I have sympathy with Susan Hill’s view that Shakespeare (she highlights Macbeth) can be better enjoyed read rather than seen at the theatre. I have read all of Shakespeare’s plays when a teenager (in one of those "collected works" with tissue-thin paper and microscopic print). I’ve returned to them many times since.
Sometimes a performance of Shakespeare is enthralling. I remember seeing Alan Howard as Henry VI years ago, finally understanding the cliche "you could hear a pin drop" during his speeches. What an exponent of the spoken word. I even saw Olivier on stage, as Shylock, towards the end of his career.
But Shakespeare’s plays are uneven, and so are performances of them. One of the first Shakespeares I saw live was Twelfth Night at Stratford with Judi Dench as Viola (yes, dates me, I know). I remember being disappointed. But last year’s vibrant production of the same play in the very same theatre was a total delight — I was entranced and so were Malcolm, Jenny and Cathy — none of them particular Shakespeare fanatics. Returning a few months later to see As You Like It was not such a joyful experience.
Antony and Cleopatra is one of my very favourite Shakespeare plays — probably the favourite. Yet it is certainly uneven: it contains some of the author’s most beautiful poetry but also some dramatic casualness. I recently saw the Globe’s production of this play, and found it a real let-down. Frances Barber was the only member of the cast who was even half-way convincing, and Enobarbus somehow contrived not to thrill in that most wonderful of all Shakespeare’s speeches: "The barge she sat in…."
As has often been said, maybe the most reliable way to see Shakespeare is on film. But the medium can, er, swamp the message. As I write, Cathy and Jenny are watching for the second time in as many days a rented DVD called "She’s the Man", allegedly an update of Twelfth Night, concerning a boy’s soccer team….you get the picture. I’ll draw a veil.