Shakespeare in 100 Objects: Treasures from the Victoria and Albert Museum
Edited by Janet Birkett
Nick Hern Book
There seems to be a fashion at the moment for finding 100 objects to represent various things—just try Googling "100 objects"—but Nick Hern Books places the concept in the context of Shakespeare's 450th anniversary.
The book is produced in conjunction with the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington, which has housed the collection of the Theatre Museum since it closed in Covent Garden in 2007. The objects are all from the V&A collection and look at Shakespeare both during his lifetime and in the almost four centuries since his death from a number of different angles.
Each entry gets a picture and a couple of pages of description setting it into context, headed by a quote from a Shakespeare play—although the relevance of some of these is a little obscure.
The chosen objects range from props and costumes from notable productions, paintings, engravings and photographs of performances and actors, set and costume designs, stills from videos of more recent productions and objects, images and sculptures relating to Shakespeare himself.
There are some items that relate to Shakespeare more obliquely, such as The Great Bed of Ware, which is referred to in one line of Twelfth Night, or whose relationship with the Bard is rather tenuous, such as images of actors in non-Shakespeare roles who are known to have performed in Shakespeare as well.
The text is well-written—by members of the V&A's theatre and performance department—and informative, not only contextualising the objects but, in many cases, showing their wider relevance as well. There is some repetition of information written in different ways, perhaps due to there being multiple authors, but this is a book that many will dip into rather than reading it from cover to cover.
If you do read the whole thing, you will gain a reasonable working knowledge of Garrick, the Kembles, Olivier, Beerbohm Tree, Irving, Ellen Terry, Sarah Siddons, Ira Aldridge and others who have kept Shakespeare alive in performance.
It all adds up to an attractive book containing lots of gems of information about our national playwright from across history. It doesn't join everything together as neatly and thoroughly as an academic text, but as an easy, enjoyable and informative read it works very well indeed.
Reviewer: David Chadderton