The Shakespeare Summer, 2007

Neil Forsyth
University of Lausanne

RSC, Stratford: Macbeth, Macbett, King Lear
London, New Globe: Othello, Merchant of Venice
London, Open Air Theatre: Macbeth, Midsummer Night's Dream
  1. 2007 has been different from previous years because of the rebuilding going on in the Stratford theatres. There has been no specially named 'season'. And a new artistic director has taken over at the Globe. Nonetheless an insensitive review in the TLS (June 15, 2007, p. 17) prods me to write up the Shakespeare plays of the current summer, at least those in Stratford and London. According to John Stokes the Lear at the Stratford Courtyard theatre made no-one cry. Maybe it was the seat he was in, but up in the rear gallery where I was, tears flowed abundantly at the end. They were partly, I suppose, a reaction to the sheer sadness of the final scene, in particular the deaths of Cordelia and Lear and those powerful but simple words that announce them - 'Never, never…', 'I have a journey sir shortly to go./ My master calls me and I must not say no'. But they were also, at least on my part, delighted recognition of the privilege we had shared - an extraordinary performance of the greatest play. True, some of my friends, sitting elsewhere, disliked some aspects of the production: the rain for the storm scene made the stage wet, and those sitting close were afraid the actors would slip; the hanging of the fool above the stage, which thus makes literal what may perhaps be only metaphor in the text (perhaps he means Cordelia); an extravagant almost operatic setting which nonetheless respects the thrust stage of this wonderful temporary Courtyard; music that occasionally drowns out the speeches; an underplayed (but surely moving) Cordelia … But there were so many good things in this performance, above all perhaps the marvellous clarity of the verse-speaking, but also the richly elegant costumes for the royal women that contrast with the rags and eventual nudity for those on the heath, a Gloucester (William Gaunt) whose courage and suffering are of equal intensity, a Fool (Sylvester McCoy) who plays the role as a music-hall veteran and who suddenly removes his wig to become old, and above all Lear himself. McKellen's performance gave me the feeling that this was what a great actor had been preparing for throughout his career.

  2. The production had by this point gone through some drama of its own. Trevor Nunn, the director, had postponed press night until his Goneril, Frances Barber, recovered from the twisted ankle sustained during rehearsals. Thus the play ran for several weeks with an understudy in a principal role and no reviews appeared, a sign of the immense power the RSC must have over the nation’s drama critics: no-one wants to step out of line and displease the maestro. The Stokes review, by the way, wrote that Barber was playing Regan, even after all the fuss and hype in the media. The TLS was obliged to apologize the following week.

  3. Next door, at the Swan, in the last weeks before it closes to allow for all the structural work in the main house, from which it is separated by only a very narrow and shared backstage area, is an extremely violent and even frightening Macbeth. The RSC has paired it with a new translation by Tanya Ronder of Ionesco’s absurdist play Macbett, and used the same cast (but a different director) for each. The result is that the two plays need to be watched in sequence, since the exhilarating and vaguely erotic comedy of Ionesco is here seen as an interpretation of Shakespeare as well as a witty satire on Eastern European paranoia and totalitarianism. Ionesco makes much, for example, of the extremely odd reference in Shakespeare to ‘the king’s evil’, in which the English king is supposed to be able magically to cure scrofula by the laying on of hands. One wonders what James thought of this passage, and indeed how he reacted to the witches’ apparent powers. In Ionesco it simply becomes a grotesque satire on the efforts of the powerful to impress. There are no witches other than the Lady Duncan/Macbett, but she is very much the seductive witch, impelling Macbett to assassinate her husband; Banco and Macbett (their truncated names also a comment) become virtually interchangeable soldiers ‘fresh from the killing fields’ (Ronder), at least in the opening long sequence; Malcolm’s bizarre testing of Macduff from Shakespeare’s Act IV is taken seriously and re-worked as his coronation speech at the play’s finale: tyranny continues. It all becomes fearfully funny at times, as this exuberant performance represents power as absurd.

  4. All the high spirits gain an extra edge from their references to the parallel production of Shakespeare’s play, in which the witches are enormously powerful and brilliantly imagined: at first they are women who witness the murder of their children in battle and then like zombies they arise from the killing fields. This opening scene, a new prelude to the play, is one of the most frightening I have endured in the theatre, close to the action as one is in the Swan, so that the battlefield violence threatens to spill over into the front seats, and you find yourself flinching. When the battle is over, Macbeth stands centre stage with a baby in his arms, which he caresses and then slowly strangles. The tone for the piece is given, even as the play’s central notion of childlessness versus lineage is clearly announced. This is not a noble Macbeth who can credibly hesitate before killing Duncan, persuaded only by the entry of his wife in the extraordinary Act I, scene 7. And that indeed is the problem with this production, since David Troughton never brings his Macbeth back down to any ordinary level: his eyes are mad and staring from the beginning. It is as if he cannot shake off the parallel Ionesco role, where an insane tyrant appears to be part of the basic conception. The excellent RSC programme notes mention contexts of contemporary masculinity and violence, such as Serbian attacks on Bosnian Muslims. But Shakespeare surely calls for more subtlety.

  5. Unusual as it may be, for once there is a good deal more of that key Shakespearean quality in the Globe’s Venice season, devoted to what they call 'Renaissance and Revolution'. The Merchant is a riotous, rollicking production in which everyone on stage is having such a good time that the audience, those standing close enough at least, cannot resist joining in. This participation is the great strength of the Globe, as we have seen time and again, and it is still very much in evidence now that Mark Rylance has yielded his director’s role to Dominic Dromgoole. In the past I have often found this play’s young men who cluster around Bassanio tedious, but here they become both bumptious and funny. Yet in the roles of their women especially there is a good deal of Shakespeare’s subtlety: Nerissa (Jennifer Kidd) and Jessica (Pippa Nixon) are both played as young and attractive but notably more mature than the men they fall for. Kirsty Besterman was originally to play Nerissa and was to be the understudy for Portia, but Michelle Duncan was obliged to withdraw from the company (‘ a sudden indisposition’), so Kirsty stepped capably into this demanding role (her debut) and uses her slight figure to fill the court scene with a clear and commanding presence.

  6. In an unusual move for the Globe, the director, Rebecca Gatward, has chosen to build some extra scenic elements into the yard, not only the common steps which allow the actors to mount and leave the stage from the ground, but also including a small Rialto bridge jutting out almost to the entrance. Part of the purpose is to suggest the difference from the smelly Venice quayside (with its gondola — ouch!) and the serenity of Belmont, even though this is a distinction that is gradually undermined by the language of the play (gold has its role in both). But the main dramatic function of this bridge prop, it turns out, is to provide a separate platform for Shylock, thus emphasizing for key moments his alienation from the rest of the population on stage. Unfortunately, though perhaps deliberately, John McEnery, a seasoned Globe actor, fails to use the possibilities of the role to evoke sympathy, as in the famous ‘Hath not a Jew eyes’ speech, and though this allows the audience to feel a bit better about his humiliation, it robs the play of its complexity. There is no tragedy inside this comedy, threatening to break out. This is all the more regrettable since, in view of the ways we have all been wondering about Shakespeare’s religion in recent years (was he from a Catholic household and thus mostly silent about religious issues for personal as well as political reasons?), it would have been interesting to see Shylock’s forced conversion against the background of Protestant treatment of Catholics.

  7. The key role in the Globe’s Othello is also seriously underplayed. Tim McInnerny’s Iago is an isolated, rather lame tempter, not simply alone for the soliloquies, but lonely. This could be an affecting way to play the role so that his only convivial moment is when he conducts his drunken troops in song, dominating them all as he stands above them on the pub table. But its effect is to unbalance the play, especially since Othello and Desdemona have such a clear erotic charge between them. The director, Wilson Milam, was not afraid to cast a magnificent black man as Othello, Eamonn Walker, and for his Desdemona to choose a fine young actress, Zoë Tapper, who has not done Shakespeare before. That they are so manifestly in love could have given Iago an extra motive for provoking the ‘green-eyed monster’, and to an extent it does. But McInnerny is so marginalized that he is unconvincing even as an Iago who is trying to get back into the game and so to centre stage. He does not himself understand why he is tempting Othello to his ruin. That is a plausible interpretation of the role, but its effect in the Globe is to leave the audience confused. This leaves a hole in the middle of the play which even this Desdemona with her superb presence cannot fill. From her first entrance she challenges our attention, arms crossed as if in modest piety, yet really, as we soon see, in a bodily manifestation of the inner struggle she speaks of, her ‘divided duty’. And this is no meek, yielding Desdemona. She puts up a terrific struggle in Othello’s arms before he can master her to murder. The ending is the most powerful scene, and renders this production, in spite of the shadowy Iago, one of the most moving I have seen.

  8. About the truly dreadful Macbeth at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, the less said the better. (The main character is inaudible, his wife is an appallingly vulgar hussy, the witches slitheringly inappropriate, the rest of the cast worse, the set a mockery made of random oil-drums and large boxes.) Just remember never to go there for anything but a light-hearted comedy, preferably preceded by a glass of wine in the bar. Happily the regular Midsummer Night's Dream does not disappoint: there can be few more pleasant ways to spend a summer's evening. in the gathering gloom.. This year is Ian Talbot's last after 20 years as artistic director and once again he uses Christopher Luscombe to direct the play itself, along with Janet Bird as designer. She dresses Olivia Darnley's lovely Hermia in what seems to be a bustle, and Hattie Ladbury's droll Helena in a taller and practical dress that also has little to do with Athens (in spite of Oberon’s instructions to Puck about the lovers’ Athenian garments) but makes for a proper comic contrast. Like Macbeth’s witches (thankfully the only parallel), the fairies stick around on the stepped stage even when not called on for action. Unfortunately they continue to attract the eye in their green and gold chitons (proper Athenian garb for Greek fantasy) and unless they are playing flutes or eyeing each other up, do not quite know what to do with the audience’s returning gaze. Meanwhile the male lovers move slickly around and in and out of Noel Coward (also worth seeing in the Park, as is Sandy Wilson’s The Boy Friend, returning from last year’s wonderfully upbeat hit). As is to be expected, Talbot's vigorous Bottom splendidly and deliberately upstages the rude mechanicals except perhaps for Chris Emmett’s Peter Quince. They look rather awkward, but very funny, in their ballet costumes. If only these two marvelous open-air theatres were not constantly beset by those low-flying planes and even the occasional helicopter. Even when Bottom's ‘Now am I dead, now am I fled; My soul is in the sky’ is followed, a moment later, by their overpowering roar and bright glare, the audience’s suddenly delighted laughter at the timing doesn’t ease my grumpy longing to shoot them all down. It's even worse at the Globe, as we all know to our cost. What a truly weird decision it was for the BBC to record a read-though King Lear there last year, for broadcast on the World Service at Christmas! Most of it had to be re-recorded in the studio to escape the aircraft intrusions. All you can hope if you can make it to this year's marvelous Othello is that the wind-patterns will be favourable and shift the Heathrow approach path.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at

© 2007-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).