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News > News > Book Review: First Act Shakespeare

Book Review: First Act Shakespeare

Written by OB Robert Pennant Jones (F 51-56)
22 Apr 2022
(Above) The Lively Caricatures of Clive Francis
(Above) The Lively Caricatures of Clive Francis

A new book written by OB Robert Pennant Jones (F House, 1951-1956), reviewed here by the Bradfield Society Office, offers a lively and inviting introduction to Shakespeare’s plays, combining scholarly insight, personal history and practical recommendation to powerful effect. First Act Shakespeare (2021) is a novel and nuanced synthesis of a life’s work studying and performing the bard’s work which will serve as a perfect introduction to students of Literature and Drama. Offering a concise and constructive summary of each of the 37 plays, brought to life by some evocative illustrations by Clive Francis, the collection wholly succeeds in being ‘a book about the bard, but a book like no other.’

This is an engaging and effective volume, one to be valued by both students and teachers. Perhaps the most impressive achievement is the precision with which Robert is able to deftly weave a variety of practical, personal and scholarly commentary. A single page in his summary of Macbeth balances scholarly consideration of the play’s authorship, practical notes on the role of Seyton and a personal anecdote regarding Pennant Jones’ own performance of the play. The result is to transform Shakespeare from a storied piece of the literary canon, one which, as Pennant Jones notes, has been long resented for its opacity, into an engaging collection which invites individual interpretation.

Two factors are influential in achieving this effect: Firstly, the clear reverence in which Pennant Jones holds the source material. His self-professed ‘lifelong passion’ for Shakespeare is evident in his carefully considered approach to each of the 37 plays, none of which is denied a detailed examination. It is perhaps most clear in his original research and personal experience which leads, productively, to new avenues of interpretation. An analysis of box office receipts, for example, is used to structure a consideration of the plays by reference to their popularity rather than their traditional chronology. The use of personal anecdotes is used to similarly novel effect, throwing new light on old debates. A conversation with a friend, Michael Burrell, for example, is used to suggest that the theatrical superstition of not saying ‘Macbeth’ backstage was less a religious fear and more a tactical attempt by an 18th-century Actor Manager to deter competitors from mounting the play when his own theatre company faced financial difficulty.

The second, related, factor, is the confidence with which Pennant Jones engages with the material: repeatedly he offers insightful suggestions regarding cast numbers, staging and lighting, all with a consideration of the effect generated. On Coriolanus, for example, he writes that adhering to the traditional setting of Imperial Rome ‘makes all the general points without being seduced by attractive topical, but partial, modernism’. Likewise on Julius Caesar, he suggests that ‘togas and plumed helmets seem to augment the play’ and are to be preferred to modern dress. This level of detail speaks to a lifetime’s experience not only reading Shakespeare but teaching and performing it. Crucially, the delivery of this insight is neither condescending nor obscure: Pennant Jones’ articulate but accessible style is well suited to his intended audience and makes engaging with Shakespeare’s plays, many of them obscure, easy and enticing. A final section is particularly notable, offering a number of Shakespeare passages ordered by theme. Containing some of the best speeches in Shakespeare, indeed speeches in England, this powerfully reinforces ‘the supremacy of the poet and his legacy to all of us’. First Act Shakespeare is a valuable contribution to this legacy, proving that it is very much alive. Take a bow, Mr. Pennant-Jones.

First Act Shakespeare (2021) is published by The Seven Stars Project and is available to purchase online and from Waterstones and Foyles. Robert Pennant Jones attended Bradfield between 1951 and 1956. He subsequently read English Literature at St. Catherine’s College Cambridge, where he met Sir Ian McKellan, Derek Jacobi and Miriam Margoles. While he spent his career as a businessman, he still found time to participate in theatre productions, acting and directing for nearly 50 years. Recent notable accolades include his performance of King Lear in London and Paris and his producer role for The Genius of Christopher Marlowe for the Rose Theatre Bankside. He is also a Samuel Beckett scholar.

Ben Adams (Development Assistant)

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