I went to my first Shakespeare play when I was nine. We were ‘doing’ ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ at school, so when it came to the Royal Exchange in Manchester my parents took me and my best friend. I’d found the play pretty tedious in the classroom – nine-year-olds aren’t the best readers of Shakespearean verse – and I wasn’t the kind of child to be beguiled by fairies. I can’t think, my mother said as we sat down, why people think a play that’s all about unsanctioned sexual desire is suitable for little girls, I suppose it must be the flowers and fairy wings. My ears pricked up.
What startled me that night continues to delight me. It was the way the play rose up off the page and became something quite different, the way some of the text fell away and other aspects took on forms and meanings I hadn’t imagined. It was a modern production and at one point there was a motorbike on stage; this four-hundred-year-old play began to speak of the real world of the grownups I spent my life observing. I hadn’t expected that. In my teens, I continued to go to all the Shakespeare and a fair amount of everything else at the Royal Exchange; there were, then, almost-free last-minute tickets for teenagers. It was harder to get to Stratford for what I still think of as ‘the real thing’ but I managed it a couple of times a year. Now, the ‘real thing’ is a twenty-minute drive from home, and for the last couple of years my 13-year-old son has been accompanying me to entire seasons. You told me, he said, that ‘Othello’ was going to be about sex and jealousy, but it’s actually about men and war and what a life of professional violence does to your family life. He made connections between ‘Henry IV’ and what he’s read about North Korea, which fascinates him. The forms of power, the instability of succession, the irrelevance of the population’s welfare to an unelected head of state. For my son as for me, well-staged Shakespeare dissects the complexities and corruptions of the world around us in a way that means we leave the theatre for a world subtly different from the one that lay around us earlier in the day. For him especially, it offers some of the codes of the adulthood he is rapidly approaching.
You could say that, probably, of any good play, or opera or concert or even film. But as a writer, I love going to live Shakespeare for the same reason I liked that first ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’: the text is only the beginning of the performance. I might know almost all the words – I did at ‘Hamlet’ a couple of weeks ago – but that doesn’t mean I know what’s going to happen on stage, or to the audience. There’s an alchemy about the ‘real thing’ that puts mere writing in the shade.
Photograph © Blondinrikard Fröberg