From the middle of the room I can see that four of the sheets contain only a single centred line. I have to walk towards the walls in order to read the titles. One is Much Ado About Nothing.
The artist has written just a few lines - aligned left - on seven of the plays. The Taming of The Shrew is summarised in broad outline, with the names KATE, PETRUCHIO and FATHER capitalised where they occur in her description. About Richard III, she states categorically: "Things are not going well for him politically and he has fallen in love with a YOUNG WOMAN who is rejecting his advances."I look out of the window at what is a leafy part of the East End. There's something strangely authoritative about the summaries. Perhaps because they don't admit to an incomplete knowledge of the plays, and because they're perfectly laid out and internally consistent. A pseud's guide to Shakespeare?
Where the artist can recall a quote she gives it a line to itself, so these stand out. For Antony and Cleopatra she has remembered relatively long quotes, including "Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety. Other women cloy the appetites they feed, but she makes hungry where most she satisfies". Of Hamlet there are four lines quoted: "Alas, poor Yorick"; "The quality of mercy is not strained"; "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead"; and "Is this a dagger I see before me?" In Julius Caesar the three quotes are all from that play but the "Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears" line is credited to the by-then-dead Caesar. And no, my O-level English assures me, Brutus was not hovering in the background while Antony and Cassius stabbed Caesar ... But this work is not really about point-scoring (fun though that is).
In most cases, between about a third and a half of the page contains text. The artist seems stronger on character names and surer in plot descriptions here - I guess these are the plays she's read or seen on stage. But various things catch my eye. Goneril is given the line "Out, vile jelly". Richard III's "My kingdom for a horse" speech is assigned to Antony and Cleopatra. And it is Macbeth's brother Duncan who remembered that Macduff was "ripped untimely from his mother's womb". A false memory, perhaps; a knowing game, certainly. The work foregrounds the idiosyncrasies of an individual's memory, both the artist's and viewer's. The artist has surely studied the two plays whose descriptions nearly fill their pages. I scan Romeo and Juliet and towards the bottom pick out the quote:
ROMEO: "What, love, no drop left for me?"
It takes me a moment to work out what's happening (water? wine? blood? ... poison!) God, that's so sad. What a poignant and poetic line. It moves me right to the other side of the room where it's great to see that the other fulsome description is of A Midsummer Night's Dream. I read this at school and have seen it several times since (at an outdoor venue while at college; at the Barbican while working in the City; and with Joanna at a mud-drenched performance at the National). Studding the precis are four evocative quotes: PUCK: "I know a bank where the wild thyme grows." HERMIA: "Thou painted maypole." TITANIA: "What angel wakes me from my flowery bed?" BOTTOM: "Methinks I was an ass." Emma Kay's Dream ends with Bottom resolving to be more modest.
In the pub downstairs I sit with a pint in my hand and A Complete Shakespeare in my head. RICHARD: "I know a place where the wild thyme blows." LADY MACDUFF: "What angel wakes me from my second-best bed?" WILLIAM: "The quality of mercy is not strained." JOANNA: "What, love, not a drop for me?"
If we shadows have offended ...
Emma Kay: The Approach, E2 (0181 983 3878), to 22 November.
'Personal Delivery', Duncan McLaren's book on contemporary art, is out now from Quartet (pounds 12).Reuse content