By William Shakespeare
Directed by Iqbal Khan
Venue: Courtyard Theatre
Date: Thursday 13th September 2012
Third time around and there was much more detail in the performances, including some more changes by the director, especially in the gulling scenes. This was part of the Supporters evening, and was followed by a lovely meal in the Ashcroft room, which was so well attended that they only had enough cast for one per table. We were honoured to have Madhav Sharma, Leonato himself, sitting next to us for the entire meal, and he was an entertaining companion with plenty of amusing and interesting stories.
For the play itself, I may not be able to get the changes noted up in order, but here goes. The bickering between Beatrice and Benedick in the first scene was a dead giveaway – they could have been married already. I heard three “Bendy Dick”s tonight – the first when Benedick left the Prince and Claudio alone, the second one I’ve forgotten, and the third just before the weddings at the end, which I’d spotted during an earlier performance. When Hero and Claudio bumped into each other, I couldn’t tell if it was deliberate on either part or just an accident.
This time I noticed that when the women came on before the party scene, singing their rowdy song and dressed up in the soldier’s clothes, Hero and Margaret were smoking and drinking. When Leonato arrived, they hastily passed their cigarette and drink to Verges, who stood there looking guilty while the ‘princess’ and her maid looked as innocent as new born babes. As with Desdemona, this father’s ‘jewel’ is quite capable of deceit when she cares to use it. Beatrice held on to her drink, presumably not a problem for her. After the prince proposed to Beatrice, she reacted with laughter and Leonato gestured to warn her that the prince had been serious and she’d hurt his feelings, hence her abrupt change of tack and the apologies for her behaviour.
The biggest change was in the first gulling scene. After Benedick sent the maidservant for his book, the speech about his ideal woman was much better this time, getting smallish laughs several times on the way through. Then after the Prince, Claudio and Leonato started their trickery, Benedick avoided the roof and instead came down to the ground level after climbing the tree; he was behind the house façade, but we could see him through the open doors. He took a blanket off Dogberry (loud sounds of arguing just before this) and wrapped it round himself, then came on stage for the final section of the gulling pretending to be a servant. He also had a broom and used it to sweep up some fallen leaves rather ineffectively. The servant girl was less distracting in this bit – she did less of a performance – but the acting she did do helped to cover Benedick’s presence and allowed the others to appear to ignore him more easily. They treated him as a servant, so he ended up cleaning Claudio’s shoes and then the prince’s, planting himself in turn on the stools in each front corner. When Don Pedro insulted Benedick, he spat on the prince’s shoe, all in order to clean it of course. This worked a lot better than the previous version.
When Beatrice came to call Benedick in to dinner, Benedick was on the swing, grinning happily and swinging so much that she broke off the line “against my will” and just looked at him, amazed. After a few moments (to give us time to finish laughing) she regained her composure and carried on. And for Beatrice’s gulling, Hero stayed in front of the window on the balcony this time for the early part of the conversation with Verges and so the dialogue was much clearer. Otherwise it was the same.
When the watch were doing their duty outside Leonato’s house, they had removed the umbrella that got in my way the first time, and Borachio had been to the loo before he came on stage so no pissing all over the constable (thank goodness). There was still thunder, but they just pretended it was raining. This time I noticed that Don John came on to the balcony and saw the watch apprehending Borachio and Conrade. This certainly explained his flight after the wedding, though the man has some balls to risk staying that long – his men might have given him up before the ceremony.
Speaking of which, the wedding scene had a few more changes. Leonato was at ground level from the start of this scene, bustling the servants along and greeting the guests who arrived from the audience. This made the dialogue with Dogberry and Verges, still holding up the two pairs of trousers, much easier to follow. Leonato’s interpolated “no thanks” after Claudio offered Hero back was not appreciated by Madhav, who felt that it wasn’t necessary to add to the text in this way, and I agree with him. Overall though, the denouncement of Hero was just as shocking this time, and I do feel that the use of the microphone made it worse for Hero, as it was clear there were a large number of people witnessing this event.
Benedick and Beatrice were very strong in the “kill Claudio” scene, and I could see how their relationship and the challenge to Claudio are woven skilfully together, the one leading to the other and back again. Paul’s hand was better tonight, so he was able to grab Beatrice by the arms as planned.
I was aware when the watch did their interrogation tonight that the down side of having the household servants play these characters as well is that they already know what’s happened in the wedding scene, so it’s hard for them to react appropriately as the story comes out. The wedding platform was partly removed during this inquisition of the prisoners, and Borachio and Conrade were actually placed on the last section of it and wheeled off, waving to the crowd. This speeded up the scene change a lot which was helpful. This time, the look of sadness on Verges’ face as she held together the red ribbons, waiting for them to be lowered, showed us the grief, the loss of what should have been. The ribbons were also whisked off stage much sooner leaving Leonato and Antonio alone on stage for more of their dialogue in the following scene. I still found Leonato’s delivery too slow tonight, especially during this scene and the wedding scene, but overall the pace was better.
When the prince and Claudio turned up, they reacted much more strongly to Leonato’s criticisms, and from their reactions I was aware tonight that this was the first they had heard of Hero’s death – Benedick was obviously a bit slow to get the news to them. The rest of the play was as I remembered it, though with a smaller audience the atmosphere wasn’t quite as lively as last time. The side stalls were relatively empty during the first half, but they filled up a bit for the second, more than compensating for the few gaps which had appeared.
Just a couple of other points: I forgot to mention in previous notes that the Prince looked amazingly like Chuck’s friend Morgan (from the TV series Chuck) which was a momentary distraction for me. Also I noticed tonight that Don John accosted the servant girl in an unpleasant way in an early scene, and Verges protected her. The singer’s treatment of the girl later wasn’t pleasant either, given that he’d invited her to join in the dancing, but when she became over-enthusiastic he grabbed her roughly to make her stop.
This has become an amazingly good production, and the cast are clearly enjoying themselves now that the director has (hopefully!) stopped tinkering with it. I gather that the atmosphere in rehearsals wasn’t particularly comfortable; the director likes to push his actors well beyond any comfort zones, and isn’t as open to discussion as we understood from his talk earlier in the run.
The problem of Asian actors not being cast as widely as black actors now are, still rumbles on, and I’m in two minds about this sort of all-Asian production. On the one hand, it’s absolutely valid to show how Shakespeare’s plays work in all sorts of cultures; after all it’s why he’s so admired and performed all over the world. And given that, it would be awkward to people the world of the performance with non-Asian actors, as that would raise other issues such as the colonial ones which the director here has chosen to avoid. But when these productions are staged, I can’t help feeling that they blur the statistics and make it seem as if there are more employment opportunities for Asian actors than is the case. I don’t know what the answer to this conundrum is, but I look forward to seeing another Asian Hamlet or perhaps a first Asian Henry V within a mixed cast, not as a box-ticking exercise but as a valid recognition of this pool of talent.
© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me