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This Element addresses the question of what Shakespeare in contemporary performance is about, and whether it really is, as it may claim to be, about Shakespeare. Far from charting a smooth journey from page to stage, the work of making Shakespeare into performances often involves deflection, evasion and circumnavigation. Drawing upon the work of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Shakespeare's Globe and the Schaubühne Berlin, About Shakespeare examines theatrical bodies, the spaces inhabited by actors and audiences, and the texts that circulate around and between them.
In March 2008, a number of London newspapers carried press advertisements for the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of the Henry IV plays, which ended its run at the Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon towards the end of the month, and transferred to the Roundhouse at the beginning of April. Touted as the centre-piece of a marathon cycle of eight history plays, the two parts of Henry IV encapsulate the appeal of an event that drew heavily upon a sense of the RSC's own institutional history, its traditions and its mythologies, which, in the advance publicity, are figured in the persona of the productions’ Falstaff, David Warner (Illustration 8). Garlanded with quotes from four-star reviews (‘Warner's return to the RSC after more than forty years away proves a triumph,’ declared the Evening Standard; ‘The RSC is making a triumphant return to its roots,’ announced the Sunday Times), the advertisement remembers the glory days of the early years of the RSC under Peter Hall, with Warner's resurrection in Stratford and London after a gap of four decades summoning memories not only of his own Richard II and Henry VI of 1963–4, but also his gauche, iconic Hamlet of 1965. The narrative is that of a prodigy returned, of a movie actor long exiled from his home in the theatre finally rediscovering his stage vocation. Warner’s twice-iterated ‘return’ is that of the RSC also, which has learned to recall the story of its own youth with him; caught in a carefree pose that seems to catch him toasting his own ‘triumph’, Warner’s Falstaff can barely contain his glee over his and his company’s success. The compositional centre of this publicity image is Falstaff ’s belly, here an expanse of red-framed white space that invites us to project upon it a theatrical and institutional history.
The Royal Shakespeare Theatre is currently undergoing a radical transformation. Described in company publicity as 'one of the world's most iconic theatrical sites', the theatre closed in 2007 for refurbishment, to reopen in 2010 as, it is hoped, 'the best theatre for Shakespeare in the world'. The 1930s cinema-style auditorium reviled by generations of its users has been demolished, to be replaced by what is described by the Royal Shakespeare Company's Artistic Director Michael Boyd as 'a theatre which celebrates interaction. . . a bold, thrust-stage, one-room auditorium - a modern take on the theatres of Shakespeare's day'. One of the distinctive elements of this latest attempt to reshape the conditions of Shakespearean performance is indicated by Boyd's description of the company's temporary replacement and prototype for the new theatre, the Courtyard, as 'a meeting place between audience and actors . . . where we can make some kind of fragile consensus together'. Summoning an egalitarian and inclusive ethos long associated with thrust stages, as well as current discourses of conflict resolution, the remark suggests that getting physically closer to Shakespeare in Stratford confers benefits beyond the theatrical: the Courtyard stage, and its permanent successor, are envisaged as not only neo-Elizabethan performance spaces but also as forums for creative dialogue, collective problem-solving and democratic participation. This is not new, in that the open stage has been subject to such a quasi-political inflection throughout the entire history of theatrical modernism; what is relatively unusual about Boyd's concern for consensus-building is that it emerges from a specific, and indeed acutely sensitive, local context.
This 2007 collection offered the first definitive study of a surprisingly underdeveloped area of scholarly investigation, namely the relationship between Shakespeare, children and childhood from Shakespeare's time to the present. It offers a thorough mapping of the domain in which Shakespearean childhoods need to be studied, in order to show how studying Shakespearean childhoods makes significant contributions both to Shakespearean scholarship, and to the history of childhood and its representations. The book is divided into two sections, each with a substantial introduction outlining relevant critical debates and contextualizing the rich combination of fresh research and readings of familiar Shakespearean texts that characterize the individual essays. The first part of the book examines the significance of the figure of the child in the Shakespearean canon. The second part traces the rich histories of negotiation, exchange and appropriation that have characterised Shakespeare's subsequent relations to the cultures of childhood in literary realms.
On the front cover of this book is a detail from a photograph, taken in 1930, of a group of some thirty children in an amateur performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream, designed and directed by Rowena Cade for the open-air theatre at Minack in Cornwall. Standing, crouching and kneeling before a woodland backdrop, some with arms draped over others' shoulders, others clutching garlands and long wands (excepting one figure towards the extreme left of the picture, who scowls at the camera, arms defiantly folded), these young persons range in age from preschool to teenage. Clad in home-sewn tights, tunics, acorn-cup headgear and (for Oberon and Titania) cloaks and ruffs, the members of this motley assembly of elves, sprites and pixies squint uncomfortably into the glare of an English sun that strips the sylvan scene of any vestige of nocturnal mystery or magic. Still, the broad provenance of this memento of Shakespearean performance is readily identifiable, even if the nature of the children's investment in the event it commemorates is not; it images a relationship between Shakespeare, childhood and performance that is liable to provoke a variety of reactions, ranging from indulgent amusement to faint nausea. On the one hand, the conjunction of the child, the fairy, performance and Shakespeare may evoke a lost time and space of naïve pleasure and innocent make-believe, a prospect to be contemplated with deep nostalgia, as befitting the Dream's special status as the scene of many Shakespeare-lovers' first encounter with the Bard.