A rare opportunity yesterday to hear the whole cycle of Shakespeare’s sonnets, read in two sections. The Royal Festival Hall ended a day devoted to ‘the poet’s sonnets’ with this reading, featuring ten actors (Simon Russell Beale, Harriet Walter, Guy Paul, Victoria Hamilton, David Harewood, Maureen Beattie, Paterson Joseph, Deborah Findlay, Oliver Ford Davies and Juliet Stevenson). The notes handed out as we went in warned us we might even hate some of the evening (!) but this did not prove to be the case.
I’d like to single out some of the readings for particular praise – Simon Russell Beale put across sonnets 143 (“Lo, as a careful housewife runs to catch”), 126 (“O thou, my lovely boy, who in thy power”), 42 (“That thou hast her, it is not all my grief”), and 138 (“When my love swears that she is made of truth”) with an emotional connect that reached through the centuries since this cycle was written.
The ‘greatest hits’ of the sequence went to Harriet Walter, 18 “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day”, and David Harewood, 130, “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” and served well as anchor points for a change of mood.
Oliver Ford-Davies read well, but the one I remember the most is 37 “As a decrepit father takes delight”; while Deborah Findlay did well with 71, “No longer mourn for me when I am dead”. The night was almost stolen in terms of pure performance and wit though by Paterson Joseph, who interpreted the pair of sonnets 135 “Whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy Will” and 136 “If thy soul check thee that I come so near”, and 144 “Two loves I have of comfort and despair” extremely well.
I liked the way the Royal Festival Hall provided a big screen so everyone in the hall could clearly see the readers as they shared the sonnets with us, but as a viewer from the stalls it was interesting to see who was following the text from the book and who was paying attention to their fellow performers. It was also interesting to see a definite chemistry between adjacent readers Paterson Joseph and Juliet Stevenson (who also read beautifully), and to note some pairings both professional and personal on the stage – David Harewood played Othello to Simon Russell Beale’s Iago at the National Theatre, Juliet Stevenson and Deborah Findlay played sisters in the film ‘Truly, Madly, Deeply’, Harriet Walter and Guy Paul are married in real life. These kind of things keep a viewer engaged during the slower passages of verse.
If the sonnet sequence does not fully sparkle throughout, then there are certainly enough highs and enough memorable lines of verse to make this marathon well worth attending.