Wednesday, 26 September 2012

British Museum part 2: Shakespeare

The second exhibition which I saw at the BM was "Shakespeare: Staging the World". I wasn't hugely attracted by it but I could get in for free, so I thought it was worth a try. (It's their current big charging exhibition.)

The first two things I encountered set the tone for the whole. There's a long corridor to get in, with recorded noise of people talking -- I think I'd read or heard somewhere that this was a deliberate attempt to recreate the hubbub of a theatre before curtain-up. Then the first actual object I saw was a clock, annotated with this quotation:
The clock struck 9 when I did send the nurse -- Romeo and Juliet.
Apparently Shakespeare uses clocks to indicate urgency or the passing of time.

There's actually something quite merry about the attempts to shoe-horn in sort-of relevant Shakespeare quotations all over the place, or at least to get the word "theatrical" into the label. The contemporary objects from Shakespeare's world are the best bit of the exhibition. I particularly liked the maps and prospects, including some interesting tapestry maps. There are rooms which deal with the main settings of Shakespeare's plays -- the medieval past, the classical world, and Venice -- but these weren't quite as successful for me. By far the most interesting object is the Robben Island Bible, a complete works of Shakespeare smuggled into the South African prison, disguised as a Hindu text, and signed by many political prisoners including Nelson Mandela.

But I don't think I did the exhibition justice at all, for one simple reason -- it was really really noisy. Each room has one or two looped recordings of actors doing some Shakespeare. The excerpts are short and the actors act away prettily heartily, plus I'm not a huge fan of the art of Thespis anyway. By the time I had looked at one item in a room the chances were that I was already becoming irritated by the repetition of the same piece of material nearby, and also unable not to hear the recordings from the last room and the next one. This drove me round the exhibition at a great speed and made me tetchy. (Except that I love Harriet Walter and think she can do no wrong.)

Really the exhibition is not for me, anyway. It's for GCSE students to go to (not for pleasure); it's for people who visit perhaps from a long way away. It's part of the 2012 Arts Festival and was presumably deliberately chosen as a topic that might be interesting to a large number of visitors from all over the world. If I went to China, for example, I would love to see an exhibition like this about some major Chinese author.

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