THERE comes a moment in Act V, Scene 3 of “Richard III” when the
newly crowned king, having killed his wife, his brother and two of his young
nephews, rises from a nightmare and cries aloud to no one, “Guilty! Guilty!/I
For the ordinary Shakespeare buff, this passage might elicit vicarious
compassion, but for a few dozen young men who witnessed it on a recent
afternoon, it had a more direct effect: they blinked in recognition and sat up
in their chairs.
The setting was, in this case, C76, the main building for male inmates at Rikers
Island. The audience members, in their Kelly-green jumpsuits, were those said to
be guilty: indicted drug dealers, accused con artists, men charged with theft.
The actors, in their approved costumes (chain mail, no; bathrobes, yes), were
players with the Public Theater’s Mobile Shakespeare Unit, a wandering troupe
spending three weeks performing “Richard III” in unusual locations: Army bases,
homeless shelters, centers for older people — and jails.
“For us theater people, playing in these circumstances is seriously addictive,”
said Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theater, who oversees the
group. “You like to feel you matter that much.”
To enter Rikers Island isn’t easy. You need a gate pass, or an escort, to drive
across the bridge from Hazen Street in Queens to the correctional complex. At
the doors of each jail, there are metal detectors, full-height turnstiles and
identification checks. A guard stamps your hand with an ultraviolet mark —
should it not show up beneath the lamp when you are trying to leave, you can’t.
Next comes the Control Room: a blindingly lighted chamber, with a huge barred
door that blocks your path. It eases open only when the matching door behind you
has eased shut.
To enter stage left at Rikers is even more demanding. First of all, there was no
stage when “Richard” was performed; instead, there was a playing space, 14 feet
by 14 feet, taped off on a wood gymnasium floor. The acoustics were awful, what
with the ceiling being three times as high as the basketball hoops and the fans
oscillating at top speed in order to beat the heat. Distractions abounded: a
telephone kept ringing in the corner; a guard kept walking by with jangling
handcuffs and jingling keys.
Then there was the matter of the props.
“We have to be extra conscious, in a correctional facility, of what we’re
bringing in,” said Amanda Dehnert, the director of the play. Weapons for the
fight scenes, for example, were specially made of paper and rattan, as no metal
was permitted. “We’re lucky that Shakespeare always says in his texts what the
actors are carrying,” she said. “ ‘Here, I lend thee this sharp-pointed’ ” — or
not-so-pointed — “ ‘sword.’ ”
The mobile unit was established by Joseph Papp, the founder of the Public
Theater, but was out of service for nearly 40 years until it was revived last
summer, Mr. Eustis said. This season’s tour is the longest and most ambitious
yet. Stops include the Bedford Hills maximum-security women’s prison in
Westchester County, the Fort Hamilton Army base in Brooklyn and the Queensboro
Correctional Facility in Long Island City, Queens. The tour will close with a
three-week run at the Public Theater in downtown Manhattan.
“The nature of Elizabethan culture was such that it brought together audiences
that cut across class, religious and educational lines,” Mr. Eustis said. “It
made for a more diverse audience than sat together since the Greeks. Shakespeare
had to write to appeal to everyone. It’s extraordinary how it still speaks to so
many different people.”
With a curtain time of noon, the troupe arrived by van at 11 a.m. at the Queens
side of the bridge. As the actor playing Richard, Ron Cephas Jones, had a
preshow smoke in the parking lot (tobacco is forbidden on the island), he was
recognized by a jail employee, coming off duty.
“You know, you look familiar,” she told him. “Weren’t you in ‘The Wire’?”
Mr. Jones said no and suggested that perhaps she knew him from his cameo
appearance in the movie “Paid in Full.” (“It’s an urban classic,” he would later
say.) “Right!” the woman shouted. “The dope-fiend uncle! What are you here for
now?” At the mention of Shakespeare, her star-struck look went blank.
After passing through the jail’s initial checkpoint (where a sign said: “Who is
in the middle of SECURITY? UR!”), the actors gathered in the gym, rehearsing
swordplay and doing vocal warm-ups to the amusement of some officers. At their
15-minute call, Stephanie Ybarra, the production’s line producer, called them to
“O.K.,” Ms. Ybarra said, “you see that red box on the wall?” Everyone turned to
“That,” she said, “is an alarm bell. If it goes off during the show, don’t move.
There may or may not be something going on outside these walls.”
Shortly after noon, the inmates shuffled in. Many were from a program known as
Fresh Start — a jailhouse school of sorts, managed by the Osborne Association, a
prisoner advocacy group. The actors sat among them, in neutral poses, waiting to
perform. Clearly intrigued by each other, the two groups started to talk.
So was there air-conditioning in jail? And tell me, how do you remember all
“Before you got here, where were you living?” Lynn Hawley, an actor, asked an
Forty-sixth Street and Eighth Avenue, he told her.
“Wow, you were right in the theater district!” she said.
Enter Richard for “now is the winter of our discontent.” While the inmates
seemed to struggle with the language, certain lines did land.
For instance, Richard to Margaret: “Foul wrinkled witch.” Or, in the company’s
edited version, Clarence to Richard: “Why hast thou come here?” (“To murder
you!” he says.)
Especially well received was the white bedsheet on which the company had
diagramed Richard’s family tree as a visual aid. Every time a character was
killed, one of the actors daubed the name with a bloody streak of paint,
unleashing a chorus of “Ooh!” and “Yeah!” and “Dag!”
Then, at the moment of Richard’s coronation, the alarm went off.
It was extremely loud and lasted three minutes. Visibly startled, the actors
froze onstage; the inmates, inured to such disruptions, shifted in their seats.
When the bell fell silent, the play resumed without a hitch — “Ha! am I king?
’tis so: but Edward lives.”
It turned out that some guards had been sent to search a cell; in the gym,
however, one felt only the grateful suspension of disbelief.
The final fight scene drew applause, and it continued as the actors left the
stage. Then it was time for inmate reviews.
What did they think of Richard?
“He wanted to take everything over — it was too much,” said Franklin Davis Jr.,
who is 26 and serving time on a probation violation.
“He was like a modern politician,” said Ron Smith, 44, in for selling drugs.
Ramon Lopez, 39, who was arrested last year for kiting checks, had a question of
“Do you get to see this on the outside?” he asked. “Because I’d recommend it to
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: July 28, 2012
An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Oskar Eustis
LONDON — Was it the sight of the matinee idol (Jamie Glover) leaping up a set
of stairs, the gravity-defying aplomb amplified by the fact that his shoelaces
had been tied together? Or maybe it was the wild-eyed, sunken-cheeked
octogenarian waiter (Tom Edden) with a habit of tumbling backward into some
Others might award the comic moment of this London theater year to an indecently
arched eyebrow from Oliver Chris or an unexpected forward roll from Amy Nuttall,
to cite two further moments from a pair of plays, “Noises Off” and “One Man, Two
Guvnors,” that between them prompted a pleasurable parlor game: was it possible
that the latter play, adapted by Richard Bean from a commedia dell’arte mainstay
by Carlo Goldoni, was in fact funnier than Michael Frayn’s enduring 1982 farce?
As if to force the issue, there was “Noises Off” arriving anew at the Old Vic a
week or two ago so that audiences could compare and contrast for themselves.
This spectator’s verdict: Mr. Bean’s play at its National Theatre debut back in
May seemed indulgence enough until Mr. Frayn’s evergreen farce reappeared,
drowning academic debate in near-overwhelming waves of laughter.
With “One Man, Two Guvnors” now firmly established on the West End, and due on
Broadway in April, an ever-widening public can adjudicate this particular issue
It’s often argued that in times of adversity, people want to laugh. That may
explain why the night after the London riots back in August I found myself among
an al fresco crowd of playgoers in Regent’s Park who had chosen to embrace the
tap-happy folderol of the musical “Crazy for You.” All thoughts of further civil
unrest were put to one side as we tended to a story set in a very remote-seeming
place by the name of Deadrock, Nevada. (The London streets that night, by the
way, felt eerily yet thankfully quiet, while the Gershwin-scored revival has
since moved indoors to the Novello Theatre.)
Many shows offered up not just general good times but individuals who became
unwitting emblems of brio. Johnny Flynn was one, as the appealing if not always
articulate young love interest in a second Richard Bean play, “The Heretic,”
which preceded “One Man, Two Guvnors” by several months and deserved longer than
its limited run at the Royal Court. Or, shifting back to musicals, there was
Bertie Carvel as a breastplated gorgon of a headmistress in the Royal
Shakespeare Company’s delicious, very-much-ongoing “Matilda,” which is also the
first “family show” in ages that parents can revel in perhaps even more than
their children. The kids may be too young to appreciate just how smart Tim
Minchin’s score and Dennis Kelly’s book are.
You wanted gravitas? There was plenty to go around, not least at two essential
Off West End theaters, the Almeida and the Donmar, both of which had especially
good years. The Almeida bookended its fare with two contemporary American plays,
Gina Gionfriddo’s “Becky Shaw” and Neil LaBute’s “Reasons to Be Pretty,” in
stagings far more nuanced and confident than either had received in New York.
The theater’s late-spring slot was given over to a new production of Edward
Albee’s “Delicate Balance” that reasserted the primacy of that play over its
better-known predecessor, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (By the way, what a
Martha is lying in wait in Imelda Staunton, if her occupancy of the drunken
sister, Claire, in the later play is any gauge.)
The Donmar didn’t make much of a case last winter for the London premiere of the
Tony-winning “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” but recovered with a
blazing trio of shows, the sendoff after nearly a decade of its artistic
director Michael Grandage.
Mr. Grandage’s valedictory came in the form of a tumultuously moving “Richard
II” that brought back to the Donmar Eddie Redmayne, the bracing young co-star of
the John Logan play “Red,” to play the manchild monarch who has, even within
Shakespeare, an unparalleled command of words. Language poured forth no less
fluently from two other first-rate actors. Jamie Lloyd’s galvanizing production
of “Inadmissible Evidence” found the self-reproach that underpinned a difficult
John Osborne play, which was kept airborne by its fearless leading man, Douglas
Hodge. And Jude Law acquired both physical bulk and an Irish brogue in “Anna
Christie,” the Eugene O’Neill play that became a piece of total theater thanks
to the director Rob Ashford and an extraordinary design team. Mr. Ashford moved
from his 2009 revival at the Donmar of “A Streetcar Named Desire” to an earlier
American classic in which desire is tethered not to modes of transport but to
the wayward undulations of the sea.
It was a year for seeing double, and not just because James Corden in “One Man,
Two Guvnors” often seemed, impossibly, to be several places on stage at once.
Terence Rattigan was brilliantly reclaimed by Trevor Nunn in the World War II
drama “Flare Path” at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, in which the musicals star
Sheridan Smith (“Legally Blonde”) asserted her straight play chops as a former
barmaid whose Polish aristocrat husband may or may not love her. And may or may
not be alive. Rattigan was more prosaically served at the Old Vic with “Cause
Célèbre,” in a static account from the director Thea Sharrock that could have
used some of the juice from “Flare Path.” The writer/director Mike Leigh was
definitively served by his own revival at the Hampstead of his 1979 play
“Ecstasy” and by a lesser new play of his, “Grief,” which was laceratingly
performed by its National Theatre cast.
Shakespeare, as ever, was ubiquitous, with two productions each of “The
Tempest,” “The Comedy of Errors,” “Richard III” and “Much Ado About Nothing” on
hand to remind us of the ceaseless elasticity of the Bard. Pride of place was
afforded to Jeremy Herrin’s glorious Globe Theatre debut with “Much Ado About
Nothing,” in which Eve Best and Charles Edwards went at each other (and, on
occasion, the audience) with equal measures of wit, authority, and affection.
Their Beatrice and Benedick may not have carried the star wattage of Catherine
Tate and David Tennant in Josie Rourke’s contrastingly vulgar West End take on
the same play, but Ms. Best and Mr. Edwards confirmed that the Globe, on form,
can be the happiest address in town.
For sheer adrenalin, little could compete with the director Ian Rickson — like
Mr. Herrin, himself a Shakespeare novice — and his revisionist “Hamlet” for the
Young Vic, which capped a busy year that also found Mr. Rickson shepherding the
likes of Lillian Hellman (“The Children’s Hour”), Harold Pinter (“Betrayal”),
and Jez Butterworth (“Jerusalem,” on both sides of the Atlantic) safely into
port. But there was nothing safe about a “Hamlet” set in a psychiatric
institution, a conceit that was of a piece with the sorts of theatrical
deconstruction more commonly found on the Continent. Its run finishes Jan. 21.
No spoiler is required to report that the production highlighted the personal,
not the political, in the play, even as it took its cue from the febrile,
all-seeing gaze of its leading man, Michael Sheen. In a year in which levity as
often as not was king, here was a “Hamlet” that dared to look into the darkest
recesses of the grief-stricken soul. You smiled, yes, at its audaciousness, only
to give yourself over by play’s end to something approaching awe.
November 21, 2011
The New York Times
By BRUCE WEBER
John Neville, who played Romeo to Claire Bloom’s Juliet, Hamlet to Judi
Dench’s Ophelia and Othello to Richard Burton’s Iago (and vice versa), but who
may be best known in the United States as the title character in the exuberantly
loopy film “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” and a recurring one in the
television series “The X-Files,” died in Toronto on Saturday. He was 86.
His death was announced by the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada, where
Mr. Neville was the artistic director from 1986 to 1989 and was credited with
restoring it to financial and artistic stability. The cause was Alzheimer’s
disease, the festival said.
The British-born son of a truck driver who as a youth spoke with a distinct
working-class patois, Mr. Neville was an unlikely candidate to become a
Shakespearean matinee idol, but in his early performing years that is exactly
what he was. Slender, fluidly athletic and possessed of a voice known for its
crisp diction and beautiful modulations, he appeared in the 1950s with London’s
Old Vic Company in numerous Shakespearean roles.
In “Othello,” in 1956, he and Burton alternated as the title character and Iago.
That year, the company performed four Shakespeare plays in repertory on a tour
of the United States and Canada, with Mr. Neville playing the title roles in
“Richard II” and “Romeo and Juliet” (opposite Ms. Bloom), Macduff in “Macbeth”
and Thersites in “Troilus and Cressida.” The next year he played Hamlet,
opposite Ms. Dench in her first major role.
He generally commanded superlatives from critics. He made an especially fine
impression on Brooks Atkinson, who discovered him when the Old Vic tour opened
on Broadway and praised him in more than one review in The New York Times.
“John Neville’s Richard is a brilliant portrait that grows in stature as the
King loses authority,” Atkinson wrote on Oct. 24, 1956. He added, on Oct. 25:
“As Romeo, Mr. Neville is ideal. He is handsome, lean and sensitive. He moves
with unconscious grace. He speaks the verse easily without losing the
impetuosity of the character. It is romantic acting that, by taste again, avoids
the excesses of gesture, speech and posing.”
In an interview with Canadian television not long ago, Mr. Neville recalled that
during a six-year period in the 1950s he appeared in all of Shakespeare’s plays
— he considered this both his training period and his greatest achievement — and
that the very first thing he was asked to do afterward was to create the role of
the callous young womanizer Alfie for the stage, the same role that would later
propel Michael Caine to movie stardom. “The critics were sort of astonished at
it,” he said. “ ‘This guy is a classical actor. What’s going on here?’ They
didn’t know I had grown up with a cockney accent and had to get rid of it.”
John Reginald Neville was born in London on May 2, 1925, attended local schools
and served in the Royal Navy in World War II, after which he enrolled at the
Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. He made his professional acting debut
as Lysander in an outdoor production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in Regent’s
Park in London.
He is survived by his wife of 62 years, Caroline; three daughters, three sons
and six grandchildren.
Mr. Neville had a varied career on the stage and the screen, appearing in
comedies, contemporary dramas and musicals (including “My Fair Lady,” as Henry
Higgins) as well as in classical roles. In “Baron Munchausen” (1988), an epic
fantasy-adventure and cult hit directed by Terry Gilliam, he played the fabled
spinner of wild, self-aggrandizing and highly dubious yarns.
In “The X-Files,” the long-running series about F.B.I. agents investigating
paranormal phenomena that starred David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, he played
the Well-Manicured Man, a mysterious figure who may or may not be involved in
“the Syndicate,” a shadow department of the American government that may be
hiding the existence of extraterrestrials.
Mr. Neville, who was also a stage director, was the founding director of the
Nottingham Playhouse. After moving to Canada in the early 1970s, he was artistic
director of the Citadel Theater in Edmonton and the Neptune Theater in Halifax,
Nova Scotia, before taking over a wobbly Stratford Festival.
There he used the festival’s four stages to maximum advantage. He presented
side-by-side productions of “Hamlet” and Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern are Dead” and put on flamboyant productions of difficult classics —
Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children,” for instance — on the festival’s
2,000-seat main stage.
He changed the future of the festival when he hired a veteran Shakespearean
actor, Richard Monette, whose career had been curtailed by stage fright, to
direct “The Taming of the Shrew,” a production that was a huge success and
propelled Mr. Monette, who eventually become the festival’s artistic director
himself, to a second career.
“If it were not for John Neville coming along marshaling the company, taking
extraordinary risks in programming,” said Antoni Cimolino, who was an actor in
the company at the time and is now the festival’s general director, “I’m not
sure we would be here today.”
In an interview on Monday, Lucy Peacock, a member of the Stratford company who
was hired by Mr. Neville and played Eliza Dolittle to his Henry Higgins in “My
Fair Lady,” recalled his sense of joy and wickedness. Every August, she said, he
would walk the halls of the festival whistling tunes from “Man of La Mancha” and
then wait for the rumors that it was going to be part of the schedule. Onstage
during “My Fair Lady,” which Mr. Neville also directed, she said, “he would put
extra marbles in my mouth and giggle at me.”
“He was an incredible mentor, and also a great chum,” Ms. Peacock said. “The
thing that was so extraordinary about his acting was how natural it was. It
seemed like the most natural thing in the world to be doing. And as a result it
felt natural for you, too. There was no fuss about it. It was just getting up on
your feet with this great language and telling the story. It was an absolute. It
had to be done.”
At the end of the first of half of Daniel Sullivan’s marvelous new production
of “The Merchant of Venice,” at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, Shylock
the moneylender can be found loudly lamenting his recent losses. These include
a) a small fortune in cash and jewels, and b) his daughter, who has eloped with
said valuables. As usual, Shylock, molten with sorrow and anger, cannot figure
out which matters more.
Yet for once this scene isn’t just about the most infamous usurer in theater
history. Shylock is played by Al Pacino. And as with most of Mr. Pacino’s
performances, this one is deeply intelligent and deeply irritating. But it is to
the credit of both actor and director that Mr. Pacino serves Mr. Sullivan’s
vision perfectly here.
For as this Shylock rants — and the lines between wrathful avarice and paternal
anguish blur beyond reckoning — his state of confusion becomes a heightened
mirror of everything around him. As the lights dim on Shylock in limbo, it
suddenly hits you that Shakespeare’s vengeance-addled Jew is neither merely the
victim nor the villain of this piece; he is instead the very soul of the
money-drunk society he serves and despises.
That Shylock and the man playing him are not allowed to run away with this
“Merchant” — whose many virtues include a smashing break-out performance by Lily
Rabe as Portia and what may be the finest supporting cast ever assembled for
Shakespeare in the Park — is no mean accomplishment. Mr. Pacino has seldom met a
play or movie he couldn’t dominate, for better or worse. And Shylock is one of
those fictional characters who surpass their creators’ intentions, inspiring
actors from Henry Irving to Dustin Hoffman to transform what is essentially a
character role into an Olympic star turn.
Then there is the unpleasant matter of Shylock’s being a grotesque, anti-Semitic
caricature of whom the scholar Harold Bloom has written, “The Holocaust made and
makes ‘The Merchant of Venice’ unplayable, at least in what appear to be its own
terms.” Pretty much every major staging of “Merchant” during the past 60 years
has been ruled by “the Shylock problem,” forcing the romantic comedy around him
to seem both secondary and sour.
But as Portia, the resourceful heiress responsible for thwarting Shylock’s
schemes of bloody vengeance, says near the end, “Nothing, I see, is good without
respect.” By respect, she means perspective. And Mr. Sullivan’s interpretation
bracingly discovers an all-inclusive context for every element in “Merchant.” It
also points out, with philosophical sadness, that a clear perspective is hard to
come by in a wealth-addled world.
Yes, it would seem Mr. Sullivan has given us a “Merchant” for the age of Wall
Street bubble boomers. But this is not one of those desperately topical readings
of Shakespeare that have become all too common. (There are no lunches at Le
Cirque for Portia.) This show’s fine, elegantly inhibiting set (Mark Wendland)
and costumes (Jess Goldstein) mark the period as Edwardian. It is definitely the
stock market, though, that rules the fortunes of the title character, Antonio
(the excellent Byron Jennings) and his friends.
A spotlighted ticker-tape machine sits commandingly center stage as the play
begins, right across from a manual exchange board. Tall, semicircular, rotating
black fences define and segment the space, variously suggesting prison walls and
fortresses of privilege, walls that separate insiders and outsiders. And in a
wordless prologue we observe the tense interaction between the affluent-looking
gentlemen in their morning suits and the Jews in their Orthodox garb.
Of course they’re all part of the same industry, one in which fortunes are often
“all at sea,” metaphorically as well as literally, and can disappear fast.
Antonio’s trouble arises when he borrows money from Shylock, because his dear
friend Bassanio (Hamish Linklater) needs funds to romance the lovely (and very
wealthy) Portia. That’s the same Portia who later disguises herself as a male
lawyer to save Antonio. Shylock’s contract has it that if Antonio can’t pay up,
he will surrender “a pound of flesh,” to be extracted by the moneylender
The urban scenes on the Rialto (read: the City) are contrasted with the pastoral
idylls of Portia’s Belmont estate, where this heiress, in the company of her
lady-in-waiting Nerissa (a charming Marianne Jean-Baptiste), is being courted by
suitors who must solve a puzzle to win her. This involves discovering which of
three caskets holds Portia’s portrait. It may strike you when you first see
these boxes that they look much like the one that Shylock was carrying earlier.
And a visual link between two seemingly disparate worlds has been subtly
That box of Shylock’s shows up later, when his daughter, Jessica (Heather Lind),
tosses it from her bedroom window to her lover, Lorenzo (Bill Heck), and his
cronies (including a wily Jesse L. Martin as Gratiano) before running off with
them. They’re happy to have Shylock’s money, which they brandish drunkenly. It’s
carnival time in Venice, and on the streets a giant head of an old Jew with
devil’s horns bobs among the revelers.
Shylock’s growled observations that he is kicked and spit upon for doing what
Christians also do have plenty of first-hand confirmation here. Mr. Pacino (who
delivered a more naturalistic Shylock in Michael Radford’s 2004 film) plays up
the sing-song rhythms of Shylock’s speech in a weary, monotonous rasp, as if
those cadences were what kept him in control of himself. That it’s a grating
interpretation works here. We’re as put off by Shylock as everyone else is. But
when he loses control, and those rhythms go haywire, it’s truly scary, and you
start to consider what brought him to this point.
The production, which takes a few venial liberties with the text, more radically
interpolates two vignettes to make Shylock sympathetic, notably a harrowing
baptism scene that shows his forced conversion to Christianity. But if this
reading of the play has tragic elements, the tragedy is not Shylock’s but
Venice’s. The production persuasively insists that everyone, to a person, is the
product of the same poisonous society.
An air of melancholy and unease pervades the show, starting with Dan Moses
Schreier’s haunted, contemplative music. Mr. Sullivan doesn’t stint on the
play’s comedy, and the early scenes involving Portia’s suitors, while never
crossing into coarse satire, have seldom been funnier. But while we’re allowed
to enjoy the antics of the young Venetians, we’re also a bit repelled by their
fecklessness, and we grow ever more so.
Ms. Rabe’s Portia is, as she must be, the moral lodestone of the play, but not
in the usual manner. This increasingly accomplished and commanding actress
convincingly traces Portia’s painful evolution from a wry, epigrammatic rich
girl (with a trace of Katharine Hepburn’s madcap heiresses from the 1930s) to a
woman who sees her world too clearly to be comfortable in it.
When Portia and her friends return to Belmont for the final act, that estate is
no longer Eden, and the promise of a happy honeymoon for the assorted pairs of
lovers no longer seems on offer. These people can’t even meet one another’s eyes
anymore. Though it’s a gorgeous moonlit night (and it truly was when I saw the
show), it is also a day of reckoning.
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE
By William Shakespeare; directed by Daniel Sullivan; sets by Mark Wendland;
costumes by Jess Goldstein; lighting by Ken Posner; music by Dan Moses Schreier;
sound by Acme Sound Partners; fight director, Thomas Schall; associate artistic
director, Mandy Hackett; associate producer, Jenny Gersten; director of
production, Ruth E. Sternberg. A Shakespeare in the Park production, presented
by the Public Theater, Oskar Eustis, artistic director; Andrew D. Hamingson,
executive director. At the Delacorte Theater, Central Park;
shakespeareinthepark.org. Through Aug. 1. Running time: three hours.
WITH: Gerry Bamman (Duke of Venice), Francois Battiste (Salerio), Jesse Tyler
Ferguson (Launcelot Gobbo), Bill Heck (Lorenzo), Marianne Jean-Baptiste
(Nerissa), Byron Jennings (Antonio), Heather Lind (Jessica), Hamish Linklater
(Bassanio), Jesse L. Martin (Gratiano), Nyambi Nyambi (Prince of Morocco), Al
Pacino (Shylock), Lily Rabe (Portia), Matthew Rauch (Solanio), Richard Topol
(Tubal) and Max Wright (Prince of Arragon), and Happy Anderson, Liza J. Bennett,
Tyler Caffall, Cary Donaldson, Luke Forbes, Bryce Gill, Shalita Grant, Jade
Hawk, Tia James, Kelsey Kurz, Brian MacDonald, Doren Makhloghi and Joe Short
Shakespeare could have been writing about Iraq or Afghanistan, his scenes of
battle were so prescient.
Robert Fisk dissects the Bard's attitude to conflict - and describes how
relevant he has found it to be today
Published: 30 March 2007
Poor old Bardolph. The common soldier, the Poor Bloody Infantry, the GI Joe
of Agincourt, survives Henry IV, only to end up on the end of a rope after he's
avoided filling up the breach at Harfleur with his corpse. Henry V is his
undoing - in every sense of the word - when he robs a French church. He must be
executed, hanged, "pour encourager les autres". "Bardolph," laments his friend
Pistol to Fluellen, "a soldier firm and sound of heart, /...hanged must a' be /A
"Let gallows gape for dog, let man go free, / And let not hemp his wind-pipe
suffocate: / But Exeter hath given the doom of death... / Therefore go speak,
the duke will hear thy voice; / And let not Bardolph's vital thread be cut... /
Speak, captain, for his life..."
How many such military executions have been recorded in the past 30 years of
Middle East history? For theft, for murder, for desertion, for treachery, for a
momentary lapse of discipline. Captain Fluellen pleads the profoundly ugly
Bardolph's cause - not with great enthusiasm, it has to be said - to Henry
"I / think the duke hath lost never a man, but one that / is like to be executed
for robbing a church, one / Bardolph, if your majesty know the man: his face is
/ all bubukles and whelks, and knobs, and flames o' / fire, and his lips blow at
But the priggish Henry, a friend of Bardolph in his princely, drinking days
(shades of another, later Prince Harry), will have none of it:
"We would have all such offenders so cut off: and we / give express charge that
in our marches through the / country there be nothing compelled from the /
villages; nothing taken but paid for; none of the / French upbraided or abused
in disdainful language..."
In France, Eisenhower shot post-D-Day rapists in the US army. The SS hanged
their deserters even as Berlin fell. I have my notes of a meeting with Fathi
Daoud Mouffak, one of Saddam Hussein's military cameramen during the eight-year
Iran-Iraq war, a sensitive man, a mere Pistol in the great retreat around Basra
where a reservist was accused of desertion by an officer of the Iraqi "Popular
Army". He was a very young man, Mouffak was to recall:
"And the reporter from Jumhuriya newspaper tried to save him. He said to the
commander: 'This is an Iraqi citizen. He should not die.' But the commander
said: 'This is none of your business - stay out of this.' And so it was the
young man's fate to be shot by a firing squad... before he was executed, he said
he was the father of four children. And he begged to live. 'Who will look after
my wife and my children?' he asked. 'I am a Muslim. Please think of Allah - for
Saddam, for God, please help me... I am not a conscript, I am a reservist. I did
not run away from the battle - my battalion was destroyed.' But the commander
shot him personally - in the head and in the chest."
My own father, 2nd Lieutenant Bill Fisk of the 12th Battalion, the King's
Liverpool Regiment, a soldier of the 1914-18 war, was ordered to command a
firing party, to execute a 19-year old Australian soldier, Gunner Frank Wills of
the Royal Field Artillery, who had murdered a military policeman in Paris. Bill
refused to carry out this instruction, only to be put on a court martial charge
for refusing to obey an order. Someone else dispatched Bill Fisk's Bardolph. "I
ask the Court to take into consideration my youth and to give me a chance of
leading an upright and straightforward life in the future," Wills wrote in his
miserable plea for mercy. British officers turned it down, arguing that an
example should be made of Wills to prevent further indiscipline. The war had
long been over when he was shot at dawn at Le Havre. Bill served in the Third
Battle of the Somme in 1918 and I never pass the moment when Shakespeare's
French king asks if Henry's army "hath passed the river Somme" without drawing
in my breath. Did some faint moment of Renaissance prescience touch the
dramatist in 1599?
I am still to be convinced that Shakespeare saw war in service in the army of
Elizabeth. "Say'st thou me so?" Pistol asks of a cringing French prisoner who
does not speak English. "Come hither, boy, ask me this slave in French / What is
his name." I heard an almost identical quotation in Baghdad, shorn of its
16th-century English, when a US Marine confronted an Iraqi soldier-demonstrator
in 2003. "Shut the fuck up," he screamed at the Iraqi. Then he turned to his
translator. "What the fuck's he saying?" At the siege of Harfleur, the soldier
Boy wishes he was far from battle - "Would I were in an alehouse in London! I
would give / all my fame for a pot of ale, and safety" - and Henry's walk
through his camp in disguise on the eve of Agincourt evokes some truly modern
reflections on battle. The soldier Bates suggests to him that if the king had
come on his own to Agincourt, he would be safely ransomed "and a many poor men's
The equally distressed soldier Williams argues that if the English cause is
doubtful: "...the king himself hath / a heavy reckoning to make, when all those
legs, and / arms, and heads, chopped off in a battle, shall join / together at
the latter day, and cry all 'We died at / such a place'; some swearing, some
crying for a / surgeon; some upon their wives, left poor behind / them; some
upon the debts they owe; some upon their / children rawly left..."
This bloody accounting would be familiar to any combat soldier, but Shakespeare
could have heard these stories from the English who had been fighting on the
Continent in the 16th century. I've seen those chopped-off legs and arms and
heads on the battlefields of the Middle East, in southern Iraq in 1991 when the
eviscerated corpses of Iraqi soldiers and refugee women and children were lying
across the desert, their limbs afterwards torn apart by ravenous dogs. And I've
talked to Serb soldiers who fought Bosnian Muslims in the battle for the Bihac
pocket, men who were so short of water that they drank their own urine.
Similarly, Shakespeare's censorious Caesar Augustus contemplates Antony's
pre-Cleopatran courage: "...When thou once / Wast beaten from Modena, / ...at
thy heel / Did famine follow, whom thou fought'st against / ...with patience
more / Than savages could suffer: thou didst drink / The stale of horses and the
gilded puddle / Which beasts would cough at..."
Yet Wilfred Owen's poetry on the "pity of war" - his description, say, of the
gassed soldier coughing his life away, the blood gargling "from the
froth-corrupted lungs" - has much greater immediacy.
True, death was ever present in the life of any Tudor man or woman; the Plague
that sometimes closed down the Globe Theatre, the hecatomb of child mortality,
the overflowing, pestilent graveyards, united all mankind in the proximity of
death. Understand death and you understand war, which is primarily about the
extinction of human life rather than victory or defeat. And despite constant
repetition, Hamlet's soliloquy over poor Yorick's skull remains a deeply
disturbing contemplation of death:
"My gorge rises at / it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know / not
how oft. Where be your gibes now? your / gambols? your songs? your flashes of
merriment / that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one / now, to mock
your own grinning? Quite chapfall'n?"
And here is Omar Khayyam's contemplation of a king's skull at Tus - near the
modern-day Iranian city of Mashad - written more than 400 years before * *
Shakespeare's Hamlet stood in the churchyard at Elsinore:
"I saw a bird alighted on the city walls of Tus / Grasping in its claws
Kaika'us's head: / It was saying to that head, 'Shame! Shame! / Where now the
sound of the bells and the boom of the drum?'"
The swiftness with which disease struck the living in previous centuries was
truly murderous. And I have my own testimony at how quickly violent death can
approach. Assaulted by a crowd of Afghans in a Pakistani border village in 2001
- their families had just been slaughtered in an American B-52 air raid on
Kandahar - an ever-growing crowd of young men were banging stones on to my head,
smashing my glasses into my face, cutting my skin open until I could smell my
own blood. And, just for a moment, I caught sight of myself in the laminated
side of a parked bus. I was crimson with blood, my face was bright red with the
stuff and it was slopping down my shirt and on to my bag and my trousers and
shoes; I was all gore from head to foot. And I distinctly remember, at that very
moment - I suppose it was a subconscious attempt to give meaning to my own
self-disgust - the fearful ravings of the insane Lady Macbeth as she
contemplates the stabbing of King Duncan: "...who would have thought the old man
/ to have had so much blood in him?"
Shakespeare would certainly have witnessed pain and suffering in daily London
life. Executions were in public, not filmed secretly on mobile telephones. But
who cannot contemplate Saddam's hanging - the old monster showing nobility as
his Shi'ite executioners tell him he is going "to hell" - without remembering
"that most disloyal traitor", the condemned Thane of Cawdor in Macbeth, of whom
Malcolm was to remark that "nothing in his life / Became him like the leaving
it." Indeed, Saddam's last response to his tormentors - "to the hell that is
Iraq?" - was truly Shakespearean.
How eerily does Saddam's shade haunt our modern reading of Shakespeare. "Hang
those that talk of fear!" must have echoed through many a Saddamite palace,
where "mouth-honour" had long ago become the custom, where - as the casualties
grew through the long years of his eight-year conflict with Iran - a Ba'athist
leader might be excused the Macbethian thought that he was "in blood / Stepp'd
in so far, that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o'er".
The Iraqi dictator tried to draw loose inspiration from the Epic of Gilgamesh in
his own feeble literary endeavours, an infantile novel which - if David Damrosch
is right - was the work of an Iraqi writer subsequently murdered by Saddam.
Perhaps Auden best captures the nature of the beast:
"Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after, / And the poetry he invented was
easy to understand; / He knew human folly like the back of his hand, / And was
greatly interested in armies and fleets..."
In an age when we are supposed to believe in the "War on Terror", we may quarry
our way through Shakespeare's folios in search of Osama bin Laden and George W
Bush with all the enthusiasm of the mass murderer who prowls through Christian
and Islamic scriptures in search of excuses for ethnic cleansing. Indeed,
smiting the Hittites, Canaanites and Jebusites is not much different from
smiting the Bosnians or the Rwandans or the Arabs or, indeed, the modern-day
Israelis. And it's not difficult to find a parallel with Bush's disasters in
Afghanistan and Iraq - and his apparent desire to erase these defeats with yet a
new military adventure in Iran - in Henry IV's deathbed advice to his son, the
future Henry V:
"...Therefore, my Harry, / Be it thy course to busy giddy minds / With foreign
quarrels; that action, hence borne out / May waste the memory of the former
The wasteland and anarchy of Iraq in the aftermath of our illegal 2003 invasion
is reflected in so many of Shakespeare's plays that one can move effortlessly
between the tragedies and the histories to read of present-day civil war
Baghdad. Here's the father, for example, on discovering that he has killed his
own child in Henry VI, Part III:
"O, pity, God, this miserable age! / What stratagems, how fell, how butcherly, /
Erroneous, mutinous and unnatural, / This deadly quarrel daily doth beget!"
Our treachery towards the Shi'ites and Kurds of Iraq in 1991 - when we
encouraged them to rise up against Saddam and then allowed the butcher of
Baghdad to destroy them - was set against the genuine cries for freedom that
those doomed people uttered in the days before their betrayal. "...waving our
red weapons o'er our heads," as Brutus cried seconds after Julius Caesar's
murder, "Let's all cry, 'Peace, freedom, and liberty'."
My own experience of war has changed my feelings towards many of Shakespeare's
characters. The good guys in Shakespeare's plays have become ever less
attractive, ever more portentous, ever more sinister as the years go by. Henry V
seems more than ever a butcher. "Now, herald, are the dead number'd?" he asks.
"This note doth tell me of ten thousand French / That in the field lie slain: of
princes, in this number, / And nobles bearing banners, there lie dead / One
hundred twenty six: added to these / Of knights, esquires, and gallant
gentlemen, / Eight thousand and four hundred..."
Henry is doing "body counts". When the herald presents another list - this time
of the English dead, Henry reads off the names of Edward, Duke of York, the Earl
of Suffolk, Sir Richard Kikely, Davy Gam, Esquire: "None else of name: and, of
all other men, / but five and twenty... O God, thy arm was here... / Was ever
known so great and little loss, / On one part and on th'other?"
This is pure Gulf War Part One, when General Norman Schwarzkopf was gloating at
the disparate casualty figures - while claiming, of course, that he was "not in
the business of body counts" - while General Peter de la Billière was telling
Britons to celebrate victory by ringing their church bells.
Shakespeare can still be used to remind ourselves of an earlier, "safer" (if
nonexistent) world, a reassurance of our own ultimate survival. It was not by
chance that Olivier's Henry V was filmed during the Second World War. The
Bastard's final promise in King John is simple enough:
"Come the three corners of the world in arms, / And we shall shock them: nought
shall make us rue, / If England to itself do rest but true."
But the true believers - the Osamas and Bushes - probably lie outside the
history plays. The mad King Lear - betrayed by two of his daughters just as bin
Laden felt he was betrayed by the Saudi royal family when they rejected his
offer to free Kuwait from Iraqi occupation without American military assistance
- shouts that he will:
"...do such things, / What they are yet, I know not, but they shall be / The
terrors of the earth!"
Lear, of course, was written in the immediate aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot, a
"terrorist" conspiracy with potential September 11 consequences. Similarly, the
saintly Prospero in The Tempest contains both the self-righteousness and
ruthlessness of bin Laden and the covert racism of Bush. When he sends Ariel to
wreck the usurping King Alonso's ship on his island, the airy spirit returns
with an account of his success which - despite his subsequent saving of lives -
is of near-Twin Towers dimensions:
"Now in the waist, the deck, in every cabin, / I flam'd amazement, sometime I'ld
divide / And burn in many places... / Not a soul / But felt a fever of the mad,
and play'd / Some tricks of desperation; all but mariners / Plung'd in the
foaming brine, and quit the vessel; / Then all afire with me the King's son
Ferdinand / With hair up-staring (then like reeds, not hair) / Was the first man
that leap'd; cried Hell is empty, / And all the devils are here."
In almost the same year, John Donne was using equally terrifying imagery, of a
"fired ship" from which "by no way / But drowning, could be rescued from the
flame, / Some men leap'd forth..."
Prospero's cruelty towards Caliban becomes more frightening each time I read of
it, not least because The Tempest is one of four Shakespeare plays in which
Muslims appear and because Caliban is himself an Arab, born of an Algerian
"This damned Witch Sycorax / For mischiefs manifold, and sorceries terrible / To
enter human hearing, from Argier / Thou know'st was banish'd..." Prospero tells
us. "This blue-ey'd hag, was hither brought with child... / A freckl'd whelp,
hag-born... not honour'd with / A human shape."
Caliban is the "terrorist" on the island, first innocently nurtured by Prospero
and then condemned to slavery after trying to rape Prospero's daughter, the
colonial slave who turns against the fruits of civilisation that were offered
"You taught me language, and my profit on't / Is, I know how to curse: the red
plague rid you / For learning me your language."
Yet Caliban must "obey" Prospero because "his art is of such power". Prospero
may not have F-18s or bunker-busters, but Caliban is able to play out a familiar
Western narrative; he teams up with the bad guys, offering his help to Trinculo
- "I'll show you the best springs; I'll pluck thee berries; / I'll fish for
thee..." - making the essential linkage between evil and terror that Bush vainly
tried to claim between al-Qa'ida and Saddam. Caliban is an animal, unworthy of
pity, not honoured with a "human shape". Compare this with a recent article in
the newspaper USA Today, in which a former American military officer, Ralph
Peters - arguing that Washington should withdraw from Iraq because its people
are no longer worthy of our Western sacrifice - refers to "the comprehensive
inability of the Arab world to progress in any sphere of organised human
endeavour". Prospero, of course, prevails and Caliban survives to grovel to his
"How fine my master is! I am afraid / He will chastise me / ...I'll be wise
hereafter, / And seek for grace..." The war of terror has been won!
Shakespeare lived at a time when the largely Muslim Ottoman empire - then at its
zenith of power - remained an existential if not a real threat for Europeans.
The history plays are replete with these fears, albeit that they are also a
product of propaganda on behalf of Elizabeth and, later, James. In Henry IV:
Part I, the king is to set out on the Crusades:
"As far as to the sepulchre of Christ... / Forthwith a power of English shall we
levy, / Whose arms were moulded in their mothers' womb / To chase these pagans
in those holy fields / Over whose acres walked those blessed feet."
Rhetoric is no one's prerogative - compare King Henry V's pre-Agincourt speech
with Saddam's prelude to the "Mother of All Battles" where Prospero-like purity
is espoused for the Arab "side". This is Saddam: "Standing at one side of this
confrontation are peoples and sincere leaders and rulers, and on the other are
those who stole the rights of God and the tyrants who were renounced by God
after they renounced all that was right, honourable, decent and solemn and
strayed from the path of God until... they became obsessed by the devil from
head to toe."
Similar sentiments are espoused by Tamberlaine in Marlowe's play. Tamberlaine is
the archetypal Muslim conqueror, the "scourge of God" who found it passing brave
to be a king, and ride in triumph through Persepolis.
But Othello remains the most obvious, tragic narrative of our Middle Eastern
fears. He is a Muslim in the service of Venice - close neighbour to the Ottoman
empire - and is sent to Cyprus to battle the Turkish fleet. He is a mercenary
whose self-hatred contaminates the play and eventually leads to his own death.
Racially abused by both Iago and Roderigo, he lives in a world where there are
men whose heads supposedly hang beneath their shoulders, where he is black -
most Arabs are not black, although Olivier faithfully followed this notion - and
where, just before killing himself, he refers to his terrible stabbing of
Desdemona as the work of a "base Indian" who:
"...threw a pearl away / Richer than all his tribe, of one whose subdued eyes, /
...Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees / ...Set you down this; / And say
besides, that in Aleppo once, / Where a malignant and a turbaned Turk / Beat a
Venetian and traduced the state, / I took by the throat the circumcised dog /
And smote him, thus."
That, I fear, is the dagger that we now feel in all our hearts.
Robert Fisk will be in conversation with Joan Bakewell and Tim Pigott-Smith for
the Royal Shakespeare Company on 'Shakespeare and War' at the Courtyard Theatre
in Stratford-upon-Avon on Sunday at 1pm. His latest book 'The Great War for
Civilisation: the Conquest of the Middle East' is published by Fourth
LONDON — Die they do, violently and often
eagerly. But old soldiers never just fade away in the world of William
Shakespeare. They fall from the skies of their martial glory with the dazzle of
Roman candles — blazing, sputtering, ripping the air with noise. These are the
flashiest roles in the canon for actors between the ages of Hamlet and Lear. And
led by Patrick Stewart, as a Mark Antony surprised by age in the Royal
Shakespeare Company's "Antony and Cleopatra" in Stratford-upon-Avon, their fiery
death throes are casting fierce light and mortal shadows over this year's summer
of Shakespeare in England.
In addition to Mr. Stewart's expert study in waning virility, set off by Harriet
Walter's devilishly crafty Cleopatra, the season offers two very different
versions of Shakespeare's grisliest portrait of a war-making lion in winter,
"Titus Andronicus": a stark, glacial tone poem of a production from the Ninagawa
Company of Tokyo, which visited Stratford for 10 performances last month; and,
at Shakespeare's Globe in London, a fast and furious interpretation that goes
straight for the guts (in more ways than one).
The vivisections aren't only physical. Besides demonstrating that there's more
than one way to skin a corpse, these contrasting takes on "Titus" anatomize the
impact of a world where slaughter and torture are everyday occurrences, and
especially on those whose job is to kill. With Douglas Hodge (at the Globe) and
Kotaro Yoshida (for the Ninagawa Company) offering rich and intriguingly
complementary portrayals of the revenge-addled title character, both productions
chillingly summon the special, painful twilight reserved for men who have lived
by the sword.
The current investigations into the alleged rape and murder of civilians by
American soldiers in Iraq have made such presentations tremble with inescapable
timeliness. It seems fitting that Dominic Dromgoole, the new artistic director
of the Globe (where he has bravely succeeded the popular Mark Rylance), should
have begun his inaugural season with Lucy Bailey's Grand Guignol staging of
"Titus" and his own adrenaline-stoked production of another Roman war play by
Shakespeare, "Coriolanus," whose arrogant hero (played as if he were a spoiled
soccer star by the strapping Jonathan Cake) was schooled by his mother on tales
of bloody and heroic combat.
The image used in this year's ads for the Globe — that of the infant twins
Romulus and Remus, the mythic founders of Rome, suckling a she-wolf — also
dominates the Ninagawa "Titus" in the form of an outsize white statue. The
implication is of a race weaned on animal savagery. The same perspective, poised
between numbness and outrage, even filters through the Royal Shakespeare
Company's wonderful production at Stratford of "Much Ado About Nothing," a
comedy of soldiers courting, which subtly links cruelty in love to the military
"A fun-filled evening of violence, gore and mutilation" is how "Titus
Andronicus" is introduced by a toga-wearing cast member to audiences at the
Globe. This early Shakespearean work, dutifully modeled after the revenge
tragedies in vogue in the late 16th century, is notorious for its gross-out
quotient, featuring assorted acts of onstage amputation and climaxing with a
cannibal banquet in which a mother unwittingly feasts on pies made from her dead
sons. The Globe production is awash in stage blood and simulacra of severed
heads and hands, while the Ninagawa Company borrows from the pristine style of
vintage Peter Brook, with an all-white abstract set and red ribbons for stage
But both interpretations elicit a startling psychological complexity from its
barbaric title character. From the moment he makes his entrance, returning to
Rome with a train of prisoners, Titus is obviously someone for whom a soldier's
instincts have become conditioned reflexes in all aspects of his life. (You may
recall that within the first 10 minutes of the play he kills his own son for
disobeying the newly anointed emperor.)
As Mr. Hodge plays him, Titus initially registers as a man for whom action, not
words, are the customary form of communication. His speech is slow and
staggered, his face glazed, as if his mind has short-circuited in trying to
compute the political intricacies of the Roman court. The life he has always
known is one of direct orders and an iron-forged chain of command. When, through
a series of atrocities visited upon his family, Titus is forced to realize that
this imperial chain is corrupt, Mr. Hodge seems to undergo internal combustion.
The violence of both his behavior and his lamentations acquire a vicious, comic
air of absurdity.
The Titus of the extraordinary Mr. Yoshida is more somber and ritualistic,
suggesting an aged samurai warrior fighting his last battle. But the feeling of
an extreme personality on the edge of disintegration is every bit as acute.
Infusing both productions is a "Lear"-like sense of a world without pity, of
people begging for mercy to deaf ears. "O heavens, can you hear a good man groan
and not relent and compassion him?" asks a character in "Titus." The heavens
appear less to blame here than the hellish inhumanity of those who inhabit the
A more civilized air of ruthlessness pervades the Royal Shakespeare Company's
riveting "Antony and Cleopatra," directed by Gregory Doran and, like the
visiting "Titus," part of the troupe's Complete Works Festival year. Yet it too
is dominated by the warping atmosphere of a military lust for dominance.
The genius of Mr. Stewart's poignantly drawn Antony is its evocation of a
warrior who has always defined himself by his physical strength and is starting
to feel his muscles go slack. When he speaks of his "dotage," it is with sober
ruefulness. This is a larger-than-life figure who is trying (and failing) to
ignore a creeping awareness that he is shrinking. The process is exquisitely
contrasted by the concurrent growth of the young Octavius Caesar (the excellent
John Hopkins) into assured and unforgiving manhood and by Ms. Walter's
politically savvy Cleopatra. She may be a self-dramatizer, but she is also a
self-preservationist, even in death. It feels appropriate that her suicide
registers less as an act of heroic love than of image-conscious damage control.
The poisoned cloud of testosterone that wafts from the soldiers' drunken revels
in "Antony and Cleopatra" hovers over much of the Royal Shakespeare Company's
"Much Ado About Nothing," staged by Marianne Elliott as an uneasy idyll of Cuba
on the brink of revolution. The banter between the adversarial lovers Benedick
and Beatrice (Joseph Millson and Tamsin Greig, both outstanding) feels harsher
than usual, rooted in a tension that is as much cultural as sexual.
And the abuse of poor, docile Hero (Morven Christie) by her fiancé, Count
Claudio (Adam Rayner), and his commanding officer, Don Pedro (Patrick Robinson),
is here steeped in a military machismo that turns people into strategic objects.
That the women are not immune to this attitude is evident in the savagery with
which Beatrice demands vengeance for Hero.
Ms. Elliott, a rising star among British directors, makes a few missteps. (The
presence of a lipstick-wearing, Quentin Crisp-ish Bette Bourne as the clownish
constable Dogberry, equipped with a same-sex domestic partner, is distracting in
all the wrong ways.) But she pulls off the risky concept of setting "Much Ado"
in Batista's Cuba, riddled with its own Castro-like revolutionaries.
This "Much Ado" suggests that a military civilization sows the seeds of its own
destruction. The show's concluding celebratory dance is rendered as a
slow-motion pipe dream, doomed to evaporate with the sounds of the next round of
Nicholas de Jongh guardian.co.uk, Monday 22 May 2000 12.29 BST larger |
smaller Article historyJohn Gielgud, who has died aged 96, blazed a glorious
trail through the English theatre of the 20th century and left an indelible
imprint upon it. He was the first classical actor of his generation to discard
antique modes of Shakespearean interpretation and performance. His Hamlet,
Richard II, Leontes, Angelo, Lear and Prospero were acclaimed as thrilling
recoveries and discoveries of roles on which the dreariness of convention had
long since settled in handfuls of star-dust. "You have to spin it out of
yourself, like a spider. It is the only way," he said in 1961, and not until
extreme old age did he lose that air of effortless spider-like facility.
He was not, however just the starriest actor for high strung, tragic heroes half
in love with painful suffering, deploying that famous tenor voice of his which
Alec Guinness once nicely apostrophised as being "like a silver trumpet muffled
in silk". He set new standards in the playing of the artificial high comedy of
Congreve, Wilde and Sheridan to which he brought the breath of naturalness. He
revelled in suave villainy and hauteur, in the elegantly drawn out repartee of
these periods, sometimes deliciously parodying aspect of his tragic demeanour
and voice. He was in his glorious element playing doomed heroes and dandies,
neurotics and aesthetes.
As a source of inspiration and influence upon his profession he was unrivalled
by any actor in his time except for Laurence Olivier. For, in youth and middle
age alike, Gielgud was a modern pioneer working to fulfil the actor's dream of
working in a permanent ensemble, performing plays of high quality where profit
was neither motive nor stimulus. So the famous companies of first-class actors,
designers and directors that Sir John formed and acted with in his historic
seasons in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s became inspirational blue prints for
ensembles like the Royal Shakespeare and National Theatre companies years later.
The other astonishing aspect of Gielgud's awesomely long career, which spanned
more than 75 years, lay in his ability triumphantly to recreate and extend
himself as fashion and circumstance demanded. He was socially and politically
conservative. As an exquisite raconteur and conversationalist, scattering his
aperçus, indiscretions and gossip with gay abandon he may have been the acme of
unconventionality. But theatrically speaking the shock of the new often did
shock him. Since he was also a restless seeker, he learned to rise above the
prejudice of his first impressions and to cast aside hide-bound convictions.
In the 1950s when the new wave of dramatists broke excitedly upon the London
theatre, when Bertolt Brecht and theatre of the absurd began to threaten the
hold of the upper-middle class drawing room comedy and the regimen of the
well-made play, Gielgud was at first left bothered and bewildered, though he did
confess himself thrilled by Osborne's Look Back in Anger and Pinter's The
Caretaker. Unlike Peggy Ashcroft and Laurence Olivier he did not join the
avant-garde at the Royal Court in the 1950s and by the early 1960s he was
beginning to look a thoroughly traditional figure, marching in time with the
This isolation from the new theatrical movement did not, however, last that
long. Gielgud adjusted, adapted and learned. Critics and commentators have
suggested he discovered an ideal point of mediation between the old theatre and
the new with Alan Bennett's 1968 Forty Years On, a revue-like play which regards
the totems of England's early 20th-century society with a mixture of mockery and
nostalgia. But in fact John's Broadway performance four years earlier, as a lay
brother laid low after being persuaded to marry the richest man in the world in
Edward Albee's mystifyingly symbolic Tiny Alice marked the point at which he
threw in his famous lot with the nouvelle vague.
From then on his theatrical career revived. Performances in the plays of Edward
Bond, Charles Wood, and most memorably as Spooner in Pinter's No Man's Land and
one of the old inmates of Home from Home followed.
It was in this phase, too, that he began to disprove the old slur that he was
only able to give a single performance in one voice. In No Man's Land, his sly
and slovenly literary vagrant in search of a billet - the model of bohemian
seediness with a cigarette forever between his lips - he cast off the familiar
Gielgud persona as thoroughly as he did for his 1936 Merchant of Venice and the
When his ability to memorise parts for the theatre began to falter in his
mid-seventies, while playing, in Julian Mitchell's Half Life, an archaeologist
disturbed by excavations into his own past - Gielgud turned to the world of
film, which unlike Olivier, Richardson and Redgrave he had largely ignored. He
adapted his personality and his style to the medium and fashioned an indian
summer career - notably as the conductor-hero of Resnais' Providence, an
all-embracing, ancient Prospero conveyed in Peter Greenaway's astonishing
version of The Tempest. He delighted in the suave malice of the narrator's
father in the famous television version of Bridehead Revisited as well. These
were indian summer triumphs which confounded the idea that elderly theatre
actors have nothing to offer except their memories.
There was also a last stage performance. At the age of 84 he took on the role of
Sir Sydney Cokerell, the museum curator in Hugh Whitemore's Best of Friends, and
had a field day with the character's mellow urbanity. Even in his nineties,
though vocally reduced and restricted, he capered nimbly through the musical
reaches of Shine.
The essential Gielgud did not greatly change from first maturity to old age -
his capacity for speaking his mind at the wrong time in the wrong way was a
life-long joy for all except those who suffered the cold blast of truth. When he
visited the mildly ailing Emlyn Williams one day in the 60s, he took his leave
abruptly after an hour. "When I visit the sick I always stay too long, I sat for
ages with poor Arthur Macrae, but I was glad I'd been. He died next day."
Arthur John Gielgud may have been born into the heart of the conventional upper
middle classes of Edwardian England. But this third child of an Edwardian
stock-broker had the theatre in his blood and his family tree positively
blossomed with actors. On his mother's side he was directly descended from the
19th-century theatrical aristocracy - the Terry family. Ellen Terry, Irving's
leading lady and the late Victorian theatre's prime actress was his great aunt.
His grandmother Kate played Cordelia at 14 and became an instant star. His great
uncle Fred Terry, made his name with the Scarlet Pimpernel and nothing else.
This Terry connection may be quite misleading. Some people convincingly have
argued that Gielgud's acting and looks bore no trace of his Terry ancestors.
They suggest Sir John style of acting bears the imprint of his father's
Lithuanian forbears, and of his thespian Polish great grandparents who were
renowned for their Shakespearian acting. Certainly, even in his thirties,
Gielgud - remarkable for his great, domed forehead and aquiline nose - did not
look English. Ronald Harwood has convincingly suggested that "the fusion of the
Anglo Saxon and the Slav to be one of the clues to understanding Gielgud's
qualities both as an actor and as a man."
Stage-struck and star struck in a childhood during which the "nervous, frail and
sensitive" tags were attached to him, he became a willowy young man - quick and
sharp with a butterfly mind, who liked to dress in silk socks, broadband black
hats and with fluffy hair which barbers used to wave. He had played no school
games and walked in stiff self-consciousness - "like a cat with rickets" said
one of his first drama teachers. There was nothing outstandingly masculine about
him. In a theatre which celebrated bluff maleness and matter-of-fact
understatement from its leading actors it would have seemed he was the man least
likely to take the West End theatre at all, let alone by storm.
When he played his first leading role in London as Romeo to Gwen Ffrancgon
Davies's Juliet in 1924 the critics were loud in their scorn. "Scant of
virility," accused Ivor Brown, "with the most meaningless legs imaginable." But
perhaps the "orange" make up, coal-black centre-parted wig and white tights did
not help much.
It may have been his little known Slavic heritage that saved him from sinking
after this. For it was in the then almost unknown Anton Checkhov that Gielgud
made his name. "Perfection itself," said James Agate, the most influential
critic of the period about his Trofimov, the young trevolutionary in The Cherry
Orchard. His Kontantin in The Seagull and the doomed Tusenbach in, remarkably,
the first English production of The Three Sisters were almost as eye-catching.
So it was that the 25-year-old John Gielgud arrived at the Old Vic at the end of
the 1920s as leading man and walked almost straight into theatrical history. In
the next 19 months he worked fantastically without more than a flicker of
strain, taking on more Shakespeare leads than any subsequent actor has attempted
in twice the time. He was all ages and all types - Romeo and Lear, Orlando and
Prospero, Macbeth and Malvolio, Antony and Benedick. One of these roles, his
Richard II - "A tall willowy figure in black velvet.. the pale agonised face set
beneath a glittering crown," was the making of him.
Critics had already remarked upon Gielgud's voice, that fabulous piece of
machinery which a few detractors have claimed to be capable of making vocal
music and little more. The old records of Gielgud's stage roles disprove that
charge. They reveal him as master architect, building and shaping character
minutely. In Shakespeare he composed a serious intellectual music. His
grief-struck Richard, riddled with hauteur and vulnerability, showed up both
Gielgud's Slavic and Anglo Saxon aspects - his monarch was a beautiful lover,
struggling to keep his emotions in check.
The Hamlet that followed was more remarkable still - a Prince for all seasons,
contemporary in its sense of disgust and outrage instead of traditional
ponderous nobility, fresh in its Oedipal stresses and strains. It was, for an
age accustomed to mature 40-something Hamlets, disconcertingly young. It was for
an age familiar with understatement riven with emotion, "hysteria and
self-lacerating sensitivity." James Agate called it "the highwater mark of
English Shakesperian acting in our time."
Four years later his second Prince - bringing Shakespeare daringly into the West
End - was less hysterical, more thoughtful and prone to flashes of humour. It
was even more feted. The critic J C Trewin, writing half a century later said it
was the best of the 70 Princes he had seen in his long theatre going time. And
even when Gielgud played the role in his forties the likes of the youthful John
Mortimer were bowled over all over again.
It was, however, in a new, slight costume piece about Richard II - Gordon
Daviot's Richard of Bordeaux - that Gielgud really became a West End star. "Yes
I know it's vulgar, but I can't resist," he said to a friend as he sat signing
picture postcards of himself after a performance. It was a mark of Gielgud's
essential seriousness that he did not succumb to the frippery and shallowness of
the 1930s West End. Instead, supported by the impresario Bronson Albery, he set
about creating his own company of players in classical drama in St Martins Lane.
It was typical of his eagerness to encourage the new that he cast the young
Laurence Olivier to alternate with him the roles of Romeo and Mercutio to Peggy
Ashcroft's Juliet. It was not supposed to be a theatrical contest. But so it
proved and Olivier, unsurprisingly, was a love-possessed Romeo from the finger
tips to the heart and other more dangerous partswhile Gielgud's Romeo was all
surface and no sensuality. When it came to Mercutio, however, Olivier was
second-bested. "John's extraordinary darting imagination made him the better,"
Gielgud may have felt pangs of jealousy but they never loomed large - he was
always far more of a team player than Olivier, and far more willing to test
himself against his best contemporaries than Sir Laurence ever was. So Sir
John's dandyish Trigorin to Edith Evans's grand dame Arkadina a year later was
reckoned by the critics of the day to be too unstarry. But Gielgud was not
interested in projecting himself in that luminous way.
His famous 1937 season at the Queens, with Peggy Ashcroft as his leading lady,
and a repertoire of Richard II, The Merchant of Venice, The School for Scandal
and The Three Sisters, directed by Michel Denis, marked his second attempt to
create an ensemble of classical players. But then, tiring of the producer's
role, Gielgud was diverted by Binkie Beaumont, who was about to become the most
powerful of London impresarios, into a Dodie Smith drawing room romance.
Beaumont, an uneducated man who was admired for his way with stars and urivalled
capacity to assemble handsome revivals of classics, was a mixed blessing in
Gielgud's career. Gielgud always oscillated between the radical and the
conventional. He worked with directorial pioneers like Komisarjevsky , Michel St
Denis, Tyrone Guthrie and Peter Brook, but was always liable to succumb to the
call of Beaumont offering him some old-fashioned new play.
At least under Beaumont aegis he was given the chance of launching a bold 1945
season at the Haymarket which might have been designed to show the ease with
which he scaled both the heights of tragedy and comedy. There was his fourth
Hamlet and the abominably cruel Ferdinand in The Duchess of Malfi, ranged with
what the fledgling critic Kenneth Tynan delightedly called his "tongue-in-cheek
and hand-on-heart Valentine in Love for Love."
In 1953 Beaumont gave him another chance - at the Lyric, Hammersmith - to run
his own classical company again. Astutely choosing Paul Scofield as his co-star
Gielgud resuscitated Thomas Otway's tremendous restoration tragedy, playing the
role of the wracked Jaffier in a dazzle of torment and nobility.
In the 1940s Gielgud consolidated more than he advanced. He was more larch than
oak when he played an admired, too youthful Lear, an unwarrior-like Macbeth and
a new Italianate Prospero. But there were people who criticised what someone
called his "divine coldness" - it was as if there were something remote and
aloof about his acting.
These reservations were set aside in his annus mirabilis at Stratford on Avon in
1950 when he cast aside inhibition and intraversion. His fire and ice Angelo in
Peter Brook's Measure for Measure astonished everyone. He was no longer courting
sympathy or exuding an easy romanticism. He and Peggy Ashcroft turned Much Ado
about Nothing into an exquisite war of words. Anthony Quayle directing him as
Cassius in Julius Caesar persuaded him to do away with lyricism and softness and
Gielgud achieved a pugilistic fury that astonished the critics who were not
quite as thrilled by a harsh, hard Lear. His Leontes in Peter Brook's A Winter's
Tale confirmed his new found confidence in playing unsympathetic roles. "Dressed
in hectic red, tall and tortured and rigid he commands the bare black stage like
a fury," John Barber wrote.
A year later, in the Coronation honours, he was awarded a long delayed
knighthood for which Olivier and Richardson had had to lobby the Prime Minister,
Winston Churchill. Gielgud's homosexuality, which was a well known fact of life
within the theatrical profession, had been the bar to this honour. Then irony
and disaster struck in a double action. Just a few months later, when the
government was in the midst of a witch hunt against homosexuality and
homosexuals, Sir John was charged with persistently importuning for immoral
purposes. He admitted his guilt and was fined.
The repercussions were great and awful for a man of Gielgud's temperament and
character. It was said he briefly contemplated suicide. "You can't imagine what
it was like," he said to me years later. But in his weeks of stress and
humiliation much of the generosity and kindness that he had shown to his fellow
actors was returned in full measure. Sybil Thorndike, who was acting with him in
A Day by the Sea, led those determined to give support. A move made by a
minority on the Equity Council to have him expelled from the Union - and thereby
barred from acting - was defeated by a large majority.
For a time the case may have turned Gielgud back to the safe, reassuring old
world of Binkie Beaumont and HM Tennent. But not for long. His surreal, space
age Lear in 1956 was the quintessence of experiment. A year later his "grizzled
ascetic" Prospero, in whom the fires of revenge and recrimination still blazed
brought an outburst of applause. "It's the best Shakespearian acting I have
seen," Richardson wrote to him. And even though miscast as Othello in
Zeffirelli's Royal Shakespeare company production, with a 1961 first night rich
in falling scenery and collapsing reputations, Gielgud emerged not that much
scathed from the disaster to play a delectable Gayev in The Cherry Orchard - all
wistful solemnity as he lightly mocked his own pompousness.
This ability to ignore set-back and disappointment, to rise to new challenges
characterised the last 20 years of his life in the theatre. He may have had too
few chances to play the classics - his last Lear was given when he was little
more than 50; his final, necromancing Prospero was something of a come-down. His
Julius Caesar and Sir Politick would be unremarkable. But there were at least
two great performances. In Home, as a mental patient with nothing left to look
forward to but the keeping up of appearances, Gielgud was sheer magic: voice
maintaining a false air of patrician calm, while tears streamed down. His
Spooner in Pinter's No Man's Land was even more of a departure. It marked a feat
of self disguise and impersonation that he had not attempted since his early
acting days. Seedily dishevelled, with an air of chronic scruffiness, Gielgud
prowled through the action slyly on the make and the look-out, eyes behind gold
rimmed glasses registering next to nothing, that velvet voice relishing its
John Gielgud served the stage unstintingly. He was a master of acting in an age
of great English actors. He was not versatile in Olivier's chameleon fashion.
But in his acting he encompassed everything from the tragic to the comic
ridiculous. He was so old and had worked so long that there will be hardly
anyone left alive who can remember our theatre without his magic presence. Those
who knew him even a little will lament the passing not just of the actor but the
man who was such infinite, mischievous fun. But preserved on disc and cassette,
in infinite recorded conversations, there will always remain the essential
glimmerings of his rare, bright star.
"Richard III" appeared in the Old Vic repertory at the New
Theatre last night, and Mr. Laurence Olivier's performance was a remarkable one.
He opened magnificently with that great soliloquy in which Shakespeare parades
Gloucester and foretells his play. He fell away oddly and fascinatingly with a
Gloucester of light and dexterous irony, lacking in depth of hatreds with
touches of Quilp and an occasional suggestion of Mr. Jingle. It was hard to find
in these satirical quirks the spirit that would "undertake the death of all the
world". But the imperious gesture with which, finally intrigued to the throne,
he brought Buckingham to his knees marked the actor's turning-point. He put on
malevolence with the crown, he deepened in villainy by the height of a throne.
This performance - one of Mr. Olivier's finest in grasp and élan - was framed in
a production by Mr. John Burrell both rich and rapid. Mr. Morris Kestelman's
settings and Miss Zinkheisen's costumes are rivals in a glowing adroitness.
Some scenes Mr. Burrell has not shaped well - Margaret's curse from a somewhat
subdued Dame Sybil Thorndike falls on a dull stage. But mostly he gives his
actors good elbow-room for their talents - and makes the ghostly cavalcade at
Tewkesbury uncommonly impressive.
Miss Joyce Redman confirms the good opinions this season has brought herand
there are solidly in support such players as Mr. Nicholas Hannen, Mr. Harcourt
Williams, and Mr. George Relph. Richmond is too young, dashing and golden a part
for Mr. Ralph Richardson, that dry and and thoughtful citizen of the stage.
Wartime print rationing allowed a 260-word review for
arguably Olivier's career best-performance. The approaching end of hostilities
delighted another contributor:
As I was having breakfast, the announcer told us that the blackout was to be
relaxed when double summer time goes. My first reaction was a wild whoop of joy.
The blackout has been the greatest minor curse of all the wartime restrictions;
it has been symbolic of the black war-cloud shadowing our lives. Its relaxation
is the first real lifting of that cloud, the beginning of the end of all the
upheavals. And then something struck me and sobered me. In my country life and
work here, I am a war-time upheaval. But for the war I should still be in that
insurance office in the City. I'm not the only one who wants to stay.
In our judgment, the Tempest is a play rather for the
closet than for the stage. The fatal objection to the Tempest, as an acting
drama, is that it is not a play of the passions, but purely one of sentiment and
of poetic fancy; it contains nothing to call forth the deepest emotions of the
heart; it can only please at best - it can never awaken deep horror or intense
sympathy, neither can it open the sluices of joy or of sorrow in the human
It is in fact, as put on the stage, a pageant dignified by
the richest and most imaginative poetry. These circumstances will, to some
extent, account for what we must call the general disappointment expressed at
the performance of the play on Saturday evening.
However, there were other circumstances contributing to
this, which, however unpleasant, our duty to the public requires us to notice.
We were glad to see the cordial greeting with which the audience recognised a
favourite of last season in the garb of Prospero; but we must add that the
applause of his performance of that character was subsequently but partial; and,
with every disposition to make allowances, we must say that Mr Butler made a
very large demand on the patience and the forbearance of his audience. Indeed,
it has rarely been our fortune to hear Shakespeare so mangled by any actor as it
was on this occasion.
One of the best sustained characters in the piece was the Caliban of Mr Bass; it
was the best monster that we have ever seen. Mr Davidge's Stephano was another
able performance; he never forgot his mock gravity or intemperance, and his
by-play was exceedingly good.
We cannot say much for the Trinculo of Mr CF Marshall, and we must caution this
actor against his coarse tricks, which savour more of a sawdust arena than of
the boards of a theatre-royal. Any actor of taste and judgment would feel that,
when the dramatist has a passage that may be deemed offensive to a modern
audience, probably the best treatment of it is to utter it quietly and as
common-place - instead of which, Mr Marshall labours to make the most of it, and
he seems to dwell on it with pleasure, as though giving him an opportunity of
currying favour with the gallery.
This must be amended and we shall not be disposed to spare any repetitions of
this practice. His smelling of "the monster" was a piece of the coarsest and
most revolting acting ever endured by a respectable audience.