Friday, July 28, 2006

Peter Hall in Bath

Sir Peter Hall's company of actors has returned to the Theatre Royal, Bath, for another summer season of plays in repertory. And, as usual, the productions are performed to a high standard.

Big star names cost a lot of money, and I am not sure that Hall would want them even if he could get them, so he contents himself with actors of the first rank who are capable of playing a wide range of parts. (See, for instance, the Times profile of Andrea Riseborough.)

Five plays are being presented this year, including a repeat of last year's Waiting for Godot; that we shall see later, but so far Mrs GOB and I have seen Habeas Corpus and Measure for Measure.

The plays are, as I say, performed in repertory, which means that you may get three performances of Habeas, followed by four of Measure, with a couple of Miss Julies in between. A play performed at a matinee is not usually performed again in the evening. This makes the actors' task particularly demanding, as very often they are appearing in two different plays on the same day.

Last week we saw Alan Bennett's Habeas Corpus. This is certainly a comedy, and may be a farce, depending on your definition of same. But it is not a traditional English farce, with a realistic set, complete with multiple doors, in and out of which the cast rush with immaculate timing, adulterous couples just managing not to be caught with their trousers down or skirts off. Instead, Bennett gives us a succession of interconnected scenes, more like a film script than a traditional play.

First performed in 1973, the play then starred Alec Guiness. The title caused some confusion, not all punters having been taught Latin, or even law. In a programme note, Bennett tells us that one man in the ticket queue was reported as saying, 'I know it's a flash title but it's meant to be quite corny.' Which, says Bennett, is absolutely true.

Habeas Corpus is about sex, that perennial subject for English farce. Sex was, Bennett says, very much in the air in the 1970s, much more so than in the allegedly libidinous '60s. I suppose that's because it took the provincials and the middle classes a little while to catch up with what had earlier been all the rage in London.

Being about sex, and set in England, the play is therefore very naturally about hypocrisy.

And I think that's all you need to know. We have the usual figures of English farce: a randy clergyman (Canon Throbbing, and he certainly does throb). We have the upper class lady who will stand for no nonsense (Lady Rumpers). We have a flat-chested lady who orders some bosom enhancers, and a man from the false-bosom suppliers who is sent to test them for fit, and chooses the wrong lady to assess. And more of the same. It's all good clean fun, slickly performed, and it's a play to see if you ever get the chance.

Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, on the other hand, is not a comedy. At least not in the ho ho ho sense. It's listed as a comedy in most of the classifications, but that means nothing. To my mind it's a serious play with some comic relief. According to some authorities, it is also a play which has intrinsic structural flaws. 'The play shifts wildly in tone after the first three acts,' it is said, 'and the [central] character of the Duke is deeply ambiguous.'

Well, I don't know about that. It all seemed perfectly OK to me. But before I go on, let me tell you about a little incident which occurred before the curtain went up.

Mrs GOB and I arrived, for a matinee performance, with tickets for stalls seats H7 and H8 in our hot little hands. But behold: an elderly lady and husband were already seated in same. Were they sure they were in the right seats, we asked politely. Oh yes. Quite sure.

This has happened to us before, so we went in search of management to sort the matter out. 'Oh, sit anywhere,' said management airily. 'The house is far from full.' Which was true.

So, Mrs GOB and I returned to row H and I sat down in seat H6, with the elderly lady to my right. She was examining her tickets. 'Oh dear, I'm terribly sorry,' she murmured. 'We are in the right seats, but these tickets are for tomorrow.'

I advised her that management seemed profoundly unconcerned about who sat where (and presumably when), and that, since she and her husband had taken the trouble to turn up, they might as well stay where they were.

The lady seemed grateful and I asked her if she was familiar with the play. No, she wasn't. But she was so looking forward to it. She liked Alan Bannett, and she was hoping that it would be very funny.

Well, my dears. What a dilemma! What to do? Eventually I decided that it would be unkind not to warn her. Actually, I said, she wasn't going to see Alan Bennett's play today. That would be on tomorow. Today it would be Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. And, if it's any comfort, I said, a friend of mine had been in the very same position last year. Turning up for an afternoon's gentle entertainment via Edward Fox in a harmless bit of Shaw -- a nice, elegant, middle-class sort of play -- she had found herself watching a couple of dirty tramps in Waiting for Godot. Not at all what she had signed up for.

However, the elderly lady made the best of it. She and her husband stayed, and enjoyed Measure for Measure, as did I.

I had not previously read the play, or even a summary of it, so I was starting entirely from scratch, and I thought I would have my work cut out to follow the action -- especially being a bit Mutt and Jeff. But in fact I found the play tolerably easy to follow.

Set in Vienna, the play asks us to believe that there is a law banning premarital sex. Two young lovers are caught out by this law. The man is sentenced to death, the woman is exposed to public ridicule. The law is imposed by a puritan fanatic, who is acting for the temporarily absent ruler, the Duke. The Duke himself, meanwhile, disguises himself as a visiting priest, and keeps a disapproving eye on the actions of his hypocritical stand-in. The central question, of course, is whether the nice young man will have his head chopped off or not, and, if not, how his sister is going to get him off the hook. The price of mercy involves the girl sacrificing her virginity to the hypocritical stand-in ruler. Will she allow the nasty fellow to have his wicked way with her? And all like that.

Of course, we are asked to believe that the Duke, by shaving off his beard, can pass himself off as a priest, unrecognised by his friends and colleagues, and that takes a bit of swallowing. But then this is the theatre. It's all a game of let's pretend, from start to finish. Beyond that, I can't see what's so structurally flawed or ambiguous about the play, myself. But then this was my first time through.

According to Sir Peter Hall, the problems of the play are 'precisely the fun of it', and the troubling character of the Duke in particular was what drew him to Measure for Measure in the first place. 'If you build the work around the Duke then it all falls into place,' Hall goes on to say. And: 'If we assume that Shakespeare knew what he was doing then these "difficult" plays suddenly seem much less difficult.'

Well, dammit, I don't see why one wouldn't assume that Shakespeare knew what he was doing. For one thing, he wrote this play in 1603 or 1604, when he had been in the playwrighting business for some time. And for another, it seemed blindingly obvious to me, as I sat there watching the play, without the slightest idea what was coming next, that the writer had a very firm grasp of dramatic structure. Which sounds silly, I know, but I have actually spent a great many years studying dramatic structure, and have written a few plays myself; so I reckon I know when a playwright is up to the job and when he isn't. And for my money, old William knew what he was a-doing of.

One thing did occur to me, however, and that's this. I have come to the conclusion that Will more or less assumed that his audience would see his plays several times. After all, there were very few theatres available at the time, even in London. So I don't think he expected the audience to absorb every nuance at first hearing.

What one tends to forget sometimes, in view of the vast intellectual prestige which surrounds Shakepeare's name, and the fact that the audience almost feels as if it's being tested by turning up to watch one of the plays, is that he can, on occasion, deliver one hell of an emotional punch.

With me, this tends to happen when I'm watching a play that I've never seen before. Such as The Winter's Tale. Or, in this instance, Measure for Measure. The scene at the end, where the young virgin, Isabella, finally realises that her brother has not been executed, as she thought, very nearly made me blub. And a playwright can't do more than that, can he? That's what the theatre's all about.

Of course, I didn't actually blub, because I'm English, and Englishmen don't go around sniffling into their handkies. It's just not done.


Susan Hill said...

Years ago a friend of mine decided he really ought to get to grips with more modern culture - art, books, music. He felt he was stuck in his ways.So he booked to see the new opera by Hans Werner Henze at the Coliseum. He braced himself after having read up on it beforehand, and told himself it would be good for his soul.
But, he said to me, 'My dear, imagine my utter relief when I realised I had booked for the wrong night, and the curtain rose on Die Fleidermaus.'

Anonymous said...

Being a tragi-comedy, Measure for Measure makes for rather an awkward example, but it strikes me that what was tragic long ago remains tragic today, while what was funny long ago may not so easily make us laugh now. Which is why many directors go over the top in staging Shakespeare’s comedies. (Got to make them laugh, got to make them laugh . . .)

Some years ago, I attended a performance of The Government Inspector at the National Theatre. Now Gogol was quite explicit about it -– and I’m not going to go into detail about the plot, because it’s not relevant -– that the work is not to be played for laughs. Play it straight, he said, because the comedy is in the situation. However, the director of this performance (sorry, can’t remember) just had to go for guffaws. He turned the play into slapstick, and thus ruined it -– for me at least. Either he didn’t understand Gogol, or he didn’t trust his audience. Black mark either way.

As it happens, the very word comedy is problematic -– another difficulty which doesn’t exist with tragedy. How many young readers, I wonder, come to Chekhov looking for laughs, and go away wondering why this writer of comedies is so unfunny?

Peter Cook summed it up many years ago, when he gave his reaction to Leonardo’s famous cartoon, which he had just seen at the National Gallery: “I couldn’t see the joke.”

But there are problems with Shakespeare which go far beyond looking for the best way to stage his comedies today. They all stem from his iconic status. Doubtless there exist conscientious teachers who try to take a critical approach, but the fact is that we all learn from a very young age that Shakespeare is THE ULTIMATE LITERARY GENIUS. His status was at one time enforceable by violence (the cane), and it’s hardly surprising that many of us harbour against the old bugger a secret grudge which will never quite go away.

Susan Hill tells us of her friend who was relieved to find that he had booked for Johann Strauss instead of Hans Werner Henze. His Grumpiness himself tells us of the elderly couple who found themselves in the presence of William Shakespeare rather than that of Alan Bennett. But how many, I wonder, would even notice if, instead of Shakespeare, you gave them, say, Webster, or Beaumont and Fletcher -– or Marks & Spencer, if it comes to that? Where Shakespeare is concerned, our critical faculty was cauterised long ago.

Many, I suspect, stand in relation to Shakespeare as Winston Smith’s neighbour Parsons did to Big Brother in Nineteen Eighty-Four. He thought he loved BB, and was horrified to discover (when denounced by his charming young daughter) that he had said in his sleep: “Down with Big Brother!”.

Only many years after my violent introduction to his genius was I finally, and grudgingly, persuaded to accept that Shakespeare really is the sun in our literary firmament. It was reading (not seeing) King Lear that did it. Like it or not, such thunder and lightning could never have erupted from the pen of Mickey Spillane (RIP), of Dan Brown -– nay, nor even of Barbara Cartland. The only comparable work in English literature, I reckon, is Wuthering Heights, but that, as they say, is another story.

Anyway, and finally, just in case anyone should wish to know the truth about Shakespeare, all is revealed here.

cate sweeney said...

Love the story of the couple getting the wrong night. I wonder if they did turn up for Alan Bennet the next night?
Anyway this is just to try and get in touch with you to invite you to book reading/signing at Watserstones Bath August 10th @ 7pm of my book Selfish Jean and Edward Charles' In The Shadow of Lady Jane (both Macmillan New Writing) I think you had a long chat with my writer friend Rosalind who lives in Bath. Anyway sorry to use your blog page for this, but not sure how to contact you! Best wishes

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