The good word on Shakespeare

By BARBARA ALBURY

CELEBRATING birthdays is a wonderful opportunity to resurrect great figures of literature and enter their world.
Alex Robson’s A Short Guide to Shakespeare has done just that by celebrating William Shakespeare’s birthday 450 years ago in a short, intense review of his life and times.
Alex has turned his focus on the classics before. Wilde, Dickens, Moliere, Brecht have all come under his scrutiny.
However, kaleidoscoping Shakespeare, considered the greatest writer in the English language, into a neat 75 minutes of entertainment, is a bigger task – a David and Goliath challenge – especially when you are only armed with a sling of your own clever language and inventiveness.
Alex has solved the problem of presenting the weighty Shakespeare by nimbly sidestepping attitudes of reverential homage. The poster for the show, depicting Shakespeare toppling from his pedestal, sets the tone of the production.
A Short Guide to Shakespeare is a light-hearted romp through the work of the Bard, backgrounded against the daily life and struggles of doing theatre in London in the late 16th century.
We learn about the politics of the day, the scourge of the plague, the burning down of the first Globe Theatre, Shakespeare’s defection to London leaving behind a wife and two children, his extraordinary output, and career. We become privy to his acute observation of human beings with all their eccentricities and foibles.
It is a minimalist production in the style of an animated lecture: a bare black stage with only two boxes (camouflaged to look like piles of books) containing props, and a sign pointing to London and Stratford. No lowering of lights and the audience is in full view, as in the Elizabethan theatre.
The only concession to flamboyance are the colourful period costumes (made by Margaret Sims) and worn by Alex and his co-player Nick Sinclair.
Alex and Nick’s performances are clever and amusing, punctuated by some serious scenes taken from Shakespeare’s 38 plays.
My only quibble is that the play needs more work. Judicious editing, shaping and critical input by an outside director would turn this rough diamond into a sparkling gem – and a good touring project to schools.

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