Beyond the Fringe

O to be in Scotland, or at least in Edinburgh during the Fringe! Between being shepherded around the comedy acts by my friend Copstick, I could see the Tiger Lillies all month—and I would make a special point of seeing this show. The Man from Stratford is a one-man show about the life of Shakespeare, starring Simon Callow and written by Jonathan Bate. I knew about the project—Bate acknowledges Callow’s request to “develop” a script for a one-man show about “Shakespeare in his cultural ‘moment’” as the “most valuable spur” to writing Soul of the Age—but I didn’t know it had actually come off.

I’ve already told you that Bate is the greatest living Shakespeare scholar, and whatever we may think of some of Callow’s acting choices (Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, anyone?), he’s got a track record at this kind of thing. I liked his one-man show The Mystery of Charles Dickens so much that I saw it in London and New York, and his impersonation of Dickens was so successful that he got to do it on Doctor Who (classic moment: as they take their leave, Dickens asks the Doctor how long he’ll be read. The answer: “Forever.”) What could possibly go wrong?

Plenty, according to Lyn Gardner’s review in the Guardian. (Hat tip to my Twitter friend @Picaress.) The money quote—“The whole thing has the air of a clever sixth former’s dramatised prize essay. It’s like one of those biographical compilation musicals, with excerpts from the plays standing in for songs.”—must have hurt.

Since I’m not in the UK and so can’t see the play, I can’t say whether those remarks are true. I can say why I think they might be. Brilliant thought Bate is, his imaginative gifts are scholarly, not dramatic. Some of the most exciting passages in Soul of the Age are rather heavy going. They are intellectually compelling, not dramatically compelling. They don’t prove that Bate can create an engaging theater production. That’s underlined by the statement in his website bio that “The Man From Stratford is his first work for the stage since a student play written for the Edinburgh Fringe 30 years ago.” (Hello? publicists? That isn’t a selling point.)

The Mystery of Charles Dickens had the advantage of being written by Peter Ackroyd, a prolific novelist steeped in London history and the author of a thousand-page biography of Dickens. As for Callow, one can understand why he’d be eager enough to repeat his triumph as Dickens that he overlooked some important differences about Shakespeare. The Dickens show was a natural because it was modeled on the enormously successful one-man shows Dickens himself did. Callow could use the excerpts Dickens actually chose and blend them effectively with first-person biographical material. The effect was to present Dickens as a Charles Dickens character—a brilliant stroke in his case but not one you would expect to work for Shakespeare. A one-man show about the life of a famous writer is much harder to bring off than you’d think. As you hear in every screenwriting class, writers just sit around all day and don’t do anything you can present using visual, dramatic action, unless of course you are Charlie Kaufmann and the screenplay is Adaptation.

But I digress. The one-man show concept worked for Dickens because he was a great raconteur as well as a great writer. The same is true of Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain Tonight. A one-man show about Oscar Wilde has been tried a number of times (including by Callow himself and, believe it or not, Vincent Price), without the spectacular success of Callow and Holbrook, but at least the idea makes sense. For Shakespeare, not so much. Shakespeare was not a raconteur or an aphorist, and although we know much more about his life than many people think, its most important component was sitting around and writing.

But what would be really damning if true is Gardner’s charge that “This greatest hits approach saves you the bother of having to sit through an entire play.” In interviews on the website, both Bate and Callow strongly deny that this was their intention.

Again, Gardner saw the actual production and I didn’t. What interests me here is not her opinion about the play so much as her vehement opposition to a “greatest hits approach,” or what I call “soundbite Shakespeare.” I join her in this with at least equal vehemence. If there is one lesson I took away from my year-long engagement with Shakespeare, it’s that soundbite Shakespeare is not just wrong, it’s a deeply destructive force that should be combated wherever it arises. Along with the closely allied idea that Shakespeare is a source of “life lessons,” the snobbery that takes a “love” of Shakespeare as a badge of one’s own class superiority, and just plain bad teaching—what Stephen Colbert might call the Four Horsemen of the Shakecopalypse—it is one of the biggest obstacles to understanding—and loving—Shakespeare.

Word tells me I’ve gone on for 844 words, and consultants who get paid a lot more than I do tell us that blog posts should never go over 500. Since the war on soundbite Shakespeare is one of the principal themes of My Year with Shakespeare, for once I will listen to them and take it up in the next post.

Update, 19 August 2010: here is another review that appears to validate the position I take here. Particularly interesting is that Charles Spencer attributes the failure of the show to Callow rather than Bate–“in my view the finest Shakespearean scholar of our times.” I can’t say whether a better actor would have garnered better press, but at least there’s one worthwhile result of the enterprise: Soul of the Age.

3 responses to “Beyond the Fringe

  1. But then again both Lyn Gardiner and Charles Spencer have a long history of grudgingly dissing everything Callow does. The regional press, and by all accounts the Edinburgh audiences,seem a little more positive: "Simply breathtaking. The greatest treat is seeing such a fine actor as Callow in a vast range of roles within a single performance" (Liverpool Post); "A masterclass in Shakespeare, from a master of the stage.Callow's performance brought them to life in a way so fresh it was as if those well-trodden words were being uttered for the first time" (Liverpool Echo); "I suspect this is a production that will be talked about for years to come and that anyone reviewing the great theatrical experiences of the 21st century will place it high upon their list of personal favourites" (Bath Chronicle); "A sparkling gemstone which combines a triumph of writing from Jonathan Bate with a masterclass of performance from Simon Callow" (Bristol Evening Post)

  2. Thanks so much for your comment! And thanks for the observation–as a North American, I'm not fully attuned to the prejudices of the UK theater press. I must observe that these quotes are taken from the production's webpage and so naturally are a little more favorable to Callow than Gardner's verdict that he "delivers the show in a black velvet suit that makes him look like a sleek, plump mole." I must also observe that I haven't been able to hear the word "masterclass" unironically since Steven Berkoff appropriated it for his Shakespeare's Villains: A Masterclass in Evil, so seeing it twice in these quotes makes my thumbs prick. But all that's just me: I haven't seen the show so I can't judge for myself, and I certainly don't want it to be an artistic failure.I'll allow myself one snark, though, since I went back to the webpage: doesn't Callow's picture on the landing page look more like Patrick Stewart than himself?The merits of the show and Callow's performance to one side, though, Gardner's crucial point about the deficiencies of "soundbite Shakespeare" stands, and I promise I will say what I mean by that in a post or two. After a farewell to Frank Kermode.

  3. Oh, I was also going to say I wish Copstick would see the show; then we'd have an opinion I trust. I doubt she has the time, though–