Shakespeare in Gyula //

Gyula Shakespeare Festival, Hungary

Gyula Shakespeare Festival, Hungary

While my colleagues of the Shakespeare on the Road venture are hurtling round a series of Shakespeare festivals in the New World – I hope to join them on the Canadian leg of their journey – I had the pleasure of attending a festival in the historic and delightful town of Gyula, in Southern Hungary. Dominated by a splendid medieval brick castle close to a lake in what is now an attractive municipal park, the town is famous for its hot thermal baths. Its annual Shakespeare festival, now in its tenth year, is part of a longer festival season catering for summer visitors from far and wide. It is also part of a larger network of European Shakespeare Festivals of no less interest and cultural significance than their American counterparts which take place in, among other locations, Gdansk, in Poland, Neuss, in Germany, and Craiova in Romania, the last of which I visited in June. Next year York, Great Britain, will join the list.

Gyula boasts a number of performance spaces, including the open courtyard of the castle itself; a stage built out over the lake; and two indoor venues. As with the other festivals, performances are complemented by a conference; this one, which lasted two full days and was chaired by Professor György Szönyi of the University of Szeged, was attended by Hungarian scholars and a number of overseas visitors among whom I was happy to be included. It took place in the town’s beautifully appointed and well stocked library. Its theme, influenced by the 50th anniversary of the publication of Jan Kott’s influential book Shakespeare Our Contemporary, was ‘Is Shakespeare still our contemporary?’ It provoked a series of papers and discussions concerned with contemporary approaches to Shakespeare in both study and performance given both by Hungarian scholars and by overseas visitors including Maria Shevtsova, of Goldsmiths’ College, London, Holger Klein, of the University of Salzburg, and the expatriate Hungarian Zoltan Markus, who teaches at Vassar College in America, and who has published a significant study of Kott.

The festival, presided over since its inception by the genial and immensely hard-working Jozsef Gedeon, offers a truly international series of performances based more or less closely on Shakespeare’s plays and poems. Of those that I saw only one, Much Ado About Nothing, performed on the Castle stage by the touring company from Shakespeare’s Globe, offered a reasonably straightforward, text-based version of the play. Expertly acted, it was well received by a packed audience. Beyond this the festival demonstrated the current contemporaneity of Shakespeare in a number of performances that showed how fertile his works can be as stimuli to new forms of theatrical activity.

There is of course something rather weird about attending performances of plays given in a language one does not understand and with surtitles in a different language which also one does not understand. It’s difficult if not impossible to take a judicious view of the proceedings if much of one’s mental energy has to be devoted to trying to work out who is who, what they are saying, and where we are in the story – if indeed the action of the entertainment we are seeing corresponds at all closely to that of the work on which it is based. ‘That must be Malcolm – O no, perhaps it’s Banquo because he has his son with him. The old guy with a beard and wearing a crown is certainly Duncan, and the one pissing against the wall can only be the Porter. I hope.’ ‘She’s carrying a candle so it must be the sleepwalking scene.’ ‘I distinctly heard him say “Birnam” so the end can’t be far off.’

As you may surmise, two of the performances I saw were based on Macbeth. One, given by the Baltic House Theatre of Saint-Petersburg and directed by the Belgian Luk Perceval, used little text and was partly balletic in style. Slow, often silent, deadly serious, it presented Macbeth as a drink-sodden slob either with his head plunged into a bucket of water (symbolizing vodka, I gather) till he seemed in dire danger of drowning, or draining bottle after bottle of it both down his mouth and over his head and shoulders. The production, which I was told was highly political, left me cold, but those better equipped to follow it told me it was a masterpiece. Another Macbeth, performed by a Serbian company on a revolving stage projecting over the lake, was much more text-based though it too had clear – well, fairly clear – political significance; at the opening an actor costumed like a cabaret artist from Isherwood’s Berlin advanced on me saying ‘democratie’ and shook my hand. Though much of the production’s interpretative import was lost on me, enough of the story and dialogue of the original play remained both for me to follow the story and to respond imaginatively to the shifting emotions of the central characters. The performer of Lady Macbeth especially seemed to me to be an artist of the highest calibre who would have brought distinction to any production of the play in any language.

The other show I saw was a version of Othello from Chile performed in Spanish by a man and a woman – Jaime Lorca and Teresita Iacobelli – with a bed, a broomstick, life-size puppets representing Othello and Desdemona, and a number of waxwork heads which could be stuck on top of the broomstick as need arose. It sounds bizarre, but the human performers displayed extraordinary vocal and physical virtuosity in representing a shortened but coherent version of the play; it was cogent, powerful, and even moving – yet another tribute to Shakespeare’s amazing power to inspire new forms of performative creativity.

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Hamlet through Hoops? //

Photo: Christoph Muller

Photo: Christoph Muller

Hamlet, Max Beerbohm famously wrote, is ‘a hoop through which every very eminent actor must, sooner or later, jump.’ By the same token King Lear is a mountain up which every very eminent actor must, sooner or later, climb. Many have made the ascent in recent years – Greg Hicks and Ian McKellen for the RSC., Jonathan Pryce at the Almeida, Derek Jacobi at the Donmar, Tim Pigott-Smith in Leeds, Frank Langella in Chichester and on Broadway, and now Simon Russell Beale at the National. How soon, or how late, in a career should he – or even she, in these days of cross-gender casting – do so?

Lear says of himself that he is ‘fourscore and upward.’ But Shakespeare is notoriously vague about the age of his characters, and some of them – like Macbeth – age unrealistically during the course of the action. Lear calls his Fool ‘boy’, but nowadays he is almost always played as Lear’s contemporary, or at least as someone who has grown old in his master’s service. And I have seen Lear himself played by a seventeen-year-old schoolboy – Mark Donald, now a professional actor. Richard Burbage was under forty when he created the role, David Garrick was only twenty-five when he first played it, John Gielgud twenty-seven (though he also recorded for it Radio 3 for his ninetieth birthday), Edmund Kean thirty-three, Laurence Olivier (who provocatively called it ‘an easy part’) thirty-nine, and Paul Scofield forty. Beale (who also had played the role at school, and who cuts the ‘fourscore…’ line) is fifty-three. Of course actors should be able to appear either younger or older than they are in real life. So actual age is not necessarily a hurdle.

The journey to the summit is littered with potential obstacles. It is not made any easier by the fact that, as we now realize, there is a choice between two different routes, one charted in Shakespeare’s original version of the play, printed in 1608, the other as it was revised, presumably with his involvement, published in the 1623 Folio. Both routes are tortuous and long. Modern actors, or directors on their behalf, often seek out short cuts. But some problem areas are non-negotiable.

One is the multiplicity of styles in which Lear speaks. Sometimes, especially at the start of the journey, he can step out confidently in the rhythms of regular blank verse. Such is the passionate but formal eloquence of the speeches in which he banishes Cordelia, curses Goneril, and expresses his misguided confidence in Regan’s kindness.

But at other points the emotion exists not in the lines but between them, and the actor has to step in gingerly interaction with his fellow travellers, using hesitations, pauses, silent gestures and expressive looks to create a sense of interiority, the impression of something going on within him which doesn’t easily come to the surface. It happens in the little scene when his Fool is desperately trying to cheer Lear up but all the King can do is to pursue his own interior self-recriminations – ‘I did her wrong’ – ‘So kind a father!’ It’s the kind of dialogue that might have been written by Beckett or Pinter.

Some of his longer speeches, too, such as ‘O reason not the need’, are broken up with hesitations, shifts of direction, invocations to the gods, interiorities that allow glimpses of the inner man, requiring the actor to create a sense of improvisation, as if the thoughts come tumbling into his mind more quickly than he can express them.

And how far dare he allow laughter to punctuate his tragic journey in the inconsequentialities of Lear’s mad speeches when he tries to give a piece of toasted cheese to an imagined mouse, or in the grotesque dialogue with the blind Gloucester? For me, one of the most poignant moments in drama comes when, in response to Gloucester’s ‘O, let me kiss that hand!’, Lear says ‘Let me wipe it first. It smells of mortality.’ It makes me shudder. But it often gets a laugh, I suppose because of the contrast between the formality of Gloucester’s request and the lack of dignity in Lear’s response. Should the actor let the laugh come, or is it better to try to kill it?

The terrain gets even rougher towards the end of the journey. What do you do with Lear’s four-times repeated cry of ‘Howl’ as he carries (or drags) on Cordelia’s dead body? Are they interior cries of despair or pleas to the onlookers to share his grief? McKellen made them both, addressing the first two to himself, the second to the onlookers. And what about the five times repeated ‘never’ over the body: ‘Thou’lt come no more. / Never, never, never, never, never,’? How much rhythmic variation dare you allow to enter the line? How do you stop it from sounding just monotonous?

And Lear has to die when he gets to the top (unless of course he’s playing in the Nahum Tate adaptation which sends him along with Gloucester and Kent into peaceful retirement.) He has a choice here. In the quarto text he just says ‘O.O.O.O.’ On the page it looks silly. Shakespeare is leaving everything to the actor – presumably expecting a series of expiring sighs as his oxygen gives out.

In the Folio Lear has an extra couple of lines. ‘Do you see this? Look on her. Look, her lips. / Look there, look there.’ Look where? When Adrian Noble asked me to write a programme note for his production with Robert Stephens as Lear, I wrote initially that Lear addresses ‘Look there, look there’ to Cordelia’s lips, but I was asked to change it because Lear at this point was to have ‘a kind of vision.’ So he did, gesturing away from the body into the heavens, as if waving farewell to her spirit.

After playing Lear, jumping through Hamlet’s hoops must seem like child’s play.

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Verse Speaking //

Beyond Doubt For All Time //

An Unorthodox and Non-definitive Biography //

Digging for Richard //

The Stage and The Scholars //

Shakespeare Goes to Utrecht //

Year of Shakespeare: Verdi’s Otello //

This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.


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For me, the grand climax of the Year of Shakespeare came with a revival at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, of Elijah Moshinsky’s production of Verdi’s Otellowhich was first given for the opera’s centenary in 1987. It was a grand climax because this is one of the grandest of all operas, because it was given in the grandest of all British theatres, and because it demands grand forces – a large chorus and orchestra, spectacular staging, and great singers including if possible the world’s finest heroic tenor. It was also a production of a work in which the greatness of the text that Shakespeare wrote is complemented, even challenged, by a musical score which has equal claims to greatness.

All the performances we have been seeing are to some degree or other adaptations of the original plays, altering and usually shortening the texts, many of them translated into languages different from that in which they were written, adopting new sets of theatrical conventions, and making explicit or covert allusions to contemporary political and social issues. In a sense there is no such thing as a Shakespeare play, only an ongoing series of infinitely variable theatrical and other events stimulated by the words that Shakespeare wrote. Each can be enjoyed (or not), and demands to be judged, as a new creation. And operatic adaptation offers its own critical challenges because it is multi-layered, requiring not only adaptation of the text to fit the requirements of musical setting but also a musical setting of the adapted text which makes independent claims to artistic integrity. Add to this the interpretation of the resultant work of art in a period later than that in which it was composed and you have a whole Chinese box of critical complexities.

The first requirement for a Shakespeare opera is an adaptation of the text which, while having its own kind of theatrical validity, allows room for musical creativity. Almost inevitably this requires both abbreviation and simplification. Only one Shakespeare opera – Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream – uses Shakespeare’s words virtually unaltered, and even this shortens the play by about a half, opening in the forest not in Athens; similarly Arrigo Boito, Verdi’s librettist, working of course in Italian not in English, starts Otellonot in Venice but in Cyprus, though he skilfully incorporates bits of Shakespeare’s first act, such as references to Othello’s account of his martial adventures, into the later scenes. He pares away minor characters, streamlines the plot, and cuts dialogue back to its bare bones so as to allow the music full scope for emotional expressiveness. Boito also creates opportunities for solo arias and other set pieces, such as Iago’s creed – ‘I believe in a cruel god’ –, Desdemona’s ‘Willow Song’ and ‘Ave Maria’, and the great love duet climaxing in the words ‘ancora un bacio’- ‘one more kiss’ – which close the first act and recur with devastating effect as Otello, sinking to the ground, sings them over Desdemona’s corpse in the opera’s last moments. And, like the English actor managers of his time, he brings the curtain down on the tragic hero’s last breath.

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Music limits interpretation. That is to say, the music to which Verdi sets Boito’s words – assuming that it is performed as written – goes a long way to determining the style and impact of the performance. An actor speaking Shakespeare’s verse has more leeway for interpretation than the singer of musical notes whose dynamics are governed by the composer’s shaping of the words and by the intricate orchestration that goes alongside them. Similarly the production style in purely theatrical terms is largely laid down by the conventions to which the original work conforms. If Verdi writes music demanding a large body of choral singers, as he does in this opera’s first act, you’ve got to have room for a lot of people on stage. To this extent an opera belongs more firmly to its own time than a play; it’s far less easy (though not, as the recent English National Opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream set in a boys’ school demonstrates, impossible) to have a radical reinterpretation of an opera than of a play. Two years after its premiere in Italy, in 1887, Otelloreceived its first London production at Henry Irving’s Lyceum Theatre, around the corner from the Royal Opera House, and as I saw this production I could have almost imagined myself transported back to the Lyceum of Irving’s time. Timothy O’Brien’s set, defined by dark green Corinthian pillars, is based on Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library in Florence. The singers wear Renaissance costumes.

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Pervasive religious symbolism, which counterpoints Iago’s declarations of atheism and reinforces Desdemona’s devout Christianity, includes two massive painted backdrops, one of a crucifixion and the other of Venetian painter Tintoretto’s ‘Deposition from the Cross’, along with a succession of crucifixes. In the thrilling opening scene, with its choral and orchestral depiction of a tempest which anticipates the internal one that will destroy Otello, the presence of a great cannon facing directly into the auditorium along with the milling of a crowd of citizens is as naturalistic as anything produced by Irving or Beerbohm Tree.

Verdi’s music demands large-scale acting, too, but allows also for lyricism and subtlety. Otello makes what is surely the most thrilling first entry in all opera with his cry of ‘Esultate!’ delivered here by the Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko with burnished tone that immediately established his heroic credentials. But later the role modulates into the tenderness of the love music and this too was finely sung. The Desdemona I saw, Marina Poplavskaya, had intended to be in the audience but took over from the announced singer. She did full justice to the role, phrasing not only beautifully but dramatically. In the Willow Song, for instance, she sang ‘Salce, salce!’ – ‘willow, willow!’ – as if it came from the lips of the maid Barbara, not from a diva performing a set piece. The handsome Iago, Lucio Gallo, singing in his native language, acted with disingenuous subtlety, addressing his creed directly to the audience. Blessed with the Royal Opera’s superb chorus and orchestra, Antonio Pappano conducted with commanding skill. Verdi’s Otello is a rare instance of one masterpiece engendered by another, and this production did full justice to it.


To read more reviews of the performances and events that are a part of the World Shakespeare Festival, visit Year of Shakespeare.

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Shakespeare in Hungary //