Sunday, 1 July 2012

The Pain Of Shakespeare

“Will is always present, always with me. We have a daily dialogue, and I feel close to him.”

Really, Ben Kingsley? Really? You have a daily dialogue with a man who has been dead for 396 years? Every waking day of your life you think and supposedly converse with a playwright? I think even writers themselves would agree that no one is that important. I fail to have a daily dialogue with my family, all of whom I love very dearly, so I’m amazed you find the time to constantly badger Mr Shakespeare. Will must be bloody livid. Imagine if someone you barely knew insisted on popping round every single day for a quick catch up? I remember when I was younger, a relative of ours used to insist on coming round every Sunday. The first few weeks it was fine but they’d insist on staying for hours and as we were too polite to ask them to stop, we took to hiding when they came over. This resulted in us crawling around the ground floor of the house to make sure they couldn’t see us from the driveway. I imagine Shakespeare often finds himself now having to do the same thing.

This gripe has come courtesy of this article in today’s Observer: 

Called, Shakespeare And Me, it encourages a whole host of actors, and one director, to wank on about how great Shakespeare is. Actors who have all had lovely RSC experience of working on lavish, well-produced Shakespeare productions. And that’s the problem. As with many of Shakespeare’s female characters, there’s very little diversity. Where are the actors who’ve performed Shakespeare on miniscule stages to an audience of three for no money? Where are the actors who can’t stand Shakespeare? Where are the actors who couldn’t care less if they never had to agonise over baffling lines of verse never again? Oh no. You’ve either performed for the RSC and think Shakespeare is bloody wonderful or you don’t exist.

I, for one, am not Shakespeare’s biggest fan. Don’t get me wrong, I think a lot of his writing is beautiful. ‘Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’ The construction is perfect and the fact that we still use his lines today is testament to what a talented writer he was. But what's even more impressive than his lines on love are his insults. Who can argue with lines such as, 'There’s no more faith in thee than in a stewed prune.'?  And the feeling you get when you crack one of his lines is joyous. When you finally get what he’s on about, you feel like you’ve been let in on one of the greatest jokes of all time. But Shakespeare can be utterly tortuous as well.

I’ve played some terrible Shakespeare roles in my time. I played Hero in Much Ado About Nothing while at drama school and I don’t think I’ve ever been so miserable in a play in my entire life. Of course, Much Ado About Nothing is all about Beatrice and Benedick. I mean, the ‘nothing’ actually refers to Hero’s lady bits, but Shakespeare really put all his efforts into Bea and Ben. Playing Hero means you spend a lot of time floating around at the back of the stage being talked about. It’s utterly tedious and really only serves as a lesson in listening. A character very similar to this is Perdita in The Winter’s Tale who I’ve also had the misfortune of playing. Again, despite a lot of the play actually being about her, she has very little to say and is overshadowed by other, better written characters.  Add to this the fact that my director for this play was so incompetent that of the three weeks we spent rehearsing the play (Monday to Saturday, 9-4.30) we only spent two days on the last two acts meaning that I received about as much direction as the owner of a broken sat-nav.

And watching Shakespeare can be tortuous too. Done well, and it is a thing of utter beauty. I saw Hamlet at the National a couple of years ago with Rory Kinnear playing the title role and I’ve never been so astounded by a performance of a Shakespeare play in my life. Despite the script, the lines felt new and modern and I was gripped from beginning to end. Compare that to Richard II at the Old Vic where I honestly considered throwing myself off the balcony just so I could escape the groaning pain of Kevin Spacey labouring over every single line. And let’s not even start on the performance of Pericles where I found myself needing a wee from 5 minutes in but unable to leave without walking across the stage. 

Oh, and modernising Shakespeare? If you need to set Antony and Cleopatra in 1990s Liverpool in the hope that audiences might understand it more then you’re probably best just leaving it well alone. Despite however many points you might have to back it up, Shakespeare didn’t write Cleopatra to be played by a woman in a shellsuit.

1 comment:

  1. I'd like to think that, were Cleopatra alive today, she would like shell suits. And she'd probably be a Belieber too.