Adrian Hamilton: Give me excess of it? No thanks

How many Hamlets can you see before pleasure turns to indigestion?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

I never thought to say it, but maybe there is too much Shakespeare on the stage at the moment.

In a sense, of course, you can't ever have enough of Shakespeare. Desert Island Discs puts forth The Bible and the Bard as the books de rigeur with an air of bored duty. They're wrong. You could quite cheerfully spend a decade as shipwreck just swimming in their language. And yet you do need to hear Shakespeare in performance.

Listen to the words spoken with the clarity of Simon Russell Beale at the Old Vic or the National's beautifully clear-voiced All's Well, and it doesn't matter how strained the production and it doesn't matter how often you've seen the play. You are constantly surprised at the way the playwright can turn a mood in a sentence and lift a thought with an image in a phrase.

And yet, how many Hamlets or Winter's Tales can you see in a season, or The Tempest, Macbeth and even King Lear, to name three others that have crowded in during the last five years or so, before pleasure turns to obligation and even indigestion? And how many of the Shakespeare "greats" can you play without leaving aside his comedies and his other work, or overlooking the other great dramas of English literature by Marlowe, Webster, Sheridan and Congreve.

You can see why it's happening. It's not just that theatre funding has increased and school curricula have retreated from a broad syllabus of English plays to Shakespeare and little else. It's also that we're moving back from a period when the production was the thing and the director the king to one where the actor is the draw. The reason why there are so many Hamlets is that it's supposed to be (and is) the great challenge for the young actor and there is a formidable array of candidates such as David Tennant and Jude Law, trained on the stage but made famous on the screen. To do Hamlet, or Othello or Macbeth, is a feather firmly in the theatrical cap.

Time was when theatre-goers and critics looked to the great productions of a play as defining it for a generation. Peter Brook set the tone of A Midsummer Night's Dream for a generation with his 1970 RSC production and made it virtually impossible for anyone else to do it for a decade. So too with Olivier's Coriolanus or Gielgud's Hamlet. The retreat from the "definitive interpretation", the move away from treating Shakespeare as a God to be worshipped only according to the traditional liturgy, is in many welcome. He needs to be reinterpreted constantly and stripped of deference.

But the pursuit of the "for a generation" production did express a truth. One of the more misleading analogies produced by a noted Shakespearean scholar was to describe Shakespeare's work as a great quarry for others to mine. But he isn't there to be hacked about for whatever bit or piece someone may wish to take away.

If there is an analogy, it is to a mountain range. You can approach the great plays from different angles and through different lights, seeing them sometimes cloudily and sometimes, as with Peter Brook or the great Japanese director, Yukio Ninagawa, with such a clarity that the view stays with you for ever. Just as with Everest, Hamlet and Lear aren't to be "conquered", tests to prove your fitness or your physique. And, just as with Everest, too many expeditions can clutter the route.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

Comments