Friday, September 23, 2011

Production Review: RSC Macbeth, part 1 of 3; In Which Shakespeare Girl Decides Not to See the RSC Merchant of Venice

First off – I shall be reviewing the Royal Shakespeare Company production of Macbeth that I saw while in England. However, no such matter will appear in this post - this will be a three-part series, and everyone will just have to wait until part three for the scoop on Macbeth. Happy day! You won't just get a play review, but a lot of pontificating about the RSC will also be included for no additional charge! But to my tale.

To set the stage. You are in Stratford-upon-Avon, which you find not to be, as travel books have warned, a miserable tourist trap, but a very nice little town, with perhaps its most notable feature being a much higher number of bed-and-breakfasts per capita than is perhaps quite usual. (Note – open a good bed-and-breakfast in Stratford and make your fortune.) There are dozens of gleaming white swans in the river; the half-timbered houses with their gorgeous gardens have the added attraction that Shakespeare himself might have spent time within their walls; and you are looking forward to an evening of Shakespeare at the Royal Shakespeare Company theater. The prospect!! Who among the readers of this blog has not heard of the RSC? I myself have done a fair bit of gushing over some of their work! My summer has turned me into a firm fan of the Rick Steves travel books (seriously very good. Don’t travel with anything but these and the Michelin Green Guides), and Rick gravely assures his readers that the RSC puts on the best Shakespeare ANYWHERE in the WORLD! And yet, and yet…
Having followed Emma’s excellent advice in her article about watching live Shakespeare, I had not only looked up WHAT plays the RSC was doing while I was in their neck of the woods, but I had also carefully read several reviews of the productions. I initially was interested in seeing both Macbeth and The Merchant of Venice, which latter play was starring the great Patrick Stewart (!!!) as Shylock!!!! Yet, after reading what the critics had to say, I was not thrilled. As my readers will possibly remember, I have extremely strong opinions about Merchant, and I could tell that the vision for this show - a re-imagining of the story as set in the midst of all the most well-known cliches of behavior in Las Vegas - was not really in line with my vision. Fear of what the director might be up to with his or her beloved concept, wreak what havoc it may on the play (cry, havoc! And let slip the dogs of war), has caused me again and again to enter theaters hopeful, yet guarded and somewhat suspicious. No director is going to pull a fast one on ME!

Reluctantly, I realized that not even the chance to be in the same room as Patrick Stewart and listen to that deep voice intone some of my favorite Shakespeare lines could reconcile me to a production where my beloved Portia is portrayed as a Las Vegas showgirl; here’s the Telegraph review that convinced me to give this one a pass (money quote: “poor Patrick Stewart seems to inhabit an entirely different production from the rest of the cast, giving us a sombre and increasingly frail Jew which is intermittently impressive in its own right but seems to have little to do with the gaudy excesses of the rest of the show.”) So, since “Merchant” is one of my favorites, I didn’t want to go see this production only to have to leave muttering (in a confused sort of combined identification with myself, Shakespeare and J. Alfred Prufrock) “That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all."
I was further bolstered in my resolution not to see the show by a most enlightening conversation that I overheard in the tiny café at the Stratford railway station. Participants: Myself (not really a participant as I was listening not talking, innocently drinking my tea and sneakily trying to charge my laptop whilst waiting for a train); a lady of the lower classes running the shop; a man (later revealed to be an actor); and a most genteel older widow lady, later revealed to be a former professional ballerina (!).
The conversation between the Genteel Lady and the Shop Lady rambled on in desultory fashion about the relative merits and pricing of coach travel around the UK as opposed to trains (watch out trains, you are about to lose the Genteel Lady’s business because the coaches are cheaper), until the entrance of the Actor.
Somehow it came out that the Actor had a very small role in the RSC production of Merchant.
The Genteel Lady, who volunteers in some capacity with the RSC, tried to say something pleasant about the show: “I do try to tell people what it’s like before they go – they’ve had quite a few people STORM OUT! But I really think it’s great fun – just so you know what you’re IN for.”
(Follows more discussion about the show and the Actor’s prospects - he, being an actor, is naturally hoping that his current engagement will lead to bigger and better things. Somehow the conversation turns to the poor uptight creatures who have STORMED OUT, and all join in condemning their poor artistic vision in scorning the production.)
Shop Lady: “It’s all these people who want Shakespeare “Shakespeare” Shakespeare!”
(All nod sagely at this wisdom; after some more pleasantries the Actor slips out, leaving the two Ladies to regard one another in silence.)
Genteel Lady (quietly to Shop Lady): “have you seen it?”
Shop Lady (just as quietly): “No.”
Genteel Lady: “Well, you just have to know what you’re IN for, what with Elvis Presley popping up everywhere & girls in feathers. (pause) I think it’s good fun."
Well, my dear genteel lady, it doesn’t sound like good fun to me, so it’s a jolly good thing I knew what I would have been IN for!
We decided to see Macbeth instead.

Stay tuned for part 2, in which Shakespeare girl tells all about the newly remodeled Royal Shakespeare Company building! It's more interesting than it sounds!

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