Twelfth Night (Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford) PerIdes (The Other Place, Stratford) The fire alarm began to ring during the denouement in which Viola's true identity and sex are revealed. It rang and rang and rang. Then, in one of those moments of true theatre we all hope never to experience, the manager strode on stage in his dinner jacket and, speaking his lines beautifully, said, 'I must now ask You all to evacuate the theatre.'
Why is not possible for a theatre audience to proceed with such discipline, speed and calm to the bar in a normal interval? There was no panic at all and, as it turned out, no fire either. So we all trooped back in for the final ten minutes and for an emotional the-show-must-goon rapport between players and audience. Long before these excitements I had written in my note book, prophetically, 'frosty start . . quickly overheats uncool Shakespeare'. The cold beginning was of a literal kind: I know Twelfth Night is in midwinter but I had always assumed Illyria to be the sort of place where you could hope to have Christmas dinner in the garden. Winter fashions are in order at the RSC at the moment but here, unlike in John Barton's beautiful Love's Labour Lost and Trevor Nunn's ingenious As You Like It, there seemed no point to the snow and no connection with the seasons. The charm of atmosphere, important to Twelfth Night, was missing from the out set.
The over-heating which ensued was the result of over-acting and under-directing. Trevor Hands should perhaps be known as Trevor Hands-off, for, at least in this production, he seemed to be allowing his cast to do as it pleased and I could discern no grip upon what is a relatively simple play. Maybe they were all hyping it up for the tourist trade which packs the theatre at this time of the year but I don't think things could have got so out of hand since the production opened in mid-June. I found it a vulgar and unsatisfying evening; all of the characters, save Viola and Antonio, were too broadly drawn; every double entendre was squeezed laboriously from the text; every opportunity for pantomime business or slapstick was taken with the result that even the funny scenes were rendered unfunny. Malvolio is, of course, the key to the play but one thing brought out, inadvertently, by this production is the pivotal importance of Olivia. She may be a foolish and sentimental woman when it comes to love but she is enough of a, countess to command the devotion, fear and respect of her household, including and especially Malvolio. Kate Nicholls in a high-pitched, one-note actressy performance made her into a silly tit.
John Woodvine is an actor I admire greatly but I fear that he was gravely miscast as Malvolio. He began well enough with a Heath-like stiffness and trouble with his diphthongs but Malvolio in order to be funny is best played seriously, and must in any event be played in character throughout; Woodvine brought him to the level of the music hall, turning the smiling bit into an imitation of Terry Thomas and in the cross-gartered scene treating a knicker-wetting audience to repeated flashes of his cod piece and yellow tights. The undignified result was a complete absence of pathos which meant that he was incapable of re-establishing the wounded dignity of the character at the end.
Goffrey Hutchings made an uninteresting corn-cracker Feste, Gareth Thomas turned Orsino into a big hairy Andrew Faulds and Willoughby Goddard settled for a stock-in-trade Falstaffian version of Sir Toby. Not much can be done with Sir Andrew and John McEnery did not do much. Charm and dignity were preserved by Cherie Lunghi (and by Roger Bizley as Antonio) but she suffered in the disaster area around Olivia and, although a sweet enough Viola, was not as canny as should be. I hope they don't bring this production to London in its present form: they would do better to take it to the seaside and do it on the pier.
Happily, my visit to Stratford was made amply worthwhile by the chance to catch up with Ron Daniel's production of Pericles. If taken literally this late play of dubious authorship (Shakespeare wrote some of it while working up to The Winter's Tale and The Tempest) seems silly and improbable in plot and largely devoid of character. But if taken to be, as T. S. Eliot suggested, 'the work of a writer who has finally seen through the dramatic action of men into a spiritual action which transcends it' then Pericles's long voyage of moral discovery invites existential identification.
Daniel stages his production within a circle, which signifies presumably the uni verse, drawn on the bare boards of the austere tin-roofed theatre known as The Other Place. He dispenses with all scenery and most props so that the episodic adventure-a-minute structure of the play becomes almost abstract in its effect. Pericles is a man on the run, from himself as well as from King Antiochus who has put a contract on him to prevent the disclosure of incestuous carryings on. His travels expose him to a world filled with human suffering, a world ruled by good kings and by bad and in which vice and virtue are at war. The connecting metaphor is that of tempest (staged with the aid of a single rope to which man clings) and it is in such a tempest that his daughter Marina is born. After many further tribulations lost daughter is found and lot father finds himself through her.
Peter McEnery made a noble Pericles and spoke it beautifully. Julie Peasgood was suggestively double cast as the daughter of Antiochus and as Marina. She looked as if she had come ashore in St Tropez but she kept,the sexiness out of her performance which was delicate and also beautifully spoken. Hubert Rees, Peter Clough and Griffith Jones were outstanding in a fine production which had me enthralled and listening throughout. To make such a success of so dif ficult and so abused a play is a triumph not only for director and cast but also a vindication for Shakespeare and his coauthors, whoever they were.