Jacobi’s Lear: a heartbreaking vision

Guest blogger, Angela Cartwright, writes…

Like many, no doubt, I find myself drawn to dramatic productions of King Lear. It’s not so much that I yearn for something new and fresh (after all, the text off the page in any interpretation is bound to entertain), but there’s always the possibility that this might occur. Not necessarily throughout an entire production but somewhere.

And in this regards, Sir Derek Jacobi’s performance as Lear in Michael Grandage’s 2010 production for the Donmar Warehouse did not disappoint. For me, there was one moment in particular that was simply unforgettable.

It’s all too familiar: the storm is heard brewing at the end of Act II and it then forms the backdrop for Act III. And it is usually such a dominating feature that it can be quite difficult to hear the speeches clearly above the cataclysmic racket. Certainly, I’ve seen many productions where Lear has personified the storm by shouting and blustering his way through the well-known speech: “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!”

But not this production and not Jacobi.

Instead, the sound of the storm fell away dramatically and the audience seemed entirely still as well as silent as the world of Lear assumed a hushed and altogether disturbing atmosphere. And only then did Jacobi begin. His delivery of this speech was absolutely spellbinding and also quite frightening. Rather than opting for an outward display of rage, Jacobi’s Lear quietly internalized the metaphoric storm and in this way offered a harrowing glimpse into the devastating effects of an ailing mind.
Never before had I been so confronted and affected by the pitiable spectacle of this king – this man – losing his 5 wits and much, much more besides. And as a consequence, tears – hitherto unbidden so early in the play – were called forth and shed, because of the rather surprising and overwhelming pathos generated by this heartbreaking vision.

I’ve wondered whether this interpretation — and perhaps also my response to it — was informed by the reality our aging society and its increasing demands on an ailing health system. There may well be something in that but, that being said, the truth of the matter is that the play itself accommodated this interpretation. And to my mind, the fact that this play could deliver something so seemingly modern and breathtakingly real — after so many centuries and countless productions — is more than enough proof of its brilliance.

Angela Cartwright

Shakespeare, or Something Like It

Guest blogger, Sarah Leeves, writes…

Learning a foreign language is quite an achievement. To be honest, I could never get my head around French, let alone why the chair was feminine and the floor was masculine, or whatever. This is how some people, including my Dad, feel about Shakespeare.

“It’s just a load of arty nonsense,” says Dad. “Why not say exactly what you mean? To the point. It’s just too posh.”

So a few plays, written for “the common people” by a “common” man and performed to the masses as a primitive form of TV is too posh…go figure! But that is the problem, people think Shakespeare is too posh and the language is foreign.

Now don’t get me wrong, Othello isn’t an easy read. I’ve stumbled over “I kiss’d thee ere I killed thee, no way but this; / Killing myself, to die upon a kiss” (V, ii) countless times; first off, there are too many “e”s for me to cope with. But I enjoy reading it – a play written hundreds of years ago that STILL has relevance today – not that we all settle arguments with rapiers nowadays, but that segregation and prejudice are still problems. STILL. And apparently society has progressed…?

For GCSE, I directed A Midsummer Night’s Dream with a Bollywood backdrop and a brilliant modern soundtrack. The performance was choreographed with familiar dance routines and the costumes were plush and Eastern. I got an A (thank you). The school and the audience loved it. Why? Because it was relevant and relatable (SPOILER: in actual fact, I didn’t change any of the language or the scenarios, I just changed the costume and the scenery). Audiences love familiarity and when something is alien to them, the language for example, they quickly panic, switch off and go back to Eastenders. With my piece, the audience loved the costumes and the recognizable music so they were immediately hooked. That meant the script worked its magic and enchanted without them even noticing. Fab.

What I’m trying to say, granted in a round-about way, is that Shakespeare is for everyone; it’s clever, relevant and accessible. Once you break down the language “barrier”, it’s plain sailing. It’s only a barrier if you let it be so, like deciding not to go to the gym because it’s raining (put a coat on and just do it). The same can be said for Shakespeare, minus the coat: make a cup of tea, sit down and actually READ IT. Slowly. Maybe I should take my own advice and give French another go…

So to conclude, Shakespeare is as much for today as it was many years ago. If Gnomeo and Juliet has taught me anything other than gardens are magical places, it’s that people secretly love Shakespeare – they just won’t admit it.

Sarah Leeves

This candle burns not clear

Andrew Honey, one of the Bodleian’s conservators who worked on the First Folio, writes…

This candle burns not clear: ’tis I must snuff it

Henry VIII, III, ii

Andrew Honey and Sarah Wheale study First Folios

Andrew Honey and Sarah Wheale study First Folios

Recent attention has rightly focused on the ‘Bodleian’ copy of the First Folio (Arch. G c.7) but some final checks of the catalogue records, in advance of the images being published, gave me the chance to see the Bodleian’s other copy – the ‘Malone’ (Arch. G c.8). I spent two memorable mornings with Sarah Wheale and Pip Willcox collating the two copies. This involved a leaf-by-leaf comparison of them against each other and against the published descriptions, checking for anomalies and differences.

If the Bodleian copy stands as witness to the early reception of the plays, then the Malone copy marks the start of modern Shakespearean textual scholarship. It belonged to Edmond Malone (1741–1812), the editor of Shakespeare whose unprecedented documentary and textual research led him to consult the early quartos and folios of the plays more thoroughly than any scholar before him in order to establish an authoritative text.

At first sight Malone’s copy, clad in a late eighteenth-century binding that he commissioned, looks more pristine than the well-thumbed but carefully preserved Bodleian copy. Closer examination, however, reveals a greater degree of repair and ‘improvement’. The repairs seem to have been carried out as part of the binding process and some pages are now discoloured in places – probably the result of the partial rinsing (with new bleaching agents that were just starting to be used in this period) to remove blots and annotations from books.

The book has other more mysterious marks which seem to be later than the rebinding.  As we carefully worked though the volume burn holes were spotted in places and groups of round stains could be seen. Surely these cannot have happened after the book entered the Bodleian in 1815, where all readers and staff solemnly swear an oath that they will not “kindle therein any fire or flame” – could they have been caused by Edmond Malone’s nighttime reading?

Unfortunately Edmond Malone did not live to see the ‘snuffless’ candles that emerged in the 1820s with plaited wicks: his nighttime reading would have required constant tending of his candle. Maureen Dillon in her illuminating Artificial Sunshine: a social history of domestic lighting (London: National Trust, 2002) explains that “the best-quality tallow candles could last for at least twenty minutes before snuffing, while the cheapest tallow candles, if a decent flame was to be kept and guttering avoided, needed snuffing every few minutes”.

The burn marks in the Malone copy are small, and appear to be caused by small embers falling onto the opened book and lying there momentarily before being extinguished. Other burn holes, decreasing in size, are found in the leaves underneath the first hole but are not found on the leaves facing the largest hole.

The yellowish round stains have the appearance of wax or tallow and fall as circular spots which have made the paper translucent in places. Could this be evidence of Malone’s distracted management of tallow candles whilst he read? The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography records that he seriously damaged his eye-sight by combing through the corporation archives at Stratford by dim candle-light; his First Folio would seem to suggest that he read it on occasion under similarly difficult lighting conditions.

Andrew Honey (with thanks to Abigail Williams)