Magazine of art press and reviews from London
The world of Shakespeare staging at The British Museum.
David Franchi – Monday, 17th December 2012
“The exhibition also explores the theatre-going experience at the time”
The exhibition “Shakespeare: staging the world”, at the British Museum, is an interesting parallel between the life of the most important English writer and the expansion of London as a world city and the capital of the British Empire. Both of them emerged in the fifteenth century. Shakespeare was not so famous outside of the UK until the nineteenth century and London outburst started with the spreading out of the British Empire.
The exhibition “Shakespeare: staging the world” features over 190 objects, more than half of which are lent from private and national UK collections, as well as key loans from abroad. During the summer of the Olympic and Paralympic Games the British Museum presented this major exhibition on the world and works of William Shakespeare, supported by BP. “Shakespeare: staging the world” is part of the World Shakespeare Festival in the London 2012 Festival.
This show tries to cover all the aspects of Shakespeare It begins and ends with a different copy of the same book. In the first room focused to the London of Shakespeare there is a copy of the “First Folio of Mr William Shakespeares Comedies Histories, & Tragedies, Published according to the True Originall Copies”, edited after Shakespeare’s death by his colleagues Heminge and Condell and published in 1623.
The last thing you see, on your way out, is the so-called “Robben Island Bible”. This is a 20th-century edition of Shakespeare’s works that one of the imprisoned ANC leaders, Sonny Venkatrathnam, circulated amongst his fellow inmates, asking them to select and autograph favourite passages. Nelson Mandela chose these lines, spoken by Julius Caesar on the morning before his death: “Cowards die many times before their deaths; / The valiant never taste of death but once. / Of all the wonders that I yet have heard, / It seems to me most strange that men should fear; /Seeing that death, a necessary end, / Will come when it will come”.
One of the key innovations of the period was the birth of the modern professional theatre: purpose-built playhouses and professional playwrights were a new phenomenon, with the most successful company being the Chamberlain’s/King’s Men at the Globe who worked alongside their house dramatist, William Shakespeare. The exhibition showed how the playhouse informed, persuaded and provoked thought on the issues of the day; how it shaped national identity, first English, then British; and how the theatre opened a window on the wider world, from Italy to Africa to America, as London’s global contacts were expanding through international trade, colonisation and diplomacy.
The exhibition creates a unique dialogue between an extraordinary array of objects – from great paintings and rare manuscripts to
modest, everyday items of the time – and the plays and characters that have had a richer cultural legacy than any other in the western world. Among the objects linked to Shakespeare and his works are the Funeral Achievements of Henry V, which were on public display at Westminster Abbey in Shakespeare’s time and were written into the prologue of act five of Henry V, as ‘his bruisèd helmet and his bended sword’. The striking portrait of Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun, Moroccan Ambassador to Queen Elizabeth I, depicts the head of a delegation of soldiers from Barbary who came to London in 1600 on a state visit. The presence of these men had a great impact on London at the time. They were in the city for six months and would certainly have been known to Shakespeare: they may well have informed the character of Othello, the soldier and ‘noble moor’.
The exhibition “Shakespeare: staging the world” also explores the theatre-going experience at the time, which was very different to that of today. The newly built playhouses were situated in the suburbs: Bankside was an area with a dangerous and notorious reputation. The theatres needed to attract large numbers of playgoers and so performances had to appeal to a wide spectrum of society, from groundlings to courtiers. Objects excavated from the sites of the Globe and Rose theatres, such as a sucket fork for sweetmeats and the skull of a bear, illustrates the Southwark of Shakespeare’s day, the cultural world inhabited by the playhouse, which rubbed shoulders with bear-baiting arenas as well as brothels and pubs.
The British Museum has collaborated with the Royal Shakespeare Company in the creative approach to the design and content of the exhibition, accentuating the connections between the objects, Shakespeare’s text and performance. The British Museum has produced, working with the Royal Shakespeare Company, a series of new digital interventions which appear throughout the exhibition, allowing visitors to encounter Shakespeare’s words and characters alongside the objects on display. The interventions include performances by RSC actors including Harriet Walter as Cleopatra, Sir Antony Sher as Shylock, Sir Ian McKellan as Prospero and Paterson Joseph as Brutus holding the Ides of March coin on display in the exhibition nearby. This gold aureus was commissioned by Brutus shortly after the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC; a plot in which he was a key figure and the subject of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.
“Shakespeare: staging the world” was at the British Museum, Bloomsbury, London, from 19th July until 25th November 2012.