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Shakespeare at the Globe Theatre.

Shakespeare at the Globe Theatre, London, Summer 2007

Othello May 4-August 19, 2007

As each generation's freshman lecture notes make clear, generic distinction is not only about thematic difference but about varieties of dramatic construction. Genre is unfair, for while comedies allow a more or less even spread of lines across the whole company, and therefore facilitate an ensemble effort (among which a single weak performance can be allowed to fade mercifully into the background), tragedies prioritise an individual--Richard III, Coriolanus, Lear. Occasionally two members of the company carry the productions weight upon their shoulders--Antony and Cleopatra, Juliet and Romeo, Iago and Othello. In the case of these pairings, the dramatic structure can make matters even worse. If the pair is not evenly balanced, the virtues of one performance can serve to magnify the shortcomings of the other. Likewise, a poor performance by one of a pair of protagonists will exaggerate the achievements of the other, while, at the same time, intensifying the deficiencies of the production as a whole. A mediocre Iago and a mediocre Othello may be better for a production than an excellent Iago and a lacklustre Othello. Genre is not fair to its players. Unbalanced pairings of players are not fair to the audience.

Bluntly and not without reluctance, I have to pronounce Eamonn Walker's performance as Othello to be unfit for the purpose. His rapid delivery, redundant enjambment and his tendency to deliver the speeches as though he were line-running in the privacy of his dressing-room made this a vocally under-powered performance. The rapidity of the reviewer's note-taking often necessitates the appropriation of textual fragments and commentary thereon. When the Duke pondered the eloquence and majesty of Othello's wooing he remarked thoughtfully: "I think this tale would win my daughter too" against which my notes say, "no chance." When Desdemona asked her husband, "Why do you speak so faintly?", I jotted down "quite." Walker's hasty and indistinct verbal delivery made his occupation of the role almost inconspicuous. For a character of the supposed charisma of Othello, this was all but fatal to the entire production. (That the program credits Patsy Rodenburg as Voice Coach and Giles Block with Text Work makes the modest amplitude of Walker's performance all the more unfortunate.)

To make matters worse, the strength and variety, sensitivity and intelligence of Tim McInnerny's Iago served to point up rather than downplay the shortcomings of his opposite number. McInnerny displayed a deft comic timing throughout and vocally, he moved from rapidly delivered repartee to a sonorous bass for "I hate the Moor." McInnerny's multifaceted villain was as mercurial and quick-witted as the role demands, improvising his way around tricky situations and concealing his inner void behind a series of ingenious facades. As he lectured his master on the evils of jealousy or expressed his misgivings about the apparently subtle exit of Cassio, he staggered his words, as though the information was being wrung out of him--a device which made the confiding apparently all the more reluctant and so "sincere." He discoursed in fits and starts as though he were struggling to censor himself. Perhaps most disarming of all was McInnerny's matter-of-factness when he addressed the audience directly. Alone onstage he turned to us and explained with utter reasonableness how he would displace Cassio, eliminate Roderigo and make Othello love him "For making him egregiously an ass." His treatment of Roderigo, played by Sam Crane as a callow and useless sixth-former from an English public school, was comically superior. Roderigo would enter behind him, shrouded in his cape as though ingeniously undercover. Even without turning towards him, Iago would acknowledge his presence as though his omniscience provided him with 360-degree vision. There was more than a touch of the comic savagery of Toby and Andrew between the pair and McInnerny's Iago would frequently raise his eyes to heaven as though to suggest to the audience, "How can this man be so gullible?"

Far more disturbing still was the relationship between Iago and his wife, played by the black actress, Lorraine Burroughs; this is the most difficult play to cast "color-blind." As Emilia presented Iago with the handkerchief, she moved to accept a kiss from him. He was repulsed by her and staggered back as though from something polluted: "Go! Leave me!" She was compelling in the final scene and was only silenced as the guards made to subdue Othello which left Iago a snatched opportunity to drop her on to his dagger. She died on the bed along side her mistress.

In the closing sequence, Walker's protagonist discovered something of the gravity of the role which had eluded him up until this point. Desdemona's bed was trucked downstage from the discovery space and four candle-lit lanterns were set around the room. Othello paced up and down like a caged animal as he wrestled with his conscience and her fate. As he strangled her, her legs wiggled wildly, becoming pathetically less and less vigorous until they stopped altogether. The puissance of the Venetian General was plain when he lifted a soldier by the throat and grabbed his cross-bow from him, turning it to his own stomach and shooting himself. As the bound Iago was dragged off to the torture chamber, he began to laugh. Only at this point, faced with the carnage he had just wrought, did we realize how, in spite of all of his intimate conversations with us throughout, we would never understand the enigma from which he was forged: "I am not what I am." In McInnerny's brilliantly performed villain, we glimpsed something of the intensity of what Coleridge famously referred to as "motiveless malignancy."

Love's Labour's Lost July 1-October 7, 2007

Extracted in the program, Bernard Shaw (writing in 1886) suggests that there is something beguiling about Love's Labour's Lost: "even when it is rhymed doggerel it is full of that bewitching Shakespearean music which tempts the susceptible critic to sugar his ink and declare that Shakespeare can do no wrong." On the same page the compilers of the programme mischievously offer Jonathan Bate (writing in 1997) as an instance of the "susceptible critic": "With the comedy of overhearing [in Act Four], the dramatic voice suddenly takes on absolute clarity ... This, we say, is comic genius in action." While Shaw anticipates Bate's over-enthusiasm, blaming it on the misleading charm of the play's poetry, both critics describing the language of the play (unsurprisingly since Love's Labour's Lost is par excellence a study in language) overlook the play in performance. The brutal truth is that, put Love's Labour's Lost up on its feet, and Bate's ascription to it of "absolute clarity" is, to put it mildly, over-generous. It seemed entirely unsurprising that the woman sitting in front of me had regular recourse to her internet print-out of the play's synopsis; indeed, there were a couple of moments when I wished I had taken the same sensible precaution! While Bate's hagiographic attribution of "genius" to Shakespeare can (and probably should) be tempered with Shaw's rather more cautious description, we should also note the condemnation of the play's stubborn obfuscatory tendencies, voiced by one of the first performance critics, the actor Francis Gentleman who, in 1774, described Love's Labour's Lost as "one of Shakespeare's weakest compositions ... he certainly wrote more to please himself, than to divert or inform his readers or auditors."

Now, the fact that a play is "difficult" is no reason not to do it and it may well be that with two blockbusters in its season (Othello and The Merchant of Venice), the Globe thought it could generate enough box office to compensate financially for a lesser-known piece. Certainly a play with a performance history as fragmentary as Love's Labour's Lost deserves an outing. But the fact remains, that in spite of the courageous decision to present such an unusual and tricky piece, its staging did nothing to persuade this reviewer at any rate, to incline more to the opinion of Bate than that of Gentleman. Indeed the fleshing out of the text's more recondite moments with conspicuous gags testified to, rather than drew the focus from the play's bewildering language. As Holofernes and Nathaniel traded their macaronic quodlibets on the correct pronunciation of English and Latin tags, they were aided and abetted in comic terms by the minstrels in the gallery above providing them with a variety of reedy farts and squeaks, in response to which they could look disconcertedly at each other and waft their hats. This allowed much scatological business around the expression "the posterior of the day," and Holofernes's subsequent reassurance came out as "I do arse-sure you, sir, I do arse-sure you," though the joke seemed, unfortunately, to have been forgotten by the time Armado noted that "the curate and your sweet self are good at such eruptions." As the French Princess bade "Twenty adieus [to the] frozen Muscovites," the women pointed their arses after the exiting masquers and blew raspberries. Moth rehearsed the strangling of Hercules's snake for The Nine Worthies as though it were a huge penis that protruded from between his legs and then, in the final performance, he strangled Hercules's snake as though it were ... a huge penis that protruded from between his legs. As Holofernes entered personating Judas Maccabeus, he gestured for a spear. He was handed a hunter's horn. "I said a spear, you dick," was his rather unShakespearean retort. Nathaniel's costume as Alexander was a pantomime horse suspended from his shoulders on straps so that his own legs and feet understood him. As he exited, apparently without prompt, the horse fell to the ground and he faced upstage and bent down to retrieve it so that we all had a full view of his naked arse. Now, I am as big a fan of childish humor on-stage as the next puerile theater-goer, but even I thought this to be one bum too many!

As though to compensate for this ribald humor, Jonathan Fensom's design was dedicated to the pastoral indulgence of the setting. The upstage walls and the base of the pillars were swathed in a fabric with verdant vegetation and calligraphy printed on it. Two sails of the same material were hung from the tops of the pillars. The effect was suggestive of both the courtliness of the hunt and the studiousness of Navarre's scholastic retreat--a sketch of the concentric spheres of the Ptolemaic cosmology appeared in the gallery. A stag and hind were represented by near full-size puppets articulated by puppeteers (a respectful allusion to or a direct plagiarism of the RSC's recent puppet version of Venus and Adonis?).

The performances were uniformly strong. Joe Caffrey's witty Costard as an urchin in ragged trousers and a stove-pipe hat looked like he had wandered in from a Dickens film-set. Seroca Davis's tiny Moth compensated for her shrill but thin voice with energised physicality. Andrew Vincent's Dull stood in brooding, solid contrast, his occasional remark articulated in a gruff Yorkshire accent (eat your heart out Northern Broadsides!). Michelle Terry and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith (as the French Princess and Navarre respectively) were articulate and lucid with a pair of difficult roles. Most accomplished though was Trystan Gravelle's Berowne, who used a Welsh accent to animate his character's speeches at break-neck speed. Timothy Walker demonstrated some masterful comic timing in the playing of the lugubrious Spanish Don.

At the end of the first scene of Act Five, Holofernes remarks on Dull's silence: "Goodman Dull! Thou has spoken no word all this while." In spite of the bravery of staging Love's Labour's Lost and the competence with which Dromgoole tackled this difficult play, it was not without reason that Dull's response got the biggest audience laugh of the evening: "Nor understood none neither, sir."

The Merchant of Venice June 2-October 6, 2007

As Bassanio opened the correct casket, he hinged back the lid to reveal a Barbie doll wearing the same green dress as Portia: this generated the most disproportionate audience hysteria I have ever witnessed. Not only did the episode typify the frivolity of Gatward's treatment of the play: Bassanio's rhapsodic "What demi-god / Hath come so near creation? Move these eyes?" was addressed to a kiddie's plastic dolly; but the audience release seemed indicative of the exaggerated response of a crowd who has spent a long time watching and waiting for something to happen. This was a production as tedious as it was trivial.

Had I read it before the show started, I might have been well warned by an interview in the program in which Gatward identifies Shakespeare's brilliantly disconcerting play as "a comedy that works to some extent by us laughing at our prejudices, in the same tradition of humour as someone like Ali G." Now, call me an old fogey, but while Sacha Baron Cohen's persona as an Americanized rapper who comes from Staines and whose "street-cred" is compromised by his happening not even to be black, is knowingly farcical, it is probably not the most apposite textual parallel for a work of Shakespeare's dramatic genius. Moreover, in its populist comic solutions, its reduction of the play's political complexities, and its total erasure (ignorance?) of the text's emotional conflicts, Gatward's production achieved considerably less than an episode of Da Ali G Show.

Several sequences from the production will be enough to illustrate its habitual searching for the lowest comic denominator: as Portia catalogued her suitors for Nerissa, we saw four or five of them in quick succession--one thrusting his groin at her, one lasciviously gesturing with his outstretched tongue, one trying to grab her breasts and so forth. They tumbled one another offstage with arse kicks and other unfunny stage business. Of course, they are not in the play, but Gatward perhaps thought she should reify Portia's descriptions for those in the audience who couldn't understand her detailed and humorous speech. The Prince of Morocco was reduced to a heavy-weight boxer (whose prejudices were we laughing at there?) with bandaged fists, boxing boots and a huge buckled belt like a fighting trophy. He entered, through the crowd, bare chested with a pugilist's loose gown as though taking his place in the ring, and his heroic speeches about his scimitar and martial bravery were rendered as the goading of a pre-fight, Mike Tysonesque exchange of insults. When he opened the gold casket, the skull rotated like a ballet dancer inside a little girl's jewelery box. In the final scene, as Bassanio and Gratiano entered to their wives, having returned from the trial in Venice, they carried large shopping bags, as though they had just been to Harrod's in an attempt to mollify Portia and Nerissa for their long absence. These fatally unfunny comic touches demonstrated how far wide of the text was Gatward's treatment of it.

While these Belmont moments demonstrated the perversity of Gatward's approach, relationships in the Venetian scenes were stifled and superficial. The by now well-established homoerotic reading of the intimacy shared between Bassanio and Antonio was here carelessly abbreviated to a snatched kiss or, even worse, the pose of Antonio stripped to the waist, awaiting Shylock's knife, and draped against a pillar like a camp parody of St. Sebastian. Lorenzo and Jessica's story was rendered inaudible by Shaw's failure to project his voice above the torrential rain falling onto the noisy plastic capes of the groundlings. As the couple duelled romantically in the final scene, and referred to the pastoral delights of their midnight rendezvous, the soaking audience's ironic laughter drowned out their conversation. Launcelot's discourse on his psychomachy--the "fiend" versus his "conscience"--was externalized by having him address a bone in one hand (why a bone?) and a cream cake in the other ("naughty but nice"?). His assumption of ridiculous screaming voices alternating with effete intonations was utterly without point. The scene between Launcelot and his blind father (to be fair, not one of the play's better exchanges) was frankly excruciating: unfunny, tedious, and opaque. Indeed, it might be that so much of this production fell flat because, as here, the actors were not really sure what it was they were saying.

Amidst all this incompetence, McEnery turned in a respectable performance as Shylock though he must have wished at times that he was in a different production. His Shylock was wizened, drawn and diminutive, with more than a hint of the misanthropic scowling of Albert Steptoe (played by Wilfred Brambell) in the 1970s television comedy, Steptoe and Son. In long gown, complete with yellow badge and hat and nasty billy-goat beard (which he conspicuously removed before taking his place amid the company for the concluding Globe-trademark jig at the curtain call), his was a malevolent presence animated by irascible detestation of Antonio and his kind. "I hate him for he is a Christian" and "If I can catch him once upon the hip" bore no trace of subtextual pain or intrigue--this was hatred pure and simple. Accordingly, for such a pantomime villain, his rendering of "Hath not a Jew eyes?" was merely wrathful, shouted at top volume. While this is a perfectly plausible delivery, it resulted in the pathos of later lines being buried. As Shylock laments the loss of the ring given to him by Leah which he would not have exchanged for "a wilderness of monkeys," an image that combines both the profligacy of Jessica's behaviour and the bereaved isolation of her father, the audience was moved ... to howls of laughter. There was absolutely no concatenation between the elopement of his daughter and his re-invigorated sense of injustice, the sense that Antonio was going to be made to pay for the crimes of Lorenzo. As such the absconding of Shylock's daughter was all but incidental to the production's random narrative.

Adrian Lee's music perfectly illustrated both the director's belief that Shakespeare's script required additional punctuation in places as well as the miscalculation of so doing. As the contract was confirmed and Antonio asked Shylock not to loan money as if to a friend but rather, litigiously, to lend it as if to an enemy, percussion melodramatically underscored the moment. Much worse was to follow: as Shylock moved in for the kill and selected the entry point on Antonio's breast for his blade, a percussive racket, complete with gong, totally masked Portia's exclamation: "Tarry a little" utterly disappeared so that there was no reason why Shylock should have suddenly stopped. The noise abruptly ceased for the remainder of Portia's speech so we had the job of reconstructing her interjection. That the court scene's dramatic climax should be handled so badly was enough to make one give up hope. Intriguingly, one original and brave reading followed before I could get my coat on to leave. In 1950, Nevill Coghill protested that the Jew's forced conversion to Christianity was really rather a good thing: "Shylock has at least been given his chance of eternal joy [...] Mercy has triumphed over justice, even if the way of mercy is a hard way" (Essays and Studies 3, p. 23). Hard it certainly is, and in the stage history of this moment, this interpretation is all but unknown. However, here, as he announced the conditions of Shylock's being spared, Rapley's Antonio stooped to help McEnery's Shylock to his feet and spoke not sneeringly or rancorously but with sincere confidence in the spiritual regeneration he was allowing the Jew an opportunity to grasp. Such an eye-opening moment testifies to the subtlety and intricacy of Shakespeare's problem play and demonstrates that, in comparing it to the comic turns of Sacha Baron Cohen's satirical sketches, Gatward has consummately missed its point.

PETER J. SMITH, Nottingham Trent University
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Author:Smith, Peter J.
Publication:Shakespeare Bulletin
Article Type:Theater review
Date:Mar 22, 2008
Words:3273
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