This Saturday, April 23, 2016, marked the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. In this day and age I find it remarkable that a playwright who has been dead for centuries can still capture people’s hearts and imaginations with his words.
All over the world, events and performances ranging from youth theatre and theatre workshops to practical demonstrations of Elizabethan society and customs took place to celebrate the life and work of the bard from Stratford-upon-Avon. It culminated in Shakespeare Live! from the RSC, a televised, star-studded event showcasing the influence Shakespeare continues to have on the performing arts, which was live broadcast to cinemas all over the globe.
I spent this weekend re-reading my favourite Shakespearean play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, watching Shakespeare Live! from the RSC at the Cinestar in Düsseldorf, and then I spent a lazy Sunday watching David Tennant first in Hamlet and then in Much Ado About Nothing.
David Tennant has spent the last 20 years appearing in Royal Shakespeare Company productions, and watching him perform with such passion is always a treat. Watching two of his performances back to back also gives you a chance to see his full acting range.
Personally, I was quite late in discovering Shakespeare for myself. While I liked a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream I had seen in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2001, my next encounters with him were in Grammar School.
As is often the case, learning about Shakespeare – especially when English is not your first language – was a chore. We read Macbeth and Hamlet and watched the Mel Gibson film, but our teacher was less than enthusiastic. Shakespeare, to me, became what I dreaded most: another dead poet and playwright we had to analyse to death. But I loved the sonnets. In an exam we even had to write our own sonnet – in Elizabethan English (and while we were treated like native speakers, we weren’t) – in reply to sonnet 116. I remember our teacher collecting the best ones because he wanted to build a collection to give to us at graduation. To this day I have never seen that exam paper again, nor did we get a booklet of sonnets when we graduated. I’d love to know what I’ve written.
Over the years, I began to take more of an interest in Shakespeare. Now that the constraints of school were gone, I could enjoy the work and not just cram to get a good grade. I began to see how much of the popular culture around me is influenced by William Shakespeare. I re-read A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Blessing of the House is still one of my favourite final scenes.
But I think it was experiencing a professional play (as opposed to a school play) that really convinced me. In the summer of 2014 I went to London to see Martin Freeman perform the title role of Richard III at Trafalgar Studios. And it made a profound difference. Stellar acting, an intimate venue. The front row was on stage and as far back as fourth row (where I was sitting at eye-level of the performers) got covered in fake blood. And I came away with a sense of awe.
Since then, I’ve soaked up all I could. I went back to London to see Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet at the Barbican in 2015, saw NT Live and Encore screenings of Coriolanus, and As You Like It, and the recordings of Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet (starring David Tennant) and Richard II. And I’ve read more of his works. Plus, listening to Tom Hiddleston recite sonnet 18 doesn’t hurt either…