Susan Elkin welcomes a second instalment
Many of us are familiar with Leon Garfield’s 1985 volumewhich crisply and evocatively presented the stories of 12plays – including the two less obviously attractive histories, Richard II and Henry IV, Part 1. The joy of Garfield is that he seamlessly blends his own vibrantly poetic prose passages with words, phrases or sentences taken directly from Shakespeare. Thus we have `”Get thee to a nunnery!” shouted Hamlet wildly. Yet at the same time he ached with remorse for the frightened girl’ and `”What hempen homespuns have we swaggering here, so near the bed of the Fairy Queen?” Puck, lurking among leaves, peered out at theworthy workmen’s solemn antics. He grinned crookedly, and his eyes glittered like spots of dew.’ Michael Foreman’s spikily sinister illustrations are spot on, too.
Garfield also wrote the screenplay for each of the six plays in the recently televised Animated Shakespeare series.Although the text was pruned down to the bone in order to reduce the time to 25 minutes, the words left were almost entirely Shakespeare’s. While I felt uneasy with these fripperies, many people reported that their very young children were captivated. Dozens of older children told me themselves in school how much they were enjoying them, too. If the next generation is wooed by `cartoonised’ Shakespeare and maybe comes later to a more authentic rendering, then who am I to condemn it? It’s good news therefore that six further animated Shakespeare plays are in preparation for transmission late in 1994.
Leon Garfield’s new book, with its enigmatic depiction of a blue and gold Cleopatra on the cover, offers retellings of a further nine plays. As in the earlier book, to which it is a companion volume, the choice is eclectic and unpatronising. Measure for Measure and Richard III are not the most obvious choices for presenting to children but the accessible text and Foreman’s thoughtful pictures will help readers towards understanding some of the complex and universal adult issues involved. An imaginative way into the confusions of lust and embittered ambition, for instance. Many children will be able to read Much Ado about Nothing and tie it in with the spell-binding new Kenneth Branagh film. Julius Caesar and As You Like It are also there, among others.
Traditionally teachers relied on dusty old Lamb to make Shakespeare more approachable for children but in the last few years there have been other story versions of the plays. Bernard Miles’s 1976 account of five, for example, is resonantly chatty as ever. Although Victor Ambrus’s flamboyant illustrations are attractive, I worry that the stories and the language seem to have strayed too far from Shakespeare’s text. In short: strong on Miles but weak on Shakespeare.
An updated, illustrated, Czech-produced version of 15 of Lamb’s original tales has also just arrived from Sunburst Books. After Garfield they have all the excitement of flat beer. There is little poetry. The unnamed writer merely follows Lamb’s dull text fairly closely with occasional modern `improvements’ such as the replacement of `refractory’ with `disobedient’ and `Herculean task’ with `difficult labour’. The drawings (also anonymous) are greyly uninspired.
Of course, there’s a great deal more to Shakespeare than his stories but it’s not such a bad place to start since almost anyone can relate to a clear narrative. And Shakespeare Stories from Leon Garfield and Michael Foreman remains unsurpassed.
Shakespeare Stories, Leon Garfield, ill. Michael Foreman,Gollancz, 0 575 03095 X, £14.95; 0 575 04340 7, £8.99 pbk
Shakespeare Stories II, Leon Garfield, ill. Michael Foreman,Gollancz, 0 575 05049 7, £14.99
Tales from Shakespeare, Charles and Mary Lamb, Puffin, 0 14035088 8, £3.50 pbk
Favourite Tales from Shakespeare, Bernard Miles, ill. VictorAmbrus, Hamlyn, o/p
Illustrated Tales from Shakespeare: A modern adaptation from Charles and Mary Lamb, Sunburst Books, 1 85778 021 3, £9.99
Susan Elkin is a teacher of English, and sometimes other subjects, as well as being a freelance journalist. She lives in Kent and has two grown-up sons.