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Shakespeare and the RSC

By Frederic C. Bartter jr.

(The author is not a member of the CRIMSON. He is a senior associated with Leverett House. He travelled to England last summer and there observed the RSC.)

The Aldwych is one of the harder theatres in London to get to: if you go by underground, you get off at Holborn and walk a very long block down to the Stand. This is its only disadvantage, however, and counterbalancing that is one overpowering merit: the Aldwych is the London home of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Perhaps the most salient comment about this group is expressed on the back of every RSC program: "The company is responsible for most of the major Shakespeare productions seen in this country." And one might add, most of the major Shakespeare productions seen in the world.

Last summer the Aldwych produced, among other things, Troilus and Cressida. Troilus and Cressida is supposed to be a "problem play"; indeed, after having tried recently to produce it at the Loch, Dan Seltzer threw up his hands and swore never again to get involved with it.

Professor Seltzer begins his introduction to the American Signet edition of the play, "The modern student of Troilus and Cressida -reader, spectator, and actor-is faced with complex problems of staging, character, and moral ideas." One suspects he wrote this before his attempted production; at any rate, its truth cannot be faulted.

The RSC, to avoid superfluities and thrust directly to the play's center, presented a bare stage and Greeks and Trojans in loincloths. For a number of the players this no doubt meant some fairly regular workouts in the company gym. But, if in externals the production was sparse simplicity, in its emotional effect it pounded home a message-pounded it home with a sledge-hammer heaviness, until the greater part of the audience looked wearily up from holes in the floor, and a number of old ladies had left.

No doubt any play which singles out for condemnation war and debasement of love is highly topical. As Seltber says, the play is complex, but it is still fair to call it an indictment of "wars and lechery."

Thirsites, the deformed, caviling, ranting, smirking, groveling Greek, gradually emerges as the dominant figure. Ajax beats him, Patroclus upbraids him, but when (as he watches while Cressida submits to Diomed's advances) he speaks the line:

How the Devil Luxury, with his fat rump and potato finger, tickles these together. Fry, lechery, fry! his force is irresistible.

Thirsites' cynical viewpoint remains consistently the same, and the structure of the play as it evolves becomes more and more an argument for support of his overview. Shakespeare gives the last lines of the play to Pandarus, who refers to the time when he will make out his will:

Till then I'll sweat and seek about for eases,

And at that time bequeath you my diseases.

These lines represent precisely Thirsites' bitterness, and the director, John Barton, took notice of this by bringing both to the footlights. The two romped in acrid triumph.

Two symbols were hoisted to the play's masthead to further the effectiveness of the play. The first, a bull's head, was huge, elegant, and topped by two unmistakably symbolic horns. Whatever its mythological associations or its connotations of potency, it caught aptly the implications of Menelaus's and Troilus's cuckoldry.

The second was a kind of prosthetic phallus which belonged to Thirsites. When fastened to his loincloth it was visible only when he turned upstage, and its curves were those of a snake. Released, and it was left hanging a good deal of the time, it hung to his knees. Insofar as it did not allow him the modesty allowed to those around him, it gave him a reason for his cynicism. Insofar as, when it was it was present, the full dramatic force of the play swung on its axis, it gave Thirsites immediately the authority which on the page he achieves only in the last act.

The "problem" of inconsistency of character, which arises particularly in Cressida's and Pandarus' case, was dealt with by Barton in sexual terms. Cressida was initially innocent yet boundlessly lustful, and her night with Troilus initiated her into a physicality which dictated her subsequent falseness. Pandarus was a glib, leering yet friendly uncle, whose skill in sexual innuendo helped him to live a vicarious sexual life through those around him.

In short a debased sexuality, which for Shakespeare is a major thematic concern, was raised, unnecessarily I think, to a dominant position. Doubtless it is no accident that Troilus and Cressida describe their love largely in terms of food imagery, that Thirsites condemns, triumphantly, wars and lechery. But to single out for so much emphasis this one element does harm, I think, by narrowing Shakespeare's intents.

Enough of Thirsites. It was perhaps fitting that this play was performed in the grimy heart of London, while The Merry Wives of Windsor and The Winter's Tale were performed at the Royal Shakespeare Company's real home in its theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon. There the lawns, though trampled, are green.

The theatre itself is not beautiful. It is a large red brick building, built in 1932 with funds raised largely in America. It hugs the Avon about a half mile from Trinity Church where Shakespeare is buried. Inside, its floors are noticeably worn down in the doorways, which is not surprising considering that it attracts, together with the Aldwych, well over a million people a year.

I arrived in Stratford from Oxford on a Monday morning and was told by the testy, haggard girl at the ticket window that no seats were available for the next week at least. Hence my presence that evening in the ragged, boundlessly hopeful line of ticket vultures which forms every evening to snatch up any reserved tickets which are not claimed. That night it was not hard to get one.

The Merry Wives of Windsor is a play which, though it presents a flat and calcified Falstaff, and though on the page it may drag, nevertheless can, and did when I saw it, overflow with life. It is a farce with typically Shakepearian comic elements. For the most part everyone stays the same, there is no real hero, and the humor consists of the devices which were old hat to Aristophanes. But the pasteboard hero (Fenton) does get his girl (Anne Page), and Ford learns that he has been unreasonably, unnaturally jealous, and calms down.

Karl Marx said of the play, "In the first act alone of The Merry Wives of Windsor there is more life and movement than in all German literature." Few are in a position to disagree.

Dr. Caius is a French physician in the play whose accents, mannerisms and character are constantly ridiculed, and whose energy is one of the play's driving comic forces. He had a habit, selon Terry Hands, the director, of kissing those he presumed to be his friends on both checks. The trouble was that all his friends were Englishmen, or normal height, and he was about 4'10". Hence to reach each check he had to hop, and his helloes and good-byes became increasingly more hilarious sight gags.

Similarly, Ford's consuming jealousy of his wife rendered him totally mechanical, absurd in his stuttering and repetitious rage. When finally it was knocked into him that his wife was indeed true, he changed within from chaos to order, from imbalance to harmony. This was suggested by a correspondent clear change in his behavior; he at once became modest, moderate, and controlled.

Without the energy with which this play was invested it could never have survived for three hours. It has often been noted, that it is very hard to swallow Falstaff's incredible obtuseness. In part we are meant to lay it up to lust; for this he is burnt by candles in the final scene.

But even this lust cannot explain the extent to which he has decayed since Henry IV. Three times he is totally humiliated. It was easy to laugh each time but successively less so, and if it were not for the utter charm which permeated the last scene it would have been difficult to accept it at all. This scene, though perhaps a bit of an addendum, was like Midsummer Night's Dream all over again.

It takes as a starting point the serious theme of purgation, and it is Shakespeare's fault that this is some what out of tune with the rest of the play. On the page it is a simple singing: Faistaff is lying on the ground, the fairies "put the tapers to his fingers, and he starts." Terry Hands amplified it. Falstaff fled up a tree and looked down in horror at the invasion of fairies below him. A torch was set in the tree beneath him, and an ensuing, very loud explosion threw him from the tree ten feet to the ground. This gave the final scene both an additional element of farce, and a mystery which partially vindicated the absurdity of Falstaff's last humiliation.

Puck's words at the end of A Midsummer Nights' Dream were recalled:

Now the wasted brands do glow! Whilst the screech owl, screeching loud,!

Puts the wretch that lies in woe! In remembrance of a shroud.

The two wives were flawless in their middle-class Englishness; Anne Page was charming, and the Host was properly gregarious and effusive.

A final note on interaction of character. Falstaff's mere presence is a danger and Hands's Ford was largely successful in averting it by drawing the play's energy into his transformation. Before he changes he can be quite funny; his interviews with Falstaff were particularly well done. One saw the carefully composed Mr. Brooke (Ford) presenting a nicely Falstaffian proposition; meanwhile, Falstaff relished his possibilities and promising success, while Ford inwardly rebelled and very nearly lost his composure.

If this play is anchored in English manners and the English countryside, and if it is best rendered in this context, then The Winter's Tale is almost at an opposite pole. At least it was so produced by Trevor Nunn.

Any production of a play, particularly a play by Shakespeare, goes out on a limb. It offers one interpretation of an entity capable of an infinity of interpretations. T. S. Eliot thought this was bad, because it forced him to observe a rendering which was very likely different from his own. But it is good, too, because it brings the play closer to the audience and forces them, even if by its aberrations, to consider nuances and ramifications which often do not arise spontaneously from the text. Having mentioned this, one can consider the play.

The stage was a huge pristinely white box, which conveyed no sense of confinement. No props were used but the absolute essentials. Leontes and Polixenes, present on stage, functioned in a total and enveloping mutual awareness which was unbothered by relationships to other things, and this was true for every other group of characters.

Trevor Nunn fashioned The Winter's Tale as a modern fable of elegant simplicity. The neo-Edwardian dress and a few stage devices were the only indication of modernity. Nunn raised the words of Time which commence the fourth act to the level of a kind of incantation over the mystery of the play. Time says:

I that please some, try all, both joy and terror!

Of good and bad; that makes and unfolds error,

Now take upon me, in the name of Time,

To use my wings.

These words were spoken with exotic sonority in the blackness before the first act.

They of course are part of the very pivot of the play, coming as they do immediately after the Shepherd's incandescent words:

Now bless thyself; thou met'st with things dying, I

with things new born.

In context they function somewhat as does the prologue to Henry V, as an apology and craftsman's argument: "What the hell, if you really want to wait sixteen years come back and see if we're still here." But they also meant: "This play's message is timeless, and its people are such as have lived, live, and shall live."

Leontes's jealous rage is much similar to Ford's, but its consequences are far more serious. It is one of the traits which makes him timelessly human. As Shakespeare gives it to us, however, it develops with astonishing rapidity, and Nunn used an interesting device to lend credence to this development. There are two moments, in which Leonter sees Polixenes with Hermoine, that plant the initial seeds of jealousy.

In each case Hermione speaks a line. then turns and (one judges from Leontes's following lines) flirts with Polixenes. Leontes then comments aside.

In this production, as soon as Hermione began her flirtation, the lights, formerly white, flashed to a muted blue. Hermione and Polixenes froze in their mutual endearments, and Leontes spoke his lines with deliberate, careful and muted rage.

These two moments were lifted out of time and lent a significance beyond the surrounding circumstances. They were tableaus, which might well have stood for similar incidents that Shakespeare did not have time to show. Nor were Hermione's attentions to Polixenes anything to be sniffed at: they were real, too real, and, even presented as normal incidents. would have been ample cause for jealousy. These moments gave him a king's share of time in which to corrupt his initially pure nature.

There were so many points at which this production dealt adequately with difficult problems that I cannot hope to deal with them all. One example: Antigonus is given by Leontes the unhappy chore of dispatching Hermione's newborn baby girl. He takes to ship with the idea of leaving it somewhere, and is directed by Hermione's ghost to leave it in the deserts of Bohemia. Now Antigonus, after leaving the baby, is supposed to be killed by a bear: his last words are:

A savage clamor!/ Well may I get aboard! This is the chase:/

I am gone forever./

(Exit, pursued by a bear.)

On the page this is really quite funny, not at all as it should be, as the audience soon learns from the Clown.

Nunn set the scene in the half-light and intermittent flashes of the storm, and had a huge (about 12 feet tall) and very realistic bear rise out of the blackness behind Antigonus, pick him bodily up, and carry him off, the final action drowned in a scream of loud and hopeless terror, amplified, so that it reverberated in the ear drums. The whole thing was terrifying and convincing, as it should be. The switch, then, to the Shepherd and his son the Clown, was entirely in keeping with the Shepherd's words.

Time, when he spoke his significant fourth act words, was seated on a throne enclosed in a cube of glass which had previously been behind the rear wall. Before Time spoke, the middle lower portion of the wall moved and this cube advanced the considerable distance out to the lip of the stage. Time, black, and, true to the sound of both his voice and name (Alton Kumalo), exotic, spoke without moving his body.

The cube then moved noiselessly back to the wall, the door slid shut, and the stage was clear. Before Hermione is revivified she appears as a statue. Nunn put her in the same cube Time had used behind a revolving mirror-this time it stayed upstage. Instead of drawing a curtain Paulina pushed a button, and the mirror revolved to reveal Hermione.

There is a clarity of both the parts and the whole in The Winter's Tale which was almost perfectly realized in this production. I have mentioned the most clearly molded transition of the play: this was carried off with brilliance: the first and second major parts, roughly defined as the tragic and the comic, blended into a whole which was exquisitely forceful.

Americans may have a chance to see more of the RSC on this side of the Atlantic in the future. The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington. D. C. is interested in developing what Dr. Osborne B. Hardison. Director of the Folger, called in a recent telephone interview "the cordial will to talk" which now exists between the two organizations. The Folger. Dr. Hardison said. considers the RSC the finest Shakespeare troupe in the world, and would like, as part of the library's obligation to the public, to bring the troupe to America for more extensive tours.

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