Michael Boyd’s Complete Works festival may not have over-garlanded Stratford with bunting and flags, but it’s made the town a much more buzzy place. Boyd is not only bringing back some of the best Shakespeareans of the older generation — including Patrick Stewart as Antony and Prospero, and Ian McKellen as Lear — but also nurturing a wonderfully talented younger generation. Tamsin Greig and Joseph Millson light up the stage as Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado, both starring also in King John alongside Richard McCabe’s arresting performance in the title role.
For Much Ado, director Marianne Elliott goes to the pre-Castro Cuba of the 1950s, opening the way for a feast of salsa music, song and dance. But the best music of the evening is simply that of the sparring of Beatrice and Benedick. Millson’s Benedick, with his short hair and neat moustache, is every inch the bachelor cynic of the officers’ mess. Beatrice’s mocking admonishments are a new and unexpected challenge. With her aquiline profile, figure-hugging skirts and straight seams, Greig’s barbs are so hilarious you scarcely realise how deep they have thrust. The scenes in which each of them eavesdrops on how the other is totally infatuated allow the comic genius of each actor full rein — Millson, ill concealed in a potted palm, springing up with a manic exuberance that Basil Fawlty could scarcely have matched, Greig setting off hooter and lights of the scooter behind which she’s dementedly sought to hide.
When the darkening of the play at Hero’s abortive wedding precipitates Beatrice’s and Benedick’s declaration of their love, Greig and Millson open up a whole new layer in their relationship without abandoning anything of its playful antagonism. At a stroke, Greig and Millson have lifted the RSC’s playing of the comedies on to a higher level.
Josie Rourke’s production of King John at last does justice to this too often underrated work. Shakespeare’s dissection of a terminally insecure monarch makes a refreshing change from the other histories (Richard II excepted) in which the bloody will to power is uppermost. In the RSC’s previous staging, the role was played by Guy Henry as the petulant king of a nursery castle. Richard McCabe now sets this right by creating a vividly complex character, well conscious of his powers.
Bored by courtly advice, McCabe’s John is quickly charmed and won over by Millson’s roguish audacity and energy as the Bastard Faulconbridge. Fascinating that this mischievous son of Richard Coeur du Lion doesn’t seek to supplant the unstable John, winding up the play with its well-known lines about England never lying ‘at the proud foot of a conqueror,/ But when it first did help to wound itself.’ A timely thought indeed.
This is a play rich in verbal magic and power. Tamsin Greig, now in tragic mode, perfectly captured Constance’s great lament for her young son, Arthur, stolen by John because he’s a threat to his throne.
Remembering the almost insurmountable difficulties of Measure for Measure, you can understand why, in a legendary career as a Shakespearean, Peter Hall has waited until now to direct it in the UK. Working with his own company from Bath, Hall chooses period Puritan costumes in black and white, surrounding the Courtyard’s thrust stage with a gloom pierced by cones of light from high above. Would that his reading of the text, with its ‘duke of dark corners’ and supporting cast of enigmatics, was similarly illuminated.
Who is this Duke who abandons his kingdom to a more than suspect deputy, returning in disguise to spy, to manipulate and to judge? Hall’s John Laurenson assumes the mantle of the wise and blameless magus, which is certainly how James I, in many ways the progenitor of the play, would have wished to see him. Laurenson does it very well and in the process shows how the role anticipates that of Prospero in The Tempest. But Shakespeare’s Duke is a more malign figure than this, the production hinting so only at the very end in Isabella’s icy response to his sudden, almost Angelo-like demand that she marry him.
As for Angelo himself, Richard Dormer makes the familiar mistake of playing him as a transparently dangerous villain, while Riseborough’s Isabella was too gauchly demonstrative. It’s surely the passionate sense of religious vocation in a beautiful young girl which makes her irresistible to the twisted men, and you saw nothing of this here. Nor felt anything of the smouldering tension between her designs and those of Angelo as she pleads for her brother’s life. In fine supporting performances, it was left to Barry Stanton’s wise old statesman, Escalus, to show that justice and mercy are not incompatible, while Michael Mears was so quixotically over the top as the court wit Lucio as to win a round of spontaneous applause from an audience which, I suspect, was feeling the strain of a production that seemed to be skirting the emotional maelstrom at the heart of the play.