The British Library is the venue for a rather unusual but interesting exhibition displaying material from original texts in Shakespeare’s hand, costumes (note – Vivien Leigh’s beautiful Lady Macbeth costume from the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production does not, sadly, make it into the illustrations in the accompanying book), photographs (again excluded from the book are stills from the Stratford 1959 production of Othello with Paul Robeson and Mary Ure, as seen at https://www.rsc.org.uk/othello/past-productions/related-websites), and letters (Olivier extremely snidey about Robeson’s Othello and dismissing a chance to offer an invitation to the American actor, stating he would ‘like to have a bash’ at the role himself).
The ‘ten acts’ are each related to either a play or an aspect of cultural change – so we get sections devoted to Hamlet, The Tempest, King Lear, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Othello, as well as sections around performance, the introduction of female and black performers, and the future of Shakespearean scholarship. Along the way you will see a mix of portraits, original printed texts, ephemera, and audio-visual presentations: I especially enjoyed the chance to compare and contrast a selection of ‘To be or not to be’ declarations from the likes of Herbert Beerbohm-Tree, Peter O’Toole, John Gielgud and Daniel Day-Lewis, and video discussions from the likes of Samuel West, Simon Russell Beale, Harriet Walter and Hugh Quarshie.
The Lady Macbeth costume you can see at close quarters is this one:
What struck me about it is the delicacy and the slightness of the form which would have worn it, quite a contrast with the description of Leigh’s Lady M as an earthy and sensual creation. Later in the exhibition another costume of Leigh’s can be viewed: the headdress from her appearance as Titania in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, and it is very beautiful.
Other items of interest include Ted Hughes’ attempt to adapt King Lear for Peter Brook’s film, and a handwritten MS from Angela Carter of ‘Wise Children’, about the twin sisters who grow up obsessed by the Bard. There is a montage of photos and clips from film versions of Shakespeare’s works including Asta Nielsen’s ‘Hamlet’, Fairbanks and Pickford’s wedding scene in ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, Tony and Maria’s meeting across a crowded dance floor in ‘West Side Story’ (based on ‘Romeo and Juliet’) and a 2006 Chinese version of ‘Hamlet’ I wasn’t aware of called ‘The Banquet’.
The fake and abridged Shakespeares are here too: Nahum Tate’s ‘King Lear’, and a whole section (which seems disproportionate) on ‘Vortigern’. At times the audio pieces bleed into and overpower each other: the Globe’s ‘Twelfth Night’ with Mark Rylance drowns out the montage, and the (albeit hilarious) Peter Sellers parody of Olivier reciting ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ can be heard well after it has been seen. Do stop and watch some of the short pieces demonstrating Shakespeare around the world, and pause to hear the glorious Paul Robeson in the Stratford ‘Othello’. In portrait you can see Ira Aldridge, Sarah Siddons, and John Philip Kemble.
The exhibition plays with gender, too, not only noting the first women to play the formerly male parts of Desdemona and Cleopatra, but also including a discussion by Maxine Peake of her ‘trans Hamlet’ and a piece implying Derek Jarman’s ‘Tempest’ dealt with Prospero’s hidden homosexuality (something which completely passed me by, to be honest). There is a whole gallery on Peter Brook’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (see https://www.rsc.org.uk/a-midsummer-nights-dream/past-productions/peter-brook-1970-production), radical, influencial, and androgynous.
Over at the Victoria and Albert Museum, another exhibition which touches on Shakespeare (and a wider celebration of theatre), is the ‘Curtain Up’ installation which celebrates forty years of theatre in London and New York.
Covered in a series of compact galleries are musicals, ballet, plays, and opera. The exhibits are busily displayed and curiously curated, but this is definitely worth a look, with high points for me including a series of set models from ‘An Inspector Calls’ to ‘Arcadia’, a handful of costumes including Nureyev’s Romeo doublet from the Kenneth McMillan ballet, models from ‘War Horse’ and examples of stage lighting including ‘The Curious Dog in the Nighttime’.
Remember to look up to see the programmes and posters displayed overhead.
Curtain Up is on until Wednesday 16th August – for information see https://www.vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/curtain-up-celebrating-40-years-of-theatre-in-london-and-new-york.
Shakespeare in Ten Acts is on until Tuesday 6th September – for information and to book see http://www.bl.uk/events/shakespeare-in-ten-acts.