Update on the Shakespeare Industry

(January 2003)

Ton Hoenselaars and Paul Franssen

De Groene Amsterdammer of 24 August 2002 (126:34) was entirely devoted to its colourful general editor, Martin van Amerongen, who died earlier this year (see "Staple of News III"). In this special issue of De Groene Amsterdammer, the established Dutch theatre reviewer Loek Zonneveld responded to Van Amerongen's views of Shylock as presented on the postwar stage in Germany. Van Amerongen (himself of Jewish origin) held the view that since the Second World War, Shylock had become "a hybrid monster," a usurer who, following the embarrassing Nuremberg trials, had been elevated to become the blood brother to Lessing's virtuous Nathan the Wise. Van Amerongen believed that such "reparation" Shylocks ("Wiedergutmachungs-Shylocks"), seriously detracted from the veracity of the Shakespearean part. Loek Zonneveld tests these views, expressed in Van Amerongen's Shylock, Usurer (Amsterdam: Mets & Schilt, 2002), against a number of productions featuring Jews on the contemporary German stage, including Claus Peymann's Nathan der Weise (Berlin, 2002), The Jew of Malta (dir. Thomas Bisschoff, Düsseldorf, 2002), and The Merchant of Venice (dir. Dieter Dron, Residenztheater, Munich, 2002). The politically correct Nathan, says Zonneveld, was reduced to smithereens. The Jew of Düsseldorf collapsed in the production's final phase, as the director tried to gain sympathy for the villainous Jew by having him mouth excerpts from the International anthem. The Munich Merchant made up for these disappointing productions as the 82-year-old Rolf Boysen presented a mean and humourous Shylock who took an obvious delight in playing with his enemies, a professional gambler who, in the trial scene, realized that he had put his stakes too high - a representation of Shylock that Van Amerongen would have understood and appreciated.

On the occasion of the decease of the Dutch prince consort, Claus von Amsberg (6 October 2002), Frans Weisglas, Speaker of the Lower House, reminisced about the prince's interest in development aid as well as his respect for the parliamentary process. Weisglass recalled a long meeting at which the then Minister of Development Cooperation, Marijke Herfkens, had had a hard time defending her policy. At the end of the meeting - which Claus himself had also attended all day - the prince consort addressed the Minister with the words: "Goed gebruld, leeuw" ("Well roared, lion"). As Weisglas puts it, he had never seen a Cabinet Minister with such a proud look on her face. During the days following his death, the press heaped much praise on Claus. People lauded his sense of commitment, his generosity, and his wit. To that catalogue of virtues, one should like to add the epithet "erudite." Had not the prince consort, while complimenting the Cabinet Minister, been using the words of Demetrius, spoken at the performance of "Pyramus and Thisbe" in the final act of A Midsummer Night's Dream?

Shakespeare's superstar status in Britain may have declined somewhat: surprisingly enough, the Bard, who had been named the Man of the Millennium only a few years ago, was not elected as the Greatest Briton ever, but found himself relegated to fifth place. Nor was it only women (one, in fact) or Britons from before 1000 or after 2000 (none) that surpassed him in the election organised by the BBC. The top ten: 1. Churchill; 2. Brunel; 3. Diana; 4. Darwin; 5. Shakespeare; 6. Newton; 7. Lennon; 8. Elizabeth I; 9. Nelson; 10. Cromwell.

In the Netherlands, meanwhile, Shakespeare's position remains firm. According to a report in NRC Handelsblad of 26 November, figures published by the Theater Instituut Nederland show that, in the period from 1986 to 2002, Shakespeare was by far the most popular dramatist in terms of numbers of productions in the Netherlands. Last season there were 28 productions of his plays, against an annual average of 10 productions each for runners-up Chekhov, Pinter and Beckett. A Frisian production of Kening Lear, meantime, directed by Jos Thie of the Tryater theatre company, had already sold over half of the available tickets by the middle of November, whereas performances will not be until May and June of 2003. Much as Paul Pourveur may assert, in the title of his theatre play, that Shakespeare is Dead, and that we should Get over It, the evidence seems to suggest that, as the cliché has it, reports of his demise are wildly exaggerated. The very fact that this play mixes snatches of Shakespearean (pseudo-) biography with a contemporary plot involving Shakespearean actors suggests a degree of obsession with the canonical author that itself belies the title.