Saturday, June 30, 2007

Shakespeare & Co.

Reading that Shakespeare may no longer be compulsory for English undergraduates at Oxford ("Shakespeare in peril..." as the Independent has it)I'm tended to think it's a non-story. I studied English at Lancaster 85-8, and Shakespeare was nowhere to be seen in any compulsory sense, and I imagine that's true for the majority of degrees throughout the country. I did, it's true, take the one language course that included Shakespeare, but it was hardly a highlight of my studies. I was wanting to discover the British and American novel during those 3 years, and I did, without regretting that choice. Poetry in particular, and drama were minor interests at the time. Oxford undergraduates apparently have to study all 36 Shakespeare plays during their final year, which probably puts Shakespeare into the Readers Digest "condensed books" category. My in-depth study of a few Shakespeare plays at O and A level gave me a lifelong love for the bard, that I occasionally top up. Last week, I saw The Tempest for the first time at the Royal Exchange. It's absurd that I'd never seen or read it before - but, being Shakespeare there were few resonances I didn't notice. It's an absurd play, though a thoroughly enjoyable performance, and my real regret here was not having read it before, but not having the kind of classical education where I might fitfully place "The Tempest", surely one of his most Greek of plays? Recent books and films have tried to place Shakespeare in his historical context, and I like him all the more for it. Some of the pyrotechnics of "The Tempest" seemed like an old writer grappling with the new fangled "sensationalism" of younger writers. I've always enjoyed Webster, and have more recently enjoyed Ben Jonson and Marlowe - it seems that the less Shakespeare that an undergraduate gets, the more he or she may seek him out. Along with the King James Bible, the Complete Works is one of the twin pillars of English Literature. Of course, it may be that you can now go through from 13-21 without a sniff of Shakespeare, in which case, I'd have to ask, why are you doing an English degree? My own love of the 18th/19th century English novel or the 20th century American novel doesn't invalidate my debt to the great dramatist - nor stop an interest in his contemporaries.


I've not mentioned BBC4's wonderful 3-part series "Classic Britannia", a history of post-war British classical music. Brilliant archive footage, illuminating interviews, and a superbly realised story-arc have made this an absolute joy. Next week's closing part may cover a period too close to our time to be truly revelatory, but one couldn't help but be both amused and amazed by such performance pieces as Cornelius Cardew's "The Great Learning" (basically, a chorus of people er...hitting stones minimally). I'm glad that the "crossover" between the rock avant garde and contemporary classical music was acknowledged (Brian Eno's record label putting out Gavin Briar's "Jesus Blood", Taverner being an early signing to Apple records)and one can only despair at how the last twenty years have seen the rise of a "classical music lite." The audience who benefitted from music education in the 60s and 70s must be in their 40s and 50s now, and probably wonder why the only classical music they are encouraged to like is Russell Watson. Reviews for "Monkey: Journey to the West" have been generally positive, and I'm sure its a spectacle, and wish I had tickets, yet despite his fecundity, I can't help but think that Damon Albarn remains more commercially accessible than artistically successful. Better him, than Lloyd Webber or similar to write a modern opera, but better still perhaps a Mogwai or a Matthew Herbert. Albarn's perhaps become a British equivalent to David Byrne, who, admirable though his post-Talking Heads work has been, has never come close to the highs of those first 4 seminal albums (though his first foray into solo work, the score to ballet "The Catherine Wheel" was always a favourite of mine.)

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