(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 6/7.)
We admire Shakespeare’s tragedies. We enjoy his comedies. But I suspect that, if we’re looking for an echo of our own troubled times, we turn to his history plays – which have never been more popular. Ralph Fiennes and Michelle Terry are about to play, respectively, Richard III and Henry V. The BBC’s Hollow Crown has just made mincemeat of Game of Thrones in its portrait of a realm torn apart by strife. Ivo van Hove’s Kings of War showed Shakespeare’s rulers mercilessly prosecuting battle from the safety of armour-plated bunkers. And last month I saw Tug of War: Foreign Fire, the astonishing six-hour first part of Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s history cycle, which uses songs by Leonard Cohen, Nina Simone and Tim Buckley to reinforce its protest against unchecked power and imperialist expansion. The second instalment follows in the autumn.
The Chicago histories – the centrepiece of the city’s year-long Shakespeare celebrations – are the brainchild of Barbara Gaines, a slight woman who has the bright-eyed fervour of the cultural pioneer. A former actor, she staged her first Shakespeare play, Henry V, on the roof of the Red Lion pub in Chicago’s Lincoln Park in 1986. So popular were her productions that in 1999 she moved the company into a purpose-built, two-venue home on Navy Pier. Imagine Stratford-on-Avon’s Swan Theatre set down in a place that feels like a blend of Blackpool’s North Pier and London’s South Bank and you get the idea. I saw Tug of War on a Saturday night when the 3,300ft pier was seething with selfie-taking tourists, many drawn by the giant ferris wheel next to the theatre.