I wish I could like this production more. Clearly well-intentioned and sincerely played, it still did not touch the center of the fearsome verse. Betsy Holt as Lady Macbeth was eloquent, but did not convince me she would kill a baby. The charismatic Gino Costabile as Macbeth fell into shouting too often and not only in the last moments of the play. The witches just were not scary, with the exception of Myka Plunkett whose steady intensity showed the real way into the play.
The Acting Company’s As You Like It in Troy Savings Bank Music Hall on Wednesday, March 13th, was quite the gentlest performance of the play I have seen. The wrestling scene was mercifully brief, the songs sweet and soft, the relationships clear as a bell without exaggeration. For me, the center of this approach was the excellent Orlando, played by Joseph Midyett. He was neither bewildered nor positive. His participation in the feigning, which is the middle of the play, had a knowingness to it which never quite went over the edge, even though there was that one kiss which came across, to me, as utterly spontaneous—a young man kissing the boy Ganymede who is really a girl, wooing him for herself by playing another.
Completeness is its own kind of extravagance. It enables risk. The completeness I speak of is given to us when an artist finds a union between imagination and voice which is set as a seal, neither one or the other in combat for supremacy. A word, a note becomes as much a physical fact as an imagined one. The muscle leads the mind and surprises it with a knowledge of deep things. To achieve this requires much work. To become a babe again, to let out a cry of pure delight is the task of a lifetime. Being finished vocally is one thing (conservatories often stop here), achieving a unity of mind and muscle quite another.
The prologue to Henry V is not only an appeal for the audience to indulge its imagination. It is an encomium to the art of acting and its capacity to teach us how to live. It sharpens our sensibilities to the parallels between drama and reality, the stage and the world, the past and the present. It evokes sympathy in us for ourselves as much as for the actors, and it prepares us to recognize a moral lesson in every chronicle. So when he has the Chorus urge us to “piece out our imperfections with your thoughts; / Into a thousand parts divide on man / And make imaginary puissance,” Shakespeare puns on the plural pronoun, hinting that he is about to effect a catharsis, a flushing out of our “imperfections” in the very act of pretending that what happens on stage is real.
Gnawing the flesh. It was the best of Timon; it was the worst of Timon. Reducing a stage production to one sentence rarely does it justice, but the National Theatre’s new, wildly popular Timon of Athens, mounted as a showcase for London’s favorite actor, Simon Russell Beale, wins the best and worst prize on several counts. It takes the messiest of Shakespeare’s late plays, a nasty, grinding parable about misanthropy, and delivers a glittering first half that is unexpected magic before the genii departs and we endure the dismal gray of the second half.
Capitol crime. Julius Caesar isn’t a juicy play. The poetry occupies a narrow range between nobility and a bad conscience. Very little is inward. The famous speeches are public oratory, not soliloquies on the order of Hamlet. It’s the only play of his that could be read from a teleprompter. Only Mark Antony turns to the audience to share a confidence, after he has fawned before the conspirators who killed Caesar yet secretly abhors them. The central role is that of vacillating Brutus, who seems like a dry run for the truly tragic Coriolanus. For these reasons, a great production must make ancient Romans more than stuffed shirts in togas enacting potted history.
One of the greatest challenges facing any Shakespearian actor is putting on and peeling off various layers of pretense throughout a play. This is what makes Much Ado About Nothing so interesting. Whoever plays the part of Beatrice must pretend she is a woman pretending she is not in love with Benedick, who, in turn, is played by an actor pretending to pretend he doesn’t love her. The actor playing Don Pedro must pretend to pretend to be happy, shirking sadness by means of his clever plot to bring “Signior Benedick and the Lady Beatrice into a mountain of affection the one with the other” (II, i). Whoever plays Hero may well choose to portray her as a young woman pretending to be in love with Claudio, who, in turn, pretends to want her hand in marriage until rejecting her at the altar. The stage is full of characters portraying false feelings while trying to ascertain the true feelings of those around them.
One of the valuable things the Bard Music Festival teaches its audiences is just how arbitrary the classical canon is. While that can’t be said of Wagner or Elgar, we learned that Prokofiev and Sibelius are most visible in concert programs and recordings through works which are not necessarily their most personal or interesting, or perhaps even their best. As managers, virtuosi, and critics grind the classical sausage from a noble saucisson de Lyon into a hot dog, the nature of the classical loses its individuality and becomes uniform and bland. The fame of Camille Saint-Saëns, on the other hand, is linked to virtually no work at all — perhaps the Carnival of the Animals or the “Organ” Symphony, which is not really performed all that often today. This immaculate work acquired a bad reputation among critics, largely because it is extraordinarily loud in places — just the right places to produce wild applause from an audience — far too effectively for the tastes of the snobbish American critics of the late 1950s and 1960s, when it had two especially potent advocates, Charles Munch and Paul Paray. Curiously, Saint-Saëns has a bad reputation as an opera composer, although another one of his few works in the standard repertory, his Samson et Dalila, is an opera.