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.