“Shakespeare’s Sonnets Full Show” is The Shows Must Go On’s… well the title says it all really. This show is all of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets performed to camera by an ensemble cast that includes Fiona Shaw, Sir Patrick Stewart, David Tennant, Simon Callow, Simon Russell Beale, Kim Cattrall, Dominic West and Stephen Fry.
Many of the performers here are household names and all are familiar faces, some for Shakespeare, others not, and a very few for their expertise either in performing Shakespeare in the period accent or his life and times, which is always intriguing and if nothing else proof of the vast love that has brought these people together over this text.
The text is not the only reason though as this show is for a cause, to raise money for The Actor’s Fund as well as several other performance and COVID-19 related charities.
Shakespeare’s sonnets are often seen as the quintessential collection of love poetry, though they are far more diverse than that. In between the love poems both heterosexual and gay, both successful and not, are a few poems on how Shakespeare feels about wigs, his juvenilia for the wife he got pregnant as a young man and a fair few poems telling a young woman to hurry up and start producing offspring to pass on his wonderful DNA. But how do they stack up as the “Full Show” of the title?
The reviewer’s task, I feel, is to balance what the show aims with what he feels it achieves, and really this isn’t a show but a 150-minute collection of 90 second snippets (well, sonnects) punctuated by fade-outs and scene & actor changes. While this leaves one in no doubt as to where each sonnet starts and ends, it doesn’t give much cohesion, even when the sonnets build on each other in theme, argument and even word-choices. For some the performer stays the same, but still we get a fade-out, in a way contradicting the text.
And yet all this is intentional, and equally supported by the text: after all, the sonnets are both poems and a book, individual works and yet a whole. However, the difference lies with the audience. No one expects a book to be read in one sitting simply because it has been released as such, but I do not feel the same can be said for more visual media: a sketch, an episode and an epic are all different lengths, but we now where each starts and finishes, though we can ignore it.
Of course, we may ignore it here too, but the format seems to both demand that decision without condoning it. After all, if this “full show” is for the Shakespeare super-fan wanting to see the poems they hold dear performed by their favourite actors as if they were a popular 1590s cover-band, is watching them on one’s sofa the ideal experience? If this is meant for the idly curious who do not have the patience for reading, will 150+ minutes of people sitting and reciting at them really work that much better?
In an intimate space with low lights and proximity with these masters of their craft this might have worked but here, on YouTube, it is not the same. Dividing this up into some smaller chunks with specific performers for each tackling together one theme or idea (The Reproduction cycle, The Fair Youth, The Dark Lady, Odds & Sodds & Wigs, Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits, etc) might have served them better, both with superfans and the casual YouTube audience.
However, this show is for a noble cause and that isn’t the only reason to watch it. I may have griped about the format but that is partly due to the current pandemic (without which this show wouldn’t need to exist) and therefore not something that can be helped and even without this review anyone sitting down to watch “Shakespeare’s complete sonnets” cannot expect anything else than what the title says. If my overall star rating seems low it is simply due to the inherent problems of a show such as this and in no way a criticism of the people and work involved, who all deliver here.
So, if you have the faintest affection for the bard, poetry or for the actors assembled here, I can only recommend you check it out. Just be prepared to maybe do it in a more leisurely or episodic way than the format implies, and mote like you might read, say, a book of poems. Until Friday 27th November – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ulIBJFtJPA0
Reviewer: Oliver Giggins
Reviewed: 24th November 2020
North West End UK Rating: ★★★