Monday, June 19, 2023

Shakespeare in London

The closing image of The Comedy of Errors at the Globe. (Photo: Marc Brenner)

One of the consequences of Covid and its attendant economic challenges for London theatre is the shortage of classical English productions this summer – even, and most glaringly, Shakespeare. This is the only time I’ve ever been in London at this time of year when the National Theatre isn’t mounting a single play by Shakespeare. All I’ve managed to see are The Comedy of Errors (his first comedy) at Shakespeare’s Globe and Romeo and Juliet (his earliest tragedy) at the Almeida.

The Comedy of Errors, directed by Sean Holmes, is fleet – 105 minutes without an intermission – funny, polished and sweet. It strikes the ideal note in the opening scene, when the Duke of Ephesus explains to Egeon, the merchant from Syracuse, that his presence in Ephesus carries a penalty of execution unless he can find a local to go bail for him, and Egeon explains that he entered the city in search of his long-absent son. Philip Cumbus plays the Duke as fumbling but kind, instinctively on the side of this unfortunate wanderer and obviously anxious to let him off if he can. And Paul Rider gives Egeon’s long narrative of his misfortunes a plaintive tone. It’s the only time in the production until the last scene, when the ridiculous farce resolves itself in the reunion of Egeon’s family, rent asunder by a disaster at sea, that Holmes slows down the text. Otherwise it moves like lightning. The actors, including Matthew Broome and Michael Elcock as the twin Antipholuses and George Fouracres and Jordan Metcalfe as the twin Dromios (their servants), leap through the lines, sometimes so speedily that you miss words and meaning. Normally that would be a bad mistake in performing Shakespeare; here it’s inspired. This play has no poetry, and we don’t have to hear it all. We do have to follow the silly plot, but Holmes and the ensemble make sure we do. But the focus is on physical comedy, performed superbly.

Slowing down the dénouement allows for the story, which is really a sort of fairy tale without supernatural elements, to wind up with heart. Rider, Claire Benedict as the Abbess (who turns out to be his long-lost wife) and Fouracres and Metcalfe carry the emotional content of the happy ending. The two Dromios haven’t seen each other since they were children; it has never occurred to either of them that the other was still alive. Their shared exit into the house of Antipholus of Ephesus and his wife Adriana (Laura Hanna) is graceful and touching. It’s a lovely show.

The opening image of Romeo and Juliet at the Almeida Theatre. (Photo: Marc Brenner)

Rebecca Frecknall’s Romeo and Juliet begins with a striking image: the cast pushing over a downstage wall meant to represent the division between the Capulets and the Montagues. It ends with a truly beautiful one: more than a hundred candles illumine the wall of the Capulet tomb where the romance of Romeo (Toheeb Jimoh, from the TV series Ted Lasso) and Juliet (Iris Hainsworth) ends in tragedy. In between these two images there’s not much to look at or listen to. Frecknall, too, has chosen to move quickly through this play, cutting much of the text, telescoping and intercutting scenes and refusing to stop for intermission. That’s fine. But she privileges histrionics over language, and few of the actors make an impression: definitely Paul Higgins as Friar Laurence and somewhat Hainsworth (in the first half of the play). Frecknall quotes Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film version with Leonardo di Caprio and Claire Danes (Romeo shoots Tybalt, played by Jyuddah James, with a pistol, even though everyone else on stage is wielding a dagger), which wouldn’t have been my choice of inspiration. And her inclusion of dance harks invariably back to West Side Story, which isn’t such a great idea either. Most of the cast is onstage most of the time; when characters exit they move into slow-mo or lie down on the stage. It’s all pretty foolish.

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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