Richard II ~ RSC

RSC_newSo, I’ve just come in from seeing David Tennant as Richard II at the RSC and I have to say that I’m not sure.  There has been so much expectation about this production, so much hype in the build up and, to be fair, a lot of really good reviews as well.  But, I’m not sure.  There are some lovely moments.  Michael Pennington manages to make John of Gaunt’s paean to England sound as if it’s being spoken for the first time and Oliver Ford Davis plays York as if it is the part he has been waiting for all his life. But it shouldn’t be the two Duke who light up the stage and draw all eyes whenever they appear, that should be Richard’s role and if it were not for the fact that it was David Tennant playing the part I’m not sure it would be.  His is a consistent view of the king, but for me it isn’t a complete view and when it comes to the end of the play I don’t feel that Richard has made any real journey of self discovery.  Without such a journey it simply becomes the story of the disposition of a ruler and Shakespeare’s play is so very much more than that.

Mind you, Tennant isn’t helped by some very poor staging in Richard’s last scene.  Large chunks of the audience can’t see what’s happening, which rather defeats the point of the changes that the director, Greg Doran, has made in respect of what occurs in the goal.  You change Shakespeare at your peril and what Doran has done here (and I’m being circumspect because I know that many of you will be seeing this at the cinema in the next couple of weeks) shifts the whole focus of the play away from Richard and onto the nature of the politics of leadership.  I can see how bringing the differing types of kingship manifest by Richard and Bolingbroke in to focus might be tempting but only if you are seeing the play as a forerunner of the ‘Henry IV’ plays and ‘Henry V’ and Doran was insistent when this production was first announce that he wasn’t going to do that.

So, all in all, I’m left saying I’m not sure, which is a very real disappointment.  Has anyone else seen this yet?  And if so, what did you think?

English Humour

IMG_0046I thought (and you probably hoped) that I’d come to the end of my posts about All’s Well That Ends Well, at least until the RSC’s new production opens later this season. However, their current production of Thomas Middleton’s play A Mad World My Masters has taken my mind back to a comment made about All’s Well by the critic, John Francis Hope, when writing for The New Age in 1921.  Responding to a staging that year at The Old Vic, he noted

[m]uch of these comic scenes are definitely and distinctly ‘smutty’ a characteristic quality of English humour; Parolles discussing virginity with Helena, for example, although expressing sound common sense in his reaction against ascetic ideals, is definitely playing for the guffaws.  We ought to be as shocked and amused as we are by, say George Robey, who embodies our national type of humour, which is Elizabethan not only in parody but in very nature… The scene is not merely illustrative of the frankness with which men and women discussed sexual manners in those days; it is comic, and is intended to be comic, in the grouty, fleshly English fashion.

We chewed over this quite a lot in class, partly, I think, because a number of people didn’t want to admit that it was true.  However, when you look at the history of English comedy through the mid and late twentieth century, which all of us could remember, it’s actually hard to deny.  George Robey, a comic of the early century music halls, has undoubtedly had his successors, in the clubs and on television, running up to and through the Millennium.

Well, we can argue all we like as to whether or not Hope’s comments are valid in respect of English humour in general and that of All’s Well in particular but I defy anyone to argue that it’s not true of A Mad World My Masters.  And if the play’s current adapters, Sean Foley and Phil Porter, were trying to do anything more than get the groundlings laughing then I have to say I missed it.

The play as it was presented in the seventeenth century, interweaves two plots.  Dick Follywit plays a series of tricks on his grandfather, Sir Bounteous Progress, in order to try and gain his inheritance and thus fund his riotous living.  Sir Bounteous, himself, is a spendthrift and something of a lecher, so, as far as morality goes, there isn’t that much to choose between them.

The subplot deals with Penitent Brothel’s attempts to seduce the wife of the obsessively jealous Master Harebrain, using as a go-between a notorious courtesan whom Harebrain believes to be a pious and Christian woman.

You can see the potential for ‘smutty’ humour.

The current production is clever in one respect; it has shifted the play to the Soho of the 1950s, a period when that area of London had a reputation that equalled anything you would have found in the capital of 1606.  Some of the names have been changed to make the point about the nature of the characters more easily apparent to modern audiences and although the directors state that 97% of the text is as Middleton wrote it, only about 75% of his original play survived the knife as they strove to make the meaning accessible to twenty-first century groundlings.

The trouble is that in doing this, as they admit themselves, they have robbed the play of most of its satire and consequently they have left very little that isn’t simply ‘smut’.

It has to be said that I am not noted for my sense of humour, so maybe I was not the best person to be watching this production and passing judgement on it.  In general I don’t find ‘smut’ funny, just as I don’t find slapstick funny either.   But, as someone in class pointed out, there is ‘smut’ and there is clever ‘smut’ and I suspect, because I don’t know the original text well enough to be sure, that what we’ve lost are all the ‘clever’ bits. What makes me say this is that there was one moment when a point was made that linked to the current banking scandals where I found myself thinking “now that was good – smutty, but witty as well.”  I do find wit funny.

Which leaves me with several questions.  Is Hope correct when he says that ‘smutty’ comedy is a characteristic of English humour?  If so, why don’t I find it funny?  Is this a sign of cultural snobbery in me?  Are we right in distinguishing different types of smut?  And, if that is the case what does or doesn’t make it acceptable?  Over to you.

From One Shakespearian Extreme to Another

Over the past weekend I’ve been from one extreme to the other where Shakespeare’s plays are concerned.  On Saturday I went over to Stratford to see the RSC’s current production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, which has had great reviews and which two friends had already seen and come home raving about.  I suppose I should have recognised that that was setting me up for a fall because,although I did enjoy it, I wasn’t completely convinced.  As the poster shows, it was a modern dress production, set among the county set.  Modern dress productions don’t bother me at all if they bring something new to my understanding of the play, or if they throw a light on some current political or social situation, but this didn’t do either.  This won’t make sense to anyone other than my UK readers, but I felt as though I was watching a Channel 4 soap opera and that isn’t a genre to which I would go if I was looking for an insightful examination of some particular societal concern, past or present.

To be fair, any production of Merry Wives is likely to be on a hiding to nothing where I’m concerned because I had the good(?) fortune to see the definitive interpretation the summer I was nineteen, when Terry Hands staged it at Stratford.  I can’t read the play without re-experiencing every nuance of that performance, which featured that supreme actor, Ian Richardson, as Ford.  That was an Elizabethan Merry Wives  and brought out the extreme dis-ease between the old nobility and the new phenomenon of the rising middle-class.  The latter were becoming increasingly important in England at this time and were tentatively beginning to challenge the notion that the aristocracy automatically had the right to demand whatever they wanted.  The added tension which that brought to the play gave the production a bite which I felt this more recent one lacked.  I know it is never going to be seen as one of Shakespeare’s more profound works, but I think it has more about it than simply a merry Christmas romp.

However, yesterday was a different matter altogether.  Yesterday, as a birthday present, a friend took me to see the National Theatre’s Timon of Athens, which was showing as part of the National Theatre Live programme, whereby they stream live performances of their shows to cinemas all over the world.  Watching Timon of Athens, as miserable and despondent a play as you could ever wish to encounter, might not seem like the best of ways to spend one’s birthday, but this was no ordinary Timon; this was Timon with Simon Russell Beale in the title role and this was magnificent.  I had to be almost forcibly removed from my seat at the end so riveted was I by what the production had to say not only about the play, but also about Shakespeare’s company and the way it was working at the time it was written.

As you will see, this was also a modern dress production.  Who could resist that in a time of banking crisis and monetary meltdown?  When this Timon has his breakdown and leaves his world of sycophantic followers behind him, he goes out not into a wood but into the world of the city’s homeless, brushing shoulders with members of the Occupy group that gathered outside St Paul’s last year protesting about the profligate ways of those at the top of large financial institutions.  There must have been a temptation to actually set it in Athens given the situation in Greece at the moment, but while it is called Timon of Athens there is little doubt that Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton, who co-authored this play, had Jacobean London in mind.  Middleton, after all, was best noted for his city comedies which set out to lay bare the follies of the people in the very audiences for which they were written.  Given that this production was mainly staged for a London audience, the parallels are obvious.

Russell Beale’s performance was quite simply stunning, but what struck me most as I watched this play was the evidence it provides for what was going on in Shakespeare’s company at the time he was writing it.  As I said, this is a co-authored text and probably only an incomplete sketch for a play that may never have actually got onto the stage. I haven’t done the research to back up my speculations, but my feeling is that Shakespeare and Middleton had got as far as drafting out the plot line and Middleton had had a go at writing the first half, up to the point where Timon invites his false friends to a dinner (in this production) of dog turds.  I think that is when Shakespeare took over.  I suspect he wasn’t that interested in Timon when he was on the up.  What interested him (and remember he is writing Lear at about the same time) was what happens to him psychologically when his world begins to fall apart.  This is when the verse changes.  This is where you hear the great soaring speeches that you associate with Lear on the blasted heath.  And, this is where you get a long two-hander between Timon and the cynically philosopher, Apermantus.

I hadn’t thought about it before, but Apermantus would almost certainly have been written for Robert Armin, the actor who joined the company in the late 1590s to play the fool’s parts after Will Kemp left so abruptly.  Kemp had been a slapstick, acrobatic type of actor, a Nick Bottom or a Dogberry.  The first parts that Armin would have played were Touchstone and Feste.  You can see the difference.

Armin was an extremely intelligent man. By the time he joined the company he had already written his initial treatise on the art of fools, Foole upon Foole, and would go on to write a second, A Nest of Ninnies, published in 1608.  He and Shakespeare had a symbiotic relationship.  You only have to look at the parts Shakespeare wrote for him, culminating in the remarkable Lear’s Fool, to see how much the playwright was influenced by the understanding of the psychological role of the fool that Armin brought to the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.  However, if you compare the first edition of Foole upon Foole with the revised version Armin published some years later, you can also see how he has learnt from Shakespeare and how his own perception has developed and deepened through the time spent in the playwright’s sphere.

What struck me yesterday was that the long scene which Timon and Apermantus share is probably the most sustained exploration of the role of the fool in exposing the folly of others that Shakespeare ever wrote.  And, watching Simon Russell Beale and Hilton McRae probe and challenge each other’s positions, I felt as if I what I was actually watching was not two twenty-first century actors, nor two cynical and disillusioned  characters, but rather Shakespeare and Armin themselves, exploring and dissecting the world around them and finding what they saw severely wanting.

You are perfectly at liberty to tell me that I am being fanciful, but I think that when Armin arrived at The Globe, Shakespeare suddenly found himself in the company of a man who had an intellect equal to his own, someone who could challenge him and force him to grow.  I hope for both their sakes they were not as worldweary as Timon becomes, but I also hope that they each found in the other someone they could call a friend and value as a partner in the type of intellectual debate that leaves you perhaps a little battered but richer in your understanding of the world and the people in it.

A Tempestuous Few Days

I know a lot of you are probably sick and tired of the Olympics already but bear with me, because only the first part of this post will touch on them.  By sheer coincidence I had tickets last Saturday to see this season’s RSC production of The Tempest, the very day after Sir Kenneth Branagh began the opening ceremony of the London Olympics with Caliban’s wonderful lines.

Be not afraid, the isle is full of noises,

Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.

Sometimes a thousand twanging instruments

Will hum about mine ears, and sometimes voices,

That if I then had waked after long sleep,

Would make me sleep again; and then in dreaming

The clouds methought would open, and show riches

Ready to drop upon me: when I wak’d I cried to dream again.

I have to say that knowing the play as I do, the idea of Isambard Kingdom Brunel and in this instance a particularly smug looking Brunel, spouting these lines at the top of Glastonbury Tor didn’t exactly seem appropriate, but I’m pleased Shakespeare got a look in somewhere.  I was glad, then, to have the chance to almost immediately hear them in context, spoken by the remarkable Palestinian actor, Amer Hlehel , who is a member of the Company this year staging three plays concerned with the aftermath of  shipwreck, The Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night and The Tempest.

The notion of shipwreck, both real and emotional, is one that haunted Shakespeare throughout his career.  The Comedy of Errors is one of his earliest plays.  The actual date is disputed but it has to have been written by 1594.  Twelfth Night came at the height of his fame, not long after the move to The Globe.  And, The Tempest was his last solo text.  I’ve come at this season’s productions backwards, so I don’t know if there is any sense of that progression but certainly the three shows are linked through a shared set that has the feeling of a construction battered by the winds and waves.

When it first opened this production of The Tempest got very mixed reviews and people whose opinions I trust were very unsure of its merits.  Talking with members of the company on Saturday morning it became clear that of the three plays this was the one that took longest to settle, which perhaps explains why seeing it a couple of months into its run, I thought it was very interesting indeed.

It’s a modern dress production in that sort of fairytale modern dress way that is very popular at the moment and the links that my mind kept making were with last season’s magnificent revival by the same director, David Farr, of Harold Pinter’s play, The Homecoming.  There you have the character of Lenny who has controlled and manipulated all those around him for so long that he thinks it is his right to do so. Then along comes his sister-in-law, Ruth, whom he assumes he will also twist around his finger, only then to find that his control has been ripped from him and he is left at her mercy.  The echoes were probably stronger in my mind because Jonathan Slinger, who played Lenny, also plays Prospero.

Any Prospero has to be concerned with control.  Here we have a Prospero who has suffered because he has neglected his duty and someone else has taken control from him.  Like any one in that position might he has fallen to the temptation to get his own back by imposing tight control over those who are less able and less ruthless (no pun intended) than he.  He is the archetypal petty tyrant.  But mixed with that was fear.  This Prospero knew only too well what it was like to be stripped of power and was terrified of finding himself in that position again.  On the island he has control; leaving it will he have the strength to reclaim what he carelessly lost before?

More than any other Prospero I’ve seen, Slinger played the epilogue in character.

Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own,
Which is most faint: now, ’tis true,
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardon’d the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands:
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
Let your indulgence set me free.

And, instead of offering those last two lines in a ringing tone that invited the audience to applaud, he spoke them without any sense that they were the end of the speech so that the audience faltered for a moment before granting him his freedom – a moment long enough for a look to flicker across his face suggesting that he truly was looking into the jaws of despair.

I will remember that final horror in Slinger’s face for a long time.  If you have the opportunity to see this production I would ignore the early reviews and take it.

A Soldier in Every Son ~ Royal Shakespeare Theatre

I first started going to the theatre when I was two years old and in the intervening years I’ve pretty much seen the lot: the good, the bad, the shocking, the boring and everything in between.  These days I don’t wait for the reviews, I simply book my tickets in advance and adopt the attitude that some you win and some you lose.  Living, as I do, very close to Stratford-upon-Avon, my local theatre troupe is the Royal Shakespeare Company which means that when I win I really win and when I lose I often do so spectacularly.

This year, the Olympics has brought with it the World Shakespeare Festival which means that as well as the RSC we have had visiting companies too.  An Iraqi group brought a magnificent production, Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad, while from Brazil came a version of Richard III, great sections of which I slept through despite the presence on stage at one point of three entirely naked Richards.  So, as far as international companies go, as of yesterday morning the score was one either way.  Then came the joint production between a Mexican company and the RSC of a new play, A Soldier in Every Son.

I couldn’t possibly précis it for you any better than the summary that is in the programme, so I’m going to quote it in full.  Read it carefully.  There will be a test afterwards!

The two main tribes in the Valley of Mexico, the Acolhuas and the Tepanecas, have a fractious relationship.  In an attempt at unity. Tecpa (a Tepaneca princess) is betrothed to Ixtlixochitl (an Acolhua prince). Ixtlixochitl rejects the marriage, insulting Tezozomoc (Tepaneca King).  On his deathbed, Techotlala (Acolhua King) orders Ixtlixochitl to marry into the Aztec tribe instead.  Ixtlixochitl marries Aztec princess Mayahuel, and fathers a son – Nezahualcoyotl.

Tecpa concocts a poison intended for Ixtlixochitl that, instead, kills two of his inner circle.  Ixtlixochitl storms the Tepaneca palace but is executed by Tezozomoc’s bastard son, Maxtla.  Nezahualcoyotl is captured by Tezozomoc, but is secretly set free.  Old Tezozomoc dies, leaving the throne to his other son, Tayatzin.  However, Maxtla kills his brother and claims both the Acolhua and Tepaneca thrones.

During Maxtla’s despotic reign, the Aztec civilisation grows under King Quimalpopoca.  Manipulating his way to the Aztec throne, Itzcoatl (the bastard of a previous Aztec king) frames Maxtla for Quimalpopoca’s murder and, after marrying into royalty, convinces the Aztecs to make him king instead of Quimalpopoca’s son, Ohtonqui.  Itzcoatl reveals that Nezahuacoyotl is alive, and insights a revolution against Maxtla.

Maxtla is killed, and the three tribes form a triple alliance.  Ohtonqui is offered as a sacrifice to give birth to a new, united Mexican Valley.

Did you follow that?  No, neither did I.  And it isn’t just the names.  All those relationships simply blow your mind and in performance you’re not helped by the fact that the cast double up and someone who you had pinned as a father in Act One turns up as his own son in Act Two.

To be fair, it was easier to follow on stage because the costume designer had clearly recognised the problem and helpfully colour coded the different tribes.  However, the play itself was so poor that it was hard to become emotionally attached to any of the characters and so I spent most of the afternoon just keeping a tally of the dead and trying to predict who was going to be reincarnated as whom.

When I tried to work out whether the play was poor in and of itself or whether the translation was at a fault, I ended up apportioning blame pretty much evenly.  There was too much action in too short a time, despite it being three hours long.  There was no space for character development, no exploration of interesting themes.  It was just insult and kill or be insulted and be killed.  And even the insults lacked variety.  The translator appeared to know only one four letter word and so we had nothing but a series of variations on the f word, which we clearly supposed to find funny.  I must need a sense of humour transplant.

The theatre was only half full, almost unheard of at Stratford, and a good many people didn’t come back after the interval.  They were the sensible ones.  I’m afraid this has to be marked up on the debit side.

King John ~ RSC

I’ve always booked tickets for the theatre on the basis that some you win and some you lose and you’re just going to have to hope that over a lifetime of theatre-going the winners outnumber the losers.  This is particularly the case where booking tickets for the RSC at Stratford is concerned because in order to get seats at all it is usually necessary to commit before any reviews come out.  Nevertheless, so far I reckon I’m on the winning side.

The 2012 Stratford season is still in its early stages and up to this weekend I’d only seen a couple of performances by visiting companies – the score being one each way.  However, the omens were not particularly good for a two – one on the winning side on Saturday given that I was going to see King John and that the reviews have been luke warm to say the least.  The production is in modern dress (not something I have a problem with), has cast both the Bastard and the Papal Legate as women and has changed the text so that it is now the Bastard who is asked to kill John’s eleven year old nephew, Arthur rather than the soldier, Hubert.  Furthermore, if you don’t know the words to Land of Hope and Glory you will have difficulty joining in with the singalong at the very beginning.  (I understand that this has been a real issue with performances largely populated with school children.  Perhaps they should invest in a karaoke machine.)  I really wasn’t expecting very much.

Well, it just goes to show that I should know better than to prejudge, because I loved almost every minute of it and what is more important I still came away with a pretty good idea of what Shakespeare was trying to say about both the ruthlessness and the fickleness of those in power.  In addition, because of its modern setting, the production  casts some fairly damning spotlights onto the behaviour of current important figures, whether they be monarchs, politicians, churchmen or business magnates.  The bottom line is always that you pattern your behaviour according to whatever is going to best further your interests.  Concepts such as truth, loyalty and patriotism have nothing to do with it and if you happen to stumble across someone who holds to such values then you exploit their ‘weakness’ for all it’s worth.  This is the strength of having John order the Bastard to kill Arthur.  I don’t think the fact that the character is here female has anything to do with it, the point is that this is now someone whose loyalty and patriotism we, as an audience, have come to believe in and so we understand much more clearly than we would with the less sympathetic Hubert what exactly is being asked.  The Bastard’s dilemma is clear.  Can she justify the most appalling deed imaginable in the light of her loyalty to King and Country?  Can she kill an innocent child?  I wish I could say that there is no way this particular element of the play could be translated into a modern equivalent.  The truth is that after the news coming out of Syria this weekend it is all too apparent that some people are daily being put in exactly that position.

So, I sat back and enjoyed the parties, the singing, the dancing and the balloons because in most respects this production was true to Shakespeare and also to what I believe to be the theatre’s primary role, namely to force the audience to take a good hard look at its own society and ask the difficult questions.  Add to this the fact that the verse speaking was excellent and on balance I think this was a winner.

I have two ‘grumbles’.  While, in a modern context at least, I could believe in a female bastard. I couldn’t believe in a female Papal Legate.  I’m not Catholic, so I don’t know, there may indeed be such people, but here the character didn’t have the necessary force.  And then there were the productions final words.

This England never did, nor never shall,
Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror,
But when it first did help to wound itself.
Now these her princes are come home again,
Come the three corners of the world in arms,
And we shall shock them: nought shall make us rue,
If England to itself do rest but true. (5.7.112)

I’m not sure, I would need to see the production again, but I think this was cut.  I think what we had was

This England never did, nor never shall,
Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror,
But when it first did help to wound itself.
…………… nought shall make us rue,
If England to itself do rest but true. (5.7.112)

Include those missing two and a half lines and you have a rousing exit.  Omit them and both the sentiment and the fractured verse makes the ending peculiarly downbeat.  It might have fitted with the overall pattern of thought, but it let the play down in its final moments.

Despite those caveats , I would still recommend this to anyone who happens to be close enough to Stratford to see it.  Go with an open mind, throw yourself into the spirit and remember that Shakespeare himself, rarely missed a chance to be innovative.