It is said we stand on Shakespeare’s shoulders, but Bob Ellis says he stood on greater shoulders.
Cromwell closed the theatres in 1642, and no-one since then has attempted a play in the true manner of Shakespeare, and it is hard to see why.
It’s not that it’s easy. But Shakespeare’s mixture of ghosts, soliloquies, revenges, plays-within-plays, songs, narrations, shipwrecks, adulterous lovers, demented monarchs, prison cells, hangmen, sword-play and meditative sonnets, is there for the taking; and not until this week, when our play Shakespeare In Italy opened in Hindmarsh yesterday at 8pm, had it been essayed.
Elements of his method are in Game of Thrones, Deadwood, Rome, Les Mis, Cloudstreet and The Sopranos, but the full weaponry, which Hamlet had, and Twelfth Night and King Lear, has not yet occupied for two hours in a live theatre an audience newly experiencing it.
This week has shown that it can be done — and if two writers of Number 96 can do it, others can.
But this then raises the question of how good Shakespeare is. If Denny and I can do it, and the authors of Les Mis can presumably do it, and the adaptors of Nicholas Nickleby and Cloudstreet, is this awed worship and repeated production of the Stratford Man justified? Many more evenings are spent watching Shakespeare than watching, say, Nick Enright, whose talent was huge and in Cloudstreet, Country Music, Blackrock and Mongrels, comparable.
Should a new production of Troilus and Cressida go on instead of A Hard God or Too Young for Ghosts or Hotel Sorrento? Why?
Why, exactly, are we doing this? The myth of the unsurpassable Bard has overwhelmed all cultural sense and, in Melbourne, Queen Lear is occurring instead of, say, Angels In America — a far greater experience and, in my view, a better play.
It is said we stand on Shakespeare’s shoulders, but he too stood in his time on greater shoulders – Malory, Tyndale, North’s Plutarch, Montaigne, Boccaccio – as our other evening of theatre, The Word Before Shakespeare, opening on August 28, likewise demonstrates. It is hard to find in Shakespeare a passage better than Sir Bors’ lament for Lancelot in Morte D’Arthur, or Tyndale’s lament for Jonathan in Tyndale’s Bible, or Lancelot Andrewe’s Ecclesiastes 12.
Worship of anyone is nearly always a silly option, and few who have sunk to their knees have done so to any good effect. Twelve of Shakespeare’s plays are very good, and about eight rubbish, and several comparable modern plays – The Crucible and Man For All Seasons, Paul, and Victory – are better than thirty-three of his, and Shakespeare In Love – and Shakespeare In Italy – at least as good as, well, Much Ado or Measure For Measure.
We should think on these things. It may be time for a Shakespeare Sabbatical, when for a year no Shakespeare plays are put on anywhere, and other writers in his style and his attempted grandeur given a go.
See Shakespeare In Italy and its Oscar-worthy performances, and see what you think.
(Shakespeare in Italy is performing at The Studio, Holden Street Theatres, 164 South Road, Torrensville until 25 August 2012. Tickets are from $17 to $22 and are available at Venue*Tix or by phoning (08) 8225 8888. Read more by Bob Ellis at his blog Table Talk.)
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