Review: Shakespeare Live from the RSC

Today’s star-studded event Shakespeare Live! from The RSC in honour of the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death really highlighted what an impact William Shakespeare has had on language and culture over the last 450 years.

Noted actors David Tennant and Catherine Tate, who both previously performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and starred together as Benedick and Beatrice in a production of Much Ado About Nothing, hosted the show expertly, as it was broadcast live from Stratford-upon-Avon where Shakespeare was born to TVs and cinemas worldwide. Especially David Tennant’s excitement was palpable, looking as giddy as a kid in a candy shop as he walked on stage.

Shakespeare Live! not only featured some of Britain’s most famous Shakespearean actors of our time, it also showed the influence Shakespeare continues to have on the performing arts. While the show featured a huge variety of speeches and soliloquies, it also included everything from ballet and opera to musical theatre and jazz. Performances ranged from beautiful and gracious, to funny and moving, and even included social commentary written by William Shakespeare more than 400 years ago which is sadly still current today.

The start of the show was a bit abrupt. Without any introduction or welcome, performers launched straight into a musical number of Tonight from Bernstein’s and Sondheim’s West Side Story, which is based on Romeo & Juliet. Further Romeo & Juliet excerpts included the Balcony Scene from the original play and the Pas de Deux by Prokofiev performed by dancers from The Royal Ballet.

Proving that Shakespeare can be funny and should not be taken too seriously all the time, as well as that his name just lends itself to ridicule, were the cast from children’s sketch comedy TV show Horrible Histories.

Shakespeare even had an impact on hip-hop. Until tonight I did not even know such a thing as the Hip-hop Shakespeare Company existed, but Akala skilfully proved that Shakespeare and hip-hop are not at odds when he performed This Gives Life To Thee.

The event was split into the four seasons, each representing a different period of Shakespeare’s life and works, and each introduced by Joseph Fiennes who played the Bard himself in the movie Shakespeare in Love. The summer stands for summer madness, and featured short scenes from As You Like It, Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  And speaking of madness: whoever suggested to have Al Murray play Bottom opposite Dame Judi Dench’s Titania not only deserves a payrise, but also quite possibly a knighthood.

Considering Much Ado About Nothing, though, I do believe the organisers missed a trick or two. Not only did Alison Moyet perform a (prerecorded) slow version of Sigh No More, Ladies, it was followed by a scene from the play performed by Meera Syal and Sanjeev Bhaskar. I thought it was a shame that the two presenters, who not only played the same scene together before to much critical acclaim, but also sang a more upbeat version of Sigh No More, were not asked to perform at this point. To be fair, I had thought that the additional casting of Catherine Tate as presenter had to do with a plan for them to reprise their roles. While neither Moyet’s nor Syal and Bhaskar’s performances were flawed at all, it would have been great to see the presenters properly perform together and also show off their singing voices.

The musical numbers tonight included ranged from operatic in the form of Berlioz’s Béatrice et Bénédict performed by Emma Carington and Rhian Lois, to the opening number of Duke Ellington’s Such Sweet Thunder performed by the Midland Youth Jazz Orchestra. And while I personally expected a youth orchestra to be less bearded, they really brought the rhythm and it was hard to sit still.

Although much of the show concentrated on Stratford-upon-Avon, the impact Shakespeare has had on foreign theatre was also highlighted by showing the same scene from Macbeth – in which he first encounters the three witches – in both the Zulu and Japanese language versions. It showed brilliantly how globalisation in theatre works and how any play can be adapted to suit the time, place and culture of where it is being performed without losing any of its message.

For many, the extremely funny and surprising highlight of the evening was probably the “Line of Hamlets”. Just as Paapa Essiedu – who will play Hamlet at the RSC in its upcoming production – launched into the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy, comedian Tim Minchin interrupted him saying he should stress the “or” more. The following quarrel was interrupted in turn by Benedict Cumberbatch, whose portrayal of Hamlet at the Barbican last year broke ticket records. More and more former Hamlet actors appeared including David Tennant, Sir Ian McKellen and Rory Kinnear, each stressing that a different word of “To be, nor not to be, that is the question” should be emphasised, and being asked by Minchin whether they’d really let them play the role. There was also ongoing debate as to whether or not this was the skull scene, as “Hamlet always carries a skull.” Benedict Cumberbatch was a good sport about being called Eddie Redmayne by everyone, and after being asked who she was meant to be, Judi Dench replied “Hamlet, the Dame!” But the last word on how the sentence should be performed came from an unlikely source, as none other than HRH Prince Charles took the stage.

Prince Charles’ attendance together with the Duchess of Cornwall was also noted by Henry Goodman and Rufus Hound as they performed Brush up your Shakespeare from the musical Kiss Me, Kate. They remarked that “that guy” looked a lot like “that bird on the pictures,” taking out a £20 note and comparing the picture of the Queen to Prince Charles in front of them. Speculating whether he could be on a date, they remarked that it doesn’t look like it is going too well. The only thing that slightly marred the performance was a slight blunder with the lyrics at the end of the song.

There were, however, a few prominent faces missing who I would have expected to be at the celebration of Shakespeare Live! These included the likes of veteran actors Patrick Stewart, Kenneth Branagh, and Tom Hiddleston – especially as the latter never seems to miss an opportunity to promote Shakespeare and his works.

But the show tonight also had a serious message to impart, which was penned more than 400 years before. The refugee speech from Sir Thomas More, performed by another Sir, Ian McKellen, is as topical today as it was then.

There could perhaps not been a more fitting end to the show than The Blessing Of The House from A Midsummer Nights Dream, which saw David Suchet and Judi Dench as Oberon and Titania, and David Tennant as Puck. Honouring William Shakespeare as “the owner of the palace” and creating such an emotional atmosphere that gave the audience goosebumps, it brought out the full charm of Shakespeare’s works which still lives on today.

Shakespeare Live! from the RSC is a moving tribute to the world’s greatest playwright that honoured all performing art forms which have been inspired by the Bard. It was a feast for Shakespeare lovers, but it would also be an excellent introduction for school children learning about William Shakespeare and that Shakespeare does never equal boring old texts.


Rating: ♥♥♥♥♥

Full Running Order and Cast 

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