the first time in a decent production. Thankfully my first As You Like It, from the BBC, featured the sexy Helen Mirren in a silly hat and David Prowse whose performance was strangely moving for all the wrong reasons.

There's a lovely moment at the end when Mirren delivers to camera the closing speech which features the line 'If I were, that is, a woman' and she pauses slightly highlighting the irony of a line that Shakespeare wrote that would originally have been played by a boy, being read now by, well, Helen Mirren. The viewer is sharing a joke with Mirren at text's expense. That's another reason I love Shakespeare, watching actors and directors cope with moments when attitudes have raced ahead of what's been written.

So Happy Birthday Mr Shakespeare, whether it was yesterday or today or whenever you were actually born. Thank you for over a decade of entertainment and intellectual stimulation and for inspiring one of the biggest laughs I had in an English class when the teacher decided to show us Roman Polanski's mad as cheese film version of Macbeth. For the amazingly intimate Measure for Measure I saw at the Edinburgh Festival in 1998 when I once again inapropriately fell in love with the actress playing Isabella for the umpteenth time (see also Kate Nelligan in the BBC Shakespeare). And for Hamlet. All four hours of it.