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Home :: Archive :: 2002 :: January ::
For Sher
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.0112  Friday, 18 January 2002

From:           Charles Weinstein <
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Date:           Thursday, 17 Jan 2002 20:28:48 -0500
Subject:        For Sher

The Royal Shakespeare Company's "Casebook of The Winter's Tale" is a
two-hour video focusing on the 1999 production directed by Gregory Doran
and starring Sir Antony Sher as Leontes.  It preserves every one of
Sher's scenes and cuts most of the others.  We are given Paulina's scene
with the Jailer, the bulk of III.iii except for Antigonus' soliloquy,
and all of IV.iii featuring Autolycus and the Clown.  But the
Sheep-Shearing--the longest scene in the play and its spiritual and
poetic zenith--is reduced to a series of snippets obscured by voice-over
narration.  Gone, too, are Camillo and Archidamus (I.i), Camillo and
Polixenes (I.ii and IV.ii), Cleomenes and Dion (II.i), the funny and
touching scene of the three Lords (V.ii), and Time himself (IV.i).
Florizel and Perdita are largely reduced to walk-ons.  Since Paulina and
Hermione share most of their scenes with Leontes, we do get the greater
portions of Estelle Kohler's and Alexandra Gilbreath's performances.
Still, those who purchase this tape must do so primarily for Sher.

They will witness the sorry spectacle of a gargoyle straining to be a
saint:  a small, grotesque, adenoidal comic actor laboring mightily to
become a Great Tragedian.  Sher has chosen to play Leontes as psychotic,
suffering from a "Morbid Jealousy Syndrome" that is literally
pathological.  In the advanced stage of this disease Sher speaks and
moves like an automaton, his voice dead, his eyes glazed, his wandering
mind beset by demons he can neither understand nor control.  In an
interview featured on the tape Sher explains that he adopted this
approach in order to preserve the audience's sympathy and make it easier
for them to forgive Leontes.  One can understand these motivations.
(When I directed the play, I found that several implacably resentful
spectators could not join Shakespeare in pardoning Leontes, even after
his sixteen years of penance.  They seemed proud of this attitude.)
Nevertheless, by pandering to his audiences instead of challenging them,
Sher unbalances not only his character but the play.   In making Leontes
the victim of mental illness, Sher absolves him of responsibility for
his actions, turning him from a tragic agent into a clinical specimen.
Sher's Leontes is not a sinner in need of moral and spiritual
regeneration, but a patient requiring psychotropic drugs and a lengthy
period of professional treatment.  When Paulina rails at the suddenly
lucid Leontes in III.ii, she seems both cruel and beside the point:  one
does not lay guilt-trips on the insane.  Sher tells us that he consulted
psychopathologists in preparing for the role, and for all I know his
performance may be clinically accurate.  Yet it trivializes the play and
renders much of it nugatory.  Psychosis is not caused by personal
dereliction, and it is not cured by instruction or remorse.

For the rest, Sher sweats profusely, scrunches up his bulbous nose,
bares his teeth in a series of hideous grins, and delivers his lines
"naturalistically," without a glimmer of eloquence or transcendence.  He
seems less a king than a golem.  Those who have proclaimed Sir Antony to
be the living heir of Olivier and Gielgud are as deluded as his
psycho-Leontes. (The living heir of Max Adrian is more like it).  This
is a profoundly misconceived and unappealing performance.

There is little relief to be had from the rest of the company.  Estelle
Kohler is a lovely and committed actress, but she misses most of the
comic and character touches in Paulina, playing her with such unvarying
ardor that she ultimately ceases to be interesting.  As the pregnant
Hermione, Alexandra Gilbreath bases her entire performance upon
back-strain; as the delivered Hermione, she bases her entire performance
upon weight-loss.  In both cases she speaks in a sniffling,
unpleasantly mannered fashion.  Ken Bones' Polixenes is so oily, old and
unattractive that he would hardly be a credible rival to Leontes if Sher
himself were not so repellent.  From what one can see of the other
actors, most of them are adequate, but Emily Bruni's Perdita is not even
that.  If this is the best that the RSC has to offer, its efforts to
stave off insolvency are pointless; artistically it's already bankrupt.

--Charles Weinstein

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