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23 April 2011

The Swan of Avon

Tag(s): Languages & Culture

Today, the 23rd of April, is popularly remembered as the birthday of William Shakespeare. Actually there is no evidence for this although he did die on this day. He was baptised on the 26th April 1564 and there was a false assumption that baptisms always took place three days after the birth. It was also tempting perhaps to link our nation’s greatest poet with England’s patron saint St George whose feast day is 23rd April. It is interesting to note as recorded by the poet Thomas de Quincey that  Shakespeare's granddaughter Elizabeth Hall married on 22 April 1626 'in honour of her famous relation' — choosing the sixty-second anniversary of his birth, perhaps, rather than the tenth of his death.

So, while there is some uncertainty over this anniversary there is none over the fact that the Royal Shakespeare Company is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Founded by Sir Peter Hall in 1961 the RSC has marked its golden anniversary by reconstructing its theatres in Stratford on Avon.

I first saw a Shakespeare play in his home town in 1965 when studying Hamlet for GCE “A” Level.  I went with a school party to see a famous production of that greatest of plays with David Warner in the title role and Glenda Jackson as Ophelia. Since then I have seen many fine RSC productions featuring such actors as Jeremy Irons in The Winter’s Tale, Charles Dance as Coriolanus, John Wood as King Lear, Josie Lawrence in The Taming of the Shrew, Niamh Cusack in As You Like It, Michael Sheen as Henry V, Leslie Philips and Susannah York in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Edward Petherbridge in Cymbeline, David Troughton in Henry IV part one, Guy Henry in King John, Ian Hogg in Julius Caesar, Ray Fearon in both Othello and Pericles, Prince of Tyre and Patrick Stewart in The Tempest.

But fortunately the RSC does not have a monopoly on performing the Shakespeare canon and I have also been privileged to see other productions featuring Anthony Hopkins and Judy Dench in Anthony and Cleopatra, Kenneth Branagh and Samantha Bond in Much Ado About Nothing, Derek Jacobi in both Richard II and Richard III, Dustin Hoffman and Geraldine James in The Merchant of Venice, Denis Quilley and Brenda Bruce in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Rufus Sewell and Sally Dexter in Macbeth, Judy Dench in All’s Well That Ends Well, and  Douglas Hodge in Titus Andronicus.

As well as that first performance of Hamlet by David Warner I have seen Kenneth Branagh, Simon Russell Beale and Jude Law take on the Prince of Denmark in the theatre as well as Lawrence Olivier, Innocenti Smoktunovsky, Kenneth Branagh (again) and even Mel Gibson in the cinema. My school had a fine dramatic tradition and I saw the young Michael Wood, destined for stardom as a TV historian, perform a very energetic Hamlet. Prior to that the excellent Robert Powell , later to find fame playing Jesus Christ, gave a convincing performance as King Lear supported as his Fool by Russell Davies, who now chairs the Brain of Britain quiz on BBC Radio 4.

In any discussion of Shakespeare the inevitable question of authorship is raised but this is simply class driven drivel. The stories started right at the beginning and by the middle of the nineteenth century had become too much for the genteel to accept. How could a butcher’s apprentice from a provincial town be responsible for some of the greatest literature written In English? Fortunately scholars like James Shapiro in his excellent “Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?” have sent the doubters packing. However what is true is that he probably collaborated with other authors towards the end of his career. I don’t find this surprising. While writing is a solitary occupation play making is a collective process. Modern films have any number of writers, as anyone who sits through the interminable credits at the end of film will testify. Even the accountants and the caterers get a credit.  

In an edition of the Complete Works of Shakespeare I received as a prize at school there are some 37 plays and I set out to see them all. I have now seen all of those plays except one, Timon of Athens although it is now believed that he wrote that in collaboration with Thomas Middleton. 

I saw Henry VIII last year at the Globe which it is now believed was written in collaboration with John Fletcher. It is also thought that he wrote two more plays with John Fletcher, Two Noble Kinsmen and Cardenio. No manuscript of the latter has survived although records exist to say it was performed at court in 1612. Cardenio is a character in Don Quixote by Cervantes which was published in 1605 and inspired a great deal of theatrical adaptation. In 1727 Lewis Theobald presented The Double Falsehood, a play he claimed was adapted from Shakespeare’s’ original Cardenio. Using this and other sources the RSC Chief Associate Director Gregory Doran has been able to “re-imagine” the story and the RSC has chosen it as the first play to be performed in the revamped Swan Theatre at Stratford.

I saw it there last week and it was a splendid example of the RSC at its best. While I have extolled the virtues of the star actors in this blog the true joy of the RSC is its ensemble playing; the contribution of music to drive the story; of lighting to get rid of the dreaded curtain; of costumes and imaginative set design to make you believe that a single bare stage can represent innumerable places and cultures; and of movement, dancing and fights to excite you as much as any special effects in the cinema.

And, good to report, there were several swans swimming in the river.

Copyright David C Pearson 2011 All rights reserved




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