(This article was unpublished.)
This summer York added one more to its ordinary stock of tourist attractions and general wonders in the construction of a pop-up early modern-style theatre, situated elegantly beside the great landmark of Clifford’s Tower. This was modelled after the Rose Theatre which stood from 1587 to c. 1606 on London’s south bank. About this re-creation of the present theatre, we are told that:
Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre will combine state-of-the-art Layher system scaffolding technology with the historic 13-sided design of a 16th-century Shakespearean theatre.
But the structure, while enchanting from outside—and while so remaining from inside looking at the stage—was less so when one turned around to see the undisguised scaffolding, of which the company seems oddly proud in the above. Considering the sometimes lofty ticket prices (a major grievance to a Yorkshireman born, especially when his delicate other half would not countenance a groundling ticket), one would have welcomed some at least perfunctory woodwork over this rather ugly frame, without which decoration, the idle but pleasing fantasy of an Elizabethan play-going experience was rather fully dismantled (would that the scaffolding itself could be so easily). The theatre staged Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Richard III from July to September. This review covers the former two of these.
Romeo and Juliet
Although this production presented a fine cast overall, I found myself disappointed with the laddish, even brutal Romeo (Alexander Vlahos), who shouted almost all of his lines, grabbed Juliet’s posterior in the more romantic scenes, and played his part by-and-large for laughs (though, when he did so, he was at his most successful). For example, in order to decorate Romeo’s entry in 1.2, Vlahos walked through the crowd of groundlings, took a drink of some unfortunate audience member’s beer, and then, giving it back, lightly hit the poor boy on the head. This all gets faint laughter, except from me, who hereon looked on the prospect of this Romeo’s early demise not with pity, but with fervour and expectation. Meanwhile, some of the play’s subtler jokes fall completely flat. As one might expect, Romeo’s final speech left this reviewer and his co-attendee unmoved, but threw the beauty of Juliet’s (played spectacularly by Alexandra Dowling) into high relief. Still, this sort of physical engagement with the audience was a staple of both productions and, whilst mostly used as a slightly cheap trick by which to score laughter, it did add a frisson to the productions, as spectators became lightly involved in performances which, while neatly and precisely organised, welcomed in some of the aleatoric, too.
Although much of the poetry was delivered with an absurd and inexplicable anger, which degraded the production and erased the dignity which redeems the often unrestrained and melodramatic emotion—the worst offender here being the tyrannical Capulet (Robert Gwilym)—Alexandra Dowling’s Juliet, though too quiet in her first scenes, became, against all this, the true highlight of the show, owing to the beauty and clarity of her speaking. It was a shame that she was given sometimes absurdly skimpy outfits, and that the uncanny resemblance of her face to that of Bambi was so much a point of focus, but these hardly affected a truly moving and skilled performance. Other great performances included that of the Nurse (Julie Legrand) and the female Mercutio (Shanaya Rafaat), both of whose energy and brilliance in comedy far exceeded the rest of the cast. The charisma and vigour of Rafaat’s Mercutio made his-her death at the end of the first half a deeply moving conclusion to that part. Paris, although a much smaller part, was played with a moving dignity by Richard Teverson, and I find myself wishing for a version of the play in which Vlahos’ Romeo had been quickly dispatched, and Paris and Juliet happily united. Tybalt (Edward Sayer) was similarly effective: his manner was furious and impressive, if a little heavy-handed. (Perhaps, for example, a Tybalt of gradually revealed depths, or a Tybalt quietly fierce, would make a more interesting villain than the moustache-twirler this production staged.) But his devil party costume in 1.5 was very fine. Overall, a beautiful production, if a little simplistic in the world it presents.
This performance staged an atmospheric and nightmarish world. Although truly enthralling at times, its incessant brutality risked turning into banality. For example, when the heads of the first, rebellious Thane of Cawdor and his comrades are grossly impaled on pikes at Macbeth’s castle, it is not with a sophisticated irony that King Duncan then says,
This castle hath a pleasant seat. The air
Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself
Unto our gentle senses (1.6.1–3),
but only with a rather flat contradiction. The witches were used both badly and well: my co-attendee and I felt they were singularly unimpressive in the first scene, played in a simple, unaffected manner by one man (Robin Simpson) and two women (Clare Corbett, Maria Gray; Hecate was played by Amanda Ryan) in Yorkshire accents and rough clothing. Their role remained ambiguous for most of the first act, but they seemed to be presented as something like malcontenti, or mercenary soldiers. However, they were put to brilliant and inventive use when the three actors played the parts of Banquo’s assassins (thus making retrospective sense of the malcontent/mercenary presentation), chiming creepily together, ‘We are resolved, my lord’ (3.1.140). By the vision scene (3.5), the sounds and staging, as well as the skeletal masks of the witches, made for a truly involving, hellish show. Although a great spectacle, this all forces one to question why Macbeth might ever fall for such premonitions as lead to his downfall, since the supernatural is (in this reading of the play) evidently possible and, indeed, much to be expected. Thus, when Macbeth brags to himself of his invulnerability to any man ‘of woman born’ (4.1.96), and the impregnability of Dunsinane until Birnam Wood joins it, we simply conclude that he is a fool, or possessed, or both.
Perhaps the best use of the witches was at the very end of the play, although it required a slight adaptation of the text. As the newly installed Malcolm (Emilio Iannucci) speaks the usual closing lines,
this, and what needful else
That calls upon us, by the grace of grace,
We will perform in measure, time, and place:
So thanks to all at once and to each one,
Whom we invite to see us crown’d at Scone (5.11.37–41),
the witches tarry, and say again the play’s opening lines,
When shall we three meet again?
In thunder, lightning, or in rain? (1.1.1–2),
implying a sort of continuous cycle of evil. And where the first scene declares the specific purpose: ‘There to meet with Macbeth’ (1.1.7), here the last ends simply with ‘There to meet with…’. Mysterious or frustrating—take your pick—it was an inventive adaptation of the text, without being too irritatingly invasive.
The cast were generally very skilled, although the slight want of charm in Banquo (Mark Holgate) made me welcome his death as I had Romeo’s. However, I later regretted this eagerness on my part, since the brutality of Banquo’s killing was a little overdone, though much in keeping with the brutal world this production generally tried to apply to (or forced on) the text. Another oddity almost of this kind was the pointlessly sexy fondling of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth prior to killing Duncan. This was probably pinched from the recent Fassbender-Cotillard film, where they inexplicably couple between agreeing on and carrying out the murder. Yes, there are a few sexy suggestions in the text; but I do not see why we must remove every subtlety. Malcolm (Iannucci), though in general well acted, underperformed the strange volte-face in his late conference with Macduff in England. This (always odd) change of character requires something like a fermata, a silence, before its turn, and this was here totally lacking.
The show-stealer of this performance, however, was Paul Hawkyard’s Macduff. Firstly, his speech on the death of Duncan, ‘Confusion now hath made his masterpiece’ (2.3.67), was a highlight of the first half: expressive, clear, and not overdone. His passion seemed truly felt, and engaged the audience likewise. This already excellent work was then exceeded by his grief on the news of his family’s slaughter by Macbeth. At this point I felt the actor would play Lear—at least his last hundred or so lines—admirably, so convincing was his grief. Thus when, in the penultimate scene, he finds Macbeth and says, ‘Turn, hell-hound, turn’ (5.10.5), the moment before combat comes off as truly thrilling. Good performances were also given by the richly humanised Lady Macbeth (Leandra Ashton), Macbeth himself (Richard Standing)—whose vision of the dead Banquo at the dining table was done with real energy and panache—and the Porter (Fine Time Fontayne), who of course got laughs aplenty when he appeared from under the stage with no shirt and a bottle of drink. However, his Duncan (the parts being doubled) was often unintelligible.
All in all, these productions were much to be recommended, and I eagerly await the theatre’s offerings of next summer. I am left wondering, however, why lover of early modern theatre in the north are left only with a temporary theatre and the inconvenience of travelling southwards for regular performances of Shakespeare or Renaissance drama in historically informed settings. Surely some sort of early modern playhouse is long overdue in Yorkshire on a more permanent basis. Until that hope comes to fruition, I would recommend these summer productions both as a stop-gap, and for their own sakes.
School of English
University of Leeds