The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 25.363 Friday, 22 August 2014
From: Hardy M. Cook <
Date: Friday, August 22, 2014
Subject: Four Plays with RSC
Four Plays with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon
Webster’s WHITE DEVIL, Swan Theatre
TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA, Royal Shakespeare Theatre
2 HENRY IV, Royal Shakespeare Theatre
Dekker and Middleton’s THE ROARING GIRL, Swan Theatre
I thought that I was going to see five plays with the Royal Shakespeare Company this summer, but for some bizarre reason I ordered tickets for THE ROARING GIRL and 1 HENRY IV both on Friday evening, and I had to make a hard decision about which of the two to see. On Thursday evening, I saw the 2 HENRY IV, which was tremendous, but I had not seen THE ROARING GIRL and had by that time already given my 1 HENRY IV ticket away. So THE ROARING GIRL it was.
My first RSC production of this season was Webster’s THE WHITE DEVIL. I apparently had not seen THE WHITE DEVIL, but I read it as an undergraduate in the 1960s and somehow remembered the plot. (Maybe I remember it from studying for my doctorial comprehensive.) The production opened with the actress who played Vittoria (Kristy Bushell) in her underwear and a hair net entering the stage and proceeding to put on a tight-fitting, shiny, Euro-Trash dress, a long blondish wig, and high heals. The stage filled with wildly dancing men and women in the theater space and a room beyond that could be seen through glass floor length windows. Everyone was similarly attired in late-1970s, early-1980s, Euro-Trash outfits as pounding percussive music accompanied what appeared as a cocaine and alcohol fueled rave. The Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, DC, frequently begins productions with these, to me, unnecessary, extraneous stage business that “sets a tone for the production”. In this case, I imagine that what was intended was something like women put on clothing to create the image expected of them in the society in which they live. The manipulative Flaminio, a role written as a male, was here played by Laura Elpinstone, who was dressed in black pants with a closely cropped punk haircut. Director Maria Aberg was going for a feminist production with strong female characters that was intended to offset the testosterone-driven productions on the main stage. At the Interval, I felt as if there was a distinct disconnect between the difficult text and the production design and conception. A friend was leaving and I did what I seldom do: “'Faith, I ran when I saw others run”. The opinion of those who stayed was decidedly mixed: some loved it; others hated it. Many of my most ardent feminist friends loved it, and although I think I have proved my feminist credentials, I could not think the same as they from what I saw in the first half of the production.
The following evening, I saw TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA (Dir. Simon Godwin) on the main stage of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. TWO GENTS is not one of my favorite Shakespeares, but this is the second production I have seen in the past few months. I preferred the energy and speed of the production with Fiasco Theater at the Folger Theater: http://shaksper.net/archive/2014/328-may/30133-fiasco-theaters-the-two-gentlemen-of-verona. This production seemed a bit uneven and slow at places. The leads were all very attractive young actors: Mark Arends (Proteus), Michael Marcus (Valentine), Pearl Chandra (Julia), and Sarah McRae (Silvia). The initial setting was in a Veronese café, complete with gelato vender, who passed out small samples primarily to young children and attractive women in the audience. Thus, this production too began with extraneous activity that did not seem to me to add to or explain anything that followed. Well, I might as well get to it—the dog, Crab. Mossup was a daughter of the last Crab at the RSC in the Swan in 1998, and she and her understudy Caddy had their own private dressing room, a portakabin close to the Stage Door. During her first scene (2.3), Crab, mysteriously to me, whined throughout Launce’s monologue: “I think Crab, my dog, be the sourest-natured dog that lives: my mother weeping, my father wailing, my sister crying, our maid howling, our cat wringing her hands, and all our house in a great perplexity”. This wailing became a topic of conversation among the ISC delegates in attendance: some praised its moaning on cue; other like me thought it was not intentional. After the show, I went with friends to the Dirty Duck and as it happened a half dozen members of the cast sat at a table next to us, including senior member of the company Roger Morlidge, who played Launce. When I asked if the whining was intended, Morlidge replied that Crab was having one of her worst nights of the run and that the groaning was not intended; about the only cue she hit was the hand shaking; she even ran off stage at one point. Of course, one of the two most difficult moments in the show is the attempted rape of Julia by Proteus. As with the Fiasco Theater production, the attempted rape was reduced to Proteus’s grabbing of Julia and Valentine’s quick parting of them. And the second difficulty is Valentine’s line following the making up of the two friends, “All that was mine, in Silvia, I give thee”; in this as in the Fiasco Theater’s version, the line was as incomprehensive to this viewer as ever.
After one free evening, I saw the magnificent 2 HENRY IV directed by Greg Doran with Antony Sher, an exquisite Falstaff, on the main stage. Two years ago, after the main stage theater had been redesigned, I saw my first and only production there in 2012: The Chekhov International Theatre Festival / Dmitry Krymov’s Laboratory / School of Dramatic Art Theatre Production’s A MIDSUMMER’S NIGHT’S DREAM, or rather an adaptation of the Primus and Thisby scene with enormous puppets in the cast as the woe begotten lovers: http://shaksper.net/archive/2012/319-august/28754-isc-2012-part-2-plays-from-world-shakespeare-festival-2012-. With 2 HENRY IV, I had the opportunity to see how well the newly arranged thrust stage works, and it works very well. In addition to Sher, other outstanding performances were turning in by Jasper Britton as Henry IV, Oliver Ford Davies, whose television and film credits are extensive, as Shallow, and Jim Hooper as Silence. Except for Rumour’s Chorus that was presented by Antony Byrne (who later played later Pistol) in the extended-tongue Rolling Stones’ t-shirt, costuming was traditional. The staging was spare but highly effective and allowed for rapid scene changes and pace. The cast was uniformly strong, but I found Elliot Barnes-Worrell weak in the capitulation scene with the rebels and Alex Hassell’s Prince Hal did not seem to me as charismatic as the role requires. I might have felt different if I had seen his performance in 1 HENRY IV. This production was so good that it makes one wonder if this play may not be better than 1 HENRY IV. There is no doubt, however, that Antony Sher’s performance dominated the entire production.
Despite my initial misgivings, the RSC’s city comedy THE ROARING GIRL in the Swan Theatre (Dir. Jo Davies) was highly enjoyable and a triumph for lead actor Lisa Dillon as Moll. THE ROARING GIRL is, of course, a fictionalization of the life of Mary Frith, cross-dresser and pickpocket. Dillon’s swagger produced a Moll as Dekker and Middleton must have intended: she smoked, she fought, she uncovered wrongdoing, and she managed to get the two lovers together. Sebastian (Joe Bannister) has a plot to enable his marriage to Mary Fitzallard (Faye Castelow) and outwit his father Sir Alexander Wengrave (David Rintoul): he will pretend to be in love with a totally unacceptable alternative Moll Cutpurse, who has the reputation of being a thief. In a subplot, Moll frustrates the designs of both Ralph Trapdoor (Geoffrey Freshwater) and Jack Dapper (Ian Bonar). The production is accompanied by a band that is usually in sight and is joined by Moll who sings and, at one point, plays an on electric guitar. This was a terrifically fun production and a wonderful way to end my week in Stratford.
Images from the Folger Library Digital Image Collection