Eight reasons why the West End Whingers don’t really do Shakespeare

Tuesday 18 December 2007

There were a few raised eyebrows and no small amount of eye-rolling at our recent revelation that the Whingers’ outing to watch Mr Ejiofor and Mr McGregor perform in Othello at the Donmar Warehouse was, in fact, the West End Whingers’ very first joint experience of a play by Mr Shakespeare.

We have been asked to justify why we’ve all but barred the Bard from our repertoire.

1. The plays are rather too long

Shakespeare wrote awfully long plays. They go on for hours and hours. And sometimes they go on a bit, as well. Especially the long ones. And the histories. Did people have more time on their hands in Shakespeare’s days or what? When did they get any drinking done?

Presumably people took their drinks in with them and chatted among themselves in the groundlings while it was all going on up on the stage. Nowadays that kind of behaviour is frowned up; one is expected to be sober and be quiet. The Whingers are always quiet (except in panto) and Phil especially finds it difficult to go for long periods of time without talking about himself. It makes less difference to Andrew who can sleep through anything.

But, on balance, these works could generally be shorter and snappier.

2. They aren’t funny

Even the so-called comedies don’t have many gags in them. But audiences at Shakespeare plays laugh at the minor witticisms anyway with a sort of satisfaction in their chuckle which says “Ah, ha, ha. Very good.” even though (a) it wasn’t very funny the first time and (b) they’ve read or heard the gag 20 times already and (c) they probably only know it’s a joke because they read it in the footnote of a Brodies Notes or somesuch when they were at school or because other people are laughing.

But anyway, Shakespeare’s jokes are not really funny. Not laugh-out-loud funny in the way that Carry on Cleo is. “Infamy! Infamy! They’ve all got it in for me!” cries Kenneth Williams’ Julius Caesar. Now that’s pure comedy genius.

3. The audiences

See 2.

4. We don’t understand most of it

Most English speakers apparently have a 4,000-word vocabulary. Shakespeare used more than 29,000 different words in his play which – however you look at it – means most of it is presumably unintelligible to most people. Regrettably, the Whingers have a vocabulary of considerably fewer than 4,000 words and most of those are varieties of grape.

Even when the Whingers try listening really hard to the words, they find it doesn’t really pay off. Sometimes we think we recognise a word, but then we realise the meaning has changed in the intervening 400 years. The best approach seems to be to just let it waft over you and most of the key plot points seem to make themselves apparent.

But on the whole, most of it is wasted on us.

In Shakespeare’s favour he did, apparently, coin the term “hobnob” which is a very fine word indeed.

5. Too many comparisons

The really irritating thing about Shakespeare is that critics always compare a production with a previous, greater version that one has almost certainly never seen.

Now, to be fair, we didn’t read any critics comparing Chiwetel Ejiofor‘s Othello with that of Sir Donald Sinden, right, in 1979 (the last actor to black up for the role for the RSC in 1979, following on the heels of Anthony Quayle (1953) and John Gielgud (1961).

But Iago seems to be fair game. Mr Billington couldn’t resist:

Put the play into a modern, military setting, as many recent productions have done, and Iago instantly becomes its centre: one thinks of McKellen and Sher giving us variations on the malign ensign as barrack-room fanatic.

No, Mr Billington. One does not.

However, to be fair, the Whingers are not averse to a bit of name-dropping and one-upmanship either: witness Andrew’s recollections of having seen Kenneth Connor’s Buttons or Phil’s boast of having seen Peter Wyngarde’s Garry Essendine.

6. Who are these people?

This is a big problem with the histories. So many men. Who are they all? Very confusing.

7. Sometimes they have songs in them

And if they don’t then quite often directors put them in anyway. These quite often involve a mandolin, strolling minstrels etc etc. And “Hey nonnie no”. Unbearable.

8. etc. etc.

ad nauseam.

On the other hand, without Shakespeare we would never have had this:

13 Responses to “Eight reasons why the West End Whingers don’t really do Shakespeare”

  1. trpw Says:

    As somebody who loves Shakespeare and is rapidly approaching seeing his 200th production, I have to say that you make some good points here.
    1. Length. To be fair he packs a lot of stuff into his four hours (not helpful if you don’t understand it) and, with some notable exceptions, he doesn’t waste time.
    2. The Reduced Shakespeare Company spent a decade in the West End making this very point. Shakespeare appears to have exclusively used a (deservedly) lost comedic form where people make laboured puns and then explain them. Good acting and direction can make them funny but never hilarious
    3. The audience reaction isn’t as bad as the forced reactions of the onstage onlookers during a so called battle of wits or puns. Branagh’s film of Much Ado about Nothing did this a lot.
    4.I like to pretend that I think of it as taking a bath in the English language. Of course as I’ve only ever read two of the plays it does take me three or so productions of any one play before I’ve got a real handle of what’s going on.
    My favourite Shakespeare quote is “first thing we do – let’s kill all the lawyers” which is just as true and essential as it has always been.
    5. The problem which commenting on Shakespeare is that you can easily end up sounding like a bad O Level (I’m too old for GCSEs) essay. You have to fall back on memorable scenes and imagery from previous productions.
    It is always best not to say anything just wear a beatific smile of gnomic wisdom.
    6. One word – Wikipedia. Don’t be such light-weights. Admittedly I am probably the only person brave enough (or sad enough) to own up to doing this but I do know who Davvy Gam was.
    You are right about it being confusing though: A major family in the Wars of the Roses was the Mortimers who were all either called Roger or Edmund. Roger Mortimers would call their first son Edmund and their second Roger and vice versa for Edmund Motimers. This went on for about three generations until the whole family was exterminated just to stop the confusion.
    7. Don’t dis the Mandolin man, it’s an essential part of modern Bluegrass music (that’s my excuse for learning to play it). Anyway you haven’t lived till you’ve witnessed the Hurdy Gurdy (a mainstay at the Globe) in action.
    There is no excuse for any “hey nonnies” but a lot of composers try to do something interesting with the songs (director and setting permitting). I’m fairly sure that Phil Daniels gave of his electric guitar in a production of Wnter’s Tale a few years back.

  2. webcowgirl Says:

    This video – are these pastry chefs, possibly from Chicago?


  3. One from an unashamed language-wanker: “Most English speakers apparently have a 4,000-word vocabulary. Shakespeare used more than 29,000 different words in his play which – however you look at it – means most of it is presumably unintelligible to most people.” – I think you’re confusing vocabulary – the number of words accessible to/understood by a person – with idiolect – the number of words ordinarily used by them. Which may, I suppose, back up your point about your own vocabulary🙂

    The fact is that nobody’s been able to come up with a satisfactorily definitive, yardstick of what constitutes “the average vocabulary”, although a quick Google suggests that most figures tend to cluster around the 20,000-word mark.

    Then there’s the fact that a word’s non-appearance elsewhere doesn’t of itself make it unintelligible. It might simply be a minor variation on a familiar word; far more usually, context is a great help.

    So, I find, is thinking🙂


  4. And I promise I wouldn’t have used those emoticons if I’d known they came up as cheesily as they do. I’d have relied on words instead.


  5. 9. Shakespeare is beloved by the kind of people who use the word “idiolect”🙂😆 😥 😈 😯

  6. Graham Says:

    Reason 9 – there is so much talking/singing/hey nonnying that there is little time for food consumption on stage, surely the primary aim of any play which would please you.


  7. Whingers, Excellent post and perhaps one of your all-time best. High praise indeed.

    My only question…. Why is it that when anything else other than Shakespeare is revived, adaptations are freely used. Yet when it comes to Bill, each of his words are apparently so sacrosanct (regardless of the fact that many are now obsolete) that nary a one is altered?

    I would find WS infinitely more enjoyable if he was at least translated into, well, English.


  8. “No, Mr Billington. One does not”

    Please, God, can this be the title of the published collected West End Whingers…


  9. Matter of fact, I can’t recall the last time I saw a Shakespeare that had neither edits nor translations of supposedly awkward words/phrases. It happens all the time; you notice some bits where it doesn’t, but not when it does.

    Andrew, you assume what you want to about whether or not I love Shakespeare; if you ever want to check on the reality, just ask :D:D:D:D:D


  10. Bugger, when I try to do them they don’t work.

    Like Shakespearean jokes.


  11. “I can’t recall the last time I saw a Shakespeare that had neither edits nor translations of supposedly awkward words/phrases. It happens all the time; you notice some bits where it doesn’t, but not when it does…”

    Actually, there seemed to be a whole lot of that in the new NT Much Ado.
    Speaking of textual variation, a friend of mine – appearing with a certain sci-fi actor in a well-known Shakespearean drama concerning Scotland – said: “If I looked slightly bewildered at the curtain call, I can only plead my astonishment at [said actor’s] ever evolving paraphrasing of the text. It is a marvel to behold.”


  12. Thanks, all for your inputs on this controversial topic.

    @ trpw: “it does take me three or so productions of any one play before I’ve got a real handle of what’s going on”. Exactly; that’s asking quite a lot, isn’t it?

    @ Shutters: “Andrew, you assume what you want to about whether or not I love Shakespeare; if you ever want to check on the reality, just ask”. Oooh! A gauntlet! OK. I’m asking. This could make our year.

    @ Andrew Haydon. Hmmm. Our collected works. Interesting. Nothing planned on this, although Andrew’s autobiography – “Was I there?” is still being floated for next Christmas.

    Update: Here’s a doozy of a comparator:

    Carole Woddis in The Herald:

    “For my money, it’s the best Othello since Olivier’s more than 40 years ago…

    …Where other Iagos dominate by their malevolence – one thinks of McKellen and Simon Russell Beale…”

  13. Simone Says:

    I shied away from Shakespeare years ago until I was advised by a huge theatre & Bard fan that Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be watched, not necessarily read.

    So I decided to book the RSC’s King Lear last X’mas (what a way to start eh?) and loved it. I did read the Arden version first. So what I’ve done for now, I got JC Trewin and Stanley Wells’ The Pocket Companion to Shakespeare’s Plays, I refer to it whenever I decide to book a Shakespeare play like Much Ado About Nothing which I had the privilege of watching last night.


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