2017 – a tough year for Shakespeare?

I apologise for leaving this site languishing. While the winding up of 2016 – the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death – gave me a great deal to think about, it has all been too big or too small to translate to the page with any ease.

So, I finished my year of tracking all the Shakespeare things over at ShakespeareTwentyScore.org, having only succeeded in making a tiny proportion of what I wanted to happen, happen. The Margaret Project was a definite high point, with exciting though small-scale results. We saw great work being conjured out of nothing in Auckland and Perth, and in the form of the indomitable Sport for Jove setting up their Shakespeare Carnival for schools (I really hope this initiative flourishes as it deserves). Shakespeare Reloaded (Sydney University) and the Lost Plays Database (Melbourne University), not to mention the cutting-edge stylistics work going on at the University of Newcastle, have kept a handful of Australian players in this field in higher education. But I had hoped that I could be part of a shift towards reducing the time spent being forced to justify the very existence of these kinds of research and performance endeavours, and instead my instinct is that we are only having to do it more and more.

bare stage with 4 actors, young man kneels to be knighted with a sword.

Margaret of Anjou at the University of Notre Dame

In a time when we are all called to be activists it is hard to know how to approach a commitment to theatre or literature. I have always offered the loudest support to those who write about how important artists are in times of social crisis or need. A society without artists is a wasteland. But, in truth, there will always be artists, no one will find a way to make them stop being artists. The trickier question is, what becomes of a society that is hostile to artists? To one that marshals its forces to make life for artists as difficult as it possibly can? Such that those who pursue that life are stressed and despairing, and those who lack the luxury of economic stability from other sources are siphoned off into non-artistic fields.

The same questions are thistles in the feet of academia, and all intellectual pursuits. Growing up in country Australia I was familiar with default hostility to smart people before I knew there were places in the world that encouraged thought or difference, but believing I had left all that behind, I didn’t expect it to chase me down years later. Now those attitudes seem to be taking over everything, even the running of universities.

Actors on a bare stage, holding scripts.

Margaret of Anjou at the University of Notre Dame

While I still don’t doubt the value of Shakespeare, I doubt our ability in the present climate to convince anyone with power of that value. On a small canvas, watching or working on Shakespeare will continue to do all the great things it always does. It will give people confidence and a voice. It will forge a line connecting us to our humanity, get us talking about what matters to us, and give us the scope and language to do it. It will help us expand our self-expression – to think more, feel more, allow challenge and complexity into our lives. Teachers will be great, actors will be great, directors determined to scrape together co-op productions, and to build school extension programs will all continue to be fabulous. I think it will be a while, however, before we go through another cultural shift where this wonderful work is accorded general respect, or is considered worthy of institutional support.

I intend to continue behaving as if I have hope, because it’s the least I can do for my son, and for those who are making real sacrifices and taking genuine risks. Shakespeare I don’t have to worry about. Those plays will still be there, still being used by clever, talented people when I regroup and rejoin the fight.

Othello: who is the hero here?

Bell Shakespeare Company, Playhouse Theatre, Sydney Opera House

A good production of Othello always sets us up to ask, who is the hero here?

Is it Othello, who offers so much virtue, but corrupts himself so absolutely? Cassio, with all his classical hero features, left to restore order at the end? Can Iago be thought of as fully the antihero, the play more centred on him than his pawns? I often feel the real answer is Emilia, whose courageous adherence to the truth, and heroic self-sacrifice, is the emotional crux of the final act (yes, it is. Fight me.) However, the recent Bell Shakespeare production has me thinking the answer is James Lughton. While this Othello offered decent performances from Othello, Iago and Desdemona, there is simply no excuse in such a competitive field as acting to have an incapable Cassio, Rodrigo and other minor roles, or for Brabantio (Lughton) to be the only actor with the power to fully possess the stage. I have seen several productions directed by Peter Evans now, and each one has been flawed by some terribly weak performances in key roles. I haven’t seen the actors concerned in other productions, so I don’t know whether the problem is that Evans is bad at casting or bad at getting the performance needed out of certain kinds of actors. Ray Chong Nee as Othello was riveting in passages heavy on dialogue, no matter who his counterpart was in the scene, but unable to sustain the more rhetorical speeches. As soon as he was called upon to give a longer speech, with passages of narrative or imagery, he lost the life from his performance. Convincing in one moment as a man of vitality living through a profound experience, he would turn repeatedly into someone on a stage giving a recitation. It’s pretty common for an actor to find dialogue easier to connect  with, but this suggests to me a director who lacks the tools to help an actor find that same conviction and immediacy in a monologue.

Desdemona’s murder was exquisitely staged behind, and then using, a translucent curtain, and Elizabeth Nabben put everything into a convincing fight for her life. However if the production was to have something meaningful to contribute to the crucial conversation about women suffering violence at the hands of men who claim to love them, it needed to allow Emilia much more time and space for her own experience as a victim of essentially the same crime.

The company’s next venture is a Richard III starring one of Australia’s most vigorously intellectual writer/performers, Kate Mulvaney, so this may be the adrenalin shot they need.

The Winter’s Tale: sharing warmth in cold places

At the beginning of this year I travelled to London, largely in order to see Kenneth Branagh and Judi Dench in The Winter’s Tale. London might be assumed to be pretty grim in January. It hits a strong note of grey at the best of times, let alone in the post-Christmas, pre-daffodil dark of winter. And yet, how I love it. I love there being reasons to move directly from gallery to department store to pub in a scurrying bundle, feeling I’ve earned the treat of a hot chocolate or a brandy at every point along the way, just by virtue of having been outside. I love feeling connected to the experience of people going back hundreds of years, who were in great need of all kinds of storytelling to get them through the shut-in part of the year and keep them warm, and grateful for one another’s closeness. A sad tale’s best for winter, as they say.

The Winter’s Tale is a play that is incredibly meaningful to me. Its messages about moving on after experiencing dreadful harm, and of people looking out for one another say a great deal that we need to hear. I believe there is something noble in the genre of Romance that supersedes tragedy in the progress of Shakespeare’s writing career. Tragedy gives up, Romance points out that, after all the pain, hurt, betrayal, calamity, these people need to find a way to get up the next morning and go on living with one another. The love in this play is love that has to adapt to a changing, sometimes frightening world. The characters experience the vulnerability that comes with accepting that one cannot control the people one loves. In Paulina, it also gives us a character who is a role model for speaking truth to power.

Kenneth Branagh has been the world’s greatest recruiter for Shakespeare since Garrick. This means that his direction often seems less driven by finding what the play has to say, than by persuading his audience to love Shakespeare as much as he does. This made for a production that lingered more in the warm parts of the play than in the icy blasts of Leontes’ tyranny. From the first view of the stage it was apparent that this was The Winter’s Tale done as The Nutcracker. High Victorian with a giant Christmas tree. Polished floors and grand windows, and everybody in exquisitely tailored waistcoats and bustles tell us that this is a refined, perhaps uptight, but certainly enviable society. The dramaturgy of the play does demand a veneer of perfection in the early scenes, to show the significance of it all being destroyed.

Young woman and man with old man joining their hands, in peasant dress.As the king falling into violent madness, Branagh’s somewhat scenery-crewing style is accommodated better by this role than probably any other. Branagh didn’t need to shape the role to suit his abilities, they were already a perfect fit, but in a curious way Dench did. Judi Dench has acquired a public persona that is so attached to her role as a national treasure that it was as if there had been a decision to soften the edges of Paulina so as not to disturb the audience’s familiarity with it. At the end of Act III when Paulina berates Leontes over his responsibility for his wife’s death, Dench switched earlier and more completely from attacking to comforting him than I have ever seen in the role. Her “Alas, I have showed too much the rashness of a woman” was sincere, rather than bitingly ironic, and the whole speech continued in that vein. She seemed ready to accept the King’s contrition and rehabilitation before he had actually done any penance. Dench one doubled as Hermione and Perdita in 1970, so there is a fascinating kind of completion of a woman’s life journey seeing her play the senior figure who takes charge of the action, rather than being forced to merely react to being acted upon by powerful men. Paulina’s strength of character was still never in doubt here, but it was a very cautious choice for the role to step so far back from her sharper side.

Many of the remainder of the cast were primarily voice actors, and I believe there were several singers among them. This  made for exemplary clarity over what can be some rather convoluted language and made the Bohemian Act 4, in particular, a delight to simply sink into and listen to. Everyone was charming and passionate, and funny when they needed to be. Jessie Buckley as Perdita, who was well cast to take on Imogen Stubbs’ mantle of ingenue-in-chief, and may in fact have been wearing one of her archived wigs, was convincingly worth risking a kingdom for. Polixines’ inexcusable fit of rage at being flouted by his son helped along his own story arc – by the time he came to forgive Leontes he had heard himself sound all too like the man who almost had him killed.

I was perplexed by the considerable trimming of the lines in the final scene. Winter’s Tale is one of Shakespeare’s longer plays, and there is plenty that can go from various points along the journey, but the conclusion is exquisitely balanced and never, ever drags. It is also Paulina’s showcase moment, allowing her to be the stage manager of everything and everyone. Her power as the high mage of theatre magic deserves every chance to shine, and the intensity of the audience’s emotional experience at this moment needs space to breathe, so there is no cause to rush towards the end.

Judi Dench and Kenneth Branagh in Victorian winter coats, illuminated by a guard holding a flaming torch.

I still find many occasions when I see something I hadn’t thought of in a production of Shakespeare, or where an interpretation offers a way of taking a play or a moment within it that had never occurred to me. I did not find any such revelatory moments in this production. Its purpose was not to uncover new depths. Rather, it offered warmth and clarity, assured speaking from wonderful voices, and a gentle telling of what is at many points a brutal tale.

 

Cymbeline: a rare jewel

Secret House at the Depot Theatre, Marrickville

Directed by Sean O’Riordan

Why should we be made to give up our fairytales just because we are going to grownup theatre? I was delighted to finally have the chance to see Cymbeline performed, one of Shakespeare’s late Romances, full of whimsy and folkloric imagery, and fanciful coincidences and resolutions. Set in Roman Britain, the play combines staples of fairytale (wicked stepmother queen, banished princess) with staples from Shakespeare’s bag of tricks (woman falsely accused of adultery, smooth-talking villain, family long separated reunited).

The design for this production shows just how much atmosphere can be conjured with minimal resources. As ever, the key seems to be to give actors a variety of levels to work on (pay attention, Sydney Theatre Company). Some wooden pallets, some fabric throws with interesting textures, and costumes that were other things ripped apart and re-assembled created a fantasy world the actors could dig themselves into. Because Cymbeline is a fantasy, and it is foolish to write it off as a play because of its core features, just because we have become so used to promoting Shakespeare by singing about its ‘relevance’. This punk/Elizabethan/goth framing was a great way to indicate to the audience that we were to enjoy a bloody and fantastical tale, which proved to be enormously good fun.

A large ensemble creates the advantage of full crowd scenes and a range of vibrant smaller roles, but the difficulty of finding a consistent acting level. Here, a terrifically strong, rather magnificent Belarius was counterpoised by a weak Cymbeline, and numerous polished and vivid female characters faced young men who looked the part, but lacked the vocal depth to convince in the more demanding speeches.

A touching Imogen showed her good, sound heart, which wins her friends all the way through the story, even while her nearest and dearest plot to do appalling things to her. She brought out some of the play’s most charming lines, which remind us that Shakespeare is all about those heightened emotional moments:

I draw the sword myself: take it, and hit
The innocent mansion of my love, my heart;
Fear not, ’tis empty of all things but grief.

The pacing was excellent, with the whole of the piece racing along without a dip in the action. This was pure storytelling, and an excellent reminder that a rattling good yarn told with enthusiasm is the bedrock of what theatre needs.

Young white woman in bodice and white skirt reaching out.