Magazine article The Spectator

Mad about the Bard

Magazine article The Spectator

Mad about the Bard

Article excerpt

WILL AND ME: HOW SHAKESPEARE TOOK OVER MY LIFE by Dominic Dromgoole Penguin/Allen Lane, £16.99, pp. 291, ISBN 0713998318 . £13.59 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

At school there was a group of us who thought that Samuel Beckett was the coolest person on the planet. What could be more thrilling than the apocalyptic minimalism of a play featuring two people who lived in dustbins? We found validation for our passion when a teacher drew our attention to the Polish critic Jan Kott's essay comparing Beckett's Endgame with King Lear in his Shakespeare Our Contemporary. Intrigued, I read the rest of the book. Kott brought Shakespeare into the present with a passion I'd never encountered before in any other work of literary criticism. I particularly liked his claim that if Titus Andronicus had had a sixth act, Shakespeare would have used it to turn machine-guns on the audience.

This instilled in me a lifelong love of the Bard's principal gore-fest and the idea of staging a 'happening' in the school drama festival in which we began with some Shakespearean dialogue and then had some friends burst into the auditorium in combat fatigues and balaclavas, fake weapons in hand. They made the audience perform aerobics and then we cued in waiters in evening dress, dissolving the play into a party. What a time it was, the 1970s.

I'd long forgotten this embarrassing history, but it all came flooding back as I read Dominic Dromgoole's Will and Me. Since it has made your reviewer start telling stories about Will and me, the book is clearly a triumph. I can honestly say that I haven't enjoyed a work on Shakespeare so much since reading Kott 30 years ago. There is something here for everyone who has been on a school trip to Stratford-upon-Avon, put on a play or been inspired by a teacher who can bring demanding texts to life. Like all the best theatrical memoirs, it is rich in quip and anecdote. You laugh out loud and cringe in equal measure.

Dromgoole has no shame in listening to, indeed in writing in the voice of, his inner teenager. Shakespeare was master not only of lyric beauty and rhetorical complexity in verse, but also the patois of the street in prose. Dromgoole just does street: among his favourite idioms are 'schtick', 'moulimixed', 'bonkers', 'yadder-yadder' (what Hamlet spends most of his time doing), 'legless', 'old fart', 'crash and burn'.

The scholarship is lightweight. Dromgoole seems unaware, and would probably say he doesn't give a toss, that half of Timon of Athens, a play he loves ('the greatest explosion of punk rage conceived prior to Johnny Rotten'), was actually written not by Shakespeare but by Thomas Middleton. …

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