Friday 17 September 2010

Mental Exhaustion

To the New Theatre, Cardiff, to see Simon Callow's one-man performance of Shakespeare, The Man from Stratford. After his curtain call and tonight only Mr Callow comes back on stage to answer questions and I get in quickly on behalf of my blog-readers to ask whether he believes Shakespeare was essentially a happy man or, like many geniuses, a troubled one beset with neuroses. He replies to this effect:

• He must surely have had deep and varied experience of the range of human emotions and mental states in order to recreate those experiences in drama and poetry.

• Like many creative geniuses (Dickens, Beethoven, Mozart, for example) the overwhelming life experience of Shakespeare was surely mental exhaustion arising from his sheer, immense creative productivity and the toll that must have taken.

• For evidence consider Shakespeare's early retirement and early death.

• Note the famous engraved portrait of Shakespeare by Droeshout in the first Folio: you can see a man broken down before his time.

I am sure Callow would concede that all this is pure speculation. Shakespeare may have retired early because he had made a fortune (he certainly had) and lived on sprightly and content until struck down unexpectedly by an illness aged 52. But the idea of mental exhaustion is an interesting one: I wonder if it is distinct from mental illness or a cause of it.

And what about the play? There is a problem with performing Shakespeare which exercises actors and directors, namely how to perform the extremely hackneyed bits which are overfamiliar to the audience and have therefore lost dramatic effect (the best approach is not to try to do them in an unexpected, and therefore usually daft or counter-intuitive way, but rather just to get through them conventionally knowing that most of the play is not so familiar). Arguably this production rather asks for trouble by mainly comprising a lot of overfamiliar bits used to illustrate what is effectively an enthusiastic lecture on S's life delivered by Callow leaping around in a curious velvet suit. In the interval I grumble that it can't be long before we find ourselves outside the walls of Harfleur. The curtain goes up and sure enough (and to Mrs Blog's ill-concealed amusement) SC is bearing down us sword in hand to urge us "Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more". It is also hard not to associate him with his unctuous Rev Beebe character in Room with a View where he is caught starkers while wild-swimming. Incidentally the second-best question put to the actor is "When are you going to do some real Shakespeare?" which he answers very graciously even though it sounds a bit pointed, and to the point for that matter.

I would have preferred Callow actually playing Shakespeare and he could have derived a fantastic script from Christopher Rush's Will, a fictional autobiography of WS reminiscing on his deathbed (and definitely broken down as in Callow's theory). Not that I would not also recommend the author of this play Jonathan Bate's non-fiction Soul of the Age: The Life, Mind and World of William Shakespeare.

For all that the whole evening is good fun and, anyway, what is the alternative? Slumping in front of the telly watching tedious and uncritical coverage of the Pope pontificating (nice to use that word so appropriately) on British society punctuated with equally banal whinging from agitated "humanists"? As to that debate I am tempted to deploy my own Shakespearean cliché - A plague on both your houses! (Romeo and Juliet Act 3 Scene i).

On the way back to the car we are hailed by Hafal Chair Elin Jones who, it turns out, has been at the same performance and also stayed for the questions - so my intervention in the theatre will hopefully illustrate to my boss that I am never off duty...