Shakespeare: Old and New
It’s hardly surprising that the coming months are going to see a lot of Shakespearean plays and related events brought to the public’s attention as the 400th anniversary of his death (oh so conveniently falling on St George’s Day and the same date as his birth, if records are to be believed) on 23rd April gets closer. Shakespeare is never far from the forefront of British cultural life, and it’s hard not to feel that he’s front row centre for 2016.
In the past week I’ve been lucky enough to see two of the current productions of Shakespeare’s work running in London – as different in their aesthetics as it’s possible to imagine, but both eloquent reminders of how he continues to offer us a wealth of material upon which to test our ideas and engage with his dramatic world.
The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse’s excellent idea to stage the four late romances (Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest) in its candelit period theatre arguably takes the audience as close as possible to the experience of sitting in the Blackfriars indoor playhouse around 1610 when those works were fresh from the author’s pen. Seeing The Winter’s Tale in a candlelit space made the play’s magical ending – the ‘statue’ of Hermione that proves to be the real but presumed dead wife of Leontes when it comes ‘back’ to life before his eyes – not only more credible but more in keeping with the play’s larger theme of providence and justice. From the moment when the jealous Leontes begins to doubt his wife’s fidelity to the restoration of all that had been thought lost this play, like the other romances, relies upon the audience’s belief that not everything that they see is quite what it looks to be. A 300-seat arena, so intimate as to draw the audience into both the error of some characters and the powerlessness of others, serves this play perfectly. The period costumes and music enhance the text in performance, and the viewer exits feeling as though they had been transported back into the world of early 17th century London, blinking at the lights of the skyscrapers opposite the SWP after 3 hours in a world lit only by beeswax.
The very garishness of modernity, however, provides the national Theatre’s ‘As You Like It’ with precisely its starting point. Here, the ‘court’ becomes a modern (stock-broking?) office in which the dispossessd Orlando is working as a cleaner until the chance to engage in a very modern wrestling match changes his fortunes. As the characters leave the ‘court’ it seems to explode: desks, chairs, and lamps are hauled upwards towards the ceiling, hanging suspended in chaos in order to become the ‘trees’ of the Forest of Arden within which characters will find love, exiles a sense of belonging and, as the play works its way towards one of Shakespeare’s improbably neat conclusions, everyone is either transformed into a better person or rewarded for having been one all along.
At first glance, nothing could be further from ‘Shakespeare’s London’ (whatever that was) than the NT’s exploding city office, but the great thing about the current ‘As You Like It’ is that it doesn’t feel in the least incongruous. We leave behind the rules and order of the city and find ourselves in a world in which it seems that anything may be possible – a place of play but also of shaping order and harmony. When we leave both theatres it is hard not to feel as though we have not only witnessed something magical but, by our presence in the space, been a part of it too. And in that Shakespeare’s works are still speaking to ‘London’ as much as they ever did. How much of our London Shakespeare would recognise remains, of course, a fascinating subject for debate, but with productions of such quality the playhouses of 2016 are marking his anniversary in fine style.
‘As You Like It’ is currently in performance at the National Theatre. For more information please see:
‘The Winter’s Tale’ is currently in performance at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe. For more information please see: