Chasing Shakespeare

Just how much Shakespeare can you cram into one very long day at the Fringe. Jonathan Holmes goes Bard barmy and finds out

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William Shakespeare
Published 16 Aug 2016

This year marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. His plays have been staged and restaged and reinterpreted thousands of times, with more than 50 plays by or about Shakespeare at this year’s Fringe alone. Can this son of a glover possibly still be relevant today, and is there anything new to be found in his work? I took a day to find out.

First up, Shakespeare for Breakfast (10:00am, C Venue), which is celebrating its own 25th anniversary this year. Everyone gets a coffee, a croissant and an abridged and updated Shakespeare play to start the day: this year it’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream with jokes about Pokémon Go. The early start, along with the aftertaste of orange juice and the feeling of watching a superior sixth form revue, brings me back to school English lessons spent half asleep. Nostalgia and the warmth of the crowd send me into a reverie and as I wake, sweat-kissed and happy, I half expect the years since graduation to collapse into air – you never left Mr Jordan’s class Jonathan. It was all a horrible dream.

Reality hits and I’m late for my next show. I run up Nicholson Street like I’m going to burst onstage and deliver a letter to the king. Shakespeare’s comedies are often better received overseas than here, so when you read "Korean hip-hop dance version of Taming of the Shrew" (11:00am, C South) the correct response is “yes, of course, at last.” It’s Shakespeare Gangnam style and the best bits are the additions – the traditional costumes, modern dancing and manic jokes. The accents are sometimes difficult to make out, but it only helps distract from Shakespeare’s laugh-a-minute celebration of domestic abuse.

If new adaptations can help save weak plays, why not get rid of the script altogether. Impromptu Shakespeare (1:15pm, Just the Tonic at the Caves) improvises entire plays based on audience suggestions, showing that Shakespeare is a genre unto himself, ripe for parody. It’s a neat trick, turning every iamb into a cliffhanger: will they stick the rhyme? Today’s production is about a king banning public displays of affection in his kingdom, and I know I’m going to humiliate myself some day by giving it as an answer in a pub quiz. Two shows in and I’m still upbeat. Moving on.

I am not Prince Hamlet nor was meant to be, but the Danish prince is the map for how men break down. His dissembling, self-pity and infantile rage are perforations in the male mind, engineered weak spots, a sign of how much Shakespeare has shaped our collective subconscious. Hamlet in Bed (2:10pm, Pleasance Courtyard) hits those weak spots hard. Written by Michael Laurence, a theatre director finds his possible birth mother then casts her as Gertrude. Annette O’Toole is an Oscar nominated actress, but I can’t dissociate her from playing the man of steel’s girlfriend in Superman III and his mother in Smallville. Oedipal issues are Kal-El’s real kryptonite.

The edges of my brain are fraying now, and the next stop doesn’t help matters. Macbeth is a waking nightmare of a play. Rather than the writing, you remember the images (daggers, ghosts, Birnam wood walking) and noises (clicking of tongues, sound and fury). Macbeth: Without Words (ZOO, 4:00pm) shows just how far these plays can stretch while still retaining their power. With a brooding soundscape and a poised but almost disgusting physicality—a perfect match for a play dripping with blood—this is Macbeth as a fever. I leave with my mind full of scorpions. 

Quarter to seven and the sky is doomy on the walk down to the Royal Botanic Gardens – hardly a blasted heath, but I’m on edge now. With their garden productions, the HandleBards are following in a long and lovely tradition stretching back to the groundlings. Open-air Shakespeare is the ultimate in the middle classes at play: white wine, the scent of grass, a view of the castle and some jolly fun. The HandleBards brought all of the props they needed for Richard III (the one I saw) and Much Ado About Nothing 1,500 miles on the back of their bikes, and they split the dozens of roles between the four of them, giving it the air of children putting on a show at the bottom of the garden. It’s hard to imagine a more pleasant way to spend an evening. Yet though the rain stays off as I trudge back up the hill into town, something is about to break. Cry havoc.

MacBain (Summerhall, 8:55pm) sounds simple—Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain as Lord and Lady Macbeth—but it’s an undergraduate’s hallucination the night before an exam, asleep at his desk with his headphones on. Twisting and twisted, it’s Shakespeare as hypoxia, a parody of modern stagings meets actual Hell on Earth. It’s the remains of culture globbing together after the apocalypse, it’s the Internet gaining consciousness in 1997, it’s the ultimate expression of what Shakespeare has become over the last 400 years: no longer a playwright but a shared space for dreaming. It utterly destroys me. Afterwards I wander around the Meadows in a daze, hatless, muttering, Lear in the storm.

I need a drink.

If we ever have to send just one example of British culture up into space, let it be Shit-Faced Shakespeare (Underbelly, 10:15pm). A Fringe institution, watching one classically trained actor get hammered while the rest of the troupe try to keep the production going (Measure for Measure this year, har har) gives you a newfound respect for the people in Richard Burton’s life. Shakespeare himself found "sack" endlessly funny, and, similarly restored, I make my way to my own personal Juliet balcony: the view from South Bridge over the Cowgate.

Resting my head on the iron bars and looking down at the happy drunks, I think about Shakespeare —constant as the Northern star, still so powerful after four centuries—and how, even as the theatre changes, the drives he described back then drive us still. “What a piece of work is man,” I shout, a tribute to the great man. “In action how like an Angel! In apprehension how like a god!”

“Stop shouting you fucking idiot,” comes the reply from down below.

And the rest was silence.