Tuesday 16 August 2016

27 Before 28: #23- Go to the Shakespeare Exhibition at the British Library

When you commit yourself to going to an exhibition, you can never be exactly sure what you're going to find. For usually between £10-£15, you might be buying access to some of the greatest treasures you've ever had the pleasure of seeing, or you might be buying access to, like, some shoes (the V&A shoe exhibition was disappointing to me, but really I should have known what I was getting myself into...).

It was, therefore, not without some hesitation that I handed over £12 to the nice British Library lady to get into the Shakespeare Exhibition, but I knew as soon as I'd stepped in that I'd made the right decision. Just in the very first section, before going down the stairs to the real part of the exhibition, they had a First Folio*, a couple of contemporary books actually referencing Shakespeare's work AT THE SAME TIME IT WAS WRITTEN, and (AND) an actual page containing Shakespeare's actual handwriting.

To say that I was freaking out would be an understatement, and I hadn't even been in the exhibition proper, yet! I might be too much of a nerd for my own good sometimes.

Downstairs, everything was still awesome. Although nothing else reached the dizzying heights of SHAKESPEARE'S HANDWRITING, the rest of the exhibition was still really just top notch. I'm talking quartos of the plays, I'm talking performance history and key figures important in keeping his legacy alive and relevant within theatre. I'm also talking international history of Shakespeare**, history of women in theatre, history of non-white people in theatre (Othello was the first play to have an actual female actor in it, and it's obviously got a real history of non-white actors playing Othello). I'm finally talking that they have actually recreated the set of Peter Brook's Midsummer Night's Dream, a performance of it that I wasn't even aware of, but that was apparently really really famous and its super minimalist setting makes me think that it's definitely an interpretation that I would LOVE to see.

Like I said, a total nerd.

One unexpected side effect of the exhibition is that it made me believe that Lawrence Olivier was a bit of a twat. I think this is something people sort of already know, but they overlook it because he was a good actor and blah blah blah. BUT. During segregation in America, this black actor wanted to come to England and play Othello and Olivier refused to let him, not because of racism really, but because he wanted to play the role himself. I can't really talk about how disturbing blackface is to me, but come on Olivier, sort it out. I was iffy on him from that, but then towards the end of the exhibition, I discovered that- wait for it- his style of directing was to act out each of the roles as he thought it should be played, and then get his actors to do it exactly as he'd just done it.

He acted out. Each of the roles. And the other actors just got to copy him or else. I mean, come on! What a dick!

This exhibition, however, was very much not a dick. It's basically got all the cool stuff a Shakespeare person could ever want, and was very much worth £12 of my money and a couple of hours of my time. If you're going to be in London any time between now and the 6th September, I really can't recommend this exhibition enough, and for my part, I'm really glad I found the time and energy to go.

*The First Folio is the very first book that had all Shakespeare's plays published together. For some of the plays it contains the only surviving examples, for others it's generally the best version of them, when comparing the text of those to the quartos that also survive. Why yes, I am a Master of Shakespare, why do you ask?

**like, for example, did you know that there is evidence to suggest that merchants and stuff who sailed to Africa within Shakespeare's lifetime actually performed one of his plays for the natives? Because I did not know that, and it is incredible to believe that he was global even before globalisation was really a thing


  1. "you might be buying access to some of the greatest treasures you've ever had the pleasure of seeing, or you might be buying access to, like, some shoes" HA. It's true

    This sounds very cool and I want to go to there.

    1. I mean, right? And the thing is, it doesn't matter if it's just shoes if the exhibition is inspiring but that one was just... not. Should I create exhibitions at museums? Well, maybe.

      You should go to there. You have... like 2 and a half weeks to get your butt over to London!