Thursday, June 17, 2010

Shakespeare: The Man From Stratford at the Liverpool Playhouse

In the programme for Shakespeare: The Man From Stratford, Simon Callow (in an excerpt from his autobiography available in the theatre foyer) offers a rather nice anecdote. Early in his career, he was asked by the National Theatre if he would like to be part of a show that offered all 154 sonnets in a single reading, presented as a kind of autobiographical show. In the “full flush of (his) youthful meglomania” he noted that if this was a single man’s life, it should be presented by one man – him. And so a series of shows ensued culminating in a sell out afternoon performance in which, as he stepped onto stage, he noticed Sir John Gielgud sat prominently, the veteran’s no doubt hawk-like gaze scaring the life out of him.

Instead of the sonnets, The Man from Stratford is, like his earlier The Mystery of Charles Dickens, a mad old mix of biographical lecture and rehearsed scenes, this time written by Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate. My admiration for Bate’s work washes over this blog like the waves on Prosporo’s island and in truth if you’ve already read his book Soul of the Age and any of his other writing on the subject you’re not going to find much new here. The script even replicates that book’s device of structuring the chapters of Shakespeare’s life about Jacques’s speech from As You Like It, “All the world’s a stage…”. But like the Bard’s plays and any good story, it’s worth hearing again and especially the capable hands and voice of Simon Callow.

Bate’s mission is to flesh out the details of the great man’s life to an audience who might not necessarily realise how much detail we have on him, from his parent’s years in Stratford to his schooling to his early marriage to London and how he ended up working in theatre to stardom to royal veneration back to Stratford to obscurity again and death. For all his genius, Shakespeare was a working man, pre-eminent certainly, but still one of dozens of writers functioning in that period, not in some ivory tower, his words drifting into the Globe like gold dust, which is the impression that has too easily developed across the century as his reputation has increased at the same exponential rate as our ignorance of his contemporaries some of whom haven't even been granted Complete Works collections.

Bate’s approach to scripting all of this is, like Shakespeare himself, to popularise things a bit. He calls Henry VI a “historical blockbuster” and “franchise” and when he talks about John Shakespeare’s financial problems it becomes an “Elizabethan credit crunch”. That’s smart, offering a vital link between the modern age and what can seem sometimes like a fictional land with little connection. He does fudge the chronology of the plays and often uses generalities like “he collaborated later in life” without always explaining with whom on what. But the writer also cleverly steers clear of the more obvious anecdotes like the destruction of the first Globe via canon during the premiere of Henry VIII in favour of the story of its construction (which I’ll not spoil since its one of the funniest moments in the evening).

What Callow brings as he dances about a relatively bare stage which includes just a chair and a few illustrative props, is his actorly ability to draw the audience in especially to the human moments; the death of Shakespeare’s son, the effects of disease, the glow of success. But its in the moments when Callow becomes a man possessed and enters the lives of Shakespeare's characters that the show is at its most entertaining, as we're gifted with a greatest hits of most of the main characters in the canon with the actor, age, gender and race hardly a barrier.  From Falstaff to Juliet, Callow just about manages, with the aid of some lighting effects and projections to suggest that we’re suddenly seeing excerpts of some other production.

In terms of Hamlet interest, that means the prince’s request for The Murder of Gonzago and extra lines to be inserted helps to explain how it's possible that the whole of Richard II could be revised overnight and an extra scene written ready to “inspire” the Earl of Essex’s rebellion and Polonius’s genre list demonstrates the scope of Shakespeare’s writing. But do not turn up expecting to hear Callow’s “To Be Or Not To Be”; for whatever reason Bate has decided to leave out arguably Shakespeare’s most famous speech which is probably just as well since it leaves room for Shakespeare's contribution to Sir Thomas More and it is a grand opportunity to hear something only recently canonised given a theatrical airing.

Even in these tiny excerpts of plays his whole demeanour changes and he tenses his facial muscles in an attempt to convey the nuclear emotions trapped within Shakespeare's text. He thunders red faced through Claudio’s fearful plea from Measure for Measure “Ah – but to die and go I know not where…” and becomes a symbol of nobility for Henry V’s “Once more unto the breach…”  It's impossible not to get caught up, and I did, almost in tears.  His Prospero is particularly powerful, the stage reduced to the glow of blue light, his Macbeth evoked by a shard of blood red and predictably by the close, amid the partial standing ovation, I was already making plans to dive back into the canon again.

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