My colleague Lloyd Evans had much fun a couple of weeks ago playing the curmudgeon with the Cultural Olympiad. Alas poor Bard, he quipped, ‘press-ganged’ into the World Shakespeare Festival. And it sounds as though Lloyd will be running for his life, especially from the Bankside-based Globe to Globe project in which all 37 plays will be given in the same number of languages.
It is left to the RSC to fly the flag for Shakespeare in his native tongue with a dozen new productions. Risky, you would have thought, to launch its initial contribution of The Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night and The Tempest as ‘Shakespeare’s Shipwreck Trilogy’. And indeed two ‘activists’, possibly inspired by the Boat Race swimmer, did their best to sink it by clambering on to the stage at the start of Twelfth Night and intoning a ditty that included the words ‘Deep Water despair’. As directors tend to begin with attention-grabbing inventions, I began to think it was the start of the play until an usher arrived to expose the intervention as a protest against BP’s support for the RSC.
‘What country, friends, is this?’ spluttered Viola, surfacing from an immense tank at stage front on to the huge planked raft on which all three plays are performed, and the action could begin. There’d been a less pleasant watery start for Comedy of Errors when a bearded man had been dunked to within an inch of his life in an aquarium set up on a truck.
The torturing of Egeon is but the first of the trials by water and by much else besides in the course of the three ‘modern dress’ productions. A gantry stretches diagonally over the stage, allowing the winching in to the Ephesus quayside of a crate from which spring the Antipholus of Syracuse and his Dromio as illegal immigrants. No attempt is made to match the physiques of the Antipholus twins, and of course this makes no sense whatsoever of Adriana’s confusion of her tall, sexually errant husband with his far shorter twin. Never mind, for Amir Nizar Zuabi’s fast-moving and very funny staging is rooted in one incredulity after another.
Felix Hayes and Bruce Mackinnon effectively steal the show with their inspired clowning as the Dromios. Kirsty Bushell shines as a delightfully comical Adriana, while the superb presence and diction of Cecilia Noble’s Abbess is a pleasure encountered again in her Maria and Juno in David Farr’s productions of Twelfth Night and The Tempest.
That Twelfth Night is the weakest link in the trilogy is attributable principally to the difficulty of casting all three from the same company. Jonathan McGuinness, excellent as a knockabout Antipholus in Comedy, has neither the looks nor languid glamour for Orsino. Nor does Emily Taaffe, ideal as a bumptious teenager Luciana in Comedy, and touchingly gamine as Miranda in The Tempest, begin to suggest the charm and wonderfully poetic pathos of the suppressed ardour in Viola. It’s strange to report that the pleasures of a Twelfth Night reside more or less entirely in the antics of Nicholas Day’s Toby, Bruce Mackinnon’s Aguecheek, Cecilia Noble’s Maria and Jonathan Slinger’s Malvolio.
Slinger’s engaging portrait of a pernickety, pinstripe-suited civil servant descends a little too grotesquely into the strutting of his cross-gartered stockings and the thrusting upon Olivia of the greatness of his codpiece, though in the prison scene and in his cry for vengeance he rescues a powerful sense of being punished far beyond his deserts.
But it’s as an everyman Prospero in The Tempest that Slinger truly excels. In his salt-stained business suit, by turns wearily and angrily, he strives to keep control of the events he’s conjured but which are ever threatening to turn against him. Sandy Grierson’s riveting lookalike Ariel is a brotherly twin-spirit and magician of superior powers. Terrifying as the Harpy, he’s also the tender reawakener of Prospero’s humanity and capacity to forgive. Slinger mines the great renunciatory speeches from somewhere deep inside him, delivering them totally without affectation and at the end holding the audience quite spellbound.
I’m not persuaded that any great revelations emerge from grouping these ‘Shipwreck’ plays together, but it shows the RSC as stronger in its character players than in actors who can thrill you with the poetry. Slinger manages this in his own highly individual way, but in general there’s still a palpable embarrassment with the language hovering round and about.
It seems unlikely that overseas visitors drawn by Olympian beach volleyball and synchronised swimming will be stealing much time off for Shakespeare, but you never know. The challenge for the RSC remains to justify its special claim to the Bard with performances at least as good as those coming in from all over the world. The Trilogy is certainly a fair start.