Back to the Grindstone…

I’m back in the States, so sadly I won’t be able to post reviews of anymore shows from the UK. ¬†However, if you’re looking for more impressions about the UK Shakespeare scene, you might want to check out the following blogs (which I’ve added to the blogroll):

Snazzy writing about wonderful shows, including RSC’s new play, Dunsinane (a sequel to Macbeth).

A little Beckett with your Euripides

Iphigenia in Aulis
Classic Stage Ireland, Dublin
July 2, 2011

I hadn’t planned on attending any theatre during my two days in Dublin, but I made it to Ireland earlier on Saturday than I had expected. A quick Google search revealed that Classic Stage Ireland was putting on its last night of Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis (Google did not reveal the student production of Hamlet with an all-female cast…sigh). Thanks to Prof. Steve Burch, I’m no longer of the naive, Nietzschean persuasion: that Euripides ruined Greek tragedy by over-psychologizing his characters. True, Euripides’ characters do have more interiority than Aeschylus’ or Sophocles’, and that might mean his plays are further from the ‘original tragic rituals,’ whatever those are. It also means his plays are worth seeing.

Iphigenia at Aulis tells the story of Agamemnon, leader of the Greek armies, who must sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to appease Artemis, who has becalmed the winds, keeping the Greeks from sailing to Troy. As yet, however, the Greeks are a loose band of tribes, not yet a nation: they band together only by sacking Troy. Iphigenia’s death is the price (and cause) of Greece’s identity.

The Classic Stage Ireland production highlights the appalling cost of nationalism in a few key ways. The setting is Beckettian, using a sparse, dirt-strewn stage, and dark, cloudy scrim, and a single, lifeless tree: a set that could easily accommodate Waiting for Godot. The costuming is mid-20th century working class: Clytemnestra stands out in women’s business attire, but the men could be anything from dock workers to farmers (minus the token swords); Iphigenia wears a skirt that emphasizes her youth, while the women of the chorus dress like peasants in timeless skirts and shawls that seem as much medieval as modern. Throughout the play, the actors maintain a strict emotional control, powerfully downplaying their emotions rather than slipping into melodrama, with one key exception: when Iphigenia accepts her fate, she proclaims it, cranking her emotional volume to an eleven. Despite the advice of Spinal Tap, Iphigenia’s enthusiasm felt overwhelming to me. That seems to have been the point: the production stages the sacrifice, and as Achilles brandishes the knife, the cast proclaims the bright future of Greece.

The chorus adds to this final, chilling effect: the group dialogue of the chorus, while spoken, possessed a musical quality throughout. The dialogue was divided into parts. At times the chorus spoke in unison, at times in single voices. More often than not, two or three of the six women would speak while the others waited to pick up the thread of thought. Thus, the dialogue could build, crescendo, and create dissonance, all through the timing of the number of voices speaking at any given moment: the voice of neither the community nor the individual, but of the confused crowd, the mob.

Is this a parable of Ireland? The country gained its independence less than a century ago, and its economy is in shambles. In Dublin, tour guides crack jokes about the state of the nation; the homeless fill the streets; and ruined lots riddle the city (I first wondered whether such empty lots were the debris from some act of terrorism or war; I soon learned that they were building projects that went bankrupt during the Recession). I don’t mean to suggest that Ireland is at fault for the Recession or that some metaphorical child has been sacrificed for Irish independence. But this production of Iphigenia in Aulis¬†seems to ask: what is the cost of a nation?

Merchant of Vegas

Merchant of Venice
Royal Shakespeare Company
June 28, 2011, 7:15pm

Before the show began, the woman next to me (a British schoolteacher) leaned over and said, “We came because we heard it was controversial.” Her husband smiled dutifully.

Rupert Goold’s Merchant of Venice is set in a raucous Las Vegas, complete with card tables, bad suits, and gaudy lights. Launcelot Gobbo (Jamie Beamish) opens the show as an Elvis impersonator, complete with song and, uh-huh!, dance. Antonio (Scott Handy) and Bassanio (Richard Riddell) are what you’d expect: the one a glum businessman, the other a polished youth with just enough hair gel to suggest rakishness. It’s clear that Antonio loves Bassanio, and clear that Antonio is dismayed by Bassanio’s plans to gamble on a marriage with Portia (Susannah Fielding). Standard Merchant fare, plus Las Vegas.

Portia and Nerissa (Emily Plumtree), however, are anything but typical. The game of the three caskets is transformed into a game show, Destiny, hidden in the basement of one of Las Vegas’s buildings. Contestants appear in trumped up, false personas: Morocco the boxer, Arragon the matador, Bassanio as Hercules himself. Portia and Nerissa are also layers of ornament: while their actual accents are Southern (and thickly ridiculous), they put on the airs of dumb blondes during the show, which is projected on TV screens above the stage. I his climactic choice of the lead casket, Bassanio rails against ornament: his choice shuts down the show, and Portia reveals self-consciously strips away her own ornaments: the accent, the platform shoes, the blonde wig, even the false confidence. She’s still daddy’s little girl, even after his death.

I haven’t mentioned Patrick Stewart’s Shylock yet. Stewart reprises this role by emphasizing Shylock’s jewishness, blessing his daughter in Hebrew, contrasting his cool, businessman’s exterior with his reactionary religious intolerance, even wearing a kippah and a tallit during the courtroom scene, which is held in some dark, sanitized torture room of a prison. He is Patrick Stewart (with a full head of hair!) and both his intensity and his emotional control are astounding.

The prison scene, however, is where Stewart and Handy really shine. Merchant is a play of subtext: Antonio’s love for Bassanio, Portia’s desire to master Bassanio’s will, Shylock’s balance between humanity and stereotype. In this production, all the subtext becomes embodied during this scene, speaking out through gestures and glances rather than words. When Bassanio arrives, Antonio has been stripped to the waist in preparation for the knife: the two men embrace, and Bassanio grips Antonio’s flesh like a lover. Portia comes not because she wants to save Bassanio’s friend but because she intuits the nature of Antonio and Bassanio’s relationship: she comes to observe, and saving Antonio is merely improvisation. Shylock holds the knife to Antonio’s breast, and Antonio quakes with such fear that Shylock complains to the police officer holding him still: it is only later in the scene, when Shylock puts a gun to Antonio’s head and Antonio does not flinch, that Shylock can say, happily, “I am content.”

Everyone gets what they want in this scene, and it destroys them. Shylock makes Antonio fear death and ultimately face it, becoming the monster Antonio so reviled and feared: Shylock’s only way to touch him; Antonio faces death for Bassanio’s sake, testifying to his love, but Portia trumps that testimony by saving him, saving her husband’s lover. And Portia sees what she came to see. The play does not end with jokes and happy reunions. It ends with the unadorned truth, the bare lead that Bassanio hazarded for. Everything is out: Antonio’s love, Gratiano’s pettiness, Jessica’s self-hatred, Portia’s self-fabrications. Life unadorned: it’s a controversial thing.