What’s in a name?

Another week, another book on Shakespeare. But James Shapiro’s Contested Will has scratched an ever-present source of irritation in academic circles and fanned the glowing embers of the identity debate until they are once more roaring

flames. Shapiro’s book examines what has come to be known as the anti-Stratfordian case – the argument that one, rather poorly educated man from Stratford could not possibly have written the works that have come to be connected with his name.

The Stratford man

The list of people who have been put forward as possible alternatives reads like a Who’s Who of the early modern period: Sir Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. Even Queen Elizabeth herself makes an appearance.

This roll-call is paralleled only by the star-studded list of current anti-Stratfordians. Vanessa Redgrave has said: ‘Whoever Shakespeare was, he wasn’t a little ordinary yeoman who headed back to Stratford after he had his fun. I’m quite certain that he was a quite exceptional aristocrat who had to keep totally quiet and needed Shakespeare as

cover’. Sir Derek Jacobi has expressed support for the cause and Mark Rylance, former director of the Globe, said recently in an interview with The Observer, ‘There is a genius at work here somewhere, but it’s not William Shakespeare.’

For an impatient Stratfordian like myself, this all seems rather too much like a meeting of the Flat Earth society.

However, it is undeniable that we know very little about one of our most famous Englishmen (there are in excess of 35 million hits when you type ‘Shakespeare’ into Google). We know he was born (1564), he married, he died (1616). Other than that, Shakespeare is as a blank canvas. And that is one of the greatest things about him.

Every subsequent generation have looked to Shakespeare for guidance, advice and consolation and seen in his works

something of themselves. Scores of directors and actors have edited his plays, cut scenes, transposed the plays to modern times and, in short, made him their own.

More excitingly and topically, Shakespeare’s ambiguous identity and enigmatic life allows room for new plays to be “discovered” or “claimed” for him. Only this week, a little-known eighteenth century play called Double Falsehood has been attributed – at least in part – to good old Will. The author of this romantic-comedy, Lewis Theobald, always claimed that he had been working from a real play by Shakespeare called Cardenio but had been dismissed as a fraud by academics. Until now. The publisher, Arden Shakespeare,

has backed Professor Brean Hammond’s assertion and on Radio 4’s TodayProgram Hammond let slip that the RSC will be putting on a performance of this prodigal play when their theatre re-opens later this year.

So I’m thankful that Shakespeare didn’t leave a diary, that we don’t know exactly what he worked on, who he loved or even where he lived a lot of the time. It means that there is always the thrilling possibility of new plays coming to light. And what does it matter who he was, anyway: as the great man himself said, ‘That which we call a rose / By any other word would smell as sweet’.

A Rose by any other word

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Enron

Lucy Prebble’s Enron is truly a tale for our times. While the eponymous American energy giant may have collapsed like a card-house in late 2001, the UK economy is still in a delicate condition. While the newspapers still daily dedicate their front-pages to the “Recession” and “Bonuses”, Enron will be on-the-pulse relevant.

Prebble has written an epic in the Brechtian mould and Rupert Goold’s production jumps at this implicit invitation to be imaginative, fantastical and to pile on the special effects. The result is varied. At its best, Goold’s production forces his audience to look again at certain business practices and acknowledge their utter absurdity. The businesses created by Enron to consume their debt were named “Raptors”. Cue four actors dressed as velociraptors prowling the office basement. At other points, however, the special effects are simply gimmicks: some cursory footage of Bill Clinton, at one point, added little to the production and was largely irrelevant.

The key players in the Enron collapse are brought to the stage exquisitely by Sam West, Tom Goodman-Hill and Tim Pigott-Smith. Sam West’s nerd turned self-deluded demi-God, Jeffrey Skilling, displays a dangerous calmness of manner. With a mere turn of his head or lift of an eye-brow West manages to suggest Skilling’s slimy unknowability. Tom Goodman-Hill creates a chief financial officer who is no more than an over-excited school boy: he brings to mind chaotic high school drama lessons you’d rather forget. Ken Lay is both baffling and baffled: Tim Pigott-Smith presents him as a hands-off bumbling old-school business man. Not the architect of a fraudulent business empire built on sand. With the exception of Andy Fastow, all the characters in Prebble’s play act as if ignorant of the consequences of their actions: this is perhaps fitting given that the real Skilling and Lay subsequently denied wrong-doing.

The most memorable lesson – and this is very much a tale with a moral – from Prebble’s play is that truth can be stranger than fiction. Who would have believed that Jeffrey Skilling had a wife and daughter, if it weren’t actually the case? Who would have believed that the stock analysts gobbled down the company’s own positive assessments, if it hadn’t actually happened? Who would have believed that such a large scale multi-million dollar fraud could have gone unnoticed for so long, if it hadn’t actually happened? Enron forces us to look with fresh eyes at our capitalist society and acknowledge the absurdity of it all.

The play’s main weakness, however, springs from its strength: Prebble and Goold realise that they have a great story on their hands, a morality tale for the modern day. But they tell the story and nothing more. Enron is, in the end, a dramatisation, not an exploration of greed. It refuses to answer the very question it repeatedly asks: ‘Why’.

Enron is currently playing at the Noël Coward theatre, London.

4/5

 

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