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Paul Vallely: Muddled presentation for the Bard

21 April 2023

Paul Vallely finds confusion in three interpretations of Shakespeare this Easter

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A bust of William Shakespeare in Holy Trinity, Stratford-upon-Avon

A bust of William Shakespeare in Holy Trinity, Stratford-upon-Avon

ON SUNDAY, a pupil of King Edward VI School, Stratford-upon-Avon, will process to the parish church, Holy Trinity, carrying a quill. To the side of the sanctuary stands a bust of William Shakespeare. In his right hand, he holds a quill pen. Every year, on the Bard’s supposed birthday, it is replaced with a new one by the current head boy of the school that the great playwright attended more than 400 years ago.

The ceremony is an eloquent emblem of how we relate our present to our past. Honouring tradition is an essential part of that, but so is reimagining it to fit the circumstances of the world in which we live today. Getting the balance right is no easy task, as I discovered, celebrating Easter in Stratford.

We paid three visits to the theatre. The first, Julius Caesar, offered an object lesson in how not to bring a classic up to date. Its young director, Atri Banerjee, offered a box of fireworks, many of which misfired, and all of which failed to add up to a convincing vision: a purposeless Greek chorus; actors running furiously in circles; undiscriminated modern dress, which stripped the characters of status; a revolving box representing the realm of the dead — with some arbitrarily clothed in celestial raiment, and others not.

Most unconvincing was the gender-swapped Brutus and Cassius, both played by women. The RSC has experimented with this successfully in the past. A female Cymbeline a few years ago brought a maternal grief that added profoundly to the play, but here it seems a piece of fashionable muddled-pronoun tokenism, at odds with Shakespeare’s exploration of martial honour.

What made this more mystifying was that the next morning, in Julius Caesar Unwrapped, the assistant director and three understudies laid bare the thinking behind the production’s painstaking rehearsal process. How had such interesting ideas produced so unpersuasive an outcome?

Less bold, but more convincing, was the play that reopened the RSC’s Swan Theatre, which had been closed since the lockdown. Aptly, Hamnet, a dramatisation of Maggie O’ Farrell’s novel, is set against another pandemic: an outbreak of the bubonic plague in 1596 which, she imagines, kills Shakespeare’s only son, the 11-year-old Hamnet (Book Club, 21 October 2021).

Clearly drawing on Germaine Greer’s seminal Shakespeare’s Wife, which wove a rich tapestry of the lives of ordinary women in 16th-century Stratford, the play conjures the woman’s world of giving birth, nursing, feeding, clothing, and herbal healing in which Shakespeare was nurtured. Anne Hathaway, previously portrayed by biographers as an illiterate scold, here offers a mystical serenity to contrast with her husband’s fiery genius in how they grieve for their son’s death. Hamlet was written soon afterwards.

Yet the most persuasive demonstration of how the present is enriched by the past did not come in Shakespeare’s theatre, but in the church of which, in 1611, he became a lay rector. The liturgies of the Easter Triduum included a ceremony of stones before the cross; Reproaches sung by a fine collegiate choir; a dramatic indoor kindling of the vigil fire; and the gradual illumination of the ancient nave as the Lumen Christi passed from contemporary candle to candle. After a lifetime of high drama, Shakespeare could find nowhere better to end his days.

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