It’s easy to become preoccupied with an Anglocentric, “home-team” view of Shakespeare, especially now in the first flush of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s year-long Complete Works festival. Even though around half the presentations announced will be by visiting companies, most of those from abroad, nevertheless the RSC banner and Stratford-upon-Avon location may unintentionally lead certain inferences to be drawn. In particular, British critics (and I am as guilty of this as any other) often seem hung up on a production’s fidelity to Shakespeare’s text. We may decry, say, the actions of Samuel Beckett’s literary estate in fiercely guarding the “authenticity” of productions to what the author wrote, but when it comes to the Bard we ourselves can sometimes allow scarcely any more latitude.
It can be both refreshing and instructive, then, to encounter in a foreign Shakespeare festival a raft of productions in languages one does not understand, with surtitles translating them into another language one does not understand. With only an imperfect memory of the play in question, one begins to feel a whiff of the freedom which comes naturally to companies not shackled to the cultural megalith of Shakespeareana, and from countries perhaps accustomed to more adventurous directorial vision as a general rule. However, you can take the critic out of Britain, but you can’t always take Britain out of the critic. Last week at the fifth Shakespeare Festival in Craiova, in south-western Romania, it was noticeable that we in the Brit contingent were the ones who muttered the most reservations about “liberties being taken”.
Whether by accident or design, though, the Craiova programme aided critical analysis by offering contrasting pairs of productions of the same plays. In the few days I spent there, I saw two radically different Twelfth Nights, and the first of a couple of Midsummer Night’s Dreams; having to leave early, I alas missed the Cymbeline pairing which followed. Indeed, the Twelfth Night diptych is also available to British theatregoers: Silviu Purcarete’s version for the Marin Sorescu National Theatre in Craiova was seen in the Bath Shakespeare Festival in March, and Declan Donnellan’s all-male, Russian version comes to the Barbican next month under the Cheek By Jowl marque.
Coincidentally, the only other Donnellan production ever to visit Craiova was also his only other all-male Shakespeare, the now-legendary As You Like It in the early 1990s. On that occasion, he recalled, the truck carrying sets and costumes was delayed at the Romanian border, so the cast borrowed some frocks from the female members of the Craiova company and performed a rougher version on the first night; afterwards a member of the audience asked Adrian Lester (who played Rosalind), “So, tomorrow night, there will be costumes?” – “Yes.” – “And scenery?” – “Yes.” – “And actresses?”
His Twelfth Night felt more sober than that earlier production... or perhaps “more sombre” is the better description, since both it and Purcarete’s production featured Sir Toby Belch at one point entering with a carrier-bagful of bottles of drink. Dmitry Shcherbina’s Malvolio in particular cut a palpably Russian kind of figure amidst the misrule of Illyria. The cross-dressing is relatively discreet, and (as far as I could tell given my linguistic limitations) explicitly set up towards the beginning of the presentation. Of course, such an approach affords great capacity to explore various homo-erotic currents in the text; nevertheless, I was unsure about the face-painted camp of Igor Yasulovich’s Feste until I realised that, as the insightful Fool among the characters, he ought to tease and parody these turns of thought as much as any others.
The following day, at the launch of the Romanian edition of his book The Actor And The Target, Donnellan was at pains to emphasise that his directorial approach is centred not on a preconceived vision for the production in question, but on the actors and the sense of life they give: “A lot of my work,” he said, “is not so much about giving a good thing as trying to take away a bad thing or make it less destructive... None of us can bring something to life, but you can ask yourself, ‘Why am I stopping life passing?’” This notion of allowing life to happen onstage is the core of his method.
Purcarete, in contrast, had a distinct vision, or at least a number of identifiable ideas. Seated on the stage itself, in the front row of a house of only 100 or so, I appreciated the intimate aspect of the staging as I had not done in the proscenium environment of Bath’s Theatre Royal; contrariwise, a number of touches which had disarmed me with their audacity the first time around now seemed more gratuitous, especially on discovering the origin of much of his visual conception. Where, a colleague asked the Marin Sorescu’s artistic director Mircea Cornisteanu, had the idea come from to set the play in a derelict library with glass-fronted bookcases, empty but boasting rows of garden gnomes atop them? In reply, Cornisteanu took us next door to the room in which the first read-through had been held: there were the long tables similar to those used onstage, and there were the spaces along the walls where the very bookcases had been borrowed for the set, their glass shelves still stacked there. Once again, it’s cheeky, but one might expect a director to look further than three metres afield for his visual keynote.
Sergei Masloboyshchykov’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the New Theatre in Budapest and the Castle Theatre in Gyula had the text-centrists among us grumbling most vocally. What sense do the four young lovers’ rivalries have if they make their first entrance wheeled on, a quartet intertwined in a drink- or drug-fuelled sprawl of euphoria? Conflating the characters of Theseus’ chamberlain Philostrate, chief “rude mechanical” Peter Quince and the mischievous Puck is an intriguing notion, but far more problematic than enlightening, especially in Act Five; and what was that sudden switch at the end, as Bottom and the female Snug suddenly became the “real” Theseus and Hippolyta? Few of us knew or, I’m afraid, cared. Perhaps more significant was the announcement that Gyula, together with Craiova, Bath and Gdansk, have agreed to establish an international network of Shakespeare festivals, with greater co-operation in areas of programming and organisation.
Even the few days I spent in Craiova included not only these shows but a number of discussions, book launches, set and library exhibitions and a student dance piece. The most impressive production, however, was The Winter’s Tale by Kurita Yoshihiro’s Ryutopia company from Niigata in Japan. Many projects have aimed and claimed to synthesize Noh with more western or more modern styles of presentation, but Ryutopia succeeded with brilliant simplicity. The formalised movement of Noh, its deliberation to the point of almost imperceptible slowness (such as left Misaki Machiya’s Perdita rotating onstage throughout the interval), blended with what sounded like a more naturalistic delivery of the text. This does not solve all problems: rather than bring kyogen into the mix, for instance, Yoshihiro decided simply to excise almost all the comical rustic characters, a major loss in the case of Autolycus. None the less, this is a work of luminous beauty both conceptually and as a piece of drama. Programmers of the Barbican’s BITE strand of international theatre presentations, please take note.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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