Everybody's Shakespeare

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The Independent Culture
I've been trying to pin down what it is about the forthcoming Shakespeare bonanza that makes me feel so gloomy. It isn't just cynicism, or a lack of appetite in face of the promised banquet. After all 'Everybody's Shakespeare', the Royal Shakespeare Company's 'overflowing cornucopia of activity', has much in it to look forward to - Peter Sellars' production of The Merchant of Venice, The Georgian Film Actors' Studio performing in A Midsummer Night's Dream, music from Emma Kirkby and the Tallis Scholars, Marina Warner on fairytale in Shakespeare.

At the same time the BBC offers 'Bard on the Box', a two-month season of documentaries and films. And while it is understandable that the heart should sink at the prospect of more animated Shakespeare, there's more than enough to take the sour taste away. Even the petits-fours are amusing - the sound of Jimmy Knapp reading a speech from Julius Caesar (one of a series of celebrities reading favourite passages).

Perhaps it is the richness of the diet that induces this premonitory dyspepsia? That can't be the explanation, though - after all there's no obligation to pig out at this Shakespearian Smorgasbord. It's an eat-all-you-want arrangement, which allows for all sizes of appetites. And there must be an unarguable virtue in putting Shakespeare on the menu like this, mustn't there?

But I keep returning to the title of the Royal Shakespeare Company's festival - that ambiguous, apostrophed boast. 'Shakespeare for everyone' or 'Everyone is Shakespeare'? The pictures in the brochure seem to push the latter, showing an impeccably multi-ethnic, dual-gendered, age-spread group, all with Shakespeare half-masks. From behind the highest-brow in the English canon, the dead white male to crown them all, they peer out with expressions of glee and anticipation, impeccable adverts for a Benetton Bard.

Only the shock tactics are missing - and that, I guess, is why I'm depressed. The Shakespeare of these festivals is amenable and open-minded, faultlessly democratic and non-confrontational. He's part of the world of access and out-reach. For those not interested in the poetry he'll lay on cookery demonstrations or stand-up routines. The Shakespeare theme park is designed for your enjoyment and all the terror will conform to European Safety Regulations. Of course, Shakespeare will survive this fiesta as he has survived the adulation of other ages, but it's worth remembering in the next few months that you'll learn more about us than you will about him.

Festival highlights page 12, pick of the day page 22