Looking back at the World Shakespeare Festival: Part Three

What varieties of artistic collaboration emerged during this Year of Shakespeare and what kinds of artistic, civic, and/or ethical implications might they hold?

I’ve already spoken about the ‘collaborations’ between the Globe Theatre and international companies and the ethical implications they may hold, so this entry will look more specifically at collaborations between British companies and artists.

A good place to start here is the BBC’s Hollow Crown series, one of the most high-profile productions of the World Shakespeare Festival. What’s interesting here specifically is the way in which the season was put together. Four of Britain’s most high-profile directors collaborated on the piece (Rupert Goold, Richard Eyre, Thea Sharrock and Sam Mendes as producer), and the endeavor was, as already mentioned, funded by the BBC. So there are two types of collaboration here: artistic and financial.

In the first instance, the absence of any real kind of overarching aim should be noted. True, the four plays are narratively and thematically linked, and clearly effort was made to make them aesthetically similar if not identical, but there are many imperfections. Take Tom Hiddleston’s Hal; in the two parts of Henry IV, he’s presented as a rebel, complete with leather jacket and cheeky grin, but in Henry V his thoughtful, heroic King seems to be a different character altogether with little in common with his former self. The decision to use some of the same cast in the latter three plays but begin with a completely different ensemble in Richard II suggests the first is seen as an entirely separate entity. There seems, then, to have been executive artistic decisions being made at a higher level to the three directors, and little attempt to find cohesion between each of the films. The result then, is a jumbled one, for though the four parts look similar, that’s where the collaboration ends, leaving them feeling disjointed and incohesive.

Where the money came from suggests another kind of collaboration; that between the BBC and the British public. The History plays can often be seen, if not as a cruel, at least an honest look at the monarchy. The constantly warring factions and immature attempts at power hardly portray Britain’s royal heritage in a kind light. Nonetheless, the BBC, the monarchy and Shakespeare are all now British institutions and can be seen as conservative in some cases (though not always, I hasten to add), and all three were spoken of highly over the summer. The BBC’s remit is to represent “the UK, its nations, regions and communities”, but in essence what the Hollow Crown films did was to represent our aristocracy in a positive, heroic light, making them palatable for the summer of Brand Britain, where Shakespeare wrote far more nuanced and human characters. A silent pact was made between the BBC and the British public not to question Queen and country this summer, and this is implicit in the way in which the royal family is portrayed in the Hollow Crown season.

Another large-scale institution to collaborate with the British public was the RSC, through their RSC Open Stages project (not directly linked to the World Shakespeare Festival but receiving significant coverage because of it). The idea behind the scheme is to “bring professional and amateur theatre makers together”, through a sharing of skills and ideas, though to the best of my knowledge little money changed hands. Of course, theatre doesn’t need money to be great, but when all a big company does to support an amateur show is to play them a few videos and give them a logo, one has to wonder just how much ego is present and how much those involved are capitalizing on prestige. One of the most prestigious RSC Open Stages productions, Will Tuckett’s West Side Story in Newcastle, was referred to as “the RSC’s West Side Story” in a few contexts, demonstrating that for many all that mattered was the name of the RSC. This is problematic not merely because of the confusion about origin, but also because this takes away credit from the communities and companies creating these shows, as the RSC takes precedence and the individuals involved have to overcome this pressure. The national becomes more important than the local.

It’s easy to criticise when you haven’t been directly involved, and I know here I’m being nit-picky (and some of my arguments don’t really hold water), but these things are worth thinking about. I’m not complaining for a second that these productions and collaborations exist, either; they’ve done a lot to add to public understanding of Shakespeare and have given incredible opportunities to thousands of people. The question at the top of this post is a multi-layered, far-reaching one, and I haven’t even begin to answer it. Nevertheless, thinking about the implications which the World Shakespeare Festival has on our wider cultural discourse is important, as is considering what the underlying dogmas are which some of these collaborations bolster.

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