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