Me and Will Shakespeare

by Terry Oliver on July 1, 2012

In a few hours time I shall be leaving my 14th floor retreat in Vancouver,to cross False Creek and attend a preview of a play of Shakespeare’s I’ve never read or seen – The Merry Wives of Windsor. As part of this season’s Bard On The Beach programme, this seldom performed play is being given a contemporary update, judging from the posters advertising the production.

Will Shakespeare and I have had an on-again, off-again relationship lasting over six decades.  We were first introduced in my beginning year of high school when I read his perennially popular murder thriller set in Rome, Julius Caesar.  In those far-off school days, we were subjected to what is regarded today as brutal child punishment, in the form of  ‘memory work’. Every week I was expected to learn by rote one of the ‘purple passages’ from the play and regurgitate it on paper with punctuation accurate to the last semi-colon.

Is there a child of my generation who cannot recite at least a few lines of  ‘friends, Romans, countrymen: lend me your ears’? Or perhaps, ‘Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?’ Or even, ‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends’.

To me, it was no painful chore. Although pretending to dislike it as much as my peers, I secretly enjoyed the challenge of committing this often only partially understood poetry to paper. Like many others, no doubt, it was only years later that I realised Juliet was not asking ‘where’ he was but rather ‘why’ he was called Romeo – a misunderstanding that still causes young female actors difficulty in purveying it to their audiences.

These so-called purple passages which so many of us have learned by heart are dreaded by both actors and directors alike, as they loom up ahead in the plot and everyone holds their breath, waiting to see if the actor can bring it off. More often than not, they can’t match our own long-ago memories of how it should be said.

Laurence Olivier used to tell the story of when he was playing Hamlet in London and Winston Churchill was sitting in the front row. When he came to the famous ‘To be or not to be’ speech, he heard, to his horror, the unmistakable deep rumbling voice of Churchill, chanting the lines – and like a rabbit frozen in the headlights, he could only recite them along with the old man, in unison.

I was reminded of this problem with playing Shakespeare when I saw Macbeth recently at Bard On The Beach. The actor playing Macbeth had been doing a fine job until he came up against an impossibly purple passage, took a deep breath, ready to plunge in – and then lost it. Defeated, he stood stalk still and in flat tones recited:

‘Life is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’

The play stopped dead in its tracks. The audience sat silent. In a kind of dumb show, the actors plugged gamely on to the end of the play but it was already over.

Shakespeare is full of such moments – some plays much more than others but all have their spine-tingling moments, when the hair stands up on the back of our necks.  It’s probably what draws us back, year after year, century after century,  struggling to keep up with the convoluted plots and the unfamiliar Elizabethan language. Waiting, if we are very patient and attentive – to be electrified.

And so, very soon, I’ll be taking my seat, to see a brand-new (to me) play by Will Shakespeare. I make my preparations,like the actors, brush my teeth and comb my hair, eat a light repast so I won’t feel loggy, avoid my usual drink until the intermission, ready to play my part in helping to create the drama. Listening, watching, waiting – hoping for one of those electrifying moments that only live theatre can produce.

Will I be disappointed? Maybe – but Will Shakespeare has an unbeaten track record.

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