Monday, August 23, 2010

On the Dark Side : The Tempest and As you Like It at The Old Vic

Two alternating Shakespeare plays, both directed by Sam Mendes at The Old Vic, brought out clear similarities of theme. Sadly, the productions emphasised darker aspects, at the expense of the lyrical and comic, to the detriment of both.

The Tempest is the more familiar to me. It's one of the 'late' plays, with a main character, the magician Prospero, apparently voicing Shakespeare's farewell to the theatre in his final speech beginning :

'This rough magic I here abjure...'

Prospero, a usurped and exiled Duke, has raised his daughter Miranda on a remote island with its own magical atmosphere. With his spirit helper Ariel he conjures up a tempest and a shipwreck. The courtly group of castaways includes Ferdinand, a suitable husband for Miranda. The island's other inhabitants are an old witch (not seen) and her misshapen offspring Caliban who is a double threat, both to Miranda's honour (he has tried to rape her in the past) and to Prospero's command. He tries to recruit two of the new castaways as support in plot to oust his master but is foiled partly through the intervention of Ariel, who hopes to be freed.

Much of the darkness derived from emphasising the colonial aspects -the enslavement of Caliban and Ariel. In addition, there's the sadness of the ageing tyrant who must concede place to the younger generation, and the presence among the group of his evil brother who has usurped his Dukedom , but there's also much light, and humour in Songs like 'Full Fathom Five' and the innocence that gives rise to Miranda's :

'O Brave New World, that has such people in it...'

as well as some of the descriptions of an isle 'full of music'

Shakespeare's crowd-pleaser As You Like it was given something of the same treatment, with a Wintery rustic set that only turns Spring-like towards the end.

In this play, too, there's a Duke usurped and a brother Duke exiled, this time to the (probably mythical) Forest of Arden. Rosalind, the usurped Duke's daughter, wanders about disguised as a boy, accompanied by her friend Celia, and encounters Orlando, who fell in love with her and she him when she was in female dress at court. The plot is loose, but rustic lovers in the forest add to the comedy, songs lend an air of festivity and there are no fewer than four weddings at the end. The play also contains Shakespeare's famous 'seven ages of man' speech, beginning:

'All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players'

The plays are two halves of a scheme called The Bridge Project, aimed at combining American and English actors and taking them on tour to Europe and Singapore. The final venue is The Old Vic, revamped under Kevin Spacey.

The plays were well-acted and directed, despite the overly-sombre presentation. The American actors seemed ill-at-ease with the lines,with the exception of Ron Cepas Jones, who played Caliban in The Tempest and a minor role in As You Like It. This arrangement worked well for other actors too, although Stephen Dillane made a better stab at the melancholy Jacques than the more magisterial presence required for Prospero.

Thomas Sodaski was excellent as Stephano the Drunken Butler and good as Touchstone. Christian Camargo was a plausibly lovestruck Orlando, but whey-faced and lacklustre as Ariel. Clear-voiced Juliet Rylance seemed a little old for Miranda, but was excellent in the much meatier role of Rosalind.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Comedy of Errors at Regents Park

The last really funny performance of this play I saw was at The Open Air Theatre some years ago, so I went with high hopes.

The complicated plot involves two sets of identical twins separated in a shipwreck, with one pair arriving twenty years later in the town, Ephesus, where the other pair live. The master-and-servant duos wander about misleading the townsfolk and one another. To add to the confusion, the servant twins are both called Dromio and the master twins are both Antipholus. Their father is coincidentally awaiting execution for the offence of being an illegal immigrant.

Shakespeare played this mistaken-twins card most effectively to my mind in Twelfth Night where there's the added frisson of Viola, disguised in men's clothes, causing the woman she woos on behalf of her employer to fall in love with her.

Unfortunately, double the twins doesn't mean double the fun. The Comedy of Errors belongs to the same, tedious, word-play stage of the bard's development as Love's Labours Lost, in which I had the misfortune to play 'Costard, a clown' in a school performance. Since that painful time I've been aware that tastes in comic banter have changed a lot since an audience fell about at the idea that 'lying' could have two meanings.

One of the drawbacks of The Comedy of Errors is is the long exposition at the start to explain how the twins became masters and servants in the first place. The description of the storm is good, but goes on too long.

Delivered with some inventive slapstick the misunderstandings can be funny. Here it was often just frantic, but the stylish presentation helped make up for it.

Ephesus tranformed into a 1940s Casablanca complete with neon night-club and a jazz-band, a beach scene, a gorilla and a Sally Bowles style torch singer in suspenders livened it up. The inclusion of some non-Shakespearian songs, particularly At Long Last Love also helped the medicine, i.e.scampering and bantering, go down. That it did is thanks mainly to designer Gideon Davey and musical director Paul Frankish