(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 4/22.)
On Saturday the RSC marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death with a slap-up gala in Stratford-upon-Avon that will be broadcast live on BBC2 and boasts, as MGM used to say, “more stars than in the heavens”. If you are in London, you could stroll from Westminster to Tower Bridge and see a sequence of short films produced by Shakespeare’s Globe. Alternatively you could pop into a fascinating exhibition at the British Library titled Shakespeare in Ten Acts. To confirm Shakespeare’s global reach, in Dubai you could catch an immersive Romeo and Juliet staged in a vast shopping mall, and in Warsaw there’s a season of Shakespeare-inspired ballets with Polish dancers and Iranian designers.
This bombardment of Bardolatry prompts a series of questions. What is it about Shakespeare’s plays that keeps them so constantly performed and studied at a time when the idea of a western canon is in question? Is the hierarchical status given to Shakespeare’s tragedies due for urgent reassessment? And how should we stage his plays in a period of rapid social change and shifting theatrical techniques?