Shakespeare in Ten Acts – an engaging exhibition at the British Library

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This quirky exhibition looks at different productions, performances and performers, as well as historical documents to invite a wider perspective on how and why Shakespeare’s work endures. The following images represent the more engaging moments in my afternoon at the British Library.  


Act 1: ‘A hit, a very palpable hit’ shares behind the scenes moments from one of the most performed of all Shakespeare’s plays – Hamlet.  In Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit, published in 1592, the finger points to the first description of Shakespeare in print as an ‘upstart crow, beautified with our feathers’ which many believe suggest that his plays were copied or developed in concert with others.


In 1599, there was a disagreement between the Lord Chamderlain’s Men and clown Will Kemp. When Kemp quit the company, he created a publicity stunt to demonstrate his skill by Morris dancing his way from London to Norwich in nine days. This page, from 1600, illustrates Kemp’s Nine Days of Wonder. There was ongoing debate about the expectation of completing each Shakespearean with a cast dance, jig and singing even if the play was a tragedy, and Kemp was recognised as one of the best clowns of that time.


A First Quarto of Hamlet dating from 1603.


In 1598, Thomas Speght published an edition of The Workes of Chaucer which also contains notes by Gabriel Harvey, including the earliest known reference to Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Act 2: ‘Into something rich and strange’. This 1623 folio edition of The Tempest contains detailed stage directions which could have been from the recollections of Ralph Crane, a scribe, who had previously prepared text for printing. The finger above points to a direction where a banquet magically vanishes by means of a ‘queint [quaint] device’. Throughout the play, supernatural moments are heralded or accompanied by the sound of thunder.

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This manuscript, circa 1665,  holds the lyrics and music for Ariel’s songs – ‘full fathom five’ and ‘Where the bee sucks’. Robert Johnson’s Tempest songs appear in the hand of music publisher John Playford – they are wrongly attributed to John Wilson.


Act 6: ‘He is return’d’ displays a variety of interesting Othello artefacts including this manuscript with the opening pages of Othello-Travestie from 1813. The 19th century was the ‘heyday of Shakespeare burlesque and comic parodies of the original play that featured songs and rhyming verse. John Poole’s version (shown here) is one of many racist parodies that were popular between the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and the end of slavery in 1833. The play ends with a warning against inter-racial marriage: ‘Nor let the fair sex ever wed the black’.IMG_7817

These handwritten notes are pages from Angela Carter’s first draft of what was to become her final novel. Published in 1991, Wise Children contains twin chorus girls, Dora and Nora, who recount their appearance in an early Hollywood adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Apparently, Carter based these scenes on the extravagant 1935 film directed by Maz Reinhardt.


The last act of the exhibition is a film extract of the Wooster Group’s 2013 production of Hamlet. This digital production drew heavily on a film version of the 1964 Broadway performance of Hamlet starring Richard Burton. The film was reused in a provocative way: characters were erased, fast-forwarding of scenes, jump-cutting, altered poetry metre and intercutting footage with other Hamlet films.


This production made me think of Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More emersive theatrical experience. Originally performed int he UK, Sleep No More has found a home in the Kitterick Hotel in New York where the audience creates their own version each show from narratives of Macbeth and Rebecca in a speakeasy setting with noir production values. It is a must see for over 18s – find out more at Sleep No More.

Watch the advertising trailer for Shakespeare in Ten Acts and search through the British Libraries online resources for Shakespeare.

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