It sounded like a fantastic idea to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death. A string of 37 big screens, each showing a short film related to one of William's plays, strung out along the South Bank in almost-chronological sequence and free to view. And indeed it was a fantastic idea. The artistic director at the Globe Theatre oversaw the creation of the project, combining extracts from filmed stage productions with specially commissioned scenes recorded in the actual locations Shakespeare intended. Some seriously famous actors got involved, and the end result is a collection of superb introductions to, and summaries of, the Bard's back catalogue.
The intention of The Complete Walk is that you start at one end (near Westminster Bridge) and walk to the other (by City Hall), taking in as many or as few of the short films as you please. At about ten minutes a time, the entire sequence would take about seven hours to watch in its entirety, including a pleasant two mile riverside stroll. So I thought I'd have a go, attempting at least a taster of each, which would be most of Saturday gone. Alas things didn't quite work out like that, as the entire project half-collapsed in a typically British mess. But they'll be having another go today, if technology permits and you're interested, and the films are so good that it might just be worth your while.
1) The Two Gentlemen of Verona: The trail kicked off in the garden at St Thomas' Hospital, once I'd found my way in, and featured Meera Syal on set in northern Italy. Good start. 2) Henry VI, Part 3: Just across the lawn, suitably out of audible range, it was already obvious that "The Histories" were going to be a bit more of a challenging watch than the rest. 3) The Taming of the Shrew: And then things started going wrong. The big screen in Jubilee Gardens was showing what looked like a floating gallery of maritime flags, because it was buggered. So, no Shrew. 4) Henry VI, Part 1: Ditto this Wars of the Roses featurette. A blank screen greeted viewers wandering across to the other side of Jubilee Gardens, so there were no viewers. 5) Titus Andronicus: Bullseye. Shakespeare's goriest play got the full works on a screen located under Hungerford Bridge, including pie-based cannibalism and, ooh, Peter Capaldi acting his socks off in the title role. It was just a shame that much of his dialogue was drowned out by the 12.36 to Sevenoaks rumbling overhead. 6) Henry VI, Part 2: It's OK, Shakespeare wrote his trilogy in the wrong order, hence the unusual sequencing. We enjoyed much cockney banter, as filmed at Spitalfields Market. 7) Romeo and Juliet: Moving up to a screen outside the Royal Festival Hall, this classic Italian-themed romance was drawing decent crowds. 8) Richard III: Another classic, but alas not on this occasion. "Ladies and gentlemen, due a technical fault this screen is closed" read the apologetic message on the screen, while a member of staff fiddled with the electronics round the back. We eventually got sound, but no picture was visible, perhaps due to continued problems, or perhaps because the screen was pointing directly into the sun. An old lady with an unimpressed grandson wandered over to tell the volunteer how displeased she was by all the broken screens. "We're trying our best, madam."
9) Love's Labours Lost: Where better than immediately outside the National Theatre for a part-rendition of this melancholic masterpiece? We even got to enjoy a song at the end. 10) King John: Less of a classic, and struggling to compete with a) the song drifting across from screen number 9 b) the sound of the ventilation unit round belching out of the NT. 11) The Comedy of Errors: Ah, another blank screen. I was struck by the play's highly appropriate title, given the way the project was rolling out thus far. 12) Richard II: Nothing. Ah hang on, pictures but no sound. And then a jump back to the beginning to try again. And then a jump back to the beginning to try again with sound. And then a minute later another jump back to the beginning... and those watching started to wander away. 13) A Midsummer Night's Dream: It had now started raining, but this screen had been cleverly positioned in the bandstand at Gabriel's Wharf, so the entire audience had crammed up close beneath the roof to stay dry, which meant I couldn't see the Bottom. 14) The Merchant of Venice: The first of three screens in Bernie Spain Gardens. But only one of the three was working, and it wasn't this one. 15) Henry IV, Part 1: In a complete tour de force, actor Toby Jones played a drunken Falstaff staggering around the interior of the George Inn, haranguing a man with a charity bucket, and soliloquising at the gents urinals. We loved it. 16) Much Ado About Nothing: Ah, another blank screen. I was struck by the play's highly appropriate title, given the way the project was rolling out thus far.
17) Henry IV, Part 2: Tucked away in the courtyard behind the Oxo Tower, a forlorn screen with no film and no audience. 18) The Merry Wives of Windsor: Ditto. I was now halfway through the sequence of screens, and precisely half of them hadn't been working. 19) Hamlet: Not to be. 20) Henry V: Once more unto the breach. 21) As You Like It: Sans everything. 22) Julius Caesar: Et tu, Brute? 23) Othello: No Moor. 24) Measure For Measure: At last, action! But having missed out on Jonathan Pryce, Sam West, Mel Giedroyc and David Harewood during the duff sequence past Tate Modern, this perhaps wasn't the finest return to form. 25) Twelfth Night: Here on Clink Street was the biggest crowd pleaser of the entire walk, as hundreds enjoyed footage of a hilarious comedic staging featuring Stephen Fry and Mark Rylance. Unfortunately the screen's location under the Cannon Street railway bridge reflected back the sound of the generator, ensuring that much of the dialogue was awkwardly muffled.
26) Troilus and Cressida: A great location, in the ruins of Winchester Palace, although this meant this was little room for an audience as well as the usual tourists, and the cobbled street got very crowded. 27) All's Well That Ends Well: The most relaxed setting, on the cafe terrace outside Southwark Cathedral, with chairs available for those who'd already walked a long way. Unfortunately Lindsay Duncan's reenacted scene was interrupted by the arrival of a white van which had to reverse up to the cathedral door, for some reason, necessitating the displacement of several old ladies from its path. 28) Timon of Athens: A rather smaller audience was watching this one, perhaps Shakespeare's least impressive play. Only now, three-quarters of the way through my parade, did I finally spot a volunteer handing out free maps to show my route. 29) Anthony and Cleopatra: Screened at London Bridge Pier, this filmed segment was shot on location at the Pyramids in Egypt, reflecting the enormously ambitious scale of this anniversary production. 30) King Lear: This was my favourite film, coherently summarising the plot and then shifting Kenneth Cranham and Zawe Ashton to the top of the White Cliffs of Dover. Brilliantly acted, and the kind of taster that must have made many think "You know what, perhaps I really ought to go and watch the full play some time".
31) Macbeth: Shot at Glamis, and wonderfully atmospheric, the Galleria audience enjoyed a compilation including the Porter, a lot of hand-washing and a battlefield death. My subconscious was pleased to discover that my O Level in English Literature hadn't been wasted, and I could chant along with almost every word. 32) Coriolanus: After eight consecutive operational screens, the gremlins were back. An engineer in a Fonix jacket stood alone round the back, outside More London, bleating to somebody on his phone. 33) Henry VIII: One of Shakespeare's least well known plays had the prime spot in The Scoop outside City Hall, its capacious bowl offering a rack of concrete stalls... mostly unoccupied. 34) Pericles: One of the sponsors of The Complete Walk was the Mayor of London. But the screen in Potters Field outside his office window wasn't working. 35) Cymbeline: And this was very much not working either. I felt sorry for all the actors who'd gone to the bother of travelling miles and acting their socks off on location, only for some random power glitch to mean that nobody would see their work. 36) The Winter's Tale: And then a third failure in Potters Fields, which made a disappointing way to end the walk. 37) The Tempest: Thankfully the very final screen was up and running. Unfortunately it had been cheapened by the appearance of two pink promotional flags, one on either side, and an advert for the Bermuda Tourist Board in the pre-roll. No doubt sending Douglas Hodge and the film crew to Bermuda had been expensive, but I was getting all the wrong echoes when he started to recite "we are such stuff as dreams are made on".
When half the screens in an anniversary cavalcade aren't working, you know somebody somewhere has screwed up. The organisers had a half-decent excuse for some of their troubles, namely that the President of the United States had been at the Globe Theatre at the same time things were supposed to be kicking off, and put out an apology on their website: "Due to heightened security in the area this morning, there were some delays in set-up, and there have also been some localised power issues." My money was with the power issues.
What films I saw were excellent, in many cases inspirational, conclusively proving that what makes Shakespeare come to life isn't simply the words, it's the staging. I hope they'll be made available for wider consumption, rather than shoved onto a DVD or locked behind a subscription paywall. But if you want to see them for free, and the organisers have got their act together, The Complete Walk concludes beside the Thames today, with curtain up at ten and exeunt at eight. Come hither, lest gentlemen in England now-a-bed shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here.