Barely recovered from jetlag, having stumbled off a plane from Washington, DC to Heathrow only two days before, I lost no time in securing a standing space among the yardlings at the Globe’s 2009 production of Troilus and Cressida. Struck by Matthew Kelly's raving performance (I would see him again in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in March at the Haymarket), I quickly availed myself of standing places, student discounts, and cheap day tickets to see as much London theatre as time and budget would allow. Eighteen Shakespearean plays (and a wider familiarity with the London theatre scene) later, I am taking the approaching holidays as a time to reflect on Shakespeare in performance. With theatrical and performance criticism gaining a wider influence in critical editions of Shakespeare (e.g. Arden 3 introductions now contain lengthy sections on the play in performance), editors are making a strong argument for our understanding of Shakespeare to be informed not only by textual witnesses but also performance experience. How does the critic or audience engage with such iconic work and its 400-year-old performance history? More fundamentally, what separates “great” Shakespeare from the merely “good,” or, worse, the unpardonably “bad”?
In thinking about these questions, I would argue that the question “what makes for good Shakespeare” differs necessarily from the broader “what makes for good theatre” because all Shakespearean performance bears with it both its best and worst asset: convention. Howard Becker in Art Worlds writes that the establishment of conventions is a defining characteristic of art, an aspect which allows collective participation and response since in order to create art, its participants must be (often literally) “on the same page.” When handed a play text, for instance, actors know to speak their lines in the order in which they appear on the page, top down, waiting for the previous speaker to finish before beginning, unless specifically instructed to do otherwise by the text or the director. But convention also operates beyond the mechanics of how art is done, especially in the case of Shakespeare because all productions face the task of interacting with over 400 years of textual and performance history—when I walked into the RSC’s production of Twelfth Night, I already knew the entire plot and, if there had been no cutting, the very words that were spoken on stage. (At a recent performance of the Globe’s 2 Henry IV, I saw a couple peering over an iPhone, following along with the text as the actors performed it on stage.) Self-aware productions can play against the conventional assumptions of the textual and performance history, drawing unexpected parallels or making (sometimes overblown) statements about Elizabethan England and our modern age. This is why we see the proliferation of productions that set Shakespeare’s plays in differing time periods, e.g. re-imagining Richard III as 1930s fascist regime (Ian McKellen et. al. in the 1995 film). Or even the staging of certain plays can be uncomfortable given current events, as was the case with the Globe’s Troilus & Cressida, since its sardonic and cynical take on war mirrors too closely Britain’s own involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This season, productions that played with time/setting included the National’s All’s Well, which darkened the text with a Grimm’s Fairy Tales feel, and the Guilford Shakespeare Company’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, which made use of 1940s France for some attractive costuming. Of the productions I saw in the 2009-2010 season, by far the most convention-defying and boundary-pushing was the Bristol Old Vic’s Juliet and Her Romeo, which re-set Romeo & Juliet in a nursing home: Juliet was played by 76-year-old Sîan Phillips and Romeo by 66-year-old Michael Byrne. I have always had difficulty in believing the rapidity with which Romeo and Juliet fall in love, but when the main characters are cast as octogenarians, a shortened courtship makes psychological sense—looming death places relationships in perspective. The text was heavily cut, and not all of the changes worked. (For a feature on the production, see the Guardian article; for a review see the Guardian or the Telegraph.) Tybalt’s death by suffocation (instead of stabbing) was brutally drawn out (one of the few instances on stage or screen that gave due deference to the actual amount of time it takes to suffocate) and changed his death from one of Romeo’s (accidental/heated) response to one of cold-blooded murder. However, as a piece of creative casting it challenged one of the fundamental conventions of the Romeo & Juliet text (e.g. the star-crossed lovers are young star-crossed lovers) and used a play that normally tackles the impetuousness of youth to explore end-of-life care, love, and sexuality. And, of course, watching an actress such as Sîan Phillips, who could call upon a half-century of experience, deliver “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo” was riveting to behold. (Accolades for “revered Shakespearean actress” also, of course, must go to Dame Judi Dench as Titania in Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Rose–Kingston; I have never witnessed an audience so wholly captivated—and utterly silent—as when she was speaking.)
Not all productions chose to interact with the Shakespearean text in such a manner, but instead opted for a more traditional approach. The Globe’s season was, for the most part, straightforward in its casting, costuming, and staging. Henry VIII and 1 & 2 Henry IV were in period dress and made creative use of the Globe’s uncluttered stage. For productions that hew closely to the text’s apparent intent as well as the audience’s understanding of how Shakespeare “should” be experienced, the quality of art lies in the production’s ability to negotiate these constraints. For Henry VIII the Globe’s production focused on sumptuous costumes and grand processions to bring the rich visual world of the text to life (perhaps diverting attention from the text itself, which tends toward the episodic and dull). Yet, by far the most successful of the Globe’s traditional stagings was 1 Henry IV. Roger Allam as Falstaff was everything one could hope for in a Falstaff—a large (in personality and in girth), effusive, endearing rascal. Allam had such command of his character’s comedic sense, that he could, with the slightest flick of his hand, send waves of laughter through the audience. His deeply humane portrayal revealed a Falstaff of both towering verbal pomposity and surprising vulnerability. Apart from Allam’s performance, the cast was solid, even inspired, in their characterizations; Sam Crane played Henry Percy (aka Hotspur) as neither blokey nor martial. Instead, his fierceness derived from an unsettled neurotic quality. The characterization was off-putting at first—would this somewhat scrawny Hotspur really hack apart some "six or seven dozen of Scots" at breakfast? But as Crane began to speak, lower lip quivering, he became not a testosterone-fueled killer but rather frustrated and deeply unhinged: Norman Bates, not Conan the Barbarian. By taking the text at face value but imbuing it with such quality and relish (and the language of 1 Henry IV is certainly something to relish), the production achieved an unexpected joyfulness.
Convention can also work against productions. I find poorly performed Shakespeare painful to watch, since, more than any other Western performance genre (and I think it is fair to classify Shakespearean performance as its own genre), the audience is aware of just how good Shakespeare can be. The first part of Trifle’s production of Much Ado was a disaster because it allowed its late summery garden Shakespeare feel to substitute for interesting choices. The (again, iconic) scenes in which the characters trick Beatrice and Benedict into believing each has feelings for the other fell flat, making poor use of space and comic sensibility. Sitting through a Much Ado with zero spark is not only dull but also disappointing because both the text and convention expect spark. This season I have seen several attempts at Shakespeare, from important players in the (global) arts scene (National Theatre All’s Well, Globe Macbeth, Henry VIII etc.), to children’s theatre (Unicorn Tempest), community college (TCC As You Like It), and small companies (Trifle Much Ado, Guildford Love’s). Resources do not always imply quality, and there may exist some belief that Shakespeare is a “safe bet” since, well-recognized, a production likely will attract a crowd. Yet, performing Shakespeare is in fact a substantial risk, because failure always reflects poorly on the production, never on the text. I do not think Love’s Labour’s Lost, for instance, is a great play; however, there are enough hints of genius within it (and enough successful productions of it) that a competent group of actors should be able to create an enjoyable, coherent performance (as both the Globe’s and Guildford’s productions achieved). Failure to do so reflects not on the text, but on the acting company. And this is, I think, the key point: the text—even if one of Shakespeare’s weaker offerings—because of its sheer cultural and historical mass will always be greater, weightier than any individual performance or production. Strong actors appear to rise up to and inhabit the language whereas poor performances seem to be dragged along by it. The Globe’s Macbeth, for instance, became bogged down in its own theatricality, aiming for cheap thrills (which I am all for) but at the expense of seriously engaging with the dramatic material.
In thinking about strong productions I attended this year, it seems clear that a production’s capacity for creatively making use of well-established conventions and/or fulfilling or surpassing them in some degree distinguishes stand-out performances. I personally am drawn more to productions, such as the Bristol Old Vic’s, which radically upset received wisdom, but as the Globe’s 1 Henry IV proved, brilliant acting goes very far indeed. For the upcoming year, I will be attending the Royal Shakespeare Comapany’s (RSC) London season, including Antony and Cleopatra, Winter’s Tale, As You Like It, Julius Caesar, and King Lear. Provided I am fortunate enough to obtain tickets, I will be watching Derek Jacobi (a 2009 Falstaff Award winner for Best Supporting Actor in Twelfth Night) in Lear at the Donmar Warehouse. I have a ticket for Hamlet with Rory Kinnear in the title role at the National Theatre. The Globe’s 2011 season, “The Word Is God” (celebrating the 1611 publication of the King James Bible), also includes Hamlet, as well as Much Ado and a full reading of the KJV Bible (see their season preview here). Finally, the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon has opened its new performance facility, which may prompt a train ride outside of London.
All in all, an exciting season ahead.