As You Like It, Royal Shakespeare Theatre Stratford, 24 May 2013
A dark stage was strewn with very dead leaves. Looming at the back was a dense set of upright wooden beams reminiscent of a foreboding forest. Two sombrely-clad figures appeared. Orlando (Alex Waldmann), in dark trousers and a hoodie, began sweeping the leaves with a wide-headed broom, while Adam (David Fielder) wheeled the barrow into which the plant detritus was collected.
As the last of the leaves was deposited into the barrow, Orlando sat, lit a cigarette and launched into his opening speech, complaining about his brother’s neglect of his upbringing (1.1).
Oliver (Luke Norris) appeared behind them in a smart dark suit. Despite his haughtiness, he was neither cruel nor excessively arrogant. He came across like someone who had merely taken advantage of an opportunity to enrich himself at his brother’s expense. This made his subsequent conversion to goodness more believable and allowed Duke Frederick to assume the mantle of the principal, unrivalled villain.
In his anger Orlando punched Oliver, who cried “What, boy!” in surprise. The fight escalated until Orlando straddled Oliver with his hand round his throat.
After this tense beginning a note of humour was struck when Oliver called for Dennis (Daniel Easton), and his comically obsequious servant announced that Charles was waiting to speak with him.
Charles (Mark Holgate) exposited the news about Duke Senior fleeing to the Forest of Arden and Oliver encouraged him not to spare Orlando in the forthcoming wrestling tournament.
A group of women dressed in formal evening gowns assembled in a corner upstage and stood in a rigid formation. They began a series of slow, synchronised moves under the intimidating gaze of male overseers. This was dancing, but with all the joy sucked out. They occasionally clicked their fingers and tossed their heads, but the stiffness and formality of their movements made them robotic rather than exotic.
This joyless dance showed how the new Duke’s court was a place of emotional as well as physical grimness. Touchstone (Nicholas Tennant), in his vest, clown’s makeup and red nose, attempted briefly to mock the dancers, but he soon gave up his fitful rebellion.
Rosalind (Pippa Nixon) and Celia (Joanna Horton) broke out of the formation and came forward (1.2). Celia asked Rosalind to be merry and when Rosalind replied that she showed “more mirth than I am mistress of”, she pointed at the sad women behind them. Rosalind’s suggestion that they should make sport by falling in love looked like desperate escapism and an unlikely outcome given their circumstances.
Touchstone made his first proper appearance. His joke about honour and pancakes showed him to be a rebel against the new dour order at court because he did not take its formality seriously.
Celia’s “For since the little wit that fools have was silenced” hinted at another sinister aspect of the new order imposed by Duke Frederick, the debilitating effects of which had already been visualised.
Madame La Belle (Karen Archer) told the two friends about the wrestling. The sparky, witty exchange that ensued between them provided a foretaste of the glee that would subsequently flourish once Rosalind and Celia had been exiled from the court.
As a crowd gathered to watch the match, boards were taken up from the stage platform to reveal a wrestling pit beneath.
Our first look at Duke Frederick (John Stahl) showed him to be burly and sinister, with a deep voice and unsmiling demeanour: just the person to drain all the joy out of the entire dukedom.
Orlando stood on the other side of the pit from Rosalind and Celia, facing upstage in his hoodie until called by La Belle. He spoke with Rosalind in front of the pit and they seemed charmed with each other, but not overly so.
Orlando knelt in the pit as Touchstone blindfolded and poured water over his head. Charles then began his assault and repeatedly overwhelmed him. Orlando seemed on the verge of total defeat by his much stronger opponent until Rosalind crouched at the edge of the pit and enthused “O excellent young man!” Orlando replied disbelievingly with an extra-textual “Really?”
But Rosalind’s encouragement had a transforming effect on Orlando’s performance. Energised by her words, Orlando charged at Charles, punching and beating him into submission to the point that others had to prevent him from slamming the defeated wrestler’s head against the ground.
Duke Frederick exuded brooding menace when expressing his displeasure at victor Orlando’s parentage.
After lingering upstage right for a while, Rosalind and Celia returned to thank Orlando. Rosalind put her pendant necklace around Orlando’s neck. As they conversed, Duke Frederick appeared upstage and observed their complicit chat from a distance. The dark duke now had proof of Rosalind’s disloyalty.
Orlando held the pendant at the end of the necklace towards Rosalind as he tried to utter a meaningful reply, but his tongue had weights on it.
La Belle, acting in response to the duke’s newly-stoked fury, warned Orlando to leave the court. She also informed him that the “smaller” of the two women was the Duke’s daughter. Orlando’s departing “But heavenly Rosalind!” was said looking at his beloved as Rosalind’s entry for the next scene overlapped with his exit.
In keeping with the sombreness of the court atmosphere, Rosalind’s admission that her lack of words was “for my child’s father” did not come as a joyous outburst about Orlando but as a complaint about being unattached.
Their ensuing lively and jovial wordplay was comprehensively crushed by the Duke’s scornful ultimatum to Rosalind to leave the court on pain of death. The threat was very believable, particularly when the Duke gave vent to his fury, throwing Rosalind into the pit as he told Celia that she was a fool for standing by her cousin. Although Rosalind had defended herself with spirit, the Duke’s violence showed him intractable to logic and decency.
They decided to flee. Rosalind plumped for a male disguise and the name Ganymede, and when Celia half-heartedly suggested the alias Aliena, Rosalind backed her up with an extra-textual “No, it’s good!”
In another scene overlap, Rosalind stopped and stared at her estranged father Duke Senior (Cliff Burnett) as he appeared (2.1). A subtle lighting change made the tight array of beams appear like dense forest.
Duke Senior had long grey hair, but his skinny jeans and relaxed, casual demeanour pointed to a youthful spirit. He and his fellows carried hunting rifles with which they intended to “kill us venison”.
Having seen the depressing nature of the usurping Duke Frederick’s “envious court”, it was understandable that these refugees considered suffering “the icy fang” of the winter wind less problematic.
The 1st Lord (Samuel Taylor) launched into an energetic impression of Jaques, including his Welsh accent.
The stage became dark again as Duke Frederick bellowed his displeasure at Rosalind and Celia’s flight (2.2). A very nervous Hisperia (Rosie Hilal) stood by as the Duke was told how she had overheard the cousins’ praise of Orlando. The Duke angrily ordered that Oliver be brought to him.
Still in the darkness of the court, Adam warned Orlando that his brother planned to burn down his lodging (2.3). Adam showed a small tin in which he had saved money for his old age, but which he now wanted to use to fund their flight. The rattle of coins in the meagre container evoked paradoxically the grandeur of Adam’s gesture.
Adam’s description of his sensible, non-profligate youth was very moving. It now enabled him to enjoy a “lusty winter, frosty but kindly”, which he demonstrated by carrying Orlando’s rucksack.
The main shift to the world of the forest was marked by a transformative ceremony.
Corin (Robin Soans) entered the downstage pit and, Prospero-like, drew a circle around himself in the dirt with his shepherd’s staff. The creation of this magic circle made the beam forest fold to one side as the upstage revolve on which some of the beams stood began to turn. The effect was to create an open space where before had stood an impenetrable wall.
We saw Rosalind in her man’s disguise of trousers, short hair and rucksack, together with Touchstone (2.4). Celia lagged far behind offstage with the sound of clanging cooking pots announcing her approach. Rosalind said she should “comfort the weaker vessel” at which point Celia finally appeared, completely overloaded with equipment on her back, and collapsed.
Rosalind stood in the pit to announce they were in the Forest of Arden. Touchstone was actually happy to be there and his delivery of “the more fool I” transformed his gripe into a positive vote in favour of the new location.
Rosalind’s response to seeing Silvius (Michael Grady-Hall) complain to Corin about his unrequited love for Phoebe was slightly too enthusiastic. Instead of pining like Silvius, her “Alas, poor shepherd…” verged on the pantomimic. This abrupt change of style might have been intended to distinguish the forest from the court, but the difference felt too pronounced.
Touchstone provided a note of earthy humour, pausing before saying he had broke “… my sword…” to introduce a bawdy connotation into the description of his wooing of Jane Smile.
Celia was starving hungry and Rosalind prepared to seek help from Corin. She pushed some socks down her trousers to plump out her groin, while the others placed Touchstone’s hat on her head, which being too big, came right down over her eyes.
Striking a mannish pose and adopting a strained style of speech without deepening her tone, she struck up a conversation with the shepherd. She repeated her reference to Celia “…and faints for succour” until Celia took the hint and swooned dramatically to conform with Rosalind’s description of her.
Celia, like Rosalind, was convinced that a rustic mode of speech was required to get on Corin’s side, so her “I like this place and willingly could waste my time in it” was a strangulated approximation of the local dialect. Not wanting to let the side down, Touchstone also jabbered incoherently.
They left to buy the sheepcote as the exiles entered (2.5). Amiens (Chris Jared) played guitar and sang Laura Marling’s adaptation of Under the Greenwood Tree, accompanied by another guitarist.
Jaques (Oliver Ryan) teased Amiens about his singing, in an accent less obviously Welsh than that of his imitator in 2.1. Rather than exude melancholy, this Jaques was more otherworldly, to the extent that his occasional skyward glances made it seem he was on the lookout for the ship that would return him to his home planet.
After another Amiens song, Jaques handed him the words to one of his own composing. Amiens took the paper and sat in a circle with his fellow musicians upstage as they concentrated on rendering this new tune correctly.
Jaques pointed with his finger in a wide sweep taking in the audience when explaining that “Ducdame” was “a Greek invocation to call fools into a circle”.
Adam and Orlando had found their way to the forest (2.6). Adam collapsed in the pit, fainting with hunger. Cradling his loyal manservant, Orlando discovered that his water bottle was empty, which heightened his resolve to seek out food, carrying Adam along rather than leaving him behind.
Jaques was enthused after his meeting with Touchstone, relishing his memory of the experience by lying on his back in the pit (2.7).
Oliver Ryan’s Jaques was very distinctive but not show-stoppingly magnetic as Forbes Masson’s Jaques had been in the RSC’s 2009 production. This helped to keep the production’s focus on Pippa Nixon’s Rosalind.
Orlando surprised the foresters at sword-point and demanded food. This wish granted, he went to fetch Adam while Jaques spoke of the seven ages of man.
Jaques took his hat and cradled it when referring to the infant, then imitated the “whining schoolboy”, before pointing at two of his fellow foresters as the lover and the soldier. He used his hat to represent the “fair round belly” of the justice “with good capon lined” and gestured at his trousers for the pantaloon, trailing off into his gloomy conclusion about “second childishness and mere oblivion”.
Orlando returned with Adam, and Amiens launched into a Laura Marling update of “Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind” accompanied by a band wheeled in on a cart far upstage left.
Orlando sat motionless as the song played, but must have spoken about his situation and been overheard by the Duke in order for the latter to comment on Orlando being Sir Rowland’s son.
The action returned briefly to the court where Duke Frederick loomed threateningly over Oliver, who had been brought to his knees in the pit, finally banishing him and ordering the seizure of all his property (3.1).
Orlando appeared in a knitted hat with earflaps, and carrying an accordion as he attempted to compose a song (3.2). “Rosaline… if I could make you mine… I’d walk the line… no…”, he concluded as his composition went astray.
After another go, rhyming “high tower” and “power”, he launched into the text’s “Hang there, my verse, in witness of my love” sticking sheets of writing onto the few beams that remained to represent the forest.
He urged himself to “Run, run” and carve Rosalind’s name on every tree, and left the stage just as a figure we would later discover was Hymen, appeared in the shadows with a stag’s head atop his own. At this point the interval came.
At the start of the second half the raised area and sunken pit in front of the revolve had been removed and ash spread over the entire stage.
Corin and Touchstone sat in silence for some time, before Touchstone held forth on the tediousness of a shepherd’s life.
Rosalind, now in a long-sleeved shirt and jeans, read the verse she had found. Touchstone’s mockery extended to kneeling in front of the cross-dressed woman and staring at her crotch to emphasise “must find love’s prick…”
Rosalind’s retort referenced the “medlar”, a fruit whose bawdy connotations she brought out by placing two fingers in front of her mouth in a V-shape and licking with her tongue. She also described the medlar as “the earliest fruit in the cunt-try [country]”.
Celia, whose forest attire included a skirt/leggings combination and Zooey Deschanel glasses, read out the verse she had found, prompting the band to strike up. She launched into a slightly histrionic rendition running about the stage and standing on the drinks fridge.
At various points during these forest scenes, people would go to this drinks fridge and retrieve cans.
When Celia told Rosalind that Orlando was the author of the verses, she panicked at her disguise and began to strip, slipping off her braces and dropping her trousers to reveal the sock padding in her pants, as Celia hastily tried to hoist the trousers back up again.
Rosalind wanted to know more, so Celia asked her to take note “with good observance”, pointed with the two fingers of one hand at her own eyes and then extended them towards Rosalind, accompanying this gesture with an extra-textual “watch!” Celia then stood next to Rosalind and pointed at the downstage beam representing the tree under which she had found Orlando.
As with almost all performances of this play, Rosalind’s “…I am a woman. When I think, I must speak” amused the audience greatly.
The pair hid from Orlando and Jaques behind a stage left beam when the two men entered. But they could not help but react to what Orlando said.
Orlando confirmed that Rosalind was his love’s name, causing the two women to squee out loud. Rosalind reached out with her hand when Orlando defended her name, and had to be pulled back by Celia. Finally, when Orlando said that Rosalind was “Just as high as my heart” they both aww-ed at the cuteness of his expression.
Jaques placed his thumb and forefinger together and spied through the circle they formed when suggesting Orlando conned goldsmiths’ wives out of rings.
Once Jaques had left, Rosalind became determined to speak to Orlando. She adjusted her crotch and took a can from the fridge before addressing him “like a saucy lackey”.
Orlando appreciated her ready wit, shared a joint with her and fixed her with a contented smile. They hit it off instantly despite Rosalind’s disguise, which demonstrated that Orlando found her personality intrinsically attractive.
Orlando mentioned Rosalind’s overly-refined accent. This perturbed Rosalind, who had to hastily devise the story about her uncle teaching her to speak. But its delivery was strained.
Her insecurity in her disguise became noticeable when she took Orlando downstage, her hand on his shoulder, and pointed back at Celia, saying “I thank God I am not a woman” in a clumsy attempt at male bonding.
Rosalind said that Orlando had none of the marks of a man in love and bobbed around him pointing out his deficiencies, plucking his hat off complaining that he was “point-device” in his “accoutrements”.
She took another opportunity to bond with Orlando, pointing at Celia to comment on “one of the points in which women still give the lie to their consciences.”
Rosalind asked Orlando if he was responsible for the love verses strewn about the forest. He confessed that he was, and unpacked yet more pieces of paper from several pockets. Sheet followed sheet in a comical moment showing the excess of verse he still had about him.
Rosalind moved away from him, casting a doubtful glance back as she asked “But are you so much in love as your rhymes speak?” It was a beautiful moment, showing the concern and insecurity behind Rosalind’s brave ‘performance’ as Ganymede.
Proclaiming love to be “merely a madness”, Rosalind said she would cure Orlando of this sickness by her impetuous response to his wooing. This, of course, required him to address ‘Ganymede’ as Rosalind. Orlando willingly agreed to do so, much to Rosalind’s delight.
Audrey the goatherd (Rosie Hilal again) wore sheepskin boots, a short skirt and a midriff-baring top. A utility belt hung from her waist in which she stored the tools of her trade (3.3).
Her conversation with Touchstone was spied on by Jaques, who hid behind a series of beams, effecting a token disguise by holding up two fronds.
Touchstone took a can from the fridge before telling Audrey that he hoped she was feigning like a poet when she said she was honest. He then knelt before her and attempted unsuccessfully to prize off her top and skirt.
Realising that he would have to go the honourable route, he got down on one knee and tried to utter the words “I will marry thee”. But this was so against his nature that it took an age before he could pronounce the words comprehensibly, mouthing a series of approximations to the key phrase before spitting it out properly.
Audrey was jubilant and ran off, leaving Touchstone to start on his speech about cuckolds. The actor broke out of character for a while and asked a man in the audience how long he had been married. Graham, for it was he, replied that he could not remember, but his wife would know. This caused great amusement, more perhaps than the adlibbing actor had planned. He said that he would now get back on text “for my own safety”. Touchstone then included Graham’s name in his speech, using it to replace the references or allusions in the text to a married man.
Audrey returned in a bridal veil and carrying a bouquet in time for the entry of Sir Oliver Martext (Dave Fishley), a magnificent spliff-toting Rastafarian, who insisted that someone should give Audrey away.
Jaques came forward but immediately set about dissuading Touchstone from marrying in this fashion. Sir Oliver concluded that none of them would “flout me out of my calling”, with the word “calling” clearly referring to the huge spliff that he bent backwards to draw on sending clouds of smoke into the air.
Orlando had not turned up at the promised time, so Celia sat and commiserated by holding hands with Rosalind, who was now wearing a waistcoat over a white vest (3.4).
An excited Corin told them of the approach of Silvius and Phoebe. Phoebe (Natalie Klamar) lambasted Silvius in an odd rural accent (3.5). Natalie Klamar delivered a focused and well-paced performance of Phoebe’s lengthy demolition of Silvius’ accusation that she was his executioner.
Rosalind came forward to castigate Phoebe, a chiding that the shepherdess willingly received. She ran her hands through her hair behind her head as she tangled with Ganymede’s eyes, making her attraction very plain.
Rosalind and Celia made a quick exit after telling Silvius where to find them.
Phoebe declared how much she was in love and told Silvius she needed him for an errand.
Describing Ganymede as “a peevish boy”, Phoebe launched into a lengthy conversation with herself, tussling back and forth between his good and bad points. She sat on the fridge and proceeded to bounce up and down, screwing up her eyes as she lingered over Ganymede’s physicality. Her rhythmic gyrations on the fridge became increasingly orgasmic as she inwardly fantasised. She concluded by asking Silvius to take a letter to the youth.
After Rosalind’s mockery of Jaques, comparing him to a post, we soon saw that Rosalind was anything but a motionless object (4.1).
Jaques flounced off when Orlando approached, drawing full attention to the young man’s changed appearance. Rosalind must have had a profound effect on him when she had described the marks of a true lover, because Orlando had returned having reworked his appearance to conform in every detail to what a true lover should look like.
He had grown a straggly beard, his shoes were untied and his clothes characterised by the “careless desolation” of Rosalind’s idealised description. He also had half of Rosalind’s name written up each arm and had brought her a bouquet of flowers.
But Rosalind was annoyed at his tardiness and prowled around him with an agile dexterity. Overly excited as she described herself as “your Rosalind”, she sat behind Celia who corrected her enthusiasm by referring to the ‘real’ Rosalind “of a better leer than you”.
Rosalind bounded to her feet again, taking off her waistcoat to stand in just trousers and vest, leaning forward in a semi-crouch with her hands on her thighs and her rear sticking out. This was a combative posture, suggesting that Orlando was now engaged in another wrestling bout of a different nature. She continued to lean forward, jigging up and down as she challenged Orlando “Come, woo me, woo me…”
Orlando rushed forward aggressively, exclaiming “I would kiss before I spoke”. Rosalind immediately saw the problem of his enthusiastic response to her in her male disguise. She turned away from his advances saying “Nay…” and moved aside from Orlando before pulling at her fake crotch bulge to ensure it was visible and prominent. This restatement of her masculine disguise spoke of her puzzlement as to why Orlando was so forward with another male, something that perhaps gave her momentary doubts about his masculinity.
Notwithstanding these uncertainties, from that moment on Rosalind was more tactile towards Orlando as if acceding to his desire for greater physical intimacy.
Rosalind said she would not have Orlando, eliciting his dramatic “I die”. She lectured him about Troilus and Leander and how they had not died for love, and Orlando obediently sat leaning against the downstage beam to take notes.
Reverting to “a more coming-on disposition”, Rosalind got Celia to preside over a mock wedding. The bouquet that Orlando had brought became Rosalind’s bridal bouquet as the pair knelt and faced each other with Celia standing over them.
Rosalind asked Orlando how long he would have her. Answer came as he climbed on top of her saying “for ever and a day”. Once again Rosalind was uncomfortable with his readiness to be so physical with ‘Ganymede’. As he pinned her to the ground, his body between her thighs, she cried “No, no Orlando…” and extricated herself from his clutches. This time Orlando realised he had gone too far. He stood up and in deep embarrassment tried to conceal his arousal.
Rosalind bounced around in front of Orlando acting out the various ways that she would torment him once they were married.
Orlando left to dine with the Duke, allowing Rosalind to profess to Celia how much she was in love. Celia said she would sleep and exited, leaving Rosalind on stage to sing a song by torchlight. This sequence replaced scene 4.2. As she sang, female torch bearers entered and circled her, creating a very magical setting that foreshadowed the play’s conclusion.
Having Rosalind on stage at this point worked well, because when Celia reappeared, Rosalind was the first to speak in 4.3. It was as if the song had marked her dreaming the intervening two hours.
Orlando had not returned, but they were soon occupied by the letter from Phoebe that Silvius had brought to Rosalind. Silvius discovered to his chagrin that the letter was not a caustic chiding.
Oliver appeared through the forest wearing yellow waterproofs, and with a map and compass round his neck. He cheerily introduced himself, which was entirely credible, given that he had not been initially characterised as a cruel monster. This facilitated his present transformation into a good guy.
Celia approached Oliver and gave him directions to the sheepcote, pointing to its location on his map. He recognised the pair, reading out the description of them he had been given, presumably by Orlando, from a scrap of paper.
Oliver showed Rosalind the bloody napkin sent to her by Orlando, which he had stored behind the clear plastic of his map case. He recounted the story of how Orlando had found and rescued his brother in the forest, leaving to the end the great reveal that he was that brother.
Oliver explained how Orlando had used the napkin to bind the wound caused by the lioness’ bite, extracting it from the case and presenting it to Rosalind, who promptly fainted backwards.
Rosalind recovered consciousness, but was groggy and pleaded plaintively “I would I were at home”. She was helped to her feet by Oliver, but there was no indication that he had felt anything womanly about her body.
Rosalind flipped between confident assertion of her disguise and fatigued whining, as if giving up on the pretence. Oliver said she lacked a man’s heart, to which she replied by pleading “I do so, I confess it”, reaching out to him as if this admission would bring an end to her troubles.
But she then began overcompensating for her frailty by claiming to have counterfeited. She maintained this until Oliver said she should counterfeit to be a man, at which point she almost collapsed again, saying “So I do… I should have been a woman by right”, until Celia pulled her upright once more.
Audrey was very unhappy about the failed wedding (5.1). William (Mark Holgate again), a big man with a simple soul, arrived clutching a small, long-stemmed flower which he hoped to present to her. Touchstone dispatched him, telling him not to bother Audrey and issued a sequence of threats accompanied by drum beats. Far from being annoyed with Touchstone, Audrey had stood and watched all this admiringly and was now very impressed with him.
Orlando was surprised that his brother had fallen in love so quickly with Aliena. Oliver continued to cement his nice-guy persona by exclaiming “I love Aliena” with a joyous flourish. Orlando had his arm in a real bandage, indicating that Oliver’s story was correct and not a poetic subterfuge to impress Rosalind.
Rosalind asked Orlando if his brother had told him how she had counterfeited. Because Oliver had not seen through Rosalind’s disguise when helping her to her feet, Orlando’s “Ay, and greater wonders than that” clearly referred to Oliver’s love for Aliena and was not played as a winking hint to Rosalind that she had been rumbled.
Rosalind picked up on this and developed the theme, describing how the couple were in “the very wrath of love”. His brother’s joy was clearly making Orlando suffer, as he said how bitter it was to “look into happiness through another man’s eyes”.
Rosalind asked him if she would no longer be an acceptable substitute for his Rosalind.
Orlando said “I can live no longer by thinking” and slowly offered his hand for her to shake. The shake done, Orlando turned and walked away from Rosalind, presumably never to return.
Orlando’s intended departure after his sad farewell to Rosalind became a very tense moment, as the entire future of their relationship hung in the balance. Instead of rushing towards an inevitable happy end, the play entered into a moment of crisis, reaching a crucial turning point in what was now an edgy drama. Rosalind had to draw something out of the bag to win Orlando back.
Rosalind’s next speech was received in pin-drop silence. She called to Orlando just as he disappeared, promising to “weary you then no longer with idle talking”. The nervous tension of the moment expressed itself in the way she rambled confusedly, desperately thinking on her feet in the face of the potential catastrophe of losing Orlando.
All this could be seen in the disconnectedness of her speech: “I speak not this that you should bear a good opinion of my knowledge… Neither do I labour for a greater esteem than may in some little measure draw a belief from you, to do yourself good and not to grace me.”
Orlando turned and approached Rosalind as she explained that she was a magician and could arrange for him to marry Rosalind the next day.
Phoebe, with Silvius trailing behind her, complained that Rosalind had read out the letter she had sent. This led into Silvius’ description of “what ‘tis to love”.
Rosalind’s repeated “And I for no woman” was addressed first to Phoebe and then to Orlando, expressing discouragement and encouragement in equal measure. Silvius and Phoebe ended up lying on the ground facing each other, continuing to tattle while Rosalind asked Orlando “Who do you speak to ‘why blame you me to love you?’” Orlando referred to the absent Rosalind, holding up the pendant he was still wearing, which as Rosalind’s gift, was the nearest thing he had to her.
Rosalind gave her instructions to the lovers to meet her again tomorrow, promising them various sorts of contentment.
Touchstone and Audrey met two of the Duke’s pages (Samuel Taylor & Karen Archer again), which turned into a song and dance centred on a new version of It Was a Lover and His Lass (5.3). The band played and the pair danced round each other while the revolve was decked out with strings of lights and other paraphernalia in preparation for the wedding. Paper lanterns descended to provide illumination.
Duke Senior and Orlando remarked how Rosalind was strangely familiar (5.4). Lines 5-25, the reappearance of Rosalind with her renewed promises to the lovers, were cut. Thus the initial conversation between the Duke and Orlando continued uninterrupted with Senior saying that the “shepherd boy” reminded him of his daughter while Orlando thought he was her brother.
Touchstone carried Audrey onstage on his back via the stage left walkway. In a nice touch, Audrey was now wearing a clown’s nose like Touchstone’s, symbolising her affinity with him.
The extended sequence about the seven degrees of the lie was cut. This has always looked like filler to allow the actor playing Rosalind to change into her wedding dress. But because this production included scene 5.3 and cut Rosalind’s re-entry at the start of this scene, there was plenty of time for Pippa Nixon to change and Touchstone’s quirky discourse was omitted.
However, when Touchstone gestured at Audrey and remarked on this “poor humour of mine, sir, to take that that no man else will”, William, who was definitely willing to take Audrey, lunged forward aggressively and had to be restrained. This demonstration of the unhappy consequences of William’s rejection introduced a dark undercurrent that would later be developed by Jaques.
Rosalind and Celia, now wearing simple white dresses, walked slowly together hand in hand accompanied by Hymen (Robin Soams again) in his stag’s head costume. They parted hands as they approached a central beam and passed either side of it, possibly symbolising the downgrading of their childhood friendship in the face of their impending marriages.
Hymen reunited the Duke with his daughter. Rosalind embraced Orlando, who kissed her as he declared “… you are my Rosalind”. He took the pendant necklace from his neck and replaced it around Rosalind’s neck from whence it had originally come.
Phoebe realised she was not going to marry Ganymede. Hymen reined in the confusion and handed out four sets of his eponymous blue bands that the kneeling couples then used to bind their hands together. He addressed each couple in turn, the pair in question rising from their crouched position when mentioned.
Once the brief ceremony was finished there was general whooping and celebration, which was interrupted by the arrival of Jaques de Boys (Chris Jared again) with news of Duke Frederick’s conversion to goodness.
The Duke’s intention that everyone should fall into “rustic revelry” was delayed by Jaques departing to seek out Frederick. Not a fan of “dancing measures”, he breezed off the downstage left walkway. Rosalind offered him her bridal bouquet, which he paused to take with him. Thus was Jaques’ undercutting of the marriage festivities itself undercut by his own acceptance of Rosalind’s gift – perhaps signifying that he would be the next to be married?
A jig was danced at the end with all the couples joining in. Eventually, though, the central couple of Rosalind and Orlando were left by themselves. He held her aloft; they smooched and collapsed into the earthy ground as water rained down on them as if at a festival. They kissed and got themselves muddy in the joyous abandon of young love fulfilled.
The wrestling pit of the court where once Orlando had fought for his life was now supplanted by a muddy field of festival fun in which Orlando and Rosalind celebrated life.
Rosalind rose from the mire to deliver the epilogue, at the end of which the audience bade her farewell with great applause.
Unusually for a production of this play, Pippa Nixon received a solo curtain call in recognition of her portrayal of Rosalind.
Under Maria Åberg’s capable direction, the imagining of the Forest of Arden as a contemporary music festival worked very well. An association was made between the escapist freedom enjoyed by urban dwellers camping in fields, leaving their cares behind them to frolic in mud and listen to music, and the forest within the play that serves as a refuge from the crushing conformity of Duke Frederick’s court.
But the principal reason for the success of the production was Pippa Nixon’s outstanding performance as Rosalind. The abiding memory of her stage presence was its mixture of tenderness and freneticism. Her last minute rescue of her relationship with Orlando made her almost a heroic figure. All of which meant that her solo curtain call was thoroughly deserved.
The Hothouse, Trafalgar Studio 1, 18 May 2013
Not even an excellent cast turning in some top notch performances could save the play from its own defects. Pinter’s look at institutional psychiatric abuse and bureaucratic bungling felt dated and this evoked some late twentieth century references in the acting.
One of the inmates had died and another had become pregnant. This reflected badly on Simon Russell Beale’s Roote, the man ostensibly in charge of the unnamed, unspecified institution. His glasses and bumbling manner were reminiscent of Ronnie Barker’s “man from the ministry” characters who mocked the self-importance of the petty bureaucrat.
Despite his protestations to the contrary, it was obvious that he not only knew the pregnant woman, but was also the father of her child.
The lampooning of bureaucracy turned to farcical physical comedy centring on a substantial Christmas cake, a gift presented to Roote by Clive Rowe’s Tubb on behalf of the ‘understaff’. Roote sliced the cake in two and presented one half to Lush, who tried to cram the entire thing into his mouth. When this proved too much to chew down in one go, he spat it out, a gesture which Roote took as an insult. The subsequent tussle ended with Lush lying on the floor, his neat suit besmeared with cake. Not exactly an average day at the office.
Roote had dithered about making a Christmas address to the inmates. But inspiration came when his lover Miss Cutts reminded him of how devastatingly attractive he had been when they first met. Roote became fired with enthusiasm by her ardent admiration, immediately grasping the microphone and delivering an eloquent speech ad lib. The rotund, ageing man’s loquacious enthusiasm was a ridiculous attempt at reliving his younger days.
John Simm’s Gibbs had a breast pocket full of pens and a clipped, efficient manner that disguised ruthless, back-stabbing ambition. The punctiliousness of his speech had hints of Eric Idle’s cheese shop owner, Mr Wensleydale. It was no surprise at the end of the play, after the massacre of the staff, that Gibbs was the only one to survive and was appointed to take charge of the facility by Christopher Timothy’s Lobb.
John Heffernan’s Lush, a camp presence in a purple suit, seemed to be channelling aspects of Kenneth Williams.
Harry Melling’s Lamb was a new, junior member of staff, full of nerves and new ideas. He was unpopular and consequently made a scapegoat: despite obvious indications to the contrary, he was blamed for the pregnancy and later for the massacre.
But the most spectacular character was without doubt Indira Varma’s sex kitten Miss Cutts. She pouted like Carol Cleveland, resplendent in a pointy bra. She flashed her thigh and suspenders at poor nervous Lamb, who ignored her advances. She taunted him during his subsequent interrogation. Her long list of questions about what aspects of women might frighten him included “Their thighs?”
She presented herself to Roote in her nightie, reclined and arched her back, asking him if she were feminine enough. Flirting with Gibbs, she pouted as she played erotically with a table tennis ball near her mouth, reclined showing her stomach, before creeping towards Gibbs on her hands and knees, speaking of “intimacy”.
The small stage was divided into three distinct zones, all huge metal radiators and period furniture, to represent various rooms. Lighting was used to switch between them, the actors sometimes freezing motionless in the shadows when the action moved away. The set featured the staircase specified for a few brief sequences. The eerie sound effects in the stage directions were accurately reproduced.
The first half of the performance established the characters and the basic situation very nicely. But the second half wavered, providing only a weak development of that story, interspersed with gags at the expense of the institution.
Despite a scene in which the put-upon Lamb was tortured in a brutal experiment overseen from another room by Cutts and Gibbs, the play did not create any real outrage at the abuses of psychiatry. Electroshock treatments were a feature of medicine of that period, but today concerns centre on the pathologising of normal behaviour and the misuse of drugs.
Today this facility would be outsourced and owned offshore. A contemporary writer would more likely produce a satire on privatisation. Another symptom of the play’s inherent datedness was the use of the N- word twice as a colour descriptor.
Far from cutting-edge, this play induced the cast to regress to late twentieth century archetypes in order to present a museum piece that really required explanation to be fully appreciated.
Othello, Olivier Theatre, 12 May 2013
The dark exterior of a three-storey London house loomed over the stage. A door opened and the forbidding structure, at least its ground floor, was revealed to house a cheerful bar. Off-duty squaddies stood by the doorway through which Roderigo pursued Iago into the street outside (1.1).
Rory Kinnear drew surlily on his cigarette, lager in hand, as he told of being passed over for promotion. In his portrayal of Iago, Kinnear just managed to skirt the right side of faux blokeishness, but it was clear that he was affecting a working class accent imperfectly.
Roderigo (Tom Robertson), played as an upper class buffoon, was more credible for being comical.
The visual, aural and social references located the production unmistakably in contemporary Britain.
The two men moved along the building to knock at the door of Brabantio (William Chubb), who appeared at an upper window. Roused by the news of Desdemona’s flight, he descended to ground level just after Iago slipped away into the darkness.
The outside of the building was transformed by an illuminated sign and an elegant rope barrier into the classy Sagittary (1.2). Othello (Adrian Lester) walked into the street accompanied by Iago who warned his superior officer about the angry Brabantio.
Othello looked dapper in his well-fitting suit, which together with his refined “well spoken” voice, clearly positioned him as Iago’s social superior. The production addressed in passing the class system of multi-racial Britain.
Iago asked Othello if he was married and the general replied by kissing his new wedding ring, proudly holding his hand aloft to show off its gold lustre.
Othello was summoned to attend the Duke, but the furious Brabantio caught up with him before he could depart. No swords or weapons were drawn.
The elderly Brabantio stood close, almost offering a physical challenge to Othello when he referred to his “sooty bosom”. This was overt, disparaging racism and not a dispassionate comment.
However, one of the other officers was also black and this significant detail demonstrated that Othello was not the only upwardly-mobile “Moor” in this “Venice”. His position as a black officer was therefore neither an unusual nor a tenuous one.
Brabantio’s final comment about “bond-slaves and pagans” was also directed venomously at Othello. But the headshaking disbelief of the others showed that Brabantio was the only one using these terms and that wider society had moved on from such attitudes.
The production made plain that Brabantio was isolated in his racism and his subsequent brooding showed that he knew full well that he was the last of the bigoted dinosaurs. Contemporary British society, we were being told, for all its faults aspires to be post-racist.
The stage left front of the house was removed and the “Venetian” council chamber rolled forward to show the Duke (Robert Demeger) and senators in conference at a large table (1.3). The character of the Sailor was represented as a woman in a business suit bringing a report.
Othello stood and received his orders while Iago stood on guard by the door just behind him. Brabantio sat in his privileged position at the table and recounted his daughter’s ‘theft’ in a sulky, defeated mood.
Othello spoke eloquently in his own defence while Brabantio cast his eyes down and looked away. Brabantio’s claim that Desdemona would not willingly fall in love “with what she feared to look on” again highlighted his prejudice. But his depressive sullenness indicated that he knew he was in a minority, essentially on a losing path. The Duke’s rebuke “To vouch this, is no proof” also demonstrated that Brabantio was not taken at his word.
Brabantio again stared downcast at the ground during Othello’s lengthy account of how he and Desdemona had fallen in love. Othello paused after “sold to slavery” before picking up “and my redemption thence” in a more upbeat tone to emphasise the emotive significance of that part of his life. His remarkable tale, with its charming description of Desdemona’s hint, again convinced the Duke.
Desdemona (Olivia Vinall) was brought in. She was pretty, slim, young and blonde, and the only incongruity in her relationship with Othello was the age gap. She looked like a very young adult while Othello was greying.
Desdemona sat next to her father Brabantio at the table, while Othello stood behind him. She held her father’s hands, consoling him as she explained the duty she now owed to her husband.
Othello agreed that Desdemona should accompany him to Cyprus but did not want the senate to think this wish was simply the product of his desires, which he downplayed as “the young affects in me defunct”, again hinting at his age.
The location changed to the street for the continuation of the scene, with Roderigo complaining that he would drown himself out of frustrated love for Desdemona. Iago recommended instead that he should put money in his purse. Roderigo’s claim that he would “sell all my land” was followed by a quizzical look as if he glimpsed the absurdity of his intention.
Iago borrowed some money from Roderigo so that his first soliloquy speech began with him holding a wad of Roderigo’s notes as he said “Thus do I ever make my fool my purse”.
He told us that he suspected Othello of sleeping with his wife, but given his recent duping of Roderigo, what credibility could be given to that claim. Were we his friends?
Iago devised his plan to trick Othello into thinking Cassio was carrying on with his wife. His habitual smoking, nowadays very much an indicator of low social status, added to Iago’s nefarious aura.
The stage opened out to show a military base on Cyprus, complete with blast walls, a gate, and tall wall-illuminating lights beyond (2.1). Soldiers entered and discussed the news of the Turkish fleet disaster, against the backdrop of a constant stream of new arrivals and equipment being carried in. A ship’s horn sounded and was described as the arriving vessel’s “shot of courtesy”.
Desdemona wore a large tag round her neck, identifying her as civilian. She wore a camouflage vest over her civilian clothing and bore a blue rucksack, which made her look semi-military. She had possibly chosen this to make her more soldierly to show sympathy with her husband, but the playfulness behind the approximation hinted at an immature lack of seriousness.
Iago’s wife Emilia (Lynsey Marshal) was also a soldier in this equal opportunity army. Roderigo was in civilian clothes and sported a large tag like Desdemona’s.
Cassio (Jonathan Bailey) beamed a smile and looked like a likely ladies man. He was already familiar with Desdemona and when they spoke together they did make a believable, similarly aged couple.
Iago was chippily jocular when Cassio kissed Emilia. He went into his mildly sexist routine, some of the more obscure bits of which were cut.
Cassio and Desdemona went upstage to wait for the imminent arrival of Othello. He high-fived her and this led into a more prolonged holding of hands. Iago turned towards us, delighted that they were providing him with fuel for his plot.
A helicopter sound heralded the entry of Othello. He threw his helmet to the ground before embracing Desdemona and called her “Honey” as Iago stood at the side watching.
Othello turned to Iago, who seemed to gesture at him, at which point Othello put on his beret and adopted a more military bearing. Othello’s subsequent stiff pronouncement, beginning “I prattle out of fashion, and I dot in mine own comforts”, attempted to correct the unprofessionalism of his overt display of affection for his wife. The production thus added an extra instance of honest Iago doing his master a favour.
Iago assured Roderigo that Desdemona was in love with Cassio and would grow tired of Othello. He urged Roderigo to pick a quarrel with Cassio in order to provoke a fight that would ruin Cassio’s reputation.
To conclude, Iago engaged in another charmingly villainous soliloquy outlining his plan. Like the others, it lacked any overt display of anger, apart from a slight snarl when he said he would take revenge on Othello “wife for wife”.
This was realistic, because Iago’s plot required a great deal of poker-faced lying that boiling anger would render difficult. His plot was being conducted like a military operation, which can be full of violence without actual overt hatred for the target. It was possible to imagine him rationalising his actions in such terms.
The brief scene with the herald (2.2) was cut so that the play continued with 2.3 in the courtyard of base.
Othello’s comment to Cassio that Iago was “most honest” was exceedingly ironic.
Iago met Cassio after the others left. In their ensuing conversation everything that Iago said in praise of Desdemona with his nudges and winks seemed intended to engender a real desire in Cassio for Desdemona, possibly with the intention of making Iago’s plot superfluous.
Iago persuaded Cassio to join in the drinking. The front of mess room opened up to reveal its sparsely furnished interior decorated with girly pictures and full of revelling soldiers.
The drinking song culminated in a can of Efes pilsen being punctured in its side and given to Cassio to drink down as its pressurised contents sprayed out. This was a clever trick because it obliged Cassio to drink the whole lot.
Iago boasted about the drinking habits of the English, reinforcing the mood of debauchery. Cassio proposed a health to Othello, which Montano (Chook Sibtain) backed by producing a bottle of vodka saying “I’ll do you justice”. Cassio was now on spirits as well.
The rowdiness continued until drunken Cassio suddenly had an attack of conscience. He spoke slowly and deliberated about souls to be saved and not saved, while the others looked at him half smirking at his inebriated speech.
He collapsed backwards demanding that the others not think him drunk. Cassio’s lines about his left and right hand were changed slightly so that he held out his right hand and drunkenly referred to it as his left before correcting himself.
Iago took the opportunity to imply to Montano that Cassio was often drunk, and then instructed Roderigo to pursue Cassio and pick a fight.
Not long after, Cassio chased Roderigo back into the mess. Montano held Cassio back to which Cassio responded by beating Montano on the ground in a corner.
The alarm rang and Othello entered to see Cassio still on top of Montano attacking him. Cassio was pulled away and stood rigidly to attention as if the full implications of his actions had suddenly struck him. Montano was now bleeding profusely from his head.
Iago managed to report an accurate account of how the brawl had started, but obviously omitted his role in inciting Roderigo to begin it. His half-hearted defence of Cassio was wonderfully even-handed, causing Othello to think Iago was sticking up for the lieutenant. Othello dismissed Cassio by ripping his rank insignia from his epaulettes.
Desdemona briefly appeared and looked with concern at Cassio before being escorted away. Her solicitous look would help Iago’s plan.
Iago put on the kettle and made Cassio some instant coffee while affecting concern at his predicament. He made light of Cassio moans that he had lost his reputation. Moving his scheme forward, Iago suggested that Cassio get Desdemona to speak on his behalf.
Iago made himself a coffee, sat back and looked as us to ask “And what’s he then that says I play the villain?” Given that most of his statements contained a kernel of truth, his defence of himself had some validity, despite the fact that the villainy of his dealings could be seen once the full picture was in view.
Roderigo whined that he had been hit, that he had run out of money, and that Desdemona was still not his. Iago pointed out that patience was required and that Cassio’s dismissal had been a step forward.
Iago stepped out of the room to the side to outline to us the next stage in his plan, which involved Othello seeing Cassio and Desdemona together.
The musicians were cut, so that the next scene began with Cassio asking a female soldier (Clown) to tell Emilia that he wanted a word (3.1). Iago soon appeared and said he would send his wife out. Emilia assured Cassio that he would soon be restored to his former position.
Othello’s office rolled out from the stage right side. Two desks stood under fluorescent lights. A map of the Arabian peninsula hung on the wall. While Emilia stood on guard by the door, Desdemona assured Cassio that she would put in a word for him (3.3).
Emilia warned of Othello’s approach and both Cassio and Desdemona scurried out a side door just as Othello and Iago entered. Iago sat at his desk which faced away from Othello’s at right angles to it, so that his “Ha, I like not that” was said almost as an aside that Othello overheard.
Desdemona creeped back in through the side door, an entry that added to the furtiveness of the assignation with Cassio that she described. She approached Othello as he sat at his desk and leant over it, pestering him to call Cassio back. She eventually sat on the desk, almost in Othello’s lap, and donned his reading glasses in a playful attempt at persuasion.
Othello relented and looked at his paperwork requesting that she “leave me but a little to myself”.
Iago, who had faced away from the pair all the while concentrating on his laptop screen, set about sowing the seeds of doubt in Othello’s mind, asking questions and then denying their significance, echoing Othello to such an extent that it angered the general.
Othello stood and boasted of his immunity to petty, unfounded jealousy, but conceded that he would doubt Desdemona’s honesty if he saw proof.
Already the game had moved onto Iago’s territory, an advantage he capitalised on when he asked Othello to keep watching her when she was with Cassio. He pointed out the way Desdemona had deceived her father.
Iago even apologised for unnecessarily troubling Othello, which again reinforced the idea in Othello’s mind that he was troubled.
Othello’s former confidence was now replaced with a downcast expression.
In another turn of the screw, Iago pointed out that Desdemona had not married someone of the same rank and race as herself.
Iago again apologised for speaking out of turn but encouraged Othello not to reinstate Cassio and then watch how his wife pleaded the disgraced lieutenant’s case.
Othello’s soliloquy saw some self-hatred emerging when he sarcastically stressed the “black” in “Haply, for I am black…”
Emilia and Desdemona returned. Emilia resumed her guard at the door and Desdemona called Othello to dinner. Her husband complained of having a headache, prompting the solicitous Desdemona to draw her handkerchief, wet it and apply it to his head. Othello fussed and cast the handkerchief aside so that it fell to the ground directly in Emilia’s line of vision.
In view of its immense sentimental value, it seemed improbable that Othello would cast away this handkerchief and that Desdemona would not immediately pick it up. She had it with her as a treasured love token, but did not react when Othello threw it away. The only satisfying explanation was that she had been more concerned for her husband than for the token he had given her and had prioritised the one over the other.
Emilia picked up the handkerchief just before Iago entered and playfully held it aloft, teasing him with it until he took it from her. This was the only time that Iago displayed any desperation or weakness. That his desperation originated from Emilia was prescient in view of her role in his ultimate undoing.
But safe in possession of the token, Iago punched the air in victory and told us that he would leave it in Cassio’s room.
Othello returned to his office in some distress, but he was more eloquent and self-pitying than angry. This changed abruptly when he grabbed Iago by the throat and pressed him against the wall, threatening him with dire consequences if he “slander her and torture me”.
Perhaps feeling this powerful grip was what subsequently gave Iago the idea that Othello should strangle Desdemona.
Iago was shocked at this violence and had to compose himself and adjust his uniform before complaining that his “honesty” was not appreciated.
Othello’s doubt was supremely well expressed as Desdemona and Iago became in his mind like Schrödinger’s cat, existing as both honest and dishonest at the same time.
Iago taunted Othello with the impossibility of seeing the pair together, and described such a union in four different lurid ways, before inventing a story about Cassio making love to Desdemona in his sleep.
Having so far only wounded Othello with his insinuations and taunts, Iago now dropped a bombshell by mentioning that Cassio was in possession of Desdemona’s handkerchief.
Othello threw over his desk screaming that Cassio ought to have “forty thousand lives” because “one is too poor, too weak for my revenge”. This was the same desk that he had asked Desdemona to vacate earlier because of his pressing work. Now that work lay scattered on the floor.
But even at this moment of extreme anger, there was something noble and poetic in the way Othello clasped at his heart and squeezed its love into his shirt, which he then blew on to waft the extracted love upwards into the sky to mark its loss. “’Tis gone”, he sighed, as he watched his love symbolically depart from him.
Iago joined Othello to kneel on the ground to swear service in his revenge. Othello wanted Cassio dead within three days. Iago cleverly positioned himself as the merciful one, wanting Desdemona to be spared. This was probably a genuine wish, perhaps motivated by his previous admission that he found her attractive; this sentiment would also make sense of his devastation at Desdemona’s death at the end.
The first half ended with Othello swearing hatred against his wife, and Iago slinking off with a chilling “I am your own for ever.”
Soldiers gathered in the camp courtyard with a football and began a kick-about before the start of the second half. Desdemona entered and picked up the stray ball and scored a goal against the camp gate before asking one of the soldiers to fetch Cassio (3.4).
Othello was cold and abrupt when Desdemona greeted him. Seizing and examining her palm, he manically described its moist, hot fruitfulness. He asked her for her handkerchief and she produced a different one.
In his account of the history of the token, Othello bitterly accented each reference to it being given away “Or made gift of it… or give’t away”, the crime of which he suspected Desdemona. He turned away and could not look at her.
Cassio and Iago arrived after Othello left. Desdemona continued to assure Cassio, but said she was out of favour. Iago pointed out how odd that was.
Bianca (Rokhsaneh Ghawam-Shahidi) was let through the gate and met Cassio. He gave her Desdemona’s handkerchief, which he had found. Bianca was tartly indignant at being asked to copy it.
A washroom and toilets rolled out on the right side, which became the location of Iago’s continued provocation of Othello with lurid lies about Cassio and Desdemona kissing in private (4.1).
Iago hinted that Cassio had admitted to something, and manoeuvred Othello into making him divulge that Cassio had confessed to sleeping with her.
Othello banged his fists against the washroom mirrors, became sick and threw up into the bowl in one of the toilet cubicles. He recovered, but fell back against the wall and then collapsed in a full fit.
Iago delighted in seeing his “medicine” at work. Cassio briefly appeared but Iago sent him away.
As Othello lay on the ground, Iago got a glass and filled it with water from the washroom tap, despite a sign indicating that it was not drinking water.
Othello recovered but at first he did not take the proffered water, so Iago sipped from it instead. Eventually Othello stood up and did take the glass.
Iago told Othello that Cassio had passed by and that he would return. He asked Othello if he would hide in one of the cubicles to spy on their conversation.
As Othello hid, Iago told us how he would speak with Cassio about the “hussy” Bianca, but make the conversation seem to relate to Cassio’s dalliance with Desdemona.
The scheme worked as Cassio’s jolly, bawdy talk was wrongly interpreted by Othello, whose running commentary constituted a bad case of confirmation bias.
Bianca breezed in with the handkerchief and, describing it as “some minx’s token”, threw it aside so that it landed right in Othello’s line of sight. Cassio picked up the handkerchief, confirming its value to him, and followed Bianca out.
Having seen the “ocular proof”, Othello again bashed the mirrors as he angrily wished Cassio “nine years a-killing”. He beat his fist against his chest saying that his heart had turned to stone.
He swayed between anger and sadness before vowing to poison Desdemona. But Iago recommended strangling her and promised to kill Cassio himself.
The washroom drew back and the scene changed to the base courtyard. Othello and Iago met Lodovico (Nick Sampson) and Desdemona. Othello became annoyed at being ordered to leave Cyprus and coolly struck Desdemona when she spoke to him. She fell to the ground amid general consternation.
The false dawn of Othello calling Desdemona back in an apparent reconciliation, then revealing that he had only called her at Lodovico’s request, was quite chilling. This callous behaviour gave Iago more grounds to undermine him. Interestingly, this false dawn was echoed in the final scene.
The left side room rolled out to present Othello and Desdemona’s bedroom (4.2). This was bare basic accommodation: a smallish room with cheap looking furniture.
Othello was in the process of searching through Desdemona’s belongings, turning out all the drawers and cupboards looking for signs of infidelity. He tore at the bed clothes, sniffing the pillows for traces of Cassio’s scent. This made perfect sense of his opening question to Emilia “You have seen nothing then?”
Othello’s paranoid questioning of Emilia, who stood stiff and nervous, was paralleled by his fevered ransacking of the room.
Emilia fetched in Desdemona and was then sent away by Othello.
Desdemona crouched on the bed to plead her innocence in the face of Othello’s persistent accusations.
We could see that Othello’s feelings were still mixed between adoration and hatred. He smelt her and found her “so sweet that the sense aches at thee”, but then turned bitter and wished she had never been born.
A second false dawn occurred when, in face of Desdemona’s claims to innocence, Othello paused and said “I cry you mercy then”. The tension eased, but a moment later he turned to her and continued bitterly “I took you for that cunning whore…”
Othello called for Emilia and, as he left, threw money contemptuously at her as if she were Desdemona’s bawd.
Emilia fetched Iago whose studied ignorance of the cause of Desdemona’s troubles was a bravura display of his art. Emilia’s abusive description of the supposed slanderer was enjoyable for it being delivered almost in Iago’s face.
After Emilia and Desdemona had left, Roderigo also turned up in the bedroom and his comical complaints to Iago about his sufferings were a palette cleanser after the heaviness of the preceding tense encounters. But on a serious note, it provided Iago with an opportunity to tell Roderigo that killing Cassio would keep Othello, and thus Desdemona, in Cyprus. They agreed on their plan to attack Cassio later that night.
The scene changed to the base courtyard, where Emilia set out a chair and a can of beer, but then noticed the arrival of Othello, Lodovico and Desdemona (4.3).
Othello ordered Desdemona to get to bed. Emilia saw her approach and fetched another chair and a second can so that the women could have a chat.
Instead of being unpinned, Desdemona just took off her top to reveal a modest slip.
Desdemona sang the willow song, which struck a note of fragile calm in a dark world about to turn even more turbulent.
Emilia’s assertion that she would cuckold her husband “for all the world” exemplified her boldness, a trait that would be so crucial in the final scene.
Iago and Roderigo lay in wait for Cassio with the set reconfigured to show a different corner of the camp enclosed by blast walls (5.1). Iago spoke to us briefly to explain the tactical advantages of either Cassio’s or Roderigo’s death. Roderigo shot at Cassio with a handgun, but missed. Cassio returned fire hitting Roderigo before Iago fired and hit Cassio in the leg.
Iago pointed his gun at Cassio whom he realised was still alive and then fled, leaving the two wounded men on the ground. Alarms began to ring and Othello, to his great satisfaction, discovered Cassio injured.
Iago returned and spoke to Cassio, who pointed at Roderigo as his assailant. Iago took advantage of the accusation to shoot Roderigo. Stretchers were brought for the dead and injured.
Bianca found Cassio and commiserated at his suffering. Iago held her back and pointed her out to the others as the root cause of the quarrel.
Desdemona was presented to us asleep in her bed, newly covered in the wedding sheets, with a single candle burning like a child’s night light on a low cupboard (5.2).
Othello crept into the room and gently closed the door, whispering “It is the cause, it is the cause”. His tenderness over her sleeping form was touching, but was undercut by his “Yet she must die”.
His speech over the candle was moving and he carried it with him as he crouched at the side of the bed to smell her “balmy breath”. Desdemona awoke and we saw that she was wearing blue panties and a t-shirt.
Othello’s casual mention of killing shocked Desdemona into a frightened defence of herself, as she expressed her disbelief at Othello’s stated intention.
Othello questioned her about the handkerchief, pulling and pushing her on the bed as she recoiled looking very vulnerable. He forced her down onto the bed and used two pillows to smother her until she stopped moving.
Emilia called from outside causing Othello a momentary distraction. Desdemona moaned as she revived. Othello quite casually clasped his hands around her neck and strangled her. Emilia called again and Othello debated aloud what to do about her, his hands still in place around Desdemona’s neck as he glanced backwards at the door.
There was something quite gruesome about Othello’s ability to multitask the murder in parallel with his considerations about the impatient Emilia.
He let Emilia in and she told him about Cassio killing Roderigo. But Emilia’s attention was soon drawn to Desdemona, stirring into life once more, who said she had been “falsely murdered”.
Desdemona stated cryptically that “Nobody. I myself” had killed her and then finally died. Othello sadly contradicted her assurance, but seemingly only to prove that Desdemona had yet again been dishonest.
Othello informed Emilia that her husband Iago had assured him of Desdemona’s infidelity, she responded in disbelief, eventually shouting for help and accusing Othello of the murder.
Montano, Gratiano (Jonathan Dryden Taylor) and Iago arrived rendering the small, cramped room very overcrowded. Othello simply stood stiffly in front of the bed with his hands behind his back.
Emilia’s angry questioning of Iago seemed to unnerve him slightly because he became increasingly insistent that she go home.
Seemingly without cause, Othello broke down and cried kneeling at the edge of the bed to speak of how “this act shows horrible and grim”. This abrupt transition from passivity to emotion looked odd.
Othello told of Cassio’s ‘confession’ and that his suspicions had been proved by seeing Cassio with Desdemona’s handkerchief. Emilia immediately knew that Othello was wrong and not even Iago’s desperate pleas could stop her telling the truth.
Emilia explained how she had found the handkerchief and given it to her husband, upon which the desperate Iago swore at her and shot her before fleeing. As she clutched at her bleeding stomach, Emilia asked to be laid by Desdemona’s side.
Montano pursued Iago and ordered Gratiano to stand guard outside with Othello’s gun.
After Emilia died, Othello searched his wardrobe, found his Spanish sword and called Gratiano back inside. Othello proudly displayed the blade, but his mind wandered from the lost glory represented by this sword, back to Desdemona’s cold body.
Cassio appeared wearing a leg brace along with the now handcuffed prisoner Iago. Othello struck Iago in the leg with his sword, which was then taken from him.
At this point, the poky budget hotel room began to look really crowded. The sequence should have been presented on a bigger scale at centre stage. The climactic grandeur of a scene written with a spacious chamber in mind was diminished by being crammed into a corner of the stage.
Iago refused to speak when Othello demanded an explanation. The letters found in Roderigo’s pockets proved the plot between him and Iago.
Lodovico stripped Othello of his duties and Othello’s long speech concluded with him drawing a small dagger from a pocket and stabbing himself.
Othello staggered towards Desdemona, kissing her before collapsing dead on top of her. Lodovico enjoined Iago to look upon “the tragic loading of this bed”.
After everyone else had departed, Iago rushed back into the room and looked agape in disbelief at the bodies of Othello, Emilia and Desdemona. The lights went down on this tableau.
The deliberate highlighting of Iago’s incredulity at the outcome of his plot, suggested he possessed a glimmer of conscience, which contradicted his earlier hard-line refusal to respond to questioning.
The production was almost flawless. Two minor quibbles only: the puzzling loss of the handkerchief, which was not dropped accidentally, but deliberately cast aside; and Othello’s strange behaviour right at the end, which was either a bizarre characterisation or something forced on the actor by the cramped confines of the space.
But perhaps the most memorable aspect of the production was the confident and assured manner in which it presented Brabantio, not as an exemplum of commonplace prejudice, but rather as an isolated and outmoded bigot.
Rather than hint at racial tension, the production deliberately accented differences of accent, comportment and dress between Iago and Othello.
The Tempest, The Globe, 7 May 2013
The standard stage was almost doubled in size by the addition of extensions to the front and sides. This also vastly increased the circumference of the stage front meaning that more groundlings could claim a position close to the action. This was unusual for a play where most scenes involve no more than four characters.
There were also three large rocks, which were marbled with the same colouring as the stage pillars. A discovery space was provided on the upper gallery accessed by a stage left stairway. Grips were attached to the stage right back wall to facilitate climbing.
The warm-up musicians were followed by a cheeky Geordie chappie (Trevor Fox) who reminded us to turn our phones off and not take photographs. He then jokingly assured us that the performance of The Two Gentlemen of Verona would start shortly. This was a subtle jest at the expense of the Colin Morgan fans gathered at the front of the yard, for whom a mix-up of that sort would have been a disaster.
The storm began with loud banging on drums and metal sheets in the music gallery either side of the upper discovery space (1.1). Surround sound was achieved by using the walkway behind the middle gallery as a thunder run.
The ship’s crew lurched from side to side, falling over and pulling on ropes to steady themselves. At one point they leant back as if tracking a huge wave threatening to overwhelm them.
Because no amplified sound was used, and also partly because Globe actors constantly speak loud enough to combat aircraft noise, all the dialogue in the scene was clearly audible.
This was interesting from a theatrical point of view because it demonstrated that this scene did not need to be drowned out by the storm, as is often the case when speaker sound effects are deployed.
A figure we later discovered was Ferdinand (Joshua James) knelt and prayed in fear as the storm raged around the ship.
The storm scene was supplemented by a large model ship which was carried through the yard at head height, brought on stage and then taken down the stage left steps just as the passengers cried “We split, we split!” The offstage sinking of the model ship suggested the fate of the vessel being portrayed onstage.
Towards the end of the storm, Prospero (Roger Allam) appeared with his magic staff and cloak on the upper discovery space to oversee the tempest he had conjured.
As the last of the crew disappeared, Miranda (Jessie Buckley) walked up the same steps and looked backwards at the departing mariners to deliver her first line, pitying their fate and imploring her father to stop the storm (1.2). She wore a tattered light green dress that appeared to be fashioned from a larger remnant, under which she sported greyish cut-off trousers.
Prospero laid down his mantle at the front of the stage and placed his staff on top as if the mantle were only its cushioning. We now had a clearer view of the ragged clothes he had lived in for the past twelve years: a filthy white shirt, dark slashed trunk hose and boots with downturned tops.
The main problem with the production became apparent very early on. Roger Allam was quite content when playing within his comfort zone of affable comedy. But as soon as he was required to step outside that zone, he resorted to ‘doing acting’ and was unconvincing.
The disjunction between these two modes could be seen when he recounted his life story to his daughter.
Prospero was almost jaunty and affable as he began to tell his story to Miranda and was genuinely happy when she said that she remembered having serving women.
But when Prospero reached “Twelve year since…” he paused, and spoke the rest slowly in an unnatural, almost staccato delivery, as he looked off meaningfully into the distance.
The transition between natural flow and stilted technique was startling, as if playing Prospero’s darker side placed him out of his depth.
Prospero launched into his gag about Miranda’s paternity and the relief with which Allam returned to his comfort zone was palpable as his performance resumed its habitual ease.
But another lurch was coming. Allam paused again for effect after describing his brother as “perfidious”, accompanied by yet more portentous staring.
Allam’s Prospero was full of regret but there was no darkness and no menace in his characterisation. This compared poorly with Jonathan Slinger’s scary Prospero, who on his first appearance stood glaring for a long time before spitting with anger when he spoke.
Instead of giving us a Prospero who had brooded for twelve years and was now close to wreaking his revenge on his enemies, Roger Allam gave us a pompous senior civil servant on gardening leave.
He hugged Miranda at “O, a cherubim thou wast that did preserve me” thereby emphasising his paternal warmth rather than his sibling quarrel.
Prospero put Miranda to sleep and looked out for Ariel (Colin Morgan). Shaker sound effects rippled around the galleries to indicate his magical omnipresence. He sneaked up unnoticed behind Prospero, who jolted with shock when Ariel spoke.
Colin Morgan’s Ariel had short, black slicked hair, which contrasted with his light violet long-sleeve top, covered with long wispy, plumage-like strands. He wore blue breeches under a white apron that extended almost down to his white boots. While not a specific animal, he was vaguely bird-like, which made sense of his ability to flit around.
Colin Morgan was for many spectators the main attraction of the production. However, there was a slight Igor-ness in his delivery, which made him a visually attractive but dramatically unconvincing presence.
Prospero was content with Ariel’s efforts with the storm, but announced “there’s more work”. Allam’s comic instincts made this a humorous statement rather than a burdensome injunction from a martinet.
Ariel’s complaint about this provoked Prospero’s retort “How now? Moody?”, which was only mildly chiding. This invited comparisons with Jonathan Slinger’s vituperative fury when delivering the same line.
Despite Morgan’s reliance on making a visual impact as Ariel, there was a brief moment of interesting character development when he shrieked on being reminded by Prospero of his torturous imprisonment by Sycorax.
Discerning a high-work rate behind a performance is always gratifying. Right from the start it was plain that Jimmy Garnon had put great effort into his characterisation of Caliban.
When Prospero and Miranda visited him, Caliban rose from behind a rock, his body painted in shades of red, marbled exactly like the geology of the island. This was slightly reminiscent of the skin paint applied to the Caliban in Julie Taymor’s film. His reference to the “red plague” hinted that this colouration could have been the result of a condition particular to the island, causing its sufferers to take on the colour of its rocks.
His voice was coarse and guttural with a mixture of assorted accents that gave it a vaguely foreign air without fitting within any recognisable language. He loped barefoot on the front of his feet affording a strange animal quality to his gait.
Caliban cursed Prospero, accentuating his revolt by spitting at the audience, stealing a drink in a plastic cup from a groundling, downing it and then throwing away the cup (hopefully planted).
As if to seal his villainy in our minds, the skulking creature delighted in the idea of peopling the island with Calibans.
Prospero and Miranda retreated to their vantage point up in the gallery.
Accompanied by other spirit helpers, Ariel entered singing Full Fathom Five. He led Ferdinand up and down, remaining invisible to him and guiding his movements.
Prospero enjoyed loosing his daughter to Ferdinand and she boggled in disbelief at the young man’s “brave form”. However, rather than an athletic Adonis, this Ferdinand was slightly nerdish and spindly, perhaps justifying Prospero’s subsequent comment about his relative inadequacies.
But he was of obvious good heart. As a caring father, Prospero must have prized this quality in Ferdinand above any other consideration when arranging the match for his daughter.
Prospero descended and, having provoked Ferdinand with accusations of usurpation, took control of his threatening sword. At first the sword was frozen in mid air and Ferdinand struggled to move it as if the blade were fixed in rock.
Prospero then caused the sword to mirror the movements of his own staff. For a while Prospero played, causing Ferdinand’s weapon to move from side to side, finally forcing it to the ground, decisively disarming the young man.
Miranda clung to Prospero’s ankle, pleading with him to stop, as he ordered her to “Hang not on my garments.”
The introduction of the characters in the royal party began in undistinguished fashion with standard versions of the characters: the elderly Gonzalo (Pip Donaghy), the younger jokers Antonio (Jason Baughan) and Sebastian (William Mannering), and the careworn Alonso (Peter Hamilton Dyer) (2.1).
But an interesting note was struck when Sebastian said “we prosper well in our return”: the spirits in the galleries began whispering “prosper.. Prospero” as if bringing to life the echo of Prospero’s name in that remark.
Ariel put everyone to sleep except Sebastian and Antonio, leaving the latter to tempt the former with the idea of killing his brother. He then arranged for the sleepers to awake just as swords were poised over them.
Caliban threw away his burden of logs, scattering them to the back of the stage, cursing Prospero (2.2). The arrival of Trinculo drove him to hide under his gabardine.
Trinculo (Trevor Fox) wore a full jester’s motley with pointed shoes and large bicorn hat. He stood over a female groundling at the front of the yard and squeezed water out of his prominent codpiece and later pulled a small fish from his jacket to remind us of his recent escape from the wreck. He subsequently removed two more fish, each one larger than its predecessor, turning this into a running gag.
He spoke of the “storm brewing”, looked up into the bright, cloudless sky over Southwark and gave a series of knowing looks to the audience, peering up at the sky again as if the play text should have caused the weather to obey its implied stage direction.
After discovering the strange figure under the cloth, he smelt Caliban’s bottom, which was the source of “a very ancient and fish-like smell”. He climbed under the large covering, his feet pointing in the opposite direction to Caliban’s.
Stephano (Sam Cox) entered singing, a noise which frightened Caliban into attempting an escape. Normally this sequence is staged with Caliban and Trinculo remaining on the ground. But here, instead of remaining hidden under the coat, Caliban stood up so that he was bare down to the waist and pulled the still fully concealed Trinculo along behind him like the rear end of a pantomime horse. This fantastic vision caused Stephano to look at his bottle in disbelief as he contemplated this “monster of the isle”.
The “monster” returned to ground again enabling Stephano to pour in drink at both ends. When it reared up once more, Caliban struck the back end of the beast, still hiding Trinculo, with a stick.
Back on the ground Stephano pulled Trinculo’s legs to extract him from the coat and ended up in a compromising position on top of him. This unsophisticated crudity was not funny.
Caliban knelt before the bearer of the “celestial liquor” swearing him allegiance. He began to sing about his freedom, but spoke the first words of his song tentatively, looking round to see if any of Prospero’s agents were poised to punish him for his thoughtcrime. He rapidly gained confidence when he realised he could express a desire to have “a new master” and the first half came to an end as he celebrated his liberty.
The second half began with Ferdinand carrying some heavy, real logs from one side of the stage to the other (3.1). He addressed us cheerfully, saying that the hard work was a pleasure because it was undertaken for Miranda’s sake.
He beamed when he reported that Miranda did not want him to labour, because he saw this as proof that she loved him.
Miranda appeared and tried to carry the logs for Ferdinand, causing him to run back to the pile with a worried “No…” as if she were spoiling the game that gave him so much satisfaction.
Further confirmation of Miranda’s love caused him to take up a log, grin at us, and bear it easily to the other side.
This was a delightfully complicit inclusion of the audience in his simple joy at being adored, a seemingly novel experience that he would not take for granted.
Their ensuing betrothal was overseen by a contented Prospero.
The rebel trio reappeared in a state of advanced drunkeness, with Caliban’s wide-eyed, forty-yard stare distinguishing him as the most intoxicated (3.2). Ariel stood on the balustrade of the left lower gallery and scrutinised them a while before bounding on stage to ventriloquise Trinculo’s voice. He clambered nimbly from vantage point to vantage point, making use of the underside of the steps down from the platform as well as monkey bars underneath it.
Stephano became excited at the part of Caliban’s plan that involved Miranda, stuttering out “Is it so brave a lass?”
Caliban explained how they could kill Prospero. He took a rock and used a groundling as a stand-in to demonstrate how to drive a nail into Prospero’s head.
Around this time, planes and helicopters were flying overhead. When Caliban warned that Prospero had “brave utensils” he looked up at the sky and listened to the aircraft noise, drawing the others’ attention to it, as if this were Prospero’s agents high in the sky about some business. They stared up into the night for some time until the noises subsided. Though slightly laboured, this proved a humorous and effective way of dealing with the Globe’s noise pollution problem.
In line with the production’s general downplaying of deep moments, Caliban’s speech about the isle being full of noises was not as moving as it could have been.
The royal party saw some “strange shapes” bring on a table bearing a banquet (3.3). But before they could feast, the food exploded in a flash of hot bright flame, the heat wave from which reached the galleries, and the trick table revolved to display a representation of the charred remains.
Ariel confronted the “three men of sin” on high platform shoes shaped like claws with spirit helpers operating his wide, black, harpy wings. His head was covered with a large bird-like skull, his breeches looked like downy feathers and he had a breast plate with harpy dugs.
The combination of these two effects was truly spectacular.
Prospero congratulated himself on having his enemies “in my power” but with the vengeful aspect of his character underplayed by the affable Allam, his words conveyed little real menace.
Ferdinand had passed Prospero’s test, but Miranda’s protective father was still keen to emphasise to Ferdinand the importance of not breaking her “virgin-knot” (4.1). This subject continued to prove a light-hearted source of comedy that Allam seemed to feel more at home with than Prospero’s darker side.
The masque began with the brightly coloured Iris (Sarah Sweeney) calling on Ceres (Amanda Wilkin), who appeared in a white outfit with a neckpiece comprising fruits of the field. Surprisingly, Ariel took on the role of Juno, with a neckpiece of peacock feathers.
Prospero apparently mouthed Iris’ injunction that the marriage should not be consummated “till Hymen’s torch be lighted” in another comic touch highlighting his concern. There was no dance of the reapers, but the romantic shower of confetti that rained down from the upper galleries was more than compensation.
Prospero cried out that he had forgotten the “foul conspiracy” of Caliban’s and his associates. However, there was something actorly about his surprise and outrage that undercut any sense of real alarm.
This strange absence from his own role meant that “Our revels now are ended” similarly lacked impact. This speech is generally Prospero at his most contemplative, an aspect of the character that Allam did not at all emphasise. It said something that Helen Mirren’s Prospera was more convincing in her “I will plague them all, even to roaring” than Allam.
Prospero stood on the discovery space to oversee the hounding of the rebels by skeletal puppet dogs guided by Ariel and his helpers. These were very effective.
With his master’s plan now coming to fruition, Ariel persuaded Prospero to turn away from vengeance (5.1). This did not feel like a major turning point in the story, because the vengeful aspect of Prospero’s character had not been accentuated.
Although he announced “yet with my nobler reason ‘gainst my fury do I take part”, this Prospero’s consistent absence of fury deprived the sequence of significance.
When Allam boomed that he had “bedimmed the noontide sun” it seemed very unlikely that he actually had.
Prospero abjured his rough magic. His cloak was taken from him by a helper and he placed his staff on top of it in a repeat of the ritual at the start of the performance.
Prospero enjoyed toying with Alonso before revealing his son Ferdinand playing Miranda at chess in a ground-level discovery space. With her mind whirling at the sight of the new arrivals, Miranda sat next to father to wonder at this “brave new world”. Prospero’s reply “’Tis new to thee” conveyed his aspiration for Miranda to discover more of the world on her release from the island.
Caliban cringed when he and his companions were released and brought before Prospero. Again, the light tone of the production meant that Prospero’s “this thing of darkness I acknowledge mine” was not freighted with meaning and had no impact.
Once pardoned, Caliban scampered along next to Prospero like a chimp. He stood up at full height and growled at Stephano as he passed him, angry at having been his dupe.
Prospero picked up his staff placed it behind his neck and snapped it with his arms. He looked round to where Ariel was, but with his magic gone Prospero was unable to see him. This moment represented Ariel’s liberation.
Allam told us that his charms were now all o’erthrown. And he was duly released by our indulgence.
The production was competent, innovative in places, but ultimately disappointing. There was a large gap where a thrilling Prospero should have stood.
Roger Allam’s downplaying of Prospero’s anger and vengeance diluted the impact of his final decision to show clemency. With the focus on Prospero as a father, the play became a city comedy about a man trying to marry off his daughter.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Tobacco Factory Bristol, 13 April 2013
“Please note there is a dog in today’s performance”, said the notice outside the auditorium. Underneath were instructions from Launce not to leave food under seats, as this might tempt his dog Crab. Two characters had already been introduced and a comic note struck before the performance had begun.
If this was a bold move, it was nothing compared with the production’s textual additions and reordering of scenes.
The costumes were Edwardian era, all cream suits and stiff dresses. Three café tables were in place for the start of the performance. Valentine (Jack Bannell) and Proteus (Piers Wehner) sat around the centre one (1.1). Valentine’s opening speech beginning with “Cease to persuade…” was cut, replaced by a song beginning with the same words delivered to them by the café songstress (Eva Tausig). This tuneful interlude over, Proteus was the first to speak asking Valentine “Wilt thou be gone?”
After establishing that Valentine was off to Milan and Proteus staying at home out of love for Julia, the production text (Dominic Power), audaciously introduced an entirely new plotline.
Proteus presented Valentine with an elegant sword, a family heirloom given to him by his father. He drew it from its scabbard and, holding it horizontally, showed Valentine its silvery lustre, which reflected both their faces. Valentine drew too close and his breath misted the metal, but their reflections were restored when this mist evaporated.
Proteus insisted that, should he ever prove disloyal to Valentine, his friend should use this very sword to strike at him.
This insertion was so skilfully handled and well-written that it was almost imperceptible.
The device of a sword reflecting the image of their friendship, only to be temporarily obscured by the hot breath (of Valentine’s anger) and then restored, was a poetic microcosm of the entire story.
After Valentine’s departure, Proteus addressed his “He after honour hunts, I after love” to the waiter (Alan Coveney) who was clearing tables.
In another departure from the text, Speed’s conversation with Proteus was replaced by an entirely new sequence. Launce (Chris Donnelly), accompanied by Crab (Lollio), spoke briefly with Speed (Marc Geoffrey) explaining that he had bungled the delivery of Proteus’ letter to Julia by handing the missive to Lucetta and that Crab had disgraced himself by humping her leg.
Proteus himself then appeared and Launce told his master the story in greater detail, recounting how Crab had become “amorous” about a lady’s leg. In his nervousness, Launce mispronounced Lucetta as “bruschetta”.
Proteus reacted by saying that Crab should be shot and drowned, which prompted concern for the dog. But Proteus was placated when Launce further explained that the mischance had befallen Julia’s maid rather than Julia herself.
This early appearance by Crab established his performance style, which was a dogged refusal to speak in reply to his master’s persistent complaints.
Julia (Dorothea Myer-Bennett) went through a list of her suitors, asking Lucetta (Nicky Goldie) which of them she thought most suitable (1.2). When Julia mentioned Proteus, Lucetta pulled Proteus’ letter from her dress as if tentatively gesturing to deliver it, a haste motivated by her subsequent comment that she thought Proteus the best of Julia’s suitors. She eventually handed over the letter, but Julia thrust it back at her. The maid then left Julia alone with her thoughts.
As Julia leant against a pillar, Proteus walked around the back of the audience seating, filling the air with a love song dedicated to her. This prompted Julia’s change of heart and a desire to look at the letter properly.
Julia called for Lucetta, who was still very keen for Julia to take delivery. She dropped the letter, stared back at Julia as if to draw attention to it, and then picked it up again. She stuffed the note away, only bringing it out again to claim “it will not lie where it concerns”. At “I cannot reach so high” Lucetta held the letter up as if teasing Julia to take it.
But when Julia finally took hold of the letter she frantically tore it into pieces that scattered on the ground. She was immediately full of regret, shaking her own hands, the “injurious wasps” that had done the damage, as if disowning them.
She scrabbled around on her hands and knees picking up pieces of the letter that had Proteus’ name written on them. She scornfully flicked a scrap bearing her name away with her finger and then fretted about what to do with a slip that contained both their names together.
Dorothea Myer-Bennett managed to make this sequence both amusing and also a sincere expression of her character’s heartfelt love.
Realising that Julia would eventually want the whole letter, Lucetta gathered the scraps of paper from the ground. Indeed, seeming to regret her previous rashness, Julia made sure that Lucetta picked up the piece with her name on it that she had previously made of point of flicking away.
Antonio (David Plimmer) agreed with Pantino’s (Thomas Frere) advice that Proteus should follow Valentine and gain some worldly experience (1.3). Proteus entered kissing a letter he had received from Julia, which he hastily hid when his father questioned him about it. Proteus pretended the letter was from Valentine, and that his friend wished Proteus were with him. His father seized on this as a happy coincidence and used it as the pretext to announce his sending forth.
Proteus bemoaned the fact that his subterfuge had rebounded on him and that hiding Julia’s letter had accelerated his separation from her.
In an invented sequence, Julia complained to Lucetta that she had made her love Proteus, who had now been sent away. Lucetta pointed out Proteus and suggested that Julia speak with him.
Proteus told Julia of his departure and they exchanged rings as love tokens (2.2). She insisted on them sharing “a holy kiss”. She pecked him briefly, as if her passion had suddenly overcome her modesty. When Proteus bade Julia farewell, their lips came close together, an opportunity that Julia seized by grabbing him and kissing him for longer. That done, she walked away briskly without saying a word, prompting Proteus to remark on her silent departure.
Launce led in Crab and handed the lead to an audience member, mumbling “Take him!” before addressing the rest of us with his grievances against his unsympathetic companion. The anti-Semitic reference were removed here, as others were from the rest of the play.
Emphasising his distress, Launce blew his nose on his handkerchief, which he then placed under his hat for safekeeping.
Lollio was quite an old black Labrador, who sat, panted and looked on adoringly as his master (and real-life owner) criticised him.
Launce placed his shoes on opposite pillar seats, the one representing his mother had a hole in it and was offered to an audience member so that they could smell “my mother’s breath up and down”. Someone groaned at the sole/soul pun and Launce offered a disconsolate “It doesn’t get any better”.
His stick was used to represent his sister, even though it wasn’t “white as a lily”. Launce’s increasing confusion was juxtaposed with his dog’s placid demeanour, making him seem all the more manic.
Pantino tried to hurry Launce along to catch up with the departing Proteus. But Launce outwitted him, turning his reference to the “tide” into a reference to Crab who was “tied”. Launce teasingly placed his finger over Pantino’s mouth, suggesting that Pantino might lose his tongue. When Pantino asked where, Launce said “in thy tale”, gesturing at Pantino’s rear, implying that the gentleman was unhealthily self-absorbed.
The change of scene to Milan was introduced with an extended song sequence during which waiters set out chairs, tables and table cloths (2.1).
Speed held aloft a glove thinking it was Valentine’s. But his master soon recognised it as Silvia’s, sending him into a rhapsody over his new love. He stood on the pillar seat as if looking out for her.
Speed recognised Valentine was in love by the way he crossed his arms and his general moping around.
Such was Valentine’s touchiness that when Speed remarked “You never saw her since she was deformed”, he seized Speed by the lapels and shouted as if in panic “How long hath she been deformed?” Fortunately Speed was able to quench this fiery anger by retorting “Ever since you loved her”.
Speed pointed out that Valentine’s judgment was flawed and that he had not noticed his own shoe was untied (shoe replacing the original text’s reference to hose). The fact that Valentine’s repost, kept in the original, criticised Speed for not wiping his master’s shoes, gave the entire exchange a neat coherence. Speed told Valentine to sit down so that his ardour and enthusiasm for Silvia would not be so apparent, a bawdy joke suggesting his arousal.
Silvia (Lisa Kay) appeared in her fine white outfit and sat at the table with Valentine, while Speed retreated to a table in the corner. A drink was brought for Silvia. She smiled at her “servant” as if secretly pleased with his enthralment to her and relishing the trick she was playing on him.
Valentine presented her with the letter she had asked him to write to a “secret nameless friend”. She thrust it back at him, dropping increasingly clearer hints that it was meant for him, and made to leave. She became flustered at Valentine’s inability to understand her subterfuge and left without touching her drink, departing with a backward glance and loud huff at her suitor’s ineptitude.
Relaxing at the far off table, Speed nonchalantly elucidated the seemingly obvious fact that Silvia had got Valentine to write a letter to himself.
Speed announced it was dinner time, and Valentine’s disconsolate “I have dined” was infused with his disappointment at his own foolishness.
After Valentine had left, this scene merged into 2.5 in which Launce and Crab arrived in Milan and were greeted by Speed. Launce placed his hat on the café table and celebrated his arrival by downing the drink that Silvia had left behind, which he promptly spat out. His distaste for the fine drink explained his suggestion to Speed that they should visit the ale house.
Speed asked him if Julia and Proteus were to marry. After seeming to answer no, Launce played on Speed’s use of “stand” to bring out its bawdy sense with “when it stands well with him, it stands well with her”. Speed said he did not understand, enabling Launce to further develop the joke by raising his staff in a priapic gesture to comment that his staff “understands me”, i.e. that by being raised in that way it exemplified the jest he was making. But he also leant on it so show how it stood under him.
Launce referred Speed to his dog for an answer: “If he say ‘Ay’, it will; if he say ‘No’, it will”. Glancing at the approaching Crab, he raised the pitch of his voice into one suitable for the encouragement of his pet and concluded “If he shake his tail and say nothing, it will”. On this occasion, Lollio did indeed become excited and wag his tail in appreciation of his master’s attention.
After this tour de force of human/canine interaction, the ensuing play on words that confused Speed’s reference to his master as a “lover” and Launce’s characterisation of him as a mere “lubber” felt rather flat.
The waiter came to clear away the tables, which were removed from the stage. Launce took up his hat but left his handkerchief behind, which the waiter invited him to take with him.
Silvia cast loving glances at Valentine and there was something playfully mocking about Silvia’s constant reference to him as her “servant” (2.4). The competition over Silvia between Valentine and the much older and punctilious Turio (Paul Currier) was expressed in their pithy trading of insults. Silvia seemed happy to be the cause of this “fine volley of words” between the rivals.
The Duke of Milan (Peter Clifford), looking remarkably like King George V, informed Valentine that his friend Proteus had arrived, leading Valentine to praise Proteus effusively. The young man entered and Valentine presented him to Silvia. At first Proteus showed no obvious sign of being smitten with her.
Silvia left the two friends together. As she departed, the amorous Turio tendered his arm for her to hold, but she breezed past without noticing him.
Valentine poetically described how he had come under love’s spell. Proteus was careful not to agree with Valentine’s effusive praise. He said he would not flatter Silvia and did not consider her “a heavenly saint” but only “an earthly paragon”.
However, the reality behind Proteus’ apparent disdain for Silvia soon became apparent, and at an ironic moment. When Proteus harked back to Julia, proclaiming “Have I not reason to prefer mine own?” he picked up Silvia’s book, which she had left behind on her chair, and smelt it, possibly discerned a trace of her scent.
Valentine made the mistake of telling Proteus that he and Silvia were betrothed and were planning to elope after rescuing her from a high tower using a rope ladder.
Instead of going with Valentine to further advise him, Proteus stayed behind to confess to us that he had fallen for Silvia. His slow deliberate explanation of how one love had been displaced by another, showed his conversion to be incomplete: he referred to “Julia that I love” but hastily corrected this to “that I did love”. This hinted that he was deceiving himself when he insisted that the displacement had been clean and perfect like one nail driving out another. This tiny hint would help to make the denouement of the play more credible.
Proteus seemed genuinely surprised at where his heart had led him. He sat in silence on Silvia’s chair, clutching her book and lost in his thoughts on one side of the stage, while on the other side Julia appeared and asked Lucetta how she could journey to find Proteus (2.7).
Lucetta at first tried to dissuade her, but Julia spoke of her love being like a fire or a torrent, which raged more violently for being suppressed, kneeling to beg Lucetta’s assistance. The maid finally relented, saying “But in what habit will you go along?” at which point Julia rose and shook her fists in victory.
Julia proposed to go in disguise as a man, but seemed disconcerted at Lucetta’s insistence that she would have then to cut her hair. With a tinge of pain in her voice at the thought of losing her lovely tresses, Julia insisted that she would only have to tie it up. The text’s reference to a codpiece was changed to a trouser fly to fit the Edwardian setting.
In a change to the text, Lucetta decided to accompany Julia, taking over the function of the Host in later scenes. This was achieved by some new dialogue.
Lucetta suggested that she could go disguised as a man too and could brandish a pistol and dagger. Julia countered that this disguise might provoke quarrels, and proposed that Lucetta pretend to be her sister. But Lucetta finally decided on posing as ‘Sebastian’s’ mother, which would enable her to “pass without annoy”.
All the while Proteus sat in full view and pondered. The staging created the clear implication that Julia was present in his thoughts and that they were filling him with guilt.
Julia and Lucetta departed. Proteus cast Silvia’s book aside and rose to address us again, continuing with 2.6. Having observed his long, silent distress, we could understand the depth of his predicament and how his heart’s prompting to leave Julia, love Silvia and betray Valentine conflicted with his better nature.
This soliloquised rationalisation by Proteus and his detailed consideration of his position, gave him a depth completely absent from Valentine, who had veered from dim-witted insouciance to volatile passion without seeming to engage in any form of reflection.
Of the two, Proteus was more the thoughtful but therefore also the most calculating and potentially treacherous.
He coldly concluded that he would “forget that Julia is alive” and “Valentine I’ll hold an enemy aiming at Silvia as a sweeter friend”. He told us that he would betray the secret elopement to Silvia’s father the Duke and then deal with rival Turio. On that chillingly nefarious note, the interval came.
The second half began with Speed singing a mildly bawdy song to Silvia’s glove. Turio accompanied Proteus and the Duke, carrying a large whisky decanter and with a large cigar in his mouth, tempting the others to join him in these earthy pleasures (3.1). But the Duke asked Turio to leave them in peace, the slow droop of the cigar in Turio’s mouth witnessing his dejection.
Proteus got his plot underway by telling the Duke about Valentine and Silvia’s flight. His obnoxious insistence that he was loathed to snitch on a friend and was only doing so from a sense of duty, drew some muttering from the recently refreshed audience.
The Duke then conveniently met Valentine, who was wearing a long coat with a slight bulge around the middle.
Valentine’s lie that he was hurrying to pass letters to a messenger was much less skilled than the whole pack of fibs that Proteus had just delivered. This reinforced Proteus’ status as the more consummate deceiver.
The would-be eloper fell completely for the Duke’s story that he need advice on how to escape with his new love, who was sequestered in a high tower. Valentine suggested using a rope ladder concealed under a coat. It was only when the Duke insisted that Valentine open his own coat so that he could examine it that Valentine realised he had been duped.
The coat was opened and Valentine’s rope ladder fell out. One rung was fixed over his neck so that the rest unfurled onto the ground. This enabled the Duke to take up the other end and drape the ladder between the two of them, finally pulling on his end to draw Valentine close to him.
The letter in the original text was replaced by the device of the Duke discovering Silvia’s name inscribed on the top rung of Valentine’s ladder. The Duke compared him to Phaeton driving the sun to close to the earth in his “daring folly”, concluding by banishing him.
Valentine described this punishment as a “living torment” equal to death. He stressed the phrase “She is my essence” as it was a neat and powerful summary of what she meant to him.
Proteus caught up with Valentine, who was unwilling to hear any good news his friend might have. Asked if Silvia were dead, Proteus assured “No, Valentine”, a phrase which Valentine took up angrily repeating it as “No Valentine” as he ruminated over whether Silvia had abandoned him.
Launce reported that Valentine had been “vanished”, which Proteus corrected to “banishèd”, a lesson that Launce retained for later.
Valentine sat on the ground and sobbed about his “dolour”. There was a hint that Proteus was actually unhappy to see Valentine in this distraught condition and that his advice to be hopeful and let time work a cure was partly sincere.
Proteus brought along the sword he had given to Valentine and handed it to him again when he warned him of the perils of his banishment, saying “Regard thy danger”.
This insistence by Proteus that Valentine keep the sword with him could have been another product of Proteus’ guilt at his betrayal of his friend and a semi-conscious desire to be punished for this fault.
Left alone by the departure of the others, Launce drew out the “cate-log” of virtues he had composed about his new love, which Speed was soon present to comment on.
Launce opened his jacket when saying that she was not a maid “for she hath had gossips”.
Speed read the full list out so that Launce could reflect on it. When his friend got to “Item: She can spin.” Launce sat back and opened his legs implying that her ability to “spin for her living” meant something sexual, as in spinning flax from a distaff: the same as the “spin it off” gag in Twelfth Night.
The clowning continued into the list of her vices. Great amusement was derived from “She is slow in words” rapidly being promoted into a virtue. The fact that she had no teeth was of no account because Crab (not Launce) loved crusts.
The final fact about her, that she had money, sealed the deal conclusively. This enabled Launce to inform Speed that he had better run to catch up with his master.
A final trading of insults saw Speed describe his master as “banished” with Launce correcting him to the more metrical “banishèd”, which was a good textual joke and indicated that he had remembered his master’s earlier correction.
Proteus continued to be obsequiously helpful to the Duke, who was plotting to make his daughter Silvia fall for Turio (3.2). He advised the Duke to have Valentine’s reputation slandered, and by a friend. But he objected when the Duke suggested him for the task.
The Duke overruled Proteus’ moral objection with spurious reasoning and Turio asked Proteus to sing his praises. Proteus realised how difficult this would be and so recommended that Turio make an effort himself and compose love sonnets and sing songs to Silvia. They agreed to procure some musicians and serenade her that evening.
The outlaws lay in wait to rob passers-by in the forest (4.1). They sprung their trap as Valentine and Speed approached. Valentine was searched and the sword gifted to him by Proteus was taken from him.
Valentine objected that he had nothing of value other than the clothes he stood up in and told the outlaws he had been banished for killing a man. One of the outlaws comically characterised this as “so small a fault”.
The humour of that remark was surpassed when the female outlaw (Eva Tausig again) took a shine to Valentine. Her description of him as “beautified with goodly shape” was a blatant flirtation, only cut short when she was thrust aside by another bandit.
Valentine was offered the position of their general, and threatened with death if he refused. He accepted the kind offer on condition they did no harm to women and poor travellers.
In an invented sequence, Julia and Lucetta arrived in Milan. Julia wore a tweed outfit with a cap to hide her hair and Lucetta addressed her as “son Sebastian” to cement her adopted identity in the audience’s mind. They set off once more to seek out Proteus.
Proteus described how, despite his scheming, Silvia would constantly remind him of his disloyalty to both Valentine and Julia (4.2). As he and Turio prepared to serenade Silvia, Julia and Lucetta appeared at the other end of the stage and hid behind pillars to observe.
A trio of musicians provided musical accompaniment for Proteus’ wooing. Julia was disturbed to hear her love singing another woman’s praises. This was particularly galling for her because she had previously been serenaded in exactly the same way by Proteus: it was his singing that had finally persuaded her to reconsider his love letter.
Turio left thinking that the more experienced Proteus would plead for him. Silvia appeared up in a corner of the performance space representing her house and summarily dismissed Proteus as soon as she recognised him. This was consistent with the serial rejections Proteus had mentioned at the start of the scene.
Julia’s turmoil only increased when Proteus assured Silvia that his former love was dead. But Silvia, dripping effortlessly with disdain, was having none of it. She reminded Proteus of his loyalty to his friend, and her fiancé, Valentine. If Proteus presumed Valentine dead, argued Silvia, then so was she because her love was buried in Valentines’ grave.
Proteus requested that Silvia supply him with a picture of herself, which she agreed to, seeing it apt for his false love to devote itself to a mere image.
Instead of asking the Host where Proteus lodged, Julia put this question to Silvia’s maid Ursula (Eva Tausig again), who informed her “Marry, at my friend’s house”.
The dapper Eglamour (Alan Coveney again) told us he was due to meet with Silvia upon some errand (4.3). Silvia appeared and explained that she wanted him to accompany her to Mantua so that she could be reunited with Valentine. In the middle of their conversation, the Duke her father walked past and said good-day to them, underscoring her later comment about being spied upon.
Eglamour agreed, and as they departed they signalled their accord by each accompanying their “Good morrow” with a furtive crook of the finger towards the nose.
The final scene with Launce and Crab (4.4) was the funniest, but it also proved difficult for the actor because by now the audience had acquired such an affection for the adorable Labrador that Launce had problems keeping their attention on himself and away from his silent companion.
Launce explained how he had offered Crab as a present to Silvia but that the dog had disgraced himself by peeing under the table, a fault for which Launce had taken the blame to save his dog’s life.
Proteus addressed ‘Sebastian’ by name before asking Launce if he had delivered the dog to Silvia. Launce explained that the little dog or “squirrel” that he should have taken had been stolen. He had offered Crab instead, the bigger dog being a more substantial present, but she had rejected it.
Proteus did not appreciate the logic of this and ordered Launce to find the original dog. Launce exited briskly, but Crab followed him more slowly, his lead trailing between his legs. Proteus had stood by the exit pointing towards it with an extended finger to indicate where Launce should depart. He stayed fixed in this precise position waiting for the tardy Crab to follow his master out, tracking Crab’s slow progress and giving him a final word of encouragement as he exited through the doorway. This greatly amused the audience.
Proteus turned to the disguised Julia asking her to collect Silvia’s picture and take a ring to her. Recognising it as the gift that she had given to Proteus, Julia turned away to say “It seems you love her not, to leave her token”. She continued the extended exchange about the ring facing away from Proteus, fighting the tears swelling in her eyes as she felt the injury of his gesture.
Proteus also gave her a letter to take to Silvia and then left her alone. Julia’s “How many women would do such a message?” was remarkable for the way in which Julia’s pain was clearly conveyed and the moment unmistakably distinct from the comic mayhem of much of the rest of the production. It was impossible not to feel for her.
A bell chimed and Julia walked slowly towards the exit. This was remarkably (and possibly deliberately) reminiscent of Macbeth’s “I go, and it is done” moment.
Silvia and her maid Ursula swept through at the opposite entrance. Seizing her chance, Julia made her request and Silvia had Ursula hand the picture over to her.
Julia offered a letter to Silvia, but it was clearly the old tattered letter from Proteus that she had carefully reassembled. She took back the precious keepsake and presented Silvia with the correct letter. No matter, Silvia tore the letter up anyway (the remnants were collected later by Proteus in an echo of Julia’s gathering up of shreds).
Julia offered Silvia the ring, but she refused it on the grounds that it was the one Julia had given to Proteus. She said that though Proteus’ false finger had profaned the ring, she would not do such a wrong to his Julia.
Julia appreciated this kind and loyal gesture so much that she momentarily forgot her disguise to say “She thanks you” in her natural female voice, correcting herself soon after to “I thank you” in her assumed male voice.
This led into a discussion in which ‘Sebastian’ alluded to how well she knew Julia’s sadness, touching on the similarities between them. Silvia gave Julia her purse and left her alone, allowing Julia to praise Silvia’s manifest virtues.
She placed the picture of Silvia on the pillar seat and began a fretful comparison of her own features with the beauty of the portrait. She looked at a nearby member of the audience and showed them her “eyes as grey as glass” which she said were identical to Silvia’s.
Julia clawed her fingers over the picture saying that her liking for Silvia prevented her from scratching its eyes out so that Proteus would not love the image so much.
After a brief scene in which Eglamour and Silvia set off to Mantua (5.1), we saw Proteus explain to Turio that Silvia did not consider him attractive (5.2).
As Proteus offered his diplomatic comments on Turio’s inadequacies, the disguised Julia stood to his side, facing in the opposite direction, and offering her own withering put-downs, which Proteus could hear but Turio could not.
Proteus appreciated his page’s quick wit and tapped ‘Sebastian’ on the shoulder in appreciation, while maintaining an unamused straight face toward Turio. Although still unaware of the page’s true identity, Proteus’ appreciation of Julia’s humour witnessed the undiminished bond between them.
The Duke enquired after Eglamour and his daughter, but neither Proteus nor Turio had seen them. The Duke concluded that she had fled to see Valentine accompanied by Eglamour, and ordered Proteus and Turio to follow him in his pursuit of the escapees.
Turio agreed to be revenged on Eglamour, Proteus followed for love of Silvia and Julia went too, still clutching Silvia’s picture, saying she bore her no hate and only wanted to stop Proteus.
Silvia cried as she was dragged onstage by her outlaw captors (5.3). We learnt that Eglamour had escaped. The brigands took Silvia away to see their leader, Valentine.
Valentine, with Proteus’ sword strapped to his back, declared how the solitary life in the forest pleased him more than life in town (5.4). He heard a commotion and withdrew, perching behind the pillar on its seat to hide from those approaching.
Proteus had rescued Silvia from the outlaws and Julia brandished a musket to chase one of them briskly in one door and out another, so that her first aside commenting on the situation was cut.
Silvia was far from happy at being rescued by Proteus, rejecting his advances and continuing to remind him of Julia, who had now joined them.
Proteus’ attempted ravishment of Silvia prompted Valentine to rush forward from behind the pillar and pull a very surprised Proteus away from her. For quite some time, Silvia leant against a pillar seat breathless and sobbing in distress.
The original text’s rapid turnaround, with Proteus’ almost instantaneous conversion to good and Valentine’s equally immediate forgiveness against a background of utter silence from Silvia, was extensively reworked with additional dialogue that completely changed the tone of the ending of the play, with a much more active role for Silvia.
The sword given by Proteus to Valentine again came into play. Valentine shouted at Proteus, who knelt and expressed his remorse, finally demanding that Valentine use his sword to kill him. Valentine pointed the sword at Proteus.
Julia, in invented lines, pleaded with Valentine to spare Proteus’ life. But the decisive intervention was made by Silvia. She rescued her love by taking the sword from Proteus, and went to stand on the nearby pillar seat to observe and comment on events.
Valentine was now satisfied with his friend’s remorse, declaring “Then I am paid” and knelt facing Proteus so that the newly-reconciled friends could embrace.
Valentine concluded with his astonishing announcement “All that was mine in Silvia I give to thee”. Silvia exclaimed in shock at her apparent abandonment.
The prospect of losing Proteus to Silvia caused Julia to faint. She partly recovered and explained woozily that she had not delivered the ring to Silvia. In her confusion, she showed Proteus the ring that he had given to her. This was an honest mistake caused by her grogginess.
But she took advantage of the error, and explained that she had come by the ring because she was in fact Julia. Although no element of her disguise was removed or altered, the reveal was nevertheless convincing.
Impressed by her constancy, Proteus swore his love for her and they were reconciled.
The outlaws burst in together with the Duke and Turio, with the latter laying claim to Silvia. From her vantage point overlooking events, she retorted sarcastically in an invented aside “Whose love am I?”
Valentine threatened Turio with death unless he abandoned his claim. Turio relented in the face of this duress, proving the shallowness of his pretended affection as he concluded “I claim her not, and therefore is she thine.”
Silvia, who had moments earlier been offered like a chattel by Valentine, now commented “Twice this day I have been given!”
The Duke, disgusted at Turio for leaving his daughter “on such slight conditions”, revoked Valentine’s banishment and told him “take thou thy Silvia, for thou hast deserved her”. This prompted the increasingly bemused Silvia to call out “Thrice given!”
As Valentine accepted the Duke’s ‘gift’, Silvia commented that she would rather be “the giver, not the gift”. This was fully consistent with the feistiness she had previously displayed, but obviously ran contrary to the original text in which Silvia is silent.
Although he had not heard Silvia’s asides, Valentine proposed to Silvia, asking for her consent as she had wished. She now came forward, the sword in her hand, and accepted his proposal.
Valentine asked the Duke to pardon the other outlaws, to which he assented. The outlaws still had Eglamour’s trousers, which they passed one to the other until the last outlaw handed them back to Eglamour, who had been standing trouser-less a brief while for comic effect.
Valentine asked the Duke what he thought of the page. The Duke began his answer, just as Julia, still in her disguise as Sebastian, began to kiss Proteus. The sight of this apparent anomaly caused the Duke to falter in his answer.
Valentine wrapped up events and proposed a joint wedding. The two fiancés held their arms out for their women to take. But Julia and Silvia exchanged a knowing look, linked arms with each other and walked off together, Silvia still holding Proteus’ sword (symbolising friendship as well as power), in a display of solidarity that had grown out their developing mutual respect.
After an initial curtain call, music struck up and a song “Cease to persuade, cease to disdain” accompanied a formal dance, which saw the couples pair up again and the men sweep the women off their feet.
The production was exceedingly entertaining with a high standard of performance overall, not least from its canine actor Lollio, backed by inventive directorial touches and a wonderfully effective use of music.
Though not a full-blown Nahum Tate-style rewrite, the ending was substantially reworked and had a 21st century sensibility that was very satisfying for the audience. But this came at the expense of depriving them of the problems posed by the original.
The insertion of the sword plot line that threaded its way from Proteus and Valentine’s first scene through to their final confrontation, seemed to be motivated by nothing more than the adapter relishing his ability to write new lines and passing them off as Shakespeare’s.
While these radical changes to the play were intriguing, the audience was not made aware of them. Anyone for whom this production was their introduction to the play might find subsequent versions confusing, no doubt wondering what had happened to Silvia’s assertiveness at the play’s conclusion.
Many productions tweak the original text to varying extents. So at what point does an audience deserve an explanation that what they are seeing is not the play as written?
Hamlet, Royal Shakespeare Theatre Stratford, 6 April 2013
The play was set within a fencing hall with the piste marked down the centre of the thrust stage. A raised platform at the rear contained a large Danish flag in one corner and a desk in the other. Foils hung from the wall of this office. A pitched roof with its skylights and fluorescent tubes hung above, and to the stage right side was a door with glass panels in its top half. A Latin inscription “mens sana in corpore sano” overlooked the whole.
A figure loitered briefly behind the door, removing a securing chain before entering and revealing himself to be Jonathan Slinger’s Hamlet in his dark mourning suit and glasses. He leant forward with his head in his hands, clearly distressed. After composing himself, he picked up a lath sword and moved to the piste where he began a fencing manoeuvre.
He fought his way down the piste against an imaginary opponent. As he reached the end, the sound of clashing foils was briefly heard. Hamlet turned back and uttered the play’s first line “Who’s there?”
The sound of swords was an echo returning back in time from the final fencing bout. The answer to Hamlet’s question was that his future, his fate and his destiny were calling him.
The watch appeared via side entrances and, becoming aware of their presence, Hamlet slipped away to sit in darkness at the front of the stage writing in a notebook. Behind him the first scene played out, beginning with Barnardo (Dave Fishley) and Francisco (Mark Holgate) on the Elsinore battlements (1.1).
The Ghost (Greg Hicks) appeared on the stage right walkway dressed in fencing whites, which made little sense of Horatio’s (Alex Waldmann) comment that it was wearing the same armour in which the king had fought the Norwegians. At this point the production’s conceit clashed with the text.
Some men in welders’ outfits came through the door and out the stage left exit, prompting Marcellus’ (Samuel Taylor) question about Denmark’s war preparations. Horatio’s answer, in which he referred to “landless resolutes”, was interrupted by the reappearance of the Ghost on the stage left side. Marcellus took a sword hanging from the wall, but the Ghost withdrew and reappeared at various entrances before finally disappearing.
Hamlet rose from his seated position as the court entered for 1.2. The others all wore black fencing masks and moved in slow, formal dance steps as they collected around the besuited Claudius (Greg Hicks again).
The king looked lean and wiry, a physical condition that gave his insistent firm manner a kind of low-level hectoring aggression. This undercurrent of potential violence was pacified by the obedience that his manner engendered in those around him.
His new wife Gertrude (Charlotte Cornwell) had something fusty and matronly about her, which suggested that Claudius was more interested in the throne than in her.
Claudius dispatched the ambassadors, Voltemand (David Fielder) and Cornelia (Natalie Klamar), to Norway.
Our first sight of Polonius (Robin Soans) hinted that, either by accident or design, he was similar in demeanour and tone to Claudius.
Hamlet stood and watched from downstage left so that his first line “A little more than kin, and less than kind” was spoken upstage to a distant Claudius. Hamlet was mildly dismissive but not wracked by anger or melancholy.
Hamlet’s deliberations on “seems” were slow and methodical. In fact he paused before saying “seems” a second time as if loathed to utter the word, but there was also a hint of suppressed rage and passion lurking just below the surface.
Claudius’ extended response seemed intent on wearing down Hamlet’s resistance and culminated in offering him a drink, holding the glass as if beckoning Hamlet to take it. When Hamlet consented to obey his mother, Claudius gave him the glass. He chanted “Be as ourself in Denmark” like a drinking song, with the rest of the court joining in, to jolly Hamlet along as he drank. A loud bang caused party streamers to fill the air as confetti scattered on the ground.
It was noticeable at this point that with the fencing piste already visible from the very start and with Claudius offering Hamlet a drink, the opening scenes of the play contained echoes of its fatal conclusion. The fencing piste on which Hamlet would be injured, and a drink, indistinguishable from the one with which Claudius would try to poison him, had already been presented to us.
Hamlet soliloquised about his “too too solid flesh” as the tension within him spilled out. He seemed to have reached a point of resignation in which, beyond fury, he was scoffing at his mother’s infidelity.
Hamlet was extremely happy to see Horatio and hugged him warmly. But the fervent emotion of Hamlet’s welcome showed him to be deriving solace rather than unalloyed joy from the reunion. He was like a man stranded on a desert island spying the smoke trail of a passing ship.
After the hug, they both crouched on the ground as Hamlet clasped Horatio’s hands in his, not wanting to let go even as the conversation continued.
Horatio broached the subject of the Ghost, and Hamlet’s questions in response flashed out rapidly and instantly as if he had turned his laser-sharp intellect onto a matter which had now fully gripped his attention. Within milliseconds of new data about his father’s ghost becoming available, he had formulated and delivered a fresh question designed to elucidate the next vital detail.
After the others had left, Hamlet vowed to see the Ghost for himself. Immediately afterwards, Ophelia (Pippa Nixon) appeared through the side door. She had short dark hair, wore a sensible skirt and an Icelandic pattern pullover, and was carrying a large pile of books.
On seeing Hamlet she let the book pile fall to the ground with a crash at her feet and ran over to him. They embraced and kissed warmly. Hamlet saw Laertes approach from the stage left side and quickly left so that the action of 1.3 could commence.
Laertes (Luke Norris) said that his “necessaries” were all stowed away, which suggested that the pile of books carried by the sensibly dressed Ophelia were her own.
A number of Icelandic pullovers, Horatio wore one two occasionally, introduced an element of localised naturalism into the production. This implied though that the Danish court had a preference for Icelandic rather than Faroese knitwear.
Laertes had just witnessed the ending of his sister’s tryst with Hamlet, which proved excellent grounds for his warnings to her about him.
Ophelia countered Laertes’ conditional statement “Then if he says he loves you…” with an emphatic extra-textual “He does, he does”.
Polonius lectured Laertes and again proved nimble-witted rather than sluggish and buffoonish. When he turned his attention to Ophelia, she meekly accepted his counsel.
Hamlet and friends encroached upon Ophelia and Polonius as they entered for 1.4. The sound of Claudius’ partying filtered through the door, prompting Hamlet’s sarcasm about this custom.
The Ghost appeared and walked across the front of the stage from stage left to right. Hamlet addressed it quizzically. The Ghost began to leave via the stage right walkway and beckoned Hamlet to follow. Horatio and Marcellus’ attempts at restraint caused Hamlet to take a foil from the wall and threaten them with it before he followed the Ghost off.
Hamlet appeared shortly afterwards from the stage right upstage entrance and the Ghost began to speak to him. The Ghost had taken off his mask, so that Hamlet could see it was his father. When the mysterious figure confirmed his identity, Hamlet reached out his hand to touch his father. His line “O God!” was replaced by a gut-wrenching moan, an inarticulate outpouring of grief and deep emotion that seemed more appropriate to this passionate and emotional Hamlet than a well-articulated phrase.
When Hamlet made contact with his father’s body it was as if an electric shock had passed between them. The touch became a grasp as Hamlet was consumed by the desire to know more. While reports about the Ghost had been intellectually analysed, this actual contact produced upheavals in Hamlet’s heart that drove his outward behaviour.
The stage brightened as the Ghost said he could scent the morning air, which hurried him to his concluding story about his murder by Claudius. He asked Hamlet to remember him by offering his fencing mask, which Hamlet accepted in astonishment.
Hamlet followed the Ghost to the stage left exit, so that when Hamlet was left alone he fell back onto a bench at the side from which he had to raise himself, requesting that his sinews “bear me stiffly up”.
He seized his notebook to record his father’s words. His reference “At least I’m sure it may be so in Denmark” saw him point to the ground, thereby emphasising the naturalistic location of the play suggested by the flag, and partly by the knitwear.
Horatio and Marcellus caught up with Hamlet, who began to be cheerily sarcastic with them. This being a fencing salon, Hamlet easily found a foil on which to make the others swear not to divulge what they had seen. The Ghost’s voice echoed encouragement, also causing wind to scatter papers on the upstage desk.
In line with the RSC’s edition of the text, Hamlet referred to there being “more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy”.
This led into a quite camp imitation of the ways in which he did not want his friends to discuss his “antic disposition”.
Hamlet pulled Horatio back and directed his “time is out of joint” lines directly at him, not at the audience as an aside.
Polonius briefed Reynaldo (Daniel Easton) on how to spy on Laertes (2.1). As Polonius rambled on through his unnecessarily punctilious instructions, Ophelia burst in and stood silently staring at her father. This interruption became the cause of Polonius’ forgetfulness and the reason he had to pick up the thread of the conversation.
Ophelia sat quietly until Reynaldo had been dispatched, after which Polonius was free to listen to her. She spoke impulsively fired by the urgency that had driven her to burst in on him. She acted out Hamlet’s pained gestures when he had confronted her and Polonius decided to inform the king.
Rosencrantz (Oliver Ryan) and Guildenstern (Nicolas Tennant) wandered across the stage in their coats and carrying suitcases as if they had just arrived at the king’s behest (2.2). Drinks were brought for them.
At first the king was not sure which of them was which and did not address them individually. But on bidding them farewell he made an effort and got them the right way round, much to Gertrude’s satisfaction.
Polonius hurried to see the king and told him that he had found the cause of Hamlet’s madness, then ushered in the ambassadors who brought the good news of Fortinbras’ arrest. The king spoke with the ambassadors upstage, leaving Gertrude alone downstage sat on a chair looking neglected.
Ophelia was kept outside by her father and then ushered in and ordered to stand on a particular spot, receiving her cue to read from the letter Hamlet had sent. She snapped obediently into position and did as she was told.
Ophelia’s unquestioning deference meant that when Polonius told the king about his instructions to Ophelia to shun Hamlet, we understood that she had obeyed him.
As Polonius broached the outline of their further plot to “loose” Ophelia to Hamlet, the man himself entered, wearing an untied fencing outfit and mask. He sat down reading a sheet of paper and Polonius was left to deal with him alone.
Hamlet’s comical appearance made his response “words, words, words” even more funny. Further questioning prompted him to screw the paper up and throw it at Polonius when describing the slanders it contained.
Hamlet was jovially sarcastic, particularly when he walked backwards like a crab.
Polonius left in disgust clearing the way for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hamlet greeted them and engaged in some bawdy play, simulating sex with Guildenstern who had spread his legs to indicate how he was one of Fortune’s “privates”.
Hamlet’s initial jollity soon gave way to suspicious questioning of their motives for visiting him. He referred to the “rights of our fellowship” and bared his forearm, as did the others, to reveal tattoos that witnessed some kind of pact between them.
Talking of having lost all his mirth, Hamlet’s reference to “this most excellent canopy” took on a comical note when he gestured upwards at the suspended roof. The drollery of his earlier appearance in the fencing suit indicated that he was not completely consumed by melancholy.
Hamlet’s philosophical observations did not hang like dense clouds of thought in the air, but seemed more to be exercises in rhetoric designed to convince others of his profundity. This was the conundrum: he had reason to be sad, but we also knew he was trying to affect sadness, so which was his real self?
Hamlet was genuinely interested in the news that the players had arrived and the production kept in his question as to why they were travelling, but without the boys’ company references.
Hamlet and companions sat on a bench and pretended to be engaged in conversation so they could make fun of mock Polonius. They formed a tight-knit little gang reminiscent of what must have been their previous closeness.
Hamlet stood to mock Polonius with his remarks about Roscius and Jephthah and then greeted the players. He congratulated a female player on being “nearer to heaven”, but without the final “by the altitude of a chopine”. Without the final part, Hamlet seemed not be commenting on an increase in height but an increase in age and proximity to death.
Hamlet launched into the Aeneas speech until it was picked up expertly by the First Player (Cliff Burnet).
Left alone after the impromptu performance, Hamlet half-laughed at himself, drawing out a long guttural moan of self accusation as he described himself as a rogue and peasant slave.
His admiring description of the player’s skill displayed much of the passion that he claimed he was unable to transform into action.
He spoke “John-a-dreams” slowly and affected a shambling gait with the self-deprecating implication that he was stupid.
His question to the audience “Am I coward?” did not provoke any response, though his subsequent lines were delivered as if he had in fact been directly accused. He foamed with growing anger at his supposed critics, descending into an overwrought display, the stupidity of which he suddenly became aware of, declaring himself to be “an ass”.
He hit upon his plan, but one he must have formulated earlier as he had previously told the players about the lines he wanted inserting into Gonzago.
Claudius and his court entered and gathered round Hamlet as he explained how he would use the play to trap the king, so that when he said “the play’s the thing” the cast were stood around like actors waiting for their cue, Hamlet’s final line in the scene.
As Hamlet departed, the king spoke with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who had been unable to fathom Hamlet’s troubles (3.1). Ophelia sat behind them on the raised stage staring at the ground beneath her dangling feet, obviously unhappy at the part she was expected to play in the plan.
The king and Polonius hid behind the glass panel door, while Ophelia sat on the stage right bench with her box of reminiscences and the book given to her by Polonius.
As he approached, Hamlet could be heard offstage singing Happiness by Ken Dodd, a completely incongruous song in terms of the speech that followed, but one that perhaps fitted his desire to appear antic to others.
After the first few lines of the song, he caught sight of Ophelia and sat down at the edge of the platform and launched into the iconic soliloquy. This lurch into seriousness caught Ophelia’s attention, but even here Hamlet applied a lightness of touch. He lay on his side when expressing his desire for sleep, as if he found the concept of the “sleep of death” somehow amusing.
His sudden shift from a song of joy into a melancholic disquisition did not ring true and undermined the sentiments of his soliloquy. This was a good way of subverting what has become an all-too familiar speech.
He was sat on what would later become the stage for the players, and this was very much a conscious performance for the benefit of Ophelia, who was present throughout. His only genuinely heartfelt sentiment was his reference to her right at the end when he approached Ophelia, talking of her “orizons”.
Ophelia rose and thrust her box of remembrances at Hamlet. He took a letter from the box and made blah-blah noises as he contemptuously pretended to read its soppy contents. He ditched the box on the ground, informing her “I never gave you aught”. Screwing one of the papers into a ball he threw it at her face.
His mood flipped into aggression, telling her to get to a nunnery while ringing a large hand bell. He moved upstage to ask where her father was, but without there being any real indication that Polonius was spying on them. This was perhaps Hamlet’s instincts informing him.
He smeared Ophelia’s face with dirt taken from beyond the stage blocks, complaining of women’s “paintings”. He completed her humiliation by stripping off her pullover and skirt, leaving her vulnerably semi-clad. He also cut off some of her hair with a small knife.
Polonius and later the king re-entered. Ophelia borrowed her father’s jacket and told him (not in soliloquy) about Hamlet’s great overthrown mind and began collecting up the scattered contents of the box.
Claudius was clearly ruffled by the threat to himself posed by this aggression, and had already decided to send Hamlet to England.
At first the players ignored Hamlet as tried to begin his talk on acting (3.2). He repeated “Speak the speech…” several times to no avail before finally ringing a bell to secure their attention. He stood on a bench by the stage left doorway to give his lesson, illustratively sawing his hands.
Referring disparagingly to the groundlings “capable of nothing but inexplicable dumbshows and noise”, he looked to the people in the RST stalls immediately in front of him on the stage left side of the thrust, a joke which the whole audience seemed to appreciate.
As the court gathered for the performance, Hamlet instructed Horatio to observe Claudius and handed him a Polaroid camera with which to capture the hoped-for guilty look.
When Claudius entered he was wearing a fencing mask, possibly that belonging to Hamlet’s father. It was removed from his face just before he and Gertrude reached the bench that had been set aside in front of the raised stage. The others sat at the sides to watch, while Hamlet remained downstage.
Confident that events were under his control, Hamlet was boldly sarcastic and disrespectful to Claudius and Polonius.
In a great piece of realistic staging, Hamlet’s approaches to Ophelia and joking attempt to sit by her were indignantly rebuffed. After all, at their last encounter he had insulted and humiliated her. Reconciliation at this point would have seemed bizarre.
The dumb show was played out on the stage, from which the desk had now been removed, with a red curtain at its sides. The Player King and Queen (Cliff Burnett & Karen Archer) embraced in period costume, with the King wearing an oversized paper crown that towered upwards.
The poisoner appeared with a large phallic baguette dangling from his waist and gestured his covetousness of the queen and also of the castle on the painted backdrop. The gentle music of this scene changed to heavy metal as a figure in black modern dress with a skull pattern on her top entered to represent ‘poison’. She sat on the Player King’s chest to symbolise his murder.
After the poisoning the Player Queen tore apart a cob loaf, which she had thus far clasped to her bosom symbolising her heart, at which point the poisoner raised the phallic baguette in front of him and moved to embrace her.
The prologue was spoken in a vaguely Japanese style before the curtain opened to reveal the Player King and Queen sat on a sofa. Hamlet became ever more excited in his comments as the play reached the key theme of remarriage.
The flirtatious exchange between Hamlet and Ophelia with its references to “groaning” was cut.
The poisoner wore a suit identical to that of Claudius. He killed the Player King in imitation of Claudius’ crime, causing the king to rise from the bench in anger. He called for some light, to which Horatio responded by flashing the Polaroid camera in his face to capture his expression.
As Claudius stormed away and the guards arrested and led away the players, Hamlet and Horatio took to the stage. Hamlet, illuminating his face from below with a table lamp, sang the ditty about the “stricken deer” as Horatio snapped him with the camera. The interval came as the lights went out on the scene.
The second half began with Hamlet and Horatio continuing their conversation until they were interrupted by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who told Hamlet that his mother had sent for him. Hamlet stood on the bench and twisted his feet from side to side creeping up and down it in a muted victory dance.
Hamlet was now effusive and jokingly reassured Rosencrantz that he still loved him “by these pickers and stealers”, talking to him as if he were a baby. But when Horatio brought the recorders, Hamlet became vitriolic in his denunciation of Guildenstern, standing close and speaking “though you fret me you cannot play upon me” directly into his face.
He turned instantly on Polonius, switching his full attention to him and completely forgetting Guildenstern, in order to play his cloud-watching game with the old man.
However, that done, he had calmed down enough to talk in soliloquy about how he would not harm his mother.
The king instructed Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to escort Hamlet to England, and they received a wad of notes in payment for their work (3.3). Polonius announced his intention to listen in on Hamlet’s conversation with Gertrude, after which Claudius had a few moments alone.
Greg Hicks clasped his hands in front of him and physically wilted from the strident, confident man he had so far presented, as his Claudius bemoaned the rankness of his offence.
Hamlet walked across the back and glanced sideways when he spied the king. He took a foil and approached the kneeling figure. Pointing the foil directly at Claudius’ head, Hamlet considered striking him before realising that this would be “hire and salary, not revenge”. He brought the foil close to his chest before vowing to kill Claudius at a more opportune time.
Polonius hid behind the half-drawn curtain on the raised stage as Gertrude prepared to receive her son (3.4). Hamlet appeared with a bouquet of flowers. His mother sat on the sofa (brought down from the Mousetrap stage during the post-performance chaos) roughly stage left. Hamlet positioned himself on the bench stage right to ask “what’s the matter?”
Their bitter exchange riled Hamlet into something approaching anger. Responding to Gertrude’s threat “I’ll set those to you that can speak”, Hamlet took a sword from the wall and pointed it at Gertrude, prompting her fearful cries. This caused Polonius to shout for help and Hamlet responded rapidly by dashing towards him. Hamlet tore the curtain down on top of the unseen figure and stuck his sword straight through his bulk. The curtain was unwrapped to show the dead Polonius sat in a chair.
Approaching his mother again, Hamlet took the recently snapped Polaroid of Claudius and a photo of his father from his pocket to show her this “counterfeit presentment of two brothers”.
Hamlet tore off the sheet covering the sofa when complaining of Gertrude living “in the rank sweat of an enseamed bed”, the item serving as a convenient approximation to bed sheets.
Hamlet was transformed and transfixed when his father’s Ghost appeared again upstage left, which perhaps helped him to be kinder to his mother, hugging her as he tried to convince her to cool her affection for Claudius.
When he was finished with Gertrude, Hamlet dragged Polonius out of the chair and sideways off the raised stage.
Gertrude was still crouched face down and sobbing when Claudius entered, giving real meaning to his “There’s matter in these sighs, these profound heaves” (4.1). Claudius again interpreted news of Hamlet’s rash actions as a direct threat to him. He sent Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to find his son.
There followed a brilliantly inventive, exceedingly funny and wonderfully intuitive piece of staging.
Hamlet entered through the raised stage and descended the steps to the sofa carrying a mug of tea with the bag string draped over the lip. He sat and played with the teabag string before announcing “Safely stowed” with a self-satisfied exhalation (4.2).
Looking back at this sequence, it seemed perfectly logical that after carrying a heavy lifeless body a considerable distance around the castle, Hamlet would have needed a cuppa to unwind.
This state of relaxation informed his sarcastic answers to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s frantic questions about Polonius’ location. In the darkness it was difficult to see Polonius’ blood on his fencing suit.
He was particularly indignant at being “demanded of a sponge!” His semi-answer to their questions indicated that Polonius was “with the king”, as Hamlet indicated the King of heaven by pointing skyward. He insulted Claudius by describing him as a thing of nothing and then made his escape.
Hamlet was brought before Claudius, marching obediently but mockingly behind Guildenstern, all this still in the white fencing suit he had worn since his encounter with his father’s ghost.
He described the “convocation of worms” that were eating Polonius and outlined the fish/worm anecdote. However many times it is staged, Hamlet’s “He will stay till you come” never fails to be amusing, and this time was no exception.
At the very moment Claudius began to tell Hamlet that he was to be sent to England, Ophelia rushed silently into the room but was restrained and escorted out. But she had enough time to see Hamlet’s now fully-illuminated, blood-stained clothes. Her look of horror evidenced her realisation that Hamlet was responsible for her father’s death.
Hamlet’s response “For England!” saw him skip and twist the loose ends of his fencing suit in an imitation of Morris dancing.
Hamlet taunted Claudius by addressing him as his mother. He completed the explanation of his logic by kissing Claudius on the cheek, as he would his mother.
Claudius’ malevolent pronouncement of “the present death of Hamlet” was followed by the removal of the back wall of the raised stage to reveal a white backdrop with a single, distant tree in front of which the Norwegian army appeared (4.4).
The soldiers moved through this new upstage opening and began taking up the boards of the main stage platform to reveal dark soil underneath. Eventually a rough T shape remained with the fencing piste running the length of the stage still in place, but surrounded on all sides by dirt.
Hamlet appeared wearing a light-coloured suit for his journey and questioned the Norwegian Captain (Dave Fishley again) about his army’s mission. The “two thousand souls” line was given to the Captain.
Pondering this afterwards, Hamlet was inspired to act decisively after seeing such extensive preparations for a fight over nothing. But at the same time he displayed a hint of the quiet resignation that would characterise some of his subsequent statements.
Ophelia burst in on Gertrude and Horatio wearing a white wedding dress with a veil and clutching a bridal bouquet in front of her (4.5). She rushed excitedly to the top of the piste to ask “Where is the beauteous majesty of Denmark?”
This could be interpreted two ways. The wedding dress and her previously avowed love for Hamlet meant she could have been referring to the prince. But it was also possible that, as a bride waiting to be escorted to the altar, she was expecting to see her father perform that honour.
But the overriding impression was that this sequence, normally about Ophelia’s reaction to her father’s death, was here transformed into an expression of her thwarted but unabated passion for Hamlet.
She muttered “they’re not ready” as she looked at the overturned benches at the sides of the piste and set them upright. She handed her bouquet to Horatio and set out small bunches of flowers on the benches as if they were wedding guests, before reclaiming the bouquet once more. Looking up at the imagined altar, she crossed herself.
Claudius appeared and Ophelia hugged him warmly. She set off down the piste, her arm bowed out for her father to accompany her, as she sang ‘Tomorrow is St Valentine’s Day’. Once at the end, she knelt as if before the altar.
She held out her hand as if holding that of her groom and started the ‘By Gis and by Saint Charity’ song, speaking the girl’s part, then shuffled sideways and put her opposite hand out to sing the boy’s part. This was slightly incongruous as the song recounted how a lad had not fulfilled his promise to marry a maid he had bedded.
As the others commented in wonderment, Ophelia continued in a world of her own. She stood up straight and looked out into the audience as if still waiting for Hamlet to turn up, pronouncing a hopeful “We must be patient” before departing with more distracted remarks, throwing her bouquet over her shoulder. A sad-looking Gertrude picked up the bouquet and kept it.
Claudius told of the imminent arrival of Laertes from France. Just then a violent commotion could be heard outside, prompting Claudius to call for his guards. A loud noise of an outer door being broken open brought real tension, so that when Laertes and his soldiers burst in, a sense of danger existed that was not diminished by the men with guns being told to wait outside.
Laertes himself was not armed and did not direct any weapon against Claudius, but the presence of his supporters outside the door was a constant reminder that he was capable of forcing compliance with his angry demands.
Ophelia’s second appearance saw her still wearing her wedding dress and her obvious madness appalled Laertes. Ophelia hugged her brother saying “Fare you well my dove”.
After encouraging everyone to sing “a-down a-down”, she took a foil from the wall and pointed it at Claudius, causing him some momentary fear, until she dropped the sword’s point to the ground and walked in a circle trailing it behind her.
Returning to where she had started, she briefly held the sword upright close in front of her as if beginning a fencing bout. She then removed the guard from the blade tip and clasped her other hand round its now bare point, cutting into her palm until it was smeared with her blood.
She took her bloodied hand and began to daub lines of blood on people’s foreheads, proclaiming each daub to be a flower.
This staging really tore up the rule book on how to portray Ophelia. The complete reimagining of the character at this point was exhilarating to behold.
She smeared Claudius’ face, describing the mark as rue. He had to wear his with a difference, so she made an additional red mark that differentiated him from the others.
Ophelia spoke her final song rather than singing it and left the assembled company stunned, an opportunity that Claudius seized on to further assuage Laertes.
A woman messenger brought a letter from Hamlet to Horatio, which he read aloud before setting off to prepare for Hamlet’s unexpected arrival (4.6).
Claudius showed himself to be a practised liar when he told Laertes that Hamlet’s popularity was the reason he had not put him on trial for Polonius’ murder (4.7).
The calm that the success of this lie produced in Claudius was short-lived as a letter arrived from Hamlet in which he informed the king he was returning. Claudius exclaimed “From Hamlet!” with utter incredulity.
Working together and thinking quickly, the pair hit upon their twin-track plan to murder Hamlet. Claudius walked up and down as he fretted about a backup plan should the envenomed sword not work, eventually hitting on the poisoned chalice.
Gertrude interrupted them, obliging Claudius to stow Hamlet’s letter hastily away in his inside jacket pocket. Claudius’ “How now, sweet queen!” was said with hasty embarrassment and fear that their plan might be discovered.
Gertrude’s poetic description of Ophelia’s death, which realistically no one could have witnessed in such lengthy detail without coming to assistance, enraged Laertes further to Claudius’ benefit.
After discussing the forthcoming burial and joking around, the two gravediggers, the younger a female (Rosie Hilal), set about their work (5.1). The older one (David Fielder again) used a spade to shift earth at the downstage foot of the piste, uncovering skulls as Hamlet and Horatio appeared in silhouette at the back of the stage as if coming from a great distance.
Hamlet saw the first skull and commented briefly on it (lawyerly references omitted) before sitting cosy by the Gravedigger, engaging him in conversation and a battle of wits. He seemed impressed by the man’s punctilious precision. The joke about Hamlet’s madness not being noticed in England was well-received.
The production was taking a well-earned comic breather before the final onslaught.
Hamlet took Yorick’s skull and its jawbone fell to the ground, prompting his remark that it was “quite chapfallen”. He handed it to an audience member at the front of the stalls, telling them to take it to “my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come”. This had the effect of underscoring the humour in his remark, rather than its tragic bite.
Hamlet’s mind wandered onto his consideration of how Alexander might have been turned into a bung in a beer barrel, after which the funeral procession appeared in silhouette through the rear entrance, causing Hamlet and Horatio to move to the stage right side to observe.
Laertes bitterness showed in his scorn of the Priest (John Stahl) who had not given Ophelia the full ceremony. His reference to his sister told Hamlet that the funeral was that of Ophelia.
Ophelia, still in her white gown, was laid in a shallow recess in the soil at the foot of the piste, but remained visible to the audience. Gertrude stood over her to spread “sweets to the sweet”, placing on Ophelia’s grave the bouquet that she had discarded in her madness. This symbolically linked the marriage Gertrude had hoped to see between Ophelia and her son with the present funeral.
Laertes stepped down and lifted Ophelia up to embrace her lifeless form, barking out his instructions to bury him beside her under mountains of soil.
Hamlet came forward and tussled with Laertes on the piste, mocking his actions by tossing soil over himself, before storming off.
Ophelia remained in full view laid out in her grave throughout the remainder of the performance.
Hamlet recounted the full story of his escape to Horatio (5.2). He was quite relaxed and enjoyed discussing Claudius’ failed attempt to have him killed, which could be seen from his nonchalant description of the overblown language in the commission given to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and in his dismissal of his former friends “They are not near my conscience”.
Osric (Michael Grady-Hall) was a picture in his schoolboyish cap and blazer, which bore a miniature Danish flag on the breast pocket. Hamlet enjoyed making him take his cap off and then put it on again.
All was jollity until Osric mentioned that Hamlet had to “vouchsafe the answer” to the king’s wager. Hamlet’s mood seemed to change. He replied “How if I answer ‘no’?” with a muted earnestness that was completely unlike his previous quips at Osric’s expense.
Hamlet agreed to the wager and the seriousness he had lurched into with his question to Osric now informed his quiet resignation in the face of his fate.
The stage was swept in preparation for the fencing bout. Hamlet and Laertes met and were reconciled.
Hamlet had to change into a proper fencing suit, which he did in full view of everyone. The king brought a fencing mask for Hamlet. When he clapped eyes on it, the movements of everyone else on stage slowed down to emphasise the specialness of the moment: Hamlet realised that the mask was the one that his father had given to him. Once he had taken the mask, the action speeded up again to normal pace.
Laertes took one sword and pronounced it too light. Claudius took the poisoned and unbated one from the wall, which was then passed to Laertes.
Claudius stood to their left with the wine, while Gertrude was positioned to the right. They fenced up and down the piste, which had been visible since the start of the performance.
Hamlet scored his first point prompting Claudius to put the pearl into the glass, which he had to set aside when Hamlet refused it. Gertrude approached Hamlet to wipe his brow and then took the poisoned glass and drank from it despite Claudius’ protestations.
After the third pass Laertes charged at Hamlet cutting him under the right arm with the envenomed blade, causing Hamlet to drop his own foil. Osric wrestled Laertes’ sword from him, which Hamlet then snatched from Osric. Laertes and Hamlet wrestled over the sword and Laertes eventually cut his hand on the blade, thereby poisoning himself.
The queen fell to the ground and announced she had been poisoned, upon which the guards secured the doors.
The stricken Laertes collapsed in agony, blaming everything on the king. Claudius, discovering the doors locked, backed himself against the stage right side wall in terror. Hamlet approached Claudius and cut him behind the ear with the poisoned sword.
Hamlet dragged Claudius up onto the raised stage and, handing him the poisoned cup, demanded that he drink it off. Claudius paused, looked down at Hamlet, who had squatted on the ground in front of the stage, and complied.
Hamlet began to clap Claudius slowly as if this were some kind of grotesque performance. This was a direct echo of Claudius’ initial bullying of Hamlet to accept a drink and join in the wedding festivities. Claudius collapsed in pain and died too. He was soon followed by Laertes.
The presence of the dead Ophelia at the foot of the piste meant that each successive dead body was effectively adding to a formation of onstage bodies that had begun with her.
Hamlet took the royal crown from Claudius and placed it on his own head. He began to convulse as the potent poison gripped him. He slumped to the ground, but still had some strength left to prevent Horatio for drinking from the cup, which he had taken from the table.
Horatio saw the approach of Fortinbras, which prompted Hamlet to rise, remove the crown from his head and give his support to the Norwegian. He stood as he exclaimed “He has my dying voice. The rest is silence”.
He staggered down the piste. When he reached the end, he glimpsed Ophelia and a brief flash of joy traced across his face before he buckled and fell dead.
This raised the interesting possibility that he might have died before he set off down the piste and saw Ophelia. His final walk was one after death in which he had the privilege of glimpsing his love, who would have been theatrically absent to everyone else as the fencing piste and Ophelia’s grave were naturalistically two distant locations. Or alternatively, his glimpse of Ophelia could have been a fevered vision in his mind that occurred as he was dying. Either way, in performance it was incredibly powerful.
Alarm bells rang and the sprinkler system dousing the entire stage in water as Fortinbras (Chris Jared) appeared dramatically in semi-silhouette on the raised stage after which the stage went dark and the performance ended.
The production focused on the characters of Hamlet and Ophelia rather than foregrounding the play’s treatment of philosophical issues. Nor was this a production aching with relevance to contemporary society.
This was evidenced by the fact that “2B” became a performance that Hamlet staged for Ophelia rather than a genuine expression of his sentiment. It thereby mockingly subverted that soliloquy’s iconic status.
Some Hamlets examine the here and now. This one looked modern, very much in the “now”, but its ostensible Danish setting prevented it from commenting on the “here”. The costumes referenced the current fashion for Nordic Noir television, cleverly avoiding obvious and very specific Faroese pullovers in favour of “lopapeysa” garments with an Icelandic yoke pattern.
With nothing much to say about the human condition, the production became a portrait of one man’s condition, Jonathan Slinger’s Hamlet.
His sheer emotionality was astonishing, making him much more than a simple vehicle for philosophical or political debate. He demonstrated a remarkable degree of passion, an appealing trait evidenced by his tactility and tone of voice.
But the production also deliberately rewrote the rulebook on how to present Ophelia, gleefully rejuvenating her character and breaching the dull limits of her standard depiction.
She popped up where not expected: having a visible tryst with her lover Hamlet, causing her father to lose train of thought and trying to speak to Hamlet before he was sent to England.
Our current understanding of insanity is different to that which framed the conception of Ophelia’s specifically female madness in the original text. With astounding boldness, the production completely updated the concept to include cutting and self harm.
As well as mourning her father, this Ophelia was insane with the desire to be married to Hamlet. The flowers she had gathered were carefully positioned like wedding guests. Instead of handing them out, as in the standard staging, she cut herself with a large blade and then smeared her own blood on people’s faces while talking of floral symbolism.
All in all, this was a production that generated lots of happiness…
A Life of Galileo, Swan Theatre Stratford, 16 March 2013
Galileo’s whiteboard, laser pointer and adjustable desk lamp stood before a back wall composed of an oversized sheet of bright blue graph paper. Dot matrix signboards indicated the date and location of scenes. Clerks brandished voice recorders.
Thanks to these visual cues and the infectious enthusiasm with which Galileo (Ian McDiarmid) pursued his seventeenth century battle with authority, the production succeeded in transforming historical events into an incredibly modern-feeling escapade.
At the centre stood the fun-loving scientist whose earthy appetites and effervescent joy in his work made him an appealing figure. A tangible excitement spilled off the stage when he told a companion that he had discovered what constituted the Milky Way, an excitement capable of inspiring the audience to sally forth and find new worlds of their own.
The scene in which the young Cosimo de Medici (Chris Lew Kum Hoi), circling the stage on a spangly kick scooter, was presented with an opportunity to view the stars named in his honour, brought out the comic stupidity of the established academic order.
Asked to view the stars (the moons of Jupiter) through the telescope, the doubters could only dispute whether the alleged objects orbiting Jupiter were really necessary. When urged to use their eyes, the response was that they could use them to read the thoughts of Aristotle, a long-dead Greek whose untested ideas dominated official astronomy.
The flip side to this light-heartedness was the way in which a firm contrast was drawn between Galileo’s trust in the people and their ability to discern right from wrong, and the opposing viewpoint, in which cynicism about ordinary people’s collective intellect became a justification for political conservatism. If people are basically ignorant cattle, then they require herding and paternal government by their betters.
There were two fine and chillingly complementary performances by Martin Turner, first as Galileo’s friend Sagredo, who warned him about the threat of the Inquisition, and then as the Cardinal Inquisitor himself.
But there was always something relentlessly upbeat about Galileo so that his sly appropriation of the Dutch telescope as his own invention was something to smile at rather than a fatal error that would eventually undermine his reputation.
This production added comedy by making the university rector into a woman (Nia Gwynne) with a giddy crush on Galileo when he was popular, but who hid herself behind a clipboard and hurried away from him once he had fallen foul of the authorities.
The Old Cardinal (Patrick Romer) who insisted that the earth he stood on did not move, stamped his feet as he walked, shifting into a distinctive fascistic goose step, while behind him Christopher Clavius (Paul Hamilton) was in the process of verifying the truth of Galileo’s observations.
For some reason the translation prepared by Mark Ravenhill from a literal translation by Deborah Gearing removed perhaps the funniest joke in the play. During the Medici Stars scene, someone remarked that the new telescope allows people to see all the hairs on the great bear, to which lens grinder Federzoni, here a donkey-jacketed working man (Paul Hamilton again), usually quips back “and all sorts of things on the bull!” But this remark was puzzlingly (pizzlingly?) absent.
And this being the RSC, it was difficult not to notice that the text contained an illusion to the world being a stage on which ordinary people were actors, as well as Galileo’s rhetorical statement “That is the question”.
Galileo’s insistence that no one could watch a stone fall to the ground and say it had fallen upwards had its impact greatly increased by having Galileo sat on top of a tall ladder tower, enabling him to drop the stone from a great height onto the ground, rather than letting it fall a few feet from his side, as the moment is often staged.
It was only by the interval when his daughter Virginia (Jodie McNee) interrupted his sun spot experiments wearing her wedding dress to complain that her fiancé, disturbed by Galileo’s continuing defiant enquiries, had left her, that there was a real sense of events taking a turn for the worse. Galileo’s response to the implosion of his daughter’s happiness was a blunt reference back to his ongoing work “I must know the truth”.
The Inquisition took Galileo into its grasp, forcing his recantation of his Copernican theories and confining him to a life of guarded seclusion. Galileo might have acted old and infirm, but the memories of his former activism were too firmly entrenched and too intrinsically appealing for his defeat to seem real.
This meant that the hopeful ending, in which his friend Andrea (Matthew Aubrey) smuggled a copy of his latest work out of the country to spark flames of research elsewhere, felt unnecessary because Galileo had been surrounded all along by the kind of modern technology made possible by his model of science.
His ultimate victory had been hidden in plain sight all along.
Richard III, Tobacco Factory Bristol, 15 March 2013
John Mackay’s Richard bounded into the centre of the space without the customary dimming of the lights that usually heralds the start of a Tobacco Factory performance (1.1). Keeping the lights bright across the space reinforced the bond of complicity inherent in Richard’s opening address to the audience.
The bright illumination showed us the full detail of his tall lean frame and short white hair. This Richard was reminiscent of a gangling vulture whose height enabled him to glance down at his victims from the perspective of a bird of prey in flight.
His manner was not angry or insane, but energetic. The energy that burst out of him underpinned Richard’s desire to have a “world to bustle in”.
Such was the pleasure this Richard took in his machinations that Andrew Hilton loaned him a perfectly apt line from 3 Henry 6: “I can smile and murder whiles I smile”. This was a perfect summary of Richard Mackay’s characterisation. His Richard was sane but brutal. Feverish madness would have been superfluous, even an indication of weakness.
With insanity underplayed, deformity also took a back seat: a slight limp and a twist of his thin arm were the only indications of physical defect.
While taking us into his confidence, Richard pointed offstage to the unseen “son of York” whom he also gestured at when referring to “this fair proportion”.
The iron columns of the performance space had been faced with wood with seat ledges at the bottom, so that they resembled thin versions of Globe columns. Near the top of each column, arms were hung up for monuments, which Richard tapped when referring to the peacetime redundancy of these instruments of war.
Richard crooked his finger into a G to illustrate the ominous letter that had earned Clarence his imprisonment. Clarence (Rupert Holliday Evans) was brought in under guard. It was possible at this point to register that the production was using period costume.
The intimacy of the Tobacco Factory space promoted identification and sympathy with Richard. He came across as comical and our confidant. This enhanced the text’s attempt to make Richard familiar to us.
His yellow stockings were faintly reminiscent of Malvolio, perhaps influencing our view of him. There was also an element of comedy in his occasional wide-eyed, uncomprehending looks.
Richard responded to Brakenbury’s (Jack Bannell) intervention with light-hearted sarcasm, which made the audience laugh. His ribald remark about Mistress Shore “He that doth naught with her” was accompanied by an illustrative hip thrust stressing the “naught”.
Henry VI’s body was carried in on a pallet accompanied by Dorothea Myer-Bennett’s Lady Anne (1.2). Richard appeared at a corner entrance located at the top of the raked seating so that he looked down onto the main space.
When stopping the cortege, he made a firm, insistent threat. He did not splutter with rage, but spoke in the manner of someone who expected to be obeyed, deploying only that degree of menace required to secure obedience.
Anne pulled back the shroud to reveal a real actor’s body (Andrew Macbean) with fake bleeding wounds. The fact that the corpse was obviously a real person made the reveal very effective, particularly at such close range.
Richard and Anne knelt either side of the body for their fractious dispute.
They eventually moved aside and Anne was shocked by Richard’s assertion that he was fit for her bedchamber. This audacious effrontery threw her off balance and for a flickering instant she dropped her furious defences and considered his offer. The seed of the idea had been sown. It said something for the detail of the performance that this brief flash could come across to the audience.
Anne spat at Richard, but instantly regretted it, as if she were ashamed of reacting excessively. This was another weakness that Richard could exploit.
Richard launched into a long, overwrought speech about the effect of her beauty on him. He finally knelt, offering his sword to Anne and demanding that she strike him if she could not forgive his crimes. Anne could only hold the sword limply before letting it fall.
Richard moved in really close and kissed her neck. He offered Anne his ring to wear, which she took nervously. Despite her collapsed defences, her departing words “Imagine I have said farewell already” were spoken as she turned her back and walked briskly away from Richard, which indicated that she was at this point very much in two minds about his proposal.
“Was ever woman in this humour wooed?” saw Richard pick up his conversation with us again, as if the preceding sequence had been a demonstration of the principle he wished to elucidate.
Queen Elizabeth (Lisa Kay) furrowed her brow as she and her brothers fretted over the king’s poor health (1.3). The small stage was already quite full when Richard entered and this enhanced the impression that he was encroaching on, and then confined within, territory already dominated by his fierce opponents.
When he first entered, Richard adopted his characteristic limp and twist of the arm but then relaxed out of it. This initial display served as a reminder of his personality and was therefore not required throughout an entire scene. The point about his deformity was made and then attention was focussed on his complaints that the Queen and her faction were conspiring against him.
The role of Margaret was entirely absent from the production, so the text in this scene was cut from her first speech after coming forward, up to when Catesby (Joe Hall) brought the king’s summons to those assembled.
After another of Richard’s fireside chats with the audience about his “secret mischiefs”, he conversed with the excellently menacing murderers (Marc Geoffrey and Chris Donnelly).
Clarence sat on a mattress watched over by his jailer, who perched on a chair beside a plate of food (1.4). Clarence’s description of his fevered dream gained from being delivered in such a small space. Although not cramped, the Tobacco Factory performance area proved a more convincing cell than other larger stages.
Brakenbury handed over Clarence to his murderers with brusque resignation. The knockabout comedy of the murderers’ pre-planning woke Clarence, who defended himself eloquently, confidently noting that the murderers could scarcely utter their intention.
The scene took a novel twist when the murderers countered Clarence’s invocation of God’s vengeance on their planned crime by holding a dagger menacingly to his neck, pinning him against a pillar, as they enumerated the crimes for which Clarence could also expect such divine retribution.
Clarence was stabbed and then dragged backwards offstage.
King Edward (Christopher Bianchi) sat on an ornate chair (2.1). His sickness was indicated by his general pallor, the tremor in his voice and a slight, febrile shaking of the hands as he urged the factions to reconcile.
Hastings (Alan Coveney) in particular seemed not to be taking this insincere kissing of cheeks at all seriously, an attitude he would also demonstrate later in his airy dismissal of Stanley’s warnings about Richard.
Richard calmly announced that, contrary to the king’s expectations, Clarence had been killed. He seemed to enjoy springing this trap, relishing his awareness of his superior tactical skill. He was a professional in a world of amateurs.
Stanley (David Collins) requested mercy for his servant, which prompted strong feelings of self-loathing in Edward for having condemned Clarence to death. He rose from his chair as he fulminated against his own folly and then collapsed in a fit. Everyone left to accompany the sick king, as Richard, gaining another tactical victory, blamed the entire affair on the queen.
Clarence’s children were not included in 2.2, so their section was cut entirely, apart from lines 27-30 where the Duchess of York (Nicky Goldie) stood alone, leaning heavily on her walking stick, as she railed against the “deep deceit” and “vice” of her son.
Elizabeth re-entered in deep distress at the king’s death, again with the children’s reactions cut.
The Duchess was a sufficiently imposing figure to compensate for the absence of Margaret. She was certainly the only real match for Richard, who was visibly put out to discover her present.
He knelt before her and she delivered her blessing leant directly over him, making her a physically as well as morally dominating figure.
Buckingham (Paul Currier) tried to cheer everyone up by invoking the glowing future promised by Edward’s heir, following this with a convincing argument for the princes’ escort to be few in number.
He proved himself to be skilled at insincere rhetoric. The self-consciously dramatic performance of these words must have given Richard the idea that Buckingham would make a good tragedian in his subsequent ploy against the Mayor of London.
The scene ended with their chillingly unspecific plot to separate the princes from their reduced escort.
The brief recap scene (2.3) in which various Citizens (including Dorothea Myer-Bennett) discussed the future of the kingdom was followed by the scene in which the Prince of York (Luke Zollman Thomas) was fussed over by his mother and grandam (2.4). Responding to the news of the detention of Rivers (John Sandeman) and Grey (Piers Wehner), the queen made preparations for York to be escorted to safety.
Richard was no less patronising to the young Prince Edward (Olly Bell) than he was to the adults (3.1). Buckingham was dismissive of objections to breaking the sanctuary taken by the young Prince of York.
Prince Edward’s dislike of the Tower and his intelligent questions about its history were excellently done by the boy actor, so that Richard’s implied threat “So wise so young, they say, do never live long”, delivered as an aside to the audience, was particularly galling.
York was reunited with Edward and told Richard that his brother had outgrown him. Richard crouched down to York’s level and glanced across at Edward to confirm “He hath, my lord”. This was typical of the light-hearted banter with which Richard disguised his murderous designs.
Richard sounded out Catesby’s opinions on the pliability of Hastings and Stanley.
Buckingham’s question about the fate of Hastings should he not prove an ally, prompted Richard’s “Chop off his head, something we will determine”. This was said quickly as if not wanting to make it funny, but the audience seized on it anyway.
Presumably due to his good mood, Richard offered Buckingham the dukedom of Hereford.
In a nice touch, Mistress Shore (stage manager Polly Meech), clutching a sheet to her body, accompanied Hastings to the door as he received Stanley’s messenger, who had come warn him of Richard’s ambitions (3.2). Hastings dismissed the report of Stanley’s dream about being pursued by a boar, Richard’s symbol.
Catesby found Hastings defiantly opposed to Richard’s rule. Hastings was clearly fearless of Richard, because when Stanley then appeared in person, Hastings taunted him sarcastically about his portentous dream, asking him why he carried no boar-spear. This was a continuation of his happy-go-lucky attitude to the reconciliations forced on him earlier by King Edward.
The Pursuivant was cut, but the Priest (Peter Clifford) was kept.
A brief scene showed Rivers and Grey being escorted across the end of the performance space (3.3). They paused to rue their fate and then continued along the back and out the other side.
The council table and chairs were placed across the diagonal of the performance area (3.4).
When he turned up, Richard did not skulk like an outsider but was actually glad to see the others, another sign of his growing confidence. Hearing of Hastings’ resistance, and after disappearing briefly with Buckingham, Richard re-entered and sat at the end of the council table, pulling his chair in several times until he was wedged under it as tightly as possible.
Richard leant forward conspiratorially and the others followed suit to form a tight group over the table surface. He produced his sickly arm and laid it flat on the table for general inspection, alleging that the queen’s sorcery had withered it.
Richard seized on Hastings’ doubtful “if”, not in anger but like someone unemotionally springing a trap. He displayed no more madness than a hungry creature seizing on its prey. His order for Hastings’ beheading was likewise short and swift.
As Richard swept out of the room, Hastings was left stunned and stared straight ahead as the full significance of events caught up with him.
Richard and Buckingham prepared to dupe the Mayor of London (3.5). Having seen previous examples of Buckingham’s acting ability, Richard was optimistically playful when asking him whether he could “Murder thy breath in middle of a word”. Hastings head was brought to Richard before its scripted appearance and some invented lines had Richard look inside the bag and declare “Hello Hastings!” before the arrival of the Mayor (Rupert Holliday Evans).
When the bag containing Hastings’ head was shown to him in front of the Mayor, Richard acted distraught and sobbed “I must weep…” in an hypocritical display that was the complete opposite of his flippant attitude in the earlier invented sequence.
The Mayor had a cockney accent, which was a nice piece of reverse regional characterisation from this Bristol company. Needless to say the Mayor was completely taken in by the conspirators’ pantomime.
Richard said he would isolate the princes from their guardians in a speech supplemented by a key passage from 3 Henry VI: “I can smile, and murder whiles I smile”. Andrew Hilton could obviously not resist importing this line, because it was a perfect summary of Mackay’s characterisation, which, instead of suggesting some exculpatory infirmity of mind, emphasised the real pleasure Richard took in his actions.
At this point the interval came. There was no scene 3.6 with the Scrivener, which meant that the second half began with 3.7.
Buckingham reported back to Richard that the citizens of London had been unmoved by his appeals. His blunt “They spake not a word” amused the interval-refreshed audience. In addition, he lapsed into a London accent to parody the Mayor’s explanation that “the people were used not to be spoke to but by the Recorder”.
Catesby and Buckingham made a good job of preparing the Mayor for Richard’s dramatic appearance in the high corner entrance. Richard, with two bishops at his side, read out loud from a prayer book, apparently oblivious to the assembled company.
Buckingham was excellent in his furious insistence that if Richard would not rule the country then nor would Edward’s illegitimate offspring.
Richard on the other hand was not overly melodramatic. His “Will you enforce me to a world of cares?”, said just before his final acceptance of the crown, was underplayed and not milked for its comic potential.
The Duchess, Elizabeth and Anne met outside the Tower (4.1). They were refused entry, a setback that was followed by more bad news brought by Stanley. He told Anne that she was to be crowned Richard’s queen. The role of Dorset was cut and for a strange reason the Duchess’ age was changed from the text’s 80 to a more historically accurate 70.
The coronation scene displayed some great directorial flair (4.2). The entire court gathered before the throne and knelt. The queen appeared in her new crown and took her place at the front of the obeisant assembly. Richard, now in a regal doublet and with a crown composed of black toothed spikes like an open gin trap, sat in this throne, paused, then impatiently rose and spoke with Buckingham whom he plucked out of the crowd.
The entire exchange, including the disposal of Anne, was conducted with the court still kneeling in attendance on Richard. The king lost his patience with the cold Buckingham. Catesby’s aside about the Richard gnawing his lip was cut to make this an isolated, two-handed exchange with the court still reverently on its knees.
Richard ordered Catesby to spread rumours that Anne was sick as she continued to kneel a short distance away. Her lack of reaction was either her theatrical absence from earshot or a symptom of her resigned acceptance.
The murderer Tyrrel (Christopher Bianchi again) appeared at the high corner entrance and was dispatched to kill the princes.
Buckingham claimed the dukedom of Hereford from Richard, who studiously ignored him. The performance text at this point included only the second instance of Richard saying “I am not in the vein”.
Richard received the good news that the princes had been killed, inspiring him to pursue young Elizabeth, but he then became downcast when told that forces led by Richmond were massing against him.
With no Margaret in this production, 4.4 began with Queen Elizabeth’s weeping as she imagined the princes’ souls flying up into the air.
A general problem for this sequence was that tragedy and sadness seemed difficult to evoke in such a small space, as there was greater awareness of the actors beneath the characters and it proved more difficult to believe in their grief.
The absence of Margaret meant that the incantatory argument between the women was cut, and no lesson in cursing was given, which reduced the rhetorical power of the scene. The action cut straight from Margaret’s entrance to Richard’s appearance with drummers at the high corner entrance.
The Duchess, making up for Margaret’s absence, expressed an extremely forceful wish to have strangled Richard in her own womb. Matching her in emotion, Elizabeth shrieked “Where are my children?” in a particularly disturbing way.
The drums sounded briefly then fell silent to allow Richard to explain that he would “thus… drown your exclamations”. He was not really bothered by this challenge, a nonchalance reinforced by his high position relative to the women.
After hearing his mother’s final bitter words, Richard tried to persuade Elizabeth to gain her daughter’s consent to marry him. She, like Anne, had no texture to her anger. It was all on one high note, a slight weakness in the performance.
There was sarcasm in her suggestion that he should send her daughter, young Elizabeth, a “pair of bleeding hearts” engraved with the names of her dead brother princes. But Richard was confident in dealing with a woman he considered his inferior. There was no flicker of weakness that might have made him more interesting at this point. He was, if anything, too perfectly assured of himself.
The only hint of extreme emotion came when he threatened that without his proposed marriage to young Elizabeth the land would fall prey to “death, desolation, ruin and decay”.
But it was clear, even after he kissed her, that he would not be getting his own way. Perhaps Richard’s comical misogyny reinforced this impression.
The king made preparations for battle. He dispatched Catesby, turned round to address Ratcliffe, then after a while swivelled at the waist to look back at Catesby and ask him why he had not departed. This was the first indication of his increasing lack of attention.
Richard’s accusations of treachery against Stanley were mild and measured. He hit a messenger and then, realising he had been brought good news, gave the man his purse.
The mixture of favourable and unfavourable news meant that pressure was increasing on Richard, but he was not yet in inescapable peril.
After a brief scene in which we heard that Queen Elizabeth wanted Richmond to marry her daughter (4.5), we saw Buckingham being led off to the execution block (5.1).
Our first look at Richmond (Jack Bannell again) showed him to be a potent presence (5.2), which was a necessary counterbalance to Richard’s energy. In order to believe in Richmond’s eventual victory, he had to be at least as charismatic a figure as his opponent.
The strain began to show as Richard prepared for the battle at Bosworth (5.3). He became very impatient with the setting of his tent. The second time he gave the order “Up with the tent!” he shouted angrily.
The appearances by Richard and Richmond within the scene were rearranged so that there was no rapid swapping between them. The two split sequences for each character were united into one continuous sequence.
This meant that Richard fell asleep on his mattress at one corner of the space, accompanied by slumbering soldiers, their heads bowed, collected around three of the stage pillars. Richmond then made his preparations before going to sleep on his mattress in the opposite corner.
The dream sequence began as Richard awoke to find his legs and arms completely healthy. He examined their straightness and stood upright, a transformation that indicated that he was now in a dream world.
Then in a magical, masterful stroke, one of the soldiers raised his head, took off his cloak and showed himself to be the ghost of Henry VI, played by the same actor (Andrew Macbean) who had represented the dead king’s body on the pallet.
Other soldiers rose from their sleep, their faces lit in an eerie blue light, and revealed themselves to be Clarence, Rivers, Grey, Hastings, Anne (dressed in white) and Buckingham.
Possibly to prevent the boy actors from being up too late at night, The Duchess appeared in lieu of the princes, which to make sense only required one word to be changed: “Let us them be lead within thy bosom”.
The ghosts did not address any blessings to Richmond, who continued to slumber in the other corner.
Richard woke from his dream, but his lengthy reaction to it was too rushed and lacked depth. There was scope here for a more detailed examination of the twists in his conscience provoked by the visions of his victims.
Richmond awoke and mentioned that he had been visited by the ghosts and that they had urged him on to victory. This was a satisfactory treatment for those familiar with the play who could imagine the missing elements. But anyone seeing the play for the first time would have missed out on the alternation between the ghosts’ condemnations of Richard and their kind words for his opponent.
By this point the swords “hung up for monuments” had been taken down from the columns and were being deployed once again as weapons of war. Their retrieval became a neat indication of the decay of the state from peace to war.
Richmond addressed his soldiers in preparation for battle, but then Richard delivered his battle oration to us the audience, still considering us to be his confederates. Richard drooped his raised sword to the ground when he heard that Stanley and his men would not be joining him.
When we saw Richard looking lost, the famous “A horse, a horse…” was hastily delivered and not laboured over, suiting its status within the text rather than its theatrical fame, as Mackay tried not to emphasise the line (5.4).
The final fight saw Richmond, in a full suit of shiny armour and carrying a large, unwieldy halberd, swiping clumsily and ineffectually at Richard, who was armed only with a sword.
Richard deftly outmanoeuvred him and seemed set for an easy victory. But Richmond had assistance. One of his men cut Richard’s leg from behind causing him to stumble, enabling Richmond to stab him in the back. Richard lay with his feet and arms twitching in the air, as if his nervous system had gone into spasm from the blow to the spine.
There was a hint that the multiple injuries inflicted on Richard were an echo of the recent discovery of the real King Richard’s skeleton and the conclusions about the manner of his death drawn from the forensic analysis of his remains.
The bloody dog was dead, and the spiky crown was retrieved from Richard’s head by Stanley and presented to the victorious Richmond.
This was director Andrew Hilton’s second go at a Shakespeare history play. Shakespeare At The Tobacco Factory’s emerging style, hiring in a reasonably famous outsider for the lead role and surrounding him with the company’s regulars, proved an excellent model on which to base the story of an overreaching tragic figure like Richard, as the structure of the casting reflected the structure of the play.
The particular circumstances of the space and the company permitted John Mackay to deliver a very distinctive and consequently unforgettable Richard.
Macbeth, Trafalgar Studio 1, 23 February 2013
Jamie Lloyd set his production of Macbeth in a future Scotland ruined by civil war and social breakdown brought about by cataclysmic climate change.
The problem with a power struggle set in a ruined dystopia is that it is essentially a fight over nothing. This Macbeth overthrew Duncan and became king of little more than a dwindling stock of tinned food. The outcome did not matter.
This goes contrary to the play where insurrections against Duncan’s rule are being extinguished just at it begins, meaning that Macbeth’s own insurrection violates the ensuing peace. He helps to restore order and then becomes the principal agent of a truly chaotic disorder that flows not from any external source but purely from his own temperament.
The setting of this production shaped the portrayal of the principal characters. This, together with the relative inexperience of James McAvoy and Claire Foy in Shakespearean acting, meant that the result was unengaging at a dramatic level, however visually striking the staging.
The set was the dark inside of a ruined building with a wash basin downstage, scattered furniture, and a toilet bowl in an alcove. The sound of dripping water signalled the dystopian context.
After an initial sequence involving some soldiers in battle, the witches (Allison McKenzie, Lisa Gardner and Olivia Morgan) gathered in their combat overalls and face masks (1.1). They underlit their own faces with lamps to eerie effect. Not surprisingly the references to Graymalkin and the paddock were cut as the witches lit red smoke flares to create the “fog and filthy air”.
The lights dimmed and a sound like thunder sounded to mark the scene changes.
Duncan (Hugh Ross) questioned the bloodied Captain (Olivia Morgan again) about the course of battle (1.2). When Duncan asked if events had dismayed Macbeth and Banquo, she relished the trick of at first answering “Yes” and then adding the qualification “as sparrows eagles, or the hare the lion”.
Duncan was elderly and surprisingly spoke with a decidedly English accent, almost Home Counties RP, which sat awkwardly with the pronounced Scottishness of the other characters.
The witches appeared briefly and announced Macbeth’s arrival but without the following “weird sisters, hand in hand” lines (1.3). Because of her face mask, one of the witches’ words were blurred and indistinct.
Macbeth’s entry was an event in itself. James McAvoy ran onstage holding a machete in one hand and an axe in the other, his face and clothes soaked in blood. With hindsight, this bloody first appearance was a mistake. Fresh from battle and completely psyched-up by hand-to-hand combat, he growled in the face of a front row audience member, before returning upstage, banging his instruments of death on the ground.
The witches confronted Macbeth and Banquo (Forbes Masson) with their face masks neatly interpreted by Banquo as beards. They delivered their prophecies, but when Macbeth tried to question them more, the lights flickered and they disappeared.
It seemed incongruous that this warlike, aggressive Macbeth would in effect hide behind Banquo and let him do most of the work challenging these interlopers. His quiescence here suggested that the text did not justify the director’s initial portrayal of Macbeth.
Ross (Richard Hansell) and Angus (Callum O’Neill) were immediately seized upon, and Ross had to deliver his news with a machete held to his neck, such was the paranoia of the embattled comrades.
Macbeth’s contemplation of his “thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical” indicated the direction his mind was taking.
Duncan greeted Banquo and Macbeth; the latter made a jocular entrance by being brought in hooded like a prisoner before his true identity was revealed (1.4).
Despite Duncan’s affability, Banquo seemed nervous when addressing him. His “There if I grow, the harvest is your own” was said haltingly with a side-glance at Macbeth. Perhaps this was Banquo’s awareness of talking about “growth” in Macbeth’s presence, given the significance of the witches’ prophecies.
After Duncan bestowed his estate on Malcolm (Mark Quartley) the stage cleared for Macbeth to speak of his “black and deep desires” in soliloquy rather than as an aside.
Lady Macbeth read Macbeth’s letter out loud (1.5). It became apparent early on that Claire Foy was not an effective Lady Macbeth. As with many inexperienced Shakespearean actresses, there was a shallow brittleness to her portrayal of a character that demands power and depth.
She snapped at the messenger who brought news of the King’s arrival. Left alone once more she paused at length and then turned towards the door through which the messenger had just left to deliver her “unsex me here” speech.
Macbeth burst in upon her with characteristic vigour. Walking was never rapid enough for him. Their initial meeting and its hugs cemented their firm intention to murder Duncan.
A scene change saw Lady Macbeth grab a duster and spray an air freshener round her head as Duncan’s party entered. This made an unnecessarily silly joke out of Duncan’s initial comment about the castle having “a pleasant air”. It was as if the director were poking fun at the ridiculous way Shakespeare’s text refused to accord with his vision of the play.
Lady Macbeth was discovered lounging on the ground, which seemed unlikely given that the set indicated their residence to be a ruin too. As the royal party made themselves at home, the soldiers started ripping the ring pulls from cans of beer. The resulting spray accompanied their cheers as the hospitality flowed.
The toilet bowl was dragged from the alcove to centre stage just before Macbeth, again running at full pelt, rushed in from stage right and threw up into it (1.7). The vomiting indicated the nervousness underlying his desire that Duncan’s murder were best “done quickly”.
Here as elsewhere, there was no sense that Macbeth was a potentially noble man on a descent path. Rather than marking a new departure, he seemed to be acting in complete consistency with his previous self.
He directed much of his speech in the direction of the room he had just left. There was a long pause before he announced that only “vaulting ambition” spurred him on. But this Macbeth was so much the action hero that any sign of introspection seemed extraneous.
When he told Lady Macbeth that they would “proceed no further in this business”, she responded with hectoring sarcasm. As he listened to her accusations of cowardice, he brought his fingers to his lips trying to shush her before finally snapping “Prithee, peace”.
As Lady Macbeth swore to dash out her own baby’s brains, her husband tenderly caressed her stomach, a faint reference to McAvoy’s statement in an interview that the Macbeths’ childlessness was significant.
Her courage and constancy seemed to assuage Macbeth. She outlined how she would get Duncan’s guards drunk, and he embraced her again, full of love for his warrior wife who should “bring forth men-children only”.
Fleance (Graeme Dalling) was a young man rather than a child, which became apparent when Banquo discovered him kissing a girl, so that his “How goes the night, boy?” was slightly comic (2.1).
Macbeth was patently lying when he said he had not thought about the weird sisters.
The vision of the invisible dagger sent Macbeth reeling across the stage onto the floor stage left. This was a very strong reaction and a very realistic one. He grasped at the invisible blade in midair centre stage.
It seemed to disappear from his view and he moved stage right where he caught sight of the blade again, reeling backwards once more. He summoned his courage and approached it as if it were a fearsome enemy. He questioned the vision, putting an interrogative uplift on “Thou marshall’st me the way that I was going?”
Convinced that the vision lacked substance, Macbeth bent anguished over a table to say “There’s no such thing”.
The bell rang and Macbeth walked slowly upstage through the stage seats to do his duty.
No sooner had he vanished from view than Lady Macbeth entered via the stage right door and slammed it behind her fresh from drugging the grooms (2.2)
Macbeth appeared with the daggers, his hands covered in blood. But because we had seen him much muckier than this before, the sight of him drenched in Duncan’s blood made no real impact. He was comparatively cleaner than on his first appearance, so that the transformation conveyed no real shock.
The only register of a change in Macbeth came from the way he stammered over the word “Amen”, a speech impediment that would extend later to his faltering over other words to signify his inner turmoil. From this point on he would also expel sharp bursts of breath as if forestalling a panic attack.
Macbeth washed his hands in the downstage basin as the knocking at the door began. Lady Macbeth returned with her hands bloodied, but again this had little impact given the overall atmosphere of dishevelment. Shed blood in Macbeth has greatest force when on pristine white clothes.
The female Porter (Lisa Gardner again) was loud and entertaining, particularly when she protractedly spat at the mention of an English tailor (2.3).
She described the effects of drink on men without any of the lewd priapic gestures that often accompany this sequence.
As Macbeth edged nervously into the room, Macduff (Jamie Ballard) asked him if the King were awake. His reply “Not yet” verged on the comic and drew titters from the audience, which would work well in a farce, but not in a tragedy.
Macbeth escorted Macduff towards the royal chamber and then sat glancing nervously in the same direction when talking to Lennox (Kevin Guthrie).
Macduff returned looking stunned, but his repeated “horror, horror, horror” was surprisingly unconvincing. What was supposed to be a look of terror conveyed only leaden immobility.
The bell was rung in the form of a loud klaxon, which meant that Lady Macbeth’s question about the “hideous trumpet” was barely audible.
Macbeth confessed to killing the grooms and Lady Macbeth fainted. In the general confusion it was understandable that no one questioned Macbeth’s version of events. Malcolm and Donalbain (Graeme Dalling again) fled to England and Ireland respectively.
The brief recap scene saw Hugh Ross appear again as the Doctor (Old Man) in a wheelchair (2.4). This was confusing because he was immediately identifiable beneath his hat and it seemed for a brief instant as if Duncan had merely been invalided.
Banquo stole from Macbeth’s food cupboard and filled his rucksack with tins as he announced that his friend “hast it now, King, Cawdor, Glamis, all” (3.1). Macbeth discovered Banquo in flagrante delicto and his outward friendliness was undercut by suspicious looks, culminating in a rifle through the rucksack to discover the loot.
It was already possible to see that Macbeth’s attitude to “our chief guest” was changing to Banquo’s great disadvantage.
Macbeth had to usher his wife out of the room before having the murderers summoned and delivering his “To be thus is nothing, but to be safely thus”.
For some strange reason “issue” was changed to “children”, the resulting “For Banquo’s children have I filed my mind” seemed an unnecessary change. The term “issue” in context is perfectly understandable, no less opaque than “filed my mind”. Though it is possible this was one of the errors that McAvoy admitted occasionally making.
The murderers (Allison McKenzie and Olivia Morgan again) wore whole head masks, one a horror head, the other a pig. The pig head mask was perhaps a nod to the scene in McAvoy’s Macbeth in Shakespeare Re-told in which he butchered a pig’s head “from the nave to the chops” in echo of the Captain’s description of him in 1.2.
Macbeth gave them his instructions with special emphasis on including Fleance in the slaughter.
Lady Macbeth interrupted Macbeth’s chain of thought telling him “’Tis safer to be that which we destroy than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy” rather than saying it to nobody (3.2).
His mind wracked with doubts, Macbeth seemed genuinely relieved when his wife assuaged his fears about Banquo and Fleance saying “But in them nature’s copy’s not eterne” before hinting as his plan to have them murdered.
The murderers set upon Banquo and Fleance, surprising them by emerging out of the dark (3.3). Fleance escaped and climbed to an area immediately above the stage where, safe and sound, he looked down upon the scene of carnage.
Because of the post-apocalyptic setting, the banquet prepared for Macbeth’s guests was a grim stew served from a large catering casserole on metal plates (3.4). Emboldened by his kingship, , Macbeth made a joke of sitting astride the table facing his wife when he said “here I’ll sit in the midst”. Although table manners were not that important in post-apocalyptic Scotland, this provoked puzzled disquiet from the guests as Macbeth looked over his shoulder at those sat further down the table, before he broke into ‘got you’ laughter and descended.
The murderer appeared to bring his mixed news, and the dinner guests turned away into the set’s alcoves to provide some non-naturalistic privacy.
Invited to take the seat at the other, downstage, end of the table, Macbeth gaped at it in fear and recoiled in the same way he had reacted on seeing the phantom dagger. As he stared at Banquo’s invisible ghost, he faced directly down the length of the table and out towards the audience.
He approached the empty seat and screamed at it as the guests rose to leave. Macbeth regained his calm and sat in the empty seat only for the bloodied Banquo to appear out of the trap downstage and move to the opposite end of the table to Macbeth provoking another round of outbursts. This time Macbeth climbed onto the table, as did Banquo, leading to a face-off between them as the guests scattered.
The Macbeths were left to themselves. Macbeth’s comment “blood will have blood” prompted a splattering of blood to fall from nowhere onto the table. This was odd because there was no telling whether it was supposed to be real or an extension of Macbeth’s vision seen only by him.
Their quiet conversation culminating in his “I am in blood stepped in so far…” gave us a brief flash of Macbeth’s reflective side, which was otherwise too often subsumed under his action man persona. After this quiet moment the interval came.
The Hecate scene (3.5) and expository/recap scene (3.6) were cut, as was the Hecate, bubbling cauldron introduction to 4.1.
The second half began with Macbeth, still sat round the dinner table, summoning the witches, asking them “What is it you do?” almost as if talking to himself and not expecting their response, “A deed without a name”, which emanated from below the stage as a whisper.
Once they popped out through the traps, he demanded answers from them. Macbeth ladled liquid into his mouth from the casserole and then convulsed so that the voices of the apparitions was his own altered voice. He took a new gulp for the second apparition.
This was a clever idea but one which looked clumsy, almost comical in performance, particularly when McAvoy had to question the apparitions and have a conversation with himself switching from normal to possessed.
Having been warned about Macduff as well as being comforted by his indestructibility and the impossibility of a wood moving, Macbeth needed to know whether Banquo’s children would ever rule. The witches told him not to seek this information, but Macbeth defiantly picked up the casserole, cast aside the ladle and drank the contents straight from its wide brim.
The eight kings appeared as figures in grey fatigues and gas masks, with the bloodied Banquo reappearing from upstage with his hands outstretched to the appalled Macbeth.
The witches vanished, and when Lennox entered Macbeth grabbed him and forced him down onto the table to ask him if he had seen them.
Hearing about Macduff’s flight to England, Macbeth vowed to kill the man’s family.
Lady Macduff (Allison McKenzie again) sat at one end of a long dining table while her son (Ryan Elliott) sat at the other (4.2). Ross stood as if newly-arrived, told her of her husband’s flight, and warned of the impending danger to her.
After Ross left there was a long pause before Lady Macduff announced to her son that his father was dead. Unfortunately the first-time boy actor playing her son was softly spoken and barely audible even from the third row. Nevertheless, the joking about the bad people outnumbering and overwhelming the good was still funny.
Forewarned of imminent danger, Lady Macduff hid her son in a cupboard under the table.
The murderers burst in, and the first among them was Macbeth himself. This was perfectly consistent with his previous first-person formulations beginning “The castle of Macduff I will surprise…”
Macbeth cooly sat and watched as his two accomplices laid Lady Macduff out on the table and garrotted her with a length of rope, resulting in her protracted strangulation.
The business done, Macbeth was just about to close the door behind him to leave, when he turned back and addressed her dead body to say “He’s a traitor”. Young Macduff, still hidden inside the cupboard, rose to this affront and called out “Thou liest!”
Macbeth, still acting with complete calm, took his machete and with a swift, single stroke punched it through the end of the cupboard. Young Macduff screamed in pain as the bloody weapon was withdrawn.
The change of setting to England was marked by a ragged crowd of Englishmen carrying placards with slogans about the “green and pleasant land” together with “no sin” and other strange messages.
Macduff’s attempt to win over Malcolm was a long scene that was under-directed and lacked interest to the point of being soporific. Although Jamie Ballard gave his best, the scene was let down by Mark Quartley’s Malcolm in whom it was difficult to maintain interest. This was possibly the director’s fault because he ensured that the pace of the scene was slow, with Malcolm speaking very slowly, pausing between each word of his list of “king-becoming graces”. Instead of creating atmosphere or tension this only engendered tedium.
Macduff despaired and walked out the upstage aisle until Malcolm feebly called him back. He announced that his mind had been changed by Macduff’s “noble passion”. At this point, the possibility arose that Malcolm’s soporific delivery was intended to characterise his weakness. If so, it was not an efficient means. Malcolm resolved to fight.
Ross, after his initial equivocation, conveyed the news that Macduff’s family had been killed. Macduff’s reaction was restrained and, like his underpowered reaction to seeing Duncan murdered, there was a lack of fit between his words and their delivery.
Although he had tears in his eyes, the only genuine emotion seemed to come when he became angry and swore revenge. He faced the audience to shout that he should meet “front to front…this fiend of Scotland”.
The Doctor and Gentlewoman (Olivia Morgan again) discussed Lady Macbeth’s distracted state. The woman herself entered in a nightdress and carrying a torch, which she shone all around, even into the audience (5.1).
She knelt and placed the still lit torch by her side as she acted washing her hands and re-enacted recent events, with the Doctor clueless as to a cure.
This scene can often, in the hands of a skilled actress, be compelling. But here it was a case of going through the motions of a popular classic without any real feeling or depth behind the words.
A brief scene showed some Scottish soldiers advance and then discuss the impending arrival of the English forces led by Malcolm and Macduff, as well as Macbeth’s preparations (5.2).
Macbeth made a dynamic entry, sliding down a stage ladder like it was a fire pole, to order confidently “Bring me no more reports…” (5.3). He dispatched the messenger who brought news of the English forces with similar assurance, before getting Seyton (Lisa Gardner again) to put on his armour, which was some kind of stab vest.
The action froze and the characters from 5.3 were plunged into darkness as Malcolm, Macduff and others stormed the stage, the Scots with characteristic blue woad painted in two-tone shades on their faces, Braveheart-style (5.4).
As they were near Birnam Wood, they decided to use it as camouflage.
The invading army cleared the stage and the action switched back to Dunsinane as the characters who had rested in darkness were lit again and came to life (5.5).
A cry of multiple female voices, possibly a recorded sound, was heard offstage. Macbeth heard of his wife’s death whilst sitting down, so that his philosophical reflection on life was delivered from a position of comfort. He ran the first “Tomorrow” directly on from his previous thought, as if snapping into the following idea, then paused to continue with the rest of the sequence.
Yet again, this moment of introspection and reflection felt unnatural coming from this Macbeth. James McAvoy delivered the lines like it was something by William McGonagall. What is normally one of the highlights of any Macbeth fell flat as the man stared into the distance and spoke with shades of a dignity he had never possessed and so could not lose tragically.
A very scared messenger brought Macbeth news of the moving wood, which he dismissed not angrily but with impassive denial. His “liar and slave” was almost unemotional as if still stunned by the death of his wife.
But then he looked at the ground and began to laugh as if seeing the funny side of the equivocating trick the witches had played on him, before resolving to fight come what may.
The invading army bearing tree branches entered from the street through an outer door of the studio. A curtain was drawn and, as we glimpsed the houses on the other side of the street, the soldiers and their camouflage marched in before casting the branches to the ground (5.6).
Macbeth, armed only with his machete, confronted a soldier bearing a rifle (5.7). Despite the advantage of brandishing a firearm, the soldier was easily beaten by Macbeth, who brushed his weapon aside before beating him to the ground.
As he stood over his defeated enemy, Macbeth decided to finish him off properly with his blade, making sense of his “whiles I see lives, the gashes do better upon them” (5.8).
Macduff, armed with a similar blade, almost passed by Macbeth. But he recognised his enemy’s voice and ordered the hell-hound to turn.
They fought and Macbeth easily overpowered Macduff, dragging him backwards and holding his blade to his neck as if ready to deliver the coup de grace.
Macduff’s claim that he was “from his mother’s womb untimely wound” was like kryptonite for Macbeth. He relaxed his grip and let Macduff go. He threw aside his blade and, kneeling, said that he would not fight Macduff. As he knelt a shower of blood cascaded down on to him.
Refusing to yield too, he simply engaged with Macduff unarmed and was swiftly run through. Macduff broke his neck with an audible snap to finish him off.
Macduff bundled Macbeth’s body down a trap and followed it, disappearing from view.
As Malcolm surveyed the outcome of the battle, Macduff popped up from a different trap door with Macbeth’s severed head and hailed Malcolm as king (5.9). He proceeded to hold it above his own head so that the freshly-spilt blood tricked down over his own face.
He presented the head to Malcolm who held it gingerly while announcing the arrangements for his coronation at Scone. The stage went dark and for several seconds nothing happened until I clapped my hands together to kick-start the audience applause.
Eerily and frighteningly, almost everyone behind me was giving the performance a standing ovation.
Macbeth is not a play specifically about Scotland, in the same way that The Merchant of Venice and Othello are not plays about Venice, and Hamlet is not a play about Denmark. To make it specific is to reduce it.
Nowhere in James McAvoy’s Macbeth was there any indication of the noble person he could have become had he not succumbed to his ambitions. He began as a blood-soaked street fighter and ended just the same. The blood shed during the killing of Duncan only has the power to shock if it stains fresh, clean clothes, not dirty rags already encrusted with the blood of war.
With no descent from nobility of character there is no tragedy and no drama, just a series of events.
The Winter’s Tale, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 9 February 2013
As we looked down at the sea, the sunlight sparkled on the gently rippling waves kissing the coast of luscious Sicily, all of which was a computer-generated projection on the back wall. High above the rocky outcrops of the shore, the royal palace presented a scene of relaxed luxury. On the real stage in front of the projections, revellers lay dozing after a feast, sprawled on elegant blankets and cushions.
Into this scene stepped Camillo (Daniel Betts) and Archidamus (David Shaw-Parker), the latter casting lascivious glances at a reclining woman and evidently much taken with the two buxom nurses who brought in Mamillius (1.1). That a guest from the Bohemian court should be taking such evident pleasure in the Sicilian women cleverly prefigured Leontes’ suspicions.
Leontes (Jo Stone-Fewings), Hermione (Tara Fitzgerald) and Polixenes (Adam Levy) awoke with a start and threw off the blanket under which they had slept (1.2). This established the close relationship between the royal friends. Hermione asked Polixenes to remain longer without any hint of flirtation, and Leontes’ generally affable demeanour meant that the slight snarl with which he accompanied “At my request he would not” came as a complete surprise.
Whatever was fermenting inside Leontes did not translate into any anger or aggression towards Hermione when he explained that the first time that she had spoken well was when agreeing to marry him. In thanks for this praise, Hermione dutifully kissed her husband referring to her first good deed that “for ever earned a royal husband”.
But then as Hermione referred to “the other for some while a friend”, she turned to kiss Polixenes and they both froze in a red spotlight. Polixenes smooch her passionately, prompting Leontes to exclaim to us “Too hot, too hot!” He turned to face them once more, continuing his description of their “paddling palms”, while Polixenes leant forward to listen at Hermione’s baby bump as if listening to the sound of his own child.
The red (for anger) colour of the light and the clearly fanciful actions of Polixenes hinted that what we were seeing was Leontes’ distorted imagination and not reality.
Leontes clutched Mamillius to him but still displayed no outward sign of distress to his wife and friend, with an ease that suggested years of such dissembling in matters of state.
He turned again and in red spotlight saw Hermione and Polixenes holding hands in a dance as they slipped away offstage. This led Leontes into his speech to the audience about the ubiquity of infidelity which he delivered in a calm and resigned manner.
His furious insistence to Camillo that Hermione had been unfaithful, with his lingering meditation on Polixenes’ apparent desire to “satisfy” Hermione’s entreaties, drew objections from the servant but ultimately unquestioning obedience. Camillo would poison Polixenes.
Polixenes heard Camillo’s warning about his fatal errand incredulously and offered the servant an opportunity to escape, which he took.
As Mamillius snuggled close to his mother to tell his winter’s tale downstage, further upstage near the raised platform, Leontes fulminated about Hermione’s betrayal before bursting in on them (2.1).
He accused her openly of adultery. His response to her denial was to punch her brutally on the belly with such force that, after some moments in shock, she fell to the ground clutching at her unborn child.
But despite the savagery of Leontes’ attack, Hermione acted protectively of him. He collapsed in anguish next to her and she smothered him with her arms, convinced that he was temporarily distracted. Her solicitous concern for her husband, even after he had assaulted her, was a very powerful statement about her character.
Leontes dealt with his attendants’ objections forcefully but with no sign of the excessive anger that had occasioned his punch. He went to lie down on the raised platform.
Paulina (Rakie Ayola) was in her own way as brisk, determined and business-like as Leontes. Her insistence that Hermione’s new-born daughter be brought to her was successful (2.2).
As each sequence had progressed the viewpoint of the sea on the back wall projection had descended ever closer to sea level. By now it was showing rocks bathed in cold rather than warm light with a hint of snow.
A projection showed Leontes’ nightmare, in which he plunged from a great height into the sea (2.3). He awoke from his sleep at the moment of impact and described how he had “nor night nor day no rest”.
Paulina approached with the baby in a bundle. The prop baby made very realistic gurgling and crying noises.
Though there was some comedy from Antigonus (Duncan Wisbey), who wittily pointed out that most husbands cannot silence their wives, and also turned to shush the baby whose cries he feared would further anger the already riled Leontes, the sequence was mostly characterised by Leontes’ fury at Paulina and the baby.
He had to be restrained from rushing at the precariously placed child. He had already effectively punched her on the head when in the womb and was now a further threat as she was lying on the ground before him.
Paulina’s determined handling of Leontes put him so much on the back foot, that when he turned to his attendants to say “Were I a tyrant, where were her life?” it was as if he was trying to overcome their scepticism.
With Paulina gone and only his men to deal with, Leontes wavered only slightly in his determination to see the child killed. But eventually he had Antigonus swear by placing his hand on a large sword to leave the child in a remote place.
Cleomenes (Joseph Pitcher) and Dion (Daniel Millar) appeared like Edwardian adventurers describing their return from the oracle at Delphos (3.1).
The court session opened with a number of shackled prisoners being ushered into the court and an executioner with a large sword standing upstage ready to execute the guilty (3.2).
After the charge was read, Hermione began her staccato defence. Stilted rather than the emotional, this speech was the only weak point in Tara Fitzgerald’s performance. Leontes’ constant contradictions led her to speak “Sir. You. Speak. A. Language. That. I. Understand. Not” word by word as if talking to someone slow of understanding.
Proving that she did not fear to die, she offered up her neck to the executioner who lined up the edge of his blade as onlookers cried “no!” in protest. But Hermione appealed to the oracle, a request which on being adjudicated just, caused the executioner to put his blade aside.
After swearing on the executioner’s sword, Cleomenes and Dion handed over the sealed scroll. There was great rejoicing at the news that Hermione and Camillo were innocent. But Leontes, branded a tyrant, came forward and scrutinised the scroll before weakly declaring that it contained no truth. At this time Hermione and Paulina found themselves staring at each other upstage in a strange close formation that perhaps foreshadowed their subsequent arrangement.
That instant, one of the nurses brought in the neatly folded Tudor tunic that had belonged to Mamillius with the news that he had died. The queen fainted and was escorted away by Paulina while Leontes crouched and bewailed his mistake.
On her return to confront Leontes with the reality of his error, Paulina took a shawl from her shoulders and hit Leontes firmly with it, venting her frustration.
Leontes staggered upstage to the raised platform, which began to rise out of the ground, becoming a tall tower made of telescopic sections bearing him aloft. The dirty industrial look of the tower made it reminiscent of the factory chimneys that had so effectively marked the industrial era in Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony the previous year.
With the back wall projection showing a ship tossed at sea, Antigonus and the Mariner (Phil Snowden) brought the baby ashore in a small wicker basket (3.3).
The ship split sending its crew plunging into the water, while Antigonus was chased away by a CGI bear that appeared to rear up out of the sea and walk across it. This was puzzling and lacked all credibility.
The entry of the Old Shepherd (David Shaw-Parker again)brought some welcome relief with his speech about the boiled brains of the young. He wandered up and down casting occasional glances at the wicker basket until finally stooping to examine it.
The Young Shepherd (Nick Holder) was a fat and bald comedy northerner. He described the shipwreck and bear attack, miming the bear chewing on Antigonus’ severed arm. At this point the interval came.
With no figure of Time to mark the passing of 16 years, the second half began with 4.2 as Polixenes and Camillo themselves mentioned the passage of 16 years (corrected from F1’s 15). They hatched their plan to visit Florizel (Gavin Fowler) in disguise.
Leontes was still just visible reclining on the top of the tower which now had a pipe curled round it rather like an industrial helter skelter.
The stage became filled with Edwardian seaside folk dozing on deck chairs and asleep on the ground in a mirror image of the scene of lazy splendour at the start of the performance, but this time against the backdrop of grimy industrial tower itself standing in front of a projection of a seaside pier.
Pearce Quigley’s Autolycus was one of the highlights of the production (4.3). His laconic dry-witted characterisation was instantly recognisable as a variation on the Grumio he had played the previous year at The Globe.
He sang as he strolled among the sleepy sunbathers, first stealing an ice-cream and then a drink before eyeing a sheet that a woman slept on. He tugged on the sheet but it would not move from under her. So he turned his back and broke wind, causing the woman to roll away and release the sheet. When she awoke he proceeded to sell the sheet back to her, turning to the audience with a grin to announce “My traffic is sheets”.
Off in the distance on the pier, the sound of a funfair hammer bell prompted Autolycus to say “A prize!”
The Young Shepherd woke up and simultaneously felt the chest and stroked the groin of the woman and man next to him in a grotesque and ribald parody of the awakening of the royal family at the start of the performance.
As he went over his list of intended purchases, behind him Autolycus quickly stole a long stick and a pair of (anachronistic) sunglasses and attracted the Young Shepherd’s attention while pretending to be blind. Autolycus picked the shepherd’s pocket as he manipulated his victim’s shoulder.
But the shepherd went to retrieve his now missing purse, and Autolycus realised he would discover the recent theft. So he instinctively took off his glasses and gestured wildly at the picked pocket insisting that he did not need the shepherd’s money. This miraculous restoration of Autolycus’ vision was a mistake that he hastily corrected but replacing his glasses and acting blind again. The shepherd gave a brief, quizzical look before dismissing the anomaly.
Satisfied with his work, Autolycus sang “Jog on, jog on…” as he exited.
Our first look at Florizel and Perdita (Emma Noakes) showed the young woman to have completely assimilated the northern accent of her adoptive family while the young man’s accent betrayed his noble birth. The two shepherds meanwhile were very finely dressed, the result of the small fortune they had found alongside baby Perdita.
As people gathered for the fair, Polixenes and Camillo entered in their disguises, which were neither extravagant nor comic, but standard Edwardian gentlemen’s apparel. The Old Shepherd had to force Perdita forward to greet the new arrivals.
Florizel and Perdita began to dance and both froze in position as Florizel lifted Perdita aloft, allowing Polixenes and Camillo to make extensive praise of her. At this instant she was elevated both physically and in terms of renown.
This action freeze and associated comment was a positive version of Leontes red-mist vision of Hermione and Polixenes in the first half. The jealous anger of the former now contrasted with the generous affection of the latter.
Mopsa (Charlotte Mills) and Dorcas (Sally Bankes) were two plain low-class women who fought over the Young Shepherd in a comical.
Autolycus arrived at the fair disguised in a turban and pantaloons, which made him unrecognisable to the shepherd he had recently robbed. He carried in a tall, narrow funfair tent bearing the name of Elias the seer or a fortune teller.
Further dispute between Mopsa and Dorcas caused the Young Shepherd to ask “Will they wear their fannies where they should bear their faces?” i.e. changed from the original “plackets”.
Autolycus’ exited to sell some of his wares and was followed by an accordionist. He stopped and asked him “Can I help you?” and beckoned to him to follow as he left to accompany the shepherd and his girls.
The dance of the twelve Satyrs was a northern clog morris dance that was very enjoyable to watch, unlike many attempts at staging this particular sequence.
Polixenes began a closer interrogation of Florizel, who made a veiled boast of his impending inheritance “one being dead”, and thus increased his father’s ire.
Polixenes rushed round the back of the helter skelter tower and made a grand entrance out of the lower end of the pipe, in his shirtsleeves and smeared with dirt, to reveal his true identity to his son and threaten the Old Shepherd and Perdita.
Spying an opportunity to return home, Camillo advised Florizel and Perdita to flee to Sicily.
Autolycus returned with his swag, which prompted Camillo to propose an exchange of clothes to provide Florizel and Perdita with disguises. They went into his tent to swap garments, but Autolycus had to send the accordionist out first, telling him “Get your own tent”, at which point he slouched away dejectedly.
Florizel took Autolycus’ shirt while Perdita had his oversize pantaloons, while in exchange Autolycus received a fine, long white coat.
This set him up nicely to trick the two shepherds, who were worried by their connection with the disgraced Perdita, into thinking he was a courtier. Addressing the “rustics”, he spoke as finely as he could while emphasising he had “the air of the court” by adopting a series of ridiculous stances, like an athlete warming up by bending at one knee.
His change from “fardel” to “box” was spoken as a deliberate simplification for the simple shepherds.
Autolycus enjoyed his protracted description of the fate awaiting the Young Shepherd, pausing after each punishment to continue with a repetitive “then”. Each continuation of “then” caused the two shepherds equal alarm, so much so that the Young Shepherd greeted the final one by swearing under his breath.
He escorted them to the ship on which Florizel and company were getting ready to sail to Sicily.
Marking the shift of scene back to Sicily, the tower rotated to reveal it had no back, displaying a network of stairs leading from the ground to the top where Leontes still lay after 16 years (5.1).
Paulina, Cleomenes and Dion gathered at its base, with Cleomenes knocking on the door to summon Leontes from his prison.
This striking staging meant that both Leontes and Hermione had spent the same period of time in seclusion from the rest of the world.
He descended to ground level wrapped in a red blanket, the same colour as the rage of his jealous, angry visions of Hermione’s supposed infidelity.
Leontes’ sad ruminations turned to something approaching happiness when Florizel and his princess arrived.
The prince was confident in his explanation of his presence, despite hesitating when he claimed that Perdita “came from Libya”. Perdita was not required to speak, otherwise her distinctive accent would have instantly revealed that she was not Libyan.
The second messenger’s news of the arrival of Polixenes and the truth of young people’s flight brought revelation upon revelation with Leontes promising to help the would-be marrieds.
The joyous offstage reunions were related by two inebriated gentlemen, one still holding the champagne bottle and glasses that had attended the impromptu celebrations (5.2).
Autolycus listened keenly to these accounts before humbling himself by kneeling before the two shepherds, whose fine clothes were now decorated with jewels. The previously bald Young Shepherd was also sporting a fine blond wig.
But despite his apparent contrition, Autolycus could not resist pick-pocketing from them once more, going so far as to steal the Young Shepherd’s wig.
Paulina gathered the spectators for the viewing of the statue of Hermione. A white gauze tent was brought on, its structure and design very (and possibly deliberately) similar to Autolycus’ fairground tent, except for its brilliant pure whiteness (5.3).
The curtain was drawn back to reveal Hermione dressed in white like a classical statue, holding a large goblet in front of her with both hands. This pose was easy to hold completely still for the required time.
Leontes was immediately moved to approach the figure, as was Perdita who despite her supposed innate breeding, impulsively lunged forward and had to be restrained by Paulina.
There was some tittering from the audience when Leontes noticed the wrinkles on Hermione’s face, which Paulina excused as the artistic licence of the sculptor.
Hermione’s awakening saw her suddenly flash her eyes open as if after a long sleep. She gazed around as if only now aware of the people around her. This created the impression that she had really been under some hypnotic effect and was not simply playing along with Paulina’s elaborate ruse.
She stood still, stiffly posed, and extended her hand towards Leontes, who took it and was soon embracing his long-lost wife. She similarly greeted Perdita.
The performance ended with a dance that resembled the one that had been the occasion of Leontes’ original jealous anger. The extended hand gesture in the dance was emphasised to remind us of Hermione’s greeting to Leontes when she revived.
It was difficult not be affected by Leontes’ brutal attack on Hermione, the savagery of which was counterbalanced by Pierce Quigley’s outstandingly funny Autolycus.
The set design did more than create great visual impact: by creating an isolated retreat for Leontes’ sixteen years of solitude, it facilitated a new angle on the story.