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The 2011 season at London's Globe Theatre.

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In New Bedford, Masschusetts, they read Moby-Dick in full on Herman Melville's birthday. The Globe started this season, as Dominic Dromgoole explains, in order to honor its four hundredth birthday, by reciting the King James Bible": a once in a lifetime experience, I'm sure. With conspicuous presumption, verging on blasphemy for any latter-day William Prynnes, Dromgoole entitled this season "The Word is God." Productions included an updated version of Tony Harrison's mystery cycle (which demanded as much endurance as Moby-Dick and which, fortunately, need not detain us here) as well as a new production of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, reviewed below. There were also touring productions of Hamlet and As You Like It, which this review will not cover. The former has a tenuous link with the Almighty's prohibition of suicide, the latter no biblical connection at all unless you count the pantheistic "books in the running brooks." Two new plays, Howard Brenton's Anne Boleyn and Chris Hannan's The God of Soho, were also included--the former was perhaps thematically relevant in its dramatization of Henry's breach with Rome and the latter because the word "God" appears in its title. But this crassly stupid and shallow play, in which the gods visit the celebrity-strewn and vice-ridden cityscape of modern London in an awkward (and unacknowledged) retelling of The Good Person of Szechwan is best ignored. The two Shakespeare comedies performed at the Globe--All's Well That Ends Well and Much Ado About Nothing--seemed almost entirely irrelevant (other than allegorically) to the season's theme. Because, however, they represent new Globe productions, they will be addressed later in this review. Since, to harp on the biblical theme, Marlowe is John the Baptist to the Shakespearean Messiah, let's begin with him.

Paradoxically Marlowe's play was strangely intensified by a production that was, in some ways, indifferent. While Matthew Dunster's realization was full of spectacular moments, the central relationship--between Paul Hilton's Faustus and Arthur Darvill's Mephistopheles--was etiolated, so that there was at the heart of the show very little to pull focus from the vaunting magnificence of Marlowe's script. It was not that either actor was poor; indeed, the set pieces were rendered with clarity and precision (though Hilton was occasionally underpowered). But if Doctor Faustus is situated on the border line between the public spectacle of a morality play and the pensive interiority of early modern drama, as characterized by the soliloquy, this version, eminently suited to the ostentation of the Globe, emphasized the former rather than the latter. Here were stilt walkers, puppets, masks and a multiplicity of other stagey devices which underlined the brazen performativeness of the play rather than the guilt, despair, or ennui of its two protagonists.

One was constantly struck by the brilliance and sheer daring of the poetry. In this way, the play text was served by a theatrical style which never attempted to psychologize Faustus or portray his ambition as symbolising the aspirations of the English Renaissance. His was an epic struggle, externalized by the psychomachia of good and bad angels, rather than anything emotional or mental: the tone was medieval rather than modern. That said, in choosing the B-text with its array of frankly silly comedy sketches, the production's blatant quality was in danger of being occluded by a circus-like crudeness. It may be that Birde and Rowley, the playwrights who likely revised the earlier text, have a lot to answer for but in any case, the clear parallels between main and sub-plots were never clearly articulated so that the show, especially after the interval, grew increasingly chaotic.

As the production opened, Faustus paced around the stage taking books off shelves. The shelves were in fact a chorus of actors wearing black bowler hats, dark glasses, and little black capes, each one carrying a volume. Perhaps they were devils, prompting Faustus to choose particular titles and lament the inadequacies of each one. In that way they personified his restless desire to exceed his human limitations. Their carefully choreographed movements nicely anticipated the Bosch-like orgy of the Seven Deadly Sins.

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Mephistopheles appeared as an enormous horned goat skull, the two halves of which parted to reveal the urbane and affable devil, wearing beautiful Jacobean doublet and a cardinal's red skull cap (design was by Paul Wills). He chatted informally to Faustus and walked over to a flaming torch to warm his hands--a gesture that appeared casual but was resonant with sadistic foresight. As he told Faustus of the solar system, the chorus reappeared, each actor holding a planetary sphere. This professor/ student relationship served to tone down the outrage of Faustus's heretical inquiries.

Beatriz Romilly played the Good Angel in a white costume with a pair of huge white wings. Her balletic opposite was played by Charlotte Broom, in red, sporting a pair of satyr's horns. Both were lithe and sinuous, and their movement contrasted effectively with the studied stasis of the scholar for whose soul they strove. But the next time we saw Faustus he was wearing a red cap just like that of Mephistopheles and it was clear that he had made his decision.

As Mephistopheles and Faustus journeyed towards Rome, they sat on top of a pair of vast dinosaur skeletons, the visual magnificence of which paralleled their vaunting rhetoric. The trickery of producing fruit for the Duchess of Vanholt was comically sent up. Faustus promised, "Madam, I will do more than this for your content" (B 4.6.21) and disappeared under her full skirts.1 There followed some ribald jokes about the grapes coming "from a far cunt-try" (23); her response, "they are the sweetest grapes that e'er I tasted" (35), was delivered with a sigh of orgasmic rapture.

Subsequent sequences included goat-headed, fur-coated devils on stilts and the appearance of Satan with an enormous pair of angelic wings. But perhaps the most impressive moment was the total silence to which the usually feisty Globe audience was reduced when Faustus pondered his overwhelming question: "Was this the face that launched a thousand ships / And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?" (A 5.1.91-92), proof, were it needed, of the spectacle not of Matthew Dunster's production but of Marlowe's poetry.

In our co-written review article for last year's Upstart Crow, Michael W. Shurgot rightly fumed at the intrusive irrelevance of the stage extensions used during the 2010 Globe season: "I object to these platforms because they indicate that recent Artistic Directors ... and perhaps especially their designers consider the Globe's nearly 1,000 square foot stage inadequate. Rubbish!" (2) I am relieved that Michael was not covering this All's Well: his blood pressure would have been off the scale. Running out from an already extended stage and almost bisecting the pit was a cruciform walkway, similar to the catwalk down which supermodels stagger in the latest bizarre creations of Paris or Milan. The problem was that whereas the catwalk of the fashion show is designed to display the attire, the Globe's stage extension rendered the walkway action completely invisible, at least from where I was sitting (middle of the first gallery). There were whole sections of the play, some trivial, such as Helena's conversation with the Widow, which I simply couldn't see. More worrying was the occlusion of key speeches such as Helena's pondering on the difficulties of love in the opening scene or the King's reprimand of Bertram. I know Elizabethans went to hear rather than see a play, but such a perverse pursuit of faux authenticity flies in the face of a modern theatrical sensibility.

Moreover, the catwalk encouraged an unusual stasis in the groundlings who bunched toward the edge of the stage and round the perimeter of the walkway and then were reluctant to surrender such vantage points. Since the gap between the furthest downstage edge of the catwalk and the limits of the pit was narrow, it discouraged any movement from one side to the other. Finally the combination of extended stage and walkway must have reduced the yard's capacity by at least 20 percent though perhaps in the case of a less popular play like this one, such pruning of box office potential is neither here nor there.

The rest of Michael Taylor's design seemed almost as unsympathetic to the theater space. On each side upstage was a screen (with a doorway cut into it) on which were printed the outlines of a pastoral landscape. I was reminded of the masque designs of Inigo Jones with their rapid rough sketching and evocation, rather than representation, of a country scene. But this impressionism jarred with the exactitude of the costumes, rich with early modern detail, as we have come to expect of the Globe's archeological obsessiveness. The aesthetic was not unpleasing but, given the fact that a good proportion of the action wasn't even observable, what was the function of this intriguing imbroglio of styles? Perhaps most puzzling was the projection of additional screens across those already in place, which, as far as I could make out, were almost exactly the same as those they were obscuring. Instead of black on a grey background, this second set of screens was black on blue and was supposed to indicate, I presume, night instead of day--for the capture of Parolles, for instance--but there was little to choose between them. The black shrouded stage columns were augmented with a couple of Narnia-like lampposts and some antler-shaped boughs, neither of which had much to do with the staging.

The real trouble was that this was a production that wanted to be liked. From the opening, as the actors entered with awful fixed smiles, we knew we were to undergo populist Shakespeare. They knelt at the stage edge and cracked jokes with the groundlings, shaking hands and laughing so that their switch "into role" came as something of an awkward surprise. Again, what was the point of these interactions? To render Shakespeare user-friendly, to encourage empathy with the play's characters, or to make one of the less canonical plays seem familiar? At the conclusion there was more than the usual dose of Globe jigging and incitement of audience clapping, and the fixed smiles returned. "Haven't we all had a great time?" this sequence urged us, rhetorically.

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Such a syrupy reading repeatedly shied away from the play's darker tones. Most conspicuous here was Michael Bertenshaw's Laleu who was played not as a knowing Lord or experienced politician but as a combination of Polonius and a pantomime dame. As he left the French King and Helena together, his exit line, "I am Cressid's uncle, / That dare leave two together" (2.1.97-8), was pure Widow Twankey from that Christmas standard, Aladdin, and his public rebuke of Parolles's sumptuary affectation, "Pray you, sir, who's his tailor?" (2. 5. 15), was bewilderingly camp. (3) While Janie Dee's Countess was lucid and compelling in the main, she too occasionally lapsed into an oddly two-dimensional conventionality. Her "Grief would have tears, and sorrow bids me speak" (3.4.42) relied on the sudden affectation of crocodile tears, which undermined the Countess's sincerity. It was as though the production didn't want to touch any raw nerves.

This tendency toward cheerfulness utterly defused the desperate loneliness and hurt of the Bertram / Helena story. Ellie Piercy played the heroine as a cheerful Girl Guide, determined to laugh down her misfortunes, pick herself up, dust herself off and start all over again. Such obdurate optimism perhaps suits Shakespeare's stubborn orphan who, in spite of knowing how much she is unwanted, refuses to quit. While there was little in the way of emotional depth to such a characterization, Piercy was wonderfully dear and one felt her performance was shoehorned into the production's prevailing blitheness.

But perhaps most hamstrung was Sam Crane's Bertram. The director, John Dove, had clearly rethought the part entirely and made the play's petulant hero a sort of depressed Petrarchan lover. As Crane's adolescent took his leave of Helena, be instructed her to look after his mother (1.1.75) but as be did so, he grasped Helena's handkerchief, tenderly wiped her eyes and clutched it to his heart, brandishing it as a favor. In the play, following his reluctant marriage to Helena, Bertram arrogantly refuses to "bed her" but makes an excuse to leave her with the callous, "'Twill be two days ere I shall see you, so / I leave you to your wisdom" (2.5.70-1). In this production though, be was grief-stricken, his voice trembling on the edge of tears at their separation. His apparent resolve to be a "hater of love" (3.3.11) was utterly undermined as he conspicuously clutched her favor once more. What sense were we to make of this? If be was so in love with her, why had he spurned her? Having spurned her, why weep for her? Was be attempting to demonstrate some macho resolve to abjure the world of women? Was be an object lesson in the painful avoidance of uxoriousness? If so, this moment was again undermined as he knelt willingly like a human sacrifice on hearing the news that she had dispossessed him of his ring and conceived by him, a huge relief accompanying his submission. So the story of the production was that his was a buried love or perhaps that his superciliousness was pretend, merely a series of tests for Helena like those set for the Patient Griselda. Well, that is fine, but it is not Shakespeare's play.

More intriguing was the Parolles story. Played not as an oafish or strutting Chanticleer, this pathetically inept soldier (James Garnon) was worthy not of our contempt, as is so often the case, but rather of our compassion. When be urged Helena to wait upon the King (2.4.54) he was merely conveying a message and taking back a report of his success. When he was threatened with torture by the Babelspeaking kidnappers, his response--to divulge the secrets of the camp--was entirely understandable. And when he pleaded with Lafeu to speak up on his behalf in order to rehabilitate him with his fellows, his entreaty, "It lies in you, my lord, to bring me in some grace, for you did bring me out" (5.2.46), seemed entirely reasonable. Not as radical as the reinterpretation of Bertram, this portrayal of Parolles was original and lively but remained feasibly within the boundaries of Shakespeare's play.

There were able supporting performances from Sam Cox as an imposing King of France and Colin Hurley as a Falstaffian Lavatch. As the latter conversed with the Countess about the hugeness of his answer, which will fit "as the nail to his hole" (2.2.23), he relished the phallicism of the exchange with as much subtlety as Benny Hill! As the Countess discussed its "most monstrous size," Lavatch looked proudly down at his crotch which he thrust at her--a reading entirely in keeping with the Globe's populism and this irritatingly jolly production as a whole.

Whereas this season's All's Well labored to be loved, Much Ado, directed by Jeremy Herrin, achieved this with little apparent effort. Of course, it is a more familiar play and various scenes, such as those involving the clumsy constables or the eavesdropping lovers, are guaranteed to please. But this was, with a couple of unfortunately conspicuous exceptions, a company which felt assured in the play's benign setting and demonstrated a firm grasp of comic timing while not losing sight of the play's somber notes.

Central to this feel-good atmosphere was Charles Edwards's sure-footed Benedick, whose urbane, but never unctuous, demeanor was intensified by his playing against Philip Cumbus as Claudio. Cumbus's aristocratic lord was not the standard pretty boy. His sour-faced Claudio was older than usual, bearded, and with some of the malignancy more immediately associated with Don John--played here as a pantomime villain by Matthew Pidgeon complete with a Jack and the Beanstalk voice. Cumbus's Claudio was no welterweight but punched further up the scale, which made for a powerful and really dangerous jilting scene (4.1), in many ways the production's centerpiece. But it also made his Claudio the equal in some respects to Edwards's Benedick and so the play's pivotal scenes dramatized not the usual asymmetrical induction of the fledgling Claudio by an older brother figure in Benedick but rather the c|ash of two mighty opposites. As Benedick spat out "Sir, your wit ambles well, it goes easily" (5.1.156), he scorned his previous companion by waving his circled finger and thumb in a wanker gesture. This grave perception of friction had the effect of making Benedick's apparently conciliatory lines at the play's conclusion rather less assured than usual: "For thy part, Claudio, I did think to have beaten thee, but in that thou art like to be my kinsman, live unbruised, and love my cousin" (5.4.109). There was a clear sense that had the challenge gone ahead, the outcome could not, by any means, have been confidently predicted.

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Of course, the real center of gravity, as it were, of the play's comic dimension is the "merry war" (1.1.59) of words between Benedick and Beatrice. Eve Best played Shakespeare's acerbic female lead with aplomb, goading Benedick as she tiptoed around the stage ponds with deftness and delicacy. It was a winning combination of iron fist and velvet glove. But the other female roles were less than convincing. Ony Uhiara's beautiful Hero was quite inaudible and the second eavesdropping scene involved not just Beatrice craning to hear.

Mike Britton's design pushed the stage (again) out into the pit. Into the stage extension were set four shallow triangular ponds. Their function was not entirely clear though, as mentioned above, the narrow strip of stage downstage of the ponds provided a tiny walkway across which Beatrice stepped, half tightrope walker, half ballet dancer, her graceful movement contrasting nicely with her scabrous invective. Later, in a moment of pure slapstick, Dogberry (Paul Hunter) revived a fainting Verges (Adrian Hood) by scooping his fez into the pool and throwing the water over the latter's face. As Benedick pondered the foolishness of marriage, he paddled in the pond downstage left, holding a cocktail with a straw in it. At "One woman is fair, yet I am well ..." (2.3.26), he made to sip at the straw, but before he could drink he interrupted himself with, "Another is wise, yet I am well ..." and so on through the speech. The sudden urgency of "God. Ha! The Prince and Monsieur Love. I will hide me in the arbour" (35) punctured his ponderous reverie. The stage columns were shrouded in imitation bark while rather twee, Disney-like flowers sprouted out of the stage on either side, but the function of these features was not clear; they seemed unmotivated.

Most peculiar was the elaborate wooden latticed doors which ran across the upstage wall and seemed perfect for eavesdropping--all the more peculiar that they were not used during either eavesdropping scene. For the first, Benedick adopted a large straw hat and hoed the ground before being hoisted up one of the columns and dangling helplessly in view. During Beatrice's prying, she hid under a blanket suspended from a washing line and traversed the stage to keep up with the gossips. Both sequences were comically effective, culminating respectively in Benedick's "This can be no trick" (2.3.209), timed to perfection, and Beatrice's "I / Believe it" (3.1.115-16) at which she knelt at the edge of the stage and embraced one of the groundlings in a gesture of solidarity, a moment both touching and jocular.

There were some strong supporting performances too. John Stahl's Antonio filled the theatre with his pained rage and Joseph Marcell's throaty vocality as Leonato augmented the sense of patriarchal outrage: "My griefs cry louder than advertisement" (5.1.32). Perhaps most refreshing, given that it is nota role that usually warrants much attention, was Joe Caffrey's Borachio. With a broad Geordie accent from the northeast of England, Caffrey's villain was lucid and persuasive and gave some weight to the conspirators' plotting which compensated for the thinness of Pidgeon's Don John.

The closing sequence relied again on some deft comic timing with the letters of confession and culminated in the audience sigh of approval at "Peace, I will stop your mouth" (5.4.97). The spirit of Globe feel-goodness was not far away and Don John was brought back on. Don Pedro (Ewan Stewart) approached and slapped him before initiating the closing jig with his perfidious (but now forgiven?) brother. Whereas the play ends with Benedick's promise to torture the offstage Don John, here, in the Globe's season of biblical forgiveness, the jig enveloped everyone.

Notes

(1.) All references are from Doctor Faustus A- and B-Texts, ed. David Bevington and Eric Rasmussen (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1993).

(2.) Michael W. Shurgot and Peter J. Smith, "The 2010 Season at London's Globe "Theatre," The Upstart Crow 29 (2010): 95.

(3.) References to Shakespeare's plays are from The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works, 2nd ed., ed. John Jowett et al. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005).

Peter J. Smith, Nottingham Trent University
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Author:Smith, Peter J.
Publication:The Upstart Crow
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2011
Words:3528
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