I had an amazing time at the British Library’s “Shakespeare in 10 Acts” exhibition. It was really fabulous – well thought-out, well put-together, and full of really interesting little tit-bits. It was also not that busy – great for the visitors (and a pleasing change from the hurly-burly of the British Museum – never knowingly under-booked) but I hope they weren’t disappointed by the numbers.
What the exhibition did was tell the history (well, a history) of performing Shakespeare, using their unparalleled collection of manuscripts and ephemera. Which was absolutely brilliant. It included a story I was hoping to tell you later – that of the Red Dragon, an East India Company ship which apparently performed Richard II (and Hamlet) while at sea in 1608. The source for this is a single manuscript page remainder of the ship’s log, which the British Library did it’s best not to debunk but I found a little too convenient to be believed. Still, that section combined the unlikely with the sublime – a collection of Shakespeare translations around the world and especially Julius Nyerere’s words on how Shakespeare brought him and his wife together.
Other sections I loved especially included one on bardolatry (watch out for a follow-up post on Shakespearean frauds) which had some wonderfully covetable items of early memorabilia*. Luckily the shop filled many of the acquisitive holes – check out my handkerchief swag…
There were sections on stand-out performers: the first female Desdemona (a story vaguely familiar to those of us who have seen Stage Beauty***) and Ira Aldridge, the first black actor to play Shakespeare in Britain, whose battle with racism resonates still, unfortunately.
The last sections brought us up to modern times – there had to be a section on Peter Brook’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, naturally, which was the biggest excitement and disappointment of the whole exhibition in a ten-second window, and a section about Shakespeare on film with the brilliant factoid that apparently Laurence Olivier’s directing style involved performing everything himself (including diving into muddy puddles) and then getting the cast to copy him.
Best of all actually came quite early on though – the incredibly bonkers sight of a New York opera of The Tempest complete with masque of Neptune and various sea-sprites with words set to Zadok the Priest. I can find no reference to it in the catalogue, or on YouTube, but I watched the footage three times so I am pretty sure it exists. Find it, and you won’t be disappointed…
* For many years now I’ve been using the amount I want to steal exhibits as a proxy for how good the exhibition is**. This ranked a full-on 10 out 10 surreptitious inspection of the security systems.
** Obviously I never actually steal anything. I’m not a criminal, I’m naturally acquisitive but perfectly law-abiding…
*** I say vaguely because that was mostly fictionalised and I was mainly concentrating on Billy Crudup.