It can have escaped very few people’s notice that 2016 is the four-hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and celebrations of various sorts are popping up all over the place. (Question: At what point does it become acceptable to stop mourning someone’s death and start celebrating it instead? Is there a rule of thumb, I wonder? And why do we celebrate Shakespeare’s death only once a century but that of Guy Fawkes every year? Funny things, we humans.)
It will also have escaped the notice of very few of my blogging friends that much of my life is spent engaging with Shakespearian study in one form or another. You won’t be surprised, therefore, to hear that I am seriously excited about all the events that are going on locally, and as I live only an hour’s drive away from Stratford that is likely to be a fair few. I suppose, then, that I really have no right to feel aggrieved that some of the celebrations I would most like to join in with are not going to be within either my geographical or financial reach. Well, let me tell you, rights or not, I do, and one particular set of events, which caught my attention in the weekend papers, I really regret missing.
At the Barbican in London the RSC are screening a season of films of the company’s past productions. These are not the more recent shows which have been relayed through cinemas worldwide over the past couple of years, but rather performances, some of which go back as far as the fifties, that for one reason or another were captured on film and in some cases given only a single television airing. I would be fascinated to view any of these, but there is one in particular that I would love to see again because it was the film of this production that was responsible for starting me off on the long road that has led to more than fifty years of Shakespearian studies.
Talk about an act of serendipity. It was a Thursday evening, my mother was out and I noticed in the Radio Times that there was a showing scheduled of As You Like It. Why did I want to see it? I have no idea, other than perhaps the fact that it was theatre and I had been a theatre addict since I was two. But theatre in our house meant pantomimes, musicals and the occasional light comedy. It definitely didn’t mean Shakespeare. Well, I had always been able to wrap my father round my finger (I doubt I would have got away with it had Mom been in!) and, of course, there wasn’t the choice of viewing available then, so we watched it.
I know now that what I saw that night was a recording of the newly-formed RSC’s production of the play from 1961, with Vanessa Redgrave giving a performance as Rosalind that many critics claimed as definitive. (Certainly, I had to wait until Pippa Nixon’s interpretation for the same company in 2013 for one that came anywhere near it.) You can read Michael Billington’s memories of the production here. At the time I knew nothing of the play, the company or the actors, I simply knew that from the moment the broadcast began I was hooked. And the high point of the whole evening came when, as Rosalind/Ganymede, began to berate Phoebe for her treatment of Silvius, I realised, before it happened, that the shepherdess was going to fall helplessly in love with a woman she thought was a man. That’s when the light bulb went on, when the fireworks began to soar, whatever metaphors you want to use. That was the moment when I knew that all those centuries earlier Shakespeare had looked down through the ages, seen a young girl being brought up in one of Birmingham’s red light districts and had decided to write his plays just for her. The bus to Stratford stopped at the bottom of our road. Within days I was making a journey that was to be the start of the rest of my life.
You hear people talk about having their life changed in an instant. Well, I am one of those people. If I hadn’t sat down to watch that specific production on that long ago Thursday evening, I have no idea who I would be now, but I suspect it would be someone very different. Perhaps it’s better that I don’t see the performance again but just keep it in my memory as a gift from the gods for which I will be eternally grateful.