Cambridge, Summer 2002
Michael Grosvenor Myer
Grosvenor Myer, Michael. "Cambridge, Summer 2002." Early Modern Literary Studies 8.2 (September, 2002): 20.1-9 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/08-2/grosmyer.html>.
I observe that the egregious Othello-reworking Andrew Davies, against whose officious adaptatory practices I animadverted last time, has been boasting to ITV-Nightscreen of the "fresh new ending" he has provided
for viewers' delectation to Dr Zhivago. See what I mean...
The Duke of Vienna waited hopefully on her right; on her left beckoned Sister Francisca of the Sisterhood of St Clare; Isabella looked helplessly from one to another, hovering ambivalently between palace and cloister: a final tableau to sum up Stephen Siddalls moving and intelligent Measure for Measure, his annual Town and Gown production for the Arts Theatre Trust. A noted local Shakespearean, currently working on a series for the University Press, Siddall brings a fresh and creative eye to the texts - I remember particularly a superbly conceived mods-and-rockers Titus Andronicus from many years ago. Here we have a contemporary Vienna ruled by an ineffectual bumbler who leaves in charge an austere bureaucratic Angelo who keeps all four buttons of his tightly fitting power-suit done up, matched by an Isabella in a pure, gleaming white trouser-suit surmounted by a glittering metal crucifix, like Duncan's queen as often on her knees as on her feet: a literally buttoned-up pair whose clash was inevitable. Tom Hiddleston and Tara Hacking invested them with just the right degree of obsessive self-satisfaction: a striking moment was her falling to her knees in prayer as she shut her ears to her brothers hysterically terror-stricken apprehensions of death. Michael Scott gave a good account of this feebly well-meaning youth, nicely balanced by Tom Noads fashionable, speaking-by-the-trick Lucio. Pompey (Tony Marcel) was a commissionaire in a shabby ringmasters uniform, whose appearance, added to his pleas for the pleasure of the populace, kept making me think of Mr. Sleary. Even Abhorson (John Shippey) had succumbed to the bureaucratic atmosphere of Vincentio's Vienna, a quietly dressed jobsworth writing his execution schedule with slow deliberation into his diary. Bryan Milnes' Escalus and John Russell's Provost struck well the note of dignified authority (though why, I wonder, was the former deprived of his nice comic moment of reaction to Pompeys unbelievable surname - odd bits were cut, including two of Isabella's more vital adjectives; "keen whips" lost their "keen" and the beetle's sufferance its "corporal"). Marta Zlatic (last seen at this address as Electra in the Greek Play) sympathetically suffered Mariana's dreary life in the Moated Grange (impossible to shake off the memory of Tennyson, isn't it?). And, rightly dominating a series of effective characterisations, Alastair Boag brought a fine irascibility, as much to the realisation of his own culpable neglect as to Lucio's facetious provocations, to his troubled Duke.
A good start to the regular Cambridge summer Shakespeare season, followed as always by the worthy and worthwhile Cambridge Shakespeare Festival, bringing a selection of the plays (eight this year, two more than usual) to tourist and language school. Their Antony and Cleopatra had the advantage of a flashing black-eyed beauty with temper to match, Natalie Clayton, who brought the Cleopatra scenes triumphantly to life. Matthew Ward was an impressive Enobarbus; Gavin Dando, though cast against type, a dignified Caesar; Jenny McKinlay a charming Charmian (sorry! irresistible!); and Sean Douglas a fine-toned Agrippa. Bryce Paul Mills' Lepidus was also notable, but would have been even better had director Simon Bell not suffered him to make the wimpish elements quite so comically prominent. The oriental music was attractively atmospheric, and Cleopatra's cloth of gold robe and feathered crown, arranged onstage as an opening ambience-establishing tableau and donned at the end to entertain the asp, quite beautiful. On the down side, the attenuated text left too many loose ends and too many fine bits mourned (no sad captains, no final scene of Caesar's lament); and some of the small-cast compromises were unfortunate: one young actress had the inexplicable duty of opening the proceedings with Philo's wonderful dotage speech in posture of a whore - a terrible initial turnoff - and then kept reappearing, as Octavia, as Eros, as serpent-bearing Clown, till one began to suspect some sort of incomprehensible running-gag. All in all, though, given the constraints, a workmanlike effort, mainly in the favourable but just occasionally in the less favourable senses of that adjective.
Someone ate a banana in Twelfth Night and (just wait for it) someone else came along and slipped on the skin. I mean, a banana skin. Literally. That sort of production - kicks in bollocks, smacks on bums. No "O Mistress Mine"; "Come Away Death" karaoke style to tune of "House Of The Rising Sun"; "Wind and Rain" in thirties vaudeville mode (by Sir Andrew instead of Feste, for some reason, and "It rains every day" just don't mean a thing 'cos it aint got that swing). Skittish Olivia (in pastels throughout, not mourning - no sense of mourning in her house at all) and hoydenish Viola. Text mashed up, sometimes by apparent intent, but sometimes they just didnt seem quite word-perfect. Some good characterisations, particularly Phil Regan's Antonio and Robin Belfield's Sebastian, whose strongly played scenes together were altogether the best of it; Richard Unwin's Feste, the Andrew and Toby of Rory Thursby and Brian Scoltock, Anne-Louise Wildman's Maria, were well worthwhile also: and just one or two moving moments, like the infallible "Patience on a monument" (but she didn't know how to pronounce "reverberate" in the "willow-cabin" bit). Why, though, I can't help wondering, will the clichéd phrase "dumbed-down" keep rising unbidden to my mind?
This year's Midsummer Night's Dream, however ("We have to do The Dream every year," I was told), in the able directorial hands of Robert Thorburn, contrived to be as physical and as comic while never losing that indefinable Ingredient X to transform it into just the right sort of magical experience. Jill Kemp's troubled and angry Hermia could bring tears to the eyes. Louis laBovitch's Theseus was going to have a hell of a life from the violent and filthy-tempered Amazon Queen of Gigi Burgdorf (though their fairyland opposites turned the tables most effectively). The lightning-change transformations of Helen Barford, Daniel Jarvis and Jan Coleman from enchanted and confused lovers to fairies to artisan-actors and back again were managed with breathtaking efficiency. Alan Wales was a really scary Egeus as well as a comically assertive Bottom and Kaz Luckins a nicely frustrated Brummie Quince. And, central to all, Stella Willows' mischievous, acrobatic Satan's-limb of a Puck cast an irresistible charm over the entire proceedings.
Directors faced with The Comedy of Errors tend, in my experience, to suffer a rush of blood to the head in their determination to spice it up, or make it interesting, or relevant, or whatever; there's a feeling abroad that it won't work if it isnt done something with. The last three I've seen were set, respectively, in India at the time of the Raj, in the Wild West, and in a Vogue-reading thirties Noel'n'Gertie-Land. Why oh why, I demanded plaintively in my Guardian review of this last one, can we never just see a straight production of the play Will wrote? Well, at last, the Festival has brought us one. And a most joyous occasion it turned out to be. Clare Prenton played it at lightning pace, and everyone from Nicola Hinton and Sueleen Fletcher's cheeky, attractive pair of Dromios to Ellen Callander's Edinburgh-accented Miss Jean Brodie of an Abbess flung themselves enthusiastically into the fun. Tessa Hatts's energetically troubled and abused Adriana contrasted nicely with Judith Quin as her sententious sister. David Milne brought dignity to Egeus, determination to Angelo's creditor, and a campness to Balthazar which suggested that naughty Ephesian Antipholus was putting it about in various directions, and not just to Andrew Malquin's lovely courtesan (he was Angelo too, but the incongruity of his beard somehow just added a dimension of strangely effective oddness to his feminine role). Matt Jamie (Syracuse) and Alex Beattie (Ephesus) looked sufficiently alike but differed sufficiently in the characters of the Antipholi to bring conviction enough to the absurdities and send the audience home chuckling happily at the end of a brief but hilarious evening of comic delights.
Mr Malquin was strangely less convincing later on in the season as a (beardless) Romeo, choosing strangled vowels to express his emotions rather than the dulcet vocal sweeps of his Courtesan. The former Cleopatra, however, Natalie Clayton, having abandoned her eye-flashing dominance, gave a convincing account of awakening adolescent sexuality. The eye flashing here came from Stella Willows' Princess, resplendent in a fine brocade gown, who brought her admirable vocal techniques, so effective earlier on in her lovely Puck, also to the wonderfully spoken Chorus; she gave us a richly comic Peter too. Phil Regan's violent Capulet (he threatened his wife when crossed, as well as his luckless daughter), Sean Douglas's camp Mercutio, and Bryce Paul Mills' Paris, with his seemingly genuine affection for his young cousin, stay in the mind as well.
This hasn't been the best of summers for open-air theatre. It poured the whole day we were due to see Much Ado About Nothing, then most obligingly cleared up just in time for the performance, so that, apart from a bit of disturbance to early scenes from a belated dumper-truck trundling along a St John's College garden path, a cheerful, enjoyable
production went ahead with our attentive assistance. This is the one where the sub-plot can take over - Beatrice and Benedick are more rewarding roles than Claudio and Hero, and the scenes of their deception at the hands of dubiously motivated matchmakers make for lively cheer. Jake Lyons and Ellen Callender knocked glittering sparks off one another early on, then settled into a convincing mock-aggressive affection. She chose to play the climactic "Kill Claudio" moment as casual and matter-of-fact throwaway, chillingly effective and nicely judged narrowly to avoid bathos. Director Clare Smout made sure though that the romantic leads, Helen Barfords Hero and Louis laBovitchs Claudio, got their look-in also, especially in a strongly-played wedding. Claudios loutish cruelty in this scene was mitigated by his characterisation throughout as a gawky, impulsive, unconfident late-adolescent; remembering his graceful, balletic Oberon earlier in the season, one could not but be impressed by Mr laBovitch's versatility. Heidi Newton's merry and attractive Margaret and Lee Tyler's affable but on-his-dignity Don Pedro impressed also. Magic returned to the second part of the season with David Rowan's The Tempest, a delight in every aspect from David Milne's dignified Prospero and Sueleen Fletcher's spellcasting Ariel, to Caliban (Matthew Ward) and Trinculo (Michael Eyres) as strange bedfellows, a bit of split-second-timing slapstick which got more hilarity out of the scene than I'd ever seen before.
- The shearing feast in The Winter's Tale can be the most charming incident in the entire canon, apotheosis of tragical-comical-historical-pastoral. I always go to a production hoping to get that lift of spirit it can provide, so I'm not about to warm to a version which ditches it pretty well entirely: no Mopsa and Dorcas (not even an itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny little composite Dopsa or Morcas, like the company's Feste-Fabian or Margaret-Ursula, to love a ballad-in-print a-life); no Young Shepherd-Clown (which had already robbed us of that vital formulation of things dying and things newborn); and, bloody hell, no Autolycus (and if The Winter's Tale without Autolycus may not quite be Hamlet-without-the-Prince, it seems to me not a million miles from Measure for Measure without Lucio or All's Well without Parolles), nothing but a quite nice dance for Perdita and Florizel (delightfully played by Nicola Hinton and Robin Belfield), followed by Polixenes and Camillo in disguise, followed hard upon by the unmasking. Even allowing for shortage of actors for the minor parts (which Autolycus and Clown arent anyhow), it seemed wilful to cut what little was left so that the daffodils vanished from Perdita's floral. Then, with not enough Gentlemen available, the revelation at the court of Sicilia was reduced to a dumbshow with voice-over (not at all a bad one, mind). All making for a brief, somewhat disappointing and anticlimactic second half - pity, that, after an effective opening, with Alan Wales following up his Bottom/Egeus with a wonderfully hysterical Leontes. Alex Beattie's hearty, facetious Polixenes contrasted nicely: he kept reminding me of Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster, which suited his interpretation down to the ground. Despite inherent improbability (and ain't it a Romance at that anyoldhow), I quite enjoyed the concept of Hermione (Charlene Robertson) making her point in the trial scene by actually punching Leontes out. Go, Girl...
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.
© 2002-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).