What has become of the Royal Shakespeare Company? The productions of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing and Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac now playing at the Gershwin Theatre (after a stopover at the Olympic Arts Festival in Los Angeles) are suggestive of a great theatre in decline. I’m not protesting a lack of skill or grace, or even visual artistry—indeed, the problem may be related to a surplus of these values. It’s just that the offerings are so bloody tame and insipid, from play choices to production concepts, that you leave the theatre with tired blood.
What we have here is the New York equivalent of a London show tour—the only element missing is an ad for British Airways. Yes, I know the R.S.C. has always been a rest stop for tourists wandering through Anne Hathaway’s cottage and Shakespeare’s gardens, but at least in the old days there were some crazy salads at the Aldwych accompanying those Stratford plum puddings. To judge by this visit and by the recent All’s Well That Ends Well (and let’s not forget Trevor Nunn’s mechanical contribution to Cats), the R.S.C. directorate has settled into manufacturing pyrotechnical displays for an audience eager to be soothed rather than challenged—an ideal theatre for the Thatcher/Reagan/Bush age.
Both audiences and actors are in a state of extreme euphoria at the conclusion of both these long evenings, largely because the director, Terry Hands, has wrapped them in banners and flags, thereby smothering their deeper, darker energies. Cyrano is all rodomontade and smoke effects, Much Ado simply grandiloquence and elocution. The vocal and visual pageantry is attractive, but, like Christian de Neuvillette’s good looks, it hides a vacant soul. Where is the effort to penetrate character or investigate text? And what has happened to the company’s ensemble ideals? Nicholas Nickleby was consumer theatre, but at least we saw good actors in a variety of roles. Here two “stars”—Derek Jacobi and Sinead Cusack—dominate the major parts, while the supporting players are often cast to type; the villain De Guiche playing the villain Don John; the clown Montfleury playing the clown Dogberry, etc. We are back in the barnstorming tradition of 19th-century Romantic theatre, not a theatre devoted to stretching its actors or pushing forward the boundaries of the stage.
Jacobi is possessed of apparently unquenchable energy; he is also intelligent, good-natured and likable, particularly in that swaybacked warhorse Cyrano, where a lack of genuine histrionic depth is not likely to be perceived. He can’t be entirely faulted for playing so much to the house and so little to his fellow performers, considering how he has been cast and directed—and how the audience is being encouraged to applaud his entrances, exits, even his set speeches. Jacobi first came to attention in this country in a TV series as the reticent stammering Emperor Claudius; reticence is no longer among his stage virtues. True, the posturing role of Cyrano, a character barely off stage a moment after a delay designed to raise our blood pressure for the entrance of a star, is not designed for a modest actor. Supreme in all he attempts, whether poetry, drama, swordsmanship, warfare, astronomy, or braggadocio, “the Three Musketeers, Jesus Christ, and Don Quixote all in one,” he has but one imperfection (if you discount his impossible nobility)—his nose. An ugly exterior concealing a mighty soul is a popular motif of sentimental drama—in the next century we get The Elephant Man. But the notion of a Superman possessed of a single flaw is one that belongs in the comic books or the operettas of Friml and Lehar. Jacobi warbles the required arias effectively in a vigorous barking tenor voice, and bites into the plot with full conviction. But he does little to disguise the creakiness of the story or the fake heroics of the central character.
What surprises me is that the audience doesn’t care. I am not invulnerable to the charms of this 19th-century salute to the age of Louis Quinze, but I would think that even in our jingoistic time a new version would have to look hard at a hero who has no trouble defeating a hundred ruffians single-handed, or surviving serious wounds (‘It’s nothing, it’s a scratch”), or daily risking his life to send off a love letter he has written for the vacuous Christian. And what about Roxanne, the narcissistic post-debutante who falls for Christian’s looks, and then threatens to blow him off because he doesn’t have language hyperbolic enough to poeticize love or flatter her beauty? Is she blind in the final scene not to notice Cyrano dying of a head wound, dropping tears and blood all over his letter, and staggering around the stage like a gored bull? Is she deaf or just simple-minded not to recognize the voice that wooed her so many years before?
Sinead Cusack plays this role and plays it poorly. It’s not just that she’s too old for Roxanne and a little too frumpy, but that her hoarse simpering delivery substitutes winsomeness for character—an attention to diction rather than depth that makes her sound like Liza Doolittle wheezing over phonetics. But the entire production is a technical display, as if Cyrano had persuaded the director nothing mattered but panache. When Hands is not tarting up the battle scenes with smoke pots, fanfares, and colored gels, or underlining tearful climaxes with a humming male chorus, he is sailing dead leaves down from the flies and moving nuns around in pretty formations. In his death scene, Cyrano waves his white plume and calls for “defunctive music.” You may recognize the homage to T.S. Eliot; there are more frequent nods to Shakespeare (“Oh that this too too solid nose would melt”). Like Anthony Burgess’s new version, the acting also anglicizes Rostand’s text (aside from the usual Oxbridge aristocrats and Cotswold rustics, the Gascons speak in broad Scottish accents). There are well-staged sword fights, movable chandeliers and lots of bustling crowd scenes. In the unlikely event you’ve never seen this play, you’ll find the production lavish, animated, theatrical; otherwise, you may wonder what compelled the R.S.C. to refurbish this antique cannon for yet another assault on the barricades.
Much Ado About Nothing is distinguished by Ralph Koltai’s beautiful setting—a high-tech exterior of transparent and reflective mirrors, decorated with burnished etchings of Japanese trees. At the very beginning a striking female cellist sits on a bench beside the tree and plays some mournful music. It is a lovely moment. Nothing in the production ever matches it. One major difficulty is that the purpose of the setting is never established. One anticipates a new avenue into the play; what one gets is just another pretty decoration, later embellished with revolving balloons and twinkling stars. But where are we? And who are all these people? The costumes seem like 19th-century Italian and Spanish adaptations, the period dances are performed with masks and swordplay (a new R.S.C. principle—when in doubt, fence), but nobody has troubled to investigate why Shakespeare set his play in Messina or what may lurk under the surface of the wit contests, horseplay, and melodramatic con-frontations.
Again, the performers don’t help, for all their elegant speech. Jacobi and Cusack as Benedict and Beatrice bitch at each other sharply but strike no erotic sparks, and Claudio and Hero never display any special reason for wanting to get married. It is a case of actors who clearly prefer to talk than to kiss. The vowels are properly placed and the profiles effectively displayed—but I waited in vain for a single moment of surprise or revelation beneath the polished display of ornament and appearance. Terry Hands lights the set beautifully, however, especially in the autumnal conclusion which turns the stage burnt umber. And it must be said the little concluding dance between the lovers left the audience roaring.
I don’t enjoy being severe about productions so admired by critics and spectators, but I can’t remove from mind images of Brook’s King Lear and Marat/Sade, Peter Hall’s War of the Roses cycle, and that great company of forceful, searching R.S.C. actors which included Ian Holm and Paul Rogers and Anthony Howard and Janet Suzman. Trevor Nunn himself was responsible in 1965 for the most penetrating Henry V in memory. Under his current leadership, however, a serious falling off must be acknowledged, not just in depth but in the very definition and purpose of the theatre. What accounts for this? Perhaps just the pressure of an age which prefers positive thinking to critical investigation, technical expertise to emotional depth, complacent fabrications to truthful revelations, soothing appearances to bleak realities. It is an age in which we are all forced to be tourists vacationing in the past for nostalgic escape, and the theatre is fashioning pleasant fantasies to match it.
Critic and author Robert Brustein is artistic director of American Repertory Theatre and a contributing editor of American Theatre. This article reprinted by his permission from The New Republic (Nov. 26, ’84).
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