Review: And When He Falls ~ theatre notes

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Review: And When He Falls

I have an acquaintance to whom the mention of Shakespeare is as the red rag to the bull. Mention the "S" word and veins start throbbing his forehead and his eyes flash like traffic lights on the blink. Waving his copy of Das Kapital, spittle flying dangerously hither and yon, he raves of the oppression of the masses and of the sinister march of imperialism, of the Boots of the Establishment on the crushed necks of the Working Class, and so on and so on.

As one schooled in the mid-20th century radicalism of Jan Kott and thus believing that Shakespeare is a sly theatrical genius with subversion in the very marrow of his bones, this has always puzzled me. But maybe John Stanton has at last showed me why some people react with such class hatred to the Bard of Avon. If Shakespeare really were just the writer presented in And When He Falls, perhaps I would be out there waving a pitchfork with the best of them.

And When He Falls is like squinting through a glass darkly at the theatrical era conjured by Laurence Olivier. Or perhaps even further back, to Donald Wolfit. This Shakespeare is an English nationalistic icon, the dramatic historian of English imperial power. Stanton's mirror is fractured, so we only get little splinters of it, but it's full of nostalgia for the gargantuan performances that my father saw as a young man at Stratford-on-Avon, with Olivier pinning the disobedient audience with a gimlet eye, or even for that melodramatic extremity recalled in Ronald Harwood's brilliant remembrance of Wolfit, The Dresser.

Stanton's show is this Shakespeare dressed down for the Val Doonican generation, titbits of high culture dispensed with an avuncular air from an armchair.
It's a wholly Anglophilic piece, an exemplary piece of colonial art. Its real excuse is that it gives John Stanton - to give him his due, one of our best known and respected main stage actors - the opportunity to perform some of Shakespeare's great speeches.

Directed by his wife Jill Forster, Stanton recites a selection of passages from Shakespeare's History Plays - the St Crispin's Day speech from Henry V, for instance, or Richard II's marvellous meditation on the mortality of kings, as well as a couple of pieces from lesser characters, such as a panicked French sailor describing the destruction of the French fleet by the English longbowmen. Since the show is structured as a little history lesson on the Plantagenets, it's prefaced with a speech from Marlowe's Edward II.

The staging is simply a piano draped with a red cloth, a chair and a stool, and lighting that goes (unvaryingly) up and down on the dramatic bits. The direction follows the lighting: Stanton moves metronomically between piano and playing area, depending on whether he is being Simon Schama or Laurence Olivier. The composer Tony Gould sits behind the piano and tinkles a few notes underneath the language, barely enough to be called a soundscape, although whenever Stanton says "DEATH" or 'MURDER" the piano hammers out a ghoulish chord, just in case we missed the bloody bit.

Forster's direction permits Stanton to get away with some sheer ham. The show is a gallery of crude performance decisions, characterisation imagined as caricature. Edward II is a screaming queen, the Duke of York is a bluff northerner, Richard II a self-piting, fey aristocrat. And I don't think I have ever seen (outside a comedy, I mean) anything quite like Stanton's ssssssibilant Archbishop of Canterbury. I woke up briefly for Hotspur's speech, which had an emotional versimilitude, a spiteful rage, that the other speeches lacked. And before his rendition of Richard III turned into a pastiche of Ian McKellen's twistedly camp malevolence, I was drawn into it for similar reasons.

Perhaps it is simply my misfortune that the brilliant performances of many of the same speeches in the STC's The War of the Roses are still fresh in my mind. Certainly the memory of them amplified the mono-dimensional effect of these thumbnail portraits which, lacking the dramatic blood of context, are reduced to the status of party pieces. Worse, the stolidly factual historical contexts they are given seem sadly misconceived, since they conflate historical fact and fiction in ways which illuminate neither: the greatness of these plays exists, after all, in their metaphorical illustration of power, not in their (highly dubious) value as illustrations of history. Seldom has so much skill and virtuosity - both of which Stanton has in spades - been applied to such empty effect.

And When He Falls: The Plantagent Kings of England, William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. Directed by Jill Stanton. Performed by John Stanton and Tony Gould. Fortfive Downstairs until March 29.


Anonymous said...

PLEASE, A., it's LAURENCE Olivier (and Paul SCOFIELD as he's sure to come up sooner or later thank god).

It would be nice to have a strongly cast production of Shakespeare in Melbourne again, with emphasis on communicating through the verse, not like those Bell Shakespeare productions which emphasise guns, nudity, caked-on makeup, Hawaiian shirts, microphones (for god's sake!), TV screens, op shop furniture,etc etc and then when the poor actors appear, far too many of them ain't got the goods, and either rasp and shriek or else drone their lines while semaphoring frantically, ideally grabbing at their crotches to indicate a bawdy subtext that the director told them about. (And who can forget Bell's inaugural production where he chose an underpowered Hamlet who lost his voice and subsequently wisely retired to arts administration? Bell himself played a superb Ghost, and should have been Hamlet, at any age.)

Perhaps John Stanton could be prevailed upon to join such a crew and give them a bit of stick. Or a lot of stick. It couldn't be any worse than what's dished up season after season.

Shakespeare as spittle-flecked object of class war? My dear! SO last century. Give us some charismatic people with the technical equipment to perform him, and the alleged difficulties melt into thin air.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks for the subbing note, Ethel - aargh, and I've fixed it up.