The Tempest

Michael Boyd directs a production that is not only spectacular, but also thoughtful and imaginative. In the arena-like Roundhouse, the action takes place on ledges all around and in the aisles, bringing the actors to the audience.  The action moves swiftly from the opening scene of the raging tempest, with the King of Napes suspended from on high as the mariners climb and descend the rigging, to the quiet ending as Prospero and Caliban silently confront each other. Within the course of a day, evildoers who had wronged Prospero are punished and then forgiven, true love surmounts obstacles, a murder plot is thwarted, the sprite Ariel achieves freedom, and the island is left to native Caliban.

Malcolm Storry is outstanding as Prospero, exploring many facets of this complex  character, who guides the events more easily than he can control his own passions, and who must, with difficulty, forgive those whom he thirsts to punish in revenge for his banishment.  Brian Protheroe and Tom Beard are studies in evil as the brothers of Prospero and the King, while on the comic level, serving-men Trinculo (Simon Gregor) and the drunken Stephano (Roger Frost), instigated by Caliban, attempt to overthrow Prospero and seize power.  

Among the many inventive interpretations of familiar scenes is the Harpy’s banquet, which turns into a chilling, bloody orgy; the acrobats on ropes miming an erotic encounter in the wedding masque, and at the end, Miranda’s wonder at the “brave new world” and its “goodly people,” while Prospero dryly comments of these thieves and usurpers, “’tis new to thee.”  And the interpretations of Ariel and Caliban are equally imaginative.  Kananu Kirimi is a diminutive, dancing, androgynous sprite, while Geff Francis brings dignity and poetry to his rebellious Afro-Caribbean Caliban.  As the old Gonzalo who saved Prospero and his magic books, Jerome Willis effectively depicts optimistic goodness surrounded by cynical evildoers.

The Winter’s Tale

            In the opening scene, director Matthew Warchus attempts to motivate Sicilian King Leontes’ inexplicable jealousy by depicting him as a 1930s Mafia-type Sicilian-American, who might understandably go berserk at the thought of his wife’s infidelity and inflict upon her the cruel and unusual punishment familiar from television’s “Sopranos.”  But this modern-dress production creates more complications than it explains, like placing Shakespeare’s Bohemia in America’s Southland.  In this transformation, the most successful scene is the sheep-shearing festival, a blue grass celebration with country music.

            Although some of the audience members, both English and American, complained that they could not understand the actors’ American accents, the Roundhouse acoustics could not be blamed, for speech in “The Tempest”  was quite clear.  Douglas Hodge, a fine actor, was the worst offender, his violent actions seeming to blur his delivery, when he grabs his wife Hermione and forces her head down upon the table while he rants about her “treachery” in having an affair with his best friend, King Polixenes.

            Anastasia Hille is excellent as Hermione, especially in the scene where she is put on trial by Leontes, and stands alone in the center of the huge arena, chained by the ankle as she defends herself in front of a microphone, while the audience seated around the stage become trial groupies held back by ropes. Ms. Hille’s Hermione, displaying dignity under fire, rationally explains why she is falsely accused, and reminds Leontes, who judges her, that she has no fear of death, having been deprived of all she lived for.

Shakespeare’s contrast of the merriment of the sheep-shearing with the darkness of the earlier scenes is effectively achieved by a band of musicians playing country music, with a solo by Lauren Ward as Perdita (Leontes’ abandoned child).  Alan Turkington as a stalwart Florizel is able to make this bland role convincing, as he does with Ferdinand in “The Tempest.” And Keith Bartlett as the Old Shepherd who finds and brings up Perdita and Dylan Charles as his son are especially good as country bumpkins who at the end easily convert to the aristocracy.

The production opens with a magic disappearing act, staged as banquet entertainment for the visiting Polixenes, and foreshadowing Hermione’s disappearance after the trial scene, when she supposedly dies. When her “statue” comes to life at the end, the family are reunited, Leontes is forgiven, and  Shakespeare’s magic reigns.

Pericles, third in the Roundhouse series, runs from June 28 through July 13, after which the three plays move to Stratford-upon-Avon.

Eastward Ho!

            At the Elizabethan Swan Theatre in Stratford, five plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries are being staged in repertory, the most enjoyable so far (with two to arrive later in the summer) being the city comedy by Ben Jonson, George Chapman, and John Marston.  Dating from 1605, early in the reign of James I, “Eastward Ho!” recreates Shakespeare’s London as a bustling metropolis, filled with ambitious traders, shady confidence men, and self-serving tricksters, along with honest, thrifty guildsmen, like Master Touchstone. A goldsmith, Touchstone started small and worked his way up to his own shop, where he employs two apprentices, Quicksilver and Golding.  Their names describe them: the former a wastrel and con-man, the latter hard-working and honest.

            Unlike Shakespeare’s plays, there are a number of women in the cast, for this play was written for the Children of her Majesty’s Revels, a company of young boy actors. Marston was a sharer in that company, in which boys performed the women’s roles, a  convention of the Elizabethan theater.  The satire and innuendo in which Marston specialized were more acceptable from the mouths of youngsters. Because “Eastward Ho!” satirizes  the selling of knighthoods and the Scots (both identified with James I, who was Scottish), Jonson and Chapman were jailed, but Marston was not.

            In what Jonson describes as “a money-get, mechanic age,” the London comedies invariably presented its citizens in get-rich-quick schemes, as do “Eastward Ho!” and Jonson’s “The Alchemist” and “Volpone.” Apprentice Quicksilver, who would rather play tennis than work, describes in detail how to make copper look like gold, while the knight Sir Petronel Flash is selling his wife’s inheritance to finance a voyage to Virginia.  There, he is told by the ship’s captain, Seagull, “gold is more plentiful . . . than copper is with us: and for as much red copper as I can bring, I’ll have thrice the weight in gold.”  He says that Virginians gather diamonds and rubies at the seashore and “all their dripping pans and chamber pots are pure gold.”

            Touchstone, whose motto is “work upon that now,” has two daughters.  Addle-brained and socially ambitious Gertrude, with her mother’s encouragement, marries Sir Petronel on his promise of a title (bought) and a castle (nonexistent), only to have him disappear after the wedding to set sail for the ill-fated Virginia venture.  Quiet sister Mildred marries apprentice Golding, whose hard work is rewarded when he becomes a guild member and a deputy alderman.

            Among Quicksilver’s other money-making schemes is lending money to fellow wastrels at the gaming houses, and getting payoffs from a usurer, Security, to whom he brings customers desperate for a loan.  An old man, Security has foolishly married young Winifred, who is having an affair with Sir Petronel. In another plot twist, she will in disguise set out with him and the crew on their Virginia voyage.

            Director Lucy Pitman-Wallace maintains a lively and entertaining pace for all the goings-on, highlighting the songs and dances and creating a city atmosphere at the opening with street cries instead of the spoken prologue. The cast is uniformly excellent, with the bad characters providing, as usual, the juiciest roles.

 As the hoydenish Gertrude, Amanda Drew scorns her humble family and delights in moving up the social scale – until disappointment leaves her suing for shelter.  Billy Carter’s Quicksilver changes his approach as he changes his costume, with each new opportunity to con a victim – until he lands in jail where he becomes as penitent as he was proud. He sings a warning to other apprentices:

Farewell, dear fellow prentices all,

And be you warned by my fall:

Shun usurers, bawds, and dice, and drabs,

Avoid them as you would French scabs.

            Like the prodigal son, to whom he is compared throughout, Quicksilver is forgiven.  Geoffrey Freshwater is a stalwart Touchstone, Paul Bentall suitably grasping as Security, and James Tucker skillfully turns the too-good-to-be-true Golding into a likeable human being.

Edward III

            Printed in 1596, with no author mentioned, “The Reign of King Edward III” is probably not by Shakespeare, though some contend that he may have written 150 lines of the wooing scene between the king and the Countess of Salisbury. Given to long declamatory speeches and unimaginative or trite imagery and allusions, the play was not attributed to Shakespeare for almost two hundred years after it was possibly performed in the early 1590s.  In 1767 Edward Cappell, perhaps needing to fill up allotted space,  included it in his complete edition of  Shakespeare, stating that “there was no known writer equal to such a play.”  His remark would be contested by T.S. Eliot, who wrote penetrating analyses of Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists, and restored them to favor on the modern stage.

            Regardless of authorship, this Royal Shakespeare Company production at the Elizabethan-like Swan at Stratford-upon-Avon proves a good evening in the theater.  For those whose knowledge of the fourteenth-century English wars with France is based on Shakespeare’s history cycle, this play treats the grandfather of Richard II.  Shakespeare’s  cycle of eight history plays begins chronologically with “Richard II” and ends with “Henry VIII,” which concludes with the birth of Queen Elizabeth I.

            Staged with imagination by Anthony Clark and acted with gusto by a cast headed by David Rintoul as Edward, “Edward III” plays better than it reads. Mr. Rintoul makes convincing a character consumed by passion one moment only to abandon it the next.  He also is called upon to be pitiless in refusing help to his besieged son, and to be adamant and claim executive privilege in denying an earlier oath of safe conduct. .

 Although the wooing is drawn out and the set speeches too long, humor is introduced in the portrayal of the king’s secretary Lodowick (Wayne Cater), Jamie Glover proves stalwart and likeable as Edward’s son, the Black Prince, and Caroline Faber is a convincing Countess of Salisbury whose cool, clever defense abates the King’s ardor.  As the Countess’s father, Warwick, Joshua Richards is to be congratulated for making sense of lines like: “See where she comes; was never father had/ Against his child an embassage so bad.” 

After the long speeches of the first section of the play, the bustling battle encounters are welcome, with the clanking of armor and the clashing of swords.  The initiation of Edward Prince of Wales as a warrior, attiring him in his famous black armor provides a dramatic moment, as does his return from defeating overwhelming odds. (The historical Black Prince died in battle, and the succession to the throne passed in 1377 to his infant son, Richard II)  Another telling scene carries associations with Rodin’s sculpture “The Burgers of Calais” when, after the siege of that town, the group of “six citizens in their shirts, barefoot, with halters about their necks” are brought before the king, who withholds mercy to them until Queen Philippa (Sian Howard) pleads on their behalf.

The Swan, like the Elizabethan stage, uses no set scenery, so that the action moves quickly from scene to scene, with good visuals like the besieged Black Prince hemmed in by ropes, which also are used to good effect for soldiers storming a town.  Sound effects are impressive as well, with the cawing of ravens causing the French to fear this portent of defeat.        
            It is difficult to believe that if Shakespeare were the author of this play, it would not have been attributed to him in 1596 when the play was printed, by which time his name was of commercial value. Only two years later, writer Francis Meres mentions Shakespeare by name as the author of several plays, including “Richard II,” “Richard III,” and the early comedies.  In the days when the title page served as an ad, there would have been little reason to omit his name from “The Reign of King Edward III” had Shakespeare written it.  Meres compares him to Plautus and Seneca and lists the early plays plus the “sugar’d sonnets.”  Shakespeare’s second and third parts of “Henry VI,”  vastly superior to  “Edward III,” also had appeared on the stage by the time the latter was  printed..

            But most convincing is the internal evidence.  There is no character development in “Edward,” in which Shakespeare excelled, from his earliest play, “Titus Andronicus,” published in 1594.  Next, the long, declamatory debates develop arguments rather than  action.  Possibly “Edward” was written to appeal to the law students at the Inns of Court. Also, Shakespeare, even at his worst, could not have written such lines of doggerel as:

                        So lords be gone, and look unto your charge,

                        You stand for France, an empire fair and large.

The couplet also represents the unknown dramatist’s awkwardness in getting characters on and off the stage, never a problem for Shakespeare.  Occurring throughout are lines like, “Go leave me Ned [his son], and revel with thy friends” and when Lodowick brings in the Countess, “Go Lod’wick, put thy hand into thy purse / Play, spend, give, riot, waste, do what thou wilt/ So thou wilt hence a while and leave me here.”

            But perhaps the greatest argument against his authorship is Shakespeare’s sure sense of theater.  Compare the drawn-out wooing scene, in which Edward declares to the Countess of Salisbury that he “dotes” on her, with the lines in another early play,  “Henry VI Part 1,” where the Earl of Suffolk takes Margaret captive after the English defeat the French at Anjou.  In less than 100 lines, Suffolk has been smitten (in an aside), she has considered that she has nothing to lose (another aside), and he has promised to make her Queen of England by wooing her for King Henry VI :

                        “I’ll undertake to make thee Henry’s queen. . . .

                         If thou will condescend to be my –

            Margaret: What?

            Suffolk: His love.

When Suffolk asks for a kiss to take to Henry, Margaret, kissing him, cleverly signals to Suffolk that her emotions respond to his: “That for thyself: I will not so presume/ To send such peevish tokens to a king.”

            Edward’s wooing of the Countess of Salisbury takes up 608 lines, including his writing a love letter, with the help of his secretary, and his demanding that her father Warwick intercede on his behalf.  Of these, the actual encounter between Edward and the Countess, in which she cleverly defends her honor until he admits defeat, take up 149 lines, which Shakespeare might have supplied if, as was often the custom, this was a collaboration, like “Eastward Ho!”  “I am awaked from this idle dream,” Edward declares, and immediately rallies the forces to attack France, with which the rest of the play is concerned.

As You Like It

            The Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park, London, is presenting an outstanding production of one of Shakespeare’s three best comedies, all of which will be seen in London this summer.  Twelfth Night is opening at the Donmar in the autumn, and Much Ado About Nothing arrives at the Haymarket in July.

            Celebrating its seventieth anniversary, the Open Air Theatre, set amidst the trees, shrubberies, flowers, and fountains of Regent’s Park, offers an idyllic setting for “As You Like It.”  Directed by Rachel Kavanaugh, this is an ideal production, fast-moving, clearly and meaningfully spoken, and performed by a talented cast who sing and dance as well as act.

            Ms. Kavanaugh, who guided the delightful “Love’s Labour’s Lost” at the Open Air last season, is notable among Shakespeare directors for her exceptionable ability in casting the roles, paying close attention to physical attributes mentioned in the text, never resorting to “against type” casting for a cheap laugh (like the transvestites in the wedding masque in the RSC “Tempest”), making certain that the actors and thus the audience understand the lines, and providing many imaginative touches that support the dialogue.

            When Amiens sings to Duke Senior and his retinue in the forest of Arden, for instance, his pose is familiar from illustrations of pastoral shepherds, enhancing the atmosphere of the scene.  This director also is aware of the value of the set speech, like the Seven Ages of Man, keeping the actor still and giving the lines their full value. Just as Hamlet, instructing the Players, knew that it was important to “suit the action to the word, the word to the action,” so there are no distractions by extraneous movement in this production. But when physical action is called for, it is there, in an excellent rendition of the Act I wrestling scene (Shakespeare was a master at getting the audience’s attention early on.)

            The cast are uniformly good.  Rebecca Johnson is an outstanding Rosalind, agile and appealing, but not overdoing her imitation of a boy when she assumes the disguise of Ganymede. Thus she is able to remind the audience of the woman within the role she is playing in this game of love. Benedict Cumberbatch brings conviction to Orlando, a relatively thankless role, for he must play “straight man” to Rosalind-Ganymede’s witticisms about no man ever dying for love, or about the fact that “maids are May when they are maids, but the sky changes when they are wives.”  Christopher Godwin is an impressive Jaques, who makes the most of some of the best lines in the play, while John Hodgkinson as Touchstone, the court fool who accompanies Rosalind and Celia into the forest, is genuinely amusing because he reads his lines seriously, as a “wise fool” should. And in the multiple mating that characterizes Shakespeare’s comedies, Caitlin Mottram and Adam Levy are ideal as Rosalind’s cousin Celia and Orlando’s brother Oliver.

            The design by Francis O’Connor enhances the production, with costumes as a mix of Edwardian and Victorian and a setting combining wooden walls and doors and pillars as trees that turn to reveal Orlando’s verses carved in gold.

            The New Shakespeare Company also is presenting in its summer season through September 7 at the Open Air Theatre “Romeo and Juliet” and “Oh What a Lovely War,” performed by the same cast.  Performance schedule:

Much Ado About Nothing

            That “Much Ado About Nothing” was a hit in Shakespeare’s day the swift publication of the play in a Quarto edition in 1600 bears testimony.  If you need proof that it is still one of the Bard’s best comedies, if not the best, see the Royal Shakespeare Company production playing, after its sell-out in Stratford, at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, in London July 27 through August 22.

            Directed by Gregory Doran, with the “merry war” between Harriet Walter as Beatrice and Nicholas Le Provost as Benedick expertly acted, this is a rollicking and joyous production.  Ms. Walter ably conveys all the nuances demanded in the role of a woman who disparages love in general and the object of her affection – Benedick – in particular. At the same time, she makes us realize that Beatrice jests about love and marriage to conceal her fear of remaining a spinster now that the marriage of her cousin Hero is imminent.  Ms. Walter’s Beatrice is a mature, intelligent woman who needs only the encouragement of her friends’ trick to bid goodbye to “contempt” and “pride” because “no glory lives behind the back of such.”  

            The “skirmish of wit” between Beatrice and Benedick, set the tone for the clever exchanges that characterize Restoration comedies like “The Way of the World.”  The  passages in “Much Ado” are delightfully well spoken by Ms. Walter and Mr.Le Provost, whose Benedick easily handles the long-winded, rhetorical lines.  Here he is defining the woman he might condescend to marry: “Rich she shall be, that’s certain: wise, or I’ll none: virtuous, or I’ll never cheapen her: fair, or I’ll never look on her: mild, or come not near me:…of good discourse, an excellent musician, and her hair shall be of what color it please God.”

            The pair are true originals, devised by Shakespeare to round out the main plot he found elsewhere.  Hero (Kirsten Parker) and Beatrice are daughter and niece to the Governor of Messina, at whose home the action takes place. The time is the 1930s with the soldier-followers of Prince Don Pedro in Italian uniforms returning from the war in Africa.  The villain Don John, Pedro’s bastard brother, and his men wear the black uniforms of the fascists.

            It is Don John (Stephen Campbell-Moore) who devises a plot in which Hero is falsely accused of infidelity.  When her hot-tempered fiancé Claudio (John Hopkins) denounces her at the marriage altar, Hero expires.  To uncover Don John’s plot, Shakespeare invents a comic “watch,” volunteer citizens who ineptly police the streets.  Their leader, Dogberry (Christopher Benjamin), prides himself on being “as pretty a piece of flesh as any is in Messina.” When his keystone-cops-like men capture the instigators, Dogberry hilariously presses charges, conducts their “excommunication,” and brings them to justice.  Dogberry’s malapropisms (“comparisons are odorous”) find their way, along with Shakespeare’s witty couple, into later Restoration comedy.  That period so cherished the original pair that in some productions the main plot was cut and the comedy renamed “Beatrice and Benedick.”

            Designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis, the women wear printed, flared dresses or wide-legged slacks in a sun-drenched terracotta piazza with gardens and arbors providing suitable hiding places for overhearing  by Benedick on his hands and knees, and Beatrice receiving a hosing that explains her cold the next morning.

            The Royal Shakespeare Company in all its productions delivers the full texts of all Shakespeare’s plays and the actors are to be commended for making the lines clear, understandable, and meaningful, while preserving the rhythm and poetry that distinguish these works.  “Much Ado” is a “Must See.” Schedule of performances:  

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