Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 4, No. 276. Tuesday, 4 May 1993.
From: Blair Kelly III <
Date: Tuesday, 4 May 93 21:29:18 EDT
Subject: [Assorted Reviews]
Reviews: Macbeth, Hamlet, Richard III, As You Like It
(David Fristrom) posted on the USENET
newsgroup rec.arts.theatre some reviews of shows he saw recently
while visiting England. With his kind permission, here are the
reviews of the Shakespeare plays he saw.
Blair Kelly III
MACBETH (National Theatre)
Directed by Richard Eyre and starring Alan Howard. I've never seen a
MACBETH I particularly liked (except THRONE OF BLOOD, which hardly
counts), and, alas, this production is no exception. Howard has a
great voice, and he can do neat tricks with it, but that's all he's
doing here -- his tricks work best in contrast to a more "normal"
delivery, but his Macbeth is all mannerism. [A different view comes
from a positive review in the TLS: "Alan Howard's Macbeth sings as
many of his words as he speaks, often using a curious wheedling,
cooing, other-worldly sort of voice that emphasizes the musicality of
the verse at the expense of its meaning. It is as though he feels
himself possessed or commanded by his own language, and it is fully
expressive of Macbeth's inability to command the imaginative side of
himself, the side that in the end is compelled to acknowledge that his
way of life is fall'n into the sere. Howard's is a performance of
great power and beauty."]
Lady Macbeth is Anastasia Hille, who is quite young (she was in the US
tour of RICHARD III). She's ok, but doesn't really have the strength
for the character. I assume the difference in ages is intentional;
Howard's Macbeth is shown to be sexually obsessed with Lady Macbeth,
although she doesn't appear to have much interest in him, beyond his
ability to make her queen.
Bob Crowly's sets are dominated by large slabs of walls which move
here and there, setting the various scenes. The most arresting image,
though, is a circle of fire, rather like a giant gas cooking ring, in
the center of the stage. The director obviously likes it a lot, since
he uses it every chance he gets (usually when the witches are around),
which eventually diminishes the effect. The play is very dark and
smoke filled; I think the only scene lit with normal light is Lady
Macduff with her children. One effect is rather odd. Macduff is
murdered downstage, and left lying there while the banquet begins
upstage. When it is time for the haunting to begin, he rises, leaving
behind a glowing outline of his sprawling body, like a taped outline
at a murder scene. It's striking, but feels anachronistic -- although
as far as the costumes go we are in no particular period, since they
mix everything from medieval to modern in the now rather common style.
HAMLET (RSC in Stratford)
Starring Kenneth Branagh. There's the joke about the old lady who saw
HAMLET for the first time, and came out complaining "it's just a bunch
of famous quotes strung together." I'm afraid that I have the same
problem; playing Claudius in the 6th grade helped my love of
Shakespeare, but it has rather ruined the play for me; I know enough
of the lines that I can't get absorbed with the story -- I'm always
aware that I'm watching a play, and while I can appreciate the skill
with which it is done, it doesn't move me. (An exception was Mark
Rylance's Hamlet at the ART in Boston (a production which originated
at the RSC); his radical rethinking of the role defamiliarized it
enough that I could see him not as an actor speaking lines, but as a
Branagh may just be an actor delivering lines, but boy, can he deliver
them. His Hamlet isn't mad, nor even particularly depressed, but he's
a thinker, and a brilliant orator. He can also be quite funny.
He is surrounded by a good supporting cast as well. Rob Edwards does
a very nice job as Horatio -- since this production used an uncut
script, he's called upon to deliver some lengthy exposition, and does
so clearly and precisely. David Bradley's Polonious is fine, as are
Joanne Pearce and Richard Bonneville as his daughter and son.
As directed by Adrian Nobel and designed by Bob Crowley, there are
some striking images. In front of the stage (over the orchestra pit,
as it were) is a graveyard in miniature, with small crosses. It is
neglected and overrun with plants ("it is an unweeded garden; things
rank and gross possess it merely"). The play opens with a white hand
suddenly reaching up out of the graveyard, followed by the rest of
Hamlet's Ghost. The same effect is used when Hamlet is making Horatio
et. al. swear on his sword (which is given to him by the ghost); the
ghost's hand reaches up and joins in the oath.
Latter, in her mad scene, Ophelia picks her flowers from the
The ghost is made quite fatherly; in the scene with Hamlet and
Gertrude, he sits on the bed holding Hamlet's hand, making a nice
little family portrait. And at the end, when Hamlet's body is lifted
and carried away upstage, the ghost is waiting for it with open arms
(which briefly raised the thought that the ghost's motive may have
been not revenge, but the desire to have his son join him).
Between scenes there is an interesting effect where the curtains are
closed, but rather than meeting in the center one passes behind the
other so they both travel completely across the stage; a new set is
revealed behind. The effect is rather like a cinematic wipe.
The live music (by Guy Woolfenden) is played by a 12 person band,
larger than the orchestra for many musicals in the States.
RICHARD III (RSC in Stratford)
Simon Russell Beale as Richard III is *wonderful*. He looks rather
like a toad, with is appropriate since people keep calling him one.
(He reminded me a bit of the Penguin in the second BATMAN movie.) He
is lewd and so evil he's fun. Beale makes great use of his large
eyes, and his expressive face is distorted into wonderful expressions.
As the fates overcome the characters, Margaret appears in the
background, repeating the curse which is coming true. Finally, in the
fight between Richard and Henry, she appears in front of Richard's
eyes and he looses hope. For the final fight, boards are lifted from
the middle of the stage, revealing dirt beneath, and both combatants
loose their swords, so the final tussle is bare handed, with Henry
strangling Richard; the image is of two boys fighting in a sandbox
(the image is enhanced by the fact that the crown they fight for looks
rather like a toy crown).
The scenes leading up to the battle have been interleaved, so that
Henry and Richard sit at opposite ends of the same table while
preparing for battle, and lighting shifts us between the two
conferences; the exhortations to the troops are also mixed, so the two
stand side by side and alternate speaking.
The young princes are played by the actresses who play Lady Anne and
Queen Elizabeth, dressed up in school uniforms.
In his opening soliloquy Richard says something about being so ugly
that dogs bark at him; and for the rest of the play his entrances are
usually preceded by dogs barking offstage.
AS YOU LIKE IT (RSC at Barbican)
I am a simple soul, with simple tastes, and I expect my comedies to be
funny. You would think that the British would be good at this --
they've produced some quite funny films, tv, and literature -- but my
experience has been that their Shakespearean comedies are rarely
funny, or at least not as funny as the best American productions. I
laughed much more at the Brandeis student production of AS YOU LIKE IT
than at this one (to be fair, the problem may be with the RSC, rather
than the British in general, since all my British productions of
Shakespeare's comedies in recent years have been at the RSC).
With that rather major reservation, there was still a lot to enjoy in
this production, directed by David Thacker. To begin with, there is
Johan Engels' design. The court is a fairly bare stage, with floor,
back, and sides in gleaming black marble, dominated by towering,
ornate double doors upstage center. The costumes are also dark; the
men with large, ruffle collars and the women with large, satiny hooped
skirts. The overall effect is rather like an oil painting by an old
Dutch master. I was looking forward to seeing how this rather gloomy
set would be transformed to the care free Forest of Arden, so I was
surprised that the only change was that the rear wall was raised,
revealing a bare tree (oak?) whose limbs filled the entire rear of the
stage; the moon shines dimly through the branches. The exiled Duke
and his followers are shivering in furs and blankets. Where usually
the Duke talks of the "uses of adversity" in an idyllic setting, this
Arden really is a bare wasteland.
The interval comes after Orlando and Adam have met the Duke; when we
return to our seats spring has finally come, the stage is covered with
green, and the huge tree upstage is covered with leaves, providing the
appropriate setting for the couples to play out their games.
The cast is strong, especially Kate Buffery as Rosalind and Samantha
Bond as Celia; as usual, I found Celia more appealing than Rosalind
(and look forward to Bond's Juliet opposite Branagh's Romeo in the
upcoming recording). Orlando is played by Peter de Jersey, in a rare
case of non-traditional casting.
The songs are performed by David Burt, who played MacHeath in THE
BEGGAR'S OPERA, and who brings more musical skill and power to them
then they usually receive.
I noticed a strange cut (unless my memory is playing tricks on me).
In Rosalind's epilogue, when she is conjuring the men for the love
they bear to women, she omits the line about "and by your smirking I
perceive you hate them not." Why they would cut that line, yet leave
in the stuff about wine and bushes which only makes sense if you've
read the footnote, I can't imagine -- unless it is because the line is
funny, and they don't want to confuse things with too much humor.