Review of Antipodal Shakespeare: Remembering and Forgetting in Britain, Australia and New Zealand, 1916-2016, by Gordon McMullan and Philip Mead, with Ailsa Grant Ferguson, Kate Flaherty, and Mark Houlahan


Antipodal Shakespeare: Remembering and Forgetting in Britain, Australia and New Zealand, 1916-2016, by Gordon McMullan and Philip Mead, with Ailsa Grant Ferguson, Kate Flaherty, and Mark Houlahan. Bloomsbury, 2018.

The year of ‘Shakespeare 400’, four centuries after William Shakespeare’s death in 1616, was a decidedly global affair, with events, exhibitions and symposia held throughout the year in dozens of countries. What began as a calendar celebration of the international community of audiences, practitioners and scholars of the works of Shakespeare became by year’s end, for many of those who participated in multiple events, an opportunity to reflect with some sense of fatigue on questions of the scope, scale, and usefulness of the ‘global Shakespeare’ brand. Readers of the Antipodal Shakespeare collection are spared such ennui by virtue of a number of factors readily acknowledged by Gordon McMullan and Philip Mead in the book’s introduction. The book had its origins in an Australia Research Council Discovery project ‘Monumental Shakespeares: a transcultural investigation of commemoration in twentieth-century England and Australia’ (2010 to 2012), so by the time the celebration of ‘global’ Shakespeare rolled into high gear in 2016, the contributors had already spent half a decade reflecting on how Shakespeare’s cultural legacy is remembered and even propagated via the institutions of cultural memory situated in two regions on either side of that globe. In place of the tensions between the local and global that haunt studies of globalisation, this book posits an ‘antipodal’ framework that focuses on the interdependent relationship through which the local interests of British and Australasian societies are mapped out in terms of the interests of the other. While there is no pretence here that the relationship is equal, McMullan and Mead remind readers from the outset that there is no imperial project constituting Britain’s place in the world without its antipodean outposts.

This antipodal framework is well fitted to the study of the Tercentenary commemorations of 1916, coinciding as they did with the Great War in which the Anzac legend was born amid the European conflict that saw tens of thousands of Australian and New Zealand lives lost on battlegrounds much closer to Britain than to the homes of their childhood. Indeed, as I write this on the eve of the date of Shakespeare’s death (and, as many believe, the date also of his birth), I am very mindful that Anzac day is just two days later. For Shakespeareans from ‘down under’ this week in April thus carries an annual reminder of the antipodal nature of our interest in an English playwright who died more than four centuries ago. McMullan and Mead begin their introduction by reminding readers who may be unfamiliar with Anzac of the importance of 25 April to Australians and New Zealanders in that Tercentenary year: the first anniversary of the beginning of the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign on that date was declared to be the first Anzac day. The story with which the book begins covers two very different crowds that poured into London’s Waterloo Station on that day in 1916, ‘each of which had that afternoon attended commemorative events of national and cultural significance, one responding to the death of a playwright three hundred years earlier, the other to a military debacle that had taken place only twelve months previously’ (2). While these crowds appear separate, McMullan and Mead use them to anchor an ‘antipodal reading of the Tercentenary of 1916’ that links ‘Shakespeare, war, commemoration, monumentalisation, myth-making and nationhood at a precise historical moment, and that follows some of the outworkings of that moment across the past century’ (8).

Antipodal Shakespeare is thus ‘a relatively brief and focused book, deliberately so’ (9), as its five chapters are oriented for the most part toward the ‘precise historical moment’ that forms the start of the historical timeline indicated in the book’s title. The extent to which each of the five chapters reaches beyond 1916 differs only by virtue of what each contributor considers to be the ‘outworkings’ of that moment. The introduction includes some discussion of 2016, the year that forms the end of this historical timeline, but as McMullan and Mead observe in response to the question of how the Quatercentenary remembrance compared with the events of a century earlier, ‘It is, in many ways, too soon to say’ (17). As the book was finished in February 2017, they suggest, they are still ‘too close’ to the events of the past year, but they concede that ‘it would be odd in the context of this volume not to reflect for a moment, at least, on the events (and non-events) of 2016’ (17). They add that one of the chapters, ‘after all’, touches on a significant event of 2016. Mark Houlahan’s chapter does indeed mention the Pop-up Globe that was erected in Auckland from February to May 2016 (140-43), but it only does so in a brief ‘Coda’ to a chapter that for the most part is concerned – in one of the many highlights of the collection – with written recollections of the ‘Shakespeare Hut’ by New Zealand servicemen who had been in London during 1916 to 1919. This ‘Coda’ in one chapter creates the impression that any reference to 2016 in this collection is something of an afterthought, hardly worthy of the terminal limit it marks in the book’s title. That four of the five chapters do not concern themselves with 2016 is telling in this respect – McMullan and Mead simply describe some of the events with which they were more familiar, and it is only perhaps in their coy ‘(and non-events)’ that some sense of their own fatigue from 2016 finds its way into their recollections. For much of the book, then, 2016 is the more recent past that the contributors are keen to forget in order to better remember the more distant past.

While some readers might baulk at the apparently misleading timeline in the title, though, this reviewer finds the desire to return to 1916 from a variety of perspectives to be, paradoxically perhaps, rather refreshing. My wish is not that the compilers might have let the collection sit for longer in the hope that more could be found to be said about comparisons between 1916 and 2016; rather, it is that there is some sense in these five chapters that there is still so much more that these contributors, and perhaps others, could have found to say about 1916, given more time and without the intervention of ‘Shakespeare 400’ and related global celebrations.

For example, McMullan’s individual contribution outlines the forgotten role played by Israel Gollancz in the plans for the Tercentenary, with his intention being to relocate the epicentre of Shakespeare commemoration from Stratford-upon-Avon to London. As background to this, McMullan briefly mentions that the ‘ongoing, unresolved struggle’ between these two locations ‘for ownership of the Shakespeare industry’ (32) had been initiated by the battle for control of the 1864 Tercentenary of Shakespeare’s birth – he adds in that year, ‘Stratford won resoundingly, hosting a two-week festival.’ McMullan and Mead had presumed that many of their readers may not be familiar with Anzac, but McMullan seems at this point to assume his readers know full well the history of this ongoing, unresolved struggle. With some extra time for reflection, it might have been more apparent that some additional account of the more than 150 years of this struggle was needed, particularly given the prospect that one of the poles of the antipodal structure that frames this collection could be shown to have long been marked by internal division.

McMullan’s focus, instead, is on Gollancz’s role in the events of 1916 and the institutions of Shakespeare commemoration to which they gave rise – without Gollancz, he argues, ‘the histories of the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company, and even Shakespeare’s Globe would have been very different’ (32). He points out further that Gollancz’s plans for a Shakespeare Memorial National Theatre were forestalled by the onset of war, so in its stead the Shakespeare Hut was erected to provide some comfort and a little culture for the soldiers so far away from their homes throughout the Empire. Gollancz is in this way viewed as a key figure in a project that ‘may have been a national one, yet is was always already, we suggest, antipodal – that is, by 1916 Shakespeare had long been the poet not only of nation but also of empire’ (60) and the colonial forces were treated to an expression of this in the Shakespeare Hut. Two of the other chapters deal with this site in greater detail – Ailsa Grant Ferguson’s chapter provides the broader background story of the creation of the Shakespeare Hut and explains the way it operated as recreation house and performance space that managed to align Shakespeare ‘for both the wider British public and for its Anzac users, much more with the “fighting man”, its user (son), and the “caring woman”, its volunteer (mother and sister), than with the government or commanding officer (father)’ (102). Houlahan’s chapter, as has been noted already, offers a fascinating insight into the recollections of the Shakespeare Hut by those who visited the site throughout their tours of duty. With so much of the book focused on this site and the speed with which it was erased from the institutional memory of Anzac experience and of Shakespeare commemoration, it might have been worth pursuing an entire collection on the Shakespeare Hut, expanding the study of the soldiers’ recollections to cover in more detail those by the forces of other countries. Despite Anzac being used in this book as a framing principle to refer to the Antipodean experience of 1916 and its outworkings, the contributions to the book deal rather more separately with either Australia or New Zealand in ways that suggest the category cannot so easily be used to conflate the two.

Mead’s chapter deals with Shakespeare Place, a monument and surrounding site successfully built in Sydney as an act of Shakespeare commemoration – while London had opted to build a national theatre instead of erecting a statue for the Tercentenary of 1916, Sydney would opt for a monument. Kate Flaherty’s chapter looks at the way Australians have reworked that most militaristic of Shakespeare plays, Henry V, from the Sydney Shakespeare Festival of 1916 to the program of the Bell Shakespeare Company, to renegotiate their relationship with Britain and its cultural heritage. While both offer memorable insights worthy of contributing to the broader ‘antipodal reading’ toward which the book is oriented, both also seem a world away from the ‘precise historical moment’ toward which that reading was initially directed in the book’s introduction. If the focus of the other chapters on the Shakespeare Hut prompt questions of what else might be written about that specific cultural phenomenon, the other two chapters raise the spectre about just how much of a ‘focused book, deliberately so’ this collection succeeds in being. This is complicated by decisions to not identify as editors and contributors – I have referred to this book as a collection, yet the five contributors have been identified on the cover and in the publishing information as co-authors. Only McMullan and Mead contribute to the acknowledgements and the introduction, so to all intents and purposes they fill the role of the editors of an edited collection, and the other three ‘co-authors’ are not given input into the acknowledgements and each contribute only one chapter. Readers will be able to decide for themselves which labels are more apt, especially in the shadow of research quality assessments that currently drive the publishing activities of scholars on both sides of the antipodal divide.

Published 9 July 2018 in Volume 33, No. 2. Subjects: Shakespeare, William, Commemoration.

Cite as: Johnson, Laurie. ‘Review of Antipodal Shakespeare: Remembering and Forgetting in Britain, Australia and New Zealand, 1916-2016, by Gordon McMullan and Philip Mead, with Ailsa Grant Ferguson, Kate Flaherty, and Mark Houlahan.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 33, no. 2, 2018.