May 20, 2013, by Peter Kirwan

A Year of Shakespeare, eds. Paul Edmondson, Paul Prescott & Erin Sullivan

A Year of Shakespeare: Re-living the World Shakespeare Festival is now out at a good Shakespeare-related bookshop near you, and as Shakespeare’s Globe welcomes back some of the standout productions from last year’s World Shakespeare Festival, it seems timely to flag up the volume that offers an overview of all seventy-four productions, events and films that made up last year’s Shakespeare Olympiad.

I am of course biased, as the contributor of four reviews to the volume: Habima’s The Merchant of Venice, the Isango Ensemble’s Venus and Adonis, Dmitry Krymov’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (As You Like It) and the RSC’s A Tender Thing. Spread throughout the book, I’m pleased that I’m covering some of the more obscure productions and fringe Shakespeares. Throughout the volume, there is often a clear correlation between expertise/interest and reviewer – Peter J. Smith covers both versions of Twelfth Night, Alun Thomas focuses on the Welsh-based productions Coriolan/us and Y Storm, Kate Rumbold covers the British Museum’s Shakespeare: Staging the World. If nothing else, the book demonstrates the extraordinary diversity of the year of Shakespearean innovations.

With productions taking place all around the UK, as well as on television (the Hollow Crown series covered sensitively by Peter Orford and Will Sharpe), the range of reviewers from senior professors to early-stage PhD students is eclectic and egalitarian, prioritising individual rather than institutional expertise. About 2/3 of the reviewers, including the editors Paul Edmondson, Paul Prescott and Erin Sullivan, are students, staff or alumni of the central Midlands Shakespeare hub of Birmingham and Warwick (myself included). Yet this works to the book’s advantage, allowing the reviewing process to be contextualised both in terms of Stratford’s recent history with Complete Works Festivals (where this blog, of course, began), and in terms of viewing the World Shakespeare Festival within the RSC’s wider programme and remit. During the Festival, the most obvious locus of the WSF was Globe to Globe, the festival within a festival, and Christie Carson and Susan Bennett’s forthcoming volume Shakespeare Beyond English will offer a more specific look at that event (both Carson and Bennett have contributed here, in a pleasing cross-communication between the two books). Here, the London events are not privileged over the wider UK focus, situating the Festival as a collaboratively viewed and decentralised event.

That there was no firm beginning or ending to the festival is, of course, one of the book’s concerns. Introductory essays by Sullivan and Prescott tackle the nature of reviewing and the nature of Festival Shakespeare, but beyond this there is no event to totalise a Festival which was (to my knowledge) experienced by no-one in its totality. The book, even down to a structure that runs reviews straight on from one another without a page break, foregrounds its eclecticism as a series of perspectives, and the conversational tone ensures that individual subjectivity is never forgotten. What this book cannot be is a ‘definitive’ or ‘objective’ account. Instead, it does precisely what it says on the tin – ‘relives’ the Festival from the varied and personalised viewpoints of thirty informed spectators.

Part of the book’s remit is not merely to chronicle the Festival but to experiment with the practice of theatre reviewing. All reviews initially appeared on the website Year of Shakespeare, and were then lightly updated for the print version. As such, the reviews that appear here feel close to the raw experience of first viewing, warts and all. The liveness is fresh and unusual for an academic performance volume, and perhaps key to the sense of the book as a chronicle of a Festival – each performance feels like an event.

The reviews themselves, of course, chronicle a phenomenal range of languages, plays, cultures and performance styles. Fionnuala O’Neill covers the one-woman musical performance of The Rape of Lucrece that toured to Edinburgh and Penelope Woods Two Gents Productions’ version of The Two Gentlemen of Verona which saw two men stranded on the Globe stage. At the other end of the scale, Christie Carson covers the RSC’s epic new play A Soldier in Every Son and Dave Paxton Verdi’s Falstaff. From opera to rap, realist film to experimental Eastern European theatre, exhibition to new writing, the range of artistic expression resists easy encapsulation.

In some ways, however, the book remains ultimately unreviewable, which is partly the reason I am illustrating the scope rather than discussing individual pieces. The disadvantage of a project on this scale is that any kind of totalising picture would necessarily be arbitrary; it is impossible, perhaps, for the book to actually say anything about the World Shakespeare Festival. Sullivan’s chapter speaks to the plurality of experience uncovered by the project, and the diversity is the single unifying factor. What the volume does do is create a mosaic, a series of insights and impressions that collectively point to the ungraspable nature of a globalised and internationally discussed Shakespeare. Hopefully, the very fact that the book is in print will not suggest that the conversation is now closed. As Year of becomes the new Reviewing Shakespeare website, what the book hopefully does is set out a manifesto for a new form of collective, even crowd-sourced Shakespeare performance conversation, that retains conversation as the finished product rather than flattening out the more fascinating, immediate conversations in favour of a coherent, cooler and belated article. It’s a brave book, and one I’m proud to be a part of.

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