Shakespeare: Staging the World at the British Museum
In the round reading room of the British Museum, previously frequented by such literary luminaries as H G Wells, George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde, is an exhibition in tribute to the greatest playwright in history. Shakespeare: Staging the World, is the curatorial result of both the World Shakespeare Festival and the London 2012 Festival and is sure to be amongst London’s most sought-after attractions during its four-month run. The exhibition seeks to create an innovative yet intuitive dialogue between Shakespeare’s plays and the world they were conceived and performed in four centuries ago.
The crucial relationship between London and the works of Shakespeare is immediately made clear, with a copy of the First Folio sitting beneath a seventeenth century etching of London’s skyline. Indeed, the curators seek to emphasise to the visitor that, to the citizens of Shakespeare’s London, “all the world was a stage, and the stage was all the world”. Not forgetting the importance of the iconic Globe Theatre, the exhibition’s design embodies the theatre’s aesthetic, inviting the visitor to interact with the exhibition as one would a play: with wood-panelled walling, and artefacts arranged as if props on the wooden O’s stage.
Naturally rich in artefact and manuscript, artwork and relic, the exhibition covers every facet of the bard’s works and the exhibition is greatly enhanced by monologues recited by members of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Between Venetian jewellery, veteran actor Sir Antony Sher recites as The Merchant of Venice’s Shylock, whilst Geoffrey Streatfeild passionately delivers the St Crispin’s Day speech of Henry V above the funerary relics of that King’s funeral: a saddle, helm and shield.
The middle of the exhibition focuses on Shakespeare and antiquity, evoking the influences of Julius Caesar, Titus Andronicus and Antony and Cleopatra. With its political corruption, public disquiet, and burgeoning metropolitan culture, Shakespearean London was the descendant of Ancient Rome and this gallery brilliantly examines this powerful resonance. Holding the Ides of March coin of 44BC provenance, Paterson Joseph, as Brutus in the eponymous play, justifies his role in the demise of Caesar, thus creating a breathtaking bridge between Ancient Rome, Shakespeare’s London, and the modern day.
With the overall exhibition based more upon theme than period or chronology, the subsequent gallery examines alienation, religious and racial tension, as well as the discord between wealth and want. The curators have invoked Venice as the case study through which to explore such themes and naturally, The Merchant of Venice and Othello are referenced here, amongst others. Firmly eschewing the notion that the bard’s plays are idealistic, relics from the sub-Sahara together with Moorish artworks help liberate the conceptions of difference in a Europe that was sure of itself and yet not of others.
Though only slight asides to what is a tremendous curatorial achievement, the audio-visual excerpts do sometimes serve to distract, rather than enhance the experience of an exhibition filled to the eaves with both object and commentary. Moreover, some of the artefacts on display do struggle to achieve even a justifiable link with the world and works of the bard. Aside from establishing the turn of the Elizabethan period into the Stuart, a sketchbook featuring depictions of Queen Elizabeth’s funeral perhaps only serves to clutter a gallery already rich in meaning. The nearest the exhibition comes to narrative is this delineation between the reigns of Shakespeare’s two monarchs: Elizabeth and King James I. Reflecting the social and religious discontent of the latter’s reign, is a gallery featuring the Gunpowder Plot and the North Berwick Witch Trials and thus invokes both Hamlet and Macbeth as vehicles for then-contemporary comment on both political machinations and religious agitation.
The exhibition concludes powerfully and underlines Shakespeare’s powerful modern relevance. In an ethereal round gallery seemingly without form or agenda – embodying Shakespeare universal and timeless relevance – the oaken tone of Sir Ian McKellan recites The Tempest’s Prospero, who blesses the union of Miranda and Ferdinand before withdrawing to make ready for a bright future. Here one can inspect the “Robben Island Bible”, a compendium of Shakespeare’s plays that sustained the inmates of that island’s prison. Scrawled alongside a speech from Julius Caesar, is Nelson Mandela’s signature, dated 1977. Such is the influence of William Shakespeare.
The British Museum’s exhibitions are often renowned for their narratives, yet by taking an alternate thematic approach, this may just be their greatest exhibition yet.
Shakespeare: Staging the World is at the British Museum until 25th November 2012. For further information or to book visit the museum’s website here.