Sunday, 21 August 2011

RSC Shakespeare Edition Update

Since I have so little time to blog, I thought I'd keep this space ticking over by cross-posting one of my even more infrequent additions to the blog of the RSC Shakespeare Edition:
We have just received the completed text of our final director interview - fittingly, from RSC Artistic Director Michael Boyd himself, on his epic production of the three parts of Henry VI. A few high res pictures still to come from the archive, but otherwise everything is on course for delivery of the last batch of individual volumes. If all goes well in production, our ten year task will be over. We began work shortly before Michael became Artistic Director; we published the Complete Works in 2007, at the climax of the extraordinary RSC Complete Works Festival, and we will bring the Individual Titles to completion as the RSC-produced World Shakespeare Festival gets under way in London in April 2012.

Since the RSC has nearly always produced the Henry VI plays as a cycle, we were always keen to publish all three parts in a single volume.The question then arose as to whether there should be any other joint titles or double volumes. We seriously explored the idea of doing Henry IV Part 1 as both a double volume with Part 2, in the Folio texts, and an individual volume of Part One alone in its Quarto text. This would have got round one of my few regrets about our Folio-based editorial policy: the watering-down of Falstaff's magnificent oaths and exclamations. I argued that theatregoers, who often get treated to paired productions of the two parts (most recently at the Globe), would like the double volume but that students doing Part One as a set text (it is prescribed far more often than Part Two) would like the singleton. But the publishers did not buy this argument.

The publishers' decision is always final: especially now the world of print publishing is so much tougher than it was ten years ago when we began. Being brutally realistic, we had to ask: how many copies will be sold of a solo volume of Timon of Athens or King John? We seriously considered not doing some of the plays in this format (and have, indeed, with regret decided not to do The Two Noble Kinsmen, on the grounds that it contains a fair bit more Fletcher than Shakespeare). A compromise was eventually reached: we are putting King John and Henry VIII together in a single volume -- the two "non-cyclical" histories, paired provocatively together (i.e. the two that are not part of a sequence of four plays, as all the other English histories are). I think it works, not least because they are both plays in which religion and politics go together: King John gives an important part to the dispute with a papal envoy, while Henry VIII turns on the break from Rome. Maybe we should have boldly called them "Two Reformation Histories".

The solution for Timon, meanwhile, was to pair it with Titus. "Two classical plays", bringing together Athens and Rome, the great warrior turning on the city and the great philanthropist turning on his friends. Titus has become a much studied, sold, produced and discussed play: we hope it will help Timon along. The pairing also avoided another publishing problem: Jonathan Bate edited Quarto Titus for the Arden Shakespeare series and there was a non-compete clause in the contract: he could not edit the play again in a single volume for a different publisher. Whilst we could have argued that an edition of Folio Titus was a different play, that might have been pushing it a bit.

Questions of this sort around publishing agreements also explain the non-appearance (yet) of e-books. We have a complex arrangement whereby Random House hold US rights and Macmillan publish us in UK/Europe/Commonwealth. But the enforcement of regional rights in e-books is much harder to sustain, so discussions are ongoing. There are various other rights and related issues to be ironed out, as well as technical ones. Thanks for patience ...

On the matter of "Shakespeare & Fletcher", now I'm off (at last) to watch Cardenio. And any readers who have stayed with this blog despite its long silences may like to watch this space for an announcement coming soon regarding Shakespeare's Collaborative Plays.

Friday, 8 July 2011

University Matters

In preparation for my new role as head of an Oxford college, this occasional blog will now address matters of general higher education interest as well as more literary thoughts. There is a very interesting piece on the BBC website about the huge variation in regional origin of students at top universities. This is arguably as significant--and certainly it is less widely recognized and written about--than the much discussed question of state versus independent school admissions. The article suggests that there are deep cultural and aspirational variations and expectations between many in the north and the south. And of course that has a long history. One of the best ways of understanding that history is by means of literature--novels such as Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South and Disraeli's Sybil or The Two Nations come to mind. Indeed, Disraeli is a figure who is relevant today in all sorts of respects.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Being Shakespeare Reviews

Too busy to link all the reviews of Being Shakespeare, though pleasing that even Charlie Spencer of the Telegraph, who normally abominates all the works of Mr Callow, has softened towards it. And for someone who has held Michael Billington's Shakespeare reviews in the highest regard for as long as I can remember, his response in The Guardian was a particular pleasure. But for a reason I can't quite explain, it was the following simple little review by Nina Caplan in Time Out that has given the author most delight. Maybe it's something to do with the acknowledgment of the play's desire not to deal in subtle distinctions and academic debates, which belong on the page rather than the stage:

Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate wrote 'The Man from Stratford' as an attempt to repay William Shakespeare's great gift: the chance to define ourselves through theatre. In this renamed revival, Simon Callow peppers the life with spicy excerpts from the work, making that difficult feat of tone variation look entirely effortless.

Using nothing more sophisticated than a wooden sword and a paper crown, the two actors - Callow and the long-dead Man himself - saunter through an ordinary life, from 'mewling and puking' infant to old fellow 'sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything'. It's a journey that commemorates the passing of an individual's span even as it celebrates the immortal abilities of this particular everyman, a glove-maker's son from Stratford who wrote us into existence.

There are elements of disingenuity. Neither Callow nor Bate deals in subtlety: there is fun here and intriguing sixteenth-century detail, but no argument with the facts as Bate understands them. The props are simple but the lighting is such stuff as Elizabethan dreams were made on, complete with fairy shadows dancing. This is essentially a showcase for Callow. Just as the Bard wrote 'Othello' and 'Hamlet' for Richard Burbage, Bate has written a Shakespeare to celebrate the peculiar gifts and broad abilities of a fine actor. It's a many-faced homage, and a sweetly watchable one at that.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Simon Callow on Being Shakespeare

The Man from Stratford, restored to its original authorial title of Being Shakespeare, opens next week at the Trafalgar Studios in Whitehall. Here is a link to Simon talking about it on BBC News.

Friday, 21 January 2011

Montaigne and Shakespeare

My radio essay on Montaigne and Shakespeare is now available on the BBC iPlayer.

Monday, 10 January 2011

The First English Author

Further to the post last year about the identity of "the first author" in the history of English literature, here, courtesy of the British Academy's website, is a brief audio extract of my discussion of three possible candidates, at an event held at the Royal Society last month on "Writing National Literatures": click for the audio.