Posts Tagged ‘RSC’

On Shakespeare worship

May 23, 2018

Is Shakespeare that good? How good is he?

I’ve recently come back from my annual week with a group of a couple of dozen like-minded folk where we’ve sat and studied and explored Shakespeare and been to Stratford to see a couple of his plays at the RSCRomeo & Juliet and Macbeth this year. The first performance was not bad, the second was brilliant. And at some point we find ourselves sitting in a room all saying in different ways how wonderful Shakespeare was… and sometimes I find myself feeling uneasy.

Can we step back and judge the man objectively any more, or has he been canonised in such a way that it’s impossible to be critical? Or is he clearly brilliant every which way and that’s that?

His language is wonderful: it’s hard to challenge that, particularly in his plays. I was particularly aware of this first re-reading and then watching Macbeth in performance. But when I’m reading or listening to his sonnets, wonderful as they are, I’m always reminded of his contemporary John Donne, whose poetry I’ve always preferred, who breaks out of the restricted and constraining sonnet form when he feels like it (quite often), who often writes as he would speak, with great power and freshness, contrasted with which Shakespeare can seem a bit trite, and same-y – all those sonnets! But when I read or see plays, yes Marlowe occasionally matches Shakespeare’s language in range and scope, as does Webster too, at times… but Shakespeare just does it so well, so consistently, so effortlessly, time and again.

Many people pay tribute to the way Shakespeare contributed to the development of our language, his coining of new words to suit divers occasions and situations; it’s true. But so did Milton, just as much and as powerfully, but people don’t read Paradise Lost any more, and so they never see or hear Shakespeare’s equal in this field.

We are fortunate that so much of Shakespeare’s oeuvre has survived – a couple of plays are known to be missing – and perhaps many plays by rivals did not. Shakespeare wrote in all the genres – historical plays, comedies, tragedies and romances, so there is a breadth to his work we do not have in his rivals. His themes are the same as those used by everyone else, and the judgement seems to be that he just outdid the rest.

I have never really been interested in any of the so-called controversies about Shakespeare’s identity, or his authorship of the plays or not: I don’t think it will ever be possible to have incontrovertible proof of anything that happened four centuries ago, and every generation produces its crop of theories. It would be good to have more information about the man and the gaps in his biography, but then, it would be good to have a lot of things…

Shakespeare is ‘for all time’, said friend and rival Ben Jonson. This may well mean the subject-matter of his plays and how he develops his ideas and characters. Writers are always going to write about the same issues – love, hate, jealousy, rivalry, death, ambition, friendship… but does Shakespeare inevitably have the last or the best word on all these topics? Maybe he enjoys an advantage as a dramatist, in that he brings it all to life, in front of us onstage: there is an immediacy and an intensity that few novelists are able to achieve in what is a totally different literary form.

What do you think?

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Romeo & Juliet at the RSC

May 21, 2018

I was rather disappointed by this production, having expected rather better from the RSC

The two main issues were the two main characters who, whilst each convincing enough as individuals – Romeo especially – never managed to come across as a pair, a couple head-over-heels in love with each other. Added to this was a tendency to deliver their lines rather too quickly, slipping into a gabble occasionally, which is no substitute for making an audience feel the urgency of their passion, and you have quite marked flaws in a production. This, of course, raises a more general, and perhaps insuperable issue for this play: you need young actors in many of the roles for them to be credible, and young means (relatively) inexperienced, therefore unable to do what is required to make the role work…

It can be done, however: I went to this performance with two first-rate productions in mind that I had seen over the years, an excellent one at the West Yorkshire Playhouse a good many years ago now, where the entire stage was centred on a gigantic double bed, and an equally good and more intimate production at the Royal Exchange in Manchester. The RSC didn’t come up to either.

There were interesting touches. Sometimes gender-role changes are gratuitous, but here the female Mercutio managed the difficult task of making the Queen Mab speech work well, although she wasn’t consistently good throughout. Benvolio and Capulet were good: for me the touchstone is how Capulet carries off the scene where he loses his temper after Juliet has declined to marry Paris, and here he was superb. For most of the group, though, it was the outstanding performance of the Nurse – a role that can be really tiresome if played wrong – that won the day.

The fight scenes, usually made much of, were here underplayed, and I could not see how the casting of Tybalt, who is supposed to be ‘the prince of cats’ was supposed to work. And the idea of bringing all the dead back to life to walk around the stage at various points contributed nothing, other than cluttering the stage. In the end, I think, the director had too many ideas to try and impose on the text and they got in the way rather than enhanced the performance. The set was brilliant, though…

Macbeth at the RSC

May 20, 2018

I taught the Scottish play more times than I care to remember at school, and had to take school parties to see a number of mediocre performances usually specifically produced for school audiences. Certainly none of these was memorable, and I had come to not really like the play; I’d never had any feeling of its end being tragic. And so when it appeared on the programme to my Shakespeare week this year I was in two minds: a play I wasn’t really enamoured of, but also the possibility that a performance at Stratford by the RSC would be a good and memorable one and therefore perhaps bring about a change in my response…

Re-reading the play before the performance, for the first time in a number of years, I was struck particularly by the density of the language, and its stunning poetry. Yes, I’d been aware of it, but it’s not possible to make too much of it teaching to teenagers, and so I suppose I had backgrounded it.

The performance was stunning and I was gripped from the start and throughout. Christopher Ecclestone played Macbeth brilliantly, and there was a real sense of rapport between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, which there absolutely must be for the play to hold you, since it lacks any other strong characters, and the degeneration of the relationship over time was evident, as was the sense of Macbeth gradually losing interest in life and everything he had won through association with the powers of evil.

It was a modern dress production, and this did not intrude on my appreciation. The weird sisters were played by children, young girls in pyjamas holding dolls, and this was a very effective approach. I’ve always felt that the witches are very difficult to do convincingly for a modern audience, and the over-playing of wizened hags with daft voices dancing around cauldrons has always left me cold. Here, there was simply mist, a slight edginess to the girls’ voices through some technical trick, and a spookiness through the use of dolls: the whole trope of children and childlessness that permeates the play was thus foregrounded.

Another enhancement, or directorial decision, if you like, involved the development of the role of the porter, who was dressed like a school caretaker, and who, after his speech – another that is difficult to pull of well – lurked sinisterly at the side of the stage for the rest of the play, almost a chorus figure, doing various small things that commented or reinforced the action of the drama, at times appearing almost Brechtian.

The banquet scene worked well, the long table used effectively for a number of scenes, and even the dreary scene between Malcolm and Macduff in England was given a pace and focus that made it work. Macduff receiving the news of the deaths of his family was a very powerful tragic moment.

Macbeth is a relatively short play, and the pace and coherence of the production made it powerful and effective, and I left the theatre glad that I had finally seen a performance worth seeing and that had done justice to the play.

Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet

February 18, 2018

411nnDMdwyL._AC_US218_This is another of Shakespeare’s plays that I haven’t been back to since I retired. I’ve seen a couple of very good performances in the past, though I don’t remember a great deal about them, so it will be interesting to see what the RSC do with the play when I see it in May.

Romeo and Juliet is a play I always enjoyed teaching in school, and always found appropriate at GCSE level; it was a bit more difficult when – back in the dim and distant past – it was set for the SAT tests of loathed memory, because some of the humour was tricky to explain to 13 year-olds. But the subject-matter – young love – and the vulgarity, bawdiness or obscenity of the group of lads who are Romeo’s mates, call it what you like, went down well with classes a couple of years older. It was realistic in terms of how young people often talked and joked, and I firmly believe it’s not a teacher’s job to censor: whatever needed explaining was explained and I would laugh along with the class. There is a fine line, though, between clarifying, and dwelling unnecessarily on the obscene…

Several things struck me with this re-reading, particularly the development in Shakespeare’s work in the dozen or so years between the first performances of Romeo and Juliet and his later love tragedy Antony and Cleopatra, which I’m currently writing about. Compared with the latter play, Romeo and Juliet can feel rather primitive, with its several prologues prefiguring each act, what feels like excessive use of rhyme, a certain lack of subtlety in some of the characterisation, and all the over-the-top wailing and moaning by the Nurse…

These are two love tragedies worth seeing alongside one another, though: young lovers and mature lovers; both pairs die, tragically, because they feel they have nothing left to live for; the teenagers are totally wrapped up in themselves to the exclusion of the rest of the world, but the older lovers are plagued by the interference of the outside world whichever way they turn. Young lovers swear sincere and undying love to each other, the mature ones play games with each other, go astray, but come back to each other in the end. Comparisons are endless, and perhaps enlighten our own experiences.

I find both plays utterly convincing in their totally different ways, and, of course, I shall call this another illustration of the dramatist’s genius. The passion, the haste, the exclusion of the outside world in the love of Romeo and Juliet perhaps reflects some of Shakespeare’s own life experience, which we know almost nothing about… and for me the crudity of the lads’ sexual banter – Mercutio and Benvolio particularly – creates the atmosphere that allows the youthful but definitely sexual passion of Romeo and Juliet to convince an audience (before we remember the boy actor who would have played Juliet, perhaps). My classes all seemed to enjoy studying the play and working out who was to blame for the tragedy – parents, usually, so no surprise there – and I found myself gradually growing to like Baz Luhrmann‘s film (which I initially loathed) for its fidelity to the original dramatist’s intentions. I’m looking forward to seeing the play again.

Antony and Cleopatra at the RSC

May 15, 2017

I’ve also been lucky enough to have taught this play to sixth formers a good number of times; again, a play I’d never seen on stage till now, although I admire the Trevor Nunn film version which we used to use in the classroom. But I’m utterly convinced now that Antony and Cleopatra is my favourite Shakespeare play, and also that this performance is probably the best Shakespeare performance I’ve ever seen on stage. I was utterly gripped throughout apart from a brief moment during the sea battle scene: I was able once to remind myself that I was ‘only’ watching a performance on a stage, but from my seat in the centre, towards the front of the stalls, I was there, and it was riveting.

Given that it’s quite a bitty play in a lot of ways, flitting from Rome to Egypt and back again so many times in a large number of very short scenes at certain points, what made it work here? Simplicity of the set and a clear visual definition of Rome and Egypt certainly helped, as did the pace of the performance – not rushed, but not disjointed either, which helped convince me of the inevitability of Antony‘s disintegration, as Rome slips through his fingers. The sense of tragedy develops surely and certainly from the coincidence, as we see Antony realising as he loses Rome, that Cleopatra is more important to him, the most important thing in his world: I was totally convinced of their love for each other, although this is perhaps harder to detect in Cleopatra, who is empress of Egypt and used to having everything just as she wants it, her every whim satisfied on the instant. For me it worked. Cleopatra is inevitably selfish, never having had reason to be anything else, but I felt she came to realise her love for the man who has lost all, given all for his love of her.

Cleopatra was superbly cast and played, exuding luxury and sensuality and Egypt, Antony and Octavius were very convincing and Enobarbus, whom it’s impossible not to love, was outstanding. Even his death, which must be one of the hardest to carry off effectively onstage nowadays (he dies of a broken heart) convinced. And I came to understand much more about Cleopatra’s women too, their love, loyalty and devotion to their queen shown through the adoration in their eyes fixed on her and ready to respond to her slightest look, word, gesture or whim.

For me, the sense of tragic waste with the death of Antony, and then of his lover, was full and complete. It was marvellous to hear the gorgeous language that Shakespeare poured into this play delivered so effectively and powerfully; the stagecraft was astonishing and it was, for me, an amazing production.

Julius Caesar at the RSC

May 15, 2017

I’ve just got back from my annual Shakespeare week, having seen productions of both Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra.

They’re doing a Roman season at the RSC, so there’s a certain coherence to the staging and set design, which I really liked, and I think one of the things that struck me most about this production was its coherence: all the characters worked well together and the set enhanced the overall effect. And I was fortunate enough to have a seat in the middle of the third row, so the view was stunning.

Brutus and Cassius made a really good pairing, and I got a strong, clear picture of the closeness of their friendship, and their centrality to the play which I did not have from previous readings of the play and filmed performances. We see the strength of the bond between them, the stresses and tensions it endures, and its survival to the bitter end: the scene of their quarrel in the Roman camp was very moving, particularly when it came to the news of Portia‘s death; despite his stoicism, Brutus’ humanity shone through as well. And the moment of their final farewells to each other on the morning of the battle, which I’ve always found effective even in a reading, was very touching.

The nature of the stage set made the moments after the murder of Caesar astonishingly effective: you really had the impression that not only had the conspirators not thought things through beyond the actual killing, but also that they somehow had not fully realised that they were going to kill someone, and what that meant…

There were strong performances from other characters, too: Caesar’s physical weaknesses and frailties were well portrayed; Antony was clearly a chancer and a gambler, and the callow youth that Octavius was seemed very real, like an arrogant sixth-former who has just been chosen as deputy head-boy, polite and well-behaved but with a power-hunger just below the surface. It’s not a play with strong female roles; Portia worked for me, but Calpurnia didn’t: I just couldn’t see her as Caesar’s wife.

I’m really glad to have finally seen a performance after having taught it so many times in the past; the BBC Shakespeare film version never really cut the mustard for me, so this really was a special treat.

The Alchemist at the RSC

May 29, 2016

Ben Jonson‘s The Alchemist is a wonderful play to read – full of deception, abuse, wit, fast-paced, hectic, non-stop action; I was looking forward to seeing it in performance. We saw the first preview, which is the first time it’s played before a live audience, and so were warned to expect some rough edges. And there were some; the whole performance had me thinking more deeply about the kind of play it is and how a twenty-first century audience can respond to a seventeenth-century social satire.

Herein lies the problem, it seemed to me: it’s a genre we aren’t familiar with, and cannot really liken to anything we are familiar with: it’s not farce, it’s not pantomime, it’s not sitcom, though there are elements of all of these. It’s hilarious – when the audience gets the jokes – and that isn’t always.

The plot is pretty complex and convoluted, basically involving a trio of confidence tricksters fooling all the other characters most of the time, but also fighting amongst themselves; at the end their schemes are brought to a sudden stop and all is revealed, but no-one is really punished. The tricksters are let off (no doubt to have another go another day), and the conned put up with their losses rather than be publicly exposed for the fools they have been…

The first half of the performance was fast-paced, and this was a problem, perhaps with the genre: there was no variation is pace or pitch or tone, which became monotonous and a little tiring. The second half was better in that there was a sense of its gradually building up to a crescendo (actually a real explosion!). The actors were all really good, energetically playing their stereotypical characters to great effect.

Although when reading the play I was aware of the cardboard nature of Jonson’s characters – there’s very little development, and no real need or opportunity for the audience to sympathise, or indeed dislike them – this does also affect one’s response to performance, where the thinness of the characters is going to be much more evident when they are onstage in front of us. In the end, it was quite an enjoyable romp, which will surely be slicker and better and funnier after a few performances. And it was my second play of the day, so I was a bit tired, and probably less appreciative than I’d be another day…

Cymbeline at the RSC

May 28, 2016

This performance was the highlight of the week for me. Cymbeline is one of Shakespeare’s last plays, perhaps a tragi-comedy, perhaps a romance, depending on how you like your classifications. It’s rarely performed and rarely appears on an exam syllabus; I’d neither taught it nor seen it; having read it and enjoyed it, I was really looking forward to seeing it. It’s noted for seriously tortuous syntax in much of the dialogue, and has the most complex final scene I’ve ever come across in a play…

The setting was a dystopian future one; the various settings in Italy were ‘enhanced’ by the delivery of dialogue translated into Italian (and some French for one of the characters); the Roman ambassadors spoke in Latin. Translations were projected onto a screen at the back of the stage. Such gimmickry – and other touches, too – added nothing, and had the potential to confuse, as well as doing unnecessary violence to Shakespeare’s original. However, I was far too focused on the language and action to spend much time grinding my teeth over the director’s silliness…

The key actors’ performances were stunning. Imogen – or Innogen, as the director insisted she be called (if you want the minutiae of the textual history, you’ll have to look it up), her husband Posthumus, and his loyal friend Pisania (actually Pisanio in the text, but there were several parts taken from males and given to females) worked very well together, Iachimo was extremely convincing as the Italian seducer who failed to seduce, and the Welsh ‘mountaineers’ were superb. Cloten, the doltish son of the queen, was insufficiently doltish.

The action flowed better in the first half, where the story is clearer; it becomes extremely complicated in the second half, especially in the battle scenes, and the masque was pretty naff; masques had become a necessary addition to plays at that time, fashionable and suited to the new indoor theatres being built, and whatever you do with them nowadays fails to convince, as they are something a modern audience has no way to relate to. What you do with a final scene where so many loose ends need to be tied up is a real challenge, but if the actors are strong enough to carry the plot line along securely through all the revelations, it works, and it did here.

The play explores the themes of forgiveness and reconciliation, as do the other final plays like The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest; as all the secrets are revealed in the final scene and all sorts of people are reunited with each other, I experienced these themes working very powerfully and movingly as everything moved towards the conclusion; yes, Shakespeare stage-manages all this, but it really does demonstrate his skill as a dramatist, that he can nearly move you to tears. And, having wondered why the director swapped the genders of Cymbeline and his consort over, I could see that a mother reunited with long-lost children was perhaps even more moving that Shakespeare himself might have imagined. This really was a stunning performance; I watched from the second row and it was wonderful to be able to see the actors’ expressions and gestures so clearly.

Hamlet at the RSC

May 28, 2016

I’m just back from my Shakespeare week. We saw the RSC production of Hamlet, which has a mainly black cast, a black Hamlet, and African-themed set and music. I didn’t find that any of this added anything to the meaning of the play for me, although the opening scenes with Gertrude and Claudius briefly suggested Robert Mugabe and his consort, and I suppose quickly helped establish the idea of Denmark as a corrupt state. But the overall effect was as confusing as it was enlightening, I felt by the end.

What really stunned me was the actor playing Hamlet, Paapa Essiedu. He was amazingly energetic and expressive; his diction was very clear, illuminating the language and its meanings very effectively: I encountered some new ideas and meanings which had never before occurred to me in my years of teaching the play, and seeing it several times onstage, as well as on film. For me, he was one of the best Hamlets I’ve seen.

He was also really illuminating in his portrayal of Hamlet’s madness, which, I think, is one of the touchstones of a good performance: Hamlet sets out by saying he will put on an antic disposition from time to time as it suits him, implying that he will be in conscious control of it, but the text shows that madness takes control of him at times, and he is not able to master it, and a good actor will be able to show this happening. There must be a dynamic which emerges through rehearsal as the actor gradually realises how this can be presented onstage. Anyway, it really worked for me in Essiedu’s performance.

Ophelia was also well-played: again, her madness is something of a touchstone, and it seems to be incredibly difficult to pull off effectively nowadays: the twee-ness of the past no longer works, and some modern efforts, ranting, over-sexualised or just bizarre, can be positively toe-curling. But this Ophelia’s screams were quite spine-chilling, as part of the overall effect: she did seem like someone unhinged by what she had seen and been through.

Various things didn’t seem to work. Despite the brilliance of Hamlet’s performance, I didn’t feel a great sense of tragic loss at the end of the play. I felt that the dynamics between various pairs of characters didn’t come across terribly well: you need to feel that there’s a real connection between Hamlet and Horatio, between Laertes and Ophelia – and I didn’t. And the fight scene, done with African weapons – sticks of some sort, with small knives at the ends – didn’t work for me; nothing works better than the fencing foils which Shakespeare put in his text. I’m glad I saw it, just for Hamlet himself.

On a certain 400th anniversary

April 10, 2016

serveimageAs I shall be away on the actual day – 23 April – of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, I’ll write something a little early. This piece will be more about my encounters with him, rather than anything academic.

I’ve lived longer than Shakespeare did: I still have the set of commemorative stamps issued to mark his 400th birthday in 1964, at a time when I collected stamps but knew nothing about our greatest writer. Before I first read any of his plays – as preparation for O level English Literature – I remember I had the feeling that he would be dull, difficult and boring.

I have an inspirational teacher to thank for my experience being so different. We had to study The Merchant of Venice, and I was astonished at the level of detail, the hidden meanings, and the messages beneath the surface, as well as the vulgarity. But most of all, even at that relatively early age, I think I was seduced by his masterly use of language, the magic of his verse, and his wit. Over time, I came to like the tragedies best; it took me a long while to engage with the histories, and I’m still wrestling with the comedies…

I was introduced to live performance while at school, too. The wonderful new – at that time – Nottingham Playhouse, with its ground-breaking revolving stage, had only just opened. I remember seeing a wonderful performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – a play I’ve little time for – there, and also Ian McKellen‘s first Hamlet.

Obviously I went on to study more Shakespeare at A level – King Lear and Othello – and then at university, where I had the thrill of attending lectures by the great Kenneth Muir, who could stroll around the lecture theatre and reel off any quotation from any play that his train of thought required – just like that… And then I went on to teach Shakespeare to my students for many years.

Now, in retirement, I’m a student again, not a teacher, as each year I head off for a week deep in the Oxfordshire countryside to spend a week looking at three plays – usually two by Shakespeare and one by a contemporary – and then heading off to Stratford to see them at the RSC. There’s good company, and one of the course leaders is the Shakespearean actor Jane Lapotaire, who explores the plays from performance perspectives and is always very illuminating; one thing I did relatively little of as a teacher was drama.

So I have set myself a target in my retirement: finally to get to see all of Shakespeare’s plays in performance. My acquaintance is somewhat limited so far: teaching syllabuses meant that I’ve only taught about a dozen of the plays, and only seen a few more than that, although some I have seen many times, in some very memorable performances. This year I hope to see Cymbeline for the first time…

Though it can be hard sometimes to separate the brilliance from the bardolatry, my love of the richness of our wonderful language and its myriad possibilities does firmly convince me that in Shakespeare’s works is something very special indeed in our literary history and culture.

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