Thursday, September 16, 2010

Shakepeare Note: Falstaff at the Globe

I know I tend to natter on too much about Shakespeare, but here's a story that needs to be told.  It involves the Globe Theatre in London--Shakespeare's Globe as it is known to publicists everywhere.   Up to now I've steered clear of the place because it seemed to  me just too sacerdotal, in the sense of a mandatory waystation on the Shakespeare tourist pilgrimage trail.  But here's the thing: space matters.  Whatever else it may be, it is the nearest replica we are ever likely to have of Shakespeare's own performance space.  And now I can testify from experience: I've just seen a production--no, two productions--that certainly come as close as anything ever seen to what original 1590s-Shakespeare ever looked like.

The particular case is Henry IV parts and II which might just as well be called Falstaff  because these are the plays dominated by the fat knight.  And I've really never seen anything like it, or them.  We know that Falstaff is "funny" in some sense, and that Shakespeare had a knack for comedy and drama.  But these two were pure foot-stomping theatre--funny in the sense that music hall is funny, or vaudeville, or comedia dell'arte, or a Punch and Judy show: coarse and vulgar, loud and unsubtle, high energy and full of high spirits.

And like I say, space matters: the actors had to be loud to fill the three-story roofless arena (though I assume Richard Burbage never had to cope with a passing helicopter).  And the audience: the regular folks sat on backless wooden benches, so everybody was squirmy.  And there were groundlings--honest-to-god people (mostly, but not all, young) who stood through the whole show.  A crowd like that comes with attitude; they are ready to be entertained but in specific, preferably noisy and vulgar, ways.

The fulcrum of it all was, as it had to be, Falstaff--here, Roger Allam, well known to London audience as Inspector Javert from Les Miz.   I can't say he was a perfect Falstaff--he isn't even fat,  not really.  But he knew how to play it for laughs, and that is what he did.  As I think back on it, just about every Falstaff I ever saw before now was too solemn: stomping on his own best effects with an air of marmorial splendor.  Here was a Falstaff who didn't mind milking it for every laugh he could get

Mrs. Buce offered a useful insight here: she said that Falstaff actually says a lot of things that are wise, but he can't say them as if they were wise.  They have to come from the gut, as this tun of man defines himself.  And this is what he was able to do.

With a really good Falstaff not a lot can go wrong, and a number of other things did go right here. There was generally great ensemble work in the loud and noisy comedy.  Barbara Marten was a superb Mistress Quickly--tall and thin for once, not short and stout. Jade Williams played Doll Tearsheet with enough  verismo that she kept vomiting into the audience.   And for once, you could tell the difference between the two: some directors seem not to notice.

For Prince Hal, the point is to play not merely the young roisterer but also to harbor the  heart of steel that will make you able to repudiate your best friend in the end.  Jamie Parker got it mostly, not hindered by the fact that he looks a lot like the new Prime Minister, David Cameron.  But for the other not-so-comic parts--well here is a puzzle.  The fact is there are some longuers in thee plays--long passages of narrative description in pretty good verse, but underneath it all pretty tiresome,  In a really good production, you don't notice.  Here, you noticed: when Oliver Parker rolled on as the King, you found yourself looking at your watch.  You had to wonder: how far is this the fault of the actors, how far the director, how far the peculiar constraints of the outdoor stage?  My guess is that a good part of the problem is that they had to cast for people whose voices would carry--who could be understood uttering a Shakespeare line across the acreage even if it wasn't rich in dramatic nuance.

But I'm willing to let that be.  This was still the kind of performance I've been waiting for over a good bit of a lifetime, and that I expect to remember for the rest of it.  Maybe Globe-goers knew this kind of thing all along; I'm just glad that I figured it out eventually.  And meanwhile:
Canst thou deny it? Did not goodwife
Keech, the butcher's wife, come in then and call me
gossip Quickly? coming in to borrow a mess of
vinegar; telling us she had a good dish of prawns;
whereby thou didst desire to eat some; whereby I
told thee they were ill for a green wound? And
didst thou not, when she was gone down stairs,
desire me to be no more so familiarity with such
poor people; saying that ere long they should call
me madam? And didst thou not kiss me and bid me
fetch thee thirty shillings? I put thee now to thy
book-oath: deny it, if thou canst.
 That's Mistress Quickly, berating Sir John for breaking his promise of marriage, and it reduces me to butter


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