Friday, November 01, 2002
Okay, I'm finally getting around to posting theater reviews from my latest trip to Stratford, Ontario. The last round of reviews, from the week of Canada Day & American Independence Day, can be found here.
RICHARD III: Tom McCamus plays the deformed king, and plays it funny. We open with Richard in soliloquy over the P.A. system as the lights come up on a stage dominated by a gnarled and leafless tree, in front of it a scaffolding in the outline of a monumental gothic-style building. Very evocative. Then Richard descends the tree and, at the bottom, loses his balance and falls on his face. Laughter. This sets the tone for the play generally, and I think it is an effective choice. We have in recent years come to take Richard of York seriously, comparing him to Hitler and whatnot, but come on: he's a comically evil villain, more in the mode of Aaron the Moor than Iago or Edmund. And the Elizabethans would have laughed heartily at his deformity. Good for Stratford for bringing back the comedy. Richard is a gleeful murderer in the Hannibul Lecter vein; we are supposed to like him, and in this production we do. Actually, comparing him to Lecter is unfair to Richard. We like Lecter because the people he hates are hateful and low, and unworthy of him, and he seduces us into thinking we are his accomplices, that we merit his approbation, and would not be eaten. Richard is more honestly horrible; we are not tricked into liking him, but like him genuinely because of his sheer joy in murder. The funniest - and best - scene in this production is right after the murder of Hastings on breathtakingly flimsy charges of treason. Hastings' head is brought out in a bag, and Richard and his key ally, Buckingham (played wonderfully by Peter Hutt), toss the thing back and forth, playing with it, mocking it, using it to scare passersby. They only barely bring themselves under control enough to convince the Lord Mayor of London that this extra-judicial execution was necessary. Indeed, it is utterly implausible that they do convince him, and this in itself is a comment on the state of things in England at the time of the play: the country is governed by a Caligula, and everyone just looks away. Sarah Dodd does a fine turn as Lady Anne, but Seanna McKenna does a less impressive turn as Queen Elizabeth, Edward's wife. (And a confusing bit of casting: Scott Wentworth plays both King Edward and his brother, George, Duke of Clarence. I know Scott is wonderful, but this caused me to do a double-take when Edward comes on right after Clarence's death. He was much better cast as Clarence anyhow.) Apart from McCamus, I was most impressed by Peter Hutt as Buckingham. Hutt did a remarkable thing last year in The Merchant of Venice, making Antonio the essential figure in the drama, which I had never before thought him to be. Now he impresses again in Richard. He's a gem. I look forward to seeing more of him. The play goes downhill once Richard is crowned; we are not terribly interested in his fall, only in his rise; Richard is no MacBeth, and there is no moral lesson here, only good, gory fun. But this is a weakness of the play, not of the production, which I would rate as excellent, and the second best Shakespeare of the season (after Romeo and Juliet).
THREE PENNY OPERA: Ah, Brecht. Everyone should have to sit through a really faithful Brechtian production at least once in their lifetime. He has had many children, none as talented as he, and his ideas have proven absolutely deadly to the theater. So just for a sense of history, it's good to see. That said, they did a fine and faithful job with this old Brechtian standard. They even added some modern Brecht-inspired touches, like having the opening song ("Mac the Knife") usurped by a homeless man wandering into the theater and demanding access to the stage. It worked, and it was entirely in the Brechtian spirit. Tom McCamus, who played Richard III, also plays MacHeath, and I don't think it's an accident that his Richard was played far more seductively. This is also very true to the Brechtian spirit, but whether it works or not I'm less sure. If you don't fall for MacHeath, why, precisely, do you are about anything that happens on the stage? That Brecht wouldn't have wanted us to fall for him - or for anyone, not even Mother Courage, his greatest creation - doesn't change the fact that the lack of sympathy fatally undermines the drama. Peter Donaldson and Sheila McCarthy were perfect as Mr. and Mrs. Peachum. (Incidentally, the Beggar's Big Brother, the Peachum family business, licensing beggars in London and teaching them their trade for a hefty commission, is one of the great underused ideas of the show. It has so much promise, almost entirely unrealized, and that on account of Brecht's ideological blinders - he's so interested in scoring cheap points that he doesn't see the full satirical potential of his creation.) Donaldson is one of my favorite actors on the Stratford stage; he was brilliant last year as both Malvolio and as George in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Next year they are doing Troilus and Cressida, which I have never seen, and I hope to see him play a prominent role in that nasty business of a play. McCarthy, meanwhile, got huge notices from an earlier Stratford career, and I'm very excited to see that career continuing again. Diana Coatsworth is the only real singer in the production, and she does a magnificent job with the "Pirate Jenny" song, which is the best song in the show ("Mac the Knife"'s popularity notwithstanding). Tiger Brown is played with wonderful comic enthusiasm by George Masswohl, and MacHeath's gang of toughs do an excellent job doing the thing that they do - the wedding scene, which is quite slow, is considerably livened by the frankly strange affect they bring to their antics. In the end, I can't say this is a great show, standard or no standard. But I was glad to see a faithful production mounted. I feel improved if not persuaded theatrically by exposure to Brecht's vision.
THE SWANNE: GEORGE III (THE DEATH OF CUPID): Yes, that's all one play - or rather, part I of what started as an 18 hour play in verse set at the end of George III's reign. My preferred title is Angels in 1818, after the Tony Kushner mess that was similarly politically and sexual-politically "engaged" and which looms over Peter Hinton, author of this particular mess, like a smothering (or mothering) ghost. The play dramatizes (though that isn't quite the right word; almost nothing happens in more than three hours) the possibility that Charlotte, daughter of George IV, did not give birth to a stillborn child but rather a black child, the existence of which was hushed up by the monarchy, clearing the way for the ultimate accession of Victoria. Along the way, we meet the Reverend Shuddas, one of many bearers of bad puns for names and a ruthless Machiavel in Puritan garb (is there any other kind, in plays like this one?); Mrs. Pea, a smelly but loving woman (one of the best, and best-played roles, by Lucy Peacock) who, in an utterly implausible plot turn, is imprisoned by Rev. Shuddas to be wetnurse to the baby who is to take the place of the black heir; the Regent, to be George IV, played flamboyantly well by Bernard Hopkins (except when he is given unplayable lines about how his father never loved him); Proserpine Voranguish, long-suffering wife of the genteel whoremaster St. John Voranguish, who adopts the aforementioned black heir to the throne of England after he is literally dropped off a bridge into her hands as she walks down the street (which event prompts her to cease being the long-suffering wife of the genteel whoremaster St. John Voranguish and take up a new life as lesbian lover to her handmaid, Mrs. Thornfull, the announcement of which plan prompted scattered but entirely approving laughter from the audience); and a woman called Scarecrow, an aging and blind diva who prances across the stage to NO PURPOSE WHATSOEVER for a good half hour. If from this summary you think you would like the play, please come back next year to see Part II, which I believe is called THE SWANNE: CHARLOTTE: THE ACTS OF VENUS.
KING LEAR: This was the big disappointment of the season. (I had low expectations for The Swanne, which were met, so no disappointment there.) Not because it was a bad production; it was a good production. But the director was Jonathan Miller and the lead was Christopher Plummer, and I expected greatness. And I didn't get it. The production was set in the Elizabethan era, which is a risky proposition, but a bold one. We are used to Lear being set in a Time of Legends or in our own day (or, rather, our own recent past; Lear seems very much a piece with the age of Eliot and Beckett). We are not used to such savagery from men who wear codpieces, and when we see it, we expect it to look like Richard III. Edmund is too deep and philosophical a villain; he is somehow diminished when put in period costume. But the big failure was not the setting but the weakness in several key roles - specifically, Gloucester, the Fool, and Lear. Gloucester was played by James Blendick, whom I enjoyed immensely as Titus and as Sir Toby Belch. But it says something that he was far more moving as Titus, a homicidal maniac who deserves all his suffering, than as Gloucester, whose eyes are put out for simple-mindedness and folly, no more. Gloucester moves his estranged son Edgar to deep and sorrowful pity; if he does not so move us, something is very wrong with the performance. Indeed, it goes awry long before this, when he fails to manifest the depth of anger and betrayal one would expect when he is convinced that Edgar seeks his life. The utter loss of Gloucester leaves a hole in the heart of the drama, for the comparison and contrast of Lear and Gloucester - whom I see as the pagan and Christian response to unfathomable suffering - is crucial to the functioning of the play. Next, the fool. I like Barry MacGregor alot. He did a great job as Bardolph in last year's Henry plays, and he was excellent this year is Col. Pickering in My Fair Lady. But his Fool is imcomprehensible and lacking in feeling. And so distant from Lear! It's an incomprehensible performance. Finally, Lear himself. Plummer is a great actor, and knows what he is doing. He is utterly convincing as an old man betrayed by his daughters. In fact, I could not help but think of my own recently-departed grandfather, whom I loved dearly - but did I do all for him that I should have? I don't know. But my grandfather was not a king, as Lear should be, every inch of him. Watching Plummer, you have no sense of why Kent, or Albany, or any of the others who are loyal to Lear should be so. He has no majesty about him, not even majesty in ruins. And there is no sense, as he howls in the storm, that the storm is the consequence of the betrayal of the king; no sense, when he meets poor Tom, that he the communion he has with this supposed madman is communion with his own people in their most wretched condition. His is a very private tragedy, and that is a catastrophic reduction of Lear. The symbolic moment for me of the whole drama was when Lear, instead of carrying the dead Cordelia on-stage in the last scene, drags her on. Now I know Plummer has a bad back; I'm not saying he should break it for the sake of the role. But that distance between them is maintained to the end - he does not even look into her face as he dies! She could be in another room as he has a vision of her living - it makes a complete hash of his end; there's no pathos in it at all if he isn't looking at her, deluded into thinking she is alive. Again, it's incomprehensible to me. I have a feeling that the director - or Plummer, or both - was afraid of bathos, and so sacrificed pathos. That's no way to treat Lear, the most pathetic of tragedies. There were strengths in the play; Edmund and Edgar were both played finely, as was Cordelia, and Domini Blythe's Goneril was very strong, one to remember (not so Lucy Peacock's Regan). But it's not enough. The heart of the play is hollowed out by self-consciousness, and I was left mostly with a sense of regret that they did not offer the role to Brian Bedford, whose Lear would, I suspect, have been quite interesting, judging by his Timon.
Next year they are doing a Greek season: Pericles, Antony and Cleopatra (well, *she* was Greek, anyhow), Troilus and Cressida, Aristophanes' The Birds, and three versions of the Oresteia, including Aeschylus' Agamemnon. Plus a lot of other stuff. I'll be back, and I'll let you know how it is.