THE BLOG

Much Ado About Nothing

22/04/2016 16:25

23 April marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. Cue page after page of sycophantic, affected drivel.

Now, I am no Neanderthal: I have seen every play and read each sonnet but enough's enough. No more. Life is too short for even one Julius Caesar.

And I'm not alone. A new report by the British Council reveals that 34% of the UK can't stand the Bard. So why don't more of us say so? This silent suffering has become middle England's last taboo.

The world might think we adore Shakespeare, our supposed national icon. But we don't: you can have him.

I've witnessed some bangers, from Anthony Hopkins' Lear at the National in London to Imogen Stubbs' Stratford debut in The Two Noble Kinsmen.

I have, however, endured many more turkeys: Dame Judi's matronly Cleopatra, Kenneth Branagh's histrionic Hamlet and - three hours of my life I will never get back - Antony Sher's preposterous, portly Iago.

I've done my time. I will not watch another Shakespeare play.

Worse, if it's got a number in the title - those endless, ghastly history trudges - I'd rather stick pins in my eyes.

My mother-in-law, who worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company for years, has long since despaired of me.

Yes, it's important that our children grow up steeped in the classics but they should also be versed in today and prepared for the future. Why must they be endlessly tortured with this luvvie-fed obsession: cyclical repeats of a 17th Century dinosaur? As Helicanus tells Lysimachus in dreary Pericles, Prince of Tyre: "twould be too tedious to repeat". Oh, how true.

Language evolves and life changes: that is why literature is so vital and exciting. Instead of suffering Shakespeare or - God forbid - that other lionised bore of a playwright, Chekov, watch Bruce Robinson's Withnail and I, a screenplay that nails both, in a fraction of the time.

After skewering the latter - "always full of women staring out of windows, whining about ducks going to Moscow" - the film closes on Shakespeare's most poignant lines, taken from Hamlet: "The beauty of the world; the paragon of animals; and yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?" There you go, job done.

John Fuller was a bolder poet, Edward St Aubyn's a braver writer and TV's Sally Wainwright is a more relevant playwright.

I'd rather watch her Happy Valley than one more dulling, retrodden minute of an anachronistic canon that now has nothing whatsoever new to say.

Better still, give us something fresh and raw and new. I think we all know, by now, how Romeo and Juliet ends. Shakespearean theatre is, today, more about the ego-driven reinvention of TV A-listers - bored, stereotyped, rich and resting - than about true reinvention per se.

Fakespeare has become the West End's equivalent of Hollywood's advice to leading ladies - from Charlize Theron in Monster to Nicole Kidman in The Hours. Pretend to be ugly: get an Oscar.

Shakespeare was brilliant - of course he was - but we need to retain some perspective. We don't go collectively ga-ga for Marlowe, Tourneur or Middleton. Why does Shakey always get first dibs?

If he were alive today, he'd be a Quentin Tarantino, not a neo-Ibsen. Shakespeare never forgot the dramatic need for sex and spectacle, he's just a little out of date.

All his talk of "country matters" was simply a pantomimic, linguistic loophole for indulging his audience's baser instincts; a spot of blue for the dads.

In Hamlet, country is a four-letter word: no more than Carry On smut at the censor's expense. So let's not be too precious about the so-called "greatest writer in the English language".

It is all too easy to forget that the on-stage blinding of Gloucester - two pickled onions spooned out and stamped upon - is just as violent and shocking as the severing of a policeman's ear in Reservoir Dogs. But no one in their right mind would watch that over and over again - cooing about syntax and measure - either.

Time and context are all. As John Fowles wrote, when he explained his 1977 revision, 12 years on, of The Magus: "The erotic element is stronger in two scenes. I regard that as merely the correction of a past failure of nerve." Indeed.

A modern-day Shakespeare wouldn't be on the curriculum and feted on the Southbank, he'd crank it up and be subject to a Daily Mail fatwah. And hurrah to him for that.

Are we really so impoverished that we have, forever, to lean on the past? From Dad's Army to Point Break to Macbeth, the film industry, in particular, is obsessed with remakes.

The West End - Les Misérables, The Mousetrap, Cats, et al, ad nauseam - isn't that far behind.

Are there really so few new stories?

Of course not. There are new, exceptional writers out there and dazzling new plays - in amongst the old stodge.

It is time again to let fringe theatre roar. All but four of the angry young men are dead now and - frankly - it's someone else's turn. Give us more Lolita Chakrabartis and Jennifer Maisels, not more re-runs and reboots. Yes, Imelda Staunton was magnificent in Gypsy but she'd be even better in a brand new musical, one that wasn't written 57 years ago.

Only television seems willing, right now, to take a chance on the new. From Unforgotten to Undercover, TV drama is thriving. Even the remakes - House of Cards, etc - are more daring.

So, although die-hards - racing to doze off again to A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Globe for the umpteenth time - will no doubt sneer at such perceived lack of culture, give me more Sons of Anarchy and less Hamlet.

And don't just take my word for it. Even the RSC's associate director David Farr has turned to rewriting John le Carré's The Night Manager for TV instead of dressing old men up in tights. He's heading in the right direction: another 23 years and he'll be bang up to date.

Once more unto the breach? No chance.

But if you absolutely must wallow in the past, come the inescapable, laudatory hoo-hah, do yourself a favour: at least give Julius Caesar a miss. You'll thank me for it.

Comments

CONVERSATIONS