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Shakespeare Live! review – ‘a stirring celebration’

Shakespeare Live! at the RSC. Photo: Liz Thompson Shakespeare Live! at the RSC. Photo: Liz Thompson
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Brutus said Caesar was ambitious. But old Julius’ ambition was nothing compared to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s, celebrating the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death with a smorgasbord of tasters, tidbits and skits broadcast live on BBC2 and into cinemas across the country.

The celebration, saturated with stage royalty (Mirren, McKellen, Minchin, Tennant, Tate, Dench, and some upstart crow called Benedict Cumberbatch) – as well as real royalty in the form of Prince Charles – encompasses the man, his work and his legacy, diffused across genre, media and centuries.

All of this is crammed onto the Royal Shakespeare Theatre stage – except Joseph Fiennes, who not only plays with some pigs on location at Shakespeare’s birthplace but seems to have butchered them too, judging by the hamminess with which he prowls and pouts his way through his bits.

Fiennes’ segments have the po-faced tone of a charity appeal, and it takes a while before the vignettes, separated by links from Catherine Tate and David Tennant, stop seeming like a slightly less tawdry Eurovision Song Contest and start holding their own.

That’s partly to do with the reverential tone, broken by a brilliantly silly scene from Horrible Histories, and partly to do with the differing quality of the segments on offer. Variations on a theme of Romeo and Juliet – from Prokofiev’s ballet to West Side Story – are sweet, if unmoving. Performances by the likes of Alex Hassell, Alex Waldmann and Pippa Nixon are a decent showcase of some of the younger guns in the RSC’s arsenal. But, with a sudden chill and a quiet ferocity, Simon Russell Beale recites ‘This sceptred isle’ from Richard II on the crumbling crenels of Kenilworth Castle and the night hits its stride.

Seamlessly shifting from comedy to tragedy, from opera to hip hop, it’s a revue that tries to be all things to all people. All facets of Shakespeare are celebrated, with a persistent reminder that the Bard’s words are only a starting point, a springboard for infinite creativity.

This takes political form in a very funny sketch involving Paapa Essiedu, currently playing Hamlet at the RSC, who is told how to perform ‘to be or not to be’ by other notable Hamlets past, of different ages, genders and races.

Those who splashed out on the silver screen, watching from cinemas across the country, may feel a little short-changed. It’s prime on-the-sofa viewing, cat in lap and a constant eye on the Twitter hashtag, but perhaps doesn’t scale up so well.

All of it glitters – particularly David Suchet’s robe – but it’s not all gold. And yet, as a sweeping selection of what Shakespeare is today, and what it can be, it’s a stirring celebration of one man’s achievements. All the world is on stage, and Shakespeare Live! shows sprawlingly, messily and occasionally with breathtaking brilliance how a stage can be an entire world.

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Sprawling, star-studded, and occasionally extraordinary, celebration of Shakespeare’s life and legacy