26 July 2012

Much Ado

Photo taken by a Shakespeare-loving South African outside the Globe
Once again the British Museum Reading Rooms have been re-jigged. They no longer house books and books and desks and books as they did when I first arrived in London, and how the likes of Oscar Wilde and Virginia Woolf experienced the space beneath that wonderful domed roof.

'Written up are the names of great men; and we all cower like mice nibbling crumbs in our most official discreet, impersonal mood beneath. I like this dusty bookish atmosphere. Most of the readers seemed to have rubbed their noses off and written their eyes out. Yet they have a life they like - believe in the necessity of making books I suppose: verify, collate, make up other books forever' Jacob's Room, Virginia Woolf.

However, though shelved books may no longer line the perimeter of this museum centre-point, it is still very much home to WORDS. Well, it is right now at any rate. Some of the very best words written in Britain. The current exhibition is Shakespeare: Staging the World.

Obviously it's all tied in with the London 2012 thing (because EVERYTHING seems to be) but, y'know, maybe good stuff can come out of the whole Olympics business... Entering through a corridor while the sounds of theatre crowds surround visitors is a pretty excellent opening to the exhibition and I certainly learnt some interesting bits and bobs while wending my way round.

Shakespeare came up with the theatre term 'groundling' to describe the audience members closest to the stage; a groundling is a fish that lies on the bottom of rivers and gazes up at the surface with mouths open.

I was also unaware that the bard was accused of assault outside the Swan Theatre (a fact I learnt when looking at rapiers and daggers, reading about London's knife crime), as well as being a keen gardener in Stratford upon Avon (learnt while looking at contemporary gardening tools in 'The Forest of Arden' section, where music fitting for a melancholy lover was streamed on a loop).

There is a board or two all about bear fighting: bears, like actors, could become celebrities. Displayed behind glass is a skull of a bear which was excavated on the site of the Bear Garden in the 1980s. Its teeth were ground down so that she couldn't crush a dog's skull in a bite. I guess that would mean that the show would be over too quickly.

A portrait of Elizabeth I hangs on the wall, with the pale Queen carrying water in a sieve. This, of course, proves her virginity. Just like the Roman Priestess Tuccia, the Vestal Virgin. Obviously.

Also displayed are really beautiful and rather quirky livery badges in the shape of bears, harts and swans. And tiny cameos of the suicide of Cleopatra, complete with asp at her breast. If only these were sold in the exhibition gift shop.

Less beautiful, but just as interesting, are the calf's heart stuck with pins and the witch's cursing bone. The cry of 'Where hast thou been, sister?' echoes shrilly in this wing of the exhibition, with the bloodthirsty and bonkers 'Killing swine' returning the call. The witches voices sing and hiss and cackle on repeat. James I's treatise on witchcraft, Daemonologie, is open in a cabinet; he was paranoid about this particular subject. He blamed witches for the storms that could have killed him.

There are 16th century artists impressions of 'others', such as the Picts of Scotland. A portrait of a naked and 'wild' man, in a pose often attributed to gentility, is entitled 'The True Picture of One Pict'. Hmm, yes, 'true'.

Two huge globes sit next to each other. They are called the Molyneux Globes and were the first globes to be made by an Englishman. One is terrestrial, the other celestial. The clestial globe depicts the constellations as elaborate illustrations; Leo is a luxurious lion, Ursa Major a glossy-coated wild bear, and so on.

The most memorable and amazing object, however, is Sonny Venkatrathnam's 'Robben Island Bible'. This is a copy of Shakespeare's Complete Works which was disguised as Hindu scripture (it is covered in bright  Diwali cards) and kept by apartheid-era ANC prisoners in the 1970s on Robben Island, a prison off Cape Town. The inmates secretly passed the book around, and Venkatrathnam asked them to mark and sign their favourite passages. There are notes scribbled in the margins. Mandela chose lines from Julius Caeser, II, ii.

"Cowards die many times before their deaths,
The valiant never taste of death but once."

I think that all who ever used the Reading Rooms would probably feel it's acceptable for Shakespeare to take them over for a time. Him and his words.

No comments: