With all the excitement of last Saturday’s World Book Night (I was involved in a Book Sale and Giveaway, amazing how hard it can be to give away free books- “but I’m already reading one at home” somebody said!) there was another celebration that, although did not creep by unnoticed by any means, was something I did not have the time nor energy to do anything about. That was the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare or, for the less morbid amongst you, 452nd anniversary of his birth, for Will was one of those unfortunates who died on their birthday. Joseph Fiennes suggested that it was as a result of a drunken binge, which I didn’t know, although I can identify with birthday celebrations getting out of hand (my 30th springs to mind but I’m sure that’s a story for another day). So, sitting on my planner and waiting to be watched was this Shakespearean extravaganza from the BBC so last night I spent a lengthy two and a half hours plus in the company of the Bard.
Coming live from the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon I was initially a little unconvinced about what I would be letting myself in for. I was wary of cultural overload. I thought it might be luvvies doing their Shakespearean party pieces without a great deal of context and that I might watch half an hour before resorting to the fast forward button or abandoning it altogether but I should have had more faith in the BBC’s abilities to cover these showpiece events.
Presented by David Tennant and Catherine Tate and attended by Prince Charles and Camilla we were plunged into drama students performing “Tonight” from West Side Story, inspired, of course, by Romeo and Juliet. This set the tone for the evening as it was very much a performing arts events with pieces inspired by Shakespeare as well as his words. My luvvie sensitivity did put up the hairs on the back of my neck when Catherine Tate launched into the “All The World’s A Stage” from “As You Like It” together with walk-on parts from individuals chosen to illustrate the seven ages of man. For me this sort of staging takes me back to coming up with school assemblies I also have this thing about “As You Like It”. I studied it at college and for some reason took against it so much that it still causes the barriers to come down- this is the only Shakespeare play that has had that effect on me (not that I’m familiar with all of them!)
Tate and Tennant looking moody
We moved out of the confines for the studio now and then for the aforementioned Joseph Fiennes to wander around places associated with Shakespeare in pieces to camera representing the seasons of Shakespeare’s life and this was always followed by a song. We had The Shires, Ian Bostridge, the ubiquitous Gregory Porter but best of all was Alison Moyet with a song from “Much Ado” (a play I like very much indeed) a lady of such prodigious talent that she could make “Hey Nonny Nonny” sound convincing.
I was beginning to get into this and I liked the interplay of the different art forms. The balcony scene from “Romeo and Juliet” was followed swiftly by the pas de deux from Prokofiev’s ballet and a sparring Beatrice and Benedick scene (from real life husband and wife Meera Syal and Sanjeev Bhasker) was moved on by a scene from Berlioz opera about the characters. I’ve decided that I’m not really at ease with out-of-context ballet- I do switch off. I think I need to be led into the ballet in order to suspend my disbelief a bit. I felt the same about an Othello/Desdemona ballet scene and that ended with the dramatic strangulation. I think it is to do with context rather than me just being unappreciative. Paradoxically, during this production I realised I felt the opposite about opera. I actually prefer it out of context in an extract form as presented as a whole opera it just gets too much and I end up wanting to go home. But here, the operatic sections were actually amongst my favourites. I really enjoyed Emma Carrington and Rhian Lois doing Berlioz. It was a superb combination of voices and I had never heard the piece before and a section from Verdi’s “Falstaff” performed by the English National Opera was splendid fun. The sound quality of the musical pieces was very good indeed. This was particularly the case with the Midland Youth Jazz Orchestra who performed “Such Sweet Thunder” a Duke Ellington piece I was not familiar with. The Duke was inspired by a Shakespeare festival when he was touring in Stratford, Ontario. This was an extremely likeable section.
I have made it sound like “Shakespeare Live!” was mainly music but of course there were sections from the plays. The piece I enjoyed most of all was from Henry V, which I have never read and wasn’t expecting to be funny but it was performed very endearingly by Alex Hassell as the King trying to persuade Katherine to marry him. In fact of all the top class actors this was the performer I enjoyed the most. He came back later to do a scene with Anthony Sher as Falstaff. I’ve just had to Google him and have discovered that his performance as Henry V was very well received last year. I also found out I remembered a really charming performance from him in an ITV series called “Bonkers” starring Liza Tarbuck from 2007. Just the other day I was wondering what had happened to him- and now I know. Elsewhere we had Sir Ian McKellan tackling the unfamiliar with a speech from “Sir Thomas More” attributed to Shakespeare, Judi Dench and Al Murray (!) performed brilliantly from “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and Anne Marie Duff and Rory Kinnear got all bloody with “Macbeth”.
The talking point of the evening was when Paapa Essiedu came on to do the “to be or not to be” soliloquy from “Hamlet”. He was interrupted by Tim Minchin who wanted the stress put on different words and then was joined by an increasingly A-list group of actors who were all advising a different emphasis on the line. In came Benedict Cumberbatch, David Tennant, Rory Kinner, Harriet Walter, Ian McKellan, Judi Dench clutching a skull (“no it’s not that speech”) before they were all upstaged from a certain visitor from the balcony – His Royal Highness himself who made a scene which was getting just a little irritating into one of the highlights of the night.
One of the joys of watching live performances is looking out for things going wrong but there wasn’t very much wrong with this lengthy show. Henry Goodman and an unrecognisable Rufus Hound fluffed lines towards the end of the Cole Porter“Brush Up Your Shakespeare” song from Kiss Me Kate (based on “Taming Of The Shrew”) but by this time they had the audience eating out of the palms of their hands and it wouldn’t have mattered what they did. They went done a storm as did Rufus Wainwright with his own arrangement of the sonnet “When, In Disgrace with Fortune and Men’s Eyes” and a very funny sketch from The Horrible Histories team which, I am sure, the Bard himself would have adored.
Sir Ian McKellan
By the end I was, I admit, fairly Shakespeared out but it was left to David Suchet (magnificent voice- had never noticed that about him before) and Judi Dench as the Fairy King and Queen bidding us adieu and a glimpse of fireworks outside the building to the most familiar piece of Shakespeare influenced classical music, “Theme From The Apprentice” or Prokofiev’s “The Montagues and The Capulets” for all us non-Alan Sugar fans.
It’s his birthday and somebody in this house has written on his head!
Happy Birthday William Shakespeare! You certainly provided us with a varied evening of entertainment on Saturday. Here’s to the half a millennium celebrations!
Shakespeare Live from the RSC was shown on BBC2 on Saturday 23rd April as part of the BBC’s ongoing Shakespeare birthday celebrations.