Monday, August 29, 2011

The Royal Shakespeare Company, At Home and Abroad: Macbeth, As You Like It & The Winter's Tale

Aislín McGuckin & Jonathan Slinger in Macbeth.

The Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Macbeth at Stratford-on-Avon this season, staged by artistic director Michael Boyd, has something to do with the cult of Edward the Confessor and something to do with the desecration of Catholic churches during the Reformation, but you have to read the essays in the program to understand the connections, and even then they're not terribly clear. A directorial concept that you need liner notes for can't possibly work especially in the English theater, where you have to lay out three or four pounds for a playbill. Years ago I saw a production of The Cherry Orchard at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts that filled the stage with constructivist cardboard cut-outs: I was baffled until I consulted the director's note at intermission and found that he thought the play was about the Russian Revolution and he was convinced that its tone was hopeful. This explanation didn't remove my bafflement, merely redirected it. You can do a lot with a classic text, but if your ideas don't sync up with what's on the page then perhaps you'd be better off calling it something else. And you'd be better off going all the way and changing the text. (Punchdrunk's popular haunted-house reimagining of Macbeth, an environmental piece which combines scenes from the play with images out of Hitchcock and leaves out the dialogue entirely, is appropriately titled Sleep No More.) The director's note in the Cherry Orchard program didn't mesh with the lines about the drowning of Ranevskaya's little boy or the loss of her estate, and in Boyd's Macbeth there's a large enough gap between the text and the visual links to these two historical periods for the whole production to fall into it. I'm sure hardly anyone in the audience has any idea why Ross (Scott Handy) reappears in the second act in a white priest's robe with an enormous cross around his neck or why there's a broken stained-glass window above the stage and a pile of rubble upstage.

Howard Charles as Duncan.
I've seen worse Macbeths, but not much worse. This one is book-ended by a terrified Malcolm (Howard Charles), the heir to the throne, describing the battle to his father, Duncan (Des McAleer) a report that Shakespeare actually put in the mouth of another, minor character while Ross, hovering above the action, prompts him, and his eventual ascension to the throne, when Ross again feeds him his lines. The frame is certainly conspicuous, but its meaning eluded me. Boyd has cut the opening scene, where the Witches gather after the battle; the figures that appear to Macbeth (Jonathan Slinger) and Banquo (Steve Toussaint) aren't witches at all, but three children who descend from the flies on hooks so that they look weirdly like effigies. It's an effective entrance, but since it makes them look like victims, the role of the Witches as links to the world of evil to which Macbeth sells himself is circumvented. Indeed they are victims, as it turns out, though you have to get to the Macduff murders in the second half to discover that they're the ghosts of his slaughtered children. (It's best not to dwell on the temporal confusion this idea causes in the narrative.) The murder of the Macduff family is the most horrifying scene Shakespeare ever wrote except perhaps for the blinding of Gloucester in King Lear, but in this production the staging is so awkward, almost robotic, that even the suggestion that one of the killers is a pedophile isn't shocking; then when the children rise from the dead and drift offstage it takes a minute for the audience to work out what's going on. You get the point once they begin to trail their father, but as a dramatic idea the substitution of these ghosts for the Witches never kicks in. There are other odd bits of staging, too, like the dropping of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth (Aislín McGuckin) from the flies in chairs for the beginning of the banquet scene. (Boyd must have intended some connection to the appearance of the children, but I'll be damned if I can see it.) When Banquo's ghost appears to Macbeth he kicks in the castle door: the idea of making him aggressive and vengeful rather than woebegone is interesting. But then Boyd decides to have this figment of Macbeth's imagination strangle him; you have to return after intermission to watch the scene played out a second time to see what the guests at the banquet see (no ghost at all, just their host behaving as if he were possessed).

The colleague I saw the show with theorized that these appendages, most of which are awfully silly, are the consequence of the frequency with which Macbeth gets mounted at the RSC. Boyd and the press and the loyal London theater-going public all saw Rupert Goold's enthusiastically received version just a couple of seasons ago, with Patrick Stewart as Macbeth. (A lot of people saw it on this side of the Atlantic, too, since it was televised on PBS.) Not all of Goold's inventions worked, but the first half was generally stunning, and Boyd couldn't help but feel that he was competing with Goold and with all the other RSC Macbeths within recent memory and had to come up with an original concept. Well, he did, but it isn't a coherent one, and except for Toussaint, Handy (who was Malcolm in Goold's Macbeth), and Aidan Kelly as Macduff, the acting is dull. Jonathan Slinger is such an unprepossessing Macbeth that when he and the dreadlocked Toussaint appear together at the top of the play you're immediately drawn to Banquo. But the worst performance is given by the actor who plays the Porter (the program doesn't provide his name), but given what he's asked to do ad-lib like a stand-up comedian, throw fireworks it's probably unfair to blame him. Directors almost always mess up this scene by adding a lot of window dressing and allowing it to stop the play cold, when you can tell just by reading it that Shakespeare intended it to increase the suspense, not sideline it: we know the Macbeths have murdered the king and that his body is going to be discovered as soon as the drunken Porter stops making jokes and opens the damn door. In this misbegotten production the scene is one of a long list of head-scratching mistakes.

As You Like It

The RSC celebrated its 50th anniversary season by spending a couple of weeks in residence at the Armory on Manhattan's upper east side, a wide, beautiful space that is actually considerably nicer than the big house in Stratford where I saw Macbeth. The company toured with Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, As You Like It and The Winter's Tale, and I was able to catch the last two. As You Like It, which Boyd also directed, is as befuddling an experience as his Macbeth, and the acting veers between shockingly mediocre and shockingly bad, except for Geoffrey Freshwater as Corin and Dylan Dwyfor as Silvius, the old and the young shepherd in the Forest of Arden. The text is mined for every double entendre and then they're underscored in red Magic Marker; when Shakespeare doesn't comply by providing bawdy puns, Boyd and the actors simply make them up. (The low point is the moment when Touchstone, played by Richard Katz, stretches the name of Audrey's peasant suitor William out to three syllables and mimes masturbation.) Does Boyd really want to turn his audience into eleven-year-olds? The wrestling match between Orlando (Jonjo O?Neill) and Charles (David Carr), the court wrestler, is so violent that at the matinee performance I saw Carr bled real blood and had to wear a Band-Aid above his lip when he came back as a member of the ensemble. What could Boyd have been thinking? Like all of Shakespeare's comedies As You Like It begins with an anti-comic situation that the heroes have to spend most of the rest of the play overcoming, but it is a romantic comedy, for God's sake. As Orlando's villainous older brother Oliver, Charles Aitken plays all the scenes in the first half ironically, so when he has his moment of redemption in the second half and earns the love of Celia (Mariah Gale), the cousin and confidant of Orlando's beloved Rosalind (Katy Stephens), we're primed to think that he was just kidding when he treated his brother so vilely early on. Orlando's verses to Rosalind hang from the trees (and all over the lobby at intermission), but for some reason the pages are generally restricted to a single phrase or even a single word or letter, so you can't imagine how Rosalind or anyone can make sense of them. I could go on and on. Of Shakespeare's major comedies, As You Like It is generally the easiest to pull off; Boyd's mission seems to have been to make it as difficult a prospect as humanly possible.

For the first half David Farr's production of The Winter's Tale feels magically in tune with Shakespeare's most magical work. Many of Shakespeare's plays are structured like fairy tales (including King Lear), but his four romances really are fairy tales, with extremes of behavior and impossible obstacles and miraculous transformations. The critic Northrop Frye argues that while comedy begins in winter and ends in spring and tragedy begins in spring and ends in winter, romance encompasses the whole year, moving from spring to spring. In The Winter's Tale that journey is astonishingly moving.

The Winter's Tale
At the beginning of the play, King Leontes of Sicilia (Greg Hicks) begs his childhood friend Polixenes, the king of Bohemia (Darrell D'Silva), to remain as a guest in his court for a little while longer and turns to the queen, Hermione (Kelly Hunter), to persuade him. But when she succeeds, Leontes begins to suspect, entirely without grounds, that his wife is sleeping with his friend and that the child she is carrying is his. From that moment Leontes' conduct grows more and more irrational and envenomed. He plots Polixenes' death, entrusting one of his councilors, Camillo (John Mackay), to poison him, and when Camillo warns the innocent visitor and they steal away from Sicilia together, Leontes takes their departure as more evidence for his suspicions. He sends Hermione to prison, where she gives birth to a baby daughter. Leontes refuses to acknowledge the child and orders her killed; only at the pleading of another councilor, Antigonus (David Rubin), does he relent, charging Antigonus to abandon the child in the wilds. He tries Hermione for adultery and treason, and when messengers sent to Apollo's oracle bring back the divine judgment that she is faithful, he declares their report a sham. His blasphemy is swiftly punished: his beloved older child, his little boy Mamillius, dies and so, apparently, does Hermione. At the exact mid-point of the play, however, the tone shifts. After Antigonus deposits the maligned royal baby, with gold and proof of her high birth, in the middle of a storm, a bear stalks and devours him, a development that plays like distilled essence of fairy tale. The baby is rescued by an old shepherd (Larrington Walker) whose son (Gruffudd Glyn) describes Antigonus's grisly fate in a comic monologue. Then (generally after intermission) Time (Patrick Romer) appears as a narrator, advancing the story sixteen years and taking us to Bohemia, where it's spring and Polixenes's son Florizel, now grown, is carrying on a clandestine love affair with a shepherdess who, as only we know, is Leontes's daughter Perdita.

Setting the first half in the early twentieth century, Farr elevates the emotional intensity of the play to a breathtaking height and sustains it. He and his magnificent ensemble (which also includes Noma Dumezweni as Paulina, Antigonus's bold-spoken wife and Hermione's fearlessly loyal lady-in-waiting) explore the stylized interaction of the characters with an eye to its psychological accuracy, so from the outset we feel gripped by the spectacle of human beings in extremis. Leontes's sudden jealousy is the premise of the story, just as Lear's foolish decision to divide up his kingdom among his daughters is the premise of King Lear, but as Hicks plays the 'Too hot, too hot' speech the aside that reveals his suspicions it confirms our own all-too-common experience of the way the shadow of jealousy can creep unbidden onto a man's spirit and eat him alive. In this production the aside stops the action; when it resumes, Leontes has curdled the humor and congeniality of the evening (Farr stages the scene as a dinner party). From then on the king occupies a psychic space that distances him from everyone else: when he orders Camillo to poison Polixenes or excoriates Hermione as an adulteress, the other characters look at him as if he's gone mad, and that's how Hicks plays him. Hunter portrays Hermione as a younger version of Mrs. Ramsay from To the Lighthouse or Mrs. Wilcox from Howards End one of those extraordinarily graceful fin-de-siècle aristocratic British matriarchs whose domestic virtues amount to a rare gift; and she and Farr accentuate her role in the play by underscoring the physical fact of her pregnancy. When she goes to Mamillius's nursery to put him to bed, she has to rest her bulk on a divan and take a few deep breaths, and that's where she is when Leontes rushes in and makes accusations. "I never hoped to see you sorry," she tells him sorrowfully, shaking her head in disbelief, and plants a kiss on his brow: this is a marvelous moment. When Paulina, hoping to soften the king's heart by presenting to him the baby Hermione has given birth to in prison, he cringes from it as if from a demon, and you think, this man's mind is truly diseased it turns the most benign objects into fiends from hell. Summoned for her trial, Hermione stands before him in bare feet and her grimy prison shift, with a towel wrapped around her to lend her some dignity, but in the heat of her speech it falls to the ground and we see it's stained with the blood from her delivery. She doesn't bother to hide the shocking treatment that she, a queen and the daughter of a king ("The emperor of Russia was my father" is one of her most powerful lines), has received from Leontes, and there's no need for her to cover herself; the purity of her actions shine through her words, and no one who isn't as mad as Leontes could fail to see it. (Hunter is the finest Hermione I've ever had the privilege of seeing.)

Kelly Hunter & Greg Hicks in The Winter's Tale (photo by Stephanie Berger)

Jon Bausor's marvelous set is framed upstage by high-reaching library shelves and a half-moon scoop of a chandelier hangs above; when Leontes is alone in his chambers, Jon Clark's lighting shadows the chandelier on the wall so that the object and its silhouette suggest a mockery of the scales of justice. That chandelier serves multiple purposes in the show: it's the basket in which Antigonus cradles the baby, and Time makes his descent sitting in it, his legs dangling, at the top of the second half. (These are inspired choices.) By the time Antigonus uses it, it's sitting lopsided on the ground because when disaster strikes upon Leontes's refusal to accept the judgment of the oracle, the set collapses, the library shelves bending upon themselves and books and paper strewing the stage. The bear that eats Antigonus in the next scene is a massive puppet constructed of bits of paper, a monster that Borges might have devised, and the link to the destruction of Leontes's library makes it clear that this tragedy is the final consequence of the king's jealousy.

The Winter's Tale
But in the second half it's the production itself that collapses. Directors who understand how to handle the Sicilia scenes often clutch they have to stage the pastoral Bohemian scenes. (A friend has suggested that they might look to Eliot's The Mill on the Floss and to Thomas Hardy for models.) Despite the wonderful image of Time's descent, you know things have gone wrong when you return from intermission and find the debris hasn't been removed and since there's no way the stage crew can get rid of it once the play recommences, you realize you're stuck looking at it for the next hour and a half. And it's not the appropriate backdrop for Bohemia for the romance between a princess in disguise and the king's son. The sheep shearing festival is overdirected and pointless, and the dancers wear huge phalluses as if they'd stepped out of a satyr play. Whereas the ensemble in act one is flawless, down to the lords who serve Leontes and have only a few lines, the new arrivals in the second act are terrible. Brian Doherty seems lost in the role of Autolycus, the thief who becomes an unwitting instrument in bringing about the happy ending, and neither Tunji Kasim as Florizel nor Samantha Young as Perdita is remotely up to the challenge of bringing these untutored lovers to life. Moreover, though physically Young might be right for Phebe or Audrey or even for Celia in As You Like It, Shakespeare wrote an entire speech describing Perdita's transcendent looks and Young is simply not the raving beauty the text alludes to. And though I understand the concept of color-blind casting, it doesn't make sense to cast a black actor as Florizel and a white actor as Polixenes when the lines say that the prince is a copy of his father. This kind of miscasting asks the audience to ignore the evidence of their own ears.

The play ends in a deeply affecting reconciliation where reality and magic are mysteriously intertwined, and, back on comfortable ground, Farr does a beautiful job with the final scene (and its brief antecedent, which he stages as a conversation among servants). But I've never seen a production of this play in which the bisection between a successful Sicilia and a failed Bohemia was so marked. It's as if the director threw up his hands when he got to the second half.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny ReviewThe Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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