Shakespeare's poetry makes grand stage entrance at Edinburgh festival and by app


POST-MODERN POP culture has given us so many new versions of Shakespeare’s plays that they are a canon unto themselves.

Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo+Juliet brought us an Elizabethan tragedy via Venice Beach. The anime artists at Manga Shakespeare turned epic history plays and gender-bending comedies into stylish graphic novels.

There has been hip-hop Shakespeare (The Bomb-itty of Errors) and cartoon Shakespeare courtesy of the BBC, while The Reduced Shakespeare Company condensed the writer’s entire theatrical oeuvre into a single play.

For the most part, Shakespeare’s poetry – his 154 sonnets and four long narrative poems – have been largely left untouched by the demystifying impulses of contemporary reinterpretation. Two new projects of completely different scale and style are now attempting to bring Shakespeare’s poetry to a modern audience.

The Sonnets by William Shakespeare is a new app for the iPad that presents the full text of Shakespeare’s 154 14-line poems alongside a series of extra features that showcase the full potential of digital publishing.

It is issued by Touchpress in collaboration with Arden, whose notes have been providing readers with interpretations of Shakespeare’s work since 1899. It follows last year’s ebook version of TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, which included a video performance of the poem as well as notes and commentary.

Some schools of thought believe that Shakespeare’s poems were written for performance, and as Fiona Shaw directs her gaze at the camera and recites Sonnet 48 with conversational ease, the poems come alive.

As with the edition of The Wasteland, the video performances by actors like Patrick Stewart, David Tennant, Simon Callow, and, er, Kim Cattrall will be the chief attraction of the app for many users.

However, the app is not merely a celebrity-endorsed gimmick. It gives access to a formative scholarly engagement with Shakespeare’s work: the app offers a full introduction to the poems, and also allows the reader to click on each line, allowing the reader to look at a facsimile of the 1609 Quarto, for example, in order to compare how the language has been standardised over the centuries.

Further academic analysis features contributions by leading Shakespeare scholars such as Katherine Duncan-Jones, Don Paterson, and James Shapiro. Their informal lectures are presented primarily by video in a refreshingly accessible style. The fact that they offer different interpretations of everything from word variations (as well as the 1609 folio, there are 13 different manuscript versions of the poems), to the sonnet’s autobiographical meanings (were the “fair youth” and “dark lady” poems addressed to Shakespeare’s lovers?) is one of the key strengths. The app’s interactive function allows the reader take notes as they read.

A play from the Royal Shakespeare Company based on Shakespeare’s long narrative poem The Rape of Lucrece, which opens this week at the Royal Lyceum Theatre as part of the Edinburgh Festival, takes a more traditional approach to reimagining the writer’s poetry.

A collaboration between actress and singer Camille O’Sullivan, composer Feargal Murray and director Elizabeth Freestone, the concept is deceptively simple but supremely effective, as the production draws on the poem’s strong characterisation and inherently theatrical impulses.

Based on the foundational myth of the Roman Republic, The Rape of Lucrece is as dark and violent as any of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Borrowing from Ovid, it tells the story of the rape and suicide of the chaste Lucrece by the empire’s heir Prince Tarquin, and the subsequent revolution that ushers in a new republic.

The poem’s occasionally disturbing subject matter is what first suggested itself to O’Sullivan, when contacted by Freestone to collaborate on the performance. “Elizabeth had seen me perform in Edinburgh,” O’Sullivan explains, “and she had seen the type of stories I like to tell through music, where the story is as thought-provoking as the song. In some ways The Rape of Lucrece is about the antithesis between good and evil, and that’s what I really focused in on when we began to think about into a play.”

The invitation from Freestone was O’Sullivan’s first encounter with the 1,855 line poem, and she admits that “it was a real challenge. I did not find it particularly accessible. It took a good few runs before I was comfortable with the language.”

Keen not to simply set the poem to music, the trio began paring it back to its most essential dramatic parts, dispensing with the formal prologue and honing in on character rather than exposition. “Part of my own shows would be a sort of chameleon transformation from song to song,” she explains, “and that was something that we adapted to the poem, so that instead of standing outside the poem, I am in it: the innocent victim, the rapist, the narrator and the father who has lost his child.”

The Rape of Lucrece has been the subject of much controversy among scholars , with feminists keen to stress that Lucrece’s fate implies her complicity as fallen woman.

O’Sullivan says getting inside the characters has helped her understand the nuances of the situation, particularly Lucrece’s final decision to take her own life, or “how it is that she feels so impure after [the rape] that the only way out is through this animalistic act of violence against herself. And how her response evolves: in the end it is the only way she can assert control and dignity over her situation and fate.”

Although O’Sullivan was initially worried that setting Shakespeare’s lyrics to music might sound “ye olde”, she found the use of song “helps distil the emotion of the poem, and will hopefully communicate its meaning”.

At the very least, it will introduce Shakespeare’s obscure poem to a new audience, though there are no plans as yet to bring the show to Ireland. Now, if only it was available as an app as well, that would not be a problem. Touchpress, take note.

The Sonnets of William Shakespeare is available from Touchpress. The Rape of Lucrece is at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh until August 26th

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