Monday, June 12, 2017

Shakespeare on Love: Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet, Antony & Cleopatra

The cast and (right) John Pfumojena and Anita-Joy Uwajeh in Emma Rice's Twelfth Night. (Photo: Hugo Glendinning)

There wasn’t a single performer on the stage of Shakespeare’s Globe in the current Twelfth Night whom I didn’t like. Emma Rice’s rambunctious, free-form production underlines the idea that love makes adults behave like adolescents in the flurry of their first crushes. When Viola (Anita-Joy Uwajeh), disguised as Cesario, is next to Duke Orsino (Joshua Lacey), she can’t stop grinning and giggling; she’s happy to serve as his go-between with Olivia (Annette McLaughlin), whom he’s been trying without success to court, because when she presses the button of the portable tape player he handed her and spins the ridiculous love song he’s recorded for Olivia, she gets a chance to hear his voice in absentia. She doesn’t find his would-be-hipster self-presentation foolish; everything he does enchants her. (And it’s hard not to like the guy, who may be deluded about his own feelings for Olivia but is touchingly sincere and doesn’t have an unkind bone in his body.) Olivia, still in mourning for her brother, has no patience for Orsino’s suit, and she’s so poised and reasonable that she comes across as a good decade older than he is. But when young Cesario shows up at her door she flips for him and we see the schoolgirl side of her: fluttery, alternately assertive and self-denigrating, incapable of muting her affections. Among this talented company, McLaughlin gives the most accomplished performance – her grounded physicality and firm, fluid command of the language make Olivia’s sudden loss of control hilariously unexpected.

The play – in my view the greatest of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies – is full of couplings of different sorts. Olivia invites Sebastian (John Pfumojena), Viola’s lost twin, into her bed, taking him for Cesario, and he looks like he’s died and gone to heaven. Unlike many contemporary versions, Rice’s Twelfth Night doesn’t read the deep friendship the sea captain Antonio (Pieter Lawman) feels for Sebastian, whom he saved from drowning, as homosexual longing. But she does much more with the relationship between Viola’s drunken uncle Sir Toby Belch (Tony Jayawardena) and her serving woman Maria (Carly Bawden) than any other production I’ve seen: Bawden plays the role like the heroine of a hard-boiled comedy who knows what she wants and goes after it, and she and Jayawardena’s Toby are so comfortable in each other’s company that the news, at curtain, that he’s married her hardly comes as a surprise. (Rice’s smart enough to bring them on stage in their wedding garb, a bouquet in Maria’s fist, for the final stage picture.)

That leaves the lonelyhearts characters, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Toby’s house guest and drinking buddy, and Malvolio, Olivia’s Puritan steward. But Sir Andrew only pursues Olivia at Toby’s suggestion, and Malvolio’s fantasy of being wed to his mistress – which Maria, in revenge for his mean-spiritedness, builds on to make a “geck and gull” of him before the entire household – is more about pride and status than romantic feeling. That’s not always the case in Twelfth Night productions: in Simon Godwin’s recent staging at the National, Tamsin Greig’s Malvolio truly doted on Olivia. The pixieish Katy Owen, who played Puck in Rice’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream last season, is almost as funny as Greig was, and when she cavorts around the stage cross-gartered and in yellow stockings, fulfilling the requirements set out in the letter Maria, imitating Olivia’s handwriting, has sent to Malvolio, she gets to show off her acrobatic skills. Marc Antolin is the best Sir Andrew I’ve ever seen. Only a highly skillful physical comedian could do so much with the character’s clumsiness. In a bad comic production you dread the repetition of running gags; in a good one you look eagerly forward to it – especially, in this case, Sir Andrew’s pratfalls, always executed upstage as he’s about to exit and followed, absurdly, with the reassuring cry, “I’m okay!”

In this Twelfth Night Illyria is apparently off the Scottish coast: when she lands there, Viola is confronted with men in kilts, some of whom speak in brogue. (Orsino wears a kilt but speaks in an affected upper-class English accent; he sounds like Bill Nighy in parodic mode.) Rice’s staging is full of ingenious touches, like an extended, choreographed shipwreck (Etta Murfitt directed the movement) that ends in the rescue of the twins on either side of the stage and Antonio’s hauling Sebastian in a rowboat through the groundlings in the Globe courtyard. Like Godwin, Rice has cast two actors who can pass as real twins, and she has a lot of fun with the symmetry when they end up on stage together in the final scene. (Antonio’s bedazzled query to Sebastian, “How have you made division of yourself?,” has never seemed so apt.)

Rice tries to do something mystical with Feste that she hasn’t thought through. The role is performed by the Anglo African drag performer Le Gateau Chocolat, who has a warm, velvety bass voice and a warm presence. Rice takes him out of most of the dialogue scenes, relegating some of his lines to Fabian (Nandi Bhebhe), and except for the prison scene with Malvolio – which, as in every other Twelfth Night I’ve seen, doesn’t really work – he’s brought on mostly to sing. At the top of the show Olivia asks him if he’s been sent to save her, their exchange appropriating and anticipating the one Malvolio has with him in the prison scene when he’s pretending to be the curate Sir Topas. I didn’t quite get it, but I guess the idea is that she has to be redeemed by love and Feste is the spirit of love. At the end of the play he stops Malvolio, in despair after he’s been made a fool of, from drowning himself, so is he now supposed to be the spirit of life or community, too? Malvolio places rocks in his pockets and prepares to plunge himself in the ocean like Virginia Woolf; this moment has a delicacy in the staging and especially in Owen’s acting of it, but it works against Rice’s otherwise lighthearted interpretation of the play and it feels misplaced.

Rice’s directorial style was well established through her work with Kneehigh over two decades, yet, having hired her as artistic director, the Globe let her go after one season because they didn’t like her non-traditional approach to the texts. She stayed on for a second year because there was no one to replace her right away, and this is her last production. Most of the Globe shows I saw before she took over, which didn’t cut a line and hewed to the theatre’s “original staging practices” mandate (as if anyone has a clue how the shows were staged in Shakespeare’s day), were snoozers, but this Twelfth Night is alive on the stage. Talk about folly.

 Kirsty Bushell and Edward Hogg in Daniel Kramer's Romeo and Juliet at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. (Photo: Alastair Muir)

Daniel Kramer directed the Globe’s Romeo and Juliet, but it’s a show that could only have been sanctioned under the Rice regime. Kramer has approached the play as a clown show with the actors in whiteface, wearing the kind of costume-party outfits (designed by Soutra Gilmour) Baz Luhrmann favors in his movies. Juliet (Kirsty Bushell) and Romeo (Edward Hogg) and his buds are Gen-Xers; Mercutio is a woman (Golda Rosheuvel), Friar Lawrence (Harish Patel) a jolly Hindu priest. At the Capulets’ ball everyone sings and dances to “Y.M.C.A.” and the host (Gareth Snook) gets a blowjob from a toyboy version of the M.C. from Cabaret in hot pants (Keith Gilmore). He and Lady Capulet (Martina Laird) might be puppets in a Punch and Judy show.

Generally I don’t have a lot of patience for this kind of silliness – ideas projected onto a Shakespeare play rather than a concept worked carefully through it – and some of it made me roll my eyes (especially the opening). But actually this Romeo is a mixed experience. Hogg is as affecting and does as much with the language as any Romeo I’ve seen, and the balcony scene is just lovely, purely fresh, with Bushell filtering Juliet’s amorous amazement through her slacker rhythms. (Her readings grow repetitive in the second half, when her character takes over the action; I missed the lyricism of Shakespeare’s verse.) Kramer has Hogg and Rosheuvel and Jonathan Livingstone’s Benvolio play the scene where Mercutio fights Tybalt (played by Ricky Champ as a skinhead thug) as banter right up until her last few lines, which makes her death shocking as well as moving. Kramer cuts chunks of text, including the highly dispensable dialogue that follow Romeo and Juliet’s suicides, and at several key points he stages two scenes simultaneously, cross-cutting between them. This decision only works the first time, leading up to the lovers’ marriage in Friar Lawrence’s cell, an effect that gives the playing out of their romantic passion urgency and lends the drama a leaping, kinetic quality. The production feels like an experiment – messy and wildly uneven but never stodgy.

Josette Simon and Antony Byrne in Iqbal Khan's Antony & Cleopatra. (Photo: Helen Maybanks)

“Stodgy” is an adjective more accurately applied to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Antony & Cleopatra at Stratford. This late tragedy is the perfect counter to Romeo and Juliet, which comes early in his career. The titular lovers are middle-aged yet just as vulnerable to surrendering themselves to their passion. Antony forgets his wife back home in Rome when he’s in the Egyptian court of Cleopatra (she dies of an unnamed disease in his absence) and though he remarries, binding himself to Octavia to affirm his loyalty to her brother, Octavius Caesar, the moment he returns to Egypt he forgets her, too, as well as his political obligations to Rome, and winds up fighting a war against Caesar that he can’t win. Like Romeo and Juliet, both lovers kill themselves in the end, he choosing death over dishonor and she opting to die rather than submit to Caesar’s rule. It’s a great tragedy, complex and, like so many of Shakespeare’s late-period plays, dense and challenging in its poetry. That’s no doubt why it’s performed so seldom; in half a century of attending live Shakespeare, this is only the third Antony I’ve seen. It’s long (three and a half hours at Stratford) and difficult.

I doubt that anyone who hasn’t already encountered the play will view it as a neglected treasure after seeing Iqbal Khan’s production for the RSC. The first half looks beautiful, partly as a result of Khan’s staging and partly because of Robert Innes Hopkins’ set and costume designs and Tim Mitchell’s lighting. By act two there isn’t much left to look at. Early on Khan plays with the juxtaposition of the luxuries of the Roman and Egyptian court (he places the first Roman scene in a bath) and his concept seems to have something to do with the way everyone, Roman and Egyptian alike, is easily reduced to the same human vices. But that’s a platitude that shortchanges Shakespeare’s sympathetic treatment of the two protagonists. Josette Simon plays Cleopatra as childish; Antony Byrne doesn’t do much to distinguish Marc Antony. Neither of their deaths stirs any emotion, and the clunky staging of both makes them inadvertently funny. I felt much more for Antony’s aide Eros (Sean Hart) when he fell on his own sword rather than killing Antony according to Antony’s request.

The most striking failure in the show is the inattentiveness of these RSC actors to the language; the sole actor who makes his lines sing is Ben Allen as Octavius. As Antony’s closest friend Enobarbus, Andrew Woodall gives all of his an ironic edge that throws cold water on the poetry; this is obviously a deliberate choice, but I can’t figure out what the thinking is behind it. Enobarbus is given the most beautiful speech in the play, a description of Cleopatra’s barge floating down the Nile. It’s the only dialogue aside from Antony’s “Let Rome in Tiber melt” and “I am dying, Egypt, dying” that is likely to awake recognition in anyone in the audience who isn’t a diehard Bard aficionado, but surely it’s not famous enough for Khan and Woodall to feel it has to be defamiliarized, in the Brechtian term. The first time I saw Antony and Cleopatra I was sixteen, and the production was part of a tour of the Stratford (Canada) Shakespeare Festival. Christopher Plummer was Antony and Zoe Caldwell was Cleopatra, but what I remember after all these years was William Hutt as Enobarbus’ reading of that speech. I won’t remember Woodall’s by next week.

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 Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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