By Sophia Whitfield
Next Saturday will be 400 years since the death of Shakespeare. His plays have delighted audiences since the first performance of Hamlet at the Globe Theatre in 1600.
Over the years Shakespeare’s plays have been reimagined for contemporary audiences.
Shakespeare in Ten Acts in an exhibition at the British Library that takes a look at 400 years of Shakespeare’s performances. Looking back over the history and interpretations of the many plays gives credence to Shakespeare’s place as the greatest British dramatist.
Hamlet and The Tempest both feature heavily at the start of this exhibition. They are widely considered to be his first and last play. A small bound copy of Hamlet is on display that has been handed down from actor to actor. It is currently in the possession of Kenneth Branagh who has lent it to the exhibition. He will have the task of handing it on to someone he thinks deserving of the tome.
Among Shakespeare’s greatest plays is Othello. Lawrence Olivier famously played Othello in ‘blackface’. There were many who criticised Olivier for playing a part that should have gone to a black actor. In May 1825 Ira Aldridge was the first black actor to play Othello. He was 17. Interviews and photographs of the actors who have played Othello throughout history are on display as well as personal letters.
A humorous video of an all male cast of Twelfth Night rolls out towards the end of the exhibition. The production recreated the costume and time of Shakespeare with an all-male cast. Mark Rylance played Olivia and Stephen Fry Malvolio in cross-gartered yellow stockings. The video is of the production performed at the Globe.
Throughout the exhibition costumes are displayed including Mark Rylance’s beaded black dress he wore as the grieving Olivia in Twelfth Night. Vivien Leigh’s Lady Macbeth costume stands beside a photograph of her on stage. She is featured again as Titania in photographs, and the headdress she wore has been preserved and sits beside her photograph.
Each production featured is striking for its place in history. Peter Brook’s minimalist A Midsummer Night’s Dream was first performed in the 70s in Stratford and was one of the most influential productions of a Shakespeare play. It was a new interpretation that stripped the play back avoiding the usual mythical staging. The set was a simple white box designed by Sally Jacobs. Brook’s left out the fairies and magic that is so often used in the play in order for the language to shine. The theme of illusion and dreams was represented through circus tricks. Known as an innovative production, Brook’s interpretation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was seen as groundbreaking. Photographs and costumes from the production are displayed in a white room to replicate the white box at the centre of the production.
The exhibition to celebrate 400 years of Shakespeare continues at the British Library until September.
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