Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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August 14, 2011

Sam Troughton and Mariah Gale in Romeo and Juliet Photo: Stephanie Berger

It seemed like a great idea. Well, at least if not a great idea, a grand gesture. The Royal Shakespeare Company would pack up five productions, a company of 41 actors and crew, 21 musicians and build a 975 seat replica of their UK theater weighing hundreds of tons and ship the whole thing to New York for 6 weeks of performances in the summer. Best yet, this would take place as part of the Lincoln Center Festival inside the giant Park Avenue Armory that has become an arts venue of some note in the last few years by hosting many other grand gestures of varying level of artistic success. (Like 2008's incomparable production of Die Soldaten.) The RSC is no stranger to touring, but this visit would present something much more ambitious in scale and create a unique and special occasion. So off to New York I went to experience Shakespeare as it is currently done by the RSC. And on first seeing the construction inside the Armory’s drill hall, I was taken aback. The large metal frame of the theater has four stairwells, two elevators and a steel frame covered with giant red plastic tarps making the whole thing look like a foreboding Anish Kapoor installation. Inside the circular theater space was a thrust stage with rafters full of elaborate lighting and technical equipment through which the roof of the Armory was visible.

Greg Hicks and Sam Troughton in Julius Caesar Photo: Stephanie Berger

So with all this exciting visual set up, what could possibly go wrong? It turns out that even in the Park Avenue Armory with the RSC, the play's the thing. Sadly on this closing weekend of the festival, I’m finding out that the productions on offer despite wonderful technical values are perhaps some of the most boring Shakespeare I've come across. Of the three plays I saw on Friday and Saturday, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, and King Lear the shows have gone from mildly interesting to just barely above the threshold of wakefulness. While there are American’s who believe that no one can perform Shakespeare like the British, the RSC’s visit to New York is proving that is not sufficient for success in itself. What’s most odd is that despite different directors, all three of these productions mentioned above suffer from very similar maladies. All are marked by attractive and well-lit sets, competent casts, and beautiful, cleanly delivered language. All three of them also come off as lifeless museum pieces or dramatic recitations that have little emotional connection with audiences. It’s all very noble and grand, but decidedly unaffecting.

Greg Hicks and Sophie Russell in King Lear Photo: Stephanie Berger

Arguably the most successful production I’ve seen thus far is Rupert Goold’s staging of Romeo and Juliet. Goold flirts with the idea of presenting the young lovers as contemporary teenagers in contrast to the Elizabethan garments of everyone else in the play. The prologue and epilogue of the play are presented as audio commentary that one of the characters is listening to over a set of headphones as if at a museum exhibit. Who knows what this has to do with anything. But when the young lovers don Elizabethan garb for their final crypt dialog only to have their bodies discovered by Columbo and a now modern-dressed city of Verona, the painfully obvious point is driven home. Baz Luhrmann made a cottage industry out of this stuff a decade ago and Goold’s Romeo was timid by comparison. There were several very good performances including Mariah Gale as Juliet and a wonderful Noma Dumezweni as the Nurse. The handsome Dyfan Dwyfor filled in as Romeo as he has for several performances since Sam Troughton injured himself earlier in the run. And just to make matters worse on Saturday, an alarm in the Armory went off twice in Act I stopping the show both times. The fact that Dwyfor was plagued by a torch that refused to extinguish after several attempts in the crypt scene generating lots of unintended laughter just managed to put a cap on a somewhat exhausting performance.

The technical problems for that evening's closing performance of Julius Caesar were only slightly less comical as the audience was greeted with a complimentary, loaner Chinese fan and the information that the Armory’s A/C was out. Director Lucy Bailey’s blood and guts Roman retread veered into somnolence in the extra warmth. The production which starts with a wrestling match between Romulus and Remus, relies heavily on video projections of scenery and panels of scrims where large crowd scenes are augmented with images of extras. These cold computer generated images were only slightly more life-like than the demonstrative oratory approach to the text itself. Sam Troughton was quite good here as Brutus as was Darrell D’Silva as Mark Antony. But this battle was over long before it was engaged by any of the combatants in their mud covered body stockings. Even the battle scenes seemed slow and surprisingly non-threatening. By the time characters started falling on their swords, my interest had long since flagged.

And then there was the final performance of David Farr’s King Lear from the night before. One almost expects King Lear to be bad. It’s not an easy play and there is always that rather contrived plot device of dividing the estate to work around. Farr didn’t fare very well, and certainly not as successfully as Trevor Nunn’s former Lear for the RSC that was last seen in Los Angeles in 2007 with Ian McKellen. Farr uses a combination of WWI costuming and props with Elizabethan touches here and there. Again it's not clear what point this serves other than to evoke a period of war imagery a contemporary audience might recognize. Like the other plays mentioned here there seemed to be the slightest bit of updating to suggest some idea of freshness without actually delivering on it. Greg Hicks was a solid Lear (he also played Julius Caesar) and his daughters Goneril (Kelly Hunter), and Regan (Katy Stephens) were adequately evil and creepy. But none of the mad scenes hit home and the several moments in the play sure to bring tears to the eye fell flat under the weight of a cold and academic approach to the work. It was a slow start to be sure, but with a final day of performances to turn things around, there might be something to be said for all the construction yet.


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