Shakespeare at Play in a Bookish Space

Guest blogger, Micah Coston, writes…

The rain it raineth every day.

Twelfth Night, V i

And it came down above the vaulted ceiling, as the players played in a modified thrust space at the Divinity School, Bodleian Library, Oxford. The ornate room, completed nearly a century before Shakespeare’s birth, provided a dark and delicious setting for his Twelfth Night. The conventional treatment with its “summery garden,” bemoaned by Director Krishna Omkar at the pre-performance panel in the neighbouring Convocation House, was a distant thought, as the Divinity School became a stone, Perpendicular Gothic, not-so-black box to play in.

It began. The lights cut out. The side door thrown open. The light comes through. “What country, friend[s], is this?” grabbed our ears first and replaced the famed opening line, “If music be the food of love, play on.” Happily, the memorable verse surfaced later with melancholic, luted accompaniment. Sovereign Arts’ adaptation cleverly swapped the scenes, sharply prompting a heightened awareness of place. “What country is this?” became, “Where are we?” spotlighting the unique location and the one-off playing space. It also reminded us of the true foreignness of the room for the actors, who mastered the movements with only one day of blocking in this location.

Twelfth Night or What You Will, frequently called a play of words and one of several Shakespearean plays only experienced now thanks to its inclusion in the First Folio, provided an excellent choice for a production so close to the reveal of the digitized form of the Bodleian’s copy. The Friends of the Bodleian, who sponsored this performance, also helped to promote the Sprint for Shakespeare campaign. With a featured presence in the theatre programme, Sprint for Shakespeare was forefronted and, in sense, transferred onto the performance, making the audience acutely aware of the significance of the Folio in preserving Shakespeare’s play and enabling the production we were seeing and hearing.

Hey, ho, the wind and the rain.

The final words echoed, as the entire cast joined in Feste’s song. As I exited the School, I didn’t enter the foyer of a theatre, but the entrance to the old Bodleian, a collection of books and papers and texts used for centuries as a site of verbal discovery. Shakespeare’s play of words fit right in. And this night, twelfth or not, became a fusion of the literary and the performative in a place just perfect for the two.

Micah Coston
@micahcoston