I know many of us have been watching the National Theatre Live performances being streamed on YouTube. I am enormously grateful to the NT for allowing us to see productions which we would otherwise have not had a chance to see. However, it has brought to my mind a complaint I have had in mind for a long time now, about the contemporary approach to staging Shakespeare.
I was really looking forward to the NT production of Twelfth Night but I have to confess I turned it off after the first ten minutes or so – unheard of for a bard lover like me. I wasn’t impressed from the start, but it was when Orsino and the disguised Viola were made to deliver their lines while shadow boxing that I gave up. It is a short scene but fraught with subtle ambiguity, completely obscured by ridiculous and unnecessary ‘business’. It confirmed mysuspicion that modern theatre directors are so terrified that audiences will not be able to understand the words that they have come to the conclusion that the best way of dealing with the problem is to speak them very fast and very loudly, while peforming irrelevant actions in the hope of distracting the audience’s attention.
I did stick with the performance of Antony and Cleopatra to the end, but even there I felt the same attitude to the verse was in evidence. Sophie Okenedo as ‘the serpent of old Nile’ sounded mostly angry and aggressive. Where was the subtle seductress who kept Antony in thrall for years? ‘Nor custom stale her infinite variety’ as Enobarbus says. Her stock in trade is the sudden changes in tone that keep Antony wrong-footed and desperate to please her. In this production I found myself wondering what he saw in her. Ralph Fiennes convinced as a strong man gone to seed through too much good living, but gave me no glimpse of the clever and wily Antony who won the Roman crowd round with his ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen’ speech in Julius Caesar. Again, too much of his internal struggle between honour and lust was lost in the rush to get the words out before the audience got bored.
It is so unnecessary. Everything we need is there in the lines. It was not a capacity for speed and action that made Shakespeare ‘the immortal bard’. It was the beauty and subtlety of his poetry. I know some of the words are unfamiliar to modern ears, but if spoken with real comprehension by the actors any difficulty can be overcome. I have produced Shakespeare’s plays with teenagers and I know that by patiently unravelling the meaning of the text with the actors the lines can them be made completely comprehensible to the audience. We need to be able to listen to the poetry, not have it obscured by noise and irrelevant action.
I often think poor Shakespeare must be turning in his grave. He made it perfectly clear in Hamlet’s speech to the players how he wanted his work to be performed. ‘Speak the speech, I pray you, as I prononced it to you, trippingly on the tongue. But if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had as lief the town crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand – thus – but use all gently…. Suit the action to the words, the words to the action, with this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature …’ I am afraid that many of our current actors and directors have opted for the Town Crier approach!