Over the weekend, Shakespeare turned 452 years old, and celebrated being dead for 400 of them. This was a fabulous opportunity for the BBC to grab a hold of one of the UK’s longest lasting exports and ride the publicity and ratings for all they were worth. Especially with the current climate, and charter renewal coming up, the chance to show themselves as some kind of cultural touchstone was paramount. Perhaps a nice dollop of high brow culture would inoculate them against losing Strictly Come Dancing, the decidedly glitzy ratings getter which couldn’t be high brow if it wanted.
To that end, the BBC chose to do a live stream performance from the stage of the Royal Shakespeare Company. The results were everything that is good and bad about Shakespearean Theater in the UK today. There was the need to trot out all the greatest hits, so here we were sitting through the Seven Ages of Man, complete with credited peasants to stand about representing them. This was followed by yet another rendition of the Romeo and Juliet scene bookended with the ballet version of the same, but which point anyone who hadn’t gone numb between the eyes from the closed fist punching one between the eyes yelling AREN’T? WE? SO? CULTURED? had mostly likely fallen over dead or unconscious.
But from that lowest point, the show managed to improve. Not that every piece was a hit–unevenness was the order of the day. But for every miss–Joseph Fiennes intoning on about Shakespeare’s life, there was a hit, such as Simon Russell Beale, doing the “Sceptered Isle” speech from Richard II, which could have and should have gone on about twice as long as it did.
Instead the things that did go on twice as long as they should have included the interminable song from Kiss Me, Kate, and the big company number from West Side Story. Yes, I understand the point is to show how Shakespeare has been reinvented for our century and stays relevant even to this day, but this seemed half-hearted. As did the “Hip Hop Shakespeare” piece, which neither hipped, nor hopped and only served to remind one that most white people who spend all their time reading Shakespeare are completely clueless when it comes to modern genres. (I recommend a nice dose of Beyoncé’s Lemonade, personally.) They did better with their Rufus Wainwright number–a piece that was so rooted in the later Beatles, one wondered if Paul McCartney had to sign off on its performance.
The one video that the BBC did make available for YouTube was the “A Line of Hamlets.” Partly due to the simply level of fame of the actors involved, plus the Prince Charles cameo, this is the bit everyone is getting to see. And don’t get me wrong–it’s funny. (Hi, Eddie!) But for my money, Judi Dench’s performance as Tatiana in love with Bottom the Ass that came before it was a far better sketch, as was Harriet Walter’s turn as Cleopatra later in the evening. Unfortunately, neither seem to be available anywhere. (Most likely due to the Stage Actors Guild requirements for publication being far more stringent than the Film actor ones.)
But then there was this.
Since the video’s been sadly pulled, here’s him performing it a few years ago.
The best moment of the night, and the video you should watch if you watch nothing else. For those who worried about making Shakespeare relevant, or fretted about doing thing that weren’t the same old tired classics, Ian McKellen proved that you need worry about neither. With a short passage from the little known The Book of Sir Thomas More, McKellen showed that you only need someone who truly understands the language of the time period to speak the lines so that anyone listening could understand them. And the passage is as relevant as it was in the mid 1600s as it is today, with those who would close off the borders to the Syrian refugees. One can only wish that such a speech would be played before millions in the US, to perhaps counteract the Donald Trump Reality Hour that has taken up continuous airs on CNN for our election season.