SHAKESPEARE ON THEATRE: On Theatre Series
Ed: Nick de Somogyi
Nick Hern Books
Pub: 2012. ISBN: 978 1 84842 079
Cover price: 10.99
Review: Rod Dungate, 06 06 12
It’s size is bigger than the sum of its parts.
This remarkable little book is one of two that begin a new series for Nick Hern Books – the On Theatre Series. As NHB describes the series ‘ What the world’s greatest dramatists had to say about theatre in their own words.’
So, one expects editor Nick de Somogyi’s book will be a nice little dip-into read – a collection of neat things we can quote from Bill and make ourselves sound clever. But the high quality of NHBs is maintained here, with a vengeance. Somogyi’s incredibly well-informed compilation is more of a thesis on Renaissance English theatre.
Somogyi examines all aspects of theatre – audience, buildings, acting, line-learning, nothing, it seems, is left out. Using Shakespeare and his contemporary writers and theatre-goers, he explains how it was and then demonstrates with many extracts how Shakespeare absorbed these processes and uses them to extend meaning in his plays.
For instance, Somogyi explains how the rapid turn-over of plays and the actors’ constant need to rapidly learn lines, must have meant that drying (forgetting lines) must have been a not-unknown occurrence. He then draws our attention to Shakespeare’s use of this in the delightful scene with Moth in Love’s Labours Lost. And we now see this scene in a new light.
There are sections devoted to areas of stage-craft you’ve probably never even thought of . . . beards for instance. Somogyi quotes inventories from The Globe from 1550 which indicate four ready-made beards and from 1605 which indicate three. But best reminds us of Bottom’s list in Midsummer Night’s Dream: ‘I will discharge it in either your straw-colour beard – your orange-tawny beard – your purple-in-grain beard – your French-crown-colour beard, your perfect yellow.’ Clearly Bottom, a regular theatre-goer, had a penchant for property beards.
And have you ever wondered why it’s called dressing-up? Somogyi suggests a reason.
My favourite quote of all, though, is not from Shakespeare but from Webster, on audiences and actors: ‘Sit in a full theatre and you will think you see so many lines drawn from the circumference of so many ears, while the actor is in the centre.’ How beautiful is that?