Innovation and obscurity at the RSC

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.

Cardenio

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.

Macbeth

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.

Conclusions

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.

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