From the stage of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, hosts David Tennant and Catherine Tate are joined by Benedict Cumberbatch, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Dame Helen Mirren, Meera Syal, David Suchet, Rufus Wainwright, Tim Minchin, Gregory Porter, Joseph Fiennes, English National Opera, The Royal Ballet and Akala for a very special evening. Together, they mark the life and work of William Shakespeare on the 400th anniversary of the playwright's death. This unique event takes place in the presence of Their Royal Highnesses the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, and celebrates Shakespeare's extraordinary legacy and his enduring influence on all performance art forms - from opera to jazz, dance to musicals.
Celebratory Evening Containing as Many Misses as Hits
Conceived as an occasion to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth, Gregory Doran's production came across as a Bardic Royal Variety Performance, graced by the presence of Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall.
As with most of these occasions, the standard of each act varied wildly in terms of quality. Judi Dench appeared as Titania in a re- enactment of a scene from A MISDUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, with Al Murray as a highly sympathetic Bottom; John Lithgow was extremely droll as Malvolio, mincing across the stage in his yellow stockings and cross-garters; while Ian McKellen held the audience spellbound with his rendition of an extract from SIR THOMAS MORE, calling for equal treatment of everyone, irrespective of race, gender, or class.
On the other hand Meera Syal and Senjeev Bhaskar were colorless as Beatrice and Benedick (which was surprising, in view of the fact that Syal had essayed the part successfully for the RSC in 2012); and the extracts from MACBETH and KING LEAR were so execrable that it might be more charitable not to mention the performers' names.
There was music from Berlioz's BEATRICE ET BENEDICT, and the English National Opera performing Verdi's FALSTAFF (proving beyond doubt that English is a most unmusical language for this kind of opera), and a rap version of Shakespeare. Ballet was represented in an extract from Prokofiev's ROMEO AND JULIET.
The comic turns were entertaining: the Horrible Histories company proved that there was plenty of mileage to be gained out of Shakespeare's texts, while Henry Goodman and Rufus Hound thoroughly enjoyed themselves with Cole Porter's specialty number "Brush up your Shakespeare." The comic highlight occurred when a clutch of performers came on stage to mispronounce the famous "To be, or not to be" speech from HAMLET, including Rory Kinnear, Benedict Cumberbatch, and McKellen, although Dench drew one of the biggest laughs of the evening when she referred to Hamlet as "the immortal Dame." Even Prince Charles came on stage for a cameo, to the audience's delight.
The evening came to a somewhat mawkish end when Helen Mirren and David Suchet delivered two famous speeches direct to the audience, to the accompaniment of music from the hard-working orchestra. This paved the way for a finale involving the whole company, thereby completing the variety-show feel of the evening.
While admiring the efforts of those involved to create an appropriate celebration, we could not help feeling that a little judicious editing might have rendered it more entertaining.
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