HIP (Historically Informed Performance) is not so hip as it used to be. William Christie does Baroque opera with cutting edge directors. René Jacobs records a Matthew Passion with tempi that rival Furtwängler’s. The information age was what made historically aware performances possible. It did not give us all the answers. In fifty years will we have HIP performances that are more like the 16th or 17th century than they are today? And how will the information we gain then be applied? Will not the actually application of it be indelibly tied to the decade?
Rory Kinnear’s incisive Iago made a trip to The Clark a joy last week. The National Theatre’s production of Othello had a mild-mannered Othello, a hipster Desdemona, and a working-class Iago whose asides had enough energy to pass through walls and ring in the halls, though the other actors seemed not to hear them. His was a display of words — words which could go any which way and say any which thing.
Try this for starters. Read a scene in rhymed couplets to someone you know, and ask them if it sounded natural. Not easy, is it? Great rhyme masters, from Alexander Pope to Richard Wilbur, require their readers to use these couplets on stage or page, and this is no small task. It asks from the performer something like singing. The regularity of the rhyme scheme, its dominance, can be treacherous. Peter Hall maintained that a script of Shakespeare’s can be read like music, but iambic pentameter is too strong and unbalanced to accept this kind of strictness all the time. Rhymed (sometimes called heroic) couplets need, indeed require, a balancing act. The listener knows instinctively when the rhymes are over-sung. I am saying there has to be a large and flexible middle to the actor’s method. This middle might be defined as the place that is returned to.
Too clever by halves. Although T.S. Eliot was describing Marlowe’s once popular, now buried play, The Jew of Malta, when he dubbed it a savage farce, the phrase is a wide paintbrush for Jacobean tragedy, whose absurd motivations, wildly outsized emotions and sheer body count tempt us to burst out laughing. One of the breeziest writers of the day, Thomas Heywood, shuffled genres like a card sharp, and there’s no reason to believe that he took his most famous tragedy, A Woman Killed With Kindness (1603) too seriously. There’s not much reason to revive it either, except as a study in stage contraptions antecedent to the great age of folderol bien fait in the Victorian theater, which gave us masterly contrivers like Scribe, Sardou, and the like.
Whether or not Charles Lamb was over-generous in calling Heywood “Shakespeare in prose”, it quickly becomes evident watching Katie Mitchell’s production of his best work A Woman Killed With Kindness (first performed in 1603) that neither director nor cast have much faith in his literary merits. Frenetic stage action across an expensively exquisite split-set by Lizzie Clachan and Vicki Mortimer aims to literally bulk out what the company clearly believes is an insubstantial text, one merely possessing salacious plot elements for a prurient modern audience seeking high-brow soap-opera. In the comfortable house to the right we have the unhappy marriage of John Frankford and his wife, destroyed by her infidelity with their houseguest, Wendoll, while she is heavily pregnant. To the left, in a grander but colder manor, Anne’s brother Sir Francis Acton engages in an altogether less lusty and consenting relationship with Susan, the woman he is offered as compensation for bailing her murderer brother Sir Charles Mountford – by Charles himself.
Old shoes re-souled. There’s a silent background to The Cherry Orchard for anyone born during the Cold War. The theme of social change, ambiguously written by Chekhov, took on a ferocious literalness after 1917. The niceties of the play are overshadowed by our knowledge of show trials, pogroms, and Soviet monsters to come. With all of that gone up in smoke, we find ourselves starting over. Now the opposite dilemma has appeared: what to do with a Russia sliding into irrelevancy? Putin is barely a mini-me compared to Stalin. The whole society, soaked in vodka and oil revenues, has been drained of significance: terror, class war, an ancien regime, elegiac memories, idealism, and even apparatchiks — all those soulful overtones gone flat-line.
Grand mal Caesar. As an example of a mountain bringing forth a mouse, nothing is more perfect than reviewing an exhaustingly long, exhaustively serious drama. When the reader hears that the subject is the foibles of organized religion, the boat has sunk before the first torpedo is fired. Nevertheless.
Bloody philosophes. The French Revolution was not the most monstrous of its kind. In World War II Hitler beheaded more people with portable guillotines in Vienna than the tumbrels delivered in Paris. But it survives as a lasting emblem of the fall of reason. That the society of Voltaire and Diderot could descend into the mindless savagery of the Reign of Terror prefigured Freud’s gloomy conclusion that civilization is a thin veneer painted over atavistic brutality. In the shattering drama, Danton’s Death, the point is made more trenchantly when the hero declares that sanity itself is a fragile construction, a bubble that bursts when the true nightmare of life reveals itself. This was essentially the world view of Georg Büchner — we see it reinforced in his better-known Woyzeck (largely thanks to Alban Berg’s operatic adaptation as Wozzeck), in which the schizophrenia of a common soldier is played upon by the equally mad but socially acceptable devices of his superiors.