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The Royal Shakespeare Company on Park Avenue

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
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Stephanie Berger
Greg Hicks as Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, at the Park Avenue Armory, New York City, July 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 art demands.

The effect of the thrust stage was to make the actors—at least from the vantage point of the front rows—unusually imposing presences. Everything here was foreground, somebody’s foreground at least—such a space does not lend itself to carefully composed stage pictures, the perspective being so radically different from different angles that actors must keep moving about to give each side of the house a chance to take in the scene. In these circumstances bodies and voices were more potent theatrical effects than any of the various blinding flares or thunderous reverberations of crashing scenery.

When it came to overarching directorial schemes the results were decidedly mixed. Lucy Bailey’s Julius Caesar was full of ambitious concepts all the way from its opening dumb show, a feral wrestling match between Romulus and Remus (we had been clued in to their identities by a video display), culminating in the former slitting the latter’s throat. What followed involved much blood-spilling, ritual dancing, and digital display, some deployed artfully to multiply supernumeraries into a convincing vision of the Roman masses, some of it just there, wraparound wallpaper for the eye to land on if the speeches got dull.

Bailey’s premise was anything but frivolous: to put the blood back in a play freighted more than any other of Shakespeare’s with an inheritance of classroom bloodlessness, until at worst it can devolve into a comparative study of rhetorical technique capped by obligatory ceremonial death scenes. She sought a Rome of blood and grime, awash in currents of ecstatic shamanism and annihilating aggression, permeated by a sense of real fear.

This worked best when it belonged to the play. The death of Cinna the poet, closing out the first half, was savage and shot through with sadistic humor; more drastically, a blood-soaked Antony playfully tossing a severed head to Octavius at the beginning of the fourth act was an over-the-top punctuation of what his words already made apparent. But over the long haul the aural and visual overload was counterproductive. The incursions of mobs and armies became musical interludes, bursts of choreographic mayhem to liven things up between the Shakespearean episodes. Crucial dramatic scenes played like lulls, as if Brutus and Cassius were ineffectual onlookers at a raging spectacle beyond their control: perhaps that was the point.

Shakespeare’s characters seemed to be competing with another and much louder play, a play centered on the swirling inarticulate social forces that Caesar, Brutus, or Antony only imagine they can direct. Shakespeare’s playscript itself was at risk of being drowned in simulated gore, muffled by surging shouts, moans, and grumbles (not to mention amped-up thunder and the clash of steel on steel), and upstaged by the ongoing video backdrop, which sometimes—as in the spectacle of Rome in flames that persisted all through the aftermath of Caesar’s assassination—created the illusion that a screening of some savory Italian sword and sandal epic of the early Sixties was in progress at the back of the stage, if only the actors wouldn’t keep getting in the way. (I had to wonder if the image of the crumbling bust of Caesar was intended to be seen as an allusion to Saul Bass’s titles for Spartacus.)

The production’s mood favored Mark Antony, the character most in tune with the general bloodletting, played by Darrell D’Silva as an ambitious hell-raiser, brutal, boozily sentimental, and with a cynical flair for the common touch. “Friends, Romans, countrymen” was barked out effectively as a military command, but this characterization left him little to do with the “noblest Roman” encomium after Brutus’ death, delivered with no more force than a bit of pro forma spin control. His grief and rage for Caesar’s death were persuasive, and Greg Hicks’s Caesar (an exactly etched if narrow likeness) was the sort that such an Antony might admire: wiry, energetic, and arrogant, and just enough a creature of vanity and whims to allow him to be manipulated. Sam Troughton—working with a cane following a knee injury earlier in the season—was a depressive and self-contained Brutus, a still center that might harbor a death wish, in contrast to John Mackay’s unusually sympathetic Cassius, played as a neurotic humorist with a far sharper pragmatic sense. Of the rest, Hannah Young’s Portia stood out particularly, more determined patrician’s daughter than submissive wife.

The same day I saw Greg Hicks as Caesar at the matinee, he was due to play King Lear in the evening, an impressive feat in itself. I caught up with his Lear, which some critics had found insufficiently maddened, a week or so later. David Farr’s production, the night I saw it, came across as a swift and vigorous reading that very much brought out the RSC’s ensemble virtues. Here every role, not just Lear’s, was central. What came through most clearly was the insidious beauty of the storytelling, its enlistment of every device of humor and lyric and suspense in the service of unfolding catastrophes. This was not the most shatteringly apocalyptic of Lears, but it was emotionally persuasive and dramatically alive enough to forestall any perplexing over the production design.

Sets and costumes veered between the Middle Ages and the World War I era—helmeted doughboys moved props between scenes, the storm-wracked heath was situated in a bombed-out factory district (while the storm itself was a matter of flickering and crackling overhead lighting fixtures, and a shower of water suggestive of a ruined plumbing system)—and Lear was eventually consigned to the care of a Red Cross nurse, while hymns were intoned in cloisters and Edgar and Edmund fought it out with swords in the manner of Ivanhoe. No particularly pronounced historical or mythic vision seemed to be in operation; not that Lear needs any such embellishment. I cannot think of a drama less in need of additives.

Hicks is a vocally agile actor, pleasing in an arioso way when he wants to be, and capable of very penetrating portraiture, as his Leontes in The Winter’s Tale in particular demonstrated. Too evidently sharp and fit to convincingly portray feebleness either of mind or body, his Lear was more a case of toughness beating against itself, his problem not failing strength but inability to govern the strength he still had. He beat back at the “hysterica passio” of his heart as if overwhelmed by its rebellious force, not its faltering. This was a nastily sarcastic ruler—reeling off his curse on Goneril with the bravura of a long-practiced virtuoso of slanging matches—too arrogant to realize how seriously he has misstepped in dividing his realm, very much a king but too pigheaded ever to have been a very efficient one, in fact the type of a self-satisfied and not terribly intellectual provincial tyrant.

Whatever “better nature” he has is forged out of nothing in the storm; if Hicks’s bursts of rage did not quite attain the highest pitch of madness, the manic glee that followed was beautifully inhabited, giving the encounter with the blinded Gloucester a quality of demented pastoral right on the edge of the frankly comic. Lear does not return to his old self—there was so little to return to—but by bizarre miracle uncovers fragments of a new and still half-formed self, an awakening that collapses in the wake of Cordelia’s death.

The embers of sexuality still clung about this Lear, suggested in part by the three strong performances of the daughters. Kelly Hunter’s terminally needy Goneril gave enough signs of emotional damage to elicit something like sympathy for at least part of the way, her wrenching sobs at Lear’s curse suggesting that this was hardly the first time she had suffered such abuse from her father. Regan, sometimes played as Goneril’s knowing coconspirator, here was caught up in her own private world of role-playing sexuality, a theatrical universe with a cast of one. Both, one could feel, were truly Lear’s daughters, the pure products of his tutelage and example, while Cordelia stood out abrasively as the disaffected rebel in the family. Samantha Young’s Cordelia was hard-nosed and skeptical enough to raise the question of how much she really did love her father as more than a stoically accepted obligation: more than Goneril or Regan, to be sure, but that would hardly be saying much.

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