Fairy Tales from Afar: The Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre of Great Britain come to New York

Both the National Theater of Great Britain and the Royal Shakespeare Company were present in New York this summer. I saw two of the RSC’s efforts as well as the National’s smash production of War Horse. All three plays have a fairytale atmosphere wherein humanism and magic work together. The productions captured this with varying degrees of success.

In the first RSC mounting I saw, a priest prepared to conduct the marriage ceremony by wielding a burning cross. A maid was tortured and beaten until she confessed where her mistress fled. In a brutal combat scene, blood was smeared on the stage floor and scenery. Which play of Shakespeare’s contains these atrocities? Titus Andronicus? Well, according to the Royal Shakespeare Company, it’s that well-known drama about the horrors of tyranny, As You Like It. Romance? Comedy? Forget it. That stuff’s secondary. Which is why this production’s Orlando (Jonjo O’Neill) and Rosalind (Katy Stephens) are such a charmless, unalluring pair. Director Michael Boyd (who is also, god help us, the artistic director of the RSC) stages an all out war against the script and the audience. Set and costume designer Tom Piper provides a floor and backdrop of whitewashed boards for both the court and the Forest of Arden scenes. We know it’s the Forest when lots of mud gets tracked on the stage. (The supposedly enticing Arden is here portrayed as charmless and filthy as the country cottage in Bruce Robinson’s’s 1987 movie Withnail and I.)

There is no joy in Mudville: Rosalind (Katy Stephens) and company try to manufacture some anyway. (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)

Boyd allows only the clown Touchstone (Richard Katz, sporting a straitjacket and a Bozo-ish haircut) to attempt to be funny (he fails), and he keeps the clown’s big speeches intact for some reason, never a good idea. (The Act V monologs on the “seventh cause,” extremely tiresome and largely incomprehensible to an audience, are presented in their entirety. Yawn.)

Boyd’s choices throughout are unfathomable. Why the burning cross at Touchstone and Audrey’s first thwarted attempt at marriage? Because a burning swastika would have been in bad taste? In the performance I saw, the incredibly violent wrestling match between the Duke’s wrestler Charles (David Carr) and Orlando resulted in a genuine injury: When O’Neill smashed Carr’s head into the back wall, a smear of actual blood resulted and stayed there until intermission. In an ensuing scene, Carr had to appear with a bloody, bandaged forehead, even though he was no longer playing the wrestler.

There are moments when Shakespeare’s dialog shines through the miseries imposed by Boyd, and the first glimpse of Jaques is funny (Forbes Masson looks like a Goth version of the late comedian Sam Kinison), but then he starts singing in a dirge-like countertenor, and we’re back in Dullsville. As You Like It has never been so unlikeable.

The RSC visited New York this summer in an unprecedented five-week engagement. Co-presented by Lincoln Center and the Park Avenue Armory (in association with Ohio State University), the performances took place within a replica of the RSC’s Stratford-upon-Avon theater constructed entirely within the Armory’s drill hall. It sounds impressive, but the reality was that the seats were uncomfortable and fully half allowed only a partial view of the stage. This was possibly a boon to seeing As You Like It.

I thus dreaded seeing their take on The Winter’s Tale. Often considered one of Shakespeare’s “problem” plays, if taken in fairytale terms, there’s actually no problem at all. A horrifying curse of madness descends on the Sicilian court when King Leontes becomes convinced (against all evidence) that his pregnant wife Hermione is having an affair with his best friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia. The king’s desertion of rational thought causes him to plot Polixenes’ death, to imprison his wife, and to bring appalling destruction upon his kingdom. His wife dies soon after childbirth, he commands that the infant be abandoned to the wilds, and his older son and heir dies of grief over the chaos sown by the King’s madness. Leontes awakens to his senses, but too late, and the devastated court and kingdom essentially slumber in sorrowful stupor for 16 years.

The awakening occurs with the arrival of the abandoned infant, Perdita, now a young woman, raised in ignorance of her origins by a Bohemian shepherd and his family. Perdita has affianced herself to Polixenes’ son, Florizel. But Polixenes is appalled his son has become smitten with a lowly shepherdess, and the couple flees to Sicilia, where all is made right. That “all is made right” doesn’t begin to describe the miracles Shakespeare provides in this beautiful, wondrous play, one of the great humanistic works of art.

Hermione (Kelly Hunter) celebrates her friends and family before the cataclysm. (Photo: Alessandro Evangelista)

Director David Farr’s magnificent staging of the first three acts of The Winter’s Tale was a relief and a joy. Set and costume designer Jon Bausor created an opulent, Regency-era dining room, sumptuously set for a holiday feast, complete with shimmering Christmas crackers at each place setting. Flanking the table and dominating the set were two large and imposing bookcases stocked with innumerable volumes. A large chandelier, a clear hemisphere with wrought iron details, hung over the table.

The opening scene is one of happy and wealthy domesticity as the pregnant Hermione (Kelly Hunter) looks upon her family and guests. Things go horribly awry when Leontes (Greg Hicks) becomes struck with a jealous psychosis and commands his friend and subject Camillo (John Mackay) to kill Polixenes (Darrell D’Silva). Camillo, rather than obey his King’s mad commands, warns Polixenes and flees with him.

As Leontes, Hicks gives a towering performance, bringing a Lear-like intensity to the mad certainty that rules his actions. (In fact, Hicks also played Lear at this summer’s RSC New York residency, a performance I wish I’d been able to see.) Hicks emanates intelligence as an actor, which makes his raging passion even more horrific. He brooks no opposition to his mad conviction, however rationally spoken. Leontes is persuaded to have the Oracle of Apollo consulted, but he dismisses the Oracle’s judgment when it condemns him. The entire court looks on in horror as he pronounces Hermione, brought from her prison after giving birth, guilty. As Hermione, Hunter at first hides her blood-and-birth-stained clothes, but as the horror of her situation grows, the makeshift covering she’s holding drops, and we understand her pain completely as we see the evidence of what she’s endured, forced to give birth unattended in a prison cell, only to have the child immediately taken away from her.

King Leontes (Greg Hicks) begins to find his life amiss. (Photo: Alessandro Evangelista)

Farr and his cast handle all of this magnificently. Leonte’s insanity is appalling and awful, and there’s nothing anyone can do. Even the most capable member of his court, Paulina (the rich-voiced Noma Dumezweni) is unable to move the King. Helplessness is writ large on the face of every actor, and the tension is electric. When Leontes comprehends his own madness (too late, after the death of his wife and son, and after the banishment of his infant daughter), he staggers under the weight of his actions, and opening the upstage doors, he lets in a roaring gale. The bookcases fall over, disgorging their volumes, and the chandelier crashes onto the floor. Leonte’s kingdom is wrecked physically as well as spiritually and morally. Farr viscerally, brilliantly brings home the damage done.

When the scene shifts to the island where Antigonus (David Rubin),Paulina’s husband, has brought the infant Perdita to be abandoned, Shakespeare’s famous bear, the instrument of Antigonus’ death, appears, a spectacular, large puppet (designed by Steve Tiplady), created out of the pages of the fallen books. Leontes abandoned rationality, and the very instruments of rational thought, unbound and loosed, gather to revenge themselves on Leontes’ friend. It’s a stunning moment.

Other productions of The Winter’s Tale I’ve seen have handled the Sicilian Court scenes well (never as well as this production) and then have stumbled in the Bohemian scenes of Act IV. The pastoral interludes are presented as either boring business that must be gotten through, or else as manic party scenes that throw off the rhythms of the play. (A Cal Shakes production I saw unsuccessfully staged Bohemia as a wild 1960s “happening.”)

This time out, I never experienced a greater disparity between the quality of the first three acts and Act IV. I’d like to believe it was a different director altogether who staged the Bohemia scenes, because the only way to account for the defiling mess presented here is that Farr was struck with a madness almost as great as Leontes’. His Florizel (the handsome Tunji Kasim) and Perdita (the regrettably unappealing Samantha Young) have no chemistry and worse, no facility with the language. The rascal clown Autolycus (Brian Doherty) is charmless, and the design falters, too. The costumes suddenly contain contemporary elements (e.g., athletic shoes) for no good reason, and the fallen bookcases and books are left in heaps on the floor. But the worst is when the dance of shepherds and shepherdesses is presented. The actors wear open books as headpieces, and are clothed in arrangements of loose-leaf pages so that they look like shaggy blobs. Also, they all have large, red-tipped penises that they manipulate as part of the dance. Yes, you read that right.

The play does get back on track for Act V, but the disasters of Act IV linger as you puzzle out what the director could have been thinking, and the work of the cast in Act V is unfairly tainted by the preceding travesties. Farr and his cast are masterful dealing with the tragic and fairytale elements of this great play, but brief as the comic and pastoral sequences are, his disastrous handling of them is so unsettling that the genius of the rest the production is ultimately undercut. If Act IV had merely been boring, you could better overlook its failure, but because Farr’s conception and direction are both inept and so confoundedly wrongheaded, you can’t quite forgive the damage it does to this otherwise spectacular mounting.

Over at a much more comfortable venue, Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beamont Theater (where both The Light in the Piazza and the recent revival of South Pacific played), Britain’s National Theatre has exported their production of War Horse to our shores. I was actually hesitant to see this adaptation of a young adult novel (by Michael Morpurgo) where the horses are life-sized puppets. I feared it might be gimmicky and sentimental. I could not have been more wrong.

The soldier Müller (Peter Hermann) calms a terrified horse. (Photo: Paul Kolnik)

War Horse, adapted by Nick Stafford and directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, is miraculous—emotionally overwhelming from its very first scenes. The horses, designed and built by the Handspring Puppet Company and choreographed by Toby Sedgwick, are abstract and constructivistic in design and no attempt is made to hide the puppeteers manipulating them. But the animals are so extraordinarily lifelike in movement, you believe wholeheartedly in their existence.

The story is simple: In a Devonshire farming village, a drunken father foolishly bids on and purchases a thoroughbred horse, spending desperately needed money on something unneeded. His 16-year old son falls in love with and worships the horse. When the horse is drafted for cavalry service in the trenches of World War I, the boy lies about his age and enlists so that he can find the horse again.

That’s basically the entire story, but that brief description doesn’t do justice to the show’s reverberations, undercurrents, and themes. Encapsulating the technological innovations that brought such overwhelming destruction to the War to End All Wars and opposing them to the old-fashioned and outmoded idea of a cavalry horse (and by symbolic extension, to the soldiers themselves) resonates with both beauty and horror. Of what use is a horse against machine guns, barbed wire, and noxious gas, the play asks. And of course, it also asks of what use is a man against such deadly machinery. But the show also understands that use and value are two different things, and while either horse or man may be ineffectual, their value is limitless and incalculable.

The entire experience is as elemental and entrancing as Carole Ballard’s majestic 1983 film of The Black Stallion. (Steven Spielberg is set to direct the film adaptation of War Horse, and although its very good material for him, he will have his work cut out equaling the theatrical experience.) The entire cast is magnificent, but I would single out the work of four performers. Seth Numrich as Albert Narracott, the boy in love with a horse, possesses both a gentleness and a steely resolve. Alyssa Bresnahan as the boy’s longsuffering mother, owns a voice that echoes with earthy richness and timeless wisdom. Peter Hermann, familiar from his many appearances on Law & Order: SVU (he is also married to Mariska Hargitay), plays the sympathetic German soldier Friedrich Müller, who cares for both the horse and a lost French girl who reminds him of his daughter, with a touching and lucid simplicity. And as Emilie, that lost French girl, the young Madeleine Rose Yen gives an astonishing performance. Her French is impeccable, she projects to the rafters, and she radiates an aura of feral terror as the girl separated from her mother, roaming the shattered countryside.

Adrian Sutton’s music and Christopher Shutt’s sound design are also integral to the experience, as are Rae Smith’s sets, costumes, and projected drawings. (It’s a glorious irony that a show which is tangentially about the dehumanizing effects of technology employs technology so masterfully.)

War Horse is almost unbearably beautiful and heartbreaking, a fairy tale both simple and epic.

Emilie (Madeleine Rose Yen) finds a moment of peace in No Man's Land. (Photo: Paul Kolnik)

The RSC productions have closed. War Horse continues its open-ended run at Lincoln Center in the Vivian Beaumont Theater. An American tour of the play is scheduled to begin in Los Angeles next summer, coming to San Francisco’s Curran Theatre in August of 2012. For tickets and other information, go to http://www.warhorseonbroadway.com/. For tickets in San Francisco go to http://bestofbroadway-sf.com/war-horse-san-francisco.


5 comments on “Fairy Tales from Afar: The Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre of Great Britain come to New York

  1. McAustin says:

    Joe, thank you for your reviews. You blog is always so insightful and well written!

  2. amanda shubert says:

    This is terrific, Joe.

  3. joemader says:

    Thanks so much, Amanda. Glad you enjoyed it.

  4. katy stephens says:

    Hi Joe
    Just read your blog. It is our job at the Royal Shakespeare Company to push the possible boundaries and interpretations of all of Shakespeare’s work. I am sad that ‘As You Like’ It was not to your taste. And ‘taste’ is the word.
    I am horrified by your (bracketed) slur on Michael Boyd. Michael is a well loved and deeply respected director, Just because HIS take on the play was not to your TASTE does not mean you have the right to suggest he should not be the Artistic Director. It would be fun to see you do the job. Thankfully I’m sure you never will.
    Charmingly yours
    Katy Stephens x (Rosalind)

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