By William Shakespeare
Company: Opera North in collaboration with the RSC
Venue: Swan Theatre
Date: Saturday 24th February 2007
Sonnets for the first half –
That time of year that thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed, whereon it must expire,
Consum’d with that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceives, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.
When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see,
For all the day they view things unrespected;
But when I sleep, in dreams they look on thee,
And darkly bright, are bright in dark directed.
Then thou, whose shadow shadows doth make bright,
How would thy shadow’s form form happy show
To the clear day with thy much clearer light,
When to unseeing eyes thy shade shines so!
How would, I say, mine eyes be blessed made
By looking on thee in the living day,
When in dead night thy fair imperfect shade
Through heavy sleep on sightless eyes doth stay!
All days are nights to see till I see thee,
And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red, than her lips red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound:
I grant I never saw a goddess go,
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet by heaven, I think my love as rare,
As any she belied with false compare.
Take all my loves, my love, yea take them all:
What hast thou then more than thou hadst before?
No love, my love, that thou mayst true love call;
All mine was thine, before thou hadst this more.
Then, if for my love, thou my love receivest,
I cannot blame thee, for my love thou usest;
But yet be blam’d, if thou thy self deceives
By wilful taste of what thyself refusest.
I do forgive thy robbery, gentle thief,
Although thou steal thee all my property:
And yet, love knows it is a greater grief
To bear love’s wrong, than hate’s known injury.
Lascivious grace, in whom all ill well shows,
Kill me with spites yet we must not be foes.
Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed,
The dear repose for limbs with travel tired;
But then begins a journey in my head
To work my mind, when body’s work’s expired:
For then my thoughts – from far where I abide –
Intend a zealous pilgrimage to thee,
And keep my drooping eyelids open wide,
Looking on darkness which the blind do see:
Save that my soul’s imaginary sight
Presents thy shadow to my sightless view,
Which, like a jewel hung in ghastly night,
Makes black night beauteous, and her old face new.
Lo! Thus, by day my limbs, by night my mind,
For thee, and for myself, no quiet find.
These sonnets comprised the first half. Each sonnet’s music was written by a different composer, but because they all had the same instruments to work with, the sound tended to be similar. One piece, sonnet 130, did have additional grating sounds – industrial harsh, I call it. Clanging noises, breaking, grinding, plus some hints of waves and wind, etc. Interestingly enough, this was the funniest of the sonnets when read out by the actor, Richard Dillane, but it took on a more somber tone in the musical version.
Sonnet 27, and to a lesser extent sonnet 43, came across to me as referring to God, rather than a woman (controversial, I know). Sonnet 40 seemed to be about unrequited love. The singers were both good. The woman had a clear, sharp voice, like a sharp, dry white wine. The male singer had a mellow, full voice, like a well-rounded burgundy. They didn’t clash, but I felt they weren’t complementary.
Gavin Friday, one of the composers, spoke the lines for sonnet 40 himself, during the musical version. He took a long time coming on from the back, and used a microphone very close to his mouth, which gave his speech a breathy, almost whispered quality. He walked slowly round the stage, and his exit was timed to fit with the music.
I noticed the male singer was turning his pages very quickly – I wondered if he was going for a speed reading record at first, then I reckoned he may have had the orchestral score, with fewer bars per page.
Both actors were very good. Richard Dillane didn’t refer to his script at all, while Nina Sosanya did have to look at hers, probably had less time to rehearse, although from the post-show it may just be that Richard is very familiar with some sonnets anyway.
These are the sonnets for the second half:
Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end;
Each changing place with that which goes before,
In sequent toil all forwards do contend.
Nativity, once in the main of light,
Crawls to maturity, wherewith being crown’d,
Crooked eclipses ‘gainst his glory fight,
And Time that gave doth now his gift confound.
Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth
And delves the parallels in beauty’s brow,
Feeds on the rarities of nature’s truth,
And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow:
And yet to times in hope my verse shall stand,
Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand.
No, Time, thou shalt not boast that I do change:
Thy pyramids built up with newest might
To me are nothing novel, nothing strange;
They are but dressings of a former sight.
Our dates are brief, and therefore we admire
What thou dost foist upon us that is old;
And rather make them born to our desire
Than think that we before have heard them told.
Thy registers and thee I both defy,
Not wondering at the present nor the past,
For thy records and what we see doth lie,
Made more or less by thy continual haste.
This I do vow, and this shall ever be;
I will be true, despite thy scythe and thee.
How oft, when thou, my music, music play’st,
Upon that blessed wood whose motion sounds
With thy sweet fingers, when thou gently sway’st
The wiry concord that mine ear confounds,
Do I envy those jacks that nimble leap
To kiss the tender inwards of thy hand,
Whilst my poor lips, which should that harvest reap,
At the wood’s boldness by thee blushing stand!
To be so tickl’d, they would change their state
And situation with those dancing chips,
O’er whom thy fingers walk with gentle gait,
Making dead wood more blessed than living lips.
Since saucy jacks so happy are in this,
Give them thy fingers, me thy lips to kiss.
They that have power to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow;
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces,
And husband nature’s riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.
The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet,
Though to itself it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.
My love is strengthen’d, though more weak in seeming;
I love not less, though less the show appear:
That love is merchandiz’d whose rich esteeming
The owner’s tongue doth publish everywhere.
Our love was new, and then but in the spring,
When I was wont to greet it with my lays;
As Philomel in summer’s front doth sing,
And stops her pipe in growth of riper days:
Not that the summer is less pleasant now
Than when her mournful hymns did hush the night,
But that wild music burthens every bough,
And sweets grown common lose their dear delight.
Therefore, like her, I sometime hold my tongue,
Because I would not dull you with my song.
Two loves I have of comfort and despair,
Which like two spirits do suggest me still:
The better angel is a man right fair,
The worser spirit a woman, colour’d ill.
To win me soon to hell, my female evil
Tempteth my better angel from my side,
And would corrupt my saint to be a devil,
Wooing his purity with her foul pride.
And whether that my angel be turn’d fiend
Suspect I may, but not directly tell;
But being from me, both to each friend,
I guess one angel in another’s hell:
Yet this shall I ne’er know, but live in doubt,
Till my bad angel fire my good one out.
Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rime;
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone, besmear’d with sluttish time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
And broils root out the work of masonry,
Nor Mars his sword nor war’[s quick fire shall burn
The living record of your memory.
‘Gainst death and all-oblivious enmity
Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
So, till the judgment that yourself arise,
You live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes.
When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defac’d
The rich-proud cost of outworn buried age;
When sometime lofty towers I see down-raz’d,
And brass eternal slave to mortal rage;
When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
And the firm soil win of the watery main,
Increasing store with loss, and loss with store;
When I have seen such interchange of state,
Or state itself confounded to decay;
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate –
That Time will come and take my love away.
This thought is as a death, which cannot choose
But weep to have that which it fears to lose.
The second half comprised a through-composed piece, with the words being both spoken and sung. On a screen at the back a film was shown, of various images which the director felt reflected the sense of the sonnet and would enhance the music.
Personally, I found this half rather dull. Again, the singing was fine, though the music wasn’t really to my taste, and I didn’t get any great sense of the sonnets involved. The lines were first spoken by Gavin Friday, in similar vein to his previous performance, but this time he was sitting in a corner of the stage and without a microphone. His delivery wasn’t clear enough for me to hear the words, so I was left without much of a reference point as far as the music was concerned, and that probably added to my listlessness.
The film seemed pretty boring as well, although there were several interesting images as it went on. I liked the slow-motion film of the struck match, seeing the amazing shapes taken by the new-born flame, and also the patterns of smoke from the recently blown-out candle. The disintegrating table settings, as someone lifted and then pulled the tablecloth, were also quite enjoyable, as was the water splashing from a puddle. All of this was in slow motion. Less appealing were the tulip flowers, the patterns of bare branches against a grey sky (repeated too often, for too long), and I found the close-ups of torn plastic hanging from barbed wire verging on the pretentious. Both Steve and I had a good laugh afterwards at the other image I remember – a swinging light bulb -because it reminded us of the opening credits for Callan, so many years ago.
As I couldn’t make out enough of the words, I couldn’t pass the time reflecting on their meaning, so this part of the evening dragged for me. Fortunately it was fairly short, and the seats were comfortable.
Post-show – an RSC lady introduced the post-show by explaining how she had got Deborah Shaw and Dominic Cooke together to do this project. Then we went through some of the other connections that were made in the overall process. Various members of the creative ensemble had worked together before or were working together at the time, and so the overall production came together. They all seemed to be united in finding Shakespeare’s sonnets terrifying to tackle. Some composers they approached couldn’t fit it into their schedules, but everyone involved was on the list.
Gavin (main composer) knew what instruments would be used – this is a touring production, so instruments were limited. No violins, but he had a double bass, cello and two violas. They were originally thinking of doing this in the Swan, but then the Courtyard became an option. Dominic asked what the acoustics would be like (while it was still a car park!) and particularly because of the schedule it became the chosen venue.
It was interesting for the actors, with their approach to the text, then seeing how the composers had tackled the same pieces – one sonnet in particular (130) was very funny when read by the actor, but much more serious as a piece of music. There was a general sense of synergy.
Some of the music was only ready in the last few days. The order of the pieces was serendipitous, as programs were being printed in advance, and it so happened the pieces worked well together, although the order may change in the future. This performance is towards the end of the RSC’s Complete Works season, and Opera North will be doing a season of opera based on Shakespeare later this year, so it’s quite a good crossover.
Some people heard it all clearly, some couldn’t, but Gavin’s approach seemed to be that it was more of a sound experience than a word experience, so tough.
Choice of sonnets – guest composers could choose what they wanted, Gavin focused on sonnets he didn’t know and that weren’t well known, also those that were more philosophical rather than the love poems.
© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me