Theatrical knotweed: Margaret Drabble journeys around Shakespeare’s globe

By Margaret Drabble for the NewStatesman, 18 October 2015

It is hard to characterise Andrew Dickson’s Worlds Elsewhere – it is a discursive, rambling, global volume.

This is an extraordinarily exhilarating book. It is like no other Shakespeare criticism you have ever read, and it takes you into unimagined realms of speculation. Andrew Dickson, like Puck, has put a girdle round about the earth, and brought back performances of Richard III among the rattlesnakes in California, King Lear with live pigs in Munich, a putative Hamlet in 1607 in Sierra Leone by a ship’s crew aboard the Dragon, a Marxist interpretation of Timon in Beijing and a Cantonese performance of The Taming of the Shrew in Hong Kong, complete with Triad trilbies and vampish high heels. Most of the time our narrator-guide is having a great deal of fun, though his travels are not always comfortable, his accommodation is sometimes challenging, and he occasionally feels himself to be a lonely traveller, with only Shakespeare as his friend. But however bizarre his encounters, he is a serious scholar, and his cross-cultural insights into Shakespeare are remarkable.

Dickson’s project was in part inspired by the multilingual performances from nearly 50 countries that made up the World Shakespeare Festival in London in 2012, which ran parallel with the Olympics. Watching The Comedy of Errors played by Afghans, he wondered why the troupe had chosen this play, found good reasons (connected with exile, loss and separation) and in due course set out to travel in search of the multiple meanings of the world’s greatest playwright. It is a romantic, joyous, if at times (for him) exhausting exploration, and our hero (the picaresque vocabulary seems to come naturally) is an emotional witness, on a sentimental journey, easily moved to tears, particularly by the late plays.

He engages with all those he meets, from divas and directors to students and scholars, and has a light but expert hand with the travelogue aspect of his task, evoking landscapes and skyscapes as well as theatres and performances and libraries. The sprawling townships of the American Midwest, Cape Town’s Table Mountain and Robben Island, and the cultural citadel of Weimar (so sinisterly close to Buchenwald) are drawn with a painterly eye and much sociological curiosity. He’s very good on the topography and the place names of the desolate: Lady Bug Lane, Stagecoach Way, Nugget Lane, Black Bear Lane, Slave Girl Lane . . .

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