All the world's a stage in British Museum's Shakespeare show

Jul 23, 2012

RSC actors and unusual objects magically bring Shakespeare's era to life in Staging the World

What you need to know As part of the World Shakespeare and London 2012 Festivals, the British Museum is holding a major exhibition on the world of Shakespeare, in collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company. The exhibition focuses on the places and people depicted in the plays of William Shakespeare and his sources of inspiration.

Through more than 190 objects, ranging from maps, rare manuscripts and paintings, to a fighting bear's skull and a Jesuit martyr's eyeball, the exhibition evokes a picture of London as it was 400 years ago and draws connections between the city and Shakespeare's writings.

Highlights include a copy of the First Folio of Shakespeare's work, the Robben Island Bible - a Shakespeare edition kept by imprisoned ANC leaders and annotated by Nelson Mandela - and recorded readings of Shakespeare passages by RSC actors.
The exhibition runs until 25 November.

What the critics like The show begins and ends with Shakespeare's written word, says Michael Billington in The Guardian, but is filled with artefacts relating to specific images in Shakespeare's plays. The recorded Shakespeare readings supply the necessary "living language". This "brilliant" exhibition gives one rare access to Shakespeare's "geographically expansive and multi-peopled world".
In a tour de force, curators have found a way to enter into Shakespeare's imaginative world, says Richard Dorment in The Daily Telegraph. The show reveals how Shakespeare used what he saw at court or on the streets of London to conjure up the imagined worlds in the plays. Clips of scenes from the plays "magically bring the objects and works of art on display to life". This remarkable exhibition is, says Dorment, "one of the best I've ever seen anywhere."

This is a pleasurably didactic show, says Paul Levy in The Wall Street Journal. The British Museum "groups their exhibits into wonderfully designed, generous spaces that represent imaginary places". Performances by "superb actors" of key passages in the plays, relate loosely to some of the exquisite objects on display. But the point of the show is really how Shakespeare "works on our own imaginations".

What they don't like Critics are largely impressed, though The Londonist's Rachel Holdsworth found it overwhelming. "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." However, "it's impossible to get bored".

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