How I saw 12 Shakespeare plays in seven days

From a Dutch mash-up at the Barbican to a promenade theatre piece at the V&A – with a thousand miles in between.

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In a week that spanned the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death, I experienced a dozen of his 37 plays in combinations that included a marathon Dutch mash-up of the histories, a half-hour abridged version of Twelfth Night at a museum, a comedy with a half-amateur cast and two King Lears 150 miles apart.

Shakespeare’s shade, if haunting the ­Barbican, would initially struggle to recognise Kings of War, created for the Toneelgroep theatre company of Amsterdam by Ivo van Hove – the Belgian whose radical reimagining of Arthur Miller’s View from the Bridge and Broadway production of David Bowie’s brink-of-death play, Lazarus, have made him one of the most celebrated international directors. His five-hour conflation of the end of Henry IV, Henry V, all three parts of Henry VI and Richard III takes place in an underground situation room that might represent any European, North American or Middle Eastern capital where power is contested and wars waged. A screen above the stage shows scenes filmed in white corridors offstage, where the bodies of kings and politicians, dead from natural and unnatural causes, end up on gurneys.

Shakespeare brought the vital elements of drama – story and speech – to their peak, and van Hove delivers a gripping thriller narrative in which electorates around the world will recognise many reflections on the pursuit and execution of power. The loss is the language. For the London surtitles, a Dutch translation of the histories had been rendered back into an English that, confusingly, often isn’t Shakespeare. The king, before Agincourt, invokes not “gentlemen in England now abed” but “nobles who aren’t here”. At one point, Richard III speaks some of Macbeth’s best-known lines.

You don’t get such liberties from the RSC. Although its new Hamlet (running until 13 August) boldly starts with a scene that Shakespeare didn’t write – a graduation ceremony at Wittenberg University – and with a character, the presiding professor, who isn’t in the play, it is symbolic of the director Simon Godwin’s general scrupulousness that the production includes no words that did not appear in the original text, because the only dialogue spoken in this new preface is “Hamlet, Prince of Denmark”.

The framing suggests that the prince’s tragic fault of overthinking may be a consequence of his education rather than a permanent trait, somewhat like those postwar working-class Britons who found themselves educated beyond the world of their birth. There is even the intriguing possibility that it is learning (“the pale cast of thought”) that has made him question revenge as a solution to dynastic disputes.

The passion that this Hamlet does feel fiercely is grief. Paapa Essiedu, the young black British actor who takes the title role in an almost entirely non-white cast, reaches doubled-over, howling levels of distress, redolent of Greek tragedy, during the appearance of his father’s ghost and the self-lacerating soliloquies. Laertes (Marcus Griffiths), learning of his sister’s death, also keens and wails, and thus derangement by grief becomes a critical theme of the play.

The most dazzling line reading comes as Hamlet confronts his mother in her closet. The words “Look here upon this picture, and on this” usually refer to engravings of Old Hamlet and Claudius. In this production Essiedu tears open his shirt to expose a tattoo of his father’s face above his heart, then grabs from Gertrude’s reading table an edition of Time magazine with the state’s new leader staring gravely from the cover. By my count, this is the 19th Hamlet I have seen, and the Essiedu-Godwin version would be near the top of the list, along with the Jonathan Pryce-Richard Eyre production in 1980 and Nicholas Hytner’s staging with Rory Kinnear in 2010.

While the most performed of the tragedies is the RSC’s death-day gift at Stratford, the company has sent the most popular comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for a tour of the UK (until 4 June), with the subtitle A Play for the Nation. The director Erica Whyman’s gimmick is that, at every stop, members of a local amateur theatre group are cast as the rude mechanicals. At the Marlowe Theatre, the guest performers were the “Canterbury Players”, with the engaging Lisa Nightingale as Bottom. This device struck me as adding more to ticket sales – audiences will include not only relatives of the mechanicals but those of the local children who provide Titania’s “fairy train” – than to understanding of the play. But, word-perfect and impeccably rehearsed, the Kent volunteers would surely have been indistinguishable, for theatregoers who didn’t know, from the young RSC professionals.

Whyman sets the play in the basement of a bombed-out house in 1940s Britain, Theseus appearing in RAF uniform. But with a play that already asks a director to unite two divergent worlds – the Athenian court and a weird wood – the imposition of such a specific third milieu risks distraction.

Schoolteachers often see A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a suitable entry point to Shakespeare, and the weekday matinée audience in Canterbury was packed with junior-school groups. Although a 90-minute-long first half filled the aisle with cross-legged crocodiles of theatregoers heading for the loo, the jokes worked on this age group much as they have done down through the ages – especially the moment when Pyramus, trying to see through the Wall, buried her nose in Bottom’s bum.

The timetable of this Shakespeare crawl was dictated by theatre schedules and my diary, but there is no play I would rather have seen on the actual death-day than King Lear. If Hamlet is the writer’s greatest narrative achievement, it is that other play from his burst of post-1600 creativity that holds the finest moments psychologically and poetically, the word “nothing” tolling through the text, in varying contexts, like a funeral bell. The King Lear premiered at the Royal theatre in Northampton, in the lead-up to a UK tour that ends in Malvern in July, is located by its director, Max Webster, in an Edwardian England of frock coats worn at court and fights conducted with knives and pistols rather than swords.

Intelligent trimming emphasises the play as a parental tragedy, encompassing not just Lear and his three daughters but Gloucester and his two sons from either side of the blanket. Webster underscores this theme by subtly underlining that other characters are mothers and fathers as well: one of the daughters is visibly pregnant and another carries a swaddled infant on her shoulder.

When Michael Pennington’s Lear – spoken with immaculate clarity and charting with psychiatric precision the coming and going of the king’s mind – visits the Manchester Opera House at the turn of June, local Shakespeareans will be able to compare it with the portrayal by Don Warrington that is now at the Manchester Royal Exchange in a co-production with Talawa Theatre Company and Birmingham Rep.

Each lead actor chooses one of the main alternative routes through Lear: Warrington a bullish tyrant who is suddenly humbled by stubbornness and dementia, Pennington a man whose physical and mental frailties are already apparent when he banishes Cordelia. It is a great tribute to actors and writer alike that, seeing these Lears within a few days of each other, I never experienced a moment of overfamiliarity. The Earl of Gloucester has always been a near-Lear for older character actors, and both Pip Donaghy in the Northampton version and Philip Whitchurch in the Manchester relish the cruelties and tendernesses of the part, though the latter’s blinding, with chunks of egglike eye-white splattering the stage, is the more horrific.

In my personal tally of actors seen on stage or screen, Lear now beats Hamlet 20-19 and what astonishes me is that, as in a great musical composition, previously unheard patterns and emphases are suddenly evident. At Stratford, I suddenly reflected that the first three big scenes in Hamlet feature extreme parental variations: son and murderous stepfather, son and dead father, father (Polonius) and departing son (Laertes). In Manchester, Miltos Yerolemou – who plays the Fool brilliantly as a sinister, white-faced riddler – made me wonder for the first time if the jester, clearly at some level a fantasy son to the monarch, might in fact be Lear’s bastard child, which would add another layer to his empathy with Gloucester.

Henry V, a play that celebrates an English victory over the French and was harnessed to the Second World War effort in the big-screen version directed by Laurence Olivier, might seem a risky choice for an Anglo-French co-production. But the Antic Disposition company has brought its version of England’s favourite history play, already toured through south-west France, to a series of English churches and cathedrals. A cast of French and English actors plays British and French soldiers, all patients at a field hospital in 1915, who decide, perhaps undiplomatically, to put on Henry V. The idea brings something new to the play – a French soldier playing an English one is suddenly stricken by shell shock – and it is rare to hear the French and English of the climactic wedding scene spoken by actors who share their home and away languages with Catherine and the King. Henry is played by Freddie Stewart, a 2013 Rada graduate with a striking voice and looks, who will surely soon be seen at the National or RSC. The effects that naturally resulted as the April dusk fell behind the stained-glass windows of Winchester Cathedral would have thrilled the greatest lighting designer, though I slightly envy, for thematic perfection of setting, those who got to see this production at Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon.

My twelfth Shakespeare production (if I’m allowed to count all six of the plays contained within Kings of War) was, fittingly, Twelfth Night – or at least Malvolio’s Misorder, a 30-minute promenade piece at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. This live theatre in a museum reflects the almost psychotic desire of the British cultural establishment to show how much it loves Shakespeare – the same impulse that resulted in even Countryfile doing an item as part of the BBC death-day season. The show itself follows a neat conceit, a cheeky Maria taking us to exhibits (such as the Great Bed of Ware) that the censorious Malvolio would prefer us not to see, before they bump into Sir Toby Belch for a cut-down scene from the play.

The original words spark thought and pleasure, however and wherever the speeches are done, and it is the lines and the mind behind them that remain the reason for celebration. On the night of the death quatercentenary, BBC2 broadcast Shakespeare Live! – an embarrassing RSC gala that used skits from Horrible Histories and songs from West Side Story to support the contention that “there’s something in Shakespeare for everyone”. The programme was perhaps understandable, coming from a theatre company and a broadcaster that respectively receive millions and billions in public subsidy, yet this tone of happy-clappy evangelism entirely misses the point.

What matters about Shakespeare is not that there is “something for everyone”, but that nobody else has ever written anything like this. With Lears yet to come from Antony Sher and Glenda Jackson, and a production by Spymonkey that features every death in the canon, there is always something new to find.

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. 

This article appears in the 05 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred