AN ACUTE CASE OF arteriosclerosis has stricken the Royal Shakespeare Company-not a hardening of the arteries attendant upon a ripe old age but rather a premature senescence resulting from an intransigent effort to remain avant-garde at all costs.
Yesterday's scenic novelty. However, become today's cliche, ahd the RSC suffers from a self-congratulatory and overly enthusiastic imitation of itself. The artistic malaise that reigns at Stratford is symptomatic of a general crisis in Shakespearean production in the English speaking world. No one seems to know any more what an authentic Shakespearean style is, and whereas the RSC has unflinchingly discarded the grand old manner exemplified in the histrionics of John Gielgud, Edith Evans or Michael Redgrave, they have not managed to come up with a viable alternative.
Many longtime observers consider that the Royal Shakespeare reached its apex in the mid '50s under the aegis of Sir Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh-the final and perhaps finest expression of the grandiose approach which has since fallen into disrepute.
In the early '60s Peter Brook and Peter Hall leaped into the artistic breach, and under their tutelage the RSC moved toward creating a definite company style-spare and abrasive and purportedly in keeping with modern artistic sensibilities. Two of Peter Brook's productions-"King Lear" with Paul Scofield and Irene Worth and "Marat/Sade" with Glenda Jackson-created a sensation, and in retrospect they have only gained in stature as creative landmarks.
But this venerable company has become the victim of its own past triumphs, and the plays currently on display in Stratford offer the rather dismal spectacle of seeing a parody-some would say a burlesque-of the production values Peter Brook brought to rich fruition in "Marat/Sade."
This play by Peter Weiss takes place in Charenton, an asylum on the outskirts of Paris that housed the Marquis de Sade among its other mental patients during the French Revolution. Brook turned Charenton into a haunting metaphor for the insanity that dominates power politics, and his collection of grotesque zanies riveted the imagination. Unfortunately for Shakespeare, however, Charenton has extended its boundaries, and every new production in stratford now bears the unmistakable stamp of bedlam. After more than 15 years of trying to shove shakespeare into boxes hewn by Meyerhold and Brecht, the RSC's productions have become both predictable and tedious.
"The Tempest," directed by Clifford Williams, typifies the RSC's house style. The play, Shakespeare's artistic farewell to drama, is the author's exploration of the scenic illusions of his craft, and throughout he maintains a mood of childlike wonder and incandescent magic. Illusion, wonder, and magic, unfortunately, were all mercilessly extirpated from this production. During the first scene, the eponymous storm rages at sea and wrecks the ship carrying Alonso and his cronies back to Naples. The simulated thunder was so loud and creaking that one wondered why so much bluster had so little effect. In fact, the only purpose it served was to make the actors inaudible, and this rather cavalier disregard for Shakespeare's text characterizes not only this production but the entire season.
The human flotsam is washed ashore on an island that represents divine providence and man's ability to renew himself morally. In Shakespeare's imagination it was a lush, semi-tropical paradise whose luxuriant growth corresponds to natural and spiritual energies. In Ralph Koltai's sets, however, this evocative symbol was reduced to a blasted lunar landscape smeared with orange and black pigments. This background would have quite suited Beckett, and I half expected Prospero to conjure up the long awaited godot.
If the decors were inappropriate, the direction was perverse. Williams does not seem at all concerned with how his actors move or place themselves on a stage; consequently, the blockings were static and awkward. This inability to deal imaginatively with the plastic problem of moving bodies in space reached a paroxysm in the masque which celebrates Ferdinand's betrothal to Miranda. The Choreography by Robert North was lumpish and hesitating, and the phantasmagoric effect it was striving for was the kind successfully achieved by Tom O'Horgan in "Tom Paine" 10 years ago on off-off Broadway. Music, as well as dance, plays an important part in Shakespeare's play, and once again the RSC's efforts were strictly amateurish. In fact, they were down right abominable, and the strains that accompanied Ariel's "Full Fathom Five" -one of the loveliest songs in English-wobbled uncertainly between Debussy and Berg.
If the above diagnosis were not serious enough, it was compounded by lackluster acting. Miranda, who should radiate youth, beauty and innocence, shouted raucously and cavorted about like a barmaid. Prospero looked like a refugee from a Pinter play, and Caliban was a dead ringer for Olivier's Othello-complete with skewered mouth and sea-sick eyes.
From the point of view of acting, "Measure for Measurec was simply catastrophic. Isabella, the female lead, must not only be beautiful but also convey a spiritual ardor and fierce virginity that border on the hysterical. Fesh from a convent and filled with good intentions, she stumbles upon implacable evil in the form of Angelo, the absent duke's deputy who has sentenced her brother to death and who, attracted by her innocence and purity, demands her honor as the price for her brother's life.Thanks to Paola Dionisotti, Isabella was transformed into a vituperative and archly knowing shrew. In her final intercession on behalf of Angelo-a majestic set piece which recalls Portia's plea for mercy in "The Merchant of Venice" -Dionisotti's nervous twitches got the better of her, and she lapsed into a series of epileptic seizures that left the audience agape with pity and terror-but not entirely the ones recommended by Aristotle as cathartic.
Angelo fared no better in the hands of Jonathan Pryce. This puritan among puritans and rapacious moral reformer is a zealot and by definition a man of energy and passion-emotions all too easily deflected from God and the spirit to Isabella and the flesh. And this affective transference is central to Shakespeare's conception. In the listless and blase person of Pryce, however, Angelo had nothing to transfer.
"Measure for Measure" is the darkest of Shakespeare's dark comedies and the most problematic of his problem plays. It deals with the utter inability of religious institutions and social structures to deal with the untoward nature of mankind. In addition, Shakespeare shows the megalomania and moral perversion political power inevitably brings in its wake. The director, Barry Kyle, adamantly refused to explore these aspects and turned Shakespeare's most disturbing play into a freak show that kept its darker implications safely in abeyance.
The sets and costumes designed by Christopher Morley were stunning despite the de rigueur appreance of hospital bed shirts. Along with straw and saw dust, they have become ubiquitous fixtures in Stratford. Vaguely Caroline, the costumes carried a silent but eloquent commentary on England's puritan reformation. Angelo, moreover, wore a white robe reminiscent of the heretics who perished in autos-da-fe . Decorated with the traditional red flames at the bottom it was a telling image. But all the ingenuity came to naught, since one was finally left with the impression of a series of irrelevant visual gimmicks that ranged from the banal (nuns and prostitutes played by the same actresses) to the lurid (simulated copulation).To avoid the obvious, the RSC fell into the inane.
The most eagerly awaited new production of the current season was Peter Brook's "Antony and Cleopatra" with Alan Howard and Glenda Jackson. Brook is one of the great creative directors working in the theater today. He has evolved a unique style, and though his highly individualized approach works brilliantly with some Shakespearean texts-"King Lear," for example-his production of "Antony and Cleopatra" demonstrates that it works less well with others.
T.S. Eliot considered "Antony and Cleopatra" Shakespeare's most artistically satisfying work-so satisfying, in fact, that he could not resist the temptation of imitating a section of it in "The Waste Land." Certainly Stratford's local poet never wrote anything finer than the last two acts of this beguiling tale that deals with the mysterious power of love to purify the impure and cleanse the unclean. At the end of the play, it is the sensuous bond between the two wayward and frail protagonists that transfigures and ennobles them.
Curiously enough, sexual passion and nobility were seldom indicated in Brook's over-intellectualized and ascetic production. In fact, every attempt had been made to insure that nothing would suggest either the physical luxury or emotional opulence without which the play shrivels into fustion.
Brook once designated his approach as "theater in the rough." This "Antony and Cleopatra" was actually theater in the raw with unpainted two by fours and clear plexiglass panels carrying the not inconsiderable burden of having to suggest cleopatra's court, where every physical sensation and idle caprice of the wanton queen is sated. Empty space would have been better.
To confound the audience's expectations even further, Brook strove for a unisex mystique with an undernourished, stoop shouldered, and androgynous Antony in the person of Alan Howard, who squeaked through Antony's death scene in a kinky falsetto, thereby emasculating some of shakespeare's noblest and most forceful lines. In one of the play's most famous speeches Cleopatra describes her "man of men" as a demi-god whose legs bestrode the ocean and whose reared arm crested the world. Turning to her servant Dolabella, she asks if "there was or might be such a man?" Given the male lead, the question is purely rhetorical, and miscasting is not the least of Stratford's problems.
Needless to say the Cleopatra of Glenda Jackson gave every impression of being stronger both intellectually and physically than her fatigued lover. Cleopatra is the richest, most complex, and ambiguous female ever imagined by the mind of man, and the challenges this role presents are enormous. Although Jackson's portrayal was not fully realized, it was nonetheless interesting to watch an informed and sensitive theatrical imagination grappling with the difficulties of this part. At the beginning she showed a certain reserve and emotional guarded ness as if afraid to believe in the possibility of an authentic love in the autumn of her life. Later she became a willful child unable to control the stormy outbreaks of her moods and whims, and in the scene with the messenger who brings the bad tidings of Antony's marriage to Octavia, she became violent and sadistic, throwing a dagger at the rapidly retreating subaltern. And the final scene in which Cleopatra soars to a realm of transcendent being through love was beautifully conceived and enacted. Here the combined efforts of Jackson and Brook achieved one of the most luminous moments I can recall in the theater.
Serious vocal and technical problems, however, prevented Jackson from fully reaching her goals, and watching her was rather like hearing Maria Callas in the last days of her career-although the artistic sensibilities were acute, the voice would no longer follow the dictates of the mind. Jackson possesses a magnigicent natural instrument, but she has been away from the theater much too frequently.
The current season did offer one memorable performance: Michel Pennington as Berowne in "Love's Labour's Lost." Here, at last, was acting of rare vintage and great distinction. First of all Pennington displayed admirable vocal control, and listening to him modulate that instrument and mold it to the contours of an arching Shakespearean line is the greatest pleasure Stratford presently affords. Furthermore, his physical presence commands attention. Pennington is still young, and if he continues to mature as an artist, he might become the great Shakespearean actor England sorely needs.
Prospero is dead, and Caliban is the new master at Stratford. What the current season demonstrates is the inability of the Anglo-Saxon world to develop a viable contemporary approach to Shakespeare. The antiquated folderol the BBC is exporting for consumption on American television corroborates this thesis. The "Hallmark Hall of Fame" presentations in the mid '50s, in fact, used the new medium more sensitively-their "Macbeth" with Maurice Evans and Judith Anderson in 1954 being a case in point.
The most interesting, intelligent, and innovative productions of Shakespeare I have seen recently were in Italian and German-Giorgio Strehler's "The Tempest" in Milan and the Kammerspiele's A Midsummer Night's Dream" in Munich. Somehow actors and directors in England, Canada and the United States have lost their ability to recreate Shakespeare with acumen, integrity and passion. Instead they elect either an antediluvian traditionalism-the inveterate approach in Stratford, Ontario-or a jagged and conventional modernity-the systematic solution in Stratford-on-Avon.
What a tragedy that to see vibrant life breathed into Shakespeare, one must listen to him in a foreign tongue. CAPTION: Illustration, No Caption