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  • Tragical-Comical-Historical-Pastoral:Shakespeare Onstage in 2010
  • Alan C. Dessen

In August 2010, I saw eight Shakespeare productions: three Royal Shakespeare Company tragedies in Stratford; three history plays at London's Bankside Globe; and As You Like It and The Tempest at the Old Vic. From such playgoing emerged a number of distinctive choices worth putting on the record.

The two shows at the Old Vic, both directed by Sam Mendes, were the product of the second year of The Bridge Project with its combination of U.S. and U.K. actors. Here Juliet Rylance provided an engaging Rosalind, particularly in the proxy wooing (4.1). In 2009, both Katy Stephens (RSC) and Naomi Frederick (Globe) did not speak the Troilus and Leander lines from the speech that climaxes with "men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love" (4.1.106–8),1 but Rylance used the rhythms of the middle section to build to a many-layered climax that for me was the highlight of this production. Similarly, the 5.3 song "It was a lover and his lass"—omitted at the Globe and in Stratford in 2009—was here a lively and very enjoyable round that was initially sung by Corin and Amiens with Audrey and finally a reluctant Touchstone joining in.

Several choices were new to me. As Jaques, Stephen Dillane delivered his ducdame verses in 2.5 in a Bob Dylan voice punctuated with a riff on a harmonica; to force the truth out of Oliver in 3.1, Duke Frederick had the prisoner's head ducked in a bucket, a 1590s version of water-boarding. I had seen Adam die at the end of 2.7 before (though not with Orlando offstage with Duke Senior), but I had never see William head-butt Touchstone at the end of the latter's tirade in 5.1. Although numerous directors have chosen to rearrange the scenes in act two so as to delay 2.1 (the first scene in Arden) and avoid an early set change, Mendes changed the sequence to gain a very different effect. Here, 1.3 (where the [End Page 481] two women decide to flee to Arden) was followed by 2.3 (where Orlando is warned by Adam of Oliver's treachery) and then 2.2 (Duke Frederick and four lords finding out about the departure of Rosalind, Celia, and Touchstone), at which point the action moved to 2.1, our first view of Duke Senior in Arden. This change may not seem worth singling out until one recognizes that the same actor (Michael Thomas) was playing both dukes, so that rather than downplaying the doubling (by placing 2.3 as a buffer between the transposed 2.2 and 2.1) the director highlighted the switch (I was reminded of Peter Brook's 1970 doubling of Oberon-Theseus and Hippolyta-Titania where in 4.1 the fairy couple strode upstage and, without exiting, immediately turned triumphantly to become the mortal couple). In the Mendes version, the five black-tied figures from 2.2 turned and walked upstage where, in semi-darkness, they changed into hats and ragged cloaks, picked up their weapons, and were joined by others so as to acknowledge and even stress, rather than conceal, their transformation. Mendes crafted another distinctive effect by setting up in 2.5 an elaborate banquet (as indicated in the dialogue) on a wide table placed mid stage, at which point Orlando and Adam appeared far upstage on a ramp to deliver the lines about starving that constitute 2.6, so that Orlando's "if" clauses (e.g., "if I bring thee not something to eat, I will give thee leave to die" [2.6.11–12]) were juxtaposed with the sustenance there but yet to be discovered. Both of these choices—the first a departure from the Folio, the second an unusually faithful adherence to it—yielded distinctive moments that called attention to their own theatricality and in the latter instance generated potential meanings.

The London Press Night reviewers of The Tempest complained about the audibility of Stephen Dillane's Prospero, and, given the configuration of...


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