There is a version of Hamlet called the bad quarto, which was the first to be printed, in 1603. It is a pirated edition, designed by an unknown bookseller to cheat Shakespeare of his royalties. To make it, the pirate hired one of the minor actors, the man who played Marcellus, to write out what he could remember of the play. In the Globe Theatre, where Shakespeare's plays were first performed, the actors were only given pieces of paper holding their own lines. They never possessed a complete copy of the script.From Ivo Stourton's recommended first novel The Night Climbers. It may be heresy to mention venal London merchants and that guardian of the Bard's genius, the Royal Shakespeare Company in the same sentence, but I will anyway. Last night we saw the RSC's new production of Romeo and Juliet with Anglo-Asian Anneika Rose and David Dawson in the title roles. The setting is mafia territory in the 1940s complete with knives and guns, with which I have no problem. Modern stagings are fine, if the text of the play or opera are totally respected; with Wagner's Ring providing enduring evidence that the text can survive the most bizarre stagings.
As a consequence Marcellus's largely irrelevant words are perfectly rendered, the speeches of other characters he shares scenes with are competent, and the rest of the play when he was not on stage is a garbled mess. It is a pointless jumble, the work of the finest mind in English literature filtered through the memory of a bit-part player, catching snatches in the wings, then scribbling them down months later in a scam by a venal London merchant. His ineptitude is funny only because we have the original to compare it to. In Marcellus's version, Hamlet's famous soliloquy begins: 'To be, or not to be, Aye, there's the point.'
But the RSC's new Romeo and Juliet, which is directed by man of the moment Neil Bartlett, commits the cardinal sin of letting the gimmicks come between the Bard and the audience. Cheap Harry Potter-style sound effects are used to, spuriously, underline key moments in the drama, and voices are electronically processed to explain that the crypt scene, which looks like a crypt scene, is actually taking place in a crypt. Worst of all, the Prince's crucial final speech is drowned out by the on-stage musicians. It was good to see a capacity audience including many young people and school parties. Any live theatre is infinitely preferable to the dross of today's television. But is Shakespeare Hogwarts-style really the only way to reach new audiences?
And staying with venal London merchants I'm bracing myself for this committed curmudgeon's birthday treat next week. Glyndebourne's new Hansel and Gretel is set in a cardboard box and a supermarket - I joke not. I just hope there are no bleeping bar-code readers in the Glyndebourne production to mar that most sublime of all opera scores. As I write Naxos' UK copyright-exempt CD transfer of the 1953 EMI Karajan and Schwarzkopf Hansel plays. There is so much more to Engelbert Humperdinck's score than the well-known overture. The close of Act 1 is as moving as anything Wagner wrote and this super-budget priced double CD (or the more expensive EMI original) should be in every collection. Not only is Walter Legge's production lasting proof that great art has no need for cheap gimmicks, it is also one of the great achievements in the history of recorded sound.
PrinceThe Night Climbers by Ivo Stourton was borrowed from Norfolk Library Services. Naxos' Hansel and Gretel was bought online. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
A glooming peace this morning with it brings;
The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head:
Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things;
Some shall be pardon'd, and some punished:
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.