The Grand Inquisitor / Measure For Measure / Southwark Fair / Honour / Other Hands
Various venues

February, 2006

I spent most of my last column musing about what circumstances are or aren’t germane to a review.  This fortnight has thrown up a graphic example.. indeed, graphic in several senses.

In early February I went to Warwick Arts Centre to review the first British performance of Peter Brook’s production of The Grand Inquisitor.  Had I known it was also the first time actor Bruce Myers had played it in public, I might have realised why he simply could not remember the lines, limping through the 50-minute performance with frequent resort to a copy of the text.  Clearly, such an event was no basis on which to review the production.  (Mreover, there had been an unofficial press embargo on the show at that point, though nobody told me.)  However, it lent perspective to the much changed version I returned to on its arrival in London.

In far greater command of his lines now, Myers was freed to attend to his characterisation and to give a rather more intelligible shape to what, even in Marie-Hélèlene Estienne’s edit of Dostoevsky’s original from The Brothers Karamazov, remains an argument of Jesuitical complexity and density.  The most obvious change in staging was the addition of a second presence onstage, billed simply as The Listener (although the character is the returned Christ).  Rohit Bagai sat, silent and immobile, as the Inquisitor attempted to indict Him.  This, too, added to the dynamic of the piece, although Myers had not yet sorted out the business of delivering some sections to the figure and others out to the audience.


It became apparent, however, that Bagai’s principal function may well have been to sit in a particular spot, a few feet in front of an apparatus that looked out of place on an otherwise bare stage and turned out to be a TelePrompTer.  For most of Myers’ performance he kept Bagai in line of sight between him and this contrivance, such that taking a prompt looked all but undetectable as his gaze barely deviated from his listener to the screen; two or three times Myers hesitated in his lines when looking elsewhere, only to resume with greater assurance after glancing back.

Now, is the use of a TelePrompTer relevant?  After all, this same issue carries reviews of The Exonerated, whose cast sit at stands and read openly from their scripts.  But this is a very different matter.  The Grand Inquisitor is not a verbatim testimony piece; it is presented as drama, and contriving an arrangement like this strikes me as… well, “deceitful” is too strong a word, but certainly pretty tricksy.  It’s especially so, I think, in that this is a Peter Brook production.  For decades now, Brook has been extolling the virtues of a theatrical communion, “holy” but technically unadorned, whereby performers and audience share in an intimate event of narrative re-creation.  The Warwick performance showed the limitations of this approach: particularly in a solo presentation (as it then was), there was nowhere in terms of staging, onstage interaction or really of characterisation for the performer to hide, and similarly no way for us in the audience to evade sharing his palpable torment.  But to circumvent this with a TelePrompTer smacks to me of an almost casual abandonment of the central aesthetic of intimacy and communion for the sake of a “quick fix”.  It lets the commercial imperative of fulfilling a sold-out-in-advance booking override a supposedly long-championed artistic philosophy.  It’s understandable, perhaps – a contract is a contract – but it still smells a bit dubious.


This seems to me to be a circumstance which it is perfectly proper to mention in review, as it goes to the heart of both the technical aspect and the motivation of the staging.  Yet Sharon Garfinkel’s Tribune review is the only one that mentions the TelePrompTer.  She could actually see the captions from where she was sitting; other reviewers perhaps could not, but I know for certain that some had their suspicions.  Certainly, suspicion isn’t enough to damn a production, but in this case it’s a suspicion that can be fairly easily confirmed or rebutted, and in this case it’s confirmed.  Charlie Spencer (who’s on something of a roll at the moment as regards vigorously laying into shows) remarks that the emperor has no clothes on.  Whether or not one agrees, the emperor’s attitude becomes even more conspicuous when he tries to cover his embarrassment with a screen.


Another great theatrical brand covered in this issue is that of Complicité, with the return of Simon McBurney’s Measure For Measure to its co-producer the National Theatre after two years on tour around the world.  I was fairly enthusiastic about this production first time round (TR issue 2004/11), though my stance was one of persuasion by the production’s argument rather than of rooted conviction.  Now, I find that argument far less persuasive, and I share Benedict Nightingale’s reservations.  Perversely, I slightly prefer Angus Wright’s Angelo to that of Paul Rhys in 2004: Wright begins more plausibly as a desiccated apparatchik, and so also shies away from excesses of passion when his sensual race is given the rein.  Naomi Frederick’s Isabella remains fervent but unmoving.

But once again the matter of branding assumes an unwelcome importance in matters.  It is the presence of McBurney himself, replacing David Troughton as the Duke, which may be most problematic: quite apart from the actuality of his oddly desultory performance, he now personifies Complicité to such an extent that it’s like having a TV station logo permanently displayed in a corner of the screen.  He hardly ever betrays Shakespeare’s writing, but simply by being there he signals that the company brand dominates that of the playwright.


Elsewhere at the National, Samuel Adamson’s Southwark Fair shouldn’t have sought the implicit comparisons with Jonson and Hogarth mentioned in several reviews.  It’s a breezy delight while it lasts, though I’d not go as far as Alastair Macaulay in urging all my friends to see it, and I simply don’t understand where in the play Lloyd Evans finds the homophobia he alleges runs through it; it seems to me that it’s the reviewer who’s associating the negative characteristics he mentions with homosexuality, not the playwright.

Joanna Murray-Smith’s Honour, first seen at the NT, is now revealed as a much thinner piece, having this time received a production which is no stronger than the writing deserves.  (Has anyone, by the way, ever spotted Martin Jarvis acting without a capital A?  Answers on a postcard, please…)  And Laura Wade slightly overdoes the driving metaphor in her Other Hands, but confirms the verdict of the Critics’ Circle in awarding her 2005’s Most Promising Playwright gong.  Lloyd Evans (again) interprets this as Most Over-Hyped Future Has-Been; if Wade joins such nonentities as former winners Stephen Jeffreys, Rona Munro, Philip Ridley, Kevin Elyot, Conor McPherson and Oscar winner Martin McDonagh, I suspect that she and we will be quite content.

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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