Since the whole reason I went to London in the first place was to actually see a few of Shakespeare’s plays performed, I suppose it’s only fitting that I devote at least one blog entry to the actual plays I saw while there.
First off, there is a lot of Shakespeare in London. Now, that probably shouldn’t be a surprise as it is basically the birthplace of his plays. Of course there’d be more performances there than probably anywhere else in the world. Plus, he’s been dead a long time now, so there are no royalties involved in performances. That probably doesn’t matter nearly as much to the big theaters with full houses every night, but I’m not going to lie, when I directed, a big draw to Shakespeare was not having to spend a couple hundred dollars on scripts and royalties (especially because my drama department got no school funding, everything we spent we earned through ticket sales and fundraising).
These, of course, aren’t the real reasons his plays have endured. They have endured because they are beautifully written pieces of human comedy and tragedy that people can relate to, at least in some small way. While our lives may not be as tragic as Romeo and Juliet’s, we’ve all had that adolecent passion, and most have wanted to be with someone that either family or friends don’t approve of. Although we may not have fallen into the rages of Othello, we’ve all had false friends who have lied to us and made us mistrust, either ourselves or others. While I personally have never dressed up as a boy and longed to reveal myself to the guy I’m mad about, I have disguised who I am in so many other ways to win people’s approval. I think these are some of the reasons for his universal appeal.
But as usual, I digress. The London theatre is alive and Shakespeare is thriving. I was a bit surprised to see that in addition to the two plays currently being performed at the Globe, Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing, The Tempest, All’s Well That Ends Well, The Winter’s Tale, Two Gentleman of Verona and two plays that are adaptations/medley’s of his works are all going on. And that’s just right now. That doesn’t count the plays that have already run this summer or will run later on in the year. These are being performed in old traditional theatres, the big wooden “O” and even in parks.
In addition to the number of his plays being performed, Shakespeare appears to have a bit of a celebrity following. Jude Law is currently playing Hamlet in London (and tickets have been sold out for months–I tried to get some before I knew he was the star). Ethan Hawke is playing Autolycus in The Winter’s Tale. In that same performance is Sinead Cussak (in V for Vendetta, Eastern Promises and my favorite I Capture the Castle) as Paulina, Rebecca Hall as Hermione, Josh Hamilton as Polixenes and it is directed by Sam Mendes of American Beauty fame.
As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, I did get to see three performances while I was in London. The first one was The Winter’s Tale. It was at the Old Vic theatre, which gets an A for theatre ambiance and a D for actual theatre comfort. We were in the second to last seat in the balcony and while the theatre was still small enough that the seats gave us a good view, the intimacy of the theatre meant we were also close to our neighbors…very close. The seats were fairly well tiered for viewing (although I did have to switch with my husband because a tall man sat in front of me), but the backs of the seats came up to about my mid back. There was no leg room at all and the seats were so old that the cushions definitely weren’t cushioning anything. And mine made the most horrid screaching sound anytime I moved.
The play itself was pretty darn good. Even my husband, who is not a huge fan of Shakespeare, was quite impressed. The first half of the play was filled with passion and sorrow. Since this is one of the plays I haven’t read yet, I was almost convinced it might be a tragedy. Afterall, there were two deaths, an abandoned baby left to die and a king banished. Pretty heavy stuff for a comedy. The second act though, was full of cheer and a really good clown played by Ethan Hawke. I have to admit, Hawke surprised me. I saw his verion of Hamlet (from 2000) and did not care for it. I thought he over acted the part and played Hamlet far more angry than tormented, betrayed and crazy. As the already over the top Autolycus, he was great. I actually didn’t know he was in the play when we bought the tickets. When he came out on stage, it really looked like him and I kept wondering to myself. My husband leaned over to me at one point and said he thought it was Hawke. I told him I thought it was too. Then he mentioned he’d seen Hawke’s name on the playbill, so I knew I was right.
The performance did include a very bawdy dance with women sporting giant balloon breasts and men with giant penises tied round their waists. The men made quite a show of going after the “breasts” and one character popped a rival’s for spite. One of the girls decided to give her fella a balloon handjob, and in retaliation, the girl with the deflated bossom, pushed her aside, dropped to her knees and tried to pleasure his balloon orally. She manged to bite it and pop it though, which left him a bit sad. Now, I get that Shakespeare was quite dirty and more than a little bawdy (and often delight in pointing it out to my kids), but even I felt this went on too long and was a bit gratuitous. The play was so good without it and it felt a bit modern and tacked on.
I was also proud of myself for spotting Paul Jesson who’d been on Rome. I left the theatre that evening truly excited about Shakespeare in London!
The next day we caught a matinee of As You Like It at the Globe. This is one of his plays I’d already read, but had never seen performed (I have the movie with Bryce Dallas Howard DVR’d but wasn’t entranced by it, so I haven’t finished it yet). We had great seats. We were in the center of the first tier of seats (ground level, but above the actual groundlings in the yard). With a cushion, the seats were far comfier than the Old Vic. This particular production, utilized the audience extensively. The actors spent a great deal of time in the yard, on platforms and stairs that jutted into the yard and even in the stands and balcony. Jaques actually appeared up in the top balcony, talking to the audience during one scene. In another he was lounging on the wall of my section, within a few feet of me, carrying on a conversation with the actors on stage. Touchstone was hysterical–I loved his little jester on a stick.The stage was transformed for this play. Long pillars of wood were added to give it more of a forest like appearance. Even the usual “marble-like” columns that stand in the front of the stage were done over to look like trees. The acting was great. Jack Laskey made a great Orlando. He was funny and pathetically in love. Naomi Frederick did a great job of trying to be manly and not revealing herself to Orlando, and yet nearly revealing herself at every turn. I loved the scene where Orlando is supposed to be “marring” the trees with his bad verses about his love for Rosalind. The director decided to drop leaflets of verse from the top of the theatre when Orlando threw his pages to the wind. The yard was a flutter of parchment and it really showed just how in love Orlando was.
Despite having very few lines cut (and clocking in at about 3 hours), my husband raved about it. I too, really enjoyed it. I was feeling great about Shakespeare in London.
Then came Romeo and Juliet. Now, this is probably his most well-known work (thanks to English teachers), and I’ve read it/taught it about a dozen times. I’ve also seen it performed about as many times (including it’s first run at the Globe). I’d heard through the grapevine that it wasn’t a great performance, but I decided to give it a chance. I was terribly disappointed. The performance was sub par.
Adetomiwa Edun’s Romeo was far too mirthful throughout most of the play. Now, I know I’m not an expert (although I do fancy myself fairly well-versed on this play), but the only scene Romeo should really be mirthful in is his exchange with Mercutio after he’s met Juiet (when he calls Mercutio a goose). Even the balcony scene isn’t entirely mirthful. He’s nervous she won’t be as in love with him. He teases a little, but it’s not what I would call merry. Edun was too happy. And too frenetic. He was all over the stage. I felt like I was watching a production for people with ADHD. What’s worse than his mirth though, was the lack of passion just about every character showed. The only spark of passion I saw came from Capulet when he yelled at Juliet “to hang, beg, starve in the street.” The audience stopped and clapped at his exit (the only time they did until the end) because it was the one spark of real emotional outpouring in the play.
While R&J isn’t my favorite tragedy, I was more than a little dismayed that I’d seen more passion and been moved nearly to tears by a community theater performance I’d seen 10 years ago than I was by a rather high budget production at the Globe. It did remind me though that just because Shakespeare provided some gorgeous words and rich characters, the stage is a fickle thing. In the hands of one director and a group of actors it can be awe inspiring. In the hands of another it is tedious and painful to watch. My husband was particularly disappointed because he knew this story (he hadn’t known the other two) and had been so distracted by the performances that he didn’t even want to follow the story. He just wanted it to be over. As did I.
It was a bit of a bummer to leave London with that play on our minds. I’m hoping that as I get ready to embark on trips to DC (for King Lear), Canada (for Julius Ceasar and McBeth) and North Carolina (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) the productions will remind me of WT and ASYLI.