The bard's big year

Spellbinding productions, some stellar performances and a host of new books made 2007 a vintage year for England's greatest playwright
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The Independent Culture

Shakespeare unlike the dollar or Amy Winehouse can claim to have had a very good 2007. True, it's hard to remember when he last had a bad year, though there have been years when his fine condition was merely stable and trading in him no more than brisk. But in 2007 Bardbiz boomed above-averagely well both on the stage and on the page. There were major productions in London of four plays (Othello, Much Ado About Nothing, Macbeth and King Lear) involving stellar actors (Chiwetel Ejiofor and Ewan McGregor; Simon Russell Beale and Zoe Wanamaker; Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen). And three of the four shows were seriously high-quality as well as ridiculously high-profile a strike rate that is a cause for rejoicing.

Meanwhile, under the auspices of the RSC, Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen brought out a new edition of the plays as they appear in the First Folio of 1623 ie, in versions that fellow-actors, who had been close to the author, saw fit to see into print. On the interpretative front, A D Nuttall's sadly posthumous Shakespeare the Thinker was a rarity a genuinely searching tribute to Shakespeare's intelligence (a phenomenon too often taken for granted) by a luminously intelligent critic. His book cogently argues that the desire to co-opt the Bard for this or that "ism" involves a mistaken perception of his creativity. Shakespeare explores casts of mind, feels his way into modes of consciousness, and muscles his way into the thick of an argument. But he demonstrates, to a supreme degree, that an artist can entertain ideas without having an axiom to grind. Neither paring his fingernails in art-for-art's sake detachment nor up to his armpits in the ink of coded propaganda, Nuttall's Shakespeare is more akin to Chekhov (who thought that the purpose of art was to present the problem honestly rather than to pontificate about the solution) than he is to the point-making, point-scoring world of many a modern (1970s vintage) dramatist.

And the craze for biographical books about the Bard has shown no sign of abatement in the past year with works ranging from Germaine Greer's Shakespeare's Wife (which puts the spotlight on Ann Hathaway) through Bill Bryson's slim, witty and nutritious Shakespeare to The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street, Charles Nicholl's tangy, learned evocation of everyday life for the Bard at 40 when he was renting a room in Cripplegate over the shop of a couple of French Protestant immigrants who made tires (elaborate head-dresses). Such is Nicholl's gift for well-researched detail and atmosphere that you have the illusion that of breathing the same whiffy air as our hero at the time he was writing Othello, Measure for Measure and King Lear.

The Bard's annus would have been even more mirabilis, if Dominic Cooke's account of The Winter's Tale a stunningly imaginative promenade staging in Stratford's Swan Theatre (which opened in late 2006) had been given the London transfer it so richly deserved by the RSC. With this production, the expression "reduced to tears" seemed more than ever to get it the wrong way round. It "raised" the entire audience to tears of joy, hilarity and in the statue scene pain, wonder and delight. As a wonderfully fresh apprehension of a familiar masterpiece, it ran rings (in my view) round another RSC production Trevor Nunn's King Lear starring Ian McKellen. This achieved notoriety by failing to open to the press until almost middle-aged (critics were kept waiting for Frances Barber, Nunn's Goneril, to recover from a biking accident). It then received bizarrely benign notices (to my eye, McKellen's performance was four-parts technical proficiency to one part self-transcending passion), toured the world, and was then pelted with praise all over again when it swung into London. Not, however, in this paper.

Exposure to all this recent Shakespearean richness on stage and newly published page has made me ponder afresh the features that make him inexhaustibly rewarding. For example, watching Much Ado last week at the National, I was struck by Shakespeare's unparalleled capacity to notice true things about ordinary life and make you see the obvious (so to speak) for the first time. After she's overheard home truths about her relationship with Benedick in the very funny eavesdropping scene, Beatrice next appears nursing a bad cold (a cold on top of everything else!). In Hytner's production, these sniffles are given a physical cause in the delightful aquatic slapstick involving a plunge pool and a forced, farcical dunking. In fact, though, her dratted cold doesn't need this physical cause. What Shakespeare has noticed is that an emotional shock can strike a blow to the immune system leading to further hapless, rather humiliating troubles. He is a dramatist who is able to launch verse on winged-Pegasus flights and who has a matchless eye for the minutiae of the humdrum and the mundane.

To see a great production is to marvel anew at Shakespeare's gift for free movement between the homespun and the mythic, comic giddiness and tragic despair, the sound of verse that delights in its own artifice and sudden, heart-stoppingly simple lines of a few monosyllables that are endlessly faithful to common experience. Or take Rupert Goold's masterly Stalinism-meets-Peter-Greenaway version of Macbeth. It brilliantly pointed up the Bard's ability to send the camera into the depths of consciousness and then rear back to a wide-angle placing the inner life in the outer world. Cheekily, Goold positioned the interval halfway through the scene where Banquo's ghost disrupts the dinner party. It emphasised the split between the now dangerously sticky social situation and the mental horror on which Macbeth has the current monopoly.

Or there's the balancing act between self-conscious tricksiness and the kind of truth that requires the frame of art only so that in the end it can be seen to have walked through and beyond it. On this aspect of Shakespeare's genius, Dominic Cooke's version of The Winter's Tale was superbly eloquent. Certainly for this critic, it provided the most memorable and, in a wacky way, profound moment of revealing interactivity I have personally experienced at a performance of a Shakespeare play. As the audience members arrived for the promenade production, they were greeted as guests and swept straight into a New Year's Eve Party (a festivity that would turn fatally sour when the host conceived an insane distrust of his wife's sexual fidelity. A waiter (played by Richard Katz who was later an hilarious Autolycus) shimmered up to me with a tray of champagne. "Is it real?" I asked. "I think that you will find it, sir," he replied in the rather dangerously deferential tones of Jeeves. "Yes, but is it real by the standards of reality, or real by the standards of make-believe?" I persisted. After only the slightest of pauses, he turned on me his silken riposte: "I think, sir, that you will find it is real by the standards of both."

It was a brilliant off-the-cuff answer as it sums up the peculiar aesthetic mix of The Winter's Tale, a late play that combines artful Mannerist games and an art that wholly transcends artfulness in its direct (if modified) appeal to one's dreams of being granted a second chance. "O, she's warm," cries Leontes when he touches the awakening statue of his "dead" wife. "If this be magic, let it be an an art/Lawful as eating." Paulina, the friend who has taken care of the statue for 16 years and supervised Leontes' repentance, was played in Cooke's production by the terrific Linda Bassett. She was, on the one hand, a rum old bird who, you felt, so in cahoots with the dramatist that when she left the stage, she proceeded to a consultation with Shakespeare in the green room. And at the same time, she was an intensely moving woman whose love for the "dead" Hermione was so palpable that there was not a dry eye in the house. It was as though for 16 years she had sat at the bedside of her closest friend who had lapsed into a vegetative state. Now, dependent on the faith of the man who had done the heroine wrong, there was the chance to draw her back into the word of the living. It was that combination of the mythic and the absolutely realistic that Cooke's production caught so movingly.

Another event of note came courtesy of one of our greatest Shakespearean actors, Mark Rylance, who devised I Am Shakespeare, a comedy with serious intent. He starred as a reclusive nerd running a webcam show about the Shakespeare authorship problem from his garage in Maidstone. Thanks to the freak chemistry between a lightning storm and the collective unconscious of the worldwide web, the Bard materialised in the garage pursued by several rival contenders Francis Bacon, the Earl of Oxford, the Countess of Pembroke for the intellectual property rights on the Works. The case against Shakespeare's authorship that he was a front for aristocratic authors who could not risk the taint of association with public theatres; that he could not have commanded the range of specialist knowledge, etc, etc reeks of snobbish prejudice (how could a Warwickshire glover's son have produced all that?). And it ignores the internal evidence that whoever wrote these plays had seasoned first-hand experience of working in the public theatre.

All the same, as I feasted on the riches of 2007, a mildly mirabilis annus for the Bard, I could appreciate the temptation to think that he must have been a committee. Even while giving thanks for the past year, we should remember that we are always in danger of underestimating our greatest poet and dramatist.

King Lear

RSC, Courtyard, Stratford, March-June 2007, New London Theatre, November 2007-January 2008. Starring: Ian McKellen as Lear, Frances Barber as Goneril, Romola Garai as Cordelia. Directed by: Trevor Nunn

'What McKellen achieves, with rare grace, simplicity and emotional candour, is a performance that allows the audience to follow, and understand, every stage of Lear's terrible journey.' Charles Spencer, 'Daily Telegraph'

Othello

Donmar Warehouse, November 2007-February 2008. Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor as Othello, Ewan McGregor as Iago. Directed by: Michael Grandage

'Grandage has done two unusual things in this admirable Donmar revival. He has made Othello the tragic focus of the play that bears his name. He has also, in an age of high-concept Shakespeare, come up with a refreshingly classical, aesthetically harmonious production.' Michael Billington, 'The Guardian'

Much Ado About Nothing

National Theatre, December 2007-March 2008. Starring: Zoë Wanamaker as Beatrice, Simon Russell Beale as Benedick. Directed by: Nicholas Hytner

'Zoë Wanamaker and Simon Russell Beale make a far bigger and better splash ... than I dared hope. as Shakespeare's young antagonists, whose witty war of words masks mutual attraction and concludes in an armistice dictated by love, they are far from conventional casting ... Hytner's production bursts into exuberant, situation comedy.'Nicholas De Jongh, 'Evening Standard'

Macbeth

Minerva Theatre, Chichester, May-September 2007, Gielgud Theatre, London September- December 2007. Starring: Patrick Stewart as Macbeth, Kate Fleetwood as Lady Macbeth. Directed by: Rupert Goold

'All hail to Rupert Goold's mesmerising kitchen-sink Macbeth! The bewitching revelation of a production ... makes us gaze flinchingly into the heart of a modern darkness''Evening Standard'

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