Next year the Stratford Shakespeare Festival will be putting on Twelfth Night, which is practically our favorite Shakespeare play. But we’re going to skip it. Till further notice, we’re not paying to see Shakespeare plays directed by Des McAnuff. There will be other shows at Stratford in 2011.
Mr. McAnuff’s As You Like It has a lot in common with his Romeo and Juliet in 2008 (see this post) and his Macbeth in 2009 (see this post): actors who don’t seem to understand their lines, speeches that can’t be heard, a jarringly uneven tone, confusing visual images, and “modern” settings that don’t work. Like most mediocre Shakespeare productions, it has all too many “dead zones” – long minutes in which the actors seem merely to be reciting, rather than acting, their lines, causing the audience to glaze over, not really understanding what’s being said.
The main culprits at our show were Paul Nolan (Orlando), Andrea Runge (Rosalind), and, to our surprise, Brent Carver (Jacques). Two years ago, Mr. McAnuff made the mistake of casting a young musical theater performer with no classical acting chops as Juliet (see this post.) He did it again this year. Mr. Nolan was superb in 2009 in West Side Story, see this post), but here, as Orlando, unaided by a microphone, he rushed uncomprehendingly through his lines, stood woodenly around the stage, and failed to project his voice.
Andrea Runge, as Rosalind, was better heard, but her volume came at the price of expression. Ms. Runge’s method of delivering a given line of Shakespeare is to pick out one syllable at random and to attack it. Each of her phrases had exactly the same dynamic shape; her voice fell off at the end of each phrase in exactly the same way.
We even had trouble hearing the experienced and capable Brent Carver, as Jacques (in this show pronounced “JACK-wes,” which we didn’t understand). Mr. Carver delivered his lines with inexplicable stops and starts, and his “All the world’s a stage” speech tailed off so dramatically that we simply didn’t hear what he said about the last of the seven ages of man:
. . . second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
At our performance, the audience sat dully on its hands through much of the first part of this comedy, showing signs of life only when Ben Carlson (as the jester Touchstone) and Lucy Peacock (as Audrey, the ignorant, goat-tending object of his lust) came on stage. I had envisioned a clownish, fumbling Touchstone; Mr. Carlson’s cynical, urbane master of wordplay was a delight. Mr. Carlson, Ms. Peacock, and Brian Tree (as Adam) accounted for nearly all the entertainment value in this show. We regret the necessity of missing Mr. Carlson as Feste in next year’s Twelfth Night.
It’s a elementary responsibility of a director to ensure that his actors are heard. It’s also his job, we’d think, to ensure that a play strikes a consistent tone. We grant, as Mr. McAnuff observes in the program notes for this show, that the first half of As You Like It, which features threats against the lives of Orlando and Rosalind, is darker than the second half. But Mr. McAnuff evidently felt that it needed to be much darker still. Ignoring both the text and the spirit of the play, he gratuitously injected two deaths (including a murder) into its first hour of this comedy.
The first death left us genuinely puzzled. At the end of Act II of the play (as the playwright wrote it), Orlando is welcomed to Arden by Duke Senior and his band of merry men, but insists that he cannot eat or rest until his exhausted old servant Adam (an endearing Brian Tree) gets some nourishment. Orlando carries his “venerable burden” in, they feed him, and after a song (“Blow, blow, thou winter wind”), Duke Senior welcomes the revived old man: “Good old man/Thou art right welcome as thy master is. Support him by the arm.”
But in this show, Mr. McAnuff has Adam expire during the song; they wrap up his corpse and carry him off. The playwright created the Forest of Arden as a place of refuge, reconciliation, and restoration. Why shouldn’t Arden have been a place of recovery and rest for Adam, as the playwright specified?
Minutes later, at the beginning of Act III, when the black-hearted Duke Frederick demands that Oliver track down his brother Orlando and bring him back dead or alive, Mr. McAnuff has the Duke show Oliver that he means business by pulling a gun and casually shooting one of his courtiers. Needless to say, the play’s text provides no warrant for this jarring bit of stage business. Why did Mr. McAnuff feel compelled to make Duke Frederick appear even more villainous than he already was — not merely a bully and an egoist, but a sociopath to boot? The stunt serves only to shock. Perhaps, in directing this scene, Mr. McAnuff was still trapped in the world of Macbeth, which he directed a year ago, in which random, paranoid murders were par for the course. Perhaps he was thinking about King Lear, in which the blinding of Gloucester and other scenes of brutal violence are brilliantly juxtaposed with scenes of tenderness and comic relief. But As You Like It is not that sort of play.
And Mr. McAnuff’s perverse decision to militarize this comedy ruined Emsworth’s favorite speech from As You Like It, Duke Senior’s ode to the pastoral life, which begins,
Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile,
Hath not old custom made this life more sweet
Than that of painted pomp?
Act II, Scene I. No doubt there are many ways to stage this scene; we had imagined Duke Senior and his brothers in exile sitting around a roaring campfire to keep off the chill autumn air, toasting one another with hijacked ale, singing songs, and telling bawdy jokes and stories. But Mr. McAnuff had Tom Rooney, as Duke Senior, shout out his lines, not to friends in a close, convivial circle, but to half a dozen armed comrades scattered among the audience in the large Festival Theater in the posture of lookouts and sharpshooters. Not surprisingly, the effect of the speech was lost. Mr. Rooney was delivering his toast to friends who were barely within earshot, off in six different directions.
We found even more objectionable the image of Arden as an armed, fearful camp of rebels. That’s the opposite of the playwright’s image. The men in the forest are happy and content; Duke Senior observes complacently to his friends, “Are not these woods/More free from peril than the envious court?”, and a few scenes later, when Orlando blunders into the camp with his sword drawn (Act II, Scene 7), ready to fight for food, he is welcomed with a joke from Jacques, a “welcome to our table,” and a rebuke from Duke Senior for coming into their peaceful place with a show of force.
Then there was Mr. McAnuff’s head-scratching decision to “set” this Shakespeare comedy in the 1920s, based on his observation (in the program) that communism, anarchism and fascism were all repressive movements opposed to modern art. To be fair, we rather enjoyed the colorful, surrealistic images from which the set and the props were constructed. What we didn’t fathom was the director’s apparently sincere belief that there was some meaningful connection between the pre-modern, pre-ideological world of As You Like It and the Europe of the 1920s and 1930s, when fascism and communism challenged the humanism of the Renaissance and the Reformation. What had these worlds to do with one another?
We understand that every Shakespeare director feels driven to do “something new” with a familiar play. (We understand, even if we don’t like it.) But they shouldn’t deceive themselves into thinking that “setting” a Shakespeare play in fascist pre-World War II Europe — what a stale, over-used concept, especially at Stratford! — will actually help audiences understand the play better.
It won’t. As the wife of our bosom commented as we were driving away from Stratford, if this sort of approach confounds adults who are familiar with Shakespeare, how much more must it baffle children and youths who are experiencing Shakespeare for the first time?