Book Review: ‘Covering Shakespeare’ by David Weston

“Cymbeline is for the most part stagy trash of the lowest melodramatic order, in parts abominably written, throughout intellectually vulgar and, judged in point of thought by modern intellectual standards, foolish, offensive, indecent and exasperating beyond all tolerance” – George Bernard Shaw

This quote which David Weston uses to open his chapter in Cymbeline in Covering Shakespeare could well be a description of the ex-actor’s book itself.

Covering Shakespeare, written as a follow-up to 2011’s Covering McKellen, gives a play-by-play account of Weston’s various encounters with the plays of the Bard throughout his career, ordered in chronology of original performance. Each chapter is smartly split into two sections, ‘Tattle’ and ‘Memories’, which allow a discussion of theatrical gossip and Weston’s personal experiences respectively (my personal favourite is that of ‘The Duke of Buckingham Story’; “Leading actor staggers on stage with wig aslant and begins a much laboured rendering of ‘Now ish the w-inter of hour dis-con-tent…’ After a few lines someone shouts from the gallery: ‘You’re pissed.’ The actor looks up with a baleful eye and declares: ‘Wait until you see the Duke of fucking Buckingham!'”). Using this structure, Weston gives a good overview of the entire Shakespearean canon, which scholars, thesps and audiences alike are bound to find useful.

But the whole thing feels just a bit dirty. At every opportunity, Weston recounts a tale of an intimate encounter under a stage or a casual affair with a stage manager. Like a filthy-minded school-boy, he seems to pay more attention to breasts and bums than anything else, and in one rather uncomfortable passage describes how an actor playing Lady Percy (a “fad” he hates; “What on earth is wrong with being called an ‘actress’? It was good enough for Sarah Siddons, Edith Evans and Vivien Leigh”) took him to A&E after a nasty fall: “I lay throughout the journey with my head on her lap, like a stricken warrior, while she stroked my fevered brow, her inviting breasts bobbing a few inches from my chin, pouring yet more brandy down my grateful throat”. He never mentions her name.

Unsurprisingly, considering this Mills and Boon sexism, Weston is – self-professedly – a bit of an “old fart”. He struggles to see the merits of modern-dress Shakespeare, suggests that playing women with confidence as a young man is a reason to question said actor’s sexuality and spends half a page questioning Nick Hytner’s decision to cast a black actor as Henry VCovering Shakespeare feels, frequently, like a lament for the past and a long-winded moan about the contemporary way of doing things.

(This ‘old school’ is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, with David Rosenthal’s NT Story and Richard Eyre’s National Service in particular sating my thirst for theatrical gossip. I kind of hate to admit it, but I’m a sucker for a good thespy anecdote, and I know for a fact that I’m not the only one of my generation. The best stage stories are those which give us insight into a particular actor, theatre or paradigm, and to a greater or lesser extent they’re the life-blood of theatrical social events, with people trading stories like football stickers. But it is possible, I believe, to enjoy these tales whilst simultaneously being thankful we’ve moved on from those times. Sure, there are frequent horror stories even now, but I get the sense that over the past couple of decades there’s been a slight shift in temperament and outlook, though that could be because theatrical memoirs always give an air of drama which it’s not possible to capture in the present tense. Either way, I think we can agree that, though there are some aspects of theatre-going and -making which may have been ‘lost’ in the recent past, things are now – generally – ‘better’, whatever that may mean.)

Quite aside from differences Weston and I may have in opinion, however, he never really writes with much flair; I can quite happily read the bitchy and traditionalist memoirs of the ‘Golden Age’ thanks to a more enjoyable prose style, but here it trudges along like a badly-paced production of Antony and Cleopatra. Paragraphs frequently slip off on tangents hidden in strange clauses, the anecdotes are told with little poetry and phrases are repeated tirelessly (come on, “As is his wont” isn’t that good a phrase, David). And when he’s not waxing not-very-lyrical about the glory days of the sexual revolution, he’s going on and on about Trevor Nunn’s ability to give all his actors a journey through a play or nattering about some bloody bed bugs in a mansion.

Ironically, the most interesting aspect of Covering Shakespeare comes in the form of an appendix that wasn’t even written by Weston. Printed under the heading “Evenings with Shakspere” (and taken from a book by L.M. Griffiths) are tables of all the Bard’s plays split into scenes with line breakdowns for each, giving an extraordinary and comprehensive overview of the rhythms and structures of the Complete Works which will come in useful for any director, editor or scholar. Sat alongside Weston’s own brief round-up of Shakespeare’s life in a further appendix, you get fifty pages of pretty comprehensive reference material.

Alas, it doesn’t quite save an otherwise torpid and frustrating read which, though it stands as an interesting representative artefact of the ‘old guard’, is just too blue and banal too often to be anything other than awkward. There are a few gems hidden within all the whining and lamenting, but they’re about as regular as a properly good joke in Shakespeare. Throughout, I was never quite sure whether to feel sorry for Weston and his views or angry at him; like a grandparent, you know why he’s saying these sometimes appalling things, but that’s not quite enough to excuse them.

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