I’ve long been a fan of Ian McKellan – the serious actor, not the Gandalf or X-Men character (though I thought he was great as Gandalf) – and when I heard he was performing King Lear at the small Minerva Theatre in Chichester, I made sure to get tickets. As often with the theater in the UK, this involves taking out a membership to be able to buy tickets before they go on sale to the general public. (We have memberships currently at four theaters, alas.) I was able to get front row seats for this short run of about five weeks.
Expectations have a great influence on how one appreciates an event, and one is at times disappointed, because the ideas one has in the mind exceed the actual event. This was not the case with this production of King Lear.
The theater itself is one of the key elements to this production. Small, with just 280 seats, and with a thrust stage, there are only seven rows, so even if you’re in the last row you’re not far from the stage. This means the actors don’t have to project their voices very much; their tone can be more conversational. Watching this performance from the front row was like having King Lear in one’s living room; albeit a large living room. The stage itself was a circle, about 25 feet in diameter, and about a foot high; this meant that the actors were at the same level as the audience. Covered with a red carpet for the first part of the performance, it was a stark chalky white for the second part.
Lear opens with a brief scene where Gloucester is talking with Kent, and introduces his bastard son Edmund. It then switches to the scene that sets everything in motion, where Lear splits up his kingdom among his three daughters. The characters in modern dress enter with pomp and music, all of them singing in praise for the great King Lear. The wall behind the stage opens to show a huge painting of Lear, and a lectern is installed, where the king speaks. A large desk brought onto the stage for him to use dividing his lands on a map (with scissors).
I first saw the current Royal Shakespeare Company production of Titus Andronicus in July. (Here’s my review.) Last night, I saw the production for the fourth time. Of the three Shakespeare plays currently running in Stratford – the other two are Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra) – this is by far the most interesting, and the most accomplished.
This is a staggering production, with extraordinary acting, notably by David Troughton (Titus), Martin Huston (Saturnius), and Hannah Morrish (Lavinia). Last night, I was in the front row, center, by the vom on the right, and had a close up of some of Lavinia’s most moving moments in the play, such as when she is begging Tamora to keep her sons from raping her, then begging to be killed. Or when she comes back on stage and Titus sees her for the first time. Both when speaking and when totally silent (Lavinia has her tongue cut out), Morrish is very impressive.
While all three of these actors are excellent, I think I have been most impressed by Stefan Adegbola as Aaron. He is a conniving, sweet-talking man, yet, in his two big speeches near the end – when captured by the Goths, then when sentenced to a cruel and painful death – shows that he is evil incarnate. I would love to see Adegbola in more roles at the RSC; or in almost anything. He is able to perfectly represent this complex character with grace and charm, but can be as evil as sin when needed.
But Titus is a difficult play. It’s violent and bloody, excessively so. The RSC plays up the gory elements of the production, and, as such, has suffered commercially. The last two times I saw the play – last night, and last Wednesday – the entire upper circle was closed off, and there were plenty of empty seats on the sides in the stalls, and in the circle. They’re running this show at maybe two thirds capacity, which, to be honest, is a failure.
Last Wednesday, I got to talking with two American tourists who were sitting behind me. They had read in the Guardian that people were fainting or getting sick at every performance. It’s almost as though that element of the review may have attracted them to the play, but this also repels a lot of people. In four performances, I’ve seen a few people walk out, but I haven’t seen anyone faint or vomit. People may gasp and cringe, but to be honest, the 2013 production in the Swan Theatre had more of an effect on audiences. (I know there have been fainters and vomiters, however, at some performances, just not as many as the press would lead you to believe.)
It’s hard to know how to best approach this play. It’s much tamer than an episode of Game of Thrones, but seeing (fake) blood is very different when it’s in person, especially if you’re close to the stage. You get drawn into a production like this, and your suspension of disbelief makes it seem more real than when you see it on television. Would more people see this play if it were less graphically bloody? Would it still be Titus Andronicus if it weren’t so bloody? After all, aside from the run-of-the-mill killings, one woman is raped, her tongue cut out and her hands cut off; her father sacrifices his hand to ransom his two sons, but that hand, and the heads of the sons, are returned to him in scorn; and Titus kills Tamora’s two sons, cooks them in a pie, and serves them up in a macabre final feast that sees four dead. It’s hard to tone that down.
I consider Titus Andronicus to be one of Shakespeare’s strongest plays; it’s not up there with Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, and Macbeth, but it’s a powerful revenge tragedy that examines the escalation of violence until it reaches a paroxysm. It’s over the top, and if you know the play, you are prepared. But most people don’t go to the theater expecting that kind of violence.
Titus Andronicus is an important part of the Shakespearean canon, but is a difficult play. With excellent actors and direction, it can be very powerful, but it is also very risky. I think the RSC has done a great job with this production, and, while I understand why some people don’t want to see it, it remains on of Shakespeare’s strongest statements about the perils of revenge and its escalation.
(I was so inspired by the 2013 production of Titus Andronicus, that I chose Titus as the name for a cat I got later that year. Here’s a photo of him.)
There’s something about Titus Andronicus that attracts me. Not the bloody parts, though it is the bloodiest Shakespeare play. But the complex schemes of revenge that weave in and out of the play. Tamora, the Goth queen, wants revenge on Titus for having killed one of her sons. When Tamora’s sons rape and maim Lavinia, Titus’s daughter, he wants revenge on them, and their mother. And Aaron wants revenge on everyone.
It’s easy to just watch this play and be mesmerized by the violence; it’s a sort of Game of Thrones on stage. And the language isn’t the best of the Shakespeare plays; he didn’t even write it all, but collaborated, most likely, with George Peele. It’s one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, and it fits in a context of the very popular revenge tragedy of the time. To a society where torture and public execution were commonplace, a couple dozen violent deaths in a play was no biggie.
As the RSC says on its website:
TITUS ANDRONICUS Shakespeare’s bloodiest play
CONTAINS SMOKE EFFECTS, GUNSHOTS, SEXUAL CONTENT, WITH VIOLENT AND POTENTIALLY DISTRESSING SCENES.
The current production is directed by Blanche McIntyre, who directed The Two Noble Kinsmen at the Swan Theatre last year, a production that got (in my opinion unjustified) poor reviews. With David Troughton as Titus Andronicus, Nia Gwynne as Tamora, Martin Huston as Saturninus, and Hannah Morrish, this is a very strong production. Yet it’s not without its faults.
To start with, the show belongs to David Troughton. Having seen him as the brilliantly pathetic Gloucester in last year’s King Lear, I was looking forward to seeing him in a lead role. And he commands the stage, from beginning to end. When he returns to Rome, he looks a bit farcical, in his Salvation Army-type uniform, and with his right hand shaking, he is visibly old and past his prime. As the play progresses, he becomes more and more Learish – yes, I would love to see Troughton play that part – as his despair becomes single-pointed folly aiming at revenge. His performance is memorable, and no matter what you think of the rest of the play, it’s worth seeing him in this role.
For this production is far from perfect. It opens with a somewhat pointless West Side Story type dance routine, pitting protesters against riot police, which doesn’t add anything to the story, and is quickly forgotten. (This is a modern dress production, unlike the two other Rome plays, which are full toga.) McIntyre oscillates between very serious scenes, full of pathos, and some farcical elements that seem like ideas that someone sketched out on a napkin, and decided to keep. For example, Titus in a Beckettian cardboard box when Tamora is pretending to be “Revenge,” in the second half of the play, just seems ludicrous. As does the “Deliveroma” guy on a bicycle, who brings a note to the emperor, along with pigeons that are in a hot-pack on his back. Or the scene when Aaron, Chiron, and Demetrius are sunning themselves on an imaginary beach. There’s even an attempt at comedy, when Titus asks a man in the front row if he has any money, or someone a couple of rows back, by one of the voms, if he has a pen and paper. This is not a comedy, and it’s a bit confusing to see scenes that attempt to portray it as such.
Even some of the more poignant scenes miss the mark. The scene when Marcus Andronicus discovers his niece Lavinia after she has been raped and maimed is one that should be very moving. It starts out that way; she comes onstage with her panties and pants around her ankles, her body covered with blood, and her part in the scene is exemplary. But Patrick Drury, who plays Marcus, speaks like an actor in a pantomime, and breaks the magic.
In spite of these reservations, this is an excellent production. Martin Huston as Saturnius shows the same cutthroat brilliance as he did as Cassius in Julius Caesar. Hannah Morrish as Lavinia is excellent throughout, first as a sort of Ivanka Trump character, then, after she is assaulted, even mute she is very expressive. Nia Gwynne’s Tamora is full of guile and wit.
And Stefan Adegbola as Aaron… What a wonderful performance. The role of Aaron is an extraordinary one. As a proto-Iago, Aaron is not subtle; there are no handkerchiefs, but direct suggestions about how Chiron and Demetrius can find Lavinia and rape her. His hatred for the world is obvious, notably in his final lines (which occur just before Lucius’s lines that end the play):
O, why should wrath be mute, and fury dumb?
I am no baby, I, that with base prayers
I should repent the evils I have done:
Ten thousand worse than ever yet I did
Would I perform, if I might have my will;
If one good deed in all my life I did,
I do repent it from my very soul.
And then there’s the blood… The RSC does go out of its way to highlight the bloody nature of this play, and the violence is a bit excessive. But it doesn’t have the shock factor that the 2013 production had when Rose Reynolds as Lavinia came on stage for the first time after she was assaulted. From my review in 2013, after seeing the production a second time:
“But the star of this production is Rose Reynolds, whose portrayal of Lavinia — Titus’ daughter, who’s hands and tongue are lopped off — is breathtaking. Having already seen the production once, I was prepared for the moment when Lavinia’s wounds are seen for the first time. She lies huddled in the center of the stage, her back to the audience, then slowly rises and turns in silence to face the spectators, and her uncle, Marcus Andronicus, standing downstage.
“At this moment, Lavinia opens her mouth and blood flows down her chin, and she stands there helpless. Some gasps break the silence in the audience at this point. This is a moment of utter despair for Lavinia, and Reynolds plays this perfectly. From this point on in the play, the way Reynolds walks, moves, holds her body is different; she has become this tortured creature.”
That, for me, was the defining moment of the 2013 production, and nothing in the current staging comes close.
The play is a bit long – just under three hours, plus a twenty minute intermission – and the second half, which features more of the farcical moments, feels weaker than the first. But overall it’s excellent, and the audience last night gave the cast – particularly David Troughton – rapturous applause. This is a fine production, just short of excellent, and should not be missed, either on stage or in the cinema.
On Wednesday night BBC Two broadcast Rupert Goold’s film of King Charles III with a script by Mike Bartlett. It is on BBC iPlayer for the next four weeks, and if you watch nothing else in that time, make time for this. It’s a wonderful 90 minutes of beautifully achieved, bold, provocative, innovative, smartly subversive television, with a glorious performance from the late Tim Pigott-Smith at its heart. The plaudits have poured in, as I have little doubt they will continue to, and among the thoughtful press responses perhaps the most thoughtful is that by Mark Lawson for the Guardian. (Perhaps the most bizarre is ‘The BBC’s King Charles III inevitably contained plenty of howlers’ for — surprise! — the Mail, although treating the fantasy as a docu-drama is some kind of compliment.) Apart from expressing close-to-boundless enthusiasm for the film, I want here just to add a couple of thoughts about its status as television.
I watched this last night, and it’s the best thing I’ve seen on television in a long time. It’s a 90-minute adaptation of a play about when the current queen dies and Charles becomes king. It’s full of Shakespearean intrigue, and the language is a nod to Shakespeare, with blank verse, iambic pentameter, and some odd word order at times. But interestingly, it took me a while to notice the language; I think many viewers won’t even spot it, they’ll just think it’s a bit weird. (You know, the royals speaking funny…)
This article, by John Wyver, who produces films and filmed theater productions, examines how subversive this production is. And when you think about it, he’s right; there are many layers around this film, from the subject matter to the language, to the context of it being produced and broadcast on the BBC.
If you’re in the UK, watch this: it’s on the iPlayer for a few weeks.
To publish a new edition of Shakespeare’s complete plays and poems is a massive and expensive undertaking. A team of general editors must be assembled, together with those who will edit the individual works. Experts in many disciplines will be needed, from textual criticism to theatrical history; musical and visual resources, maps, and other useful information assembled; and the whole apparatus made available in both print and digital formats. The year 2016 brought us new complete editions from Oxford University Press and W. W. Norton, the two great rivals in the lucrative student textbook market.
The complete Shakespeare market is presumably quite large; college and university students studying English have to buy one, and that market is probably very lucrative, hence the regular (every couple of decades) new editions.
In planning one-volume editions, many decisions must be made about the end-product and its format. In 1986 the Oxford Shakespeare appeared in a handsome folio of 1,432 pages, set in double columns, the standard format for most editions of the complete works since the First Folio. (It was subsequently issued as a reduced-size paperback.) In 1997 Norton preferred a smaller page, set in a single column, but now running to 3,420 pages, printed on thin paper, with attendant print-through. The new edition retains this format, but at 3,500 pages including appendices, it is an awkward book to use. If you open it in the middle it resembles two inverted halves of a melon; open at the beginning it curves like a rugby ball; either way it is hard to read or annotate the text in the gutter, as printers call the space between facing pages of an open book. The New Oxford has imitated Norton by choosing a smaller format than the first edition, also set in single column, slightly shorter (only 3,382 pages) but even heavier, weighing in at 5.8 kg, compared to the Norton’s 5.4 kg. We may wonder for whom these editions are intended. The paper in both editions is unsuitable for libraries, easily torn or frayed.
What I find interesting is how every complete Shakespeare edition is a bad book. It’s too big, too heavy, unwieldy, hard to read, and the paper generally sucks. Yet publishers won’t change the one-volume approach because it sells. I would much prefer a three-volume complete Shakespeare: one volume for comedies, one for tragedies, and one for histories (and the “problem plays” or others that don’t fit in those categories could be added to one of the there). It would have all the advantages of completeness, but at roughly 1,000 pages per volume, they would be easier to use. Actually, Norton sells their edition like that; they seem to be the only one. They have a four-volume edition, with comedies, tragedies, histories, and romances. And they even sell an “Essential Plays / The Sonnets” edition.
So why don’t publishers make their Shakespeare editions like that? Most likely because their sales would fall. Say you’re doing a Shakespeare course in university, and you happen to only be studying Hamlet and King Lear; well, you don’t need all three or four volumes, you’d just buy the Tragedies volume. Textbook publishing is often about forcing students to pay a lot more than they should for things they don’t need, but have to buy because they are assigned.
While the main work of a Shakespeare edition is the critical and textual element, I doubt that’s what leads teachers to prescribe one edition over the other. Yet this article discusses some very important points about the approach taken in each of these editions. What’s included, and what’s excluded – especially for plays where there are multiple, conflicting versions, such as Hamlet and King Lear – makes a big difference.
I haven’t seen the new Norton edition, but the previous edition was horrible; you could sneeze and tear a page. I have the new Oxford edition, which is much more readable, but its approach, explained in the article, raises questions.
My choice? I buy individual editions of the plays. I still have a couple of complete editions, because they do contain interesting critical texts, but the individual editions are easier to read, and generally contain more notes.
“Chances are, unless you’re an English grad student or engaged in a lifelong swoon over Shakespeare, you haven’t read or seen ‘Timon of Athens.’ Or even heard of it. Heck, my job is covering Shakespeare and I’ve never seen it. So the Folger Theatre’s mission at the moment — staging a modern-dress version of this obscure work, often consigned to the filing cabinet of classical drama labeled ‘deeply flawed’ — begins as strikingly esoteric.
But it also strikes me as marvelously vital. Because in our age, the canon of classical works to which audiences are exposed shrinks by the year. Oh, the old favorites aren’t going anywhere. Romeos and Hamlets will continue to wax poetic before our eyes — although, methinks, in smaller and smaller venues — and costume shops will be backed up into the future with orders for Macbeth’s tunics and Desdemona’s nightgowns.
Yet the fact that many theater companies seem to believe they can fulfill their classical mandates with only the most widely known plays, or worse, sacrifice more challenging plays to the popular-entertainment demands of the box office, makes me wonder whether these are signs of a deeper problem. That is to ask, are Americans too intellectually lazy to fully appreciate Shakespeare anymore?”
I’ve certainly heard of Timon of Athens, and I’ve seen the BBC production from the 1980s. While it’s often described as a minor Shakespeare play, I found it fascinating, and I’m looking forward to when my local theater (the Royal Shakespeare Company) produces it. Because I’ve seen a lot of Hamlets and Years, but I’m interested in seeing the others.
Of course, I’m the exception; I’m a true Shakespeare buff. I moved to Stratford-upon-Avon in part because of the theater.
But this article makes it sound like the United States is especially handicapped as far as Shakespeare is concerned. That’s not the case here in the UK, with two major theater companies (the RSC, and the Globe in London) producing Shakespeare plays all year round. With those plays filmed, broadcast to cinemas, then released on DVD and Blu-Ray.
Lots of Shakespeare plays are produced in the UK; I guess it makes sense, since he’s from here. But Americans do seem to be piling on the dumb lately, “translating” texts into modern English, for example.
It’s a shame. It isn’t easy to understand Shakespeare, but it’s quite rewarding. I take pleasure in knowing that at any time in the UK, there are lots of excellent Shakespeare productions; such as this list of seven Shakespeare plays this year. And it doesn’t even include this production of King Lear, which I’ll be seeing from the front row in the fall. I guess that’s because it’s sold out; and it’s Ian McKellan in the title role.
Together with a new production of Julius Caesar, the RSC has started a run of Antony and Cleopatra. Much of the same cast is present in both plays (and will also be in Titus Andronicus, later this year), and the title roles are played by Anthony Byrne and Josette Simon. Using many of the same set elements and wardrobe, these two plays are of a piece, both in design and direction. Here, Iqbal Khan, who brought us 2015’s visceral Othello, takes the helm.
As much as I loved Julius Caesar, I was bored by Antony and Cleopatra. The first part of the production seemed aimless, with no solid direction in the plot. It was very hard to follow, in part because of Josette Simon’s strange delivery, but also because the various actors seemed to be trying to do very different things. Simon seemed to be acting like someone in a silent movie, but with words. Her speech was stilted, her gestures overdone, and it wasn’t clear whether this was meant to portray Cleopatra as somehow crazy, or whether it was just a mannered way of performing.
Anthony Byrne, however, was the star of the show. I’ve seen him for several years in the history plays, and recently as a wonderful Kent in last year’s King Lear, and it’s great to see this actor in a starring role. Byrne, while not young, is an actor with quite a future. He can be powerful and sensitive, with excellent movement, and he commands attention. His only problem is that his booming voice sometimes dominates the other actors, who project much less.
(Photos: Helen Maybanks for the RSC.)
The second part of this long production – three hours, plus a twenty minute intermission – is a bit more focused, but the struggles between Antony and Octavius Caesar seem trivial. Things are confusing, and Octavius Caesar, played by Ben Allen, is unconvincing, and doesn’t seem like a leader, but more like an angry child.
Andrew Woodall’s Enobarbus is one of the highlights of the show. I felt his Julius Caesar was a bit over the top, but here he is more restrained. His cockney accent may not have been necessary, but he projects more power in this play than he did in Julius Caesar.
The sets and lighting were magnificent, far more interesting than in Julius Caesar, but the beginning of the production was marred by a VERY LOUD, uninteresting dance piece. I don’t know why, but RSC productions use this technique often, and this type of dance number generally adds nothing to the production. The music doesn’t need to be that loud; the theater is quite small.
The ending, where Cleopatra has herself bitten by an asp, falls flat. Josette Simon’s over-the-top acting and the way she manipulates the small rubber snake just aren’t believable. This seems to be a trend at some RSC productions recently. Even some excellent productions – such as the 2015 Othello, or last year’s King Lear – drop the ball in the climactic scene.
In the end, this is a beautiful production, but it is muddled by trying to do too much, and by Josette Simon’s odd acting. I’ll see it again, to see if I was wrong, or to see if the production tightens up, but this is one of the more disappointing Shakespeare plays I’ve seen at the RSC. I don’t expect every one of their Shakespeare productions to be excellent, and this one made me feel the way I did seeing last year’s Cymbeline.
Julius Caesar holds a special place in my heart. It was the first Shakespeare play I read, back in high school, and its many memorable lines ignited my love for Shakespeare’s language. I’ve been looking forward to seeing it at the Royal Shakespeare Company, as part of the current Rome season (together with Antony and Cleopatra), and the production I saw was wonderful. I saw a preview performance on March 16, and I can’t help but think that the RSC should have had a performance the day before – the Ides of March – but did not have one.
Julius Caesar is about politics, ambition, honor, and the consequences of taking radical actions. You’re probably aware that the title character doesn’t live to the end of the play; in some ways, this work could be entitled Marcus Brutus, but Caesar was certainly the more famous man.
The play opens in a stark, empty set, Roman with influences from Albert Speer, where there are some steps, columns, and lions toward the back of the stage. The RSC has gone full toga here; this is no modern dress production, transported to some setting where one needs to imagine how a modern Caesar would reflect the original. This is Rome, and the production embraces the antique. All the men wear identical togas; clean, crisp, white trimmed with scarlet.
(Photos: Helen Maybanks for the RSC.)
Brutus is a well-respected Roman, and Cassius, played by the excellent Martin Hutson, starts suggesting that Rome would be better off without Caesar, who has just returned from a war with Pompey. In a show of humility, the Roman people – offstage – have offered Caesar the crown of emperor, but he refuses three times, only to accept.
Brutus, admirably played by Alex Waldmann, warms to the idea, and before long launches the conspiracy. The comings and goings of the conspirators build the tension, and their plans takes hold.
Earlier in the play, a soothsayer had warned Caesar to “Beware the ides of March,” and just before Caesar was due to go to the Senate, his wife, having dreamt of his death, tries to keep him home. But Caesar heads out on that fateful day.
The famous murder scene is one of the tensest scenes I’ve seen at the RSC. The combination of set and lighting make it a harsh murder, and, while there’s not a lot of blood, there’s enough so the killers can wash their hands in it, and stain their togas.
After the intermission comes Mark Antony’s famous speech, which begins with “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.” Standing on a small platform in the center of the stage, surrounded by a surprising number of Romans – most of the cast, plus what seems like a gaggle of extras – James Corrigan performs one of the best scenes I have ever seen at the RSC. He is impassioned and truculent, reminding that, “Brutus is an honorable man,” and he plays the crowd like a cheap fiddle.
The remainder of the play is less intense, as the men are seen at war, and Brutus and Cassius have a bit of a falling out. With the conspirators on one side, and Mark Antony and Octavius on the other, war is immanent, and the battle scenes are thrilling, the ending tragic, as several of the conspirators choose death in honor over death at the hands of their enemies.
The triumvirate of Brutus, Cassius, and Mark Antony – respectively played by Alex Waldmann, Martin Hutson, and James Corrigan – make up a stellar cast for this production. I felt that Caesar, played by Andrew Woodall, was a bit too much of a loudmouth, spitting as he spoke, and r-r-r-olling his Rs, which may have been a way of marking him as somehow different from the others. The majority of the cast is made up of RSC first-timers, who all acquit their roles with ease and grace.
It’s hard not to see this play and think of politics, either in the US or the UK, with Trump on one side, Brexit on the other. But that’s the beauty of Julius Caesar; it holds a message for all time, to be interpreted according to the current political climate. But Angus Jackson’s production, staying purely in its Roman guise, takes no sides, allowing spectators to make their own transpositions, if they wish.
This was a beautiful production, with creative lighting, and, while there was just the single set in the first half, the set morphed a bit in the second part giving the stage a very different tone. The two key scenes in the middle of the play are among the best theater I’ve seen at the RSC, and the overall production is powerful. I hope to see this play again several times during its run.
The only negative was one brief moment near the end of the play that was so shocking that much of the audience gasped in surprise. This is something that is not in Shakespeare’s text, and that I feel should not be done on stage, but I will say no more so as not to spoil anything.
Projections as part of a theatrical production are not new, but they seem to be coming of age. The Royal Shakespeare’s recent production of The Tempest used some interesting projections to highlight its stage set and characters, though the play would have been excellent without them, and not everyone in the theater could see them.
Another approach is that taken by 59 Productions in their adaption of Paul Auster’s novel City of Glass at HOME Manchester (and soon to be at the Lyric Hammersmith in London). Here, the projections are an integral part of the production, providing a multitude of sets in front of which the characters interact.
City of Glass is the first novel in Auster’s New York Trilogy. It’s a sort of metaphysical noir tale, where Daniel Quinn receives a phone call one evening, which is a wrong number. He’s intrigued by this, and when someone calls back and asks if this is the Paul Auster Detective Agency, he goes along. He gets drawn into an odd case where a strange man fears that his father is going to kill him.
(Photos: Jonathan Keenan)
(I wish the theater had some production photos that show the entire stage and the projections, because they really are clever; the photos above don’t really do justice to this unique element of the production. )
A voice over narrates the parts in between the dialog, giving the production the tone of a film noir, and the stage changes from scene to scene, through a clever use of projections. In the first scene, Quinn is in his two-room apartment, and this set serves for the entire production. Different elements are projected on the walls in different scenes, showing where the action takes place. There is also Peter Stillman’s apartment, a diner, Grand Central Station, the street in front of a hotel, and an alleyway, among others. At no time do the projections seem fake; they blend into the background. There are a couple of scenes where screens descend so projections can be made closer to the front of the stage, but the rest of the play is all performed in this simple set. All this is accompanied by a creative use of music to set moods and move the plot along.
Adapted from Auster’s novel, and from the graphic novel adaptation of it, this production highlights the visual elements of the story, but it’s not a story that adapts well to the stage. It’s full of meta-fictional references (to Paul Auster himself, who appears as a character, to Don Quixote and the book-within-a-book of that novel, and more), and it can be confusing to those who haven’t read the text. In addition, the denouement of the story, which works well on the page, fizzles a bit on stage.
Nevertheless, this is a thrilling production, brought to life by a small team of excellent actors (including two actors playing the role of Daniel Quinn). The technical element does stand out, but in service to the text, and the fast pace (1:45, with no intermission, that sped by) makes this a very enjoyable production. I can almost excuse the let-down of the ending having enjoyed the journey so much.
It’s interesting to go to the theater with no expectations. I knew that Snow in Midsummer was a Chinese play adapted from a classic story, but I knew nothing of the plot, and had no idea what the RSC was going to present. Productions at the RSC’s smaller Swan Theatre tend to be a bit out of the ordinary. Some are by Shakespeare’s contemporaries – Marlowe, Jonson, etc. – and others are contemporary. Some are highly dramatic and others are rousing comedies.
Snow in Midsummer is “the first production in our Chinese Translations Project, a cultural exchange bringing Chinese classics to a modern western audience.” The RSC has developed a partnership with China, working together on translating all of Shakespeare’s plays (not that they haven’t been translated into Mandarin Chinese before), and performing some of them in China. At the same time, the RSC will be presenting a number of Chinese works in the UK. This play was originally titled Dou E Yuan (???), or The Injustice to Dou E, and was written by Guan Hangqing during the Yuan dynasty (13th century CE); this modern version was adapted by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig.
Dou Yi was executed for a murder she did not commit, and vows that if she is innocent, a drought will hit her native town, and it will snow in midsummer. The play opens with her on stage – presumably before her execution – then some of the people in the town are seen discussing the drought. The plot slowly takes form, as we see a woman, Tianyun, who comes to the town to buy the local factories. She meets Handsome Zhang who runs the factories and wants to sell them to leave and travel the world with his lover, Rocket Wu. When Handsome proposes to Rocket, Tianyun’s daughter Fei Fei tries to stop them, because of the bad omen of proposing during Ghost Month.
(Photos by Ikin Yum for the RSC.)
Fei Fei has dreams of playing in the snow, and she wakes up with characters scratched on her arm: the name of Dou Yi. Tianyun starts asking questions, and finds that Dou Yi had murdered Zhang’s father, and was executed for this murder. Rocket later has chest pains when they are on the way to the factory, and it turns out that he had had a heart transplant. We later learn that the heart came not from a victim of a car accident, as Handsome had told Rocket, but from Dou Yi.
Okay, this is getting a bit complicated, and this is only the first half of the play. I won’t say any more about the plot – I wouldn’t want to spoil everything – but it turns out that there are connections between several of these characters that aren’t obvious at first.
The complicated plot drags a bit during the first half of the play, and, in the second half, a long flashback – which took me a while to see as a flashback – clears up some of the mystery. The true killer of Zhang’s father is revealed, as is Dou Yi’s relation to the other characters, and the end of the play turns out to be a bit Shakespearean.
I’m fairly familiar with classical Chinese literature, having studied a bit of Chinese, and none of the themes surprised me. I don’t, however, have enough knowledge of Chinese superstitions, which play a big role in the play (and which Tianyun mentions a number of times early on). So there’s a lot of Chinese culture that I didn’t pick up on in this production; I can imagine that those with no knowledge of Chinese literature would be even more at sea. In addition, the combination of old and new is at times jarring, but at times quite appropriate. For example, while some see the drought as caused by some sort of sprits, others talk of global warming.
At a brisk two hours – with an intermission – the play moves ahead fairly quickly, and most of the scenes are fairly short, helping to keep things going. Justin Audibert’s direction tends toward the flashy, with a couple of dance/march numbers, a lot of bright, flashing lights, and some fairly loud music at times. (And, as a sign warns at the entrance to the theater, gunshots, strong language, and distressing scenes.) The production is dragged down a bit by some acting that isn’t up to the RSC’s standards; some of the cast overact, and others just don’t have the chops. The main characters are all excellent, though Katie Leung’s Scottish accent is a bit jarring, and Colin Ryan, as Handsome Zhang, seemed as though he wants to soliloquize Hamlet at times.
Katie Leung is arguably the star of the play. Her scenes both as the living Dou Yi and her ghost hold the play together. The long scene when she is sentenced to death then executed has a bit too much Joan of Arc, and her speech before she was shot by firing squad could have been a bit less wordy; it was hard to follow, and said too much.
This was an entertaining play in spite of my criticisms, and it’s a shame to see theater-goers don’t really approve of the RSC’s diversification; the theater was only about 2/3 full – this is the smaller Swan theater, with 460 seats – and the RSC has been promoting this play with deeply discounted tickets in an attempt to fill the house. (Yet the audience was quite appreciative at the end of the performance.) It’s like the recent production of The Two Noble Kinsmen, which suffered the same fate, though the reviews for Snow in Midsummer are generally better. The RSC needs to get its core audience – which is mainly people in or near the Stratford area – to take more chances on unfamiliar plays. I don’t know how they can do this; perhaps a season ticket system, or some sort of discount on tickets to regular attendees…
I look forward to more Chinese plays at the RSC, though I hope this Chinese project doesn’t prevent expanding the Swan’s offerings in other directions.