As many a schoolchild will tell you, Shakespearean comedies belong to a special genre of comedy—that genre that is not funny (and probably isn’t even meant to be funny).
I confess to having carried this view forward well into adulthood. Even as an undergraduate, I would have told you that the only time I’d cracked a smile at one of Will’s lines was while watching a ‘Marxist’ production of Macbeth at Liverpool Playhouse (c1984): ‘Marx’ in this instance referred not to Karl but to Chico, Harpo and Groucho.
“Is this a dagger I see before me?” uttered as a plastic dagger jiggles up and down on a length of sturdy fishing line. Lesson: Shakespeare can be funny, but only when he doesn’t mean to be.
Truth is, so many Shakespearean productions were clamped in stifling, conservative approaches back then, laughter was more likely to be heard at great aunts’ funerals than in hallowed auditoria.
All that changed, on a national scale, probably thanks to Michael Bogdanov and the English Shakespeare Company (founded with Michael Pennington).
For me personally, it changed on a warm summer’s evening in the grounds of Burnley’s Towneley Hall.
My brothers and I had all but had our arms twisted by our sister, Carol (who booked the tickets). We traipsed around the grounds as the open air production utilised a range of locations, finding ourselves increasingly bemused by the portly couple who, despite not being in the best of shape, somehow managed to be the first audience members to arrive at each location, planting their folding chairs right at the front (no one dared stand in front of them).
It was, as I say, a warm evening (July or August) and as the darkness thickened, the midges went into a feeding frenzy, especially over by the rhododendron bushes, where we were obliged to stand during act one, scene two, as Peter Quince began assigning rolls to the ‘rude mechanicals’. Nick Bottom—played here as a lovably warm Welshman—gushed enthusiasm into the night air like a Yellowstone Park geyser.
Try imagining Rob Brydon or Rhod Gilbert, at his most hyper, unrelentingly effervescing his way through:
“Let me play the lion too. I will roar, that I will do any man’s heart good to hear me. I will roar, that I will make the duke say, ‘Let him roar again. Let him roar again.’”
That’ll help, but you’ll still not quite grasp the million-midge-bite-erasing delight I have in my mind.
We also roared (literally) with laughter—and if you think ‘roaring with laughter’ is a figure of speech, you’ve clearly never met my middle brother, who could make Brian Blessed seem a little timid and reserved.
The disapproving glances from the couple in the folding chairs—who regarded us with a disdain usually ladled over schoolchildren holding belching contests in the Whispering Gallery at St Paul’s—only ramped our amusement up another few notches.
We finished the evening aching and weary from laughing.
Sadly, I can recall neither the name of the actor nor the company who so memorably revealed the comic potential lurking in the bardic masterpiece. Please let me know if you can.
I remember it as if it were yesterday.
Pass the Savlon.