Shakespeare Quarterly 52.1 (2001) 107-123
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Shakespeare at Stratford-upon-Avon: Summer and Fall, 2000
What do they know of Stratford, that only Stratford know? I can hardly claim to be a systematic seeker-out of performances, but in the course of a year's serendipitous Shakespearean tourism, they have accumulated like air miles: a sprightly Hamlet (with a prologue from Fratricide Punished) by the Berliner Ensemble in Berlin, a dreary, messy Tempest at the Schauspielhaus in Bochum, and Love's Labor's Lost (Peines d'Amour Perdues in French) à la Watteau in Montréal. In New York City there was Judith Shakespeare Company's lucid, passionate Julius Caesar with reverse-gendered casting in an off-Broadway black box; an effective, emotional, but relatively nuance-free Winter's Tale in New York Public Theater in Central Park; and the witty, exhilarating Bomb-itty of Errors on Bleecker Street. Jonathan Kent's two peripatetic Almeida productions were encountered both at home and away: Richard II at the Gainsborough Studios in London and Coriolanus at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. None of the above were "international" Shakespeare in the sense of being designed expressly to be intelligible to audiences in more than one place, and the Almeida company's work neither made (nor needed to make) concessions to the American theatergoers.
This modest accumulation of a twelvemonth and a day's theatrical experience is paraded here because it may shed some indirect light on a review of the Stratford season. First, the various performances point up the differences between seeing a Shakespeare production staged as part of a company's wider "world-drama" repertoire (Bochum, Montréal) and one designed to fit into a primarily Shakespearean body of work (Central Park, Judith Shakespeare Company), especially when one happens to be seeing only this production and is not directly aware of what else has been done locally. Second, the objectives and techniques of, say, Judith Shakespeare Company (women get to direct and to play good parts) and Central Park (lots of people see good shows for free) overlap more than might appear from the disparity in resources and agendas: both aimed to make the play 'work' and be perceived as intelligible and coherent. The Bochum Tempest, by contrast, sought to bring out the play's incoherence and absurdity, possibly to rebuke an audience of subscribers for their conservatism. (Or at least that is the charitable assumption.) The Almeida's productions were substantially the same in Brooklyn and Shoreditch, but a notable difference in their reception was that reviewers in the USA attended to the playing more than their London colleagues, who spent a lot of column inches reviewing the designer's and director's use of the huge performance space, a converted industrial building that had seen service as a film studio. Both venues prompt questions about the social impact of the companies that play there, in particular [End Page 107] the extent to which they serve the artistic needs of the local community rather than middle-class day-trippers.
On the issue of technique, it might be observed that the Almeida company started from what might seem a position of strength--confident in verse-speaking, unafraid of stylized expression, unshackled by notions of realism, and benefiting from all the other distinctions usually made in comparisons of British and American Shakespearean work--and then, for the most part, they shouted a lot. (More so in Shoreditch than Brooklyn, and with the honorable exceptions of Barbara Jefford and Oliver Ford-Davies.) In the Central Park Winter's Tale there was amplification--subtler now than it used to be--and the actors achieved an admirable fluency and clarity. These qualities were also present in the Julius Caesar of Judith Shakespeare Company, and both productions gained from American actors feeling free to use the energy and authenticity of their regional accents (notably in the case of Paulina and Mark Antony). In Bochum the standard of speaking was deplorable, a shambling refusal to engage with the rhetorical dimensions of the writing (in...