June 17, 2009, by Peter Kirwan
We’re nearing the halfway point of 2009, and by my reckoning I’ve seen about 18 Shakespeare productions so far this year. Interestingly, though, among those eighteen there has been quite a lot of repetition: three As You Like Its, two Othellos, two Caesars and two Winter’s Tales, for example. I’ve been trying to review the productions largely independently, but I thought it might be fun to register a few comparative thoughts on what I’ve seen.
Two interesting if flawed productions, from the RSC and Northern Broadsides. The two were fascinatingly different, but on the whole I preferred the more straightforward Broadsides production. Lenny Henry’s Othello and Conrad Nelson’s Iago had a wonderful dynamic which powered the play, while the RSC’s production was unbalanced by Patrice Naiambana in the title role. However, the RSC’s production was far more innovative, and in many ways is the one that has stuck with me in terms of academic interest: it may have failed in many places, but it failed interestingly.
RSC defining moment: a beautiful, atmospheric dream sequence between Desdemona and her dead father.
Broadsides defining moment: a raucous, hysterical and expertly choreographed drinking scene.
As You Like It
No contest here. The Globe’s production redefined the play for me: warm, funny and touching. It had the sincerity that the RSC’s production entirely lacked, making the larger-scale production a rather cold, aloof affair that failed to engage me at all. However, Tim Supple’s appropriation of the play to comment on immigration and concerns over national identity was timely and extremely interesting, providing the most thought-provoking production of my year so far.
Globe defining moment: Silvius’ disarmingly moving discourse on what it means to be in love.
RSC defining moment: The brilliantly psychotic preacher, Oliver Martext.
Dash Arts defining moment: the multicultural four-way wedding ceremony that closed the play.
Two more very different productions, from the RSC and the Tobacco Factory. Again, unfortunately, it’s the RSC who lose out. Lucy Bailey’s production had a lot to recommend it, but ultimately felt like something of a mess. Where it succeeded was in distinguishing the vast army of characters and creating fascinating readings, particularly in Sam Troughton’s obsessive Brutus. However, the Tobacco Factory’s intimate production used the closeness of its environment to spectacular effect, turning the play into a tale of Jacobean intrigue, with conspirators huddled in dark rooms and wars plotted from a boardroom. By prioritising Octavius and Antony in the mix, too, Andrew Hilton’s production crucially kept momentum during the second half, forging an increasingly fascinating story out of the two emergent victors.
RSC defining moment: Cassius and Brutus’ first meeting with a wonderful, sneering Casca.
Tobacco Factory defining moment: Antony, left alone for the first time after Caesar’s death, screaming vengeance.
The Winter’s Tale
This is the toughest comparison as both productions were, in their own way, excellent. The Old Vic boasted the best Leontes I’ve ever seen in Simon Russell Beale, sacrificing sympathy for Hermione in order to create a believably human portrayal of a man’s descent into jealousy. However, the slow pace and a lacklustre Bohemia section (rescued by Ethan Hawke’s Autolycus) meant that I preferred the combined efforts of the RSC ensemble. The conflicting worlds of civilised court and anarchic countryside were a fantastic design hook around which to hinge the play’s central concerns, and solid performances across the board made for a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Plus, no-one does a good phallic fertility ritual like the RSC.
RSC defining moment: An awe-inspiring bear made up of loose pages devouring Autolycus, the folk culture of Bohemia unleashed after the collapse of Sicily.
Old Vic defining moment: Leontes cradling the newborn baby Perdita, torn between love and hatred for the child.