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Friday, 21 September 2012

What Shakespeare Did On His Holidays

You couldn't get away from Shakespeare this summer.  He was everywhere.  If ever there was a case for a moratorium on Shakespeare, this Summer was it.  There was a time when Shakespeare didn't get about quite as much.  He was LITERATURE, he lived in a big book and was mostly studied privately.  Productions of his plays, though regular, we so often ripped apart and pulled down by additional material that he might as well had never have written them, just left a synopsis.
These days we're as likely to see a ripped apart, 'deconstructed' version of his plays as in times of yore, but that's because there are so many perfectly normal, uncut, uninteresting productions flying about you have to do something to justify the effort of staging him.  He is in every school, on every stage, often revived on film and, much more rarely, on television.
After some neglect of late the B.B.C. decided it was time to get back in the act by broadcasting over a dozen programmes on Shakespeare as part of their Olympic coverage.  We had two 'major' documentaries, from learned academics, and several very minor ones by whoever they could find out of the pages of Spotlight, with the expected mixed results.  And to crown this coverage was a four part series The Hollow Crown covering the history plays of Kings Richard II, Henry IV and V.
Let's start with the best of this coverage - The King and the Playwright, which I have descried about on this blog before, as it was in only three parts and hidden away on B.B.C. Four.  It was, mostly, an excellent documentary about the last and most productive years of Shakespeare's life, writing during the reign of King James.  I say mostly because the third episode found it had nowhere to run with it's central thesis and there was a sense of dead air.  Basically, the series viewed Shakespeare's writing in parallel with the career of the new King, reasonable enough when you consider that Shakespeare's company were made the King's Men and had a far closer relationship with the court than during Elizabeth's time.
There were clearly marked parallels between events and the plays Shakespeare wrote, most clearly in Macbeth where the marks of the Gunpowder Plot run deep into the fabric of the text.  But it was in the second episode that the thesis started to run out of steam.  A few slightly woolly statements about Antony and Cleopatra didn't quite ring true.  By the third episode most parallels drawn were distinctly vague, and the James Shapiro opened stated this.  It became two documentaries, one on James, one on Shakespeare, and the links between the two were getting tenuous.  But it was still an excellent stab and should have been on B.B.C. Two, if not One - anything to save us from another edition of The ONE show.
The second good 'series', and I'm sorry but whilst I can just about accept the idea that three episodes can be a series, two is not, was by Simon Schama.  It was strong and robust in the first episode and, again, a bit repetitious and vague in the second.  Actually, I had my back turned up thoroughly by the first episode when he was rude about medieval mystery plays, making a deeply unfair juxtaposition between those plays and the works of Shakespeare.
Basically Simon said this: the mystery plays were clearly lesser works to those of Shakespeare, they are rough and naive, they don't have the depth of metaphor or simile as in those later plays.  This is bald, judgement criticism; I like this (Shakespeare) because it is more 'developed' than that (medieval drama).  It is similar to attacking medieval art for 'ignoring' perspective.  Really, couldn't they see how badly they were drawing?  This is to ignore the different starting points of different works, to view dramatic endeavour as progress towards psychological naturalism, or some such mythic end point.
The Corpus Christi Plays (CCP) and the works of Shakespeare are completely different beasts and shouldn't be attacked just because they are different.  They are beasts bred for their age and their circumstances.  Let us briefly look at the differences.
Well, you'd think for a start, that they were staged in a very similar way.  Weren't both designed for outdoor performance.  No.  The outdoors of an enclosed circular wooden O are completely different from the great outdoors of the street, where the CCP were performed.  Shakespeare had control of his venue, there was a guarantee of a wall behind the performer to help bounce the voice.  At the Globe he had to be loud, but there was room for expression, for words to carry and complex ideas worked on.  The authors of the CCPs had no such guarantee.  Anyone who has tried to do street theatre or promenade performance will tell you, you're not projecting - you're SHOUTING!  BELLOWING!  So, the CCPs are very cleverly designed to help the performer.  For one, they are repetitious, so that the people at the back have a chance to catch the action, if not the first time around at least on the second or third hearing.  There is no time for extended metaphor.  Secondly, the scripts seem to be impossible to say quietly.  I'm not sure how this is done, it is an astounding technique, but there is no volume control on those words.  You can't help but be VERY LOUD!  It's an amazing, almost impossible achievement.
The form of the text was changed to match conditions - conditions Shakespeare would have found difficult to write his plays in, were he born earlier.  But there are other reasons why the authors of the CCPs do not favour extended metaphors or similes or poetic imagery.  The primary reason is the length of the plays themselves.  Shakespeare had two to three hours of stage time to develop themes, ideas and work them through the plays, making them greater than works of simple entertainment.  The authors of the CCPs could do no such thing as they were episodic.  Each twenty minute playlet had to be self contained - there was no guarantee that the audience for one would have seen any other, so no running theme akin to those in longer plays were required.  There were themes, but they were displayed by the choice of episode in relation to later ones, not obviously within the text itself.  So, though the 'complete' work is a day long, it was impossible to extend themes within them beyond what could be yelled in twenty minutes or so.  And that's without debating how much the church would allow poetic license within the plays themselves (to be fair, looking at the Second Shepherd's Play, with two versions of the Nativity, one comic involving a sheep rustler and another sacred, they could obviously be pushed quite far).
The acid test here is asking, if Shakespeare were to have been commissioned to write a play for a Corpus Christi cycle, or even several, would those works stand up to his full length work?  Probably they would be good, but they wouldn't be King Lear.  The form wasn't designed for that kind of creation.  But that isn't to say that one is better art than the other.  And whilst many of the CCPs were basic hack jobs, efficient but not exciting, some are brilliant creations that will play for as long as the English language allows.  The York Crucifixion is a pretty damn good riposte.  Not King Lear, no - but would you compare the enormity of a full scale communal event with a two/three hour professional one and say that is a fair and balanced one?  No.

This is, of course, a lengthy digression on something a historian I rather like said in passing.  It's the kind of quibble you always get with popular history, especially on television.  There's only so much time to put in the qualifiers.  I rather enjoyed Simon Schama's series Power of Art, but I kept thinking that if I knew more about the subjects I would probably be quibbling away at it rather a lot.  His Shakespeare documentaries did, rather, prove that theory correct.
Whatever could be said against Schama's work, it was always going to be a triumph in comparison with Ethan Hawk on Macbeth - a representative of a patchy series of one-off, personal views on Shakespeare plays - shown variously and sometimes randomly over B.B.C. Two and Four like the programmers just didn't give a shit about the season anymore.  All of these docu-things lived and died by the heavy hands of the series producers, patiently steering the ship of fact along whilst giving the impression the actors / directors chosen to front their particular docu-blob had anything real to contribute.  The experts were the same for each episode, obviously interviewed as a job lot and each episode was so similar in structure to the last you suspect the name of the actor involved could have come in very last minute.  Much as I enjoyed Jeremy Irons discuss Henry IV and V, I can't see him struggling away on the script.  He got to ride about on a horse, sound interesting and generally come across as a nice host - which from all accounts is a pretty genuine picture of the man himself.  With Ethan Hawk, whilst the facts came through clear and strong thanks to those not so invisible production hands, the only fact that leapt out at the viewer that the man should never play Macbeth.  It was a public audition tape, clearly demonstrating that the role is beyond him.  Some people can play Kings.  They are called Jeremy Irons.  And they ride horses.
Unfortunately the invisible hands of the producers and researchers were lost completely for whole chunks
of Derek Jacobi's effort on Richard II, where - somehow - he was permitted to digress onto the Shakespeare Authorship 'question' without any clear editorial balancing going on.  For twenty odd minutes Derek (how does he manage to make the name Derek sound unlike a man with a whippet down the pub?  Is it the funny spelling or the his slightly unusual second name?  He makes Derek sound almost regal somehow...) was allowed to spout the utmost nonsense and the only rebuttal a publicly funded documentary series put in was a brief clip of a seriously knowledgeable expert Jonathan Bate that lasted probably less than thirty seconds.  At no point did this documentary, a television programme that should inform as well as entertain, mention that Jacobi's favoured rival to Shakespeare, Edward de Vere, was dead for the last ten years of his supposed writing life.  NOT ONCE.
Only Jacobi himself allowed a gracious acknowledgement that the theory was not widely believed, only that he believed it.  That is his perogative.  The programme makers, however, should have known better.  If they can make Ethan Hawk sound like he vaguely knows what he's talking about, they could steer some facts past Jacobi in the edit.
I can't comment on The Hollow Crown fully as it has been sitting on my digital box for months now and I've only made it through Richard II so far, so I will write about that in a future Shakespearean blog.

And, just to remind you, The Shakespeare Delusion will be appearing for a one-off performance on Friday 12th October at 7.30pm at the Guildhall in Lavenham.  Tickets available at the Guildhall - booking enquiries to me at

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