The Armory in NYC (on Park and 66th) was new to me. It’s an imposing if ugly building with unimaginative use of brickwork and little sense of outward style… it’s an Armory. Inside it’s huge and cavernous with dark wood paneling and creaky floors.
Then there is the Drill Hall which is enormous. You could easily fit a regiment in there and still have room for an audience.
It was the Drill Hall that was the unlikely home for the six weeks residency by the Royal Shakespeare Company, England’s premier theatrical troop which arrived at the height of the NY summer. Part of the Lincoln Center Festival, the company brought along five of the Bard’s greatest works: King Lear, As You Like It, Romeo and Juliet, The Winter’s Tale, and Julius Caesar. And the way the RSC used the Drill Hall was amazing. The company brought in its own pre-fab theatre, designed to resemble the home theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, and seating around 1000. The space felt intimate, boasted all the technological wizardry in the world including video, trap doors, astonishing lighting, and entrances and exits for the actors throughout the audience which gave the viewer the sensation of actually being in the play. It was the perfect setting for great theatre.
These were real ensemble performances as the members of the company appeared in literally every play, sometimes playing more than one part. So Lear became Caesar, Brutus became Romeo, Touchstone became a servant. Rosalind was transformed into Goneril, and on and on. It gave the Company an energy, a bounce, a confidence that reached the audience and drew us into the action. But what was most extraordinary— and I have this experience every time—was how Shakespeare still commands our attention with drama, poetry and philosophy that can only be described as contemporary. We are still the same creatures that he spied in Elizabethan times, 4 centuries ago.
I “discovered” Shakespeare in my early 30’s after the usual immersion at school. How can a 14-year old make sense of Othello or Hamlet? The plays were frankly lost on me. My discovery came in the form of a birthday present of tickets for Henry IV, Part I & II, and Henry V… all on the same day, starting at 10:00 a.m. and ending after 11:00 pm. Wow… I really had to be persuaded to take this gift seriously and arrived at the theatre with the greatest reluctance. What happened when the curtain finally rose and there was Prince Hal and Falstaff, changed my life and has made the Bard a regular source of study and theatre going, with the occasional movie… (I love the Olivier “Richard III” and “Hamlet,” and “Much Ado about Nothing” with Kenneth Branagh.) The Henrys were such a visceral experience, the performances so powerful, that all these years later I can still visualize the scenes, still hear the audience shouting at some of the actors because they too had become part of the drama.
In New York, the RSC tapped into the profound heart of the dramas.
Julius Caesar was a revelation. Consider this intriguing fact: Caesar’s part is tiny; he has only 5% of the lines, yet… he is the eponymous hero. It is said that Shakespeare deliberately structured and titled the play this way to avoid competition among the other leading characters who actually dominate the action; Cassius, Marc Antony, and Brutus (the largest role with 28% of the play devoted to him). But he couldn’t very well call the play “Brutus” without detracting from Marc Antony, Cassius, and Caesar!
Although not the title character, Brutus is one of the great theatrical creations who irresistibly becomes the focus of our attention. Virtuous and idealistic, he faces his demons, loves his wife, applies music and poetry as a balm for his soul. And he philosophizes memorably:
There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which taken at the flood, leads to fortune:
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
He is also an honorable man—which attribute, of course, becomes fodder for Marc Antony’s great oratorical moment. That speech, “Friends, Romans, Countrymen,” screamed at the crowd to quieten them after Caesar’s assassination, is one of the most powerful political orations of all time. Contemporary sessions of the English Parliament and the famous Prime Minister’s Question Time, which find the English at their most rhetorically aggressive, have nothing on the skill and manipulative device of Antony’s speech. His use of repetition, with “honorable man” twisted ironically each time into something despicable, mesmerizes and finally sways the crowd. His false modesty—“I am no orator, as Brutus is “—and his coup de theatre—
displaying the still bleeding body of Caesar—succeed in finally winning over the crowd which then turns against the conspirators. We all know it’s brilliant, but hearing it again in the theatre comes as a vivid and welcome reminder.
The RSC’s King Lear took us to a different world—the spiritual journey of an old man, from king with all the brute force and privilege of that position, to dotage with a childlike wonder at nature and acceptance of death. The play is dissonant, it doesn’t attempt a resolution. Unlike As You Like It where all the plot strands are finally tied in a happy bow, you are left at the end of Lear with questions. Why didn’t Edgar (Poor Tom) reveal himself to Gloucester as his son with a big reconciliation? What on earth happens to Gloucester at the end? Does Kent leave to kill himself? Who is left as Lear’s heir, Edgar or Albany? And the final cadence is so inconclusive. Spoken by Edgar:
The weight of this sad time we must obey
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much nor live so long
My wife Virginia and I managed to see three out of the five plays on offer and our last was As You Like It.
We were not so familiar with this one so I bought a copy of the play and we did a bit of prior study. My word, that was worth it! Curiously, the tragedies are much easier to understand than the comedies. With the latter you have a myriad of characters and plot lines tripping over themselves, like the Marriage of Figaro on steroids.
The strangest character, for me at least, is Touchstone, who is one of Shakespeare’s fools. I read and reread his lines and I just could not make sense of them. Where’s the humour? What on earth does it mean? Sort of like watching the Marx Brothers with the sound off. Then I read an article about a well-known British comedian who was engaged to do the part and had exactly the same response. He decided that the only way to do it was with a great deal of physical humor and that’s pretty much how the RSC did it too. When all the characters decamp to the forest of Arden, Touchstone appears covered in brambles, sticks, and leaves. His famous “how you construct an argument” set piece was done with huge amounts of mime. And ………….it was really funny.
The play’s dominant lead is Rosalind—the largest part that Shakespeare ever wrote for a woman, and yes……….you have to qualify that because women were not allowed to act on stage. So in his time, the audience would have seen a boy actor playing a woman who is then disguised as a boy called Ganymede for the scenes in the forest………all very complicated (on a par with the gender-switching character Octavian in the opera Der Rosenkavalier). I read about Katherine Hepburn playing the role in NYC in the 30s—which must have been something! She would certainly have been very determined and I can just hear that voice. In the early 1960s, Vanessa Redgrave, another strong woman, just took off in the role—particularly when she experiences nature and the attraction of the forest for the first time. The RSC’s Rosalind was all passion and strength with lots of ambiguous sexuality. Polymorphously perverse I suppose!
The character who really captivated the audience (for me at least) was Jaques (pronounced for some reason as Jake-Qees) who is described in the cast list as a “Melancholy Philosophy.” His part is mordantly humorous but he does not play the fool. Instead, he offers quiet insights into our lives. At the end of the play, he decides against a return to court and remains in nature instead. He has one of the most famous speeches in Shakespeare, one that speaks to all our lives.
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the canon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.