September 22, 2012, by Peter Kirwan

Shakespeare: Staging the World @ The British Museum

One of the most high-profile projects in which I’ve had a minor involvement this year has been the BP-sponsored exhibition Shakespeare: Staging the World at the British Museum, curated by Dora Thornton and my PhD supervisor, Jonathan Bate. While my own involvement extended merely to checking the quotations used in the exhibition catalogue, it gave me a great deal of time to absorb the exhibition in the preparatory stages, and the experience of finally viewing the finished show was one of both familiarity/recognition and awe at the scale of what the team had achieved.

Much has already been made of the fact that the show finishes and ends with copies of Shakespeare’s works – a first Folio greeting visitors at the entrance, and the famous ‘Robben Island’ copy of the Complete Works at the far end, open at a page signed by Nelson Mandela. While I’m a little bemused by the particular focus put on this piece, given that it was on display for quite some time in Stratford-upon-Avon back in 2006-07, the prominence of these two volumes draws attention to the production’s key organising principle: the reflection of the world in Shakespeare’s works, and the reflection of Shakespeare’s works around the globe.

What this is not, fundamentally, is an exhibition about Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s presence is dispersed and fragmented throughout the exhibition, his words broken into short quotations that illustrate objects and function to link the disparate items to an amorphous body of literature. Dramatic and literary context is eschewed in favour of drawing attention to the points in Shakespeare’s works where we see rootedness in his own time and the time of the plays’ settings. So, Perdita and Ophelia’s herbs and flowers are depicted in Renaissance illustrations, with the quotations reminding us what Shakespeare had to say about them.

There is a methodological question here in relation to how we conceive of the plays. We are asked to hear of objects referred to in the plays, and then see what these may have looked like: we see Venetian ducats and illustrations of Renaissance Venice, we see a sword that may have been used in Henry V’s funeral procession, we see a sculpture of an Egyptian woman who appears to have resembled Cleopatra. Throughout we are invited to imagine a vision of the plays in full historical colour, recalling the antiquarian desires of late 19th/early 20th century Shakespeare productions or Hollywood attempts at epic naturalism. It’s a vision of the plays that, needless to say, bears little relation to the nature of the plays themselves as theatrical fictions, and it’s important to bear in mind the lines of transmission involved here: to imagine what Cleopatra may have looked like, how she might have been accompanied etc. does not help us to a more sophisticated sense of what the play is trying to do; and the historical conditions of early modern performance are a notable omission from the exhibition, except in fragments from the dig at the Rose. Rather, the exhibition is using Shakespeare as a launchpad for a tour through the Museum’s treasures and as a platform for raising questions about the intellectual, social and global outlook of the Renaissance. To show a handkerchief from 1600 alongside Othello’s request to borrow Desdemona’s handkerchief is not to say “This is what Othello’s handkerchief would have looked like” (whether as prop or as a fictive artifact) but rather to provide an opportunity to see a material object and understand the ways in which its circulation in Renaissance Europe informed the intellectual/social context on which Shakespeare was drawing.

This is perhaps further emphasised by the RSC’s primary contribution, in the audio and video clips that permeated the exhibition. Geoffrey Streatfeild’s face dominates the room devoted to the English histories, partly concealed by but towering over Henry V’s funeral armour, and periodically launches into ‘Band of Brothers’, recalling his performance for the RSC some years ago. Importantly, the actor is not costumed; the words exist divorced from their theatrical context, and serve to universalise the language in a way that enables appropriation, in this case affixing the words to the objects and thus positioning medieval artifact and Renaissance verse in a symbiotic and nostalgic relationship, each performing to the other in ways that evoke the idea of Henry V, neither entirely theatrical nor merely a historical name. A similar effect is created in Paterson Joseph’s appearance as Brutus, reprising his recent role in Julius Caesar. In the film, Joseph holds up a commemorative Roman coin minted to celebrate Caesar’s assassination, a coin which is also mounted in a display case to the left of the screen. Joseph wears his suit from the production, again allowing a fantastical connection between a very modern, globally conscious production and an ancient material object. Shakespeare historically sits some centuries removed from either aspect of this equation, but the unifying factor remains the words.

The performance are fascinating throughout, often in audio only, as in Forbes Masson and Katy Stephens reprising their roles as Jaques and Rosalind in As You Like It or Ian McKellen offering a moving reading of one of Prospero’s key speeches at the close of the exhibition (coincidentally echoing his appearance in the Paralympics Opening Ceremony?). Other performances were conceived as art installation rather than illustration in another bold move, including a wonderful sequence of Jonjo O’Neill ‘putting on’ and ‘taking off’ his performance of Richard III. Under an upward-scrolling written text of Richard articulating his villainy, a suited O’Neill (split between a triptych of screens) stands to relaxed attention, then slowly allows his body to morph into a tensed, clawed hand and a hunched shoulder, his glare moving to fixate on the spectator, before allowing himself to relax again. An audio recording of actors from the current Tempest, meanwhile, includes an oddly compelling image of bodies moving gently beneath a gaberdine, set into a far wall. The RSC contribution acts to unsettle and, most importantly, to unfix the words from the stability of material objects, insisting on their plurality of representation.

Among the exhibits, the sheer diversity and scale of the collection renders any overarching narrative unnecessary. The objects are quite stunning and often entirely unexpected. Highlights for me based on my previous work include a page by ‘Hand D’ from the Sir Thomas More manuscript (the first time I’ve seen this very important document in the flesh) and the stunning Westminster Abbey portrait of Richard II. More surprising, but deeply evocative, were a portrait of John Donne as a melancholy lover and a valance of rural Warwickshire life, both illustrated by phrases from As You Like It. I spent a great deal of time in front of Ralph Sheldon’s stunning tapestry map of Warwickshire spotting my old haunts, but the large scale maps of Venice and London are even more impressive in their detail and sophistication. I was most struck, though, by the 1604 painting of the Somerset House peace conference, rather tendentiously linked to a quote from Cymbeline. The painting is a stunning piece of work and invites many questions – who are the delegates looking at, why are they looking in different directions, what propaganda purposes is it serving? Items such as this will demand repeated re-viewing for those with the time.

The exhibition is a towering achievement, making a bold statement for the reintegration of material history with readings of Shakespeare; though, as I’ve outlined above, for the purposes of reading Shakespeare historically, rather than of fixing the representation of the texts. The careful organisation of the collections into rooms dealing with particular sets of concerns – the medieval, the ancient, Venice, the New World, the supernatural etc. – keeps the exhibition dynamic and exciting, and the inventive vision that juxtaposes performance, archaeology and objects invites a plurality of readings.

Posted in Exhibition