Portia's "You stand within his danger, do you not?", to Antonio
at his trial, is one of those marvellous, resonant Shakespearean lines which
defy improvement. The double meaning is obviously intended: the obsolete sense
of "danger" as "power, specifically sometimes due to debt or
obligation", overlapped, as the OED's history of the word shows,
with the modern meaning of "peril or liability to harm" from the
fifteenth century, and both nuances contribute to the line's effect. But Michael
Radford's screenplay for www.themerchantofvenicemovie.com
renders it as "You stand within his power"; a bit like making Caliban's
line into "This isle is full of sounds" or Mad Tom's into "Rats
and mice and such small animals": resonances go, and the striking is
reduced to the banal. Patronisingly so - is the original line really so obscure
that some lamebrain who has absentmindedly wandered in off the street is going
to have difficulty with it? I don't want to overlabour this point, but it
strikes me as emblematic of all that is wrong with the film. It's so intent
on dotting every i, underlining every point, making sure that every implication
is plonkingly spelt out, that any subtlety, any deviation from the PC - any
interest, in fact - is firmly obliterated. And, dear me, no humour must distract.
Launcelot Gobbo is just a plain, boring servant faithful to his young mistress,
his father just a slightly shortsighted old geezer; any idea that they might
just sometimes try to be funny might sidetrack us, you see. There's a lot
for the eye here, and that remarkable actor Al Pacino's Shylock is as distinguished
as the concept will allow. But any insights which might have emerged are firmly
smothered under the determination to be "accessible".
We've had disappointing Romeo and Juliets here over the last few years,
both professional (see my column in EMLS, January
2004) and student (January 2002). This
Lent Term's at the ADC gave grounds for more hope: it was the European Theatre
Group back from their annual Christmas vac tour, they who gave us such an
enjoyable Much Ado in this slot last year. There were some fair performances,
Capulet and Friar Laurence particularly; but they could hardly be seen because
the lighting plot was so terrible (was there never a second of daylight or
a properly lit home in the whole of Verona?): a symptom of one of those over-directed
student productions, confounded by its own anxiety to wring out every effect.
What sounded at first as if it was going to be a beautifully spoken Chorus
was drowned out after the first couple of lines by a deafening rock backing-track.
The Nurse's well-delivered account of Juliet's toddlerhood went for nothing
because exquisite young Lady Capulet was simultaneously getting ready for
the party, beginning by stripping down to the skimpiest of bra and panties
and suspenders, so who was listening? - Not me, for sure. Convincingly gawky
early-adolescent Juliet was suffered to fidget and gabble too much for the
words to achieve their full force, and nicely cynical Mercutio to achieve
the same non-effect by too resolute indulgence in those tiresome and overworked
pelvic thrusts. The idea of just chilling for a minute and letting the words
do the work doesn't seem to have occurred to this director. Some of the bits
of business seemed merely wilful: why, for example, should the young lovers'
first encounter have taken place in the Capulets' loo, which seemed to be
designed like a public convenience though in a private house, complete with
woman making up at a mirror on one side and guy sitting with trousers round
ankles, without benefit of partition, on the other - homage, presumably, to
the recent much publicised (and much obloquised) production of Verdi's Un
Ballo in Maschera at Covent Garden? Some sort of drugs reference? Search
me. Pity: there could have been the potential for a quite competent version
here, but it got lost somewhere along the way.
That same gawky Juliet, Lydia Wilson, turned up only a couple of weeks later
as a lively and personable (and far from gawky) Adriana in a lively and entertaining
Comedy of Errors for the Marlowe Society at the Arts: a fast, fun version,
full of nice comic performances, among which Richard Kelly's energetic Syracusan
Dromio, Sam Kitchener's just-camp-enough-without-being-OTT Angelo, and Hanna
Thomas's highly-sexed Courtesan particularly stay in the mind. The two Antipholi,
Max Bennett and Benjamin Deery, were so carefully cast and made up, and played
to one another so expertly, that for once one couldn't be sure straight off
which was coming and which was going. Resonant-voiced Arthur House brought
real pathos and real dignity to Egeon, so often just a cipher of a plot-motivator
but here given a proper personality. Laura Draper's eclectic mix of costumes,
comic policeman and 1920s parlourmaid alongside medieval alchemist and Tudor
courtiers, delighted the eye while emphasising the universality of the farcical
absurdity this comedy embodies. Especially effective was the contrast between
the sisters: the married Adriana a renaissance beauty, her little sister Luciana
(Holly Strickland) a sort of Rebecca Of Sunnybrook Farm in pink gingham pinafore
dress and pink-ribboned hair bunches - a winning just-adolescent whom her
big sister, so priggishly lectured on wifely duties from an etiquette book,
alternately spoiled and spanked until, in a carefully timed climax, she got
a convincing sexual awakening from the double of the brother-in-law she had
clearly always fancied. All part of the nicely judged rhythm of Laura Baggaley's
accomplished production, enhanced by Rebecca Applin's atmospheric music and
Simon Kenny's gnomically emblematic "sundial" set.
Regular readers will know that this fatuous fad for all-male Shakespeare
is a King Charles's Head of mine (see especially EMLS for September
2003). A feature in The Guardian on 24 January was headlined "'Surely
this is a bit poofy?': What's the appeal of all-male Shakespeare? Mark Ravenhill
finds out." But that standfirst lied, as such things generally do: Mr.
Ravenhill didn't "find out" anything at all, but just asked a few
directors why they were doing it, got no real answers, and came to no conclusions.
Not "poofiness", it seems to me, but pointlessness, is what is at
issue anyhow. The technique, I reiterate, has nothing to do with "authenticity",
which would mean prepubescent boys, not men - one director did, in fact, admit
to Ravenhill that he had "cast a young graduate as Viola ... the closest
we could get to the boy actor who would originally have played the part".
A friend who had seen that Twelfth Night assured me how good it was;
but, when I asked if it was better than it would have been with women in it,
and if so how, she had nothing to urge. So what, I ask again in hopeless tones,
is it all for? But, yet again, answer comes there none.
Talking of boys-as-women and such conventions, we all know, from Muriel
Bradbrook's classic 1935 Themes and Conventions of Elizabethan Tragedy
as well as from our own observation, how dependent all our early-modern dramatists
were on the conditioning of their audiences to accept that disguise is always
impenetrable and calumny always believed. We may think ourselves more sophisticated,
but in pretty well every television drama I've seen for years in which two
people are discussing a third, their subject will always be just within earshot,
standing listening on the stairs or (if a child - and it usually is) just
outside his bedroom door. And on countless occasions the denouement depends
on a would-be surprising, but by now horribly predictable, revelation of a
homosexual relationship: a pair of killers in a recent Agatha Christie turned
out by a TV adaptor's gift to be lesbians, for heaven's sake; and so did the
beautiful pathologist fancied by the Det-Supt. and the head of the archaeological
dig in one of February's episodes of Dalziel and Pascoe. And we're
all supposed to believe it, every time. The conventions may change, but the
principle remains the same.
Have you seen the Levis commercial, opening with an act-and-scene caption,
in which the abandonment of Bottom by his scared companions and his discovery
by the awakening Titania form the dialogue of a gangland/boy-meets-girl story
set in (I guess) South Central LA? Can't imagine how many pairs of Levi 501s
it can have sold, but I must say I found it altogether quite charming.
"Bold, immediate and full of energy, this is a production for those
who say they can't bear Shakespeare" (The Guardian, 17 January
2005, on Out of Joint's African promenade Macbeth). I'm sure it was
excellent: so why do I catch myself feeling, guiltily, that what I can't bear
are productions for those who say they can't bear Shakespeare?
Bradbrook, Muriel. Themes and Conventions of Renaissance Tragedy.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1935.