January 2001 TheaterPro.Com

Bard on the Boards

Marking a spectacular end to the old year and a great beginning for the new, are two London events: "The Tempest" at the Almeida and the Royal Shakespeare Company cycle of the history plays opening at the Barbican with "Richard II" at the Pit Theatre, to be followed, on the main stage, by "Henry IV" Parts 1 and 2 opening in February, and "Henry V" in March. In April at the Young Vic, the three parts of Henry VI may be seen, through 26 May. "Richard III" begins at the Young Vic April 4. (Performance schedule: www.barican.org.uk ).

Theatergoers should avail themselves of this opportunity to see the entire cycle of Shakespeare’s histories plays, a superb achievement by the Royal Shakespeare Company and a once-in-a-generation chance to witness the sweep of English history in a crucial period, expressed by the master who may be bending fact somewhat but who brings to life unforgettable characters speaking golden verse, creating theatrical excitement now as it did over four centuries ago.

"The Tempest"

In "The Tempest," which runs through February 17 at the Almeida, Ian McDiarmid as Prospero bids farewell to his art of magic, and with this production, the Almeida bids farewell for two years to its historic house on Almeida Street, Islington. A lottery grant is making possible the refurbishment of the playhouse, while the Almeida productions will be seen in a converted bus garage in King’s Cross, near the new British Library. Expect an exciting venue, as the architect is the same who converted the movie studio in Shoreditch last summer for Ralph Fiennes’ "Coriolanus" and "Richard II."

Directed by Jonathan Kent, "The Tempest" is a daring production with a daring interpretation of its central character. Water is the visual image just as it is the spoken one, with a stage lagoon used imaginatively for the tempest that opens the play, and thereafter as the watery habitat of Ariel and his company of spirits, who portray mythical goddesses and dancers bringing in a banquet.

In contrast to the magical setting is the testy and cynical Prospero. Seeking revenge against his usurping brother, he is a usurper of this natural and beautiful island as are the empire-builders in Edwardian frock coats, King Alonso and his entourage, who arrive tempest tossed down a gangplank over the water. Misanthropic and melancholy, McDiarmid’s Prospero sees Caliban’s rejection of his pains at enlightenment as another betrayal by those he nurtured. Lacking the pathos of recent p.c. interpretations, Caliban is a lascivious brute who mirrors Prospero’s anger yet fears him. Given his temperament, this Prospero finds it more difficult than the usual interpreters to renounce vengeance and forgive his enemies, and his farewell to magic is a sad, reluctant one. See more in *******News*****LINK

Shakespeare’s History Cycle at the Barbican

The Royal Shakespeare Company successfully launched the eight-play history cycle at Stratford this past season, and now brings it to the Barbican in London. The Pit, the smaller theatre at the Barbican, has been transformed from its black box to shining white, preserving the intimacy of the Stratford Other Place, where this production originated.

The best thing about the production is still Samuel West’s interpretation of Richard, from the boyish monarch tormenting John of Gaunt and cavorting with minions Bush and Bagot, to the tearful, disconsolate king returning from Ireland to discover all is lost, to his distraught relinquishing of the crown at his deposition, to his final soliloquy, arriving at wisdom too late. Director Stephen Pimlott weakens the impact of the final soliloquy, however, by moving it to the play’s opening, and by assigning it to Bolingbroke as well. I note with some satisfaction that other critics, having seen the production again in London, now agree with me that the mound of earth and the coffin-like box on stage throughout are distractions, as is the insistence that the audience participate. West is a talented actor, with the insight, the sensitivity, the voice, and the appearance that should make him a fine Hamlet, the role in which he is scheduled to appear in the new season at Stratford.

In "Henry IV" Parts 1 and 2, directed by Michael Attenborough, David Troughton brings to vivid life the troubled king whose Bolingbroke dethroned Richard and who must now bear the heavy consequences. Carlisle’s prediction at the deposition of Richard begins to come true: "The woe’s to come; the children yet unborn/ Shall feel this day as sharp to them as thorn." The nobles’ plot against Henry IV, formed as soon as he was crowned, now comes to a head as war breaks out, deterring Henry’s plan to travel to the Holy Land in penance for the murder of Richard. Northumberland and son Hotspur (Adam Levy), who helped Bolingbroke to the crown, resent the absence of Henry’s gratitude, question his right of succession, and lead the rebellion. The wild behavior of Henry’s son and heir Hal (William Houston) is another thorn in the king’s side. But Hal’s riotous behavior in the tavern and at a Gadshill robbery we know is only temporary, as Hall tells us early on. Falstaff is the real audience pleaser in these two pays now as it was then, when Elizabethan audiences, displeased with a rival’s play, would call for "Fat Meat," demanding the players substitute Falstaff in "Henry IV."

Having delighted earlier audiences in the roles of such Shakespearean clowns as Bottom, Desmond Barrit reveals his comic gifts again as the fat knight whose wit and fellowship in the tavern Hal prefers to his somber responsibilities at the court. Highlights of the Hal-Falstaff relationship are the scene in which Hal and Falstaff, crowned with a cushion, rehearse the prince’s forthcoming interview with the king ; Falstaff’s battlefield soliloquy on honor; and Hall’s rejection of his former friend at the end of Part 2., regrettable though required.

Having the same actors carry over their roles in the four plays brings an immediacy to the series and reveals the development of the characters as the actors portray them through two and sometimes three of the histories. Troughton goes from a sturdy, opportunistic Bolingbroke in "Richard II" to a much deeper, troubled king in "Henry IV" who realizes that "uneasy lies the head that wears a crown," to the weak and dying monarch whose faith in his son is restored in a session only Shakespeare could depict with such daring. Having taken the crown from the sleeping king whom Hal believes is dead, he then justifies himself to his enraged, accusatory father.

Hal’s growth into the "star of England" is chronicled in "Henry V," directed by Edward Hall. William Houston in the title role is recalled by audiences as the prince who showed so little promise in the first part of "Henry IV" 1 and in most of part two. Now he dazzles everyone with his statesmanship at home and bravery in battle, winning realms in France along with the daughter of the King. In a delightful wooing scene, Henry predicts that their son will be a great leader, but the next three plays, "Henry VI" Parts 1, 2, and 3 will prove him wrong, as the Wars of the Roses continue the battle for the crown and bring to pass Carlisle’s prophecy at the deposition of Richard II.

TheaterPro.Com Article reprinted from TheaterPro.Com and was written by Alice Griffin. This article first appeared in January 2001 as the "Bard On The Boards" article for the month. Click on the image to see this month's article.

Reprinted for convenience and with permission. No copyright infringements on TheaterPro.Com or Alice Griffin are intended.

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