Tom Sutcliffe on Shakespeare at the Barbican and the importance of keeping theatre alive
Gregory Doran’s production of Richard II which has been at the Barbican Theatre over Christmas honoured the Royal Shakespeare Company’s tradition of seriousness about the poetic reach and meaning of the Shakespearian canon. I saw Peter Hall’s Wars of the Roses cycle in 1964 (the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth) after I graduated, and I was of course spellbound – especially by Ian Holm’s Richard III which was so different from Laurence Olivier’s on film (which excited me especially because the bell-ringing sequence had been filmed in Chichester’s belltower when I was a chorister). But, though I knew the text of Richard II from reading it (and it is so familiar and so extraordinarily memorable), I do not think I ever before saw the play on stage.
The star of the show was David Tennant, famous for being Doctor Who. He is a fine actor who has done a fair amount of theatre work. Here he was surrounded by some magnificent names from the days 40 years ago when they were young and theatre really counted: Jane Lapotaire, Marty Cruickshank, Oliver Ford Davies, and above all Michael Pennington whose delivery of Gaunt’s great speech about our ‘scepter’d isle’ was worth the ticket price just by itself. I thought the music by Paul Englishby was terrible, pompous, fake, and Stephen Brimson Lewis’s functional set was completely characterless and unoriginal. But these two aspects are often the major weak spots of today’s self-congratulatory British theatre. Doran, who directed the actors well, slipped up with ‘For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings,’ taking it like a stage direction – absurdly they all plonked themselves down.
Tennant has charisma and on stage his slight effeminacy added wonderfully to his power in the role: this was after all a great John Gielgud part. Gielgud played Richard of Bordeaux in Gordon Daviot’s immensely successful 1933 play, though I doubt he would have felt able to kiss his handsome Aumerle (Oliver Rix) on the mouth on stage. Yet I suspect actors these days do not consider how much of their talent and potential gets used up when they sell their souls on television and film.
A tough business
Of course, one cannot blame them for taking up moneymaking opportunities. Acting is a tough business and in Britain actors are treated as the dockers used to be: offered short-term work sometimes immensely well paid, but without security or pensions. It’s only a job, after all. And cinema and television are greedy media. An actor’s face on the screen becomes minutely familiar. Yet in live theatre on stage it is the actor’s physical reality which audiences learn to love, and the echoes from the inside of their heads, what they are or are supposed to be thinking. That is not exactly what they use for the screen. Film fans become far too familiar with actors’ images. When film critics or fans talk about ‘acting’ and ‘the performance’ of somebody in a film, I am not quite sure what they mean. Can there be great acting in a bad play? I think not. Great acting is what makes a profoundly meaningful text come alive and register.
Of course I am glad that Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Twelve Years a Slave is being greeted as it is. I have no idea if it will merit all the praise lavished on it before it has even been widely seen. The film business is big money and inevitably that also means big lies. It has been said this is the best film about slavery there has ever been.
The assumption that somebody with a black skin is or should be a slave was sadly part of American history. But in fact slavery has a complicated relationship with racism. The story of anti-Semitism is not transfigured by the holocaust, and equally the abolition of slavery in the United States was neither the end of slavery nor all there is to say about slavery. Progress is not a topic that can really be pursued in a film or in a play – in spite of Bernard Shaw and his successors. I think we can learn more from real tragedy with all its poetic extension delivered in the theatre than from any anecdotal story on film, however harrowing its telling. All the simple assumptions about the popular topics with their easy conclusions lead to injustice sooner or later.
That is why it is so important to keep our theatre alive with the real challenges in performance that it offers, challenges that ought to enable the extraordinary acting talent that we seem to have around us in Britain at the moment to realize its true potential. It is not enough to take occasional holidays in the spoken theatre if you want to become a great actor viewed by the standards of the past – which are inevitably being forgotten because there is not all that much spoken theatre available even in the West End. It’s all musicals.
Films and television make money – they are projects all that emerge on the screen. But actors need companies, need a continuing association with other actors of talent in live work on the stage. And audiences learn to use their imagination about what is going on in the theatre – instead of just following a story, what happens, without the challenge of noting the complicated significance inscribed by real playwrights in the language of the play. As Shakespeare himself has Theseus say of the rude mechanical actors in Midsummer Night’s Dream, ‘The best are but shadows, and the worst no worse if imagination amend them.’ ND