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Mark Rylance in the Original Practices production of Richard III.

Simon Annand

Ben Jonson, that notorious troublemaker, helped set off four centuries of misunderstandings about William Shakespeare when he wrote of his fellow playwright and friend, "He was not of an age, but for all time."

As Northrop Frye long ago pointed out, there's a crucial word missing from this tribute – one that might have messed up the metre, but would have rendered it infinitely more accurate.

Jonson should have written that Shakespeare was "not only of an age" – for as exceptional a dramatist as he was and as enduring as his works have been, the Bard of Avon was very much a product of his place and time.

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Shakespeare: Staging the World, a thought-provoking exhibition at the British Museum mounted to coincide with the Olympics, aims to provide insight into the playwright who was "of an age."

The exhibition immerses attendees in the physical world of Shakespeare's London through paintings and maps, clothing and weapons, and even the dented skull of a celebrated she-bear killed by dogs in one of the gruesome bear-baiting spectacles that competed with Hamlet and Macbeth for paying customers.

One deceptively complex question that Staging the World provides a simple answer to is: Was Shakespeare an English playwright or a British one? He was both, the curators argue – one, and then the other.

During the reign of Elizabeth I, Shakespeare thought of himself as English, but when James I (also James IV of Scotland) ascended to the throne in 1603 – aiming to rule as the "first king of Great Britaine" – the playwright began to write plays that took up the challenge of defining this new (or renewed) British identity.

This transformation is clear watching Henry V and Cymbeline, two of the plays that Ontario's Stratford Shakespeare Festival happens to be putting on this season – one a history, the other less obviously so. (I approached the exhibition with these productions fresh in my mind.)

In Henry V (written around 1599), Shakespeare may show English, Scottish, Irish and Welsh soldiers fighting side by side, but the famous war cry at the 1415 Battle of Agincourt is, "God for Harry, England and Saint George." (Staging the World showcases shields, helmets and a sword associated with Henry's funeral, secular relics that Shakespeare may have seen on display at Westminster Abbey and been inspired by.)

By the time of Cymbeline, however, written around 1610 – the full title in the First Folio is Cymbeline, King of Britain – Shakespeare's language had changed, and we find an evil queen dreaming of wresting control of "the placing of the British crown." The words "Britain" or "Britons" appear in this difficult-to-classify play nearly 50 times.

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Among the documents on display at Staging the World that put Cymbeline in its historical context are a watercolour of proposed designs for a flag for Great Britain, as well as a painting that depicts James I's successful negotiations with a Spanish ambassador to end two decades of war. King Cymbeline's peace with the powerful ancient empire of Rome in the play was likely a stand-in for the deal struck in 1604 with the then-great empire of Spain.

By the end of the exhibition, Cymbeline – with its fantastical plot full of bed tricks, bizarre beheadings and Jupiter riding an eagle – had been recast in my mind as a topical and, indeed, political play that would have spoken directly to an audience of the time.

How much do we miss when we watch Shakespeare today? And can we ever experience one of his plays as his first audiences would have?

At the reconstructed Globe Theatre on the South Bank, they try, quixotically, to make us see Shakespeare through Jacobean eyes.

After attending Staging the World at the British Museum, a visitor to London may walk down to the Thames and cross over any number of bridges to head towards the theatre.

During Shakespeare's age, however, the journey to his original "wooden O" would have been entirely different – unless you could afford a personal ferry, you would have had to cross by London Bridge, passing by the heads of traitors on spikes.

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What a prologue to Richard III that would be.

This summer, Mark Rylance – the extraordinary two-time Tony winner, who, Time Out London recently suggested, may be the greatest stage actor of our age – is starring as Richard in an "original practices" production of the play (on until Oct. 13). It's directed by Tim Carroll, who, incidentally, will be in Canada in 2013 to direct Romeo and Juliet at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

In "original practices," the attempt is made to perform the play as it would have been seen at its premiere – with all the parts played by male actors, unwieldy Elizabethan costumes, and many irritating lute interludes.

As you may have garnered from my description, this appeals to me about as much as going to an "original practices" dentist.

But while I find such theme-park theatre artistically dubious, Staging the World put me in a headspace where I could at least attempt to put myself in mindset of a 1591 Londoner – and, as it turned out, I thoroughly enjoyed Carroll's oddly off-hand production.

As is well known, Shakespeare's Richard III, rather than telling the accurate history of the English king of the title, twisted it into a kind of Tudor propaganda, showing how that beastly, deformed king was righteously defeated at Bosworth field by Richmond a.k.a. Henry Tudor – that is, the future Henry VII, grandfather of Elizabeth I.

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Shakespeare wasn't the only artist to turn Richard into an outright villain to flatter his ruler. In Staging the World, there is a portrait of him – artist unknown – painted around the middle of the 16th century, halfway between his reign and the premiere of Shakespeare's play. Once likely owned by Henry VIII, it shows Richard with twisted left hand and a broken sword – representing his unruly reign.

What makes it a particularly fascinating historical document is how it was subsequently painted over, likely in the eighteenth century, to reduce Richard' deformity. The curators suggest this change may have followed the publication of Horace Walpole's 1768 tome, Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of King Richard III, which sought to redeem the late king from his sinister Shakespeare reputation.

Carroll's production does not paint over Shakespeare's play to create a more a well-rounded Richard, or to imbue it with contemporary resonances. Instead, he stages it as pure Elizabethan agitprop – two-dimensional, but entertaining.

Rylance is an extremely casual, very funny psychopath who, aside from his shriveled left hand, has as his major disability a bloated belly rather than a hunch.

Rylance's Richard takes the audience into his confidence early on, shushing them after revealing that he has laid plots in the opening monologue. He flirts with the "groundlings" who stand watching in the pit, and even swirls his cloak over a couple of their heads at one point. Only in the second half does Rylance pulls back on the charisma, hesitating and fumbling over words purposefully as Richard loses his monstrous confidence.

Aside from the formidable Rylance, and a strong performance of Queen Elizabeth by Samuel Barnett that includes a crude and shocking kiss of death planted on Richard's lips, what's perhaps most surprising about the production is how stirring the arrival of James Garnon's Richmond in the final act is.

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Usually, I am entirely indifferent to the late appearance of this bland hero who saves the day. This time, however, I – who, along with the rest of the audience, had cheered for Richard when invited to do so by Roger Lloyd Pack's convincing Buckingham – enthusiastically transferred my allegiances to Henry Tudor and cheered his defeat of the hunchback.

Though I hadn't arrived at the theatre walking past the disembodied heads of traitors, I nearly found myself on the verge of yelling: Long live the Queen.

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