Shakespeare context

21st January 2000 at 00:00
SHAKESPEARE'S THEATRE. By Andrew Langley. Paintings by June Everett. Oxford University Press pound;10.99 hardback, pound;6.99 paperback. THE YOUNG PERSON'S GUIDE TO SHAKESPEARE. By Anita Ganeri. Pavilion pound;14.99 with CD.

The conflagration which destroyed the first GlobeTheatre in 1613, when a stage cannon set the roof on fire during a performance of All is True (Henry VIII), is one of several facts and anecdotes common to both these books, and each is very attractively produced. But there the resemblance ends.

Shakespeare's Theatre is an information book, but so skilfully presented that it reads like a story. It could be called "The Arrival and Establishment of Theatre in Shakespeare's London". It neatly integrates Shakespeare's own arrival, and carries through to his retirement and the Globe's demise.

Intercut with this is another story. The scene is modern London. For Shakespeare and Burbage substitute the late Sam Wanamaker, and for the old Globe the new one on Bankside. Even cynical adults predisposed to see the new Globe more in terms of historical tourism than dramatic art wil be won over by the story of its creation, and the book will certainly make young readers keen to visit it.

The London of the 1590s and of the 1990s meet in the splendid illustrations, especially June Everett's lovely watercolours, which keep a vivid and amusing record of the restoration from start to finish.

The Young Person's Guide to Shakespeare is the kind of book that is bought but never read. Produced in association with the Royal Shakespeare Company, it vigorously promotes both Stratford tourist sites and RSC productions, which dominate the photographs.

Its appearance, with a CD neatly slotted in the cover, is very appealing, and it will do well in the theatre shop. But the text is a medley of disconnected snippets, ludicrously brief plot-summaries and elementary facts. There is some carelessness, too. The CD commentary, for instance, tells us that "Once more unto the breach" is set at Agincourt, not Harfleur, and that a sonnet consists of "14 lines of rhyming couplets". Packaging is not everything, and this is a missed opportunity.

Peter Hollindale


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