Book review entries

September 12, 2008

The RSC Shakespeare: Individual editions

Title:
Rating:
4 out of 5 stars

Last week, on 5th September, the first five single editions of the RSC Shakespeare were released onto the nation's bookshelves. As I was at the Courtyard Theatre that night, who happened to be doing a cheapie offer if you bought all five together, I picked them up and have been flicking through them on the side, starting with A Midsummer Night's Dream.

The RSC Complete Works of Shakespeare is an important project, closely related to mine - in effect, the new edition of the Apocrypha will serve as a companion to the canonical Complete Works. Therefore the team are following a similar process, and the edition will likely be structured in a similar manner. In that sense, having a good familiarity with both the collected and individual editions of the main project can only be helpful, even though I'm not working on the new edition itself.

While the Big Yellow Book (as I'll now refer to the Complete Works volume) is an excellent edition with lots of plus points (unlike the Norton, for example, it's not made of toilet roll so you can make notes), there's one notable deficiency. Despite being an 'RSC' edition, the wisdom and experience of the RSC is not particularly in evidence. There's a cursory foreword from the Artistic Director, Michael Boyd, and some lovely production images at the front of the book, but little else. This is where the single editions come in, and I'll focus on Dream as the only one I've finished reading.

The book itself is extremely light and relatively thin, about half the thickness of the last Arden edition of the play, which is an immediate plus point for my purposes as what I lack is a decent, portable reading edition. The text itself is perfect for this use - clear, bright, space for notes. Speech headings are given in full and, mercifully, in CAPITAL BOLD LETTERS. These may sound like trivial details, but it's surprising how few editions take these simple measures to guide a reader's eyes. It's essentially the same text as in the BYB, but obviously infinitely less cumbersome. It doesn't offer collations or particularly extensive footnotes (which I'll still be using the Arden for), but there is an on-page glossary with brief explanatory notes that, again, serves to assist with straightforward reading of the text.

My main motivation for buying any new edition is the strength of the supporting materials, and this Dream offers an interesting selection. Jonathan Bate's introduction comes, naturally, first. The size of the edition is primarily down to the relevant brevity of this section - as opposed to the now 100-page-plus essays in the Arden critical editions, Bate's runs to 9.5 pages - far shorter than a normal academic edition, but generous for a general-public edition. If you've got the BYB, you should note that the first half of the introduction is identical to the one found there. However, it's top quality, an interesting and informative brief that covers the play's important themes and explains, in a nutshell, why it's worth reading and seeing. While of course it can't hope to be nearly as thorough as a full-length critical introduction, I actually gleaned quite a lot from it, details which I've either missed or have been pushed out of my head in the trawl through exhaustive readings. There's then the obligatory note on the layout of the text and a reprise of the interesting'Key Facts' section found in the BYB that lists the parts in size order and so on.

Of more interest is the performance section at the back of the book, which is where the RSC connection finally comes in. Firstly, a scene-by-scene analysis gives a synopsis (with some additional interpretation). This is followed by sections on the performance of Dream - firstly in a general overview, and then specifically at the RSC. These sections were simultaneously one of the edition's biggest strengths but also frustrations. The content was fine and interesting, particularly giving an excellent account of the changing attitudes towards the Dream from the Victorian pictorial landscapes (with live rabbits!) through the seminal RSC stagings by Peter Brook and others to the darkly sexual productions of recent years. However, these sections were let down by their structure. They moved freely back and forth between stage and film, present and past, with no real sense of direction - they appeared to pick and choose whatever moments they wanted to talk about at any given time and go directly to them. This left me floundering somewhat in a colourful and fascinating world of Dream images with plenty of detail, but little sense of the big picture. Keeping to the chronological proceedings which the overview began with would have greatly strengthened these sections, or more clearly defining the method which dictated the back-and-forth style.

The edition's most shocking omission also played a factor in this - where, oh where, was a list of important productions? One can't hope to list everything, of course, but surely an ordered list of the ones discussed, and then an exhaustive list of RSC productions (or again, even just the ones discussed) would have done fine. It would have allowed the performance histories to roam freely in the knowledge that the reader could consult the list and contextualise the reading accordingly. Considering that this is an RSC edition, I was just surprised that such an obvious resource, that surely would have been of interest to the intended readership, wasn't available.

The performance section concluded with the most exciting section: interviews with three previous directors of the play: Michael Boyd, Gregory Doran and Tim Supple. Having seen the productions by the last two, this discussion was of particular in interest to me, and this was happily the fullest and most developed section of the book. Structured as a series of set questions which the three each answered (Blind Date-style!), listening to the directors discussing their work was utterly fascinating, particularly when the three absolutely disagreed with each other (e.g. Boyd considering Puck to be an awful stage manager, while Doran and Supple both made his skill an essential part of their productions). The tone was pitched perfectly between anecdotal and academic, providing accessible discussion that fully utilised the resources of the RSC. Absolutely inspired. The format could be developed a bit further - the three were interviewed separately, and it would have been extremely interesting (if impractical) to hear them respond to one another. The set-question format also meant there were a couple of awkward moments where a question had effectively been answered earlier under another heading, which didn't particularly detract but looked odd on the page. Nonetheless, this section really realised the potential of releasing a literary text under the auspices of a theatre company, and was an extremely pleasurable read. I'll be doing director interviews myself for the apocrypha, and this has already given me some useful ideas.

The edition wrapped up with Bate giving a useful (and reasonably long) introduction to the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre with some interesting observations on how the nature of the playhouse affected the writing of the plays, and closed with a list of further reading and DVD versions of the play (still no stage listing!) as well as a chronology of Shakespeare's works (which places Arden of Faversham as possibly Shakespeare's earliest play, interestingly).

For the theatregoer or the casual Shakespeare enthusiast, this is the perfect edition of Shakespeare, clear and light enough to enjoy reading with enough supplementary materials, at an accessible level, to enhance enjoyment of the play. For the academic, this edition won't replace the more established critical versions, but offers an extremely useful accompaniment. Its greatest strength will be in promoting to the academic community the importance and usefulness of consulting theatre practitioners to enhance academic understanding. My complaints with the edition fundamentally come down to the lack of a production list that would have strengthened the structure of the performance histories, but this is hardly a terminal issue. I'll certainly get a great deal of use out of these editions, and look forward to seeing the remainder of the series.


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I’m Peter Kirwan, a final year doctoral student in the English Department at Warwick, and this is my PhD blog.


Conferences, reviews, articles, thoughts and links relating to my interests in the Shakespeare apocrypha, early modern drama, authorship and performance.

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