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.
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…
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.
Twelfth Night, Royal Shakespeare Theatre Stratford, 21 July 2012
The world of this production was a hotel somewhere vaguely hot. The reception was positioned upstage left with a revolving entrance door further left by the proscenium wall. Over on the right stood a lift shaft with a working cabin. A small circular sofa was placed centre stage around a post that occasionally lit up as a sea beacon. The downstage right water feature was now clear blue water above which was fixed a low diving board.
After the sound of crashing waves, Viola (Emily Taaffe) emerged from the water and pulled herself up onto the stage, where she sat dripping wet (1.1). She turned to see a bag that presumably contained some of Sebastian’s clothes.
She knelt and, looking at no one in particular, said “What country, friends, is this?” Her words were immediately followed by Orsino’s famous opening lines to Curio (Ankur Bahl), who played at the piano. Orsino (Jonathan McGuiness) looked like an expat resident of a tropical country. The object of Orsino’s love, the mournful Olivia (Kirsty Bushell), was visible lying motionless and depressed on a bed on the steeply sloping planks of the back wall. This gave us a glimpse of how she was spending her seven years in solitary mourning.
The action cut back to the shore where the Captain (Sandy Grierson) replied to Viola’s initial question. She continued to face the audience, looking out to sea as she compared Illyria and Elysium (1.2). Viola took up the bag of clothes intending to use them for her disguise.
Returning to the hotel, we saw drunk expat Sir Toby (Nicholas Day) slouched in an armchair, talking to West-Indian maid Maria (Cecilia Noble) (1.3). Race became an issue subsequently, so the colour casting was relevant.
After a standard buttery bar joke, in which Maria clasped Sir Andrew’s (Bruce Mackinnon) hands to her ample chest and talked at him lasciviously, we saw his “back-trick”, which was a moonwalk. This modern device was a perfect fit for the phrase. A CD player was set up enabling Sir Andrew to dance like a lunatic, performing a series of high kicks.
Viola was transformed into Cesario with short hair, wearing a jacket and green trousers (1.4). She was dispatched by Orsino to woo Olivia after avowing “myself would be his wife”. Her brother Sebastian (Stephen Hagan) crawled out of the water and lay curled up at its edge all the way through the next scene until his first appearance.
Feste (Kevin McMonagle) was slightly disappointing (1.5). He was played as a faded club singer lacking in both humour and impact.
Maria stood in front of Feste and aped his ‘two points’ gag as if it were one of his tired, predictable old jokes.
Lesley Bushell’s Olivia was one of highlights of production, full of self-deprecating auto-correction and feminine wiles. To have her and Jonathan Slinger’s Malvolio on stage at the same time was an overload of talent.
Feste proved Olivia to be a fool for mourning her dead brother. But she was interested in Malvolio’s opinion, which gave us our first taste of Jonathan Slinger’s steward.
Malvolio’s self-importance was indicated by the name badge on his suit jacket, and there was something vain about his blond flat-combed hair and moustache.
He sneered disdainfully in a whining nasal voice and delighted in pausing over certain syllables, stringing them out as if to prolong the joy of contempt.
His first “Yes,” was followed by a pause in which he glanced down before continuing as if Feste was beneath regard. Malvolio twitched with pleasure, describing Feste as a “barren rascal” in a scornful tirade delivered at close range.
The arrival of Cesario was notified to Olivia by Maria, who was on the reception desk monitoring the CCTV cameras. Sir Toby was blind drunk and could hardly make his words distinct.
Cesario was admitted and found four women sat wearing veils, including Olivia who was poised by a chess set downstage. Cesario was already wistfully full of longing when she said “I am not that I play”. When disguised as a boy, Viola spoke with an Irish accent.
Cesario’s request to see Olivia’s face drew an initial disparaging response, but then Olivia continued without a pause into “but we will draw the curtain”. She now sounded quite vain and pleased to be asked to reveal herself. This was the beginning of her subsequent flirtatiousness.
By the time she asked Cesario to visit again she sounded very keen on him.
But after Cesario left through the revolving door, Olivia held her head and looked down at the ground muttering “What is your parentage?” as if upbraiding herself for her gaucheness. She had indeed caught the plague.
Referring to the entrance point for Cesario’s “perfections”, the text’s “mine eyes” was changed to “mine eye” as Olivia crouched and put her hand over her lap. This reference to her other “eye” indicated the carnal nature of her yearning.
Olivia took a ring off her own finger in front of Malvolio, telling him to return it to Cesario. Malvolio took the ring and said “Madam [huge pause], I will” as if he had been entrusted with a life-changing task.
Her final speech in the scene referred to “Mine eye” being “too great a flatterer for my mind”. This phrase was given a similar meaning to the earlier emended instance, as Olivia crouched evidently consumed by the passion generated by her “eye”.
Sebastian, who had been reclined all this time, stood up for his scene with Antonio (Jan Knightley), who was wearing seafaring waterproofs (2.1). The centre column became a flashing beacon. Just like his sister, Sebastian had a distinct Irish accent. Why both he and Viola were made Irish was not apparent. Antonio ran after Sebastian, but no overt love was hinted at.
Cesario greeted people with a vigorous hand slap, a gesture that his friends also subsequently extended to a confused Sebastian.
Cesario entered, on his way to report to Orsino (2.2). A beeping sound was heard from offstage, which was soon revealed to be Malvolio catching up with him on an electric cart. The cart had a sign on the back announcing that it was “for management use only”: another indication of Malvolio’s officiousness.
As Malvolio handed over the ring, he stretched the word out on its ‘n’ so that it was pronounced “Rinnnng”. He threw it to the ground and then got back on his chariot, slammed the mirror back into position and drove off.
Cesario realised that she was ‘the man’. But she certainly did not look so in comparison with her much taller brother.
Sir Toby and Sir Andrew were drunk (2.3) and were joined by Feste who sat in the lift to descends to their level. The picture of ‘we three’ was taken using a Polaroid camera. In a very funny sequence, Feste played “O mistress mine” on an electric keyboard while Sir Toby put a veil over his face pretending to be Olivia and let Sir Andrew hold his hand.
Their main rowdy song “Hold thy peace” was sung to an accompaniment of bottles and glasses being struck as well as the hotel reception bell, all of which prompted Maria to complain.
Malvolio entered in a dressing gown (also with name badge) and gartered socks, something which looked slyly forward to his subsequent gulling. Sir Andrew fell into the water in surprise at this interruption.
It was very obvious that far from being annoyed Malvolio actually relished this opportunity to be unpleasant.
He drew out the name “Sirrrr Toobyyy” to make his contempt crystal clear. The object of his derision spoke about keeping time into Feste’s mic, which amplified his voice, and then pointed the mic at Malvolio. The first few words of the steward’s reply were also amplified until he pushed it away. The others continued to sing their replies into it.
Before departing, Malvolio shook Maria’s hand. But this apparently friendliness was immediately shown to be a sham when he wiped his hand on his dressing gown.
Maria sat and paused to take in this gratuitous unkindness. Her motivation for tricking Malvolio was now very clear. Given the circumstances, her response was restrained.
Maria’s reference to her scheme being “a horse of that colour” could be seen in this context as the result of her mind dwelling on Malvolio’s colour prejudice and influencing her choice of words.
Sir Andrew’s “I was adored once too” was poignant. This moment of pathos at the end of a comic sequence never fails to look like an authorial masterstroke.
The next scene had an innocuous beginning (2.4). A hotel employee used a net to clean the pool, while a guard cut short a mobile call because of the excessive cost, all of which suggested we were in a faraway place.
Cesario’s longing for Orsino was present but carefully suppressed in the speech in which she alluded to fancying someone like him.
Feste’s clowning was underplayed and not that funny. There was an apparent intention to make him consistently downbeat.
When Cesario told Orsino that she was “All the daughters of my father’s house”, the pang in her voice made it feel she was coming very close to revealing her true identity.
The gulling of Malvolio took place inside the hotel (2.5). Fabian (Felix Hayes) and the others hid behind the reception desk, while the letter was placed on the chess board.
Malvolio came downstage to admire himself in an invisible mirror, part of the ‘fourth wall’ that was transparent to the audience. He straightened what could have been a hairpiece.
Full of himself, he stood with his legs apart longing “To be Count Malvolio!” Sir Toby gathered up things to throw at him but was successively disarmed by Sir Andrew who snatched the items from his raised hand.
Malvolio took a fur rug from the floor and placed it about his neck like a gown of state. He picked up the letter, but before ripping open the seal, he looked around furtively, causing the others to duck down behind the reception.
There are many ways of making a joke out of Malvolio’s reaction to the letter’s instruction to “Revolve”. This production produced hilarity by having Malvolio run off to the revolving door and spin round in it. On returning centre stage he dropped his clipboard.
Firmly convinced that Olivia was in love with him, he stamped on the mislaid clipboard, signifying the end of his lowly status. He jumped up on to the chair and stood triumphantly.
Cesario had a brief conversation with Feste who was playing on his keyboard (3.1). Olivia and Maria entered down the steps stage right. As she descended, Olivia looked at the audience and said “beautiful” as an added aside. This addition was perhaps meant to hint at her subconscious realisation that Cesario was in fact female.
Olivia was self-deprecatingly apologetic about the ring trick. She knelt before Cesario when saying that “a cypress, not a bosom, hideth my heart” and seized on pity being “as a degree to love”.
She kissed Cesario at “Nor wit nor reason can my passion hide.” Cesario was shocked and the rest of Olivia’s speech was turned into an excuse for her rashness. On that dramatic change in their relationship, the interval came.
The second half got underway on a comic note as Sir Andrew grumbled his way to the front of the stage and got out his mobile to book a “taxi to the airport please” in an interesting adlib (3.2). His overarching lack of seriousness seemed to license his deviations from the text.
The text’s line about “I had as lief be a Brownist as a politician” was changed to something like “am I a politician?” at which the audience chortled.
Sir Toby indicated that he would not deliver Sir Andrew’s message by throwing his friend’s phone into the water. Then Maria came with news of Malvolio’s approach.
After a brief scene with Sebastian and Antonio (3.3), Malvolio made his grand entrance via the lift (3.4). He wore very tight tights with yellow garters across them. They were so constrictive that they obliged him to waddle as he could not flex his knees. As Olivia looked on aghast, he stood and pulled apart the top of his jacket to reveal a yellow gartered codpiece. His “Sweet lady, ho, ho” was hysterical. The obstruction in the blood was in the codpiece. And predictably even this get-up was adorned with a name tag.
As soon as Olivia had said “Wilt thou go to bed, Malvolio?” she turned away and put her head in her hands as she realised the full import of her words. This was something Olivia did a lot, immediately upbraiding herself for her inappropriate utterances and actions.
Malvolio kissed his hand, warranting Olivia’s comment to that effect. He chased Olivia onto the diving board, accosting her before she ran off to find Cesario. Malvolio was left alone to construe Olivia’s reactions as agreeing with the faked letter.
Sir Toby and the others returned and used a crucifix to fend off Malvolio. The steward climbed the stairs showing the bare bum cheeks exposed by his thong. This provoked a second wave of audience laughter at this extra indignity.
At her next meeting with Cesario, Olivia hung a miniature around her neck and was coquettish in requesting him to “come again tomorrow”.
When Cesario and Sir Andrew were eventually brought together in combat, Fabian had to restrain him from escaping, while Sir Toby pointed Sir Andrew in his direction pretending that he was in fact aching to break free and fight with him.
In another quaint rewrite, Sir Andrew offered to give Cesario his Kawasaki 750, rather than his “horse, grey Capulet”.
The pair met as Sir Andrew wielded a metal rod and Cesario swatted at him with a similar implement. Antonio ran in and fended off Sir Andrew before being arrested. His mention of Sebastian set Viola thinking.
Sir Andrew tried to fight Sebastian but he more than defended himself and hit back (4.1). Olivia, now in a floral dress rather than dark clothes, mistook him for Cesario, though given the height difference this began to look improbable.
Maria dressed Feste as a priest at the top of lift shaft (4.2). The stage below was kept in darkness. As the lift cage descended, it was possible to see that the floor numbers had changed to indicate a descent into the hotel basement.
The lights came up on Malvolio, tied up on the seat of his cart with the “for management use only” sign round his neck in mockery of his position. The cart lights flashed as it beeped plaintively. Sir Topas used jump leads to torture Malvolio, an echo of their use by Slinger as Dr Pinch.
Malvolio’s tormenter went back up in the lift and descended again as Feste.
The morning after his night with Olivia, Sebastian stood on the stairs at the side of the stage (4.3). Olivia entered in a white wedding dress accompanied by a Greek Orthodox priest (Sandy Grierson again), which provided a slightly more accurate fix on the production’s location. Her dress provided hilarious context for her line “Blame not this haste of mine”.
Orsino, in the company of Cesario, arrived with flowers and a gift for Olivia (5.1). Antonio was escorted through, but precisely why he was in a hotel lobby remained to be seen.
Olivia entered, took Orsino’s gifts and threw them in the water, which made sense of Orsino’s description of her as “Still so cruel”.
Orsino’s verbal threat against Cesario was not accompanied by any violent action. It appeared to be just words. Orsino exited through the revolving door and Cesario followed. willing to die “a thousand deaths” for him. Olivia’s cry of “Husband” made Cesario stop and turn, while Orsino repeated the word as a question.
Sir Andrew and Sir Toby entered injured. Sebastian ran in from the side door right to the centre to face Olivia. Viola was by the reception desk and looked at him from behind, completely stunned.
Orsino could see both of them sideways on. Olivia sat down to utter “Most wonderful!”
Sebastian turned to face Viola. They approached and exchanged stories. Sebastian commented to Olivia that she had been “mistook” in a tone that implied her stupidity. When he said that she would have been “Betrothed both to a maid and man”, Viola curtsied sheepishly. Orsino was understandably very happy.
Olivia seemed genuinely confused when calling for Malvolio to be brought forth. Feste just made a barking noise when reading Malvolio’s letter.
Orsino and Olivia hugged, which was nice. She also hugged Viola, pausing slightly beforehand to express the irony of their sisterly embrace.
Orsino repeated “If music be the food of love” and put some music on the hotel sound system, but this brief jollity was interrupted by the entrance of Malvolio.
Dressed in trousers, braces and shirtless, Malvolio swore his revenge. He cast his eyes around the entire audience, emphasising the all-encompassing scope of his malevolence.
Feste sang as the couples went to bed. Olivia went first, then Viola, followed by Orsino and Sebastian.
This was the production that best fitted the Shipwreck Trilogy label, with an accident at sea in its immediate backstory. This was underlined by having Viola actually emerge from water onto the stage at the start of the performance.
Technically, the ship in The Tempest is not even wrecked. It only appears so to the crew and passengers as is preserved intact, enabling its occupants to sail home at the end of the play. The wreck in the Comedy of Errors is so far in the past as to make it largely irrelevant to the slapstick action.
The production was chiefly memorable for Jonathan Slinger’s manic Malvolio, a performance to savour in the context of other roles he has played, and the engaging presence of Kirsty Bushell’s Olivia.
The Comedy of Errors, Royal Shakespeare Theatre Stratford, 20 July 2012
A tropical fish tank stood centre stage looking rather whimsical amid the dockside scene. The set was a variation on the basic Shipwreck Trilogy design. The Victorian ironwork, in tribute to the Roundhouse in London, was visible in the far distance, and ropes were attached to the curved back section to make it look like the boards of a dockyard pier. The overhead gantry was used as a crane to bring in crates and other set elements.
The lights went down at the start of the performance (1.1) and came up again to reveal the Duke (Sandy Grierson) dunking Egeon’s head in the fish tank. He took time out from this water torture to announce the ban on Syracusans entering Ephesus through a tannoy carried on a wheeled frame. In modern dress, he was protected by machine gun-toting guards whose body armour bore the name of the relevant actor.
Looking for all the world like a thuggish criminal head of a failed state, every word spoken by this leader was recorded by a stenographer. His air of casual cruelty was enhanced by the fact he was wearing a dressing gown; the implication being that this punitive exercise, respecting the unity of time of the play, was just a part of his leisurely morning routine.
The Duke allowed Egeon (Nicholas Day) to tell his story, but still dunked his head when he said his task was “unspeakable”.
At the start of the next scene (1.2) the crane deposited a crate centre stage. It opened to reveal the Syracusan pair. The captain leant inside to speak to the cowering men telling them to pretend they were from Ephesus. But we soon saw that Dromio (Bruce Mackinnon) was wearing an “I ♥ Syracuse” t-shirt.
After Dromio was sent on an errand, another stowaway crept out from a different crate and made his getaway.
When the other Dromio (Felix Hayes), in an identically patterned “I ♥ Ephesus” shirt, entered across the diagonal from the walkway, he ended up being wrestled to the ground and then chased around the crate by Antipholus (Jonathan McGuinness) before departing without getting his master to come to dinner. Felix Hayes had very distinctive powerful voice with an accent that lent itself to this comedy role. The two Dromios were very difficult to tell apart.
At this point a woman climbed out of yet another crate, this time pausing to take with her a large amount of clothing from inside her hiding place. As she gathered up her goods and left, this prompted Antipholus to remark that the town was reputed to be “full of cozenage”.
In an interval between scenes, the Courtesan (Amie Burns Walker) kissed the Syracuse Antipholus, taking him by surprise. This was a nice touch that enhanced the web of misidentification being spun.
Adriana (Kirsty Bushell) and Luciana (Emily Taaffe) were flown in by crane on a trestle representing her house (2.1). Adriana was a tall strong figure, while Luciana wore pink had a girly, untouched demeanour. The former was combative and stressed as opposed to the latter’s inexperienced idealist. Adriana stuffed a cloth into Luciana’s mouth to shut her up.
When Dromio told Adriana that her husband was “horn mad” she chased him, forcing Dromio to take refuge at the top of the frame.
Adriana chased Dromio around the bottom of the pallet before getting onboard to be hoisted offstage.
Egeon was brought across the stage with the tannoy advertising for his bail to be paid. The female stowaway was then seen pushing a shopping trolley full of purloined clothing, which she proceeded to sell to passersby.
The Syracusans met up again (2.2). The lines dealing with wigs and time were cut. Adriana and Luciana caught up with them, and Adriana slapped Antipholus for being absent. She spoke to him alluringly, but he and Dromio backed into the stage right corner by some stagnant water fearing that these women knew their names “by inspiration”.
After the usual comedy resulting from his seduction and acceptance to dine with this stranger, a door was flown in for them to enter into Adriana’s house.
Dromio hovered outside, so that when Adriana swung the door open violently it struck him. The same occurred when Antipholus came out looking for him.
Ephesus Antipholus (Stephen Hagan) and friends entered singing in rap. Ephesus Dromio in particular was having fun, rapping in a deep gangsta voice. His first speech in scene 3.1 leant itself wonderfully to rap rhythm:
Say what you will, sir, but I know what I know;
That you beat me at the mart, I have your hand to show:
If the skin were parchment, and the blows you gave were ink,
Your own handwriting would tell you what I think.
The solitary door swung around, so that those inside and out had to follow its revolutions in order to remain on opposite sides.
The fat maid Nell (Sarah Belcher) appeared stuffing her top with vegetables. Adriana popped her head out of a window that opened in the back of the set. She was in her dressing gown, hinting that “dinner” was a euphemism for sexual activity. Dromio’s head was beaten against the door as Ephesus Antipholus’ frustration grew.
After Ephesus Antipholus departed in disgust to see the Courtesan (3.2), Luciana followed Syracuse Antipholus out of the door carrying one of his shoes, which he had forgotten. This subtly reinforced the idea that he had not been eating.
They sat close to each other on a barrel. As she sweet-talked Antipholus into being more of a husband to Adriana, Luciana ended up putting her hand on his thigh. Suddenly conscious of the gesture’s impropriety, she hastily retracted her hand and adjusted her top in case that was sending out the wrong sort of signals. But this did hint at an underlying attraction that made this couple’s subsequent marriage more believable.
Syracuse Dromio entered in a panic, looking really haunted. He measured the expanse of Nell’s size. They took refuge inside some barrels as Nell entered in pursuit of the other Dromio.
Puzzled by how Nell knew of his intimate distinguishing marks, Dromio mentioned his wart and then looked down without using the text’s “on my left arm”, the euphemistic silence implying that its location was genital. This gag was reused later.
After the Goldsmith (Sargon Yelda) gifted the chain to Antipholus, the first half of the performance ended with the first stowaway being caught and then a gun pointed at his head just before the stage was blacked out, implying an execution. After all the comedy, this dumb show reminded us that Ephesus was a violent place where people were killed, and that if Egeon’s ransom was not forthcoming, a similar fate would befall him at the end of the day.
At the start of the second half (4.1), Ephesus Antipholus dispatched his Dromio to buy a rope. The Goldsmith, unable to obtain money for the chain, needed his inhaler to deal with the panic. Antipholus was arrested just before Syracuse Dromio returned from the harbour with life belts and jackets around his neck. The poor Dromio was then sent back to Adriana’s house into the clutches of “Dowsabel” to fetch bail money.
The pallet representing the house was flown in again from the back of the set (4.2). In a comic echo of the production’s opening scene, Adriana was ducking Luciana’s head in a bucket. The implication was that Luciana’s account of Antipholus’ wooing of her was being extracted by force and not offered voluntarily. The scene also reinforced our understanding of Adriana as someone given to violence.
After collecting the bail money, Dromio was ordered to “bring thy master home…”. He tried to step from the swinging pallet but could not find a firm footing on the ground. Adriana’s “…immediately” which came after this interlude of stage business, encouraged him to step off.
Syracuse Antipholus was wheeled in on a trolley heaped with merchandise that had been freely given to him (4.3). Dromio brought him gold that he was not expecting either.
Their encounter with the Courtesan, an alluring vision in her short, tight skirt, saw the woman flirt and lean suggestively over a barrel. Dromio tried to alert his master that her request for the ring was a witch’s trick. But as he issued his warning to avoid her, he kept glancing sideways at her rear and growling ‘cor’.
They hid behind some barrels to avoid her, and Dromio rolled a barrel at her, which she simply kicked and returned.
After she had failed to entrap Antipholus, she extracted a large number of breast enhancers from her top, throwing them one by one at the door of his house.
Ephesus Dromio ran past holding the rope he had bought and paused before her. He was holding the rope end in front of him so that it stood erect. He looked at the alluring Courtesan, then at the erect rope before hurrying away again.
Dromio met his master, who was expecting bail money, and proudly presented him with the rope’s end (4.4). He proceeded to pile an entire length of rope into his expectant outstretched hands. The furious Antipholus set about him.
The scene was now set for Jonathan Slinger’s entry as Doctor Pinch. He perched in the lotus position on a trolley wheeled in by his assistants. Animated by an extreme sense of his own self-importance, Pinch wore a black outfit and held his gloved hands out at his sides like a stage magician about to perform a trick. Pinch descended from the trolley and pulled from it two car jump leads. He touched the leads together briefly to produce a shower of sparks. Pinch’s magical aura created an immediately link back to Slinger’s Prospero, making this a very clever piece of casting.
When the jump leads were applied to Antipholus he collapsed at the edge of the water in convulsions.
The Officer (Solomon Israel) tried to seize Antipholus, but Adriana grabbed him and twisted his arm behind his back, describing him as a “peevish officer” and forced him to relent.
Both Antipholus and Dromio were wrapped in black plastic, dumped one on top of the other on the trolley and wheeled away.
Sensing that the Courtesan was inappropriately dressed, Adriana pulled the woman’s skirt down to a more demure length.
The Syracusans burst in brandishing daggers prompting the others to run away screaming, including the Courtesan who hobbled off the stage in just one of her high heels.
Another reminder of the frequent executions in Ephesus came when the Duke arranged for Egeon to have his photo taken with a body wrapped in plastic, which was then hoisted up by the crane and unceremoniously dumped into the sea behind the set wall. Sparkling sprinkles flew into the air looking like a spray of water from the splash.
The argument between the Merchant (Amer Hlehel) and Antipholus about the chain descended into a fight (5.1). Antipholus drew his dagger but the Merchant outbladed him with a sword.
As Adriana and company arrived, the abbey setting was established when a statue of the Virgin Mary was flown across the set on the overhead crane. A neon cross illuminated the back of the set, identifying it as a building. The Syracusans fled through its doors to take refuge.
The Abbess (Cecilia Noble) appeared and argued with Adriana about the cause of her husband’s misbehaviour.
Adriana tried to force her way into the abbey. The Abbess closed the shutters over the door using a remote control. Used to getting her own way physically as we had already seen, Adriana tried to punch the Abbess. But she simply grasped Adriana’s fist in the palm of her hand and wrestled her to the ground with one arm. Everyone else, including the Officer, jumped out of her way.
The Duke entered while at the same time Egeon was hoisted in by the crane to dangle high above the stage. After Adriana’s account of the day’s events, the Duke recognised her and she nodded encouragingly at his recollections of her.
A messenger warned of the violent escape of the Ephesians and the Duke’s guards trained their weapons on the walkway. The Courtesan also had a gun she aimed in that direction.
The Ephesians entered with scorch marks on their clothing. Antipholus had blood on his head, and his hand was still bound to a chair which he dragged clumsily beside him. Antipholus’ different version of events sparked a confused argument that only ended when the Duke shot a handgun into the air shouting “Why, what an intricate impeach is this!”
When the Courtesan spoke, Adriana once again pulled the woman’s skirt hem lower.
Egeon finally spoke to say that he recognised someone who would pay his bail. This should not have made the audience laugh, but the peculiarity of his situation, speaking after so long a silence suspended in midair above events, was not exactly dignified.
The Abbess brought out the Syracusans, who unlike the Ephesians did recognise Egeon. The Duke’s guards, who still had their weapons trained on the Ephesians, swapped their aim to the newly appeared pair and then back again to the Ephesians. Their aim alternated confusedly between the two groups because they were unable to distinguish which was the real threat and thereby emphasised their similarity.
Emilia and Egeon met at the centre, while the others moved in a circle round them. All were reunited, but Ephesus Antipholus was obliged to hug his parents with the chair still attached to his arm. Luciana and Syracuse Antipholus held hands.
Angelo asked for the chain, but became sheepish after Ephesus Antipholus pointed out that he had been falsely arrested at his request.
But Ephesus Antipholus had his own sheepish moment when taking his leave of the Courtesan. He had to pause and choose his words carefully when saying “Thanks for my … good cheer”.
The two Dromios recognised each other’s visible birth marks. Then, working through a list of them, they paused in embarrassment when they reached the wart remarked on earlier.
Syracuse Dromio gestured with his hands to approximate the size of the “fat friend” he had met earlier. Ephesus Dromio, the more expert, moved his brother’s hands further apart to better approximate her dimensions.
They hugged and then held hands as the lights went down outside the house.
This play qualified for inclusion in the RSC’s shipwreck trilogy only because of the wreck that took place some thirty years in its backstory. Its ending, with reunited siblings, has a vague similarity with Twelfth Night.
But apart from that, there was no sense that this production shared a specific mood or theme with any of the others. It did, however, succeed in referencing the other productions in the shipwreck trilogy, chiefly in drawing a parallel between Slinger’s Dr Pinch and his Prospero.
The Tempest, Royal Shakespeare Theatre Stratford, 19 July 2012
This production was part of the RSC Shipwreck Trilogy, comprising The Tempest, The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night.
Was there any justification for bracketing these three together as a trilogy or was this just clever marketing?
The programme was intriguing. It contained a short piece by James Shapiro and David Farr pointing out the common themes of separation and reunion across the plays. This was followed by a big article by the designer explaining how he had set about providing the productions with a unified look.
The set was composed of floorboards dotted with rocks that swept up at the back into a profile like a wave. Upstage left was dominated by a large box that lighting could render transparent when required. Upstage right stood the ruins of a statue of Setebos.
In the far distance behind the wave of floorboards was some ornate Victorian ironwork, apparently a tribute to the Roundhouse where these plays had been performed during their London run.
High above, a large metal monorail ran from the behind the main stage across the auditorium to the upper gallery. Only one walkway (stage left) led off from the stage.
Miranda (Emily Taaffe), looking pretty in a vest top, walked briskly to a small desk and sat to study a book, while the storm scene took place inside the transparent box (1.1). While generally audible, the voices of those onboard ship also appeared to be coming from the portable radio on Miranda’s desk. Gonzalo (Nicholas Day) came through particularly clearly and was given prominence.
After the storm abated and the box became opaque, Miranda asked her opening question to an unseen Prospero (1.2). Jonathan Slinger then appeared inside the box, staring out. He opened the door and lumbered forward without looking at his daughter. Everything about his silent entrance spoke of someone angry, possessed and on a mission. His suit jacket looked bleached or washed out on one lapel, a detail repeated in both Ariel and Caliban’s clothing.
He comforted Miranda, kissing the top of her head when stating that not “an hair” of anyone onboard had been jeopardised. He pointed at the radio as the source of the voices that she had heard.
As Prospero began to retell the story of their journey to the island, he paused for a long time after mentioning “thy mother”, as if still affected by her presumed loss, a detail emphasised by the fact that he was still wearing his wedding ring.
This was perhaps the first sign that the shipwreck trilogy theme of separation was being underscored in the production.
Prospero was overcome with an angular anger when recounting his brother Antonio’s role in the story, indicating that this was the aspect of the affair that animated him the most.
With Miranda put to sleep, Ariel (Sandy Grierson) appeared inside the box and his slightly stilted movements on entering made him seem like an android. Subsequent action in the performance hinted that this style of movement was symptomatic of Prospero’s magical hold over him.
When the spirit questioned the imposition of more work, Prospero’s “How now? Moody?” saw him spit with anger. He retrieved his staff, which in keeping with the undercurrent of violence in his character, looked more like a cudgel than a magic instrument.
Indeed, when he made Ariel sit at Miranda’s desk to receive his monthly reminder of why he should be grateful to Prospero, he slammed the cudgel/staff down on the desk when accusing Ariel with the harsh words “Thou liest, malignant thing”.
Ariel was dispatched and Miranda awakened, after which Prospero banged his staff on the ground to summon Caliban. Ariel reappeared briefly with his helpers inside the box.
Caliban (Amer Hlehel) wore a suit just like Prospero’s, but was even more scruffy and dishevelled. He had a vague Latin American accent that underscored his otherness among the English speakers. But importantly there was nothing animalistic in his appearance or demeanour.
The programme informed us that the ruins stage right were of a statue of Sycorax’s god Setebos, so that when Caliban showed fear of Prospero’s power, saying he could control that god, he was faced with a powerful reminder of how Setebos has been overthrown.
Ferdinand (Solomon Israel) appeared out of the box, which now seemed to be functioning as a portal, led by Ariel’s magical song. His tears for his lost father were immediately reminiscent of Prospero’s emotion when thinking of his wife.
The young man came across as simple and kind, which contrasted with Prospero’s feigned suspicion of him. Ferdinand tried to defend himself with his sword, but Ariel sat invisible just behind him on a rock, and simply grasped the drawn blade, locking it into place so that Ferdinand could not make it budge.
Prospero used bitter terms against Miranda when she tried to defend Ferdinand from her father’s impositions. It was difficult to bear in mind that Prospero was at this point merely putting the young man to the test.
Alonso (Kevin McMonagle) and party emerged from the box at the start of act two. Sebastian was played by actress Kirsty Bushell. Despite this, the character was not regendered as a female, but kept the original name and was constantly addressed as “Sir”.
As Antonio (Jonathan McGuinness) and Sebastian joked, Ariel charmed the others to sleep with a bowed xylophone. Their plot of murder agreed on, they drew their knives but were frozen in position by Ariel.
Caliban carried a bundle of floorboards and dumped them with loud crash on the ground before crouching under his coat, which bore markings that made it look like a fabric remnant from a life raft (2.2).
Trinculo (Felix Hayes) wore his boots around his neck and carried a meat cleaver. He squealed on seeing Caliban, but nevertheless crawled underneath his coat to take shelter. The two positioned themselves so that their legs bent back at the knee to point in the air, creating the distinct impression of a four-legged creature.
An attempt at topicality was made when Stephano’s description of the “monster” became “a present for any banker” rather than the text’s “emperor”. But this sounded clumsy and laboured in its right-on-ness.
Rather more successful was the visual joke that Stephano’s “comfort” came in a bottle remarkably similar, but not identical, to a bottle of Southern Comfort.
Stephano (Bruce Mackinnon) pulled on a set of legs and with extreme effort extracted Trinculo, who went on to explain how he had survived by swimming like a duck, his hands mimicking a duck paddle motion.
Ferdinand laboured under the weight of the planks he was forced to move (3.1). And just as with Caliban, these were real, solid bundles of wood that were genuinely difficult to carry.
His encounter with Miranda was observed by some of Ariel’s helpers who stretched a rope, presumably invisible to the pair, that separated them as they spoke. The interval came after this scene.
The second half started with the island’s rogues reeling around, Stephano having retrieved a number of optic bottles still attached a section of bar (3.2). Caliban demonstrated his new-found taste for drink by downing one of the bottles in one. Ariel’s ventriloquism obliged poor Trinculo to wander in search of the mystery voice that was causing him to be beaten.
But the real comedy of this scene resulted from Caliban’s description of Miranda, which caused Stephano to pause when saying “Is it so…. brave a lass?” his animation during this silence expressing his pent up excitement.
Caliban’s speech about his isle of wonder was spoken without any air of poetic mystique and sounded more like a statement of bare fact.
Prospero surveyed the noblemen from the roof of the box as they paused on their journey (3.3). The banquet was brought in on a neon-lit table. A bright flash saw the lavish display of food disappear, with a brief glimpse of the table top revolving, followed by Ariel descending on a wire as the menacing harpy.
The nobles drew their swords and daggers, but Ariel was out of their reach. Weighted down by Ariel’s spell, the nobles admitted defeat, all of which gave Prospero an air of triumph when describing them as being in his power.
Prospero undid Ferdinand’s foot shackles and released him, but still acted the jealous father (4.1). He sent Ariel off to bring the nobles to him. As the spirit moved towards the box, he paused and, as if having summoned sufficient courage to put the question, asked “Do you love me, master? No?” which looked all the more touching for the hesitancy of its delivery.
Preparing Ferdinand and Miranda to watch the spectacle, he separated them saying “Be more abstemious”.
The masque began with Iris descending onto the roof of the box. She called on Ceres, who popped out of the ground. Juno appeared from upstage. As is often the case, the dance of the reapers was not included.
The three figures of Iris (Amie Burns Walker), Ceres (Sarah Belcher) and Juno (Cecilia Noble) were accompanied by spirits who stood close to them and appeared to manipulate their movements. This was reminiscent of Ariel’s initial stilted gait, and the backwards reference implied that he too was being controlled at that point.
Prospero’s revels speech was pronounced by Slinger to such moving effect that it served as a reminder that this young Prospero would next year be playing an old Hamlet.
When Caliban and his roguish companions approached Prospero’s cell, spirits appeared posing as models for the fine clothes intended to distract them from their murderous purpose.
Trinculo and Stephano eagerly grabbed at the garments. A wig taken from one model showed her to have knotted hair underneath. Ariel and his helpers in dog masks chased them away with savage barking.
At the start of act five, warm sunshine shone through an aperture in the back of the set, indicating that 6pm, the time for the completion of Prospero’s plan, was drawing close.
Prospero had now turned gentle, so that his speech abjuring his rough magic was calmly nostalgic about his past glories rather than bitter about the impending loss of the power that had created them.
The nobles appeared inside the box and emerged. While they stood around, Prospero went to change into a good suit. When he reappeared in clean clothes, Ariel did up his master’s jacket buttons in a touching display of affection.
Prospero greeted Gonzalo warmly. He then slapped Antonio on the face in reprimand for his wickedness but almost immediately hugged him uttering words of forgiveness. This indicated that he was still some way towards a complete cure for his rage.
Not surprisingly, given its function as an all-purpose portal for character entrances, the box was used for the discovery of Ferdinand and Miranda playing chess. It was lit from the inside to reveal the pair, causing Alonso great delight.
Ferdinand peered through the transparent side of the box at his father before joining him.
Gonzalo’s list of the various people who had found something or someone they had lost, ended with the comment “and all of us ourselves when no man was his own”, which touched on the overarching theme of the shipwreck trilogy relating to precisely this sort of separation and reunion.
When the rogues rushed in they did not see the nobles at first. It was only until the clothes piled over their faces were removed that they realised their predicament.
Perhaps commenting on his own remnants of ill will, he had after all just slapped his own brother, Prospero did not look at Caliban when conceding ownership of “this thing of darkness”. He gazed instead at the ground, thinking of we know not what.
Caliban promised “be wise hereafter and seek for grace”. As he exited he passed close to Miranda and looked her up and down, reminding us of his attack on her in the backstory.
Mirroring his spirit companion’s earlier gesture, Prospero unbuttoned Ariel’s jacket to symbolise his release. Ariel fully removed the garment, as did the other Ariels that had shadowed him as assistants.
The house lights came up for the epilogue, which Prospero ended with his head bowed waiting for our applause.
Jonathan Slinger’s Prospero was no kindly ageing magus but a spitting ball of fury. His final mercy towards his brother was not an instantaneous transformation but, judging by the residual aggression towards Antonio, more of a work in progress.
It was as if playing Macbeth for so long the previous year had left an indelible mark.
Julius Caesar, Royal Shakespeare Theatre Stratford, 9 June 2012
An unmistakably African crowd thronged inside a crumbling stadium, its steep steps interrupted by a central entrance tunnel. Outside the stadium, to the rear of this main space, stood a massive statue of a man facing away from us with his arm raised in despotic salutation.
The masonry resembled an approximation of Roman architecture, only the reinforcement protruding from the crumbling concrete confirmed the structure to be modern.
This deliberate confusion of ancient and modern pointed to the production’s keynote emphasis on making this Roman history play relevant to the contemporary world.
The house lights were kept up at the start of the performance when the onstage crowd were told to go “Hence, home…” in an attempt to make the audience feel part of the populace.
When he appeared in his white suit, Caesar looked like an ageing wannabe autocrat, brandishing a chieftain’s fly whisk (1.2). He was greeted by supporters wearing his stylised picture on t-shirts, chanting his name.
Paterson Joseph played Brutus with the lightweight self-satisfaction of the skilless rebel displaying a kind of empty vanity. Cassius by contrast was worthy but dull. During their first secretive conversation, he constantly looked around as if wary of informers.
Their familiarity was emphasised when Brutus and Cassius made a game of repeating “Eyes see but by reflection” as if this was some kind of private joke.
Cassius appeared bone dry when he encountered wise old Casca during the storm (1.3).
Brutus’ thinking aloud about joining the conspiracy against Caesar (2.1) was very eloquent. However, there was a hint that this eloquence was the result of him addressing the audience rather slowly and deliberately as if he considered us dull-witted. Seen in this light, he displayed a certain intellectual vanity.
But there was a brief flash of humour when he explained that the letter left for him by Brutus could be read by the light of the exhalations. We all knew this was thanks to the stage lighting.
The conspiratorial faction entered and stood on the steps. We began to see Brutus asserting control and making series of fateful decisions. He was tragic because he was unaware of his own incompetence. He contradicted the others at least three times, the most serious instance of which was to leave Antony alive.
Portia was excellent in pointing out the hypocrisy of Brutus telling her not to walk in the fresh air while doing so himself and claiming to be ill. She showed her “voluntary wound”, which she slapped when dispatching Lucius to the Senate.
By 2.2 Caesar was an old man who looked as if he was failing. Decius skilfully contradicted Calphurnia’s interpretation of his dream and fed his vanity. The conspirators came to fetch Caesar and they all left through the tunnel. Artemidorus read his warning from the roof of the tunnel (2.3).
The Soothsayer stood on the tunnel roof as Caesar and the conspirators entered, the space now representing the Senate. There was tension as Popilius seemed to have rumbled them.
Caesar was stabbed from behind. Brutus stood at the edge of the stage right walkway and simply looked on without taking part, but stabbed last after Caesar had seen him and commented on his apparent treachery.
Even here Brutus was telling people what to do. The “Stoop Romans” was his idea. He had another idea “Let’s all cry ‘Peace’…” he insisted. He paused after the word “peace” which underlined the absurdity of a blood-drenched assassin speaking of that concept.
In the aftermath of the murder, the conspirators warily drew daggers on others who approached them.
Antony entered boldly and shook their bloody hands. When he had finished he looked at his now blood-stained hands and shrieked when the reality of Caesar’s death struck home.
Brutus told Antony “to you our swords have leaden points” but then pointed his dagger right at Antony when instructing him how to proceed with the funeral oration. This was another Brutus error.
Mark Antony’s amazing “Cry Havoc” soliloquy reached a powerful conclusion whose force prefigured how formidable an opponent he would turn out to be.
People gathered around the tunnel entrance to hear Brutus speak (3.2). They nodded and agreed with him. Caesar’s shrouded body was brought in below and Antony spoke from the tunnel roof. At first he could not make himself heard, leading into famous speech opening in which he begged audience.
He took a cup of water from the Soothsayer and poured it down onto the ground before saying “He was my friend”. He turned away from the audience and paused with emotion before continuing, which was very effective.
Antony descended to the stage and the plinth on which Caesar body was laid rose to about waist height. Antony pulled the cover off to reveal Caesar’s bloody wounds. He spat out the victorious words “Now let it work” when people had changed to support him.
In a striking reference to the recent history of South Africa, in 3.3 Cinna the Poet was killed by necklacing. A tyre was put around his neck and he was doused with petrol. His killers escorted him through the tunnel offstage. A red glow of flame from behind the stadium steps indicated his fiery fate.
That red glow was seen again, this time from the fires sweeping the whole of Rome, when the uniformed Antony, Octavius and Lepidus gathered for 4.1 and organised their purge.
The setting changed to the rebel encampment (4.2/3). Canvas was attached to the sides of the tunnel entrance to make it into a doorway of a tent. A camp table and chairs were placed centre stage. When arguing with Cassius, Brutus was even more annoying than usual. He physically attacked the Poet when ordering him to leave, which made Brutus look very cruel.
They sat around the table with Titinius and Messala. Brutus pretended that he had not heard the news about Portia and made game out of denying it. “Why, farewell Portia” was spoken as false grief. He was evidently bored at this news being brought to him again. This deception was another example of his sense of superiority.
Cassius’ proposed tactics to be adopted at Philippi, letting their opponent tire themselves in their advance, were explained using stones to represent the embattled forces. Brutus contradicted Cassius, using oranges to represent the supporters and provisions that Antony’s army would acquire as they advanced towards them. This was yet another wrong call by Brutus.
The tide analogy was explained by gestures indicating the different levels of water. This actually looked good as it explained the advantage of being at the high tide.
Brutus’ companions fell asleep in the tent. Lucius nodded off sat before an African lyre instrument, still working it with his thumbs to comical effect when Brutus took it from him. The stage stilled for the ghost sequence.
“How ill this taper burns!” saw the candle dim making the stage darker, which served as the cue for appearance of Caesar’s ghost. The statue at the back turned 90 degrees to the right and fell Saddam statue-style to the ground. Caesar entered with a white cloth over his head, which he removed to show his saluting form, a direct echo of the statue.
Afterwards Brutus checked with the others to see if they had seen anything, and when they replied in the negative, this foolishly enabled him to conclude that nothing had actually happened. This was typical of his capacity for self-deception.
The two armies met for a parlay with their Kalashnikovs (5.1). “Good words are better than bad strokes”, said Brutus cockily, clearly convinced that he was witty.
Lucius held his gun upside down, which Brutus corrected. The final farewell between Brutus and Cassius was touching. Given the impending disaster signposted by Brutus’ folly, it looked very timely.
When the day was lost (5.3) Pindarus killed Cassius instantly at the very moment that he covered his face with his hand. This was a very logical and obedient reaction to his instruction, but looked as if Pindarus had jumped the gun and killed him when Cassius was merely demonstrating the fatal sign. Then again, taking him by surprise could have been an attempt to reduce Cassius’ anxious expectation of death.
Titinius and Messala seemed happy until they saw Cassius dead, but Titinius did not kill himself as per the text, so that Brutus found only Cassius’ body.
After the brief scene (5.4) in which Lucilius impersonated Brutus and was captured, Brutus and his men rested on the steps (5.5). Explosions were heard in the background, which served as alarums. In his final gesture, Brutus got Lucius, not Strato, to hold his sword and ran himself through with it.
Transferring the action to Africa worked, particularly with the necklacing reference. The genuine and approximated east African accents provided an extra twang to the musicality of the verse.
But with its focus on Brutus at the expense of Cassius, and the underscoring of the former’s ineptitude, the final moments of the production in which he was praised as “the noblest Roman of them all” appeared strange and unwarranted.
The Taming of the Shrew, Royal Shakespeare Theatre Stratford, 28 January 2012
Wrapped up in the framing device of the Christopher Sly induction, tucked in among the comic folds of the Bianca/Lucentio subplot, right at the heart of this production, lay the mystery of the relationship between Katherine and Petruchio.
While the various layers of packaging were neatly presented and heartily amusing, some ingenious tinkering with the core of the play made it truly sophisticated and provocative.
The programme cover showed the pair on bed sheets with blonde Katherine gritting her teeth as her hand grasped Petruchio’s jaw, pulling his head back into a contortion that showed her sadistic domination of him. This image was a reversal of the dynamic of the play in which Petruchio has the upper hand.
Productions can sometimes show Kate ironically playing along with Petruchio’s taming game or give us a Kate who is genuinely ground down by his macho piggery.
The role reversal in the photo hinted at how this production managed to dramatise our ambivalent reactions and interpretations of the text. This version explored the mystery by presenting us with a mystery.
The set was made to look like an enormous bed with a sheet draped over the thrust, and steps at the back hidden under a billow of fabric that looked at first like a bolster, but which with time was trampled down to a reveal the steps underneath. A curving back wall like a large headboard could open in whole or in part to represent spaces beyond the immediate scene of action.
The entry of Katherine (Lisa Dillon) and the rest of her family in 1.1 was transformed from a simple appearance in a public place into the occasion of her marriage to a suitor.
Escorted in formal procession, she was held within a shrew’s violin: a wooden restraint with holes for the neck and arms. The neck violin was removed and she and the groom knelt while the priest began to perform the marriage ceremony.
All seemed normal until she suddenly punched her intended husband in the crotch, rose to her feet and began fighting madly. She brandished the neck violin, kicked and scrapped, scattering the assembled company.
When her anger had abated, Baptista spoke to Bianca’s suitors to remind them that the younger daughter could not be wed until her sister Katherine had been successfully married off. Katherine protested about being made a ‘stale’, still out of breath from violently dispatching her previous suitor. Her words in this context were more powerful as she had displayed the vehemence behind them.
There was more disruptive behaviour from her at the start of act two. We could see that Katherine had bound Bianca’s wrists with rope, stuffed an apple in her mouth, and painted her face with exaggerated make-up in an attempt to get Bianca to say which of her suitors she most admired.
Hortensio tried to introduce her to the lute, but she broke it over his head offstage. The fake tutor returned to show the hole punched through the middle of it. Given Katherine’s use of the neck violin as a weapon when we first saw her, her violent appropriation of an actual stringed instrument seemed somehow apt. The lute became thematically linked with the restraint seen in the interpolated action of 1.1.
Her first encounter with Petruchio began as might have been expected given her previous behaviour. In the face of his confident attempts at dominating her, and at a heavily built 6’ 4” David Caves was certainly an imposing presence, Katherine gave as good as she got. Petruchio lay on the ground and invited Kate to sit on him, which she did, but by sitting directly on his face. As indicated in the text, she slapped him causing him to threaten to strike her.
Undaunted by her resistance, Petruchio insisted that Kate would be married to him. Her response was to urinate where she stood in silent resistance. She spat in his face, but Petruchio merely wiped the spittle away, tasting it with relish.
They were by all appearances an ill-matched couple. But the production had already subtly hinted at underlying connections between the combatants.
When we first saw her, Kate, despite her frustration and aggression, sometimes lay down on the huge bed sheet covering the stage. This relaxed posture was one that was adopted by only two other characters: Petruchio and his mini-me servant Grumio.
Kate and Petruchio both sported that emblem of rebellion and nonconformity, the tattoo. Kate had her name inked onto her shoulder while Petruchio had some patterns on his arms. He also acquired some new tattoos of Kate’s name just before their marriage.
When relaxing at home, Kate would routinely lounge around with the top of her slip showing. She shared this sartorial casualness with Petruchio, whose wedding outfit was the epitome of casual.
In the light of Kate’s first failed wedding, the day of her marriage to Petruchio proved to be a turning point in the production.
Instead of planning to attack Petruchio, Kate’s main complaint was that he might not turn up at the church, saying he “Yet never means to wed where he hath woo’d”.
When Petruchio and Kate returned from the wedding, we heard plenty about his misbehaviour, but nothing of Kate’s resistance. Seen in the context of her first onstage ‘marriage’ this wedding appeared to proceed with her consent.
Kate refused to depart with Petruchio, who responded by turning Kate into a Cleopatra in reverse, wrapping her up in a carpet and carrying her off.
Petruchio’s household, which we saw at the start of act four, was squalid and tatty; very much in need of the funds that his marriage to Kate would have brought him. Petruchio burst through the door and stood in the doorway, laughing and scattering bank notes over his servants.
This created the impression that money was his main incentive for marrying, something accentuated by Kate’s ignoble entrance crawling along the ground under the coats of the retainers.
As Petruchio began to tame Kate like a wild bird, keeping her awake and denying her sustenance, there seemed to be little change in her defiance. After trying to get Grumio to bring her food, she heard Petruchio coming and pretended to have hanged herself by lying next to an overturned chair with a noose round her neck. Petruchio saw straight through the deception.
With Kate denied her cap and gown, Petruchio decided to head back to her father’s house and berated Kate for contradicting him. At this stage he appeared to be more or less in charge, but Kate still resisted his absolute control.
On the journey back to Padua, Kate was holding a candlestick holder and a copper saucepan. Petruchio insisted that she agree with his version of reality, taking the sun for the moon. She sarcastically agreed with him, prompting Petruchio to change his mind so that moon became sun once again.
Then an interesting thing happened. Kate approached him with candlestick and saucepan in hand. Standing toe to toe with her oppressor she said:
What you will have it nam’d, even that it is,
And so it shall be so for Katherine.
Her words were those of defeat, but her delivery of them made plain her persistent refusal to submit. There was a pause as Petruchio gazed long at her. He faltered for something to say and then they continued.
Petruchio appeared to be changed, almost impressed, by her continuing defiance. If this was a relationship with chemistry, then both of them were undergoing transformation.
Kate continued to play a sarcastic game when Petruchio demanded she address old Vincentio as a young woman.
Another facet of Kate and Petruchio’s complex and evolving relationship was revealed after the real Vincentio had been reunited with his family.
Petruchio asked Kate for a kiss, but she was reluctant to comply. He made to leave but Kate called him back and granted his wish. This formed the first true moment of tenderness between them and also the first time that we saw Petruchio grant Kate a request. In the context of what happened on the road to Padua, Kate must now have realised that she did indeed have some power over Petruchio.
The final scene of the play took place after the weddings of two other couples. Kate was wearing Petruchio’s hat.
The precise meaning of this was open to different interpretations.
Looked at one way, it marked Kate’s capitulation and acceptance of Petruchio’s choice of headwear. The battle commenced back at his house had been won. When Petruchio supported his wife in her spat with the Widow, she was symbolically tied to him, so that she was wearing his battle colours.
But on the other hand it could also be seen as her adopting, and in some sense owning, a symbol of Petruchio’s male power.
This ambivalence was one of many in the production, and the final scene in the play brought them all into focus.
Petruchio placed his bet that Kate would come when he called her and she duly returned when requested. As she walked back onstage, still wearing his hat, she had something of a smirk on her face.
Her “What is your will, sir, that you send for me?” contained a hint of jocular sarcasm that seemed to point the production towards the knowing, ironic, tongue-in-cheek end of the interpretative scale. At this point, it seemed that the pair were colluding in a joke at the expense of the others, which would fit with the more optimistic reading of Kate wearing her husband’s hat.
Kate brought the other women back into the room. Petruchio ordered her to throw her cap to the ground, which meant that she discarded her husband’s own hat. The complexity of meaning inherent in her donning the hat therefore also came into play in the opposite sense when she removed it.
Kate did not respond immediately to Petruchio’s final request that she should tell the other women about their duties as wives. Kate paused and mulled over what to do, by no means obeying instantly.
The other men reacted in triumph, thinking that Petruchio’s luck had finally run out and that he had not succeeded in taming his shrew completely.
Kate sat down on a chair, paused and then began to speak in utter earnestness her long speech about the subjugation of wife to husband.
Her tone of voice had none of the sarcastic knowingness of her previous utterance. She did not appear to be playing games. Her straightforwardness and sincere belief in what she was saying stunned the others into silence.
As her long speech drew to a close she stood up, approached Petruchio and placed her hand on the ground for him to step on. This was done quietly and without any playful winks or nods to indicate that it was part of a game cooked up by the couple as a prank at the others’ expense.
Instead of proudly accepting her submissive gesture, Petruchio got on his knees in front of Kate and bowed his head into her lap. The pair rose and went off hand in hand upstage. As Petruchio proudly stated that the others were “sped”, he and Kate began undressing before getting under the stage bed sheet to consummate their union.
By showing us a Katherine who could be read as both defeated by Petruchio and Petruchio’s equal, the production refused to fit neatly into either of the two simplistic ways of staging the core relationship between tamer and tamed.
Its sophistication meant that we were never sure what was actually happening between the couple and were left asking questions about the very nature of what we had seen.
The production managed to dramatise our ambivalent interpretations of the play to create something of lasting, thought-provoking worth.
For example, why did Katherine pause before launching into her final speech? What did that pause tell us about her belief in the words she eventually uttered?
Was Petruchio’s pause when challenged by Kate on their return to Padua simply him catching his breath, or a moment in which his belief in his innate male superiority faltered, paving the way for his more respectful treatment of Kate when she eventually offered him her foot to tread on?
The contradictions and ambiguities of the production posed the same difficulties we meet in trying to understand real people, which was more rewarding than simply presenting us with characters running along a single, predictable track.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Royal Shakespeare Theatre Stratford, 17 September 2011
The stage was dressed as an industrial unit with a roller door to the rear and a metal staircase with landing on the left. A sofa stood stage left and a café table with two chairs were placed downstage right. An armchair stood upstage right.
The sound of running water could be heard offstage before the start of the performance. During this time, some audience members accidentally wandered onto the main stage to investigate the origin of the sound.
Characters entered in dribs and drabs. Two punky looking women played cards at the café table, while a woman in a fur coat sat alone on the sofa. She stared out disconsolately towards the audience, lost in her own thoughts.
This was very reminiscent of the start of the RSC’s Merchant of Venice in which Scott Handy’s Antonio had done a similar thing in the Las Vegas casino.
We were meant to understand that Pippa Nixon’s Hippolyta was unhappy. Those familiar with recent Merchant could well have expected her first words to have been “In sooth, I know not why I am so sad”.
Smoke started to emerge from a trap door downstage. Alex Hassell’s Demetrius went to investigate, opened the door and wafted the smoke away. Soon a team of repair men, the mechanicals, arrived via the roller door and descended the trap with tools and a length of air duct.
The industrial unit took on the air of a seedy nightclub as besuited doormen shuffled and looked nervous as if expecting the arrival of someone important. Demetrius stood in position and polished a shoe on the back of his trouser leg.
Theseus entered. He wore a suit, but the ponytail and rough accent marked him out as a shifty criminal.
All this detail made it perfectly plain that the production was not going to be another twee, sylvan version of the play. Hippolyta was deliberately portrayed as discontented in order to create an interesting twist.
Theseus complained about the time remaining until the wedding. Hippolyta contradicted him, but was evidently not relishing the prospect of becoming his bride. Theseus talked about wedding her “in another key” and showed her expensive presents including jewellery. She was again unimpressed. He tried to caress her but she spurned him.
Egeus brought in Hermia (Matti Houghton), who was soon joined by Lysander and Demetrius. Helena (Lucy Briggs-Owen) stood on the landing observing events.
Hermia looked a little like Maxine Peake. She had her hair short and wore a combination of heavy boots with a pinafore dress. Helena was the complete opposite with her designer outfits and vague, foppish upper class accent.
Egeus produced the knacks and trifles with which Lysander had allegedly won Hermia away from Demetrius. There was an undercurrent of humour in his paternal officiousness.
Demetrius and Lysander stood downstage facing Theseus and sparred with each other over Hermia.
After confirming the death ultimatum to Hermia, Theseus led the others out. As he passed Hippolyta, he asked her “What cheer my love?” whereupon she spat at him. As Benedick might have said, “This looks not like a nuptial”. As Theseus and his party left, Helena descended the stairs and crossed the stage to exit in pursuit of Demetrius.
Hermia and Lysander planned to run away. The sentiment underlying their conversation here seemed too fey and flighty for the grim urban setting. Hermia, in particular, did not look like the kind of girl to ponder wistfully on the vagaries of love. Her line about the vows that men have broke, sounded too plaintiff for her wiry character. But this was a minor flaw in the mood of the piece that did not spoil the whole.
When Helena complained about Demetrius ignoring her, she came across as dippy, vague and insecure. Her neat white coat and well-groomed appearance meant that she seemed an alien in this louche demi-monde. After they had formed their various plans, the young people exited and someone turned the lights out leaving it in darkness.
At the start of the next scene (1.2) the repair men came out of the trap door into the dark room and set about making arrangements for their play using their torches for lighting. They messed around in the dark, scaring each other, until one of them turned the light switch back on.
Marc Wooton was indisposed that evening and the performance lost nothing from Bottom being played by his understudy, the excellent Felix Hayes, whom I had last seen as a mechanical in the Tobacco Factory’s Dream.
Bottom’s boastful attention-seeking attempt to take on all the parts in the play was fun to watch. He used a piece of air duct to represent the lion’s mane when roaring. Flute protested about playing Thisbe and paused saying “I have a beard… coming”: the hasty correction indicated that his obviously bare chin had made his initial statement untenable.
When Quince handed round the parts, most of the mechanicals got a thin wad of paper, but Bottom got a thick one, emphasising the size of his part. They made much of the “hold, or cut bowstrings” phrase, turning it into the motto of their group.
At the start of act two the set changed to represent the forest. The door rolled up to reveal cut-out trees. The women who had previously hung around the club entered through the hatch hissing like cats. When they tended on Hippolyta, sat in an armchair stage right, it became obvious that they were fairies of the forest.
The fairies responded to Puck (another understudy, Lanre Malaolu) as the multiple voices of one fairy character.
In a crucial sequence, they took off Hippolyta’s coat and dressed her as Titania. This onstage costume change indicated that the characters were linked, indeed one and the same person in different settings. Puck was now holding a broom, which had previously been part of warehouse club set.
Analogous with the Hippolyta/Titania doubling, Oberon was played by the same actor as Theseus. When the king of fairies entered, we could see that he was basically Theseus with his ponytail down and with a more regal sounding voice. However, unlike Hippolyta/Titania, there was no explicit transformation between the characters.
Titania rose to encounter him. Her voice and demeanour were also different, exuding an air of serenity and power.
At this moment the forest sequence began to look like poor, downtrodden Hippolyta’s wish-fulfilment fantasy in which she had become the equal of her husband. We were looking at an alternative world made specially for Hippolyta in which Theseus/Oberon was a familiar feature but not a fellow adventurer. And, of course, fantasies lack real substance and the world is unchanged when they end.
Bold and confident, Pippa Nixon’s portrayal of Titania was one of the best performances I have ever seen. Her delivery of the “forgeries of jealousy” line was particularly striking.
She demonstrated the story of the pregnant Indian woman using one of her fairies, who walked across the stage under a lattice light. A series of fake changelings deceived Oberon, who chased after each in turn finding them to be just bundles of clothes with no child inside.
After Titania and her fairies exited, Oberon instructed Puck to fetch the special flower. Puck put a girdle “round about” the earth using the Q1 version of the phrase.
Demetrius entered pursued by Helena. Oberon drew back next to some fairies who were standing by the cut-out trees in the doorway, waving their arms to look like trees as a form of stylised camouflage.
Helena’s gauche, posh gawkiness began to turn unstable. She got down on all fours like a spaniel to illustrate her devotion to Demetrius. But her beloved merely sat on the back of the sofa, took off a shoe, showed it to her as if playing with a dog and then cast it to one side, gesturing at her to fetch it.
She duly obliged. Helena crawled over to where it had fallen, picked it up in her mouth and brought it back to him. This occurred just in time for Demetrius to tell her “You do impeach your modesty too much”, which in context became a funny line.
Helena ran after Demetrius and as she passed by Oberon, he gestured with his hand and held her motionless, promising her that their roles would be reversed and she would eventually flee from Demetrius.
Puck brought in the flower. Oberon dispatched him to find the Athenian lover and apply the magic juice of the flower in his eyes.
Titania descended on a sofa (2.2) and was attended by fairies. Oberon placed the flower juice in her eyes as she slept. She was then hoisted up into the air.
Lysander and Hermia bedded down for the night having become exhausted. She had brought a sleeping bag and a toothbrush, which she used while giving Lysander the brush-off, telling him to settle further away from her.
Puck thought he had found the right Athenian and put juice in Lysander’s eyes, who helpfully rose up to facilitate the juicing.
Helena’s pursuit of Demetrius through the forest was staged using some stylised slow movements. They each clambered in slow-motion past fairies who acted as obstacles to their smooth progress.
She looked dishevelled with her hair frazzled. Her clothes were torn, tattered and smeared with mud as a result of the obstacles. This was quite a change from her previous tidy and finely dressed appearance.
After a brief exchange of words with Helena, Demetrius ran off and Helena broke down completely in her “ugly as a bear speech”. She sobbed and grizzled and shrieked in a brilliant tableau of a woman completely at the end of her tether. She spied Lysander and woke him in the hope he could be of help.
Helena’s wide-eyed look of complete shock in the face of Lysander’s effusive declarations of love was made funnier by the young man being completely oblivious to her muddied, bruised body and tattered hair. The staging here was perhaps one of the best realisations of the absurdity of this situation I have seen.
Lysander adopted a kind of Mr Loverman flirting with her, which again looked totally out of place. He danced suggestively and sang some of his lines, so that the inherent rhythm and rhyme of the text’s verse became tuneful.
Helena ran off with Lysander pursuing. Hermia woke from her disturbed dream and realised that her beloved had gone.
The mechanicals rehearsed their play (3.1) and Bottom, who had brought along a salami for his lunch, indulged in some incredible overacting. His sonorous voice boomed out as he bestrode the stage. He also indicated the finger gesture that Wall had to make to represent the cranny through which Pyramus and Thisbe were to meet. Flute had his hat pulled down firmly over his head.
Quince encouraged Flute to raise the pitch of his voice when acting as Thisbe. He did not get the point a first until Quince stuffed his top out to make him look female, after which he talked in an excessively high-pitched voice.
Puck’s transformation of Bottom saw him return with a hair piece made to look like ears, as if it were a natural extension of own hair; tin cans on the end of his hands for hooves and a salami swinging from his groin area. This looked brilliant, though possibly not what the teachers in charge of a party of schoolchildren were expecting.
The other mechanicals ran off leaving Bottom to sing. Titania’s sofa bower descended from above. She awoke and fell in love with him. As she knelt before Bottom and felt at his feet/hooves, her gaze descended to his salami on the word “beautiful”.
Her “Out of this wood do not desire to go” was both languorous and commanding. This also hinted at the wish-fulfilment dream quality of the forest sequences. A procession of the fairies led the group off the stage, with the changeling in a low-slung pram, after which came the interval.
The second half began with scene 3.2. Puck reported to Oberon on Titania’s enchantment with Bottom. Demetrius and Hermia appeared on the stage right walkway. She was now also bedraggled and mucky. Hermia railed at Demetrius, suspecting that he had killed Lysander. She stormed off leaving Demetrius to lie down on the sofa.
Oberon’s “What hast thou done?” got a big laugh, possibly because of the extreme understatement of the question in relation to the chaos unleashed.
Puck was sarcastic with his “Look how I go”s but Oberon chased him away so that Puck’s line about being swifter than a Tartar’s bow was said in panic as he ran off.
In an attempt to rectify the situation, Oberon put juice in Demetrius’ eyes, who helpfully sat up on the sofa to facilitate the dosing, then sank back down again. Here, as often in the production, chairs were flown in and suspended just above those being enchanted.
Helena tried to rebuff the pursuing Lysander but she fell back over the sofa onto Demetrius waking him up and causing him to fall in love with her.
An instant rivalry emerged between Demetrius and Lysander, who alternated between expressing devotion to Helena and mildly slapping each other. Demetrius adopted a kung fu posture when saying “lest to thy peril thou aby it dear” just before Hermia entered on stage right walkway.
Helena began to look even more saucer-eyed in amazement at what she now thought was a three-person conspiracy. Her unkempt appearance was now accentuated by foot dragging due to a broken heel. Helena began to argue with Hermia and during this time the men variously nodded in agreement with everything bad that Helena said about Hermia and otherwise doted on her.
At one point both just lounged around and looked in adoration at their beloved, each with a hand on their cheek, creating a simple but very pleasing image of their supernaturally induced affections. At another, their rivalry erupted into a pillow fight.
Hermia clung to Lysander’s leg as he tried to walk off the stage left walkway. She then railed against Helena who retaliated by calling Hermia a puppet. The enraged Hermia flew at Helena as the others tried to restrain her, eventually pinning her still struggling body down on the sofa.
Demetrius punched the air in triumph when Helena said that she still had “a foolish heart” for him. The chaos ended with Helena running off on her long legs.
Oberon instructed Puck to lead the men astray and make them tired so that they would sleep. Chairs descended to create a forest of furniture through which lovers wended their way.
Puck arranged that each of the lovers collapsed and slept on a chair downstage. The other chairs were then cleared out of the way. The four chairs on which the lovers were slouched rose up. They clung to them until they stood upright, after which the chairs continued to rise beyond their reach. With the chairs gone, the young men and women collapsed into their respective couples, falling back to the ground in a neat cuddle puddle. Puck finished the job by juicing Lysander properly.
The armchair bower was flown in (4.1) so that Titania and Bottom could make themselves comfy and fall asleep. Oberon reversed the spell on her, while Puck simply removed the hair piece from Bottom’s head.
There followed what the production called the Transformation Dance. Oberon and Titania celebrated their reconciliation with a close dance in which they gradually dressed themselves and each other as Theseus and Hippolyta.
A striking component of this dance was a series of movements in which Titania bent over touching one foot with her hands, extending the other leg into the air. This allowed Oberon to place a shoe on each of her feet in turn. Their clothes were taken from the nearby sofa.
At this point it was not clear whether the end of the dream would just deposit Hippolyta back into her original world, making the dream a brief but happy escape from reality. But the reconciliation endured and the transformation affected both her and Theseus, implying that all of this had been much more than just a dream inside her head. The real world beyond the fantasy had been affected.
With the transformation complete they stood on stage as Theseus and Hippolyta. All the incongruous references to hounds were cut. The lovers woke up, and Demetrius stuttered slightly when trying to explain the night’s events.
Given the continuation of the dream’s effect in the waking world, Demetrius’ question as to whether the lovers were still dreaming seemed very pertinent.
Bottom awoke and brought out the bawdy overtones of his speech describing “what I had”. Before settling on Bottom’s Dream as the title for the ballad about his adventures, he also suggested Donkey Bonky and Ass Matic, the first of which would have been an excellent alternative title for the play.
A brief scene followed (4.2) saw Bottom reunited with his fellow mechanicals. They went off to prepare play. When Flute said that a paramour was a thing of naught, he gestured with his hands, lewdly indicating an O shape.
The beginning of act five saw another interesting moment illuminating the relationship between the play’s dream world and its real world. Hippolyta said how strange the lovers’ account of their night in the forest sounded. Theseus dismissed it as madness.
Hippolyta, however, tellingly gave more credence to the reality of what they had related. Her speech was perfectly fitted to someone who had somehow shared in the dream, seen its reality and wanted to hint at the fact that it had some substance:
But all the story of the night told over,
And all their minds transfigured so together,
More witnesseth than fancy’s images,
And grows to something of great constancy;
But howsoever, strange and admirable.
Pippa Nixon spoke this speech as if her character possessed more knowledge than she was letting on, enhancing the feeling that Hippolyta had indeed experienced the world of Titania.
The actor playing Puck reappeared as Philostrate and read out the list of entertainments through a mic with Theseus replying to the suggestions.
The couples took up positions: Demetrius and Hermia lay on the stage right walkway, Theseus and Hippolyta likewise at the bottom of the centre stage steps, while Helena and Lysander rested on the stage left walkway.
The mechanicals’ stage was brought in through the roller door. It consisted of a narrow platform with a rudimentary curtain pulled across it. All their props and stage equipment had been improvised from work materials.
Snug blew on a primitive trumpet interrupting Quince’s prologue. Quince got annoyed and slapped him with the papers of his prepared speech scattering them on ground. In his panic he tried to remember the speech and this was the origin of the errors in his badly punctuated recitation.
As Quince introduced the characters, the actors trotted up and down and rotated in a circle so that we could see each of them in turn.
Pyramus wore armour made out of dustbin lids. Thisbe sported a wig and the bare framework of a dress. Man in the moon had a torch, a twig and a dog whose body was the extendable scissor arm of a shaving mirror on wheels. Lion’s mane consisted of wallpaper paste brushes arranged in a circle around his head. Wall dressed in grey with no actual wall-like features.
In the prologue, Pyramus and Thisbe each used a dagger to stab themselves in turn, but inadvertently hit Wall, who was standing behind them, in the stomach.
Wall came forward and extended his hands in front him making a scissor shape with his fingers to represent the two ends of the cranny through the masonry. Pyramus did some excellent sonorous overacting. He and Thisbe tried to get close to each other, but Wall fought to separate them by moving his hands, and by extension the wall surfaces, until they were far apart.
The couple eventually overcame this obstacle and kissed each other. The male mechanical actors reacted in shock at what they had done, but despite this were later revealed behind the curtain kissing each other enthusiastically.
Lion’s footsteps were marked by clip-clop noises. He played along with this by tapping his feet in a rhythm, so that the coconuts played a tune. Moonshine had problems getting his dog to behave and sit up straight, causing him to adjust it manually. He became frustrated at the comments from wedding party.
Pyramus overacted gloriously and died. After her multiple adieus, Thisbe collapsed dead with her face on Pyramus’ groin. The Bergomask dance involved two mechanicals Quo dancing with loud music, which fused the lights. This obliged them to go down the hatch in order to solve the problem, which got them neatly off stage to make room for Oberon and Puck’s finale to the play.
The enchantment of the house saw the theatre galleries lit with UV lights to match the stage lighting. The uniform illumination of stage and auditorium really made the theatre feel like one building, one of the key ambitions of the RST’s new thrust stage configuration. Confetti was thrown down from the upper galleries to create a magic atmosphere.
Puck’s concluding speech was very well spoken and paced and produced big rounds of applause.
It is good to see bold experiments work, and this particular take on the play worked very well.
Making the forest sequence a dream experienced by Hippolyta, but one which transformed her and the surrounding world, made for a very satisfying result.
The great thing about this production was that just where you thought the play would break by being wrenched into a new shape, the text would in places surprisingly accommodate the precise reading that was being mapped onto it.
I had wanted to see the production again in Stratford, but it had more or less sold out. So I’m now pinning my hopes on a London transfer. The staging did not involve too much complication and trickery, which means it could work well at the Roundhouse.
Stratford, 8/9 July 2011
Some additional insights gained from a second look at three of the RSC’s current productions.
The Merchant of Venice
The stunning opening Elvis number was great fun, its impact undiminished on a repeat view.
But at the other end of the production, the puzzling finale gained in clarity a second time around.
A conscious search for the meaning of Portia’s mad dance focused attention on a brief series of gestures that unlocked the mystery of the closing sequence.
Portia sat between the Antonio and Bassanio and glanced down as their hands clasped across her lap. She wrinkled her nose in disgust as she realised the true nature of their relationship.
The fact that it took two views to see this properly points to a problem with the production. Other audience members have found the ending of this Merchant confusing. This appears to have been a widespread problem.
The screenplay origins of the production could be to blame. Rupert Goold originally intended to make a film version of the Merchant set in Las Vegas, but ended up presenting this intriguing take on the story in the theatre.
The detail of the denouement could have been easily portrayed on film through close-up. But things work differently on stage and adapting this idea for the theatre proved problematic. On a thrust, with many looking sideways on, the crucial moment would have been difficult to see from all parts of the auditorium.
The need for significant staging elements to be immediately obvious and clearly visible throughout the theatre is something that should be considered by future RST productions.
Gregory Doran’s re-imagining of the Shakespeare/Fletcher “lost” play was well worth seeing again.
Regardless of the debate surrounding the play’s provenance, it worked extremely well in the theatre.
The Saturday 9 July matinee was recorded for V&A theatre archive. Three cameras occupied the back of the centre stalls to capture the action.
I managed to resist the temptation to send Greg Doran a postcard purporting to come from Lewis Theobald in reply to Greg’s open letter to the dramatist at the end of the published text of this production.
No additional clarity resulted from another exposure to this production’s quirky decision to have Ross as a priestly choric figure, prompting Malcolm’s opening and closing speeches, commenting on events, with all this amid what looked like a Reformation setting.
Untroubled by futile attempts at working out the rationale behind the cutting and rearrangement of the text to accommodate the revamped Ross, it was possible to appreciate the pressure and tension in the staging. This made Jonathan Slinger’s Macbeth more prominent.
There were gasps from the audience when Macduff’s children were murdered, which demonstrated the power of the story and its ability to affect profoundly first-time viewers of the play.
The shock of seeing the child witches hanging in mid-air lost no force the second time around. This simple yet most arresting image had a high degree of traction.
For some reason, possibly the result of ruminating on this production’s avenging ghost army, Macduff’s line about his wife and children’s ghosts haunting him stood out particularly. And of course at this point his family were actually trailing behind him, making his conjecture literally true.
London transfers of productions designed specifically for the new RST will not be able to replicate fully the precise stagings of the originals. Consequently it makes more sense to get a second glimpse of these productions in Stratford instead of waiting for a London performance that compromises on the directorial vision.
A deeper question is why two of the current productions require second views to appreciate them fully. A repeat look should be a luxury and not a necessity.
The search for innovation, for “original” stagings of classic plays, risks going beyond the audience’s capacity to register what has been done.