By William Shakespeare
Directed by Jamie Glover
Company: Theatre Royal Plymouth
Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre
Date: Tuesday 24th March 2009
This was the first Shakespeare play directed by Jamie Glover, and it’s a pretty good start to this phase of his career. Also present tonight were his mum and dad (Isla Blair and Julian Glover), Penelope Keith, Charles Kay and Greg Doran, whom Steve spotted giving someone a big hug afterwards – presumably young Jamie. So it must have been a pretty nerve-wracking first night at Guildford for everyone and I think they handled it very well.
The set consisted of a brick wall along the back with an entrance either side, topped with a row of wooden shutters which could be opened a number of ways to show the windows and create the different locations. There were two pillars on each side of the stage and a plain, flagged floor. Desks, chairs, etc. were brought on as needed, but sparingly. The costumes were Victorian and the whole effect was very sombre, with only the prostitute’s clothes providing a splash of colour. The walls even ran with water to make the place look dank and unpleasant. The lighting worked very well to change the location, although occasionally a character’s face would be in shadow when they were talking with someone else, which hopefully they can correct.
Alistair McGowan was playing the Duke and opened the play with what seemed like a melodramatic style, lurking mysteriously by the pillars and then starting with fright when his court appeared. His tendency to wave his arms around wasn’t the worst I’ve seen and although I would prefer him to rein that back a bit, I soon got used to his style and started to enjoy the performance. His animation also emphasised the stillness and lack of expression of Angelo, which is a useful point to make.
I found the dialogue in the opening scenes a bit brisk for easy understanding, but with Lucio’s arrival at the nunnery it calmed down and I found I was very keen to listen as the story unfolded. That made the somewhat excessive amount of coughing a bit annoying, and I may have rated this performance even higher if it hadn’t been for those distractions which mainly seemed to come from the younger audience members. Too much TV, not enough theatre going perhaps.
Anyway, the story rattled on at a good pace (the whole performance came in at just over two and a half hours, including interval) and I found I heard many of the lines afresh tonight. The comments about the dowries came across clearly, which made me think that if that society hadn’t put such an emphasis on the commercial aspects of marriage there wouldn’t have been such a need for fornication in the first place. Or at least it would have been the legitimate kind, although I also agree with Pompey that it’s a “vice” that will never be stamped out till humanity has left the planet for good.
The scene with Pompey, Froth and Elbow in front of the judges was the best I’ve ever seen. We’re fond of Robert Goodale anyway, and his rendition of a Dogberry type constable was absolutely perfect. I could totally believe that he thought he was saying the right word every time while committing some wonderfully funny verbal faux pas. Froth was a straightforward dimwit with no attempt made to pad his character out excessively, and Pompey got his lines across really well all through the play. I also liked the fact that, with limited numbers, Elbow is frequently on stage as one of the officers, even if he doesn’t get any extra lines.
From reading the program notes I was very aware that this play was written during the reign of James VI and I, and it seems to be designed to pander to the king’s interest in theology. It’s as if Shakespeare has expanded the second half of The Merchant Of Venice, adding a lot more detail to the arguments and changing the context to a sexual rather than a religious or financial one. With this production, I found I could hear the debate raging very clearly, and that more than anything else hooked me and kept me engrossed. There wasn’t such a focus on the psychological elements of the characters and I felt the balance was just about right. The personal aspects, particularly with Isabella, were an important part of the debate – these characters had to make these points because of their situation – and I wanted very much to know how it would turn out. Which is bizarre, as I know, or thought I knew this play pretty well. That’s why we keep coming back, of course.
Emma Lowndes as Isabella gave a very complete performance. Not as stiff as some Isabellas at the start, she was still fairly upright and virginal. She seemed to find her voice and her emotions in pleading her brother’s case with Angelo, and after all she’d been through I felt she’d grown up a lot and seen aspects of life that she would never have encountered if she’d shut herself away in a nunnery. At the end she was left on stage, having gone through the emotional upheaval of having lost her brother only to find him again and then the Duke’s unbelievably clumsy proposal, and I could see she would be in emotional turmoil, not knowing what to do next. No wonder she doesn’t say anything. The Duke returns to wait at the door for her and as the lights go down she appears to be getting ready to get up and make her move, but which way will she go? With him, or back off to the cloister? It’s a nice touch to leave the matter undecided, and I suspect that she might need time to make a decision herself.
Jason Merrells as Angelo gave us all of that character’s uprightness followed by the descent into viciousness, pretty clearly. He had a wonderful guilty shiftiness in the final scene, forcing a false smile and then showing his nasty temper when given a chance to complete the apparent cover-up of his fall from grace. I still feel Mariana’s got her work cut out making a half-way decent man out of the scraps she’s left with at the end, but redemption is everything in this play so she’ll probably manage it.
I’m coming to the tentative conclusion that Shakespeare wanted his plays to end happily for some reason (popular appeal, perhaps?) and didn’t care about the ‘realities’ of the situation he’d left his characters in as much as we seem to. For example, Mariana is married to Angelo, a man who’d repudiated her and was intending to semi-rape another woman, Olivia (Twelfth Night) is married to Sebastian, a man she hardly knows but has mistaken for his disguised twin sister, etc. I suspect if he came back today he’d be amazed and hopefully amused at the amount of analysis that had been done on perfectly straightforward plays, even on misprints, although he might be a bit annoyed to find they were out of copyright and he was no longer making money on them.
All the other performances were fine (nice to see George Anton on stage again) and Lucio (Patrick Kennedy) was in fine form, irritating the Duke beautifully. I was having some sniffle moments in the final scene – Mariana acknowledging her husband, Isabella choosing to plead for Angelo’s life – and despite the moving nature of these events, Shakespeare, and the cast it must be said, did a fine job turning immediately to humour in the form of Lucio’s interruptions without spoiling my involvement in the play. Life’s like that. It only remains to mention Clifford Rose as Escalus doing a fine job as usual, and I’m almost done.
An excellent production all round, shame about the audience, and we look forward to more opportunities to see work from this source (and perhaps even get down to the West Country to experience it in situ).
© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me