TV Review: Shakespeare Live, Royal Shakespeare Theatre


“I am a spirit of no common rate”

The culmination of the BBC’s celebration of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death was the 2 and a half hours of Shakespeare Live, a veritable landslide of multidisciplinary performances of and responses to his work. From theatre to opera, jazz to ballet, hip-hop to musicals, the enormous scope of his influence was showcased in a very well put together (royal) variety show (Charles and Camilla were in attendance) at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and hosted by David Tennant and Catherine Tate.

And like anything with variety, a selection box or tub of Quality Street, there are the ones you love, the ones you can tolerate and the ones that you really don’t care for (the Bounty, or the purple hazelnutty one). And I have to say as impressive as they were, the dance, jazz and opera sections really didn’t do it for me whether Berlioz or Duke Ellington. I was predictably much more interested in the theatrical side of things, particularly as such an august cast of performers was in the offing along with the thrilling thought of a Dench and McKellen reunion.

There were of course moments of brilliance, some recalling previous productions and others tempting the possibilities of the future. Who now doesn’t want to see Anne-Marie Duff and Rory Kinnear do Macbeth, or Roger Allam’s King Lear. And as pleased as I was to be reminded of Dame Judi Dench’s flirtatious Titania, Alexandra Gilbreath’s glorious Olivia and Meera Syal’s melancholy Beatrice (though sad to be reminded of the untimely passing of her Benedick, Paul Bhattacharjee), there was even more pleasure in seeing the likes of Harriet Walter’s Cleopatra and Henry Goodman’s ‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare’, classic performances I have not seen before.

A comic highlight was the Hamlet sketch, current Hamlet Paapa Essiedu arriving onstage to deliver ‘To be or not to be’ only to be interrupted by a series of well-meaning folk with notes. That those people were Tim Minchin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Harriet Walter, David Tennant, Rory Kinnear, Ian McKellen, Dame Judi Dench, and then Prince Charles made it a memorable moment indeed, transformed into a superlative one by Essiedu then re-composing himself to deliver a stunning rendition of the speech. How that Hamlet isn’t transferring to London I do not know.

Personally I wasn’t much of a fan of the Joseph Fiennes-narrated historical video clips, though I appreciate they were probably needed to cover set changes, but the musical interludes were lovely, Alison Moyet, The Shires and Ian Bostridge standing out for me. I could have done without an extended look at Antony Sher’s Falstaff too, though again I appreciate that he is part of the package deal these days, I took that opportunity to refresh my gin and bitter lemon. 

The majority of the finale was excellent though, Ian McKellen’s speech from Sir Thomas More, making the argument for the humane treatment of those forced to seek asylum; Helen Mirren reprising her Prospera all too briefly, and David Suchet joining Dench as her Oberon. Yes, it would have been nice to see a little more adventure in the casting – Harriet Walter’s ‘not yet’ in response to being asked whether she’d played the Dane was cute but telling – though perhaps this wasn’t the time or place. A varied celebration of varying strengths then.

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