THE BARD’S SPEECH
Modern dramatists need to focus more on the music and poetry that make Shakespeare’s words so potent, writes Peter Craven
The other week I found myself at one of those broadcasts of English stage shows that have become all the rage since the BBC reneged on its commitment to give us the best of high culture. It was a performance of what’s generally thought of as Shakespeare’s last play, his farewell to the stage, The Tempest, the one where Prospero says that we are such stuff as dreams are made on, and that deeper than did ever plummet sound he’ll drown his book.
Simon Russell Beale was playing Prospero, not grandly but with intelligence and crispness: he was much better than anyone else, which almost made you forgive the way he said “dreams are made of” which is almost the equivalent of Hamlet saying of Yorick “I knew him well” rather than simply, “I knew him, Horatio. A fellow of infinite jest and fancy.”
It makes you wonder if the David Foster Wallaces of the next generation will have the knowledge of Shakespeare that would allow them to call their books Infinite Jest. Besides, the trouble with the Royal Shakespeare Company Tempest wasn’t the emendation of “on” to “of”. It was the fact that apart from Russell Beale — and despite all the backward projections and the high jinks, nice though they were — no one seemed to know what Shakespeare should sound like.
Ah, The Tempest and the sound of it all. I must have first heard Prospero’s great speeches as a child more than 50 years ago from the mouth of the great Shakespearean actor John Gielgud when he did his one-man show about Shakespeare, The Ages of Man. Many years later, almost at the end of his long life, Gielgud, whose command of Shakespeare’s verse was the envy of Laurence Olivier and everyone else, would get Peter Greenaway to film him reciting the whole of The Tempest in Prospero’s Books. (Though it’s a pity he didn’t succeed in getting Ingmar Bergman to do it as a straight drama, given what a masterpiece he made with Mozart’s The Magic Flute, the work of art that in some ways comes closest to Shakespeare’s magic island romance.) Great actors have played other roles in The Tempest. Richard Burton, as a young man, all Welsh music, played the monster Caliban (remember his “Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises / Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not”).
It would not be too hard to find the audio recording of The Tempest that has as Caliban Hugh Griffith, the original Captain Cat in Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, with Michael Redgrave as a silvery and soaring Prospero and his daughter Vanessa as Ariel. It was a performance to die for. The 1960s recording even has the late great John Hurt as the juvenile lead Ferdinand pledging his love to Anna Massey’s Miranda.
We need to recapture the sound of Shakespeare more than anything because it’s in the sound more than anywhere that the depth of the meaning of his dramatic poetry, powerful beyond any paraphrase, is to be found.
That sense of the meaning being in the cadence — this is one of Ezra Pound’s touchstones for all poetry — was still there when Ian McKellen gave his performance as a hectic, brooding, nothing-if-not-powerful Lear in Trevor Nunn’s production for the RSC that came to Melbourne in 2007. It had Frances Barber as a tart Goneril, hard of face and voice, and Romola Garai as a vibrant, golden Cordelia. They were wearing what might have been Hapsburg or Romanov court dress to capture the last moment of absolute monarchy, but the richness of the rhetoric was still there. Even though you can argue that the greatest line Shakespeare ever wrote was the “Howl” as Lear held the body of his daughter Cordelia dead in his arms.
McKellen caught that better than any actor since Paul Scofield, and you can hear what Scofield made of it on his audio recordings — on Caedmon in 1965 and for Naxos in 2002 — as well as in Peter Brook’s film from 1971.
Harley Granville-Barker, the man Gielgud described as the only theatrical genius he had ever encountered, said to him when they were rehearsing his Lear: “Remember, you are an elm and Lear is an oak.”
Scofield is one of the two great Lear oaks of the past century and we are lucky to have him on film. The other was Donald Wolfit, who was imitated by Albert Finney in the 1983 film The Dresser. If you want to get a more extensive sense of what Wolfit sounded like, listen to the Living Shakespeare abridged King Lear, which has Wolfit doing most of the famous speeches with that legendary lady from Footscray, Coral Browne, as his Goneril.
Shakespeare comes alive when a mother with a feeling for his work reads him to her child. He comes alive whenever a young girl or a boy feeling the thrill of that music gets it into their head to act these words out. This could take the form of a primary school kid dancing about as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, saying they “will set a girdle round about the earth” or giggling at “what fools these mortals be” — or it could take the form of a great actress doing the death scene from Cleopatra, as extraordinary and sublime a thing as Shakespeare ever wrote.
They say Peggy Ashcroft was the greatest of Cleopatras. Ashcroft had been an indomitable Beatrice to Gielgud’s Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, and as a young woman was Paul Robeson’s Desdemona, and drew out from a 20- King Lear something Peter O’Toole what some people regarded as the performance of his life as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. Ashcroft was as regal as any actress who ever lived. But think of that extraordinary moment when Cleopatra takes the asp, that small phallic snake to her breast: Dost thou not see my baby at my breast, That sucks the nurse asleep? Of all the actresses of the next generation who have played the role — Glenda Jackson, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, Vanessa Redgrave — I think Redgrave is the one I would most have liked to have seen.
You can still find an abridged recording of Antony and Cleopatra — again from Living Shakespeare — with Vivien Leigh outshining her Scarlett O’Hara and Blanche Dubois, playing the serpent of old Nile to the Antony of Peter Finch, the man Olivier had taken back to Britain as one of the colony’s bright shining stars. Leigh was sometimes accused of idealising her roles (a quality Marlon Brando is said to have knocked out of her Blanche), and as Cleopatra she coos, gleams, crescendos. But then, Cleopatra had been there before her.
Christopher Plummer, one of the great classical actors, once said that Australia’s Zoe Caldwell (to whose Cleopatra he played Antony in Canada) was the greatest Queen of Egypt he had encountered. If Australia had got its act together enough to establish a national theatre back when we created national opera and ballet companies, we might have had an organisation that could have given us Caldwell’s Cleopatra in Australia.
In 1964 for the 400th birth anniversary of Shakespeare, Keith Michell did an anthology show for JC Williamson that ended in an abridged Antony and Cleopatra with Googie Withers, another trouper we should have seen more of in this country. She’s in Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes and was the original Queen in Ionesco’s Exit the King with Alec Guinness; she also played an old lady in Shine with Geoffrey Rush.
Someone like Cate Blanchett should now have a go at Cleopatra, the greatest role for a woman in any theatre, ancient or modern.
Still, with Shakespeare in Australia, we should be grateful for the quality of small mercies. It’s a pity that the report the Chifley government commissioned from Tyrone Guthrie (who turned Stratford, Ontario into the greatest centre for classical theatre in North America) was not properly acted on.
How weird is it that Robert Helpmann — a renowned Shakespearean quite apart from his ballet work (he alternated as Hamlet with Scofield, he played Oberon, he directed Burton as
Ian McKellen, left, as Lear and Richard Gaunt as Gloucester in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2007 production of
Vanessa Redgrave as Rosalind and Ian Bannen as Orlando in the 1961 RSC production of You Like It As