Bard work brings its reward

27th June 1997 at 01:00
Peter Hollindale finds a Shakespeare series well worth the effort it demands.

Applause Shakespeare Library. King Lear. Edited with a theatre commentary by John Russell Brown. A Midsummer Night's Dream. Edited by John Russell Brown with a theatre commentary by John Hirsch and Leslie Thomson.

The Tempest. Edited with a theatre commentary by John Russell Brown. Macbeth. Edited by R.A. Foakes with a theatre commentary by John Russell Brown.

Julius Caesar. Edited by Maurice Charney with a theatre commentary by Stuart Vaughan.

A C Black Pounds 5.99 each.

For many years now it has been a badge of virtue for new Shakespeare series, whether aimed at schools or colleges, to claim a special interest in theatre. "Above all," blurbs will say, "this series treats the plays as plays, which reach their full life only on the stage."

In practice, though, this has often been a promise honoured in the breach, not the observance. Academic editions have given part of their introductions to a condensed stage history, while school editions have sometimes included a short anecdotal essay by an actor, or mixed scattered notes on staging among the nitty-gritty of textual explanations. Usually, that is the most the living play can hope for.

The Applause Shakespeare Library is different. In these editions the emphasis is fairly and squarely on the stage. The editor of each text supplies a short introduction on background and themes, together with the bare essentials of a textual glossary alongside the playscript. But the bulk of the responsibility for comment is handed over to an actor or director, who supplies a detailed and continuous theatre-centred critical commentary on the facing page.

If you are John Russell Brown, you can do both jobs. Russell Brown is general editor of the series, and few people have better credentials for the task. For more than 40 years he has combined production of authoritative academic editions with practical theatre studies.

Relatively early in his career he successfully adapted his major Revels Plays edition of Webster's The White Devil as a sixth-form text. Behind these books lies a lifetime's experience of the condominium uniting literary studies and the stage.

For all his breadth of sympathies, Russell Brown is not a populariser, and these are not easy editions to use. The theatre commentaries are dense, closely printed, and packed with material. Some of them (including those written by Russell Brown) incorporate the pointers on language and imagery that other series might assign to separate notes.

Others, notably the lively, acute and deceptively easy-going commentary on Julius Caesar by Stuart Vaughan, confine themselves more narrowly to theatrical perspectives. But all make demands on a reader they assume to be committed and prepared to work intensively.

As student texts, these books are strictly for A-level and beyond. They are ideal, far better than anything else on the market, for those doing theatre studies from A-level onward. But for English literature students they are more problematic, requiring a teacher who is happy to explore critical ideas through informal workshop experiments (by far the best way, after all, provided circumstances make it possible).

For GCSE years and below, these are not classroom texts, but the commentaries contain a wealth of ideas and suggestions teachers could adapt and use with profit and delight. This is a genuinely new and welcome addition to the Shakespeare teacher's armoury.

Peter Hollindale is a senior lecturer in English and educational studies at the University of York

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