You could virtually hear the sighs of relief rise from the newsprint on 5 October, as the first production of Kevin Spacey’s second season at the artistic helm of the Young Vic turned out not to be a turkey. As I wrote here a year or so ago, we seem to have been trying to balance our British instinct for the “build ’em up… knock ’em down” approach with a genuine desire that Spacey should not fail in his project to invest the Vic with an ongoing vital – and commercially viable – artistic identity. This Richard II, I think, begins to reassure us that it may be a goer. Nor do I think that it’s a simple case of Bardolatry, as Adriano Shaplin of The Riot Group was arguing in a recent debate at the Chocolate Factory. It’s true that, of the 17 plays with more than one entry in the Theatre Record production index for 2005, eleven of them are by Shakespeare (or, as Brenda James and Prof William Rubinstein are now proposing, by the latest alternative candidate: courtier, diplomat and descendant of John of Gaunt, Sir Henry Neville). However, Richard II is hardly one of the usual suspects for a play-it-safe Shakespeare, nor is putting it on with a lead actor in his first stage Shakespeare and a director who’s on a similar adventure (this being one of only a handful of Shakespeares that Trevor Nunn has not directed before).
In particular, Nunn’s use of video footage seems to me the most complex I can recall in such a context. We’re all familiar now with handicams and video screens inserted into Shakespeare productions, usually into the histories or Julius Caesar (most recently in David Farr’s production at the Lyric Hammersmith). But, as well as underlining Nunn’s point about the contrast between public and private conduct, the video footage here says much more about the media than simply that they are present at such events. I don’t want to bang on about “constructing narratives” (see my FT review of What We Did To Weinstein, which takes this perhaps excessively charitable interpretation of Ryan Craig’s play), but this is exactly what happens in Nunn’s Richard II. We do not just see the cameras recording, and the screens playing, footage of key moments; we see them doing so in a particular way. Video designers Dick Straker and Sven Ortel of Mesmer’s sterling work on this production almost makes one prepared to remit the dire punishment due to them for inflicting those dreadful CGI zooms, pans, dollies and establishing shots all over The Woman In White.
Because what is played back to us here is not a mere recapitulation of these events, but a particular construction thereof. It’s not just that, say, John of Gaunt’s words of recrimination in the latter part of the “this England” speech are shown intercut with footage of riots (the Poll Tax riots of 1990, I believe); it’s that those words are visibly edited, as the screen image jumps, in order to create a more powerful and more pointed soundbite. In Nunn’s Plantagenet England as in ours today, the media have become a major player in the national discourse… indeed, to a large extent they define what that discourse is seen to consist of. Hence, Richard’s panic about the prospect of being usurped is a product not simply of the extent of Bolingbroke’s might and support among the nobles, but of the king perceiving a supposed change in the tide of popular opinion… as it is reported on the screens. It has even been suggested that, in this version, Bolingbroke does not consider the possibility of assuming the throne until he realises that this is to all intents and purposes the script that has been written for him by the media. This introduces a contemporary complexity into the play without substantially distorting its original tale, and goes a long way towards making the production as fascinating and satisfying as it is.
Compare and contrast the Young Vic/Barbican Young Genius season. As I said last issue, I spent much of The Dragons’ Trilogy trying hard to be as transported by it as I had been on first viewing in 1991. Wole Soyinka’s The Lion And The Jewel in The Pit seemed moderately diverting, but I suspect that’s because I’m a man. Look at the show’s reviews by sex of reviewer, and compare their differing interpretations of the play’s central scene of contention: Ian Johns describes it as teaching the village beauty Sidi a lesson in pride, whereas Lyn Gardner and Sharon Garfinkel speak more bluntly in terms of rape – which may, after all, involve forms of coercion other than the violently physical. (Similarly, compare the English reviews of Oxford Stage’s tour of Men Should Weep, which tend to speak of the power of its vision of 1930s Scottish tenement living, with the Scottish reviews which precede them and which see Charlotte Gwinner’s production as failing to resolve the play’s own problems and sometimes lapsing into Gorbals cliché.) Sarah Hemming’s review of the Soyinka play even carries a whiff of my own recurring worries about whether a sense of exotica simply disarms us when watching such a production. Aleks Sierz questions the linkage of youth and genius in general, which is rather an amusing volte-face from his “young, young, young” enthusiasm about Switch Triptych a couple of issues ago.
The critical knives really came out for The Knight Of The Burning Pestle, however. It’s true that Francis Beaumont’s play, with its multifarious parodies, pastiches and breaches of the fourth wall, seems much more interesting as a prospect than when you’re actually watching it; nevertheless, I remain convinced that it ought to be possible to give it as amusing and vibrant a staging as it is claimed to merit. Indeed, surely that vibrancy is the reason why Timothy Spall, playing the blundering apprentice Rafe in 1981, caught the eye of the woman who later became his wife… an event commemorated in the naming of their son, which in turn enabled Anna Mackmin’s production to bring things full circle by having the role of Rafe played by Rafe Spall. But that concept, too, is more satisfying than anything that happened on the Barbican stage.
I say “stage”: at least as crippling a blow as any of Mackmin’s directorial misjudgements was the reconfiguration of the Barbican Theatre space. Where The Dragons’ Trilogy had played in a newly created traverse arrangement and made full use of the space, Pestle used the same physical shell with the seating arranged on three sides, and found itself dwarfed in a vast theatrical hangar. It was an environment in which Mackmin couldn’t win: the more moderate approach to the play’s humour which she by and large adopted seemed inadequate to fill the space, whereas the later, broader measures appeared desperate, and still didn’t fill it. Having to jog a few hundred yards across the stage from her seat in one of the side banks on each of the many occasions when the Citizen’s Wife interrupted the action may have helped keep actor Ingrid Lacey in trim, but it did nothing for the pace of the evening. I began looking forward with some desperation to the promise made to me in an interview by Gísli Örn Garðarsson that for the season’s next show, Woyzeck by his Icelandic Vesturport company, the Barbican would be remade on more lounge-like lines. As to whether that happened, and whether or not Woyzeck succeeded, stay tuned for the next exciting instalment of Young Genius.
Which is not a term I’d have considered using with regard to Epitaph For George Dillon. It’s all very well praising this opportunity to see John Osborne’s playwriting talent in development, but that doesn’t give the play a Get Out Of Jail Free card. The fact is, it’s a hotch-potch. It begins as the kind of drama that director Peter Gill has written a few of himself, about little urban lives and their succession of grinding little defeats. At times it seems like an antique domestic comedy, at others like Rattigan or even late-period Coward. The climactic second-act confrontation between George and Francesca Annis’s Ruth is more overwritten than any tub-thumping Osborne I’ve ever heard, which is saying something; it veers between German high Romanticism and a howling high wind, lacks any sense of shifting personal dynamic during its course and is at least twice as long as it can comfortably get away with. Susannah Clapp reckons that only the final movement is “ramshackle”; it’s true that by then any sense of sustained tone has vanished, as it throws in everything including the kitchen sink (though not the door-handle that cam adrift in Joseph Fiennes’ hand on press night; his ad-lib, “Don’t tell Mrs E”, reminded me that Mrs E is an incessantly, inanely burbling character in Vivian Stanshall’s Sir Henry At Rawlinson End, from which moments of this could almost have come). Nicholas de Jongh’s approach of simply laughing at it all may have been the wisest course, for those who can manage it.
And finally, as they say before the limply light-hearted item at the end of the news bulletin: At one point in Popular Productions’ workmanlike but pointless revival of Stephen King’s Misery (in Simon Moore’s two-hander adaptation) at the King’s Head, I came within an ace of heckling. Nothing to do with the quality of the show, but merely that it had supplied a perfect cue for the punchline to my favourite shaggy-dog story. In the scene, novelist Paul Sheldon is recounting the dramatic climax to the romantic novel his tormentor Annie Wilkes has forced him to write. As the action of the novel switches to the romance-novel version of Africa, the eponymous heroine Misery’s husband asks his native guide why the incessant jungle drums have stopped. I wanted to call out, “Drums stop, very very bad. Drums stop… BASS SOLO!” Ah, well, maybe you have to know the rest of the joke.
Written for Theatre Record.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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