Thursday, 6 November 2008

Disservices to Shakespeare

A current production of Love’s Labour’s Lost at the Rose Theatre, Kingston, left me wanting to protest. The director, Peter Hall, has a great reputation, though I think I had found another of his recent productions disappointing -- can’t remember what it was, though. I've read a few reviews from the main papers and find them all over-generous.

I suppose Hall had to work with the actors he could get at this rather unsought-after venue (the building is new and terrific, the arrangement Elizabethan style but with comfortable seats that seemed all to afford a good view of the apron stage, but the place was half-empty and the audience middle-aged and older). I felt that only one actor, Finbar Lynch as Berowne, had any stage presence, carried conviction and spoke well. The rest were to varying degrees not up to it.

I have to be a bit careful in commenting on how the lines were spoken since my hearing isn’t what it was, but it seems to me that some contemporary actors lack consonants. But on that point I'll stand corrected by persons who can hear better.

More serious, though, was a failure that must have been as much the director’s as the actors’ fault, and it’s one that’s common to nearly all productions of Shakespeare that I see and also to traditional opera productions, especially of The Marriage of Figaro and The Barber of Seville. It concerns low-life, comic and ridiculous characters: clowns, constables, common people, teachersand parsons. Simply, these characters are demeaned in the performance and bear no resemblance to any recognisable type of real person, so that an audience with any social sensitivity will feel uncomfortable at being invited to laugh at people for their deficiencies, their lack of education, cultivated manners and gentlemanly/ladylike qualities of restraint, sense of appropriateness etc. They are played as types that exist only on the stage with no hint of realism -- and the result is they are not in the slightest funny, though some old members of the audience laugh because that’s what they’ve learned to do from an early age, from school productions onwards.

The comic characters are given false cockney or mummerset accents (or sometimes, these days, geordie or Liverpool), fall over for no reason, are surprised out of all proportion when someone pulls on their chains, do ridiculous double-takes, dance up and down on the spot with delight and act out their speeches with unintelligible gestures, frolickings and posturings. Moth, a delightful page character in the text -- which I reread before going -- was simply offensive on stage: his strategy with his difficult lines that were full of intricate word-play, was to make no attempt to make them intelligible but simply to overlay them with hyperactive gesture and clowning. I felt like turning away and blocking my ears whenever he came on.

Maybe this is how it was done in Shakespeare's time but it won’t do today.

In the end the play more or less redeemed itself because a couple of key late scenes were really well directed, so I emerged not too dissatisfied. But I also felt, and still feel, angry because I think Shakespeare deserves better. For example: I think children and teenagers can enjoy some Shakespeare plays, and I imagined bringing along a group from a London comprehensive and their being utterly alienated by this production -- by the language, of course, because in this play it’s peculiarly intricate and difficult, but more because of the unfunniness of what was clearly thought by the actors and director, and part of the audience, to be funny. The outcome would be a probably lasting disinclination ever to try Shakespeare again and a sense of having attended some archaic class- and age-bound event like grouse-shooting from which those in the know appeared to derive enjoyment more from being in the know than from anything obviously pleasurable about the proceedings.

I recalled some awful tv programme in which celebrities had to vote for things to be tipped down the toilet. The comedian Frank Skinner, who I liked when I heard him on the radio twenty years ago, nominated Shakespeare. He made his case by showing bits of purportedly funny scenes from BBC productions - and one could exactly see his point: they were excruciating -- actors behaving, as so often, like tits.

It’s some time since I've seen a convincing Shakespeare production and I suspect that the comic scenes just can’t be done any more. I hope I'm wrong about that, but if not, perhaps it’s better not to put Shakespeare on if the plays contain such characters, and certainly don’t take kids to kids to any such.

No comments: