Mod­ern drama­tists need to fo­cus more on the mu­sic and po­etry that make Shake­speare’s words so po­tent, writes Pe­ter Craven

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Fea­ture -

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

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