The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 17.0752 Thursday, 31 August 2006
Date: Wednesday, 30 Aug 2006 12:47:16 +0100
Subject: 17.0702 Most Glorious Shakespeare Failures
Comment: Re: SHK 17.0702 Most Glorious Shakespeare Failures
A few weeks ago, Todd Pettigrew asked: "Does anyone have any stories of
glorious Shakespeare failures to share"?
I think that this deserved more of a response than it got - although
hardly scholarly, the citing of a few theatrical disasters might offer
at least ephemeral relief from the burdens of preparing for the new
semester in three weeks' time.
Ken Dodd (the Diddy Man to you in the UK; Yorick from Branagh's "Hamlet"
to you in the US and elsewhere) tells a good story about playing
Malvolio in Liverpool in the early 1970s. Dodd was admirably disciplined
throughout the run, but lost his cool when his steward's chain fell
apart when he (Dodd or Malvolio, I'm not sure which) got over-excited in
the presence of Olivia. Apparently, bits of the chain flew all over the
stage, forcing Dodd to improvise: "When I'm with thee I have the
strength of 20 men". Reputedly, the audience loved it.
The Stratford, Zeffirelli-directed "Othello" from the early 1960s was
also a great disaster. Peter Hall has written about it; and Sheridan
Morley covers it well in his splendid biography of John Gielgud - who
played the Moor. Apparently, stone columns swayed madly every time an
actor touched them. An inexperienced, hapless Iago didn't know his
lines, and wasn't sure at one point whether or not Cassio was dead. And
some extras were sent flying by a mysteriously mobile wall. By all
accounts, Gielgud looked ridiculous in Venetian robes. When his
blackened face was visible on the too-dark stage, it was obvious that
his false beard wasn't adhesive enough, meaning that in the early shows
Gielgud had to attach the beard to his face with his hand for large
stretches of time. Michael Billington famously wrote that Olivier played
Hamlet as the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind, whereas
Gielgud was forced to represent Othello as the tragedy of a man who
could not make up his beard.
You would think that the political assassination of Julius Caesar by
Brutus would have been moving and relevant to a mid-1990s Belfast Arts
Theatre audience. On the night I saw it, however, the replacement of
Shakespearean-style knives with Ulster-style handguns did not have the
requisite emotive impact. When Caesar was shot, paramilitary-style, the
entire theatre laughed uproariously - a laughter that rarely diminished
during the remaining two-and-a-half acts. This was hardly an ideal
theatrical milieu for the transmission of salutary tragedy. Actually,
in the same theatre at about the same time, I remember a drunk man (who
looked uncannily like Frank Butcher from "Eastenders") ruining the mood
of "Richard III" by repeatedly shouting "Where's your fucking hump?!"
during Gloucester's soliloquies.
Morley does not include anecdotes about these particular disasters in
his recent book, "Theatre's Strangest Acts" (London: Robson Books,
2006). But he does include many other stories of Shakespeare-related
catastrophes - I recommend it for diverting bathroom reading.
Kevin De Ornellas
University of Ulster
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