Wherefore art thou?

Bardolotry - David Jays asks: Will the real Mr Shakespeare please stand up?

In Kenneth Branagh's Love's Labour's Lost, Shakespeare's romantic, pun-peppered play becomes a nostalgic musical comedy. Like a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers picture, it combines Gershwin standards, loving artifice, and the choreography of wary courtship. A teasing idea, attractively mounted, the play never quite persuades. None of the actors is a musical specialist, and you begin to understand why nobody has yet brought out an album called Kenneth Branagh Sings Showtunes.

But perhaps the director's real problem lies in the attempt to bring an elusive play within reach. Love's Labour's Lost is a glorious comedy, all quibbling and heartbreak, but hardly crying out for big screen treatment, especially when tipped into a moribund cinematic genre. Like many modern directors, Branagh tries to make the poet's wonders seem familiar. But what if Shakespeare isn't familiar, if he isn't our contemporary? Should we quest for an authentic Shakespeare, or ponder the irrecoverable distance that separates us?

Sheer enthusiasm can appear to bridge the great gap of time. The screenplay for Shakespeare in Love, by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman, swam in the poet's words, lovingly stippled with quotation. Its lyrical adoration was intoxicating. A lit-crit equivalent is Harold Bloom's Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human, published last year to broadsheet acclaim. You don't have to buy Bloom's ostensible argument ("Shakespeare will go on explaining us, in part because he invented us"; "he fathered much of the future"), or his avowedly partial readings of individual plays, to remain unmoved by what the book really is - a great, fat Falstaff of a love letter, a Valentine to character and verse.

Another way of smoothing Shakespeare's strangeness is to make him a proto-novelist. Trevor Nunn's production of The Merchant of Venice won several awards for the Royal National Theatre last year. The play is a nasty piece of work, scything divisions between race, class and gender, but in Nunn's version, set between the wars, dense-textured naturalism blunted the bite. People busily mixed martinis, added olives, handed round glasses and collected them almost immediately because they had run out of lines. They wound up gramophones simply to snap them off, proving that they were far too upset to listen to records. Through the accretion of detail, a pained and tender humanism emerged but, meanwhile, Shakespeare turned into George Eliot, and The Merchant into Daniel Deronda.

We could look to Stratford for our Shakespeare, although nowadays the RSC is regularly pummelled by academics as a sepulchre of establishment Bardolotry. Shakespeare: the basics, by Sean McEvoy, a new student handbook from Routledge, gives the RSC a good post-imperial kicking, convinced that its royal charter and funding from the City of London makes the company no more than the mumming lapdog of western triumphalism. In fact, the RSC is just as confused about Shakespeare as the rest of us, shuffling productions that carry a radical charge (such as Michael Boyd's recent A Midsummer Night's Dream) with lucid versions in divergent styles.

The cultural authority of the 1970s, when productions arrived with the force of revelation, has dissipated (as has the notion of cultural authority itself). This year, the RSC begins a two-year series of history plays, from Richard II to Richard III, with all those Henrys in between. Previous cycles, from the 1960s to the 1980s, forged arguments from power squabbles and civil wars through powerful recurring images such as a clamorous steel council table or a slender throne rising from the floor. The new productions will be radically different, both from their predecessors and, significantly, from each other. Three dissimilar directors (Steven Pimlott, Michael Attenborough and Edward Hall) tackle the first tetralogy, in the three Stratford theatres. What they may discover is that these plays tell a perplexity of stories about Britain, refusing continuity and unity. This is, of course, a reading perfect for our fragmented times. The RSC's loss of cultural centrality may be a marketing disadvantage, but equally it is an interpretative boon.

In any case, Stratford is an invented home for Shakespeare. Sure, he lived there - but not as a writer. His imaginative life, certainly his theatrical life, happened in London, and Stratford only saw the uneasy patriarch and beady businessman. As a site for pilgrimage, the town owes its status to the 18th-century enthusiasm of David Garrick, inaugurated by his rain-drenched jubilee of 1765, but there's nothing theatrically authentic about this Stratford Shakespeare. On a recent visit, the disconcertingly bare Shakespeare Birthplace carried a plaintive notice, explaining that it was hoping for a grant to allow it to buy some proper Tudorbethan furniture. As it is, embarrassingly undersupplied with artefacts, it looks like a haunted house without the ghost. Ladies and gentlemen, Shakespeare has left the building.

So where is he? The search moves to the Globe, resurrected on London's Bankside. The Globe is a remarkable magnet for competing interests, each with a different idea of what "authenticity" might mean: scholars, actors, spectators and tourists, all hoping that the plays will truly reveal themselves and that it won't rain. A concatenation of voices chatters around the theatre. Mark Rylance, the artistic director, is a magnificent actor and an earnest New Ager, who enthuses about ley lines and shamans. At the same time, he invites spiky, unexpected artists to appear at the Globe, this year casting Vanessa Redgrave as Prospero in The Tempest. The productions range in appearance from fantastical modern-dress to reconstructed Elizabethan clobber (including authentic underwear).

Meanwhile, the academics sift the lessons of the Globe, while reluctantly acknowledging compromises with the modern demands of working theatre. Does it matter that the seats are roomier, to accommodate our postindustrial spread; that the thatch is protected by sprinklers; that our notion of Tudor aesthetics requires the exterior woodwork to be exposed rather than completely whitewashed; that the obtrusive bases of the stage pillars have been removed? And does it matter that we're different, travelling to the theatre across a transformed London, a new world, our heads rattling with GCSE anxieties and the phantasmagoria of a troubled 20th century? Would it help if we, too, wore Elizabethan pants?

Admittedly, the Globe can be more interesting to think about than actually visit (unless you're particularly keen on shouty acting). It's more exciting as a fake for our times than as a sealed-off icon of authenticity. Taking us from consistent interpretations in a darkened auditorium, it may also release a more baffling Shakespeare - the playwright who had boys playing his heroines, whose verse had to battle London's clamour, whose actors may have disdained psychological excavation. It remains almost impossible to imagine the original effect of these texts, because it's so difficult to re-imagine ourselves. The lines lull and provoke our imaginations, while we are stuck with a variety of tantalising fakes - selling us Anne Hathaway's scones, worrying about ley lines, doing the Charleston.

Love's Labour's Lost (U) is on nationwide release

David Jays writes for publications including the Financial Times, the Observer and Sight and Sound

This article first appeared in the 17 April 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - The rise of the ergonarchy