Shakespeare: Staging the world - review

An exhibition at the British Museum celebrates our greatest playwright.

London may be a hot and flustered Olympic host this summer, but a small, perfectly formed exhibition celebrates our inarguable global significance in one important cultural respect: Shakespeare. Shakespeare: staging the world forms a wooden "O" in the centre of the British museum (design by Tom Piper and Alan Farlie of RFK Architects). Curators Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton have panned for gold here, and the exhibition shines with their booty. As we prepare for the world to come to London, we find that 400 years ago the world was already here.

This inspired collaboration between the British Museum and the RSC exhibits some 200 objects, from the prosaic to the decorative, that link like enjambment to Shakespeare’s transforming imagination. We’re taken from a copy of the Arundel First Folio (1623) through a series of rooms relating Shakespeare’s plays to the world - or worlds - around him. It’s a deeply considered mix of connections and conjectures.

We see, initially, a little of Shakespeare’s contemporary reality, at a time when globes and globalisation were brand new. An early map misinforms as to the location of his theatre, muddling it with the bearbaiting arena. Easily done, at the time. Philip Henslowe, a sort of 17th-century Cameron Mackintosh, owned a portfolio of entertainments on Bankside, and the Globe sat alongside his bearpits and brothels; a she-bear’s battered skull on display mutely testifies to her brutal treatment in a violent world.

A painting of Richard III (“every tale condemns me for a villain”), suitably crook-backed and with broken sword, reminds us of the prevailing Tudor orthodoxy. Writing in a heavily censored milieu, for a ruling class jittery about conspiracy and succession, Shakespeare turned adroitly to the historical and classical past to navigate politically sensitive themes. On display, for example, is the gold aureus, coined in 43 BC by the Roman conspirators to commemorate the assassination of Julius Caesar (“the unkindest cut of all”). EID-MAR is clearly inscribed on the back.

Some objects really snag the gaze, like Henry V’s funerary “achievements”. These are the totemic armoury cum relics of the warrior prince, championed by Shakespeare as the apogee of patriotism (“we happy few, we band of brothers”). Shakespeare mentions the helm and sword in his play and undoubtedly would have seen them, exhibited as they were in Westminster Abbey well into the twentieth century. And here in 2012, you too can still see the delicate fleurs de lys woven into the shield’s Chinese silk, of palest blue.

Ironically, we have censorship to thank for the only surviving example of Shakespeare’s handwriting: close, inky, elegant.  Sir Thomas More, which he co-authored, depicted the 1517 London riots against immigrants (“strangers”). Unsurprisingly the Tudor machinery quashed any performances that explored the character of More, so the play was never printed and his handwriting survives.

We visit deepest, loamy England - some simple Elizabethan garden tools; a tapestry of Warwickshire and the Forest of Arden. This is the garlanded countryside of As You Like It and Shallow’s orchard in Henry IV. Stitched into the tapestry are the great houses of Midlands Catholics: the tensions between old and new ways are never far from his text’s surface.

Time and again Shakespeare ransacked other worlds to stage contemporary debate. We get some sense of the traffic of objects and people that was beginning to flow into London, and feed this imagination. The Moroccan ambassador, whose portrait hangs here, made quite a splash in London in 1600. We can only speculate how he fuelled the creative journey to Othello (“the noble Moor”).  A narwhal tusk from Frobisher’s voyage to Baffin Island, the painting of a Brazilian marmoset, form part of a “brave new world” of exploration that illuminates The Tempest.

We end as we begin, with a copy of Shakespeare’s works. This one’s a bit cheap and tatty. But it was the very book smuggled into Robben Island by prisoner Sonny Venkatrathnam. He adorned the exterior with Diwali cards and persuaded the authorities it was a Hindu bible. In it the ANC prisoners secretly earmarked and signed passages that resonated with them.

The book lies open at Julius Caesar. Here Nelson Mandela has highlighted and dated (16th December 1977) Caesar’s speech beginning “Cowards die many times before their deaths.”

This, say the curators, is an example of Shakespeare as global resource, and it’s difficult to disagree. It’s one Olympiad ticket you’ll not want to miss out on.

The BP exhibition Shakespeare: staging the world at the British Museum until 25 November.

A view of the Royal Shakespeare Company theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon (Photo: Getty Images)
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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis