Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Against performing Shakespeare

I feel I'm in small minority of Shakespeare-lovers when I say that I can rarely stand performances. I was largely unmoved by King Lear the other night at the Young Vic, with some undoubtedly good actors, including Pete Postlethwaite. I was happy to leave after the second interval. What a philistine! But Lear is a play that works for me when I read it – at least until the last act.

There’s a video of a rehearsal of a rehearsal of the earlier Liverpool version here.

There were some good scenes, fine drama that nearly got me engaged. The set was good and the modern dress ok. But here are some things that were either irritating or unwatchable (quite apart from some inadequate actors):

(1) Regional accents that had no point but brought irrelevant and distracting associations, even when they were genuine (as Kent’s Yorkshire or whatever it was wasn’t); there was a Welsh accent so strong, whether fake or real, that it prevented one attending to what the man was saying. No reason, of course, why Edmund shouldn’t have a Northern Irish accent, but it seemed to get in the way of doing justice to some of the speeches (‘Thou, Nature, art my goddess…’, for a start).

(2) The Fool. Fools are impossible to put on stage, partly because so many of their sayings make no sense to anyone who hasn’t digested the notes in a learned edition, and even then often not. I've seen worse than this Fool, but it was still excruciating, like watching the Krankies. His idea of being funny with movements, voice and gesture was like nothing that makes anyone laugh in a real person, nor did his pathetic moments bring him sympathy. Every line had to be accompanied hyperactively by a gesture – phallic, cowering, crowing, cavorting -- mimicking the meaning. Who carries on like that? How are we to read such antics? This is third-rate school play stuff. Such contorsions relate to nothing that people actually do. No one with a normal sense of humour in the face of funny people could be anything but embarrassed and uncomfortable. You can tell the people in the audience who laugh either are very young or don’t get out much.

This is a problem with low life characters generally in classic theatre– they never seem to get staged in a way that accords them any respect – they’re always stage idiots, stage cheery villains, stage plucky young cards or whatever -- offensive depictions drained of all dignity. If that’s how Shakespeare wanted them, tough – I can’t take it. (You get the same problem with characters in opera performances – in The Marriage of Figaro, for instance. The sort of people who dominate opera audiences laugh away. Perhaps that’s what they think the working classes are really like.)

(3) Staging. Edgar runs laps in his tracksuit while Gloucester (with whistle) talks to Edmund – what’s that supposed to be about? Characters in hunting kit with rifles… Albany wheeling a pram. ‘A modern interpretation’ etc… I can do without these gratuitous extras that simply get in the way. I don’t want tights but I don’t want the dress and settings of a particular historical period or social milieu either.

What I want is Shakespeare, but what I get is some director. If it’s the case that there’s no way of doing Shakespeare on stage without putting it in a particular setting or staging, giving it some ‘interpretation’ – in other words, if there’s no way of doing more or less straight Shakespeare without the intrusion of a director’s ego -- then I'd rather Shakespeare wasn’t staged at all. I admit that if Shakespeare is to be staged his characters have to be represented somehow. But since I know of no way in which especially fools and low life types can be shown credibly and non-demeaningly, then we should give the job up as impossible, and agree that unsatisfactory attempts do nothing but harm to the playwright’s reputation.

Behind this opinion is a view of performances. It’s frequently argued that the plays were written to be performed and in a sense only exist in their performances, just as musical scores do. I disagree. That view assumes that there are only two things involved: on the one hand the inert, lifeless text or score and on the other the enacted performance . The former is just indications of possibilities, with no reality until given flesh; the latter, in its multiple versions, is the real thing. (Compare, in architecture, the drawings (‘blueprints’) and the building -- though each plan, being site-specific, is usually realised in only one ‘performance’ (unlike the technical drawings for a Ford Escort – but that’s another story).)

My view is that there’s a third thing, the play. It’s brought into being by the text: the words, sentences, speeches, exchanges. It’s created by the playwright, but has to be created afresh in the theatre of the mind of whoever attends to the text, through reading or some other means of reception. The reader of Shakespeare, providing he or she knows enough to understand it, doesn’t inevitably mess it up in the way that its performers invariably do. Performers can’t do any other than put flesh on the play, and more often than not it’s the wrong flesh for me, out of key with my own sense of the play.

But – this is the crucial point – the performers’ realisation of the play isn’t out of key with my play simply because I have one picture in my head and they stage a different one. It’s also because they have no option but to present a picture whereas I don’t have to. The play doesn’t include what it doesn’t tell us. Some of the things it doesn’t tell us I have, as reader, to supply from imagination, simply to make the play work– but not to the extent of supplying details of costume, historical settings, this or that accent, even particular ways of speaking the lines. In my reading I can supply more or less flesh, as appropriate; where no cubic inch of the stage can be without matter or air to fill it, my mental stage need have nothing except where it’s strictly called for. In creating the play as I read it, I don’t, beyond a certain minimum, have to imagine it pictorially, vocally, gesturally; the amount of such imagining I do will be sometimes more, sometimes less.

I have in my head less a picture than a concept of Lear. The Russian psychologist Vygotsky observed that though concepts have their origin in childhood as vivid visual images, by adolescence their visual content has largely drained away; they are greyed out, so they can serve their purpose as ideas, abstractions. So it is with Shakespeare’s characters in my mind, with my concept of King Lear: they are ‘realised’ in visual terms only to the extent that they need to be, while fully charged with the essential meanings: for Lear, for instance, kingly dignity, petulance, frustration…. The only way I can made fools and clowns tolerable is by reducing them to simply however much of a minimal persona there needs to be for language to be language, not noise. So, my mental fools are neutral disembodied voicers, gnomic utterers of strange sayings, their beings little more than whatever speech intention the words themselves imply, the characters mere enunciators of lines. Stupid trousers and ridiculous posturings with bums sticking out are the last thing I need.

I admit it’s complicated. My reading of a play is undoubtedly influenced by performances I've seen or heard, not just of it but of other plays. My knowledge of how a play can be realised in the flesh and the voice enriches the possibilities I bring to the reading. But I still maintain that the play, like the design or the music, is something that is created and has its own existence – that it isn’t the same as the text, score or drawing -- whether or not it gets performed or constructed. And I think my experience of the play as reader isn’t reduced to one specific incarnation. Where the play doesn’t specify Rupert trousers, I don’t have to either – or any particular trousers.

And I think it’s possible to read a Shakespeare play as lines, speeches, poems that already have force before they are imagined as being spoken – as layings-out of rhetorical moves, expressions, thematic volte-faces, activations of imagery, generators of associations and semantic reverberations, potential embodiments of anger or pity. They don’t need to be performed; the utterances don’t need to happen: it’s enough that they be potential speeches for me to appreciate them. I don’t have to put a particular voice into them. The speakers don’t need to be given flesh, any more than the speaker of a poem: we create the speaker as we read; the speaker is no more than he or she who would be saying those things in the context of the other things said and done in the situation.

Perhaps performances based on such an idea have been attempted; if so, I'd like to see one. I'd like Shakespeare done more as oratorio: the players still, in positions, speaking their lines rather than acting. This actor isn’t being the Fool; he’s speaking the Fool’s lines, without necessarily ‘putting himself into them’ at full throttle. I'd like to see a Brecht Shakespeare in which the actors don’t pretend to be the characters but in which Shakespeare’s language on its own, in the mouths of the actors/speakers, brings them into being.

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