Peter Holland. English Shakespeares: Shakespeare on the English Stage in the 1990s. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. 295pp. ISBN 0 521 156 476 x Paper. John Cox. Much Ado About Nothing (Shakespeare in Production). Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. 257pp. ISBN 0 521 159 822 Paper.
Christine Mack Gordon
University of Minnesota
Mack Gordon, Christine. "Review of English Shakespeares and Much Ado About Nothing." Early Modern Literary Studies 5.3 (January, 2000): 13.1-6 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/05-3/gordrev.htm>.
One of the greatest pleasures of books such as the two under review is the opportunity they offer readers to travel across space and time to "see" productions of Shakespeare's plays, as well as to spend time in the pleasant company of their respective authors.
Peter Holland, a regular reviewer for Shakespeare Survey and the BBC and Director of The Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham, offers us his perspective on nearly a decade's worth of Shakespearean productions in Britain: they were staged in theatres ranging from large to small, with directors whose perspectives cover a wide spectrum from traditionalist to radical, and actors whose names have become familiar to many from their work in film and others whose work speaks to us only through these words. Holland's analyses are astute, articulate, and provocative: he clearly appreciates the power of theatre and his reviews and reflections allow us to accompany him in his journey across England to see the latest from the RSC, the Royal National Theatre, Northern Broadsides, Cheek by Jowl, and many others. He arrives open-minded to whatever possibilities may be put before him, and his critiques deploy praise, challenges, and outright disagreement in reasonable measure.
It is possible to read the book straight through as I did, or to use its helpful index as a resource to productions, companies, or individual actors or directors. Holland is passionate about Shakespeare and about theatre, and his insights into both inform his eloquent reviews. While he clearly indicates productions he considers successful, I would be hard-pressed to descry a pattern among them. His appreciation stems from a sense that good productions offer a coherent approach to the text, whatever the approach may be, and that the actors, director, and designers successfully embody it. So whether the production is large-scale or small, performed in London or Chichester, with famous or unknown actors is irrelevant to its success. When appropriate, he will incorporate comparisons between productions, or sometimes simply refer the reader to an earlier essay. The only thing better than reading Holland's book would be accompanying him regularly to the theatre, with long conversations afterward.
John Cox's edition of Much Ado About Nothing is one in the "Shakespeare in Production" series that offers both a full text of a play (the New Cambridge edition) and a full stage history. Cox begins with a long introduction that traces performances of Much Ado from the Renaissance stage to contemporary stage, film, and television productions. This absorbing history provides readers with fascinating insights into the play itself and into the cultural changes that have determined its interpretation in production. Perhaps the most obvious change over time has been in the interpretation of Beatrice, who is shaped to fit her time period in fascinating ways; the Victorian period, especially, had a difficult time with her outspoken, moderately bawdy charm.
Cox's work draws on acting editions, promptbooks, and published reviews to provide readers with a cultural history of productions that illuminates as much about artistic and social values as about theatre itself. In the text that follows, he continues this practice, with the text on the upper part of page and notes on the lower; the notes detail specific information from productions, including abridgments and cuts, stage business, and actors' interpretations. A book such as this would be an invaluable resource for anyone involved in a production of the play, as well as those intrigued by the many and varied ways in which plays are brought to life. Shakespeare's plays offer enormous potential in terms of interpretative freedom, and such possibilities spring vividly to life in a history such as this.
- Although I live in a community with a great range of theatre on view, I have only rarely been able to sample productions elsewhere. Peter Holland and John Cox offer all armchair travellers and theatre-goers new experiences expressed in delightful, eloquent prose; they also offer theatre practitioners astute observations on the history and practice of Shakespearean production that will illuminate their own work. Anyone passionate about theatre should seek out these books.
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.
© 1999-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).