Friday, 28 November 2008

“Shakespeare on Toast”, by Ben Crystal (Icon Books)

Crystal-ShakespeareOnToast

An enthusiast bursts the bubble of Shakespeare elitism, opening its doors to all

Who’s afraid of William Shakespeare? Just about everyone. He wrote too much and what he wrote is inaccessible and elitist. This is wrong. Shakespeare on Toast knocks the stuffing from the staid old myth of Shakespeare, and author Ben Crystal brings the Bard to life, revealing the man and his plays for what they really are: modern, thrilling and uplifting drama.

Crystal romps through the facts about Shakespeare’s life in under fifteen pages and then dismisses them with a cool ‘I don’t care who really wrote Shakespeare’s plays.’ He then launches into a pithy and witty account of what Elizabethan life was like, what it would have been like going to the theatre in Shakespeare’s time, and why exactly he wrote in poetry anyway. The second half of the book covers how to read and understand Shakespeare’s language, explains how Shakespeare left clues for his actors within the text, and finishes with an in-depth examination of a scene from Macbeth. Crystal’s prose is peppered with humorous asides and pop culture, his use of dialogue from Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit, or rap by Mos Def to explain about rhythm and metre. The structure of the book breaks it down into five easily digestible “Acts”, while the chapter titles are all fun and pertinent scene locations, e.g. “Act 2: Curtain Up, Scene 3, A galaxy far, far away”.

The author is a trained actor who also studied Language and Linguistics at university, and obviously knows what he’s talking about. It is refreshing to have an actor’s perspective on Shakespeare, and makes a great change from dry academic books with too much emphasis on reading Shakespeare and not enough on actually watching him. As Crystal admits, the book is short, but it does exactly what it says on the label: offers the reluctant reader a way to crack the basics of the Bard. Crystal’s no-nonsense attitude and witty approach really make the book stand out, and he covers all the major things you need to understand and (whisper it) enjoy Shakespeare. I’d like to buy a copy for the last two Shakespeare-phobic directors I worked with.

This should be required reading for actors, anyone doing English Literature at school or university, and the girls who spoiled the performance of The Merry Wives of Windsor I went to at the Globe this summer by whispering to each other that they couldn’t understand a word. Highly recommended, and not just by me but also by Judi Dench and Richard Eyre!

Try this along with Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare and David Crystal’s Think on my Words: Exploring Shakespeare’s Language.

Reviewed by Emma Newrick

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