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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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism