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Lecture As Theatre

January 27, 2009

I don't have many memories of great teachers from my university years. I might have attended some posh institutions of learning during my time as a graduate and undergraduate including King's College Cambridge, The Central School of Speech and Drama and Harvard. The lessons I remember most vividly come from an earlier period -- my primary and secondary education. I don't recall anything much about hearing the likes of Germaine Greer or David Mamet lecture. But I have powerful recollections of a mind-blowing class about "four dimensional worlds" given by a math teacher at my secondary school in Canterbury, Kent when I was fourteen years old.

So it was fascinating to spend some time in a lecture theatre in Ann Arbor, Michigan, over the weekend, in the company of Ralph Williams (pictured left) -- one of those rare university academics who truly knows how to make a lecture stick in the beholder's heart and mind. Williams, a beloved and now retiring English Literature and Near Eastern Studies professor at the University of Michigan, gave a farewell lecture at a tribute event held in his honor at the University's Rackham Auditorium on Saturday evening.

Williams, a 67-year-old Shakespeare junkie from Canada gave a talk about how the Bard's work ekes out a small space for pity in the reader or theatregoer between the threat of destruction ("the uplifted sword") and the inevitability of destruction ("the fall of the sword.") The message was ultimately one about the power of art as a call to humanity.

There's nothing particularly revolutionary about the ideas Williams talked about in his lecture. I'm sure I've heard this speech, or something like it, many times before in Cambridge Massachusetts and Cambridge UK. But the ideas have never quite been packaged in this way before.

"Williams would have made a great actor...in the 19th century" quipped Michael Boyd, the artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company who was present at the tribute event and gave a speech in honor of Williams. (The RSC was also being recognized at the event for its relationship with the University.) Boyd is right. Williams performed his lecture as if standing behind the footlights on a Victorian era stage. This latterday Edmund Kean's voice modulated from an anguished, vibrato-laden bleat as he described, with a stricken face, King Lear's entry on stage carrying the body of his dead daughter Cordelia, to titanic, warbling, red-faced rage when channeling Prospero.

As over-the-top as Williams' performance was, it was equally magnetic. A predilection for quoting at length from parts of Shakespeare that most stage directors ignore (e.g. Hamlet's speech about Pyrrhus to the actors in Act 2 scene 2) would have been dull in another lecturer's mouth. Yet Williams is so completely gaga about each syllable that you can't help but feel some of his enthusiasm rub off on you as you listen.

Then there are his hands. Boyd's description of Williams' hands as being like those of E.T. the Extraterrestrial was perfect. I couldn't take my eyes of his incredibly long fingers, which snaked around in the air like tendrils or stuck out stiffly like the Wolverine's blades throughout his talk. When he wasn't using his hands to underscore some point about Othello or The Tempest like some manic orchestral conductor, he was rubbing his nails self-consciously as if trying to stave off chilblains. In another lecturer, these ticks would be unbearable. But in Williams, somehow they're art.

Williams' lecture about Shakespeare was not one that I'll forget in a hurry. Why? Because it was pure theatre.

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