Posts Tagged ‘Royal Shakespeare Theatre’

“Chaos is come again”: “Othello” at Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon

The following is a not really a review – I don’t really do reviews, as such! – it’s more an attempt to make sense of various thoughts that struck me on seeing The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Shakespeare’s Othello from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon, directed by Iqbal Khan. I saw it as a live cinema broadcast on August 26th, 2015.

Not being a very frequent theatre-goer, I cannot claim to be in any way an authority on interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays in performance, and of how these interpretations have changed over time, but I do get the distinct impression that depictions both of Othello the play, and of Othello the character, have changed quite significantly: they have both become much harsher than they used to be. Not that interpretations used to be all sweetness and light: that is hardly possible in a play in which the titular character ends up murdering his innocent and helpless wife onstage; but actors and directors are, it seems to me, less inclined nowadays to portray Othello as an essentially noble figure. Some forty or fifty years ago, judging by the audio recordings that still survive from that era, and remembering also what I can of a wonderful performance I had attended in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre back in 1979 (with Donald Sinden a quite magnificent Othello), performances emphasised a certain nobility, a certain majesty, in Othello’s character: indeed, it was because he was so grand and so noble a figure that his transformation into a murderous beast seemed so particularly horrible. Actors found in his lines a solemnity and grandeur that, even at the height of his homicidal rage, seemed to foreshadow the sublimity and magnificence of Milton:

Never, Iago: Like to the Pontic sea,
Whose icy current and compulsive course
Ne’er feels retiring ebb, but keeps due on
To the Propontic and the Hellespont,
Even so my bloody thoughts, with violent pace,
Shall ne’er look back, ne’er ebb to humble love,
Till that a capable and wide revenge
Swallow them up.

But more recent Othellos tend to eschew this kind of approach: instead of the sonorous grandeur that actors of a previous generation had found, modern Othellos tend to break these lines up into shorter units, preferring staccato rhythms to long legato lines. The effect is to diminish, or even to deny altogether, the sense of nobility in the character. I suppose this reflects in part a modern sensibility that is sceptical of the very idea of nobility or of sweetness: actors do not generally depict Hamlet as a “sweet prince” either these days. But I wonder to what extent this harsher, and, some would say, less sentimental view of Othello – both of character and of play – is informed by the well-known 1952 essay by F. R. Leavis, “Diabolic Intellect and the Noble Hero” (included in this collection), in which it is argued with considerable vigour that Othello, far from being the noble and dignified protagonist that A. C. Bradley had described in his famous study, is actually a most ignoble and, indeed, shallow personage, vain and self-dramatising, unworthy of Desdemona, and unable, given his shortness of vision and triviality of mind, even to come close to appreciating her worth.

Bradley is very much Leavis’ target in this essay, and in every way, Leavis seems Bradley’s opposite: where Bradley is gentlemanly and charming, Leavis is abrasive, relishing a trenchant and quite wicked vituperative wit. And where Bradley tries to find the best he can in the characters, Leavis only sees characters who are morally short-sighted, blinkered, self-serving, and most ignoble.

There are two main points in which Leavis takes issue with Bradley: firstly, he rubbishes Bradley’s contention that it is really Iago who is at the centre of the play; and secondly, he rips to shreds – with some gusto – the idea that Othello possesses even the slightest hint of nobility or of dignity. On the first point, I agree with Leavis whole-heartedly: Iago certainly has more lines than Othello, but this hollow, pathetic shell of a man, lacking as he does anything of Macbeth’s pained consciousness of the damnation of his soul – lacking consciousness even of the existence of a soul that may be damned – simply does not have enough substance to hold the centre of so immense a tragic work. But Leavis’ second point – that Othello is similarly hollow – I find more troubling. If the drama is essentially that of an empty eggshell cracked open revealed its emptiness, then why does it grip so powerfully? Why is it that by the end of a reading, or of a good performance, we feel that we have glimpsed into the very depths of the human soul?

Leavis certainly does not see the play in such grand terms: at the end of his essay, he writes:

It is a marvellously sure and adroit piece of workmanship; though closely related to that judgement is the further one that, with all its brilliance and poignancy, it comes below Shakespeare’s supreme – his very greatest – works.

I couldn’t help feeling when I first read this essay that, given Leavis’ view of the character of Othello, his judgement on the play could not be otherwise – that the mere cracking open of an empty shell to display the emptiness is not and cannot be the stuff of supreme masterpieces. But since it does seem to me self-evidently a supreme masterpiece, it must surely follow that there are flaws in Leavis’ arguments. However, what is remarkable is that even when Othello is played as Leavis had seen him (Antony Hopkins’ interpretation in the 1981 BBC production strikes me as very Leavisite in conception), the drama retains still its extraordinary power. In other words, Leavis’ conclusion is not inevitable, even if we were to accept his arguments: Othello himself can be hollow and empty, lacking in nobility or in majesty, but the tragic power of the drama, even from this Leavisite perspective, somehow remains undiminished. And it is worth investigating where this tragic power lies: if it is not in the depiction of the great fall of a great man – since Othello is not great here to begin with – where is it?

My own view of the play – an interpretation that for many years has satisfied me, and which continues, despite Leavis, to satisfy – I tried to describe here, and there’s little point my repeating it; however, Leavis’ view is certainly worth considering, not merely because he was among the most perceptive of literary critics both of his or of any other generation, but also because his interpretation is coherent, and entirely consistent with Shakespeare’s text. But it does leave us with an enigma: a drama that, on the surface, should really be quite trivial – the exposure of a hollow man as but a hollow man – turns out to be gut-wrenchingly intense. How can this be?

This latest RSC production is Leavisite in many ways. Othello, played by Hugh Quarshie, is allowed little of the nobility and majesty that I remember from Donald Sinden’s performance of the late 70s, or is apparent in the thrilling performance by Richard Johnson in an audio recording from the 60s. This lack of nobility is clearly a conscious decision, since Quarshie, given his stage presence and charisma, his superb verse-speaking, and, not least, his imposing and sonorous voice, is certainly more than capable of depicting nobility had he so wanted. But this Othello is far from noble: we see him happy to oversee torture of prisoners as a routine part of his job; and, right from the start, he seems to express little sense of wonder that Desdemona had chosen him: he takes it all in his stride, as if all this were no more than his due. He is a supremely confident man, well aware that he can flout the authority even of a Venetian senator with impunity, and unsurprised that so valuable a prize as Desdemona – for prize is how he seems to consider her – could fall to him.

“Prize” is also the word Iago uses to describe Desdemona:

Faith, he to-night hath boarded a land carack:
If it prove lawful prize, he’s made for ever.

And in the next act, even as Othello expresses his love for Desdemona, he does so very disconcertingly in terms borrowed from the world of commerce, as if his union with Desdemona were no more than a financial contract:

Come, my dear love,
The purchase made, the fruits are to ensue;
That profit’s yet to come ‘tween me and you.

All this is in Shakespeare’s text: seeing Othello in such Leavisite terms is a valid interpretation of the text, and not an imposition. And, somewhat unexpectedly and very disconcertingly, it seems to point to certain parallels between Othello and Iago. These parallels are reinforced in this adaptation, as Iago here is also played by a black actor – Lucian Msamati. This casting removes – to a certain extent, at least – racism from Iago’s motivation, but what it substitutes in its place is most disturbing: for if it is true that Iago manages to bring down Othello to his own bestial level, the journey Othello makes is not a very long one; the implication seems inescapable that Othello, even from the start, is no stranger to Iago’s mindset.

Not that they are identical, of course: the differences are as important as the similarities. But the similarities are worthy of notice, for only when we are aware of these similarities do we realise the significance of the differences. Both Othello and Iago are aware, I think, that they are missing something in their lives – something vitally important. Iago, in a deeply significant aside, says of Cassio:

He hath a daily beauty in his life
That makes me ugly

And Othello, in parallel, knows that were he not to love Desdemona, his very soul would be lost, and his entire world collapse into chaos:

Excellent wretch! Perdition catch my soul,
But I do love thee! and when I love thee not,
Chaos is come again.

The use of the word “again” seems to imply that Othello is no stranger to “chaos”: for all his seeming confidence in the affairs of men, in other matters, he knows how precariously balanced his soul is between redemption and perdition.

But there, where I have garner’d up my heart,
Where either I must live, or bear no life;
The fountain from the which my current runs,
Or else dries up…

And here, I think, we see a very significant difference between the two – a difference that Leavis does not comment upon: where Iago wishes to destroy that quality which he knows he lacks – that “daily beauty” – Othello craves it, for he sees it as a path towards redemption. And this, I think, is what gives the play its gut-wrenching tragic power: even if Othello were to be everything Leavis claims he is, he seeks redemption: Iago doesn’t. Iago, working by “wit and not by witchcraft”, cannot bring himself even to believe in such a thing.

If I am on the right track on this, the tragedy lies not in Othello’s fall from a great height, but in his failure to reach that height in the first place. That height may be but vaguely glimpsed, but Othello, unlike Iago, is capable of glimpsing it, however vaguely, and the entire play seems suffused with a terror of that chaos that lies just under the surface of our lives – a chaos that prevents us from attaining those vaguely glimpsed heights, and which instead hurls our very souls from heaven.

Hugh Quarshie as Othello and Lucian Msamati as Iago in “Othello”. Image courtesy Royal Shakespeare Company

Hugh Quarshie as Othello and Lucian Msamati as Iago in “Othello”. Image courtesy Royal Shakespeare Company

This latest RSC production certainly captures that sense of terror. Othello as a play is curiously paced: the tempo seems quite slow for the first half, and, given that the play is most famous for its depiction of jealousy, Othello doesn’t even start to be jealous till after the half-way mark. But once it starts to grip – somewhere in the middle of Act 3, as Iago starts applying his poison – it doesn’t let go: even the “Willow song” scene, as Emilia prepares Desdemona for bed (IV,iii), where Shakespeare gives us something of a calm before the final storm, the air is thick with menace and with forebodings of impending doom. Perhaps no other play by Shakespeare, not even King Lear, leaves us quite so emotionally drained as does this.

It is Iago rather than Othello who commands centre stage for most of that first half, and Lucian Msamati gives a quite extraordinary performance here of a man who is, psychologically, deeply damaged. Some actors present Iago as a sort of likable villain, but Msamati’s Iago is, from the beginning, a dangerous sociopath. There is a powerful scene in the fourth act in which Desdemona, in her innocence and naivety, turns to Iago for help; and in this production, she kisses Iago in gratitude for what she thinks is his good advice. The sheer sense of physical revulsion with which Iago reacts to this kiss is startling. This is a man who finds the whole of humanity disgusting – he is obsessively cleaning up after everyone, as if the very physical presence of others is to him an abomination.

In the text, we clearly see Iago making up his plot as he is going along, and I have long thought that Iago engineers the destruction of Othello and of Desdemona only because, having underestimated the violence of Othello’s reaction, he is forced into doing so; but here, Iago wills the destruction from the start: it is merely the mechanism of his plot rather than its end that he has to improvise. Far from being a likable villain, this is an Iago whose very presence makes one’s skin crawl.

Quarshie’s Othello, as we first see him, is a man who is, seemingly, supremely confident. But Iago understands his weakness. He may not understand what Othello is aspiring towards, or why, but he is as aware as Othello is of the chaos that lies just below the surface, and he is aware of it because, in this, Othello resembles himself. And Othello’s surface cracks very quickly indeed. When Othello exits some half way through III,iii – the great scene in which Iago starts to apply his poison – he is perturbed, yes, but still in control of himself; but when he re-appears later in the scene, he is a raging maniac. This bipolar nature is, admittedly, written into the text itself, but I don’t think I’ve seen any actor emphasise this to the extent that Quarshie does.

Desdemona is one of Shakespeare’s most thankless roles. I think Shakespeare did depict a real flesh-and-blood woman rather than merely a symbol, but there seems little for the actress to do other than display vulnerability and bewilderment. By the end, of course, she proves herself saintly, as she miraculously forgives Othello seemingly from beyond death itself, but on the path to that ending there seems little scope for the actor playing Desdemona to make her mark. Joanna Vanderham does a fine job – at times going so far as to display resentment – but in terms of stage presence, Othello and Iago are too powerful to be easily removed from the centre. The “Willow song” scene – that calm before the storm that is nonetheless saturated with such deep foreboding – is particularly effective, with Ayesha Dharker a most effective Emilia.

Not that the production is beyond criticism. I regretted in particular the excision of Iago’s improvised cynical rhymes in II,i: presumably they were removed because they show Iago as too sociable a figure, but it would have been interesting to see how they might have fitted with Lucian Msamati’s interpretation. But the biggest misjudgement came, I think, in the later scene in which Cassio becomes drunk while on guard duty. Here. Iago’s song is replaced with a sort of karaoke scene, in which the soldiers improvise rhymes to each other. While most productions can get away with a bit of judicious cutting, it is never advisable to add lines to Shakespeare’s text, as the added lines are bound to suffer in comparison with what is around it. This is especially the case when the added lines are merely trivial doggerel, as they are here. Further, these lines indicate racial tensions amongst the soldiers, and there seems little point introducing such a theme in a play that gives no scope to develop it. The audience is simply left wondering what purpose this scene serves.

When, shortly afterwards, we see Othello supervising the torture of a prisoner, hooded and terrified, that seemed to me at first also to be a misjudgement – a fashionable reference to current world events that does little to advance the drama. But I was mistaken in this: this torture scene does actually fit into the overall concept of this production: such torture does take place in military bases, after all, and, since this Othello is not the majestic and noble figure that Bradley had envisaged, it is not amiss to see something of the brutal world with which he is so familiar. And in any case, torture is central to the play: Iago tortures Othello; Othello, in turn, tortures Desdemona (and, one may argue, himself); and at the end, once Iago’s villainies are exposed, Iago is threatened with actual physical torture. When Othello re-emerges in III,iii, raving like a maniac, he ties Iago to a chair that had previously been used for torture, and threatens to torture Iago physically even as Iago continues to torture him mentally: it is a scene of powerful theatricality. The only point that I’d take issue with is the appearance of Desdemona on stage even as the torture victim is still present. Now, given the conventions of the theatre, it is entirely possible for two people to be on stage together, and yet be in different places, so it is not necessarily the case that Desdemona sees the torture victim, or even that she is aware of the torture; but having them both on stage at the same time does inevitably implicate Desdemona in the torture, and that is surely a mistake.

So it’s not a flawless production by any means; but once it starts to exert its grip, it doesn’t falter. It demonstrates once again that a Leavisite view of Othello does not diminish the tragic greatness of the drama, but merely shifts its focus: the awe and the terror we experience are not occasioned by the fall of a Great Man, but springs, rather, from an awareness of the horror and of the chaos that lie immediately below the seemingly civilised surfaces of our human lives. However we view Othello, however we view its central character (who is most certainly Othello himself, and not Iago, as some still continue to insist), there is no other drama, except perhaps Sophocles’ Oedipus, that is quite so gut-wrenching in its effect.

“No sighs but of my breathing; no tears but of my shedding”: The Merchant of Venice at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 2015

Since the issue is going to come up sooner or later, let us cut straight to the chase: I do not think The Merchant of Venice is an anti-Semitic play, although, admittedly, the basic outline of the story is: a story about righteous Christians outwitting an evil murderous Jew could hardly be otherwise. But, just as Mozart and da Ponte took for Cosi Fan Tutte a story that was in its outlines misogynistic and transformed it into something that transcends the crudeness of its source material, so Shakespeare, I think, did something similar here. In the first place, the Christians in his play are far from righteous: they are, Antonio excepted, mercenary – every bit as covetous as they accuse the Jew Shylock of being; they are thieves, or, knowing about and condoning as they do Lorenzo’s and Jessica’s theft, accessories to theft; they are filled with hatred for a fellow human being for no better reason that that he is Jewish, and there is no doubting that Shakespeare knew the human cost of this. Indeed, it is this human cost, most obviously for the tormented, but also, I think, for the tormentors, that seems to me to be at the centre of this drama that presents us with a picture of humans all very badly in need of the Quality of Mercy.

As for Shylock, he is much more in this play than merely an “evil Jew”: we would hardly get major Shakespearean actors queuing up to play this role had he been no more than a conventional villain. What he attempts to do in the latter part of the play certainly is evil – there can be no doubt about that – but Shakespeare goes much, much further here than is warranted by Shylock’s nominal role as the comic villain: Shakespeare depicts here a man who is, step by step, layer by layer, stripped of everything he possesses – his wealth, his profession, even his faith; he loses his own daughter, who prefers to side with her father’s tormentors rather than with her tormented father; and, by the end, he loses completely his own humanity. As Howard Jacobson says in a typically trenchant piece of writing in the programme notes, no character in Shakespeare is so stripped of everything as Shylock is: even Malvolio departs with a threat of revenge on the whole pack of his tormentors; even Lear is granted a possibly redeeming vision; even Macbeth is allowed a final show of defiance; but Shylock is left with absolutely nothing. His tormentors push him close to the edge of the abyss, but – and here is the terrible irony, too terrible almost to be contemplated – that last step into the abyss, Shylock takes himself. In reacting to the stripping of his humanity, he strips away himself the last vestige of it. By the end of Act Four, Shylock has become an irrelevance: even his exit seems inconsequential:

PORTIA: Art thou contented, Jew? what dost thou say?
SHYLOCK: I am content.
PORTIA: Clerk, draw a deed of gift.
SHYLOCK: I pray you, give me leave to go from hence;
I am not well: send the deed after me,
And I will sign it. (IV, i)

Shakespeare could quite easily have given Shylock a few lines that lay bare the anguish of his soul: this is Shakespeare, after all: he could write anything he wanted. But he didn’t. What he gave us instead is utterly prosaic. Olivier famously howled off-stage like a stricken animal after his departure, but, magnificent though that was, and chilling even when I see it at home on DVD, there is no indication of it in the text: it’s almost as if Shakespeare had gone out of his way to make Shylock’s departure from the action of the play as low-key as possible. Shylock leaves the action, and the play can carry on without him: he no longer matters.

Makram Khoury as Shylock

Makram Khoury as Shylock

The problem I have found both when reading it, and also in the various productions I have seen, is that the strand of the story involving Shylock is so overwhelming in its power that is overshadows the other strand involving the three caskets, and Bassanio’s wooing and marrying of Portia. This latest Royal Shakespeare Company production, directed by Polly Findlay, neatly sidesteps this problem. The cost, some may say, is too heavy, as Shylock inevitably loses some of his immense tragic grandeur (one really has to go to the Olivier performance to get the full measure of that); but the gains are, I think, considerable: for the first time in my experience, the other strand of the story commands full interest, rather than appearing, as it so often does, as a tiresome adjunct to a magnificent and terrible tragedy. Care is taken also to bring Antonio – superbly played here by Jamie Ballard – to the forefront: he is, after all, the Merchant of Venice (although both Bassanio and Shylock can also be seen as the merchant of the title), and it is he who holds together the two strands of the play, borrowing of Shylock to provide Bassanio with the means of wooing Portia. But all too often in productions, Antonio fades into the background, overshadowed by Shylock in terms of dramatic stature. Not here. The production opens and closes with Antonio alone on stage, and his famous opening line – “In sooth, I know not why I am so sad” – is delivered as if in anguish. And soon, the cause of the anguish becomes apparent: Antonio is losing his young lover, Bassanio, and, while acknowledging that this is only to be expected, he finds this loss hard to bear. Some, I know, will object to this interpretation, but I think the text can support it, insofar as no modification is required to accommodate it; and it does, I think, give Antonio a dramatic presence that, in other interpretations, he all too often lacks.

Indeed, Antonio’s love for Bassanio seems to be one of only two in the whole play that is untouched by considerations of money (the other being Shylock’s love for his dead wife). Bassanio tells Antonio quite openly that he seeks to woo Portia because he has squandered his own estate, and is in need of funds: has ever a romantic adventure started with so unromantic a cause? It is not merely Bassanio’s motive that shocks, but his insouciance: it does not even occur to him that this is an ignoble motive, so accustomed is he to living in a society in which everything has a price and nothing any real value. When Shylock refers to Antonio being a “good man”, he means it only in the sense that he is financially sound. Even the seeming nobility of the Venetian courts in refusing under any circumstances to by-pass its laws has, at bottom, a sound financial reason:

The duke cannot deny the course of law:
For the commodity that strangers have
With us in Venice, if it be denied,
Will much impeach the justice of his state;
Since that the trade and profit of the city
Consisteth of all nations. (III, iii)

Money taints everything here. Lorenzo, for instance, speaks his line “Beshrew me but I love her heartily” only when transported by delight on seeing what Jessica has stolen for him from her father. In the famous trial scene, Bassanio throws across the floor of the court the money he has brought with him to pay Shylock off, so the entire climactic scene takes place with the characters literally wading through filthy lucre. The set itself – abstract, with a vast polished metallic floor and wall –suggests a world in which money rules absolutely, and covetousness is universal: in this world, Shylock becomes a convenient hate-figure on whose head the others can transfer their own guilt.

The one exception to this general covetousness is Antonio, and this makes him a far more sympathetic figure than is usual. He is still hateful in his racism, though: that is not underplayed. In this production, he spits on Shylock’s face – a moment that draws shocked gasps from the audience –and once again, this is consistent with the text: Shylock, in his first confrontation with Antonio, reminds him that he had spat on him, and had kicked him, and Antonio, far from denying any of this, replies that he is likely to do so again. And Shylock bears it all, as he puts it, with a patient shrug, “for sufferance is the badge of all our tribe”. Makram Khoury, the Israeli-Palestinian actor playing Shylock in this production, has an immensely dignified stage presence, and this, somehow, makes the spitting and the abuse that he bears with “a patient shrug” seem all the more horrible.

Marvellous though Makram Khoury is, his performance, in keeping with the tenor of the production, is underplayed. Very expertly underplayed, it must be said, but underplayed. His final exit from the court scene is as low-key as Shakespeare had written it: having lost utterly everything, there is nothing further left in him – no grandeur of a tragic downfall, no defiance, not even an expression of hurt. Normally, at the final bow, the actor playing Shylock, despite having appeared in only five scenes, comes on after all the rest of the cast to take his applause, but here Makram Khoury appears with everyone else – a member of an ensemble rather than a star performer – and this seems appropriate for a production that presents this play very much as an ensemble piece rather than as a star vehicle.

The court scene is, of course, a huge climactic set-piece, and one could not underplay this even if one wanted to. The strewing of the cash across the floor is a marvellous moment, and particularly striking is Antonio’s sheer terror on facing what he thought was certain and immediate death: his repeated whimpering, which did not stop even after his reprieve, is not something I’m likely to forget in a hurry. And Portia’s “quality of mercy” speech, which can all too easily become a set-piece almost divorced from the rest of the action, is delivered with a particular immediacy and passion by Patsy Ferran: when she reminds us that mercy is an attribute of God himself, it is hard not to wonder whether even these unregenerate characters crowding the stage, Jew or Christian, could perhaps someday be redeemed by divine mercy. But this possibility, visible for but a moment like some distant vision, soon dissipates: the Jew refuses to show mercy, thus taking himself the final step in the stripping of his humanity; and the Christians, having won the day, exult in their most unrighteous triumph.

Despite the high drama of this fourth act, there is little danger here of anti-climax that all too often hampers the fifth. The fifth act here is also full of drama, the seeds of this drama having been cunningly laid in the great court scene, where Portia could see for herself the true nature of the relationship between Antonio and her newly-married husband. And when, in the course of that court scene, Bassanio says to Antonio:

But life itself, my wife, and all the world,
Are not with me esteem’d above thy life.

it is well noted. After this, Portia asking Bassanio for the ring is no joke: it is a test – a test that Bassanio (significantly at Antonio’s urging) very conspicuously fails. Shylock would not have exchanged “for a wilderness of monkeys” the ring he had received from his wife when he had been a bachelor: Bassanio, however, at the urging of his former lover, does, and this lays the foundation for the drama in the final act: the business with the rings is no joke here – it is deadly serious. Portia eventually relents, and forgives Bassanio: perhaps she has not forgotten her earlier speech on “mercy”. But the ending is more open-ended here than usual: the marriage promises to be rocky.


In the last Shakespeare production I saw, I lamented the cuts that seemed to me the take the very heart out of the play. There were some cuts here too, but only two that I’d take issue with. Shylock’s “I hate him for he is a Christian” is cut simply to “I hate him”. Presumably this was done to prevent the audience siding against Shylock from the start, but it really was unnecessary: we see soon enough why Shylock has good reason to hate the Christians in this play. Hatred but breeds hatred, after all. O tell me where is hatred bred, in the heart or in the head?

Also cut is Portia’s line expressing relief that the prince of Morocco had chosen the wrong casket – “Let all of his complexion choose me so”. Presumably, this is cut to prevent the audience from disliking Portia, but this line too, I think, is important: Portia is no Desdemona, after all, and maybe she too is in need of the divine mercy that she later invokes. As for the other cuts, I can but approve: the various clownings of Lancelot Gobbo are among the weakest scenes Shakespeare ever wrote – it’s almost as if he had lost interest in the comedy – and I doubt that even the finest of comic actors could make too much out of them. The distasteful scene where Gobbo “jokes” with Jessica that her conversion from Judaism will raise the price of pork has, however, been rightly retained.


Every time I come out of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre after a performance, I feel I have been brought a little closer to an understanding of what we, as humans, are. This production presents characters living their lives of anger, of hatred, of betrayal, of greed and cupidity, but also, just occasionally, of real love: Antonio continues to love Bassanio, and Shylock continues to love his wife, who is dead. And through all this meanness and pettiness, of unmotivated hatred and murderous rage, what emerges is a group of people all desperately in need of divine mercy, of redemption. This production achieves a unity that I don’t think I have seen before in this play, and it does so by underplaying Shylock’s tragic stature: possibly that is a price worth paying. But underplayed though Shylock is, as we drove back home afterwards down the motorway, it was that infinitely sad line of Shylock’s that kept going around my head:

No sighs but of my breathing; no tears but of my shedding.

What an extraordinary play this is!

“Tush, man, mortal men, mortal men…” The Henry IV plays at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 2014

It was in the summer of ’78, when I was still recovering from a particularly traumatic World Cup campaign, that I first visited Stratford-on-Avon. I went with a couple of friends, one of whom, I know, looks into this blog from time to time. It was, for me, a sort of pilgrimage, I suppose – sacred ground. We had tickets booked for Love’s Labour’s Lost. I wasn’t entirely happy with this, I remember: I would have preferred a better known play – Hamlet, maybe, or Richard III, or some such. I wasn’t to know that this particular production would be regarded in years to come as one of the great theatrical landmarks, and that, some thirty-six years later, I would be boasting – admittedly, to indifferent listeners – that yes, I was actually there. John Barton directed a splendid cast, featuring Michael Pennington and Jane Lapotaire as Berowne and Rosaline, Michael Hordern as Don Armado, and a supporting cast that included such future stars as Richard Griffith, Juliet Stevenson, and Alan Rickman. My first evening in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre was an evening of sheer perfection. While we were there we saw another play that, at the time, was new to me: Measure for Measure, featuring Michael Pennington as the Duke, Paola Dionisotti as Isabella, and Jonathan Pryce as Angelo. I remember sitting in the back row of the gallery, looking down from a great height on to the stage (I was an impecunious student, after all), and wondering why, despite regarding myself as a Shakespeare nut even then, I did not know a play so utterly spellbinding as this. All in all, that first visit was a huge success. I have been back to Stratford several times since, of course: it is, after all, a mere two hour drive up the motorway from where I now live, and the internet has made it much easier to book tickets. Over the years, I have seen there performances of Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night, Othello, Antony and Cleopatra … and, on one glorious day back in ’91, both parts of Henry IV on a single day – Part One in the matinee show, and Part Two in the evening. There have been some changes, of course, to the place: the main theatre has been completely refurbished, with the old proscenium stage now replaced with an apron stage coming out into the auditorium. However, the centre of the town remains much as it was, with the riverside gardens stretching between the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and the Shakespeare memorial, the spire of the Holy Trinity Church, where Shakespeare is buried, visible down-river. The birthplace itself, in nearby Henley Street, has been maintained to look much as it has looked for centuries, I guess. There’s New Place, where Shakespeare, retired from London, lived in his later years; and there’s still that delightful walk through parks and fields to Anne Hathaway’s cottage. Neither is there, contrary to some reports I have heard, any great evidence of “tourist tack”. Of course, it caters for the many tourists who visit: it can hardly do otherwise. But I can find little that I would describe as “tacky”, or “schmaltzy”. In short, the whole place remains as delightful as when I had first visited.

I was there again a few weeks ago, and, once again, it was to see the Henry IV plays – Part One in the matinee show, and Part Two in the evening. Of course, comparisons with the productions of these same plays that I had seen there 23 years ago, or, rather, with the often unreliable memories of what I had seen there 23 years ago, are inevitable. Back then, Adrian Noble had directed, and Sir Robert Stephens had played Falstaff; this time, Greg Doran, currently artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, directs, and another Shakespearean knight, Sir Anthony Sher, plays Falstaff. And very different the interpretations are. But, whatever the interpretation, what a work this is! I have a pet theory that it was while writing this work that Will realised just how great a genius he was: he realised he had complete mastery of pacing and of form; he realised that there was nothing, absolutely nothing, that he could not express. Yes, he had already written Romeo and Juliet, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream; he had already created Shylock; but here, he cranks it up a few notches higher. In The Merchant of Venice, he had allowed the mighty figure of Shylock to overwhelm the rest of the drama, but he was not going to allow that here: no matter how great a figure Falstaff is, he is fully integrated into the drama. The Merchant of Venice without Shylock is a bore, but Henry IV, even when Falstaff is not present, is compelling. And in Part Two, Shakespeare pulls off one of his most stunning innovations: he dispenses with plot almost entirely, and keeps the whole thing more or less static. Even in Act Two, the part of the play where we would normally expect the dramatic momentum to develop, he introduces a long tavern scene peopled by drunks and half-wits who mouth mainly gibberish: there is no dramatic movement, simply because there is nowhere to move to. The whole play consists of people waiting for something to happen: and when it finally does happen – when King Henry dies, and Hal becomes Henry V – all expectations that everyone had harboured are shattered. But till then, in the rest of the play, all we see are characters filling in time as they wait. And, as they wait, they merely become older. Nay, they must be old: they cannot choose but be old. And they must face death. Antony, in a later play, declares that he will “have one more gaudy night, and mock the midnight bell”; but Falstaff, though aware of the chimes at midnight, cannot bear to face them:

Peace, good Doll! do not speak like a death’s-head; do not bid me remember mine end.

But face it he must. In the last scene, the one person he had loved, Hal, rejects him; and Hal, knowing Falstaff well, knows precisely what words to use in rejecting him:

                    the grave doth gape
For thee thrice wider than for other men.

This is not yet another joke about the size of Falstaff’s girth, although, I suppose, it could be taken as such: for a man such as Falstaff, who loves life, and who cannot bear to be reminded of his own end, the grave must necessarily gape open wider than for other men. We do not see Falstaff die, but, as with Shylock, there is, by the end, nothing else left for him to do: the waiting finally is over, and at the end of the wait, there is nothing. As Hotspur says in his own last moments:

And time, that takes survey of all the world,
Must have a stop.

Falstaff is obviously a very intelligent man, but in Anthony Sher’s performance, he appears utterly deluded on one vital point: he picks up not the slightest hint of the disappointment that is awaiting him. Possibly the love he has for Hal blinds him to what should really have been blindingly obvious. In the famous play-acting scene in Part One, Falstaff plays Hal while Hal plays his own father, and Falstaff, as Hal, pleads with Hal, as the king, not to banish Falstaff. “I do, I will,” replies Hal. I remember Robert Stephens as Falstaff realising during that play-acting scene that something wasn’t right – that this wasn’t quite play-acting any more: and his pleas not to be banished were genuine and heartfelt. But Sher’s Falstaff is utterly blind to any of this: right up to Hal’s devastating words, he is putting on a show. And when Hal’s words do come, he is not sure what to make of them: it is all too easy for him to think of them merely as part of the show they were putting on.

Anthony Sher putting on a show as Falstaff

Anthony Sher putting on a show as Falstaff

For Anthony Sher’s Falstaff is a showman. He knows full well that not only is he witty in himself, but the cause that wit is in others. Sher delivers his lines with the comic timing of a stand-up comedian. And indeed, as these plays progress, he often has to do what are, effectively, stand-up routines directed at the audience. They have to be directed at the audience because the one person who is capable of appreciating his wit, Hal, is not there: from the middle of Part One onwards, Hal, no doubt knowing what he ultimately has to do, keeps his distance. In Part Two, Hal does at one point visit his old haunt, and sees Falstaff again; but, almost immediately, message comes from the court, and Hal, now more aware of his responsibilities than he had previously been, leaves. And in Alex Hassell’s performance, it doesn’t cost Hal much effort to leave: in this interpretation, Hal has already accepted the immense responsibilities he knows are on his shoulders, and this visit to the Boar’s Head tavern but serves to confirm to him how far removed from all this he is now. In the 1991 production, Michael Maloney’s Hal had found the rejection of Falstaff a struggle: in rejecting Falstaff, he was, after all, rejecting a part of himself. But Hal here is made of sterner stuff: he has already outgrown Falstaff, and harbours no sentimentality about past friendship. But for Falstaff, his love of Hal is everything. It is not merely that he was expecting a position in court: more importantly, he was expecting Hal to return his love. But now, rejected, he must remember his own end: the grave does indeed gape for him three times wider than for other men. He tells Shallow – and, more to the point, he tells himself – that Hal will call for him shortly in private; but the man who used to spin the most outrageous of lies at the drop of a hat can no longer even lie convincingly even to himself. Shakespeare had made no attempt earlier to gloss over Falstaff’s predatory nature: we know Falstaff precisely for the deeply reprehensible person he is. And we know that Hal’s decision is, morally, perfectly correct. And yet, this scene, no matter how it is performed, no matter how it is interpreted, breaks the heart: we leave the theatre lamenting what we know is right. The chimes at midnight are mingled chimes.

At the heart of these plays, I think, are those scenes in Gloucestershire. There is little reason in terms of plot to have those scenes at all: they do not contribute to the plot, and neither do they have what we may describe as “dramatic tension”. But Shakespeare knew what he was doing: even at so early a stage in his career, he was writing a new kind of drama, which, even now, perhaps, defies analysis. And those scenes were superbly done here. Twenty-three years ago, I had seen Robert Stephens and David Bradley as Falstaff and Shallow; this time, the parts were taken by Anthony Sher and Oliver Ford Davies. Different, but equally wonderful. And Mistress Quickly now was played by Paola Dionisotti, whom I had seen in the same theatre on my first visit to Stratford some thirty-six years earlier, giving a thrilling performance as Isabella in Measure for Measure. It all seemed to add an extra layer of meaning to Falstaff’s and Shallow’s ruminations – poignant and farcical at the same time – on the passing of time. After Falstaff’s rejection in the final scene, which I knew would happen but which choked me up all the same, I came out of the theatre, and, before driving home, sat by the river for a while, trying to digest what I had seen. Heaven knows how many times I have experienced these plays – on the page, on stage, on television, on audio recordings; but each time, the experience really does knock the stuffing out of me. I suppose, if I were to go out of my way to be critical with this production, I could find one or two faults: I would question, for instance, the idea of presenting Hotspur as so charmless and boorish a character. Trevor White as Hotspur certainly had a fine stage presence, and projected a sort of manic energy; however, presenting Hotspur in such a manner did mean that we felt little sense of loss at his death, and those heart-stopping final words of his passed for very little. However, given the sheer magnificence of these productions, it is churlish to cavil. I could quite happily go back and live through these two plays all over again.