Last week I finally made it to the ‘Staging the World’ exhibition at the British Museum. It’s only got another week to go, by the way, and it's well worth it: http://www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/exhibitions/shakespeare_staging_the_world.aspx
The exhibition is mainly dedicated to artefacts from the period in which Shakespeare was writing. There is one of the very few surviving examples of his handwriting, as well as copies of the First Folio. (There’s also the modern collected edition smuggled onto Robben Island by anti-apartheid campaigners. It’s incredibly moving to see Nelson Mandela’s signature scrawled beside a passage on the nature of tyranny from ‘Julius Caesar’.) And then there are the maps - extraordinarily detailed visual descriptions of London (and Venice), drawn by hand or printed in intricate details from wood blocks. There are items of clothing from the time, paintings, swords and daggers, old clocks… And in all of it, an overwhelming sense of ‘making’ – a physical engagement with the materials of the time.
It’s often said that Shakespeare’s plays are all about the ear (you went to ‘hear’ a play, etc.). But what struck me was the sheer ‘materiality’ of theatre, and how this is one of its essential qualities. The magic of prose and poetry seems to derive from its ability to translate marks on the page into images and thought. Fine art is about texture, and creates the illusion of three-dimensionality. You can look all the way around a sculpture, but sculptures rarely move and speak. Film is all about the eye. Theatre is sometimes described as a metaphorical medium, but there is something literal about it too. Through costume, set, light and shade and the sheer fact of the actors’ presence, theatre speaks to our world in the physical language of our world.