The new British Museum mega-exhibition is part of the World Shakespeare Festival, itself part of the Cultural Olympiad’s London 2012 Festival. There’s a lot riding on it, in other words, and they really have thrown in the kitchen sink.
It’s less about Shakespeare the man and more about the world he lived in and portrayed through his plays. So, we get an introduction to Tudor London – some huge old maps of the city, artefacts that Will would have been familiar with, a copy of the First Folio – and also rooms dedicated to medieval England, for the history plays, medieval Italy (think Merchant of Venice, Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing), a classical room (all those Roman plays), and rooms exploring various themes (immigrants and outsiders, religion and rebellion, witchcraft and sorcery).
There are some stand out pieces: Henry V’s ‘funerary achievements’ (a shield, helmet and sword) that used to perch on a beam at Westminster Abbey, a stunning Murano glass ewer, that famous painting of Richard II that turns out to be massive in real life, and the eyeball (yes, really) of Jesuit martyr Edward Oldcorne. The objects range from the magnificent – a stunningly decorated rapier, a narwhal tusk, intricate jewels – to the small and domestic – coins, shoes and cups.
The Shakespeare connection is in more than just the inspiration. Royal Shakespeare Company actors perform famous speeches on screens, and the walls are liberally sprinkled with quotations (which, if we’re honest, feel more decorative than insightful). There will also be film screenings (try Marlon Brando as Mark Antony on 7 September, or Ian McKellen as Richard III on 16 November), lectures, curator’s talks and a free poetry recital.
The sheer scope of the exhibition means it’s hard to get a feel for what it was really like in Shakespeare’s time; just as you start to sink into, say, life in Venice you’re whisked off somewhere else. On the other hand this means, unlike some other blockbusters that take an hour to go round, it’s impossible to get bored.
Shakespeare: Staging the World runs until 25 November at the British Museum. Tickets cost £14 / £12 concessions, free for members and under 16s, £7 between 12-4.30pm on Mondays. See a list of all related events.