An exhibition exploring seminal performances of Shakespeare, at the British Library

Friday 15 April - Tuesday 6 September 2016
PACCAR Gallery, The British Library

Review by Margot Cadic, BA European Studies

Introduced on the 15th April 2016, the exhibition Shakespeare in Ten Acts was displayed until the 6th September 2016 at the British Library. The exhibition defines itself as a journey through 400 years of theatre history, whilst maintaining as focal theme the exploration of ten performances of William Shakespeare’s work. The selection ranges from the first performance of Hamlet at the Globe in the dawn of 17th century England, to more modern productions such as the 2002 rendition of Twelfth Night with an all-male cast. Each performance is successfully depicted and utilised to represent a reflection of its era, offering in-depth insight regarding the plays of the legendary playwright and their complex implications, whilst also presenting some of Shakespeare less renowned works.

The exhibition consists of a varied range of visual forms; illustrations, posters, costumes, videos, original manuscripts, photography, artefacts and interactive screens. Details of Shakespeare’s life and the challenges he faced early in his career are revealed, with the use of original documents such as the 1596 petition against the Blackfriars Playhouse to prevent Shakespeare’s company from opening the playhouse. Surprising facts are encountered throughout the exhibition; Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, which is widely known as “To be or not to be, that is the question” is factually rendered in the 1603 publication as “To be or not to be, I there’s the point.”

The exhibition tackles complex themes, highlighting the role of gender and cross-dressing in the productions of Twelfth Night, or the subject of race in Othello with Ira Aldridge being the first black actor to portray the protagonist in 1825 at the Royalty Theatre.

The visitor will observe the global influence Shakespeare has had on theatre and film productions throughout history, with early evidence of international productions of Hamlet traced back to 1607, when the East India Company performed it in front of African guests. From the loose adaptation of Romeo and Juliet in Raj Kapoor’s Bobby in 1973 which broke taboos of Indian society by introducing illicit teenage passion in cinemas, to the Soviet rendition of Macbeth in Azerbaijan by the Baku State Theatre, a production obliged to conform to Communist ideology of the time, the exhibition covers a range of foreign interpretations. In this sense the exhibition portrays how Shakespeare’s plays have been adapted in other continents, occasionally used as a tool to challenge societal frameworks, whilst in other cases suffering from political oppression.

Furthermore, the question of constant reinterpretation of Shakespearian work is posed through the use of George Bernard’s Shakes versus Shavs, which argues the endless revivals of the genius playwright’s work may be restricting the advancement of modern-day theatre and creativity.

Overall, this exhibition is a must-see for all Shakespeare enthusiasts, and should be recommended to those with an interest in theatre development. The exhibition represents more than merely a timeline of Shakespeare enactments over the last four centuries, it also relates to complex issues and highlights the global influence Shakespeare’s work reached in the past and will probably continue to assert in the future.