Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Shakespearean Iconography

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Shakespearean Iconography

Article excerpt

THE RESTORED GLOBE THEATRE IN LONDON continues to have the best spoken and worst directed Shakespeare company in the world. Artistic Director Mark Rylance's decision to have a speech expert, or "Master of Verse," for each production has given us verse speaking that is clear, vigorously rhythmic, and nuanced. Although the actors are mostly unknowns, their speech is poetic in the best sense, never fluty or artificial, but natural, coming from within the characters themselves, as if we were hearing a troupe of native speakers from the Land of Blank Verse. Unfortunately, Rylance's directors (including himself, although he did not direct last summer) are mostly from the Land of Blank Imagination.

My favorite Globe director prior to last summer was Tim Carroll, the only one to bring a sense of ceremony to the productions. The very fact that Shakespeare's plays are written in verse implies a formal style of production, as does the unchanging, elaborately decorated stage of the Globe itself. Besides, most of Shakespeare's plays abound with ceremonies within them-banquets, weddings, funerals, coronations, abdications, trials, hearings, orations, plays, duels-or depict events that have a ceremonial quality, like the murder of Desdemona. Most such scenes at the Globe have ended up looking like Piccadilly Circus on a busy afternoon, but Carroll's shows had precision and style. His production of Macbeth last summer, however, was an undiluted disaster. Style had become stylization for its own sake, at the cost of theatricality or even basic comprehensibility.

At the opening, the entire cast, male and female, entered wearing black double-breasted suits, with white shirts and black bow ties. Later, Eve Best as Lady Macbeth switched to a long gray gown, perhaps to give designer Laura Hopkins something to do, but the rest of the actors kept the same outfits on, despite multiple and even cross-gendered roles. (There may have been some other costume shifts late in the show; I could not bear to stay until the end.) Only rare extra bits of clothing, like a gold cummerbund on Duncan, gave you the slightest idea of who was who. The play is of course famous for its clothing imagery, most of which was made to sound ridiculous, as when Banquo described the witches, dressed exactly like himself, as "so wild in their attire."

The entire cast was onstage most of the time, moving almost constantly in barren choreography. The witches pranced about like rock stars. Duncan and his entourage were perched on a hanging scaffold, like window washers. Actors lined up bentwood chairs across center stage, then played on them dead front, oblivious to one another. As with the costuming, the staging thus expressed nothing, except the overpowering whimsy of the director.

Giles Block, Master of Verse for the entire season of plays, coached the Macbeth actors well, so that all had the immaculate speech typical at the Globe. Jasper Britton as Macbeth, and Eve Best too, sometimes came up with strange phrasing ("He hath honored me ... of late / And I have bought... golden opinions . . ."), plugging in caesuras where none belong, but they were always clear and rhythmic. But all in all, the visual elements of this Macbeth were so stupid and counterproductive that the production would have been better as a radio play.

Cymbeline, directed by Mike Alfreds with designs (if they even deserved the term) by Jenny Tiramani, had the entire cast in white pyjamas rather than black suits, with the same results, a production that was visually ugly and vague. Somehow these Globe directors and designers seem to have gotten it into their heads that it is copping out to design costumes that are appropriate for the characters! In fact, both actors and audience feel lost when the costumes are generic rather than individualized; theatre is always the art of the tangible and specific rather than of the abstract. Jean MacIntyre, in her/excellent study of costuming on the Elizabethan stage, notes that "stage costume showed its wearer's sex, rank, occupation, and often his age "and marital status. …

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