Monday, October 29, 2018

Shakespeare x 2: Measure for Measure and King Lear

Petr Rykov and Anna Khalilulina in Cheek by Jowl and the Pushkin Theatre’s Measure for Measure. (Photo:Johan Persson)

The collaboration by the English company Cheek by Jowl and the Pushkin Theatre from Russia on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure runs for an uninterrupted hour and fifty minutes, and it holds the attention. That is, until the climactic scene where first Isabella and then the Duke of Vienna expose the sexual blackmail Angelo, the Duke’s surrogate during his (supposed) absence, has attempted on Isabella, the convent novice whose brother Claudio has been sentenced to execution for fornication, according to the antiquated law Angelo has elected to reactivate. All the actors are Russian, and two of them, Anna Vardevanian as Isabella and Andrei Kuzichev, are first-rate. Their two big scenes – the one in which Isabella pleads for her brother’s life and the one in which Angelo presses his sexual attentions on her – are mesmerizing.  Cheek by Jowl’s Declan Donnellan has chosen to stage the sexual extortion as a near-rape; he’s far from the first director to do so, and given the sexual politics of this era he certainly won’t be the last. But though the staging is extremely effective, it’s mostly the intensity and variety of the two performances that make both encounters so gripping. And the slimming down of Shakespeare’s text (which mostly affects the scenes built around the madam, Mistress Overdone, played by Elmira Mirel, and her associate Pompey, played by Alexey Rakhmanov) help to shape the production so that it leads inexorably to the centerpiece Angelo-Isabella scenes.

What’s disappointing about this Measure for Measure is that visually it’s not all that interesting. Nick Ormerod’s set consists of five large red cubes, but the only time Donnellan employs them in an unusual way is when he stages a tableau in each of them simultaneously, late in the evening. Almost the entire ensemble is on stage most of the time, hovering in a group or rushing about the stage, but their presence isn’t especially resonant or meaningful, and the movement becomes tiresome. It seems meant to be comic, and there’s an overstated farce element in some of the sequences that is consistent with other Russian imports I’ve seen; this may be a question of culture and temperament, but it always tries my patience. Measure for Measure, which after all is cross-cultural, doesn’t have an excess of it, but I could have lived without Alexander Feklistov’s portrayal of Lucio, the sexual esthete who gets a kick out of libeling the Friar, not realizing until too late that he’s the Duke in disguise. Who wants to laugh when an actor keeps telling us, in one way or another, how funny we’re supposed to find him? Mirel, doubling as Mariana, the fiancée whom Angelo has abandoned – and who, at the Duke’s suggestion, invokes the Elizabethan bed trick, replacing Isabella in bed with Angelo to save her virtue while claiming a husband – is also over the top, though she isn’t going for comedy. Otherwise the cast, which includes Petr Rykov as Claudio, Yuri Rumyantsev and Nikolay Kislichenko as Escalus and the Provost, who pass from the Duke’s service into Angelo’s, Igor Teplov as the unregenerate prisoner Barnardine, and Anastasia Lebedeva as Claudio’s pregnant fiancée Juliet, is solid.

Most of Shakespeare’s comedies, including dark ones like this and All’s Well That Ends Well, culminate in extended scenes that unravel all the plot threads, but Donnellan takes way too long with the finale, which is noisy and visually repetitive. I’ve never seen a production of Measure for Measure that didn’t work on some level, which may be just good luck, but Donnellan almost throws over the game in the last quarter of an hour.

Anthony Hopkins in King Lear. (Photo: Ed Miller)

A modern-day setting has given fresh meaning and relevance to Hamlet and Othello, but it does nothing for King Lear, at least in Richard Eyre’s new, pared-down Netflix film starring Anthony Hopkins. We don’t want greater realism in Lear; it diminishes the play’s grandeur and mystery. So when Edgar (Andrew Scott) leads his blind father Gloucester (Jim Broadbent) into the middle of an English urban center and mad Lear wanders by, a bag man with a shopping cart, instead of being stirred by the chance meeting of these two old men, each brought to grief by his misjudgment of his children, whose tragic situations are distorted mirror images of each other, we think, “With millions of people in this city, how the hell did they just happen to run into each other?” The blinding of Gloucester by Cornwall (Tobias Menzies) - assisted, in this version, by his wife Regan (Emily Watson) – is so gruesome that it loses its effect. And the civil war, which is merely a narrative device in Shakespeare’s play, is presented in much greater detail than we want, especially since it doesn’t make an ounce of difference who wins it. (This isn’t Macbeth.) And the realism Eyre keeps leaning towards turns the soliloquies into real oddities: he tries to make them work by beginning with the actors addressing the camera and then shifting to voice-overs, but since they’re neither flesh nor fowl they only stick out more awkwardly. Eyre has made other weird choices that can’t be explained by the style, like cutting away from the actors at key moments to show us the responses of other characters, for instance during Lear’s daughters’ forced declarations of their love for him in the opening scene. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Shakespearean film with so many reaction shots. During Gloucester’s blinding, Eyre keeps cutting to the appalled face of his butler (John Standing). Since this distinguished – knighted – performer has no lines at all in this scene, and since we hardly need the butler’s reaction to judge the cruelty of his treatment, his very presence is baffling.

Hopkins does some immensely clever things with his lines, but his performance is mostly rhetoric; he’s not especially moving, except in his early exchanges with the Fool (Karl Johnson, who suffers the most by the cuts Eyre has made to the text) and the scene where and Cordelia (Florence Pugh) are being taken off to prison. His decision to play the end, when he drags her corpse in, matter-of-factly may make psychological sense but it doesn’t make dramatic sense; then, abruptly, he shifts to pathos for the final speech, but by then it’s too late to rescue the scene. And Pugh is awful, so the Lear-Cordelia reunion, which can usually reduce me to tears even in a lousy production, feels remote. When he assures her that she has cause to hate him and she replies, “No cause, no cause,” the weight of her emotion needs to animate those four little words; we remember that she has never been able to heave her heart into her mouth to tell him what he means to her. Pugh reads the line as if she were simply disagreeing with him. And the other actor who doesn’t appear to know what he’s doing is John Macmillan as Edmund. Eyre might have explained to him that this character is meant to get a kick out of his own villainy; as Macmillan plays him, he’s in a perpetual snit.

Fortunately, several other cast members make the most of their opportunities. Watson gives Regan a just-slightly-over-the-hill sensuality. With wire rims and a démodé goatee and mustache carefully curled at the ends, Broadbent plays Gloucester as a gentleman of the old school, so that his credulousness is plausible and his outrage when Cornwall and Regan, guests in his home, insult him and pluck his beard is pitiful, since we know what he’s in for. I thought of the scene in Louis Malle’s great 1974 movie Lacombe, Lucien where the aging Jewish tailor played by Holger Löwenadler, who has so far escaped the camps by outfitting some members of the local French SS, is so offended by the way he’s been treated that he strides into SS headquarters to complain. Jim Carter does a lovely job with Kent’s unapologetic plain-spokenness and his warmth and robustness.  Andrew Scott is remarkably good as Edgar, a role that almost never works – he turns the character into a distracted scholar who flies into his new, incognito existence with terror and finds his way through it by focusing on the only thing that’s important, his love for his father. Edgar can come across as a humorless exemplar of chivalric virtue; Scott’s Edgar is a mass of feeling (which the actor controls cannily). And Emma Thompson is the finest Goneril I’ve ever seen – she makes Lear’s eldest daughter truly complex. In this rendition it’s clear that Goneril is the child who’s most like the father, and that means not only that she feels his slights profoundly but also that she’s capable of ugly explosions of rage. I’m not sure that this Lear has much of a point, but at least these five performances justify sitting through it.

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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