Shakespeare celebrated in film
Four hundred years after the bard's death, Shakespeare’s Globe has filmed all 37 plays ‘on location’, from fair Verona to filthy London. FT theatre critic Sarah Hemming talks to artistic director Dominic Dromgoole about poetry and place
Produced by Griselda Murray Brown. Filmed & edited by Richard Topping.
SARAH HEMMING: Shakespeare spent half his life in London and wrote all his plays here. They were performed next to the River Thames in an area packed with taverns, brothels, and theatres. This is what remains of the Rose Playhouse, where Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe presented their work. The red lights out the stage and the pit where the groundlings stood. These are the people who heard Shakespeare's words for the first time.
The original Globe Playhouse stood opposite. And next door is Bear Gardens, once home to an amphitheatre for bear- and bull-baiting. And this is the reconstructed Globe Theatre. To mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death this month, the Globe has commissioned a series of short films based on his plays. They will be screened all along the river bank in a project called The Complete Walk.
Each film is shot where the play is set, from filthy London to fair Verona, and they make rich connections between poetry and place.
- To what service am I sent for hither?
- The resignation of thy state and crown to Henry Bolingbroke.
- Here, cousin, seize the crown. On this side, my hand, and on that side, yours. Now is this golden crown like a deep well that owes two buckets, filling one another, the emptier ever dancing in the air, the other down, unseen and full of water.
- I thought you had been willing to resign.
- My crown I am. But still my griefs are mine.
- Are you contented to resign the crown?
- Aye. No! No. Aye.
DOMINIC DROMGOOLE: As far as we know, Shakespeare didn't travel very far. There's a sort of opaque period in the 1580s where he disappears out of documented site, and we don't know where he went during that time. But I think we can be fairly certain he didn't go to everywhere he wrote about.
But I think what everyone forgets is that London was a thoroughly cosmopolitan city, that there were lots of travellers here, and that the best way of information about places or people or history or geography moving is through speech and through conversation. His own company of actors around him had worked a lot on the continent. The English theatrical scene was thoroughly Europeanised and plays came from London, which was like the Hollywood of its day-- it was a sort of play factory-- and shot out around Northern Europe and all across Europe in English.
Then beyond that there was all the writing that he absorbed, like the sort of unbelievable sponge that he was. And there's a lot of visual material. There's a lot of visual material from former woodcuts or frontispieces or paintings or tapestries of Athens of Vienna or Rome, whatever.
SARAH HEMMING: So he took these descriptions and then re-imagined them on to the stage for his audiences. Did going to the actual locations themselves shed any new light for you on the plays?
DOMINIC DROMGOOLE: It sort of just a further concoction. It's a further level of taking his imagination to it, in a way. If you take his idea of what Athens is, which is very much about what his idea of London was and how venal, how corrupt and how easily attacked with satire London was, and then he sort of transposed that to Athens.
But he also had a sense of great literature. And if you plonk those speeches and you put it in front of the Acropolis, it's resonant, and it clashes and it conforms, and it concocts something strange and new. Because if you pan around behind Simon [INAUDIBLE] Timon of Athens, and you've got there the whole of modern Athens splayed out in front of you, and it's a long speech about the inequity of money and the inequity of capitalism and how money distorts nature, it creates a whole collection of new thoughts.
- Let me look back upon thee. Oh, thou wall that girdles in those wolves, dive in the earth and fence not Athens. Matrons, turn incontinent. Obedience, fail in children.
Slaves and fools, pluck the grave-wrinkled senate from the bench and minister in their steads. The general filths convert o' the instant green virginity, do it in your parents' eyes.
SARAH HEMMING: Well, Shakespeare had this brilliant ability to get an audience to imagine a place, to see in their mind's eye. So when it comes to filming it on location, what does that add? Or does it even reduce the experience for them?
DOMINIC DROMGOOLE: No, I don't think it reduces it all. I think it's one of an infinity of different ways of doing or experiencing Shakespeare. And thankfully, he's a great big, broad umbrella that will include everything.
Just the place in itself does give you a little bit of extra insight, most particularly with Lear and Cordelia, just escape. They talk about France. Am I in my country or in France? And you're on the cliff of Dover and France is there. And you sort of forget about that because you think that Dover is a wall.
But Dover was a very permeable wall and, moving backwards and forwards, has for several millennia been terribly easy. And so when he gets to Dover, the possibility of escaping this appalling, collapsing, anarchic, disintegrating kingdom is really, really close.
- Down from the waist they are centaurs. They're woman all above. But to the girdle to the gods inherit, beneath is all all the fiends'. There's hell! There's darkness! There's the sulfury pit, burning, scalding, stench, consumption. Fie! Fie! Fie! Pah! Pah!
SARAH HEMMING: It's been 400 years since Shakespeare died, and his plays are still with us. We're still doing them. Do you hope that this Complete Walk will bring more people to enjoy his work?
DOMINIC DROMGOOLE: Oh, god, yeah. Yes, these are tasters. They're all no longer than 10 minutes. And they're a collection of small essences from the plays. They're just to intrigue and to provoke and to excite and get people to delve further.
It's lovely. And I think-- I hope that also they'll have a life online and a life virtually. And in this day and age of concentrated and abbreviated attention spans, they'll be a way of introducing people to Shakespeare's work and to intrigue them and provoke them to look more and further. We haven't scratched the surface of what Shakespeare can do in the world or how far he can go in the world or how many different people he can talk to.
- The first time that we smell the air, we wail and cry. I will preach to thee, mark. When we are born, we cry. And we are coming to this great stage of fools.