Thursday, 29 October 2015

When it comes to the need to experience Shakespeare on stage, Sir Ian McKellen is dead wrong

Ian McKellen as Richard III, apparently
Fruity thespian Sir Ian McKellen thinks the only way to truly experience Shakespeare plays is to see them performed on stage. Reading, he says, reduces them to “an examination subject”. As actors rarely talk nonsense, I’m surprised to find myself disagreeing with the old boy, but I do. I’ve seen A Midsummer Night’s Dream on stage several times (twice at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre alone), and it has always left me cold. I recently read it for the first time, only to discover that it is indeed a work of transcendent genius, as light, airy, joyous and gay (in its proper sense) as my favourite  opera, The Magic Flute. Not only that, but it actually made me laugh out loud (the rustic players performing Pyramus & Thisbe near the end, as you ask), something Shakespeare has only previously managed to make me do thanks to Orson Welles hamming it up as Falstaff on the battlefield in Chimes at Midnight and Roger Allam being sly as the same character in Henry IV, Part 2 (a televised recording of a performance at The Globe).

My first experience of Shakespeare was watching Laurence Olivier’s film of Richard III when it was shown in black and white on television when I was a nipper. As I’d been brought up on movies rather than plays, I’m not sure I’d have been as mesmerised had I seen Olivier perform it in a theatre, with the endless distractions - coughing, people going out for a pee, unexplained laughter, the head of the person in front obscuring half the stage, the suspension-of-disbelief destroying intervals, wondering why all the actors are bellowing at the tops of their voices, hearing some pompous prat in the row behind intone the famous bits just slightly out of time with the actors, noticing the bits of “stuff” the non-speaking actors are doing on the edges of scenes and how they either over or under-react to the main action, sections of the audience vying with each other to be the first to clap at the end of a scene to signal the fact that they’re tremendously au fait with the play, wondering why a play written at the end of the 16th Century is being performed against the backdrop of war-time Italy or a London council estate, the endless curtain calls, etc. I’ve enjoyed quite a few “magical” evenings at theatres - but none of those, I’m sad to report, has involved Shakespeare, whereas I’ve been genuinely entranced by his words in the classroom, the cinema, on television, on the page, and on Kindle.

Sorry, Gandalf - but I don’t think there’s one single right way to foster an appreciation of the greatest playwright in history: each to his own and all that. The only utterly, completely and totally unacceptable way to try to awaken the interest of the young in Shakespeare is to translate the words into modern argot  in a pathetic attempt to make it “relevant” to The Kidz. I was lucky in being taught Shakespeare superbly at school, and I’m sure many children are - and have been - taught it very badly. But that’s no excuse for throwing in the sponge and pretending that what matters about Shakespeare are the stories: if you’ve seen West Side Story, you’ve watched a great film, but in no sense have you “done” Romeo and Juliet - but there’s also no sense in which you haven’t fully experienced Romeo and Juliet if you’ve merely experienced it on the page, because, ultimately, it’s all about the words. (And I won't be rushing to The Cockpit Theatre's current production of Shishir Kurup’s Merchant of Vembley, despite being assured that it is "a wickedly funny, wildly inventive and politically provocative re-imagining of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.  Set in Wembley, London in the here and now.")

Anyway, I don't think Sir Ian has much to worry about when it comes to actors doing Shakespeare on stage. In London this month, audiences can go to any of the following: Hamlet. As You Like It, Henry IV Parts One & Two, The Winter's Tale, Romeo & Juliet, The Merchant of Venice and Henry V. Good luck to all of them - I hope they all play to enthusiastic, packed-out audiences full of young people who, as a result, develop a lifelong love the author's work.


  1. "As actors rarely talk nonsense . . ". So very true!

    1. I often wonder what sort of terrible plight we'd find ourselves in if all members of the acting profession were to be banned from saying anything that hadn't been scripted for them. Imagine the deep wisdom and piercing insights that would be denied to us as a result. Mind you, we'd still be able to rely on pop stars for moral guidance.