Reviewed by Hannah August.
Seeing the Globe’s Henry V and the RSC’s Twelfth Night on subsequent days was a pretty good way to throw into relief the different approaches to Shakespeare’s text currently being taken by two of the powerhouses of 21st century British Shakespeare performance. The Globe’s pacy Henry wears its rhetoric lightly, Jamie Parker’s conversational delivery contributing to the accessible humanity of a Henry who has very evidently only recently ceased to be a Hal. The RSC’s Twelfth Night, on the other hand, is bogged down by ponderous recitation of lines that should sparkle.
It’s hard to not want to relate these differences to the two productions’ venues, and their respective audience demographics. The Globe seems conscious of its yard full of tourists, happy to shell out a fiver for the novelty of being a groundling at a reconstructed Elizabethan playhouse, their familiarity with Shakespeare’s language by no means guaranteed. There’s a sense at the Globe of a need to breathe new life into Shakespeare’s words that is paradoxically made all the more urgent by the ‘historical’ context of Globe productions. By contrast, the RSC seems to be perpetuating a reverent attitude to Shakespeare’s verse that might appeal to the grey-haired afficionados who packed out the Roundhouse the night I was there and who’ll recognise each line as it’s spoken – but they’re missing a trick in terms of attracting a younger audience to fill those empty seats in fifteen years’ time, not least in terms of the prohibitively high ticket prices.
Much like Peter Hall’s disappointingly flat Twelfth Night at the National in 2011, David Farr’s lacklustre RSC production lacks a sense of playfulness, which should come not just from the action but also from the language. As an example, Shakespearean scholar Lorna Hutson observed several years ago that Olivia’s command to Cesario/Viola to describe what he/she would do if wooing her in Orsino’s stead elicits exactly the type of extemporized declamation Elizabethan schoolboys were called on to compose. “Make me a willow cabin at your gate” isn’t a pretty speech that Viola has pre-prepared – she is, as Olivia observes, now “out of [her] text”, and her amazement when her frantic improvisation has the desired (or undesired) effect should be palpable. Emily Taafe’s Viola is too muted with sadness for this to be possible: yes, apparent bereavement and unrequited love are sad, but there’s also an absurdity to the situation she finds herself in that should allow for wry humour.
Jon Bausor’s design seems to want to foreground this absurdity, with its wonky stage and an irreverent mish-mash of modern eras when it comes to props and costumes, but it’s telling that most of the moments of real humour (in a play that is innately funny) come from the use of anachronistic props: Jonathan Slinger’s Malvolio beeping around the stage in an electric golf cart, or characters appearing and disappearing through a revolving door. The entrance of the cross-gartered Malvolio is typically hilarious, but other, less visual humour is disappointingly absent from scenes such as the lead-up to Viola/Cesario’s duel with Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Bruce Mackinnon). In a production that fails to elicit much sympathy for its characters, the only truly engaging performance comes from Kirsty Bushell as an increasingly dishevelled and desperate Olivia, aware that her sudden love for Cesario is causing her to lose all sense of propriety, but unable to help herself. Kevin McMonagle as Feste has fun channelling Bob Dylan and Nick Cave in his songs, but on the whole the production fails to enchant.
The high spirits of Dominic Dromgoole’s Henry V are more crowd-pleasing – the Globe’s role as provider of Shakespeare for the masses means it was never going to produce a Henry that properly interrogated the darker side of war and occupation. Parker’s charm and charisma would in any case have sat awkwardly within such an interpretation – his sensitive Henry is the production’s lynchpin, feeling his oats as the commander of a conquering army, his youth inevitably overpowering the age of David Hargreave’s doddery French king. Parker is an actor who is completely at home in the Globe space, his performance carefully acknowledging each pocket of audience, and not succumbing to the temptation felt by less experienced Globe actors to play predominantly to the groundlings. This is a Henry who garners our sympathy when he privately shows his grief at the treachery and necessary execution of the three English lords in Act 2, and whose stunned amazement at the disproportionate numbers of French and English casualties conveys a humility that underpins his endearingly gauche wooing of Katherine in Act 5.
The production’s strong on humour: highlights include the scenes with Olivia Ross as the French Katherine (although it’s interesting how mangled her climactic pronunciation of ‘gown’ has to become for this joke to work on non-French-speaking audiences – its textual rendering as ‘count’ makes this readers’ humour, not playgoers’), and Sam Cox’s comically dissolute Pistol. The hilarity of his leek-eating is nicely balanced by the pathos of his announcement of Nell’s death. In a play that showcases the multiple voices of Britain, the laughs elicited by the gobbledygook of Chris Starkie’s Swedish-chef-esque Captain Jamy are slightly cheap, but it’s one of the production’s few false notes. Slick and accessible even for those daunted by the idea of a history play – and far more bang for your buck than the RSC’s Twelfth Night.
Twelfth Night is on at the Roundhouse until July 5; Henry V plays at the Globe until August 26.