Monday, August 8, 2011

The Royal treatment

Jonjo O'Neill as Orlando in As You Like It
I've been mulling my assessment of the Royal Shakespeare Company's visit to New York for about a week now - because the achievement and the experience were complex ones, and said quite a bit about Where We Are Now in terms of Shakespearean performance. When the announcements of this unprecedented residency appeared over a year ago - the RSC wasn't merely "touring," but really trying to bring itself to New York, stage and all - I remember the snorts of outrage that emanated from certain quarters of Manhattan. "Why," the response went, "you'd think great Shakespeare was unknown in the Big Apple!"

Well, it turned out that was, indeed, what a lot of people thought (including yours truly; I haven't bothered to attend a Shakespearean production in New York in something like a decade, and I've never seen a great one there that wasn't an import); even at prices higher than your average Broadway show (the best seats went for $250), pretty much the whole residency quickly sold out. What added insult to injury, however, was the news that the donors who had made the trip possible were also largely American.

So it's probably safe to say that many of Manhattan's critics were a bit conflicted about the visit - and unsurprisingly, some (like Michael Feingold and the reliably foolish David Cote) were almost amusingly pissy in their reviews.  Still, they had some genuine ammunition to hand: the RSC productions were at their best very good, but some were uneven, and one (King Lear) was a tedious mess.  And none, not even the highly praised As You Like It - which was often wonderful - was what you would call a triumph through-and-through.  It seemed clear to me that while the RSC had recovered most of the artistic ground it had lost during its financial travails around the millennium, it still wasn't operating at quite the heights I remembered from the days of Trevor Nunn.  And I'd have to point out that most years, the Stratford Festival in Ontario puts up at least one show that would edge out anything I saw in the Park Avenue Armory.  (Amusingly enough, even some British critics are beginning to admit the truth about Canadian theatre.)

What dogged the RSC in New York, I think, was a certain sense of ragged quirkiness - a few odd (or even outright bad) conceptual gambits banged along like tin cans behind even the best productions. As You Like It and Julius Caesar mostly cohered, but even they were beset by curious decisions here and there; meanwhile half of The Winter's Tale (the springtime half) was a welter of weirdness, and if King Lear hadn't been paced as a dirge, it might have sometimes read as a comedy of flat performances and bizarre directorial intent (Edgar wandered around dressed as Christ, for instance, and one scene would often "begin" before the previous one had ended).

Rosalind as a dazzling quilt of effects.
The RSC also seemed unable to make up its mind about exactly what its dominant performance style was going to be. In the old days, the divide between American and British Shakespeare could have been summed up in the following rough contrast: the Yanks concentrated on finding the character, while the Brits devoted themselves to speaking the text. That comparison, of course, was never the whole story, and at any rate the two styles moved together over time - certainly later British actors like "Ken and Em" could pull together both the internals and externals of a Shakespearean performance with ease. (And indeed, Branagh's films of the Bard in the 90's often unintentionally contrasted inept American stars with highly polished Brits.)

In the Park Avenue Armory, however, the RSC's actors seemed to hop between modes at will. Greg Hicks was a Method-tormented Leontes, but then a technically wily Caesar, and then a - well, I don't know what he was doing as Lear (he simply shouldn't have been doing it at all). Meanwhile Darrell D'Silva moved confidently through Lear, Winter's, and Caesar doing exactly what old-style movie stars used to do - that is, projecting facets of his own carefully crafted persona through three separate sets of lines. And then there was Katy Stephens's Rosalind - the truly luminous Stephens was the residency's newly-minted star, a dazzling stage presence with technique to burn - yet her Rosalind, dazzling as it may have been, seemed at times a patchwork of stage effects rather than a thought-through performance.  The result was that in a typical scene from, say, Julius Caesar, you'd find yourself watching three styles of acting (Caesar - Old School British; Antony - Old School Hollywood; Brutus - American Method) rubbing shoulders onstage.  This wasn't always a bad thing (and there's always a flexible kind of instability in every Shakespearean role) - but it was often a slightly odd thing, and added to the grab-bag of directorial interventions that afflicted some productions, it led to a pervasive sense of artistic disorganization.

The same incongruities surfaced in many of the design choices.  Only one production - Winter's Tale - really had a coherent, elegant look that matched the thrust of its direction (set in the Napoleonic era, this version focused on the text's concern with pre-Enlightenment values of justice).  The problem was that the design blew up in our faces half-way through (at left) in a conceptual gambit we never really understood; it seemed that Bohemia was made entirely of discarded manuscripts (perhaps by Voltaire and Locke?); indeed, the mummers at the sheep-shearing festival even WORE books, and little else - oh, except for large phalluses they brandished like clubs (??).

So in the end The Winter's Tale, like almost every other production, didn't really stick to a single "period," and even undermined its basically solid design idea by half-baked gambits half-way through.  Much the same was true of As You Like It, which made a case for some very tough-minded rustics in its romantic roundelay by laying on the brambles and shotguns (the original version in Britain even featured the skinning of rabbits onstage!).  But I'm afraid AYLI, too, went a little crazy as it went along (Sir Oliver Martext brandished a flaming crucifix, and Hymen sang like Elvis).  You got the impression that the RSC directors and designers just couldn't help themselves somehow; they couldn't get through the whole rehearsal process without eventually acting out in some way or other.  Did some knee-jerk impulse to scramble things in the name of "diversity" get the better of them?  Or did they want to purposefully give the impression of a scruffy, DIY attitude? Or did their Ritalin prescriptions simply run out?

I'm not sure - but there were still plenty of wonderful moments sprinkled throughout the festival (the wedding scene in AYLI, at right), as well as some truly penetrating directorial ideas, and several great performances - which are now embedded in my memory.  I left feeling that I'd been made to think seriously, yet again, about several texts I practically know by heart.  Which is not what your average theatregoer seeks from a Shakespeare production, I know, but which at this stage of the game is for me one of the most satisfying aspects of seeing a new performance.  I'll have more details about my favorite productions (I don't think I'll drag myself through Lear again) in a future post.

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