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Strange but true

Last updated 11 May 2008, created 10 November 1995, viewed 791

William Shakespeare, By Andrew Gurr, Collins Pounds 9.99. 0 00 470897 0

The Shakespeare Library, By Wendy Greenhill. Romeo and Juliet. 0 431 07553 0, Julius Caesar. 0 431 07552 2. A Midsummer Night's Dream. 0 431 07551 4. Shakespeare's Theatre, 0 431 07550 6. Heinemann Pounds 8.50 each. Pack More…of 4 Pounds 32 Age range 11 plus

Rex Gibson welcomes a new life of Shakespeare and a timely introduction to the plays. Eight years ago in the now sadly dark Half Moon Theatre in London's Mile End Road, a joyously unusual production combined Macbeth with the Marx Brothers. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth were played with utter seriousness. All around them hilarious confusion reigned as Harpo, Chico and Groucho played the witches and virtually everybody else, producing flying daggers, drenching characters in blood, stage-managing every event.

It is with the same feelings of surprised delight that I applaud Andrew Gurr's William Shakespeare. Never have author and publisher been so productively mis-matched. Professor Gurr provides an attractively written, carefully evidenced account of Shakespeare's life. Someone at the publishers (surely Harpo Collins) has had the idea, simultaneously rum and inspired, of illustrating Gurr's text with "300 stunning photographs" of Shakespeare's life.

Gurr and his publisher make wonderfully strange bedfellows. "The Extraordinary Life of the most successful writer of all time", blares Harpo's subtitle. "The very ordinariness of Shakespeare's upbringing, his plain home and much of his working life", writes Gurr.

"Every page reveals new aspects of Shakespeare the man" tootles the blurb. Gurr's cautious style reveals the truth about what is really known about William Shakespeare: "we cannot tell", "we do not know", "almost nothing is known", "even more elusive", "it is difficult to know", "many theories and suggestions have been offered", "nothing exists to explain", "apparently unsolvable puzzle".

What Gurr richly provides are detailed and documented accounts of life in Shakespeare's England: the bustle of Stratford-upon-Avon and London, conditions at the Globe, the energy and complexity of life in acting companies and the Court. Around Gurr's admirable text the publisher wraps beguiling colour photographs depicting William Shakespeare with strikingly precise clarity. Here's the young Will neatly posed at home, at school, in the family shop. Here's William romping naked in the hay with Anne Hathaway, travelling with a company of touring players, writing a play and a sonnet (a few lines blotted), rehearsing the Kings Men, emerging threateningly through a trapdoor in the Globe stage as the ghost of Hamlet's father. Last scene of all, here he is dead, with pennies on his eyes.

There are photographs of many of his contemporaries: Burbage, Alleyn, Jonson, Southampton, Queen Elizabeth. There's even a photograph of the Dark Lady of the Sonnets playing the virginals. Who was she? The evidence for any candidate is "pretty flimsy" says Gurr.

Gurr's contribution concludes with useful play summaries (inexplicably denying the existence of Prince Henry in King John). But Harpo's hand is still clearly at work in the closing pages, seeking to reach readers far beyond Shakespeare's homeland. We are told that all the photographs were taken "in that part of England known as East Anglia"; that the year the Sonnets were published marked the "beginning of Tokogawa Shogunate in Japan"; and that Hamlet coincided with the "Oyo Empire in Africa at height of power".

Such diverting hokum deserves the warmest welcome as a contribution to the entertaining zaniness that Shakespeare publishing has always encouraged. It is truly Shakespearean in its mixture of matter and impertinency. As Harpo Collins plays the Fool to Andrew Gurr's Lear, the final blurb claims: "this is the book that will make William Shakespeare and his work live, breath and amaze - before your very eyes!". I loved it.

A similar warm welcome to Wendy Greenhill's Shakespeare Library series. Each 32 page book conveys a wealth of information in a lively and appealing manner.

The series' special strength lies in the fascinating detail provided on staging the plays. Changes in production styles are charted, together with directors' and actors' perspectives. There are excellent photographs showing a wide variety of styles in which each play has been performed.

That respect for variety is echoed in Wendy Greenhill's sensitivity to the choices that actors must make. What emphasis might Antony give his repeated "honourable man" lines: "Does he sound bitter, sarcastic, angry, puzzled, full of grief?"

My only puzzle with this timely publication is whether a book of 32 pages really needs the index provided. Personally, I would prefer yet another picture to further exemplify the series' evident credo that there are many valid ways of performing Shakespeare.

Rex Gibson is director of the Shakespeare and Schools Project.

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