To lovers of literature, whether plays or poetry, libraries are special places and few more so than the British library. As one of Europe’s largest, it is home to some of the most important, most widely read, most sought after texts ever written. With archives that include treasures like the 13th century Magna Carter and rare 14th century editions of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, it is with universal excitement that book lovers look forward to each British Library exhibition when it comes around.
This year so far, fans of Shakespeare have been treated to a wealth of Shakespearean celebrations, commemorating 400 years since the Bard’s death. This Summer, the British Library has treated fans to their own contribution to the festivities, ‘Shakespeare in Ten Acts’.
Whilst so many events have focused on Shakespeare’s life, this special exhibition instead pinpoints ten performances from his peak right up to the present day, exploring in this span of over 400 years just how we came to revere Shakespeare the way we do today. Through just ten performances (and a wealth of selectively compiled supporting material) the legend and the legacy are unpacked in sequence, charting in fascinating detail just how the work of one man went on to speak for four centuries (and counting).
Crucially, this story is not just told through books, though the rarity and historical value of the relics on display is enough to send tingles down the spine! Each of the ten themed rooms is filled with displays that contextualise and breath life into the words. Production photos, projections, illustrations, videos, interviews and music from through the ages and across the world all paint a wider picture. From the shrouded and rather faded pages of the British Library’s copy of the first folio, dated 1623, at the entrance (what I would give to feel that hallowed history under my fingers!) the page is brought to the stage.
Most distinctive of the ten in my mind is the exploration of Peter Brook’s radical and now revered ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (1970) from which the original white swing has been installed and presented in a white box-like room akin to the original set. This tactile approach is the most immersive experience of the exhibition. Alongside the swing, costumes and props adorn the walls and BBC rehearsal footage offers an insight into the live experience of the show.. For reference, the 1935 film can also be previewed and, one of my personal favorite touches, an original handwritten manuscript for Angela Carter’s Wise Children (1991) lies open, depicting showgirls Dora and Nora’’s fictional experiences of starring in a film of similar stylistic ambition. It is the the exploration and celebration of these cultural cross-overs that make this exhibition so engaging.
Giving actors a voice in the exhibition in the form of video interviews, is also an engrossing feature that broadens the horizons of the text. Few study the text closer than those that ‘Speak the Speech’, to quote Hamlet, and opening the characters up in this way prompts the opportunity for wider discussions and interpretations is a much less prescriptive format.
Perhaps even more crucially, the exhibition also gives voice to those who would have had a voice 400 years ago in 1616, namely women and ethnic minorities. The first appearances and steady rise are charted, alongside pertinent 20th and 21st century issues such as the role of feminism in theatre and colour blind casting. Shakespeare is justifiably represented here as a medium through which to tackle such prejudices and inequalities in the theatre, and the commentary recognises fairly that there is still a way to go.
The exhibition is book-ended with two productions of Hamlet, 413 years apart. From Hamlet’s first documented performance in 1616, to the Wooten Group’s 2013 realisation, featuring 21st century technologies and multi-media cross-cutting techniques those at the time surely could not even have dreamed of. This fitting conclusion sets the stage for Shakespeare performance as future proof, living beyond the stuffy texts and instead played out tangibly on stages and screens and in hearts and minds the world over.