Love Is My Sin, Swan Stratford, 8 January 2011
Peter Brook selected some of Shakespeare’s sonnets, arranged them to form a dialogue between a man and a woman, and got Michael Pennington and Natasha Parry to perform them to a musical accompaniment from Franck Krawczyk.
The result was a 50-minute piece with no interval that delighted and stimulated without being entirely convincing.
The free programme helpfully listed the sonnets in their order of performance and grouped them by the theme they were meant to illustrate. The programme also told us that Peter Brook considers the sonnets to be autobiographical in that they are a “private diary” in which we can read “Shakespeare’s own, most secret life”.
Below is the list from the programme:
15, 19, 30, 64, 73, 12
57, 29, 97, 50, 44, 27, 49, 87
149, 147, 120, 93, 92, 138, 61, 110, 129, 142, 90, 145
71, 146, 60, 123, 116
Not surprisingly the meditations on the passage of time were taken mostly from the first 126 sonnets, in which the writer exhorts the ‘lovely Boy’ to reproduce before time ravages him or else live on preserved only by the writer’s pen. Similarly, the section on jealousy derived in the main from the Dark Lady sonnets 127-152, in which a love triangle is described.
The performance began with the slow, solemn entry of the actors onto the stage with the musician taking up position behind a keyboard. The stage was dotted with chairs and a table between which the actors moved as their story unfolded.
Hearing the sonnets spoken, with actions fitted to the words, was a delight. There were some touching moments, particularly in the middle of the “jealousy” sequence when after some harsh exchanges we saw the couple momentarily reconciled over the course of sonnet 138 “When my love swears that she is made of truth”. This began with Pennington’s jokey accusation but concluded with the couple cuddling each other as he spoke the lines:
Therefore I lie with her and she with me,
And in our faults by lies we flattered be.
The bit that worked best for me was the superb juxtaposition of sonnet 129 “Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame” with its powerful denunciation of the warped nature of lust, which Parry launched into as an accusatory tirade against her faithless lover, and the titular sonnet 142 “Love is my sin”, which Pennington delivered on his knees in penitence and confession of his faults.
Otherwise there was no clear story arc to be discerned. The themed grouping of the selected sonnets in the programme gave an indication of what Peter Brook was thinking. But in performance the 50 minutes appeared to be a vague to-and-fro of point and retort between the couple that did not have the satisfactory structure of a piece written deliberately as a drama.
However, the final sonnet 116 “Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments” about the immutability of love “That looks on tempests and is never shaken” did provide a fitting conclusion to the sequence, after which the performers walked slowly from the stage just as they had entered.
But the lack of a clear-cut dramatic structure did not detract at all from the simple joy of hearing the sonnets performed and brought to life. It was possible to enjoy the experience and accept each twist and turn in the series of poems without fussing over the bigger picture. It could be appreciated in the moment like one of those cute French films that has people discussing life and the meaning of love, but which ultimately goes nowhere.