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Review: Springboard Shakespeare: King Lear, Macbeth, Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, By Ben Crystal

A guide to Shakespeare’s work that should be in every theatre

Having come within a hair’s breadth of being put off Shakespeare for life by a turgid teacher and her O-level Henry V, the first play I saw on stage was The Tempest at Stratford when I was 16. And I was bored rigid because we were simply thrown in at the deep end without any preparation of any sort because this was supposed to be A Good Thing. How different it might have been if we’d had Ben Crystal’s sparky little books to introduce us. My Shakespearean epiphany – which came three years later and is another story – would have come much sooner.

Hard on the heels of his cosy, witty Shakespeare on Toast (Icon, 2008), each of Crystal’s first four Springboard Shakespeare books – on Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, King Lear and Macbeth –  leads newcomers into the play in question in a gentle, upbeat, unpretentious way. Fresh and slim, they’re about as far as could be from dusty, dry study guides relating to school exams or those dispiriting texts that are so heavily over-annotated that you’re hard put to find any of Shakespeare’s lines at all.

Each book has a “relationship circle” on the inside cover so that you know who everyone is and how the plot links them – a sort of diagrammatic dramatis personae. Then we get three sections – before, during and after – because Crystal, an actor rather than an academic, wants readers to have a bit of background before they see a 400-year-old play and wants them to understand something about the language, including the use of verse and prose.

Then he leads the reader gently through the play itself, scene by scene, with informative “interval whispers” and things to watch and listen for such as the dysfunctional second family in Hamlet and how Polonious should speak. Lastly comes a section suggesting things to reflect on once the play is over. He has some interesting thoughts about sleep, the passing of time and the play within a play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example.

And at the end of each book is a glossary to help readers with the five per cent (that’s all – this is not, definitely not a foreign language) of words they hear in Shakespeare which might be unfamiliar or which have changed their meaning.

These pocket-sized books, which have lots of side headings and boxes and never resort to lengthy dense prose, are much better than the average theatre programme, and only marginally more expensive. I’d like to see them on sale in theatre bookshops, and/or wherever there’s a production of one of these plays.

As a former English teacher (who spent an entire career getting back at my own teachers by making  sure that Shakespeare, especially Henry V, was always fun and exciting for students) I’d also recommend them for classroom use. I really like the way Crystal continually refers to productions and interpretations – reminding the reader all the time that Shakespeare wrote scripts which need a company of actors, their supporters, and an audience to bring them to life, not fixed novels which can be read in isolation.

Or, as Crystal puts it with characteristic, friendly incisiveness: “Shakespeare was written to be learnt. To be spoken out loud.”