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Review: Shakespeare Live


Saturday April 23, 2016 marked 400 years since the death of William Shakespeare, and exactly 452 years since his birth. You have to appreciate the perfect symmetry of being born and being taken on the same day of the year, apparently due to some overzealous celebrating at his favourite pub. It also gives his global fanbase a reason to have two big celebrations each century. The latest of these, held at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, is now being screened at Cinema Nova up until Wednesday May 18, accompanied by a short film about the history of these celebrations, which announces an intention to be more than just a collection of the bard’s best known couplets and soliloquies. This gala is also a showcase of his extraordinary influence across so many different artforms.

For instance, it was no surprise to get a performance of the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet, with Mariah Gale as a particularly histrionic Juliet, but what I wasn’t expecting was to see that same scene then danced by the Royal Ballet, with a powerful final tableau of both the dancers and the actors locked in a loving embrace. There’s also a Shakespeare-inspired hip-hop performance, but not of the forced variety. As we are reminded by our delightful hosts, David Tennant and Catherine Tate, these works were the mainstream popular entertainment of their time, and were performed to much rowdier crowds than they tend to draw in today. The song ‘This gives life to thee’ by Akala, founder of the Hiphop Shakespeare company, is arguably just as lyrical and hard-hitting as the Elizabethan poetry that inspired it, and to have this sitting alongside performances from English National Opera made quite a statement about the equal value of all forms of art.

The other musicals highlights were mostly jazz and blues renditions of some of the ballads from the comedies. All of them struck the right balance between true musicality whilst also supporting the poetry, rather than distracting from it. Whilst almost all of these were pre-recorded, Rufus Wainwright’s electric performance of Sonnet 29 proved to be the strong live vocal performance that the night needed. Fortunately, there was more than enough live acting, especially on the comedic front. A mixture of young, fresh faces and game old faces such as John Lithgow and Dame Judi Dench brought us some of the writer’s best scenes of farcical misunderstandings and absurd declarations of love. All of the numerous big names, which also include Roger Allam, Sir Ian McKellen, David Suchet and Helen Mirren, get brilliant chances to show off their comedic and their dramatic skills, except perhaps for Benedict Cumberbatch, who still felt rather underused.

On the flip side though, the opening act, ‘Tonight’ from West Side Story performed by 19 of the UK’s top performing arts students, got off to a wobbly start as the cast and the orchestra were out of time, although it did eventually manage to pick itself up, especially as Maria’s part began. Henry Goodman and Rufus Hound didn’t fare so well either with the three-part, one-joke song ‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare’ from Kiss Me Kate. There is only so long one can listen to Shakespeare puns and still be amused, and the fluffed line towards the end certainly didn’t help matters. It is curious that while both the music and theatre acts were so strong, the musical theatre pieces were this far off the mark.

There is also a series of short biographical films scattered throughout the acts, presented quite fittingly by Joseph Fiennes, who of course played the man himself in Shakespeare in Love nearly 20 years ago. While some of them are a bit on-the-nose educational, they do serve well to remind us of the humble origins of the legendary wordsmith, and also to contextualize the shift from the comedies to the tragedies, which seemed to occur after the death of his son, Hamnet, who was only 11 years old. At this point, we transition from the cheerful ditties and the comic misdemeanors to the deep, dark tragedies. Most notably, Othello is performed in a magical mixture of jazz and ballet, and, just in case anyone thought proceedings were going to stray too far from all the laughs and smiles, a star-studded comedy sketch surrounding the most overthought and overused line that Shakespeare ever wrote, “To be or not to be, that is the question,” is easily the highlight of the night. Just as predictably, but very fittingly, the final two acts feature the bittersweet final verses of The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, two very poignant reminders of the immortality of a good story, despite the sad mortality of those who tell it, and where they tell it.

Review written by Christian Tsoutsouvas