By William Shakespeare
Directed by Gavin Marshall
Company: Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama
Venue: Swan Theatre
Date: Monday 4th September 2006
This was the first Young People’s Shakespeare that we’d seen. Apparently they’re strictly limited to 75 minutes per performance, so the text has to be drastically reduced. This was (possibly) the first time these had been performed by acting students – normally fully fledged RSC actors do these productions.
The remaining text for this play focused intensely on the main characters. Ten performers covered all the parts. This made several things very clear. Firstly, I understood for the first time the importance of showing up Parolles as the fool and coward he is. Bertram’s judgement is so poor, as it is in rejecting Helena, that he needs a wake-up call. Secondly, I could see more clearly how determined Helena is to earn Bertram’s love – it’s a quest story, though as usual Shakespeare has turned it upside down by having the woman seek the man – very Women’s Lib.
Finally, seeing the truncated version made me appreciate Will’s talent even more. Not only can cut-down versions of his plays be very enjoyable, but I have greater insight into how important the ‘non-essential’ parts are. They don’t just pad things out, they contribute a lot to the characterisation, they allow the audience time to absorb what they’ve seen, catch up with the plot from their neighbours, and keep the rabble amused. The short version is fine, and I can still enjoy the longer version, too.
Full scale productions also have the advantage of more people on stage, which gives more opportunities for fun. I’m thinking particularly of the scene at the end where the King, not having learned his lesson, promises Diana her choice of husband from among his noblemen. When you have a dozen or so spare nobles pottering about on stage, there’s a lot more to be made of their reactions – here it just whizzed by without comment.
This production started with a song, a kind of wailing, which we came to realise was a mourning dirge for the recently deceased Count of Rousillion. The actors processed from the side to form up in two lines on the stage, women to the left, men to the right, with a priest figure in front, ringing a bell. The singing wasn’t too bad, though I felt they were trying to be overly ambitious with the harmonies, given the few singers available. Either that, or they were just a bit shaky in this department.
After the funeral, Bertram takes his leave, and we get our first insight into Helena’s wit, as she spars with Parolles, Bertram’s follower. The story rattles through – the King welcomes Bertram, the Countess discovers Helena’s affections and supports her in going to the King to see if she can cure him, bearing in mind her double reason for going. She cures the King, claims Bertram and so begins the long chain of unhappy events. Bertram quits the court, to go off to the wars (has the man gone mad? or does this just show how much he loathes his new wife?). Helena, having returned to Rousillion, sneaks off after him, leaving the Countess to inform the world that she has died. In Italy, she encounters the very women who can help her to win Bertram – just how lucky can one girl get? The widow with whom she lodges has a daughter, Diana, who has caught Bertram’s eye. Now the widow makes out that Diana’s virtuous, but it seems to be a bargaining tool, because from Diana’s behaviour it’s obvious she fancies a bit of nobleman herself, and it’s only her mother’s advice to fend them off till the marriage is sealed that’s kept her pure! Anyway, they agree to help Helena, and Bertram’s fate is sealed – he can’t outwit one woman, what chance does he have against three?
Parolles is also up against it when he’s kidnapped by his own team, and soon reveals all in front of Bertram, fresh from his tryst with Diana/Helena. Back at the French Court, the three women confront Bertram and all is, hopefully, made good.
With such a shortened script, there was very little time to play around. Parolles’ part probably suffered most, as it usually relies on business and a fancy costume to get across the humour, and much of that was cut out. But there were some lovely pieces of staging.
Firstly, there was a nice touch during the opening funeral scene. Simple hand gestures indicated dirt being thrown onto the coffin. The stage was almost bare – only six stools positioned at the back of the thrust, carrying a bell, a purple cushion, a crown and a drum. Actors took their places here often at the beginning of the previous scene, so the action was almost non-stop. Actors also stood there when a letter their character had written was being read out so they could say the words themselves.
A messenger arrives at one point, sits on the stage, and proceeds to take his shoe and sock off to tend to his sore foot. Parolles comes on, and tries to sneak a peek at the messenger’s bag, or at least nick his hip flask. No chance – this messenger has obviously encountered Parolles before, and he’s not letting anything out of his sight, eventually sitting on his bag to stop Parolles walking off with it.
The hip flask featured later, as the messenger, now playing a soldier, tries to chat up a woman in the audience, even offering her a swig, which she declined. As an officer looms up, the soldier hides the flask with her, but sadly the officer is wise to this, and he ends up losing both woman and flask.
The audience were also involved when Parolles is about to be tortured. As he tries to get away, he grabs the legs of someone in the front row, and has to be dragged off, screaming. He made a wonderful coward, yelling his head off when he thought he was about to be killed.
That’s about it. The costumes were plain and functional. Parolles had a red scarf to indicate his flashy dressing! Generally, there were weaknesses in delivery, with a lot of lines being lost, but overall it was well played and enjoyable.
© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me