Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not only alive and well; they are tweeting. Their dispatches come from the current filming of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s recent production of Hamlet, starring David Tennant, due to be screened by the BBC later in the year. The location is semi-secret, for it seems there are no lengths to which Doctor Who fans will not go to catch a glimpse of their sprightly time-travelling master turn to more earthly existential matters.
On the RSC’s twitter site, there is lyricism and the odd glimpse of pathos as R and G, played by Sam Alexander and Keith Osbourne, come to grips with the filming schedule. “Up @ 6, sleep washed away with large mug of tea, bathe, dress, drive into the coolness of milky grey English morn 2 Elsinore,” reports Guildenstern. His friend dutifully chronicles the growth of his stubble for his scene as the second gravedigger. Both give the impression of alternating boredom and excitement, which sounds about right.
These are small and seemingly insignificant matters. Nearly 3,000 people follow the RSC’s tweets, which is not a large number relative to the company’s “proper” audience. But like all the country’s cultural institutions, the RSC has been quick to seize on the spread of a new medium. Its opportunism is well-placed. Dissemination is the keynote of culture in the 21st century. By coincidence, just as that message began to make itself felt from politicians, technology obliged with the perfect means to the end. Who knows where it will lead; but all must follow.
Theatre is not the easiest of art forms for the changed cultural landscape of quick jibes and short attention spans, compared, for example, with the visual arts, which playfully revel in their ephemeral and malleable nature. A three-hour Shakespeare play is a three-hour Shakespeare play. Yet the public appetite for gravitas, complexity and density is proving to be more voracious than ever.
Shakespeare, of course, never fails to inspire us in times of political intrigue. On BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasting House last weekend, Sam Troughton, the actor playing Brutus in the RSC’s current Julius Caesar, drew some powerful parallels between events on stage and in present-day Westminster. At the play’s performances in Stratford, there are knowing chuckles during Brutus’s disingenuous squirming as he plays off his opponents against each other, the audience recognising the contemporary resonance of the message.
In London, some of the hottest tickets in town are for the weightiest shows. The Old Vic’s Bridge Project, uniting actors from Britain and the US, brings us a Winter’s Tale that wrings every last drop of darkness from that play’s otherwise potentially farcical narrative. It is playing in conjunction with Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, while Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Tom Stoppard’s intellectually pyrotechnical Arcadia wow rapt audiences up the road. The next time someone tells you that the West End is full of nothing but Hollywood actors slumming it and crappy musicals, point them in the direction of an up-to-date theatre guide. And as for those insolent film stars: they surely don’t mean the excellent Ethan Hawke, among the most charismatic of The Bridge Project’s distinguished cast.
Putting the masterly ways of Chekhov and Ibsen aside, what Shakespeare and Stoppard both show, in their own ways, is that which is unique about British theatre: an ability to combine rigorous intellectual thought with subversive humour that makes for truly multi-dimensional entertainment.
Britain after all is the country that saw thousands of non-privileged people, Shakespeare’s “groundlings”, queuing on the south bank of the Thames to see Hamlet. No matter that today they queue for We Will Rock You; the important thing is that they continue to queue for Hamlet too. It is, in the best sense, a popular tradition that continues to flourish.
British theatres are beginning to recognise the excellence of their brand. The National Theatre’s Phèdre, which opened on Thursday night, is soon to be screened live in cinemas throughout the country. Thanks to sponsorship from Travelex, it has been possible to extend the scheme internationally. So far, 170 cinemas worldwide have taken up the offer. That means that a 17th-century tragedy by a French playwright will be beamed live from the London stage to countries such as Estonia, Romania, Iceland and the Czech Republic.
This is a yet more remarkable example of dissemination than the thespians’ tweets that travel down the information highways. But it has not been achieved at the expense of substance. Anything but.
When I saw Arcadia last week, I noticed at the interval two Greek middle-aged ladies who were clearly bewildered. Since I speak their language, I rudely eavesdropped. They were struggling with it, they said, but there was “something there”. They stayed for the second half. At the end, they were no less confused. Yet, one of them said, some penny had dropped in the final scenes. “It is all about time,” she said. “Chronos,” she kept repeating.
In an age of cheap entertainment, we all feel the urge occasionally to struggle to understand things. Never overestimate an audience, runs the cynical impresario’s guide to quick money-making. But culture only thrives by never underestimating it.