It's so easy to brush up your Shakespeare

Sometimes it's sheer laziness that keeps us from seeing the Royal Shakespeare Company's productions at their very best - in their Stratford-upon-Avon HQ - as it's only an hour's drive for us, less time than it takes us to drive to London. But I did catch up with the RSC's new "Taming of the Shrew," directed by Conall Morrison, at the Novello in London, and their new "Othello," directed by Kathryn Hunter, at the Oxford Playhouse.


The Shrew was the more interesting, with a mixture of modern dress for the framing device and period costume for the play-within-the-play, and a production owing much to recent ideas of physical theatre. The acrobatics were sometimes breathtaking, as when two players on either side of a third, each holding one of his hands, did simultaneous somersaults from a standing position. But the play left the usual filthy taste in the mouth, with Michelle Gomez, an even feistier-than-usual Kate, completely and unequivocally broken at the end. Even the suggestion that the entire play is Christopher Sly's sexual fantasy did nothing to mitigate the misogyny; and it made me feel that it is probably useless to try to update this play. It's best appreciated (perhaps can only be tolerated) as a late 16th century take on the role of women.

It's an attitude, though, that doesn't go away. I was surprised once when a (male) friend I had taken to see "Turandot" told me how much he hated the end of Puccini's 1923 (yes! it's a work written at the highpoint of Modernism) opera, which finishes with the ice maiden, Turandot, renouncing her proud independence for love of a man. "It's horrid," my friend said, "to see such a strong woman broken." I'd always thought of Turandot as the villain of the piece, and this was a startling thought.

Much as I wanted to like Ms Hunter's "Othello," I found it impossible to feel much at all for Patrice Naiambana's Othello or Michael Gold's Iago. There was some perfectly gratuitous business in the first half, involving a singer in blackface and a blackface Golliwog doll, which utterly failed to demonstrate either Othello's companions's racism - or their lack of it, as it was hard to tell which was intended. The production is energetic - though not so full of beans as the RSC Shrew - and that's about the sum of praise I can bestow upon it. But it does make you think how very lucky we in Britland are - every week of the year, there is almost always an ambitious Shakespeare production being performed somewhere accessible.

Accessible contemporary opera is a bit less common. I was present on the evening of St Valentine's day at the genuinely (as opposed to the clichéed) long-awaited London première at the Linbury Studio (of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden) of George Benjamin's "Into the Little Hill" with libretto by Martin Crimp. We got through a splendidly sinister/comic performance of the first of the two 40-minute operas in the programme, Harrison Birtwistle's "Down by the Greenwood Side," with its funny-macabre libretto by Michael Nyman; and Mr. Benjamin's piece, a take on the Pied Piper tale, with the composer himself conducting, began.

Susan Bickley and Claire Booth were just finishing one of their intriguing duets (they each play several characters, and the genius of the music is that you have no difficulty telling when they have changed roles), when the power failed in the entire auditorium. After a bit, ushers led the audience to safety - and free drinks, in the perfectly well-lit bar. I wish I could say that we lingered for the hour and a half or so until, the staff failing to mend the electrical fault, Mr. Benjamin said à la Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, "Let's do the show right here" in the bar; and gave a concert performance, with the audience seated on the floor and the performers leaning on the raised bar. I'm afraid we opted instead to keep our dinner reservation at a very good nearby Turkish restaurant (Sofra, for those interested), and only read about the show-must-go-on phenomenon in the next day's paper.

Again, we did catch up, and again, it was at the Oxford Playhouse (where we saw several of the Linbury-refugees who were eating at adjoining tables at Sofra). It's a wonderful piece, the London Sinfonietta's playing was terrific, and the two singers were splendid. The most impressive aspect of the work is its economy. Every phrase of music and of text does its work, and the delineation of characters using such slender means only makes the overall experience richer. You feel really frightened when the child is missing from its bed and has obviously gone into the little hill with the rats - yet there's no representation and no change of setting: aided by nothing but the music and text, the entire action is taking place in your own imagination.

March 1, 2009 3:21 PM | | Comments (0)

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