Monday, June 18, 2018

London and Stratford: The Shakespeare Report

Jack Laskey and Nadia Nadarajah in As You Like It at Shakespeare's Globe. (Photo: Tristram Kenton)

While I was watching As You Like It at Shakespeare’s Globe, the two quotations that kept running through my head – when I wasn’t boiling up with rage or, alternately, feeling like the life had been drained out of me – were the Stage Manager’s casual pronouncement in the third act of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, “Wherever you come near the human race, there’s layers and layers of nonsense,” and Mollser’s query at the end of act one of Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars to Nora Clitheroe about whether there’s anyone around with “a titthle of common sense.” What prize collection of idiots would mount a production of Shakespeare’s sublime romantic comedy with a male Rosalind, a female Orlando and a deaf actress as Celia? I say “collection” because, though two people, Federay Holmes and Elle While, are listed as co-directors, the Globe’s modus operandi, under its latest artistic director, Michelle Terry (who plays three male roles in the production), is to assemble a show democratically, with the directors serving more as organizers than as auteurs. Even the costume designer, Ellan Parry, worked with each actor individually to select his or her clothing, items that come from all over because the show isn’t set in a specific period. What this catch-as-catch-can eclectic approach to costume doesn’t explain is why the outfits are so consistently ugly to look at. Were they selected to punish the audience further throughout the three interminable hours of the performance?

And God, is it punishing. When did the didacticism and insufferable virtuousness of gender-blind casting take on the tone of puritanical sensory deprivation? At this As You Like It, we’re not permitted the pleasures of character or emotional or narrative engagement. It’s not just distracting to have a woman (Bettrys Jones) in the role of Orlando and a man (Jack Laskey) in the role of Rosalind; it’s discombobulating. At the outset of every scene I had to get past my reasonable initial assumption that the two actors were playing the parts they’d have been cast in anywhere else, so I was constantly pulled out of the dramatic situation. You’d have to be stuck in some theoretical bramble bush to believe that the results of this gender swap is to shake up our socially determined ideas about men and women rather than recognize that all it upsets is our sense of dramatic equilibrium, not to mention simple logic. Shakespeare’s already done all that work for us anyway by having Rosalind disguise herself as Ganymede. Did the crew at the Globe imagine that they would improve on Shakespeare – or that by casting a man as Rosalind, perhaps the greatest comic role ever written for a woman, they were correcting some gender injustice? I would think that every actress on the stage would be up in arms. Orlando’s a lovely role, but Rosalind is a magnificent one.

All the gender-blind casting in this show does (and there’s plenty more: Helen Schlesinger is both Duke Senior and Duke Frederick, Catrin Aaron is Corin and James Garnon, whom I always look forward to seeing, is wasted as Audrey) is to distance the audience from the characters and get in the way of the beautifully worked out arc of the romantic comedy. But the coup de folie is the casting of the deaf actress Nadia Nadarajah as Celia. Since most of the audience can’t sign, we miss all of her dialogue except for the bits that one of the other characters (usually Rosalind) translates. Is that supposed to be a punishment, too – those of us who aren’t deaf can’t appreciate what it’s like so we need to be deprived of the pleasures of the line readings? Who the hell thinks that way? Evidently it didn’t occur to these models of inclusivity that when neither the audience nor most of the characters can’t understand Celia, she winds up stranded her on the margins of the production. The only time her deafness seems to serve any dramatic purpose is in the early scenes with her father, Duke Frederick, who can’t sign and therefore doesn’t know what she’s saying to him. She gets so exasperated at the barrier between them after he’s impulsively banished Rosalind, her cousin and confidante (whose father’s dukedom he has usurped), that she screams out some of her lines to him. The effect is painful, but it’s supposed to be affecting – as it certainly was in the revival, two seasons ago, of the musical Spring Awakening on Broadway with a blend of deaf and hearing actors when one of the teachers forced Moritz (played by Daniel N. Durant, who is deaf) to speak one of his responses in class and the difficulty he experienced in doing so underscored the teacher’s insensitivity. But the emotionalism of this moment in As You Like It shifts the dramatic focus of the scene so that it’s suddenly about Celia’s damaged relationship with her father (though at least that’s one time in the production when her character isn’t marginalized). It’s also a cheat, because what we want is the tender power of Shakespeare’s lines here:

. . . if she be a traitor,
Why so am I: we still have slept together,
Rose at an instant, learn’d, play’d, eat together;
And wheresoe’er we went, like Juno’s swans,
Still we went coupled and inseparable.

By comparison, the unsettling effect of having a deaf woman screech at her father because he never bothered learning how to speak her language is melodrama.

This isn’t the only sample in the Globe’s current season of blind casting that’s really stupid casting, and backfires because it exposes the holes in Michelle Terry and her associates’ professed progressiveness. In Barrie Rutter’s production of The Two Noble Kinsmen, a dwarf actress, Francesca Mills, plays the Jailer’s Daughter. She’s talented: her reading of the character’s soliloquy about her love for the imprisoned Palamon (Paul Stocker) is charming. But whereas in the text it’s clear that Palamon abandons her after she helps him escape because, as a noble, he would never seriously consider a jailer’s daughter as a romantic object, here the actress’s stature makes it seem that he doesn’t look twice at her because she’s a dwarf. Much worse is the way the character’s mad scene (which is patterned on Ophelia’s and even quotes it) is turned into farce, with Mills tossed around the stage like a football. The scene is staged so that what we’re laughing at is a combination of the character’s agony and the actress’s height. So much for sensitivity to the experience of those outside the mainstream.

The blind casting is the only concept I could find in As You Like It at the Globe, but I suppose that, if you think it’s a grand idea to put together a show by committee, then you think concept merely privileges the idea of a director and promotes elitism. The most egregious result of having no one in charge is that the storytelling – the most basic and essential level in any piece of theatre – is often incoherent. One element of the production is crystal clear, however. Schlesinger doesn’t do much to distinguish between the two Dukes; borrowing from the film critic Michael Sragow’s review of Jeremy Irons’s dual performance as the twin gynecologists in David Cronenberg’s horror film Dead Ringers, I’d say she plays them like Dr. Hyde and Mr. Hyde. But when she plays the villainous Duke Frederick she fluffs up her white wig and looks like the spit and image of Emma Rice, Terry’s predecessor, who instituted a hierarchy with the director at the top – and, for a brief time before she was terminated, made the Globe a company worth attending. This nasty bit of parody doesn’t have the intended effect of affirming that the theatre has now rid itself of its oppressive administration and found its artistic path at last. In the context of the self-adoring mess that is this season’s As You Like It, it looks more like the lunatics have taken over the madhouse.

Anne-Marie Duff and Rory Kinnear in Macbeth at the National Theatre. (Photo: Brinkhoff Mögen)

Having seen Rory Kinnear as Hamlet, Iago and Bolingbroke (in Richard II), I have no compunction about declaring him the greatest Shakespearean actor of his generation. (He’s forty-two.) His Macbeth at the National Theatre only confirms that assessment. He brings some of the military gruffness of his Iago to this role, but it’s offset by a compulsive restlessness that suggests he’s most comfortable in battle. And though his ascent to the throne of Scotland turns him into a monster, a paranoic and a serial murderer, he never loses that quality – it just gets transferred to his bottomless mission to eliminate all his imagined enemies (that is, almost everyone). Kinnear’s Macbeth has the fearsomeness and the monolithic force of a sci-fi killng machine: Terminator plus neurosis. Kinnear is always a brilliant choice to play macho Shakespeare figures – Hamlet is the obvious exception – because he has so much physical command and because the complexity of his masculinity is always a surprise. And man, what this actor can do with the verse! When he gets to a set piece speech like the dagger soliloquy or “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,” he takes it beat by careful beat, pulling us along with him. It’s experiential Shakespeare, rendered with the precision of an X-Acto knife and with absolute clarity. But he has a trademark way of expelling breath at the beginning of a phrase that hints at built-up pressure and words forced through a narrow aperture. When he played Bolingbroke, it came across as the natural reticence of a man of action, a preference for physical engagement over chatter. In his Macbeth that vocal tendency also points to the character’s interior struggle.

This Macbeth is driven from the first by the prophecies of the weird sisters, but Kinnear makes it clear that he needs the approval of his wife (Anne-Marie Duff) before proceeding. When he makes it home after Duncan (Stephen Boxer) has handed him the title of the executed Thane of Cawdor, he hovers in the doorway, anxious to get Lady Macbeth’s reaction to his letter; it’s only when she conveys her pride in him and pushes him to make the second prophecy come true by killing the king that he feels comfortable enough to cross the room and takes her in his arms. The complications of their relationship are visible in the scene where he hesitates after Duncan has arrived and she tells him he doesn’t love her enough: her words tell us that she feels he’s failed her as a man but her half-crying, half-whining complaint indicates a different kind of manipulation. Duff was almost completely wasted when she played this role in Jack O’Brien’s misbegotten production at Lincoln Center five years ago (opposite a woefully miscast Ethan Hawke), but in Rufus Norris’s post-apocalyptic Macbeth, she has a wild-woman presence – she’s a little like the still sexy yet slightly over-the-brink wife of a middle-aged guy in a motorcycle gang – but with a neediness that she tries, with increasing difficulty, to keep covert. The night of Duncan’s murder, he’s the one who looks ready to come apart, but they’re both spooked. Once he’s become king, though, he starts to move away from her and she loses her balance. She keeps reaching out to him but he doesn’t touch her – except after the banquet debacle where he sees the ghost of Banquo (Kevin Harvey), when, the dinner guests having departed hastily and awkwardly, she grabs at him and he shoves her to the ground. This Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have sexual chemistry from the first but after he’s become king murder seems to have replaced sex for him. In Norris’s version it’s clear that her death is a suicide (and a very bloody one), and he actually stages “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” over her corpse. But Kinnear’s Macbeth, holding her, still seems remote, as if he’s striving to work something out about the fact that his wife, the partner of his initial foray into homicide, is gone. When Brutus gets the news of Portia’s death in Julius Caesar and says he’ll postpone his grief, we understand that he’s a stoic Roman, not that he has no depth of feeling for his dead wife. When Macbeth’s response to his wife’s death is to philosophize, the disjunction is extremely unsettling, and the way Norris has set up this scene underscores it.

Norris’s production, housed in the huge Olivier Theatre and designed by Rae Smith, is visually impressive, with an enormous movable ramp and garbage-bag plastic hung and lit by James Farncombe to look like an upstage curtain weighed down on one side. (I didn’t realize it was plastic until the battle at the end of the play.) The witches (Anna-Maria Nabirye, Beatrice Scirocchi and Hannah Hutch) are amplified so they sound like they’re in an echo chamber, which gives them a creepy horror-movie presence, and the figures they conjure in their second scene to predict the future of Scotland’s royal house have faces on the back of their heads. When Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane, it does so in the form of poles with jungle foliage at the top that the witches hang from. There’s plenty to look at, but most of it doesn’t get at the richness of Shakespeare’s text; it feels more like it’s been grafted onto the play. The bombed-out look of the set and the fact that all the interiors are cramped rectangular spaces with ugly, utilitarian tables and chairs, like the rec room in a community center, may fit the concept but they don’t fit the tragedy; the look of the show is so deliberately inelegant that after a while the language begins to feel misplaced – overly grandiloquent. You feel it especially in the banquet scene, where there’s only one servant and a paucity of guests and you can’t even tell what they’re eating – and then the ghost effect is scrappy, especially if you’re not sitting down in the stalls. (It’s also badly staged.) And some of Norris’s choices are perplexing. He eliminates the younger prince, Donalbain, and the one Macduff child we see, a girl, might be in her mid-twenties. Fleance is a girl, too, and she does seem young enough, but then she shows up in the final battle, which is confusing: Norris has brought back all the dead characters as ghosts so it looks like he forgot that Fleance got away from her father’s murderers.

The director has laid on a sci-fi version of the witches’ prophecies. The Porter (Trevor Fox) knows that the Macbeths have killed Duncan – he interpolates part of their dialogue into his speech (an idea that doesn’t work at all) – and then shows up again in scenes other productions sometimes put the mysterious character of Seton into, substituting him, for instance, as the third murderer in the Banquo death episode. But in Norris’s staging of that scene, he’s the one who prevents the other murderers from getting at Fleance, holding him so he’s out of harm’s way and then pushing him away into the woods before they can catch up to him. The idea seems to be that he’s making sure that the prophecy will come true, like those supernatural creatures in Stephen King novels and stories who step in when someone changes the future. You get the sense that that’s what the dead people are doing during the battle scene, too: hovering in the background just in case something goes wrong and it looks like Macduff (Patrick O’Kane, in a technical performance that doesn’t begin to get at the character’s grief) might botch the swordfight with Macbeth. The notion is compelling in King’s narratives but here it’s superfluous and even distracting. After the show a friend confided that he would have enjoyed it better if Kinnear and Duff had played it on a bare stage. I know just what he means: a great deal of time and energy have obviously been put into this extravagant summer offering in the National’s biggest space, but these two actors are the real show.

Antony Sher and Graham Turner in the Royal Shakespeare Company's King Lear. (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)

What you get in Gregory Doran’s production of King Lear for the Royal Shakespeare Company, starring Antony Sher – which has returned to Stratford after opening at the Brooklyn Academy of Music – is the old-fashioned RSC approach to Shakespeare, the verse spoken with ringing clarity. The staging is efficient but not especially imaginative, except for the use of a large cube in three scenes: Lear sits atop it, out of reach of his daughter and his courtiers, when he divides up his kingdom; it stands in for the heath when he and the Fool (Graham Turner) are out in the storm; and it becomes the room wherein Cornwall (James Clyde) blinds Gloucester (David Troughton) early in the second half. (The cube only works in the first of these episodes, and in the third it pulls you out of the period, which is otherwise late Medieval. Niki Turner is the designer.) But you know, this approach does the trick. The mounting of this massive, complicated play – it runs about three and a half hours – is cohesive, the narrative line is unimpeded, the ensemble is mostly excellent, and by the end you’ve wrung out emotionally, as you should be. And Sher’s performance is graceful and intelligently thought through and accumulates power. I’ve seen Lears that are touched with genius: Laurence Olivier’s, Ian McKellen’s, Derek Jacobi’s. I wouldn’t say that about Sher’s, but his careful, systematic way of pacing through one of those big, overwhelming speeches like “O reason not the need” illuminates every corner of meaning, and when he gets to the lyrical high points – the reunion with Cordelia (Mimi Ndiweni), the scene where he lightens their trek to prison with the joy of their renewed bond, and of course “Howl, howl, howl” at the end – you’re grateful for his patient, emphatic readings because you feel every emotion. Lear is my favorite play in the world, and I left the theatre satisfied.

Some elements of the performance don’t work, like Doran’s placing the “poor naked wretches” Lear alludes to during the storm onstage several times, beginning with the opening, as if we needed to see the poor and homeless for ourselves or we wouldn’t understand the king’s concern with them once he experiences the world as they do. (This is what I like to call Classics Illustrated stage imagery.) And I wish there were a little color on the stage; everything is black or white except for the red bells on the Fool’s cap. But Doran and his actors do other things particularly well. When Goneril (Nia Gwynne) and Regan (Kelly Williams) have to get up in front of the court to declare their love for their father, though they have rhetoric to fall back on, it’s clear they feel initially perplexed – especially Goneril – at the task he’s set them, and the recitations are awkward, though he doesn’t appear to notice. His relationship with Goneril, his eldest, is fraught: when he curses her she’s genuinely hurt (Regan is the cold-blooded one), and he even mauls her during one of them. The curses don’t have the virtues of Sher’s other readings because Doran has directed him to present them ceremonially, with Ilona Sekacz’s music underscoring them importantly. It’s a mistake, though possibly it was a compromise to save Sher’s emotional energy for other moments – like the one where he’s confronted by both daughters at Gloucester’s castle and can’t find the words to complete his curse on them: “I shall do such things, -- / What they are, yet I know not: but they shall be / The terrors of the earth. You think I’ll weep? / No, I’ll not weep . . . “ Troughton and Oliver Johnstone play one of the last Gloucester-Edgar scenes so that we see that blinded Gloucester recognizes his son, and even though that decision creates problems of logic for the scenes that follow, it’s such a beautiful idea that it’s worth the hassle. And everything Antony Byrne does as honest Kent, who is incapable of flattery but made of loyalty, is marvelous, especially his last departure, which gets tears out of you even when you think that, after Lear’s eulogy for Cordelia and his death with her in his arms, you have none left to cry.

Troughton gets better and better as the play goes on, but I felt less enthusiastic about Johnstone in the role of chivalrous Edgar, which almost no actor ever pulls off, and about Buom Tihngang as Edmund, which almost everyone pulls off. Tihngang gets a few laughs, but he’s a papier-mâché Edmund, all form and no substance. Clarence Smith does a great deal with his few scenes as Albany, whose disgust as his wife Goneril’s treatment of her father earns our respect and affection. One of the play’s peripheral themes is what it means to wield lordly authority, and Smith’s Albany provides a sterling example of the qualities we want in a leader. As the King of France, Romayne Andrews is glaringly miscast; he looks about seventeen and Ndiweni towers over him. She has a fascinating, multi-faceted beauty, and her line readings mesmerize you in the first scene, but she’s a little cool in the reunion scene; I think she’s going for Cordelia’s difficulty in expressing her feelings for her father, but she doesn’t fill the few lines she utters (notably “No cause, no cause,” one of the most heart-shattering fragments of speech in the history of drama) with the emotion she can’t frame otherwise. She has the bearing of a queen, though, and she doesn’t disappoint in her last (living) moments with Lear. As for Graham Turner’s Fool, it’s very skillful, but he plays him as a Cockney music-hall clown, and here I have to confess a personal bias: I don’t have much patience for this sort of comedy. Overall the cast does what they need to do in a good production of Lear: draw our attention to the colors in their individual characters while ultimately deferring to the actor in the title role.

– 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 StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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