Why hello, inane Shakespeareana! Haven’t seen you in a while. Oh, it’s the Olympics coming up? That explains a lot.
It’s a bit unclear what exactly the point of the video — or the exhibition it’s advertising — might be, but it seems to have something to do with Shakespeare’s timelessness. At least that’s what the text appears to say, largely cobbled together as it is out of bits from Ben Jonson’s “To the Memory of My Beloved, the Author Mr William Shakespeare: And What He Hath Left Us” — although Jonson is, of course, invisible in the trailer (even as Shakespeare, rather remarkably, is inaudible).
What is visible makes no sense at all. “Sweet Swan of Avon” we hear, in breathy tones, and we see… a small troop of armoured soldiers, carrying Henry V’s colours, marching across the Wobbly Bridge (as if). Tate Modern in the background is blocked out by the martial display, and Jonson’s lines compete for air time with the ominous sound of soldierly footsteps on swaying metal.
From that we cut to Othello carrying Desdemona’s corpse through Piccadilly Circus (naturally), while the voice over enthuses “What a sight it were / To see thee in our waters yet appear.” We’ve now moved from the Swan of Avon as military hero to the poet as uxoricide and carrier-about of wifely remains (sort of like Vindice, I suppose). The camera lingers for a bit on Othello, as the text raves about the “Soul of the age / The applause, delight, the wonder of our stage!” — that final moment fittingly illustrated with a shot of husband and corpse outlined against the “I ♥ London” and TDK billboards.
Next we’re taken to a closed road, and as we hear “My Shakespeare, rise,” what rises instead is a distinctly out-of-it version of Lady Macbeth, here apparently not quite her efficient self but channelling her feckless husband in displaying to the world (or not — the road is, after all, closed) a pair of bloody daggers while staring dopefiendishly into the distance. Never mind — “thou art alive still,” we are told, and we can see Shakespeare’s continued life in a sped-up shot of cars (in Waterloo?).
Somehow, all of this seems to have something to do with Shakespeare’s “book,” which, the voice tells us, guarantees his life — though all we see is a rather wobbly Richard III, as dopey as Lady Macbeth, staggering, zombie-like, with his crown impaled on a dagger, towards an as-yet-undisclosed goal.
“Triumph,” the voice-over cheers, to the sight of two double-decker buses racing past (no bendy buses in this Shakespeare’s timeless London!); “my Britain, thou hast one to show, / To whom all scenes of Europe homage owe.” As we hear this, we’re taken inside a pub, where a melancholy and not-especially-fat Falstaff downs the dregs of a pint. What’s more timeless — bard or bitter?
And then, as the voice almost falters with excitement, we learn that “he was not of an age, but for all time” — a thought intriguingly paired with the image of Cleopatra’s hissing adders, about to kill.
At which point, the trailer finally reveals what this is all about: a British Museum exhibition about “Shakespeare’s World.” Which is where all those characters are heading (including a skull-carrier, presumably Hamlet — uncharacteristically remaining in the background). As dark clouds swirl threateningly overhead, a host of Shakespearean figures crowd up the front steps of the BM.
The exhibition is sponsored by BP, which might explain why the entire trailer looks like it’s coated in oil (and why motorized traffic plays such a central role in it). The sentiment, choking with bardolatry, is also more or less par for the course. But what really puzzles me is just how singularly inept the makers of this trailer are at capturing anything that may in fact be timeless about Shakespeare: they plonk a couple of figures in “Elizabethan” dress into modern settings, juxtapose them with a text that has nothing to do with them (or better, seems designed as an ironic commentary), run the entire affair through the shredder of 21st-century hyperkinetic editing, and it all adds up to precisely nothing. If anything, the trailer demonstrates that its four elements — 17th-century poetry, Shakespearean characters, contemporary London, and 21st-century video aesthetics — are totally at odds; that Shakespeare’s works, in and of themselves, aren’t timeless at all. Othello doesn’t belong in Piccadilly Circus. And to the extent that history is being transcended, the result is banal in the extreme: Falstaff chugging pints in a pub would be utterly unremarkable if it weren’t for his outfit.
As far as I can see, the trailer depressingly only demonstrates that Shakespeare, if you let him, can be stunningly irrelevant to modern life.
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- As You Like It (Shakespeare; dir. Polly Findlay), National Theatre, London, October 2015
- Medea (Euripides/Rachel Cusk; dir. Rupert Goold), Almeida, London, October 2015
- Hamlet (Shakespeare; dir. Lyndsey Turner), Barbican, London, October 2015
- Three Days in the Country (Turgenev/Marber, dir. Marber), National Theatre, London, October 2015
- Dear Globe and Mail,
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Holger Syme's work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.
Images may be reused as long as their source is properly attributed in accordance with the Creative Commons License detailed above. Many of the photos here were taken at the Folger Shakespeare Library; please consult their policy on digital images as well.