There’s a lot of change being debated in the UK at the moment. The election for next Mayor of London – aka “on ya bike, Boris” – seems to be a bit of a two horse race and the EU referendum is looming in a matter of weeks. Everyone has something to say about it, including those from many a foreign shore, and it’s dividing both nations and political parties.
At the same time some of the world’s great voices – Alan Rickman, Sir Terry Wogan (the voice of Eurovision for many years), David Bowie, Jon English, Ronnie Corbett, Victoria Wood, Prince and Phil Sayer (we hear his dulcet tones telling us to “Mind the Gap”on London’s Underground network) – have died in the first few months of 2016, leaving a swathe of public tribute in their wake.
In the midst of all of this comes the Shakespeare400 celebration.
On the 23rd April in 1616 – that’s 400 years ago – William Shakespeare shuffled off this mortal coil. He was 52 years old, a husband and a father of two daughters as well as a playwright and poet. He was a contemporary of other literary greats like Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe and left a legacy of 38 plays – comedies, histories and tragedies – and hundreds of lines of verse in his sonnets and long-form poems. In short, he was a man of many, many words and Shakespeare400 was designed to celebrate his contribution.
I attended a live screening of Shakespeare Live! from the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon last night. Shakespeare is viewed by many as hard going with its tangled prose and its forsooths and makeths, but this show was fantastic. It was a mix of some of his most famous scenes – A Midsummer Night’s Dream was brought to life with much hilarity by Judi Dench as Titania and Al Murray as Puck-turned-donkey – as well as other performances that have been inspired by his works. Romeo and Juliet has spawned the likes of the musical West Side Story as well as a ballet score by Prokofiev and choreography by Kenneth MacMillan. Another Broadway musical, Kiss Me Kate, is a re-telling of The Taming of the Shrew, whilst the bloody tragedy of Macbeth has been transformed in cultures as disparate as Japan and South Africa. And we were treated to all of these and more over the two and half hours.
Hamlet is enjoying quite a resurgence in the UK with actors such as David Tennant (2008), Jude Law (2009) and Rory Kinnear (2010) as well as Maxine Peake (2014) and Benedict Cumberbatch (2015) taking on some of literature’s most famous phrases. One of the highlights of last night’s show was this year’s Hamlet, Paapa Essiedu, receiving a note on his “To be or not to be” from Australian comedian and composer, Tim Minchin…and a slew of other British acting royalty. I don’t seem to be able to embed the video code for you to watch but it is on youtube here for you to enjoy.
Anyway, the point of all of this is that William Shakespeare stopped wielding his pen four centuries ago yet his work remains prolific, whether as inspiration for other artistic expression – dance, opera, musical theatre, hip hop and the big screen (think of Baz Luhrmann’s brave and modern take on Romeo and Juliet in 1996) – or in its original form, on the stage.
Shakespeare’s work was written for everyone, from monarchs to the man on the street, and last night I left the cinema thinking how relevant and powerful his stories remain some 400 years on. Whilst current propaganda and politics may change the course of history, I wonder who in today’s pantheon of cultural expression will be as celebrated and accessible 400 years from now as this talented wordsmith from Warwickshire.