What makes words immortal was a question asked when the acclaimed Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) at Stratford on Avon in England threw the perfect party pageant to celebrate the works and life of their most famous son; actor, poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616).
We soon found out when Tonight, a song from the musical West Side Story performed by 19 gifted musical students, marked the beginning of Shakespeare Live! From The RSC.
The show celebrated Shakespeare’s life in wonderful works that have come down to us through the ages because of the diligence of others. Superb scenes from Shakespeare’s plays performed by a ‘who’s who of some of England’s most admired actors marked four hundred years since Shakespeare, England’s famous creative soul from Avon passed in 1616. It was an innovative evening of immeasurable brilliance.
Now showing at cinemas around Australia on limited release, Shakespeare Live! From The RSC was for me three hours of truly sublime entertainment, honouring the amazing life of a man of enduring influence seen at every angle through his extraordinary array of characters.
Beamed from the crowded RSC auditorium, which opened in 2010, the superbly balanced program presented the bard as truly a man for all seasons and proved that Shakespeare’s works are not only universal, but also still have the power to speak for, and to us all.
There is no doubt Shakespeare left his mark throughout the whole world as performances in both Zulu and Japanese revealed, and not only through his words, but also by extension through great works of art, including painting, sculpture, music, dance, opera, musical theatre, hip hop and comedy.
There was a sprinkling of glorious ballet dancing to classical music inspired by his plays and other bountiful gems were Shakespeare’s glorious sonnets set to music. Then there was Duke Ellington’s Jazz tribute from the Midlands Youth Jazz Orchestra and just a dash of buffoonery by the cast of Horrible Histories.
A son of the famous sceptred isle, Shakespeare knew that life is indeed complex and people are even more so. He embellished the English language with the beauty and insightful nature of his chosen words, which still endure because they are so insightful about our humanity.
‘One man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages…’ and gloriously we discovered them all.
The playwright did not publish his plays or sonnets in his own lifetime and it was seven years before the First Folio of his works was published by two of his fellow actors and 200 years before anyone thought to found an annual party to celebrate Shakespeare’s life.
When they did, it was fittingly eighteenth century gentleman actor David Garrick (1717-1779) who conceived a great pageant. He was the one man in London that everyone wanted to see – audiences didn’t attend the theatre to see or experience Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but Garrick’s Hamlet. He had an active sensitivity for contemporary fashion and wanted to experience great emotions of taste.
Although the river Avon burst its banks and three days of festivities were interrupted, Garrick turned a near disaster into a huge success by adjourning to the rotunda to perform an Ode to Shakespeare accompanied by music, written by Dr. Thomas Arne (1710-78) especially for the performance.
It had a rousing pace and a vitality that reflected the general mood of a country, which took pride in its past, enjoyed a stout belief in the present and, looked forward with faith to its future.
‘A speaker is but a prater, a rhyme is but a ballad, a good leg will fall, a straight back will stoop, a black beard will turn white, a curled pate will grow bald, a fair face will wither, a full eye will wax hollow, but a good heart, Kate, is the sun and the moon, or rather the sun and not the moon, for it shines bright and never changes but keeps his course truly…’*
Garrick’s pageant was not only a beginning but also his donation of a statue in the playwright’s honour to be installed in the centre of town, began to put Stratford on the map.
One could say he kick started its journey into the renowned tourist destination it is today.
In Shakespeare Live! From The RSC David Tennant and Catherine Tate ably hosted all admirers, highlighting how the works of Shakespeare have gradually become a ‘platform’ for international communication.
The gentle and much admired actor Joseph Fiennes, who won so many fans in Shakespeare in Love revealed the hero of words in four splendid segments representing the spring, summer, autumn and winter of his life.
The Shires performed ‘Under the Greenwood tree’, Alison Moyet sang ‘Sigh No More, Ladies’, Ian Bostridge and Sir Antonio Pappano performed Come Away Death and David Tennant, Catherine Tate, David Suchet and Judi Dench performed The Benediction from A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Romeo and Juliet the balcony scene performed so gloriously by Natey Jones as Romeo and Mariah Gale as Juliet was followed by an awesome pas de deux from the ballet of the story danced by Yasmine Nagdhi and Matthew Ball from the Royal Ballet, with music by the Orchestra of the Swan.
English rap artist and poet Akala performed his ‘smash hit’ Shakespeare ‘exploring the social, cultural and linguistic parallels between the works of Shakespeare and that of modern day hip-hop artists’.
English comedian Rufus Hound and actor Henry Goodman with great élan provided much mirth with their rendition of the fun number from the musical Kiss Me Kate, based on Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew – ‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare’.
Standout scenes included Al Murray as the pub landlord, playing Bottom to Judi Dench’s Titania, the American actor John Lithgow as Malvolio, American-Canadian singer-songwriter and composer Rufus Wainwright sending shivers down my back when singing Sonnet 29, ‘When, in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes…’ and then there was the wonderful skit started by Australian comic Tim Minchin.
He broke into the dialogue, as the quite brilliant actor Paapa Essiedu, the RSC’s current Hamlet, was about to recite one of Shakespeare’s most famous passages “To be or not to be”. Minchin revealed how by changing the emphasis on a particular word such as ‘or’ could alter the message.
He was then contradicted in turn by Benedict Cumberbatch, Harriet Walter, David Tennant, Rory Kinnear, Sir Ian McKellen, Dame Judi Dench all of whom shifted the emphasis to another word until finally, the Prince himself, Charles 1st son of Queen Elizabeth II, placed it back on the “question”, stealing the show before handing the stage back to Essiedu, who went on to eloquently perform the whole verse to utter perfection.
American-Canadian singer-songwriter and composer Rufus Wainwright superbly sang Sonnet 29, ‘When, in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes…’ and Dame Helen Mirror as Prospero quoted sensitively from The Tempest,
English playwright William Shakespeare left a fittingly poetic epitaph: “Good frend for Jesus sake forbeare, To digg the dust encloased heare! Blest be the man that spares these stones, And curst be he that moves my bones.”
English poet, literary critic and playwright, John Dryden (1631–1700) wrote this verse about his hero,
Soul of the age!
The applause, delight, the wonder of our stage!
My Shakespeare, rise; I will not lodge thee by?
Chaucer or Spenser, or bid Beaumont lie
A little further, to make thee a room;
Thou art a monument, without a tomb,
And art alive still, while thy book doth live,
And we have wits to read, and praise to give.
He was not of an age but for all time.
Who casts to write a living line, must sweat.
For a good poet’s made, as well as born.
Sweet Swan of Avon!
Sublime experience: 5/5
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2016
Now Showing Palace Cinemas, Australia
Watch The Trailer