Happy Birthday Shakespeare – On going to see Shakespeare’s plays and why I do.

I am writing this blog as part of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Happy Shakespeare blog project www.happybirthdayshakespeare.com I decided to join the project, because as a blogger I am often writing about going to see Shakespeare’s plays performed, and felt it appropriate to write about why I enjoy seeing Shakespeare in performance so much.

Charles Lamb, the Romantic critic, wrote about how he felt that Shakespeare’s plays shouldn’t be staged. I once met an academic who talked with great delight about how they would walk out of a performance of a Shakespeare play at the interval and how they preferred to go to the pub instead. I had a friend who had seen Jeremy Irons as Leontes in The Winter’s Tale and she said that she could never go to see another production of The Winter’s Tale because she didn’t want to spoil that memory. These stories make me a little sad, because I think that it is a shame that people can often place their own barriers around how they experience Shakespeare in performance. I know what Lamb really meant was that it didn’t want to see a bad production of a Shakespeare play (see Professor Stanley Wells’ article referenced below), and I was rather amazed at the statement about leaving the theatre in the interval because this was someone who was famous for writing academic books about Shakespeare. My friend was a regular at the RSC season in Newcastle, so she didn’t stop going to see Shakespeare on stage, just not The Winter’s Tale again. The critic, the academic, and regular theatre goer may sometimes have different reasons for watching Shakespeare in performance, but we’re all part of the audience, and for me being in an audience watching is about experiencing Shakespeare.

Of course, I want to see a brilliant production, one that will wow me. I felt like that when I saw the Baxter Theatre/Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) production of The Tempest in 2009. I was amazed by that brilliant opening to the latest RSC production of Romeo and Juliet and I still have the image of Mercutio’s (Jonjo O’Neil) entrance swinging in on the gate and that wonderful performance overall. I saw that production of Romeo and Juliet again several times and enjoyed it each time that I saw it. The anticipation at the start was built up when I could glance Sam Troughton and Noma Dumezweni take their places at the auditorium doors and I knew the play was about to start. However, I just love the experience of being in a theatre, whether it has a thrust stage or proscenium arch. I am just too curious to leave in the interval, even if I felt a production was not going well. I was puzzled by Tim Carroll’s recent RSC Merchant of Venice, but the second half was much more exciting than the first, and I was so glad that I stayed.  I saw this production again and felt I understood what was happening more on the second visit.

I’ve just seen the National Theatre production of Hamlet. It couldn’t have been more different from the Greg Doran’s RSC 2008-09 production of Hamlet, but I enjoyed both equally. I will see another three productions this year – The Gobe’s touring Hamlet, Northern Broadsides’ production at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and Michael Sheen at the Young Vic- and what interests me most is how will each company will approach the text(s).  I want to see their interpretations, and certainly not my idea of how the play should be performed. I just love seeing something, I wouldn’t have thought about myself.

Watching the development of the recent RSC Antony and Cleopatra was a very interesting experience.  I was unsure about the production at first, and many of the reviews were mixed, but I felt that some of the risks did pay off, and I was so pleased I managed to get returns to see the production go into the Swan theatre, stripped down and with Katy Stephens as Cleopatra.

I think, I’m haunted by the ghosts of the RSC as the RSC is itself is with its ghost wall projecting images of past productions as the audience enter the new RST at Stratford.  I remember Roger Rees as  in Hamlet, Antony Sher as Richard III, Simon Russell Beale as a brilliant Ariel in The Tempest and of course Jeremy Irons as Leontes. As I say goodbye to one RSC ensemble, I become excited by the next one coming into Stratford, and again I am curious about what they will do and how they will approach each play. I look out for productions in the regions, at local heritage sites, at the Globe and even in the West End. I am looking forward to seeing Much Ado About Nothing with David Tennant and Catherine Tate. That was my ideal casting, I told my friends and then when it became a reality I was delighted to get tickets.

I sometimes make attempts to separate my different identities as a critic (blogger), an academic or regular theatre goer, but the boundaries are becoming increasingly blurred. Fro me, watching Shakespeare is usually intellectually stimulating, sometimes frustrating, but thankfully often amazing.

Further Information

Well, Stanley ‘Shakespeare in Hazlett’s Theatre Criticism’. Shakespeare Survey, 35 (1982), 43-55.


Antony and Cleopatra Jonjo O'Neill Katy Stephens National Theatre Noma Dumezweni Northern Broadsides Sam Troughton Shakespeare Birthplace trust

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