Can fiction really cure cancer?

14 April 2018

9:00 AM

14 April 2018

9:00 AM

If you write a book, even a novel, about Shakespeare you must at least consider the theory that Will of Stratford was not the author of the plays. The arguments for that seem nonsensical to me, but they appeal to conspiracy theorists who, a couple of hundred years from now, will probably contend that Joanne Rowling could not possibly be the author of the Harry Potter books because she’s not a recognised authority on owls. Some years ago an amateur troupe staged Twelfth Night in Charleston, South Carolina. A newspaper review next morning struck me as odd because, instead of discussing the performance, the critic wrote a brilliant essay on the authorship debate, but made no judgment on who did write the plays. The last line of the review read, ‘but whoever it was, he turned over in his grave last night’. Splendid.

Ken Ludwig, in his marvellously funny play Shakespeare in Hollywood, advances another crackpot theory of Shakespearean scholarship. The play is loosely based around Max Reinhardt’s famous film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream which he directed in 1934 and has the delicious conceit that Oberon and Puck, magically transported from the wood near Athens, mistakenly arrive in Hollywood instead. Ten years ago I played Max Reinhardt in a summer-stock production in Massachusetts and dared not look the actress playing Lydia Lansing in the eye for fear of helpless laughter when she demonstrated her great Shakespearian discovery. Max had advised her to ‘study the text’, which she did and found that Shakespeare’s lines said backwards makes as much sense as saying them forward. ‘You can’t tell the difference!’

That joke only works, of course, because people fear Shakespeare is impenetrable. A month ago we launched the US edition of Fools and Mortals at the Dock Street Theatre in Charleston. Eight wonderful actors came from New York and we performed excerpts from A Midsummer Night’s Dream as well as the backwards passage from Shakespeare in Hollywood. After the event a high school senior (think sixth form) asked if we had ‘changed the words’ to make them understandable. We hadn’t, ‘but I really enjoyed it!’ she said.

The Dock Street, built in 1736, is America’s Globe Theatre because it was the first playhouse in the 13 colonies. Like the Globe, the original theatre was demolished but it has been rebuilt and is now a beautiful space. What pleased me most is the great royal coat of arms on the proscenium arch. Charleston is proud of its royal connections, reluctant to examine its slave-owning past and ambivalent about its responsibility for beginning the Civil War. A friend of mine likes to say the city ‘has been on the wrong side of every argument for 300 years’. Until two years ago, that is, when Charleston did not vote for Trump.

Can fiction cure cancer? That might seem an irresponsible question, but I was heartened by a letter I received from a man who had been diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer. He spent what he thought would be his last days reading my Saxon novels and tells me that Uhtred’s fighting anger suffused him and his cancer marker dropped from 2,700 to 32, and he is now cancer-free. I’m really not taking credit for this. Not much, anyway. The same mail brought me a letter from Hamilton County Jail in Indiana. The writer, banged up for four months, asked me to reply but specified that jail regulations insisted my letter be written on lined paper. Nor could I send him a book. He could receive a book from the publisher but if, say, it was sent by a bookshop or by the author it would be confiscated as ‘contraband’. Lord, as Puck says, what fools these mortals be.

I’ve been acting in a summer-stock theatre for a decade now and I owe the drama business for the best advice I ever received. I was playing Firs in The Cherry Orchard and was alone, apparently dead, on the stage at the play’s end. I wondered if I should hold my breath in an attempt to look corpse-like, but Terry Layman, who played George Washington in the film The Patriot, dismissed the question. ‘When you’re dead,’ he told me, ‘always keep breathing.’ Wonderful advice. Alan Rust, our director, recalled playing Julius Caesar in a production that demanded his corpse be carried off the stage and up one of the aisles. As he was borne towards the lobby he heard someone whisper ‘But he’s breathing!’ What, Alan wondered, did the man think he’d paid to see? But at least they still pay to see the plays of Shakespeare, who, 402 years in the grave, is still turning, if not breathing.

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