Happy birthday Shakespeare: a pandemical celebration

Hunter Cardinal in Hamlet, Freewill Shakespeare Festival, 2018. Photo by Ryan Parker.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” — Hamlet

No one ever said he was a repository of positive thinking, but for self-help in times of self-isolation, Hamlet was on to something. The big day, Shakespeare’s 456th birthday, is Thursday. And, alas, it arrives with you bounded in a nutshell, alone in a sea of cancellations, postponements, Zoom-laden simulations.

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Much has been made of how much Shakespeare got done in plague years when the theatres were shut down, and the world’s greatest playwright was at home and presumably wearing sweatpants not doublet-and-hose. In 1592 he wrote great big hit poems like Venus and Adonis. In 1606, there was King Lear and probably Macbeth, with Anthony and Cleopatra as a topper. True, he didn’t have to worry about feeding his sourdough starter or learning to use the subjunctive in Spanish. But still….

Edmonton’s Freewill Shakespeare Festival, incidentally, celebrates by appointing a new artistic director (Dave Horak, check out his plans here) — and promising to return next summer with this summer’s pair of alternating plays (Much Ado About Nothing and Macbeth).

The Folger Library’s suggestion of DIY Shakespeare at home — “speak the speech” or “strike a pose” or “make a picture,” and then #ShareYourShakespeare, might just be too terrible to contemplate. (I shudder to remember my worst-ever idea on the theatre beat, a contest that invited readers to send in their own versions of Macbeth’s “sound and fury” speech. What was I thinking?). But in honour of their resident playwright, some of the world’s great theatre companies, with a demonstrable expertise in HD, have stepped up for April 23 by culling from their catalogues of great productions with free screenings.

The National Theatre in London continues its marvellous weekly Thursday night dip into a great archive (the National Theatre at Home) with Twelfth Night, a gender-fluid 2017 production directed by Simon Godwin (available from noon, if you’re up for a matinee).

The Stratford Festival here in Canada is streaming the towering Colm Feore King Lear of 2014, directed by Antoni Cimolina Thursday on YouTube, starting at 5 p.m. The tragedy seems newly minted for the moment — not least, incidentally, because its world is infiltrated by toxins. Lear himself speaks of  “the plagues that hang in this pendulous air.”

Shakespeare’s Globe, on location in London, is offering its 2009 production of Romeo and Juliet on YouTube for a couple of weeks. Ah, there’s a tragedy whose very story depends on an outbreak of the plague; it’s why Romeo doesn’t receive the letter detailing the Friar’s plan for Juliet to fake her own death.

The Royal Shakespeare Company – 18 of their stellar productions, including David Tennant, who’s a marvellously maddening and well-spoken Richard II, are available on Marquee TV. You can subscribe for a 14-day free trial.

The Donmar Warehouse in London, has its Shakespeare Trilogy, Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female trio of Shakespeares, set in a women’s prison — Julius Caesar, Henry IV, The Tempest  on Marquee TV as well. This sounds impossibly artificial, I know, but Harriet Walter is riveting.



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