Julius Caesar, King Lear, The Winter’s Tale
by William Shakespeare, performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company
Park Avenue Armory, New York City, July 6–August 14, 2011
The empty stage was already quietly exhilarating, a space where it might be almost as much fun to imagine a play as to see one. For its recent six-week, five-play season at the Armory on Park Avenue in Manhattan, the Royal Shakespeare Company set up a portable version of the company’s home base in Stratford: a tight little performance space seating just under a thousand people, the playing area at once ample and intensely intimate, like a circus tent set up in your living room. The thrust stage reached out into the heart of the audience clustered tightly around on three sides, with the upper tiers looming in close proximity, and two diagonal ramps cutting through the crowd from the back of the house. At least some of the problems of distance that any Shakespeare production must cope with—the physical ones—were done away with at the outset.
Even with the play more or less in your lap, is that close enough? Solitary reading has the inestimable advantage of distending duration at will so that any phrase can inhabit ear and mind as long as desired, a small planet in itself. But finally it needs live production—even if that production were nothing more than actors on a bare stage without props or costumes—to restore the urgencies and counterattacking rhythms of real time. The dream would be to experience living language broadcast live from a vanished source, unimpeded by the erosions wrought by time and circumstance.
However chimerical that desire for unmediated contact, the attempt must always be made. A hundred minor forms of trickery aid in that attempt. Actors must make glances and inflections serve for footnotes; directors must, or at least generally think they must, use design, choreography, and music to make visible unimagined subtexts (whether historical or political or folkloric) and keep the audience from going astray in syntactic mazes. But if the text is not an unbroken skein—a continuous telling—the play has been lost among the bric-à-brac.
Here the RSC has the advantage of a training that emphasizes crisply intelligible vocal delivery. This was alluded to by some New York reviewers as a sort of side benefit or incidental pleasure, but it seems foundational for any company devoted to Shakespeare. If the words are not cutting the air, each with the effect of conscious thought, they are quickly lost in the murk of garbled meanings or the drone of verse rhythms on automatic pilot. The three productions I saw—King Lear, Julius Caesar, and The Winter’s Tale—were enough to reaffirm the RSC, under the current artistic directorship of Michael Boyd, as a superior company of actors intent on keeping the texts alive at each point, their skills so evenly diffused across major and minor roles that even the smallest parts carried the major weight that Shakespeare’s narrative …