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Wednesday, August 8, 2012

‘Updating’ Shakespeare–Part II

A recent article in the Times Literary Supplement http://www.the-tls.co.uk/tls/public/article1099143.ece discusses the pros and cons of modernizing Shakespeare, and give the example of Edward Hall’s Propeller Group.  Some of the modern adaptations are good and help illuminate the meaning of the play, while others detract from it.

As I have written before, I have trouble with modern adaptations unless they add something to the interpretation of the play.  Peter Brook’s production of King Lear, for example, set in the winter in Jutland, portrays better than any other film of the play the austerity and primitive nature of pre-history England, and the wildness of the heath.  Ian McKellen’s Richard III presented as a deformed, chain-smoking Nazi-type dictator is a perfect expression of an inner evil and an outer amorality and gives a modern context and relevant point of reference to the play.  Others, like the Washington Shakespeare Company’s recent Merchant of Venice, where the Venetian noblemen are Little Italy tough guys; Shylock and his family are pushcart peddlers in the Lower East Side, and Portia and her retinue are North Shore Long Island WASPs.  This posturing is unnecessary and not only does not add to the interpretation of the play, it detracts from it.

The Propeller Group’s Henry V did not so much modernize – that is change the setting or the approach to the play, but experimented with the presentation and was, according to the TLS critic, successful:

Edward Hall’s Propeller group are practitioners of a distinctive “modern physical aesthetic”. Assured command of that style works to great effect in Henry V. Prologue and Epilogue are delivered, a few lines at a time, by each cast member, the passage being carefully tuned to each one’s distinctive gifts. Authentic marching (they trained with the British Army) beats time to a haunting song, compelling immediate engagement with this most military of Shakespeare’s plays. The speed and precision with which individual performers morph into different characters are exemplified in the swift transformation of two soldiers (Gunnar Cawthery and Robert Hands) into verbose prelates who expound Salic Law and marvel at the young king’s “miraculous” conversion from prodigality to godly obedience.

The play is often produced as a martial one where Henry is, as English history remembers him, is a valiant hero.  There is, of course, another side to the play.  Henry seeks war with the French under very flimsy pretenses, and sends thousands of men into battle at the risk of death.  Looked at one way, Henry intends to recapture what is England’s; but looked at in another, he is no different from any previous or subsequent king desirous of expanding his power, lands, and authority.

But since it is the most martial of Shakespeare’s plays, the Propeller production adds to the sense of military might, English power and determination.

The Prologue and the Epilogue have always been troubling elements of the play, and critics do not agree on their importance and relevance; but in the hands of Propeller, they are given more life and vigor.

The Propeller production is really simply a good presentation; and in most ways does what an accomplished company should do – express Shakespeare’s drama through acting, sets, props, movement, and costumes.

Dugald Bruce-Lockhart’s Henry reconfigures his face as well as his body. His first enthroned appearance is frozen and unsmiling, reminiscent of posed images of the present royal family. A final metamorphosis takes place when, with feigned incompetence, he turns wooer to the Princess of France (Karl Davies). As always, this scene furnishes gentle comic relief; but here, it also invites us to delete images of Henry as affable and pious. Courtship reaches a climax when the martial king violently overturns the hefty crucifix that defined the table on which it stood as an altar, thus revealing the self interested nature of his deference to the prelates together with the humbug of his subsequent invocations of God as champion of his slaughter of the French nobility. With a single gesture, the “altar” becomes a coy love seat. Henry’s tricks to compel the Princess to share it with him are the stuff of sitcom, but beneath such frolics beats an icy heart.

Henry is not really a complex or complicated character like Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear, or Othello; and the Propeller director correctly understood that it was best to stay within the central theme of the play – Henry’s victory at Agincourt.  At the same time, with a few directorial moves – such as creating an altar to suggest Henry’s ‘humbug’, then transforming it into a comic loveseat – he is able to show off the king’s more eccentric sides.

Propeller does modernize the costumes, but otherwise sticks to the plot:

With its modern uniforms, set, music and weaponry, Propeller’s Henry V functioned as a highly contemporary anti-war play. It was more effective as such than the 1987 film, in which Kenneth Branagh’s Henry delivered the King’s more bloodthirsty speeches in a painfully agonized manner. Bruce-Lockhart’s Henry never agonizes, even when put on the spot by Williams the night before battle: he acts, in every sense of that word.

As I have mentioned above, the play is about war – and can be tilted either with an anti-war sentiment or very pro-war – but a production which focuses too much on the military loses the ethical and moral conflict inherent in the play.

There were some aspects of the Propeller production that the critic did not like, and were examples of what I have called extraneous and unnecessary additions to the play:

The second half of Propeller’s Henry opened with the French princess’s English lesson. Karl Davies’s narcissistic princess sat centre stage in a huge white bath, as “she” beautified her “fingres” and, eventually, less seemly parts of “her” body. Chris Myles, a convincingly sergeant major-like Duke of Exeter in military scenes, doubled as Lady Alice in a blazer-and-kilt outfit that left Alice’s gender uncertain. This treatment brought the house down, but reduced the tone of that charming and subtly written scene to the level of farce. It was hard not to feel that “feminine” traits – as well as Frenchness – were being ridiculed.

While Shakespeare certainly ridiculed the French, especially in their foppish way of discussing military strategy and totally misreading and underestimated English resolve and brilliance, in the text he did not go overboard, and Propeller obviously did.

In The Winter’s Tale, Propeller went to exaggerated excess, and apparently the production was painful to watch:

Choosing the company’s tallest member to play Paulina, swathed in black and teetering on very high heels, was weird and apparently meaningless. In the cases of Hermione (Richard Dempsey) and Perdita (Ben Allen again) cross-dressing didn’t help either. Hermione has the best speeches in the play, and Dempsey delivered them beautifully. But his stature, plus flowing, sexless robes, precluded any cogent sense of the gender specific vulnerability of a pregnant, and then newly delivered, mother. Even less cogent was the blowzy Perdita, a masculine minx, whose sexiness was discordant with the innocently gracious lines (s)he has to deliver, which supposedly betoken her true rank. For me, the treatment of the “sheep-shearing” sequence, with its “Bleatles” band, lewd Elvis impressionist Autolycus (the versatile Tony Bell once more), flock of sheep in woolly hoodies, and much merry musical mayhem besides, was a tedious embarrassment: crowd-pleasing Shakespeare for audiences who dislike the real thing.

The Globe production of Richard III was an Original Practices production; and in this case (not all Original Practice interpretations are the same), the director insisted on accurate period costumes and settings:

In Globe-speak, Richard III is an Original Practices production. This doesn’t mean that we will be confronted with a full text, or with lines pronounced in a manner that David Crystal might regard as historically correct. The term promises, rather, that we can anticipate splendid historic costumes, though these ones seemed to belong to the early Jacobean period rather than the early 1590s. Music, fights and the closing dance, also shaped by Original Practices, were immaculately performed. The carnation-pink-clad Princes in the Tower reappeared, to everyone’s great relief, as leaders of the dance.

One aspect of Original Practices, however, that the Globe abused was the casting of men in all the women’s roles. While this was indeed done in Shakespeare’s time, the male actors played the female roles straight.  In this production, they camped it up – not Shakespeare’s intention nor the tenor of Elizabethan times:

More questionably, the phrase Original Practices signals the absence of female performers. As above, I felt this was highly regrettable. In truth, original practices cannot, and in many cases should not, be achieved. Though costumes may be original – or jolly good replicas – audience responses, four centuries on, inevitably reflect huge cultural changes. For example, most modern audience members will not regard congenital disability as a token of divine disfavour, nor believe that the mother of such a child can legitimately see him or her as accursed. Richard’s dysfunctional relationship with his mother probably always was blackly comic in performance, but because of such radical differences certain strands in it are essentially irrecoverable.

Another criticism is of the Globe’s decision to cut certain scenes.  While most Shakespeare productions are edited, the more astute directors leave critical passages or scenes intact.  In this production in the ghosts scene, Henry VI was left out for no good reason, and that omission left out a critical element of Richard’s history.

Laurence Olivier in his production of Hamlet cut out Rosencrantz and Guildenstern completely; and chose to focus principally on the relationship between Hamlet and his mother and Hamlet and Ophelia.  Olivier in subsequent interviews said that the play was all about sexual jealousy, male sexuality, and how Hamlet’s decisions were distorted or conditioned by them.  Cutting per se can enhance a production.

It is always interesting, but frequently disappointing to see modern adaptations of Shakespeare; and yet it is a good thing that directors and producers take such chances.  It takes a very sensitive, intelligent, and aware director, however, to do it right.

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