With the ‘peak-Shakespeare date’ of 23rd April anniversary having passed we can now settle down to thinking of 2016 once again as the ‘year’ of Shakespeare and enjoying those things that will keep the man from Stratford in the public eye for the remainder of his 400th anniversary. The British Library’s contribution to the celebrations – ‘Shakespeare in Ten Acts’ is a fine place to start in this regard, making use of much that is perhaps well-known about the man and his works to shed fascinating light on much that arguably isn’t.
Each ‘Act’ originates in the process of acting – the staging of a particular play at a particular time and in a particular place. From the first (probable) staging of Hamlet at the Globe in 1600 to the digitally-inspired (re)staging of the play by the Wooster Group in 2013 each section of the exhibition uses a particular performance to highlight the currents in thought around the plays that come together in the activity of acting out the work. The texts and plots of the plays may well be familiar to us, but the circumstances of their performance open up other avenues for consideration. When did a woman first act on a British stage? When was a black actor first seen (and, incredibly, for how many years after that date did white actors still presume to take on the parts of black characters)? It is, perhaps, unsurprising that the answers to such questions involve stagings of Shakespeare plays, as his work represents both the most ‘traditional’ body of texts in English-language theatre and, simultaneously, the one most receptive to daring reinvention. The displays remind us how daring that reinvention may sometimes be.
Boundaries are pushed and challenged in each ‘Act’ here: boundaries of what is deemed ‘acceptable’ on stage (in content or in dramatic treatment); boundaries of what is possible (the first stagings of The Tempest in the indoor space at Blackfriars being a vivid example of this); and boundaries of interpretation, as each production pushes the limits of what its director, actors, and audience members are prepared to see the play as ‘meaning’. From Peter Brook’s 1970 Midsummer Night’s Dream for the RSC to the all-male Twelfth Night at the Globe in 2002 (reprised 2012) Shakespeare’s work emerges from this exhibition as marvellously open-ended, never fixed in performance but always changing in each new attempt to turn the words on the page into the substance of theatrical illusion.
With its wealth of books and documents from the period, the British Library is, of course, a great place to think about the linguistic, social, and political culture of Shakespeare’s time, an the exhibition brings together items that would be worth seeing at any time. In this anniversary year, though, it does something else as well: it reminds us that the words on the page are the starting point in our engagement with Shakespeare, and that any exhibition is only a summary of where we currently are in our ongoing process of acting out the works that he left for us.
‘Shakespeare in Ten Acts’ is at the British Library, St Pancras, until 6th September. For more details see http://www.bl.uk/events/shakespeare-in-ten-acts