Thursday, 19 July 2012

Shakespeare: staging the world

A few weeks ago, I was privileged to interview two of the curators behind the British Museum’s new exhibition, Shakespeare: staging the world. Ever since, I have been on tenterhooks to see the finished exhibition, and yesterday, at the press launch, I had my opportunity. Did it live up to my expectations?  No question.

The concept behind the exhibition is that of using Shakespeare’s imagined places as a spine for a journey that takes you around the world from within the ‘Wooden O’ of the theatre. The design, by Alan Farlie of RFK Architects and Tom Piper of the RSC, takes full advantage of the circular form of the Round Reading Room.  The curved walls of the different exhibition spaces scroll round one another, while the colour scheme and lighting changes subtly as you move from one ‘world’ to another. 

All through the exhibition, the objects on display are given context through Shakespeare’s words.  At the same time Shakespeare’s words are brought to life through specially recorded performances by actors from the RSC, including Antony Sher as Shylock, Ian McKellan as Prospero and (my personal favourite) an achingly beautiful performance by Harriet Walter of Cleopatra’s speech, ‘Death, like a lover’s pinch...’

You begin the journey in ‘London’, where the wood panelling most explicitly evokes the ‘Wooden O’ of the theatre. The rest of the world was opening up to Elizabethan England. Sir Francis Drake first circumnavigated the globe in 1580. As objects on display show, trade was reaching out to China, India, Turkey, Africa and the Americas. A portrait of the Moroccan ambassador, at court with his retinue when Shakespeare’s company performed there, shows a possible model for the figure of Othello.

Not only were the Elizabethans moving out into the world around them; the world was coming to England.  In Shakespeare’s time, 900 black Africans lived in London, concentrated in areas around the court and the playhouses.  There is no doubt that Shakespeare was aware of the pressures this created.  The one surviving fragment of his handwriting, on display here, is a scene from the banned play Sir Thomas More.  In it, a young Thomas More confronts a crowd rioting over the presence of foreigners in London (an actual event from the year 1517) and exhorts them to imagine what it must be like for:

The wretched strangers
Their babies at their back
With their poor luggage
Plodding to the ports and coasts
For transportation.

From London, you travel back into Shakespeare’s origins in rural Warwickshire.  The ‘Forest of Arden’ is portrayed with mottled panels suspended from the ceiling, the words of Jaques’ ‘melancholy’ speech projected onto them. Objects on display here range from rich tapestries to a homely drainage spade and a ceramic watering pot.

Shakespeare used the past – England’s own medieval past and the classical worlds of Rome and Egypt – to explore political themes too dangerous to examine in a contemporary setting.  Here he examined the nature of kingship, loyalty and the building of a nation.  He often had to skirt carefully.  An earlier play about Cleopatra by Fulke Greville, for example, was destroyed because of the dangerous parallels with Elizabeth’s relationship with her general the Earl of Essex.  Shakespeare’s play wasn't written until the reign of James I.  Pride of place in this part of the exhibition are the ‘funeral achievements’ – helmet, sword, shield and saddle – of Henry V, which have never before left Westminster Cathedral.  On the back of the shield, you can see the worn red velvet arm pad and a fragment of the blue Chinese silk that once lined it.

Venice is a world where Shakespeare examines themes of virtue and sexuality, but also the ‘otherness’ of figures like Shylock and Othello.  Looking up here, at the heart of the exhibition, the sumptious domed ceiling of the Reading Room is fully visible.  The colour scheme of red and purple sets off stunning glass and silverware – but also erotic items like the ‘chopines’, the platform shoes worn by Venetian courtesans. 

The next space is an exploration of treason and rebellion.  Here the walls are black, with blood red recesses for the exhibits.  Guy Fawkes lantern sits alongside a disturbing reliquary containing the eye of a Jesuit priest, publicly executed in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot.  The voices of Macbeth’s three witches whisper to you from the walls.

The exhibition ends in the fantasy world of The Tempest.  The lighting is brighter and the walls stark white.  Exhibits include the polished obsidian ‘scrying mirror’ from South American belonging to Doctor Dee (the Elizabethan magus who may have been a model for Prospero) and a narwhal tusk once held to be proof that unicorns existed.

The final exhibit is the’ Robben Island Bible.’  This is a copy of The Complete Works of Shakespeare that belonged to Sonny Venkatrathnam, who was a prisoner on Robben Island for twelve years.  The only other books allowed on Robben Island were religious texts, and in order to persuade the guards to let him lend it to other prisoners, Sonny pasted Divali cards over the cover and convinced them it was a ‘Hindu Bible’.  The book was passed among the prisoners and 32 of them annotated the text, marking passages that had particular meaning for them.

Here, the book is open at the passage from marked Julius Caesar by Nelson Mandela:

“Cowards die many times before their deaths,
The valiant never taste of death but once.”

It is in part this inscription that persuaded Gregory Doran to see Julius Caesar as Shakespeare’s ‘Africa play’.  His production, with Paterson Joseph as Brutus, is currently playing at Stratford and will transfer to the Noël Coward Theatre in London in August before beginning a nationwide tour.

It is particularly appropriate, then, that the exhibition opened on Mandela Day, and that Sonny Venkatrathnam was there to see it. It is, as museum director Neil MacGregor said in his welcome, “an extraordinary demonstration of why Shakespeare matters.”

Shakespeare:  staging the world opens today (July 19th 2012) in the Reading Room at the British Museum and runs until 25th November.  Tickets can be booked online at

Catriona Troth’s interview with curators Dora Thornton and Rebecca Allen will appear in the August edition of Words with Jam.


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