Well-Graced Actors and Their Doubles: Shakespeare in Performance at the Royal Shakespeare Company, March-July 2000
Roberta Barker
Mount Allison University

Barker, Roberta. "Well-Graced Actors and Their Doubles." Early Modern Literary Studies 6.2 (September, 2000): 25.1-28 <URL:

  1. When, in Richard II, the Duchess of York asks her husband to compare the commoners' reaction to the deposed King Richard with the adulatory reception accorded the victorious Bolingbroke, he responds metatheatrically:

    As in a theatre the eyes of men
    After a well-graced actor leaves the stage
    Are idly bent on him that enters next,
    Thinking his prattle to be tedious,
    Even so or with much more contempt men's eyes
    Did scowl on Richard. (V.ii.23-28)

    These lines are often cited in critical discussions of the intimate link between theatricality and political struggle in early modern playtexts, a link richly explored in the Royal Shakespeare Company's Summer Festival 2000. However, this same Festival season proved that York's metaphor has as much to say about the politics of theatre as about the theatricality of politics. As York suggests, comparison is a vital part of the experience of any spectator who tries to understand what she is watching. Like Bolingbroke's supporters, the theatrical spectator may form aesthetic or ideological judgements based on the differences between particular figures she observes. She may mentally contrast the styles or visions of practitioners as they affect productions of different plays, relate a given production to previous stagings of the same play or compare the choices of performers to her society's normative discourses of character and identity. What effects have such comparisons on the production of theatrical meaning? What have they to tell us about the possibilities and limitations of the relationship between actor and spectator? Because every spectator's comparisons will be informed by her own subjectivity, it is impossible to offer a sweeping answer to such questions. In the article that follows I wish to offer an account of various struggles for theatrical authority I witnessed on the stage of the RSC this summer, with particular focus on the actors who were at the centre of those struggles. By examining the comparisons through which I judged them, I hope to come to some conclusions, not only about an uneven but fascinating season of RSC Shakespeare, but also about the roles played by comparison in performance criticism itself.

  2. If comparison among performances is one of the tools by which spectators judge, then the placing of Gregory Doran's lacklustre As You Like It as the first production of the RSC Summer Festival was something of a gift to those that followed it. Doran's cast included a number of well-graced players, but before As You Like It opened the most celebrated point about it was the presence on the production team of well-known textile designers Kaffe Fassett and Niki Turner. Their work proved striking indeed, providing exquisite monochrome gowns and tapestries for the court scenes and, later, a forest of Arden decked in gorgeous knitwear and dominated by immense stained-glass leaves. Aesthetically pleasing in themselves, these elements gave evidence of determined choices about the difference between the aristocratic prison of the early scenes and the pastoral playground of the later ones. However, the exuberant design proved problematic when neither the director nor his actors seemed able to match its dominant vision. Indeed, Doran seemed to have little more to say about As You Like It than was said for him by the design. The court of Duke Frederick (Ian Hogg) was chilling, encased in convention and threatened by incipient violence which exploded when the Duke brutally struck Touchstone (Adrian Schiller). Its mirror image in the forest of Arden (presided over by Hogg as Duke Senior) was jolly and festive. This stark contrast marked the limits of Doran's As You Like It. Characters constrained and stiffened by the formal garments of the early scenes relaxed in the looser leisurewear of Arden's Eden. Strangely, though, the potential reversals of gender, sexuality and class associated with that change in the playtext seemed underexplored, even unacknowledged. This Arden was so determined to be a fun place that there was no room for serious challenges to the status quo; it was finally nothing more than a temporary holiday world in which every subversion was very much contained. This might have been forgivable had the holiday been amusing, but in general the production failed even to be funny.

  3. These problems could not be ascribed to its leading actress, a fine performer who in a more successful production might have been both entertaining and challenging. Alexandra Gilbreath had previously worked with Doran to great effect, particularly as an angry, revisionary Roxane in his Cyrano de Bergerac (1997). A thoughtful actress with a strong stage presence, she is either helped or hindered by a low, throaty voice that makes up in distinctiveness what it lacks in volume. Wedded to her small but buoyantly energetic frame, her qualities seemed guaranteed to produce a striking Rosalind, but instead she floundered. Weepy and subdued in the first scenes, she perked up when she donned boy's attire perhaps too much so, for thereafter she seemed trapped within an unrelenting, strenuous cuteness. Her Ganymede was more womanly than androgynous, but without any concomitant erotic charge in the scenes with Orlando. Occasionally her apparent joy in the verse overcame the production's vacuous chirpiness, but in general she fought a losing battle against her environment.

  4. More successful, on the whole, was Nancy Carroll's strong, handsome, sardonic Celia, a sharp observer of, and an energetic participant in, all her scenes. Sadly, she was patronized by a glibly comic staging of her falling-in-love with Oliver. Phoebe (Danielle Tilley) and Audrey (Nina Conti) were trapped within stereotypes of the flouncing young miss and the buxom slattern respectively. These clichés are evoked by the playtext, to be sure, but here they were reproduced so blithely and unquestioningly as to become misogynist. Schiller's Touchstone, a hangdog clown in Buster Keaton mold, began well by getting laughs with his deadpan reading of the infamous pancakes/mustard sequence. Sadly, his po-faced languor failed to add energy to a production in sore need of it, and it was unfortunate that he was not allowed to undercut Django Bates' painfully kitsch settings of the play's songs.

  5. Less successful still were the two leading male performances. Swathed in a black greatcoat, Declan Conlon's Jacques was so melancholically inward-looking as to be merely tedious, and the great "Seven Ages" speech was mumbled like a shopping list. The spectacularly stiff Anthony Howell, meanwhile, cut a handsome figure as Orlando; but then, so would a bronze statue have done. Recalling York's words, one might have expected these actors to throw the better qualities of their peers Gilbreath and Carroll in particular into relief. But the effect was the opposite. Despite the hard performance work that had clearly gone into the production, all its actors ended by looking ill-graced.

  6. The Comedy of Errors, the other Shakespearean comedy on the Stratford mainstage this season, presented the opposite scenario. Here again Howell gave a rather plodding performance, playing Antipholus of Ephesus on a sustained note of vague irritation. This, however, was a classic case of an actor suffering by following on the heels of a better-graced one, for Howell was in the unenviable position of playing twin brother to David Tennant's Antipholus of Syracuse. Tennant is one of the most talented young actors to appear at the RSC in recent years. Gifted with brilliant comic timing and an infectious delight in performance, he is also consistently willing to explore the less attractive sides of the characters he portrays. Physically, he and Howell made reasonably convincing twins; but given the contrast between Tennant's constant motion and Howell's stolid woodenness, one couldn't help feeling that the acting schools in Syracuse had outdone those of Ephesus.

  7. Unlike Doran with As You Like It, director Lynne Parker created a world for The Comedy of Errors that played strongly to the gifts of her leading actor. Setting the play in the 1930s, she took her inspiration primarily from classical Hollywood screwball comedies and films noirs. Ephesus emerged as a kind of Casablanca: an exotic Mediterranean setting populated by characters ranging from the upper-class English Antipholi of Tennant and Howell to the downmarket Freud of David Acton's Dr. Pinch, from Jack Chissick's wily Arab First Merchant to Nicholas Khan's mad Cossack Second Merchant. These characters were as much rooted in national clichés as Doran's Phoebe and Audrey were rooted in hackneyed images of gender. Unlike Doran's, however, Parker's company achieved a heightened production style that spoofed stock images instead of simply reproducing them.

  8. Only at its outset did the production evoke the darker side of its period, the fascism of Casablanca or the shadows of early films noirs. Egeon (the excellent Paul Greenwood) was deposited on the stage bound and blindfolded to face interrogation by Michael Thomas' Godfather-like Duke. A strong verse-speaker, Greenwood delivered a touching and angry account of Egeon's woeful life-story. With the subsequent entrance of Tennant's gangling, Bertie Wooster-ish Antipholus and his small, dapper Dromio (Ian Hughes in slapstick butler mode), however, the mood turned to a mounting hilarity never again broken by true seriousness. At times, one missed an exploration of the playtext's bleaker side. The plights of the abandoned Adriana (Emily Raymond) and the confused Luciana (Jacqueline Defferary) were given particularly short shrift. One dark and domineering, the other fair and mousy, neither woman emerged as a particularly involving or amusing character, and there was no exploration of the discourses of gender which helped to prevent that emergence.

  9. Tennant and Hughes went rather further in exposing the uncomfortable class dynamics of their relationship, the public-school Antipholus of Syracuse constantly assuming his own superiority over his considerably cannier servant. However, the brotherly comic bond between the two undermined any real sense of critique, while the over-the-top performance of Tom Smith as Dromio of Ephesus precluded sympathy with his howled protest against his master's brutal treatment. With its charming final reunions evading any profound questions about the nature of identity, this Comedy was pure farce.

  10. In fact, the production shared the limitations as well as the gifts of its leading actor. Like Tennant, it occasionally lacked technical restraint and often flagrantly overplayed in an effort to win laughs. Like Tennant, it seemed so eager to give pleasure that it was difficult not to like, and in its best moments proved both irresistible and intelligent. The double-act generated by the Syracusan Dromio's description of the kitchen wench Nell, in which Hughes offered at Tennant's prompting music-hall tributes to the various "countries" to be found in her huge body (III.ii.115), produced hysterical laughter. Still, by underlining the hyperbolic theatricality of national stereotypes it also mitigated against any temptation to read the production as racist. Tennant's courtship of Defferary's Luciana was laughable in its abortive effort at suavity, but it also foregrounded the gap between the Syracusan boy's easy assumption of male control and his actual vulnerability. A comparison between this production and Doran's reveals similar efforts to amuse and similar failings. While the latter sank to the level of its weakest components, here the gap between more and less well-graced actors did not impede the sense of an ensemble working together to "strive to please you every day" (TN V.i.404).

  11. Much more than pleasure was at stake in Steven Pimlott's Richard II, which opened at The Other Place in March. If David Tennant's ebullient performance in The Comedy of Errors hinted incidentally at the intellectual and political potential of the well-graced actor, Pimlott's cast brought that potential to the fore. Playing in the RSC's smallest space, Richard II was more intimate and more fiercely focused than any other production in the Summer Festival season.

  12. On entering the theatre, the audience sat confrontationally facing a whitewashed, almost bare stage adorned only by a golden chair, a wooden coffin and a grave-shaped mound of earth. Into this space spilled King Richard's court: nobles and sycophants clad in snappy contemporary suits of plum or grey; Bolingbroke (David Troughton) singled out by his quasi-Victorian coat and epaulettes; Queen Isabelle (the exquisite Catherine Walker) decked out in supermodel's bustier. As these figures took their seats around the room, Samuel West's King Richard entered and bolted the doors stage right, locking himself in with his court. Before donning the crown and purple jacket that signified his kingship, he perched on the edge of the coffin and informed the theatrical audience that he was "studying how I may compare / This prison where I live unto the world" (RII V.v.1-2). What followed was a searching exploration of Richard's kingship as prison, real and metaphysical, self-inflicted and enforced.

  13. With its constant use of open address to the audience, its clear references to contemporary culture and its clinical exposure of the political forces that shaped the play's characters, this was a highly Brechtian production. Pimlott openly manipulated the playtext; Richard's transplanted description of his "prison," for example, appeared four times, rather heavy-handedly assigned to Isabelle and Bolingbroke as well as to Richard himself. Still, this Richard was sharply text-focused, insistently engaging the play in a dialogue with our own society. In the Almeida Theatre production of Richard II with Ralph Fiennes, running concurrently at the Gainsborough Studios in London, the play had appeared as an exquisite museum piece concerned with the remote issue of divine right. Here, pitched insistently toward spectators cast as arbiters, it seemed a riveting, topical interrogation of the interplay between power, performance and personality. Even John of Gaunt's "Sceptred Isle" speech, as delivered by the excellent Alfred Burke, emerged as a dying man's last blow in an ongoing political struggle rather than as a lyrical encomium to a vanishing Eden.

  14. While many productions of Richard II reduce it to a combat between two antagonists surrounded by more or less indistinguishable acolytes, this one played to the audience's quest for comparisons by clearly delineating each member of the shifting English court through costumes--Northumberland's pinstripe suit set against his son's battle fatigues, Aumerle's flashy velvet jacket against his father's restrained frock coat did some of this work with economy and style. But well-graced acting did more. The contrast between Christopher Saul's slippery Northumberland, arrogant but toadying, and David Killick's decent York, vacillating with genuine anguish, was particularly telling. The latter inspired affection while the former inspired revulsion; but it was clear that the less appealing figure would prove the more powerful ally in a political struggle. Alexis Daniel was a superb Aumerle. Weak like his father and very much the self-indulgent son of privilege, he was also a warm-hearted man heartbroken by the fall of the adored royal cousin with whom he had a subtly homoerotic relationship. Set against him, Adam Levy's enthusiastically militaristic Harry Percy seemed a rather one-dimensional caricature of Shakespeare's eager young solider, but his Hitler-Youth-like antics spoke volumes about Bolingbroke's new regime.

  15. As the usurper himself, David Troughton gave a performance whose insistent politics initially seemed to neglect complexity altogether. Troughton is an actor of huge physical, technical and emotional power who sometimes overpowered the tiny arena of The Other Place. A barrel-chested career soldier, his Bolingbroke hectored the court and the theatrical audience as he might have hectored a line of unsatisfactory troupes on parade. He trumpeted the unassailable rightness of his cause in the early scenes with the same chilling assurance that later marked his summary execution of Bagot and Green. At one remarkable moment in the deposition scene, his steely gaze forced the theatrical audience to rise to their feet in a disconcerting demonstration of the theatrical mechanisms of fascism. Yet Troughton and Pimlott also granted Bolingbroke some subtler modes of appeal. The quietly eloquent motion with which he slipped a handful of English earth into his pocket on his banishment, the wry humour with which he greeted Northumberland's flattery and the growing sense of guilt and anxiety under the commanding exterior all worked to create some sympathy for him. Threatening to sway the audience in his favour, such touches made his totalitarianism even more disturbing.

  16. At first sight West's Richard--slight, boyish, a quicksilver ironist whose fragility was tempered by his patrician coolness--seemed diametrically opposed to Troughton's bulldozer of a Bolingbroke. Yet from the moments in the opening scene when his eyes darted watchfully around his court, it was clear that he was as shrewd a politician as his cousin. It was not weakness but the capacity for absolutism and violence he shared with Bolingbroke, evidenced in his physical attack on the dying John of Gaunt, that finally alienated his most vital supporters and broke his hold on power. Thereafter, the metamorphosis of West's characteristic tight-lipped smile from a self-congratulatory smirk into a self-mocking grimace marked Richard's journey, not only toward self-knowledge, but also toward a position from which he could relay that knowledge to the theatrical audience. West's Richard entered the deposition scene swathed in the English flag, wearing a floral wreath and whistling the national anthem: half a frail boy wrapped up against the elements and crowned with thorns, half a lord of misrule mocking Bolingbroke's assumption of kingship. Even as he stared, appalled, into the coffin that doubled as his mirror he retained his clinical detachment, diagnosing his own failings with the same wry irony that had mocked his courtiers in the play's early scenes. At last, enclosed in his coffin and robbed of his crown, he invited his spectators to recognize the entrapment of their identities within the prisons constructed by social position and to consider the nothingness of identity without such positioning. His subtlety and intellectual power finally swayed the balance of this spectator's sympathy away from Bolingbroke: not from the usurper toward the anointed king, but from an insatiably power-hungry mind toward one capable of exposing the contingency of power and of all human subjectivity.

  17. In its final moments Pimlott's Richard emphasized that contingency by dissolving the opposition it had set up between usurper and king. Perching on his murdered cousin's coffin, Bolingbroke took up Richard's opening words and began his own study of the prison into which he had so eagerly locked himself. The RSC's millennial project of staging the whole cycle of Shakespeare's history plays from Richard II to Richard III under the collective title of "This England" made it possible to follow Troughton's progress through that prison. In Michael Attenborough's Swan Theatre productions of Henry IV, Parts One and Two he played the conscience-stricken King to great effect. His massive frame slowly buckling under the weight of a crown it caused him physical agony to wear, Troughton's Henry retained Bolingbroke's all-consuming drive for power but constantly faced the terrible effects of his own victories. Occasionally Troughton's conception of the role was subtler than his execution, his explosive vowels and expressionistic gestures too large for the comparatively intimate space in which he played. But when, gasping for breath and huddled on the floor, he painfully ceded his crown to Hal (William Houston), the cumulative power of his performance and critique of self-destructive ambition was undeniable.

  18. The programming of the two parts of Henry IV alongside Richard II made it possible to watch all three plays over two or three days, with much of the Richard company reappearing in the Henrys. Yet Troughton's performance was the only one that seemed genuinely to follow a line through the parts of this history. Part of the RSC's policy in mounting "This England" has been to stage each play (or, in the case of Henry IV and Henry VI, each group of plays) with a different director; no blanket concept unifies the whole. This choice created discontinuities, to be sure, but I found these effective in their illumination of the parts played by directors and actors in producing the meanings of early modern playtexts.

  19. From the design onwards, Attenborough's and Pimlott's productions were a study in contrasts. Where Pimlott chose to stage Richard II in a clinical white box set and to clothe it in modern dress, Attenborough set both parts of Henry IV on a dark stage and dressed its characters in earth-toned, floor-length robes. Where Pimlott's actors pitched much of their discourse out to the theatrical audience, Attenborough's players used a naturalistic, interiorized performance style even in their moments of open address. Pimlott's production was a harsh exposition of the inextricable relationship between identity and social position; Attenborough's an elegaic exploration of a group of private individuals oddly distant from their brutal public world. Pimlott's production was distinguished by a quasi-marxist aesthetic that insisted on the social agenda of theatre and focused on actor-audience relations; Attenborough's presented a liberal humanist version of subjectivity and generally enforced a clear separation between spectators and actors. If I found that Henry IV 1 and 2 suffered by contrast with Richard, this was largely an index of my own feeling that the RSC could use a little more Brecht and a little less Stanislavski.

  20. Still, Attenborough's compelling Henry IV suffered from problems exposed, but not determined, by the comparison with Pimlott's Richard. These stemmed primarily from performance style, and may be demonstrated by a look at the most prominent performer after Troughton to appear in both productions. Adam Levy's Harry Percy was neither one of the more subtle nor one of the more effective performances in Richard II. His eager Hotspur in Henry IV, Part One was a more human figure, his obsession with honour treated with tenderness instead of derision. Yet his very humanity finally worked against him. While speakers endlessly trumpeted his larger-than-life virtues and vices, Levy's Hotspur remained resolutely small-scale: a gung-ho captain of school sports rather than a dazzling military hero, a callow youth rather than a catastrophically impulsive aristocrat. Whereas his appearance in Richard II at least seemed designed to debunk Harry Percy's pretensions to glory, in Henry IV, Part One Levy's performance missed both the heroic and the deconstructive marks. Hence, in Henry IV, Part Two the excellent Nancy Carroll was hard pressed to deliver convincingly Lady Percy's tribute to her dead husband; it described a "miracle of men" (II.iii.32) that bore no resemblance to the bland boy of the earlier play.

  21. The production's reluctance either to critique Shakespeare's characters or to allow them to escape the restrained bounds of naturalism was apparent elsewhere, too. In both parts the world of Eastcheap and the Boar's Head was subdued, only vaguely distinguishable from King Henry's lachrymose court. In Part One this deprived the aristocratic scenes of any effective foil; in the melancholic Part Two, it was more effective, allowing the two worlds to meld into a single vision of the usurper's diseased kingdom. Still, both productions were at their best when sympathetic, almost reverential characterizations were balanced by hints of mockery. Danielle Tilley's ghostlike Doll Tearsheet, touchingly enamoured of Falstaff, was over-sentimentalized: part tart-with-a-heart, part Ophelia via Mary Tyrone. But Robert Portal as Poins provided a welcome note of easy-going enjoyment, while Benjamin Whitrow's bluff Justice Shallow and Peter Copley's wonderfully dotty Silence all but stole Henry IV, Part Two. Copley's quavering singing was a comic highlight of Attenborough's productions; laughable but loveable, infirm but still ironic, he proved that delight in broad playing is not necessarily incommensurate with naturalism.

  22. In Henry IV, Part One, Desmond Barrit seemed particularly to suffer from the overridingly sober mood, for while Falstaff's melancholy and his affection for Hal were poignantly rendered a sense of joie de vivre was often conspicuously lacking. His imprecation against honour before Shrewsbury was particularly low-key, rueful and almost self-hating. It emptied the speech of its potential as social intervention, neither exposing the fat knight's selfishness nor using that selfishness to deflate Hotspur's much-vaunted honour. In the second part of Henry IV Barrit's Falstaff, his face pocked with sores and his body decaying, became a more grotesque, more disturbing but also more exuberant figure. Thrusting himself in the way of Clifford Rose's insufferably prim Lord Chief Justice, he mocked the pretensions of the powerful, but his arrogant treatment of Shallow exposed his own ruthless snobbery. This latter Falstaff enjoyed his jokes and shared them with the theatrical audience without denuding them of their dark potential. "A pox of this gout! Or a gout of this pox!" (2HIV I.ii.243-244) was delivered with a twinkle of satisfaction at his own wit even as it conceded wit's inability to exorcise physical pain. Only in the play's final scene did Barrit return to a more pathetic view of Falstaff, his voice quivering piteously at the new King's rejection and his invitation of Shallow to dinner suggesting only a very abortive attempt at recovery. Perhaps it was indicative that Barrit was at his best in the scenes where he acted independently from William Houston. A strange tendency to deliver random lines in a hoarse and uncalled-for stage whisper notwithstanding, Houston is a very proficient actor. In Part One he gave an remarkable rendering of Hal's soliloquy, "I know you all," allowing the audience a glimpse into the soul of a young man who was very much his father's son: cold and watchful yet wearied by his own relentless manipulations. Edward Hall's production of Henry V, in which Houston would star as the King, was the only Shakespeare production of the RSC season I was unable to see; but I have little doubt that Houston's reading of the "Upon the King" speech proved similarly effective. Indeed, through both parts of Henry IV, he seemed to be working backward from it, presenting an almost puritanical figure already burdened by impending kingship. His approach paid dividends in Hal's confrontations with his equally joyless father. In the tavern scenes, however, Houston's Prince appeared a little too much the earnest mediaeval graduate student performing statistical analyses of working-class alcohol consumption. He remained distant from his compeers on stage, thus condemning Barrit's Falstaff to an early acceptance of impending rejection and robbing their final confrontation of emotional power. Worse, his commensurate detachment from the theatrical audience excluded the possibility of that struggle between actors for the affections of spectators that was such an effective feature of Pimlott's Richard II. Houston's Hal neither sought to change nor seemed in any way changed by the reactions of his auditors. His performance exemplified the shortcomings of a production that, while showcasing the work of many well-graced actors, sealed them off from the audience in a manner that severely limited their power.

  23. At this point, the biases of my own analysis begin to trouble me, and I must state openly the tacit comparisons that inform the foregoing judgements of Attenborough's Henry IV, Parts One and Two. These include comparisons between actors who featured in the productions and actors who did not, and, more insidiously, comparisons between actual performances and my own armchair images of Shakespearean 'characters.' In the above paragraphs I criticize actors Levy, Barrit, Houston for failing to replicate my ideas about the figures they played. I stifle the part played by my own subjectivity in this process with references to unrealized textual potentialities. And I fail even to mention the imaginary alternative casts conjured up during the intervals of these productions. Such flights of spectatorial fantasy are not generally acknowledged in scholarly reviews, but it seems important to recognize their role in the process of performance criticism: a role brought home to me by Michael Boyd's RST Romeo and Juliet.

  24. Among Shakespearean playtexts, none faces a greater weight of spectatorial preconception in performance than Romeo and Juliet. Everything about Michael Boyd's production spoke his determination to rupture the cultural stereotypes that surround the play. Boyd's previous RSC work has given evidence of his complex and often eccentric readings of Shakespearean playtexts, and Romeo and Juliet was no exception. Its costumes were Elizabethan in line but eclectic in detail. Tom Piper's set consisted of two undulating grey blocks separated by a brightly-lit corridor, creating a space variously compared to a multistory car-park and to the female reproductive system. Generally flooded by cold lighting, Boyd's and Piper's stage provided a ferociously unromantic setting for this most famous of romantic tragedies. The production opened with a chair thrown violently from the wings, inaugurating a violent brawl between Capulets and Montagues. Blood from the face of a Montague servant splashed one grey wall with a stain that remained visible throughout the evening. When David Tennant's Romeo eventually parted the fray to deliver the prologue, his description of his city as "fair Verona" (Prologue.2) sounded ironic at best. There was little "fair" about this world, and Romeo's initial appearance to prophecy his own "death-mark'd love" (Prologue 9) foreshadowed the doom-laden quality that would characterize it throughout. Capulet's party was frightening rather than jovial, populated by gate-crashers in animal masks and dancers whose movements were explicitly sexual. The fights that killed Mercutio (Adrian Schiller), Tybalt (Keith Dunphy) and Paris (Nicholas Khan) were short and brutal, Romeo's part in them reduced to swift and unchivalrous dagger thrusts. After death, the victims of these quarrels reappeared as ghosts, staring balefully down on those still numbered amongst the living. In the production's final moments, most of these appeared in plague masks, apparently trying to ward off a fate rapidly advancing on them all. The lovers were forced to lug one another into and out of a trap door in the stage floor that did duty for the Capulet vault, but they alone finally escaped the gathering gloom, emerging from their tomb to exit, white-clad, into the audience.

  25. Such iconoclastic, not to say perverse, staging choices produced a world that proved as inhospitable to Boyd's actors as to the characters they played. Few negotiated it successfully. Des McAleer was a strong and purposeful Friar Lawrence who merited the trust bestowed on him, leaving Juliet at last only when he understood her inalterable resolve to die with Romeo. Others matched their stark surroundings with performances that abounded in ideas but lacked detail. Ian Hogg's Capulet, often shouting so loudly as to be incomprehensible, began with edgy bonhommie but soon settled on a predictable note of patriarchal aggression. As a Scots Nurse Eileen McCallum belched, limped and sipped from a hip flask, but seemed more interested in these mannerisms than in the figures around her. Adrian Schiller bestowed occasional bursts of manic energy on his wiry, sunglass-wearing Mercutio, throwing himself on top of an unwilling Romeo in the Queen Mab speech. However, disengaged ennui rather than frustrated eroticism characterized the rest of his performance, and like the majority of the acting in this Romeo and Juliet he was upstaged rather than supported by his challenging environment.

  26. As Romeo and Juliet, on the other hand, David Tennant and Alexandra Gilbreath were as unconventional as Piper's setting. He is justly celebrated at Stratford as a comic actor; she is generally identified with more mature roles than that of Juliet. Both are powerful talents, hard-edged despite their charm. Both are capable of touching vulnerability, as her numb voice and his crumpled face on receiving the news of Romeo's banishment proved. Neither, however, looks a teenager ready for a doomed love affair, and at times both appeared uncharacteristically stiff in a production that fought sentimentality by fixing large physical and emotional gulfs between them. At their best, they developed a sweetly original rapport; their witty sparring on first meeting showed Romeo and Juliet forerunning Benedick and Beatrice, and their playing of the balcony scene was refreshingly funny. On the whole, it was not their unconventionality but more mundane limitations that jarred. Gilbreath had to push her low and rather matronly voice to encompass "Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds" (III.ii.1), while Tennant shouted unnecessarily throughout his scene in Friar Lawrence's cell (III.iii). Neither brought out the rich lyricism of the playtext, and like the production as a whole both performances were unsteady.

  27. Almost inevitably, such shortcomings opened both actors to charges of 'miscasting.' Many reviewers compared Tennant and Gilbreath unfavourably with other actors or with idealized images of Shakespeare's hero and heroine. However, another look at their performances mitigates such judgements. Gilbreath may not have seemed a convincing adolescent, but she powerfully conveyed the wit and intelligence minimized by more overtly girlish performances. Shaped by the actor's comic instincts, Tennant's Romeo was both witty and ridiculous: an intelligent, complicated, sometimes obnoxious young man who began as a sulky proto-Hamlet and progressed through dizzy infatuation to a final angry despair. At their best, Tennant and Gilbreath fulfilled Boyd's revisionary agenda, using their own particular gifts to bring out aspects of Romeo and Juliet often neglected by more evenly successful portrayals. Burying their work under the blanket term 'miscasting' keeps those aspects of Shakespeare's playtext hidden behind the normative discourses of our culture. Is a funny, flawed Romeo really unShakespearean? Mightn't a fiercely willful, mature Juliet illuminate at least some aspects of the playtext? Moreover, don't these choices facilitate a feminist reading of the text, deconstructing sentimentality to expose masculine failings and feminine rebellion? Were these performances 'wrong,' or did they deserve to be read on their own terms?

  28. The surfeit of ideas in Michael Boyd's Romeo and Juliet finally made it almost as unsuccessful an entertainment as a dearth of ideas made Gregory Doran's As You Like It. At the same time, it shared with Pimlott's brilliant Richard II a determination to rupture normative perceptions of a 'classic' playtext, and thus proved more challenging though less effective than Parker's Comedy of Errors or Attenborough's Henry IV, Parts One and Two. Most of all, the parts played in it by two well-graced actors, performing below their best, emphasized the equivocal nature of comparison as a tool in the spectatorial production of performance meanings. My experience of Tennant's and Gilbreath's work elsewhere enabled me to recognize the comparative weakness of their acting in Romeo and Juliet; but my admiration for them prompted me to value what was intelligent and unusual in their performances. This was not an office I was willing to perform for William Houston's Hal or Anthony Howell's Orlando; but with regard to these performances I must confess that I could have made comparisons that would have redounded more to their favour. The Prologue to Romeo and Juliet informs us that the Capulet and Montague households were "both alike in dignity" (Prologue1). It is next to impossible for theatrical spectators to form opinions of performances without granting more dignity to some productions, some actors or some interpretations than to others. If performance critics stopped distinguishing between well-graced actors and their opposite numbers, their task would become impracticable. Since comparisons often tell us more about our own perspectives as spectators than about the merits of productions per se, it is important that reviewers recognize their dialogical involvement in the production of performance meanings. After all, when York compares Bolingbroke and Richard to players, the final effect of his simile depends on the difference between the citizen spectators he describes and the theatrical audience who hears his words. If the former group finds Richard a tedious actor, many of the latter have spent hours transfixed by his every movement. Comparisons are vital to the politics of theatre; the multivalent meanings produced by the contrasting perspectives of different spectators are even more so.

Works Cited


Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2000-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS)