Veteran London-born actor Simon Callow, star of Shakespeare In Love and Four Weddings And A Funeral, is having a busy year.
It’s the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death and his sonorous skills are in huge demand. He’s set to perform a one-man show focussing on the sonnets and there’ll be a TV program about how God does and doesn’t figure in Shakespeare’s work. Then there’s an epic gala later this month at the Royal Festival Hall with scenes from the plays interwoven with classical music played by the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
Callow told Londonist: “What’s nice is that we’re celebrating the enormous diversity of Shakespeare’s work and, more than ever in history, we can see how important he is to everyone everywhere. What’s amazing is that people are still finding new ways to approach his work and also that there are things we simply haven’t noticed before which are coming through. You can see it in all the experiments going on with gender, politics and genre.
“As we’ve changed so has he: we now interpret texts like the Merchant of Venice and Othello very differently to the way our forebears did. Take King Lear; nowadays it seems to be a depiction of Alzheimer’s but before we understood that it was simply seen to be a play about madness. And in the 60s, Lear’s world was seen as quite similar to that of Samuel Beckett’s, full of absolute despair in the era of the bomb.
"Equally, The Tempest is often seen as a parable about colonialism though no-one thought that 100 years ago. The thing about Shakespeare is that you can never tell the whole story.
“People are ingenious, finding new ways to explore the work and also looking at how he changed words and how that affects the meanings of different lines. But at the heart of each play there is such a keen understanding of human life and that’s what turns the audience on. Shakespeare, sometimes miraculously, caught life on the wing.”
Callow is also spearheading a tourism drive centred around fans of the playwright and recently spent a day coaching Lori Jones, a fan from Chicago, to perform at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in the Globe. This week, the same initiative saw the launch of the ShakeSpeak app that translates text messages into Elizabethanese.
Would Shakespeare be pleased at all this posthumous attention? Callow thinks so: “Well he did write: ‘When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st. / So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.’ So I think he did have a sense of his own immortality. But then he wasn’t concerned with putting the plays in print and died without collecting them together. He also had the experience of going out of fashion towards the end of his relatively short life, so I think he might have been surprised by what’s happening 400 years after his death.”