The only London airing for the English Shakespeare Company's latest productions (in tandem with Bath Theatre Royal and Salisbury Playhouse) consists of a fortnight at Hackney Empire. Fully half of the fourteen-strong acting company graduated from drama schools this summer. From these two pieces of information one might surmise that director Michael Bogdanov, despite his solid reputation, is finding it disproportionately difficult to raise funding for his projects. On the other hand, he might simply want to take Shakespeare to fresh audiences with fresh actors.
If the latter is the case, however, he has not succeeded. The Empire is a glorious space (if, sadly, itself lacking in funds for maintenance), unpretentiously friendly for audiences, but rather less so for actors; when the house is sparse, it is a dreadful slog for those onstage to elicit any useful reaction. If last Thursday's evening performance of Antony And Cleopatra played to a thin audience, the house for the matinée of As You Like It was positively threadbare. In one of the most dispiriting moments I have experienced in a theatre, a couple of punters retired some 45 minutes into As You Like It to the bar at the rear of the stalls, where one of them – sotto voce but no doubt audible even on the stage – muttered dejectedly, "I can't understand what it's about."
It is not as if Bogdanov took a particularly opaque approach to either play – rather the reverse (although Geraldine Bunzl's design for the comedy, an unfathomable arrangement of transoms, Venetian and roller blinds, scarcely helped create any meaningful kind of forest setting). He is handicapped by the youth of his company. I yield to no-one in my championing of student and post-student theatre, but the unfortunate truth is that, despite extensive work on the texts with a dramaturg, these young actors have largely failed to get to grips with either Shakespeare's language or his verse. The effect is less pronounced in Antony And Cleopatra, simply because the play concentrates on older characters played by older actors; the comedy, however, falls flat at several points. Granted, Touchstone is a thanklessly unfunny role, but Robert Barton seems less daunted than dazed; even the more experienced Susannah Elliot-Knight turns in a semi-detached Celia. Ivy Omere and David Shelley are more substantial as Rosalind and Orlando: Omere adopts a Nigerian accent for her Ganymede disguise, which significantly waxes and wanes as she speaks with less or more sincerity, and when she reveals herself to right the sylvan confusion, Orlando stands apart in shocked chagrin almost as if he were Isabella at the same point in Measure For Measure.
Shelley also makes a serviceable Octavius in the tragedy (despite a strange tendency to twitch his arms during major speeches). If Tim Woodward's Jaques is a defrocked whiskey priest, his Mark Antony shows the mercurial side of the character – the old, wounded lion with little left to do but praise his own past. Cathy Tyson's Cleopatra is likewise volatile rather than flighty, but when the words begin to our out of the Queen's mouth pell-mell Tyson, too, loses track and simply gabbles them. Bogdanov's production moves here on firmer ground and at a surer pace, but remains unexceptional.
(One final cavil: if Bogdanov is trying to show himself hip'n'happening by staging the "It was a lover and his lass..." song as a rap, he is wildly off the mark by using as his backing track "Rapper's Delight" by the Sugarhill Gang – it may be the original hit rap record, but it is all but twenty years old. Most contemporary...)
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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